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808s & Heartbreak Week: "Love Lockdown"

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Everything I said here about “Love Lockdown” is still valid and that’s why it’s such a strange song, part of an album. Some points where I no longer agree with myself though are related to the “critic bait” accusation and musical signifying.

The album’s just too bizarre and of it’s own weird, ugly, wonderful genre (I said similar things about Jeezy’s Inspiration) for it to be the the gives Rolling Stone a boner “breakup album” I thought it to be. Musically, whether it’s properly mastered version of the songs, Kanye’s drastic changes since the first version of this hit the internet, or my waning cynicism for 808s, a lot of the musical signifying isn’t there or just plain works.

The pounding drums that starts and end the song are so rich and resonant they doesn’t resemble a heartbeat anymore. The explosions of drums still feels glorious as both a surge of energy and as something that sorta swings and well, let’s get to maybe the best thing on this album: Crazy manipulated female soul samples turned into some primal or from hell or something wail.

I called them “pterodactyl groans” because it reminds me of like some shit in Jurassic Park or something, but who knows what they really are. There’s a fluidity to them that almost sounds like an instrument instead of a voice, or like free jazz sax through auto-tune or some other musical filter, but they sound aching and human too. Did Kanye search out Linda Sharrock and stick her in a cave or something? In a way, this is the twisted twenty-times over extension of Kanye’s earliest foray into vocal manipulation: chipmunk soul.

There’s some connection between the primal howl that announces Jeezy’s return or it’s placement amongst piano and drums at the end of “Lockdown” (again with the using some cool musical effect for a song or two and then moving on) and those African Tribesmen that invande Kanye’s Patrick Batemen abode in the video for “Lockdown”, but fuck if it can be literalized; of course, that’s why it’s so smart.

Leave it to me to turn an obvious American Psycho video homage into something a little more intellectual, but that shot of Kanye in the corner, the stoic tribesmen looking ten feet tall, reminds me of the end of Terrence Malick’s The New World (a movie about devastating heartbreak). The film’s ending montage that slowly unveils Pocahontes’ death (spoiler alert!) and in one jarring cut , goes from the empty bed of Pocahontes, to an Indian in full body-paint sitting like a King in the same room. Who knows what it means, but it just makes sense and’s the point where my eyes tear-up when I watch that movie.

“Lockdown” should be the first track of 808s, a direct address to his ex that sort of introduces all the ideas smart and stupid you’ll hear on the album, but musically, it’s part of the brilliant middle of the album and the logical extension of the ideas of the first four songs. The big loud drums that first showed-up on “Amazing” are here as well, and of course, the defiant pianos, frayed and fuzzy auto-tune, etc. of every track keep weaving through. If there’s a narrative here that’s not fractured and mixed-up, it’s a musical one, as ideas fade in, grow prominent or even transcendant, and then move to the background for another new weird instrumental flourish.

Still, there’s something of a logic to these songs that for whatever reason, I feel a little more like I’m projecting onto the album than usual, but also makes a lot of sense. The first two songs were sad sack self-loathing, “Heartless” is self-loathing but musically and conceptually it’s a little more confident and there and then, “Amazing” is wounded Kanye lashing-out. “Love Lockdown” has the vulnerability of the rest of it, but his ideas about his relationship and his musical ideas gain confidence and focus.

The next two tracks (“Paranoid” and “Robocop”) are the most unsophisticated and least revelatory when it comes to content, but repeated listens make you realize Kanye’s earned the right to be a dick (still, there’s something real awkward about the “bitch I almost married was CRA-ZEEEE!” thesis of the tracks) and musically, they’re perfect. And then, that My Bloody Valentine electronic wail that opens “Streetlights” cuts into “Robocop” and it’s Kanye like, “whoops, I was a real dick there. I know it. I’m trying to figure it out”

So, the narrative’s musical, and the narrative’s emotional, it’s just not linear. More a melange of scenes from a disintegrating almost marriage, snippets of dialogue, wounded douchebag talk, actually wounded talk, personal details, and break-up album cliches mixed up, rearranged, to exhibit Kanye’s sorta evolution from wounded weirdo celebrity to angry wounded ex-boyfriend and then, kinda regretful. And once he gets over it all, there’s “Coldest Winter” and the problematic–there’s that word again–live “freestyle” in which he’s like “Oh yeah! And my mom fucking died in fucking plastic surgery. Man, the world is fucked-up place sometimes.”

Written by Brandon

December 11th, 2008 at 7:04 am

808s & Heartbreak Week: "Amazing" featuring Young Jeezy

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Besides musical reasons why “Amazing” is a success, Kanye’s finally working with a complex concept that’s triumphant, but on the defensive, and fully aware of its absurdity. It’s a song about hiding behind his fame and celebrity to conceal all the ugly personal bullshit he’s going through and using that fame and celebrity as a kind of ultimate dig at his ex. But his languid vocals and obsessive “No matter what, you’ll never take that from me” make it clear that his fame makes him feel awesome but doesn’t protect him and the “I’m famous” bit’s just a ruse. It’s not as overtly harsh, but it comes from the same above-it-all cruelty he affects on “Robocop” during that devastating “spoiled little L.A girl” outro.

