Monday, April 27, 2009
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Thursday, April 23, 2009
What follows is not a defense.
There are artists, albums, moments in Hip Hop in which a kind of truth is stumbled upon that changes everything. Sometimes these moments are glaring and obvious, Paid In Full, Raising Hell, “Fight the Power”, Midnight Marauders, Illmatic, “Nothin But a G Thang”, Enter the 36 Chambers, “Things Done Changed”. And sometimes, it isn’t immediately apparent that things have changed at all, that the rules were subtly bent and the parameters expanded until later. When considering this emerging generation of MCs several concepts and themes stand out that appear somewhat novel and perhaps detestable to the status quo. They are concerned with less grandiose and fantastical subject matter, self obsessed in ways not seen before, rather than concern themselves with myth building the album serves as quite the opposite, their therapist’s sofa, examining insecurities, reliving their great moments and looking for meaning in the dark. A search that has turned inwards. There is little room for taboo or shame, much of their reference, their punchlines, their choruses stand as a challenge to standard Hip Hop group-think. They dare an audience to call them un-cool and question credibility they’d never claim, attacking a history of posturing in ways many critics find are to their own detriment, the very antithesis of the “essence” of Hip Hop itself.
What is Hipster Rap and where did it come from? The easy way out is to pin the tail on the mincing faggot raps of mid 90s, underground emo practiced by white boys from Minnesota. Bleary eyed beta males mourning their mother’s unwillingness to show affection and pining for ex-girlfriends in spoken word put to drum and bass. Maybe it’s a major label creation, crass commercialization marketing to the middle class suburban demo more directly than ever before. Maybe it’s a bunch of teenagers wearing their diverse tastes and faux individuality on their sleeves, grossly courting the next generation via mass e-mails, vlogging, quirky covers and shallow signifiers, dressing up their shitty music in skinny jeans and vintage t-shirts. But perhaps the door was opened in plain site before such unfortunate pansy-hop gained traction and maybe this is the inevitable evolution of a generation of 90s babies who had previously unseen levels of access to a broad selection of free media. And maybe it has precedence in the History of Hip Hop, an origin not quite as detestable as the movement it wrought. Perhaps it originated with two young men fighting for an entire section of the country’s place in their medium who loudly demanded that there was room for un-cool introspection and honesty, for questioning and poetic eloquence. Or maybe it was Kanye.
While artists like Nas, Biggie and Tupac began focusing and fleshing out the imagined individual glorified and vilified so eloquently during the first Golden Era it was these two that scrapped the need for the persona all together and began to truly dig at the personal in their music. These two differentiated themselves from the general Native Tongue style they emulated, in which the narrative is that of the disembodied observer, free form and filled with imagery but ultimately detached from a grounded, consistent personal pathos. Floating in a patois of be-bop slang. A sort of crossroads of two approaches, they made individuality and its explication a premium. And they did it with assurance, with sure footedness, with unapologetic flourish, utterly certain in their uncertainty. Appropriately, together they are known as Outkast from East Point, Georgia, and they accomplished it on their commercially viable sophomore LP, ATLiens.
Looking back on their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (released exactly 15 years ago this week) in respect to the rest of the Kast’s body of work, it’s clearly a moment of revelation, beginnings on their way towards something much bigger. For starters, it was attempting to establish a regional voice where none had really existed previously and this can be felt heavily in the aesthetic being etched, the universe of down hominess and Southern pride that would be a given by the time of the second LP’s creation. The pimpin subject matter is merely an excuse to hone the fully formed rapid fire raps around woozy falsetto soul hooks and muddied funk beats that make up the album’s 17 tracks. However, even here there is a certain old soul quality to their shit talk. A laid back, dilated pupil sense of history amongst the effrontery waiting to be expounded upon.
You May Die (Intro)
I have personally never seen anything approaching the artistic maturation Outkast underwent in the course of the 2 years between the releases of Southernplayalistic and ATLiens. Following a year as rap stars out on the road promoting Southernplayalistic, the group returned to Atlanta greatly changed. It was more than the worldly exposure they received on tour. Both out of their teens, Big Boi truly experienced the joys and pain of life for the first time with the birth of his first child and the death of his de facto mother, Aunt Renee. Dre was dumped by his girlfriend of two years, Keisha Spivey from Bad Boy’s R&B outfit Total and began to embrace a new lifestyle which included sobriety, a vegetarian diet and increasingly eccentric sense of style channeling George Clinton, Afrika Bambaataa and Aladdin. (though at the time he was better understood as weirdo than Hipster) ATLiens is a 14 song Philosophy course taught from the dungeon in Atlanta or a satellite orbiting Earth. The album is one of the best sequencing jobs done on a Hip Hop album, mapped out along the lines of a Classic Rock masterpiece. It doesn’t move so much as it evolves. The first track is immediate evidence in a shift in focus, just as Peaches’ introduction on Southernplayalistic encompasses Organized Noize’s cosmic yet rooted busy funk and Outkast’s meditative fire, “You May Die” is stony and subdued. In an alien language (possibly latin) a woman lustily utters the children’s prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep” followed by a morose mini ballad filled with yearning. It communicates the existential crises and mortality wrestling that lies at the albums' core.
