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Archive for March, 2009

Thoughts on UGK 4 Life

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-Obviously, the “Intro” is chilling. Pimp C rambling over flutters of stirring funk isn’t anything new, but knowing this is the last time a UGK album will have something like this is both devastating and exhilarating. That Pimp spits-out a “back from the dead” and even references “2009″ is well, wow. It’s you know, what the album’s going for with this surreal “Intro”, but it feels like Pimp showing up in a dream or from the heavens or something.

-I had a dream a few weeks ago that I was like kinda friendly with Pimp C and in the “next” part of the dream, I heard he died and I was standing there staring at his car. I placed my hands on the hood of the car and then walked away. Not sure what it meant, I think it was probably more about my friend Mike who died at the beginning of 2007–Pimp C died at the end of 2007 as I’m sure you know–but it’s about Pimp C too, who I miss as a musician and person(ality) as much as you can miss anybody you didn’t know personally. You have these real stupid but really-real wishes sometimes that dead people will drop down Mitch Albom For One More Day bullshit style and like just be like “What’s up dude?”. Somehow, “Intro” kinda allows that.

-But see, the thing about UGK 4 Life is it doesn’t even act like Pimp’s dead. It’s subtly but emphatically mentioned with the “Intro” and save for Snoop’s R.I.P shout on “Steal Your Mind”, probably left on just because it’d be shitty to remove it, there’s nothing about the album that feels “posthumous”. This is brilliant and fits along with the “we got the obvious, let’s move on” attitude UGK’s had since day one. The whole album’s a tribute, a final testament, and a bunch of other stuff…it doesn’t need shout-outs and tribute songs. Plus, Bun already did that on II Trill.

-”Still On My Grind”. Somehow soulful and R & B-ish and snarling, menacing Southern rap crunch at the same time. Those synths at the beginning are like that weird fucked-up machine that kills people in that one scene in Caligula or something. A great, no bullshit start to the album. A great start to this album especially, which is singularly focused on feeling like the early UGK shit while not forgetting about all the shit they’ve learned since The Southern Way EP.

-”Purse Comes First” is political and “conscious” and all that, but it gains it’s strength from being one of the only times that Pimp and Bun move away from talking about the G-Code and about girls and shit. It’s the opposite of Underground Kingz which declared their return and showed-off their versatility. This album isn’t concerned with impressing anybody.

-UGK 4 Life feels like Eightball & MJG’s In Our Lifetime Vol. 1.

-”The Pimp & The Bun” makes me tear-up more than a little.

-This is an R & B album, if not in genre, than in spirit. Besides an increased focus on soul-funk stacked up against quiet storm sounds and lots of sung hooks, it’s Pimp and Bun philosophizing on girls, sex, and love. I’m glad that everyone’s latched onto Pimp’s obsession with girls not shaving their pubes, because it’s a really smart and delightfully weird obsession on the album, showing up on “Everybody Wanna Ball” and “Harry Asshole”. It goes right along with their out-of-the-70s, O.G traditionalism, but it takes on deeper significance in 2009, less because it’s the right kind of hard-headed nostalgia, but because it’s such a smart–and mindful–rejection of the kind of hyper-clean, airbrushed, un-real sex and sexuality that’s taken over society and is especially glaring in hip-hop.

-Going along with this real, honest sense of sex is Pimp’s hilarious food/sex similes (chicken wings on “Still On The Grind”, corn on the cob and ribs on “She Luv It”). Same way he’s like sensitive to stuff like razor burns or the fact that girls’ assholes are hairy–that a great, throwaway detail from “Let Me See It” turned into a hook is brilliant–including (or like especially) strippers, does make sex seem properly messy and well, real. I talk about it in terms of comic books here and it’s the same thing on UGK 4 Life, not “dirty” and anything, but just you know, these are the weird details of fucking that need to be discussed the same way you know, Bun described what happens when you get shot (“you’ll be leakin’ out plasma and puss/Your mouth’ll fill up with foam”) on Underground Kingz’s “Gravy” or just the overall not so glamorous life UGK talk about. Bun’s celebration of a woman’s “feminine fat in the all the right places” on “Feelin’ You” or describing an especially stacked women as “look[ing] like Crumb drew her” on “Hard As Hell” fit right in with this too.

-That this really sophisticated and fucking honest celebration of women is interchanged so easily with lots of talk about getting your dick sucked and pussy and all that doesn’t negate the so-called “smart” stuff, it gives it more power. Respecting and celebrating women in a way that rejects the worst and weirdest aspects of our culture, but still you know, wanting to fuck and get some head is some more complex, real-er “respect” than ignoring those urges/wants and pretending they don’t exist because then you know, you’re “sensitive”.

-Love the really strange but perfect way UGK 4 Life’s sequenced. Early, up, up, up soul tracks followed by Pimp’s “7th Street Interlude”, a bunch of killer tracks with guests in the middle, then Bun’s “Texas Ave. Interlude”, then the doesn’t-fit-anywhere “Hard as Hell”, the perfect last track “Da Game Been Good To Me” (even more perfect somehow for feeling a bit unfinished, like a fairly clean demo or something?), and Bun’s hyper-sincere “Outro”.

-Oh yeah, “Hard As Hell”. Don’t care if Pimp wanted it on the album, it’s something of a bummer, especially so close to the end of the last UGK record. Pimp and Bun really destroy the verses here though and if Akon didn’t sing the chorus like it isn’t kind of absurd and funny, the song would work. T-Pain could’ve pulled this shit off. Akon’s just singing about his boner.

-”Used To Be”. Wow. The parallel to “Still On the Grind” in terms of just being a barreling monster of a track that still feels warm and soulful somehow? In the past, UGK are doing one or the other, but they bring their sounds and personas together on this album in a way they never have before. A perfect last album in that sense.

Written by Brandon

March 31st, 2009 at 8:36 am

Posted in UGK

"I’m the Shit" Is Here to Stay, Thank Kanye.

