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Archive for September, 2008

Metal Lungies: RZA Beat Drop

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The latest “beat drop” from Metal Lungies uh, dropped. My beats were: “Tical” (Method Man), “North Star (Jewels)” (Raekwon), “Reunited” (off Forever), and “No Said Date” (Masta Killa):

““Tical”, the first song on the first solo Wu album — and the start of The RZA’s hyper-productive 1994-1997 production period — was still rugged and raw, but musically, it felt a little more cohesive and musical; even more of a step away from the Marley Marl-style still prevalent in early ’90s New York rap and kinda there on Enter The Wu-Tang. Thick, rolling drums and an oppressive keyboard line dominate this track and perfectly fit Method Man’s weeded persona, while a foggy cloud of voices talk shit in the background for most of the song. A lot of producers would’ve taken the inexplicable success of stuff like “C.R.E.A.M.” and decided to actively court hit singles after that, but RZA and”

Written by Brandon

September 25th, 2008 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Metal Lungies, RZA, Wu Tang

The House Next Door: Music Video Round-Up (The Videos of M83)

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“Like “Graveyard Girl,” it ends with the outsider—or in this case, outsiders—getting the guy(s), but their video-ending make-out session with dread-locked roller-bladers is an age and community acceptable transference for the characters’ love for one another. The parents-acceptable culmination of the homoeroticism and doubling hinted at in the first scene, where the girls change in front of one another, intercuts with tight close-ups of each of them, making their bodies indistinguishable.

For all that Film Studies stuff though, Husson makes the same statement in other parts of the video in more playful ways. The appearance of the Siren-like skaters turns into an absurd Big Lebowski homage, which makes way for a brilliant and inexplicable cut to the girls downhill skating, perfectly matched to the song’s airy bridge. It doesn’t make conventional sense, but it’s perfect.”

Written by Brandon

September 25th, 2008 at 2:22 pm

Rap’s Post-Lyrical Phase Pt. II: How We Got Here.

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The focus on Kanye West and Lil Wayne as “post-lyrical” rappers and for the sake of simplification, the post-lyrical rappers, is due to both their popularity and favorable critical reception. They also transcend or just don’t fuck around with a lot of the cliches of rap (although they’re slowly building a whole new group of cliches for future rappers) and so, the moral quandaries about crime glorification and all that mostly doesn’t apply to either of these guys, while say, a discussion about Young Jeezy (certainly post-lyrical) would be hard to go into without sort of discussing that stuff.

Yes, Wayne might fall into the “crack rap” category but his work, especially as of the past few years, seems less interested in it and drug dealing’s only invoked as some fucked-up foggy memory from his teens or a violent/drug-dealing threat/boast is now used to exemplify his strength and power as a rapper. Like Chuck D. saying his “uzi weighs a ton” or something, it’s a boast about skills transferred onto well-worn rap cliches.

Kanye of course, has never dealt with raps about drugs and violence and has wisely balanced a persona based on his lack of experience/familiarity with “the life” with a persona that doesn’t remind listeners every few minutes that he indeed, does not rap about those things. This doesn’t make these guys “better” than rappers following the “Nas formula”–indeed, Wayne falls back on gun talk when he feels like it and Kanye’s got plenty of clothes and shoe references to keep him afloat–it just makes them different.

Their basic eschewing of violence and/or relative refusal to fall back on well-worn rap cliches is something of a return to the “Native Tongues” stuff. The main focus for Kanye and Wayne is fun and an all-encompassing need to stand-out. Sure, it doesn’t have the hyper-explicit politics of the Tongues who indeed, wanted to stand out in part, to oppose (what we now call) “gangsta rap” but part of critical and popular embrace of my post-lyrical posterboys is that they bring a rarified and individual voice back to hyper-corporatized hip-hop. Whether you like them or not, Kanye and Wayne are very strange and very unpredictable pop stars.