The importance of Outkast’s production contributions to the album under the title Earth Sounds cannot be understated. Andre was proactive in becoming more involved in the sound of his product, and along with Big Boi they contributed 5 very important songs to ATLiens. Their eclectic tastes bleed into their unorthodox beats, and without them the album could not have shown the same character. Reverb, filters and unconventional instrumentation are all staples of the production debuted by Dre and Big Boi on ATLiens and it’s hard to imagine their philosophizing working over anything but this pitch perfect backdrop. What’s interesting to see is how the rookies’ wishes seem to influence Organized Noize, whose work on the second half of the album is unlike anything they’d done before or since. Outkast’s post ATLiens output as a group, the psychedelic, p-funky Aquemini and its electric kool aid bastard child Stankonia would veer away from the more classically oriented funk sounds that characterized the first two albums. ATLiens is that o-zone between soul and space, Organized Noize and Earth Sounds.
Ova Da Wudz
Andre is the engine, captivating throughout, completely in control of the style he fathered. But while the focus remains on 3000 as a sort of Hipster Rap Godfather we would be remiss to ignore Big Boi, the foil who doesn’t shy from Andre’s embrace of whim and mood and keeps many of his more wandering narratives throughout the album grounded. He brings menace to “Ova Da Wudz”, lending real world urgency to a song about the very real struggle of financial solvency and often saves this album as well as a majority of Outkast’s work from a one dimensional, star gazing sob fest. Antwan lends Andre’s poetry "legitimacy", an immediate sense of place and makes the overall product palatable, a swagger without which Andre could’ve indeed drowned face down in the mainstream. That’s not to say he’s Andre’s straight man, a Pimp C figure laughing and shit talking his way through the proceedings. While not without his own eclectic leanings, over the years it’s been Big Boi that’s done all the leg work, coming to meet Andre in whatever direction he turns, reigning his impulses earthbound and always up to the challenge regardless of the subject matter or BPMs. (See: His hands down besting of an Andre totally in his coffee shop element on “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”) His solo work indicates his own creative energies lie in a different direction, but with Andre there to lead the way, 3000 could not have asked for a more worthy Scottie Pippen.
That being said, even the most stout contrarian couldn’t argue against Benjamin as the group’s innovator, the element that elevates them above commercially viable into the pantheon of the all time greats. (Though they are equally crucial to the success of the group) On “Babylon”, a one part monastery one part gospel beat, an example of a work seemingly more Earth Sounds than Organized Noize though it is not, the only child gets his Brett Easton Ellis on, voicing his alienation as he critiques the crass sexuality of a lost generation. (Something Kanye and Kid Cudi are no stranger to in their blatant, middle school drama form) It’s probably my favorite Andre verse of all time for the artful, affecting opening, equating his own conception with the reality his peers grew up around and what he perceives as the sad, desensitized results as they have come of age.
At his ruminative best, Dre’s passion takes the form of critiquing unimaginative placated hip hop, but looking back it’s more of a straw man, (not unlike Wale, who uses the market and surrounding competition as reoccurring subject matter and means to fuel his fire) Andre’s excuse to plumb the depths and voice his estrangement. (“Mainstream”, “13th Floor/Growin Old”, “Wailin’”) He sounds like a missionary with a crusade, filled with a romantic idealist’s passionate dismay but in his own way deliriously happy to have a cause to get behind. On “E.T. (Extraterrestrial)”, a drumless Earth Sounds beat that emulates the sounds of a ticking clock and a chirping cricket, Andre is at once in this moment of his life and above it. The listener can sense his reveling in these humble, formative years as an artist at the height of his talents, seemingly able to foresee his inevitable ascent and the hollow boredom that he’d find in popular acknowledgment and the mastery of his craft. Andre feels more comfortable meandering through this time and place as a young inquisitive underdog filled with wonder at the large world around him, one he’s not yet in control of. It’s this existential journey that forced him to examine his desires and failures, his dreams and aspirations. The things he loves in his life and the ways he has been let down. It made for amazing music and Hip Hop had never seen anything quite like it.
