Monday, September 14, 2009

Giving fruity space rap a bad name



I mentioned it in my post about B.o.B's enjoyable by mixtape standards B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray, but I like to think I'm more favorably disposed toward rappers' non-rap freakout albums than some of my hip-hop listening peers. Not that it makes me more enlightened or any bullshit like that, it's just that whenever a Love Below drops heads tend to break out some ridiculously stringent critical standard that's never applied to your average rap album. But yeah, sometimes such projects are garbage that merely provide an excuse for rock critics to pontificate over what rap could be if only it wasn't so rap-like, and ignore street rappers doing more creative work. And it'd definitely be a good look for critics to universally shit on Kid Cudi's Man on the Moon: The End of Day, to prevent it from becoming a caricature of overpraised space-age notreallyrap.

True, Man on the Moon doesn't really sound like anything in popular rap as of late. Well that's not quite right, it's basically 808s & Heartbreak with all the life sucked out of it. There's three basic problems here: Cudi can't sing, uses a lame Lil Wayne-on-syrup cadence when he deigns to rap, and the production's frozen in place. There's definitely beats that sound like they have the potential to form something interesting, but the producers are so stuck on this static, psychadelic duuude vibe that everything fades to the background. Of course, it's not as if Kanye, Andre 3000, or even Pharrell Mayfield Jr. (who gets the most points from me simply for executing his N.E.R.D. singing with just the right amount of ridiculousness) are these immensely talented singers, but their albums have obvious other strengths in production, hooks and personality that you can overlook their shortcomings as vocalists and melodists. Not so with Cudi, who not only can't sing but decides to do so aimlessly for the majority of the album. It's only experimental if you define the term in the most masturbatory way possible. There's also the uncomfortable mix of introverted emo and insecure brag lyrics that I might overlook if the album was pulled off better, but stick out even more when you take into account the album's other weaknesses.

As someone who enjoys his share of modern synthpop when it's done creatively, be it the aforementioned artists' too cool for rap side projects, Timbaland's mid-decade 'N Sync with critical cred reinvention (don't get me wrong though, fuck that Chris Cornell in da club album he had one of his minions do for him this year -- another great example of pseudo-experimental bullshit) and even getting into territory like Rihanna's last album to a lesser extent, I'm definitely not someone who'd criticize something like this on principle. I don't consider myself some kind of popist wannabe who'll apologize for shitty, pandering singles just because they're hits, but at this point I have a good idea of the sort of pop I like. And atmospheric noodling pretensions to be Cudi's Dark Side of the Moon aside, Man on the Moon ain't worth anything more than the latest garbage-ass Lady Gaga Top 40 jam.

Oh, and Common's "Make Her Say" guest verse? Further proof dude's boho intellectual persona is clearly simply a ploy to get chicks. Not that I'm mad at the guy or anything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dude, you must not listen to much rap



Like a lot of things in hip hop, it seems like today's incarnation of Jay-Z has become one of those pointlessly polarized issues, as if there's no possibility for middle ground. Either you think he's totally lost it and should've stayed retired, or you're a Roc stan unwilling to admit the obvious deterioration in his technical ability in recent years. Granted, sometimes the middle ground just amounts to equivocating and not having the guts to say what you think. In Jay's case, though, I think it's perfectly reasonable to recognize that he's not the rapper he once was while still finding something to like about his post-Black Album output.

When it comes to Jay's albums, there's a tendency to write off his efforts that don't have any particular conceptual focus or sonic unity. While it's fair in some cases (i.e. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 is a schizophrenic street/crossover mess,) it's a disservice to the albums where he's not rhyming about any one thing in particular but he's sounding dope doing it. Stylistically he raps better on The Blueprint 2 than The Black Album for instance, where the breathy tone started creeping into his flow more noticeably. And his 1998-2000 period may be slightly inconsistent, but it's got some pretty incredible highs. 'Course, I might just be painting a backpacker strawman here, cuz I'm sure most hip-hop fans would admit there's more to Jay than Reasonable Doubt/The Blueprint/The Black Album, and you don't have to tear down one era of his work to appreciate another. Point being though that dude really is one of, if not the most consistent artists in hip hop, and that's not just an empty talking point.

If Kingdom Come was failed grown-man rap and American Gangster was a more abstracted, idealized Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint 3 finds Jay not tied to any particular concept. Not to say it's totally uncompromised -- there's the shitty attention-grabbing street single ("D.O.A.,") the shitty Rihanna-assisted big radio single ("Run This Town,") and the dope Super NES Timbaland club song ("Off That") -- but Jay's not forcing any "serious" subjects to show you how grown-up he is, or mining strictly soul-lite beats to get his "you know, I don't even like Jay-Z but this is really good!" props. In that way BP3's an album that's right up my alley, because as much as I dig the first Blueprint, sometimes it's more fun to listen to albums that're all over the map and have big standouts that make up for some of the bad ideas.

A big plus is that other than a few songs on American Gangster, this is probably Jay's best post-retirement album from a technical rapping standpoint, even though the first two singles suggested otherwise. His flow is energized in a way it hasn't been in a long time, although the breathy tone still threatens to derail certain songs, his awful rushed second verse on "Empire State of Mind" being probably the worst offender. But there's definitely more urgency in his rapping here, which goes a long way in making BP3 more entertaining overall than either of its predecessors.

Then there's the production. It's already been dismissed in some corners as too soft, too synth-happy, too Y chromosome-less Timbaland, too hipster-bait, too whatever the fuck. Comparisons with the aesthetic of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 will probably only exacerbate those criticisms. In any case, maybe it's just my affinity for certain brands of flashy, big-budget sheen rap, but I think most of these beats are pretty great, provided you're wary of Swizz Beatz trying and failing to get his "A Milli" on and the godawful power ballad cover at the end, which serves to only reinforce the caricature of '80s music I have in my head. To be honest, the whole Jay pandering to the hipsters (tm) card has been overplayed with the exception of a few tracks. Kanye West and No I.D.'s hypnotic, simple loop on "Thank You" practically sounds like something Common could've rocked over back on Be, only with more balls. "Real as It Gets" is the best Young Jeezy song Jeezy forgot to make on his last album. "Venus vs. Mars" is vintage loping Timbaland weirdness, "So Ambitious" is Pharrell at the top of his swanky yacht rap game even if it'll annoy space-age Neptunes fans...anyway, point being that if you come into this album as objectively as possible, and not worried about whether Jay's trying to court an audience that isn't as into hip hop, you'll probably find something to like.

Ultimately I respect Jay, and Nas for that matter, for trying to evolve and come to terms with their position in hip hop, even if the results have been hit or miss. The whole "well at least they're not talking about money cash hoes" argument is a cliche, but it's not quite what I'm getting at. When you reach a certain point as a rapper, you can mine the same material your fans think you're best at -- Cuban Linx 2 for example. You can go all experimental because you think you're stuck in a rut, a la Electric Circus, Andre 3000 and other projects of varying quality. Hov's wisely decided to split the difference between the two, expanding his sonic template without veering off into territory he knows nothing about, and staying true to himself in the process. The fact of the matter is that regardless of whether you think he sounds insecure or whiny on this particular album, at this point it doesn't make much sense for Jay to be rapping about something other than his status in and out of hip hop, conceptual ploys to keep rapping about drug-dealing aside. Of course, none of this would mean anything if BP3 had nothing else going for it, but when the music's this good, I can't complain much.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why Dre sucks now


The greatest

One of the things I can't help but notice about current hip hop is how low the bar seems to be set for a beat to qualify as a banger. Granted, I doubt people's standards there have dramatically changed in recent years, but it's something that's really struck me in 2008 and so far this year, when practically every high-profile major-label album has been really lacking from a production standpoint.

I only got around to listening to it recently, but "Shit Popped Off," a song scheduled for Dr. Dre's Detox that leaked a while back, is a great example of the low bar for bangers I'm talking about. Granted, I don't really know that it received all that much praise, but work with me here anyway. While the beat happens to be better than anything Dre did on Eminem's Relapse, it underscores a key problem with his production in the last few years. Namely that even with his better beats he tends to incorporate only one decent/good melodic idea, stops there, and proceeds to smother them in leaden, precise to a fault drum hits. Or handclaps.

At first you think "Shit Popped Off's" gonna be epic, what with the dramatic opening vocals that sound like a warning that something massive's coming, and a blaring horn sample that initially seems pretty badass. But then things go nowhere from there. Now for some, I guess the beat might sound fine as is. It's relatively aggressive compared to the tinkertoy synth party jams dominating rap radio, you can crank it loud in your car, and it probably sounds cool while smashed, as does a bunch of mediocre or shitty rap.

