Wednesday, September 23, 2009

They Grow Up So Fast

Juelz Santana- Back to the Crib (ft. Chris Brown)

I love watching the slow maturation of an artist over the course of a few years. Juelz Santana was once a weed carrier, an also ran in the Harlem collective Cam'ron introduced just before signing to Rocafella he called The Diplomats. It was Cam, Jim Jones and young Juelz, who practiced a barking choppy flow fashioned in his mentor's image. He could be hit or miss, but when he was experimenting with identical rhyme, showing a true New York wiseguy sense of humor in his dealings with the opposite sex, or giving us great little moments like a ride home from the club on the Westside Highway charged with sexual tension you believed he could be more than a hypeman.

His debut album From Me to U is still his best. It was a shockingly vulnerable and solid contribution clocking in at 20 tracks, a majority of them boasting some of the very best beats the brief union between the Diplomats and the Heatmakerz produced. He still showed green, at times lost in his own dense wordplay but with songs like "Why" he displayed an increasing mastery of the multi syllabic punchline and his own approach to Cam's stylistic inclinations, punctuated with emotive charisma. What the Game's Been Missing! was his commercial smash thanks to "There It Go (The Whistle Song)", "Oh Yes" and "Clockwork". The three singles are evidence of an evolved confidence. More than just a practitioner, Juelz became presence with the ability to pen his own hits. His album, dropped at the zenith of this decade's stab at Crack Rap is New York's finest contribution.

On I Can't Feel My Face Juelz teamed with Lil Wayne and made a handful of great tracks. It's like watching two gifted Chemistry students at work in the lab, playing with flow and cadence, playing off each other over delightfully cheap, shitty mixtape production. A real album is unlikely and that's a shame. It's a symbiotic, competition based relationship provoking both to raise their games exponentially on each track.

"Back to the Crib", the first single off Juelz's new album Born to Lose, Built to Win was leaked by Angie Martinez Tuesday afternoon and it's a Polow produced radio killer. A 26 year old Juelz emerges fully formed, scaling back the weirdness for mainstream but showing his trademark flow and bounce to great effect. What strikes me is how surefooted he is on this, comfortable and in complete control alternately wooing and talking shit, a quality Jadakiss for instance has never achieved despite twice as much time served and about 100 attempts at making this song. The Don is predictably great, the weeping horns are perfect for late September and I'll be literally shocked if the video doesn't feature a teenage couple in matching leathers and sweaters cuddled up shopping around Fulton Mall. Chris Brown's personal drama hasn't prevented him from being the least interesting relevant male crooner but even he can't fuck this up. I'm rooting for this album to make a strong showing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Take Off Your Fucking Shirt: Culture Wars

This may or may not become a regular feature depending on how many music related t-shirts I come across in my travels through NY that piss me off. The shirt pictured above has become fairly prevalent amongst late 20s dreads (both white and black) and "urban" Asians rooting for cold weather so they can pull out their too baggy Hiero hoodies. Had my fifth or sixth siting last night in Brooklyn Heights of all places and decided it was worthy of a rant.

This shirt addresses moronic Phonte stans who claim Hip Hop should have folded following KRS-1 exiting his prime. It's a 2003 era debate when the granola wing of the culture was sure Young Jeezy was a harbinger of the end of days; A definition in which Hip Hop is authentic, often pretentious rhymes over limp-wristed drum patterns and anything that isn't a lament over ex-girl friends, a shallow recitation or understanding of politics, an ode to graffiti/breakdancing/DJing in the park powered by a light post in the South Bronx before you were born and of course a critique of Rap is Rap. This shirt makes me want to avoid a conversation with you at all costs because I'm tired of hearing your vague theory concerning the BET/Clear Channel Caucasian run cabal that's out to destroy black people via Hip Hop. TAKE OFF YOUR FUCKING SHIRT.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The R&B Blast: Hawthorne's Heights

Ever wonder what the white man's take on neo soul would sound like? Me neither. I was still pleasantly surprised by Ann Arbor native Andrew Mayer Cohen's (Aka Mayer Hawthorne) debut A Strange Arrangement off Stones' Throw. Despite Spring buzz with an EP showcasing some of the album's stronger tracks, the LP (released September 8th) managed to fly under the radar amidst the Hip Hop hubbub this month and it's a shame. It's an air tight, studied tribute to the music of Philadelphia and Detroit in the 60s and 70s. Hawthorne practices a falsetto soul indebted to Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield and particularly Russell Thompkins Jr. of the Stylistics. Each track is filled with fan boyish homages: iconic horn arrangements and melodies lifted from Diana Ross' DSLs.

