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Missing From Rap: Goofball MCs

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The other day in an article about DJ Broke’s 90s hip-hop mix, Sasha Frere-Jones tossed-in as a kind of aside, that the “goofball” M.C, one of the definitive “types” in 90s hip-hop, is now “a category that’s almost defunct”.

Maybe I’m projecting, but I sense a deep sadness in that statement–more so than the mention of Redman and the lack of punchline rappers a few sentences later–and it’s something that saddens me too. It feels like a further stamping out of original voices and ideas, the removal of vulnerability or personal expression in an increasingly corporatized blah blah blah, and while that’s not all it is, it’s certainly a big part.

The biggest reason the rap goofball’s fallen by the wayside it seems, is because everybody’s trying to be funny or weird. When one of the biggest R & B songs on the radio’s called “Birthday Sex” and two of the biggest rappers are Kanye West (who got his start as conscious rap goofball) and Lil Wayne (who’s slowly developed into the weirdest pop star maybe kinda ever), and the elastic-flowed Gucci Mane is the street rapper, there’s not a lack of humor or personality out there, but there’s still something missing about today’s rap weirdos (versus yesterday’s rap goofballs).

What’s missing is risk. The current wave of less serious rap and R & B’s too in on the joke, too ironic in a VH1 “Best Week Ever” way and there’s really nothing at-stake or implicative about the music. There’s just no place in popular rap for actual jokes and self-effacing humor or unquantifiable weirdness and that’s a big problem. Everyone’s with-it, everyone’s told the rapper’s being kind of wacky or “really killing it crazy-lyrically right now” and while I’m less apt to think rap music overall is suffering, rap that lots and lots of people get to hear really needs some goofballs right now.

See, Count Bass D or J-Zone are cool and all, but some left-field rap jokers operating in an indie or underground scene just sorta make sense and don’t have the resonance or importance of say, a Biz Markie or ODB because they were (are?) fairly mainstream. Same reason say, Iron Man is more important than the next Kiarostami film, you dig? One has a real-world effect on stuff, one just doesn’t.

But the bigger problem at this point is that a rap goofball just can’t achieve mainstream success. Young Dro’s pretty weird, Fonzworth Bentley’s hilarious, Lil B’s batshit crazy, 88 Keys made a really fucking funny concept-album, but none of these dudes will be superstars or even want to be superstars and if you’re not a superstar in rap right now or you don’t have this week’s co-sign from The New Music Cartel, you’re dead in the water. And that’s a shame.

Written by Brandon

May 30th, 2009 at 8:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Kneel Knaris’ Going Sane In a Crazy World: Rap Album of the Year

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Where most wizened, hard-ass rap albums end–with the song or two that drops the tough talk and allows the inward paranoia and depression to bleed through–is where Kneel Knaris’ eighteen-track trip through bipolar disorder, Going Sane In a Crazy World begins.

On the intro, “Prologue (Act I)”, Kneel’s hearty eloquence confesses A.A-style affirmations like “the person I fear the most is me” atop some medical soap opera piano twinkles but eventually, a fractured, waddling beat lets the flood of disclosures and revelations rush through and wash the relative tact away. “I fear God but the Devil’s taking over” Kneel announces, like he’s jumped from his seat at the weekly meeting and then adds, “Thoughts of suicide are better than staying sober”. This track’s a kind of throat-clearing (and maybe room-clearing) announcement as to what kind of album Going Sane is: one-note, dark, serious, confessional.

-”Never Gonna Make It”

But Knaris doesn’t forget this is a rap album and so he spits suicidal couplets with the passion of a Scarface or Killer Mike, not the lethargic mumbles of recent sad-sack hip-hop (Kanye or Kid Cudi). “Never Gonna Make It”, the album’s first proper song, is essentially a “diss track” only Kneel’s going at himself with the fervor usually assigned to an opponent in a cipher: “You ain’t never been paid to do a show/You ain’t never seen more than ten spins on the radio/You ain’t never sell more than twenty albums/All you ever do is hit the bar with Gerard, Troy, and Malcom/Sad sack of shit…”

This sense of flipping expectations or finding some new way to do some old shit is a staple in most really good rap, but Knaris pushes it even further, using the it’s one thing, then it’s another and it’s both, plurality of rap to reflect Going Sane’s bipolar conceit. Save for a few songs where Knaris does approach a depressed mumble (especially the palpable “Monologue Act III”), he’s usually spitting his laundry list of worries, concerns, and psychosis with a gleeful passion, which is unexpected but makes total sense for an album trying to approximate the feelings of bipolar disorder. The album’s two recurring symbols are Guinness (a depressant) and Starbucks (a stimulant)–also featured on the album art, standing tall over a knocked-over bottle of pills–and it’s a brilliant, but down-to-earth simplification of the album’s themes.

-”Silver Lining”

Starting with “Intervention”, where Kneel rejects the advice of a therapist (voiced by E Major), and all the way to the half-victorious “Silver Lining”, Going Sane bungees from depressed nihilism (“Dear Lord”, “1000 MG Act IV”, “I Don’t Wanna Feel”) to moments of kinda clarity (“No Apologies”, the title track). “Silver Lining” is especially affecting because it’s basically the type of song that should end the album–there’s hints of understanding, regret, and change in there–but it would be too perfect of an ending and there’s a kind of dark joke when Going Sane keeps going past that “moment of clarity” track.

