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Archive for October, 2009

Don’t Wrap Up Rap Just Yet: G-Side

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Did you see that interview with Tyler Perry on 60 Minutes last Sunday? Probably not, but Perry called his infamous character Madea, “bait”: “Disarming, charming, make-you-laugh bait so that I can slap Madea in something and talk about God, love, faith, forgiveness, family — any of those things.” The beats on BP3 are bait like that.

Visceral, in-the-now slabs of synth and Euro-house party sounds so that Jay-Z can slip his grown-ass man insights onto a new album. It’s more than “mildly entertaining” as Sasha Frere-Jones said in “Wrapping Up”, it’s a deeply affecting album about standing between two worlds and wisely inching towards the smarter, less “cool” choice.

Hunstville, Alabama’s G-Side released an album full of beats not all that different from those weirder ones on BP3 and they did it nearly a year before Jay and they didn’t reach out to 500k-a-beat business buddies, they were holed-up with their town’s avant-rap geniuses the Block Beataz and crafted Starshipz and Rocketz, a perfect album about looking forward and cringing as you look back. The fluttering synths, the stuttering 808s, the waves of weird space-noise running through their songs are not there to reflect what’s going on in New York City clubs–or on sites like Discobelle–but to musically manifest transcendence. Space and retro-futurism as escape from all that bullshit.

Album-ender “Run Thingz” is basically all-out rave stuff, it doesn’t slow the BPMs down all that much and it doesn’t remove the airy edges of the electronics–as is the production habit on BP3–and the verses, from ST 2 Lettaz and Clova, use their current success and parlay it into rap-it-so-it-happens utopianism: “I stay trill like ST/They put a lock where my soul be/And found a way to break free/Starshipz that’s the dedication”.

It’s a long way from ST’s killer first lines on “Youth of the Ghetto”: “Momma stay gone, Daddy’s been gone, lights ain’t on so I had to get grown/No TV, can’t watch The Flintstones/So I went outside with them boys and flipped stones.” You’ll notice that rarely are G-Side rapping in the present-tense about hustling. They’re not that much different from Jay-Z, only their concerns are, even as they float around in space, much more grounded. It’s the production sound and trends of the ‘aughts wrapped in earthy, deeply sincere rhymes. The stuff Frere-Jones praised Gibbs for, just not as wrapped up in niche sound of rap’s past. Looking into the past and then dragging the past into the future.

Their latest project, Huntsville International comes out on November 9th and in title alone, shows these hyper-specific regional rappers talking to the world. It’s named after their hometown’s airport, but it’s also a reference to the group’s broader scope. Since the release of Starshipz, the group’s travelled up North and West and across the Atlantic, picking up new ideas and sounds, all now to be rolled-up in their forward-thinking space-age country rap tunes.

further reading/viewing:

-”Wrapping Up” by Sasha Frere-Jones from The New Yorker
-”Das Racist to Sasha Frere-Jones: Stop Killing Rap”
-”They Don’t Really Dance: G-Side at Guilford College” by ME
-”Artist Spotlight: G-Side” from KevinNottingham.Com
-Tyler Perry on 60 Minutes

Written by Brandon

October 29th, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Posted in Blueprint 3, G-Side, Jay-Z

Don’t Wrap Up Rap Just Yet: Jay Electronica

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There’s nothing wrong with Freddie Gibbs–though, that there’s nothing wrong with him is indeed, what’s wrong with him–but his raps and his business model served-up to contrast with hip-hop’s bleeding into lots of more old/newfangled pop sounds, as they are in Sasha Frere-Jones’ “Wrapping Up”, is problematic. Gibbs does worker-bee, working-class, crime-tinged hip-hop really well but that’s about all he does. And this might something to note or celebrate in terms of hip-hop as a genre if indeed, there weren’t still a shit-ton of dudes stretching the 90s rap form to its limits and not simply carrying on the tradition.

Jay Electronica, whose style, though primarily pulled from 90s New York rap, pads that kind of buzzing lyricism with the sound of the South (dude was born in New Orleans) is indeed the actual future of hip-hop. Like a Jim Jarmusch of rap, Electronica’s art brims with a wordly-wise sense place (or lack thereof) as everything gets all muddled and global. He doesn’t have a label. He tours. He drops a few songs and year and every one of them is a fucking event. He’s Web 2.0 (or whatever point-”o” we’re now on) and aggressively throwback, all at the same time.

