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Archive for November, 2009

How Big Is Your World? New, good rap.

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-G-Mane ft. Bentley “Listen”

Guest rapper Bentley reveals the anti-message of “Listen”: “Moral to the story, not a damn thing/Just another nigga trapped, trapped in the game.” G-Mane puts it a little nicer (“See I done learned from folks’ mistakes/And you can learn from mine too/I share the stories of my life, so you figure out what you gonna do”) but either way, it’s grabbing from the weird humanist moral center that pimp-hustlers like UGK and 8Ball & MJG took from. This is something sociologically-aimed, gender-worried rap “scholars” still haven’t figured out. Simply by speaking on this shit, with the right degree of detail and self-seriousness, does it become “message music”. It doesn’t need to formally/structurally “redeem” itself or anything.

G-Mane’s two verses are expertly put together here, the first verse outlining his path to rapping and the second verse, how he started selling. The song, the mixtape, his career–the intersection of the two. Weird, interesting details aren’t spared either, be it the fact that his DJ/musician father didn’t want him to get into hip-hop or that he used the projection booth of the movie theater where he worked to deal. This isn’t just “I been into hip-hop/selling crack for a long time” type banalities. It’s lived-in, cherry-picked from life rhymes. Then there’s Bentley, younger than G-Mane, a relative newcomer, who tells a story that pretty much sounds just like G-Mane’s only a decade or so later. It reinforces that final, resigned line about just being “another nigga trapped”. Time and circumstances mean little. G-Mane and Bentley’s tale is thousands of others’ too.

-Mannie Fresh ft. Russell Lee & The Show “Get With Me”

Okay, “Get With Me” is burdened with a verse from The Show, an absolutely terrible Lil Wayne wannabe who shows up on too much of Return of the Ballin. Seriously. All you guys who throw around the word “ignorant” need to listen to The Show. Not because he’s particularly offensive, but because he has no concept of how punchlines–or verbs and adjectives for that matter–really work. Still, there’s an almost Haiku-like genius to, “All you gotta do is suck a dick and chill”, so dumbness wins again.

But that almost doesn’t matter or rather, the rest of what’s going on in “Get With Me” makes The Show’s part negligible and even kinda fun eventually. Fresh just brings an overdose of personality and fun to the song. His masterful and hilarious bridge–”get that, on e’rything”–rubbing up against just plain gorgeous beatmaking.That “1-2-3 Ow!” sample at the beginning, the rolling acoustic guitar loop, the rush of angelic synths in right after the sampled-hook…that hook itself which rest awkwardly but perfectly, like it was stuffed between the drums after the fact. Just another immaculate Mannie Fresh production, so immaculate here that you wish F-F-Fresh were less of a worker-bee beatmaker and would let this shit roll-out for 7 minutes or so, ONP style.

-G-Side ft. Kristmas “Rising Sun”

Wow. From the last chunk of upliftingly depressing songs on G-Side’s Huntsville International. Block Beattaz are on some like Eno/U2 style mixing and production here, that same kind of chintzy glory where everything’s reverbed and booming and it makes the shit really cinematic without being “cinematic”. For awhile, they relied on the trance samples to bring it to that next, melodramatic level, but now it’s their assemblage of sounds alone that hits you in the gut. When that bizarre sample comes-in on Clova’s verse, like CP and Mali Boi sampled the music you hear in your town’s Chinese Buffett and sent it through auto-tune a few hundred times, it’s well, damn.

Credit should go to ST, Clova, and Kristmas too, who wisely rap against the Slim Thug hook. If this song “is for the Gs and the hustlers” it’s “for” them in the sense that they need to hear “Rising Sun” so some sense gets knocked into them. ST’s “Somehow, the game got twisted to shit/The whole point in flippin’ the brick was to flip it legit” and Kristmas’ extended brag about having a bank account feel immortal, inarguable. Clova then, sorta plays the role of drug dealer here, dropping contemporary coke-rap punchlines–”shit, we flippin’ chickens call it Zaxby’s” is personal favorite–but still centering his verse with a reminder: “I don’t sell dope, or cut the dope no more-”.

