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The End of Neo-Soul.


The most polite coup of popular music took place in the late 90s via “Neo-Soul”. Though a wrongheaded, rockist-bait term nearly from its inception, the music of Neo-Soul–you know, the part that actually matters–casually but radically shifted what R & B and rap could and would do to this day.

Though the incense, plodding pretentious rhythms, headwraps, that nebulous “groove”, and the pseudo-sophistication of it all should never be forgotten, the real legacy of Neo-Soul lies in its embrace of the avant-garde and the casual grafting of the vanguard (back) onto the pop landscape: Free Jazz, a comfort with ambition/pretension, skittering electronics, weirdo production tricks, open-space, Psychedelic music, etc.

That Neo-Soul arrived at the same time as the early rumbles of the regional–especially Southern–rap takeover that’d flourish in the 2000s, is no coincidence. Though Neo-Soul both actively and accidentally set itself up in opposition to Cash Money or No Limit (and of course, Puffy too), “Neo-Soul” and “Southern Rap”–two know ‘em when you hear ‘em subgenres–have a great deal in common and pretty much define the “sound” of R & B and rap in the 2000s. Conveniently for all involved, Neo-Soul’s influence has been sorta pushed to the side. A pocket of open-mindedness instead of a piece of an ever-changing, ongoing popular music landscape.

For R & B and rap (or even just music) traditionalists, Neo-Soul’s strength came in its appreciation for and building upon the past–at a time where many saw music of the past mindlessly pilfered for quick hits. As a result, there’s no motivation or interest in connecting the dots between D’Angelo and Dilla and Timbaland and Mannie Fresh and The-Dream, though they’re very much there. It’s all avant-pop. Neo-Soul is both incredibly overrated and underrated. For once, focus on the underrated part.

As we move into fall, hit Google Blog Search and download look back at a summer of Neo-Soul and Neo-Soul derived releases: Jay Stay Paid, Mos Def’s The Ecstatic, Sa-Ra’s Nuclear Revolution, Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night, and Robert Glasper’s Double-Booked. In these records, you’ll hear the high-highs and mind-bogglingly pretentious lows of Neo-Soul, the way a whole bunch of singing, instrumentation, and melody, plenty of noodling, production trickery, and a hardheaded devotion to sonic and thematic consistency, ends up spreading out in weird, really interesting ways. For better and worse.

Mos Def finally figured out the rapping and singing thing and his work’s all the more powerful for it. Something like “Life In Marvelous Times” may even at first, sound like Mos’ resolute concession to synth-rap, but don’t forget Neo-Soul innovator Dilla’s work on Q-Tip’s Amplified and you know, tracks like “In The Night/While You Slept (I Crept)” or “9th Caller” on Jay Stay Paid. Sa-Ra is all Dilla weirdness and nothing more, spread over two discs, the jammy, “experimental” half-formed aspects of Neo-Soul stretched to true indulgence–the non-rapping stuff on Willie Isz’s Georgiavania sounds like Sa-Ra, “Dirty Beauty” even has vampire accents.

Maxwell’s album, absurdly titled, apparently part of a trilogy (talk about indulgence) is also a tiny masterpiece. Oddly, quietly experimental and also ready for anybody’s ears–this is why it’s sold over 300,000 copies–feels oddly 90s and also on-the-cusp of something. Either way it’s not of the moment. Then there’s Robert Glasper’s Double-Booked, a flat-out jazz artist but not really, who peppers the half of his record that isn’t weirdly vivid traditionalist jazz with flutters of electronics and some vocoder mumbles. A perfect companion to BLACKsummers’night, touching on modern sounds completely on its own terms. This is the point where artists become fascinating and irrelevant. The point where Neo-Soul ends.

Not an “end” in the sense of it being over or irrelevant or uncool or passé (though all of those are true) but that the genre’s eaten itself, fully worming its way into the landscape of mainstream R & B and hip-hop. Meanwhile, hip-hop’s inextricably linked itself to pop, no small thanks to those radically individual Neo-Soulsters and some of the smartest, hard-headed-ly street rappers of the South and their maestro-like producers.