The internet-wide rewindable on his latest song, “Exhibit C”, is a prime example of 90s rap insular word-combo rapping for the sake of rapping and some personal/political/world-at-large type stuff that’s deeply rooted in the concerns of the now: “They call me Jay Electronica/Fuck that! Jay Elec Hannukah/Jay Elec yamulka/Jay Elec Ramadan Muhammad Asalam Alakum/Rasoul Allah supana watallah through your monitor.” And to boot, “Exhibit C” has some references to the East jacking the South’s slang and a touch of self-mythology all wrapped in genuine, earthy struggles: homelessness, hunger, violence and all that good stuff. The song was posted on blogs as varied as Nahright and Dirty Glove Bastard and everything in between.

Oh yeah…and the lines before that quotable bounce from an old-school rap references, to a laundry-list of seemingly disconnected things (Fruit of Islam or Friends of Israel maybe both , Garvey, Tesla) to an MGMT reference. And it’s all rapped over a fluttering soul-beat–which is deceptive because Jay is just as known to rap over mega baroque, synthy soul beats (“Exhibit A”) and beatless, crystalline loops of something or other (“Act I”) as he is something this stirring though conventional though no less glorious.

further reading/viewing:

-”Wrapping Up” by Sasha Frere-Jones from The New Yorker
-”Das Racist to Sasha Frere-Jones: Stop Killing Rap”
-”Audio: Jay Electronica – Exhibit C [Prod. by Just Blaze] (Radio Rip)” from Dirty Glove Bastard

Written by Brandon

October 29th, 2009 at 2:26 am

Posted in Jay Electronica

Village Voice, Sound of the City: Interview w/Mike Williams of Eyehategod

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Really not trying to neglect this blog, it’s just working out that way. There’s plenty to comment on (SFJ’s problematic article, a defense of Nicky Minaj), but for now, all you get is this pretty fun, though rather guarded interview I did with Mike Williams of New Orleans’ Eyehategod–a group that’s meant a lot to me over the years. The same hard-ass, fuck everything nihilism rubbing up against community-based humanism you get in stuff like UGK or whatever. I like that Mike throws in a reference to “Bounce” when discussing the sounds of New Orleans, not a lot of metal dudes would. Anyways, check it out. EHG plays with Pig Destroyer and Goatwhore as part of CMJ tomorrow night.

“The New Orleans sludge legends Eyehategod–a band of squirming, perpetual outsiders–have remained masters of miserablist metal for twenty years now. Dominated by weighty blues riffs, punctuated by bursts of hardcore, and anchored by lead singer Mike Williams’ growl, the sound of the New Orleans-based band mixed and matched styles of punk and metal before that sort of thing was fashionable. Add battles with addiction and the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the band–temporarily derailing the group and leading to Williams’ arrest for drug possession–and Eyehategod more than live up to their return-to-touring tagline: “Twenty years of abuse.” The band plays a show on a boat this Saturday, along with Pig Destroyer and Goatwhore as part of the (though varied and ever expansive) still predominantly indie CMJ. Via e-mail, we spoke to EHG lead singer Mike Williams about the show, Hurricane Katrina–something Mike’s tired of discussing on other people’s terms–and how and why the world getting more and more terrible makes Eyehategod’s devastating music sound that much better.”

Written by Brandon

October 23rd, 2009 at 4:52 pm

How Big Is Your World? New Rapz.

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-Z-Ro “Move Your Body”

Tossing in some superficial reggae slang (“rudeboy”, “shotta”, mentioning “the dancehall”), affecting a Jamaican–or Jamaican enough–accent, and ending the song with a chopped-and-screwed dancehall toast?! All of that with a straight face. Z-Ro takes this reggae approximation the same way he takes everything: Dead serious. There’s also the clever, almost parody/inversion of the typical, dancefloor direction song, here “Move Your Body” not a dancehall chant, but a warning from ‘Ro: “Move your body or lose your body.”

The aside to “Mr. Preacher man”, is Z-Ro both declaring himself beyond good and evil and showing a deep understanding of religious doctrine: “Hey Mr. Preacher man, yeah I know the bible/I’m not in love with murder, I’m in love with my own survival.” The word-choice of “murder”, along with ‘Ro’s aggressive “yeah, I know the bible”, is some theological shit, as he’s referencing what a lot of scholars say the commandment actually says–not the more nebulous “thou shalt not kill”. Smart stuff.

