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Archive for November, 2008

Be Thankful For What You Got.


As much message-music as What’s Going On? (or any Sly or Curtis classic), Be Thankful’s a quieter statement, but still full of 70s ennui about political, social, and spiritual matters. DeVaughn though, seems less concerned with driving right into the big picture than investigating the many causes that made Marvin “wanna holler” or Curtis to tell us we’re all going to hell. Opening track “Give The Little Man A Great Big Hand” is a celebration of the guy behind the desk or the guy who picks up his trash and the implicit point rather than explicit point is, “no one’s fucking pay attention to the little man.” The explicit point’s an endearing celebration of said “little man”, never reduced to a symbol of this or that.

On the album closer, “Something’s Being Done”, DeVaughn assures listeners that change will come and stuff’ll get better and again, the fact that stuff’s not currently that good walks around in the background instead. He wouldn’t have to tell us things will be better if they weren’t bad right now. That DeVaughn looks ahead with less of the cynicism of other political rockers and soulsters probably has a lot to do with DeVaughn himself still being a “little man”, singing on the side and working a government job.

DeVaughn knows that the “little man” doesn’t want to hear about how bad everything is all the time because he already knows it and lives it every day. When a superstar gets political, it shouldn’t be scoffed at, but they’re almost always coming from the angle of not being directly affected by it anymore…they’re looking out for the little guy.

-”Give The Little Man A Great Big Hand”

DeVaughn is the little guy. He never falls into the decadent cynicism that very popular, voice of the generation musicians can usually afford to fall into. On “You Can Do It” he takes on vice and kindly urges people to stop drinking too much at parties. “Kiss and Make Up” is a celebration of reconciling, getting over the little bullshit in life and moving on. What I think is really brilliant about the song is how DeVaughn pauses and holds the note before he finishes the chorus. 70s soul merged political let’s get-along with sexual getting it on and it makes you expect him to sing “Let’s kiss and make love” but he’s more concerned with the immediacy of just making up and so, that’s the focus of the song. I’m reminded a little bit of that scene in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep where works-in-a-slaughterhouse Stan is more concerned with dancing with his wife and being close to her than having sex with her (despite her increasingly feverish advances) because shit’s heavy on his mind, body, and soul.

Another reason for DeVaughn’s specific form of modest social protest meets “it could be worse” appreciation is his roots in Washington, DC. Marvin Gaye too, is from DC, but Marvin was already a celebrity by the 70s, no longer as closely connected to the city. DeVaughn sang on the side and worked for the government until he stumbled upon the soon-to-be-classic “Be Thankful For What You Got”. Gaye addressed the politics with a question, DeVaughn answers with a sincere but simple statement. This is common for people from or residing in the District. They’re way closer to politricks than the rest of us, and are more apt to digest the bullshit and come up with a pithy answer, and skip over the self-righteous indignation stage. Probably has something to do with like, seeing the cocksucker Senator that’s pulling some bullshit jogging near the Mall as you walk to work…

And musically too, it’s got a kind of relaxed, comfortable but alert feeling. Quite a few songs kick-off with a memorable slam of drums and stab of strings (“We Are His Children”, “Sing a Love Song”) and then politely step back into a groove, like that first knee-jerk frustration with something you read about in the paper before you better get your heard around it. Other songs slowly waddle along, getting more nuanced and complicated with layers of organ and polite vibes that build-up to some kind of in and out, gets the job done solo and then back to the groove again. Take the title track, which is all slow-burn atmosphere organ, with some plucked funk guitar that all just sits back and supports DeVaughn’s brilliant chorus that lays out what “you may not have” (“Diamond in the back, sun roof top, diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean”) all the while assuring you that it’s okay to not have it and that you can “still stand tall”.

-”Be Thankful For What You Got”

While DeVaughn’s answer isn’t as sexy as Marvin’s rhetorical question, it’s not as simple or besides the point as one might think. That’s to say, when John Mayer dropped the “People Get Ready”-quoting “Waiting On the World to Change” a few years back, it truly was, a Pitchfork brilliantly said “preaching the gospel of non-action and civic apathy”. DeVaughn’s not so much telling you not to freak-out or to chill-out–indeed, you don’t sing this much about how we don’t have to worry if you’re not worried–as he is adding some right-minded moderation to Marvin’s message from the year before, eschewing the get-with-it cynicism for minor victory appreciation.

William DeVaughn’s Be Thankful For What You Got is perfect on-the-recliner stuffed with food, stoned off the shit in turkey that makes you sleepy type music that fits the big ugly gluttony and the sit back and realize you got it pretty good traditions of Thanksgiving.

Written by Brandon

November 28th, 2008 at 3:20 am

Posted in William Devaughn, soul

Books To Send Incarcerated Loved Ones


A quick, Monday morning follow-up to last week’s “Holiday Tip: Sending Books to Incarcerated Friends & Family”

Anything by Donald Goines. It’s part snobbery and part less time to read any and everything that interests me, but I’m simply not up at all on recent so-called “street fiction” and although I’m sure there’s some interesting ones out there, so much of it seems pretty retarded. Goines has enough trashy violence and sex in his books but he’s a really smart and insightful writer and he gets into the fucked-up thinking of criminals in a way that’s harsh but always sympathetic.

The obvious choices seem to be Black Gangster and White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief, but I’d suggest the four books that if Library of America were smart, they’d have combined it into one nice hardback and called it “The Kenyatta Tetraology”: Crime Partners, Death List, Kenyatta’s Escape, Kenyatta’s Last Hit. It’s basically a typical Goines novel that spirals out from low-life criminals into a like utopian, cult-leader drug dealer legend named Kenyatta, and moves from Detroit, to Los Angeles, to Vegas by the final book.

Anything by Iceberg Slim. Pimp is the one everybody goes to and it’s an interesting read, but my suggestion would be Airtight Willie & Me, a bunch of kinda connected short stories that deal with “the life”. Even more than in Pimp, there’s the sense of Slim being right there telling you all this crazy, funny, horrible shit. I think the book has a lot of re-readability because it has the same “there’s no way I caught every detail” that you feel when someone’s telling you stories from their life.

“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien seems to have become required high-school reading and generally kids seem to like it. While that may sound condescending, comparing prisoners to teenagers, it’s in part a good comparison however frank it is, and a decent arbiter as to the book’s fairly wide appeal. Again, I think it’s silly to give prisoners books about prison but a book about being in the military has enough like vague connections to the lack of freedom and regimented life of a prisoner to comfort them on that level. There’s also the genre appeal–this is onstensibly a war novel–and that too is a good way to sneak in some more interesting or emotional stuff that isn’t too schmaltzy.

“The Barracks Thief” by Tobias Wolff is similar in a lot of ways to The Things They Carried but it’s explicitly about the desire for freedom and also the way males bond through self-destructive impulses and just plain, old destructive acts. Again, I think this is the kind of “therapy” and edification that prisoners need as it both speaks to them and shows enough of the ugly, silly side of their actions to make them think about some shit. Like O’Brien, Wolff’s prose is really smart and at times beautiful but also direct and simple, which is just something I prefer and again, makes it easily digestable for prisoners.

