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Archive for September, 2007

Kanye West Week Part Five: Stronger


Kanye’s done a really good job sort of “repping” Daft Punk, making it clear he’s sampling them which I find fairly respectful; it goes along with ‘Graduation’s sense of deference. I pretty much had my fill of ‘Discovery’ when it was released, so I haven’t sat down with the song ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ in a few years. Kanye talks over it on the ‘Graduation Mixtape’ and I heard Clinton Sparks screaming over it earlier tonight but that’s still not really hearing the song. So, tonight I listened to the Daft Punk song and man, is that song boring! One of the most uninteresting songs on ‘Discovery’; it just goes nowhere. When I first heard that Kanye was sampling the group, I thought it was kind of stupid but now, I really hear how Kanye could’ve heard the song and thought “This needs something more!”. Oddly enough, Kanye makes ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ sound like Daft Punk’s earlier (and these days, I think better) first album ‘Homework’. Where it’s all just sick-as-fuck synth farts and pounding beats (‘Rollin’ and Scratchin’is a personal favorite) with some straight-faced funk thrown in at points. It isn’t a surprise that Timbaland is credited with “additional drum programming” here because it is certainly in the vein of Timbo’s most recent and most house-y sound beats. At the same time, it doesn’t really sound like a Timbo production, it retains Kanye’s relative simplicity with drum programming. I’m not that big of a fan of Timbaland’s work, while I find it cool and exciting in theory, I find it too busy and purposefully “out-there” so mixing Timbaland’s sense of how heavy drums should actually be with Kanye’s hip-hop purist sense of a beat, works well together.

‘Stronger’ is really the only “single” on ‘Graduation’ and I think that fact highlights the underwhelming feeling many get from the album and I initially had. What I mean by “single” is it’s the only track that you can imagine blaring from car stereos. It should have been the first and perhaps, only single before the release date. Yes, ‘Graduation’ is full of “anthems” in a sort of U2 ‘In the Name of Love’ way, in that they are affecting, smart pop songs but they also sound minor and inward. Every track could be the third or fourth single, nothing stands out. That is both good and bad. Good, in the sense that ‘Graduation’ is remarkably consistent and cohesive without feeling predictable, hard to do- but bad in that without bangers, it’s not really a rap album!

One of the most exciting things about much of the popular rap music of the past few years is how bizarre and truly experimental the beats are. This is one of the reasons why a lot of so-called “indie” types have been getting into mainstream rap, because Young Jeezy or Clipse sound like Daft Punk and Boards of Canada. Kanye, for better and worse- makes a lot of the stuff about rap explicit and by sampling current electronic music, the whole rap beats are weird and experimental like weird, experimental music is loud and clear. Producers like to act like they are rappers, but they aren’t- rappers are already weird but the guy who chooses to express himself through abstract sounds and samples is even weirder. Of course, they would think house music and electronica and noise is cool! Kanye makes that clear by sampling from the group that Swizz Beats sampled more quietly and Black Milk has cited in interviews as a favorite. The borders between genre and style are becoming increasingly porous and ‘Graduation’ is a part of that. You’ll need to get over it if that upsets or offends you, jerkoff.

On some of the songs on ‘Graduation’, Kanye adopts a very annoying slow-flow that I’ve gotten used to but on ‘Stronger’ he really does RAP, and it’s on one of the least rap-sounding beats of ‘Graduation’. He also shies away from the single-topic rap songs that slowed down ‘Late Registration’. I find the best rappers to be, what I’ve referred to as “maximalist” rappers, rappers that say as many complementary and discordant thoughts as possible with little interest in lyrical focus. It is the style that I think defines the post-Golden Age era, where the songs are not narratives or issue-based but thematically connected thoughts all just sort of building atop one another as the verse progresses. ‘Stronger’ is a few variations on that line of the chorus “that, that don’t kill me/Can only make me stronger”. The most apparent is the way it’s another song about “haters”: If their hatred doesn’t ruin him, it will only inspire him. He’s also asking for a challenge, “haters, you make it harder for me and that inspires my creativity”.

There’s also the girls aspect of the song with Kanye approaching a girl (“I don’t know if you’ve got a man or not”) and how he apparently wants a challenge. He has that line in the ‘Buy You a Drank Remix’ where he says “And I don’t want no girl that’ll answer to “Hey yo”/Make it more harder, make me put some work in” and adds that he won’t just buy her a drink but “buy [her] the bar if [she's] worth it.” In a world of rap STILL obsessed with hoes or even just a culture full of celebs that flash their weird-looking pussies every other week, it’s kind of interesting for Kanye to suggest that he wants a challenge. Oh yeah, and then there’s the sexual aspect of the song, you know the girl making his dick harder but I don’t really want to over-analyze Kanye’s dick (I’m not that big of a Kanye stan).

Written by Brandon

September 14th, 2007 at 5:16 am

Posted in Kanye West

Kanye West Week Part Four: Champion


The song’s wonderful Reggae-ish bridge connects to the weird trend of R. Kelly or Lil Wayne and others adopting reggae-ish voices and inflections; Tom Breihan discusses it here a little bit. As I mentioned yesterday, when talking about ‘Good Morning’, Kanye’s sampling of Jay-Z’s voice, referencing ‘Bring Em’ Out’ and ‘I’m a Hustla’ shows how he is very in-tune with what is going on in popular rap and picks and chooses the innovative and goofy trends to take. I like the idea of a musician still interacting with the music from a fan’s perspective.

