Saturday, February 28, 2009
This is beautiful. Cee-Lo converts Yorke's somber hymn from Protestant to Baptist and the warmth you never would've associated with the song makes for a great cover, a true interpretation. I look back at Gnarls' work collectively and I don't hear an attempt at experimentation or progress, just two music nerds wearing their influences on their sleeves and having fun that has almost nothing to do with Hip Hop (fuck the packaging). It occasionally makes for a good time. I think Cee-Lo is a brilliant rapper. I couldn't have a conversation concerning what I consider the greatest verse of all time without at least mentioning the fence around his projects. That being said, he's had a truly special career which rap is only a part of. Very few artists can follow their creative whims everywhere without bordering on indulgence but Cee-Lo has accomplished that. He's this extraordinary talent who can do whatever he wants well and without effort and its time to acknowledge he's a great rapper and a great singer. It's the guy who anchored Still Standing and Soul Food singing a Radiohead song, I understand that. All I know is I'm thankful for any outlet that provides a moment like this one.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Monday, February 23, 2009
David Brown, also known as Young Buck presumably because his career began at the age of 14, got his start as many young prominent Southern rappers of his generation did, by signing with Baby and his Cash Money Records. When Juvenile split from the label in 2002 to begin his UTP imprint Young Buck went with him, the move made sense. It isn't hard to see the influence of Juvie and his forefather Bun B when considering Buck's approach. He delivers in a laid back, dusty, drawl heavy register drenched in moonshine and hoarse from too many Swishers stuffed with Mexican brick weed. It’s a wonderful instrument that can swing between detached and scarily intense at a moment’s notice. In what was his first move as a visionary General Manager for G-Unit, 50 Cent poached the unheralded Nashville firebrand from Juvenile, the beginning of his master plan to take over the country. I was pissed at the time. I was a G-Unit stan and a knee jerk South hater. I felt the signing of Young Buck was a sell out move, a sign that 50 was running his label and producing his music the way corporations churn out product. I was right, but in this instance it was for the wrong reasons.
By the end of 2004, Young Buck was a personal top five MC who changed the way I thought about Southern Rap. Buck is a great primer for those entrenched in the New York state of mind. He’s a raw lyricist capable of East Coast style wordplay, but he was revelatory for me in that as an artist he’s greater than the sum of his parts. He excels with emphasis, cadence and vocals that contrast with the emotions conveyed, making the entire performance aspect of a given verse that much more interesting. As you can tell from that last sentence writing this was difficult because beyond the obvious, there are some things Young Buck does well that are hard to put into words. After 2006 or so he began to move away from the style and material that made him so great to me, but with this post and accompanying mixtape I’m going to attempt to document his strongest underappreciated cuts from the period and why I loved them.
This was the song that caused me to sit up and start paying attention. The first verse is an anecdote that Buck claims is based on a true story and you have a hard time doubting him based on the detail and his willingness to bring us into his thought process. Young Buck’s greatest attributes are his soft eyes, he doesn’t settle for clichés most coke rappers lean on when they talk about selling drugs and this gives songs like “Sniper” their authentic feel. The chorus sounds like a Big Syke hook left off All Eyez On Me and the second verse is a slight drop off but this song definitely piqued my interest.
Sleep with an AK
From the production through the verse this is a relentlessly bleak song. What makes it great is Buck’s breathless delivery, which is so matter of fact in the face of total despair it’s chilling. The way he paints his ruthless environment and conveys his nihilism makes for a great track. (Pissing in public?)
Tim Westwood Freestyle (ft. Lloyd Banks)
One of my favorite aspects of Buck’s coke talk is on display here. A running theme through his early work is selling his product for as little as possible. (“I sold my dimes for five, and my 20s for 10/I never gave they ass credit but they came again”) This Walmart logic is what separates Buck from many coke rappers, who the fiends supposedly flock to due to their vague consummate hustler essence. Buck advertises himself as a sound businessman promoting qualities that apply equally to crack, retail and finance. Anyone who has middlemanned anything understands the importance of a connect who can get you what you need at the right price but minutia of this nature is rarely brought up. In the very christening of his home state (Ten-A-Ki) Buck brings an economist’s approach to his crack rap.
