Monday, May 31, 2010

Now You Can Rest

Hate to sound like a crotchety old bastard but they really just don't make this kind of warm, situational, universal, lived in Hip Hop any more. Pac at his finest, not just in convincing his girl to let him have a day out with friends in verse but his finale, laying out an agenda of ribs, Thug Passion, blunts, Jay Leno and innuendo that had a young Abe thinking it must be fun to be grown up. Attention: Jay Electronica is in Red Hook Park for free tomorrow, weather permitting. It's good to live in New York. Hope everyone took advantage of their grills and livers today. The Summer is here friends.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Hip Hop Tweets: May 28

A semi regular roundup of the best Tweets in and around the Hip Hop Community.

Noz: @IvanRott cynicism!? i believe in lil b more than i have any rapper since i was 15 years old. point me to anything that suggests otherwise.

Jim Jones: yes there is a dipset reunion watch ur mout lil lady lol I'm watching we gonna give the people want they want

Grand Daddy I.U.
: got da 90 dollar bottle of remi and a couple of bottles of wine for tonight. u call my phone after a certain time..ned da wino might answer

Mistah F.A.B.: I hate parents that go get theyself the world but can't even buy they kids a city.. yall need yo ass whooped

JustBlaze: Wes craven should get on some high school sh** and punch michael bay in the face just for livin

9th Wonder: Lord jesus....somebody PLEASE get me in touch with KOOL G RAP

Lil B: hoes on my dick cuz i look like kettle corn

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Virginia's For Lovers But Trust There's Hate Here

This one slipped under the radar for me but I finally managed to catch it last night. ESPN's 30 for 30 might be the best idea a cable channel has had since HBO decided to extend its in house programming. Recent excellent efforts have covered The Death of Len Bias, The Knicks Rivalry with Reggie Miller in the late 90s and Ice Cube's take on N.W.A. and their effect on the aura around the L.A. Raiders. It's treating the world of professional sport with a seriousness and dignity that goes lacking from coverage too often but this might just be their crowning moment.

Steve James, the director of "Hoop Dreams" made this film about a young Allen Iverson, who grew up a town over from him in Newport News, Virginia. As Iverson was being showered with accolades and championships, he was involved in a bowling alley fight that threatened to end his career before it even began. I was vaguely familiar with the incident before seeing the film but James explores it with a balanced care and detail that goes above and beyond the call of duty. He uses the trial as a way into race relations in a small and historically fraught community, a meditation on institutional racism and the shaping of one of the most alternately troubled and inspiring athletes of our generation. This might surpass "Hoop Dreams", one of if not the most important Sports Documentary I've ever seen. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Who Are We Today?

"full of uninteresting revelations and self-serious proclamations"

I just read this. An intelligent critic who acknowledges some very real problems with this album but I'm reading into something that I feel has been plaguing popular rap criticism for a while and I'd like to speak to it.

I don't think the concept of intentionality factors into Hip Hop (I don't have an interest or vocabulary to speak to the state of criticism outside my chosen genre) critique nearly enough. Fennessey hits the on the obvious, ironically chiding Nas and Damian for being obvious, but is missing the forest. It's not unlike the critical beating Nas took over Untitled. He and Marley are being chided for, what? Being on message tackling a subject so infinitely complex that reductionism and generalization are practical necessities? And a better question, are they trying to make a dense head scratcher or a sunny head knocker? If so, did they not effectively accomplish their goal?

The single "As We Enter" is being received as the obligatory respite in the critical pans I've come across, the atmosphere of harmless fun is regularly singled out as the reason why. This seems to be what critics are asking for from their Hip Hop in 2010: Chaotic irreverence. Weird regional dance trends spiked with off kilter production and strong hooks. I'm not saying this is the bain of Hip Hop by any means but what I am saying is there can be room for both. Nas and Marley didn't want to make an album of party jams, it would seem based on "As We Enter"s effortlessness that would've been easy to do. They had a different idea of what they wanted from this album and that should factor into its reception. It's almost as if rappers have been denied a lofty artistic vision, an idea slightly more grandiose then riding a beat and hitting punches.

