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Misreading Rap: Fish Tank & “Life’s a Bitch”


Two things comes up in pretty much every review of Fish Tank, a British film about a troubled fifteen year old girl into “urban dance” and nothing much else (that is, until her mom’s new boyfriend shows up): The apparently stellar performance from “non-actor” Kate Jarvis and the use of Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch” in a poignant scene between mom and daughter.

Whenever rap finds its way into a movie and it’s not as either source music or for a cheap laugh, it’s something of note, but what’s so cool about Fish Tank is how its given a bunch of film critics the chance to riff on the Nas classic. It’s a crucial part of the movie, so it’s sent critics previously unaware of the song to IMDB to figure out what it is and for most, a chance to throw in a sliver of rap criticism into their movie review. Unfortunately, most are misreading the song. Dana Stevens of Slate called it “unremittingly depressing”–AZ’s hook maybe, the song itself, not so much.

The biggest offender though, is Armond White, who lines-up the perceived phoniness of Fish Tank with Nas’ own “baby brother impudence”. Like most of White’s writing in um, the past ten years, his point is brave and valid (let’s reconsider Nas’ talents), he’s just building it all on a base that’s flimsy at best. Stevens’ descriptions and the many like it can be partially excused by the simplicity word counts often demand, but White’s just completely wrong.

The best explanation of the song, in connection with Fish Tank at least, comes from, of all places, Thinking Faith (the online journal for British Jesuits). Aaron Kilkenny-Fletcher begins his review with a quote from AZ’s verse and quotes the hook later, but is quick to explain that, “Life’s a Bitch” is, “in spite of [the hook], a song of hope and of escape.” Exactly.

“Life’s a Bitch” though, isn’t even that hard to “get” which makes all the misreading all the more frustrating. If there’s a common strain in the “Nas kinda sucks” revisionism that’s been wandering around in the past bunch of years, it’s fueled by the relative simplicity–and therefore, perceived insincerity–of his work. That doesn’t make Nas a bad rapper or Illmatic any less of a classic, but there’s a “teachability” to Nas’ work, that you know, would lend it to short-hand poignance in art films or a pretty mindless book if you peeped that Dyson disaster Born to Use Mics.

There’s still plenty of room for complexity in something teachable, and a lot of the power of “Life’s a Bitch” comes out of its adherence to structure. Really, “Life’s a Bitch” hinges on structure. It’s a song built on pieces that complement and contradict one another. AZ’s verse and hook are apparently all that many people hear–really, just the hook–and it’s easy to see the song as “cynical” or “unremittingly depressing” through that lunkheaded lens, but that ignores the shifting context of that hook, Nas’ entire verse, and the joyful coda that is Olu Dara’s horn solo.

Really though, AZ’s verse isn’t even conventionally “depressing”, it’s beyond “fuck the world” and all that. His verse is not only a celebration of making money, but a quick mini-history lesson on why that’s all he believes in (“we were beginners in the hood as Five Percenters/But something must’ve got in us ’cause all of us turned to sinners”) and a clear acknowledgment that indeed, it’s a fruitless exercise: “As long as we leavin’ thievin’ we’ll be leavin’ with some kind of dough”. The depressing part isn’t that he desires money but that he knows exactly why he does what he does and has no interest in doing different.

AZ’s verse and hook though, are viewed as the contrast or set-up to Nas’ significantly more “hopeful” verse, but that’s too simple too. There’s the same amount of vibrancy and intelligence at work in AZ’s verse as Nas’, it’s just being employed for a different end. Both verses sound good and are perfectly put together pieces of rapping. They are equally persuasive in terms style–they sound awesome but Nas’ verse could not exist without AZ’s–this is literally true if you read the XXL making of piece–because it’s through AZ’s acknowledgement of just how fucked things are, that Nas can come to his 20th birthday epiphany. That oft-quoted, “That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto” comes from a guy who’s spent a lot of bucks on bottles, you know?

When the hook returns after Nas’ verse–again, all about structure here and how structure highlights meaning–it’s nearly “ironic” because Nas has just rejected it or at least, found a way to not believe that “life’s a bitch and then you die”. This is the inverse of most songwriting wherein the “happy” chorus is undermined by the verses or a sad chorus is sung happily–there’s a real give and take going on here. Then it’s punctuated by Olu Dara’s horn solo which is happy, but hardly glorious.

