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Hip-Hop’s Dying, Ya Heard?

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“One of the tasks of the film critic of tomorrow–perhaps he will even be called a “television critic”–will be to rid the world of the comic figure the average film critic and film theorist of today represents: he lives from the glory of his memories like the seventy-year-old ex-court actresses, rummages about as they do in yellowing photographs, speaks of names that are long gone. He discusses films no one has been able to see for ten years (and about which they can therefore say everything and nothing) with people of his own ilk; he argues about montage like medieval scholar discussed the existence of God, believing all these things could still exist today. In the evening, he sits with rapt attention in the cinema, a critical art lover, as though we still lived in the days of Griffith, Stroheim, Murnau, and Eisenstein. He thinks he is seeing bad films instead of understanding that what he sees is no longer film at all.”-Rudolf Arnheim, 1935.*

Regions have splintered further into town-specific styles, there’s just a couple of discernible stars, a whole bunch of rappers it’s hard to get one’s critical bearings on, and it all meets on the streets and the internet, not the Billboard Charts or MTV. Hip-hop isn’t dead. It just isn’t as easy to write about anymore. That’s what Sasha-Frere Jones’ intriguing though problematic “Wrapping Up”, and Simon Reynolds’ confusing “Notes on the Noughties” are actually saying.

But instead of acknowledging the weird, new species that hip-hop’s evolved into, it’s gotta be just plain dead or at least, “ag[ing] out”. Skipping over these dramatic shifts in “the industry” and the ever-growing influence and eventual reliance on the internet–best represented with mixtapes–is a huge oversight if you’re diagnosing hip-hop in 2009.

These guys think they are hearing bad albums instead of understanding that what they hear is no longer an album at all.

Industry changes hover in the background of SFJ’s piece and bubble up through the focus on Freddie Gibbs’ mixtapes, but its Reynolds who out-and-out dismisses the mixtape, with the pithy adjective of “obscure”. Now, it’s depressing when a critic–even a pop critic–tosses out “obscure” as a negative descriptor (sorta how indie critics used “lo-fi” to negatively describe Wavves) but it’s another thing when that same critic both performs ignorance (that unfortunate “Gummi Bares” joke) and proves his ignorance (lumping Soulja Boy, Yung Joc, Gucci Mane, and Boosie together like they have much of anything in common) and then tries to tell readers anything about hip-hop.

Many of the mixtapes one could cite to prove hip-hop’s still vital aren’t really obscure–if you’re a notable critic and you declare them obscure, they’ll remain obscure–but more importantly, these “obscure” mixtapes are maybe the only way vital hip-hop can even get out there anymore. You’d be hard-pressed to find a rapper that’s debuted since 2004–the year Reynolds says rap started withering away–whose best work isn’t on a mixtape or at least, has some mixtapes competing with their albums in terms of quality. This isn’t a coincidence. It also isn’t a coincidence that 2004 or so is about when hip-hop and the internet really started mingling. Just saying.

You know, on Tuesday, new albums from both Clipse and Gucci Mane drop. Most of you reading have already heard them. Neither of these albums are particularly good, both of them have their moments, but only Clipse will truly suffer from making a sub-par album. Clipse made their proper debut in 2001–though their first album dates back to 1999–while Gucci debuted in 2005.

The reason Clipse will suffer and Gucci will not is because Gucci’s established himself as a creative rapping force via mixtapes, while Clipse fell back on the mixtape when their official stuff got mucked-up in label drama. Clipse need–or think they need–the album. Gucci’s using it purely as a means to an end: More money, more ubiquity, maybe some respectability. Indeed, even if The State vs. Radric Davis were a masterpiece, it wouldn’t sell better (it’d maybe sell worse) and in a world of “Gummi Bares” jokes by notable critics, it doesn’t seem like “Gucci Mane” and “masterpiece” could even be conceived of in the same sentence. So why bother? Go get Gucciamerica or the official unofficial Murder Was the Case which is structured like a tight, worker-bee album…which means it’s structured like a Gucci mixtape.

Clipse though, in part because they clearly care about rap in the long-term sense–Gucci does not, proven by the fact that he’s going to jail again–and in part because they’re undoubtedly from a different era, tie rap artistry to the album format. They also want to be successful. Til the Casket Drops is torn apart by this tension, neither as good as their past work nor pop-oriented enough to yield any hits, in part because the brothers Thornton translate “pop” as “stick a broad on the hook”. Til the Casket Drops misses both of its intended targets and farts around in no-man’s land. And unlike Gucci or plenty of rappers who’ve come since (but didn’t indeed, have a few singles like “Icey” and “Freaky Gurl” to buttress their street buzz) Clipse don’t promise a deluge of new material and so, this all we get.