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As I mentioned before, I’m working on this Baltimore music site called 41yo.Com. I’m probably going to be pushing it pretty hard and obnoxiously but I’m also excited about it, so deal with it. I’ll be updating it daily with the kind of stuff I usually do here, also some typical “Web 2.0″ stuff like videos and mp3s, and some super-nerdy old Baltimore Club rarities and mixes and stuff too. Anyway, my first piece is a little essay on “I’m the Shit” by DJ Class, especially the Kanye West remix:

“Late last week, yet another kinda surreal remix of DJ Class’ Baltimore Club crossover blasted across the internet. This time though, it wasn’t relegated to club or radio-rap friendly blogs only. Sites like 2 Dope Boyz and the hip-hop oriented (though Baltimore friendly) Metal Lungies…hell even Internets Celebrity Dallas Penn is on his “I’m the Shit” shit.

The “I’m the Shit (Remix)” featuring Kanye West feels like the true arrival of DJ Class’ song, something of a guarantee the hype won’t stop or stumble or be curtailed by those that seem only interested in pushing seven or so artists interchangeably over seven or so of the same beats.”

Written by Brandon

March 30th, 2009 at 10:00 am

How Big Is Your World? New Rap.

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-UGK “7th Street (Interlude)”

There’s a million reasons why Pimp C’s death was a tragedy, but the one that UGK 4 Life mainly brings to mind is how much further Pimp could’ve–and would’ve–taken UGK’s sound. Around Dirty Money, it seemed like Pimp had found way to use his singing voice and rapping voice as extensively as his musical voice. By the time we had Pimpalation and Underground Kingz, he wasn’t giving Bun a breather for a verse or like offering an interesting contrast, he was forming his own, equally complex and rarified thesis on the world around. That his incomplete thesis would end with this demand for real-ness in the form of women not shaving their pubes is perfect.

UGK 4 Life moves even further into Pimp’s odd and incalculably influential idea of “country rap tunes” (emphasis on tunes). Be it B.O-Bobby Ray, Andre 3k, or Kanye, all of them get inadvertently shown-up on this track, as Pimp drops more palpable emotion in this minute and a half of singing than dudes do on whole albums or disastrous SxSw performances. “7th Street Interlude” reminds me of those lo-fi folk songs on the last Witchdoctor album, not only in their shared ability to do a lot more than most with only a little, but in terms of like, hinting listeners towards the possibility of an all-out singing album but wisely leaving it at that…for now at least…or what should’ve been “only for now” but you know, the Pimp is dead. Contained within “7th Street Interlude” though, is the seed for a UGK nerd to sprout into the beautiful, heartbreaking R & B album Chad Butler would’ve dropped in like another decade.

-Big Pooh “Power”

Ever since Getback, it seems Little Brother have come to terms with not being superstars and the very real fact that they don’t make radio rap, and it’s made their music way more likeable, even when something as obvious as the industry’s taken on–the topic of this wonderfully off-the-cuff Delightful Bars (iTunes Version) song. Here, Pooh comes off more like a burned veteran, hoping to give warning to rapper friends as idealistic as he once was. That the song also frames itself around the nebulous concept of “Power”, is at least a little more sophisticated or like, discerning about how stuff works and the precise reasons why it sucks. “Power” is just sort of reaching-out and throwing up its hands at a loose concept that undeniably corrupts and cripples everything.

And it doesn’t hurt that it’s spit over the freakiest, Nintendo Entertainment System beat of the year (alongside Christopher “Deep” Hendersons’ “Blame It” beat for Jamie Foxx). Khrysis brings Rock N’Roll Racing computerized guitar riffs, Dragon Warrior electro-flute, and Super Mario Brothers 1-Up! effects all together into something that still bumps enough that Big Pooh and O. Dash can spit complainer rhymes to and not sound out-of-place. Right before the beat repeats its loop, it’s sorta like the part of “Swagger Like Us” when Jay does that at-first dumb but really kinda goofily transcendant “Ho-o-Ova…” speak-sing thing.

-Unladylike “Bartender”

Already mentioned this, but I’m gonna get all So Many Shrimp on you and be like, “Hey, more people should be talking about this!”…”Bartender”s beat’s real minimal and slinky with moments that max-out, vibrating and swarming around almost evil-like, especially on the hook where it’s “Kernkraft 400″ on it’s ninth shot of Grey Goose, trying to build-up proper and explode but just sort of rumbling around like too much liquor sitting at the bottom of your stomach–reminds me of that recent Diplo/Blaqstarr joint that, while we’re at it, more people should give a shit about too.

Both Unladylike members have a good sense of fast-rapping that seems to be important for all females rappers to do–why, I don’t really know–and Gunna in particular, has a way of sneaking up on you moving from a Southern style drawl to rapid-fire raps, especially when she comes out of the first hook still rapping and into the second hook. Tee isn’t quite as nimble but she’s the secret star of the group, injecting some warm ugly reality into this drank rap. More fun and self-effacing, she devotes her brief verse to the awful-feeling you get when liquor hits you all at once, touching on the not-so-smart decision that more drink’s the answer, and ends it with a hard-ass flirt/demand to meet her in the bathroom. Neither hyper-sexual or Jean Grae “true” and “natural” or whatever, Unladylike stand in that awkward place female rappers (and really maybe females in general) aren’t allowed to occupy: just hanging out, being real.

-Eddie “In Reality”

Like a Baltimore version of North Carolina’s Hall of Justus, E Major-fronted Undersound Music are becoming the go-to for really solid, forward-thinking, fun but traditionalist hip-hop. The newest project is Sound Wandering from Virginia Beach’s Eddie. Somewhere between the avant-orthodoxy of Dilla and the out-and-out weirdo-ness of Flying Lotus or Prefuse 73, Eddie’s formula of in-the-ether soul samples matched-up against clunking, trebly electronics results in a kind of middle-brow experimentation that’s a delight when most to all “conscious rap” producers are either stuck in 1996 or trying too-hard to sound like Year 3006.

“In Reality” revolves around a stretched-out strings sample that expands and contracts and sounds a little melancholy. Stacked atop it though, are some really determined drums and an echoing synth-line that sound confident and ready to take over the world. The song’s on a mission; it could score the transcendent, life-changing moment at the end of some character study. A person holding onto a big decision and standing on the beach…or on Pluto for that matter. The really odd coda where it goes all-out with the fluttering electronics and inexplicably morphs into Eddie’s cell-phone ring and an aimless one-sided phone conversation is the right kind of weird, doesn’t make sense indulgence.

Written by Brandon

March 29th, 2009 at 7:50 am

41YO.COM: Mania Music Group at Guilford College (w/video)

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So this is also running at this Baltimore music website that I’m going to be involved in. Expect more content like this over there soon.

