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Archive for August, 2011

August Picks.


  • Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch The Throne: Production-wise, this is just massive, but it’s ultimately a weirdly timid, mindful epic that is perfectly in-tune, not depressingly out of touch, with the current economic times. You should probably listen harder!
  • Lil Wayne, Tha Carter IV: Wayne out of jail and not all that interested in proving himself to anybody so eat a dick, slinks back to the formula for the first and best edition of Tha Carter. A very good, very solid rap album.
  • DDm, TV Killed The Radio Star: He was one of Baltimore’s best rappers before he was Baltimore’s first out, gay rapper and this little, ambitious EP is more of the same, which is its own kind of statement. Then, it hits you in the gut with “Last On Ur Dial.”
  • The Weeknd, Thursday: The-Dream-isms mix with Garbage Version 2.0-esque rock, gorgeous glitch, dub, and acoustic soul. Like the “ass to ass” scene from Requiem For A Dream in the form of a bummer slow jams album. A grower.
  • Median, The Sender: Sensitive, nerdy-in-a-good-way NC MC teams up with a reunited Phonte and 9th Wonder and makes a warm even kinda cloud-rappy follow up to his debut. Tigallo sings and raps, 9th and friends hand over weird but boom-bap enough beats.

Written by Brandon

August 31st, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Posted in 2011

Spin: Decoding Hip-Hop’s Retro Impulse

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This week’s column is based on Simon Reynolds’ excellent book Retromania and attempting to apply some of those same principles and old-man biases to hip-hop. Includes a discussion of UGK’s “Pregnant Pussy.

In Simon Reynolds’ latest tome Retromania, a sprawling response to why everything new sounds like everything old, hip-hop is often used to challenge all the music dorks who are hopelessly caught up in the past. The first time this happens is when Reynolds, frustrated with what he calls “time-warp cultists,” observes, “fans of hot jazz and rural blues have no time for ‘Dirty South’ hip-hop styles like crunk and New Orleans bounce.” About a hundred pages later, while talking to rockabilly fanatic Miriam Linna, Reynolds connects the rowdy impulses in obscure, juvenile-delinquent rock to the “vast quantities of cheaply produced rap on shoestring independent labels.” Linna rather defensively explains that “it’s really not the same thing,” even though, you know, it totally is.

But hip-hop isn’t immune to the kind of stagnant, pitch-perfect recreation of days gone by that Reynolds loathes. Last weekend, the Rock The Bells tour kicked off in Los Angeles, and, as usual, the bill consists of acts hitting the 20-year nostalgia cycle (Nas, Cypress Hill, Black Moon, Mobb Deep), performing their classic albums in full, along with some contemporary acts who sound a lot like they’re from the early ’90s (Big K.R.I.T., Blu, Roc Marciano). What immediately sticks out about the lineup is the way that it muddles history, conflating different eras of hip-hop. Acts like Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Black Star, and Common, all associated with the “conscious” scene of the later ’90s, are also included. To complicate matters even further, Common’s latest single, “Ghetto Dreams,” features Nas and conjures up the uncouth aggression of boom-bap from the late ’80s and early ’90s…

Written by Brandon

August 29th, 2011 at 6:06 pm

Posted in Spin, Spin column

Pitchfork: The Weeknd – Thursday


Reviewed the new Weeknd, which might actually actually be better than the first one? Give it some time.

Though there’s less breathing space on Thursday, and fewer melodic hooks, it still feels of a piece with House of Balloons. There’s the same ineffably skeezy vibe and a genuine sense of the album-as-journey, brought upon by smart sequencing and Tesfaye’s willingness to complicate his devilish, drug-addled Lothario persona. The production is slightly harsher and streaked with violence, befitting the lyrical content– “Life of the Party”, the best and most disturbing song here, is based around doom-like guitar riffs that suggest something truly terrible about to happen. The guitars burst forth during Tesfaye’s mocking chorus (“you’re the life of the party”), sung as he casually convinces a girl into a group-sex situation. Other songs are tinged with similarly abrasive sounds: drill’n'bass noises rattle around in the background of opening track “Lonely Star”; “Rolling Stone” begins with a blustery chunk of heavily processed guitar; and the final track, “Heaven or Las Vegas” (not a Cocteau Twins cover) features a late-song interruption by screeching effects and heavy echo. For contrast , the only jarring touch to the production on the fairly one-note House of Balloons is the title track’s Siouxsie and the Banshees sample. So the world here, in addition to being more sonically varied, feels just a little darker and a little more dangerous…