Lean Back Freestyle
It Ain't Safe
I want to say that Buck beats Banks at his own game on their "Lean Back" freestyle but the truth is this is vintage Banks as well and if they were going toe to toe you’d have to declare a draw. (Although Banks featured reoccurring verses throughout this period, I very rarely heard a Buck verse more than once) What this track does however is accentuate the difference between the two and furthermore what made Buck special. With the first exchange Lloyd Banks is clever, street smart. Buck is wise. His coke punchlines play like biblical proverbs. He has a gift for phrasing and it shines through on lyrical exhibitions like this one and others such as “We’re Back” on the mixtape. “It Ain’t Safe” works along the same lines in regards to its oddly timeless quality. Buck watches Rome burning and while not hopeful, he’s not particularly distressed either; he has the serenity to accept the things he can’t change. It almost sounds like a dark prayer (a quality present in more than a few Young Buck songs).
I Love the Hood (ft. Game)
This is a great Buck verse over the “Poppa Was a Playa” instrumental but there’s an ugliness creeping into his flow that would become more prominent and lead to me somewhat losing interest as his career progressed. He is guilty of that amateurish cardinal sin of abusing doubled vocals. For me it’s a huge turn off and takes away from Buck’s calm rasp. It’s the quiet menace present in his delivery that makes him great and the effect obscures this. In addition, a gruffness has crept into Buck’s voice via blunts or design that has fucked up his flow from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Factor in bland writing (inevitable when you’ve been a famous rapper for several years and you specialized in the type of mundane specificity Buck did) and you have a shadow of the MC I’ve been writing about. Whether or not the split from G-Unit and recent reunion with Game provokes a return to form, it was fun while it lasted.
1. Sniper- DJ Whoo Kid: G-Unit Radio 6 (Motion Picture Shit) 2004
2. Sleep With An AK- DJ Whoo Kid: S.W.A.T. 2004
3. Two Bricks- DJ Whoo Kid: G-Unit Radio 9 (G-Unit City) 2004
4. We’re Back (ft. Banks)- DJ Whoo Kid: Welcome to the Hood 2004
5. Help Me Change (ft. 2pac)- DJ Whoo Kid: G-Unit Radio 6 (Motion Picture Shit) 2004
6. Wicked East- DJ Envy & Tapemasters Inc.: Purple Codeine Vol. 7 2006
7. Tim Westwood Freestyle (ft. Banks)- DJ Envy: The Bad Guys Vol. 1 2005
8. Higher Than A Muthafucka- DJ Whoo Kid: G-Unit Radio 1 (Smokin Day 2) 2003
9. It Ain’t Safe- DJ Kay Slay: The Mixtape Maniac 2005
10. G’d Up (ft. 50 & Banks)- G-Unit: Beg for Mercy 2003
11. Rap City Freestyle- DJ Scream: BET Rap City Down South Freestyles 2006
12. Bang Bang- Young Buck: $traight Outta Cashville 2004
13. Be This Way- DJ Whoo Kid: Welcome to the Hood 2004
14. Y’all Niggas Ain’t Fuckin With Us (ft. G-Unit)- DJ Whoo Kid: G-Unit Radio 5 (All Eyez On Us)2004
15. Footprints- G-Unit: Beg for Mercy 2004
16. Everybody In This Club Fuck With Me (ft. 50 Cent)- DJ Whoo Kid: Welcome to the Hood 2004
17. Lean Back (ft. Lloyd Banks)- Big Mike: Cruel Summer 2k4 2004
18. I Love The Hood (ft. Game)- DJ Whoo Kid: G-Unit Radio 7 (King of New York)2004
19. Thuggin Till I’m Gone (ft. Banks)- DJ Whoo Kid: G-Unit Radio 14 (Back to Business)2005
20. Six Bricks Left- DJ Whoo Kid: Welcome to the Hood 2004
Sunday, February 22, 2009
I read an article the other day concerning Puff Daddy’s latest project, a concept album called Last Train to Paris which will tell a love story with an accompanying film dropping later this year. No word yet on if Kanye West is planning on biting the general aesthetic to make a far superior album, but one thing we can know ahead of time is it will in no way shape or form be able to fuck with what is arguably Hip Hop’s greatest concept record, (unless we’re counting 6 Feet Deep) former Stetasonic member “Prince” Paul Huston’s A Prince Among Thieves. The album is a Greek tragedy, a spoof of the tired hood film genre, a satire of the industry circa 1999, a great record that could only have come from Rap’s smartest weirdo. Paul brought together an all star roster of Golden Age legends including Chubb Rock, De La Soul, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Sadat X and Kool Keith for his movie on wax. The album came two years after his forgotten mind fuck of an instrumental LP Psychoanalysis. Here, perhaps because of the already experimental format and need for the songs to convey information conforming to the narrative Paul’s beats are as straightforward and uncluttered as his production gets. And it works. The ensemble cast is consistently great, De La Soul’s turn as crackheads with a gift for extended metaphor, Everlast as a crooked cop and Chubb Rock playing mob boss over a Biz Markie beat box are standouts but just barely as literally everyone brings it. The story is about an aspiring rapper named Tariq (The Juggaknots' Breezly Brewin) who needs to hustle up 1,000$ in a week to cut a demo he wants to pass on to the Rza. Paul brings the eternal chip on his shoulder to the project, the album is filled referential