But I mean, compare the beat to a classic Dre production, Snoop Dogg's "Ain't No Fun (If the Homies Cant Have None.)" Both party songs, but one's obviously a lot more sonically intricate. Hell, "Ain't No Fun" might be the "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" of G-funk, given how much shit's going on yet how well every element of the beat gels together. No blasphemy or weird comparison between lyrical themes intended. To use another, more direct example, compare "Shit Popped Off" to "Shittin on Them," a beat done by Wale producer Best Kept Secret. It uses the same Kool & the Gang vocal and horn samples, but throws in booming drums that're actually interesting, as well as additional horns that snake in and out of the song. The go-go drums in the background probably aren't necessary, but they don't detract from how well-layered the rest of the beat is. Now, I don't wanna sound like some cranky old man who hates rap because it's not "musical" enough, because obviously simplicity can work wonders if you pull it off right. I just think more of a distinction needs to be made between so-called bangers that get stale the second time you hear them and those that have a little more longevity.

The more I think about it, the more I think The Game's The Documentary may have been the point where Dre officially lost the plot in this regard. Even though his overall aesthetic there is similar to his previous work with 50 Cent/G-Unit, those beats still had plenty of subtleties that fleshed them out. Take "Poppin' Them Thangs" for instance, my personal favorite G-Unit era Dre beat. "How We Do" has a little of that same deceptive simplicity, but overall seems like Dre unnecessarily dumbing down his sound to score a forgettable hand-clappy hit. And I mean, how many times can you listen to the thudding pianos on something like "Westside Story" before they get old. Dre's beats on the album are definitely a cut above what he's done in the last couple years, but there's no real sonic core, none of the added musical flourishes that made his past beats great.

And on a related note, lyrically-approved mainstream rappers really need to stop being held to lower standards on production. As in, when Game's LAX turns out to basically be a glorified G-Unit LP, it doesn't get a pass because it's Game. Same for Ludacris rapping over Southern-fried beats just as shitty as Rick Ross's. Same for a "new-n-improved" Rawls releasing an album that's the hip-hop equivalent of smooth jazz. And to reach back for an old (as in four years) classic, we should all be able to agree that the beat to Mike Jones's "Still Tippin'" is aeons better than Chamillionaire's "Ridin'." I'm all for deriding generic, cookie-cutter popular rap, but the rules apply whether we're talking Plies or [insert mainstream rapper it's been deemed acceptable to like.] All I'm saying. If we're a little more discerning when it comes to what constitutes a genuine banger, the hip-hop world will be a better place.

...Bangers. Yeah, think I'll retire that word for a while.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Dumb geniuses



Whenever someone like Cam'ron, Clipse, Lil Wayne or Gucci Mane gets hyped as the new rapper(s) du jour, the same argument seems to keep popping up. They can't be great lyricists because they always rap about the same ignorant shit. They don't provide any significant insight into the topics they're dealing with. Etc., etc. 

Now, this isn't really about my opinion on any of these guys. Personally I don't like the Gucci Mane I've heard and I'm not a huge fan of Cam or the Clipse. But the arguments generally made against these types of rappers don't seem to have much to do with their lyrical abilities or lack thereof.

Take Biggie's "Unbelievable" for example. Not his most meaningful song, but you could still point it out as an example of his lyrical talent. What's the difference between that and "Let the Beat Build," other than the latter being somewhat more scatterbrained in its approach? Both songs work not only because of the flow, but because of the lyrical imagery, wordplay and punchlines involved. The fact that there's no real cohesive narrative isn't really relevant.

Of course, when the aforementioned rappers get praised as brilliant, I understand why people tend to have a problem with it. There's the sense that some critics are reading too much into their lyrics, and putting rappers arguably promoting destructive stereotypes on some kind of pedestal. Both potentially valid points. But there's typically a lot more going on in a Lil Wayne song than one by Rick Ross, even if on the surface they might not be all that different. I'd rather read people try and maybe fail to articulate exactly what's appealing about such songs, instead of indiscriminately labeling them all as shallow party music not deserving of any critical analysis beyond that.

Ultimately, the fact of the matter is that some of these rappers have been hyped because they've done legitimately interesting things with lyrics and flow. How smart or stupid they are in real life is another discussion, and for the most part I don't think people are trying to elevate their music to poetry. It's just that it's entirely possible to be a great lyricist without rhyming about anything particularly important.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

MJ



I've held off on posting anything so far because I don't know that I really have much to add to what's already been said. Being born in 1987, and growing up in a household where my mom played a lot of The Beatles but nothing from Thriller that I can remember, as a kid I never really knew the guy as anything other than the freak media fixture he'd become. Actually, I think I heard the Weird Al parodies of "Beat It" and "Bad" before the original songs themselves. Lame but true.

I can't recall exactly when, but as a kid I remember watching Jackson on the news at one point and my mom telling me he was black. For a second I couldn't wrap my mind around that. I wasn't aware of any of his pictures with The Jackson 5 or even from the early '80s. Even after I found out about his former appearance, I didn't get certain people's accusations of racism when it came to the negative media focus on him. All I saw and heard was a pale-white, effeminate weirdo with a creepy high-pitched voice, and the idea that the media focus on his bizarre behavior was at all fueled by racism seemed ridiculous.

Of course, if I'd been born a few years earlier I may have understood why exactly the guy had such a devoted following. When I finally got around to actually hearing Thriller in its entirety, I gained a lot of perspective. Growing up, I remember hearing a bunch of people say something to the effect of "yeah, the guy's got issues, but he's made some great music," but I never bothered to check it out for myself. I had shitty Limp Bizkit and Korn albums to listen to, like all the other cool middle schoolers. If I'd tried to listen to a Michael Jackson album back then, I probably would've just lumped it in with the boy band groups of the time that you were required to hate on.

To be honest, I can't say I've since become a big fan of MJ's work outside of Thriller, but what's great about that album is how it hasn't become a relic of its time. Actually, I'd say the albums he put out after it sound more dated. That's when you know you've made something transcendent. A song like "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" in particular would be just as mindblowing if it came out today. There's a bunch of old classic albums I've heard, rock or otherwise, where I recognize the impact and influence but personally can't get into for whatever reason. Along with all the records it broke, Thriller also happens to still be really fucking good after all these years, something you can't say for every historically significant album. And the fact that it's pop music carefully crafted to appeal to different demographics doesn't diminish its significance.

Of course there was no way he was going to top what Thriller did, but what's sad about a bunch of Jackson's later music, post-Dangerous especially, is how much it's infected by his public image. We're always told to separate the artist from the person, but with MJ it's not that easy. Hell, even the spoken parts on "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "P.Y.T.," both classic songs, can't help but remind me of the negative image of Jackson ingrained in my mind. And those are both from way before the really weird years. Later on, whether its the cringe-inducing easy-listening ballads, Jackson lashing out against his detractors on angry, mechanical songs that couldn't be further removed from his best work, or even regular love songs that're hard to take seriously, it's impossible to separate the man from the music. For me, anyway.

In the end, though, I'm just glad I eventually gained an appreciation for his musical legacy. Because my perception of Jackson as a kid was mostly limited to his public image, I used to always write off the diehard fans I saw on TV as crazed apologists. And yeah, some of them probably were. But now I know where the sentiment was coming from, even if I can't count myself among their ranks.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Post-Andreism: Possibly a better choice than post-Weezyism


Or post-Jeezyism.

So due to various musical obsessions/general laziness in the last couple years, I haven't really got around to checking out B.o.B until now. Some of his earlier mixtapes could be better, I wouldn't know at the moment. But listening to B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray, this might actually be a mixtape worth showing up on year-end best of rap lists as if it were a real album. Granted I'd hope that the guy's debut album has better production, but given my general expectations for mixtapes with original beats the material here is certainly pretty interesting and distinct.

B.o.B's rapping is a great example of the type of flow I tend toward in most of the hip hop I like. He's got a lot of bounce in his delivery, he doesn't think cramming an excessive amount of rhymes into each bar makes you great, he flips different styles, and yes, he even understands that nebulous concept of swagger (i.e. personality, presence, charisma, all that crazy stuff.) He also benefits from possessing something of a vocal resemblance to Andre 3000, because, I dunno, it makes you think he's doper by association? 'Course if we were talking Guerilla Black vs. Biggie style, this might be cause to write him off as a biter with none of the bitten's talent, but B.o.B's rapping is distinct enough that he transcends this criticism.