Written by Brandon

August 25th, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Posted in Pitchfork

Watch The Throne: “Why I Love You”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Untitled”

And so, “Why I Love You,” the darkest, most twisted-up song since intro track “No Church In The Wild,” is where this weird, money-burning yet socially-conscious hip-hop event wraps up. Jay is “alone” in “Rome…burning,” asking, “why does it always end up like this?” He lashes out at old friends who don’t think he’s done enough for them. Kanye’s at his side, playing hypeman but coming off more like an annoying crony. The way Kanye pronounces “Huh?!” like it somehow has an “N” in it somewhere is especially grating — and it’s supposed to be.

Here are two guys, obnoxiously gassing themselves up like they’re the only ones left in the whole world, which given the rarefied air they breathe isn’t that far off. Kanye’s “I never been a deep sleeper” interjection — part boast, part confession — is touching, and the way their voices meet up on the word “paranoia” says just about all you need to know about the Throne. But Jay’s also willing to admit that he’s more than a little bit hurt by all these supposed betrayals. In verse two, he tells listeners that the stuff said about him by former friends like Dame Dash and Beanie Sigel really stings, and he expresses it in melodramatic terms, like he’s penning a post-hardcore break-up song: “You ripped out my heart and you stepped on it…”

Written by Brandon

August 25th, 2011 at 2:17 am

Watch The Throne: “Made In America”


Jean-Michel Basquiat, “God, Law”

If the Throne’s fiscal theories don’t creep you out a bit, then perhaps this big, dumb ode to the United States of America will? “Made In America,” however, isn’t Glenn Beck rally nonsense; it’s more like those goofy-ass MSNBC “Lean Forward” ads celebrating America’s greatness while making it quite clear that there’s still a lot of work to do. This song was Jay-Z’s idea, right? He’s the capitalist cornball and Kanye’s the cynic (the child of a college professor and Black Panther), who’s much too worried about speaking truth to power, be it about George W. Bush or Taylor Swift, to buy into this idea that success means anything more than an escape from having to be so fucking regular.

Kanye’s up for the ride, though, along with Frank Ocean, who is probably biting his tongue a bit during the mind-bogglingly unironic hook, which conflates Civil Rights leaders with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Despite all the bullshit, the Throne explain, they’ve made it in America. Jay maintains this approach, rewriting the Pledge of Allegiance as a dedication to his grandmother and “all the scramblers,” rather than the United States of America, which really hasn’t done all that much for him. Still, he acknowledges, through the country’s combination of freedom and corruption, it has allowed him to go from a kid in the Marcy Projects to a cultural force…

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Watch The Throne: “Murder To Excellence”


Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Horn Players”

Jay-Z dedicates “Murder To Excellence” to Danroy Henry Jr., killed by police gunfire in 2010. Later, he says he’s the reincarnation of Fred Hampton, who was murdered by the FBI, in his sleep, on December 4th, 1969, the day Jay was born: “I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died / I guess real niggas multiply.” That line sounds hot, but when it’s placed alongside Kanye’s declaration that “it’s time that we redefine black power,” it elucidates the Throne’s vision: Political rhetoric and action, particularly “by any means necessary,” must be replaced with simpler, pragmatic goals of economic success and independence. It’s a continuation of the sentiment from Jay’s infamous verse on The Black Album’s “Moment Of Clarity,” where he confesses that he “dumbed down for [his] audience to double his dollars,” while at the same time kinda dismissing conscious hip-hop by explaining that he “can’t help the poor if he’s one of them…”

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Watch The Throne: “Who Gon Stop Me”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Masque”

Sampling Flux Pavillion’s “I Can’t Stop,” the Throne grab hold of the same music that so many regular-ass young dudes in America are using to express rage and catharsis right now: dubstep. Yet, there’s a tangible menace to this beat — the subgenre’s signature, hard-partying drop refashioned to score Kanye’s provocative yelp about inner-city violence and Jay-Z rhyming about his criminal past and current “fuck you” success. Like his verse on “Welcome To The Jungle,” Jay flickers between two divergent paths — legal and illegal — and sometimes blurs the two. When he paints a scene at Las Vegas’ Wynn Casino, all eyes are on him. Because he’s a rapper or an uncouth drug dealer who doesn’t belong? Both, it seems. He’s in “all-white wearin’ no socks,” like a retired Jay of the next decade, but he also observes, “they know I’m a dope boy.”