The lines about Lauryn Hill are very much from the rap fan that Kanye was before he found fame. He politiely calls her out, even suggesting she’s irresponsible for leaving rap when he says: “Cause who the kids gonna listen to?/I guess me if it isn’t you.” That use of “you” there in particular, is pretty harsh but more out of disappointment than anger. While so many seem to view this as Kanye’s most self-obsesed album, it seems to me, his least self-obsessed as he continually defers to others, admits flaws, and just sounds a lot less like he deserves anything. When he talks about Lauryn Hill, he’s calling her out but he understands (“her heart [is] in Zion” now), and he “wish[es] her heart was still in rhymin” even though he knows it isn’t anymore. Kanye has always been a fairly ethical rapper, concerned with responsibility and here, he quietly suggests Ms. Hill is being irresponsible, not using her talents and influence.

There’s a healthy uncertainty to Kanye’s lyrics, as he often admits shock or confusion and this is coupled with the bragging we expect. His goals seem more minor, less about making “events” and more about making some good music and being happy, as he says on ‘The Glory’:”I hear people compare themselves to BIG alot/You know, BIG and Pac, you know to get it hot/I guess, after I live, I wanna be compared to Big/Anyone, Big Pun, Big L or Notorious/Until then, get money, stunt, and stay glorious”. I really love the modesty (or half-modesty, he still wants to be a legend) in those lines. It works in response to his good buddy Weezy’s moronic claims of being “the best rapper alive” while still admitting a concern for legacy. Notice the qualifier: “I guess”. He uses a similar phrase to sort of suggest modesty in ‘Champion’ when he says “I don’t know, I just want it better for my kids” and then reminisces about being young and not being able to get the clothes he wanted, but not before he again, qualifies his statement with “and I ain’t saying we was from the projects”. When he moves further into this childhood memory, he continues a sense of not over-stating its significance. Kanye and his father weren’t “like Will Smith and his son” they were “sorta like Will Smith and his son/In the movie, I ain’t talkin’ about the rich one”.

There’s a lot to unpack in these lines and I find them among the most touching and real on the album. He quotes his father saying the kind of thing my grandparents told me; clever, memorable sayings that drive home the point:”When you see clothes/Close your eyelids”. And then, like so many other lower-middle to middle-class kids, he ends up getting what he wants because his Dad too “wanted it better for his kids”. I can remember being five years old or so and my parents saving all of their change for a year until we had enough to buy a Nintendo. So, the little anecdote becomes about how parents do a lot for their kids. The discussion of “universality” in relation to ‘Graduation’ to me seems a little lazy, as all of the personal shit is there, it just means you have to think a little harder and make the connections yourself. So that, a grown son realizing just how much his parents did for him- is the “universal” part.

Then, there’s the personal part. When Kanye says that he didn’t “know what [his dad] did for dough”, it sort of suggests his dad dealt drugs or at the least, was some kind of “hustler”: “Cause every summer/He’d get some hare-brained scheme to get rich form” and by the time the new school year started, Kanye had the clothes he desired. When that memory is coupled with the knowledge that his Dad was a Black Panther, those lines really sort of trace the devolution of the Black Panthers. Put it alongside of ‘Crack Music’ and you have a merging of the personal and political history of the Panthers. How their fall, from inside and outside forces, pushed the members into the world of hustling and away from their political ideals.

‘Champion’ is based on ‘Kid Charlemagne’ by Steely Dan, a song that, is ostensibly, about the fall of some kind of dealer/pimp type but done from a loosely ironic perspective typical of a group like Steely Dan. In the original, Steely Dan do the obviously “clever” of move of changing the sampled line for the final part of the song, as it changes to “Did they realize, that you are an outlaw”. Kanye removes this irony and replaces it with a song equal parts joyful and sad.

The song’s topic (drugs and drug-dealing) certainly relates to recent rap controversies about crack-rap. Drugs have long been a topic for music and although there is a difference between ‘Kid Charlemagne’ and ‘T.R.A.P.S.T.A.R’, it’s a quick and clever acknowledgement of the conundrum that is crack-rap, something Kanye comes back to a few times on ‘Graduation’. The song’s ironic use of funk and Afrobeat is another topic of interest and addresses Steely Dan’s rather contemptuous relationship with rappers and sampling. As I discussed in this Schooly D entry, why the hell is ripping of a sound or style any more “ethical” than flat-out sampling? Progressive rock, particularly the American/British style, has a tendency to take from black music styles in what I see as sort of ironic and gimmicky. Pink Floyd approximate funk on parts of the album ‘Wish You Were Here’, so many prog albums have a throwaway joke track that goes “boogie woogie” (‘Are You Ready Eddie?” from EL-P’s ‘Tarkus’), or the brief reggae-ish breakdown in Rush’s ‘Spirit of the Radio’, all have the icky feeling of a bunch of “accomplished” musicians co-opting black musical styles for a few moments because they can and for a quick little joke even though of course, when these guys began playng rock they learned blues chords…

Concurrent with Rush, Afrika Bambaata respectfully samples aspects of Rush’s ‘Tom Sawyer’ for ‘Death Mix 2′ showing the long history of rappers respecting rock even as they did something very different. Kanye like Bambaata, is sampling with purpose- sure it’s a hot-sounding sample, but Kanye knows the miles of context that the sample carries along.