The Andre similarities run a little deeper than the voice, though, as B.o.B sets aside the Bobby Ray half here as his mini-Love Below of sorts. And you know how the rapper ternt singer business tends to start all sorts of complaints about rock critics being dumb, how X weirdo street rapper is where the real experimentation is, etc. etc. Don't get me wrong, I get as annoyed as the next guy when I'm told I don't "get" supposedly next-level shit that sucks, but the reverse elitist mentality of rejecting self-consciously experimental projects out of hand is just as lame. I enjoy hearing rappers like Cam'ron and Lil Wayne play with language and flow just like I enjoy N.E.R.D., 808s & Heartbreak and the half of The Love Below that isn't aimless bullshit. I'm not really concerned with which form of innovation is supposedly purer or what post-rap side projects should be considered critic bait, the latter of which seems to be more about basing your opinion of something on its perceived fanbase than, you know, whether it's good or not.

All of which is to say that I kind of dig the Bobby Ray half here. It's a success of mood over anything, but you don't have to be a particularly great singer or melodist to make music that works for other reasons. There's a nice atmospheric vibe going on, and B.o.B's singing meshes well with the soundscapes he gives himself, although he actually raps a bunch in this section as well. Lyrically he likes to remind you of how space-age everything's supposed to sound, but the music's good enough that it doesn't come off as a bad gimmick. "Wonderland's" skittering synths and the airy, acoustic "Put Me On" are particular highlights. B.o.B could definitely use improvement as a producer -- some of these beats are fairly tepid -- but this is an aesthetic I could see really working on his album if he got help from a more talented producer or something.

As for the B.o.B half, it ranges from uptempo synth-driven beats on "Say what you want" and "Voltage" (where dude's practically a dead ringer for Andre 3000 on the chorus) to country rap tunes as Pimp C would say, but B.o.B's rapping is what really stands out. Even though there's guests on almost every track, he's easily the focal point. I wouldn't say anyone outshines him here, whether we're talking T.I., Killer Mike or the few guys from the dreaded blog-rap set who pop up. He does seem a little too preoccupied with haters in an overly self-conscious way (and caring about what people blog about you is a little too Lupe Fiascoan for my tastes,) but the technique's there. And I've got another rap album to look forward to, which in 2009 is a very good thing.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Swagg...er



I admit, when Wale put out his Mixtape About Nothing last year, some of my distaste for it was fueled by my then-obsession with Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III, released around the same time. Not to say my opinion of the tape has changed. It's just that after I felt like C3 had been shortchanged and met with weak, predictable criticisms in certain circles, the fact that a mixtape I thought was pretty clearly inferior was attracting the level of praise it was seemed a little weird. I wouldn't really've minded if people'd heard the tape and said "hey, this guy has potential," but I wasn't hearing greatness.

Well it's 2009 and unlike last time I can't whine about people being mean to poor Mr. Carter. Listening to Wale's new Back to the Feature mixtape, though, I can't say my opinion of the guy has changed. Namely, that he was strategically created in a lab as a less interesting version of Wayne, only with specific lyrical characteristics (supposedly bridging the mainstream-underground gap between flossing and more thoughtful material) that give him greater appeal to true-school hip-hop fans. Of course, it sounds like I'm getting into a played-out "pure hip hop" argument, and I don't really care about that. If someone's dope they're dope. But if you see this tape in people's top whatever at the end of the year, it'll say more about the overall quality of current hip hop than anything.

Truthfully, my opinion of Wale's rapping is similar to my thoughts on the latest "next big thing" in hip hop, Drake. Both have flows that I think bear a noticeable Wayne influence, and both make some distinctly Weezyan choices in punchlines, but lack his charisma and as such tend to come off as fairly workmanlike. To me Wale's "Nike Boots" remix is a prime example of this. Wayne comes with a ridiculously half-assed guest verse on the song, but you still remember his part more because of his vocal tics and more direct delivery.

That's my essential problem with Wale -- if he refined his flow, maybe his lyrics would hit me in a different way. Not to say he should dumb down for his audience to double his dollars. It's just that for me, the delivery and inflection he generally uses is a detriment to whatever message he's trying to get across. It's difficult for me to explain exactly without tossing off lazy descriptions like "he's boring," but he strains his voice in a way that makes it sound like he's running out of breath, and doesn't pause or switch up his flow for emphasis. So you get a constant flurry of rhymes that I suppose might be technically sound, but has the effect of making no specific lines stand out more than others, and doesn't hold your attention. I'd describe it as similar to my issue with certain old-school rappers who use straight-line flows as opposed to, say, emcees like Snoop and Jay-Z who play(ed) off their beats, even though Wale's delivery doesn't exactly fit into that straight-ahead category.

On the production side, Back to the Feature is better than The Mixtape About Nothing, but that's not hard considering how nondescript that tape was. Most of the beats are handled by 9th Wonder and fall in line with the middling soul/boom-bap aesthetic he tends to get flak for. In addition to the guy's drums just lacking punch, the samples he loops here aren't interesting enough to carry whole songs. Granted, I'd rather listen to these beats than the tinny synth stylings that've dominated even some of the most high-profile Southern rap of the past 1-2 years (just trying to provide some balanced hate here,) but that's like saying I'd rather listen to elevator music than your kid brother jamming on a Casio keyboard. Not a huge compliment.

It's not that I think Wale is wack or anything, but if anything I tend to get more irked by "consistent" rap albums that have no standout songs than the obvious wack rap scapegoats of the moment. I mean, anyone can listen to a Soulja Boy album and tell me it sucks. Not difficult to figure out. But when it comes to some of the guys who've been hyped as alternatives to popular hip hop in recent years, I feel like some people're just sticking by a certain hip-hop aesthetic out of principle, even if the actual music isn't especially interesting. In a way, albums that are consistently mediocre are more frustrating than albums that're aggressively bad, because with the former you may at least feel like they had the potential to be good. And "has potential" is the most praise I can offer Wale at the moment, because he's definitely not fully-formed yet.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The return of Sonic the Hedgehog Neptunes!


Lookin' good?

I probably wouldn't blab about The Neptunes or Timbaland as much if any of the newer superproducers they've influenced lived up to or surpassed their talent. Fact of the matter, though, is that at this point guys like Polow da Don, Danjahandz, and The-Dream's cohorts aren't close to either of 'em in their primes, and anyone who thinks they are probably doesn't have a very discerning ear when it comes to synth-happy mainstream goodness. The hip-pop equivalent of, say, lumping DJ Premier's best production work in with lesser beats cut from the same overall cloth, and saying it's all the same "hot shit." The 'Tunes's best material transcends your typical "hot" radio pablum these days, and works as more than just party music to enjoy while smashed. It's pop art, man. Or whatever Kanye calls it.

Now I'm not gonna say this latest Clipse single "I'm Good" ranks with their best 'Tunes-helmed ditties, but mostly I'm just happy that Pharrell's proving in the Age of Gaga that it's still possible to make flashy shit that doesn't sound like FutureSex/LoveSounds for 10-year olds. Elements of the beat recall certain problems that have plagued a lot of Pharrell's recent work -- fairly thin drums and keyboards -- but what saves everything is that P's still nice with the chord changes when he actually decides to use some kind of melody in his beats. Plus the zig-zagging synth line on crack (similar to Jay-Z's "I Know") prevents things from getting too loungey, another one of those late-period Neptunes issues.

I dig the hollowed-out, desolate sound Pharrell brought to Hell Hath No Fury as much as the next guy, but truth is dude can kill that smooth glossy style just as well when he wants to. So, count me in as someone who won't necessarily mind if this is the overall vibe to expect from the Neptunes beats on the new Clipse album. 'Sides, a break from apocalyptic Clipse ain't necessarily a bad thing.

Oh, and the verses are whatever, but I'm not big on the Thornton brothers' rapping even on their best days. So I'm good.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Regurgitated


Have you heard of this Slim Shady fellow? He's quite controversial

So as you may be aware, Eminem has a new album coming out. And while it turns out to be possibly the worst major rap release this year, I was naturally interested, cuz while I can't say I've played any of his other albums recently, I do think the guy used to have serious skills, and I'm not just saying that to say it like some people who feel some kind of obligation to give the guy props and don't actually like his music. Unfortunately he misplaced said skills sometime around 2004 and hasn't managed to locate them since. Let's take a look at Relapse shall we.

*Yes, it's worse than Encore. At least that album had a few songs that were so dumb they were funny the first one or two times you heard 'em. I've got a soft spot for "Rain Man."

*Yes, it's worse than Asleep in the Bread Aisle. Actually, I'm not entirely sure about that cuz I only listened to 30-second snippets of that album on iTunes. Let's face it though, most of the time you get the idea of what a rap song's gonna sound like musically based on snippets. 

*No, he isn't rapping well on this record, which even several people who don't like it seem to think. Now I used to nerd out over hearing a million syllables rhymed together, but thankfully I was converted to the Jay-Z school of emceeing and realized that none of that means anything if it isn't attached to a good flow. And Em can't flow well anymore. His delivery's choppy, scattershot, and more often than not sounds like he doesn't give a shit. It's ramble-rapping. Granted, his technique on "Beautiful" and "Underground" (which sounds like a Marshall Mathers LP outtake) is better than the rest of the garbage here, but it still falls short of the level of skill he was showing on his first three albums.

