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Archive for August, 2010

Village Voice, Sound of the City: “Country Rap 2: The Gulf States”


Here’s a discussion with Bertolain Elysee, one of the curators of the “Country Rap 2″ film event which kicks-off this weekend at the Maysles Cinema. In addition to all the films, G-Side will be performing this Saturday night. If you’re in the area, I’d strongly encourage you to check it out.

The Maysles Institute’s documentary film series “Country Rap 2: The Gulf States” and its accompanying program “Katrina: Five Years Later”–both opening this weekend–tie the rich spirit and deep history of Southern hip-hop to recent tragedies like Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. Films about Miami bass (2 Live Crew: Banned in the U.S.A), bounce (Ya Heard Me?), Southern rap (Dirty States Of America, The Carter), Delta blues (The Land Where Blues Began), and New Orleans jazz (Jazz Parades) stand alongside histories of the Black Panther Party (Lowndes County Freedom Party) and the Miami University football team (The U). Alabama up-and-comers G-Side will perform at the venue on Saturday. (And all of this in New York City, a/k/a the town that booed OJ Da Juiceman!) Via e-mail, we spoke to co-curator Bertolain Elysee about the event’s expansive intentions, why libertarians should love 2 Live Crew’s Luke, and Lil Wayne and Lil Boosie’s particular kind of political activism.

Written by Brandon

August 20th, 2010 at 10:05 pm

Splice Today: UllNevaNo’s The Color Brown

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Reviewed Baltimore rapper UllNevaNo’s mixtape, The Color Brown where he raps over beats from Kev Brown. He did the same thing with Evidence beats for last year’s The Color Purple, but this project’s better all around and feels like a really solid rap release in the key of underground hip-hop, but with enough rough edges and strange asides to make it really stand-out. You can download it for free over at Under Sound Music’s website.

Most rappers on the come-up do just about anything to create the illusion of an industry co-sign. They’ll stick a verse in the middle of a radio hit and hype it up as a “remix.” They’ll sample a popular rapper for a hook and when they blast it out to the blogs, credit the song as “featuring” that popular rapper. So, when Baltimore-based, San Bernardino-bred rapper UllNevaNo tells listeners that he has “no relationship with [D.C. beatmaker] Kev Brown,” on a mixtape consisting entirely of raps over Kev Brown’s instrumentals, it’s a sobering dose of sincerity–and precisely the kind of cagey honesty that permeates much of The Color Brown.

UllNevaNo exhibits the expected verbal dexterity (the mission statement-like “Bright Sound,” the concentrated lyrical exercise “Serious To None”) but he offers up something a bit more rarefied and unpredictable too. He can be playful (the “riding the Metro sucks” rap-rant “Tune Em’ Out,” the old school pro wrestling references in his rhymes) and at times, disarmingly emotional. Coming right after the contemplative “Reconsider It,” there’s the relationship rap, “Someday,” a tangle of diary-like confessions (“I don’t even know what to say/I wrote this verse and thought about you today”) and nerdy, needy pontificating (“There’s too much technology, not to stay in contact,” he tells his ex from five years ago). When UllNevaNo wonders aloud if the girl still has the mix CD he made for her all those years ago, and a depressed guitar sample rises out of Kev Brown’s foggy beat, punctuating the sentiment, it’s one of the most touching, bittersweet moments in rap this year…

Written by Brandon

August 12th, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Posted in Baltimore, Splice Today

Kanye West, Subvertiser: “Power” as Culture Jam


Right after the latest episode of Jersey Shore, Kanye West and director Marco Brambilla’s video/commerical/art project for “Power” premiered in all its epic, underwhelming glory. Basically, “Power” is a less crowded version of Brambilla’s 2008 hotel installation “Civilization,” and like that digital-imagery video collage, “Power” is schticky but awesome. All the “Pop-art” stuff Kanye’s been yammering on about for a few years now? Here’s the apotheosis–for better and worse.

Responses to the video though, have been pretty cold-shouldered. Sean Fennessey–a guy who’s been wrestling with Kanye’s work since the start—thinks the whole thing’s undercooked. Some broad for The Atlantic Monthly called it “a mesmerizing screensaver.”