In the first part of this, Noz asked me how De La Soul didn’t engage in the same kind of “weirdo wordplay” that I connected to the post-lyricists or to my super-obvious examples of Kool Keith and Grand Puba. The short answer is, De La Soul do engage in that kind of wordplay (and do it better). The slightly longer answer is, De La Soul are total fucking geniuses and completely transcend whatever era or trend or whatever me or any other dopey rap pseudo-scholar sticks them in. The long answer is, De La Soul do the weirdo wordplay game, but they do it within the frame of conventional, metered, rhyming raps. They are technically proficient, lyrically smart, and purposefully sloppy as well. De La Soul’s wordplay still fits within the expected understanding of “rap” and “rapping” while Kanye and Wayne don’t always do that and it seems, their fans and detractors sometimes have a hard time defining what exactly these guys do on the mic.

This is interesting because when both of them started out, Kanye and Wayne were fairly conventional rappers. Like most trends or slowly-gestating almost-trends, the guys that best exemplify or represent the trend are to some extent, bandwagon jumpers. While snobs and nostalgics will completely dismiss the rapping on The College Dropout and Late Registration as not very good–arguing about technical ability is a waste of time and a task that will never result in full agreement– there’s undoubtedly a significant shift in Kanye’s rapping on the first two albums when compared to Graduation. His flow is significantly slowed-down (something I think, he swiped from post-retirement Jay-Z, which makes this whole thing way more complicated) and his focus went from funny punchlines and rap references to near-nonsense word-association. Example: “They got the CD, then got to see me/Drops gems [pronounced like "Gym"] like/I dropped out of P.E”.

Lil Wayne has always been a very good rapper, even when he was like, fourteen. The critic-created story arc of his rapping career was developed by a bunch of dudes that never heard anything he did before Tha Carter and made jokes about CASH-MONEY, but retroactively bought all those CDs for 6 bucks used and pretend like they’ve been bumping Tha G-Code since 1999. Wayne has always been something of a throwback–or was before his mixtape blitz which radically changed his style–and even in the Hot Boys, he was doing the Nas formula by way of his more immediate Southern influences, while Juvenile (a very good rapper too) is strictly or mostly “Southern”. Wayne’s “mixtape” flow on the other hand, grew increasingly odd and experimental and strayed ever further from the “Nas formula”.

The medium of the mixtape allowed Wayne a place to do whatever he wanted and the availability of these mixtapes, coupled with the hyper-immediacy of the internet allowed direct, non-corporate/non-audience-tested feedback about these “songs”. Listening to the Wayne of “Georgia Bush” now sounds quantifiable when compared to the Wayne of the stuff on Drought 3 or Carter 3 (or at least, the weirder parts of Carter 3). Example: “They cannot see [Nazi] me/Like Hitler”.

There’s also a lot more conventional melody in Kanye’s songs and more than enough singing and crooning in much of Wayne’s work. This too, has always been a part of their work, Dropout in particular, succeeded beyond being a weird, “conscious” rap album (which is what it is) because Kanye’s melodies were all sung and performed by him and we, the listeners could carry a tune just as well. The sing-song feel of the album made it relate-able and memorable. Wayne’s flow has always been more melodic and bouncy. Undoubtedly, this is the result of being a Southern rapper and in Southern rap, conventional musicality is much more pervasive. In that sense, Wayne and Kanye are just bringing to the forefront a key part of their success because they now are famous enough that we’ll even eat up their auto-tune experiments and also because, popular music is way more ready for auto-tune experiments.

Which brings us to the next reason for post-lyricism: the changed pop music climate. The example that’s often referenced–and again, the one that every dumb Popular Music Prof will be using in thirty years–is Timbaland, particularly the baby sample in Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody”. In Timbaland and that beat in particular, so many of the trends that now pervade pop, R & B, and rap can be traced: weird merging of experimentalism with straight-forward dance music, electronics over instrumentation and/or sampling, the Southern rap takeover, a weird Futuristic aesthetic, etc. The “Nas formula” just doesn’t work as well over top of skittering synths and rave-ready drums (look no further than “Hero” by Nas as proof) and so, as the sound of the music-makers changed, so did the raps put over that music. That’s not to say auto-tune warbling or half-rhyming raps sound all that good over electronic beats either, but it makes a lot more sense.