And “hardly glorious” is precisely the kind of minor victory joy director Andrea Arnold’s at least trying to employ in Fish Tank: That good-bad, good enough, tension of the song transported into her film. Not sure where it falls in the white people/black music poignance meter–The Big Chill and Motown as a “1″, Schooly D in the Bad Lieutenant as a “10″–but there’s an attempt to wisely engage with the song’s tensions, which is more than what a lot of critics are doing.

further reading/viewing:
-”Automatic Pity for the People” by Armond White of New York Press
-Fish Tank by Dana Stevens for Slate
-Fish Tank by Aaron Kilkenny-Fletcher for Thinking Faith
-XXL’s Making of Illmatic
-”Deconstructing Illmatic” by Dan Love for Oh Word

Written by Brandon

January 18th, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Posted in Illmatic, Nas, movies

Pablo Escobar’s Dinosaurs

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Though it’s apparently been open for more than a year now, Hacienda Napoles, a theme park built on and around one of noted “drug lord” Pablo Escobar’s getaways, has been getting a lot of discussion the past few weeks. A kind of hard-edged human interest story meme. In many ways, Pablo Escobar’s sprawling 200-mile weekend retreat turned into a a kind of cocaine Dutch Wonderland is also a story of hip-hop.

Beyond a quick note about Rick Ross or Nas sometimes calling himself “Nas Escobar”, the coke-hero asshole that Escobar was and represents is a significant part of rap mythology. That Escobar’s estate is now a big, tacky amusement park park isn’t distasteful or even absurd, it’s damned pragmatic and contains some of rap’s weird, half-accidental politicism too. No other way to describe that than as something that’s quintessentially “hip-hop”. The weird mix of outrageous opportunism and shamelessness meeting up with some subtle but totally right there truth-exposing.

Escobar housed hippos–who since Escobar’s murder in 1993, hung around and multiplied–and a bunch of hulking dinosaur replicas and a bunch of smart opportunists cleaned the shits up, piped-in some jungle sounds and atmospherics and called it a theme park that’s charging something around $9 dollars American money to enjoy. That it bizarrely though responsibly, also contains a museum detailing Escobar’s life and exploits, on the place where his big dumb mansion once stood, throws in a important piece of history that’s just a few degrees separated from some heavily controversial shit.

A personal favorite detail about Escobar, comes from Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance in which Escobar is noted as continually referencing a photograph he had of George Bush “posing with Medellin cartel leader Jorge Ochoa”–a photo that Esobar threatened to reveal “at the appropriate time”. Escobar was killed in 1993 and the photo’s never shown up, but whether or not it was real hardly matters. That we’re even discussing the possibility of a photograph (but really, all it’d entail, symbolically and factually) exposes the porous borders between “good guys” and “bad guys” that well, not a lot of amusement parks are really parsing out.

Not sure the extent of the history provided–most articles see this as simply “wacky” or plain distasteful and nothing more–but it seems to be framed around the slightly more complex than “crime doesn’t pay” message of “crime pays…for awhile”, and well, any kind of discussion of Escobar is wonderfully close to things like the C.I.A’s (alleged) involvement in cocaine distribution, the complex web of relationships between America and South America and the drug trade, and fascinating folk heroes like Los Pepes–themselves drug traffickers and sorta kinda do-gooders. Not a bad way to teach your kid about moral complexity…and he still gets to see some big-ass dinosaurs.

Written by Brandon

July 23rd, 2009 at 4:09 am

Posted in Nas, crack rap, drugs

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

Rap’s Post-Lyrical Phase


Rappers aren’t rapping anymore. That’s not the grumble of an old-school fan or knee-jerk disappointment upon hearing say the Kanye/Lil Wayne/Jay-Z/T.I track “Swagger Like Us” or the rap-less “Love Lockdown”, it’s just a fact. Most of radio’s rappers are doing as much singing or club-ready chanting as rapping, and the few guys still rapping are layover from the late 90s/early 2000s or are named Lil Wayne and Kanye West-and the “talents” of those two are for some reason, still up to debate.

Sure, there’s plenty of rapping in the “underground”–which at this point, just means, not one of the like 12 artists that can still get rap radio support–and the so-called “hipster rap” trend/sub-genre offers some genuine rapping, but really, rappers just aren’t rapping anymore and it’s a bummer, but it also just makes sense.

The height of rap “lyricism” (a term that means nothing but everyone reading this knows its meaning) was during the early-to-mid-90s when hyper-poetic rappers like Wu-Tang and Nas and Biggie ruled the radio. Since then, every rapper’s tried to occupy that same space and failed, not for a lack of talent, but because it’s a pretty much perfect era that was able to function at a pretty high-level of visibility with a relative lack of corporate interruption…and then it ended. The death of Biggie and Tupac, Wu-Tang’s dissolution, enter the era of Puffy–all the stuff you’ll one day read about in a music textbook on the history of rap– but most importantly (and word to Dart Adams) The Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Nas’ story of never being able to truly top his classic Illmatic is also the story of every rapper to pick up a mic and get influenced by Nas or any of those 92-96 classics, constantly looking back to the shadow of that 90s era and never being able to top it. In the world of smart people books and stuff, it’s considered “the anxiety of influence”; basically, the weird tension of wanting to respect and also transcend your influences takes on a kinda fucked-up father/son relationship.