There’s a bit of a bias against digital art going on here, but the responses also sent me back to undergraduate literature classes, where shiny, grandiose works that wrestled with universals like vanity and the fragility of life got laughed-off in favor of immediate, “what’s it’s like to live at the end of the millennium” type works. Sure this clip is big and ponderous, but it doesn’t shout-out its importance really. It’s sincere and knowing and Kanye’s laughing a bit about the fact that he got this weird-ass thing on television and all over the internet.

Kanye has also been into cultivating memes lately. Whether it’s his blog or award show pranks or outre videos, he makes conversation-stimulating, argument-starting chunks of sound and image to accompany his actually fairly subtle music. He cleverly balances the demands of the music-marketing game of the 2000s with a rarefied, creative spirit. So, he drums-up controversy with a Spike Jonze-directed single-take video that shows his death by shovel and video girl. Or he makes a fairly insane, grabbing from all directions, Neo-classical digital art project and gets it on MTV after the fucking Jersey Shore.

Think about that as the context for “Power.” Is there a more depressing, end-of-days, this-is-why-the-world-hates-us show than Jersey Shore? The Situation and Snooki consumed by their insignificant, bullshit-ass problems (which now hey, include fame!) all scored to soul-less, date-rape rave beats? No one Guido should have all that power.

The context for “Power,” coupled with its message, makes it the kind of take-back-the-night use of one’s fame that has all but disappeared from the pop landscape. Only Lady Gaga tries this hard and she fails way more often. “Power” is basically a culture-jam—rap is pretty much always a culture-jam though—in which Kanye deconstructs MTV commercials and regularly-scheduled programming and the endless, chintzy New Music Cartel stream of shit videos and shit video teasers. “Power” just doesn’t fit anywhere.

You want violence? Here’s the end of the world and dudes with swords and shit. You want video girls? Here’s a chick pouring water on herself like it’s a Nelly video only she’s upside down. You want a “conscious” portrayal of women? Check out those stalwart females to the left and right of Kanye pounding their staffs to the rhythm. And at the center of it is Kanye, wearing a chain nearly weighing him down (wasn’t this the original symbology of chains in rap, a symbol of wealth as well as a tangible reminder of the trappings of all that?), as all the decadence swirls around him, unknowingly about to lose his head. Literally.

West, grew up waiting for the premieres of Michael Jackson videos before The Simpson and wants to–no needs to–make an event video, but he’s got an aggressive, very hip-hop side that makes these videos loaded, and occasionally fraught with meaning. He’s gotta be subversive, but for the first time here, that subversiveness and its intended message aren’t weighed down by the messenger. “Power” is thematically antithetical to the egotism expected from rap but it’s style and construction oppose cheap rewards too.

The self-important slow-motion denies the speedy, histrionic editing of most videos and commercials while also reclaiming a technique that when it is employed, is used to just make, say, Young Jeezy look cool stepping out of a car. By slowing the imagery, you really soak in all the loaded, obvious stuff going on and get smashed over the head with its decadence. Director Brambilla’s technique—shoot a bunch of stunning imagery separately and then slam it all together with the aid of computers—is perfect because it gives the video an unreal, slightly “off” quality that makes it all the more unappealing. If this were staged, somehow shot live, all in one room, there would be human qualities to it, something imperfect, but as it is, each image is made “perfect” and then stacked upon another “perfect” image. It feels strange and just plain off. You get to ponder it and you get pretty creeped out.

The cut to black, a moment before the good stuff happens (Kanye gets decapitated) also seems to be an issue for some. They’re waiting for something to happen, as if the video’s not a big mess of stuff happening. Viewers want the final, epic, shocking moment—whenever I think of videos and a moment like this, I think of the moronic culmination of Jonathan Glazer’s video for UNKLE’s “Rabbit In Your Headlights”–but Kanye and Brambilla don’t give it to you because dude, that’s not the point at all.