The State vs. Radric Davis is a product and that’s clear to all involved: a guest-heavy, bets-hedging group of songs that hopefully maybe will sell a lot of copies and make a lot of money. It begins like Gucci’s mixtapes, rolls into a sequence of R & B jams, and wraps-up with a group of songs with big-name guests and up-and-comers. Gucci’s artistry is on display on dozens of album-like mixtapes, not the actual album. In 2009, rap fans just know this. Critics apparently, do not.

*More accurately: J. Hoberman in 1998 quoting Rudolf Arnheim in 1935.
further reading/viewing:
-”Wrapping Up” by Sasha Frere-Jones for The New Yorker
-”Notes on the noughties…” by Simon Reynolds for The Guardian
“Audio: Gucci Mane Calls Into DJ Drama’s Show w/Young Jeezy” from Dirty Glove Bastard
“The Film Critic of Tomorrow” by Rudolf Arnheim
“The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today” by J. Hoberman

Written by Brandon

December 4th, 2009 at 5:41 am

Posted in Clipse, Gucci Mane, hmmmm

Rap’s Post-Lyrical Phase Pt. III: What’s the Point of Post-Lyricism?


First, before reading this or uh, in addition to reading this, go back and read the comments in the other two parts which totally take this discussion in places I hadn’t thought of or connected. My apologies for not being able to more actively engage the comments like usual, I was too busy buying comic books this weekend.

As suggested in the first part of this, the point of “post-lyricism”–whether it knows it or not–is a sort of total breaking away of “the Nas formula”. There are plenty of flaws in calling it “the Nas formula” (the formula certainly existed before Nas) but it’s also an easy way to communicate the kind of lyricism that’s both undeniably great and simply not happening as much anymore (certainly not on the radio) and not really working anymore either.

The word “formula” too, is used advisedly, not as any kind of slam against Nas, but to note the way the signs and signifiers of Nas and company’s type of rapping has devolved into a bunch of things you can do to get a lot of dumb people (which is most people and therefore, most raps fans, including “serious” hip-hop heads) to think you’re good or celebrate because it opposes say, Soulja Boy.

Certainly, it isn’t this simple and the assertion I’m about to make’s a little too cynical, but following or not following “the Nas formula” is in part, an economic choice. And not in the sense of rapping like Nas makes you “serious” and not rapping like Nas makes you a sell-out. In the current rap climate of declining record sales and all that crap, choosing to rap in one way or the other determines your rarified audience. Take someone like Immortal Technique, who no doubt, thinks he’s in the vein of Nas or something. His choice to be in some ways “throwback”, along with his contact, has given him a very specific and dependable audience of nostalgics and left-leaning rap fans (these categories of course, overlap a great deal).

When there’s some college open mic or when your favorite college radio rap show opens the phones for listeners to kick a free style, following “the Nas formula”, if you’re not completely wack, will get you a lot of love right off the bat. By following “the Nas formula” you court a small, but powerful and devoted groups of listeners that will like you. In many ways, “the Nas formula” is easier and safer too. Who knows where the hell say, T-Pain came from, but if you stuck him on any stage as an unknown, he’d get laughed the fuck off the stage! Now, that could be used as evidence that it’s absurd this rappa ternt sanga’s so big right now, but it also points toward the way very popular music is often weird and uncool before it’s popular.

Even the Soulja Boy-style fan of rap music, when confronted with “the Nas formula” in person or without the context of it being hot or not on MTV or the radio, will respond positively to this tried and true formula, because it’s still what kids do in middle-school when they’re “freestyling” with their friends. Of course, stick that freestyler in the studio with access to some real equipment, maybe some background singer girls, and corporate pressure to make a hit and he won’t make the next “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”.

The economic choice in rejecting “the Nas formula” isn’t really worth going over, is it? Slower, simpler, makes it easier on the ears, more crossover appeal, etc. etc.

While many would be quick to defend “Nas formula” rappers as not making so much of an economic choice, but as keeping it real or true, that argument or that simple argument rather, can’t be made for the post-lyricists. And no doubt, a lot of rappers (or “rappers” if you want to be a dick about it) adopt the post-lyrical style out of a lack of talent or creativity of patience, and while the tone of this makes Kanye and Wayne into hyper-innovators that they are not–as I said, they’re kinda hopping onto a trend, they just happen to be more famous–there is a sense that a whole bunch of rappers are simply not interested in doing “the Nas formula”. Whether they lyrically have the talent to do it or not is not the issue, at least for me. It’s probably true that Picasso couldn’t paint like Titian or some shit, but who cares and we save the discussion for ‘Post-Modernism in Art 101′ or some shit.