Many of the trends of recent rap, stuff like, rhyming words with the same words, non-sequitur similes, contempt for metaphors, increasingly out-there pop culture references, a bounds-less sense of free association, and a tendency to mix and merge musical influences outside of hip-hop, are often cited for the “decline” of “lyricism” and that may be true, but it’s also a bunch of artists finally, formally rejecting what I’ll call, “the Nas formula”.

And the word “formula” is used advisedly because at this point, it’s nothing more than that. This is not about Nas’ lyrical brilliance or lack thereof–many songs on the recent Untitled maintain Nas’ energy and verbal brilliance–but about the way that like most things, it got reduced to a messy series of verbal signs, signifiers, and cliches that connote “lyrical” to an audience of both ignorant and well-informed rap fans. Wander into any college rap show or arrive really early for the first act of say, a GZA show and you’ll see the “Nas formula” at-hand: Rap with lots of feigned passion, use some big words, eschew a lot of broads talk, vaguely invoke politics and you’re there.

Kanye West and Lil Wayne are both post-lyrical, understanding and well-informed by 90s rap but increasingly disinterested in overtly having much to do with it. This is hard for older rap fans whose ears have been accustomed to the “Nas formula” to accept. The artistic choices, some of them strange and ill-advised, sound more like a lack of talent than an attempt to forge some new, interesting way to rap. Joke punchlines and wordplay puns stretched so far that the joke is just how far it was taken, hold as much clout as solid metaphors and to-the-point storytelling.

One of the roots of the post-lyrical phase is Dipset’s “No Homo”. The “No homo” line is as much about hyper-making sure you didn’t say some gay stuff as it was about bending the meanings of phrases into every conceivable direction and finding something gay in even the most innocuous phrases. “No Homo” was a word game created by a bunch of rappers obsessed with word-games. There’s a clear connection between “no homo” and something like Wayne saying “they cannot see me/Like Hitler”. Kanye’s a rapper that on College Dropout was pretty much rapping like it was 1992–the “De La Soul” formula if you will, something oddly enough, Pharrell pretty much lives by every time he raps–but has made a decision to fall into the weirdo word games and purposefully groan-inducing punchline goofiness of post-lyrical rap. These guys are painfully aware that the “Nas formula” cannot be improved upon and instead, take a little from it here and there but try to do something else. This is the same thing that has happened in the history of every art-form.

While the argument could be made that generally art does not “devolve”, there’s a sense in which an end-run is made around complexity or maxmalism because it’s sort of come to a head. The history of 20th century art is a series of artists trying really weird and different stuff–”make it new” being the motto of Modernism–with less and less interest in tradition. How painting got from beautiful well-rendered landscapes, to weirdo scribbles and splatter on canvas has been well-documented, and it’s sort of the same thing as rap’s 90s era, a sort of peak of verbal complexity that inevitably had to be cut-down and fucked around with or completely drown.

The logical extension of the “Nas formula” is the Grad school wordplay jerk-off party of Anticon or El-P at his most verbose and didactic, which you know, worked fine as an alternative but simply couldn’t and shouldn’t function at anything resembling “popular” music, which Wu-Tang, Nas, etc really were for a few years ago (the falling-out in popularity of lyrical rap must also be in part, the fault of the artists who seemingly forgot how to make catchy hooks to accompany their lyric-driven verses).

Southern rap’s infiltration has a lot to do with this too. As the Golden era gets a little further away, reconsideration and re-canonization has come along and part of that has been a fairly radical re-focusing of who and what influenced whom. The latest generation of rappers are younger than me and so, Jay-Z–who is a kind of of a different generation than Nas, Wu, etc.–is one of the benchmarks of lyricism. Wu Tang’s post-Forever fall-out coincides with Ghostface’s reinvention and there’s kinda a generation more influenced by the weirdo, almost post-lyrical insanity of Ghost than Wu’s hard-edged rhymes as a whole. Wayne and Kanye too, find as much to like in weirdo-rappers like Kool Keith and Grand Puba or even the garbled goofiness of Ma$e as do they those rappers’ more stalwart peers.

Written by Brandon

September 19th, 2008 at 8:35 pm

Nas Is a Pussy


So, you’ve probably heard that Nas’s new album will not be titled ‘Nigger’ or even ‘N****r’ or anything like that. It’ll be self-titled or untitled, or something. According to Nas, it’s the same album with the same songs and all that, just without that controversy-baiting– not controversial, controversy baiting– title. It’s a smart move because Nas was really clowning himself with the title, his gibberish, pseudo-intellectual defense of it, and stunts like showing up at the Grammy’s with “NIGGER” slapped across he and Kelis’ clothes.