“Classic Crews” by Harry Crews. Bukowski is something that every once in awhile a pierced girl will send to her fuck-up brother or something, but I can’t properly recommend Bukowski’s work because I’ve never been able to get through any of it. From what I’ve gathered, Harry Crews is basically a smarter, more disciplined, but equally like hard-ass, blue collar intellectual writer guy. Classic Crews has Crews’ memoir of his childhood in it, The Gypsy’s Curse which I’ve never read, and The Car which is this crazy story about a dude who works in a junkyard and literally eats a car (a Ford Maverick to be exact). The novel’s surreal and weird but doesn’t lay on the profundity or symbolism too thick and Crews surrounds the weird tale with small, humane details of blue-collar life.

“Soul On Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver is the only true “prison book” on this list, but it’s way more out-there and complicated than most prison letters type books and it’s also in a way, it’s more immediate and simple too. Cleaver’s really honest and unabashedly so, and while plenty of people would think its bad for a prisoner to read a book where in the author half-justifies raping a woman or espouses hate speech…well, there’s not a lot of honesty in prisons from anybody and I think this book would shock anybody “on the inside”. Cleaver’s also, first and foremost, a radical individual, and his book is mainly outlining the path in which he finds everything to be bullshit for one reason or another. Whether he’s explaining how he learned about law in prison or why he rejected Elijah Muhammad for Malcolm X, there’s this core sense of discernment that anybody could learn a thing or two from, even if Cleaver’s beliefs don’t line-up with your own.

“Cash” by Johnny Cash is a book another book that could be a go-to for pretty much anybody. It’s sort of the ideal prison book too because it’s fairly long, is about redemption and full of Christian stuff, and is by Johnny Cash who everybody likes and has obviously, stuck up for the imprisoned for his whole career. Personally, I find this book to be a little disappointing and frankly dishonest, but Cash is also incredibly smart about balancing ugly details and confessional stuff without lapsing into victimhood. He also doesn’t tell you his story in straight order which helps with readability and I think, makes it easier to return to the book or just randomly open to a page and start re-reading.

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy is this book everybody’s read by now, which makes it a good candidate for sending to someone in prison–odds are, they’ll like it–and like everything on this list, it’s first and foremost entertaining or engaging and sort of smuggles in some emotional or “guidance” type stuff. I basically think smart genre fiction is the ideal for prison reading because it’s not trashy or the kind of thing you can read in a few hours, but it has enough fun or plain-awesome stuff to keep one’s attention. End of the world, apocalypse type shit is always pretty cool and McCarthy wraps around it, a bunch of philosophical and what-if? stuff that can’t help but lead to introspection. Also, the father and son aspect is clearly very affecting, especially for males, either thinking of their own father or being a father, or both.

“True Grit” by Charles Portis is a weird Western but not like, psychedelic hippie Western weird and so, it follows the genre fully enough to engage most people, but isn’t another one of those Romance novels for men-type Western paperbacks. The biggest flip of Grit is the main character Mattie Ross is female, but there’s also legendary hard-ass Rooster Cogburn-played by John Wayne in the movie version–to even out her playful narration. True Grit’s a revenge story that delivers and so, it isn’t on some super-sensitive “revenge is bad” type shit, but it also isn’t about the Biblical glory of revenge nor is it the Peckinpah-like self-destruction that revenge brings; it’s morally complex and as much about fervent sticking to your guns (literally) as it is change and adaption.

“Behold a Pale Horse” by William C. Cooper is for whatever reason, this insanely popular book. Depending on the strict-ness of a prison, this might somehow be considered something they would ban and others might be weary of sending an incarcerated loved one a book that’ll encourage paranoid, conspiratorial thoughts, but I think it’s best to just go for it and not worry about protecting anybody.Behold’s a book that can again, entertain the reader for a really long time and because it’s full of documents and sorta in-depth coverage of secret societies and UFOs and shit and there’s really no way to grasp everything in the book in a single read.

Written by Brandon

November 24th, 2008 at 6:20 am

Posted in Lists, books

The Deal With "Arab Money"…

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-Busta Rhymes & Ron Browz “Arab Money”

So, Racialicious already got to the clearly problematic aspects of the on-the-radio-like-twice-an-hour Busta Rhymes single “Arab Money”, but despite Busta’s liberal use of Middle Eastern cliches and Orientalist signifiers, Ron Browz’s played-out kinda Eastern melodies, and a nonsense hook that’s intended to sound vaguely like Arabic, the song’s worth thinking about beyond that obvious offensive stuff.

“Arab Money” though incredibly provincial on one level, is also cognizant of the extreme wealth and power countries outside the Western world wield. And it turns this cognizance into a fun way to brag about money, and as silly as it all is, it’s on some Post-American World type shit which is more significant than saying some dumb shit about camels.

Much was made around the time of Kingdom Come’s first video “Blue Magic”, wherein Jay-Z’s shown stacking euros.It was an appeal to Jay’s global success, a game of one-upping goofball rappers that all wave fake or real bundles of $100s in their videos, and a smart, wordly comment on the ever-plummeting amount of the American dollar, something even more relevant a year later, with you know, this whole financial crisis we’re having. “Arab Money” goes further and just side-steps the American/European, fuck it-white standard/expectation of wealth and that’s pretty awesome. Who wants to be compared to the rich fucks of America in 2008?

It’s odd that the obvious Muslim connection between black Africans and African-Americans isn’t touched upon at all by Racialicious–Busta’s Muslim by the way–and the complex relationship that African-Americans and Arab-Americans/ Arab immigrants have in urban areas is kinda mocked when writer Fatemeh Fakhraie links this Ron Browz interview(“And if you want to know how much Ron Browz knows about Arabs…”). From the interview, it sounds like Browz interacts and talks to Arab’s every day and in that sense, his use of Middle Eastern influences however rudimentary, shouldn’t be seen as “appropriation” but inevitable, if Browz’s ears are open to the music around him. It’s a fascinating, if less than ideal example of how influences and culture mixes and matches within popular music.

Certainly, it isn’t the ideal way to imbibe outside influences, but “Arab Money” is a continuation of Timbaland’s uses of Eastern melodies and however goofy, is pretty much the only place you’ll hear something even approximating Middle Eastern music on American radio. Also responsible for “Pop Champagne” and of course, “Ether”, Ron Browz’s “Arab Money” beat is a strange slab of staccatto synths that everything on the radio has but squeezes a Middle Eastern melody out of it all too, combines singing that to dumb ears would sound as Arabic as real Arabic, and slaps some auto-tune over it, making the song up on both pop-rap trends and worldly concerns.