Perhaps the best introduction to Mania Music Group–a group of oddball Baltimore rappers (Dappa Dan Midas, Rapman Ron G, and Kane Mayfield) put together by producers Dwayne “Headphones” Lawson and Brandon Lackey—is through track 5 of the Mania Music Mixtape. Using the airy beat of Saigon’s “Gotta Believe It”, Mania transform the umpteenth “local rappers rapping over a radio beat” gimmick into a song all their own. Ron kicks it off, commenting on the beat like it’s the first time he’s ever heard it:

“Okay, this the slow-ass shit…feel like I’m dancing on some sugar with a bunch of babies in my hand no tank-top on, whatcha wanna do with me? This sound like I’m flying in the sky with a bunch of dinosaurs with sandals on…”

You hear the Mania Music crew cackling in the background and then Ron drops a determined verse as serious and intense as his intro was goofy and off-the cuff. It begins “Vote Ron for president, legalize weed…”, touches on a nationwide disgust (“As I watch FOX News can’t believe what I see/But then again I can ‘cause I know my country…”) and curls back in to the personal, describing a utopian future ideal for Ron, friends, and family: “Puffin’ good at the cook-out bumpin’ the Isleys/Chompin’ on fried chicken, sippin’ on Hi-C/Chillin’ with fam on land that belong to We”. Love that “land belong to We” line…

Kane Mayfield sneaks in next, his flow’s as nimble as Ron’s but even less casual—his Long Island, NY roots are clear—and he goes off, picking pieces of frustration from Ron’s first verse and expounding on them for nearly two minutes straight.

Excitedly, Dappa Dan Midas tells the group “I just got a hook, I just got a hook real quick”, Ron and Kane encourage him to step-up, and he belts-out, part a beautiful croon, part a desperate warble: “This is for all the people, who done lost someone tonight, just know that we love you!”. Midas expands the group’s inner turmoil raps into a love-shout to everyone else…and then Ron returns and kills it again. Goddamn! You literally hear the track coming together, the Mania crew laughing at one another, whispering not-quite off-mic encouragement to one another, and making a song equal parts touching and fun.

What’s so great about this “Gotta Believe It” re-fix is how it’s fully-formed and on-the-spot at the same time. That’s not a bad descriptor of Mania Music in-person too. See, you don’t so much interview Mania, as within moments of meeting them, become a member of the Mania family, and spin-around in the whirl of in-jokes and hospitality they spit-out in every direction.

Rehearsing for their performance along with Alabama’s G-Side and an alumnus from Guilford College DJ, Kane Mayfield walks off the stage and smacks his knee. “I got a knee-pad on—” he tells me.

I get the impression he may wear it all the time because who knows when he might feel the need to slide across the floor…there doesn’t seem to be a divide between on and off-stage for Mania, they’re the same whether performing, on the radio the next day, or eating burgers at this great North Carolina burger joint, COOK-OUT.

Right now though, the knee-pad makes sense, as Kane eyes the basketball court floor and more importantly, the laser-tag event being set-up at the other half of the gym. That these two events are scheduled at the same time, but are totally separate should’ve been a sign that this show might end up a bit of a mass.

Why the two aren’t merged into some liberal arts school version of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable comes to mind immediately…a good example of the lack of creativity at-work at Guilford. Promoter of the show/Guilford student Adam Katzmann agrees on the lack of foresight.

Katzmann’s the master-mind behind this G-Side/Mania show, and I’ve witnessed him destroy walls of red-tape to make it happen, including a wonderfully obnoxious concern by school committee that bringing rappers to Guilford could be “problematic”, and a month-prior, constant hustle to get funding. As a result—understandably so—he’s tied to the whims of organizations that gave him the money to pay the groups.

And so yeah, laser-tag and hip-hop in the same gymnasium—we’ll later learn laser tag will also blast music the entire night even during the concert—and a schedule that begins promptly at eight o’clock with Mania Music Group, then onto G-Side, and inexplicably, wraps-up with a DJ from the school, paid far less than the groups and not from out-of-town.

Mania smile and joke and practice through all these little looming details—it’s their first out of town show, G-Side’s as well—and begin reasoning with those around them. The DJ, who rocks a Baltimore Orioles hat, claims Baltimore as his hometown (he’s also wearing a wack track-jacket, but we’re not judging, right?), has no interest in helping some honest-to-god rappers from his hometown, won’t switch times, and won’t even do an intro set until people show-up. He wants to go on at ten o’clock. A big shot.

So Mania have their DJ, DJ Blak Majik, spin some music as the gym slowly but steadily fills and just as Mania are about to come-on and perform, the power goes out. Twenty minutes later, it comes back on—we later learn someone stepped on a plug, pulling it from the socket—and it’s nine o’clock and Mania are told, they’ve missed their chance to perform.

And a person who somehow has something to do with this show, breathes-out, in her best approximation of “tough-shit”, “Well, Mania didn’t want to perform when there weren’t people here so G-Side are coming out now.” These bands are being paid. A decent amount of money. To perform.

Rather than re-arrange the show a bit or you know, cut into the two fucking hours some third-rate laptop DJ who used to go to the school is allotted, Mania get a check but are told they cannot perform. G-Side come out, try to perform to awful sound that keeps cutting-off, walk off, wait twenty minutes to perform a second time (sound still sucks, G-Side kill it anyway).

Between G-Side’s first attempt and their shortened set a bit later, Mania start scheming. Sure, they’ve got their check but these guys want to get out there and rap, because they know they can. At some point, Mania brilliantly rush the stage and just start rapping.

Midas performs “Brass Knuckles” from his Live from the Arcade EP. The song’s an electro-banger piece of battle-rap—what “hipster rap” should sound like—and Midas spits it angrily but playfully to a crowd that’s all like “whoaretheseguys??” blown-away. Bouncing, posing, and jerking like a rap Otis Redding, Midas exclaims “Right now I’m feeling LL-cocky with the underdog spirit of a black-ass Rocky” and pauses for a student’s camera in a boxer pose.

Dwayne “Headphones” Lawson walks to the stage, tells everyone they’ve been here since seven o’clock—the sequence of events is all the more tragic because Mania were total professionals about showing up, rehearsing, etc.—and that they’re gonna do one more song but they’d love to do more.