It's an immaculately arranged album with a love for heart swelling melodies and no filler, (even a stab at Mayfield-esque political soul comes off) but unlike other retro minded contributions like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings' 100 Days, 100 Nights and Rafael Saadiq's The Way I see It Hawthorne goes beyond solid. This is an album that updates formulas and feels fresh while remaining true to its roots, not unlike what Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi accomplished affecting Doo-Wop on Back to Black. There's a variety of subject matter all related to love in different stages but the wonderful title track, and the majority of the album's first half contain the best break-up songs since 808s. I'd heavily recommend it as soundtrack for putting together dinner on a rainy night.

Download: Mayer Hawthorne- A Strange Arrangement

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Paid At Last

The original vision Charles Stone III had planned for his Harlem opus Paid In Full opened with the three protagonists, Mekhi Phifer as Rich Porter (Mitch), Wood Harris as Azie Faison (Ace) and Cameron Giles as Alberto "Alpo" Martinez (Rico) in Mitch’s apartment playing Monopoly with real money. According to Stone’s gaudy vision each player would choose the piece that best represented him. (the top hat standing in for glamour, the car representing speed and power, etc.) This concept was shot down by Executive Producer Dame Dash and what we end up with is a portrait of the young men at the peak of their power and most frivolous with their obscene fortune. It’s a contest between Mitch and Rico, Mitch challenged to sink a crumpled up Chinese take-out bag in a small garbage basket on the other side of the room for 5,000$.

The scene is filled with banter that instantly introduces and endears the audience to its three pivotal players and Stone’s accounting of the labor pains the scene underwent in its creation highlights a key feature that must be considered when discussing the best movie ever made about the intertwined Hip Hop/crack culture of the 80s and 90s: Made in 2002, Paid In Full brought a respectful, first hand journalistic approach to (based on) real life subject matter, detail rich with an insistent commitment to honesty; character driven in ways previously unseen within the black crime genre that to this point had never shown the appropriate amount of respect for its subject or audience. According to Stone this is thanks to Dame Dash, his on set "Reality Police" along with Azie Faison, who met with both Dash and Stone, assisted in the making of the film and serves as its protagonist.

In large ways as well as small the film wields a local’s memory and eye for detail which reverberate throughout the production lending the believable feel. It would be easy to deride Paid In Full for its production value but the film and naturalistic lighting may or may not be intended, and certainly achieves an authenticity of setting, it doesn’t look like a movie made in 2002. Touches like brick sized cell phones, Cam’s hair and the wardrobe are perfect, for set design Porter’s house had been photographed in the 80s and replicated to the smallest detail on a studio stage. Dame was instrumental in choosing the soundtrack, songs like Busy Bee’s “Suicide” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”. According to Stone, Dame insisted on the songs inclusion where the Director might’ve sought out a period specific street oriented mood setter for a scene where the hood shows out in fashion, congregating outside Willies Burgers before hitting the club. The Top 40 adult contempo radio smash isn’t what a viewer might expect but was a huge song in Harlem in the late 80s. The voice of Brucie B, an actual friend and associate of the trio as these events were unfolding in the late 80s serves as the disembodied ghost of Hip Hop past. He plays Greek Chorus throughout the film at the Roof Top, a rollerskating rink/club which served as a popular Harlem haunt.

Dame wanted this film to serve as a document to the hood lore he grew up with, it had to be authentic enough to hold muster with his demographic, others who had grown up in Harlem with the legend of AZ, Alpo and Rich and knew it well. Stone wanted a parable, a dramatization that would appeal to a greater audience previously ignorant to the story. In essence, the Gang banging, drug dealing morality play we’ve had shoved down our throats since the early 90s. In its willingness to portray the hustler as a conflicted individual and even at times a sympathetic hero Paid In Full is groundbreaking. This film is not another cliché ridden, hand wringing tirade against drug culture, making its eventually earned indictment the most powerful to date. Paid in Full takes risks and relates the reality of difficult times in ways that heavy handed portrayals like the Hughes Brothers’, John Singleton’s, Spike Lee’s and Hype Williams’ (the very worst) didn’t believe or believe their audience was prepared to appreciate.