Distant Relatives wasn't made for Comp Lit majors who are no strangers to Pan Africanism and Marcus Garvey. It's a summer jam, meant to enjoy with an L on your stoop or porch as you get motivated to the warm vibes, positivity and anti-ironicism of a different era, be it KRS' or The Gong himself, no stranger to "obvious" timeless messages. I've read a lot of exposition regarding the early 90s era of Reggae tinged Rap, but this album has little to do with those Gangsta/Dancehall collabos, this is Conscious Rap blended with Classical Reggae, more "So Much Things to Say" than "Dolly My Baby".

So the question remains, how do you review an album like Distant Relatives if robbed of your "objective" critical arsenal? I'll try to tackle the song I've been stuck on for the last few days, the grand finale "Africa Must Wake Up":

As a producer Marley likes his schmaltz rendered with onion and spiked with truffle oil and that's present here as it is throughout the album, as it is throughout his Jamrock. Still it works, the simple pounding keys and weeping strings underlying the song's epic theme and the question that punctuates his sweetly-sad sung hook. Nas is articulate if not completely original in his assertions but the interplay between these two are what matters as they split duties down the middle on this song and suggest a genre all it's own. Their collaboration finds it's great cinematic wheelhouse here in the album's final, doggedly hopeful minutes. K'Naan is more of a logical addition than aesthetic, he's grating but serves to underscore the song and album's universal message.

"Africa Must Wake Up" is an anthem. Like the anthems that came before it and the many that will follow it tugs at ancient heart strings, it mashes predictable, time tested buttons and makes no apologies for doing so. When the duo play the Williamsburg Waterfront July 31st, somehow I imagine their audience will manage to get over their jaded frustration with being treated with such condescension.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

ROD: Ghostface Killah- Original Stylin

Rapper(s) of the Decade is a mixtape series curated by myself that will span 2010. In theory, each month I'll be dedicating a mixtape to the 12 Rappers and Groups I felt proved most instrumental in shaping the last decade in Hip Hop in no particular order. May's installment belongs to The Ghost.

Download: Original Stylin

The History of Hip Hop is littered with iconic, game changing couplets. Sadly, I fear one in danger of slipping through the cracks is “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious/Docialiexpilisticfragicalisuper/ Cancun, catch me in the room eating Grouper.” That gem comes courtesy of Stapleton’s own Dennis Coles AKA The Ghostface Killah, AKA Ironman, AKA Tony Stark, AKA Pretty Toney AKA Ghostdini the Great. It comes out of nowhere at the conclusion of his coked up verse on “Buck 50”, a posse cut off his 2000 classic Supreme Clientele and it can be interpreted as many things: A middle finger, a mission statement, a Declaration of Independence, a fucking dope line. But first, let’s see how he got there.

The Wu-Tang Clan came out of nowhere. If you want to take all the fun out of it you can combine Kool G Rap’s street oriented tough talk with De La Soul’s walls of verbiage and you won’t be far off, but it doesn’t account for Rza’s soul massacres, the mystic universe of chess and Kung Fu that they seemed to inhabit from the beginning rather than create as they went along, the perfect jigsaw puzzle formation of nine completely unique, off the wall styles that formed like Voltron to make perfect bizarre sense. In a crew so wildly diverse it was easy to miss Ghostface, a masked, enigmatic MC who took his moniker from the bad guy in Mystery of Chessboxing. His contributions to 36 Chambers are sparse, and amidst Meth and ODB’s energy, the Gza’s deadly calm and the Rza’s speech impediment one can’t be blamed for taking it for granted.