Steely Dan have a lot of rap history behind them, in terms of being sampled and making artists pay out the ass for those samples, so it is also a very contemporary signifier of wealth: “I got the money and clout to sample Steely Dan!”. There’s also the silly but relevant controversy of a few years ago when Steely Dan won ‘Album of the Year’ over, Eminem even though tons of people didn’t even know Steely Dan released an album. All of this subtext is swirling around in th background of ‘Champion’ although of course, it is first and foremost just a really great-sounding song.

The reason I harp on this context is a) because no one else is wasting their time to discuss it and b) because it’s good evidence of how complicated and smart rap music can be. I don’t think Kanye is any more insightful or “smart” than UGK or others, but as Noz suggested here, Kanye has developed a persona that makes him a “serious artist”. What that allows people like me to do, is blabber on about context and subtext and politicized sampling without getting looks and silent groans about “over-interpretation” as I might if I gave a college professor ‘Underground Kingz’ and said the same stuff. Kanye has been on the cover of ‘Time’ and ‘Rolling Stone’ and spoke out against Bush, so in the eyes of the rap-ignorant and even rap-phobic, that makes him “serious”. Kanye West is yes, a digestible but smart and hard-working example of rap music’s potential.

Written by Brandon

September 13th, 2007 at 5:43 pm

Posted in Kanye West

New Biographical Dictionary of Rap Entry: Slug by Daniel Krow

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Daniel Krow, blogger for The Party’s Crashing Us added an entry on the rapper Slug. It’s very good and respectful while still addressing the white, indie rapper’s “problematic” relationship with rap. I particularly like the part where he says Slug wants to be a singer-songwriter. It was a good choice because I don’t want the “dictionary” to reflect my views and biases but sort of be messy and contradictory. If I wrote all of it or forced the rappers that got entries, the whole thing would be predictable.

The first time I really listened to Slug, I felt unclean. An unspoken rule when rapping about partying and casual sex is that you keep it light and bawdy, celebrating all the transitory pleasures of getting drunk off your ass and hooking up with a stranger while cutting away right before things get weird and complicated. Slug doesn’t follow this rule. His rhymes are full of blackouts, hangovers, and hateful glances from girls he barely knows. The world of Slug’s rhymes is messy and ugly and often without redemption, mostly because Slug’s attempts at uplift sound like a junkie swearing he’s going to quit drugs, get a job, get married, etc, even though the idea of those things were what made him start using in the first place…

Written by Brandon

September 13th, 2007 at 4:02 pm

Baltimore City Paper Article: UGK and Common Review

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My first article in-print! I’m excited! Thanks to Ray and Tom. If you live in the Baltimore area, the City Paper is free and available all over the place. I’ll probably run out and get it and cut it out and keep it (no seriously, I will!)…

“Common’s Finding Forever and UGK’s Underground Kingz are “albums” in the true sense of the word: a group of consistent, thematically cohesive songs. This fact alone elevates both above most of the year’s rap releases, but while Common coasts by on his consciousness, UGK sounds dissatisfied with delivering product and offers something more than meeting expectations.”

I ignored it to not sound ungrateful and because it ultimately doesn’t matter, but the online version is a little messed-up. It’s labeled only as a review of UGK, so when I start talking about Common, it seems kind of weird. The print version is properly labeled and gets the last name right too (Jew-BERG)…

Written by Brandon

September 12th, 2007 at 3:25 pm

Posted in City Paper, Common, UGK

Kanye West Week Part Three: ‘Good Morning’

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Many were thankful that ‘Graduation’ has no skits; I’d have to agree. Beginning the album with an introductory-sounding track that lyrically, contains the self-deprecation found in the Track One skits of ‘College Dropout’ and ‘Late Registration’ works just as well.

‘Late Registration’ was mired in predictable skits that strung along an already inconsistent album. Many would say the same for ‘College Dropout’ but I disagree. I see ‘College Dropout’ as some kind of post-Golden Age masterpiece. That is to say, all of the filler and junk of post-1998 rap albums (too many skits and guests, bloated length) pops-up on ‘College Dropout’ but comes out as a strength. I actually find the skits funny and efficient in linking the album’s songs and the guests are used wisely, almost always against what you expect, so it’s constantly bumping around never doing what you expect, somehow still being consistent in its chaos.

‘Graduation’ has a lot less of that kind of chaos or flat-out inconsistency, as skits and interludes are totally absent and the guests minimal but the result is an album equally complicated as ‘College Dropout’, only the complication is all interior instead of exterior. There’s nobody here to compare or contrast himself with, it’s just Kanye and his lyrics.

An introduction this slow-paced would seem counterintuitive, but it sounds like what it feels to get a day started: full of potential but aware of the routine that surronds or even chokes that potential. Kanye constantly dances around it, which is sort of annoying- but ‘Graduation’s theme is getting used to how things work, be it fame, girls, award shows, the industry, or fellow rappers. In this sense, the ease of ‘Good Morning’ sounds like what it feels to wake up for a normal day and drive to work or school or whatever. The feeling is heard in the “Elevators (Me and You)’-esque sound of the beat and the forlorn but still triumphant “ooh-e-ooh…” voices throughout the chorus. Good morning, your day begins, see what good you can glean from it. ‘Everything I Am’, has a similar mix of indignation and resignation, when Kanye says “and I’m back to tear it up/Haters start your engines, I hear em’ gearin’ up” because by this point he knows the drill and embraces the predictability of those around him and even (surprisingly) his own. He sounds less in-transition than he did on ‘College Dropout’ and not out of his mind as he did on ‘Late Registration’. He knows how things work and what to expect and what he’s supposed to do, but tries to find new ways of doing and saying.