Paid In Full succeeds in keeping the scope small but not due to any lack of ambition. The rise of crack and its eventual devastating impact on the inner city is painted graphically. There’s a difficult exchange near the beginning involving Calvin, the proto dumb asshole hustler dating Ace’s sister. Calvin comes to the table at dinner waving drug money in a then powerless Ace’s home, his mother too poor to refuse the money and presence she resents. Here, socioeconomic status in the ghetto is alluded to but left at the edges, a realistic portrayal of life. While films like Menace to Society are an apologist’s sociology lecture, portraying it’s characters as mongrelized products of their harsh environment Paid In Full presents the struggle as a piece of the puzzle that’s taken for granted. The relentless poverty is an accepted Sisyphean boulder that goes undiscussed by the film’s characters but not unacknowledged by the film. This speaks to a greater respectful treatment on the Stone's behalf, hallmark moments go unexplained but hinted at, allowed to merely exist on the side and left for the viewer to decipher.

Then there are the performances, sensitive and nuanced from the stars down to the bit players. Stone’s greatest decision is the room he gives his actor’s to flesh out their characters and improvise. There’s Wood Harris’ fantastic, spasmodic, off kilter rhythm, perfect for humble, spotlight shy Ace. Ace is by design a quiet observer, being played upon by forces of human nature. He’s a consummate business man, the first to recognize the value in wholesaling and undercutting prices, making his money in volume rather than markup. He’s without greed and powerlust, able to separate legit customers from Feds and stickups kids. The embodiment of the respectful pursuit of peaceful prosperity

Mitch and Rico are the dual light and dark aspects of fame and power, the "spotlight". Mekhi plays the dealer with a heart of gold, representing the love and admiration the spotlight lends to its star. Mitch is obsessed with flash and appearance but is well colored, never rendered shallow. He’s above sweating and physical activity, the always immaculately composed and put together pretty boy. There’s one particularly effective, wordless scene in which he painstakingly lays out his jewelry bedside like some sort of sacred ritual before going to sleep, cherishing his status symbols and fearing the barbarians champing at the gate. His bravado clearly stands in for a difficult home life and upbringing. After a troubling run in with his junkie Uncle Ice his junkie mother left in charge of Mitch’s pivotal little brother Sonny, Mitch tells Ace he needs to go out to the Roof Top that evening. That he needs “some love”. That Dame and Stone never feel the need to chide Mitch, to draw explicit lines between his profession and his situation at home is a testament to restraint. By the end Mitch will pay the ultimate price for his transgressions, costing both he and Sonny their very lives, a judgment rendered powerfully and silently.

But of course, Giles steals the show, outshining his seasoned co-stars and it makes sense. Cam was the only Harlem product on camera and as Rico he is the outlandish but ultimately believable id driving the dark element at play in this ruthless business. Cam’s Rico is all frenetic energy, writhing, shifty eyed calculation, a lit fuse with shadowy intent and motivation. In almost every interaction he’s pledging completely unbelievable but insistent undying loyalty. He’s a needy sociopath, over eager in his transparent, over compensating insecurity, unrepentant, combative and antagonistic. He wears hand painted graffiti shirts advertising and asserting himself at all times, a robe in the club with a bottle of Champaign in one hand and a blunt in the other watching homemade violent porn on a big screen. He’s fueled by a love of war and refusal to play by the rules, to do anything beaides what he wants which is grab attention and fear. He trots to Ace with an unloyal dealer like a dog with a dead bird in his teeth, shooting him in the ass on the street in broad daylight. The scene in which he betrays Mitch is a fucking clinic, he’s still an asshole as he callously eats potato chips, half heartedly consoling Ace after he’s been shot and had his loved ones murdered.

Paid in Full is not without its shortcomings. It was written by two largely green screenwriters and at times it's painfully noticeable. It packs a lot, perhaps too much into 100 minutes and as a result plot moves at a breakneck pace without much time for development between stages. There’s Ace’s hand holding voice over along the way which could potentially be looked at as a lack of ability to write a cohesive script that moves of its own volition. We lull on three somewhat clichéd plateaus of Ace’s humble beginning, his rein atop Harlem and the grim aftermath, moving from stage to stage with little to no transition. The characters are perhaps a bit too well defined; one note and straight forward. Ace is always the smooth and cautious paternalistic arm of the operation, Mitch is all friendly competition, good-natured and ambitious but ultimately operates by a moral code and is deferential to Ace, Rico is the loose cannon, never a steady thought or sober moment. It’s all capped with a kind of pat, closure lending, bitter sweet finish. Young men and women in bandannas and puffy coats are throwing dollar bills into a fan in front of Willie’s Burgers as Ace looks on, a technical adviser. The Director calls action and the slate snaps, the film ends where the legend begins.