In many ways, “post-lyricism” can be stuck on Andre 3000. Certainly one of the brightest and more lyric-oriented rappers from any region, Andre’s also been pretty weird and out-there since the first Outkast album. Over time, he increasingly played with meter and rhymes and adopted a purposefully rambling, off-topic style, all while remaining, for the most part, conventionally “lyrical” or lyrical enough to not be labelled wack by anybody.

Take a listen to ATLiens, the album before Outkast got rock-critic “weird” and were just weird and an inarguable rap classic no matter where you’re from. Sure, it contains plenty of brilliant lyrical moments resembling “the Nas formula”, but it’s also got plenty of purposefully bad similes (“tight like nuts and bolts” from “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac)”), or tangential near-non rhymes (“Elevators”). His recent “return” to rap, which some people perceive as “overrated”, dives further into these post-lyrical tropes and comes out at times awkward or weird, but always affecting.

The moments of conventional, “Nas formula” brilliance are punctuated by stranger rhymes, jokes, nonsense, and round-about ways of expression. From the conventional “lyrical” definition, Andre’s inconsistent, but all those inconsistencies and idiosyncracies are being used towards a greater point/message/feeling whatever and wouldn’t resonate half as much if he stayed within the bounds of “the Nas formula”. Take Ghostface’s work outside of the Wu since Supreme Clientele and you’ll find a greater breadth and depth of emotion than is found on even really real shit like “Tearz”. What those two greats did was take parts of “the Nas formula” and build upon it and occasionally, fall back on it.

Of course, you’ll get barely anybody complaining about Andre 3000 or Ghostface they way so many complain about Kanye or Lil Wayne, but their post-lyricism comes out of Andre and Ghost’s post-lyricism. It’s got even less to do with “the Nas formula” and therefore rhymes less and takes the lyrical carnival games and joke punchlines to even goofier places. And still, despite what their detractors say, Kanye and Wayne can still drop a brilliant line or verse and are quite good at moving from the obnoxiously dumb to the really poignant.

Worshippers of “the Nas formula” might call this inconsistent but that’s sort of the point. Additionally, there’s some added level of emotion to these lines because they’re dropped in between a lot of shit talk and cutesy douche-baggery. You’re caught in a loop of the latter two things for a bunch of lines or even a few songs, and then Wayne drops something like his domestic abuse reminisce in “Playing With Fire”–”Remember when your pussy second husband tried to beat ya?/Remember when I went into the kitchen, got the cleaver?”–or another obnoxious Kanye song about why fame and money sucks stumbles into a lyrical, almost like conventionally poetic line like, “You’re on the other side of the glass/Of my memory’s museum”. Because it’s not hot line after hot line, or even poignant emotional detail after poignant emotional detail, the ones they focus on have added weight.

In the past, I’ve called this “rap minimalism” and it works a lot like Minimalism as a music genre in general. Basically (and I’m super simplifying here), through repetition, the slightest variation takes on greater meaning or importance. Clipse are certainly rap minimalists–and sorta post-lyricists too–because they fall back on almost nonsense punchlines and repetitive material, but every once in a while, the guilt and world-weariness fumbling around in the background gets really clear for a verse or line. We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2 is pretty much a whole album of post-lyrical tropes (although delivered in “the Nas formula”) until we get to Malice’s “All the money in the world…” verse on the last track, “Ultimate Flow”.

Young Jeezy, a more clear-cut example of post-lyricism, is pretty much not even rapping most of the time, so that when he does enter something resembling flow or reveals something, it means a lot more. For whatever reason, Jeezy’s “They lock us in cages/The same nigga that’s a star when you put em’ on stages” is something that more than one teenager has brought up to me as a line that made them think.

So, the point of “post-lyricism” outside of some general want to move away from “the Nas formula” is to in some way or another, take bits and pieces of “the Nas formula” and meld it with less tried and true lyrical formulas and create something new, which has the emotional resonance and effect that “the Nas formula” once had. There’s no denying that rappers of the “Nas” mold are simply not engaging new and younger listeners to rap, while Kanye and Wayne certainly are. And for all that’s annoying or terrible about them to dudes like me and most of my readers that grew up on “the Nas formula”, they are in their own way, as bizarre and rarified as any of those inexplicable Golden Era personalities that also had some pop appeal.