There’s some truth there, but its blatantly lashing-out, last chance assholism. It’s “everybody loves the bad guy” in Scarface, the “hero” fucking falling apart, leaning back on his own myth at the point where real-world events are surrounding him and friends, girlfriends, or whatever don’t give a shit about image, myth, or hype anymore.

But “Amazing”s got neither the energy of the last ditch bragging you get from most rappers, and none of the devilish glee of “Robocop”s taunts. It’s this depressed, monotone that’s part super-confident, doesn’t even have to sell you on this shit-talking bullshit anymore for you to buy into it and part, a performance of going through the motions of shit-talking that Kanye himself doesn’t buy into much these days. The rote melody perfectly lines-up with the Danny Elfman-ish haunted house pianos and it sounds great, but Kanye’s unmoved.

Again, auto-tune is hardly something to take issue with on 808s as Kanye twists and turns it all these different ways, from the warmed-over glow on somber tracks, to a kind of resigned vibration around his voice on this song or “Streetlights”–the two songs where he’s the most upfront about what he’s doing and the least full of shit. On 808s, auto-tune’s used more in a pre-digital production style, like old weirdo rock and pop records that wrapped tons of reverb around the vocals or tape manipulated them into some crazy shit.

Jeezy’s verse isn’t particularly great–even when judged by the Jeezy curve for good rapping–but it’s an obvious contrast to Kanye’s depressive boasts, as it’s all rumbling exclamation. One of Kanye’s better qualities, even when he was a young nerdy producer was his rap fandom which led to all kinds of Fantasy Football style pairings of rappers. On “Last Call”, the final track of College Dropout there’s a point where he nerdily talks about how he made one of those Dynasty beats “for DMX” and you vividly imagine rap fan Kanye–the one that cites Chi Ali or Ma$e as favorites alongside Tribe and Dr. Dre–sitting down and making his ideal beat for DMX.

Imagine him sitting there with Mike Dean and NO I.D and whoever else being like, “okay and then all the shit you’ve heard in the previous songs, pianos, overwhelming washes of synths, triumphant insanely catchy hooks are gonna meet up with these crazy click-clacking drums–that’ll be in a couple more of the songs too–and then, they’ll suddenly drop-out–save for these pterodactyl groans–and then Jeezy’ll come in and it’ll be incredible.”

That’s the Kanye that cops to “biting the drums off “Xxplosive”…the deconstructive rap superfan that sees through the sub-genre bullshit and thinks how cool it would be to hear Mos Def and Freeway on a track and then, does it. The guy that uses Ludacris as a goofball counterpoint to Kanye’s self-loathing conscious rap tendencies on “Breathe In, Breathe Out”. Putting Cam’ron over a million-dollar version of the trebly soul he’s been rapping on since forever, etc etc. Kanye knows how to use guests and highlight their abilities (unless it’s Lil Wayne, then who knows what’s going on) and that’s viscerally felt on “Amazing” as everything making-up the beat falls out to announce Jeezy’s arrival. It’s sort of the inverse of “Put On” where the beat slows down for Kanye’s depressed counter-verse; here Jeezy breathes some dumb, hard-ass stuff into a song (and album) that’s could use a bit more of that.

Written by Brandon

December 10th, 2008 at 3:34 am

808s & Heartbreak Week: "Heartless"

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By not being a rap album, 808s highlights everything that’s vital and specific to rap music as a form of expression. Contextualized as the non-rap album from a rapper, it’s nearly impossible to hear each song and not think about how much more interesting and complicated they’d be if the monster hooks had raps between them.

But after living with the album for a couple weeks and really enjoying it, the surprise is that, “Heartless”, the most rap-like song on the album, is one of the least interesting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really good song and probably one of the more like, platonically “good” songs on the album, but in context, it’s the second song in the “Welcome to Heartbreak” to “Streetlights” monster run that makes up the best parts of 808s; neither a highlight or low-light.

Not a surprise that it’s co-produced by No I.D as it’s got boom-bap immediacy, but also this gelled-together musicality. None of the jagged edges of most rap beats but a smooth cohesion, carried along by fluttering pan-pipes or something and a series of defiant piano chords.

The music on 808s either falls into the category of the first two tracks (and “Love Lockdown” and “Bad News”), this interesting but skeletal mix of electronics, or these fully-formed explosions of sound like “Heartless” (and “Paranoid”, “Robocop” “Streetlights”, “See You In My Nightmares” and “Coldest Winter”). That the album’s sequencing begins slow, jumps into warp-speed, and then interrupts this energy for the languid “Bad News” is confusing.

