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


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

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


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, 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.