Additionally, there’s more music in the beats of Timbaland, the Neptunes, etc. Once again, this has a lot to do with the South’s musical influence on rap. The open spaces in the beats fit the open space of the South’s landscape, the South’s rich musical history coupled with a more laid-back, relative lack of New York hustle and bustle, encourages the playing and mastering of musical instruments, and the importance of the church and church music in Southern communities makes so much of the black Southern population keenly aware of musicality. Singing and melody made their way into the raps and rhymes and slowly, through guys like Timbaland (and many, many, many others that will get lost in the shuffle that simplifies music history for textbooks), this all wormed its way into the pop landscape. Rapping tightly constructed rhymes (with or without nonsense style wordplay) and then getting a crew of dudes to shout a hook just doesn’t work over the sounds constructed by the new guard of rap producers.

Written by Brandon

September 22nd, 2008 at 4:01 am

Rap’s Post-Lyrical Phase


Rappers aren’t rapping anymore. That’s not the grumble of an old-school fan or knee-jerk disappointment upon hearing say the Kanye/Lil Wayne/Jay-Z/T.I track “Swagger Like Us” or the rap-less “Love Lockdown”, it’s just a fact. Most of radio’s rappers are doing as much singing or club-ready chanting as rapping, and the few guys still rapping are layover from the late 90s/early 2000s or are named Lil Wayne and Kanye West-and the “talents” of those two are for some reason, still up to debate.

Sure, there’s plenty of rapping in the “underground”–which at this point, just means, not one of the like 12 artists that can still get rap radio support–and the so-called “hipster rap” trend/sub-genre offers some genuine rapping, but really, rappers just aren’t rapping anymore and it’s a bummer, but it also just makes sense.

The height of rap “lyricism” (a term that means nothing but everyone reading this knows its meaning) was during the early-to-mid-90s when hyper-poetic rappers like Wu-Tang and Nas and Biggie ruled the radio. Since then, every rapper’s tried to occupy that same space and failed, not for a lack of talent, but because it’s a pretty much perfect era that was able to function at a pretty high-level of visibility with a relative lack of corporate interruption…and then it ended. The death of Biggie and Tupac, Wu-Tang’s dissolution, enter the era of Puffy–all the stuff you’ll one day read about in a music textbook on the history of rap– but most importantly (and word to Dart Adams) The Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Nas’ story of never being able to truly top his classic Illmatic is also the story of every rapper to pick up a mic and get influenced by Nas or any of those 92-96 classics, constantly looking back to the shadow of that 90s era and never being able to top it. In the world of smart people books and stuff, it’s considered “the anxiety of influence”; basically, the weird tension of wanting to respect and also transcend your influences takes on a kinda fucked-up father/son relationship.

Many of the trends of recent rap, stuff like, rhyming words with the same words, non-sequitur similes, contempt for metaphors, increasingly out-there pop culture references, a bounds-less sense of free association, and a tendency to mix and merge musical influences outside of hip-hop, are often cited for the “decline” of “lyricism” and that may be true, but it’s also a bunch of artists finally, formally rejecting what I’ll call, “the Nas formula”.

And the word “formula” is used advisedly because at this point, it’s nothing more than that. This is not about Nas’ lyrical brilliance or lack thereof–many songs on the recent Untitled maintain Nas’ energy and verbal brilliance–but about the way that like most things, it got reduced to a messy series of verbal signs, signifiers, and cliches that connote “lyrical” to an audience of both ignorant and well-informed rap fans. Wander into any college rap show or arrive really early for the first act of say, a GZA show and you’ll see the “Nas formula” at-hand: Rap with lots of feigned passion, use some big words, eschew a lot of broads talk, vaguely invoke politics and you’re there.

Kanye West and Lil Wayne are both post-lyrical, understanding and well-informed by 90s rap but increasingly disinterested in overtly having much to do with it. This is hard for older rap fans whose ears have been accustomed to the “Nas formula” to accept. The artistic choices, some of them strange and ill-advised, sound more like a lack of talent than an attempt to forge some new, interesting way to rap. Joke punchlines and wordplay puns stretched so far that the joke is just how far it was taken, hold as much clout as solid metaphors and to-the-point storytelling.