-Sensational & Spectre “Rip Like This”

Spectre’s one of many, many, many hip-hop weirdos wandering about Baltimore. There’s King Tutt or Labtekwon or Will Roc, and there’s Spectre. Ostensibly dude is making “beats” but they’re all airy and squonky and downtempo sometimes but not trip-hop or anything–they just defy categorization. Phaser sounds. Death knell drums. All coated with a fog of general insanity that still sorta knocks good and proper. So, pairing up with no-nonsense, nonsense spitter Sensational makes a lot of sense. Maybe too much sense. With age, Sensational’s schtick becomes both legendarily hard-harded and kinda played-out. But man, when the shit works…

“Rip Like This” has a lot more hip-hop in it–a buzz of foggy guitar, some real drums– than most of Acid & Bass and so, it doesn’t deflate or get boring after a minute or so (the story of “avant hip-hop”). This song actually gets more interesting and doles-out surprises left and right, like this indie-blues kinda guitar-solo that sounds like the song’s coda, but then, Sensational’s GZA with brain damage flow comes in one last time. Wire almost got it right this month, it’s just that they put the wrong part of this duo on the cover.

-Rich Boy ft. Rico Love “We Like It”

Rich Boy goes “hard” on this one, but he’s just singing about girls and there’s a hook from some guy named Rico Love. The low-end, Bladerunner rumbles at the beginning suggest a sequel to “Let’s Get This Paper” and then it slinks in, and it’s nearly electro-clash or something. Like it’s from that weird, interesting time a few years ago where everything synthetic was on some full-of-menace, retro-futuristic shit, be it Pharrell, Poni Hoax, or Fennesz.

What does this track mean in 2009 going on 2010 though? A pretentious, music-crit question yeah, but one that’s sorta vital for a guy like Rich Boy who’s gonna forever chase the zeitgiest that made “Throw Some Ds” a hit while tossing-out some roaring mixtapes along the way. “We Like It” is also of course, just Jim Jonsin’s beat for Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams” minus the “Beat It” influence and made for the speakers in a strip club instead of a regular club–darker, oozing more, but still essentially a weird Atari-informed piece of pop production that a bigger star already turned into a hit. What’s Rich Boy to do, then? Rap viciously on it, like he isn’t just saying strip-club platitudes and find an odd, off-to-the-side synth melody to ride and keep it moving.

-DJ Pierre “I Deserve This”

Upping the energy of Drake’s “The Winner” just makes sense, but doing so appends some swing, some soulfulness to the stilted, stunted production of Tha Bizness. Without a mumbling lightweight like Drake to worry about, the BPMs can go up a bunch and the song’s allowed to really move. And it’s this swing, the soulfulness at the center of an otherwise chaotic, discordant Club track that gives the latest Pierre track its legs.

“Deserve This” is very much of-the-moment and inching towards a more classical, less temporal type of Club too. The kind where the drums destroy (more Booman than Blaqstarr) and the structure’s sophisticated–no longer just a cicada whirl of “hey”s and “what”s, samples of samples, and kick-less drums. It’s got that oppressive craziness, but out of the cloud of stutter vocals, weird half-basslines, and space-noise syncopation comes that glorious brass. Pierre’s already a masterful DJ–challenging and pragmatic at the same time–and a very clever post-Blaq Starr Club producer, but “Deserve This” sounds like DJ Pierre’s first, tried and true Club classic. His “Ryda Girl”, his “Pick Em’ Up”, his “Niggaz Fightin’”.

further reading/viewing:

-”Sunday On Da Porch (Drops Thanksgiving)” by Codie G from Huntsville Got Starz
-”G-Side – Huntsville International” by Quan from Hater Player
-”Sensational & Spectre: Acid & Bass” by Michael Byrne from City Paper
-Matt Furie’s Website

Written by Brandon

November 30th, 2009 at 5:35 am

Be Thankful For What You Got.

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Posted this last Thanksgiving but thought it’d be appropriate again, so I drastically rewrote it and here it is. Have a good holiday.-b

Like What’s Going On? or all those Sly and Curtis albums, William DeVaughn’s 1974 album Be Thankful For What You Got is politically-minded soul–but it’s also quieter than those message music classics. Less concerned with tackling the big picture head-on, DeVaughn’s record is fascinated with all the smaller things that made Marvin wanna holler and made Curtis confident that if there’s a hell below, we were all gonna go. It’s a minor soul masterpiece tinted with a “the people’s history” approach.

Be Thankful For What You Got’s focus is less the world’s problems than those directly affected by those problems. Opening track, “Give the Little Man a Great Big Hand” celebrates the guy behind the desk or the dude who picks up your trash without reducing the titular “little man” to a symbol of this or that. The less explicit point of the song though is, “no one else is paying attention to regular-ass people” and that’s particularly true in times of historical turbulence and change, which was the climate of 1974–when the country was coming out of Vietnam, the boiling over of Watergate, when Patty Hearst was kidnapped, when Hank Aaron beat Babe Ruth’s homerun record, when the “Rumble in the Jungle” took place, when Beverly Johnson smiled proudly from the cover of Vogue.