The most profound insight and greatest accomplishment Paid In Full achieves is contained in its running theme of the physical and metaphorical spotlight. Rico and Mitch are ensnared in a never ending quest for its attention, Ace runs from it. It’s attention, love, respect, fear, a moment in which an individual can be special and recognized within the community. Through this lens Paid In Full presents the argument that drug dealing at this point in the 80s when the streets ran green with cash was almost like an expression, akin to graffiti or Hip Hop. A self made identity, a standard of fabulousness that was a desperate grab for a different life in a disparate environment. Mitch was garish in his tracksuits, fish hats and gaudy cars but in audacious boasting of owning every fiend uptown between 1st and Riverside, getting more money than a rival dealer in the community with nicer kicks, a more expensive ride and a flyer bitch. Stone and Dash are drawing parallels to a Wildstyle on the side of the 4 train or a Biz Markie song, willed dope by conviction of the author and the receptive audience.

Ultimately they reveal the hollow gaze of the light, the dark element drugs bring out in its dealers and customers and in doing so Paid In Full is this generation’s Goodfellas. A lifting of the glorified veil revealing the dark, sad, deadly underbelly of the criminal mind and heart in New York’s inner city during the late 80s. It does this in a language wrought in humanity, the studied eye of a first person account conveying its message through real, believable action. It’s a love letter, a cautionary tale and a great movie.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Top Chef

Pack Your Knives and Flow

So I feel like the conversation centering around Rae and the sequel is quickly burning itself out, and honestly after seeing him at S.O.B.'s Thursday night, the childlike joy he's getting from being relevant again, the love New York is showering him with, it makes me sad to be in the camp that's not head over heels in love with this album. Rae is obviously one of my favorite rappers of all time and no one is happier about the commercial success of this more or less good effort that obviously cost him large quantities of blood, sweat and tears. But.

Last night a friend and I were drunkenly discussing the album and I hit on a pretty interesting experiment. I started flipping back and forth between the two Cuban Linx albums on my iPod and it yielded some results that suggest a thought that previously hadn't occurred to me. A lot of the gripes concerning the album have to do with its intentional, single minded retro feel, more or less questions of philosophy. Last night suggested that for me it may just come down to the physical rapping. Now obviously in the course of 15 years flows are going to alter, mature, go off in different directions, etc. But to what effect?

Ghost for instance took his to a bizarre, experimental territory. He sings badly, accentuates everything and emotes heavily on nearly every bar. Rae seems to have withdrawn somewhat. His flow has become almost entirely devoid of personality or flourish of any kind, and not in that awesome, dead eyed, disaffected, menacing way that Pusha T and Young Buck (Once upon a time) are so great at. At his recent best on 8 Diagrams and most notably here on "New Wu" he achieves a confident leer with his cold, soberly spit threats and descrips. But for most of OB4CL 2 Rae sounds nearly listless, one comment I came across suggested he sounds like he's reading his rhymes and at times that's dead on. On "Pyrex Vision" it's intentionally softer but even then it provokes a particular disengagement, it's unexciting for the listener. Lyrically he's consistent but the energy is always lacking and at times he sounds like he's barely there. Contrasted with the angry, aggro young man Raekwon was in his early 20s it's particularly glaring. But don't take my word for it.

Baggin Crack

Surgical Gloves

Knuckleheadz - Raekwon, Ghostface & U-God

Fat Lady Sings

Pardon The Interruption

Yankee hating douschebags who don't at least acknowledge Derek Jeter's place as the classiest individual in sports can eat a dick and die in a grease fire. Congratulations are in order for the game's most consistent working athlete. Derek Jeter has more hits than any other Yankee this morning, it's hard for me to type that without getting chills and tears welling up. By far the best moment in a season filled with them. Thank you, Derek Sanderson Jeter for all 2,722 hits. Some personal highlights below.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Once and Future Kid

15 years ago Eric Wright took a chance on four kids from the Glenville section of Cleveland who called themselves Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. The Thugs rapped in a way never seen before or since, largely because few have been capable. Their music took the form of sung, staccato rapid fire raps oddly accentuated that floated woozily around gothic synth driven beats punctuated with huge, strangely beautiful hooks in pitch perfect four part harmony. Their content was primarily West Coast influenced gang culture, welfare checks, dead homies, killing hundreds of people with every verse and a sophomoric obsession with marijuana. Shaker Heights’ own Scott Mescudi was 10 when Creep on ah Come Up touched down, and with his fearless debut album Man On The Moon: The End of Day he may have delivered the freshest stylistic vision since that EP.

Man On the Moon is a stunning accomplishment. It’s the psychedelic, experimental head phone album several MCs have attempted and none have succeeded in realizing until now. On an ambitious 15 song album that’s only 3-4 unnecessary cuts past perfect Cudi out raps Kanye West and Common Sense, incorporates groups like Ratatat and MGMT seamlessly and widens the parameters of Hip Hop in content and style. This is a bizarre hybrid unlike anything you’ve ever heard before and the craziest part is it works, so much so that with confidence I can call it the best album I've heard this year.