There’s a discomforting, but smart refusal to wrap it all up cleanly, despite the brilliant overlapping of images and symbols, and the final two tracks that do in effect, summarize the album (personally on “Something To Talk About”, clinically on “Epilogue (Act V)”), there’s a great deal of loose ends on Going Sane, giving it a sense of continued life and past-the-running-time struggle, beyond just frantic soul beats and quivering raps from Knaris.

And this is the weird paradox of Going Sane: It’s a remarkably together piece of art about how Kneel Knaris doesn’t have his life together. One thing the Geto Boys or say, Beanie Sigel got away with is not making cohesive albums because the strains of self-destruction and depression in the music are so real it makes sense they can’t get their shit together for an entire album. Going Sane’s cohesion and narrative thrust’s a testament to Kneel’s relative escape or acceptance of his disorder. That he got it together enough to sculpt a concept album that never gets too concept album and grabs on for dear life to the ugly, all-too-real details of bipolar disorder and depression, is where the hope lies.

‘Going Sane in a Crazy World’ is currently available digitally on iTunes and Amazon. It’s currently selling for $7.99 at Amazon…

Written by Brandon

May 28th, 2009 at 1:50 am

Posted in Baltimore, Kneel Knaris

How Big Is Your World? New Rap.

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-Cam’ron “Never Ever”

Crime Pays is as good as Public Enemy No. 1 and Killa Season or the last 12 or so tracks of Purple Haze, so it isn’t fair to get mad when Cam’ron, a rapper worshipped for his dogged devotion to the streets and his own oddball interiority, doles out most of his comeback to producers with names like Skitzo (who produced three of Haze’s highlights by the way) and Araabmuzik.

Those operatic Dipset bangers were fun because Cam and company didn’t actually sell them all that well; they were always a little too epic and loud, and the Dips’ raps a little too bizarre, trying a little too hard to run this shit so they had a shabby disinterest in being couth. Like James Caan in a white jeans in Thief, Warren Oates telling a group of Nixonian thugs “Nobody loses all the time”, Jimmy in Fingers bopping around to “Summertime, Summertime”, you know? This older, coarser Cam doesn’t care about audience the same way anymore and it shows in the delirious, tinny beat of “Never Ever”. Free of the Dips, Cam’s laughing into the void for real now.

-Rhymefest “Pulls Me Back”

Twisting actually emotional 80s shit that’s ironic to most back into actually emotional shit is a special talent of hip-hop and “Pulls Me Back”, reaches into the longing of Toto’s “Africa” expertly. The way those twinkling synths fade-in, a vaguely reverbed (maybe auto-tuned) kinda Jamaican hook, this really harsh coat of Blade Runner electronics that’s stretching and contracting behind that hook, and oh yeah, Rhymefest employing his formidable rap talents and making use of his strange, lipsy voice to really sell his sincere frustration: “At Ford, 80,000 jobs was all cut/And last week some shorty shot the mall up”. There’s a ton of lines like that in here.

Almost as invigorating and depressing is Rhymefest’s half lament, half boast that “I can’t vote, I already got a felony!”, followed by the equally knowing “Fuck sobriety/The Hennessy can cry with me…”, or the stuff about his girlfriend’s interest in future planning and Fest’s uh, disinterest. Sounds (and feels) like the work of another “conscious”, confused Chi-town rapper, less Kanye and more Resurrection era Common. This Gucci Mane loving retard hates to admit it as much as ‘Fest fans love to remind me of it: Dude’s made the best rap release of the year so far. Also, in like 2003 or 2004, this could’ve been a minor radio hit. Oh well. Up the auto-tune by like, seven and try again? Or don’t and just have a really affecting slice of hard-ass complainer rap.

-Willie Isz “In the Red”

“In the Red” is almost a year old, but Georgiavania finally has a release date (06/16/09), so it’s worth a revisit and ten years ago–which is what this songs feels like–a track from a sampler for an upcoming album wouldn’t be this thing everybody and their Twitter pals heard a whole bunch. Over dubbed-out guitars and drums and some beautifully do whatever they want backing vocals, Khujo Goodie growls utopian impossibilities while Jneiro Jarel twists and turns his words (“Donforgetthat/Pass me mapurplefitt-at”), in contrast to Khujo’s one-note (but what a note it is) bark.

Songs like this work when there’s a sorta implicit sadness in the “if everything was free” stuff, like it’s rapped with conviction but depressive knowledge that it’ll never happen–keyword there’s “If”–but a confidence in the fact that just expressing it, while it won’t will the ideas to life, will get a whole bunch of people listening through another day or week or month or year. That’s what “In The Red” really shares with the classic Dungeon Fam shit it’s shooting for, less because the beat’s trippy and hard at the same time, or that Khujo sounds like himself and Jarel’s the weirdo Cee-Lo/Andre3k/Witchdoctor contrast, but because it contains Dungeon Family’s plurality…the restorative qualities of Soul Food or Lil Will’s Better Days or Aquemini.