That’s to say, in an attempt to bottle-up all the socio-political insight and outrage and even joy roving around, the piece of art that’s “political” often loses track of the people really being twisted and turned by that history. So, when DeVaughn’s album begins with a polite guitar and the sound effects of a room applauding, it’s a gift to the people often skimmed over for that broader, sweeping message about the state of the nation.

And on “Something’s Being Done”, the album’s sorta reassuring closer, DeVaughn assures listeners that change will come and stuff will get better. The fact that stuff’s not currently all that good–the focus of most political music–sits around in the background: He wouldn’t have to tell listeners things will be better if they weren’t bad right now. That DeVaughn looks ahead with a little less cynicism than other political soulsters and rockers probably has a lot to do with DeVaughn still being “the little man” himself.

DeVaughn’s sensitive to “the little man”, so he knows that hearing how bad everything is, all the time, is a little unnecessary, even obnoxious, because “the little man” knows it, sees it, and lives it, day in and day out. When a big star get political, it’s noble, but it’s decadent too; rarely do the the concerns of the singer/artist affect that artist on a palpable, daily basis. And it’s this disinterest in trying to be a voice of the generation musician and just being a thinking, affected-by-shit singer instead that makes Be Thankful… so humane and wisely closed-off from giant statements.

“We Are His Children” is a simple celebration of God. “You Can Do It” takes on vice and kindly urges people to stop drinking too much at parties. “Kiss and Make Up” encourages reconciliation, getting over the little stuff and moving on. There’s a brilliant, teasing aspect to the chorus, where DeVaughn coos “Let’s kiss…and make up” and that “make” plays on the tens of thousands of love songs heard and you expect it to be, “Let’s kiss and make love”.

But it isn’t. For now, DeVaughn’s concerned with the very immediate present of just not arguing or “taking off our rings”. It’s like that scene in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep where works-in-a-slaughterhouse Stan embraces a dance with his wife but quietly rejects her increasingly feverish advances for sex–because shit’s just too heavy on his mind, body, and soul. “Kiss and Make Up” has that kind of world-weary, wordly-wise sensitivity inside of it. 70’s soul merged with political let’s get-alongs bumping into let’s get it ons.

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

Musically too, it resides somewhere between comfort and ready-to-break-out ennui. Quite a few songs kick-off with a memorable slam of drums or stab of strings (“We Are His Children”, “Sing a Love Song”) before politely slipping into a groove, like that first moment of knee-jerk frustration with something on CNN followed by the point where you get your head around it a little more and actually process the reality of it all. Take the title track, which is all slow-burn atmospheric organ, with some plucked funk guitar that all just sits back and supports DeVaughn’s brilliant chorus that lays out what “you may not have” (“Diamond in the back, sun roof top, diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean”) all the while assuring you that it’s okay to not have it and that you can “still stand tall”.

Though DeVaughn’s answer isn’t as attractive as Marvin’s rhetorical question, it’s not as simple or besides the point as one might think. DeVaughn’s not so much telling you not to freak, or to just chill-out–indeed, you don’t sing this much about how we don’t have to worry if you’re not worried–as he is adding some right-minded moderation to Marvin’s message from the year before, eschewing the get-with-it cynicism for minor victory appreciation.

further reading/viewing:

-Funk My Soul on Be Thankful…
-Killer of Sheep Trailer
-Beverly Johnson on her Vogue Cover

Written by Brandon

November 26th, 2009 at 12:26 am

Posted in William Devaughn, soul

Protecting Rappers From Themselves (and Protecting Rappers from the Guys There to Protect Rappers from Themselves)

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The obvious but worth repeating part first: If you’re a big-time rapper and you make your reputation talking about your weed and your guns, even if you do it really creatively (Wayne or Gucci) or like, render the uglier details of it all particularly well (Wayne, Gucci, or Lil Boosie), you’re going to be a fucking target. Not saying it’s fair, not saying it isn’t just flat-out racist–it’s also rockist–but it’s true.