Even the college criticism returns when he delivers one more really cutting critique of the college-going crowd. He does it with plenty of fervor but he sounds like it’s what is to be expected (and it is), like he’s no longer in-shock or pissed off about it: “Some people graduate but they still stupid/They tell you ‘read this, ‘eat this’, ‘don’t look around-”. I particularly like the line “eat this” because it shows that his frustration comes from experience and not some general anti-intellectualism (the kind often found by angry blog commenters). The equal amount of apathy and self-righteousness of the college educated can be mind-boggling. Pointing towards their ability to comment upon even one’s eating habits perfectly encapsulates any thinking person’s frustration with so many holding a degree.

Kanye also has a habit of taking and adapting hilarious, time-specific cliches of rap and putting a new spin on them. He does it a few times on ‘Graduation’ and his use of Jay’s voice on ‘Good Morning’ invokes ‘Bring Em’ Out’ and ‘I’m a Hustla’. While those songs jacked the line/voice for a catchy chorus, Kanye uses Jay-Z as a production trick and aural mission statement to rappers like T.I, Cassidy, and others. You hustlers, will you still be alive after you hear this weird-ass but apparently really successful album? Can your played-out and arguably socially irresponsible style really last? There’s that line in this song “they stole your streetness” which speaks to the continued co-opting of rap culture but also to the very-real fact that Kanye has taken some of that “streetness” in terms of appeal and popularity without being very “street”. If a rapper can take your beats, improve upon them, and your appeal is hot beats, you’re own your way to being extinct.

When the Jay-Z sample “Hustlas, that’s if you’re still living” comes in, late in the track, it’s one of the many truly transcendent moments on ‘Graduation’. Kanye is at his best when he is mixing and matching ideas, particularly when they build towards something that would be a mess on paper but somehow works when you hear it. Jay’s line too, is used to subtly suggest the impending death of the crack-rappers which, when framed in this absurd but interesting “50 vs. Kanye for rap’s well-being” hype has added weight.

Of course, he’s not a “concious” rapper, so he has as much with fun serious, political rap as he does with those crack rappers; he obviously has an affinity for both. The line “I’m like a fly Malcolm X/ Buy any jeans necessary” is just one of many lines that if you unpack it, is just trying to define himself through contrast. He’s a guy no doubt informed by Malcolm X (Poppa West was a Panther) but also a guy really into hot clothes and also okay with sort of mocking Malcolm’s words. If you’ve read Tom Breihan’s essay on Brand Nubian from this book, Breihan talks about the group’s ability to be informed by such politics but not above using it for a punchline. The line is also a companion or reference to Jay-Z’s “I’m like Che Guevara with bling on/I’m complex”. Between that line-adapting and the sampled voice and the ending song ‘Big Brother’, Jay-Z’s influence and presence on ‘Graduation’ is palpable even though he never pops in for a guest verse. Kanye as a rap fan as much as a rapper also must know, deep down just how quickly and strangely Jay-Z’s fall has been. He’s now the rapper whose voice you sample and whom you write tribute songs for not one someone as popular as Kanye wants on a song.

Written by Brandon

September 12th, 2007 at 3:18 am

Posted in Kanye West

Kanye West Week Part Two: The Purchase!


Just got back from Best Buy with ‘Graduation’. The whole event of purchasing something you’ve anticipated just can’t be matched on Itunes or downloading or even mail-order. I don’t care about Kanye getting #1 (I seriously think it’s going to be Kenny Chesney) so this isn’t an “event” the way it’s being hyped but you know, a personal event in that the new album from my favorite working rapper is released. I talked to Monique around 11 who had biked to a record store up the street from her dorm to buy it. She said three other people were in the store at 10:30 with ‘Graduation’ in hand. Driving over to get it, I passed my friend Jesse’s girlfriend and thought to text Jesse to see if he had gotten it yet (Kanye” comes out on cell-phone predictive text, weird) and he was on his way to get the album as soon as his girlfriend got to his house. On the way into the Best Buy, I passed by a guy in ballin’ shorts that I went to high school with who had ‘Curtis’ in-hand. In front of me in line, was a true redneck (as in, his neck was red), who had rushed over during his lunchbreak to get the Chesney disc. On the way out, a young black couple, got out of their car, the guy holding an umbrella for his girlfriend, and I heard among their talking “Kanye”…it’s just kind of cool to you know, feel some connection to other people. This is why popular rap or just plain pop music, especially when it’s good and artistic, exciting: You feel like you’re part of something!

Last night, my father’s best friend came over to watch the Ravens game. He’s in his early thirties and attended college during the Golden Age and so, he has a decent knowledge of that era’s rap but of course, age, children, and everyday stress has taken him out of the loop. He also teaches Sex-Ed to “inner-city” teenagers and spends a great deal of his time with them. Perhaps you saw the fairly gross ‘Graduation’ advertisement that was passed-off as a first-half highlight reel during last night’s game. Amongst, my father, his friend, and myself, it sparked a brief discussion of Kanye West. This teacher, a guy who deals with reality like pregnant teens on a daily basis and as a result, has little patience with “I didn’t win any awards bitch-fits” was mocking Kanye but also expressed how his students were talking about the album all day yesterday. My father also chimed in that indeed, who wouldn’t be upset if your performance was all chopped-up and interrupted and then you don’t win any awards. They are both kind of right. I also began telling them about the overstated but not totally incorrect concept that a purchase of ‘Graduation’ is a purchase of smart, positive rap (“So, not cop killing?” said my rap-ignorant father) which motivated the teacher to think of possibly purchasing it to hear and maybe even a couple copies for particularly participatory students in today’s class…