Ultimately, it works or works well enough. Hours on iTunes rearranging the tracks to find a better or more logical order didn’t hide the inherent flaws of the album. There’s too many tracks that introduce the titular heartbreak (like “Heartless”) or present it as if you’re already aware of it from reading Perez Hilton. Although the album’s not conceptual–as I said in my City Paper piece, it’s a context album–there’s the semblance of a narrative to the whole thing but then a song later on the album like “Love Lockdown” plays like a thesis statement that would fit better as an introduction than mid-album track. It’s weird.

Kanye’s protected himself from criticism by saying junk about “expressing himself” or how there’s a beauty to making something in just five minutes, and there is, but it obviously goes both ways. There’s something sloppy and off about 808s that makes it cool, but its not the rough edges that make hip-hop vital, but a half-worked on piece of art, excuse me, “pop art”. In the liberal arts world, it’d be labeled “problematic”.

Rapping though, helps the track and moves it out of the problematic realm and more toward those aforementioned rough edges almost exclusive to hip-hop. If only for the simple fact that rapping requires way more words than more conventional songwriting, the ideas and expressions can bounce off one another and complement or create weird counterpoint. Kanye’s not paring everything down for melodramatic, maximized effect here.

The first line falls back on those much-joked about “cold” similes but it’s followed up by Kanye speaking tough-talk to his girl (“you better watch the way you talkin’ to me yo”). It’s playing with the “contradiction” Kanye’s always played around with, but it’s not being a backpacker with a Benz but the kind of bullshit everyone does when their lovelife’s crumbling: Be an asshole, equal parts wounded and ready to wound.

There’s also an interesting confluence of voices and point of views going on in the song. Seemingly speaking to his ex through the song, other times quoting scenes from their argument, and even jumping into an imagined discussion with a friend about his girl’s chaotic moods: “Why does she be so mad at me for?/Homey I don’t know, she’s hot and cold.”

In a way, “Heartless” is the only pure hint at what 808s could’ve been if Kanye’d made a rap album. But as the album stands, it occupies this weird place of not getting to the rarified weirdo brilliance of 808s’ best tracks or farting out like the album’s worst half-songs.

Written by Brandon

December 9th, 2008 at 4:06 pm

808s & Heartbreak Week: "Welcome to Heartbreak"

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The pseudo-profound parallelisms that open “Welcome to Heartbreak” mark the album’s lyrical lows. They’re at best, performative self-loathing (“my friend showed me pictures of his kids/And all I could show ‘em was pictures of my cribs”) and at their worst, lines that strive so hard to be affecting that they literally make no sense: “He said his daughter got a brand new report card/And all I got was a brand new sportscar”. What exactly is a “brand new report card”? It’s there only to match-up with the next line and because Kanye’s so godammned serious here, the flat-out retardation of the line is pretty hard to get over or ignore.

It undermines the thesis of the song and like, I’m not the kind of person that thinks complaining about fame is inherently bad, but when he bemoans showing up late to his god sister’s wedding and leaving “before they even cut the cake”, you look to Kanye to think, “you’re a fucking superstar, whatever obligation you had that made you leave could’ve been put off…”

Or maybe not. That’s the ugly side of success that cynics dismissing Kanye’s bitchfits on fame don’t really like to think about. That ugly uncomfortable sense that one wrong move or mistake might doom your career. Whatever Kanye had to do that made him bolt before the wedding ended probably felt impossible to escape or avoid or whatever else. As much as Kanye’s courted and called attention to fame, he seems genuinely in awe of it and as surprised by it as his detractors. He’s quite obviously ill-prepared for it and the guy who freaks-out on an award show or tells Conan O’Brien he’s gotta take a piss probably dreads something like his god sister’s wedding as he’ll be gawked at and in some ways, made to be more important than the people getting married. That’s fucked up and weird and Kanye’s painfully aware and angry about it all. Of course, he’s also loaded and like, knee-deep in pussy, so maybe he should just get over it…again though, Kanye’s aware that he’s bitching and that he should get over it, he just doesn’t care or chooses not to care because in a way, the conflicted thing’s played-out.

Those not listening hard to Graduation heard an album of “I’m rich” songs when in reality, it was a humbled, depressed album about why fame’s weird and sad and incredible too. What’s so shocking about the songs on 808s, especially for fans, is not that he’s singing for most of it or flipping Tears for Fears song instead of soul loops, but that he’s seemingly lost his ethics. As Rafi of OhWord said in the comments here: ” “Kanye speaks his mind and has ended up playing the role of a hip-hop conscience. Not a “conscious” rapper which nobody will listen to but a “conscience” one which on occasion everyone hears.” There’s no self-reflection on these songs. There’s no deep insight about his situation or really anything and we feel abandoned because of it. Probably as abandoned as Kanye feels.

But the odd effect of 808s is that once you cut through the disappointment that Kanye’s apparently lost his way and accept this as one long, lost wail of an album, it’s pretty effective. Those intro strings on “Welcome” are both undeniable and a little over the top, but as he piles more and more instruments and production tricks atop it, it begins to make more sense. The music moves the goofy lyrics into a more affecting pocket of emotion and is the waythis album’s significantly more rock music-like approach works. But it’s also not a rock album, it’s not a soul album, and it sure as hell isn’t a hip-hop album, and that’s kind of awesome.