Written by Brandon

October 2nd, 2008 at 4:01 am

Clipse Live at Artscape in Baltimore 7/20/08

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When say, Rick Ross wanders across the stage, out-of-breath, and fumbling over his basic-ass raps, it’s really hard to believe this dude ever had his shit together enough to deal a million-trillion dollars in coke. If he can’t even organize a like, brief set at Summer Jam or some shit, how’d he run a drug cartel?! When Clipse bounced up to the moderately-sized Artscape stage, it’s way easier to believe them when they say shit like “Same hustle/’cept my hustle’s now flows…”, because the hyper-focused, distant but technically precise approach a dealer takes to dealing, Clipse take to performing.

Pusha T especially, would bob his head in conjunction with his cadence and his eyes would grow furious and wide on a particular punchline–especially when the crowd screamed them along with him–but then the beat stopped, you got that glass-breaking or plane sound effect from the ‘We Got It 4 Cheap’ tapes, everyone would clap and Pusha and Malice would take a break from the intensity and smile, but then, back to hustling, but remember that hustle’s now flow.

They were scheduled for 7:30 and got on a few minutes late and ended about seven minutes early–maybe in part, because stuff like Artscape must end on-time–and I could’ve taken fifteen more minutes or so, but the in and out, all business approach is good given the nature of most rap shows, especially free ones. The only show-offy, hip-hop show cliche was on show opener ‘Grindin’ where the beat dropped out numerous times and they rapped the song beat-less but totally stayed-on enough for the audience to follow right along. It turned out to be a P.A system problem, but the way Clipse did it, it seemed less like technical difficulties and more like this bad-ass way to open the show. But it was still more an example of their calculated professionalism–they can stay that on-beat without the help of a beat–than any attempt at showing-off for the crowd..

That’s not to suggest Clipse don’t care about rap or rapping–they care a lot and that’s obvious–but they see it as something to master and do really well and they’re pretty much there right now. This explains the lackluster third volume of ‘We Got It 4 Cheap’ and ‘Hell Hath No Fury’s half-hedging-its-bets sequencing, but it also explains why they can rush onto a stage at a free festival in Baltimore at 7:30 in like, 90 degree weather on Sunday, and go right into ‘Grindin’, never miss a line or rhythm when the shopping-carts crashing beat continually drops out, give one another annoyed/frustrated looks but never get all pissy about it, totally destroy the whole song, laugh about the sound problems, move on to ‘Momma, I’m So Sorry’, ‘What Happened To That Boy?’, ‘Cot Damn’, ‘Ride Around Shining’, and ‘Mr. Me Too’, thank the crowd, politely apologize for “the technical difficulties” and exit.
For all this talk of calculation though, there’s a hard-edged immediacy to a live Clipse performance as well. All those punchlines that smug rap fans take a shit on and even fans admit are getting pretty played-out feel alive again when spit, like actually spit–Clipse rap fierce–from Pusha and Malice’s mouths. There’s a strange paradox of an entire, diverse group of hip-hop heads, pop-radio rap fans, weirdos who wandered over, and Whartscape gawkers knowing every word to every song so much that they fill-in the curse-words Clipse tried hard to avoid (because it’s a public event) and it still felt new and real, like the first time you heard: “Ech! Another soul lost/Had to make a shirt match my blood colored Porsche”. And those beats! When the speakers worked, those beats blasting out of some outdoor P.A, surrounded by way too many hardcore fans doubly amped on seeing this shit for free, as these two dudes with basically, these beautiful speaking/rapping voices launch enthusiastic threats around for twenty minutes, was pretty intense. Of course, you’ve read all this hyperbole before, but it’s easy to forget or grow tired of it in this internet-insane rap world where shit blows-up and then goes away before it ever really got the chance to stick around.

Of course, Clipse aren’t that interested in sticking around, they were in and out in twenty minutes and left everyone in a daze. Nerds and thugs and everybody in between sheepishly hovered near the stage in denial that it was all over. Would it be in bad taste to compare all of us, kind of moving away from the stage, kind of looking back hoping it was over/wanting more, to zombified addicts? It seemed once again Clipse, rooted in lessons from their dope days, did that pusher bait and switch of giving just enough to satisfy but not enough that we don’t immediately want more.
-Photos by Monique Rivera.

-Also, Metal Lungies was there, and they posted a performance of ‘Cot Damn’: Clipse Tidbits. I guess that’s something I forgot to mention. Ab-Liva was there. He’s a great hypeman, kinda even crooned some of the Pharrell hooks, did his two verses with confidence equal to Clipse’s but in a very different way, and looks like if Larry Blackmon of Cameo and Baseball Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield had a kid.