Written by Brandon

November 21st, 2008 at 5:02 am

Posted in Busta Rhymes, Ron Browz

The House Next Door: Music Video Round-Up (Beyonce, Sea & Cake, Glen Campbell)


“Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” doesn’t really have verses or even a chorus, it’s all-hook, moving from one high-energy Beyonce shout to another, never really letting up. The titular hook’s rushed through in the same double-time as that keyboard line on-speed and Jake Nava’s video similarly starts and doesn’t stop. It’s all performance on basically no set at all, Beyonce kinda lip-syncs, instead focusing on her and the other two dancers’ Bob Fosse “Mexican Breakfast” walk-it-outs with minimal lighting tricks with minimal cuts.”"

Written by Brandon

November 19th, 2008 at 5:28 pm

Holiday Tip: Sending Books to Incarcerated Friends & Family


Where I currently work, one my responsibilities is getting books purchased by the friends and family of inmates to the inmates themselves. Although it’s probably not a surprise to anybody really, prisons aren’t too helpful in presenting the ins and outs of sending loved ones packages and frankly, the family and friends of the incarcerated aren’t always willing to go the extra few steps necessary to guarantee proper delivery.

As someone’s who is both glad to help and someone who has wasted too many hours tracking down a package or being chewed out by a upset mom who didn’t give the right address in the first place, I can sympathize with the helplessness package-senders feel and the “Hey, I got other shit to do all day than find out where the bible you sent your convicted felon son ended up” cynicism those at the prison possess.

And so, with the holidays coming up, I thought I might share some information that’ll make sending a package to a prisoner as painless as possible. A Google search will give you a couple of sites and message board discussions with the “right” kind of information, but it’s my experience that there’s an attempt by the places that ship and the people that want to ship to sugarcoat or avoid the kinda fucked reality that you’re sending a book to your parent or spouse or child or best friend, and I’d like to avoid that.

I’m also well aware that most of my readers probably don’t need something like this but a) If it doesn’t apply to you, you’ll probably find it a little fascinating or b) You probably got someone in your family that’s a little dumber about these things and maybe my advice from experience can help you help them…


Books are the best bet in terms of entertainment for a prisoner because well, they’re pretty much all that you can ship. I don’t know anything about shipping anything other than books and all the people I’ve talked to who have tried to ship anything other than books have found out it somehow, for one reason or another, never got there.

While places like Amazon do indeed ship, the approach is going to be completely hands-off, outside of them shipping it to the address you provide. This is both just how it goes and the pragmatic reason that if Amazon held any responsibility for prison shipments outside of shipping, they would need to have a dude or five for every state that follows-up and deals with prison packages that somehow, never get to their destination…or are missing a book or two…or find the magazine they sent was leafed through heavily…and the pin-up is missing.

My opinion is, the best way to ship to a prison is indeed, to go through a business–prisons are going to be less suspicious and less scrutinizing of a package that was sent through someone and not just you going to the post office–but I would suggest finding a local bookstore that will do it for you. Any bookstore, especially the chains, that can order you books and ship them are your best bet.

Of course, it’s important to note that not all bookstores are willing to do this and that even within a national chain, some stores do it and others do not. Shipping to a prison is a big pain in the ass and it’s all a matter of if the store you’re asking feels it’s worth it and gets enough shipments to make it worth it. “Worth it” both in terms of making money but also, if they’re willing to deal with the physical act of shipping it and the possibility of you getting pissed off at them if the package doesn’t arrive on-time or never arrives at all. Which brings me to my next point…


Seriously. Whether or not it’s fair or right, if you can find a place in your town or not too far from you that’s willing to send packages out, you’re lucky. Be really nice and understanding. You should do this just because well you should, but you should also do it because frankly, if anything fucks up during shipping that is the shipper’s fault and not the prison’s, it can still be blamed on the prison. I happen to be a pretty nice and patient guy and I don’t take it at all personal, but you can’t bet that the person responsible for shipping your package out isn’t kinda vindictive and if you hassled them about the price of shipping or this or that, well they may put off that trip to the post office a couple more days.


-There will obviously be a shipping/handling fee. The general rule is a flat-rate and then, 50 cents to $1 for each additional book. Some places just do a flat-rate and a lot of the times, it’s really high–because they can make it high, where else you gonna go?–but most places seem to set it at like, $5 bucks or so.

-Keyword: Handling. Don’t get mad because you know it only costs $4 bucks to Media Mail a book somewhere. Realize that the “handling” fee too, is pretty real when it comes to prison shipment. Someone has to walk/drive the package to a post-office, wait in line, fill-out a confirmation form of some kind, etc. etc. Also, because prison shipment is so unreliable, there’s usually a lot of pieces of paper saved, photo-copied, kept in binders, etc. for each and every shipment so that the store can cover its ass when/if the package never gets there.

-Don’t demand it get there on a certain day or request specific shipping. Media Mail and Priority Mail is what most places will do because it’s the cheapest but also because it’s going to a prison and there’s simply no way to make a promise about which day or what time it will be given to the inmate. If you over-nighted a package to a prison, it still is going to be inspected and looked at by someone within the prison. Additionally, no prisons I’m aware of do anything with mail on weekends.

-You will probably need to buy all the books in the store. Bookstores are not post-offices. Don’t expect to buy one book there and then bring a couple others from this place or that. It’s a business and they need to make money. It’s also a weird, complicated, I guess legal precaution. Let’s say you buy a book and bring a few others in. The person at the register or the mailer isn’t going to look through every page of the book or anything. If you put any kind of correspondence or some object in the book, it’ll obviously cause problems.

-Have every piece of information pertaining to the address/destination ready! Name, inmate number and/or P.O Box, name of the prison, address of the prison etc. Even places that ship to prisons are not going to have any kind of reference material or prison address book and they probably don’t have the time or patience to look that crap up for you.

-You will need to supply all of your personal information. It needs to have a shipper name, address, and phone number outside of the store that’s sending it. Refusing to provide any of this information just causes problems and increases the ability for the package to get lost.

-Stores may have weird, unexpected rules about shipping. For example, a lot of prisons have a limit as to how many books and so, the store at one point or another may have heard that a certain prison only allows this many books at one time and have applied that as their general prison shipping rule even if it’s not true of all prisons. No pornography/sexually explicit is a rule a lot of stores have and unfortunately, what constitutes “sexually explicit” to a store might even mean like KING or MAXIM. Sometimes, it might even be a decision of the cashier/clerk you encounter and in that case, you’ll just have to accept that last week you sent MAXIM no problem and this week someone else is telling you that you cannot.

-If your package is rejected by the prison, you will probably have to pay a small fee that the store had to pay to get your books back. One example is that often, a prisoner gets out and the package arrives at the prison after that or the inmate’s been transferred. There aren’t forwarding addresses when you get out or get relocated and so, the prison just gives the package back to the post-office, refuses to pay, and the mail-man will come back to the store demanding like $3.33 or whatever; that cost will be then put back on you. Before you get mad, think of how much money could be potentially lost by a store if they simply took this cost upon themselves every time.