This choiceless choice” street-talk is contrasted by a few points where indeed, it’s Z-Ro with the problem, where he’s looking for a fight. The moment where he can’t have a good time because some dude’s kinda maybe eyeing him up and of course, when he compares busting heads to “a PCP high”, which is disturbingly apt; a fun, but fucked-up disassociative high…not even joyful, just a rush. Only on something as aggressively jumbled and epic as Cocaine could this from-the-soundtrack-to-Captain Ron reggae-rap jam work so well.

-BG “My Hood”

You can go home again. BG ad-libs “I’m back…and I’m better than ever…” like he ever really left and didn’t just sort of make less-good music. Rap fans are actually, a fairly accepting, not very cynical bunch. This is why guys like Drake have actual street buzz and it’s why Raekwon can make a The W-level rap album and have the internet going nuts or why, B.G can suddenly affect the wizened veteran stance, as if he didn’t release an album with the Chopper City Boyz last year.

What’s changed? Something. Not sure how or why it happened, but it’s become fashionable in the past year for rap vets to acknowledge their vet-status and even their irrelevance and just make deeply moving tracks chock full of ignorance and old-head advice. Look, I’m not complaining, just pointing some shit out, it’s ultimately a good look. There’s some nostalgia going on here, but it’s wisely tempered by the present and it isn’t in denial that it ain’t 1999 (or 1993 or 1988…), it’s just kinda working-off that.

The tinny victory that skittered through every Mannie Fresh beat, back when he was knocking songs like this out on the daily, is in “My Hood”, but it’s bitter-sweet now, it’s minor, so the joy comes in the fact that BG’s still around, that he’s still rapping, and that he can let his whole hood on his tour bus and yes, even in helping an old lady with groceries. Also, all this stuff about aging is good advice, unless you’re fellow ex-Cash-Money buddy Juvenile, and you can still just jump in and eat a beat the same as always.

-Gucci Mane “Timothy”

Gucci doesn’t do a lot of storytelling and that’s totally okay. Much of his appeal was his seemingly infinite cache of flashy down-to-earth, words and turns-of-phrase for describing his jewelry. So, when “Timothy”, an awesomely-wrought chunk of hood tragedy storytelling rap drops at the end of Great Brrritain–after the “Outro” even–it’s a dramatic tonal shift to the mixtape and the goofball three-mixtapes, 10/17 event thingy, and Gucci’s hype as a whole. And because the current style(s) of rapping are deeply disconnected from the era of storytelling–that’s to say, “how you say it” means more and more and more–having a “how you say it” rapper like Gucci, tell a tale, is a kind of best of both worlds.

Every twist of Gucci’s tongue, every nasally grunt, all the bouncing between garbled groupings of words and obsessive enunciation, guides you through the story. You’re with car thief Timothy when he finds “a million bucks” in that truck, Gucci mimicking his surprise, with the peak of “What the fuck?!”. And following up the lines describing the money blown at the mall, Gucci moves to the character of Blackie Joe–the owner of the what the fuck million bucks–and his delivery shifts to something more solemn. Appropriate as the verse ends with Joe shooting Timothy’s mom in the head.

From there, it just kinda keeps going, the details and characters and the emotional weight of theft and revenge and revenge for revenge building and building until everyone’s just sort of in a pit of despair and worry and guilt and paranoia. As Gucci says, almost like he’s screwing his own voice live, “this shit is real”. There’s also absolutely no sense of “good guy” and “bad guy” here–something even hardened crime narratives rely on to some extent–it’s all just the two characters’ respective feelings and actions rendered with deep empathy…and tempered by a deeper sense of inevitability.

-E-Major ft. Kane Mayfield “Unheard”

Though ostensibly an E-Major song–a leftover from his upcoming mixtape–the song’s produced by Mania Music Group’s in-house producers Headphones and Bealack, and it’s Mania’s resident hard-ass, boom-bap revivalist, punchline machine, Kane Mayfield who absolutely destroys “Unheard”.