Like Bone Thugs, Cudi is a product of his generation. The content here is the personally driven, emotionally indulgent fare “Hipster Rappers” of the Freshman Class are accused of peddling. It opens with Common espousing wisdom as his Pops used to on his efforts, declaring an unafraid willingness to be different and blaze trails. "Kid Cudi Zone" is about little besides his strange, wonderful impulses but contain some of the album's best rapping along with the heart stirring melodies that are literally never absent for a moment throughout the proceedings. The score is techno driven with a powerful string section on deck, rich (occasionally overwhelmingly so), layered and heavily musical as is the entirety of the album with touches of electro and the playful side of indie rock you're just going to have to get used to.

Kid Cudi Zone

Most of the quarter Mexican, quarter Native American, half African American from Ohio’s album is a discussion about loneliness, alienation in individuality and coping with these emotions using music and substances. Most often these differences supposedly lie in his stylist inclinations but mentions of night terrors and songs like the year old “Day N Nite” (given new life in the context of the album) show that the lines run deeper. It’s the most interesting exploration of the subject since Andre's ruminations in 96.

Make no mistakes, Kid Cudi is alyrical. At his best he achieves Kanye level goof and his worst moments are worthy of the poetry fourth graders write when mom and dad split up. While particular Southern MCs have achieved greatness through an alyricism relying on unorthodox flow and ugly quirk that comes off dope, Cudi finds success through beauty, refinement and a true ear. His content is besides the point, it’s awesome listening to him get there. Due to bizarre mixtape beat selection and the artists he most often comes into contact with I myself, along with others misdiagnosed Cudi as having indie rock sensibilities. There is no thin, ironic guardedness to Cudi’s music, his unchained melodies are much closer to earnest emo. This album is chalk full of show stopping, soaring power hooks he dives into head first, and there isn’t a verse off. This also might be the first relevant Hip Hop album this year that doesn't feature at least one uncomfortable stab at auto-tune. (In its robotized, hand tipping T-Pain form) This kid has R. Kelly level instincts and the taste makers have taken notice. (See: 808s & Heartbreaks, his pitch perfect thin chorus on Jay-Z's "Already Home" and Kanye and Common following his lead on "Make her say")

Soundtrack 2 my life

I was a fan of Cudi’s first two mixtapes, dropped this summer and last July but had reservations. He seemed oblivious to his shortcomings as a traditional MC and as a result both efforts are mixed bags at best. There are bad songs on Man On The Moon but Cudi finally knows himself, in retrospect his mixtape mistakes seem like respectful caveats to the medium.

What’s the difference between Foundation and OB4CL 2? Conviction, confidence, a comfort and lack of consideration for the taste of others, being true to oneself which shines through the music. Jadakiss’ “Broken Safety” verse is the best on Raekwon's album though it’s devoid of any really devastating punchlines. Why? Because it’s a rapper in his lane practicing what he does best, sneering, growling at a nasty beat, murdering it and knowing he’s murdering it. In many ways that’s exactly what Cudi’s done. This is a sensitive album without sneer or swag, like its author. A lot of Hip Hop heads will skim through and dismiss as a result. Kids will love this album but the people who already hate Cudi for his jeans, punchlines and Lady Gaga samples won't be converted. They won’t recognize that in freeing himself from Boom Bap bondage Cudi is faithful to our medium’s oldest adage: He’s keeping it real.

Another Chamber (Part 2): Killarmy

The Militant wing of the Wu Tang Clan consists of Rza’s younger brother 9th Prince, Islord, Dom Pacino, Killa Sin, Beretta 9 and ShoGun Assasin with Ohio based producer 4th Disciple. The christened Killa Army carries out their concept as a crew of revolutionary guerillas embroiled in urban warfare against oppressive white power. The title of their relentlessly dark, paranoid debut Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars, released just after the second Wu-Tang Clan album in 1997, was lifted from an NWO document brought to light in the 80s detailing a plan for world domination. Imagine Dead Prez as a collective from Staten Island who dropped out of middle school and spent the early 90s studying Enter the 36 Chambers and the first round of solo LPs.