-Be aware that if you in any way, no matter how small, decide to ignore, argue with, or forego any of the stuff above, it could mean that your package will not arrive. It’s hard to be so frank and honest, especially with like, the mother of some kid in for cocaine possession or something, but that’s how it’s gotta be. The best bet is to follow the rule and adapt to them.


Every prison guard I’ve ever met has a story or two about getting a bottle or piss or shit thrown at them, or something equally awful and so, I have a lot of respect for the people that work within our prisons and don’t want to make any over-arching statements but well, prisons are mad corrupt; they just are. It sucks and it’s a fucked or double-fucked thing to think about when you’re just some person on the outside trying to maybe kinda brighten your incarcerated loved one’s day/week/month/year/life sentence, but it’s true.

For obvious reasons, all packages are opened and looked through and all letters are read and that’s to be expected. But what also happens more frequently than even most cynics expect is that the shit you sent never makes it to the person you’re sending it to for shitty, selfish reasons. If you happen to send a book that the person who inspects the mail maybe wants to read his or herself, they might just take it. They may flat-out steal it or they may find something about it that justifies it as something that “shouldn’t” go to a prisoner. If the cover has this or that on it, if they open it up to a page and they find a way to justify the material as violating this or that rule, the book’ll never get through.

And it sucks. But that’s just how it is. I’ve seen mothers frantically going through every one of their choices trying to make sure it doesn’t have this or that in it and it’s tough to explain to them that it’s fruitless. Sending anything to a prison is a gamble. But it’s a really wonderful gamble because at the worst, you’re out like $20 bucks and you can try it again, and if the books gets through–and don’t get it too twisted, most stuff gets through–it’s pretty much the greatest thing ever for someone in jail. I’ve talked to prisoners who got out and came to the stupid, corporate bookstore where I work to find me and personally thank me for sending out the book for their wife or girlfriend! Obviously, it means a lot to them.


-No hardback books! No big, heavy paper-backs either! Flat-out: They can be used to bash some other inmates’ skull in and even if your best friend or son isn’t that type of guy or whatever, a giant hard-back or 800-page paperback is considered a weapon. Avoid hardbacks altogether, only do relatively short paperbacks. If you’re sending some kind of big, long book, try to get it in the Mass-Market form. Mass-Markets are the small, like “beach-reading” size.

-No pornography, avoid sexual material. Pornography seems to be pretty much out, and if you want to send stuff like KING or MAXIM, just be able to accept the fact that it might not get there. Also, don’t send some weird, fashion-y photography/art magazine because it’s got titty in it and think the prison won’t pick up on it. You weren’t the first person with that idea.

-With magazines, they should not have any kind of wrapping or weird inserts in them. Most of the time, this is the sort of thing that a person within the prison will deal with but, it’s always good to be safe. Don’t have the stuff rubber-banded together or anything like that. Any of these weird anomalies on a bad day, might keep your package from ever getting to your loved one.

-Don’t write ANYTHING in the books. No cute messages, not even something you see as short and innocuous. When the package is sent at the post-office, even the person there will ask you if there’s any “written correspondence” because they also get angry calls from the mothers, fathers, and friends of inmates whose package never got there.

-Do not send more than three things at once. Generally, prisons do have some kind of limit on how much stuff a prisoner can get at once. If you send four books and the limit’s three, well the prison will hold one of the books for some amount of time. Again, they’ll eventually get that fourth book but it’s just one more weird thing to worry about and one more excuse for that additional book to get “lost” or well, actually get lost.


The most depressing thing about prison shipments is seeing the same bunch of books sent to every prisoner. When it comes to magazines, senders seem to do very well, but when it comes to books, it’s mainly religious stuff, some “street fiction”, mystery novels, and occasionally, some book explicitly about prison. While none of these are bad and most are fitting, it’s presumably a total bummer to be in prison, hear you get a package, and then the package is a fucking bible or some book that discusses the American prison system. Of course, if your loved one specifically requested these books, then you’re fine, but if you’re stepping into a bookstore to pick something out, avoid the bibles and social-justice books.

This decision to edify really does manifest itself in either, a) Family and friends trying to “change”/”convert” their imprisoned loved one or b) Trying to “open their mind” and turn them intellectual. It’s my opinion–and so, take it for what you think it’s worth–that this is really, really, awful. Moms grasping bibles and successful older brothers sending their younger, fuck-up brother a copy of Dostoevsky is pretty obnoxious. Send them something that might help them out or explain something to them, but the main focus should be entertainment and escape. Let the uh, months upon months (or worse) that they have to spend in fucking prison take care of the edification.

Anyways, tomorrow I’ll have my own list of book suggestions for sending. It’s a mix of books that have passed across my desk and I’ve thought “Woah, that’s something the inmate might enjoy” and some books I’ve thought about or have sent incarcerated friends and family…

Written by Brandon

November 17th, 2008 at 6:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Music For the Post-Modern Date Rapist: 88 Keys’ Death of Adam


In Stern show sidekick Artie Lange’s new book Too Fat to Fish he punctuates a particularly gruesome tale of a low-rent bachelor party, complete with lesbian show and one of those sad-ass strippers who’ll let you do anything to her, with this this insight:

“Bachelor parties are a unique and often uncomfortable male-bonding tradition, because they are where you find out once and for all who in your crew is a true pervert. My experience has been that it’s usually the nerdiest, most laid-back, passive-aggressive, guys you know.”

Whenever an indie, or underground or whatever rapper decides to do some relationship or sex or break-up rap, I have a similar thought about so-called “nerdy guys”; when it comes to girl-talk, they’re way worse than the regular rappers.

While your Rap-A-Lot hero(es) or typical “street” rapper might brag about busting on a girl’s face or whatever else, it’s always the nerdy rappers who drop the truly weird and uncomfortable misogyny. Talib Kweli’s line on “Joy” about how a child will “carry his name on”, the resentment that only a dork can have towards women on certain Slum Village or Little Brother songs, and more recently, the complete lack of insight or self-reflection other than “I married a crazy bitch” on pretty much every track we’ve got to hear from 808s & Heartbreak…these are way worse, way angrier than another line about running a train on a girl or having her taste your kids.

The smart rapper dudes have, in a lot of ways, intellectualized their misogyny, turning it into “I’m speaking from experience”/”Just telling it like it is” which is way more loathsome than saying ignorant shit. The same way a guy who says dumb racist stuff doesn’t quite piss you off in the same way as some aged intellectual “racial realest” will.

And so ostensibly, 88 Keys’ rap concept album The Death of Adam is those unfortunate tendencies in “smart” rappers extended to an entire album. At times, it breaks out of that and overall, it’s a little more complex–and I’ll get to that, I will–but ultimately, it all leads towards this sense that women are triflin’ and tries to present that as something more than the visceral anger of most hip-hop.