The only voice that’s important on “Welcome to Heartbreak” is Kid Cudi’s paranoid hook; it’s both oddly catchy and abrupt and disturbing. The same way drums slam out of nowhere on certain songs on 808s or a gutteral “Hey!” will punctuate parts of “Heartless”, Cudi’s hook grabs you, breaking through the dense fog of strings, synths, and drums is like the voice of your conscience in a bad situation, only this conscience just verifies the fucked-up, thoughts you already felt. There’s no escape from it, no counterpoint, no complexity other than the ugly, weird bullshit already racing through Kanye’s head.

Written by Brandon

December 9th, 2008 at 3:05 am

People Get Ready To Wait On The World To Change

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-”People Get Ready” by The Impressions

-”Waiting On the World to Change” by John Mayer

-”People Get Ready” by Seal

One of the odd effects of working retail is spending a lot of time with music that at best, you’d never choose to listen to and at worst, is just plain awful. The new Seal album Soul is all soul covers and although most of it’s pretty useless, it isn’t exactly terrible and he’s backed by a band that sort of does its own thing, neither translating soul music grit into ready-for the mini van sheen or trying, trying, trying to sound like Willie Mitchell and friends (something some of Mitchell’s friends did on their own with Cat Power’s The Greatest). Soul’s produced by David Foster who I understand is a big deal if you’re a homosexual.

Most interestingly though, is the album-ending cover of The Impressions’ “People Get Ready”. Backed almost entirely by some scratchy guitar, Seal’s voice (which doesn’t hide his British accent) does a pretty heartfelt variation of this oft-covered song. The prominence of the guitar turns the cover, if you’re not listening very hard, into a cover of John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change”, a song Pitchfork hilariously described as “preaching the gospel of non-action and civic apathy”.

Of course, Mayer’s “Waiting” did the thing of quoting “People”s melody and so, it’s partially a case of reading music history backwards, but still, there’s something about the prominence of technically good but still a little messy guitar on Seal’s version that makes it sound like it’s trying to in part, reference Mayer’s song too. Maybe it’s just that Seal, like Mayer, doesn’t have the vocal subtlety of the Impressions, but there’s something interesting and weirder going on it seems.

It’s very hard not to contextualize a cover of “People Get Ready” in the fall of 2008 as having something to do with Barack Obama’s presidency and especially because Mayer’s song was such a mind-bogglingly stupid and problematic variation on political songwriting, Seal’s cover becomes a history of politically engaged pop and a comment on the shift from activism to apathy and back again through America’s recent, historic election.

Written by Brandon

December 8th, 2008 at 8:07 pm

808s & Heartbreak Week: "Say You Will"

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This track and “Bad News” are the only two absolute mis-steps on 808s and both fall back on this sense of letting the music play-out forever; especially odd because they’re both easily the most uninteresting and self-serious songs on the album.

“Say You Will” is three minutes too long. After the fairly stream-lined production on Graduation, it’s more than a little depressing to hear Kanye back in the pseudo-experimental mode of Late Registration meaning, he’s so in love with the soundscape-ish beat he’s put together that we’re going to have to listen to it without rapping or singing for a couple of minutes. Especially odd because the next song “Welcome to Heartbreak” is very similar to “Say You Will”–it’s a little more upbeat and immediate but the songs are very close together–and going through a first track that’s over the six minute mark only to hear a really similar track next, is obnoxious. Still, there’s an incredible transition from the low-end whirs of “Say You Will” to the low-end strings of “Welcome to Heartbreak” and there’s a subtle, upward shift in energy from track 1 to track 2, we just don’t need six minutes to get there.

There’s plenty to like though too. Next to his gutteral, Stevie Wonder in the end of “Livin’ For the City” grunt-singing on “See You In My Nightmares”, his “hey hey hey heyyy” is affecting and the first bit of proof that an album caked in auto-tune doesn’t have to be goofy or ironic. Lazy critics fall back on the idea that Kanye’s use of auto-tune is a distancing effect but it isn’t at all. His vocals become warm and glowing because of it; they gel with the electronics better, and as he pointed out in that bizarre interview on Conan O’Brien, they highlight his inability to sing; they underline the vulnerability of this whole 808s deal.

The structure of this song is weird: Airy vocals, rumbling drums, Kanye says a couplet, cries-out a desperate chorus, another couplet, repeat. And the lyrics here are fairly upfront and honest and not the ponderous, pseudo-deep self-loathing couplets of “Welcome to Heartbreak”. Perhaps it’s by accident, but the line “Mrs. So Fly, crash lands in my room” is actually a really nice (and kinda poetic) description of meeting a girl. Touching on the other-wordly self-involved stuff we all feel when we’re first in love but grounding it in some silly sci-fi space stuff that Kanye’s really into. In the final couplet, when he admits that he still “fantasizes” about her, it’s one of the more honest details on the whole album.