The less obvious part: These arrests are indeed, a mix of stupidity and misread privilege, but it’s also a kind of nihilism that doesn’t go away just because now a whole bunch of people know who you are and you got songs on the radio. If there’s any “positive” to say, Gucci going to jail or the ridiculous amount of hip-hop deaths every year, it’s that in some roundabout way, it’s but one more way that hip-hop calls attention to a lot of the dirt swept to the side or ignored in this country:

How fucked it still is to be black or poor or poor and black. How “the bootstraps” stuff sounds good and inspiring but ignores all those years it took to pull up those bootstraps and all the scheisty, shitty people it put you into contact with that don’t just go away, or your awful diet, or the doctors you never visited because you didn’t have any dough or health insurance, or the generations of family that didn’t even have the possibility for bootstraps-pulling and you’re literally inheriting their health problems…all that stuff doesn’t go away once your life is Bill O’Reilly approved.

J. Dilla’s death to lupus, Baatin’s battle with mental illness and his recent death, speak to the plight of the black lower-class–and if you got an imagination, the lower class as a whole–as much as say, [INSERT RAPPER HERE] getting shot.

And still, there’s some uncomfortable something else coursing through these arrests. Namely, it’s the very clear way that labels are scooping up these guys, promising them money–because they already have fame–and slightly, over time, shifting their style and approach to rap–in a sense marketing them–to make them more “pop”, while doing none of the stuff to stop them from getting arrested and then, slowly but surely dropping them.

Perhaps you saw, “Lil Wayne’s Sizzurp-Guzzler Blues”, from The Village Voice two weeks ago. It describes the weird way that the Lil Wayne documentary The Carter went from a doc playing at Sundance, to a doc “mysteriously pulled” from Sundance, to one that Wayne’s record label says Wayne himself no longer approves, to a quiet release on iTunes and DVD.

What’s implied in the article and what seems pretty obvious to anyone following the doc’s story since Sundance, is that a verite-style documentary that shows Wayne smoking a lot of weed and drinking a lot of purple, is no longer a good look for the rapper whose face is now slapped across T-shirts in Hot Topic.

That it’s all wrapped-up as if it’s Wayne himself who has an issue with the documentary is where it gets really problematic. It also recalls all that weird internet stuff Noz dealt with in regards to Gucci’s label, which claimed that it was Gucci himself opposed to these leaks. Now, it’s hardly inconceivable that a year or so after Wayne smoked tons of weed on camera he feels kinda strange about it and it’s very possible that Gucci himself doesn’t want his big album to leak, but there’s something more nefarious going on here too. It’s a label no longer speaking for the rapper but speaking as the rapper.

And it also seems to be a label, coming from a place of authority, and providing misinformation to a rapper–telling Wayne this looks bad for him, telling Gucci about the concerns about leaks–that the rapper will no doubt take very seriously. That then gets translated into “Wayne doesn’t approve of this documentary”/”Gucci doesn’t want any leaks”. It reminds me of the many Boosie interviews like this one back when Superbad came out, where Boosie mentioned the album’s “for the ladies” slant–because women buy albums apparently–and it’s solidified by this interview where he basically reveals all the bullshit smuggled onto Superbad.

There’s also the effect on the music itself. Boosie can attest to how Superbad was compromised, and something like Gucci’s “Spotlight” is now just to be expected–though the return of the Plies version of “Wasted” and the relegating the OJ version to an iTunes EP, sounds like a wholesale dumping of Gucci’s weirder, regional aspects–and even Wayne’s No Ceilings sounds like a once-wild rapper tied-down, those limits self-imposed or not, but most certainly rooted in a slightly kinder, less harsh, more palpable version of weirdness than the syrup-sipping “pussy monster” of a few years ago.

These are labels that signed these guys for the very things they’e now being advised to temper or toss out altogether. Now, this is all speculation, but as these rappers go to jail, this image of a label deeply concerned with the whims of their artist–preventing negative documentaries, staving-off leaks–just seems ridiculous.

And you know, it sure would help if these guys would figure their shit out, bizarre, made-to-doom-you, draconian probation violation laws or not.

further reading/viewing:

-”Lil Wayne’s Sizzurp-Guzzler Blues” by Jed Lipinski from Village Voice
-”Music Reviewer’s Blog Suspended for Promoting Music” from Techdirt
-TSS Presents Fifteen Minutes with Lil Boosie
-”Dirty World (Lil Boosie Interview) by Maurice Garland for Ozone Magazine

Written by Brandon

November 23rd, 2009 at 7:12 am

How Big Is Your World? Some New Rap.