See, it’s not misogyny that’s problematic and at least the most interesting rappers that indulge in misogyny frame it as immediate emotion (think Ghostface or Scarface or Outkast), or guys fucking around and being dicks talk (Devin the Dude or Dre/NWA), and usually fault themselves somewhere, it’s when rappers try to pass off their perfectly-fine-in-my-eyes anger as sensible real-talk that issues of rap and misogyny seem worth talking about.

Really, the only time The Death of Adam enters into the more complex than it gets credit for anger of so-called gangsta rap is on “Close Call” when Little Brother’s Phonte, upon hearing news that the girl he’s with is pregnant, responds by telling her: “Option one: take this nigga to the hoover/Option two: Fuck on I never knew ya”. It’s brutally honest to the point that even if you share or side with Phonte when it comes to his plight, his language and presentation implicate him as an asshole. It’s darkly funny, calling his unborn child “this nigga” and turning “abortion” into “the hoover”, but so dark that you know he knows it’s fucked up he said it.

Another point where there seems to be some counter-point to 88 Keys’ half-baked concept is the transition from the instrumental “No I Said I LIKED You” to the Bilal-assisted “M.I.L.F”. “No” is a funky instrumental that turns more melancholy when it transitions into the obnoxious narrator informing us that Adam’s girlfriend’s indeed preggers and they’re keeping the baby despite Adam’s insistence they go “half on an abortion”. The narrator ends with “Adam’s life is official over” (there’s something particularly weird about Keys sticking his goofball dude-osophy in the mouth of a chick) and that transitions to the really touching “M.I.L.F”, where Bilal seems to be aping (more than usual) Curtis Mayfield’s register, particularly on something like “Makings of You”.

For once, the use of soul music and soul samples isn’t sort of ironic and it shifts the tone of the album. It seems to be the aural equivalent of the movie scene where even the most hardened of males tears up at the sight of a child being born, love springs or returns or whatever…the end of Knocked-Up but made on an MPC. And then the narrator comes in with a eulogy for Adam that declares him “another victim” and the feelings of “M.I.L.F” were either temporary or not there at all-which sort of keeps with the concept and sort of muddles it too.

The final song “Another Victim” has 88 Keys repeating the points of the album one more time, through heavy reverb (preferable to auto-tune though), a fun coda to the album except for the fact that the song has “victim” in the title, an annoying word be it used for girls in rap videos, strip clubs, or porn, dudes that fucked girls that lied about being on birth control, or criminals, the way it was in that Akon and Bone-Thugs song from a few years ago.

88 Keys’ production style, which relies on purposefully simple soul loops and a ton of elegant instrumentation, clearly owes a lot to Prince Paul and De La Soul’s conceptual edge, but those guys used the concept album to address plurality, to mix in differing voices and opinions; nearly everything on Death funnels back to the same damned point. After awhile, however entertaining and humorous the narrative might be on an immediate level, it starts to usurp itself by beating the listener over the head.

Especially frustrating is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be an alternative to girls that just want to have your baby and trick you by either fucking you or not fucking you, which is silly because the alternative is easy (at least in theory): Don’t date such flat-out retarded girls! A track where “Adam” finally meets a girl he can relate to or talk to outside of banging would be a really easy way to change the dynamic of the album. An even better and realistic track would be the one where Adam meets said girl and is basically freaked-out or annoyed by the fact that she’s challenging and interesting and reverts back to the type of girl that pops tic-tacs and tells you it’s the pill.

The Death of Adam is filled with musical fun and a shit-ton of opinions, but no real ideas. The project lacks insight and falls into the trap of nearly every proper concept album: self-indulgence. The fact that Keys felt the need to end every track with a hood rat narrator setting-up the next track when it’s totally unnecessary suggests either a lack of confidence in his music or a concern that somehow his super-obvious point would be missed.

Although the exact sense of what’s going on might be a little lost without narration, repeated listens or slightly more suggestive song titles make the point clear. And of course, it’s not a particularly new or interesting point to begin with, it’s what Outkast, and especially Big Boi have been harping on since at least ATLiens and again, it felt more like an opinion than some obsessive 43 minute need to justify being a douchebag guy.

Musically though, it flows together perfectly–barring “Friends Zone”, a DEVO-sampling indie rock exercise and those damned narrations–and there’s worse things to make than a pretty listenable concept album that’s light on actual ideas. Keys’ production is delightfully low-tech and although Kanye or Dilla comparisons are easy to make, he’s mining some weird territory that is only superficially similar to other soul-beatmakers.

The production’s like lo-fi, garage soul rap, not because it’s particularly gritty or dirty-sounding–if anything, the beats are weirdly clean, sampled from a CD clean–but because they purposefully fall back on simple, dependable production tricks like chipmunk soul, shifts in volume, keyboard/piano accompaniment, reverb, looping, and clipped vocals.

On “Handcuff Em”, Keys brilliantly holds out on an uplifting, soulful chant-hook until it actually matters, making it exciting and not just the part of a song that’s supposed to have a hook. “There’s Pleasure In it”, a song I already talked about, is interesting because it’s basically a song presenting sex, but it’s an avant-soul skronk of guitars, krautrock organ stabs, and New Wave vocals; it’s every sound on the album forced into a single track, which makes sense as it’s what the tracks before it led up to and what all the tracks after it will be about.

And although the overall message of the album’s hard to get behind, there’s tons of relatable details that are left out of most presentations of sex. Having sex without a condom isn’t the cool “hittin’ it raw” braggadocio of most rap, but frankly, a big dumb thing that every guy and girl that want to have sex have done a couple of times or all the time. On “(Awww Man) Round 2″, Keys illustrates a reality of sex at one time or another, for most guys I’ve known: essentially being “raped” by an eager female partner or one-night stand.

The flaws of Death though, come from the album’s cohesion, the way Keys’ really unsophisticated opinion of girls can never be totally separated from the enjoyment of the songs, which of course, is what feminists and sensitive smarty-pants types have been bemoaning about “gangsta rap” since its inception. But what’d Artie Lange tell you? It’s always the nerdy ones you really oughta look out for…

Written by Brandon

November 14th, 2008 at 5:42 am

Posted in 88 Keys, Kanye West

How Big Is Your World? Good Rap Songs (No Links Version)

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Yeah, Blogger took the post down, which I half expected, although quite a few of these songs are being given out for free by the artists themselves. You can find them in one place or another, I’m sure…

-Freeway “Rocket Ship Rap”
The quasi-minimalist beat is a good weird look as it’s neither an ill-fitting glossy pop-rap approximation that somehow still works, nor is it a Roc-a-Fella style record fuzz banger. It sounds like the bare-bones that another producer would fill-out with horns and clipped soul-singer wailing that may or may not get chipmunked, which is what we expect on a Freeway track, so it’s cool that “Rocket Ship Rap” gives us enough of that but not exactly that either; it’s 2008 after all.