*Nothing new here, but someone needs to find Dr. Dre fresh collaborators. Someone put the setting on the tracks to "thud" instead of "bang."

*As an aside, the problem with Em's catch-all "freedom of speech!" defense is how he's intentionally baited criticism since the beginning. It's the equivalent of beating the shit out of someone and then getting upset because they punch back. The guy has the freedom to make lame pop culture-bashing singles, call Mariah Carey a whore, whatever, and other people obviously have the freedom to criticize him for it. No censorship involved.

*Give Dwayne Carter all the shit you want for rapping about nothing, as of now he's easily more lyrically creative than Em. The line "Hip hop is a bitch and I'm proud of this girl" > this album.

*OK, I'm done with the better/worse than comparisons.

*Really though, post-retirement Jay-Z > post-hiatus Eminem.

*As is auto-Yeezy.

*As is, yes, Nasir Jones. Hey, at least the guy's exploring new themes with his albums, even if the last one wasn't very good.

*The "Steve Berman" skit = the best part of this album. Cuz you know, Em's trying to blunt criticism that this album's more of the same old shit by having the Berman guy say that, but...it actually is more of the same shit. Only dressed up in a slightly different way. It's like when celebrities make fun of themselves on SNL or whatever, as if it actually changes anything they're being criticized for.

*You're officially not allowed to defend the album by claiming people don't "get" the concept. All Em's albums have had some kind of concept. The Slim Shady LP was him establishing his deranged alterego, The Marshall Mathers LP was him reacting to all the flak he caught, The Eminem Show was him dissecting his fame and status in hip hop, and I guess you could look at Encore as his creative suicide. The difference is that those first three were a lot better. Granted maybe this one goes to greater lengths to establish the whole relapse concept, but the music sucks regardless.

*Speaking of dude's past albums, how much different would dude's output have been if he somehow got signed based on Infinite? I mean anyone who's heard that album knows how impossible that was, but it's still vaguely interesting to think about. A little parallel rap universe. Nas Jr., the positive white rapper? 'Course, he probably wouldn't've sold a zillion records then. Or been very interesting.

*Timbaland feat. Elton John -- "2 Man Show" > the "Stan" Grammy performance. OK, just fucking with you.

*I say Relapse 2 should just disregard the whole addict theme and be Eminem's official sellout album. It'd be the logical expansion of his guest spot on Fat Joe's "Lean Back" remix from a few years back. Cheesy synth beats from Jim Jonsin, an "A Milli" knockoff, a Soulja Boy feature, autotune all over the place, songs about how much swagger he has. Might suck but it'd probably at least be more interesting than the Dr. Dre hermitage he's locked himself in.

*What was Em's last truly great verse? His spot on Curtis's "Patiently Waiting" maybe?

*While I generally avoid complaining about how critics don't know what they're talking about when it comes to hip hop -- probably cuz my hip-hop tastes tend to line up more with pop critics than rap purists -- I gotta side with that view with any positive review this album gets. May sound elitist, but if you think this is a good album, you probably haven't listened to enough good rap.

*Mmmm...think that's about it. Still waiting on the rap album that's gonna be the '09 summer soundtrack. Though I can't say Shady's really summer material even in his best moments.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I didn't like any music this year


Not afraid to get mavericky.

So it was only recently that I really realized that I wasn't a fan of much hip hop that came out this year. In terms of albums at least. I didn't mind all that much though because the stuff I did like was good enough to hold me over, and I kinda tuned out of new rap late in the year because I wanted to follow the election (pay attention to both at once? Crazy talk.)

With all that said, I figured instead of a regular list I'd take a look at the albums I did and didn't like this year, plus a few random songs here and there from other albums I haven't talked about. In no particular order.

THE GOOD
Lil Wayne -- Tha Carter III. The moment where Wayne officially lived up to the hype. I've been a big fan of his but I agreed with the argument that he needed to drop a great album, and then when he did a bunch of people were quick to damn it with faint praise. Which is too bad considering the guy murders everything he touches here save the stuff designed for Top 40 radio. "A Milli" and especially "Let the Beat Build" in particular are insane from a stylistic standpoint. Wayne's mixtapes last year were entertaining, but Da Drought 3 was pretty aimless, whereas here his rapping sounds much more focused without losing its unhinged appeal. Besides the flow, it's always fun to follow how he spontaneously connects the dots between lines that initially seem random, which is why I think people completely trying to evaluate him based on some wack:dope punchline ratio completely miss the point -- "Dr. Carter" doesn't suffer from him saying "sweet like cake" when he's doing a million other things on the same track, for instance. And yeah, sonically it's all over the place, but who said that was a bad thing?
Choice cuts: "Dr. Carter," "Let the Beat Build," "You Ain't Got Nuthin" (feat. Juelz Santana and Fabolous)

Kanye West -- 808s & Heartbreak. Not as good as his last two albums, and predictably it didn't win over anyone already busy whining about how 'Ye's a non-rapping drama queen, but way better than you might think a Kanye as T-Pain album'd turn out. "Heartless" is one of 'Ye's weakest singles ever and the album runs out of steam after "Street Lights," but otherwise this does a great job of pushing his sound into bleaker territory and manipulating autotune for emotional effect in a way that no one else really has been since T-Pain popularized it. I'll admit it could be a nice change of pace if his next one ended up being lighter than this and Graduation though.
Choice cuts: "Welcome to Heartbreak" (feat. Kid Cudi,) "Amazing" (feat. Young Jeezy,) "Paranoid" (feat. Mr. Hudson)

Big Boi feat. Andre 3000 and Raekwon -- "Royal Flush." AKA my token attempt to prove that this blog isn't against everything that sounds old school. Really though, it's dope even though neither Big Boi or Rae bring anything to the table. That's alright when you've got a smooth-rolling beat like this though, and 'Dre kills his spot, which sounds longer than Big and Rae's verses combined.

Lloyd feat. Lil Wayne -- "Girls Around the World." I somehow doubt I'll ever buy one of Lloyd's albums, but up to now he's had better chemistry with Weezy F. Baby than his other requisite R&B collaborator T-Pain. A great laid-back, bass-heavy jam that's perfect for late-night driving, and Wayne drops one of his best post-Carter III verses...even though yeah I realize he starts by riffing on a Rakim verse. The beat samples "Paid in Full" though, so he probably felt obligated or something.

Jay-Z -- "Ain't I" and "Jockin' Jay-Z." I have caveats here -- I think Jay's flow sucks on "Ain't I" and I don't like "Jockin' Jay-Z" that much. Still, I thought the negative reaction to "Jockin'" was overblown, mostly because it's one of the only (the only?) songs in the last year where Jay's flow sounds relatively revitalized, even though he still drops some clunky lines (especially that "my flow's pretty...sick!" bit.) "Ain't I" meanwhile is the type of vintage warped Timbaland beat the guy just doesn't make anymore. Especially dig how he constantly switches up the beat and throws new layers of stretched-out synths and guitars on top of it as the song goes on. If it got remixed with better Jay verses or another rapper then I'd be happy.

Shawty Lo feat. Young Jeezy, Ludacris, Plies and Lil Wayne -- "Dey Know (Remix.)" I still think the horn sample sounds stilted (the intro makes it seem like it's gonna be hotter than it is,) but it helps that the remix includes way more talented Southern rappers (and Plies) who all come through with hot verses. And killing Lo with his own flow, in Jeezy and Luda's case.

John Legend feat. Kanye West -- "It's Over." Would've been a better single than the Andre 3000-featuring "Green Light" if it was released as one, even though Yeezy-Pain adds nothing to the track. I would say that this is the one beat Pharrell Williams did for another artist that was good this year, but he's only listed as the writer for whatever reason. In any case, blippy "futuristic" R&B done right.

Erykah Badu -- "Honey." I'm not familiar enough with 9th Wonder's catalogue to definitively say which side I come down on in the good producer/boring motherfucker debate (I'd guess the latter based on what I've heard,) but he did his thing on this track, another good example of synth-washed futuresex/whateverR&B this year, with more of a throwback edge.

Busta Rhymes feat. Reek da Villain, Spliff Star, Lil Wayne, Nas, The Game and Big Daddy Kane -- "Don't Touch Me (Throw da Water on 'Em) (Remix.)" Works as the anti-"Speedin'" remix, since the emcees involved actually seem to give a shit about bringing their A-game. And a killer frenetic beat doesn't hurt.