Mania perform “Blown Out”. It’s a slow-burn on the recording but they turn it into a fresh, fever of spitting, that ends up being beat-less when the sound goes out twenty-seconds in. Mania don’t miss a beat and do the whole song acapella—“Amish-style” says Kane—and if you didn’t know better, you’d think it’s the point in a show where the rappers drop the beat out to show you how dope they are. Mania just are this dope.

The crew’s not so much angry as disappointed. Immediately, they make plans to return on better terms, thank Adam a great deal, make fun of a certain pompadour-ed student with too much attitude (“Major douche chills” says Brandon Lackey) and we all follow Kane’s brother, a Greensboro, NC resident, to COOK-OUT for burgers.

It all becomes immediate fuel for jokes and Mania’s own kind of mock-myth-making. Kane likens it to Footlose…rap music outlawed…Mania the small college’s worst nightmare. Midas, while deciding which milkshake he’s gonna get, mocks his own melancholy by singing a few lines from Kanye’s “Say You Will”.

Ron G’s just kinda blown away. He’ll joke about it and break-it-down on Guilford’s radio station (in an interview hosted by Adam) the next day, but right now, it seems oddly close to his sapient raps about injustice that Ron’ll stick between “dinosaurs with sandals on” jokes.

Adam Katzmann, the show’s organizer and the guy who’s gotta see all these fucking kids for two more years, can’t help but point out the ugly irony of taking celebratory classes about Marx or Che with the kids who treated a bunch of good-natured, willing-to-perform rappers like dissidents.

We follow Kane’s brother back to Guilford and Mania Music (and G-Side) tear it up at a three-building-and-a-lawn party that’s “straight out of Superbad” according to Midas. An hour or so later, surrounded by dancing, shouting, tripping, drunken students, Brandon Lackey’s sending mp3s of Mania’s music to a student’s laptop to play—they’re planning an impromptu show in a dorm room—but this too is cut short when public safety show-up to cool the party down. And it’s Footloose all over again.

-You can download all of Mania Music Group’s stuff for free on their website

-Also, check out “Lunatic Fringe” by Al Shipley from the Baltimore City Paper, it’s a feature on Mania Music from a bunch of months ago.

Written by Brandon

March 28th, 2009 at 3:22 am

They Don’t Really Dance: G-Side at Guilford College (w/video)

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Waiting in a surprisingly swanky Guilford College “V.I.P” room (surprising given how poorly the artists were treated overall, more on that tomorrow), after an aborted attempt to perform—sound issues, no surprise—G-Side sit back, struggling to define their sound to this goofy blogger.

Anyone’s that’s heard G-Side’s Southern sincerity raps over Huntsville, Alabama’s Block Beataz country-rap-space tunes production shouldn’t be surprised that ST 2 Lettaz and Yung Clova hesitate a couple times before summing up their really hard-to-sum-up sound.

With the same mix of modesty and determined knowingness you catch when he says something like “A rookie in the game but I move like a damn boss” (from “Strictly Buzinezz”), Yung Clova with a smile says: “We, we don’t, we really don’t dance…”

“Yeah…We don’t do the stanky-leg-“ ST 2 Lettaz chimes-in, laughing.

“We tryin’ to bring hip-hop back for real…” Clova comes back quick, saying something every rapper tells you, but you know, G-Side really are bringing back “real hip-hop”–unless your definition of “real” stops long before Scarface, Outkast, and Eightball and MJG. ST expounds a bit:

“I’m a big Scarface fan, big Jay-Z fan…I think what makes our music sound so good is, we gotta make livin’ in Hunstville, and Athens, Alabama sound interesting to the masses, where really nothing interesting’s going on, on a day-to-day basis…but we make it sound pretty cool, know what I’m saying?”

Again with the modesty.

Despite lofty traditionalist goals and a true rap nerd’s sense of hip-hop history–—at a Guilford party after the show, you could watch ST’s lips move with every line from every Outkast, Jay-Z, Scarface, and Z-Ro song blasting from a student’s laptop–G-Side are not about nostalgia.

Rather, they’ve respectfully bowed down before their influences, internalized them, and moved-on to their own odd mix of rap humanism, shit-talk, paranoia, and ultimately, escape or if you want to get all spacey and 2001 about it–transcendence.

Notice that rarely is the group rapping in the present tense about hustling. Their music is about not having to do that anymore and space as metaphor or place to escape this fucked-up world and eventually, bring the rest of us with them.

On “Hit Da Block”, the song that begins the album’s final suite of past paranoid meets current success (after a thrilling three-song detour in R & B-ish rap), ST begins his verse with a crack-rap reminisce: “We three-deep on the interstate…” A lot of rappers’d be bragging about a past crime, but every detail ST drops further illustrates why this was a bad fucking idea.

One of the passengers’ P.O’s told him he’s “supposed to stay in the state” but ST counters the risk with the hood utopian justification: “but we can’t sleep til’ we know that all our niggas ate”. But then we’re back to the danger: “I’m only 21 and I could probably get more years than that if they find what’s in the trunk…”–more a mix of excitement and storytelling morality of Rae and Ghost or Geto Boys than all-out crack-rap bragging.

When G-Side perform “Hit Da Block”, ST steps-up for his verse, sinks into the cicada synths and paranoid, wordless vocals of the beat and puts his hand out like he’s casually driving. Clova bounces by his side and you see them transported to just a few years ago when being “three-deep on the interstate” was real-life.

Clova’s got his flashback moment on the song too, intensely stepping-forward and telling an audience of Guilfordians: “My homeboy just got busted for a few grams/On the back street trapping in a Trans-Am.” The point though is, that’s not what they’re doing anymore and ugly memories are fodder for their raps that contrast with their current situation–not grabs for “street-cred”.

Explaining their color-coordinated outfits for the show, ST notes, “Well they say, purple is like, for nobility and royalty, and we’ve been living like kings ever since Starshipz dropped, so it was kind of fitting.” ST’s voice lifts a bit and he looks over to Clova–the group’s relative success puts a smile on his face too—and I’m reminded of the sense of joy and wonder that races through the still world-weary album.

That mix of joy and world-weariness is the result of the stars aligning–no pun intended. Block Beataz stoned thump finding an ideal partnership with ST and Clova’s confessional rhymes. When the two talk about Starshipz, they use the same word as critics: “Cohesive”.