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-Mannie Fresh “Like a Boss”

An intricate thud of programmed drums, wailing guitars, some minor chords, a Bruce Lee “Wahh!”, and a Star Wars reference and Mannie Fresh is back. Where’s Fresh been? He deserved a break. He literally made hundreds of beats for Cash-Money for about a decade straight. Now, he’s probably been sitting on his “Big Things Poppin” paycheck and tossing-out killer beats like “The Pimp and the Bun” and relaxing. Only he hasn’t because his fucking sister got killed in late 2007. That mix of victory, sadness, and knowledge of one’s tiny place in the world, are all coursing through “Like a Boss”. “Let it be told, 40 million sold/I used to be hot but these days I’m cold” is telling: A quick acknowledgment of Fresh’s lowered stock as of late, shifting slang, and fun, clever way of saying, “I’m still the best”.

There’s something changing–for the better–about how “older” rappers continue their careers. It isn’t leaping onto trends with too much fervor, like a mom with a belly-button ring or something, and it isn’t recreating the sound of the past as closely as possible, it’s some tough-to-explain, know-it-when-you-hear-it middle-ground involving humorous meta-commentary on one’s past successes, a confidence in the music being made now, and enough quietly turned innovation in there to make it still sound alive. “Like a Boss” has all those things. And it has real, down-to-earth emotions too.

-Diamond District “The Shining”

From the intro track that declares In the Ruff will “bring that east coast, raw, boom-bap hip-hop to the DMV”, to the ODB, Gangstarr, and Jay-Z samples, to it’s overall smoky, thumping sound, in terms of nostalgia and precedent, Diamond District’s album is as audacious and obnoxious as 9th Wonder flipping “T.R.O.Y” horns on The Listening or Wayne aping Biggie and Nas on Tha Carter III–but unlike those examples, Ruff’s exercise in nostalgia don’t get by on moxy and audacity alone, it delivers and then builds on its not-so-modest promise. “The Shining” has the pop elements all that hard-as-fuck rap has (a damn catchy chorus) and it has the angular, hazy avant sounds too: Those lilting moan of strings, the record hiss. This isn’t as simple as swiping the drum patterns from 90s rap and buying some R & B LPs, these guys really get it.

When Oddisee steps in to rap, with “I ain’t even ’sposed to be here”, stretching his not-Northern, not-Southern, kinda both accent, and recounts how he was born feet first, this isn’t just recreating say, Enta Da Stage for his hometown. And if there’s a “boom-bap” influence here, it’s the conversational skits and interludes on all those NYC classics and not the focused rapping of those albums. If Prodigy rapped like he spoke on “Infamous Prelude” he’d sound like Oddisee here. Determined, mad, hilarious, confused, everything. An antidote to that boner-kill Wale album.

-G-Side ft. 6 Tre G “Ink”

This is not from the Huntsville International Project but some unreleased shit in lieu of that tape’s absence, but hey, it’s new to me, it’s G-Side, it’s Block Beataz, so let’s go. “Ink” sounds like CP and Mali Boi found an 8-Bit cover of “I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight” and stuck a rawk band over it and then disassembled it all and put it back together…and asked 6 Tre G to jump on-board. ST’s Andre3k beatless pre-verse here is sympathetic and matter-of-fact: “Some broads got tramp stamps, some boys got prison tats/Some boys got bootlegs and wish they could give it back/My neck say “Jackie’s son” my chest say “Stay trill”/My leg got a rocket to rep for the H-Ville.”

Basically, through some quick verses about tattoos, you get a great sense of G-Side and 6 Tre G’s style and world view. ST transfers quick, humorous but real observations about tattoos and turns them into a kind of seize-the-moment fuck the world motivational speech thing (“one life to lose”), 6 Tre G’s tattoos all funnel into the awful shit that’s happened to him or he’s done to others and what he’s learned–his tattoos a kind of mnemonic/memory jogger–and G-Side’s Clova ends it with the kind of mini-mythmaking he’s really good at–a superhero “reveal” of his tattoos at verse’s end. All wrapped around a really weird, confusing slab of futuristic Huntsville production.