The “anti-climactic” ending actually suggests another misread work of bold, capital-A art wrestling with fame and hubris: Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). Coppola’s film ends before Marie’s infamous beheading, but the sequence of events is set-up so that her trip to the guillotine is inevitable. Like that movie, “Power” has a little too much love for its subject (in Kanye’s video: himself) to visualize the demise, but it’s also a way to reject cheap thrills. And usually, music videos, MTV, and commercials, are all about cheap thrills.

further reading/viewing:
-“Power,” Paintings, Pomposity: The Uncertain Evolution of Kanye West’s Music Videos” by Sean Fennessey for Sound Of The City
-“Subvertising” on Wikipedia
-“M.I.A. and music’s newest marketing frontier: the guerrilla web itself” by Gardner
-Buy Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man
-“Race & Gender Devolution in ‘Flashing Lights’ Version 2″ by ME

Written by Brandon

August 7th, 2010 at 9:07 am

How Big Is Your World? New Rap!


-Yelawolf “Looking For Alien Love”

Yelawolf’s a polysyllabic preacher here, rhyming and ranting over a sparkling, drum-less soundscape from Grade A Muzik (“Trap Goin’ Ham”). At first, Yela goes off about love like he’s some sixteenth century British poet (“One floats around until the signal reaches a receiver/One floats around until the love reaches a believer” ) and then about why every other rapper’s bullshit (“Don’t be so goddamn easily impressed, in 93′ you had to rap/What the fuck ever happened to that?”) and why rap sucks now, but in hyper-literate, opaque terms: “It’s like they heard the joke and took them serious though, and a bunch of people showed up with a blinged-out cereal bowl.” And when there finally is a proper beat for Yela to go off over, he raps for a moment and then just croons songs from Kindergarten and does some psychedelic scatting over Squarepusher-esque drums. Some total Soul Coughing shit really.

-Field Mob “We Byke”

Field Mob announce their return with a really spare and modest track that just kinda declares they’re back a whole bunch, makes a reference to Grand Puba’s “I Like It,” and keeps it moving. The song is creeping, low-energy Crunk–ominous skittering drums and some “hey!” shouts—but it’s subtly addictive, full of sing-rap weirdness, some fast-rap fancy stuff, that can all sneak by on the first couple listens and in that sense, is almost perverse to release in the crazy rap-blog immediacy of 2010. But an eccentric, kinda whatever return to recording fits Shawn Jay and Smoke’s folksy goofball style pretty well: “My jeans sag like your grandmomma’s titties.” After all, these are the guys that squawked that they were “sick of being lonely” and used Jazze Pha and Ciara for one of the most touching relationship rap records of the decade.

-Gucci Mane ft. Bun B & Yo Gotti “It’s Goin’ Up”

A defense of Bun B’s recent rapping is a lot harder now that he’s got this annoying-ass Twitter and he got a legacy 5-mic from The Source (which still matters if you read The Source when 5-mics meant something!!!) for the decent, peppered-with-Drake Trill O.G, but I’d like to offer something of a rebuttal to a general sentiment floating around lately, sorta calcified in Noz’s “Historic Histrionics”. Namely, Gucci’s rapping better than Bun here and Yo Gotti’s having more fun, but Bun employs his aging, booming voice here as a sane counter-point. He steps into the song like the grizzled street dude with sage, inglorious advice (“Niggas on that bullshit, sellin’ wax and dry-wall/Be careful who you scorin’ from, niggas bound to try y’all) and he does it with authority and then, steps back. If there’s a problem with this verse, it’s that it’s too concise, and too well-structured. Without Bun, this song wouldn’t be half as exhilarating.

-Slum Village ft. Little Brother “Where Do We From Here”

This song’s called “Where Do We Go From Here” and it features the recently broken-up Little Brother and T3, founding member of the crumbling before our rap nerd eyes Slum Village, but only Phonte brings his A-game, doing that disjointed, enjambed style of rapping he did on Leftback and his two, yes two features on The Roots’ How I Got Over. Fortunately, Young RJ brings some of that “ol’ Terminator shit” and musically conveys some the conflicted emotions the lyrics fail to address. Techno-tinged bump fighting with these dirge-like, the-score-to-Inception strings, it’s icey but still energetic and seems close to what members (or ex-members) of SV gotta be feeling right now. The best thing about “Where Do We Go From Here” though, is the way those strings get to play out for almost twenty seconds unadorned at the end. One a song that doesn’t even hit the three-minute mark. This is the real “Reunion Pt. 2,” you know?