One of the roots of the post-lyrical phase is Dipset’s “No Homo”. The “No homo” line is as much about hyper-making sure you didn’t say some gay stuff as it was about bending the meanings of phrases into every conceivable direction and finding something gay in even the most innocuous phrases. “No Homo” was a word game created by a bunch of rappers obsessed with word-games. There’s a clear connection between “no homo” and something like Wayne saying “they cannot see me/Like Hitler”. Kanye’s a rapper that on College Dropout was pretty much rapping like it was 1992–the “De La Soul” formula if you will, something oddly enough, Pharrell pretty much lives by every time he raps–but has made a decision to fall into the weirdo word games and purposefully groan-inducing punchline goofiness of post-lyrical rap. These guys are painfully aware that the “Nas formula” cannot be improved upon and instead, take a little from it here and there but try to do something else. This is the same thing that has happened in the history of every art-form.

While the argument could be made that generally art does not “devolve”, there’s a sense in which an end-run is made around complexity or maxmalism because it’s sort of come to a head. The history of 20th century art is a series of artists trying really weird and different stuff–”make it new” being the motto of Modernism–with less and less interest in tradition. How painting got from beautiful well-rendered landscapes, to weirdo scribbles and splatter on canvas has been well-documented, and it’s sort of the same thing as rap’s 90s era, a sort of peak of verbal complexity that inevitably had to be cut-down and fucked around with or completely drown.

The logical extension of the “Nas formula” is the Grad school wordplay jerk-off party of Anticon or El-P at his most verbose and didactic, which you know, worked fine as an alternative but simply couldn’t and shouldn’t function at anything resembling “popular” music, which Wu-Tang, Nas, etc really were for a few years ago (the falling-out in popularity of lyrical rap must also be in part, the fault of the artists who seemingly forgot how to make catchy hooks to accompany their lyric-driven verses).

Southern rap’s infiltration has a lot to do with this too. As the Golden era gets a little further away, reconsideration and re-canonization has come along and part of that has been a fairly radical re-focusing of who and what influenced whom. The latest generation of rappers are younger than me and so, Jay-Z–who is a kind of of a different generation than Nas, Wu, etc.–is one of the benchmarks of lyricism. Wu Tang’s post-Forever fall-out coincides with Ghostface’s reinvention and there’s kinda a generation more influenced by the weirdo, almost post-lyrical insanity of Ghost than Wu’s hard-edged rhymes as a whole. Wayne and Kanye too, find as much to like in weirdo-rappers like Kool Keith and Grand Puba or even the garbled goofiness of Ma$e as do they those rappers’ more stalwart peers.

Written by Brandon

September 19th, 2008 at 8:35 pm

Who’ll Take Care of His Dogs?: David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)


David Foster Wallace hanged himself at some point on Friday. He wasn’t “one of the best writers of his generation” or any of that eulogy stuff, he was the ONLY writer.

All the other dudes whose style closely resembled his, took influence from, or even influenced him, and shared some sort of loose, critic-created kinship with Infinite Jest, or his insanely smart and genuinely hilarious non-fiction, weren’t really doing the same thing. Wallace was funny and fun but not in a like, bon mot-making author way but in a like, everything is absurd and I can make poop jokes about it and reference stuff like Good Times or whatever and not be this writer being funny horse-shit guy and be intellectually rigorous and somehow not even like, be on some I’m reconciling opposites”/high-low/postmodern thing” but just being, inhabiting, both of those things because they were who “DFW” seemed to be.

Wallace seemed like a big guy. Soft-spoken and stammering in interviews, trying to find the “right” words to Charlie Rose’s silly questions but also sort of bursting out of his dress-shirt and in author photos–especially the recent-ish one with his beloved dogs (there’s a great interview in an old The Believer where Wallace gushes about his love of his dogs)–wearing these shit-kicker boots and looking like he could wreck you in a fight if push came to shove.

It was always hard to tell how much his public, bandanda-wearing, long-haired “look” was an image, a weird merging of like a DH Lawrence alpha-male character (DFW basically looked like a lumberjack) and the worst, most obsequious kind of grad student and how much of it was really just how he dressed, but it sort of illustrates his writing…both head-in-the-clouds intellectual insanity and hard-edged, morally serious confrontation with the sad, hard, and glorious realities of life.