But Ghost was unmistakably Wu and proud of his crew, their innovation and irreproducible original style. He looked around New York’s mid 90s landscape and didn’t find the same spirit of trailblazing everywhere. The angry young man on “Shark Niggas (Biters)” was pissed off at the Notorious B.I.G. for putting a baby on his album cover as Nas did on Illmatic. There were others who couldn’t help but be influenced by The 36 Chambers' raw cool and casually dropped Wu slang, what Stark perceived as treading on their aesthetic. Prince Raheem becomes the Rza, the Genius becomes Gza, so how the fuck did a rapper named Jay-Z, a young Brooklyn cat with Harlem swag whose Crack Rap was so brand heavy it read like a J. Peterman catalogue, get to Jigga? Of course these things can’t be helped. There is no stopping trend, the industry has always been and will always be filled with young, anxious artists and their A&Rs looking for a sound, a style, a song that could launch, make or redeem their careers. Perhaps faced with this dilemma, the man with no face chose to willfully fashion a style so insane, so unique that no one could possibly attempt to replicate it. Something that could only be the product of a single, deranged mind.

To this day Ironman stands as my favorite Wu-Tang solo. It’s at once more tight and cohesive than Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and more vibrant than the morose Liquid Swords. Throughout that album its author practices the same dense, impressionistic, slang heavy spit that the Wu excels at from Gza on down. Yet it was his one concession, a Jackson 5 flip with Mary J. Blige on the hook that introduced him to mainstream, and for good reason. “All That I Got Is You” stands as one of the most beautiful hard luck narratives ever written. Listening to it now gives you the same sensation one may be struck by looking at a straightforward yet stunning Jackson Pollock landscape, a reminder of the old adage that to break the rules you must know them intimately.

From 1996 on things only got worse. Biggie died and what followed in New York made one nostalgic for the days when the biggest issue to quibble over was album cover aesthetic. His hypeman Puff took over the city and with his reign came a rote insistence on hedonistic bottle popping. Rap traded in Shaolin’s hoodies and Clarks for gators and shiny suits. Ghost did an attempted robbery bid in 1999 and when he got out he released Supreme Clientele. And with that effort took us into the modern era.

The album was produced and overseen by Rza and a slow but fascinating symbiotic relationship revealed itself. Ironman was soul heavy for the Wu, and not in that same grimy subversion that was so effective and prevalent throughout 36 Chambers and the subsequent solo efforts. It’s as if, as Ghost went further left with his style, the Rza and his producers became more faithful to their source material (“One”, “Malcolm”, “Apollo Kids”, “Mighty Healthy”) and this works in grounding Ghost’s madcap slanguage in something round and catchy the listener can enjoy, opens up the material for multiple listens in which the small points, sneaky descriptors and hidden pleasures in Ghost’s prose can be unearthed. And Supreme Clientele is chock full of said moments. Ghost's verses are far wilder, filled with free association and wild emotive outbursts that follow their own perverse, ingenious logic all delivered in his dead pan sneer no matter how absurd.

But Supreme Clientele was only the first salvo in what would be a decade long, extraordinarily prolific campaign against conventionality. Ghost began to experiment with topicality. On (and on the cutting room floor) the even more soulful Bulletproof Wallets finds an increasingly playful and melodic Ghost making songs about the sun and a fairytale forest. Seemingly unsatisfied with simply toying with language, Tony goes conceptual, but taking the very notion of the concept song and getting as weird as humanly possible with his themes and stories. On The Pretty Toney Album (his first release through Def Jam) he’s experimenting heavily with skit, something Stark never took for granted but here turns into mini thematic songs that are some of the albums' best moments. On its very best, “Holla” he eschews sampling altogether and simply raps over the Delfonics’ “La La (Means I Love You)”.

The latter half of the decade saw Ghost return to the street, coming back to Earth from his universe of thai-sticks and Vietnam soul. The efforts include Fishscale, More Fish, 718, (his area code in Staten Island) a strong friends-and-family group project with the Theodore Unit, and Put It On The Line, a collaboration with Theodore Unit member and fellow Shaolin native Trife Da God.