-I spotted and briefly talked to Baltimore’s E-Major, whose album ‘Majority Rules, I’m still really into. DJ Face also of the group We & Us did a DJ set before Clipse–and in lieu of Wizz Khalifa’s absence–and between ‘Stronger’ and ‘Roc Boys’, he dropped E’s ‘Know That’, which is pretty awesome. *Also, in that E Major link, note that We & Us is just the name of the group, not the members as I previously thought.

-And finally, some really sad news is K-Swift, a Club legend and performer at Artscape this weekend, died at 28. She was a ubiquitous Baltimore DJ, hosted 92.3 Club nights, released indispensible compilations–responsible for breaking say, Blaq Starr’s ‘Hands Up Thumbs Down’ which some readers might know–and was just really awesome. Especially sad for something like Baltimore where club DJs hold as much weight as club producers. She wasn’t just some Baltimore DJ as I fear, some outsiders might think (not that there’s anything wrong with being just a DJ…).

Written by Brandon

July 21st, 2008 at 8:08 pm

Posted in Baltimore, Clipse

What "Street Niggas" Really Listen To…

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On ‘20K Intro’ from the latest Clipse tape, Pusha mentions a “tree-huggin’ ass bitch” that told him he was “nice” but proceeded to give him a lot of shit about how his songs are all about “dope” and “street shit”, which of course, is very, very bad. Pusha, in one of the few points on the depressive tape where anyone climbs out of their frustration, responds with “Tree-huggin’ ass bitch please” and asserts who he really rhymes for: “niggas on the corner.”

This kind of defense or half-defense met with an angry assertion about “street niggas” or “niggas on the corner” isn’t new to rappers’ attempts at sounding “real” but it seems more glaring because well, the Clipse simply aren’t rapping for those “street niggas”. Maybe they are in the sense that that’s their intended audience, or maybe they mean it in some instructive way, but in terms of whose ears are open to Clipse, it is not who they claim to be rapping for; if this were true, Pusha wouldn’t even be confronted with a woman offended by their crack rap, you know?

Maybe some drug dealers have decent music taste, but the assumption that because one is from the street, one is apt to embrace street music, is incorrect. I see the logic, but most people are just more into ideas of escape and it’s why blue-collar whites listen to mainstream country music and not sad-sack songs about why their life sucks. The illusion that the drug-dealer is some near-Nietzschean businessman beyond good and evil that embraces his/her fate is a myth sold by dealers and the popular rappers that leech off of that myth. It’s a fucked-up circle of bullshit and the reality is, dealers are stupid too. They want to feel good about themselves like everybody else so, 50 Cent’s image of thuggery is way more appealing than say, ‘Chinese New Year’. In last night’s episode of ‘The Wire’, there’s a scene of Snoop and Chris driving down the street with Hurricane Chris playing out their speakers; that’s what I’m getting at!

Not that Clipse is the pinnacle of actual street realness- whatever that means- but they represent something a little less ideal than many of the other rappers talking about how street they are. The brilliance of Clipse is the way they offer up the same old bullshit but said a little better, song after song, and then suddenly drop a particularly dark insight or emotional reality. These details weave through ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ but they become palpable on the closer ‘Nightmares’, despite or in spite of its cloying acknowledgment of regret. Malice’s verse on the last track on ‘We Got it 4 Cheap Vol. 2’ about being “a hamster in a wheel” is all the more affecting because he hasn’t been this emotional, depressed rapper on every track. On the latest tape, the depression seems more real and upfront but the main point is still drug-pushing punchlines. Peppered throughout however, are lines like “we keep it from the kids and tell em’ it’s detergent”. Young Jeezy might say that line, but he’d be half-bragging or throw in one of those “Ha-HA”s to downplay the reality of selling crack with a bunch of kids around; Pusha just drops that fucked-up reality and keeps going.

If anything, Pusha should stop dropping weird defenses about who he makes his music for or who listens to it, because he should be proud “niggas on the corner” don’t want to hear his fucked-up version of reality: It means he’s doing his job! It also says something about how deluded the criminal element is, that Clipse don’t offer enough escapism and justification, but this is getting long already…

Although Clipse boast and glorify, their music never feels too exciting and their swagger is on the defensive and defiant, never there on principle or some fake-ass Tupac “I don’t give a fuck” thing…the Clipse care, a lot. The dudes aren’t perfect but they certainly do not create ideal forms that can be embraced by delusional thugs or angry too-cool for rock but too-dumb for real rap middle-schoolers. That’s what the current debate on hip-hop’s quality is really about and always has been: ideal vs. the reality.