Imagine that bigger-than-average lumberjack body hanging, a foot or so from the floor, the toes of his shit-kicker boots aimed back toward the ground. In my head, he’s wearing the exact outfit and looks exactly the same a he does in that aforementioned author photo.

Were his dogs in the house? Did he stick them outside or on the porch or something? As he undoubtedly dangled for awhile, were they barking? He would’ve realized the absurdity of that. I’m not saying it would or should’ve stopped him–the time I tried to kill myself, The Harder They Come OST was playing in my car and I realized this was sort of funny and absurd, but I was alone, so I could ignore the absurdity and not be embarrassed; beyond-palpable feelings of embarrassment are a big reason why people kill themselves–but no doubt, Wallace would’ve thought about these things. His non-fiction especially, showed that he wasn’t the kind of big-brain that could turn it off or adjust it. Why Kafka was funny, David Lynch, tennis, or the Adult Video News award all got approached the same way.

A mildly clever line about the author who never took the easy way out in his writing, taking his life by his own hand could be made, but that would sort of miss the point of Wallace’s work, which was always about the impossibility of figuring everything out and genuinely reconciling things and trying really hard anyway.

His work was about challenging and confusing readers but not in an author as smarmy trickster way, but in a “I hope by challenging you, you will accept the challenge and maybe become a little less desensitized from everything”. This is why he wrote a respectful profile of John McCain for the reactionary left silliness that is ‘Rolling Stone’ or why he spoke to a bunch of graduating students and told them how they needed to shy away from their core, condescension and try harder (and chuckled when they sort of missed the point), and wrote a rap book that hyper-intellectualized rap before it was cool to hyper-intellectualize rap.

“Anyway, but then I started to have dogs. If you live by yourself and have dogs, things get strange. I know I’m not the only person who projects skewed parental neuroses onto his pets or companion-animals or whatever. But I have it pretty bad; it’s a source of some amusement to friends. First, I began to get this strong feeling that it was traumatic for them to be left alone more than a couple hours. This is not quite as psycho as it may seem, because most of the dogs I’ve ended up with have had shall we say hard puppyhoods, including one past owner who went to jail… but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that I got reluctant to leave them alone for very long, and then after a while I got so I actually needed one or more dogs around in order to be comfortable enough to feel like working. And all that put a crimp in outside-the-home writing, a change that in retrospect was not all that good for me because (a) I have agoraphobic tendencies anyway, and (b) home is obviously full of all kinds of distractions that library carrels aren’t.”

A lot of book critic eulogizers who like to think too hard have said stuff about how there’s no “suicide” in Wallace’s writing, while say, Hemingway’s short, hard-ass lines and phrasing are brutally accepting of reducing the world to um, short, hard-ass lines and turns of phrase and I guess, more “suicidal”. Wallace’s work is the same as Hemingway’s and all other writers reaching for empathy and understanding and a weary acceptance of what this world’s all about (or not about). Wallace’s “trick”, where his brilliance begins, is in his ability to take all that silly, fun, show-offy, post-modern, meta-fictional, inter-textual crap and use it for something more than “experimenting with the form” or revealing through post-modern fiction the very post-modernity of the world we live in; “the porousness of certain borders” to steal a phrase from Wallace himself. The only difference between Hemingway and Wallace was in approach…minimalism and maximalism used for the same end goals.

Wallace used all that postmodern stuff but found a good home for it–these tricks were like Wallace’s puppies, Burroughs and Barth and Barthelme and DeLillo had over time, given the techniques “bad puppyhoods”–and re-directed it towards empathy and understanding and human emotions. Yeah, you open Infinite Jest and the jokes are about how each year’s owned by a corporation are there and the footnotes purposeful inhibit conventional readability and the titular film is a comment on how media eats our souls, but all that stuff was the obvious part of Jest. A “trick” in Wallace’s work was the way he exposed the superficiality of a lot of readers and critics who read Infinite Jest, or “The Depressed Person”, or “Incarnations of Burned Children” superficially and then smugly decried the work as superficial.