Kanye’s the weird one on this song. He’s the creep and he’s the hurt one. It’s the only point on the album where his emotions seem thought-out and complex. There’s even something endearing and real about Kanye’s hurt, as it’s a little naive. He sounds genuinely baffled when he opens the song with “Why would she make calls out the blue?” and the sentiment in the chorus is the keep-our-love-pure idealism that’s as affecting as it is unrealistic. It seems to be something about the sense that once something’s expressed verbally, it becomes that much easier to act on it later. One can easily transfer this to a fight or an argument in which threats about leaving or going out and fucking someone else or whatever are said for the first time. And at the same time, there’s Kanye admitting to some angry, minor domestic violence that most dudes have done at one point or another and in that case, it’s he who upped the level of the argument. There’s a knowing but still ugly, honest creepiness to a line like “when I grab your neck, I touch your soul”.

Written by Brandon

December 8th, 2008 at 5:53 am

The Importance of the "Genre Rapper": Scarface’s Emeritus


The connection between crime movies and hip-hop’s long been established, but a recent reading of Manny Farber’s essay “Underground Films” coincided with plenty of listens to Scarface’s latest, Emeritus and it seemed that so much of what Farber’s talking about, could easily be applied to Scarface’s music, for simplicity’s sake: “gangsta rap”. Farber’s essay touches upon a group of action films (mainly Westerns and gangster/crime movies) of the 1930s-1950s and celebrates them for their defiant quasi-accidental anti-Hollywood-ness. The way they function as both obvious genre films and finds all kinds of ways to do smarter, cooler stuff than the kind of movies that win awards and get written up in “Life Magazine”.

In film, many of the classic exploitation or low-budget directors are referred to as “genre directors”. I’d like to throw in the term “genre rappers”. Obviously, it’s a muddled term because rap’s a genre already but “sub-genre rappers” sounds sort of stupid and I think it’s clear what I mean.

Basically, there are the rappers that go beyond the expectations of their sub-genre, there are the rappers that sort of just wallow in the expectations, and then, there’s the “genre rapper”; the rapper that obsessively mines the same territory and creates a kind of outer-shell of cliché within which they are allowed to say and do pretty much anything. While conventional, smart-guy attitudes about “serious art” would praise the expectation-expanding rapper the most, it’s important to see the vitality of the genre rapper.

While the parallel between the movies Farber’s celebrating the music of Scarface is clear, I think the “genre rapper” exists in all of rap’s sub-genres. Take the so-called “conscious rap” sub-genre.

Groups like De La Soul or even Little Brother are groups that go beyond genre expectations (or in LB’s case, think they do) while say, Common on Resurrection, post-Dilla Slum Village, or dead prez only on R.B.G become genre rappers. They make albums that bask in the clichés but use them as a jumping-off point for odd, unconventional personal details and stylistics.

“…perfect examples of the anonymous artist, who is seemingly afraid of the polishing, hypocrisy, bragging, fake educating that goes on in serious art.”

Still, there’s something especially applicable about Farber’s quotes—especially the one above–and so many classic, gangsta rap minor epics. Namely, even the weirdest or dullest of “conscious” rappers occupy a place of protection and praise amongst rap fans and critics. They can always fall back on their positivity, no less or more of a cliché than gangsta talk of “keepin’ it real” but one that gets you a certain kind of praise amongst intellectuals and non-rap rap fans.

“The sharpest work of the last thirty years is to be found by studying the most unlikely, self-destroying, uncompromising, roundabout artists”

This could easily be a comment on hip-hop as a whole, but it’s especially pertinent to the kind of rap originated by Scarface and others in the beginning of the 90s. Rap that seemed to only be in conversation with itself and the few people who fucking got it. That it inexplicably turned into a big, sub-genre—and one that became “gangsta rap” when it could be exploited for trashy news stories—only makes sense because we’re all so used to it. What came from “gangsta rap” is the disinterest in the outside.

That’s to say, if you couldn’t get over the “foul” language or the violence and see the emotions and commentary going on in the music, you weren’t listening hard enough. Of course, there’s the additional point that the brilliance of the music comes through it’s plurality; the way it’s able to mix and match insight and tough-talk and never fall back on one or the other.

“the action directors accept the role of hack so that they can involve themselves with expedience and tough-guy insight in all types of action”

When the scratchy 20-dollar Timbaland beat of “High-Powered” drops and Scarface is on some more shit about snitches, he’s both expressing his beliefs and walking into a pit of cliché that indeed, he helped develop, but is a cliché nonetheless. That the beat’s produced by N.O Joe adds another level of weird “realness” and pop-rap concession to the whole thing.

For Scarface to continue spouting these hood mantras is a sign of confidence. A disinterest in hyper-originality, Scarface bases his observations or anger around the expected “gangsta rap” concerns and then, spirals out from there.