Roaring in with a 300 impression (“Spaaartans! War-cry”), moving onto a Gremlins reference, and then just sorta tossing-out disses (“I don’t respect y’all rappers, you dress like pirates/Chains and bandanas”), joke-disses (“You runnin’ off at that mouth/Daddy’s home, which one of y’all was jumpin’ on my couch?”), and weird vocal tics (“and I rhyme like ewww”), for the next bunch of bars, like he bottled the fuck-it-all energy and fun of something like EPMD’s “Headbanger” and transported it to 2009. His verse ends with, “pull your pants up, 28 waist, you can’t fit a handgun.” Damn.

E-Major’s verses sandwich Kane’s all-rap-sucks missive, and though they’re seething with contempt too, it’s quieter and more thought-out–the ideal contrast to Kane’s multi-directional rap tantrum. Specifically saying “this is the new blueprint” and just the gut-level anger at 2009 rap and the cicada-like horns on the beat, makes this a quiet response to Jay’s complainer rap single “D.O.A”. E though, is more concerned with sincerity than hard-assness. Especially funny is the first verse-ending line, “And everybody wanna act like they care but/They’re more concerned with Cassie’s new haircut”. In a way, it’s as vicious of an ending as Kane’s “28 waist” line, attacking the fact that everyone wants to “act like” they give a shit about rap, when they’re really wrapped-up in some feminine-ass gossip blog bullshit.

-Say Wut “Streets of Baltimore”

First heard this song two weeks ago on KW Griff’s friday night Club mix on 92Q, from 9pm-10pm–they stream online, all you dudes pretending to care about Club should probably fucking listen–and this 70s crime soundtrack Club flip from Say Wut made a lot of sense smooshed between the more synthetic, less rubbery Club tracks. Out of mix context, as just it’s own song it’s addictive, but it’s hard to imagine it fitting into a Club mix, even though it most certainly does fit. Club music is just weird like that.

The current sound of Club is no longer horn-heavy really, it’s post-Blaqstarr, droning, tinny, weirdness that just envelopes you. From DJ Class’ “Tear the Club Up” to Debonair Samir’s “Samir’s Theme” to Say Wut’s expertly-cut, bouncing horns, horn-based Club had a good run and it’ll never go away, but the relatively lowered interest in the style is exactly what allows Say Wut to make a track as organically, conventionally funky as this–or make “Go Off Wit It”, an auto-tune ode to the late K-Swift–and get away with it.

Part of Say Wut’s genius on this track is precisely how little he does with the sample source (the theme from The Streets of San Francisco). He just ups the energy of the theme, throws a classic breakbeat under it, and leaves it at that. He grabs the horns and only the horns. He doesn’t try to mess with any of the other, equally dope parts of the theme song, so there’s no fusion-based bridge or a smattering of samples from the rest of the theme, just those rising and rising horns, some gutteral, wordless vocals, and super-tight drum smacks.

further reading/viewing:

-Google Search: “hebrew” + “rasah”
-”Lunatic Fringe” by Al Shipley for City Paper
-Mania Music Group WQFS Freestyle
-Henry Mancini Orchestra “Streets of San Francisco Main Theme”
-Sagat “Fuk Dat!”
-Wikipedia Entry for Guy Colwell

Written by Brandon

October 21st, 2009 at 3:52 pm

The House Next Door, Music Video Round-Up: Beyonce & Yo La Tengo

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Sorry about the lack of updates lately, you’ll just have to jump off-site to read my rambling. Trying to get back on-track this week though. For now, there’s another installment of my “Music Video Round-Up” column, this time talking about the wonderfully nutty video for Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams” and the whatever but kinda cool video for Yo La Tengo’s “Here to Fall” and the transformative qualities of CGI when used properly, in both.

“One part Victoria’s Secret commercial, another part dream logic anti-narrative, and a CGI-assisted freakout all around, Adria Petty’s video for Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams” one-ups the minimalism of the instantly iconic internet meme and, um, Kanye approved “Single Ladies.” Director Jaka Nava’s video for “Single Ladies” already dropped the sensory overload expectations of music videos for a basically blank set, in front of which Beyonce and her dancers could approximate the singularly-focused energy of a live dance performance. No narrative, no props (save for Beyonce’s robot hand), just dancing.