-Ryan Leslie “Never Gonna Break Up”

The new Ryan Leslie album is really insular-sounding, even moreso than the last one…which also came out this year. It’s the kind of album where every song’s a hit if you like it and if you don’t like it, the whole thing just kinda washes over you and you’re all like, “whatever”. Leslie’s lyrics are super-direct–a nice way of saying they’re terrible–and the production’s weirdly elaborate, so the whole thing feels really lived-in, worked-on. The stacks and stacks of synthesizer and electronic production are the sound of a lonely-ass guy messing with his equipment day and night–a metrosexual, heart-broken phantom of the opera really into Cameo–and finding bizarro combinations of sound: “What if this 80s TV movie bassline mixed with some airy helicopter flutters of synth and shit, how about some scrunched-up hi-hats? Okay, now I’ll jump in that vocal booth and bare my goofball soul…”

“Never Gonna Break Up” creeps along, but it’s also creepy. Ryan Leslie singing genuinely confused, impulsive lyrics about lost love. This is Sonny Crockett circling Caroline’s house. It’s Albert Brooks in Modern Romance, drumming up every unfortunate scenario for his ex to be in and freaking out by buying her a stupid-ass talking stuffed animal. You know? Or not. Everything on this album exists somewhere between this calculated cool (those mood-setting synths) and feckless sincerity– Leslie’s too-real lyrics, especially that odd detail that he’s “gonna get the finest clothes [he] can find on retail

-DJ Pierre “Let Me Get That”

Dancefloor pragmatism pulling in one direction, the unwavering creativity and confidence of youth in the other, “Let Me Get That” from DJ Pierre–Baltimore’s Best Club DJ 2009–bobs and weaves around Baltimore Club’s usually ultra-hype production style. It’s a kind of bridge track, intended to slow-up the dancefloor but only temporarily. Remember, “slow” is relative and a track like this might be somewhere near the peak of a set in a lot of other cities but in Baltimore, it’s a shambling, break-down track. Not the one that has everybody dancing, but the one that parts the crowd and allows one special Club dancer to show-off. That moment in movies that really still happens in places like Baltimore’s Club Paradox or Contrast Hall in Glen Burnie, MD where Pierre’s part of a teen event on Friday nights.

A way to sell the song might be, “If you thought Blaqstarr was weird…”. There’s no pumping energy here, just a kind of waddling drone of rhythms and squeaks with Pierre himself saying “Let me get that” that within it, has it’s own peaks and like, that’s where you get the pumping energy. It isn’t an ever-rising explosion of loops and stutter vocals, it’s a meandering chunk of Club that slowly worms it’s way into your head. Dance-wise, it gives club-goers a lot of options, as one could ride those double drum loops or bounce on one’s heels to the ping-pong keys…or do a little of both. Daniel Krow also wrote about this track here. And do buy Pierre’s latest mix CD Vol. 7 here.

further reading/viewing:

-”The Right Track(s): Z-Ro’s “Raw” And More by Daniel Krow
-”Dart’s Most Played for the Week” from Bloggerhouse
-”Didn’t Make the Cut…Stay Tuned”
-Miami Vice – In the Air Tonight
-”Best Club DJ: DJ Pierre” from Baltimore City Paper
-The Remix Tour 08-22-08 Part III
-Moebius Redux: A Life in Pictures directed by Hasko Baumann

Written by Brandon

November 12th, 2009 at 6:01 am

Return of Session/Producer Weirdos!

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A couple random pop music snapshots from the past few years: Timbaland beefing with the guy who used help him make beats on a lumpy victory lap kinda hit. Kanye parlaying soul-beat success into backpacker pop into icy auto-tune warble hits. Mariah Carey singing goofball lines about “bathing in windex” so clearly from the pen of the The-Dream.

Though the ascent of producers and songwriters to all-out artists isn’t anything new, this often awkward advancement dominates hip-hop and R & B in “the ‘aughts”. Timbaland. Kanye West. The-Dream. Ne-Yo. Keri Hilson. Even the explosion of DJ culture and the cult of Dilla and indie label careers of Alchemist or Black Milk owe to this trend gone a little crazy. It’s the reason why a lot of music is so strange and form-stretching and it’s why it’s so weird and messy too. Sometimes, the radio sounds like the inmates are running the asylum. Because they kinda are.

The behind-the-scenes to the stage trend speaks to a bunch of shifts this decade, but namely the everybody’s-a-star, post-reality show blah blah blah and the still confusing way that rap and R & B’s increased mainstreaming runs parallel to it’s idiosyncracies, porous borders, experimentation, etc. No doubt, this personalization of any and everything and the rarefication of a pop sound slam into one another in a ton of interesting ways, but like so many of the bizarro mergers and odd alliances of the decade, the “little guy”, the actual weirdo, is pushed to the side. Not entirely pushed to the side and indeed, the internet and indie labels have adjusted expectations in some really cool ways, but well, there’s a couple of interesting people that get to do everything and a lot of dudes that get lost in the mix.