On DocZeus’s entry on Clipse earlier this month, the lively comments debate went into a smart and even-handed breakdown of what exactly made Clipse more complex or better or less amoral than Young Jeezy. At first glance, the two have a lot in common. Both rap coke braggadocio with a vague catering to regret, over cold, sterile, electronic beats but as smart listeners have pointed out, even when the darkness of dealing is not apparent in the rhymes, it’s heard in those harsh, beats. But there’s a difference.

Indeed, Clipse are hardly the ideal non-ideal rappers and Jeezy is not totally in drug-dealing fantasy land, but comparing the two illustrates my point. Clipse have production that is almost tinny and truly minimalist and it underscores their bragging; Jeezy’s production is disturbing but has a triumphant edge that turns his non-rapping into an unstoppable force of hard-ass synths and regal horns. Jeezy is what a drug-dealer wants to be and Clipse are a little closer to what a drug dealer really is. So, it makes sense that “street niggas” would gravitate towards Jeezy and it makes sense that jerkoffs who think drug-dealers are cool or people who think they’re drug dealers, would also prefer the Jeezy treatment of dealing.

I’m reminded of a similar division between the ideal and the real in film scholar Ray Carney’s The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies. The book’s primary argument is that filmmaker Cassavetes consistently avoids the clean-edges of Hollywood cinema- including the Hollywood art of Welles, Hitchcock, etc.- for a less ideal and more accurate representation of life (I’m really simplifying…). Late in the book, Carney contrasts Cassavetes’ crime film ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’, a portrait of a down-and-out strip-club owner who has a lot of debt, with Orson Welles’ classic ‘Citizen Kane’, a very different kind of portrait of a failed man. Carney’s most effective point is to suggest that even as Orson Welles makes a movie opposed to Charles Foster Kane, it really only “pretends to criticize the excesses of capitalistic arrangements and manipulations in its content [and] collaborates with them in its form” (230); Welles’ movie is as bombastic and overblown as Kane. Cassavetes’ relationship to Cosmo (the main character of ‘Bookie’) is very different; the movie constantly seeks out ways to undermine Cosmo’s illusion of himself and his surroundings.

Cosmo is never smooth even when he tries to be, the women of his strip-club are either downright beat or beautiful in a way that is realistic*, and his gangster friends are hardly Deniro cool or handsome. To drive the point home, Carney creates a hypothetical, wherein the main character of each movie could watch the movie about themselves: “As his political rally suggests, Kane would love the style of his own film (even if he might have problems with its satiric point). Cosmo would hate his movie’s style.” (231).

*Sorry about the soft-porn link, there’s not a lot out there on Azizi Johari…

I know that comparison is not perfect, for rappers are not in the same exact position as the movie director, but despite most rappers’ tendency to use the “I” whether telling the truth or not, both rapper and director tell stories, create portraits, and generally, subjectivize experience. And just as Kane would approve of the however negative still aggrandizing portrayal of self in ‘Citizen Kane’, would most “street niggas” prefer the version that paints them as larger-than-life transgressors. Replace “Welles” with just about any drug-talk rapper in the following quotation and the connection seems clear: “Welles [or Young Jeezy?] is addicted to crafting a self-contained, self-justifying, self-referential imaginative world…” (230). Carney of course, is interested in art and so, his focus is on the creator but I’m shifting the focus on the audience- or a part of the audience.

The world Carney describes is the one that Jeezy chooses to reside in, but it is also the world that his audience prefers because it breeds complacency and zero self-reflection. Those “true” dealers on the corner like it because it justifies their way of living and then pumps it up a few sizes. Those outside “the life” generally think its either cool or somehow want to connect their own dreams to Jeezy’s motivational speech rap, so they too prefer the idealized form. It’s not how Jeezy intended it, but he really is like a motivational speaker in the sense that like Tony Robbins or Dr. Phil or those twin midgets that sell real-estate kids on TV at 3am, he feeds his audience a load of complacent bullshit masquerading as insight or theory.

I think I need to clarify that the embrace of this ideal is held by everyone, and is hardly exclusive to black drug-dealers (which is what we must assume Pusha means by “niggas on the corner”). I generally do not concern myself with being offensive, but I do fear this could be misread as a critique of the black criminal mind-set or blacks in general, when I’m first, discussing the escapism of popular rap and second, the growing obsession with escapism in the world at-large. That is to say, Pusha is not referring to white drug dealers or criminals, not because he uses the word “nigga”- for this word is often used as nearly all-inclusive, go to a Ghostface show, he’ll call his crowd of many white faces “my niggas”- but because going back to ‘Lord Willin’, Pusha and company have been focused on their community and their world.