Wallace’s work, starting with Infinite Jest and up to his death was about sadness. He stated his goal in writing Jest in a interview as this: “I wanted to do something sad. I’d done some funny stuff and some heavy, intellectual stuff, but I’d never done anything sad”. Those footnotes are funny but they’re also joy-hindering interruptions. The kind of interruption you experience when you are watching your favorite TV show and there’s a commercial is the kind of interruption an addict experiences when the path of the straight and narrow gets de-railed is the kind of interruption that occurs when you wake up, determined not to mumble “fuck…” first-thing and expect the worst, only to you know, be confronted with the worst or something close to it…like the death of the only author who really seemed to get or care about what life was like for most people.

Written by Brandon

September 15th, 2008 at 7:14 pm

Kanye’s Heart Broken. And No Longer In Rhyming.


“Lauryn Hill said her heart was in Zion/I wish her heart still was in rhyming/Cause who the kids gonna listen to/ Huh? I guess me if it isnt you.”

Kanye hasn’t gone into hip-hop exile (yet) and he’s still releasing music, but it’s funny that almost exactly one year after Graduation’s release, where he admonished–as both a fan and a kind of pop-culture ethicist–Ms. Hill for leaving the game, he’d release “Love Lockdown”, a raps-less, almost verse-less, mood-piece.

On his blog, Kanye proudly claimed that he’d only written the song a week and a half before he performed it and it shows. A week later, an even less exciting and rambling, recorded version is released and now, it seems to be part of Kanye’s “break-up” album, 808s & Heartbreak–a brilliant title by the way, but one that also sounds like the title of a VH1’s made-for-TV biopic on UGK, “808s & Heartbreak: The UGK Story–which apparently, comes out on December 16th.

The obviously rushed nature of the whole endeavor seems like an ill-advised mix of Kanye following his muse meets record exec desperation–to a record exec, Kanye’s seen as one of the only dudes still selling records–and if “Love Lockdown”s any indication, that’s a bad combination. Kanye does not work well in-the-moment, he’s too emotional and too convinced that everything he says or does is genius. He needs a few weeks to contemplate his ideas–or now, read a bunch of blogs that tell him what to do different–and so, expect a more engaging version of “Love Lockdown”, maybe a “remix” with rapping (and then the remix will be on the album, and the original version, a “Bonus cut”).

One gets the sense that all this T-Pain/The Dream/Rihanna/Everybody hip-pop futurism, along with the mind-boggling artistic and financial success of Tha Carter III has got Kanye chomping at the bit to jump back in and release the next out-there shit; maybe the definitive “out-there” shit. And so, we’re back to Late Registration mode, where it’s not so much about making a really good rap album like College Dropout and Graduation, as it is about courting mainstream (rock) critic praise, not being the one or two rap albums on Rolling Stone year-end lists but being spoken in the same breath as Coldplay and Wilco and/or whatever electronic group everyone’s creaming over!

And so, he makes “Love Lockdown”, a song tailor-made for discussion and celebration amongst the very people who grossly misread Graduation as materialistic and told us that Late Registration was a masterpiece (but haven’t put it back in their CD player in three years). The song’s beat–in a rock concession, he buries the rhythm in the background–does the oh-so clever trick of sounding like a heartbeat, the pianos are just a Coldplay chord progression, the too-easy switching up of “you lose” to “you choose” in the final verse is just silly, while the auto-tune attempts sophistication and not the goofiness of T-Pain (or even the jagged pathos he stumbled upon for his “Put On” verse where he both mocked and took seriously the auto-tune trend). This is self-serious, heart-wrenching stuff, and it will all play-out on an album that gets the dicks of all rockist critics hard: The break-up album.

Cut two minutes out of this and conflate all the music’s peaks into those two minutes and it would work as a pretty good, mood-setting intro for 808s and Heartbreak but at four minutes, it’s languid and limp (Warning: People will tell you that’s the point of the song and you just don’t get it if you employ those adjectives). Kanye’s mumbled chorus–a total let down and the biggest difference between this recorded version and the VMA live version–is the most glaring flaw of the song and it’s connected to Kanye’s irksome, over-conceptualization.