ST explains that all the work’s done in the studio, Block Beataz playing G-Side skeletal versions of the final product, ST and Clova writing and rapping to that skeleton and then, “after the fact”, Mali Boi and C.P will “go back and build around [their] vocals”. I’m reminded of the making of… stories for those early Outkast classics, but also tales of Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 1, where Dilla had Slum rapping over the most rudimentary of beats that he later exploded into clips of voice, guitar, Rhodes, and whatever else.

And even when Block Beataz and G-Side do a club song, they don’t leave the experimentation or personality behind. “Rubba Bandz” claps and beeps like a joint for Gucci Mane and the last bunch of tracks (“Hit Da Block” to “Run Thingz”) are rave-rap ready but you know, closer to actual rave music. Not Polow Da Don’s regressive retro-futurism, but this powerful mix of joy and sadness, pleasure and pain.

On Starshipz closer “Run Thingz”—the raveiest or rave beats–Clova ends with an image of G-Side destroying their underground status: “they tried to put us incognito/I got a Grammy and walked the carpet with the Slo-Mo”. The genius of Clova’s imagined scene is that he speaks about it like it already happened or that it’s at least, a foregone conclusion. Bragging based less on shit-talk than some bullnecked belief that it’ll happen.

The group seems beyond affected by music bullshit, probably aware that stuff like “Lollipop” gets Grammy nominated and contemporary classics rarely do, but fine with employing it as a kinda metaphor and just happy to have a dope CD out that’s selling “really really well…” as ST reminded me more than once.

When asked about their contribution to Fear and Loathing in Hunts Vegas, “Real Good”, ST affects a Tyler Perry’s Madea sass and angrily but jokingly tells me “We didn’t get paid for that Fear & Loathing song that we was on Hunts Vega…blah…blah…”.

He’s annoyed but clearly prefers to let that one go and laugh with me about the song’s line that rivals any ‘Ball & MJG punchline: “My nuts is numb and then I had to hit her/This bitch tries to put a finger in my shitter”. Clova’s eyes grow big “That song’s on there?!” and ST smacks his hands on the chair’s arms: “Yes it really happened…” They take a similarly wizened attitude towards the nothing short of a debacle that is this show at Guilford.

So….this show. Let me begin by saying, if you want to put a group of musicians to the test, surround them with a group of clueless kids and security guards that’ve scheduled a show for exactly 8 o’clock that inexplicably, ends with a DJ set from a student and begins with the two, higher-paid, out-of-town groups.

Factor in said big-headed student DJ not budging on times and seemingly unimpressed by Baltimore’s preminent out-there, next-level rappers Mania Music Group and The FADER celebs G-Side, despite cribbing his entire laptop DJ style from places like The FADER and Baltimore’s Dan Deacon, and you expect a mess on your hands.

But G-Side and MANIA Music Group (more on them tomorrow) took the entire thing in-stride, really just wanting to perform really bad for a bunch of kids they’d never otherwise encounter.

G-Side at one point, faced the humiliation of walking off the stage when the sound continually cut-off and returned twenty minutes later to only slightly better sound as if nothing was wrong, did a quick set of “Strictly Buzinezz”, “Hit Da Block”, “Rubba Bandz”, and “Speed of Sound” thanked everyone profusely and showed up at a fairly insane Guilford party an hour later, doing JELLO-O shots and chilling-out on a couch listening to Z-Ro, talking rap with me and a few others.

Written by Brandon

March 26th, 2009 at 3:31 am

Hip-Hop & Whiteness: Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers

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Last summer, I did a piece called “Beyond The Wackness: Hip-Hop & Whiteness at the Movies”. The focus was predominantly “white” movies that successfully integrated hip-hop music and culture, either as a central plot device or through minor, but telling scenes and details.

James Gray’s Two Lovers is certainly the latter as hip-hop only appears once, when main character Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) does a freestyle and rocks a bunch of throwback dance moves to impress love interest and neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). But Leonard’s “freestyle” will echo through the rest of the movie for any viewer with a working knowledge of hip-hop.

The scene comes a half-hour in, when sad-sack, stuck-at-home Leonard shares a cab with Michelle and her friends, on the way to the club. Leonard, characterized by a mix of inward darkness and flip-of-a-switch, contrived charm, tells the already-giggling girls about a rap routine he and his friends performed in their teens.

Leonard half-recalls the rap, but barely gets past the point where his (presumably) fellow Jewish private-school attending teens would’ve spelled-out his name (L-E-O-N-A-R-D), fumbling through the first few lines, then laughing it off. What could be a scene about a character recalling a goofy teenage anecdote turns into an obsequious hustle, as it feels more like Leonard knows he’s forgotten the routine well before wistfully mentioning it to E-pill popping Michelle.

Out of the cab and into the club, Leonard dances with the nearly-rolling Michelle, punctuating moments of typical rub-your-dick-on-a-chick grinding with killer breakdance moves including a reverse worm, some robot swiped from the Rocksteady crew, and a ton of Freestyle for good measure. In short, dude’s routine is all powermoves.

In these scenes, the film lights-up and the raw energy of Phoenix’s fun but uncomfortable raps and dances makes it wonderfully unreal. It’s almost as if we’re in Leonard’s head here, as the club itself, despite modern dress and cell-phones and all, feels like a flashback to the late 80s–when Leonard probably learned his moves and raps–as there’s a cipher going on and everyone’s bugging out like it’s a Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam video or something. There’s actually a bunch of points in Two Lovers where Gray like, time-travels and plays with modern technology (cell-phones are key to the plot)–the first time we see Leonard’s family home, it feels like it’s 1912 in the Samsa household, but that’s another essay really…

As these like genuinely hallucinatory few minutes played-out though, Joaquin Phoenix’s third-rate Borat/Andy Kaufman schtick from Letterman or on TMZ was hard to forget. This is something that’s plagued all publicity for Gray’s not-what-it-looks-like masterpiece, but especially these scenes, where hip-hop’s part of the movie.

If this “I’m a rapper” thing is somehow real and sincere, then Gray’s even more of a genius for playing off of Phoenix’s instability and bizarre whimsy, and if it’s not, it’s interesting in contrast to the small bits of hip-hop ephemera Gray sprinkles into Two Lovers expertly. Namely, the very same actor brilliantly balancing a hip-hop joke with some character background history and an ugly sense of charm and deceit, running it into a played-out gag about how white people rapping is really funny and silly.