The people who say the packaging is ugly are pretty stupid. It’s supposed to be ugly and just generally kind of out-there and weird and Japanese and on that level, it succeeds. Also, because the entire packaging is Murakami’s art, it really does work as a cohestive product. The card-board case is also a good look; I’ll forever associate cardboard cases with 90s indie rock so maybe it’s a continuation of Kanye’s vague “indie” influences. The ‘Late Registration’ special edition too was in a cardboard case and it fits Kanye’s music/persona. A little sleeker, a little nicer-looking than the average rap album. It also opens the opposite way, some kind of reference to Japanese Manga books? The addition of the poster and the “THANK YOU” printed on the CD’s booklet is a nice gesture in a world where nobody is buying CDs…even if all of this 50 vs. Kanye stuff is hype, I believe that Kanye really does want people to hear his album.

The design and style reminds me of ‘Paprika’ which I’ve only read about and seen the trailer, but does come to Baltimore sometime soon…
I’ll uh, actually write about the music when I get back from work. Until then, check out Straight Bangin’s excellent review: Music For a Monday on a Tuesday: Graduation.

Written by Brandon

September 11th, 2007 at 5:25 pm

Posted in Kanye West

Kanye West Week Part One: Introduction

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Towards the end of Kanye’s performance of ‘The Good Life’ on last night’s MTV Music Video Awards, he raced down the stairs (with T-Pain trailing a few steps behind) to another “suite” and then onto the Palms’ balcony for the song’s final, uplifting chorus, framing himself in front of miles of Las Vegas lights. The image was really kind of powerful. On the surface, it’s just one more rapper celebrating his success through gross, super-obvious symbols of wealth but that’s only half of it, because as we all know (it’s become it’s own cliche by now) Kanye’s into contradiction.

It was very Kanye West-like the way he managed to make something pretty great with only what was available to him. The poor lighting, poorer camera work, and general chaos all just served to aid the performance because it never got too epic or grand and that’s what ‘The Good Life’ is about. It’s a song about the being thankful, even deferential to the good-hand one’s been dealt. The girls who have “more ass than the models” and other “minor” but actually major victories. Early in the song Kanye announces “let’s go on a livin’ spree” with the same swagger he might brag about tearing the mall up on a shopping spree. When T-Pain comes in at the end with “It’s the good life/Better than the life I lived/When I thought that I was gonna go crazy”, Kanye positions himself in front of the Vegas skyline for the camera and that image, Kanye in his stupid glasses and fancy tux, performing a song about finally making it in front of a city that embodies “making it” worked better than those goofy angel wings a few years back.

Let’s go back to that line for a bit, “when I thought that I was gonna go crazy”. Going crazy!? I know it’s easy to blow off Kanye’s everyman appeals and blah blah blah, but I think he means and feels it when he refers to the way his pre-fame, less comfortable life really did make him feel crazy. I dunno about you but credit card debt, or that one prick boss, or needing new tires all starts to build-up and I too feel like I’m gonna go crazy…as he says on ‘Champion’, another song tempered with as much sadness as joy: “When it feels like livin’s harder than dying”. So, framing himself, in front of those Vegas lights, on a slowly-dying network’s award show, really did embody ‘Graduation’s thesis: fame is sad, pathetic, and flighty and pretty ugly but holy shit, it’s sort of great and pretty nuts too. Of course, that only needed to be said if the introductory one-two punch of Britney’s vicodin-y performance and Sarah Silverman’s equally ugly cheap-shots (at least Britney is sincere!) didn’t remind you of that little factoid already…a little factoid that at this point, is sort of a given for Kanye. So, he didn’t dwell on it, instead he sort of let it lurk in the background, letting MTV’s obviously lowered budget speak for it, and just dropped another life-affirming rap song.

Then, after the show, he complains about not winning any awards which at this point isn’t even a sympathetic publicity stunt and we’re back to the whiny Kanye that really does seem to lose control of himself. Then, you think about it a bit and watch this and you realize he sort of had a point because at this point, doesn’t MTV need Kanye West and others more than they need it?

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t somehow address September 11th and for me, one of the more comforting articles written about the events came from Armond White and addressed the events in relation to Jay Z’s ‘The Blueprint’: ‘Citizen Jay Z’ by Armond White. The article is also interesting as an example of just how far some of the ideals that were re-affirmed after September 11th and indeed, Jay Z himself, have fallen in six years…

Written by Brandon

September 11th, 2007 at 4:41 am

Posted in Kanye West

Beware of the Hand When It’s Comin’ From The Left

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Kanye West Week begins on Graduation day, so tomorrow! Tonight, you get this-

Woooo! Have you seen this shit? A few weeks ago I tried to peep readers to a Democratic City Councilmen wannabe, trying to make his name by opposing a rap concert held in Baltimore. Well, today, thanks to Oh Word’s ever-dependable ‘Around the Horn’, there’s ‘Offended? The Rap’s On Me.’, an article in the Washington Post by Justin D. Ross, a (gasp!) aspiring Democratic politician! If Sach. O’s article didn’t prove to you why Public Enemy is still relevant, I’ll refer to my favorite piece of Chuck D. knowledge: “Beware of the hand when it’s coming from the left.”