DJ Khaled -- "Go Hard (Instrumental.)" I would've said the regular T-Pain and auto-Yeezy version if only for Kanye dropping one of the rap quotes of the year with "I'ma tell you like George Bush told me -- fuck y'all niggas I'm outta here," but I think the autotune madness somewhat obscures the tidal wave of a beat on this. Proof that The Runners can sound good even when they're not trying to remake "Hustlin'."

THE OVERLOOKED
N.E.R.D. -- Seeing Sounds. What 808s & Heartbreak might be like if it wasn't such a downer and every song sounded completely different. I wasn't sure if Pharrell had it in him after some of the shit he'd put out in the last year or two, but he really put it down here, and explored a lot of different styles without overreaching. And even though they use synthesizers, The Neptunes's beats sound great with live instrumentation in a way, say, Swizz Beatz or Lil' Jon's production probably wouldn't, thanks to their emphasis on melody and bridges. Shame Neptunes production for outside artists continues to suck, but if they release an album this good every now and then I can't complain that much.
Choice cuts: "Yeah You," "Love Bomb," "You Know What" (and "Time for Some Action" for the Clipse heads)

Snoop Dogg -- Ego Trippin. Granted, the words "overlooked" and "Snoop Dogg" don't seem to gel, but if I recall right this got its ass kicked commercially by a Rick Ross album of all things. And I'll admit, I haven't really listened to it since it came out, but there're some jams on here besides "Sensual Seduction," especially in the first half. If nothing else, it's way better than the other West Coast rap album that got everyone's attention this year.
Choice cuts: "Press Play," "Sexual Eruption," "Life of da Party" (feat. Too $hort and Mistah F.A.B.)

THE BAD
Southern rap albums not by Dwayne Carter, whose album doesn't happen to sound that Southern. More on specific examples later. No, this isn't a product of Wayne stannery, it just seemed as though the oncoming recession (no Jeezy) affected Southern rappers' ability to get quality beats. When Rick Ross releases the album with the best good:wack song ratio of the bunch (4:11 to be exact,) mostly thanks to a few soul-sampling tracks that sound decidedly un-Southern, you've got a problem.

"Hipster rap." Actually just The Knux, since they were the only guys I heard who sounded like they had potential and therefore the only ones whose album I decided to check out. Unfortunately their debut Remind Me in 3 Days... comes off as rap/rock fusion done in the most boring way possible. I'm not a big fan of "Cappuccino" but it's aeons ahead of the rest of the songs there. I might be interested in hearing this Rah Al Millio dude on a track with Big Boi though, just for kicks.

THE DISAPPOINTING
T.I. -- Paper Trail. I might be the only person on Earth who actually liked T.I. vs T.I.P. better than King and thought T.I. was improving as a rapper, so I was hoping he'd step in to give Wayne some kind of competition for King of the South/Best Rapper Alive '08 Edition. Instead, not only did he pick some of the most drab, empty synth-laden beats of his career, but he forgot to rap like he gives a shit. If this is what he sounds like after writing his rhymes down, he might want to consider going back to the Jay-Z method.
Redeeming cuts: "No Matter What," "What Up, What's Haapnin'," "Swagga Like Us" (Jay-Z and T.I. feat. Kanye West and Lil' Wayne)

Young Jeezy -- The Recession. I've felt somewhat uncomfortable about Jeezy's music because of how overt his whole trapper not a rapper image is, as pointless as it may get to talk about which rappers in that mold are a "worse" influence, but from a purely musical and stylistic standpoint his last album The Inspiration was pretty dope through and through. And I was hoping against my better judgment that with the new album he'd expand on the drug-dealing shtick and mix his usual lyrics with some form of interesting political commentary. Unfortunately, The Recession plays like a generic Southern (t)rap album with cut-rate, plastic synth production, only with the added "insight" that we're in a recession. Apparently that was enough to trick some people into liking it.
Redeeming cuts: "Circulate," "Put On" (feat. Kanye West)

Nas -- Untitled. I make no secret of my general distaste for Nas's albums and my preference for his once-rival Jay-Z, but 2006's Hip Hop Is Dead was an exception to that rule and I thought it was pretty solid, in large part because for once Nas was rapping over beats that weren't audio NyQuil. And actually, like I mentioned in my post on this album, I was kinda surprised that Nas seemed to have some pretty clear-cut ideas here, as opposed to the pseudo-intellectual rants he usually goes on when dealing with anything political. He doesn't really provide any obvious answers to the problems he brings up, but I don't think that's the point. As a piece of music, though, the album fails due to Nas's usual problems -- sleep-inducing production and the fact that as accomplished as he is, I can never really shake the feeling that he isn't the most stylistically flexible emcee around. One of his more interesting failures though, at the least.
Redeeming cuts: "America," "N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master,)" "Fried Chicken" (feat. Busta Rhymes)

The Roots -- Rising Down. I was debating putting this under this category, because I can't say I was anticipating it all that much. Still, on paper the idea of a more dystopian take on Graduation's synth-happy production/a more accessible version of the claustrophobic material El-P does sounded like it might be interesting, and I couldn't get into the album. Thought the production could've been better layered if they wanted to capture the vibe they were going for, even the beats that initially sound intriguing like the title track and "Criminal" get tired really quickly.
Redeeming cut: "The Show" (feat. Common and Dice Raw)

THE OVERRATED (INTERNET EDITION)
Wale -- The Mixtape About Nothing. I tried to like it, really. And if the response had been "this guy'll release a dope album in the future" I might not have put it in this category. But when it started being talked about as one of the best albums of the year after it dropped I just didn't get it. The beats are monochromatic and the guy raps like he's constantly short on breath -- his voice sounds strained for lack of a better word. And I'm not expecting state-of-the-art production on a mixtape, but this isn't something I'd be able to get much replay value out of no matter how good the rapping is. Also, I was gonna mention this with The Knux too, but these "thinking man's" rappers tend to be pretty underwhelming when they try to do party shit, the songs never sound like they pop off the way they should. Not saying you gotta go "Lollipop" but I'd like to think Wale can make something more exciting than "Back in the Go-Go." 

ABN -- It Is What It Is and Killer Mike -- I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II. Two of the Internet's favorite Southern rap albums of the year so far as I can tell, both sunk by cheap keyboard production. And in Z-Ro and Trae's case, emcees that I don't know sound stylistically varied enough to hold down a whole album. I'm ignorant of their solo catalogues though, so I might revise my opinion there in the future. Mike on the other hand is a rapper I might enjoy more over an entire album if he just got better production, much as I don't fuck with a lot of really angry rap. I can't handle the truth.
Redeeming cut: "Still Throwed" (It Is What It Is)

That real hip-hop shit. Sticking with the name of the blog and everything. Black Milk's Tronic was at least slightly interesting in its attempt to mesh some synth elements with its boom-bap template, even though nothing really made an impression on me. This Elzhi dude, though, I dunno. I'd describe my issue with him as my issue with Nas's style, only exaggerated to the nth degree. As in, the rhymes may look intricately layered on paper, but the person rapping them doesn't flow in an engaging way so it doesn't mean much. That and their beat selection tends to match their lack of charisma.

THE BULLSHIT
G-Unit -- T.O.S. (Terminate on Sight.) An easy target, but I gotta mention it anyway. Other rappers may release albums with shitty production, but 50 Cent is the only one who seems as though he actively tries to get the cheapest, most generically menacing beats possible. Who needs quality music after you've gone 6x platinum off your debut anyway? He's a business, maan.

Common -- Universal Mind Control. I was hoping against the odds that The Neptunes would deliver some kind of space-age masterpiece for Common, considering it was inevitably going to get more attention in hip-hop circles than the N.E.R.D. album, but no such luck. Based on this and a couple of the beats they wrote together on the N.E.R.D., I'm not sure how much collaborative chemistry Pharrell and Chad Hugo have anymore, though honestly this sounds almost indistinguishable from the shitty keyboard noodling and tinny drum programming Pharrell's been doing a lot of by himself over the last 1-2 years, only with Hugo showing up to throw a few mildly spacey effects on top. And I guess Common feels like he has to break out of being stereotyped as a boring conscious rapper, but stuff like "Sex 4 Suga" is just embarrassing. It's not like he's gonna shake that image when he includes some of the most vapid "uplifting" songs of his career in the second half anyway.

Fun fact: The "Punch Drunk Love" remix, which isn't on the album, is better than every other song here. Not to say it's that good, though.

Fat Joe -- The Elephant in the Room. Fat Joe is the anti-Jay-Z, mindlessly trend-hopping where up through The Blueprint Jay linked up with talented up-and-coming producers who complemented his style. It doesn't help that he's possibly the most generic and unconvincing hustler rapper alive. Probably the biggest failure of the whole "let's throw a bunch of in-demand producers together and the album'll be hot!" formula this year.