That odd performance piece couldn’t and shouldn’t be repeated and it’s why follow-up videos for “Diva” and “Ego” at least conceded to a setting, but now Beyonce and director Petty have found a way to make a video even more minimal, even more performance-based—via green-screen and computer-generated effects. Rarely ever is the use of CGI associated with minimalism—it’s more often connected to excess—but in “Sweet Dreams,” CGI’s employed to create a context-less void in which Beyonce and her dancers can blow our minds anew.

The effects in “Sweet Dreams” are used to erase background and setting only to then fill the void-like digital canvas with a hot mess of bodies, clothes, and dance moves. A swirl of sophisticated and “street” dance moves, fashionable nightwear, elegant dresses and, finally, a bizarre gold bodice—it’s an excess of body and action, not filmic techniques. The strange sterility of CGI, that weird dipped-in-Photoshop feeling, is employed to create a new kind of chaos, not really possible without computer effects.”

Written by Brandon

October 19th, 2009 at 1:22 pm


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It’s a Saturday night and way too many people sat at their computers as their digital clocks rolled over to 10:17 and three count em’ three new Gucci Mane mixtapes dropped: Guccimerica, Brrrussia, and Great Brrritain.

This year there’s been plenty of Gucci mixtapes already and if you slapped together the tracks from the official unofficial Murder Was the Case and the Wasted EP, Gucci’s made a close-to-classic album before his actual official album even dropped (still TBA), but here we go, a trilogy of true-school rap album tight mixtapes that are also trap-rap batshit crazy. These tapes are ridiculous. Russian military song intros. Gucci joke-aping MLK. What the fuck.

No longer wandering around in his own headspace, Gucci’s actually interacting with hip-hop as a whole here. There’s an interest in this stupid “rap game” and it’s beyond beefs with Jeezy or dudes that owe him money and get a pool cue to the temple. He’s explicitly concerned with craft and style and all that good stuff, as he always has been, but you know, three conceptually-linked tapes, all landing at once, tends to announce these things extra loud and clear.

Gucci let the rest of the world name him a “great rapper”, he didn’t declare it prematurely a la Wayne and he didn’t speak it into fruition like Jay Z, he just kept rapping and rapping and rapping until he got comfortable, even cocky, with his style…and still doesn’t utter blog-hype hyperbole about being “the best”. On these tapes, Gucci’s not a termite rapper anymore, trimming around the edges of the same sounds and ideas with slight variation, he’s a big, obnoxious, can do anything rapper now.

When Killer Mike merges his own rapid-fire post-Ice Cube style with Gucci’s meter-obsessed rapping (Good Gucci example: Great Brrritain’s “I Be Everywhere”), as he does on “Street Cred” (Guccimerica), well damn. “Timothy” (Great Brrrtain, also) is just classic, street-tale storytelling rap, wrapped in tragedy. Listen to that last verse, which begins with a character who “don’t give a fuck no more” and “can’t even love no more” and gets worse from there.

What are your favorite Gucci tape trilogy moments? That’s not rhetorical either. Tell me. That’s part of Gucci’s dopeness. We’re all in this together, sharing these tiny big musical events.

further reading/viewing:

-”White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” by Manny Farber
-”Overboard” review by David Drake from Pitchfork
-Twitter Search: “#coldwar”

Written by Brandon

October 18th, 2009 at 3:04 am

Posted in Gucci Mane

City Paper NOISE: "Not With a Bang, Not With a Whimper"

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My review of Saturday night’s ridiculous Big Bang! is up on the Baltimore City Paper’s music blog. There were some pretty big fuck-ups here and there, but none the fault of the talent or the promoters and despite the lights going up early before DJ Pierre got to play, it was still an awesome night. Apparently it’s going to happen next month with King Tutt returning and DJ Pierre finally getting to spin. Also, go cop DJ Pierre’s Vol. 7 mix CD, it’s pretty much all I’ve been listening to lately.

“Booked at the Depot, but moved at the last minute to after-hours spot 1722 a couple of doors down, and then ended early by 1722, this past Saturday’s installment of Senari’s Big Bang was all about keeping everybody, from those in attendance to the talent to promoter Puja Patel herself, off-balance.

At least part of the off-balance feeling, though, was intentional. Unpredictability is one of the most rewarding aspects of many of Patel’s shows, especially past Big Bangs: DJ Booman at the Hexagon earlier this year and now, grab-bag dance party sets from Bmore Electro’s Craig Sopo and Nacey of Nouveau Riche rubbing up against worker-bee club sets from King Tutt and DJ Pierre. The goal is diversity and an aggressive blurring of borders—and what better transition from electro to club than King Tutt?

