Sunday, November 30, 2008

Across 125th: Cam'ron- Come Home With Me

Cameron Giles’ career as an artist began casually in Harlem, where he was born and raised. Initially part of a group known as Caged Fury, Killa Cam, his cousin Derek “Bloodshed” Armstead, (Owner of the greatest Hip Hop lisp this side of Dana Dane) and Manhattan Center High School Basketball teammate Mason “Murda Mase” Betha were recruited by a proficient local battle rapper named Lamont Coleman to form a group called Children of the Corn. As the name suggests, Big L and the rest of the collective took a gothic approach to their Hip Hop, reminiscent of the Horror core made prominent at the time by New York concept group The Gravediggaz and the immortal Braunstein Brothers.

The style Cam employs on these rough demos suggests a heavy influence on the part of the group’s founder, two years his senior. His rough, syllable packing style undeniably resembles Big L's, a multi-syllabic punchline genius with a delivery and cadence that practically gave birth to the mixtape rapper. (Big Daddy Kane, no disrespect intended) Cam would make his first major label appearance on “8 Iz Enuff”, a posse cut off L’s similarly morbid, classic Lifestlez ov da Poor & Dangerous. From the beginning Cam was an MC pursuing a particular fascination with words, the way they sound and flow. The C.O.C. mixtape compilation released in 2003 suggests that perhaps that fascination began with the late, great Harlem legend.

Giles and Betha ended up bouncing from the group to pursue basketball careers before going solo. After contributing a song he called “Crush On You” to Lil Kim’s Hardcore, Cam was signed to Biggie’s manager Lance “Un” Rivera’s new label Untertainment. Cam’s Confessions of Fire would stay true to the C.O.C. legacy. The debut is filled with inventive occult subtexts and introspective soul searching. It was all spit in affected, high pitched, rapid fire couplets that would fade with maturity. His spotty, occasionally great Sports Drugs & Entertainment would follow after an unfortunate bout of label bullshit and Cam would drop out of site for a few years. He resurfaced in 2002 as the first big name signing to Rocafella Records, the beginning of fellow Harlem Representative Dame Dash’s Steinbrenner approach to running a label, and the beginning of the end for the Roc.

The resulting album was one of the last of its kind. 50 Cent’s success would usher in a new standard format for big budget releases of this sort. He broke a corporate model for this decade that laid any notion of a cohesive long player to rest in favor of loosely held together collections of focus grouped singles, featuring something for each demographic. Come Home with Me is a gritty yet accessible work with an eye firmly planted on the street, the kind Cam had always excelled at and Def Jam churned out consistently through the late 90s. Take "Hey Ma" for example. It was the album’s second single and a boldface play for mass appeal. An outfit known as Tuneheadz sends up a barely recognizable “Easy Like A Sunday Morning” for what should be an average 106 & Park club jam. What proceeds is a tough yet sentimental, timeless ride-out song oozing with swaggering wit and immaculate detail.

Come Home With Me was a nearly flawless effort that remains Cam’s most successful commercial contribution. It marked the beginning of a productive, short lived partnership with blue chip Roc producers Just Blaze and Kanye West. (Few MCs have as much fun over Kanye’s beats) Along with Young Guru and the Heatmakerz, the Diplomats would help make chipmunk soul Rocafella’s signature sound. “Dead Or Alive”, “I Just Wanna” and the anthemic “Oh Boy” are certainly noteworthy contributions to the cannon. There’s no filler present. Guest appearances from Beanie Sigel, Daz, C.O.C. alum McGruff and even Memphis Bleek all result in success. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to nitpick, Juelz sounds wanting for the comfort and confidence that will come later.