My best guess is Kanye doesn’t let the song blow up into anything resembling a joyous chorus because that’s not what the song’s about–again, easy to explain, teachable–and that may be true, but that explanation doesn’t make the song enjoyable. Critics and music nerds don’t enjoy this song, they pontificate and tie the music loose-ends together and applaud it for “being different” or cynically, say Kanye sucks at rapping anyway and so he shouldn’t do it (near-fascist in their genre expectations, but only when it comes to rap). I dare any readers to find one critical assessment of “Love Lockdown” that reads like the writer enjoys listening to the song.

And that’s because it’s not fun. Nor is it fun in the way that very cerebral or depressive music can be fun. It’s the other side of Kanye West. We’ve grown used to the quasi-rebel crybaby who talks his shit again, but think back to Late Registration or his wings-wearing spectacle at the Grammys and you’ll find the Kanye of “Love Lockdown”: eager to please, approval-grabbing. Will this be Mr. West’s career? One great album which isn’t unanimously praised precisely because it is great (and great stuff’s always a little polarizing) followed by calculated, intellectualized music critic rap that puts him on the cover of TIME magazine? It’s looking that way.

Particularly baffling and depressing though, is the song’s lack of rapping. Not because Kanye is a brilliant rapper not employing his talents–ala’ Andre 3000 or Mos Def–but because rap is the ideal genre for the break-up song/album. The sheer density and amount of words in the average rap allows the kind of complexity and over-abundance of emotions that perfectly fits the feelings of a break-up. The kind of complexity a singer-songwriter needs an entire album to establish can happen in one rap song.

Kanye plays the songwriter game here and loses. The relative lack of words puts greater emphasis on them and makes Kanye’s goofy robot/computer metaphors (“system overload”, “the danger zone”, the video game-like “you lose”) embarrassing instead of goofily sincere or mood-shifting as they would be in a rap. Like most rock-oriented music, “Love Lockdown” tells you that it’s “soul-bearing” and “honest” instead of just being soul-bearing and honest.

Written by Brandon

September 11th, 2008 at 5:17 pm

Are You a Serious Comic Book Reader?!

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If you get a chance, please check out the new comics blog Are You a Serious Comic Book Reader?, written by myself and five of my friends. Expect shorter, more frequent posts–at least a few every day–but the same general attitude and critical eye. We’re kicking things off with a feature called the “Better Than List”, swiped from Armond White’s year-end movie wrap-ups but instead, we’re taking a close look at the comics canon and shitting on the ones that don’t really deserve the hype.

Written by Brandon

September 10th, 2008 at 8:25 am

Posted in Comics, links

"Swagger Like Us" Is Good But Not Very Fun

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The boner-kill feeling that’s spread across the internet when “Swagger Like Us” wasn’t the event record of the year–or really an event record at all–isn’t a surprise, but it’s unfortunate because it’s closed too many ears to one of the weirder and rewind-able songs in quite some time. “Swagger’s not ready for the club and it won’t get the real head’s heads’ bopping either; it’s a truly out-there song from really, the only four rappers that still sell records and even sort of give a shit about rapping or artistry. They just also happen to four of the most delusional, navel-gazing performers around; stuff is complicated like that.

“Swagger Like Us” is exactly what comes out when two really creative rappers who’ve been spoiled their entire lives collaborate with two pretty-smart rappers who weren’t spoiled but think they worked harder than they really did to get where they’ve gotten, meet on tape. If there’s a problem with the song, it’s that the whole thing just feels disconnected from what fans of these superstar rappers would want to hear. Again though, that’s exactly why it’s a really good song. It’s a dissapointment but it’s still fascinating and good. This is not a calculated “banger” and it’s not a super-star collabo that’ll sell ringtones or iTunes downloads or anything. This is a great album cut that’s also a victim of the Internet hype and obsessive-ness where a song that’s yet to be played on the radio for an album that doesn’t come out for a few weeks, is already being discussed as a disappointment.

Both Tom Breihan and Sasha Frere-Jones tellingly invoked the ‘Oceans’ movies but a more apt movie comparison would be those weird times when Hollywood lets some art-film director make a blockbuster–say, Alfonso Cuaron directing Harry Potter–or those even weirder times when a big, Hollywood director does a small movie (like when the ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ director made ‘The Weather Man’).