Freeway attacks the beat as usual but then, starts his second and third verse with a slight variation in his voice and it almost sounds like a guest and then it slowly moves back into Free’s urgent “I’m taking a shit while I rap” gritted teeth flow. “Rocket Ship Rap” was produced by Sap Da Beat Man who’s apparently from Newark, DE–which is a place I’ve spent a lot of time in, which is always sort of interesting–and he’s apparently working on a mixtape with Freeway.

-Bobby Creekwater “Not Yet”
The heart of this song are those really affecting strings. They anchor the beat and match-up with the equally affecting hook about not forgetting about “the hood” and contrast with the expected Southern rap production sounds–stuttering drums, lots of claps, some Jeezy synths buried in there somewhere.

There’s a million songs about not forgetting where you came from and blah blah blah, but Creekwater is at this weird point where he’s signed to a label (Shady Records) but won’t ever get big and the odds of getting dropped are about the same as his album coming out and so, he’s pretty much the kind of guy that would get a pre-emptive too-big head and forget his friends. Additionally, Bobby Creek seems pretty aware of his precarious situation but also humble enough to see how being on a label that may end up dropping you still puts you ahead of most people. Just a really affecting song where the sound and sentiments match-up perfectly. Download the whole B.C Era 2 EP from Bobby Creekwater’s MySpace.

-88 Keys “There’s Pleasure In It”
From the very good but still frustrating Death of Adam; the only song on the album to actually represent sex, as every song before and after’s about the shitty game you play to get there or the fucked-up fall-out after you fuck a girl (and “There’s Pleasure In It” sounds just like that). A weird mix of fun, beautiful sounds and ominous noises and a probably-cribbed-from-some-New-Wave-hit chant of “Pleasure!” that gets more disturbing as the song goes along. Dig those brick stuck on an organ Krautrock drones that pop-up every once in a while, or those heavily flanged guitars, or the coda-like piano chords that segue into the next track. Think of it as the flipside, the aftermath, of Dilla’s “Nothing Like This”.

-Avery Storm featuring Jadakiss “Terrified”
You might remember Avery Storm as the guy who sings on Rick Ross’ really good “Here I Am”. Storm’s a goofy, Jersey-looking white dude who can really fucking sing and I guess, is mining the same territory as Robin Thicke, but has less of the loverman schtick and more of this, too-sincere-for-his-own-good bit that’s preferable because it’s way less pervasive in rap and bullshit right now. It’s also more in-line with the classic 70s soul that all these guys sonically abandoned like 20 years ago but still cite as an influence…Al Green sang about how tired he was of being alone, not how tired some bitch’d be if she left him…the Chi-Lites called their album A Lonely Man…you smell me?

The whole concept of this song’s great and honest because girls you actually like are scary for that reason (you like them), and therefore, you’re trying to do more than just get in their pants; shit’s at-stake. Jadakiss adds a level of hard-edged honesty to the song that conflicts with “Terrified”s over-arching homo-sound and at the same time, gives Jada an excuse to get as real as I’ve heard him get in a while, “Where’s my self-confidence when I need it?” he asks himself, after sort of striking-out with a chick.

-Jay Electronica “Exhibit A (Transformations)”
The not-final version of this song was preferable because of its immediacy and rough, sloppiness, but there’s actually something even more apocalyptic about this version. Those opening synthesizers are like crack rap production sturm and drang used for good, and the drums are on some real Terminator shit, but there’s something light and hopeful in the pianos and Jay Electronica’s humane defiance. In that really brilliant article,, David Ramsey already mocked Cornel West’s “Lil Wayne’s body is a testament to damage” nonsense and others have commented on Wayne’s croaking voice symbolizing this or that about this or that, but Jay Electronica’s voice is a testament to damage. Wayne’s the fucked-up weirdo that’s seen it all and kinda makes sense some of the time but is permanently confused, Jay’s the wizened guy on the porch who saw it all but came out relatively unscathed but cynical but also, kinda hopeful, or else he wouldn’t give us songs like this. He’s weary but confident because he’s beyond giving a shit or not giving a shit.

Every song by Jay embodies all of the awesome contradictions and complications that make me want to rant about rap. Weaving rap history, present politics, the echoes of slavery, typical rap shit-talk, and everything else into a jarring collage that isn’t supposed to perfectly fit together the first, second, or thirtieth time you hear it. There’s a reason Just Blaze gives you almost a minute of contemplative pianos and synths once Jay stops spitting: He’s giving you time to think before your iPOD shuffles to its next stupid song.

-Midas “Plastic”
Baltimore’s Midas moves all around inside of a beat that bumps but’s also on some Dawn of the Dead sicko mall music shit, with content that’s both morally serious and fun in delivery. And because Midas’ insight and approach are wide and mature, the message of “Plastic” isn’t as simple as another song that’s sick to the stomach with where rap’s going: “Who’s who and who’s really hatin/That’s the voice of my generation”. The demented drumline breakdown, pre-bridge where Midas speaks in the voice of every attention-craving rapper, star, starlet and whoever else about fatherly rejection is psychologically smart enough to be sympathetic and cruel with an added edge of empathy when you hear these lines from the song, “Blue Lights”, a couple tracks later: “My daddy think I’m a joke, but he’s a loser so I’m second-guessing his approach”. He’s rapping about himself there too…

Midas is part of Mania Music Group–the ubiquitous Al Shipley covered them here–who seem to be some of the only rappers in Baltimore not too locked in tradition but not on some obnoxious “next-level save the whales” bullshit either. From Midas’ EP Live From the Arcade which you can download here. If enough of the right people cared about Midas, he’d be stuck with the “hipster rap” title and it would fit only in the loosest sense that the main positive of “hipster rap” seems to be a return to infectious joy of early 90s rap without courting meaninglessness, which Mania Music does.

-Tim Hecker & Aidan Baker “Skeleton Dane”
Tim Hecker makes noise pretty much like no other and here, accompanied by drone, almost doom metal dude Aidan Baker, he makes particularly joyous noise. A grinding guitar riff and patches of fuzz and crackle that whirl around, slowly moving forward, “Skeleton Dane” is like those first few seconds of “Exhibit A (Transformations)” turned into a whole song. One of the most fascination and frustrating aspects of Hecker and Baker’s album Fantasma-Parastasie–from which “Skeleton Dane” comes–is how each song is arbitrarily chopped into little pieces (I gave it to you as one track, but on the CD this song is 10 tracks). It seems to be some way of enveloping the listener further, where you totally forget how long or even what exactly you’re listening to; each track or “track” begins one place and ends another and you’re not sure if it’s been one track or ten tracks, three minutes or forty minutes.