-Mullyman “MULLY!”

Mullyman sprints through this beat, touching a different aspect of its construction with his rhymes every bunch of bars, steadily moving into weirder and weirder territory, getting more angular and syllable-obsessed with every couplet. He chants over the initial slam of the drums, then rides the beat properly, and mid-verse, shifts gears, doubles-up his flow and weaves his rhymes between the shrieking strings all the way up to the hook. Then, for the next two verses, he returns to the drums and employs every rhyming trick and weird vocal tic he knows: More double-time flow, references to internet memes (“C’mon son!”), silly puns, rhyming the a word with the same word, odd half-successful wordplay (“fake as the facial features of Joan Rivers”), a reggae-tinged moment of singing. It’s like Mullyman’s throwing everything that’s on Harder Than Baltimore into one big, angry introductory track, only to expound on the individual aspects of his talents on later songs.

-Skinny Friedman “Hundred Dollar Salad”

The brilliance of “Hundred Dollar Salad” rests on a subtle, jazzy-wazzy, sorta-Big Band clump of horns, that are teased in the song’s extended build-up—listen close, they’re a fuzzy rumble in the background nearly from the start–but still kinda come out of nowhere a little past the two-minute mark. Skinny bypasses dance music catharsis for the long haul though, handing the song over to the horns, letting them stretch and explode over and over for the duration of the song. It’s like there’s two compositions running next to one another here—one’s minimal, easy, deep-bass electro, and the other’s a patient, glitch-esque, nearly Disintegration Loops-style sample work-out shoved into the middle of a dance track. Big Band and stuff like that actually kinda goes, much of it pushing 140 BPMs and beyond, and it’s a real music nerd thing to realize that. It’s a genius DJ/producer move to do something with that realization.

further reading/viewing:
-“Love’s Play At Push-Pin” by Robert Herrick
-Yelawolf vs. Killer Mike in the Hip Hop Beer Chug Challenge
-Soul Coughing – “Miss The Girl”
-Grand Puba – “I Like It”
-Field Mob – “So What” ft. Ciara
-“Historic Histrionics” by Noz from Cocaine Blunts
-“Some Ol’ Terminator Shit” by ME
-Drexciya’s Neptune’s Lair (2010 Edition)
-“Springing A Leak” by Al Shipley for Baltimore City Paper
-Places To Purchase Skinny Friedman’s Hundred Dollar Salad EP
-William Basinski – “Disintegration Loop 1.1″
-Shaky Kane at Wikipedia

Written by Brandon

August 5th, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Splice Today: Lower Dens’ Twin-Hand Movement

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Here’s my review of Lower Dens’ Twin-Hand Movement, which is a really confusing, great album that’s really hard to write about, so I just took the detached, “try to explain” it route but there’s a ton of stuff I’m missing. And that’s always the case with reviews of any length but especially here. I actually think both of these pieces (“Blue and Silver” track review, Twin-Hand Movement review) by City Paper’s Michael Byrne kinda wrestle with it better than I, but still, there’s something missing there too, so you should probably just listen to the record yourself.

In an indie rock climate currently consumed by schticky eclecticism, Baltimore’s Lower Dens stand out for confidently and provocatively mining entry-level indie influences: the deliberate chug of the Velvet Underground, Cat Power in her noisy naïf phase, Joy Division’s disco-punk in a dungeon style. But Jana Hunter and her band don’t simply regurgitate underground rock classics; they approach these intermediate sounds from odd angles.

Two damaged, garage-rock instrumentals (“Holy Water” and “Completely Golden”) sandwich “I Get Nervous,” a confused, touching, almost love song (“Baby, I get nervous/Just being in your service”). “Rosie” noodles around for more than a minute before bass and drums enter the mix and once they do, Hunter’s hesitant vocals frantically climb through the group’s hazy, mass of sound. “Plastic and Powder” is a dubby, No-Wave-tinged composition stretched to its breaking point, building up, then simmering down to Fripp & Eno-like globs of ambient noise. It’s a beautiful moment on an otherwise nervous and jittery album…

Written by Brandon

August 5th, 2010 at 5:39 pm