Neo-Soul prided itself on eclecticism and now, we’re all eclectic because the internet’s opened wide the doors of music and there’s hardly a monoculture. For example, it’s verifiable that the singing rapper right now Drake’s heard some Houston stuff, if not because his good friends are Lil Wayne and Kanye (whose been working with Rap-A-Lot’s Mike Dean for a while now), then the fact that he’s rapped over “June 27th” on a mixtape, which mean his soul-rap warbles might have a tinge of Big Moe in them, as well as Maxwell or Mos Def. This is rap’s 2009 model: The destruction of borders between rapping and singing, “street” and “for the ladies”, corporate and commutative. Isn’t that Neo-Soul?

further reading/viewing:
-”The End of Science Fiction” by J. Hoberman from Vulgar Modernism
-Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night review by David Drake for Pitchfork
-”Some Ol’ Terminator Shit” by ME
-Drake “November 18th”
-Maxwell “Phoenixrise”
-Robert Glasper “Butterfly”

Written by Brandon

October 5th, 2009 at 4:54 am

Fiasco-Gate and Nine Other Times When "Smart" Rappers Schooled Themselves

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I was pretty surprised when I finally caught Lupe’s little mess-up at the Vh1 ‘Hip-Hop Honors’ and it was just that, a little mess-up. He screws up a few lines, laughs off the fuck-up and tries to recover on ‘Scenario’. Of course, it was Lupe’s obnoxious damage control which turned a faux-pas into a sincere but misguided attempt at canon dissection and then devolved into some Andy Kaufman “I’ll sue you all” type shit. There’s plenty to dislike about Lupe, he’s always seemed a bit insincere and trend-grabbing. How that older song he recorded about selling-crack didn’t demolish his integrity, I’m not sure. That too was an example of poor damage control, as it took rap nerds to “uncover” the track and when they did, rather than just address it honestly, Lupe used it as an example of how “bad” he wanted a rap contract, which still sort of deflects its sell-out connotations. Dude’s a whiner and pussy and it’s fun to see him get shit because he’s the classic intellectual-type who dishes it out, in condescending songs like ‘Dumb It Down’ or the legendarily obnoxious verse on ‘Daydreamin’ and then punks-out when a bunch of overzealous diehards get offended because he stumbled through their gospel.I’d be lying if I didn’t sort of relish the sequence of events.

Because I’m as full of shit as the next guy, I spend time babbling about those self-satisfied “conscious” rap fans even as I self-satisfyingly make fun of them. The only cliche more grotesque than “conscious” rappers that are boring and not saying anything new would be people like me complaining about those rappers for being boring and not saying anything new. Yet, it’s more than that, some of my self-satisfied anger comes from disappointment, the way these high-minded type rappers continually screw-up, fuck over their fans, or just embarrass themselves. It is events like “Fiascogate”, over the past decade or so that increasingly distanced me from giving political-type rappers any interest as they, not only disappoint musically (like most rappers) but can’t even maintain their ideals…and of course, when they do sell-out those ideals, it’s the Jew-run industry that forced them to sell-out or this damned system of Capitalism…

Below are the ones that have really stuck with me. I’m an asshole fan like the rest, so sometimes my disappointment is premature or it took me awhile to understand. Common’s falling-off musically, although depressing just sort of makes sense, especially when I get some real-life experience in me and while in 1999, I bitched about Q-Tip’s selling-out with ‘Vivrant Thing’, I get it now, it’s just a good fucking song. Others examples however, still sort of hurt…it’s an autobiography of disappointment!

10. Lupe’s Lame Damage Control Over Some Forgotten Lyrics
I already talked about this above but let’s quickly talk about just the idea of “Fiasco-gate”. A lot of people make sure to mock the term but it’s clearly used ironically by everybody. It’s also funny in a linguistic way because it’s basically like calling something “Gate-gate” or “Fiasco-fiasco”…but yeah, Lupe’s lame not because he screwed up some lyrics or doesn’t know about Tribe, but because the whole thing seems offensive to his fans and fellow musicians. Usually, I don’t care about what rappers do or say but when they have defined themselves as a healthy alternative to crack-rap and dumbed-down pop-rap, you expect them to handle themselves a little fucking better.

9. Kanye West’s ‘Late Registration’
This entry explains it well and for me, on a nerdy, homo personal level, ‘Late Registration’ was a huge disappointment, but I put it at 9 because Kanye, unlike many others on this list, was smart enough to not make too many grand statements about this or that, so when he made an album that sounds like it was designed for Rolling Stone and TIME magazine to celebrate, it’s more annoying than hypocritical.

8. Stones Throw’s Continued Raping of Dilla’s Corpse
While I appreciate the re-release of ‘Ruff Draft’ a whole lot, I’m nothing but annoyed by this “independent” label’s exploitation of the dude. This is a little too fresh in my mind for me to have any real sense of perspective, but those pathetic approximations of ‘Donuts’ made by Madlib and now his little brother Oh No and the occasional appearance of a bunch of rappers crappily rhyming over a Dilla beat really kind of hurts. It is especially frustrating because it is one more way that the independents suck almost as much as the majors. Dilla is Stones Throw’s meal-ticket and they are slowly milking it for all it’s worth. No one else on that shitty label can really do anything except for MF Doom and he’s been too lazy to rap properly in years, in part because of Stones Throw’s partnering up with garbage like Adult Swim (oh-so indie guys…) which adds so many levels of novelty, the music no longer needs to be listenable.