-Kneel Knaris “Dear Lord”

Let’s begin by noting that this is the track that precedes “1000 MGs”, a rapped interlude wherein Kneel speeds to nowhere in particular in the rain holding his pistol and thinking about offing himself. Knaris’ Going Sane in a Crazy World (available now digitally, physical copies in June) is the inverse of most other depresso-rap albums: The gun-talk floats in the background and all the mad, ugly psychology right upfront; A whole album of “Suicidal Thoughts” or “Feel It In the Air”. For a lot of people, this might be too much or “too much”, but if you’ve spent a lot of time wishing We Can’t Be Stopped was thirteen more “My Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me” and less “Gota Let Your Nuts Hang”, this one’s for you. When I spoke to Kneel a few weeks ago, he told me “Suicidal Thoughts” was his favorite Ready to Die track. Me too Kneel, me too.

There’s an especially determined and direct style of rapping on this track, Kneel drawling out every word at just the moment before it would sound all drawn-out and sliding into a chorus that just sort of sums-up the verses, neither bringing it to some transcendent level or offering counterpoint–which makes sense because the whole song’s about how there’s no escape (“I’ve seen the hellfire, but I wanna dive in”). The beat too, is like a strangled version of a soul-beat, with stirring strings somewhere in there, but mainly a wailing guitar, drums that never get off the ground, and an uncomfortable hook.

-Tortoise “Prepare Your Coffin”

In college, some friends had a roommate they hated and she (the hated roommate) had a real dopey boyfriend who’d drive down from like Connecticut or some shit a bunch and they’d always do it in the shower and it was pretty weird. One weekend he came down, right when the last “real” Tortoise album, It’s All Around You, came out and was playing it real loud and was sort of waxing poetic about it to his doting girlfriend when we came in from some party at like 3am and it was pretty awful, to hear, think about, witness, watch, everything.

Tortoise seems like a band made for this guy, some Connecticut creeper who bangs some Dance Major bitch in the shower for her roommates to hear…like kinda “artsy” and “sophisticated” and “open” but not really? Sometimes though, Tortoise come up with some shit (“Djed”, “Monica”) and this new track “Prepare Your Coffin” is one of those. It sounds like Goblin and it sounds like bad smart-guy metal and it sounds a shit of a lot like Camel–especially those leaning on the keys with your elbows mega synth lines–and you know, that’s good enough.

Written by Brandon

May 25th, 2009 at 6:15 pm

DJ Speedy & Blaqstarr: On Some Other Shit


-Gucci Mane “Shittin Onum” (produced by DJ Speedy)

So, don’t buy Murder Was the Case because Gucci told you not to but do buy it because it’s like, one of three, physical rap releases this year worth 12 bucks. And you get to hear a bunch of great Zaytoven and DJ Speedy beats unmixed, especially Speedy’s “Hot Damn”, now called “Shittin’ Onum”, playing as it was made to be heard: With every single insane beat flicker and snippet of sound, in CD quality.

Muddied and mixed, “Hot Damn” was another contribution to the mainstream Southern rap production avant-garde, a tangle of voices, sound effects, all fighting and tumbling into one another. “Shittin’ Onum” though, with every detail clear and separate, sounds like the logical extension of what, arguably, every producer of this decade’s been chasing: Timbaland’s mid-to-late 90s work. This is the first (sorry) Post-Timbaland beat. If Gucci’s claim in the Warner Brothers press release (linked above) is true, and this song is two years old, then it’s even more interesting because Speedy was doing this at the height of Rap & B producers reaching for the stars.

Since 05′ or so, every producer’s found their big House synths and subtle, oddball samples and they’ve been chasing Timbo’s sound, only they’ve namely been chasing a fatigued, coasting Timbo, one that left the stop-start of funk and inspired avant-sampling behind for a fun, but relatively pleasant Pop-Rave sound. What’s moving through “Shittin Onum” though, the use of buzzing flies as side-percussion, the way a shorter fly-buzz sample interacts with a piece of lilting funk guitar, is flipping baby voices brilliant. The weirdness of it is incidental or secondary to it just being ridiculously dope. Speedy even uses voice (the comedian samples) as music, but he takes it further turning fly-buzz into syncopation too.

What Timbaland abandoned–more because he had to move on, he’d perfected a style–is a sense of stop-and-start that was crucial to the actual funk racing through “Are You That Somebody” or “Pony”. Newer Timbaland (which is what producers ultimately ape because it’s easier than the early stuff) still has that Southern sense of open-space and an interest in something a little odd or staccatto, but there’s constant sound, the track is never silent, it never truly halts or pauses, so there’s always a sea of ugly synths pulsing. It’s a kind of production cowardice that always half-hides the song’s seams. Not so on this DJ Speedy track which is brave enough to get silent, to fully stop and immediately kick-back in, rooting the track in classic, jagged, angular funk, not the round cohesion of most electro-beats.

Sasha Frere-Jones says we’re in a disco era (I’d agree) and in that sense, the Timbaland of the 90s, where “Shittin Onum” has its roots, would logically be funk: A little more seedy, a little uglier, less fun…but really fun too.

-Blaqstarr “Temperature’s Rising”

In Baltimore, Blaqstarr is the biggest and most tangible influence on the youngest Club producers–the kids that rock high school parties and the kids still in high school cannot get enough of Blaqstarr’s twisted variation on Club. This is presumably true in other areas too, but there’s something especially, awesomely bizarre about Baltimore’s 10th graders fiending for this kind of oppressive music.

That’s to say, there’s a better chance that people rocking-off in Philly have some precedent, they know who Lee “Scratch” Perry or Sun Ra are and so this sort of lines-up with their aesthetics–in Baltimore, this shit is bonkers and they just kinda accept it. That’s why regionalism is a beautiful thing…the avant-garde’s just accepted by all if they grow up around it. DJ Screw’s an obvious analogue here, or Hyphy, or even how everyone in Baltimore, no matter who they vote for in the elections, has seen at least one fucking bizarre 70s John Waters movie.