The thing about rap’s inclusion in Two Lovers is, it’s a quiet but key piece of characterization and the kind of thing that doesn’t need to be there, but is there, and is used for more than just goofball laughs about a white dude doing hip-hop, which is the only reason–outside of actual mental illness–for Phoenix’s rapper gimmick.

It’s important to note that Leonard’s rap is some crappy version of a Busy Bee routine, dating his experience with hip-hop significantly. That, coupled with his break-dancing moves, gives you a good sense of the late 80s scene Leonard stumbled into, and given the sense that he had some kind of routine–however terrible–and some genuinely killer dance moves, Leonard at least sorta worked-on and cared about rap at some point.

This tiny sequences gives you a sense of how Leonard spent his teenage years, which given his current situation, gives deeper biography and makes his current, miserable, confused existence more palpable. This hint of a hip-hop past, like his half interest in photography, or the photo of a fiance’ that left him, reach back to a time when Leonard was a little more together but just as wrongly motivated.

In his current state, any and all Leonard’s interests revolve around getting closer to one of the two women in his life. Photography gets him talking to the other girl in his life, Sandra and leads to a chance to get buddy-buddy with her family (always a good look with the ladies), and his old experience with hip-hop becomes a a way to sheepishly charm Michelle. In a scene that’s something of a parallel to the freestyle sequence, Leonard learns that Michelle likes opera and we see Leonard opening one of those sad, like $4.99 “Opera’s Greatest Hits”, and playing it–an embarrassingly sincere (but also manipulative!) attempt to connect with her.

Opera is Leonard’s recent, temporary obsession (at least for a scene, everything Leonard does seems dominated by the fear of permanence, some real “Ode on a Grecian Urn” type shit, which Gray explicitly references in one scene, but that too, is another essay) and if the movie worked-out differently, he’d probably develop into an insincere savant on the subject. Opera, like hip-hip is one more way towards acceptance or opportunity. As it stands, he stops at a Wal-Mart compilation on Opera, another sad, subtle detail that builds up to something greater in Two Lovers. The same way he half-asses his freestyle, or just the very palpable sense that Leonard and Michelle are a little too old for this kind of bizarro romance, Leonard’s opera interest is pathetically superficial.

Gray (and Phoenix) place Leonard in that first generation for whom hip-hop wasn’t underground or was above-ground enough for some young Jewish kid to grab onto, and could easily be a phase of his teenage years (like punk or being a Deadhead). Neither the earlier generations still half-baffled by hip-hop or later generations that were simply born into it by way of Dre or Puffy or Kanye or whoever. Less the “culture” it started out as or would re-develop as a result of it going “pop”, it was just the cool, weird, dope thing for Leonard and his teenage friends with easy access to the subway to be a part of. This kind of, off-the-cuff, not a big deal approach to rap in movie speaks volumes about Leonard’s character and comments on hip-hop’s disposability amongst a certain milieu just as well.

Written by Brandon

March 19th, 2009 at 4:44 am

How Big Is Your World? New Rap and Such…

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-Ryan Leslie “Out of the Blue”

Whether they know it or not, a war’s being fought by Ryan Leslie and The Foreign Exchange (or even the last Keyshia Cole album) against the post-modern love jams of T-Pain, Kanye, and The-Dream (bar songs about buying shorties shots are basically date-rape songs, just saying…). Declarations of romantic love and need that sound every bit as retro-futuristic as the stuff that’s dominated the radio, but take a little longer to worm their way into your head or like, don’t reveal themselves on first listen. Like everything, let’s not replace one with the other but dude, can we have some balance?

Love how this track sets-up a “what-if…” to Leslie’s girl if he were to leave her, on some egomania shit, only it’s Leslie’s version of telling you how sad he was when he got dumped: “Would you fight back tears as your heart gets torn to pieces?”. Damn, that’s like Scott Walker-level melodrama. And when he isn’t indirectly talking about how he basically went nuts when he got dumped, he’s going back over the relationship with a bunch of “shoulda” reevaluations. There’s also like four levels of electronic weirdness bouncing through the back of this track; Polow Da Don would’ve saved each one for a separate song and made four third-rate Timbo turds, R. Les just goes for it. A highlight among highlights on the only great album that’s come out this year.

-Project Pat “I Be Fresh”

The new Project Pat, Real Recognize Real is excellent and returns some faith in Hypnotized Minds after the weird whatever it is that was Last 2 Walk. Between this and DJ Paul’s upcoming solo album, it almost feels like Three-Six decided to just pretend its 1998 again. The guitar line of this song, downbeat and blaxploitation sad, gets chopped and flipped in a bunch of different directions, chugging along, playing-out semi-cathartically, or just punctuating a Project Pat punchline, almost like Dilla’s ghost floated down to Memphis and helped-out. The guitar chug build-up is “Eye of the Tiger” intro, but never explodes, it just wanders along, trading time with a layer of Vangelis that pulses through most of the song. Pat sounds more like his brother Juicy J than ever before and it’s jarring, but ultimately works, because Pat’s a better rapper and his aggressive flow’d disrail weary brag-rap song like this. The most smoothed-out, minor victory anthem from the Three-Six camp since “Da Summa”.

-CNN featuring Busta Rhymes & Ron Browz “Rotate”

It isn’t that Ron Browz’s formula is necessarily bad–”Pop Champagne”, “Arab Money”, and “Jumping Out the Window” are some of the most fun pop-rap radio’s had in awhile–it’s that he’s consistent about recycling his schtick, so everything’s just kinda the same; no delightfully bad versions and no oddball transcendent version either. “Rotate” though, finds a good balance between hyper auto-tune moaning of Browz and hard-ass New York rap we want from CNN. Really, it’s the same pop-rap compromise Noreaga made with “SuperThug” and it even has some of that song’s trebly stutter funk. This is the part where readers are reminded of Browz’s early career producing “Ebonics” and “Ether”.