nostalgia in the production and subtle barbs at the gangster posturing he’s railed against throughout his career. Only here, with his critique framed as passing shots in the course of a story I find them more palatable then outright crying as we’ve seen on other projects like his mad, dense opus Buhloone Mindstate. The record ends on a dark note with the well intentioned protagonist getting his deal and life taken by his supposed friend “True”. Paul described Prince Among Thieves as a depression record and you can tell his stance on music, and perhaps life in general wasn’t particularly rosy. Paul was questioning his relevance at the time and asking himself whether his career had really made an impact on the music he had loved and you can sense these issues of dissatisfaction, this disappoint and disdain in the general tone of the album. Chris Rock, who revisited his crackhead Pookie on the album and worked with Paul before on his brilliant Roll With the New owns the film rights to A Prince Among Thieves. I hope before remaking another French New Wave movie as a glorified Tyler Perry sex comedy he takes a shot at this Hip Hopera that can’t even be called ahead of its time, because ten years later there’s still no one who’s attempted anything like it.
*Here's a bonus jam, the first single off Paul's new project with Souls of Mischief. Paul will be producing the entire album using nothing but late 80s technology. (SP-12, ASR, MPC, DAT) If this song is an indication of what's in store we may have another classic on our hands.
Friday, February 20, 2009
Update: Listening to this again, I'd like to put forward the theory that at least Cliff's verse is guide vocals for Dre, who as we all know doesn't write his own shit. The verse kind of has that feel the "Still D.R.E." verse Jay-Z wrote for Dre had. Plus it would explain Dre's absence. While we're on the subject, anybody happen to have that Biggie tape with the Hardcore guide vocals for Kim?
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Spike Lee’s “Clockers” is an adaptation of author and “The Wire” collaborator Richard Price’s novel of the same name. I read “Clockers” around the age of 12 and it made a profound impression on me. For the first time I saw the street and drug trade represented as something more along the lines I recognized it as in my community. It’s a novel filled with interesting, intelligent characters dealing with difficult situations that suggest no easy answers. A long overdue, fair minded representation. The jacket of my worn old paper back is fashioned after bestselling Michael Crichton and Steven King works of page turning fantasy. The publisher seemingly saw “Clockers” as a genre piece, a “Whodunnit” beach read. They didn’t understand what they had. “Clockers” is a wonderfully accomplished work of modern fiction. It’s not without its genre conceits; misdirection, red herrings, miracles of circumstance and a few bad, out of character decisions by the two protagonists to propel the narrative but ultimately this novel lives between the lines. Behind the counter in chaotic fast food restaurants, in abandoned old hospitals overlooking the Statue of Liberty where junkies congregate while AIDS devours them, in shoddy project apartments where mythical teenage enforcers sleep on Star Wars mattresses, in regrets and misunderstandings between two cultures at odds but trying hard. Price took the skeleton of a crime novel and brought it to life. Spike Lee’s film manages to suck all the conflicted humanity out of Price’s story, leaving the lifeless, cliché-ridden, dangerously simplified dead end we’ve seen a million times before in its wake. Price isn’t blameless for the massacring of his work, he co-wrote the abortion of a treatment with Spike, but there is no doubt that Lee’s special brand of ambiguity eschewing, agenda pushing, rhetoric mongering is unleashed here in all its awful glory.
Ostensibly, “Clockers” is about a drug murder. Drug dealer Ronnie “Strike” Dunham is asked by his boss Rodney Little to murder a hustler higher up on the food chain for stealing from Rodney. The hustler, Darryl Adams is killed and shortly afterwards Ronnie’s brother Victor confesses to the murder complete with the gun he supposedly used to kill Adams. Rocco Klein, the homicide detective assigned to the case is convinced that Victor, a hard working family man is innocent and standing in for his dope dealing brother Ronald. At the conclusion we discover the killer was in fact Victor, fueled by drink and a dreary life of monotonous hopelessness. These are the plot essentials but what unfolds is an incredible novel full of sad and beautiful scenes, funny and touching moments. Price knows and loves his characters without being sentimental. They are studied and painstakingly realized. Most importantly, Price gives them room. They make mistakes, question choices, fill with doubt and self loathing. We’re along for the ride as they suffer tiny defeats and achieve small victories. It’s how he earns our investment in his characters, we see ourselves in the cops and criminals. It’s a shade of gray Spike Lee seems incapable of registering.