The discussion of rap found in Councilmen Ross’s article is the new wave of opportunistic rap criticism. At this point, nearly everybody under forty years old is at least desensitized if not fairly familiar rap and in due time, O’Reilly-esque scare-mongering isn’t going to fly. Rap’s opposition will increasingly come from people like Ross, who will claim an interest or allegiance and preface their played-out, ill-informed criticisms with stuff like “So I’m not just sounding off when I say this”; please, please don’t buy into it.

I’ll begin with Ross’s stance of implicating his own whiteness. If Ross were the hip-hop insider he claims to be, he’d be aware of how the whole “white people buy most rap music” thing is a myth. Hell, you’d think he’d have even read about it Bakarai Kitwana’s wonderful ‘Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop’. There’s an entire chapter called ‘Erasing Blackness: Are White Suburban Kids Really Hip-Hop’s Primary Audience?’! For a politician so concerned with what is “harmful to race relations”, you’d think he’d be aware that communal aspects of the African-American community allow bootlegs, mixtapes, etc. to be easily available or you know, the way most malls and major entertainment stores are located in white areas and on the statistic tip, black people going to those stores would have those purchases chalked-up to the white side. Sure, strictly going on “sales” white people buy the most rap albums but any actual research shows that they are not the primary consumers.

I also want to know why he assumes every white person buying rap (or just every white person?) comes from “comfortable suburban neighborhoods”. Plenty of low-income white people purchase and embrace rap music too. Sure, the music does not “degrade” them but as MC One Man Gangler pointed out in the comments section of this entry…if you’re going to use white people’s supposed majority purchasing of rap music to argue your political points, you cannot also assume that the music does not negatively affect those same white people. At least be consistent.

The only consistency is Ross’s towing of an outdated liberal party-line that still perceives white people as oppressors and black people as helpless victims. It isn’t a surprise, that at least according to the music cited in his article, he listens to overtly political rap (Public Enemy, the Roots, Talib Kweli) and dumbed-down coke rap (Rick Ross, Young Jeezy); the two most grotesque clichés of the black experience. Of course, citing the artists he does may just be further evidence that he isn’t that big of a hip-hop head and just listens to the popular stuff. In 2007, it’s Jeezy, in 1989 it was Public Enemy.

Ross simply adopts that outdated “white people are the primary consumers of rap” argument among a few similarly disingenuous arguments because they fit. You’d think he’d be above such a purposefully simple-minded understanding of a word like “nigga” and of course, how it is indeed, quite different from “nigger”. The O’Reilly-like move of referring to rap’s complex use of the word “nigga” as simply a “racial epithet” is a cheap shock strategy and pretty offensive from a supposed lover of hip-hop. To bolster his argument and to get some additional hip-hop head “cred”, Ross cites his early embrace of Public Enemy. He has a good point in subtly contrasting their 1989 popularity with 2007’s significantly less-refined rappers, but he dismisses it all with safe jokes about his embrace of the group: “Before I graduated from Kenmoor Middle School, I was ready to “Fight the Power” because Public Enemy told me to (even though I didn’t really know what that meant).” Ross doesn’t want to take Public Enemy’s revolutionary raps too seriously because it would make him look absurd and bring up images of “co-opting”, so he laughs it off, which totally messes up his thesis. So, as long as people mindlessly follow “positive” rap and not “negative” rap, it’s all okay? Spoken like a true, Puritanical liberal…

Will you be removing those hateful songs from your iPod, Mr. Ross? When did it suddenly hit you that some of the rap you were listening to was “degrading”? I have a feeling it was pretty recently, you know, when every other no-name politician, pundit, and talking-head, decided to use rap music as a springboard for mild political fame.

Written by Brandon

September 10th, 2007 at 4:15 am

Biographical Dictionary of Film Entry: J Dilla

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First though- do any kind readers of this blog live in New York and have a place for myself and Monique (editor/my girlfriend) to stay Tuesday, September 11th? My Father has a business trip to New York on Wednesday but Tuesday night is the Kanye in-store at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square- maybe even someone out there was planning on going anyways? I could even give you like a 100 bucks or so. I know that’s sort of weird but if anybody does, e-mail me: .

We’re both very nice and polite guests and really just need a place to sleep for the night. My only stipulation is NO ASSRAPE.

So, yeah. It’s been a busy week, starting teaching and all, so I’m a little behind on regular posts but I did manage to knock-out another entry for The Biographical Dictionary of Rap:

“Jay Dilla aka Jay Dee (James Yancey)
b. Detroit, Michigan, 1974-2006
1996: Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia. 1996: Slum Village’s Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1. 1996: A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes, Life. 1998: A Tribe Called Quest’s The Love Movement. 1999: Q-Tip’s Amplified.2000: D’Angelo’s Voodoo. 2000: Common’s Like Water for Chocolate. 2000: Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. 2000: Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 2.2001: Fuck the Police Single. 2001: Welcome 2 Detroit.2002: Common’s Electric Circus. 2003: Jaylib’s Champion Sound. 2003: Ruff Draft EP. 2006: Donuts. 2006: The Shining. 2007: Phat Kat’s Carte Blanche.200?: Jay Love Japan.

Dilla is that odd kid in your elementary school, never talking, head-down, drawing weird comic book worlds with little interest in recess, as if he discovered alienation and angst six grades before everybody else. You peek over at his drawing and he covers it up, maybe even has a 49ers folder ready to stick over ridiculously detailed sketches. That image might be the result of posthumous idealization, but the true stories cum legends, how he hid in the car with his Mom outside of the Grammys, how he made beats in the hospital rail-thin and dying, are inspiring whether they are totally true or not because the music sounds like a dude that did that stuff. I recall reading after his death that he was survived by children…can you imagine Dilla having sex? I thought he never left the studio?!