To the disinterested or cynical listener, it’s tough-talk and “stop snitching”—and therefore unoriginal and originality is highly overrated in capital-A art. To the attuned, sensitive listener, this is simply the canvas or the beginning, the jumping off point for Scarface’s deeper concerns, which he will weave throughout the expected boasts and threats of the gangsta rapper.

When you get to the third verse, Scarface has roped you in with the clichés and then, rattles off a deeply detailed outline of how snitching works on a personal and institutional level; the radical honesty and creativity of the genre rapper pops-out and we move a little further from the sort of thing rappers that make Blender’s year-end lists do.

“the virtues of action films expand as the pictures take on the outer appearance of junk jewelry”

When the dusty chipmunk soul of “Forgot About Me” comes in, a smile should come to any familiar listener’s face because “High Powered”, although complex and full of reversals, is very much operating in some attempt to meld rap trends—quasi reggae hook, electro synths—with Scarface’s style. It’s about as “pop” as someone like Scarface can get.

It’s the film noir director starting the movie—think of J. Prince’s “Intro” as a really cool and odd opening credits sequence—with the genre’s clichés but shooting them from a different angle or something. “Forgot About Me” though, is in the style we expect from Scarface and in that way, moves into the kind of hard-ass, single-minded focus that the rest of Emeritus follows.

Interestingly, “Forgot About Me” features rapper of the year(s) Lil Wayne and in that sense still keeps some of “High-Powered”s acknowledgement of current hip-hop—and critically acclaimed rap—even as it moves further into the hermetic territory that only Scarface and a few others can occupy.

“The important thing is not so much the banal-seeming journeys to nowhere that make up the stories, but the tunneling that goes on inside the classic Western-gangster incidents…”

“Can’t Get Right” stops having anything to do with rap music and mines the territory exclusively owned by Scarface and a few others (some of which guest on the album like Z-Ro or K-Rino). A dive straight into darkness but one that’s still wrapped around the hood, violence and all the stuff that closes the ears of certain listeners or makes them cry-out “unoriginal” even as it’s also—and more importantly–this multi-directional focus on how and why shit’s fucked the fuck up, starting with Scarface’s problems (“My momma’s pregnant with a son she should abort”) and ended up in Baghdad, having touched upon community violence, economic strife and just about everything else.

“Unfortunately, the action directors suffer from presentation problems.”

Say, instead of aping the cover of Power, Corruption, & Lies, it’s sort of this cheap-o, goofball, trophy cover or an almost powerful if not for some unfortunate photoshopping, image of Scarface staring harshly into a mirror. There’s an oddball brilliance to these kinda bad covers though and it comes to mind every time some douchebag hipster or serious rap fan makes fun of say, the CASH-MONEY covers.

Their ugliness, their formula is an affront, alright? An affront to capital-A art albums that refuses to admit they’re still corporate product and affront to polite taste. Just as pretty much every Rap-A-Lot disc is about not giving a fuck, those covers are about not giving a fuck too.

I’d prefer the cover of Emeritus to be some recreation of a plaque with ‘Face’s name on it photographed and put on the album cover. Why Scarface didn’t just walk into his bathroom, stare at a mirror, and have someone take a shot of it for Made, is frustrating but logical. It would suggest a concern about presentation that Scarface isn’t really about. Those early Geto Boys records were triumphs of design as well as music but now, the design represents too much and so, it’s been abandoned for the expected photoshop shit-job or something just generally underwhelming.

These photoshop covers connect to a low-budget, made-cheap, keep-it-real aesthetic that needs to not be forgotten. And, in a fascinating reversal that says as much about regional rap’s impulse for real-ness sincere or performed, the simple font atop a fucking bad-ass, off-the-cuff picture’s long ago been co-opted as another thing you learn in graphic design and so, they’ve moved onto the kind of image that’s never going to be lifted…a style that dares you to not take the music serious. Self-destructive indeed.

“The small buried attempt to pierce the banal pulp of underground stories with fanciful grace notes is one of the important feats of the underground director.”

“Grace notes”?

The way the talking for way too long “Intro” track of so many rap albums is turned into a rarified, political, personal, social, and everything else statement by J. Prince.

How “Who Are They” features guest verses from S.P.C veteran K-Rino and Slim Thug, the kind of rapper that like, girls in sororities probably associate with “dirty south”. It’s both an acknowledgment of rap’s changing landscape and a hard-ass attention to friends and fellow legends.

The minor detail on “Still Here” that apparently Scarface’s ring-tone is a Donny Hathaway song, which reminds us that he’s still just this awesome old dude who digs blissed-out soul classics, and maybe some kind of quick comment whether it’s supposed to be or not about ringtone rap. And this detail’s a preamble in a song that outlines the tragic murders of friends, family, etc. with novelistic detail!

