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.