But these new Blaqstarr songs–presumably from his upcoming album–aren’t Club and couldn’t be mistaken for Baltimore Club music. Yet, they make perfect sense coming from Blaqstarr because they’re an, if not logical, not unexpected continuation of his tripped-out, sloppy, 12-shots and a couple painkillers-in sound. And after a big celebration of DJ Speedy’s actual open space on a record, there are these smoked-out clouds of too much everything–neither stop-start funk or gelled-together dance pop, more like Lee Scratch Perry’s ghost swiped a crate of Baltimore Club records and took them back to Black Ark.

Each verse of “Temperature’s Rising” begins with a stutter or clipped version of the verse’s first line like, underneath it all, this is still a Club track somehow, but Blaq finally breaks through for a raunchy kinda verse before it’s all sucked-up in popping drums and a really eerie hum that seems to run parallel to the slightly happier aspects of the dusted sex jam. “Choke Hold” is almost danceable, though just as chaotic. There’s a killer dance track here, but Blaqstarr’s dissembled it entirely into pieces of Jock Jams synths, M.I.A chants, “I’m the Ish” homage, shopping carts crashing drums, and weeded-out threats and philosophy. That Baltimore Club’s biggest crossover hope is bouncing from studio to studio assembling these lumbering slabs of chaos would be disheartening if they didn’t sound so good.

-Blaqstarr “Choke Hold”

Written by Brandon

May 22nd, 2009 at 9:26 pm

James Toback’s Tyson.

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Tyson is a men’s film. That doesn’t mean women won’t like it or that it’s rife with self-justifying bro-talk, just that it’s a 90-minute dive into male psychology warts and all, with a radical disinterest in apologizing or softening much. You gotta come to Tyson, Tyson doesn’t come to you.

The movie’s “masculine” the way Peckinpah films are masculine–indeed, Toback’s multi-screen effects seem a homage to Peckinpah’s opening credit sequences–in that they’re really figuring out and working through the reality of being a typical male, concerned with issues of dominance, regret, paranoia, revenge, and love, and how all of them usurp and feed one another.

In one of those Peckinpah-ish interludes, Toback stacks image upon image and snippets of audio atop itself as Tyson talks real frankly about his attraction to “strong women” that he will then dominate, the joy he gets when a girl tells him, or he tells them “No”, and his want to provide love but receive none in return. For those remain upset because the movie doesn’t dive deeply into Tyson’s rape conviction, all you need to know or think or feel’s right there, short of Tyson providing some kind of “confession”–which he won’t because it’s clear he doesn’t feel he raped anybody.

Toback takes Tyson’s life and spins an ethical reevaluation of events, not towards some apologia for Iron Mike, but because well, we’ve been swimming around in all the reasons Tyson’s a violent fuck-up rapist for twenty years now and Tyson’s the first to take most of the blame for most everything he’s done anyway. And so, the movie takes quiet aim at those like, slept-on villains in Tyson’s life, with a deep disgust towards their hypocrisy and manipulation. Note, it isn’t Tyson who does this so much, as it is Toback.

The ear-biting incident is recounted with Tyson still expressing no remorse for his actions, but you leave the anecdote realizing Holyfield wasn’t exactly playing fair either, and there’s even a hard-headed respect given to Tyson for going all the way with his lack of ethics. Despite Tyson expressing nothing but goodwill and respect towards ex-wife Robin Givens, those clips from the bizarro Barbara Walters interview/publicity stunt where she talks about how much of a mess he is, right in front of him, are stomach-churning, more because Givens is really selling it than because Tyson’s a nightmare husband.

As Tyson wisely points out, Walters and Givens were waiting for him to freak-out, to scream, and throw things and he didn’t. That’s a key part of the movie–especially as “man’s movie”–because the reason Tyson didn’t freak-out wasn’t because it was a bad idea, but because it’s what they wanted him to do and to give in would be another way he’d be dominated.

The concern for Tyson is things be done on his own terms, that he believe the sequence of events to be authentic or sincere, and its why, upon the joke of a fight with Kevin McBride, he first announces he’s not gonna fight anymore, feels the room out, admits he just doesn’t have it in him anymore, verballs throws his hands-up like “What am I doing”, and then just confesses that he fought to pay his bills. Those are not the actions of someone concerned with how they look, but rather someone who wants the opportunity to breakdown when they want to breakdown…and that’s why Toback’s decision to hyper-subjectivize Tyson is not only a good idea, but the only way the movie could’ve been made.

There’s a few points where Tyson chokes-up and cries, most notably when he speaks on the death of his first trainer, fathe-figure, and only dude that ever gave much of a fuck about him, Cus D’Amato, but Tyson really tears-up (as did I) when he describes the point in his life where he realized no one would ever physically take advantage of him again, that he not only had the capacity to destroy but the will and physicality to do so.

Tyson’s weeping because he achieved something powerful rooted in childhood trauma (severe bullying) but also because he’s fully aware of the damage he can cause and it weighs heavy on him. The first cry is emotional but also typical, the second is Tyson crying from some odd awkward mix of joy from accomplishment and some deep fear of his own power. That’s “men stuff” and it’s the kind of thing that’s not exactly P.C or fun to base movies around, but it’s vital and it’s what’s racing through every frame of Tyson.