Considering the things Lee opts to include from the novel and exclude from his film are instructive in determining his intent. First and foremost is the setting itself. The hamlet of Dempsey New Jersey, vital for its small hood environment in proximity to the biggest city in the world is traded in for the Nelson Mandela houses in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn for absolutely no reason. Then there’s the issue of voice, particularly tragic because coming into “Clockers” Price was already an accomplished screen writer as well as an author renowned for his ear. There are missteps here and there throughout the novel but in general the conversation is wonderfully naturalistic. The film on the other hand opens with a conversation no one would ever have between the kids on the benches arguing the merits of Chuck D’s politicized rap (=good) versus violent gangsta rap (=bad). To quote a young Sticky Fingaz: “How this nigga gonna say Chuck D the hardest rapper? The nigga ain’t never shot nobody!” And it goes downhill from there.
The character who finds himself most often in error of judgment throughout Price’s novel is the homicide detective, Rocco Klein. His crusade to replace Victor with Strike is the catalyst for much of the novel’s action between the murder and the conclusion. We’ve seen the misguided detective figure before in Robert Altman’s “Long Kiss Goodbye”. Altman tweaked a Raymond Chandler novel to present Phillip Marlowe as an anachronism. In his desire to heed to a moral code, to believe in things and trust people he is adrift in a mad, amoral world. His faulty assumptions are a device meant to relate his purity, his hopeful naivety. We follow Rocco scheming and strategizing for how to go about nailing Strike because he clings to his belief that Victor, the decent working man, could never be capable of such a vicious and senseless act. That act could only be attributed to Victor’s Kane, a low, drug dealing shit bag. The sum of Rocco’s experience, his “20 years on the job” his “guts” tell him Strike has to be the culprit, because if Victor could be driven to murder than Klein’s logic and reason no longer apply to his reality. He believes Victor is innocent and misguided, unaware that his ploy to save his guilty brother will fail. In the film this pursuit of the truth is reduced to an offense of sensibilities. Keitel’s Klein is enraged that these common “yos” would have the gall to insult his intelligence by trying to pull one over on him. Klein is suddenly racially insensitive for no reason while in the novel he chastises other cops for insensitivity and berates himself for letting an epitaph slide in a heated interrogation. Harvey Keitel is generally unbearable here. Condescending, filled with hate, petty and vindictive (presumably by direction in his defense). I’ve never disliked a character I was supposed to like (or again to be fair, grudgingly respect) so intensely. Price’s Klein is a flawed character but ultimately genuine.
But it’s Strike that receives the worst abuse at Lee’s hands. In the novel he’s clearly the star, a truly unique character I would go so far as to say we’ve never seen before in literature. He’s a conflicted, joyless old soul. A considerate but still somewhat weak and often misguided drug dealer with a crippling stutter and a perforated ulcer who sees his life as a series of walls closing in on him. In the film, Strike is a stripped of his stutter and a fascination with trains is clumsily tacked on as an afterthought, intended as a stand in for his humanity. He’s at once without the warmth and the hard edge that provokes the reader to invest in Price’s protagonist. Mekhi Phifer, miserable in his professional debut, is a hapless, ignorant villain stumbling lifelessly through the film and motivated by nothing but personal interest. In the book, Price doesn’t shy from drawing parallels between the brothers, upstanding Victor and troubled Strike in mannerism, mentality, even in appearance. Both Victor and Strike approach their respective hustles with a quiet dignity, discipline and sense of purpose. Both are deeply troubled and doing their best to rise above the encroaching barbarism of others. To me, the entire point of the novel is the thin lines that separate the working man from the criminal in desperate positions. This applies to Victor and Strike as well as Rocco. Predictably, these overlaps are scrubbed from the film. Isaiah Washington’s Victor is dull and without pathos, particularly awful is one of the story’s all important scenes in which Strike and Victor discuss the impending murder. In the novel it’s full of nuance and layers of subtlety, while in the film it’s completely mishandled by the ham fisted actors and apparently misread by Lee. But that’s splitting hairs. You could literally go through this movie scene by scene and tear it apart should you be inclined.