Like OB4CL 2 their work serves as a kind of Wu Tang monument, taking the chaotic insanity birthed by 9 kids fucking around in Staten Island and nailing it down. They’re surefooted practitioners, complete with speech impediments, well placed film snippets and a familiar grit that feels true, but something is lost in the intentionality. You feel them trying to replicate a style that thrived on alternating menacing and fun spontaneous energy, trying to catch lightning in a bottle and it results in a tangible aura of retread. There's also the actual content to consider, close explication reveals jibberish. It’s a familiar muddle of the Old Testament, The Nation of Islam, a black supremacist on the corner of Linden and Utica ranting at pedestrians and an NRA pamphlet conveyed through barely literate, clunky metaphors and misused words that sound smart. Killa Sin is the standout, boasting the closest thing to a solo career anyone not in Rza's immediate family has had and even he could be described as competent at best. Legend has it Method Man did some ghost writing for their debut, which could be the funniest concept in the history of Rap.

At the end of the day we're here for the beats and 4th Disciple certainly delivers. Rza contributes 2 tracks but it feels like he was behind the entire album, Disciple's impression at times exceeds Robert Diggs at his very grimy/beautiful best. (See: "Clash of the Titans", "Blood for Blood", "Wake Up", "Full Moon" but you could literally pick almost any track off the debut at random, it's that consistent) The production smacks of Forever era Rza sensibilities at his slick orchestral biggest. While at the worst excessive moments of that aforementioned double LP the lushness flirted with overproduction, here the big gorgeous beats are tempered with practiced, largely hookless grime. With Wu finances in the state they must have been in by this point the quality of vocals feels intentional, a majority sounding like it was recorded in a clapboard booth insulated with egg cartons. The kitschy echo effect is laughable. Either this was an intentional, somewhat brilliant flourish or the Army was given carte blanche with their budget and decided to cut corners on production cost. Either way it contributes to the subterranean, hellish aesthetic they’re clearly gunning for.

Dress to Kill

Clash of the Titans

Blood for Blood

Seems it Never Fails

Wake Up

Full Moon

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Another Chamber (Part 1): Wu Syndicate

There was a time when you could count on a majority of the satellites in the Wuniverse to deliver consistently dope shit. You could even argue at a certain point in the LATE 90s their quality of output exceeded the planet they orbited. My personal favorites were these kids (originally named Crime Syndicate), a duo from Virginia Beach of all places with era appropriate mob affiliated aliases and Mobb Deep sensibilities. Myalanksy and Joe Mafia deliver self serious raps with life or death stakes and threats galore. They were a passable knock off of the Queens duo if nothing else, their shockingly solid self titled debut features decent levels of NY-influenced aggression complemented by familiar grimy soul beats and Puzo suggesting strings courtesy of the always underrated Mathematics (at the beginning of his career producing for Wu, contributing 2 of the albums best beats), random producers Smokin Joe, Dred and some guy named DJ Devastator. You don’t feel the cloak of Wu mythology over this and its independence works for these guys who take a more direct approach to the drug trade Rae, Ghost and Gza bury in bizarro slang, Shogun Assassin snippets and otherworldly Rza bangers.

Devastator is responsible for “Where was Heaven”, their lead single for good reason. Myalansky’s standard hard luck narrative rivals any in the cannon. Slow, soft and sad, for me the beat presents the desire to escape dire circumstances but the knowledge that there’s no hope. Utterly dark and bleak. My mind could be playing tricks on me but I’m 99% my LP had a more subdued performance from Myalansky that I prefer to this more angry and energized take as opposed to the sad and resigned version I knew and loved.

Weary Eyes

Golden Sands

Thug War

Pointin Fingers (Prod. by Mathematics)

Muzzle Toe (Prod. by Mathematics)

Ask Son

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

For Those Who Think Young Hov

In some ways I feel this type of shameless pandering on behalf of two normally grounded and level headed dudes is responsible for the slow and steady decline of Shawn Carter. Why did Jay lose his hunger after The Black Album solidified his standing atop Rap? I keep thinking back to when he dropped "Super Ugly" for the first time on Hot 97. Angie and Flex lost their minds. They wanted the moment to be the definitive death of Nas and a watershed Hip Hop moment as they jocked Jay-Z in studio. They immediately held a city wide radio poll for listeners to vote for who won the battle. It wasn't Jay-Z. Peep 4:30 where Ciph asks Jay an actual question in "Why revive the Blueprint franchise?" and Jay responds with utter jibberish.

Maybe more critical handling, sober thoughts and tough questions would result in a focused Jay rapping with a chip on his shoulder. The more I listen to the record and consider how the so-sad-it's-hard-for-me-to-listen-to "Young Forever" made it past mixing and mastering the more it feels like Jay's traded in the Dames for Yes Men awed to be in his rarefied presence. In my opinion the butt fucking and reach arounds exchanged regularly by Jay-Z and Hot 97 need to stop. Ever since that immortal Summer Jam the DJs and personalities on the station haven't been afraid to loudly proclaim their loyalty and their airwaves to Jay and he's returned the favor by making his version of "Dreams of fuckin an R&B Bitch" featuring Mister Cee, Funkmaster Flex and Angie Martinez in what was supposed to be a Eulogy for Autotune. In doing so, he slept through No IDs vicious beat and ruined what could of been the street anthem of the summer in a pathetic grab for radio dominance. We might have an intervention on our hands.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Rap Nerd's Revenge: Is There Such a Thing as Responsible Blogging?