Basically, when it comes to ideals, everyone likes to feel cool and smart and not part of the shitty reality in which they live. Rock musicians still revel in an ideal version of the debauched rocker, or, when it comes to crime, escapist forms of the life of crime are hardly exclusive to black drug-dealers. The best example would be the mafia, which has pushed idealized forms of their life since their life came about during the 1920s and 30s. Most “gangster” movies end morally and have an edge of justice to them, but they are first and foremost, obsessed with the criminal and his (especially during that early era) transgressive acts of crime.

It is interesting to note that so much of the glorification of the criminal life that is so pervasive and sensitive to criticism in rap, has its roots in white crime films that mainstream critics have praised since the 1930s. The pinnacle of course, is hip-hop movie royalty, ‘Scarface’ and ‘Goodfellas’ and rappers have continually picked apart these movies for influence. Ridley Scott’s recent ‘American Gangster’ and in some ways, Jay-Z’s accompanying album, would be the pinnacle of this embrace of the ideal life of crime and a conflation of the white-oriented “gangster” ideals with the black oriented “gangsta” ideals.

As Jay-Z recently said on ‘Ignorant Shit’, “Scarface the movie did more than Scarface the rapper for me”, and of course, that’s true because despite occasional forays into a less glamorous image of thug-life, Jay-Z has worked in ideal gangsta forms in a way that Scarface the rapper, never has. Even on his recent semi-hit ‘Girl, You Know’- a song that is a rejection of love, another ideal- there’s that reference to how “she don’t suck dick like she used to do” and he dubs in this gross slurping sound, which you now, is real because getting your dick sucked is this weird thing of this girl like slurping all over your dong; it’s weird if you think about it.

The point is, you watch ‘Scarface’ or ‘Goodfellas’ and while they end poorly and do not approve of their characters’ actions, the movies are celebrations of the swagger and confidence of the lifestyle. The directors reject the moral perspective of Henry Hill or Tony Montana, but love the attitude. This is why you read stories of real-life mobsters watching and performing the actions of these characters; it makes them feel awesome and not you know, gross weird, kinda pathetic criminals (which is how ‘The Killing of Chinese Bookie’ and maybe a Clipse album and certainly a Ghostface album, makes you feel…). Corner dealers, once given the option, will choose nebulous coke rap over the well-wrought realities of Ghostface and to a lesser extent, Clipse, every time: Nobody wants reality!

-Stills stolen from

-Carney, Ray. ‘The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies’. Cambridge UP, 1994.

Written by Brandon

February 25th, 2008 at 6:54 am

Mullyman ‘Got It’/'Oh Baltimore’ (Major League Unlimited, 2004)

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A-Side: ‘Got It’ featuring Clipse & Famlay
B-Side: ‘Oh Baltimore’

No Baltimore Club today but here’s some Baltimore rap. Mullyman is one of Baltimore’s best and most well-known rappers. I had heard his name tossed around here or there for awhile, but I first saw him open for Vast Aire and the GZA in the summer of 2004 and was surprised when he put on a better show than either of those rap legends. It felt good to see the guy’s name pop-up more and more, not only because a local rapper with some success is always great, but because it sorta validated my ear…no one was telling me to like or not like this guy, I experienced his music on a pretty pure level; if anything, he had a lot going against him because I just wanted to see the fucking Genius but Mullyman captivated me: A kinda short dude who came out like he wanted- no, needed- to be there and spit for 45 minutes, walking into the crowd and everything…

The tracks above are from his release ‘Mullymania’ and are ripped from a single that preceded the album’s release. ‘Got It’ was (I think) produced by Rod Lee and is a fairly eccentric rap-club single track but it’s hard to ignore the Neptunes derivations, especially due to the appearance of Star Trak’s Clipse and Famlay but still a good song and as interesting as anything the Neptunes have released in the past few years. ‘Oh Baltimore’ on the other hand, is a perfect rap song. ‘Got It’ was obviously intended as the introductory, club-friendly single, further buttressed by some big-name guests, but ‘Oh Baltimore’ stands on its own as just a great song and definitive Baltimore hip-hop. It should get extra points for being a song from 2004 that didn’t chipmunk-ize the soul sample even as it comes from the Roc-A-Fella production style of lots of horns, baroque-but-sorta-subtle-too strings, and ill soul samples. The Nina Simone hook for the chorus is really interesting for the way that it actually brings the song down a few notches instead of exploding triumphant, like say, Just Blaze’s ‘What We Do’ (Mully’s cadence in the first verse pays homage to Beanie Sigel’s verse from that song).