Come Home With Me can be looked at as a point of departure. It is steeped in a strongly emoted love for yesterday’s New York. Cam said at the time of the album’s release that he wanted to relate the grimy, gritty Harlem he grew up with, conceding that it had been replaced by a midtown suburb where Bill Clinton set up shop and newly minted college graduates find authenticity and apartments they can afford on nonprofit salaries. The result is the kind of grimy and gritty album that used to pound out of speakers on those Harlem Streets. You can feel the love, from Juelz Santana’s brief, beautiful ride home on the Westside Highway, to Jim Jones’ impassioned delivery on the title track to Jay and Cam proudly exchanging street names, neighborhoods and zip codes on “Welcome to New York City”. In addition, this would be Cam’s final cohesive, orthodox, New York styled long player as Hip Hop power and influence rapidly migrated South. It would be followed by Purple Haze, a sprawling, compelling odyssey in which he allows himself to go everywhere and features much of the experimentation with internal rhyme schemes and multi-multi- syllabic punchlines he’d been playing with on his mixtape work. Cam would venture off into delivery obsessed, non-lyrical territory previously uncharted by East Coast MCs this side of the Mason Dixon Line (See: Computing, Computers) and for it the Hip Hop literati would ride him mercilessly. In this humble fan’s opinion, Big L would be proud. It was a natural progression of style and a step in the right direction.

The R&B Blast: R&B & Writing

I managed to catch a ride back to Brooklyn in a car Friday morning, and as a result got to spend some quality time switching back and forth between Hot 97 and Power 105, the nearly identical Hip Hop radio stations in New York. There’s actually some pretty great songs making the rotations right now, as there tends to be around this time of year, but for this post I’d like to focus on a subject I feel gets neglected far too often: Writing in R&B. It exists, and in my opinion some people are still quite good at it. Let’s go.

Ne-yo- When you’re Mad

Ne-yo is not a great R&B singer in many of the classic senses. He’s not really a stylist, doesn’t have a great voice and I get very little presence from him. Still my favorite working R&B artist not named R. Kelly. This is a fairly old song, (off his debut In my own Words from 2006) but I include it because for me this is the standard for what R&B should aspire to. Ne-yo has plenty of better songs from an aesthetic standpoint but in terms of concept and content this is his best work. As a result of this song at one point or another I’ve been convinced he’s written every song posted below. In general, R&B takes a very wide lens approach to a standard set of relationship situations. Ne-yo breaks the mold here. On the surface it’s a song about a fight with your girl, but specifically it’s about a moment in the course of the fight when she looks extremely cute mid-rage. There are a number of ways in which this is remarkable to me, for one it’s a great way to diffuse a fight. More importantly, Ne-yo writes an entire song around a small moment in the course of his relationship that anyone can relate to. It’s Annie Hall vs. the schlock that calls itself romantic comedy 30 years later.

Rihanna- Take a Bow

Probably my favorite Rihanna song. (not a difficult title to attain) Ne-Yo actually wrote this one. It’s based on the concept of performance in a relationship. It works in terms of a metaphor for the song to work around as Rihanna tells this dude off, and as a scathing critique of how this apparently dishonest, adulterous partner approached the relationship. What sets it apart from the standard break-up track is how viciously this dude gets clowned by Rihanna. Not to be a dick but when I found out it was written by a guy it made sense.

Jazmine Sullivan- Bust Your Windows
Broke the windows out your car

I heard this song for the first time Friday. I know next to nothing about Jazmine Sullivan other then the fact that she has a hit on her hands. This song has that old school, Winehouse-Ronson, Sean Kingston “Suicidal” vibe. The whole song is about……busting the windows out a dude’s car. Once again, a break-up song but focusing on a specific action, which becomes the embodiment of her feelings and a means of empowerment.

T-Pain (ft. Ludacris)- Chopped & Screwed

This song will sicken some purists who would have you believe DJ Screw turns in his grave every time this shit is on the radio. A friend and I had that very discussion on our ride home and decided Screw would be amused/honored. The song is built around “Chopped & Screwed”, the technique the Houston DJ pioneered in terms of physically chopping and screwing throughout, and as a term meaning getting played by a chick. They easily could’ve taken the obvious route on this song because both chopped and screwed are stand-ins for getting fucked, but they didn’t and as a result this is one of the funniest songs I’ve heard in a long time. T-Pain sets up two hypotheticals in which he believes he’s got a chick ready to go until she pulls out at the last moment. The second verse in particular is hilarious. It’s such a light hearted affair but sung with utter conviction, it’s like great dead pan humor. Ludacris comes with a more general take on the concept and more than anything he says specifically it’s always great to hear him ride a beat. I’ve always thought of Luda as a Southern Busta Rhymes, now you can add longevity to the parallels, still haven’t heard his new album yet but it’s at the top of my list. What I really like about this song is it’s a step away from Superman lover narratives or being a whiny bitch, the R&B dichotomy for male protagonists as I see it. It’s a great human moment, perfect for a fruitless late night walk home from the bar when you just have to smile and laugh at yourself.