Written by Brandon

May 19th, 2009 at 9:52 pm

Grand Puba’s 2000: Deluxe Edition


Noticed that Grand Puba’s 1995 album 2000 got re-issued by Traffic last month as a “Deluxe Edition” with some remixes and acapellas and didn’t really read anything about it well, anywhere, which is unfortunate because the album’s been OOP for awhile now and deserves to be easily accessible. I actually think it’s significantly better than his debut and given the current rap climate of oddball rappers that kinda rap but don’t at the same time and just do whatever they want a lot of the time, there’s plenty to (re)consider about 2000.

Puba’s also dropping a new album Retroactive on June 23rd and the songs that’ve come out in anticipation are pretty good and especially “This Joint Right Here” sounds classic enough and aged that it should kinda bring a tear to your eye…This post is a rewrite of an old post I did about this album last year. Sorry things have been slow around here lately…

It’s pretty weird that right now, every bloggy-blog rapper, New York punchline rapper, and hard-ass, goofball, and both at the same time Southern rapper kinda rhymes like Grand Puba. Mixing on-point spitting with oddball digressions and a comfort with singing certainly wasn’t invented by the guy, but he’s a master, and he’s at his best on 2000, the follow-up to the much more well-known and successful debut to Reel to Reel.

There’s an odd tension between the controlled, more straight-forward production of his sophmore release and Puba’s even more unhinged rapping style. I don’t think it’s out-there to suggest that the biggest change between his 1992 solo debut and his 1995 follow-up is due to the existence of Illmatic, which for a few years there, was the ideal formula–still is, just it’s been grossly misinterpreted–and so, you have Puba forced to adjust to a focused, non-digressive production style and away from the Marley Marl aesthetic of his debut but really, not adjusting.

Unkut’s interview with Dante Ross hints at Puba’s difficulty and lack of focus on his follow-up, but Puba’s version of perfunctory isn’t detrimental, it gives the album an immediacy that’s at odds with the determined production. Really, 2000 sounds like Puba jumped in the studio and freestyled over some damned immaculate boom-bap with instrumental flourishes and bolted as soon as as he could. In that sense, he’s probably rapping the way even the “best” rappers in 2009 do it or it’s at least closer to the off-the-cuff “mixtape” style that’s makes Gucci Mane or Lil Wayne so engaging. In short, Reel to Reel made too much sense (disparate pieces of samples matched to Puba’s disparate raps) and 2000 is full of odd awkward tension and right now, rap’s all about awkward tension and 2000’s reissue can play off that.

Every track is anchored by some heavy, boom-bap drums and a warm film of record hiss, but each has its own thing for your ears to obsess over. The sci-fi bleeps and bloops that meet a lightly plucked guitar on “Keep On’,” some synths that are on some Michael Jackson “Human Nature” shit and a particularly yearning soul music wail hold “Amazing” together, and some thick flanged-out keyboard work helps sell the affecting “Change Gonna Come”. No doubt that other game-changing hip-hop classic, The Chronic is bouncing around inside of 2000 because there’s a bunch of really brilliant instrumentation on these beats.

2000’s first track, “Very Special”, begins with jazz horns under layers of record crackle before kicking into Puba’s brief interpolation of the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You”–at other points on the album, Puba slips into “Rock the Boat”, “Get Down Tonight”, Phoebe Snow, and Beavis & Butthead and Urkel impressions–taken so far it’s a dead-on impression of the Delfonics’ soul-singer whine but then, that part’s just over and he’s actually rapping and dropping these brilliant, almost non-sequitur punchlines that if you think about them long enough, hold a kind of internal logic that can’t be explained but work nonetheless: “So many brothers try to be me/Only two can probably see me, that’s Ray Charles and Stevie.” A few lines later, he’s telling us how he gets “honeys hooked like they kids is hooked on Power Rangers” which is one of many superhero and cartoon references that, have since become the obnoxious go-to for rappers that want to signify nerd-dom but here, feel more like Puba just doing Puba.

Nothing about these raps feels forced, so when Puba decides to actually say something it doesn’t feel like the token “message” song we anticipate on most rap albums, but a sudden revelation from the jokester of the group. “Backstabbers” is a kind of reversal on the “bros before hoes” track you expect and album closer, “Change Gonna Come” totally sells its serious message because Puba’s spent most of his time just being a dirty old man, referencing a girls’ “stinkbox” and stuff, so when he tells the listener “A gat don’t make you a man/Cause the man made the gat/So, stop with the black on black”, he means it, precisely because he hasn’t spent the past ten tracks going in that direction.

On “I Like It”, you get record fuzz, tight drums, ghostly vocal samples and a perfect vibraphone loop, while Puba flows casually, sounding off the head but never intimidated by the beat, never bleating out the lines, just taking his time and running up and around the beat, sometimes on-beat with the drums, other times a little off and repeating a word to catch-up, or committing a kind of act of rapping A.D.D and temporarily riding some subtle production flourish instead of the beat, but always making it back in time for the chorus.

Something that Traffic’s reissue enforces is the way 2000 links and mixes-up so many of the best things about rap of the mid-90s. The drums on every track are hard but the beats drip with 70s-soul crackle and vibed-out jazz; the rapping is immediate and fun but wordly-wise and far from disposable–and it also has that thing so many 90s rap albums have: a bunch of dudes just yelling shit in the background.

