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White Privilege, Warped Nostalgia: Asher Roth & Wavves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Brandon

May 6th, 2009 at 10:50 pm

Cracker (Swagger) Jacks: Eminem’s Return, Asher Roth’s Ascent.

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That Eminem’s “We Made You” drops as Asher Roth’s “I Love College” hovers, ready to take over, is something of a perfect storm of rap frivolity far uglier than ad-libs, auto-tune, or rhyming the same word with the same word.

Two rappers, one who once mined the problems of the working-class in a manner however cloying, still greatly affecting, and one who at least feigned interest in “poor people” on his corrective mixtape raps just a few months ago, escape into the world of OK! Magazine and the greens and quads of college, respectively.

The problem here isn’t derision, because everyone that matters thinks these songs are awful, but that “We Made You” and “I Love College” are dismissed because they appear “not serious” when they should start-up the same kind of “once a year we’ll all get political” meme that say, crack rap or “hipsters” inspire.

Look at it this way. “I Love College” gets the “it’s fun” free pass—and tons of press—while the also Weezer-sampling “Grind Baby” from the Paper Route Recordz crew just sort of wanders around kinda unnoticed. This isn’t just an issue of taste or exposure, it’s a moral one.

“Grind” grabs the melancholy of Weezer in a typically constructive hip-hop sense of sampling–say Nice & Smooth turning “Fast Car” into “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow”; “College” goes for it Girl-Talk style. “Grind” is a, we’ll-get-through-it anthem for the clock-punchers, “College” is a celebration of wasting either parents’ or the state’s money in a place of higher education most of the country can’t even begin to afford. Remember, the biggest rapper in the world right now based his debut album around the in-the-gut frustration of going to college and being thoroughly disgusted by the reality its overrun by assholes like Roth.

For Asher Roth to be the same dude who made his internet hype rapping over others rappers’ beats about how “sick kids need” money “more then [he needs] a necklace”, now praising another kind of indulgence, is a good example of the weird classism—and white privilege—that often goes unchecked in the media, but shouldn’t slip by rap fans. Sure, pizza and beer are a cheaper than rims and chains, but Roth’s awful misreading of how and why people conspicuously consume seems grotesque when he’s farting-out a song just as ugly and self-justifying as all the rap he claims doesn’t speak to him. While Roth may not “look” or “sound” like most rappers, he’s selling the exact same line of bullshit.

Goofy college kids once saw themselves in the nerd-outs of Tribe and Pharcyde or even the willful self-destruction of Mobb Deep or DMX. For awhile they could misread crack raps and sloppily apply it to their Circuit City commissions or day-trading jobs. Asher Roth’s rendered even that rudimentary leap of empathy obsolete.

Uncomfortable truths about Eminem amplified by “We Made You”:

- Eminem’s flow and persona’s simply a dumber, less nerdy version of the self-deprecating raps of mindful non-thugs like The Pharcyde. Down to the nasally, high-pitch flow, Em’s entire schtick–or at least the schtick that’s kinda entertaining–can be traced back to “Runnin”, a song he stuck in 8 Mile don’t forget.

-Dr. Dre’s production for him has nothing to do with hip-hop, more Ray Stevens with an MPC. And for those who dismiss the track and pray for that “raw shit” from Eminem, dude’s own productions are diet, caffeine-free RZA. Grammy-winning “Lose Yourself” is essentially “Liquid Swords” with a mall-rock chug replacing Willie Mitchell grit.

-The video for his first hit featured a Lewinsky joke and the song itself mentioned the Spice Girls and Pamela Anderson.

-His flow, which he’s always gotten credit for even in the dumbest songs, is the kind of flow that beats you over the head with every cadence and enjambment and shift of meter and at this point, rap’s evolved and devolved so much that when a fan defends a rapper with “He can flow”, it’s the equivalent of someone telling you that their boring-ass friend’s “a nice guy”. Technical skill’s always been Eminem’s defense and rockist bait while he’s sold hip-hop down the river.

-His “raw shit” is just as manipulative and flat-out retarded as “We Made You”, and that those pieces of “reality” that he could touch-on (“Stan” or “Kim” being obvious examples) diluted Dre, Cube, and the rest’s equally retarded but more entertaining and relevant reduction of poverty, dysfunction, and suffering.

“We Made You” is less a case of an artist not delivering than a bunch of rap fans not copping to how wack dude’s always been. Still, there’s something especially calculated,–like being a guy who raps about college and having your album come-out on 4/20 level of calculated—about Eminem’s latest.

Intentional or not, the song’s like a big Slim Shady “fuck you”, less to the world at-large or his critics, but at the Web 2.0 nerds. Jokes that are either out-dated or covered ten-fold by gossip blogs, are still new-ish or funny to the people that barely know of Twitter and don’t have a wireless network. Em’s feeding them supermarket gossip rag (versus gossip blog) trash and working a kind of synergy that has nothing to do with Nahright or “Perez” and has everything to do with say, Inside Edition and MTV (both did stories on Eminem’s “controversial” new video).

In a sense, “We Made You” acknowledges a fanbase that’s been forgotten about in the music business’s ill-concieved flight to the blogosphere, but it’s a fan-base he could’ve touched upon all the same with equally retarded but at least emotionally-resonant, real-world raps that everyone not named Pruane2Forever prefers.

But none of this is a surprise, anymore than someone finally and fully running with the “rap doesn’t speak to white kids that buy it” hustle is a surprise. What is a surprise–well, this isn’t a surprise either, but it’s distressing–is how this kind of manipulation is either justified or laughed-off as insignificant, while entire essays and debates drum-up about Young Jeezy’s “responsibility” to his neighborhood or art-form.

Asher Roth’s touching on some kind of zeitgeist or just “doing him”, but Lil Wayne or or even someone as downright loveable (and at times, batshit brilliant) as Gucci Mane are “killing” rap…and Paper Route Recordz hardly matter.

Deborah Norton will scrutinize the “controversial” and “hilarious” references to Paris and “KK” in “We Made You”, but would never take the time to highlight say, the affecting Patriotism in the climax of Kanye’s just-as-zany video for “Champion” or even acknowledge the existence of Rihanna/Chris Brown response record like Ghostface’s “Message from Ghostface”.

This is in part, white privilege aligning with some mad-calculated synergy, but it goes beyond that. Those artists and especially rappers (white or black), that really do complicate or at least worm around issues of wealth and privilege–even if it’s “all I could show em’ was pictures of my cribs”, if Eminem’s retardo raps receive praise, give Kanye a pass for trying–and end-up implicative, receive a healthy dose of derision, while those that simply fall-back on privilege as natural order get a free pass.

Written by Brandon

April 12th, 2009 at 7:59 am