The only “problem” with this mixing of scenes is that the promise of club music to anybody in Baltimore has the unfortunate effect of pushing everything that isn’t club, no matter how awesome—and indeed, there were moments of pulsing, treble-filled glee in Nacey and Sopo’s sets—off to the side, simply because anything that isn’t club music can’t compete. That’s the whole schtick of Baltimore’s signature music. It sonically wrecks anything and everything in its path.”

Written by Brandon

October 15th, 2009 at 2:23 am

The House Next Door, Music Video Round-Up: Interview w/ Severed Ways’ Tony Stone

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So, my music video column on “The House Next Door” finally returns and I’m going to keep up a regular pace with it and not like, one every four months at the best. The first returning one is a little weird because it’s not about music videos really, but it is an interview with the film director Tony Stone who directed the absolutely amazing Viking, Black Metal movie Severed Ways. Stone and I talk about digital video, Michael Mann, metal’s appeal, and lots of other stuff. If you’ve not seen Severed Ways, please go rent it or buy it, you won’t be disappointed…

“After confusing critics at festivals and brief theater runs over the past two years, Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America—a set in 1007 AD, shot on digital video, heavy metal-scored, Viking anti-epic—made its way to DVD this past summer. Though most certainly not a music video, it’s a movie not only dominated by the interplay between music and images but one that apes the quiet-loud dynamics of the heavy metal music that makes up most of its score. Music is at the movie’s core and in that sense, seems appropriate for “Music Video Round-Up.”

Like an art metal album abruptly but successfully segueing from low-end riffing to Brian Eno-esque ambience, director (and co-star) Tony Stone’s Severed Ways bounces between Malick-esque patience and pulpy, in-your-face bursts of ugliness. Laconic hunting and gathering makes way for heathen church-burning. Wandering in the woods moves to the side for an awesomely unnecessary defecation scene. Imagine the atmosphere of your quasi-historical, Dungeons & Dragons-inspired metal video sucked of all the bombast and almost entirely focused on tiny activities of survival.

The result is one of the most bizarre and strangely moving films of the past bunch of years. And the film’s artfully jagged merger of opposites extends to its creation too; conceptualized, studied filmmaking sent into the Vermont woods, forcing on-the-fly, improvisation. Tony Stone was kind enough to break-down these unresolved tensions and why it was so necessary to go “off the grid” to make Severed Ways and explain metal’s rarefied appeal.”

Written by Brandon

October 12th, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Timmy Thomas’ Basement Soul Masterpiece

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Probably because Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together?” is spare like a demo–just a clunky drum machine, voice, and organ–or maybe it’s because Thomas’ plea for peace is a hushed yelp in a world of echo, like he knows the song won’t change real-life (though it did in some small way, becoming the anthem for South Africa’s first free elections in 1994), but Why Can’t We Live Together? (1972, Glades) is less your typical socially-conscious soul classic and more like a guy working all that out in his basement. Comparisons to Nebraska might be a good way to sell it to somebody, because of the stripped-down appeal, but also because it’s just a kind of terribly soul-crushing listen.

Intimate without shouting-out how intimate it is–something even Nebraska does–and really not trying to be anything but some kind of super-spare expression of worry and concern, Why Can’t We Live Together?, song and album, are really like nothing else released at the time or since–save for say, the 90s lo-fi movement, or a couple of random jams from Faust. Had the album not yielded a hit, had LPs stacked-up, slowly disseminating around the country, the album might be getting some kind of fancy-pants re-release now. A piece of lost weirdo soul.

As it stands, Thomas was afforded a pretty successful career well into the 1990s, moving into some progressive disco on The Magician and from there, into some fairly successful Quiet Storm things, but this album, like so many soul albums, is just sort of relegated to “whatever” status these days. While we stand behind new jack soul-jackers like Mayer Hawthorne or some Brazilian Jazz Funk rarities, the dudes that like, palpably affected soul history get pushed to the side.