In subject matter ATLiens' first single “Elevators (Me and You)” is a kind of “Paid In Full” moment for Outkast. It’s their creative process, their creation myth and their mission statement. Not so different from Rakim’s economy fueled hunger, his desire for fish and a reassuring knot in his pocket, Andre stares at the ceiling fan in his studio waiting for the spark of inspiration, the recognition he’s hungry for, freedom from life’s small woes in order to allow him to focus on a bigger picture. He expresses this as more than external forces bearing down but as an internal struggle, making a lead single about his competing motivations as an artist in the everyday. The song is the moment on the album when focus abruptly shifts, gone are the fish and grits, the Cadillac bangers and love anthems, the uptempo Organized Noise productions that aren’t so different from their work on Southernplayalistic. It was the first Earth Sounds beat ever made by the duo, the first we hear on the album that is truly unique and progressive, different from anything the boys had rapped over previously and it sets the tone for the rest of ATLiens with its understated, otherworldly quality. The rim shots echo through negative space like a message being beamed into the dark recesses of the universe in hope of making contact, like Andre’s lonely quest for understanding and community in his rhymes, as another insatiable writer once put it, like fat fingers of light in one sky, searching.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Anyone who has spent time commuting to Union Square, Times Square or Columbus Circle is familiar with the Hypnotic Brass Band, whether they realize it or not. The 8 man ensemble is a crew of brothers, born and raised together in Chicago where their father Phil Corcoran, a former trumpeter for Sun Ra drilled them for hours on technical skill as well as music theory as children. It's most likely this ingrained familiarity that's responsible for the powerful pure horn sounds each member of the group illicits from his instrument and their almost unnatural synchronization. The typical song on the two albums of theirs I bought, "The Brothers" and "New York City Live" hinge on rhythm which is teased out, improvised and built upon while never straying too far. Both albums on a song by song basis are immaculate. Here's a Youtube sampling of their work.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
When I was a kid what first drew me to the Wu-Tang Clan was Rza's production, specifically the beautiful little snippets of vocal samples that he would weave into his dark, intricate beats. For this reason, Rocafella Records' post-Roc La Familia production team was a dream come true. If you're like me, twenty first century Roc got no better than the Diplomats irreverent free associative experimentation over Chipmunk Soul on their mixtapes and albums. A stacked in house production crew including Kanye West, Just Blaze, Young Guru and my personal favorites, the Heatmakers provided the gang with a seemingly endless barrage of beautiful sped up soul staples. For this week's Sunday drop here's a smattering of a few rare songs and for me, some of Dipset's finest moments.
Cam'ron & Jim Jones- I Am Dame Dash
Jim Jones- This is Jim Jones
Juelz Santana- I Love You
Juelz Santana- You're Gonna Love Me
The Diplomats- I'm Ready
Juelz Santana- My Love Extended Remix (ft. Freeway and Jim Jones)
Juelz Santana- Let's Get It On (ft. Cam'ron)
Bonus: A little heard 45 second riff over Willie Hutch's infamous "I Choose You" off The Diplomat Mixtape Vol. 3. I prefer Cam's take to anyone else's, he brings an uptown swag that complements the old soul vibe so well and letting Hutch's wailing ride out over the verse is a powerful touch.
Cam'ron- Hey Ma Remix Intro
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Speaking of forgotten members of the Hip Hop community, here's a G-Dep song featuring Black Rob on a Rockwilder beat. "Like Whoa" aside, Life Story was a solid album, same goes for Child of the Ghetto. Where are they now? Has to be better than shitty faux house music and a boy band. As Jay Landsman once said about Charles Marimow "The man does not cast off talent lightly. He heaves it with great force."Maybe Suge had a point at the Source Awards. Here's some of the best of Bad Boy post 2000.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Read this post then read this book.
Aravind Adiga’s brilliant, Man Booker Prize winning novel The White Tiger gets its name from a passage early on when a government appointed school inspector comes for an evaluation of the protagonist, Balram Halwai’s primary school. Due to an ineffectual system and a lazy and corrupt teacher, none of the students can read or write save Balram. The inspector sees the child’s intelligence and asks “what animal comes along once in a generation?” The answer is the White Tiger, the rare chosen one with talent and gifts that exceed those of his peers.
As this decade comes to a close a new class of MCs clamor at the gates, waiting for their moment which appears to be little more than a great song, mixtape, guest appearance or album away. But who will strike first, hardest? What figure or figures will ascend to command our attention and make tastes for the decade to come?