Along with some of those new Raekwon and Cam’ron songs, it sounds like wizened New York rap’s back and found a way to recreate and reinvigorate the past, coming off less like a sad approximation than a logical continuation of the sound that worked a decade ago. Give M.O.P a track like this too, Mr. Browz. Still, there’s no excitement for this song, both because radio’s so far gone that even a song as catchy and club-ready as this can’t break through and because serious heads saw “featuring Ron Browz” and never even downloaded the shit. “Rotate” isn’t anything special, but the drums knock, the ever-shifting sometimes backward guitar sample flickers around insidiously, Noreaga and Busta sound awesome, and Capone’s well, he’s Capone.

-Mz Streamz “Tear It Up”

Maybe the only actual Baltimore Club song on the Bmore Club mix/album from E1 Records, Bmore Club Crack by Aaron Lacrate & Debonair Samir, Mz Streamz rides those corny club horns and thump drums on the hook, and finds a way to fit her voice between the million changes-ups that Club songs contain. Inevitable comparisons to the other youthful female Baltimore rapper Rye Rye are on the way, but Rye Rye’s something of a club-rap chanteuse, her voice rests on top of the tracks and rides along. Mz Streamz is something else altogether.

She competes with the beat to “Tear It Up” dipping in and out of it and coming off as varied and A.D.D as the song itself and then, meets it half-way on the ecstatic hook. The same way say, those maybe-from-”Blow Your Heard” synth buzzes collide with the club break towards the end of the song, Mz Streamz cleverly crushes her tough-talk into itself: “I don’t do too much dancin’, Me?/I straight tear it up and take over”. On that “Me?” she squeaks in, between the conventional rap lines, her accent and youthful voice are used for full effect. The idea that what she does on the dance-floor, she doesn’t even call “dancing” is genius. Baltimore Club music’s especially suited for female rappers for some reason. Dudes shouting shit or singing works, but straight-spitting from guys often sounds jarring or extraneous…unless it’s 410 Pharoahs.

-Wavves “So Bored”

Like buddies No Age, Wavves are neither noisy or poppy enough and never actually combine the two in a way that’s fascinating, but there’s something emotional and distressed racing through Wavves’ music that makes it work. Approach this music the same way you’d approach a gangsta rap album or Nazi metal, a very real, unadulterated look into a mind that’s hopefully nothing like your own. Not that Nathan Williams is as immediately “deplorable” as Eazy-E or Varg Vikernes, but that this is music that sounds awesome and visceral but maybe rubs you the wrong way. I’m not sure who these people are that are “bored” and it seems an especially obnoxious anthem to drop as people have too many economic worries to ever feel “bored”, but Williams is speaking for the fuckfaces who still have too much time on their hands, I guess.

Everything about “So Bored” though, is either underwhelming (Phil Spector drums without resonance, unmemorable surf guitar lines) or too much (the scronking noise, the delightfully obnoxious backing vocals) and it creates an odd, jagged sense of disarray to the track that’s certainly relateable. Maybe it’s like “Paranoid’ where Ozzy didn’t want to sing “I’m depressed” so he just called it “Paranoid” even though he’s singing about depression, or the slight euphemism Wavves’ heroes The Beach Boys employed from time time, and this song’s really about feeling really sad and filled with a layer of ennui as thick and ugly as the scratchy static that envelopes each and every Wavves song–which I guess is the sound of being “bored”?–and that’s an emotion that’s all-too relevant these days. Fun to skateboard to after you get laid-off.

Written by Brandon

March 17th, 2009 at 4:01 am

Voguing to Danzig’s "TV Loves You Back" March: The Doctor Who Cut-Away

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So, Raymond Cummings of the blog Voguing to Danzig (and contributor to Dilla Donuts Month) has this thing going on called “TV Loves You Back March” and I did this piece on Tom Baker-era Doctor Who and it’s many reasons for being awesome but namely, the theme song’s greatness and the way the show always ended with this mad-abrupt cut-away:

So, there’s some show on the Sci-Fi channel by way of BBC called Doctor Who and it’s liked by the same fans as the old show, but seriously, this metrosexual doctor that’s the wrong kind of ironic riding the Tardis all around doesn’t really feel right but really, other than the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, none of the Doctors feel right or feel as right. This is a post about the brilliance of Doctor Who but it’s really about the Tom Baker years, in which it seems like everything weird and awesome about the show totally aligned.

The show makes for some of the best TV ever when Tom Baker’s on the screen, as he’s ideal for the time (mid to late 70s) with goofball style (Willy Wonka perm, super-long scarf) and a kinda wizened post-Vietnam sardonism about him. Certainly too smart for whatever problem he’s stumbled into, Baker’s Doctor has a kind of Byronic meta-charm about him. He never seems threatened and treats say, an evil deformed despot like Davros in the definitive episode(s) “Genesis of the Daleks” like he’s just some asshole in a rubber suit squawking and croaking about destruction…

Written by Brandon

March 13th, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Posted in Doctor Who, television

Young & Crazy: Rick James’ Street Songs

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Be it the stunted Prince rip-off that’s still dope last hurrah of “Loosey’s Rap” featuring Roxanne Shante, or samples as outright as the “Superfreak”-freaking “Can’t Touch This” and as solemn as the wizened raps from James’ “Hollywood” (Three-Six’s “Da Summa”, Devin the Dude’s “Anythang”) to Chappelle Show’s forever-classic “Rick James, bitch!” skits, Hip-Hop kept Rick James alive a long time before he actually passed on.

But it was only right because Street Songs would provide the blueprint and attitude for so much rap to come a decade or so later. This point, Rick James’ influence on rappers, isn’t anything new, but it’s the sort of thing that can’t be talked about too much. Part of this constant “this is really good, no like, really good” meme has to do with Rick James’ image and reputation.

A parody of himself even at his peak of popularity, as James’ music and well-being declined, he made himself real easy to dismiss. And you know, burning a chick with a crack-pipe didn’t help either. By the time the 90s rolled around, the sloppy reputation and a guffaws saved for any and everything “eighties”–something shocking now that all things 80’s are in–made James’ knowing goofball meets novelistic realist funk easy to misinterpret as straight “corny”. “Superfreak” became definitive of outdated, very un-cool 80s slang and everything else.

