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.