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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

Next To The Hood: Wu Tang’s 8 Diagrams

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In that ‘Time’ magazine cover-story on Kanye West a few years ago, comedian Chris Rock described Kanye’s appeal through his connections to an earlier, less Jeezy-friendly era of hip-hop: “In the early days, the best rappers weren’t necessarily from the hood. Run-D.M.C was from Hollis. Eric B and Rakim were from Long Island. They lived next to the hood.” This quote rumbles around in my head a lot, because it’s a great, to-the-point piece of rap criticism that describes rap’s appeal: Rap’s ability to both be rooted in the reality of an experience and step outside of it and provide commentary, at the same time. Rock’s one-liner is a little problematic because it implicitly connects hood to bad but what he’s basically saying, if you stretch it to a generality, is that the best artists are connected to their environment but also a little outside of it all. This allows artists, and especially rappers to adopt the first-person or engage in a very sympathetic understanding of others, while never being tied completely down by the closed-mindedness of whatever subculture one belongs to and that extends beyond “the hood”.

Henry James is “next to the hood” in the sense that he’s both of the upper-class his novels document, but also beyond it: he doesn’t simply justify the upper-class, nor is he a knee-jerk, self-loathing critic of it all…he falls somewhere in between. “Next to the hood” however, makes the most sense for rap because well, there’s really no other artform like it, where it occupies this pretty-much-inexplicable space between “truth” and story and real and fiction and morality and immorality (to continue my douchey high-brow references, rap is amoral in the way that Oscar Wilde meant it in the Preface to ‘Dorian Gray’…). I said it before, but Chuck D’s assertion that rap was “the black CNN” may have worked for certain rappers, but even message-oriented raps suggest a familiarity with that which they critique that extends beyond third-person reportage.

For example, Andre 3000 is “next to the hood” on ‘Da Art of Storytellin’ Pt. 1′ when he asks Sasha, the girl he’s “chillin’ like a villian” with, what she wants to be when she grows up and she says “alive’” and it totally blows his mind. One could say Eminem is “next to the hood”- or “next to the trailer park”- on ‘Kim’ as he both performs the actions of jealous, angry, cracker boyfriend but also critiques them: “You can’t run from me Kim, it’s us, nobody else/You’re only making this harder on yourself”. Rock’s “next to the hood” point keeps coming up in relation the new Wu Tang album, in part because of many disappointed fans and even members’ assertions that what the RZA did on ‘8 Diagrams’ was not “street” or “hood” enough but also because it, in effect, defines “next to the hood”.

On ‘The Heart Gently Weeps’- the album’s most successful and rewarding track- Ghostface drops a particularly winning “next to the hood” verse as he describes walking through Pathmark and being confronted with an angry Nephew who “wants revenge” because Ghost “murdered [the nephew's] Uncle Tim” by selling “him a bag of dope”. It’s already “next to the hood” in the sense that it breaks-down the conventional tough-guy hood stuff (he’s in Pathmark, spills milk on his Clarks/He regrets drinking/Saying “murder” is just great writing and very, very moral) but that’s just what we expect from Ghost. What really makes the verse great and indeed, “next to the hood”, is how it goes from the description of the Uncle to telling the listener that after the Uncle’s death, “his wife came and copped again” and then, he croons “that bitch is craaazzyyyy/She brought her baaabbbyyyy…”. In those two lines, you get the image of Ghostface the dealer and Ghostface the human being who sells her the drugs but in his head is thinking “whatthefuckthisbitchbroughtherbaby??!!”…this isn’t some oh-so-conflicted dealer cliche, it’s so much more than that. Not quite the same, but it recalls my own “next to the hood” moment, when I once drove this dealer-kid from school home only to discover his house was like, straight out of ‘Gummo’ and his like, 8 year-old, already-brain damaged kid brother was getting high…I still put on the act of non-chalance and “oh, that’s funny your kid brother smokes up” but inside I was like, “holy shit” (to reference ‘Fishscale’s ‘Shakey Dog’, another Ghostface “next to the hood” moment…).

Most of ‘8 Diagrams’ almost reaches this “next to the hood”-ness lyrically, the Wu are fairly on-point but seem a little guarded and uncomfortable, but that’s more age and their own fault, it’s got nothing to do with RZA’s beats which are wonderfully weird and yes, next to the hood. RZA tells his fans as much with that explanatory Kung Fu sample intro demanding “patience” and “honesty”, an honesty that even members Raekwon and Ghostface couldn’t subscribe to when they began bitching the album out before it even dropped. It is only the Wu’s impossible past reputation that makes this album a “disappointment”. When you hear these songs outside of the context of “I’m listening to the new Wu Tang album” they’re really good. When ‘Take It Back’ pops-up on Sirius’ SHADE45 or on your favorite college rap radio show or as one of 3000 songs on your iPod SuperShuffle, it’s up-there with the best rap of the year. Those sorta-Gothenburg Metal guitars on ‘Unpredictable’ don’t conflict with the Wu’s energy at all, nor do those drunken crooned choruses, ‘Sunlight’ is an evil clusterfuck that’s supposed to be an evil clusterfuck. The problems with ‘8 Diagrams’ are not the choruses but that the choruses show-up a little too-often on certain songs and that there’s no sense of control or balance…songs either don’t have hooks at all, or the song is chopped-up and the energy slowed-down by a way-too typical verse-chorus-verse structure.

Even that rigid structure succeeds on certain tracks, it builds tension on ‘The Heart Gently Weeps’ and keeps ‘Life Changes’ afloat because no one brings much of anything to this supposed ODB tribute. If there is one song that defines the limits of ‘8 Diagrams’, it’s ‘Life Changes’ which highlights pretty much of all latter-day Wu’s flaws. Ghostface doesn’t even show up and the rest of the guys drop super-short verses that just feel underwhelming and dishonest; hardly “half-short and twice strong”. They fumble through cliches of being emotionally honest instead of actually being emotionally honest and for the most part, never go beyond generalities. Exceptions are Method Man’s image of pouring out some Vodka and drinking the rest, which is compact, poetic, and an appropriate homage that never elevates or lowers his image (what’s with U-God’s “fall from greatness” line?), Inspectah Deck’s real-life emotions of loss- grief and blaming one’s self- and the GZA, when he points out that he’s recording his verse ten feet from where ODB died. The rest of the Wu act about as “hood” (in the negative sense) as they can, dropping short, hard-ass verses that perform emotions and never show any actual vulnerability. It’s all the more frustrating and symbolic of the Wu’s fragmentation that they can’t even come together or get-real in a tribute to a dead member.

I saw Wu Tang in New Jersey the night before ODB died. ODB was a no-show and towards the end of the show, Method Man acknowledged this reality to the crowd and was briefly interrupted by U-God who rambled off something about kicking Dirty’s ass for not showing and telling the crowd that if they see Dirty, tell them how mad they are and then, Method Man took the stage back and as a corrective to U-God’s lack of sympathy, he said that if we saw ODB, “tell Dirty we love ‘em”; that was a “next to the hood” moment.

Written by Brandon

December 12th, 2007 at 12:11 am