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.

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