...Well Fat Joe's a pretty anticlimactic note to end on, but that about wraps up my love/hate (mostly hate) take on '08 hip hop. Might have some stray thoughts on the year for another post, but I figured I should get around to doing some kind of half-assed list first. Anyway, here's to '09 being a better year for the genre. Though this whole Ron Browz "Pop Champagne"/"Arab Money" business? Not a good first omen.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Song of the summer: A scientific analysis



Is it an unspoken rule that every blog post has to have a picture on top? I mean not to seem like I have a creative block with that or anything...

Anyway, I figure I'll have a more in-depth post about my thoughts on current music, politics, life and all that happy shit one of these days so this blog's more than straight album reviews and talking about how The Neptunes and Timbaland are better than your favorite producers, but what can I say, I've been busy, school's starting, and since summer's ending (even though it's gonna be retarded hot in LA for a month or so more...I miss Bay Area weather,) I thought I'd take some time to look at what could be considering this season's signature song. Enjoy.

The candidates...drumroll please.

Katy Perry -- "I Kissed a Girl" for being this year's obnoxious "My Humps" except worse;

Usher feat. Young Jeezy -- "Love in This Club" for being the summer's ubiquitous kinda club kinda slow jam, complete with another Timbaland for Dummies Polow da Don beat and a terrible Jeezy verse;

Estelle feat. Kanye West -- "American Boy" for its overall smooth summer vibe and Kanye having the most fun he has since "Drunk and Hot Girls;"

Lil Wayne feat. Static Major -- "Lollipop" for being the lewd club jam of the summer that every girl likes and guys act like they're too cool for;

Chris Brown -- "Forever" for playing every time I turn on the radio despite being corny as shit (can you tell I'm not a big Polow fan yet?;)

Rihanna -- "Take a Bow" for being this summer's "Irreplaceable" except more eye-rolling (no disrespect ladies of course;)

Rick Ross feat. T-Pain -- "The Boss," David Banner feat. Yung Joc and Chris Brown -- "Get Like Me" and Plies feat. Ne-Yo -- "Bust It Baby, Pt. 2" for being the shitty Southern rap singles du jour;

Lil Wayne -- "A Milli" for being completely ridiculous;

Young Jeezy feat. Kanye West -- "Put On" for being the latest requisite too-big-for-your-speakers Jeezy banger;

Mack 10 feat. Birdman and G. Malone -- "Big Baller (Remix)" for being the slightly generic gangsta jam of the summer that they probably only play in LA or something;

The Game feat. Keyshia Cole -- "Game's Pain" for Game trying to get you all nostalgic;

N.E.R.D. -- "Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom)" as Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo's bizarre choice of a lead single off Seeing Sounds;

and of course, Kidz in the Hall -- "Drivin' Down the Block" for making driving around while bumping your favorite music sound like the most boring thing ever. Was this released way earlier than summer? Ah, whatever.

Well damn. This isn't really hard considering there's only a few songs on this list that I really even like, but let's take a look anyway.

First off, we gotta get rid of "Love in This Club" and "Forever." "Love" isn't awful or anything, but the beat's too stiff for its own good, made worse by the fact that Polow apparently made it from two Apple GarageBand presets. And Jeezy really shouldn't try chick rap. "Forever" meanwhile is just plain fruity. And I've been known to enjoy my share of debatably fruity songs on occasion. See: "SexyBack," "Umbrella," songs involving the castrated singing of Pharrell Williams, etc. etc. But if I liked "Forever" I'd really have to start questioning my manliness. The fact that Polow's beat is basically an overly glossy, streamlined/Euro-ized version of "SexyBack," complete with the same drums, doesn't help matters.

Jeezy's "Put On," Wayne's "A Milli" and Mack 10's "Big Baller" remix I'm more sympathetic to. I mean they're all prime driving around in your car material while feeling badass material. However, "A Milli" blowing up aside, they don't really have that broad summer appeal. And I mean summer's supposed to be about good times, not amped the fuck up/angry shit. Though rapping along with "A Milli?" Good (potentially embarrassing) times.

"Game's Pain" and "Drivin' Down the Block" pretty much fall under the same category for me. Songs with middling beats and emcees of questionable talent that are liked based on reasons that don't seem to have a lot to do with the actual music. The former for The Game trying to give us another nostalgia trip, and the latter as Naledge's intentionally dorky (not in a good way) spin on rapping about your car. Kanye should freestyle over that beat sometime to show dude how to do goofiness right. And I wonder if Game thinks he's slick or something for grabbing Jay-Z's "Can't Knock the Hustle" producers for his album's lead single when he's been constantly dissing the guy for no reason. Damn, he showed him...

I'm not gonna say anything about the Rick Ross, Plies and David Banner singles, except that their shittiness should be self-evident. You know rap's in trouble when those are some of its biggest hits this year.

"Take a Bow" and "I Kissed a Girl." Now don't get me wrong, I can definitely tolerate Rihanna's song better, but put it like this -- when she performed it at Kanye's Glow in the Dark tour and followed up with the even more contrived "Unfaithful," it was cue for me to get more drinks. Clearly I'm some kind of chauvinist who doesn't understand women's pain. "I Kissed a Girl" meanwhile shouldn't need an explanation. Well OK -- there's guilty pleasures, and then there's songs that manage to cross that "different strokes dude" line into objectively awful territory. So I guess you can at least say "I Kissed a Girl's" helpful for better understanding the difference.

While I appreciate Pharrell's cutting analysis of cocaine-snorting girls on "Everyone Nose" and the song's grown on me, again it's not something I really associate with the whole summer vibe. I'm still not really sure why it was picked as the lead single, other than the fact that it's one of only three tracks on the album that has both Pharrell and Chad Hugo's input, or Pharrell wanting to maintain N.E.R.D.'s eccentric image. Seriously, they need to drop one of those chick tracks as a single already, those are the jams.

So that leaves us with "American Boy" and "Lollipop." Both songs that I happen to be a big fan of, and no not just because they both involve two of my favorite rappers, although yeah that helps. Now before anyone starts to roll their eyes at my inevitable choice here, let me just say that "American Boy" definitely has more of a summer and beach vibe. "Lollipop" meanwhile makes me think more of people drunk at a party looking stupid mimicking Weezy's autotuned singing. That said, the song was ubiquitous this summer, and I think anyone who even parties just occasionally was eventually won over at least somewhat by just how bizarre the whole thing is. Am I right? I mean c'mon, us bloggers are all around the 20-something range right, let's not act too cool for this stuff just yet.

Which means our winner is...N.E.R.D.'s "Windows." OK, so "Lollipop." Predictable yes, but hey sometimes the masses are right. "Windows" really should've been a single though, that song automatically gives me images of hot SoCal girls on the beach. Alright, I'll stop talking about that album.

I realize I included some songs here that probably shouldn't've qualified in the first place, and maybe left out a couple as well. But what can I say, Rihanna's "Disturbia" is no "Umbrella" or even "Don't Stop the Music," Ne-Yo's "Closer" is no "Because of You," and "Whatever You Like" = worst T.I. single ever? Then again I guess he did do that one single with Jazze Pha a few years back... As for Madonna's "4 Minutes," it's not bad but a) it's Madonna and b) Timbaland needs to come with something fresh on the pop front before Polow tricks people into thinking he's better than him. Not sure if being slightly involved with the new Pussycat Dolls album's gonna cut it.

As for songs of the fall and winter? Hopefully nothing involving T-Pain or Chris Brown. Or both.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Attention West Coastans: Snoop Dogg put out a better album this year


Feel the realness

For a while now, I've found The Game's ascent to official "popular rapper it's OK to like" status irritating on a lot of levels. Normally I try to be a live and let live guy as much as I can, but it's a little annoying when by far the most mediocre, humorless rapper in the mainstream seems to get let off the hook for completely specious reasons (awww, he's obsessed with Dre, how cute!) Especially when actually innovative, exciting rappers like Kanye West and Lil Wayne, who are basically singlehandedly keeping creativity in popular hip hop alive right now, still can't seem to escape the same tired half-assed criticisms. Actually, as far as stale by-the-numbers gangsta rap goes you can look at 50 Cent and Game as Dr. Dre's twin shit late-career proteges. 50 being the heartless, artistically devoid villain 'course, and Game being what would happen if you had a wannabe suburban thug, hip hop-obsessed little brother who decided to rap. And as far as big-budget rap formula goes, 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' is better than The Documentary.