Friday, November 28, 2008

There's only 2 years Left

It's dark days for Knicks fans all over the country, so out of necessity I'm going the way of the people and looking for hope. This is yet another dope Nike commercial. Sure they're an inherently evil, slave driving, price inflating, global mega-corporation but is there any other company more dedicated to producing intelligent, beautiful advertisements? This one's a total icon-maker for King James, Wayne contributes a hilarious cameo and I never thought Conershop could come off so hard. (II) A few feel good spots below, as I try to remind myself what it is I love about basketball. Hope that 20% chance of bringing Lebron to MSG will be worth the ensuing misery.

When is Carmelo up for free agency?

Not basketball but who cares, it's David Fincher. Plus my time would probably be better spent focusing on the Jets. On my way to see Slick Rick at Highline, a full report is forthcoming. Someday, the Knicks will be good again.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Spontaneous Combustion

My favorite moment in one of the best movies made in the 90s, David O' Russell's conflicted, genre tweaking 3 Kings, comes during a climactic sequence in which Spike Jonze's character gets a splinter planting a bomb. The point is made: A premeditated work lacks the energy, immediacy and unpredictability of real life. Of course it was written in, but the splinter represents that element of randomness that permeates experience.
Slowly, Ironman has become my favorite Wu-Tang solo. Ghost's debut is often shuffled behind OB4CL and Liquid Swords, and even thought of as a lesser work in comparison to the innovative, stream of conscious classic Supreme Clientèle when debating the catalog of Tony Starks. For me it's gritty, unfailingly consistent and has it's feet most firmly planted on the ground. Rza tends more toward the 70s then the Plutonian soundscape that forms Liquid Swords and Ghost responds with Rastas cadging ungreatful bitches and glasses of sugar water.
The first voice you hear on "Iron Maiden" after Sonny Carson's is Raekwon's. When you think about it, this decision alone is remarkable, for another rapper to be given first rights to the first song on your album. For me it's indicative of vintage Wu. A crazy and free form collective of styles, wildly different but weirdly compatible. You can see 9 kids and a few weed carriers sitting around a smoke filled studio in Staten Island, a Kung Fu flick is on mute and a Rza beat blasts as all heads nod in unison, waiting for someone to catch a vibe and grab the mic as if they're choosing the next pope. Ironman contains a life and energy that delivers that immediacy, often I feel like I'm in the studio with the gang, and I have no idea what's going to happen next.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sunday Night

So after Like Water for Chocolate I spent the rest of the day listening and re-listening to this. It makes for a great companion to Common's album. A fun and stoney masterpiece filled with key swells, active bass lines and D'Angelo humming. To me this is the perfect expression of what neo-soul should have been.

Sunday Morning

If you're a cook Sunday means something other then beer and football. Whether you'll be smoking pot on your couch this afternoon or halfheartedly dicing chorizo not many albums fit the mood here in New York today better than this one. It's a fun and hopeful affair with a coherent score that sounds like Terrence Blachard set to beat. I've fought it for a longtime but this is in fact better then One Day It'll All Make Sense. Below is a well worn Thelonius drop and a link for sample heads such as myself.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Things Come Alive- A Personification Playlist

Personification is a technique that has given hip hop some of its most inventive, intelligent songs. (Wikipedia: “a figure of speech that gives an inanimate object or abstract idea human traits and qualities, such as emotions, desires, sensations, physical gestures and speech.”) You could damn near make an entire outstanding mixtape out of songs that took aspects of the urban experience and literally gave them a voice, so that is precisely what I have put together for you, the customer. Enjoy.