Written by Brandon

November 13th, 2008 at 4:16 am

Biographical Dictionary of Rap: Jimmy Spicer

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“Jimmy Spicer’s decade or so of rap singles (he never made an album) are on the rapping tip, remarkably consistent. He spent the decade-plus rapping in a vampire voice or with a ridiculous accent and pronouncing shit like you’d just had the flu the week prior with only smart, subtle variation in voice and cadence. Spicer saw no reason for reinvention or a need to grow “hard” even as beats shifted away from rudimentary–or I should say “rudimentary”–funk loops (“Adventures of Super Rhyme”) towards electro (“The Bubble Bunch” and “Money”) and ultimately, on the Rick Rubin-produced “Beat the Clock/This Is It”, those first glimpses of hard-as-fuck drums that’d dominate the next decade and a half of hip-hop…”

Written by Brandon

November 7th, 2008 at 4:00 am

Biographical Dictionary of Rap: Jay-Z


Like a week ago, Christopher posted an excellent entry on Jay-Z that I totally forgot to mention. I usually tease you with a notable paragraph from the piece, but this one’s too good to do that to. Check it out:

“Thurston Moore, in Punk:Attitude opined during the standard late 70’s/80’s NYC comparison between the adjacent development of punk and hip-hop as art/social movements that while the punk kids eschewed all material signifiers of wealth for myriad ideological reasons, hip-hop embraced and celebrated money and fat gold rope chains and all that shit. For a number of historical and sociological reasons, this was an insightful, if obvious, comment on the capitalist spirit that came to represent mainstream rap and is fully embodied, like Leviathan to government, by the Unitarian God MC, Jay-Hova.

Jay-Z, first and foremost, is probably the most important musical artist to me personally. Not necessarily my favorite and certainly not the best, but someone I’ve grown up with since I was 8 or 9, when I used to listen to the radio all the time because music had yet to be demystified to me so everything was new and wonderful and interesting and every radio station was my favorite, even classical and jazz. During that time I started listening to New York’s own infamous Hot 97 radio station, which itself embodies a lot of the negatives and embarrassing fuckery of hip-hop this decade, where I first heard “Ain’t No Nigga”. Around ‘96 I would see tons of Pac and Biggie videos on MTV Jams, but Jay didn’t really get that much airplay outside of New York at the time. I remember dueting the hook with this chick named Sharde in the second grade or so who I had a crush on for most of elementary school while a classmate who was trying to mac her was getting all salty. Jay served as the non-pop soundtrack to me life as a little kid in Brooklyn, back when my block would have parties in the summer and my grandfather would get ripped on Friday nights with his old-ass Caribbean friends and listen to 80’s funk and recent shit like Domino and TLC.

My love of my borough and my neighborhood became a love of Jay-Z somewhere around age 10 when Biggie died. Before Jay, Biggie and Pac were my favorite rappers, but I was too young to really get emotional over their deaths. School continued, and Puffy and Mase were making singles so it wouldn’t phase me until late into high school, much like the death of Kurt Cobain. But in the process of the two biggest solo rappers getting gunned down, this guy who bled Brooklyn, specifically Bed-Stuy somehow started ascending into the position left in the wake of their passing. Then Jay’s videos started getting more airplay. I got to see “Who You Wit II” on MTV Jams when they were about to cancel it and it was relegated to a ghostly hostless video block full of posthumous Biggie videos and shit like “Breaker, Breaker” by GZA. Then during the apparent rebirth/rebranding of Def Jam and release of Hard Knock Life, dude was everywhere. When he played the 1999 VMA’s, he kept shit Brooklyn. It gave us the continued aplomb to, honestly, shit on all of the other boroughs who at the time didn’t really have much going for them on the East Coast.We were obnoxious and almost nationalistic in our pride, but who could blame us? Our boy was the king. Still not huge on a national level the way other rappers were, but well on his way and definitely, through successful singles and critical reverence, got bigger with each album. Plus it didn’t hurt that dude quickly became king of the club “bangers”.

Even when Jay faltered, like on the Vol. 3 The Life and Times of S. Carter and The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, he would still have 4 singles and corresponding videos out, non-album airplay, multi-platinum sales and the reverence of almost every rap fan, or at the least every rap fan under 30, for sure. In retrospect, that success backed up his transparent claims to be “a business, maaaaan”. I’m not sure if at some point in the mid-90’s he had taken some Learning Annex marketing/financing classes but like any good capitalist, he corresponded to changes in the marketplace quickly and flirted with the commonly accepted concept of art only when it seemed prudent to do so.

Everything from his rap style to his image shifted every two records or so as East Coast rap flirted with bigger, less basement-y and sample-laden beats. In an early video for a track from about ‘95 back when Jay sort of looked like a 6′+ version of Skee-Lo called “I Can’t Get Wit’ That” the video was done in the projects and he was dressed like any dude would be on a summer day in the Stuy. But by the time his first two albums dropped, it was mob imagery, tailored suits, expensive leather, Cuban cigars, etc., etc. It was obviously in reaction to the success of Nas’ second album and Raekwon’s “Purple Tape”, and maybe to a lesser extent recent albums by Kool G Rap. The flash and glitz of the jiggy era lasted until DMX helped changed the template and took everything back to the hardness that had been excised by the Bad Boy model, and Jay followed in suit with Timbs, white tees and du-rags and proceeded to drop an album that was essentially nothing but singles, a large portion of which got heavy video airplay on the Box and MTV.

The business model between 1999 and 2001 was a weird calculated mix of club rap, confessional songs, usually about absent fathers and family, and coke rap. However, the two-album rule remained in effect and coming off the cocky, self-indulgent brank marketing posse record that was Roc La Familia, the brand had to evolve, thus defining the sound of the decade, “chipmunk soul”, with The Blueprint. It could be argued that marketing an album as more confessional and soulful and the ensuing deluge of critical acclaim was just as calculated as the fall Roc-A-Wear lineup, but getting that boost from the acclaim was probably the last time his business acumen and his product would converge with good results. With the release of possibly the worst double album ever, a record that somehow managed to sound glossier than Rock La Familia and be filled with more filler than Vol 3. and yet go multi-platinum, Blueprint 2. Even as much as I enjoyed “Excuse Me Miss” seeing fellow half-caste Lenny Kravitz embarrass himself with Jay on SNL doing “Guns and Roses” only seemed to backup concerns that Jay had finally fallen the fuck off after 6 years.

So what do you do? You cravenly release a single disc edition of the same abortion, then announce your retirement and “boredom”. With you hitmaking status cemented, two critically acclaimed albums, two great records and three or so bricks content-wise, it seemed wise for Jay to fall back and then employ the law of supply-and-demand to not only make himself more valuable than he was during the Blueprint 2-era, but to ignite discussion, rumor, analysis and ensure, with a previously unheard act of “retiring” from rap setting precedent and ensuring stannery for years to come. Though The Black Album was disappointing due to a few instances of lax quality control and the seeming finality of it all, he went out on a decent note.