“Swagger’s a fucked-up, inverted version of one of those DJ Khaled type songs. It’s not trying to be one. This song is not a failed “banger”. The synths don’t bounce around playfully or sound fake-menacing, they stumble in with enough fuzz and buzz to rival a Burzum record. Instead of an annoying Akon or T-Pain hook, there’s an awkwardly chopped M.I.A sample (it’s still annoying though). While the drums are defiant, they aren’t club-ready at all. The drums are all about production tricks like the strange hi-hat, an occasional addition to the drum pattern that’s got some insane low-end (basically his ‘Takeover’ drums), and really artful removal of those drums for extended periods of time. Kanye’s beat sounds like Unicron on his last legs: grumbling electronics, weirdo sound effects, and just an overall messy muddle of sound. According to this T.I interview, the beat for “Swagger” is “[Kanye's] first beat…since the untimely passing of his mom.” Put in that context, maybe “Swagger Like Us” is the sound of someone devastated, trying to drum-up the enthusiasm to make a DJ Khaled-style jam and just not having it. Most people don’t seem to like it, but the sloppy immediacy of “Swagger Like Us” and “Jockin’ Jay-Z” makes for Kanye’s most engaging and humane beats since ‘The College Dropout’ or at least, ‘Be’.

But then, there’s the verses, which sound fun and enthusiastic, but particularly vapid as well. In a sense, the contrast works. A beat this brooding with brooding rapswould fit together in a music-critic-friendly way, but the bigger offense isn’t that nothing’s being said, but that those nothings aren’t being said in particularly creative ways. Creativity wise, Kanye tries the hardest but his attempt at humor or weirdness or whatever just doesn’t work. That Kanye, who presumably set the tone with the beat, would decide to go really goofball on his verse is strange. If there’s validity to that ‘Oceans’ comparison–or rather, where that comparison gets really strong–it’s Kanye doing the rap equivalent of Clooney and company’s insular goof-offs at the beginning of this song. The feeling is that Kanye’s trying out his most gleefully groan-inducing lines (“shit and the urine”, “thousand-trillion”, Columbus and Pilgrims) in an attempt to match Lil Wayne’s most retarded punchlines, so the two can laugh about it later on. Jay-Z and Wayne bring it back by doing what they do and doing it well. They act as the perfect build-up for T.I’s song-ending fury and negate Kanye’s low-energy, pranksterism. Each rapper rises above the previous rapper’s intensity and even though none of them really say anything (and it sure would be nice if they did), there’s a palpable level of excitement to the track. Who knows how or even who decides the order in which they appear on the song, but it would seem, that falls under the umbrella of producing and so, Kanye was wise to start the song off and hand it over to the others.

The song “Swagger Like Us” seems closest to another weirdo multi-rapper jam from this year, “You’re Everything” by Bun B (featuring Rick Ross, David Banner, and MJG) and produced by Mr. Lee. That song too, is a kind of inverted posse cut and features a decidedly weird and sophisticated beat, but unlike “Swagger”, there’s no dropping-the-ball content-wise. “You’re Everything”, a song about the South and Pimp C–it’s also subtle, unlike “Swagger”–sounds like a bunch of like-minded rappers getting together and being real with one another and expressing emotion. “Swagger” sounds like a group of friends getting together and all being too-cool to do anything but talk some shit.

Written by Brandon

September 4th, 2008 at 4:39 am

Biographical Dictionary of Rap: Egyptian Lover


“Every DJ’s schtick is that they’re the greatest or the best at what they do, but Egypytian Lover’s self-obsession act went a step further. Side Two of his debut ‘On the Nile’ begins with a shortened version of his hit “Egypt, Egypt” and then, instead of keeping the party going, it’s followed by “I Cry (Night after Night)”. “I Cry” is a confessional, electro jam that’s less “slow-song for the ladies” album concession and more like, a song that makes explicit the implicit, depressive feeling that underscores most, if not all dance music.

If you listened hard enough, those 808s-of-death breakdowns on “Egypt Egypt”—especially the 12-inch version—stopped sounding fun and got a little creepy and it just kind of made sense that the party would stop or take a break for a song, so that the Lover can announce, over top snapping drums and watery synths, how he goes to bed every night in tears. “

Written by Brandon

September 2nd, 2008 at 7:27 am