“Why Can’t We Live Together” is slightly catchier, a tad more upbeat than the rest of the album, but it’s as much a song that sets the tone, that trains the conventional radio-listening consumer in 1972 to accept an album of sorta improvised, voice, drum machine, and organ work-outs, as it is the obvious stand-out single. You know the song already and so, real quick just revisit it and check out the way the drum machine seems to slowly deconstruct, the tinny knocks coming closer and closer together later in the song, like when you bounce a ping-pong ball on the table and bring the paddle ever-closer to the table’s surface, creating this weird arhythmic rattling. What’s so cool about this, is it’s the same weirdness that developed when much more consciously arty musicians started screwing around with their electronic equipment. Finding a piece of awkward beauty in imperfection…on a machine designed to sound “perfect”.

There’s a moment on “Take Care of Home”, an appropriately confused song about the tension between America’s global responsibilities and the in-house ones it just keeps shirking, where Thomas mumbles out “helps me out right here!” and a few moments later, between a coda-like cry of “take care of home”, ad-libs “you know what I’m talking about?”. Yeah, it’s a recording and soul/funk often does this call-and-response thing, but there’s something meta, something extra-solitary about it here. The record drips “guy alone in a room”, so the calls seem consciously directed towards nobody.

That it’s followed by an instrumental cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, which sounds more like something from the Eraserhead soundtrack than a soul album only drives home the solitary nature of Why Can’t We Live Together?. In terms of just stretching the soul blueprint to its limit, the one-two punch of “First Time”s circus-funk and the “Walk On By” on a budget “The Coldest Days of My Life” (itself a Chi-Lites song), are a fascinating inversion of the slow-growing epic production sweeping Philly and Detroit and Memphis when Thomas holed-up to make Why Can’t We Live Together?.

Hard to imagine, but the album actually grows darker as it goes along, save for the personal anthem/album-ender “Funky Me”, Side B seems focused on institutionalized and inescapable fate for the oppressed. Beginning with “In The Beginning”, which just explains the formation of the earth, with a focus on the visceral and horrifying (darkness, lightning) and in lieu of a hook–the song’s either all hook or has no hook, you decide–has Thomas doing call and response with an abrasive lightning sound effect. A laconic, creation-myth organ vamp.

From there, disdain and even contempt bubble over. “Cold Cold People” kicks-off with Thomas lamenting “those S.O.Bs” and then sings in the voice of any and every victim of oppression since well, the aforementioned “beginning”. You’d think it’d let-up on “Opportunity” but the song’s essentially that 1970s soul version of “Umma Do Me” or some insular vision of “by any means necessary”, in which Thomas half-apologizes for being single-minded (“This world is big enough for both of us/But I can’t let you have my share”) but knows that’s the hand he’s been dealt, lamenting “Now I’ve got to wheel and deal for perfection”.

Calling Why Can’t We Live Together? consistent would be an understatement. It’s singularly focused. Just a bunch of songs whirling around in the same sonic territory. Every song kicks-off the same: The snap and pop of the drum machine, some plinks and plonks of an organ, Thomas’ voice slowly creeping in touching on the personal and political and then, a fade-out or abrupt end. It doesn’t let-up and shifts ever-slightly, but that’s about it, just a bunch of bummed-out dirges for Thomas to sadly wail over. It’s just one of the loneliest records out there.

further reading/viewing:
-Why Can’t We Live Together? (Glades, 1972) from Snap, Crackle, & Pop
-Timmy Thomas entry in All Music Guide to Soul
-”Stone to the Bone” by Timmy Thomas off 1977’s The Magician

Written by Brandon

October 9th, 2009 at 5:10 am

Posted in Timmy Thomas, soul

The End of Neo-Soul.


The most polite coup of popular music took place in the late 90s via “Neo-Soul”. Though a wrongheaded, rockist-bait term nearly from its inception, the music of Neo-Soul–you know, the part that actually matters–casually but radically shifted what R & B and rap could and would do to this day.

Though the incense, plodding pretentious rhythms, headwraps, that nebulous “groove”, and the pseudo-sophistication of it all should never be forgotten, the real legacy of Neo-Soul lies in its embrace of the avant-garde and the casual grafting of the vanguard (back) onto the pop landscape: Free Jazz, a comfort with ambition/pretension, skittering electronics, weirdo production tricks, open-space, Psychedelic music, etc.