Rick James though, doesn’t need to be “saved” from this image, rather it should be properly forged onto his goofball jheri curl “Rick James bitch!” persona most people know about. One way to begin to do this is to just think of Street Songs as a rap album. It’s often celebrated as a “concept album”, especially the kind of concept album tradition Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, but it’s also a concept album like say, Mr. Scarface is Back is a concept album: A solid group of songs, based around an outrageous persona that’s rooted in truth. And that’s also most rap albums, even fairly or entirely commercial ones, but like Mr. Scarface or I’m Still Livin or (give it a few years) Starshipz & Rocketz or Illmatic, Street Songs is both calculated fiction-y “truth”-telling and raw, uninhibited emotion.

Rather than try to explain or apologize for Rick James the fuck-up who acted crazy and did some horrible things, it should just make sense because that stuff’s running through Street Songs. Start with “Give It To Me Baby”, a song we all know, but a song that’s basically about coming home drunk, wanting to fuck and your girl being like “You’re messed-up, get outta here.” In this Yahoo Music interview from 2005, James says “I don’t think I could’ve gotten more honest than a record like that”. What’s interesting about “Give It To Me Baby” is that it’s got the energy and bassline and horns of a dance song and so that hook, “Give it to me baby”, just sounds like the kind of quasi-aggressive come-on we hear in pop-dance tracks from “Shout!” to whatever vaguely sexual thing’s shouted out in the chorus of the most-downloaded on iTunes this week. “Give it to me” though has all this loaded, uglier, way more honest detail to it. Rick doesn’t come out of the song looking good and he plays into it even further by shouting out and squealing through it, as unaware vocally as his drunken, boner-wielding Frankenstein character is mentally.

The album’s closer, the manic punk disco of “Below the Funk (Pass the J)”, is basically a speedier version of “Give It To Me”, half the length, twice the speed, and twice the desperation too. That he’d end his album shouting out “Pass the joint!” between pieces of dismissive autobiography (about hometown Buffalo, how his Mom couldn’t hack it, and other street–or once rap came along, we’d call them “hood”–realities) and start his album trying to bone a disinterested girlfriend is crueler and more critical than any obnoxious eulogy or snark from a rock critic.

But right there, even as he’s making addictive dance music out of his addictions, he’s laying-out this really worked-on, thought-through piece of art. The album starts and ends with a shout-out to addictions (drugs and women), and there’s a pairing of street-detail based autobiography going on between the second track “Ghetto Life” and final track “Below the Funk” in terms of giving you a series of ugly scenes from his Buffalo youth.

“Call Me Up” just slows down the tempo (and everything else) of “Give It To Me Baby”–it basically has the same horns and bassline–and is a courtship joint, or as close to courtship as Rick James is gonna get. The ballads “Make Love To Me” and “Fire and Desire”, double each other like that too (one on each side, third track from the beginning, third track from the end), as “Make Love” is just a nice sex jam, while “Fire and Desire” like “Give It To Me” sounds like something to categorize (slow jam, complete with spoken intro) but it’s a song of heavy, palpable regret about being an asshole playboy…the kind of guy Jay-Z raps about (and embodies for the verse) in his Rick James interpolating “I Just Wanna Love You (Give It To Me)”.

It’s also though, a joke on the spoken-word wizened soul of something like “Facts of Life” by Bobby Womack. Rick’s having fun talking like an all-too sensitive, caring changed man and mocking all that because it’s in part, just a whole different kind of player talk. It’s wrestling around in the same weird sincerity and shithead mockery that David Lee Roth–maybe the person closest to James in terms of persona–has on “Jamie’s Cryin” or Devin the Dude or ODB–who writer Jamie Lowe connects to James numerous times in her slept-on Digging in the Dirt.

Street Songs truly succeeds in this weird, grey area between personality and parody and not coincidentally, this is also the point where James’ multiplicity or really, duplicity, makes people think it’s all a lark. That the known by everybody “Super Freak” kicks-off Side B after Side A’s ended with a totally sincere and truly frustrated anti-police song “Mr. Policeman” is either conveniently ignored/just plain not-known or framed in opposition, Tupac or “but there’s a song about feeling bad for selling crack” style, is telling. Rick’s point is that personal-is-political outrage and being really into threesomes and shit are all wrapped up in the same confused person. This is the plurality of hip-hop, especially Southern Hip-Hop, a couple years early.

James jokes when he wants to and confesses when he feels like it too. He knowingly croon-shouts self-critique throughout “Ghetto Life”, punctuating Goines-ian detail with reminders that he was “young and crazy” and “dumb and oh so lazy”. Especially effective is late in “Ghetto Life” when he sets-up what sounds almost like modern-day hip-hop brags about his hustle (“Knew all along that my game was strong…”) with “But I was wrong that time.” Palpable in its use of voice and curt phrasing the same way Deck messes with expectations: “A man with a dream with plans to make C.R.E.A.M/Which failed; I went to jail at the age of fifteen.” (Deck basically raps a semi-colon, there!). Unlike most of the kind of concept rap I’ve compared James’ work to (even though it’s vice versa), James never really sounds sad or depressed on the record. Sure, there’s a ton more to “C.R.E.A.M”, but that maudlin piano and upset vocals sell the sadness, Rick’s rushing through it all with a smile in his vocals, whether it’s about superfreaks or a damned sad childhood.

Even the aforementioned “Mr. Policeman” has Rick cackling into the void. There’s a touch–the right amount once you really get the album–of sad anger to the vocals, but he’s still wrapping it around up and down party music, so his vocals gotta sound ready to party too. He performs the same lack of self-knowledge that you get from the beginning in “Give It To Me Baby” just the stakes are even higher and uglier. And by performing that lack of self-knowledge, he’s making listeners aware that he at least knows about his own potential for cruelty and selfishness or maybe just doesn’t care or can’t get it together. His later life is the struggle he’s working out on Street Songs spiraled totally out of control and beyond record grooves. This isn’t anything new, but it’s still an interesting paradox: The impulsive, self-destructive artist that can never get his life together, makes a pretty much flawless and harmonious piece of art about the self-destruction and inspires nearly three decades of rappers to do the same.

Written by Brandon

March 11th, 2009 at 7:49 am

Posted in Rick James



Real content on Tuesday or Wednesday. So like millions of other Americans, I lost my job today! I’ll undoubtedly be filing for unemployment and/or serving coffee or something somewhere or another and while fully aware getting paid to write is something of a luxury these days and nothing I deserve or anything, if anyone wants to pay me to write about music or something, I’d really love it. Send me an email at:


Written by Brandon

March 9th, 2009 at 2:05 pm