Looking back on this current generation the crystal ball was equally murky as they came of age. The smart money probably would’ve been on Mos Def and Talib Kweli, two insanely intelligent, gifted MCs with three classic albums under their belts by 2000. Lil Flip with his deep Screwed up Click, Houston roots seemed the clear victor in his battle with a brash upstart from Atlanta going by Tip. Joe Budden, a ferocious mixtape rapper nipping 50’s heels for underground dominance with a mainstream smash in his pocket seemed a sure bet. Few would’ve guessed that the biggest star on Rocafella over the next ten years would be the jowly asshole from Chicago providing beats for the 9/11 classic The Blueprint as opposed to its author. And as for Lil Wayne, you mean that shrill cookie cutting teenager braying all over Juvenile’s monster singles? The point is forecasting can be tricky business when it comes to success in the Hip Hop game. The best and brightest don’t always come out on top. Sometimes it’s about who you know, sometimes it’s plain dumb luck. While all wildly different, each of the MCs listed below are representative of a next generation of MC and while who will come out on top is highly speculative, taking them as a whole is instructive in considering the brave new worlds this medium will shortly be heading towards. There isn’t a true gangster or backpacker among them, they hail from all over the country and all resist any type of convenient definition. Purists should be concerned, I’m excited. At any rate here it is, a look at what I have determined to be Hip Hop’s top five blue chip prospects, in an attempt to find this generation’s White Tiger.
*Honorable Mentions: Joell Ortiz, Jay Electronica
Name: Asher Roth
From Where?: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Should be studying: Do you really have to ask?
Resume: Don Cannon & DJ Drama Present: The Greenhouse Effect Volume 1, “I Love College”
Scouting Report: The mass appeal potential is obvious for
I Love College (Remix) ft. Jim Jones
Name: Gucci Mane
From Where?: Atlanta, Georgia
Should be studying: Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne
Resume: Millions of mixtapes but for a definitive account,We Eat So Many Shrimp’s 30 Best Gucci tracks of 2008
Scouting Report: Gucci Mane’s prepubescent, drawl heavy register embodies his style. His biggest boon is his right hand man Zaytoven, arguably the most innovative and interesting producer working at the moment. Zaytoven is able to cram an ice cream truck, a Sega Genesis, a carousel organ and a Muppet Babies Casio into his intricate synths, than match them alluringly with lush, classically honed Steinway Baby Grands and Stravinsky strings. In a way, Zaytoven is the ideal match for Gucci because his bubbly beats are paired perfectly with Gucci’s sophomoric, animated rhymes. At the same time, this serves as his greatest failing and potential Achilles heel. Gucci Mane is an appropriate moniker for this absurdly materialist MC. He practices the form eschewing excitement Jeezy first brought to the table employing fragmented and repetitious bars along with Wayne’s off the wall, free association grounded in intensely random pop reference-based extended metaphors. He combines these approaches and takes them to even greater experimental heights using his drawl to obscure and play with language in new ways. But without the dramatic urgency both Wayne and Jeezy are capable of summoning regularly Gucci’s in danger of slipping into Young Dro and Fabo levels of fun, one dimensional, irreverent, irrelevance. Zaytoven’s potential is unleashed on Gorilla Zoe’s dire “You Know What It Is” far more than we ever see on We Eat Shrimp’s totem. In short, this kid should be looking for a fight if he wants to move past mixtape novelty.
Name: The Knux
From Where?: New Orleans, Louisiana/Los Angeles, California
Should be studying: Outkast, Camp Lo
Resume: Remind me in 3 days……………
Scouting Report: The Knux deserve instant recognition as the only act on this list to have released a proper album, and it was a good one. While Outkast have done the most to shape the style and post Aquemini P-Crunk production MCs Krispy Kream and Rah Al Millio practice, they would be wise to study the career arc of Camp Lo carefully. Like the wildly talented Bronx duo The Knux have their own distinctive voice and sound, filled with imperial stomp, electronic wizardry and rockist distortion. The Knux are self produced and avoid a Camp Lo niche/pidgeon hole off the strength of their experimental, unorthodox, (which today=relevant) varied vocabulary of influences, not to mention the skills to tear into said beats with infectious enthusiasm. Camp Lo produced a big song and great album with a realized aesthetic but they couldn’t seem to grow past it, to make music that resonated and evolved from what they established on their promising debut. The Knux, with their great debut and lead single could easily follow suit, falling into the same underground internet forums where Camp Lo reigns supreme, or they could blow the fuck up.