Back in the day (last year) before posts like this, a whole slew of people cluttering your Reader were teaming up to relaunch Oh Word as a giant rap magazine commune. It was an interesting time in which a lot of us were exchanging ideas and expectations for what we wanted this new utopian site to look and feel like. (Debates and differing visions over exactly nothing eventually sent us all back to our respective holes)

One of the most interesting debates we had was when Rick Ross was exposed as a one time C.O. Half the community licked their chops, claiming this was the perfect fodder for satire, self righteous rants and upping net traffic. The other half got a bad taste in their mouth and wanted to move their scope as far away from salacious trash like Ross' government job, or Charles Hamilton getting slapped, or now Roxanne Shante lying about her degree, as humanly possible. Based on the wording of that sentence guess where I landed on the issue.

My question is, in terms of actual research, reporting, etc. what have you actually done when you're putting negativity like this out into the world? I discovered this piece by way of Byron Crawford's blog. Crawford didn't break this story, Slate did, (which he duly attributes) at which point it was regurgitated by almost every site in my Reader (pertaining to Hip Hop) ad nauseum. No new facts were unearthed, no new perspective added, merely dutiful send ups of the same sad story, tinged with snarky voyeuristic glee. And much more potentially dangerous and disturbing: Each time the actual news is removed from its source it's muddled and obscured.

If you actually read the Slate piece Roxanne is an afterthought, the story focuses on a badly research, potentially fabricated Daily News story and the dissemination of misinformation in and around the internet. The origins of the Slate piece came from someone thinking about a story rather than taking it at face value, doing some actual work and coming away with a genuine article of new information worth our time. In fact the entire point of the piece seems to be don't just take bullshit you come across on the internet (or in rags like The Daily News) as gospel, which fittingly was cut and pasted and taken as just that by some of the same people who trumpeted Shante's triumph. The meta layers are enough to make your head explode.

Questlove seems to share my disdain and left a Twitter entry last night urging every asshole writing about this unfortunate incident to put 10$ towards Shante's college fund. Sounds good, but why not just stop being a fucking asshole?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of being Jay-Z

Since nobody else is talking about this……… Love it or hate it Blueprint 3 is a sign of a career winding down. In its retrospective breadth and themes of maturation, its acknowledgement of a baton passing in the form of its guest list and “D.O.A.”s raging against the dying light this album bears all the marks of a last gasp. At the very least we are getting dangerously close to the end of “relevant” Jay-Z. This could very well be his I Got Next. True fans have recently been spending a lot of time head scratching, attempting to articulate what has changed in the music from an artist many of us know and love. But are these recent disappointments the product of time, decision making or the recognition of a larger underlying problem that has shadowed Carter’s music from day 1?

The obvious critical issue is a sudden lackadaisical quality to the verses Jay is releasing as a guest or on his own shit. A Jay-Z verse was once an event, kind of like Kanye verses have been for the bulk of 2009, a sure fire sign we were going to come away with some insight, a controversial opinion or two and some scorching punchlines. Speaking of punchlines, where have they gone? Noz recently suggested that over the course of his career Jay’s worth has been measured in singles. While I agree it’s been intrinsic to his popular success, the reason Jay has achieved and maintained his level of success within Hip Hop while conquering the world, what kept us coming back, what he’s been able to retain his street cred with for a decade, is his punchlines. Jay-Z proved over an 8 album span to be one of the greatest technical “writers” Hip Hop has ever seen. In his extended metaphors, the device Jay-Z once wielded lethally and practically introduced to Hip Hop, he has been one of our most nimble, clever wordsmiths regardless of subject matter. For all the people who claim to love “D.O.A.” or “Jockin Jay-Z” beyond their stellar beats indulge me in a brief experiment. Close your eyes and spit, oh let’s say four bars of either song aloud right now without Googling. Even better, what was one great, memorable punchline, off the top of your head? Okay? Now spit “P.S.A.” from beginning to end. It may not be Auto-tune rap but it certainly bears the marks of Auto-cruise.