On these projects Ghost comes up against the limits of off kilter flow, random reference and irreverence. Over time, formlessness becomes a kind of formula, randomness finds its own order. There's also burnout to consider when taking a look at the sheer breadth of his output. It’s an issue one can find plaguing the later work of both Cam’ron and Lil Wayne, the two other legs of the Post Modern Wordplay trinity that captivated Hip Hop throughout the decade. On songs like “Underwater” the air of fresh excitement, the feeling of immediacy, like you’re in the studio with Ghost as he pulls detail from a cloud of haze spontaneously, is gone. There’s a premeditation, a kind of ceiling hit and while his product, including The Big Doe Rehab is consistently solid, and without context, great on its own merits, something vitally important is missing.

Every time a young nutty/fun MC provokes a critical cock massage over a weird car color punchline or mentions tilapia, Ghost should get a check. One could argue in the interest of originality no rapper has successfully traveled further off the beaten path than The Ghostface Killah. The metamorphosis was complete on 8 Diagrams. The masked man playing a supporting role is gone, and in his all too brief, scene stealing appearances Stark sucks all the air out of the room, the album now plays as a waiting game for his next verse.

Dennis Coles appropriately closed out his ridiculous decade with Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, switching it up yet again and making his idea of a grownup R&B album. It’s full of explicit Too Much Information regarding what he enjoys in bed, a ton of laugh out loud, gross out moments. It’s really bizarre, it’s really good, and it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before or will ever hear again.

1. Shark Niggas (Biters) Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)
2. Alex (Stolen Script) More Fish (2006)
3. My Guitar Pretty Toney (The Lost Tracks) (2004)
4. Shakey Dog Fishscale (2006)
5. Keisha's House (Skit) The Pretty Toney Album (2004)
6. Buck 50 (ft. Cappadonna, Method Man, Masta Killah & Redman) Supreme Clientele (2000)
7. The Forest Bulletproof Wallets (2001)
8. Stapleton Sex Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City (2009)
9. Pretty Toney Pretty Toney (The Lost Tracks) (2004)
10. Penitentiary Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 (2009)
11. Guerilla Hood 718 (2004)
12. Strawberries & Cream (ft. Inspectah Deck, Allah Real & Rza) The Problem (2005)
13. Josephine (ft. Trife Da God & The Willie Cottrell Band) More Fish (2006)
14. Evil Deeds (ft. Rza & Havoc) Wu-Tang: Chamber Music (2009)
15. Whip You With a Strap Fishscale (2006)
16. Take It Back 8 Diagrams (2007)
17. Guest House (ft. Fabolous) Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry In Emerald City (2009)
18. Save Me Dear (Beatles Remix) Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers (2010)
19. Last Night (Skit) The Pretty Tony Album (2004)
20. Hollow Bones The W (2000)
21. Yolanda's House (ft. Raekwon & Method Man) The Big Doe Rehab (2007)
22. Malcolm Supreme Clientele (2000)
23. Holla The Pretty Toney Album (2004)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

ROD: Kanye West- The Power & The Glory

Rapper(s) of the Decade is a mixtape series curated by myself that will span 2010. In theory, each month I'll be dedicating a mixtape to the 12 Rappers and Groups I felt proved most instrumental in shaping the last decade in Hip Hop in no particular order. April's slightly delayed installment belongs to Kanye West.

Download: The Power & The Glory

You begin with a chip. All the great ones have it. It sits there on your shoulder and whispers in your ear at night. It taunts you, it insults you and most importantly it pushes you. You convince yourself, what you believe is that if I can just get out this album, if I can just gain my mentor’s approval, if I can just lease that ride or bag that chick.... There has to be an amount of money, or respect, or love that will make me happy, that will finally free me from this nagging unnameable restlessness.