7. Little Brother’s ‘The Minstrel Show’
‘The Listening’ was pretty exciting as far as feeling and sounding like those old Native Tongues albums but it was not as derivative as many said. It was only after ‘The Minstrel Show’ that Little Brother really began to look like humor-less jerkoffs, even though the album was supposed to be a satirical look at modern hip-hop imagery. The album’s jokes never penetrated because they were caught-up in a haze of condescension and obviousness.

6. Cee-Lo’s Involvement with Gnarls Barkley
Cee-Lo can be (or was) way more of a political rapper than any of the explicitly political rappers out there or Kanye “I’m kinda political and know a bit about the C.I.A’s involvement in the cocaine trade” West. Cee-Lo has certainly devolved since Goodie Mob’s genius mix of political anger and empathy, but Gnarls Barkley is another level of bullshit. Noz perfectly explains it here but I’ll add a few thoughts…By becoming part of something as terrible as Gnarls Barkley, it has the ability of somewhat altering Goodie Mob’s message or making one feel a little less hopeful about ‘Soul Food’s real-life viability. Is there anything worse than retroactively rendering your own message meaningless?

5. Talib Kweli’s ‘Beautiful Struggle’
I’m not concerned with Kweli’s inability to stay on-beat or a bunch of other stuff, because Black Star, ‘Reflection Eternal’, and ‘Quality’ were pretty fucking good. When the formulaic ‘Beautiful Struggle’ came out, it highlighted all of Kweli’s problems and none of his strengths. On ‘Quality’ in particular, he had something resembling a connection to popularity without sounding too pandering but on ‘Beautiful Struggle’, he just tries to recreate his previous album’s successful songs. ‘Get By’ becomes ‘I Tried’ and he grabs the Neptunes for a shitty, super-obvious anti-drugs tale. The worst part for me, is that it’s a classic manipulation of the fans. Kweli sells-out halfway, as to not alienate anybody but hopefully get a hit.

4. Common Drops Out of the ‘Touch the Sky’ tour to Be in Some Post-Tarantino Bullshit
This one is more hilarious than anything else. Common seems to have a genuine hit and popular album and is going on-tour with another smart, super-popular rapper- it sounds like the perfect reaction against Jeezy, et. al- and Common drops out to act in some stupid-ass flashy crime movie like ‘Smoking Aces’; you know the movie’s hack when it’s a rip-off of Guy Ritchie who is a Tarantino rip-off himself. It just makes anybody wonder what a man of the people like Common really cares about when he drops out of a tour to pursue some Hollywood cash.

3. Mos Def Releases ‘True Magic’ without Artwork
I don’t know what kind of statement this is supposed to be if any, but it’s big “fuck you” to your fans, not your record label or whoever else. Similar to Common or even Kweli’s half-hearted attempts at selling-out, it’s really fun when rappers that speak out against Capitalism and Tall Israeli’s are too concerned with record label problems to drop a real album with real packaging This, coupled with Mos’ focus on acting in bad Hollywood movies, should totally ruin anything else he ever has to say. Also see ‘Dollar Day’ which takes Juvenile’s ‘Nolia Clap’, a song that simply through regionalism and context is implicitly political and making it way-too explicitly political.

2. Chuck D’s book ‘Fight the Power’
Oh boy, Chuck D’s book about “rap race, and reality” exposes him as the ill-informed sloganeering idiot I couldn’t admit he was until a year or two ago. It puts him in-line with other “inspirational” political guys that talk out of their ass (Bob Marley, Joe Strummer, Bob Dylan, etc.), which he may or may not like to hear (it seems, depending on the page, Chuck’s a hardcore racist or a classic liberal democrat). His anger might be appealing and even inspiring if it felt at all real or earned as it did for the black radicals from which he steals. As you’re reading, it’s all that you’ve heard before and probably agree with, but actually presented less-articulately with no semblance of a real solution!

1. Common Does a Coke Ad with Mya
I don’t know why this one killed me so much but I guess around 2002 or so, a Pepsi commercial with Common rapping in a cool club as Mya sang, started popping up on television and worse, before movie trailers at your local multiplex. Again, it’s annoying because Common presents himself a some paragon of virtue and integrity but that’s all obvious. What really hurt about this one was, that it involved rapping and the slogan was something invoking real-ness. Depressing. Let’s not also forget the song was some messed-up interpolation of ‘Compared to What’ which I always connect to Roberta Flack.

Other very recent fiascos (potential gates?) that are genuinely depressing: Ghostface dropping an album the same fucking day as the Wu, The crossover/grab for street cred hustle that is ‘American Gangster’, KRS-One’s support of 50 Cent over Kanye West, Nas calling his album “Nigga” and think he’s making some kind of statement…

Written by Brandon

October 16th, 2007 at 4:50 am