Of course, the easy excuse for Game is hot beats, duude. And don't get me wrong, I'm sympathetic. I've been known to enjoy my share of albums from non-rappin'-ass producers that have great production. Thing is, The Game's beats just aren't that good people. Documentary is a slightly better version of your typical "sounds good the first time you hear it" major-label rap album with shit tons of money dumped into it -- while there's a few highlights, "Hate It or Love It" and "Put You on the Game" are the only songs I really come back to that much. Doctor's Advocate meanwhile just had too many Scott Storch/"J.R." Rotem Dre-lite piano knockoffs and lame over-the-top bombast to qualify as anywhere near great. Really, the dude just seems to benefit from a general hip-hop mentality that favors "hard" beats over poppier material regardless of their actual quality. Or in the case of his smoother material, enough nostalgia for the West Coast style that I guess makes people go easy on "J.R." Rotem's latest Casio synth masterpiece.

At least the guy's last two albums had a handful of good tracks between 'em though. Game's latest effort LAX, meanwhile, isn't far removed from your usual bargain-bin G-Unit album. You gotta think that the guy's just getting a pass for being The Game and popular hip hop sucking at this point, much like Bun B's lazy II Trill album earlier this year. First off, let me just say that so-called "bangers" and musicality aren't mutually exclusive. Kanye hooks Game up with the album's only real standout beat on "Angel" that proves as much. Too many beats on LAX try to be bangers but end up sounding pointlessly aggressive and generic. The Raekwon collaboration "Bulletproof Diaries" is a good example despite being the best track in that mold here. There's a bunch of synthesized strings and screaming guitars that're supposed to sound menacing, but the ultimate effect is hollow and the beat just lurches around. Of course, the whiny synth G-funk knockoffs are still in effect on the album's first two tracks, and Scott Storch shows up for some of his usual synth noodling on "Let Us Live." And let's not even talk about the chick tracks. Put it this way -- they sound possibly even more pandering, forced and clueless than anything 50 Cent's done recently. No small task. Admittedly, I might like "Touchdown" more for the Curtis Mayfield sample and Raheem DeVaughn's smooth hook if the beat hadn't been buried under a pile of synth shyte. But if these songs are any indication Game just can't do chick tracks. Though maybe if he spent more time comparing girls to his favorite rappers...

Other than the beats generally sucking and Game having the dullest voice and style of any rapper right now -- he still rambles his lines without ever really switching up his flow for different beats, sounding like Nas with half the technique -- the worst part of LAX is still his grating personality. The best rappers talk about how dope they are and then show you that they aren't just talking shit. Game's mentality can be best summed up by his whining on "Ya Heard" that he's getting marginalized by people's praise for Kanye and Wayne. The guy's easily one of the most obnoxiously self-absorbed figures in rap, yet some people seem to find his constant comparisons of himself to other rappers as somehow endearing. Why? Probably because he's the only prominent rapper besides Kanye who overtly references the old school, but the dude still comes off as a nagging little kid desperate for respect. If anyone can explain how exactly this makes him an interesting rapper, let me know. Different ain't always better.

In the end, LAX is only really notable because even more than his last two albums, it vindicates every criticism that's been made about Game since the beginning. He's got a boring monoflow that people mistake for consistency, boring beats that people mistake for bangers, and a boring personality that people mistake for being...so boring it's somehow intriguing? I dunno. In any case it'd be nice if this album flops and we're officially done with everyone involved with the G-Unit era. Clean slate. Maybe Dr. Dre'll make up for it by putting out Detox in the next year (or five) even. And hopefully I won't have to do another one of these once Young Buck puts out a shitty album of his own that people go crazy over thanks to his "brave" split with G-Unit.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Slept-on album of the summer: N.E.R.D.'s "Seeing Sounds"


 Shit, they're coming to turn hip hop gay! Someone call DJ Premier before it's too late

For a second there, I was starting to agree with the Pharrell haters.

Don't get me wrong -- the idea that The Neptunes are wack producers because they're Top 40 hacks or something is ridiculous. There seems to be this phobia in the hip-hop community of anything The Neptunes have produced that isn't a) the Clipse, b) minimalist like their beats for the Clipse, or c) Jay-Z's still great "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me.)" I guess the negative attitude toward their most successful work could be attributed to their flashy style, girls liking most of their best known songs, and the fact that Phalsetto Pharrell likes to sing over their beats. Ewww I know. But I've found the idea that they're flash-in-the-pan pop producers absurd on its face for a while now. If you can pull your ears away from "Grindin'" and Hell Hath No Fury for a second, The Neptunes have plenty of awesome work on their resume, chief among 'em their overlooked N.E.R.D. pop/rock project.

But first, back to why I was starting to agree with the Pharrell phell the phuck off (my bad that was really lame, I'll stop) haters. You see, ever since Pharrell started producing by himself under the Neptunes name two or so years ago (you can tell because he's the only one who gets songwriting credits,) he's been ridiculously lazy for anyone not named Pharrell Williams, the Clipse, Jay-Z, or Lupe Fiasco...'s only truly great song "I Gotcha" (yep get mad.) Previously his phoned in third-rate keyboard wankery was confined to select cuts on Snoop Dogg and Twista albums as well as shitty singles for Ludacris and Gwen Stefani, but things looked particularly bad recently when Skateboard P went one for seven on Madonna's new album and managed to get completely murdered by a bunch of Timbaland/Justin Timberlake/Danjahandz beats that, while good, generally aren't anything the dynamic trio hasn't done better before. Not that I consider myself a Madonna fan or would be interested in an album of hers except in the case where my favorite hip-hop producers are involved, but that was really Pharrell's best opportunity to re-launch himself into the mainstream consciousness, and he didn't seem to give a shit. Then again, maybe he, well, genuinely doesn't give a shit about being a mainstream presence at this point?

The thing about Pharrell and his fellow pop-nerd-in-crime Chad Hugo is that some of their best work has flown under the radar. While I know the type of rap fans who see guys like DJ Premier, Pete Rock and RZA as the sole definition of "real hip hop" (not dissing any of 'em by the way, just that some people seem to have a tendency to write off talented producers who don't fall under their true-school template) seem to consider The Neptunes's work with the Clipse their best, probably cuz especially on Hell Hath their beats are more spare and boom bap-oriented, I personally think N.E.R.D. represents The Neptunes at their most creative. It's a project that naturally automatically alienates hardcore both hip-hop heads and "damn, they think they're better than hip hop!" anti-"elitist" types, but the fact of the matter is that using live instrumentation allows The Neptunes are able to expand on their sound in a way they can't with outside rappers. You combine an insanely intricately layered take on the Neptunes's various sounds with Pharrell's weird-ass sense of humor and you've got a winning formula. N.E.R.D. does a lot of songs that're shallow/sex-obsessed on the surface but take on the subjects in an entertaining, self-aware way that elevates them beyond, say, a disgusting "love rap" from Rick Rawls.

Which brings me to Seeing Sounds, N.E.R.D.'s latest flop/masterpiece. Based on the lead single and longest song title ever "Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom,)" which took a bit to grow on me and still isn't one of the album's best songs, I was skeptical that the album'd be any good. I mean, I'd take an experimental mess over the lame shit Pharrell's done for outside artists in the last two years, but it'd still be a mess. Thankfully though, Seeing Sounds is a good kind of mess -- it manages to be N.E.R.D.'s most stylistically varied album yet without letting its ambitions exceed its quality. It jumps from the percussion clusterfuck of "Everyone Nose" to straight-up pop on "Windows," Neptunes sheen-meets-unhinged Timbaland drums on "Spaz," jazz...ishness on "Yeah You," psychadelia on "Love Bomb..." and it's all good. Well, with a few exceptions, but I'm willing to let a few half-baked ideas slide when the rest of the album's as great as it is.

I'd imagine the principal criticism against N.E.R.D. is that Pharrell can't sing, which I gotta call bullshit on. Sure he's not exactly original, but he's got an expressive, smooth voice that works with the music here, and to me any "omigod my ears are bleeding!" response is a sign of antiAndresque purist overreaction. (Although Pharrell is definitely a better singer than a rapper, unlike Andre 3000.) Even when the guy strains his voice a little too much for his own good, as on his "youuuuu!" bit at the end of "Yeah You's" hook, you get the sense that he's aware of his limits and just kinda fucking around. The half-serious, self-aware messing around vibe makes even more sense when you consider that despite being the smoothest, most textured Pharrell beat in recent memory, the lyrics on the song are really about some crazy stalker chick. Don't worry though, I'm pretty sure any ladies will be too into the groove to tell or care.