Rap’s always been about ego and being that dude, but there’s a communal aspect that permeates even an album like this, which is essentially guest-less and pretty much totally focused on Grand Puba. The shouts and chants and Blackstreet-esque “yeah-eahhh”s on “A Little of This” and the classic New York crew call-and-response on “2000″ remind you that the world doesn’t revolve around the guy who left Brand Nubian. Now that’s something today’s rappers could afford to swipe from Grand Puba.

Written by Brandon

May 17th, 2009 at 2:44 am

Posted in Grand Puba, Reissues

Barack Obama: Presidential Ironist

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Ignore the way too loud guffaws. the turd-rate celebs in the audience, and the point that if a Republican made jokes that hover this close to actually being biting it’d be a national disaster, and the annual “President gets to act wacky” Correspondence Dinner is something of a tour de force of Presidential poise.

In this stand-up routine whatever whatever, Obama has the odd but ideal balance of doing a stupid thing all the Presidents have to do (“just one more problem that I’ve inherited from George Bush”) and hamming it up good and proper while maintaining a certain air of “I know this is stupid”. Not an air of dignity, although there’s some of that too, just in 2009, dignity isn’t much of a trait to grab for–irony however is, and Obama treats the whole thing with a smarmy but never snobby distance.

There are hints of this before, like when the big historical swearing-in stumbled for a second–the fault of Chief Justice Roberts–and Obama smirked, not out of frustration or concern for his image but more like “I just screwed-up the oath and that’s kind of funny and will be talked-about even though it doesn’t really matter.” Or when he’s circled by reporters as he walks the family’s dog and there’s this ineffable grin on his face and he answers reporters kindly and casually and seems to get-off on derailing the event by expounding on his answers beyond what they’re expecting–like a wizened suburbanite forced to make small-talk with a vaguely obnoxious neighbor but being cool with it.

While these little details hardly matter resting next to the big problems the United States and the world must confront, they’re a great way of unpacking why Obama’s fascinating in a positive way–not fascinating/baffling like Bush–and why/how Obama enlists hope for the country in a way that at least seems fresh.

It’s not because he’s conventionally “eloquent”, but because he’s comfortable not always being eloquent and so, he’s a quick on his feet speaker who’s embraced the wandering, qualifying nature of his thoughts instead of denying them. It isn’t that he’s this impossibly confident dude, it’s that he’s smart enough not fall apart or hyper-compensate when he isn’t confident. In short, his actions are dominated by irony, but not the irony of rooted in cynicism (like most Democrats) or nihilism (like many Republicans), but a healthy self-aware kind of irony that if you don’t possess in 2009, you’re kind of weird anyways.

And so, the joy of watching the Correspondents’ Dinner was not that Obama was hilarious or hip–he was relatively hilarious and hip–but that he found a way to make a really stupid tradition made so that the President looks “cool” into something where he actually looked cool and sort of made fun of the event at the same time. There’s a big mess of hacky jokes, weird kinda truths, actually funny jokes (“fresh young faces like Arlen Specter”) and it’s just plain old bizarre too watch in a good way.

The opening joke where he thanks all of the correspondents (“most of you voted for me”) is not only a quip, but an aggressive statement of fact (they did) and a parody of the Left-Wing conspiracy junk that’s building and building by Limbaugh types–who now has an official Dick Cheney co-sign by the way. The jokes were not only a mix of self-deprecation and cross-party jibes, but some like double-edged critiques that had a touch of actual anger to them which Obama sold by grinning like “I’m getting away with this” and then following it up with a corny joke about his kids taking Air Force One out for a joyride and the status quo’s back to being maintained. This is how things are accomplished or approach being accomplished: The balance between doing what you want and doing what you’re supposed to do, whether entertaining an audience or running a country.

Written by Brandon

May 12th, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Posted in Barack Obama

How Big Is Your World? Some New Rap

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-DJ Paul featuring Lord Infamous “She Wanna Get High”

You know that Todd Barry joke about how musicians always talk about how, on the next album, they’re gonna go “back to their roots”? Well this is Three-Six actually doing that—terrifying production, bad-ass album cover, lots of Lord Infamous—and better yet, not hyping it or promising anything special. Especially welcome is a return to the group’s odd social observation, where they for no reason necessary touch on some sort of wise reality of life and then base entire demonic club raps around it. Here, it’s how some vaguely “artsy” quiet chick’s pretty fucking nuts and’ll be really into “bumping” whatever’s passed their way, which is kinda true. Shit, it’s not Dreiser or nothing but it shows Paul’s thinking about stuff.

The vague Bollywood influence on the beat here is how Three-Six once sold-out, not by diving into a trend and losing themselves a la “Lolli Lolli (Pop That Body)” but grabbing some tiny piece (usually the wrong piece too) of a trend and thinking that would be enough to make them superstars but not giving a shit when it doesn’t. Don’t doubt “She Wanna Get High” was made in light of Slumdog Millionaire’s success or M.I.A’s increased prominence.

-Gucci Mane “1st Day Out”

Titled “1st Day Out” instead of “I’m Back Bitch”, the song goes from another brilliant tiny details, funny punchlines Gucci/Zaytoven song to a moving, hard-headed description of his first day out of jail–It starts with “a blunt of purp”—that’s also, still a brilliant tiny details, funny punchlines Gucci/Zaytoven track. Those laundry list of cars and weapons and wealth are less Gucci talking shit and more an inventory of all the crap he’s not been around since he was gone or upon returning, is making sure is all still there. And the beat’s as paranoid and gleeful as Gucci himself.