1. Common Sense- I Used to Love H.E.R.: From what I could find and recall, Personification Rap was introduced in 1994 through a trio of brilliant, classic songs. Common’s “I Used to love H.E.R.” (The strained acronym stands for Hip Hop in its Essence and Real) off Resurrection was the most famous, imagining Hip Hop as a woman gone astray. The song was a hit single that introduced Common into the collective national consciousness and started a beef with West Coast gangsta rapper Ice Cube. This song has inspired several shitty retreads of the conceit that aren’t worth posting here, not to mention the film Brown Sugar, the worst thing ever made in relation to Hip Hop.

2. Jeru The Damaja- Can’t Stop the Prophet: East New York’s own superhero the Prophet chronicles his battles with former Oh Word interviewee Ignorance, as he runs around New York spreading mayhem. The Sun Rises in the East highlight ends on a dark note, with a climactic showdown at the Brooklyn Public Library. The Prophet walks into a trap, and we fade out to the sound of Ignorance’s gleeful, nihilistic laughter. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

3. Organized Konfusion- Stray Bullet: This song off Prince Po and Pharoah Monch’s 94 classic Stress: The Extinction Agenda is “I Used to Love H.E.R.”s gangster, less famous cousin. But as far as Personification Rap is concerned, “Stray Bullet” was more influential. The beat sounds familiar because it samples Donald Byrd’s “Wind Parade”, (with glimpses of “Nautilus”) which was also used by Black Moon to make “Buck ‘em Down”, a pretty good song you may have heard before. Told from the point of view of a bullet, the song would go on to inspire two better known hip hop gunplay classics.

4. Nas- I Gave You Power: Call me a tasteless 80s baby raised on Scorsese and Rap City, but while acknowledging the fact that this song wouldn’t exist without “Stray Bullet”, I prefer it over the original. Nas brings a big cinematic vision to this big cinematic beat on this big cinematic album. It’s melodramatic and self serious, but what can I say, I will always have a soft spot for all things It Was Written.

5. 2pac- Me and My Girlfriend: The contrarian internet dickhead labeled rapper of average intelligence takes a concept to its sick, twisted, over the top conclusion. Combining the concepts of “Stray Bullet” and “I Used to Love H.E.R.”, this NRA anthem is a song Hillary Clinton can get behind. Let’s just say 2pac really, really likes his gun. As an unfortunate aside, this song would be reincarnated as “03 Bonnie and Clyde”, a Beyonce collaboration that is hands down the worst Jay-Z song ever made on the worst Jay-Z album ever made. It actually might be the worst song ever made. It actually might be worse than “Brown Sugar”.

6. Mobb Deep- Drink Away the Pain (Situations): In a lot of ways, this is my favorite song off “The Infamous”. While the rest of the album is exclusively bleak tough talk and gunplay, this song gives us a look at the young thugs during some much needed down time, which as it turns out is pretty much as fucked up and desperate as the rest of their dark existences. But Havoc, Snarky Nickname P and Q Tip take an interesting approach to substance dependency and materialism. The Hav and Tip production is sad and beautiful thanks to the Pete Rockish horn snippet taken from the Headhunters “I Remember I Made you Cry”.

7. Cam’ron- D’Rugs: Confessions Of Fire has a lot of great moments, but this might be the best. Cam’ron depicts his mother’s drug addiction as a shitty boyfriend, from Cam’s point of view as a child, eventually ending with Cam as another locked up dealer and his mother as a ravaged user. The hook is “Pusherman”, but kind of sucks thanks to some guy named Brotha who can’t sing.

8. Sticky Fingaz- Money Talks: Onyx alum Sticky Fingaz dropped his debut Blacktrash: The Autobiography of Kirk Jones in 2001. Full of interesting concepts, this was probably my favorite with all due respect to "What if he was White", featuring a geeked up Eminem at the height of his white guilt phase. Over what sounds like a beat made in someone's basement, Sticky puts himself in the shoes of the root of all evil, with Raekwon along for a little light hook work.