Especially after his death, Dilla was referred to over and over again as “the producer’s producer” and while that may be accurate- his reputation among a wide variety of beatmakers and serious rap nerds is unmatched- his style is too out-there and rarified to really take that title. It is more appropriately given to someone like DJ Premier because the “blank’s blank” in any artform generally suggests unmatched virtuosity, that is only fully appreciated by the obsessives and it was not Dilla’s virtuosity that made his music fly over the heads of the normies but his disinterest in not being obscure.

He’s the kind of guy that will forever be an influence on others but short of his development of the “neo-soul” sound, Dilla was not tangibly “significant”. Pharrell Williams’ thick, loud drums have their roots in a Dilla influence and Kanye West’s grab-from-anywhere-obvious-or-obscure sampling does too, but neither of them are “Dilla-esque”. That’s because no one really sounds like Dilla and it will forever stay that way.

The early work, for the most part, really is “producer’s producer” type stuff. A lot of it, defined the too-subtle, too-laid back bohemian neo-soul, “concious” sound that bores me to tears. He got an early reputation as the guy who “ruined” Tribe and the Pharcyde and while there might be some validity to the Tribe accusations, those Pharcyde beats are undeniable. Labcabincalifornia isn’t “fun” but it’s not boring and it’s actually mature and you know, not “mature”. It seems however, that into the 2000s, he grew tired of maturity and “maturity”. Recognizing that “neo-soul” had become a grotesque cliche, Dilla began releasing solo works that succeeded any of his work for others.

2001 saw him leaving the group he helped found Slum Village, switching his name from Jay Dee to J Dilla, allegedly to avoid confusion with Jermaine Dupri but I think, to reflect a change in attitude. The single Fuck the Police has a beat and message immediate as his earlier work had been contained and subtle. That same year, on the BBE label, he released Welcome 2 Detroit featuring a bunch of friends and an insanely varied but cohesive group of songs. His Donald Byrd cover ‘Think Twice’ is a wonderful 70s soul-jazz vamp, that is a homage without winking or nodding, even the super-sexy keyboard intro doesn’t sound like camp- but then it ends with 40 or so seconds of audio of a bunch of friends talking and then running from random gunfire; Dilla began to define himself by contrast and contradiction.

In 2002, he was diagnosed with a rare, incurable blood disease. Although his integrity was always unmatched, it’s hard not to read an increased not giving a shit to the fact that he had an incurable disease. It appears that he began completely following his muse (not that he hadn’t already but still-), working on Common’s polarizing Electric Circus and showing little interest in giving production to acts that weren’t his friends. That same year, a solo album and album with Detroit rappers Frank-N-Dank, went unreleased by MCA and as the liner notes for Stones Throw’s re-release off Ruff Draft tell the story, this inspired him to make that EP (knowing he was going to probably die early had something to do with it too).

Ruff Draft is Dilla’s statement of intent, although not his most accomplished or best release, it feels angry, contrarian, and inspired. Over increasingly avant samples, whirls of sounds and lo-fi beats, he spits with equal anger against those killing the game and the backpackers: “And those backpackers wanna confuse it/Niggas is icy ain’t got nothing to do with the music” (from ‘Make Em’ NV’). One interlude is simply a poorly recorded answering machine message of a woman bitching him out and that segues into ‘Crushin’ an off-kilter half-groove containing the chant “I wanna fuck all night”. Of course, the album also contains the emotional ‘Nothing Like This’ a love song and an outro track that cites friends and influences; again with the contrast. His collaboration with the Madlib, Champion Sound, is well-loved by fans but I find it to be only halfway engaging (the Dilla half).

In 2005, his health problems became more public and more apparent and he was also diagnosed with Lupus. The stories are well-known and touching: Dilla in and out of the hospital, working on beats from a hospital bed, his Mom and friends at his side. Donuts, released on his birthday in 2006 (and what turned out to be three days before is death), is his masterpiece. Knee-jerk cynics suggested that it would not have been embraced the way it was/is/will be if it were not on the heels of his death, but that’s missing the point because it is an album about death. I’d understand if the posthumous The Shining received vast amounts of praise the way Donuts did, but it did not because one is a complete, complex piece or art and one is a conventional producer album, with different rappers on each song (the instrumental version of The Shining however, makes for a great listen).This guy that runs this great record store in Baltimore told my friend that Donuts is “[J-Dilla’s] love-letter to the world” and that isn’t far-off. I won’t even attempt to articulate the greatness of Donuts, you just need to hear it.