The film is littered with what had been compelling peripheral characters rendered singular personalities totally and completely inert from start to finish. Errol Barnes is a faded, ghostly specter spookily hovering over and around the action in the novel. In the film, Spike Lee tries to prop him up sympathetically as everyone who’s ever shot horse or caught the monster. In what has to be the worst scene in the movie, a truly difficult distinction to win, Strike randomly comes across Barnes who runs his pockets and without provocation delivers his tragic life story over an acoustic rendition of “Crazy” by Seal. (!) Tyrone Jeter, Strike’s young protégé, is detached and impossible to read throughout the novel, in the film not so much. He’s an every youth: loud, mindless and lost in an absurd virtual reality game called “Gangsta”. This is the perfect example of how destructive Spike’s meddling is to the story. Towards the conclusion as Barnes hunts Strike for Rodney, Tyrone kills Barnes for reasons Strike is both directly tied to and powerless to control. Barnes’ murder is one of the more enigmatic moments of the book. Here it’s insultingly linked to a child unable to differentiate between video games and reality alongside contrived jibberish spouted by Spike Lee (a.k.a. Harvey Keitel staring DIRECTLY INTO THE CAMERA).
“Clockers” plays like a series of non-sequiturs, bereft of the slightest attempt to transition from scene to scene. The entire enterprise feels botched and rushed. Lee uses Price’s plot as a Mapquest print-out, turning, stopping and going at all the appropriate landmarks without being able or willing to consider the story’s value lies in its journey. What’s sad is Lee’s technical skill is evident. He employs some interesting camera work, visually engaging sets and film shuttling between grainy and vibrant. In “Inside Man” (as well as his riveting but still horrifically manipulated documentaries) he showed how competent he can be with someone else’s script. He sabotages himself in his own material with his need to say everything explicitly, to offer a definitive final statement on whatever topic he’s set his sights on. In addition, this particular content is only obscured by his loud artistic vision, but Lee has never exhibited the restraint or awareness to recognize this quality in any of his subjects and scale back appropriately. “The Wire” for instance, takes pains to remove all concept of a hand shaping narrative, it strives for documentary style and you can argue Price’s novel attempts the same level of unobstructed honesty (Though he is guilty of the occasional rhapsodic moment). Here the score is schmaltzy and often laugh inducing for its painful obviousness. Colors are bright and eye catching (See: the persistent neon green) but only contribute to the surreal crack sermon Spike is writing in all caps.
People in search of a life - Marc Dorsey
The novel suffers from a final act full of unnecessary fireworks and theme hammering. Predictably, where the novel falters, the film bombs. By the time we reach the busy climax Spike only has room for events, which accumulate with little to no context and barely matter because he hasn’t spent the time explaining his characters. We lose the continuity between the actions of Tyrone and Victor, the pretext for Rodney’s issues with Strike coming to a head, the personal frustrations motivating Klein down a reckless, destructive path. While Strike provides closure, opening up to Klein at the novel’s conclusion the film ends on a soap opera-ish miraculous entrance by the boys’ mother who willingly spills the beans. There is no moment of rapport between Strike and Klein. This illustrates the film’s conscious removal of the congenial relationship between cops and crooks which is so vital to the novel. The viewer gets the impression that drawing the distinction between upstanding citizens and dope dealing parasites is important to Lee. Strike is universally received with animosity from every member of the community (except for Tyrone, the impressionable youth on whom he preys), his mother included, an indictment absent from the novel that goes against the actual story.
Spike Lee’s “Clockers” is a procedural without the patience for details. A Baldwinian race play that insults its source material as well as its subject. It contains a quality present in every movie Lee ever made, including his most famous: “Do The Right Thing”. In that film, and my other favorite “Bamboozled”, pretenses are dropped completely. The characters are basically stripped of their human qualities and blatantly stand-in as symbols, mouth pieces for their author. When trying to realistically tackle a subject as large and vital as this one, it should come as no surprise that he fails spectacularly. A reader may conclude this screed is a longwinded way to claim “The book is better than the movie”, but it goes beyond that. I concede that obvious pragmatic decisions have to be made in adapting book to film, but this film could have been great and Lee’s sins here are consistent with a pattern that he established early on in his career and continues to haunt his work. “Sucker Free City”, a made for Showtime film from 2004 returned to the street and gang violence, somehow unique for including Chinese immigrants in the conversation. San Francisco is in dire need of a race and class minded indictment but this paint by the numbers retread wasn’t it, and it was wrong for all the same reasons. Spike has always been quick to call racism whenever he feels his community is being insulted or misrepresented on film. Ironically, his insult is the greatest, refusing to respect his audience’s ability to take anything from his films that isn’t explicitly stated. With his rare position of power and influence within the industry he contents himself making whiny, self righteous pieces of shit people stopped caring about a long time ago. Ultimately, this weakness sabotages his art and his message.