The rest of the Gucci Glacier tape’s new-old songs and it would seem, upcoming collaborations, but it sounds a bit like the point before the point where Gucci stops being Gucci. Hopefully that’s wrong, but this is less the Black Eyed Peas coming to Gucci and more Gucci trying to enter into the world of regular “popular”, “good” rappers which means not being quite as interesting and sort of sounding like a guy who wants to be famous.

-Ciara “I Don’t Remember”

The new Ciara album’s bizarrely dated, like it should’ve dropped in 2007 when retro-futurism and House shit still felt sort of interesting and hadn’t reached its apotheosis with soul-less art student Pop from Lady Gaga. When the uh, fucking Chris Brown feature shows-up, it’s like “Really? You sure this album came out this week and not this week last year? You know he like, beat the hell out of his girlfriend a minute ago…” And then, Fantasy Ride ends with “I Don’t Remember”, a way too real “I got drunk and blacked-out” ballad.

“I Don’t Remember” is irredeemably confused and detail-oriented, like there’s no way to come out of this song not feeling fucked-up and sad and you just want it to stop really. It’s the running, morning-after monologue you have with yourself as you half-recall all the dumb shit you did or maybe didn’t do while drunk last night, only Ciara was maybe even raped?! Polow Da Don’s beat is wisely under-cooked and when it sort of builds-up, you don’t want it to because it’s just making the ugly truths of being drunk of your ass louder and more palpable.

-Benny Stixx “Being That Drunk”

The connection between this and “I Don’t Remember” was a coincidence, these are just the tracks I’m thinking about or listening to a lot this week (although this entire group makes a good mix, mail me, I’ll send you a zip if you want), but this is just a Baltimore Club expression of the same feeling. Ciara’s sort of quoting the melody and desperation of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” on “I Don’t Remember” and Baltimore’s Benny Stixx consults Petey Pablo for a dance song not as concerned with the girls in the club, rocking-off, or what brand of sorta kinda pricey liquor’s being ingested, but with the fucked-up feelings that fuel it all. When Baltimore Club takes-on the everyman confusion and minor failures of life (most famously: Rod Lee’s “Dance My Pain Away”), it’s particularly invigorating.

Musically, “Being That Drunk” does all the right things as well, following the Club music blueprint when it should and going left-field at all the right moments too. The sparks of raucous vocals yelling-out “Yeah” and other gutteral shouts of approval and encouragement and the main shuffle of drums tie it to tradition but then, he bravely lowers the BPMs a tiny bit and there’s these weird-ass bells that zig and zag around Petey Pablo’s sing-song flow, like “Born to Run” turned Club.

-Camel “Skylines” (Live BBC Sight & Sound Concert)

Camel are one of those weird, straggler Progressive Rock groups, not quite artsy enough to get picked-up by avant-music fans and not straight-forward and poppy enough for Classic Rock, they’ve just sort of been loosely forgotten about or at least, slept-on. Let’s hope Camel’s straggler status is more appreciated now and thanks to this month’s reissues of Raindances, A Live Record, and Moonmadness, that might happen.

This is a live bonus track of “Skylines” but the joke about Camel is they’re these precise, jazzy weirdos and so they don’t do anything live except play a little faster and strike the drums a little harder. But their live sound is also just different enough to help them out a lot–if you get one Camel release, get A Live Record. The warmth of their music’s a little warmer and they can’t keep to metronome-timing quite as closely and so, these little peaks of humanity push through. “Skylines” just begins on one wandering sound of warmth, bounces to another, pauses for a beautiful whoosh of synths, punctuates the whole thing with proto-Drill n Bass drums, and wraps up. Not perfunctory by any means, but just like awesomely, transcendently, dipped in morphine, work-man like music. If you like Ratatat or Lindstrom and don’t like this more, you’re bullshit.

Written by Brandon

May 8th, 2009 at 3:50 pm

The SP King, DJ Kool Breez.

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Yeah yeah yeah, more 41Yo.Com plugs–you’ll get a new post here in a few hours–but this is a really fascinating interview with Baltimore’s DJ Kool Breez. If that Baltimore Random Rap, “Flowers in the Attic” from M.A.D.D Intalec interested you at all, well this is the dude that made the beat…and a whole bunch of early Unruly Club classics.

I’m also posting this because really, it should fascinate anybody that cares about hip-hop on the nerd level, as there’s plenty of talk about SP-1200s and ASR-10s, the confluence of sounds and ideas,and genres, white girls, and just a feeling of infectious joy and nostalgia that all these Club O.Gs have sitting in a room bullshitting together.

Written by Brandon

May 8th, 2009 at 12:30 pm

White Privilege, Warped Nostalgia: Asher Roth & Wavves

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Asher Roth meet Nathan Williams. He’s way more “hip-hop” than you and he even doesn’t rap–he barely even sings (more like apathetically shouts). Williams’ music as WAVVES (he’s got a alternate persona like a rapper) is aggressively lo-fi, uglified variations on surf guitar lines, Phil Spector drums, and Beach Boys harmonies (in short, he samples music of the past), that break-down the life of relative comfort and apathy that Roth not only takes for granted but raps about pridefully and at times, oddly assertively (the “Motherland” stuff, his whole schtick that he buys rap CDs so they should “relate” to him, etc).