To Jeff Weiss the other factor most attributable to his decline is a perceived identity crisis. He believes Jay’s open courting of the Williamsburg set is affecting the slant of his music. Not sure if content is the issue, after all he raps about rapping as well as maturing on The Black Album. Perhaps it's more to do with the way in which said content is being delivered. It’s understandable for a veteran artist to be in Jay’s position, somewhat bored with his medium and restless to mix things up. The "solution" to this problem we’ve seen from three respected old timers this year (Jay, Eminem and Fabolous) has been an affected, accented, forced-melodic flow that has resulted in uncomfortable failure each time. We're all familiar with Jay’s origin story, fast rapping under Jaz-O before finding himself and delivering his olive oil register in enunciated, conversational speech. Why he believes emulating Rick Ross, Lil Wayne or Drake with his obnoxious, breathy approach will somehow revitalize the formula that catapulted him into rap’s stratosphere is beyond me. Or maybe it isn’t. The cacophony of awful hooks and general desperate theme of self congratulation (laurel resting) that plague BP3 seem to suggest a lack in confidence suffered after Kingdom Come’s brick, American Gangster’s correctly diagnosed safety and the overwhelming pressure he must have felt to deliver a classic here, evidenced in his decision to revive the Blueprint brand.

So without the technical weaponry he’s packed his entire career, it’s now possible for us to inspect the man as an artist in terms of substance as opposed to style and get to the root of a problem that’s bugged me from Hov's not so humble beginnings. A painful truth, a problem that has sunk his last three efforts that stans are understandably tip toeing around.

For me more so than other people Kingdom Come was a success because for once it felt like Jay making music he wanted to make. He spent much of The Black Album apologizing for his career and screaming pragmatism, it begged the question “so what would you do without popular pressure/restraint?” To his credit he gave us an answer, but he sadly exposed himself as a typical rich and famous person who isn’t that interesting and even then gave us, to turn a great punchline from TBA, his idea of what a Common Sense album sounds like. It’s all shallow depth.

American Gangster was a “return to form” after the Kingdom Come backlash, the thin pretense of 70s era cokesploitation for Jay-Z to go back to making Jay-Z records. Only his own concept seemingly hamstrung him. Frank Lucas put up a wall between Jay and the hustling protagonist who’s footsteps he had swaggered a mile in so effortlessly before. AG is impressionistic. Jay unable to realize a concept album about selling coke was what he’d faithfully churned out his entire career.

As a crack rapper Shawn Carter showed us the glorified, consummate hustler from a distance, the hustler’s ideal. We never see the low level dealer struggling to sustain solvency (at least not from his perspective, they buzz around ineffectually beneath him), having been beat with a brick of crushed aspirin, having a gun pressed to his temple, taking life’s inevitable L’s in any form. From day one he’s faced a Charles Foster/Big Daddy Kane like inability to plumb the depths, to be honest and occasionally sad (even when sad he did what he had to do, no mistakes). Jay-Z is the always composed, righteous, successful and above all other things cool and controlled operator. He shows no emotion or affection, has no doubts, vulnerabilities or moments of weakness. He spent his career emulating his forerunner Biggie Smalls, unable to see that what made us all love the late G.O.A.T. so much was his ability to acknowledge some nights he looks in the mirror and sees a piece of shit.

“Song Cry” on Blueprint is his career persona in a nutshell. We never get to see the tears coming down his eyes. What we have is a strong writer who either lacks or is unwilling to share a depth of understanding in regards to the human condition, the reason why we’re bored when he moves away from the pulp buried in verbal mastery, he’s a stylist, a rap Tarantino. Post Reasonable Doubt Jay-Z was at his best, truly himself on songs like “Who you Wit 2” or “Girls, Girls, Girls”, songs with lively beats he rode confidently as he shot written fireworks into space crafted by the best producers money could buy. It moves, it’s entertaining and above all other things fun.

I’ve been a Knicks fan my whole life and something that gave me reason to believe the universe operates under some bizarre logic is I had the privilege of living near D.C. when Michael Jordan decided to end his career with, of all teams, the Wizards. I used to spend Spring evenings sitting in the stands at the MCI Center quietly with a warm smile on my face as the person Jay associates himself with the most outside Biggie, perhaps the person as well as the persona he's most closely resembled, stumbled in his professional winter, the place Cam’ron memorably accused Jay of being at in his career on Young Joc’s “It’s Goin Down (Remix)”. The crowd who had worshiped him without question season after season turned over the course of the year one by one as he launched double teamed fadeaway threes, just off the mark time and time again while The Wiz sunk into mediocrity. Little kids wearing his cobalt blue jersey would stand up in incredulous disbelief screaming “JESUS! HUGHES IS OPEN!” Maybe it’s time to pass the rock.