The entire verse bounces between past and present, and as his rhymes pick up speed, the pressures of fame and memories of a past life rush out; synths whirl, sirens wail, and that Flux Pavillion sample stands up straight and collapses again and again, fitting the overdose of emotion. There’s a great moment where Jay tells engineer Noah Goldstein to “extend the beat” and you hear it rise back to life like a reanimated sci-fi robot, ready to stalk around for a little while longer. By the end, he’s reconciled his contradictions: “Street-smart and I’m book smart, could’ve been a chemist because I cook smart…”

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Watch The Throne: “Welcome To The Jungle”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Defacement (The Death Of Michael Stewart)”

A simple, abrasive beat that, every few bars, sounds like it’s about to malfunction, angrily pumps until a mournful synth enters the mix at the very moment Kanye shouts, “I asked her where she wanna be when she 25 / She turned around and looked at me and said ‘alive.’” He’s referencing OutKast’s “Da Art Of Storytellin Pt. 1,” and specifically, he’s referencing Andre 3000’s description of a scene from his teenage years, when Three Stacks talks about a young girl named Sasha Thumper who, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up answers, says, “alive,” throwing Andre for a loop (“I coulda died,” he admits).

Like the hook’s update of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” (“It’s like a jungle sometimes…”), the somber hook of “Da Art Of Storytellin’ Pt. 1″ (“It’s like that now…”) is a clever, stiff-upper-lip twist on Run-D.M.C,’s state-of-the-nation rap “It’s Like That.” The Throne reference both songs here, employing socially conscious reality raps from the ’80s and ’90s to underline their point: Nothing has changed all that much. In his first verse, Jay implicates himself in “the jungle,” outlining losses early in his life (“My uncle died, my daddy did too”), while Kanye attempts to empathize, referencing the problems he’s mined for a few albums now (“Just when I thought I had everything, I lost it all”) and then, it’s right back to Jay who drops a fascinating virtuoso verse mixing street violence with “fame is fucked-up” freakouts…

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 2:27 am

Watch The Throne: “That’s My Bitch”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Mona Lisa”

Justin Vernon, stand the fuck up! His uncomfortably funky, mid-song part is so good. Anyway, ignore this song’s title, or don’t cringe as you read it, because the Throne are doing a “99 Problems”-like investigation of the word “bitch” here. Even the hook by Elly Jackson of La Roux, with its celebration of autonomy from the work-a-day grind, kicks against the lunkhead title and the Throne’s possessive, sorta-sensitive raps.

Jay-Z’s all twisted up, though, no longer able to simply admire a girl without getting upset about body image and the way white standards of beauty have been branded onto our brains. “Why all the pretty icons always all-white?” he asks, and then demands that we “put some colored girls in the MoMA,” shouting out a character from Good Times: “Half these broads ain’t got nothing on Willona.” Jay spends a lot of his time on “That’s My Bitch” making art references that may or may not click for a lot of rap listeners, so it’s refreshing to hear a nod to a classic black television show…

Written by Brandon

August 24th, 2011 at 2:15 am

Watch The Throne: “New Day”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Asskiller”

Legacy and influence obviously matter a great deal to the Throne. That’s why there was all that hard-to-stomach, pre-release, we’re-making-history talk; and it’s also why Watch The Throne’s in a constant conversation with black music’s past. On “New Day,” however, Jay and Kanye approach the idea of legacy from a more down-to-earth perspective: How will they raise their kids? The genius of this song is not its concept, but how tasteful this quite-shticky song turns out to be.

Kanye views his future child — actually, the song’s conceit — as a chance to right his wrongs, because he can’t imagine or face the realities of raising a kid. He’s still growing up himself, and still stupidly upset about things that happened more than a year ago (or as long ago as five years ago). But he’s also still mourning the 2007 death of his mother, Donda West, which he can’t get over. The line, “And I’ll never let his mom move to L.A. / Knowin’ she couldn’t take the pressure, now we all pray,” which ends his verse, really stings. Also: Given the questionable fiscal ideals running through this album, Kanye’s quip about raising his child to be Republican (“so everybody know he love white people”) is worth highlighting. It’s also very funny…

Written by Brandon

August 19th, 2011 at 5:38 am