Fire (Put It In The Air)
Name: Kid Cudi
From Where?: Shaker Heights, Ohio
Should be Studying: Kanye West, Devin The Dude
Resume: A Kid Named Cudi, Stoner Charm, “Welcome to Heartbreak”, “Day N Nite (remix) ft. Jim Jones”
Scouting Report: The mixtape A Kid Named Cudi dropped courtesy of New York clothing company 10 Deep in July 2008, soon afterwards he caught the interest of one Kanye West and was brought to the G.O.O.D. music imprint. Kanye recorded his groundbreaking 808s and Heartbreaks in a three week span from September to October 2008. The temptation one is filled with when they hear Cudi's mixtape is to say it’s post 808s but it isn’t, begging a question few have dared to ask: Just how involved was this kid in one of the most forward thinking albums of this era? (Listen to both albums back to back, Cudi’s influence if not his exact harmonies, cadences and spacing are present throughout) Cudi shares Kanye’s passion for graceless punchlines and twee introspection. You want to say having the game’s biggest star in your corner makes Cudi an automatic front runner but try explaining that to Consequence, GLC and Rhymefest. Cudi’s mixtape contains plenty of bombs. But amidst the trash and even on some truly awful songs, a great talent for melody is apparent. He’s an utterly unspectacular MC but someone with a gift for singing raps, and he’d be wise to take a page from Southern MCs who found a voice and style by centering their delivery around cadence, letting country rap tunes take them in whatever direction the beat and their god given musical instincts command (See: Project Pat, Pimp C). Cudi could follows his own emo/indie inclinations to strange new places with exciting results. That being said, the faux hawk and obnoxious, hip for hip's sake references that clutter his mixtapes are infuriating (See: A bad and totally unnecessary Paul Simon jack and N.E.R.D. beats, however there is a positive aspect to his wide scope. The highlight of A Kid Named Cudi covers a fucking Band of Horses song). In New York, it took a great Jim Jones verse to bring the populous to his minimalist stoner classic “Day N Nite”, so his ability to cross over to an urban market certainly could be an issue. However, Cudi might be the most intriguing and possibly game changing artist on this list. Songs like the two posted below gives the listener a sense that this kid has the potential to drop a mold breaking, beautiful mega hit somewhere down the line that could make him a household name. My advice is embrace that which makes you different and do every single thing Kanye tells you to.
Man On The Moon
From Where?: Washington D.C.
Should be studying: Lupe Fiasco, Lil Wayne
Resume: 100 Miles and Running, The Mixtape about Nothing, “Nike Boots”, “Rising Up”
Scouting Report: Living just below the Mason Dixon line that once separated North from South, no MC on this list, or in the game for that matter sounds like an MC in year 2009 as much as second generation Nigerian Olubowale Victor Akintimehin. That is, an embodiment of all that’s come before him with his own original, modern (or post modern) twist. With Hip Hop spreading like a plague there are few areas left unheard from on a national stage, but the District of Columbia is one of them, and who better to blaze a trail off the Atlantic coast than this native son of the nation’s capital? Perhaps I’m showing my idealism in a vote of confidence for the young man, after all he is the smartest, most accomplished and most able MC working outside the bubble, but this is as close to a five tool artist as I’ve seen in a long time. His product offers Jose Andres flourish and the sustenance of a chili bowl from Ben’s. He features the intricate, hypnotic wordplay of an MF Doom that demands multiple listens, only crammed with focused, formed, cohesive thoughts in every bar. Despite this his rhymes are no chore to pick through, he raps with a consummate stylist’s random references and laugh out loud punchlines in an adaptable, palatable, sing song delivery. The two honorable mentions on this list suffer from a restrictive clinging to the past and an overly resistant lack of structure and form which can be just as alienating. Wale is the juncture where these conflicting styles meet. While clearly classically schooled, he’s insistently progressive and his introductory campaign has been the most effective and well run I’ve seen in the brief and illustrious history of blog rap. Wale offers something for everyone. He’s an artist with two fingers firmly on the mainstream pulse (See: “Nike Boots”, his hipster darling “W.A.L.E. D.A.N.C.E.”), able to appeal to intellectuals with the endless bag of concepts he brings to the table and executes every time that never feels forced, desperate or gimmicky (See: his brilliant mixtape conceived around a cerebral comedian’s decade old sitcom which deserves all the hyperbole its received thus far and will probably live long enough to collect much more), and the true school chops and defiant swagger to avoid falling into that reviled, narrow, trendy, abrasive Hipster Rap category (See: “Rising Up”). He often moves between weighty sentiment and good fun, hurt and apathy, genuine and ironic in the course of a couplet. The only thing that could prevent this prophecy from fulfillment is Wale’s intelligence, is he too smart to succeed on a grand stage, unable to write the hook that will make him a superstar? Time will tell, but as far as this blog is concerned Wale is the future, the real deal. Hip Hop’s next Great White Tiger.
The Perfect Plan