Until he realized he needed more edible diamonds for his Cristal and put out two tag-team partial-births with R. Kelly and Linkin Park, respectively, thus annihilating almost all coolness and mystery and goodwill his announcement may have produced. Not only was his commercialism unwarranted at this point, it was wholly inefficient, as the Roc began to fall apart, leaving Kanye West the sole non-Jay-Z act to succeed. 50 Cent would then usurp Jay’s throne on all fronts and rap went through a Southern renaissance of sorts commercially. And then in a series of predictable and disappointing moves, Jay returns after information leaks about Kingdom Come, and drops his second worse LP to date, a commercially crass and middling attempt at redefining himself and expanding beyond the 3 or 4 themes he’s always rapped about. From the afterthought album cover to the labored rhyming to the unforgivable amount of tepid R&B tracks that were surely left over from B’Day, it still managed to push units and sate his pop fans but turned to be a huge mistake, a rare one for Jay in which his capitalism would actual diminish his returns and success and render him an afterthought within the rapidly moving rap landscape. Even his forced movie tie-in with American Gangster, that managed to have a surprising amount of good, though not essential songs, showed signs of Jay being lost. And for a laundry list of reasons, I was honestly angry. Angry that he’d do everything people predicted, angry that he’d push out a late-term of an album, and angry that he’d lost his step and that his idea of lyrical maturity was ripping off GAP-era Common’s corniness, but in a higher tax bracket. NYC rap was, and is dead and there would not be a Superman to save it from Papoose or MIMS. Jay’s hardline financial ambition seemed sad for how unnecessary it was and how much of a compulsion it seems and how much of his “cool factor” and mystique was sacrificed for it. His comparisons to the Grateful Dead were apt, as, masterful live act he had become, he was becoming very much a Madonna/Rolling Stones sort of artist, pumping out lackluster records and opening themselves up to brutal critical derision in making themselves a shallow touring act.

And, beef with lyrics, the failure of the ROC, his popularization of the “hustla not rapper” breed of MC’s, whisper rapping and etc aside, the tragedy to me personally of Jay-Z is that I no longer felt that personal connection to who he was and what he represented. When I see him now, I don’t think of Brooklyn, I think of Foxwoods, Las Vegas, the Bellagio and whatever gaudy casino is in Dubai. In his never-ending consumption, he had completely lost the plot, and in that sense and more, he is hip-hop.”

Written by Brandon

November 7th, 2008 at 3:50 am

Corrective Rap: Ghostface’s "Computer Love"


From battling to sampling and anything that falls between, the roots of rap are in opposition. There’s always been a sense that indignant anger about misrepresentation, misinformation, or this-dude-did-that-and-he-shouldn’t-have type shit’s fueled the music of nearly every rap great.

But around the same time rap got actually kinda bad (1997 to the present), something changed. It suddenly got really annoying and even pathetic to hear your favorite rappers remind you how many wack emcees were out there. Maybe it was because you didn’t really want to be reminded of how bad it got, but also because it seemed kinda cheap to point out what’d become the obvious. This wasn’t the spirit of competition or anything, it plain preaching to the converted.

While Ghostface has occasionally been wrongheaded in this corrective fervor–calling out D4L for example–so much of his career since day one has been the right kind of oppositional or corrective rap. He’s always been more a “show” and not a “tell” rapper when it’s come to schooling other rappers, which makes his correctives more like a dialogue or exchange than simply, your favorite emcee bitching too much on record.

Even without it being semi-explicit on “Shark Niggas (Biters)”, it’s clear listening to Cuban Linx that the album’s something of a response or correction to Ready to Die. “If you thought Biggie was describing the life accurately…”, Ghost and Rae seem to be saying, “here’s what it’s really fucking like”. And they give you almost twenty tracks of obsessively detailed drug-dealer rap, with the same cinematic and emotional sweep as Ready while making it (arguably) even more palpable. The result: Two great records instead of one great record and a response record entirely contingent upon telling you why the first record was stupid.

Ghostface’s two most recent proper albums, Fishscale and Big Doe Rehab, had him returning to something resembling his mid-90s storytelling days and away from hyper-abstract wordplay or slice-of-life narratives of late. This obviously had to do with Ghost’s anger at the popularity of so-called “crack rap”, a sort of bastardization or gross misreading of the sub-genre Ghost had a big part in founding.

One of the more interesting convergences was the release of Fishscale on pretty much the same day as Rick Ross’ first single “Hustlin”. I can recall putting in Fishscale having just bought it and getting to the first song, the jaw-dropping “Shakey Dog” and thinking of it as the opposite of “Hustlin” in every way. Rick Ross was repetitive and slow, the song’s all-hook, Ghostface’s song has no hook and teases you with a hook–“Why you behind me, leary, shakey dog stutterin’/When you got the bigger cooker on you/You a crazy motherfucker, small hoodie dude, hilarious…”–but then Ghost just keeps rapping and you realize that just because you heard the title of the song in the song, does not mean you’ve arrived at the chorus. Interestingly, a few songs later Ghost is doing the less fun, played-out version of oppositional rap when he shits on D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” on “The Champ”; doesn’t he realize by simply making and releasing Fishscale, he’s fighting D4L?

Last week saw the internet-release of “Computer Love”, which is Ghost doing the “Holla” off Pretty Toney treatment to Zapp & Roger’s “Computer Love”. Like “Holla”, Ghost eschews sampling altogether and just raps over the original song, finding a sort of internal logic and rhythm without the aid of a proper beat.

Also like “Holla”, he’s doing more than being hilarious/show-offy. It seems in some way, the idea behind rapping right over the Delfonics was to remind people of where all these great Ghostface beats came from. The song equivalent of that moment of every Ghostface show and a ton of interviews where he tells you how this was the music his parents used to fuck to and sways and squeezes to say, “Natural High” by Bloodstone.

Doing the same to “Computer Love” has an even deeper context though and I probably don’t really have to spell it out for you: T-Pain. T-Pain’s use (and abuse?) of auto-tune is certainly on some Roger Troutman type shit and I can see it bugging a guy like Ghostface that a lot of young people probably don’t even know anything about Roger-all the more depressing given Roger’s death-by-gunshot at 47. But rather than simply complain about it, Ghost takes an old Roger song and straight raps over it, invoking–if we read R & B history backwards as so many do–the feeling of a T-Pain-assisted rap song through raps atop Roger’s vocoder croons.

Interestingly, “Computer Love” concedes a bit to 2008 rap standards as well. Ghost slows his rapping down just a bit, which gives it more of a feeling of the rap you hear on the radio. With a punchline like “Martin Luther Bling”, he even engages in some particularly goofball, purposefully bad lines like all of our favorite rappers in 2008. There’s a little more open space in this song than we’re used to from Ghost, which too plays into the ways that radio rap in the past few years has pretty much totally merged rap and R & B. “Computer Love” just kinda of plays out at the end, it doesn’t have the momentum build-up to sudden-stop and end the song feeling that most Ghostface tracks have, and there’s points where he’s barely even rapping, more like spitting a line or two, taking a pause, and saying a few more. It’s about as Jeezy-like as Ghostface can get. A good example of how to ingest all that’s weird or problematic with rap these days and still retain personality.

Written by Brandon

November 4th, 2008 at 8:38 pm