This type of half-serious, half-fucking around atmosphere is there throughout the album, whether we're talking non-rappin'-ass rapping N.E.R.D. sidekick Shay Haley sounding hilarious delivering some of the dumbest "pickup" lines of the year on "Time for Some Action" (sample: "You know only I can smash you right. Well alright!,") Pharrell psychoanalyzing cocaine-snorting girls on "Everyone Nose," or the fact that "Love Bomb" is a let's-fuck-to-save-the-world song. Still, N.E.R.D. wouldn't be nearly as compelling if their music didn't sound as great as it does, and along with Chad Hugo's great work on new wave/alt-rock singer Kenna's Make Sure They See My Face from last year this album suggests that Pharrell and Hugo may actually be better off separate than together right now. Only three songs here are written by both Neptunes, including "Anti Matter," a grating buzzed-out synth mess that's the worst beat of theirs I've heard in a while. While they more than make up for it with "Love Bomb," the trippiest song on the album, the Pharrell-written highlights here prove that the reason he's put out a bunch of trash beats lately isn't becuase he isn't insanely talented, but because he's been a lazy motherfucker. The ridiculously frenetic "Spaz" is what should have been the album's lead single, and "You Know What" rolls along effortlessly with a sound that brings to mind a Neptune'd version of Maroon 5's "Makes Me Wonder" (don't front.) I'm not exaggerating or being contrarian when I say that his best beats here give Timbaland and Kanye's recent work a run for its money, even though Graduation is a better album through and through. Hearing the differences between Pharrell's work here and Hugo's work on the Kenna album also clarifies The Neptunes's creative specialties for production nerds like me -- Pharrell's beats are more pop/funk-based, while Hugo's the weird space-age synth nerd. Well, you also get more minimalist percussion-heavy Pharrell stuff sometimes as with his work for the Clipse, but I prefer when there's a little more going on with his beats.

While it's not surprising considering "Everyone Nose" has no crossover appeal, it's kinda disappointing that this album bombed when I dunno if I see Pharrell hitting another creative peak like this before the year's over. My prediction: Common's gonna eventually put out Invincible Summer/Autumn/Winter, it's gonna have a bunch of wack-ass Pharrell-in-his-sleep beats, people're gonna rightfully shit on it (though some may try to spare infallible saint Common from criticism...I mean it's not like he chooses his beats or anything,) and the poor multimillionaire'll remain a misunderstood genius. But maybe he wants it to be that way. Who knows though, maybe something cool'll come out of that CRS Kanye/Pharrell/Lupista collaborative group. In the meantime, while I know a lot of bloggers are caught up in the Great Hipster (?) Rap Rise of '08, Lil Wayne and Pharrell are the dudes holding it down for weirdcoolness right now. Believe it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Nas: Most Frustrating Rapper Alive



To the people who think Lil Wayne, now officially the biggest superstar in hip hop, is the anti-lyrical devil incarnate, Nas's Untitled is one of the only pure hip-hop albums with the potential to "save" the genre this year outside of The Roots's already released and extremely underwhelming Rising Down. There's been so much talk about the "controversy" (hate the overuse of that word, news always uses it to equivocate) surrounding the album's original title Nigger that it's put added pressure on Nas to deliver, and obviously since he made such a big deal about naming his album it'd just make any half-assed effort look even worse.

So Al Sharpton got mad (shocker I know,) at least one politician threatened to push to divest state money from Universal Music Group, and Nas has gone on record as saying that him, David Banner and Young Jeezy among other rappers are the new voice of urban black youth and it's time for Jesse Jackson to shut the hell up. Really Nas, Jeezy? I mean I get how he could think he talks about the "struggle" but still. It's also kinda interesting after their whole spat in 2006 over the hip hop is dead thing and Nas dissing "hustler not a rapper"s on more than one occasion, but anyway. Nas's possible delusions of grandeur aside, Untitled actually does deliver in that Nas has a clear, smart and to-the-point message here. Namely that there's still all sorts of problems the black community's dealing with, both from their own current vices and the legacy of racism in the past. While there's not institutionalized racism now like there was back before Lyndon Johnson, only clueless Republicans (particularly of the Bush variety) would take the easy way out and say that everything's peachy and we all have equal opportunity nowadays. And I'm a registered Republican, so this isn't any crazed left-wing deal. It's just that racial differences right now manifest themselves in the continuing socioeconomic divide between whites and blacks/Latinos, and the cultural differences that've prevented us from seeing eye to eye on a bunch of issues.

For me, as someone who thinks a lot of Nas's political "statements" in the past have been misguided, not as smart as he thinks bullshit (namely his low-point with Street's Disciple's "American Way" and "These Are Our Heroes," the latter in particular with its bass-ackwards fake black/real black logic,) this is all a good thing. This album proves that when he wants to be, Nas really is one of the smartest, sharpest dudes in the genre, and I found myself hard-pressed to disagree with the various points he brings up here. Well OK, so I can't say I'm a fan of Louis Farrakhan from what I know about the guy, but Nas's rapping on the song he's mentioned on is more about revolutionary ideas in general, not explicit glorification. Farrakhan's name only actually comes up in the looped sampled recording that snakes in and out of the track.

However, given that this is Nas's big statement album, naturally certain issues he talks about are gonna be more interesting than others, especially when he still seems to have no ear for good beats. "America" and "N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master)" are two of the most poignant songs Nas has done in recent memory both because they contain some of Nas's most potent commentary in a while (the former erases the piece of shit known as "My Country" from my memory with a real interesting, nuanced examination of black American history and contemporary problems, and the latter is a great look at both white perception of blacks and black self-doubt) and two of the best beats on the album. "Fried Chicken," meanwhile, proves that Nas needs to lighten up and make weird concept songs like this more often, much like "Dr. Knockboot" (yes I'm serious) and "Who Killed It?" have shown in the past. While the bad habit analogy between the black stereotype of loving fried chicken and an obsession with loose, my bad I mean sexually liberated women may seem "what the fuck?" on paper, Nas and Busta Rhymes really make it into a song that's both entertaining and smart.

But the sleep-inducing or just wack beats that plague the rest of the album (Nas is on Def Jam, I know he may not get the biggest budget in the world but you'd think he'd be savvy enough to get better producers) essentially make Untitled like a political speech you really agree with: sure the person who gave it made a lot of good points, but that doesn't mean you're gonna YouTube it a million times. And while I know Nastans like to blame Nas's album's failings entirely on his beats as if the guy's some infallible saint not responsible for his albums sucking, that's not the only problem here, as his flow is still a little too straightforward and not flexible enough for my liking. He's got some compelling passion in his delivery here, but his flow just can't carry songs that don't have interesting enough beats, especially when like I said the topics he takes on other than the three songs I mentioned just aren't as hard-hitting. Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting Nas to get his Lil Wayne on and stylistically experiment all over the place, especially on an album like this where it could take away from his message. But there's something to be said for switching up your flow and cadence for emphasis and effect. The only time Nas really steps outside the box here stylistically is when he rocks an intentionally lazy, slow flow on "Testify," where it's kinda amusing to hear him diss his casual suburban fans using a goofy vocal inflection but that's about it. And the NyQuil beat from Dr. Dre piano man Mark Batson doesn't help. Told ya in my last post they weren't as good without him...well actually come to think of it, some of Dre and Batson's beats together have kinda sucked too.

It's not like I wanted Nas to fail here. If I was some deranged hater I'd call his commentary here convoluted and stupid when it isn't at all, and him releasing a good or great album would really help when you consider that the title of his last album has been progressively proven more and more true. I mean shit, Lil Wayne and Kanye West are just about the only viable and truly talented rap stars left. However, as much I agree with Nas here (although, can I just say that he completely ignored a lot of legit points he could've ripped into FOX News for on "Sly Fox." A lot. And c'mon man did he really have to rehash the tired-ass "don't focus on me, focus on violent movies!" argument instead of defending his music against douchebag supreme O'Reilly?,) I can't help but think this would work better as some kind of keynote speech rather than an album. Someone take creative control over Nas's beats next time around, seriously.

Oh, and can I just say that the love for Polow da Don needs to stop, "Hero's" not that good people. Ciara's Sexiest Robo-R&B Song Ever "Promise" and his two beats on will.i.am's album (don't laugh) = still his only truly great songs. Yet more proof of my groundbreaking thesis that hip-hop heads have bad taste in which guys are the "good" pop producers, listen to more Timbaland and Danjahandz and get back to me. I know Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado and Madonna are icky, but you'll get over it promise. Oh, and pick up N.E.R.D.'s Seeing Sounds while you're at it, I know Pharrell's been tricking everyone with all the shitty beats he's given Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Twista and Common in the last two years or so, but he can still slaughter your favorite producer when he feels like it.

Speaking of which: Kanye West, N.E.R.D. and Wyclef Jean all performing at the Democratic National Convention? Fuck it I'm switching parties, not like I'm a Bush Republican anyway. But then the question is how I'd get in even after that...but don't worry, I'll make sure to become a very important political figure in the next week and a half.