These days it’s easy to forget just how far Kanye West has come as a popular artist in the six years since The College Dropout’s release. How outside the critical elite, he was known and reviled more for his ostentatious, obnoxious egoism and penitent for needless scene stealing than his talent. How it took forever to get the Purists on board with what was first quite obvious, straightforward (what Primo, Rza and Dilla fans considered hackneyed) soul-jacks and sophomoric wordplay. They would say, as if the entire world had gone crazy, “But this kid can’t spit!” And they were right, he raps awkwardly and lands nothing but goofy punchlines, all in all a terrible voice and he's even hinted at not writing his own shit. But it got crazier, on Graduation he ushered an introduction of European Electronic, unseen since Bambaataa, to the modern Hip Hop vernacular. And most improbably, at the peak of his fame released a heart-on-his sleeve, Robo-Emo album……That was chock full of hits and managed to once again be received with adoring praise and platinum sales. We take these things for granted now, our one name superstar and what in retrospect appears to be an obvious path to super-stardom, in reality his weird and rocky ride has been anything but.

It’s a good thing Yeezy got wildly famous, because without that fame as a catalyst there might have been nowhere for him to go. There’s great progression between all four Kanye albums, but the first two, from a thematic standpoint are more or less a collection of (albeit brilliant and addictive) biographical concept songs. (“Spaceship”, “Roses”, “Family Business”, “Never Let Me Down”, “Drive Slow”, “Heard Em Say”, I could go on) I suspect Late Registration is the popular pick for least favorite Kanye album for this reason. Because in many ways it’s a polished College Dropout. A some what highfalutin retread, it’s stagnant.

The narrative that fuels these first efforts, that would become infinitely more interesting when the fame and money did come as opposed to claimed and obsessed over by an outspoken young man with a transparent tendency to overcompensate, was the conflict of id and idealism, the desire to be righteous battling with plain old self serving desire, religious guilt and the allure of glitz. He was the stylistic heir of the Golden Era everyman rappers he grew up worshiping, Q-Tip, Posdnous, Dres and Sadat, with a modern bling infusion. (And without any of those rappers’ verbal dexterity, perhaps to his great popular advantage) From the beginning he differentiated himself from these legends, showed great strength as a writer (be it literal or conceptual) in his willingness to tackle his own contradictions and hypocrisies head on. At his best on songs like "I Wonder" Kanye plays like he's having an argument with himself, taking his own side while letting on he's pretty sure he's wrong but still sticking to his stubborn guns. Kanye has always been willing to play unreliable narrator, not positioning himself as a classic hero but a very troubled and confused young man, unhappy working his shitty part time retail job and sitting on top of the world for many of the same reasons: he can't escape himself.

But instead of hashing and rehashing themes of conflicted spirituality and his righteous sounding Civil Rights roots, Kanye West became the first RAP superstar for our grotesquely saturated, 24 hour news cycle, TMZ ridden times. His later work has taken on what is perhaps an even more universal message than the by-any-means dark shadow of the American Dream cast by Raekwon and Biggie. It’s gotten past Crack Rap’s desperation of poverty, its romantic immediacy of need and looks inward, asks to what end is it that we “make it” and what do we do, what do we want, once we’ve attained everything?

He’s gotten closer to reality rap then any rapper before him has tread. That is, the stuff of his everyday life, his fears, concerns and disappointments. He’s offered us a true window inside the life of a rich and famous rapper, rather than a rich and famous rapper trying to approximate what it used to be like selling crack. The early campaign promises of greatness have been fulfilled, but with them Kanye has introduced the Fitzgeraldian angst that comes coupled with success and in this he’s practically given birth to a burgeoning genre: Fame Rap.

In retrospect, Graduation and 808s and Heartbreak fit together, make a weird sort of sense: the party and the hangover. Even the brief sad notes on Graduation (“Flashing Lights”, “Drunk and Hot Girls”) have a touch of “it’s not all that bad” and are practically early Beatles songs in comparison to the weeping clown we find on 808s. We can look at his great, heart wrenched verse on Young Jeezy’s “Put On”, his first true event cameo, as a tipping point. Where Kanye dismissed any sort of humor or ambition beyond moving backward, the impossible desire to regain the things he finally has realized he lost. You could argue it was Kanye, not T-Pain that found autotune’s true worth at that very moment. The disaffected, mechanized alienation and sadness he manages to coax out of the tool adds another layer of complexity to that emotional whopper of a verse. He’s hardly cracked a smile since.