For every, 808s & Heartbreak, there’s a whole bunch of Mannie Fresh’s Return of the Ballin’ type records: Rolled out onto iTunes, eventually comes out on CD, and has no promotion. Something like 88 Keys’ Death of Adam at one time, could’ve been “that weird record by the guy who produced “Thieves in the Night” but instead it was a three-years in-the-making, hyped-on-mixtapes, had a pre-mixtape-teaser-even record that was too weird and not poppy enough. There’d be more things like Cody Chesnutt’s Headphone Masterpiece if the stakes were just a lower.

Yeah, this is dipped in nostalgia but there’s something exciting about stuff like Eddie Hazel’s Games, Dames, and Guitar Thangs or the records from Lee Hazlewood producer Billy Strange sitting in a bin of 25 Cent records. Or a Memphis Horns record. Or the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra. These one-off things a label conceded to putting-out or handed over some studio time for because hey, the people behind the hits deserved that much. Now, a label gives dudes a real budget, a P.R push, and facilitates some hit records which yeah, is surely preferable to the chance of making a weird, “personal” record but isn’t so good for longevity or anything like that.

What stirred this all up though, is a few recent releases: Dam-Funk’s Toeachizown, Ryan Leslie’s Transition, and Mannie Fresh’s Return of the Ballin, out now on iTunes, 11/17 physical). All three of these records are excellent and all of them give off the same feeling as some random-ass Billy Strange LP: A little too weird, a little too disinterested in catching a lot of listeners…jumbled, slabs of indulgence. And they gain their strength from this sensibility, they aren’t weary listens and they don’t fall back on the crutch of mega-popular artist’s “experimental” album–there’s something more being worked-out here.

You hear it in the all-over-the-place emotions of Ryan Leslie’s new one–really, if you listen to the lyrics, the guy’s a mess, obviously “a love addict” maybe a Co-Dependant–and you hear it in the underlying sadness of Fresh’s “Like a Boss” or that coat of tinny vocoder on “Go Girl” and just pick up Dam’s Toeachizown–it’s over two hours of wash-over-you synth work. Steeped in the past but not aggressively “vintage” or anything, it’s just Dam, free of the SOLAR Records studio or a Westside Connection sample-avoiding recording session. I could go on, highlighting a dozen more tiny details that make these records so fascinating, but the appeal here is how each of these will touch a listener totally differently; every song’s a “hit” and none of them are. They’re full of frayed edges and bubbling over with personality and shit just doesn’t sound like this all that much anymore. Records that sound like the inside of the musician’s mind.

This isn’t to bemoan the current music landscape, though it’s spitting out talents left and right all the time–like the economy, the free-market-ism hitting a critical mass to where only the super-successful have the right to do much of anything–it’s just to point out that how music works right now (not enough pop stars, all the behind the scenes people want to and will get a chance to be pop stars and’ll fail) doesn’t allow for the kind of organic, slow-rolling weirdo creativity music behind-the-scenes-ers could once indulge in from time to time–and sometimes, they’d still make a hit.

further reading/viewing:

-”Rising: Dam-Funk” from Pitchfork
-Al Shipley talking about the new Mariah
-Billy Strange Conducts Sinatra
-Richard Rorty on “the free market” from Take Care of Freedom…

Written by Brandon

November 9th, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Beanie Sigel’s Balancing Act: “What You Talkin’ About (Average Cat)”

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What’s been forgotten since Beanie Sigel released “What You Talkin’ About (Average Cat)”, earlier this week is just how well-rapped the thing is. Just how good Beans is on the song though, is pretty easy to forget, when such a delicate balancing act of a diss song is followed-up by an almost twenty-minute bitch-rant…in video form. That’s the tit-for-tat internet for you though, right?

But really, this is the most solid, determined chunk of rapping from Sigel since The B.Coming. Every word and idea is wisely placed, there’s a concern for meter and syllables, the way he stretches the word “mere” in one line to rhyme with “hairs” in the next–”The mere sight of fiends/Raise the hairs on your back”–or the weird, flurry of Michael Jackson references and something as vicious and nebulous “I can say shit that make ‘B look at you different”–all too a plodding, piano beat and Mobb Deep hook that’s obviously constructed to be the complete opposite of the Euro-house synth party that is the Jay song Beans “answers” here.

Beanie’s also kinda mimicking Jay-Z’s voice–that awkward, scrunched-up nasally accent–which is just funny, but is a subtler way of reminding you just how much Jay really does owe Sigel. Fuck “street cred” and all the dopey stuff Beans still cares about at age 35–that’s no less pathetic than Jay talking “business” in response, just two guys leaning on their proverbial crutches–Sigel is pretty much responsible for making Jay-Z the more complex, introspective rapper he became around the time of Blueprint.