That Neo-Soul arrived at the same time as the early rumbles of the regional–especially Southern–rap takeover that’d flourish in the 2000s, is no coincidence. Though Neo-Soul both actively and accidentally set itself up in opposition to Cash Money or No Limit (and of course, Puffy too), “Neo-Soul” and “Southern Rap”–two know ‘em when you hear ‘em subgenres–have a great deal in common and pretty much define the “sound” of R & B and rap in the 2000s. Conveniently for all involved, Neo-Soul’s influence has been sorta pushed to the side. A pocket of open-mindedness instead of a piece of an ever-changing, ongoing popular music landscape.

For R & B and rap (or even just music) traditionalists, Neo-Soul’s strength came in its appreciation for and building upon the past–at a time where many saw music of the past mindlessly pilfered for quick hits. As a result, there’s no motivation or interest in connecting the dots between D’Angelo and Dilla and Timbaland and Mannie Fresh and The-Dream, though they’re very much there. It’s all avant-pop. Neo-Soul is both incredibly overrated and underrated. For once, focus on the underrated part.

As we move into fall, hit Google Blog Search and download look back at a summer of Neo-Soul and Neo-Soul derived releases: Jay Stay Paid, Mos Def’s The Ecstatic, Sa-Ra’s Nuclear Revolution, Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night, and Robert Glasper’s Double-Booked. In these records, you’ll hear the high-highs and mind-bogglingly pretentious lows of Neo-Soul, the way a whole bunch of singing, instrumentation, and melody, plenty of noodling, production trickery, and a hardheaded devotion to sonic and thematic consistency, ends up spreading out in weird, really interesting ways. For better and worse.

Mos Def finally figured out the rapping and singing thing and his work’s all the more powerful for it. Something like “Life In Marvelous Times” may even at first, sound like Mos’ resolute concession to synth-rap, but don’t forget Neo-Soul innovator Dilla’s work on Q-Tip’s Amplified and you know, tracks like “In The Night/While You Slept (I Crept)” or “9th Caller” on Jay Stay Paid. Sa-Ra is all Dilla weirdness and nothing more, spread over two discs, the jammy, “experimental” half-formed aspects of Neo-Soul stretched to true indulgence–the non-rapping stuff on Willie Isz’s Georgiavania sounds like Sa-Ra, “Dirty Beauty” even has vampire accents.

Maxwell’s album, absurdly titled, apparently part of a trilogy (talk about indulgence) is also a tiny masterpiece. Oddly, quietly experimental and also ready for anybody’s ears–this is why it’s sold over 300,000 copies–feels oddly 90s and also on-the-cusp of something. Either way it’s not of the moment. Then there’s Robert Glasper’s Double-Booked, a flat-out jazz artist but not really, who peppers the half of his record that isn’t weirdly vivid traditionalist jazz with flutters of electronics and some vocoder mumbles. A perfect companion to BLACKsummers’night, touching on modern sounds completely on its own terms. This is the point where artists become fascinating and irrelevant. The point where Neo-Soul ends.

Not an “end” in the sense of it being over or irrelevant or uncool or passé (though all of those are true) but that the genre’s eaten itself, fully worming its way into the landscape of mainstream R & B and hip-hop. Meanwhile, hip-hop’s inextricably linked itself to pop, no small thanks to those radically individual Neo-Soulsters and some of the smartest, hard-headed-ly street rappers of the South and their maestro-like producers.

Neo-Soul prided itself on eclecticism and now, we’re all eclectic because the internet’s opened wide the doors of music and there’s hardly a monoculture. For example, it’s verifiable that the singing rapper right now Drake’s heard some Houston stuff, if not because his good friends are Lil Wayne and Kanye (whose been working with Rap-A-Lot’s Mike Dean for a while now), then the fact that he’s rapped over “June 27th” on a mixtape, which mean his soul-rap warbles might have a tinge of Big Moe in them, as well as Maxwell or Mos Def. This is rap’s 2009 model: The destruction of borders between rapping and singing, “street” and “for the ladies”, corporate and commutative. Isn’t that Neo-Soul?

further reading/viewing:
-”The End of Science Fiction” by J. Hoberman from Vulgar Modernism
-Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night review by David Drake for Pitchfork
-”Some Ol’ Terminator Shit” by ME
-Drake “November 18th”
-Maxwell “Phoenixrise”
-Robert Glasper “Butterfly”

Written by Brandon

October 5th, 2009 at 4:54 am