The story behind 808s comes off like an Onion spoof. A grief stricken Kanye holes himself up in his studio in Hawaii for three weeks and makes an album using nothing but auto tune and an outdated drum machine which worms its way into the album’s title. But it was his greatest triumph, the greatest showcase for his boundless talent and probably the greatest mid career risk a popular Rapper has ever taken. The next generation of emo driven, R&B friendly rappers heading the charge into this decade would not hesitate to site Kanye and this album as a mentor and great influence.

Of course, just to be clear, the reason he’s kept us intrigued has little to do with narrative thrust or dramatic tension, but an undeniable ear for beats and gift for melody. Kanye West doubtlessly has had the lion’s share of popular moments spread over the last ten years. He’s introduced a new ceiling, a new level of “event” and ceremony to the live Hip Hop show. He has restated and redefined, perhaps more forcefully than any artist before him, Chicago’s rightful and distinct place in American Hip Hop, and he gave a second life to his hero Common in the process. In the realms of both commercial and critical acclaim no artist, arguably in any genre, even approaches his prolificacy.

Without ever realizing it, I suspect Kanye’s happiest moments were those formative years at the old Rocafella, surrounded by legends he was blessing with instant classics, grateful yet tirelessly insisting he could be just as big a star as those benefiting from his tutelage in Chicago making five beats a day for three summers. The ostentatious braggadocio of this in-house, big mouth producer falls on understandably deaf ears. He had his fiancĂ©, he had his Mom, he had his whole career in front of him. He isn’t aware he’s happy. He’s up every night with that chip in his ear demanding “MORE”, but when he looks back he’ll see it for the time of blissful ignorance, of innocence, that it was.

I like to imagine him in Cincinnati or Denver, some middle of the country city, backstage smoking a blunt with Memph Bleek and Dame and a couple weed carriers. He’s ranting that he’s a genius, a great producer, a great rapper, one day he’ll be the man, bigger than even Jay. One day everyone in the world will know his name and love his music. They tell him to sit down, to shut up, to pass the L, but he can hardly be bothered. He can’t hear them at all. He is consumed, eyes filled with flickering visions of an orgastic future only he can see.

1. Def Poetry Jam Freshman Adjustment Vol. 2 (2006)
2. Ego (Remix) I Am...Sasha Fierce (Deluxe Edition) (2009)
3. Gettin' Out the Game Freestyle The Lost Tapes (2007)
4. I Can't Say No Thug Mentality (2008)
5. Drive Slow (ft. Paul Wall & GLC) Late Registration (2005)
6. In The Mood (ft. Roy Ayers) Ear Drum (2007)
7. The Food (Live on Chappelle Show) The Food (Single) (2004)
8. I Wonder Graduation (2007)
9. Mayback Music 2 (ft. T-Pain & Lil Wayne) Deeper Than Rap (2009)
10. Never Let Me Down (ft. Jay-Z) The College Dropout (2004)
11. Big Brother Graduation (2007)
12. Put On The Recession (2008)
13. Addiction Late Registration (2005)
14. Arguments (ft. Martin Lawrence) The Lost Tapes (2007)
15. Apologize Freshman Adjustment (2005)
16. Amazing (ft. Young Jeezy) 808s & Heartbreaks (2008)
17. Us Placers (ft. Lupe Fiasco & Pharrell Williams) Can't Tell Me Nothing (2007)
18. Heard 'Em Say Late Orchestration (2006)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

It's Official

Please leave Vado home. I expect nothing less then "Dipset Anthem" on the rooftop of the Apple building.