Just as Roth’s taken the signs and signifiers of college life (beer pong, Thirsty Thursday, Freshmen jokes) and translated them into short-hand for environment, in something of an attempt to parallel “candy paint” or “wood grain” or whatever rap signifiers ground the music in reality and also move it into mythology, WAVVES has his own series of short-hand environment/milieu idealized-reality images: Goths, weed, the beach, sun, summer.

The difference is, Roth’s exist to bring up that marketable pang of nostalgia if you’re out of college and the weird only-in-2009 self-reflective sense of commemorating the immediate present (constant Facebook photo albums, pointless Twitter updates) if you’re still in college, while Wavves is sort of wrestling with his images, using them in part because they’re funny and part because they define his formative years for better and worse and he feels somewhat fucked-up about it all.

I think it’s what Daniel Krow meant when he referred to WAVVES’ coating of fuzz and buzz atop music that invokes happy-sad-hippy-dippy surf and beach music as “warped nostalgia”. Roth too, works up a kind of “warped nostalgia” but it’s warped towards coming-off better and less emotional and the result’s not the tangle of “wow, the past was so much fun and freeing compared to my sad in-my-twenties present” and “wow the past was more fucked-up than I realized” of WAVVES (or many a successful rapper’s drug-deal reminisce) but, as Ian Cohen of Pitchfork put it, a “laughably out-of-touch account of campus culture”.

WAVVES’ best songs are this odd mix of satire and sadness (“Gun in the Sun”, “So Bored”) but when he’s not doing that, he’s pushing out an assembly of vague but loaded images and phrases (“got no car, got no money” from “No Hope Kids”, something about a “head full of….blow” from “Surf Goths”) that work up to the mythos of the dark (but not “dark”, mind you) image of suburbia and the “punk rock” ethos that build-up in response to it all.

Musically too, it’s an assembly of not quite there but powerful quotes from genres and alternative movements of the past. The fucked-up sixties pop thing’s obvious or talked-about enough (put The Microphones Glow Pt. 2, Fennesz’s Endless Summer and Wavvves and you’ve got a sound that captures sixties pop sideways way better than The Shins–are those guys still cool?–or even Animal Collective really) and WAVVES is as much a 90s indie/alt throwback, not-quite throwback and interpreter of Brian Wilson and friends.

Wavvves feels like 90s indie when the sound wasn’t quite so cute and soft and because shit like 120 Minutes or even Beavis & Butthead existed, one didn’t have to clean-up the sound to get the touches of popularity that car commercials and Urban Outfitters compilations now bring about. You’d get some late-night MTV shine and people still bought CDs and “hipsters” cared about mail order and junk. Now, not so much, and it’s why WAVVES’ merging of throwbacks is so fascinating and out-of-step and super-popular.

The best proof of this is the fact that a stack of Wavvves LPs sat at the Durham, North Carolina Urban Outfitters when I was there last week and it seemed jarring because there’s no way they’re sticking the album in their CD shuffle for fear that “Rainbow Everywhere” or “Killer Punx, Scary Demons” might pop-up between MGMT or that N.A.S.A album but they’re selling it anyways. In a sense, WAVVES is radically individual music because it really refuses to occupy any of the relatively marketable genres of indie or alternative music. Not really “noise pop” and certainly not indie pop and not avant-garde noisey enough to satisfy the No Fun Fest crowd…it’s popular music entirely built on its own terms.

And a big part of Williams’ terms involve satire. That’s really the best way to look at the WAVVES project, as satire, just not the knowing, smug Daily Show satire that’s praised on your favorite lifestyle blog, but like, the laughing to keep from crying, implicative kind. “Gun in the Sun”, between grinding guitar and in-the-red backing vocals, shouts “I’m just a guy with nothing to do/I’m just a guy with something to say” basically mocking Roth’s belief that his Peace Studies 101-isms possess actual profundity and taking shots at Williams himself and a whole group of fuck-around because they can kids with guitar and a head full of “you can do anything”s from their Moms.

Then, “Gun in the Sun” floats away and coming in really, a second or two too soon is “So Bored” which is full of pathos and mocks pathos at the same time. Upon hearing “So Bored” initially, the song sounded great but empty in a Roth-like self-justifying way, but that’s not true at all. It’s convenient to only hear that “I’m so bored” exclamation and ignore the next line, a half-suicidal “Life’s a chore”. Imagine the mockery/investigation of white privilege and “alt” lifestyle of Vampire Weekend but enjoyable and invigorating.

“Bored” is the other voice of suburban Mom, not telling you your special since Kindergarten, but stepping-in at the worst moment to ask what you’re gonna do with your life, bitching about how much your liberal arts college tuition is (but scoffing at state colleges), or expressing angered concern at your lack of up-and-go. Pitchfork was wise to connect Wavvves to the tradition of Blues but that’s a little too sincere for what Williams is doing, and given the joy he exhibits meeting Bun B here or the fact that his Ghost Ramp blog is basically a casual hip-hop blog, he’s doing something closer to rap’s mix of heart-on-the-sleeve despair and Pimp C-esque guffaws at the retardation of self and those around him. WAVVES is out on Fat Possum but would Rap-A-Lot give him a call?

Written by Brandon

May 6th, 2009 at 10:50 pm