Songs You Should Have On Your IPod:
‘Stakes Is High’ (off De La Soul’s Stakes Is High)
‘Runnin’ (off Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia)
‘Somethin That Means Something’ (off Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia)
‘Got ‘Til Its Gone’ (off Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope)
‘Dynamite’ (off the Roots’ Things Fall Apart)
‘The Light’ (off Common’s Like Water for Chocolate)
‘Thelonius’ (off Common’s Like Water for Chocolate)
‘Let’s Grow’ (off Lyricist’s Lounge 2, song by Royce Da 5′9″)
‘Climax’ (off Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 2)
‘Fuck the Police’ (off Fuck the Police Single)
‘Think Twice’ (off Welcome 2 Detroit)
‘Pause’ (off Welcome 2 Detroit)
‘The $’ (off Ruff Draft EP)
‘Crushin (Yeah)’ (off Ruff Draft EP)
‘Starz’ (off Jaylib’s Champion Sound)
‘Reunion [MC Only]‘ (off Slum Village’s Detroit Deli)
‘Time: Donut of the Heart’ (off Donuts)
‘Dilla Says Go’ (off Donuts)
‘Last Donuts of the Night’ (off Donuts)
‘Whip You With A Strap’ (off Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale)
‘So Far to Go’ (off The Shining)”

Written by Brandon

September 7th, 2007 at 6:32 pm

Post-Purist Sampling

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Joseph Schloss’ great book ‘Making Beats: The Art of Hip-Hop Sampling’ has a section that outlines the Purist’s Seven Rules for Sampling. I wish I had a copy of the book in front of me because that would make this post way more effective but I don’t. That’s the thing I miss most about college, not the parties and easy-to-attain drugs, but a solid, reference library…basically, Schloss’ lists makes explicit those sampling rules anyone with a working knowledge of rap and samples takes for granted.

I never think too hard about sampling on any kind of ethical level until a sample jumps out at me as being particularly “bullshit” or I’m forced to defend sampling as a concept. Recently, I was struck by the odd mixing of worlds that became Kanye West’s ‘Stronger’ and Justice’s ‘†’. Kanye samples Justice’s biggest influence, months after he insulted the group, while Justice, make an electro-ish, dance music that uses samples in a way that resembles a classic rap album and even includes a a rapper on one song. Kanye’s sampling of Daft Punk is Puffy-like in its simplicity and obviousness and from a purist perspective, it seems fairly offensive. Justice’s samples are generally more brief and subtle; the purist would applaud these French hipsters.

Yet, something struck me as messed-up about this dichotomy and it became really clear on ‘Phantom Pt. 1’ and ‘Phantom Pt. 2’ by Justice (I was also reminded of this by Daniel Krow’s sampling entries). ‘Phantom’ samples probably one of my favorite songs of all-time, ‘Tenebre’ by Goblin (from the ‘Tenebre’ soundtrack) and does it in a way equally obvious as Kanye’s looping ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’. While Kanye’s sample never bothered me on any sort of “ethical” level, Justice’s use of ‘Tenebre’ does. The main reason is that I’m not sure how many people even realize that those ‘Phantom’ tracks are based on samples, particularly because the sample is from an instrumental, electronic track, so it sort of just fits right in. There’s something cheap about the song, playing a barely-sampled, really dope-sounding song to a bunch of club types that will indeed respond to its dopeness but choosing a song obscure enough that very few of them will go “Hey, that’s Goblin!”.

Perhaps an equal amount of people aren’t aware of Kanye’s use of Daft Punk, but Kanye seems to have taken great pains to make his sampling explicit. He put the group in the video and has referred to them in numerous interviews. Furthermore, his intended audience, seems to be “with-it” rap-type nerds (I recall producer Black Milk referencing Daft Punk a year or so ago) that already know Daft Punk or will search out the source of the sample, and mainstream pop/rap fans with little interest in musical minutiae. For them, the sample source hardly matters. This defies previous understandings of sampling ethics. It now seems ethically appropriate to sample something obvious and arguably played-out, for although it is audience-baiting it is significantly less disingenuous.

This is undoubtedly the opinion that could only come from someone too young to be totally offended by the Puffy era of sampling. The apotheosis of sampling is undoubtedly the early Golden-age era which birthed the Bomb Squad, Pete Rock, DJ Premier and many, many, others. At the same time, but relegated to smaller regional genres, at least at first, is the extension of sample lengths and the open-ness towards interpolations of older songs. What was once kind of regional becomes super-common with Dr. Dre and others.

Dre’s George Clinton samples to me, are similar to Kanye’s Daft Punk sampling in that, the extension into popular rap excuses the obviousness but say, the RZA’s sampling, although classic and probably my favorite of all-time, feels a little cheap for its adoption of obscure or relatively obscure music and relatively minimal sampling: Wasn’t it just a little disheartening when you heard that Charmels song that is the basis of ‘C.R.E.A.M’? This is not to discredit any of these producers but it does really sort of complicate what defines a fair or ethical sample.

The ultimate rule is (and should be) fuck ethics if it sounds cool and to me, the Puffy era, for all of its “bad” deeds, did make producers more okay with this feeling. Maybe it’s why we get so many great beats but fewer and fewer great rappers. The rules for a rapper have still not been broken-down, the Rakim style is still mindlessly imitated and the ad-lib kings just made an end-run about the rapping part of rap; no one has really gelled the two together, although an argument could be made that Kanye and Lil Wayne are these weird transitional figures…I’m not so sure yet.

But back to sampling and Puffy’s positive contributions to music- Just Blaze and Kanye West, producers that were equally influenced by Puffy as they were by Pete Rock, got their start with Harlem World and moved onto Roc-A-Fella where they basically made more acceptable, more awesome songs in the vein of Puffy’s style. Is there really that big of a difference between Puffy’s super-obvious samples and say, Just Blaze’s sort-of obvious ‘Move On Up’ sample on ‘Touch the Sky’? Now that sampling is commonplace in everything from Coldplay sampling Kraftwerk to JR Rotem sampling something as “timeless” as ‘Stand By Me’ it is context that determines a sample’s ethical “legitimacy” and not a group of static, easy-to-apply set of cratediggers’ rules.

Written by Brandon

September 5th, 2007 at 6:20 am