There’s all this shit talking and assertion of importance (“High Powered”, “Redemption Song” the title of the album being Emeritus) in the rap game by ‘Face, but he also gives up the album for extended periods of time to the guests. The female hooks are longer and often turn into R & B outros, he often raps last after a guest or two, or giving up the intro of his album to J. Prince.

The mournful but confident “Outro” that’s really kind of inexplicable and odd for a rap album and only sort of makes sense because this isn’t the first time a Scarface album’s ended in this way.

Written by Brandon

December 7th, 2008 at 9:40 pm

Posted in Scarface, film, movies

Metal Lungies: Pimp C Beat Drop

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Props to Metal Lungies for getting Bun involved. He gives really thorough answers with a lot of back story and additional information. My beat choices were “Trill Ass Nigga” (Southern Way version, “Feel Like I’m The One Who’s Doin’ Dope’”, “Havin’ Thangs”, the “Outro” from Ridin’ Dirty, and “Underground Kingz”:

” One of the craziest and most disturbing pieces of music ever? Maybe. Kanye West teamed up with the fruit that produced Fiona Apple to make some “crack music”; Pimp C did it without a shit-ton of strings and indicating musical histrionics. It’s just squashed drums, screwed vocals, a synth-line that resonates for miles behind the song’s melody, and a whole lot of open space.”

-Noz has an excellent tribute along with 90 minutes of obscure Pimp C productions. Noz has also been twittering Pimp C words of wisdom all day.

-Here’s my obituary from last year. I remember writing it in about twenty minutes right before I went off to work. It was when I worked nights–8pm-5am–and I made everyone listen to Ridin’ Dirty and wanted to tell every customer how Pimp C was dead.

-Christopher’s entry for the Biographical Dictionary of Rap was written before Pimp died (maybe it needs an update?) but’s still an affecting portrait.

Written by Brandon

December 5th, 2008 at 1:56 am

Posted in Metal Lungies, Pimp C, RIP

City Paper: "Some Girls" (88 Keys & Kanye West)


“GONE ARE THE DAYS OF rap’s dumb pride in straight-talk misogyny. The use of auto-tune puts everything crooned through it in quotes; the safe preface of “this is real talk” tempers a rap that Ice Cube would’ve dropped without caution. Now, anger toward women is couched in twice-removed contempt. It’s a less “offensive,” but oddly more nefarious form of sexism than the umpteenth rapper bragging about running a train on a chick.

Recent albums from Kanye West protégé 88 Keys (The Death of Adam, on Deconstruction) and West himself (808s and Heartbreak, on Roc-A-Fella) both sound brilliant, but are lyrically problematic. Both guys’ relationship raps are absent of insight and oddly confident in blaming it all on the ladies. They’re best enjoyed with the very same caveat given to gleefully offensive ’90s rap classics of the “Dre Day” era: Ignore the lyrics, dig the beats…”

Written by Brandon

December 3rd, 2008 at 5:07 am

Raymond Scott: Electronic Pioneer, Imminent Hip-Hop Sample Staple…Action Figure?

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For the 100th anniversary of Raymond Scott’s birth, PressPOP’s making an action figure of the composer/guy sampled in some Dilla and Madlib tracks/electronics pioneer and it looks pretty cool.

Similar to the Robert Moog figure–and a Kauffman brothers figure?–a couple years ago, this one similarly takes a retro cartoon style to the figure and design (done by Archer Prewitt of The Sea and Cake), but adds a CD that gives you a short but effective sampling of Scott’s work. You get “Powerhouse” one of his best jokey jazz tunes, three tracks of Scott discussing his electronic music inventions, and “The Happy Whistler” from his proto-Ambient Music Soothing Sounds for Baby record.

What’s interesting about the CD is how it takes the time represent every era of Scott’s musical career and also, accidentally charts the way that Scott’s posthumous reputation has changed. Most slept-on, didn’t quite make it, musical footnotes are lucky if they have a single un-earthing and recontextualization of their music; in the past decade or so, Scott’s gone through quite a few.

He’s gone from the slept-on dude that composed a lot of Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes music, to novelty weirdo that made joke jazz with titles like “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals” that ended up in a lot of Looney Tunes stuff, to jazz weirdo that also made electronic music and invented electronic instruments, to a guy whose reputation’s now almost entirely tilted in the direction of proto-electronica prophet.

Much of Scott’s shifting reputation has to do with how his music’s been re-released and how it jibes or doesn’t jibe with what music dorks are really into at the time. His jazz music was first re-released on CD in the early 90s and pretty much contextualized as “this is the guy that composed a lot of that crazy, super-memorable Looney Tunes music” and was an attempt to gather Scott’s compositions and give proper credit to him. Not that Stalling did anything wrong, he’s usually credited with something like “Musical Direction” and all of Scott’s music was licensed to Warner Brothers, but still.

Scott’s jazz then, was mainly being connected to the cartoons which no doubt fit Scott’s music in both sound and song titles (“The Penguin”, “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals”, “Powerhouse”) but also relegated the music to being an odd footnote and essentially novelty music. In the late 90s, the Reckless Nights compilation came out and sounded way better and was more appreciative, with more biographical information–and the first hints of discussing his electronic work–and framed his music as whimsical and fun and fascinating.