9. Styles P- Nobody Believes Me: In this age of comprehensive reviews of every last new release and wistful throwback essays of any even remotely noteworthy album, Styles P’s Gangsta and a Gentleman remains a slept on hood classic. DJ Shok provides one of said album’s better beats here as Styles converses with his knife, gun, weed and money en route to a homicide.

10. 50 Cent- Baltimore Love Thing: One of The Massacres few redeeming moments, “Baltimore Love Thing” is proof that when he’s not trying to round out his albums with pleasing pop pellets for every demographic, Curtis can still write a motherfuckin song. There is some truly sick word play on display here. This song is also notable because it discusses heroin, provoking the question “why does crack get all the drug rap love?”

11. Freeway- Goodbye (My Block): “Goodbye” would have been the finest moment on “Philadelphia Freeway” an album that boasted many. (Though some argue not enough) It was scrapped due to sample clearances, but presumably Kanye West tweaked Shirley Bassey’s rendition of “I wish you love” into a gorgeous space for Freeway to compare his block to a scandalous lover he has outgrown. (Kanye split the album’s production with Just Blaze. It’s impossible to locate an officially listed producer but this track boasts a quiet beauty that is definitely not Just Blaze’s big, orchestral sound. Plus, Kanye would later use Ms. Bassey for Late Registration’s lead single “Diamonds are Forever”) Over a somber harp and sped up vocal sample, Freeway’s three clever verses are perfectly paired as he bids a sentimental farewell to a part of him that clearly meant a lot at some point in his life. This song and “Baltimore Love Thing” suggest this genre is gradually becoming more clever and complex, who will deliver the next Personification Rap classic?

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Elements of Style: Joell Ortiz- The Brick

When we write, be it critical theory or a hot 16, we're exchanging ideas, communicating perceived truths and relating experience. Often we begin with big ideas we try to express in a language that everyone can understand. Critics and contrarians come along and punch holes in these large, bold concepts, common intellectual ground is hammered out and slowly the focus is narrowed, hyperbole and rhetoric is scaled down. We begin to talk about the things we know are there, things we can point to and flesh out and begin to inspect as pieces of a larger puzzle. This progression can be found in literature, in film and in Hip Hop.
For the past twenty years Hip Hop has been trapped in a love/hate relationship with the drug trade. In the crack dealer we found a muse, a rebel willing to renounce the bullshit system he was born into and find his own way through the American capitalist labyrinth. He's an iconoclast, a modern outlaw living by his own code and trying to find right amidst all this wrong, the tiny voice inside every head screaming that this way of life is fucked the fuck up, not unlike an earlier generation's fascination with Don Corleone and the mob. It began as an escapist fiction, a romantic fantasy of life where the stakes are high, largely free from mundane worry and aggravation, penned by Donald Goines, Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese. Over the years we've seen this image evolve from Kool G Rap to Raekwon to Scarface to the Clipse. But while the life and death, the very high and the very low points of this existence were addressed by the artists above and their contemporaries, you'd get the feeling there was a voice largely unheard. Everyone can't be a boss, and majority of us aren't. We scratch and claw, fight everyday for small victories. To eek out a humble existence for ourselves. Who speaks for us?
Arguably the best MC to enter the stage this century is Joell Ortiz, a Puerto Rican from Williamsburg who fittingly named his 2007 debut The Brick: Bodega Chronicles. Ortiz portrays himself on the mic as a "Regular Dude." The Regular Dude has roots with rappers going back to Redman. (amongst others) Reggie Noble grew up in Jersey, just beyond New York's metropolitan glow, and one feels his air of otherness defined by a particularly bummy aesthetic. Ever prescient throughout Redman's abstract brags of dopeness are hoodies and Tims, snotty noses, skullies pulled low, White Owls and Beck's beer. In doing this, the MC presents himself as utterly knowable. He's not advertising a superiority or cataloging his riches, he's from around the way, loves it and proves it through detail. This breed of MC interprets fabulous through a ghetto prism, preferring Hoodies to button downs and fabulous for it. There are other Regular dudes of note (Styles, Joe Budden, Beanie Sigel) but few have dedicated themselves to relating the unglamorous grind that is many of our lives the way Ortiz did on Bodega Chronicles. There is very little room for a semblance of happiness or celebration on The Brick. It's winter in New York, we are bombarded by the pain and frustration of impoverished existence, struggling against the elements. Ortiz seems to understand joy as screw faced defiance and maintains this look throughout.
At once unapologetically throwback and an innovator in his field, The Brick is revelatory as an exhibition for an MC who transcends the punchline parameters of coke rap. Ortiz breaks new ground with the intensity he chips away at reality. Even when he comes in off the corner and indulges in navel gazing, an alienating death knell when poorly executed, (See: Free At Last) his words are hungry and alive relating his resume, struggles and ambitions. "Modern Day Slavery" is instructive. It's The Brick's politicized moment, but while guest Immortal Technique bemoans genocide, Miltonesque Nation of Islamism and the Prison Industrial Complex, Ortiz is more concerned with sore feet, rent and Bloomberg policing. Reminiscing on a dead homie's embarrassing physical ailments, paranoid sleepless nights, happening on dead bodies during childhood games of tag. Ortiz simply refuses to settle for vagaries or atmosphere. Everything is weighed and precisely related. Joell's sketches of Brooklyn get no more vivid then the anthemic "Brooklyn Bullshit", hinted at by Biggie on "Hypnotized" but realized by Ortiz here in all its unglorified glory. The song is a list of a number of grimy behaviors he understands as a product of his borough, and he's positively anthropological in his study.