Most soul-rap beats tease the listener with a shorter version of the sample somewhere in the verses but here, it comes in understated and low, replacing the thick drums and regal horns with Mullyman’s ad-libs nearly taking it over. This is more appropriate for a song about Baltimore because well, for better and worse, Baltimore isn’t New York or any other super-famous rap town, so an out-and-out anthem of triumph wouldn’t make a lot of sense, especially because the song is a realistic portrayal of Baltimore tempered by the minor victory: “But somehow, a chicken box makes it all good”. There’s plenty of other lines worth quoting and discussing, I really like the stuff about the former hustler now being homeless and it’s all delivered in a style that sort of sounds like the T.I heard on ‘King’ and the better parts of ‘T.I vs. T.I.P’ but of course, ‘Oh Baltimore’ predates both of those albums.

Mullyman’s feature for ‘Show & Prove’ from May 2005’s XXL; click to read it:

Written by Brandon

November 27th, 2007 at 8:53 am

Posted in Clipse, Mullyman, Rod Lee

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Boring Best of 06′ Continues…
2. Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury – I like how my last post began with complaining about the predictability of these lists and this list completely tows the Best Albums of 2006 party-line. Oh well. A lot has been said about ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ and for good reason, its really, really good. I’ll try to focus on some aspects of the album that I feel are under-discussed or “misinterpreted.”

The reality is Clipse (it’s Clipse, right? Like Talking Heads?) are above-average rappers but nothing amazing. However, they are really smart, really clever, and very insightful and have an emotional side that gives listeners the feeling that their music may last. For example, I can’t really get behind all of this Weezymania because Wayne can just spit and yeah, an extended ‘Mortal Kombat’ metaphor is impressive but not much more than that. Wayne and a lot of other guys are getting a bit too much credit when they briefly veer off-track and discuss emotion or consequences, while ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ is permeated by real emotional confusion and conflict. It is slowly becoming the next cliché of coke-rap that you discuss the dark-side of it all and that’s probably a good thing, but it just becomes another cliché. This summer, there was an interview with Ice Cube in ‘The Source’ where he gave this amazingly rational response to rap: “Some people that was political back then was bullshit, some people were real. You always gonna have that element. I don’t mind it as much as people probably think I would” (qtd. in Ford 82). Basically, everything devolves into a cliché and sometimes even those followers are good, but what, to me, separates Wayne from Clipse is insight. Wayne has followed the formula for being a hot rapper, and that isn’t easy to do, but he thinks going on-and-on and coming up with sick metaphors makes him a great rapper. It doesn’t. It makes him a good or an interesting rapper. Now all of this is subjective, so maybe I just don’t find very much to feel or relate to with Wayne, although he can impress me. Clipse to me, are legitimate, not in some “keepin’ it real” way but just in that they really understand how things work and can articulate their thoughts, whether they actually sold crack or made everything up. To me, the best moment on ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ is on ‘Dirty Money’ when Pusha T says “staying up til’ 2 am just to watch ‘Cheaters”. That small detail is so honest and real and it’s the sort of thing girls in black-framed glasses would fawn over if it was some “quirky”, indie singer-songwriter’s line. It’s a concise presentation of what is good about being with another person, some stupid little thing where you stay up late to watch some goofy reality show together. Of course, it’s in the same song as Malice’s “you ain’t gotta love me, just be convincing” verse, which makes all of this a lot more complicated; and complicated is good. Not Wayne throwing ‘Georgia Bush’ to the end of his mixtape complicated or Lupe Fiasco’s love/hate of Too $hort complicated ,but something…smarter. I can’t really articulate the difference and there probably isn’t one other than my own subjective interpretation, but I just feel too much satisfaction with himself when I hear Wayne and nothing but condescension when I listen to Lupe. Clipse are modest and their album is modest too. Like ‘Donuts’ where Dilla doesn’t let his production wizardry or the samples overstay their welcome, Clipse jump in and out. ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ is effortless to listen to; it’s like this understated, depressing, crime movie like Straight Time where, before you know it, Bilal is singing “I’m havin’ nightmares…” and its like the credits at the end of the movie and you know you didn’t catch everything you should have but you know that what you just experienced was great.

-Ford, Ryan. “G’Ology”. The Source. June 2006. (78-85).

Written by Brandon

December 23rd, 2006 at 7:59 pm

Posted in 2006, Clipse, rap humanism