Still, there seemed to be a distance between the actual music and why the music was significant enough to get a re-release. My ears have always heard some early rumblings of bop, for like Parker, Monk, etc. Scott’s jazz–all of which was composed in the late thirties making it pre-bop–was a response to the stale formulas of swing music. Because jazz writers are stuffy turds, they usually don’t like to think of this stuff too much, but it’s not hard to imagine that Parker or Monk took a little inspiration from that Looney Tunes music. Scott’s music is fun and it certainly does swing but it also wanders or waddles into weird, odd jagged corners of thumping drums and depressed squonks and then bursts into something really exuberant or wild and everything else.

A lot of instrumental music has goofy or weird titles but generally, you get the sense the composer thought of a title that explained how the music sounds after the fact. With Scott’s music, whether it’s true or not, you get the sense “Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner” came to him as a phrase and then he rushed down to his quintet and pulled out of their instruments and his brain, a song that was the jazzy approximation of a restless night on an ocean liner.

And semi-violent adjectives like “pull” aren’t too off if you read the liner notes of Reckless which makes Scott into a pretty strict and demanding composer. It sounds like the same way James Brown handled the J.Bs, nothing written down but this already-perfect vision of the song that’s then hummed and sung to the performers until somehow, they fucking play exactly what Mr. Brown hears between his ears.

Scott though, kept the music to those same hard-ass strict rules performing live too and so, the music was jazz without the cornerstone of jazz: improvisation. While the lack of improvisation mixed with the bumpy fun of the the tracks confused stuffy jazz critics–here’s a really fun and in a lot of ways not necessarily incorrect review from 1939–it’s really brilliant on Scott’s part to have this odd tension between the inherent, however hyper-rehearsed chaos of the tracks and the fact that they didn’t move or waver from their pre-planned start and end. It made the music useless in a way, it wasn’t jazz music and although apparently popular, it wasn’t exactly the pop of the time either, but useless in the way really good art should be useless…as this weird, rarified thing that doesn’t totally connect to any specific audience or genre or whatever and just kinda is. Weird and “useless” the way an action figure of a electronic music pioneer is weird and useless, you know?

Interestingly though, most of the re-issues of Scott’s music since 2000 or so have been of his electronic music. This no doubt, is because the music itself is truly deserving of re-release, but it also has to do with the audience or intended audience for record nerd oddities, and up, up, up cartoon jazz isn’t anymore appealing in 2000 than it was in 1939, while a dude fiddling in his basement with home-made electronics and keyboards and everything else totally is.

Which explains the release of Scott’s electronic experiments, soundtrack work, and commercial jingle work from the 1950s and 60s Manhattan Research. For a CD like this to come out in the early 2000s was fortuitous, as it made music that was previously impossible to hear relatively easy to obtain and ingest (I recall picking it up in the TOWER records that was once at the bottom floor of Trump Tower). A small group of electronic music fans and crate-digging, sample-grabbing rap kids have latched onto this release–you now see it on record way more than CD–and a few people here and there have sampled it, most notably perhaps, Dilla on Donuts’s “Lightworks” and Madlib on Beat Conducta’s “Electric Company (Voltage-Watts)”.

-J Dilla “Lightworks”

-Raymond Scott “Lightworks”

The relevance and prevalence of Manhattan Research will only grow and grow as two of the most worshipped sample-flipping beatmakers around have gone to Raymond Scott’s music. This mixed with the apparently here to stay trend in rap and R & B towards scronky, retro-futurism might just turn Scott, when it comes to sampling, into the next James Brown.

Interestingly though, no one’s really flipped or done anything too crazy or cool with a Scott sample. Dilla and Madlib just sort of loop it and chop it, and while that’s to be expected from Madlib, one could easily imagine Dilla obsessively rearranging and editing Scott’s crazy sounds into something almost unidentifiable.

So far though, my favorite Scott sample has been the use of “Cyclic Bit” on El-P’s “T.O.J”:

-El-P “T.O.J”

-Raymond Scott “Cyclic Bit”

The track employs a couple of other Scott samples that I hear but can’t immediately identify without consulting Manhattan Research but the most effective is “Cyclic Bit”. El-P uses it towards this pretty amazing like, clouds-part and the sun comes out feeling of musical epiphany as his really affecting and minus the space-shit or hyper-lyrical hard-assisms opening verse stops after a resigned “I used to be in love…” and we get maybe a half-second of silence and then Scott’s wobbly electronics flutter through to punctuate the heaviness of the verse. Interestingly, El-P too, doesn’t really chop or flip the sample, he just sort of inserts it in there and builds upon it for an extended, slow-building breakdown that blows-up into a coda-like rap-chant to end the song.

Written by Brandon

December 2nd, 2008 at 6:58 am