For those who might be lead to believe the key to Ortiz success lies in a simple Seinfeldian eye for minutia, don't get it twisted. Between beers on credit and bummed cigarettes, Ortiz displays regular punchline wizardry (Joell on his competition: "I'm so left with it, effortlessly/yall would be left on the shelf if it was left up to me/left yall a while ago, man I left in a V/off the BQE, fell in the water and was left in the sea") in an East Coast growl that sounds like the product of a lifelong relationship with beers on credit and bummed cigarettes. He's able to relate complex information without sacrificing wordplay: "Jamal and them locked, the cab had they face on cam, dirty/I know they sick, doin a bid for a buck thirty/you see that nigga right there? Yeah, with the Bucks jersey?/I got word on the low that son bucked Percy." And beyond that, what's essential is the significance of the details employed. The grass stained jeans, appropriated cable, the disappointment at finding out that the girl you know around the way's pops is a full blown customer. More than just recounting experience, these details convey mood and contribute to a hand to mouth existence Ortiz builds patiently, bar by bar. Something I learned from Southern coke rappers is authenticity is conveyed through specifics. If this is true, then Joell Ortiz is the realest working MC.

The Brick was skimmed by most, receiving a moment of shine around its leak. It then faded into the dense miasma of underground internet hype, usurped by the likes of more abstract, seemingly original up and comers. Those mostly intrigued by the drum will be dismayed to learn a majority of the no name production (Save Alchemist's meh contribution) on the album is composed of simple repetitive loops that serve to further focus the listener's attention on Joell's rhymes. In addition, far from perfect, The Brick has what feels like moments of pandering to Joell's mixtape fan base. There's a particularly rough stretch of songs towards the middle of the album that belong buried in the back of a Kay Slay Streetsweepers, plus a bloated guest list that serves as a veritable who's who of MCs who should never rap again. Pair that with the fact that Joell apparently can't write good hook to save his life and the mainstream apathy becomes somewhat understandable.
This year has belonged to Lil Wayne and his Mars fabulous, convention forgoing aesthetic. One can only hope with an album tentatively scheduled in the near future Ortiz will continue his pursuit to greater renown. I enjoy Wayne, and understand autotune more as an evolution then a trend, but that shouldn't stop anyone from appreciating Joell and the wonderful, vivid verses he churns out like ticker tape. Anyone who says lyricism is dead in Hip Hop isn't listening to Ortiz, a compelling writer with a journalist's eye who goes about his bars with a wit and humanist touch we can all find something in. He manages to accomplish this without being didactic or repetitive, a feat that in my mind puts him a tier above the purist also-rans crowding the underground. Simply put, The Brick is worthwhile because it's filled with bodegas and check cashing spots. The beef patties and cocoa breads that make up our lives, everyday.