Ever notice how every early “reflective” Jay-Z song, if you thought hard about the lyrics, it was Jay who was the asshole? Beanie brought a sense of self and morality that Jay picked up on. Beans moved Jay away from “thug em’, fuck em’, love em’, leave em” and into a functional, knuckle-head with real feelings. There’s even plenty of examples of Jay swiping Sigel’s flow pretty much wholesale: Compare The Truth’s “Mac Man” and Jay’s “Girls, Girls, Girls”. The joke here is, Jay doesn’t have it in him to get this (publicly) upset about anything and so, on the sincerity tip, and only on the sincerity tip, Beanie Sigle’s victorious.

The point is, this really isn’t just a “diss song”. Yeah, it’s a little too insider-y and all that, but it’s genuine response, with Beans recontextualizing Jay’s song in nearly every way, inhabiting his voice and opinions, and then sitting down and writing an artful rap, that moves between anger and disappointment, violence and distress, and never loses sight of its target. But there’s something unfortunate about the fact that Beans’ rediscovered focus is rooted in being upset and the reality that a shit-load of people’ll actually hear this song, so he better rap cogently.

But what all the zShare hawks get when they put on the “Beanie Sigel Jay-Z Diss” though, is sure, filled with the fruity gossip junk that a diss record requires in 2009, but it’s also downright horrifying. The aforementioned scary-movie beat and the fact that it just sounds like a dude really trying to keep his shit together and then, just kinda exploding at the end, no longer even rapping just ranting. There’s no “oh shit, no he didn’t!” moment to the thing. This song does not make you excited for a follow-up.

further reading/viewing:

-”The Quarterly Report: Albums” (#5 is Beans’ The Broad Street Bully) by Tom Breihan
-Beanie Sigel “What You Talkin About (I Aint Your Average Cat)”
-Jay-Z Responds to Beanie Sigel
-”Beanie Sigel Says If Jay-Z Dont Call Him…”

Written by Brandon

November 6th, 2009 at 2:01 am

Posted in Beanie Sigel, Jay-Z

The House Next Door: "The Wizened Sympathy of Good Hair"


Good Hair is a weird movie and if I had to compare it to anything I’ve seen as of late, it’d be The September Issue, just in being endlessly fascinating but not really sure what it’s trying to be. That said, a doc by Chris Rock about weaves that wedges in all kinds smart insight and a bunch of humanism is more than alright. You’ll love it when you watch it, you’ll kinda stop and be like “Waitaminute that could’ve done a lot more” when it ends and then, you realize Rock would probably cop to that anyways.

And still, Good Hair succeeds in not giving-in to any of the awful trends of snarky, stunt docs of the ‘aughts–it isn’t condescending and it isn’t sanctimonious and all serious and shit, either. Anyways, head over to The House Next Door to read my review of Good Hair:

Chris Rock is a comedian, not a documentarian. The success of Good Hair and it’s need-to-be-noted but ultimately irrelevant failures hinge on never forgetting this rather obvious fact. What that means is the movie indulges in being funny first and foremost, pretty much always at the expense of any excoriation.

Good Hair’s kinda conceit came from Rock’s two daughters, one of whom asked him why she didn’t have “good hair.” The set-up suggests that we’ll explore why his daughter thinks of her hair as, um, not good, but the movie actually does little of that. Instead it simply traces the ways “good hair” is attained and sorta holds the whole thing together via a twice-a-year, for-a-prize-of-20k hair-styling contest, which is so low-rent and absurd that Rock wisely steps back and quietly grins and primarily sympathizes with the competitors’ unimposing goals.

This sympathy makes the movie, but it’s a strange choice for a comedian and it’s out-of-step with the perspective of most humorous, politically-minded, star-driven documentaries. Rock’s not Sacha Baron-Cohen or Michael Moore here; he’s more a shticky Errol Morris or a hammy Werner Herzog, fascinated and moved by his subject to the point that the movie’s quality suffers even as its joshing humanity expands. Folksy jibing and absurd jokes always come first, but that doesn’t mean Good Hair doesn’t meander around some really interesting details, make some really good points, and stick itself out there. It’s neither snarky nor entirely understanding of the phenomenon and sub-phenomenons (hair relaxer, weaves, hair-stylist sub-culture, etc) surrounding “good hair.”

Written by Brandon

November 2nd, 2009 at 7:07 am