It’s still unclear what his intentions were with the title, even in this post-album title change interview, so it’s probably better that his muddled politics aren’t painted all over the cover of the album. It would only result in a lot of rap-hating assholes having one more reason to complain and guys like me having to either give-in and be like “yeah this is stupid” or try, try, try to explain what Nas was doing, which is really hard because it doesn’t seem like Nas really knew. In his defense, his explanation of the ‘Hip-Hop Is Dead’ title wasn’t that clear either. The only constant in both “controversial” titles is that Nas comes up with a title that gets people talking and gets some pissed-off, then he back-peddles on what he actually meant, as not to really offend anybody. And that’s why dude’s a pussy.

If you’re going to call your album something controversial, be it something that riles-up hip-hop heads and gets rockist critics’ dicks hard, or something that’s going to confound and upset or at least make uncomfortable, pretty much everybody, you should have a clear sense of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Was ‘Nigger’ supposed to numb people to the word and therefore remove it’s hate-based context? Was it some reclamation of the word? Was he trying to shock us back into not using the word? Nas wouldn’t say. And now it’s not called ‘Nigger’ anyway and it’s just another album by Nas.

The only thing ‘Nigger’ really had going for it was that Nas didn’t seem to be backing-down on the title and in that sense, it was admirable even if it was wrong-headed but without the title, which he’s obviously backed-down on for financial reasons, it all looks pretty pathetic. Nasir can make himself look like a good guy and tell fans that he backed-down because the overall message of the album was more important than the title, but it’s because he’s still scared of losing major label support and the money that comes– or supposedly comes– with it.

The sequence of events is symptomatic of the kind of half-PR-grabbing/half-bullshit actions of every rapper around and presumably, the ones Nas maybe kinda sorta claimed were killing hip-hop. This is Lil Wayne or even David Banner’s claim that they have the “best hip-hop album in years” and it’s 50 Cent talking shit about how big his album will be and it’s Kanye reminding you of how next-level he is; Nas’s vaguely socio-political spin on the whole thing doesn’t make it more admirable if the result is still a whole lot of hype and little delivery.

As Eskay mentioned, Nas should just stop “fucking with those majors and [then] this wo[uld]n’t be an issue”. Nas simply isn’t the cultural figure he once was and as a result, his impact or the availability of his album wouldn’t really be diminished if it came out on a KOCH or Stones Throw or Def Jam. He could call the album ‘Nigger’ or whatever he wanted to, avoid O’Reilly-types who just want to muddle Nas’ already muddled version of the issue, and get his album out without delay. For Nas to jump to a small label (his appeal’s so wide that he would fit-in at nearly any indie label) and release any album, let alone one called ‘Nigger’, would do a great deal more for hip-hop and the culture at-large than starting some shit about the title, backing-down, and then over-justifying that inability to stick to his guns like every other rapper out there.

Written by Brandon

May 21st, 2008 at 5:13 pm

Posted in Nas

So, that ‘Tha Carter III’ Cover

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Most rappers, especially nowadays, create a totally impenetrable persona—as opposed to a moderately impenetrable persona—but Wayne doesn’t do that. He yelps and screams and laughs and jokes and cries; it’s all out-there for better and worse. On this delightfully weird cover, first you just see this cute kid in like, church clothes, then, you see the tattoos and you’re freaked out, and then, you’re confused (Is the pinky ring real or photoshopped?) and then you either shit all over it or it hits you: “holy shit this is brilliant!”. Yeah, that’s Wayne and that’s this cover too.

I really hope this ends up being the real cover for ‘Tha Carter III’ because despite what everybody says, it’s really great. Like classic, iconic. And not trying-to-be iconic because it’s batshit crazy at the same time. The baby picture cover clearly invokes the 90s classics ‘Illmatic’ and ‘Ready to Die’ and it’s a kind of mix of homage to past classics and maybe a subtly aggressive assertion of the “classic” status Wayne’s engaged in when hyping ‘Tha Carter III’.

Ghost and Raekwon half-correctly took-on Biggie for swiping their slang and Nas’s album cover, but ‘Ready To Die’s cover has always seemed like an homage or corrective to the ‘Illmatic’ cover; only a partial-bite. ‘Ready to Die’s baby recalled ‘Illmatic’, but the object in a white void, with a simple font above, always made me think of Too $hort’s ‘Born to Mack’ too. In a sense, that’s what ‘Ready to Die’ was: ‘Illmatic’ meets Too $hort. One could even throw-in Common’s ‘One Day It’ll All Make Sense’ cover, featuring Common with his mother: A wholesome, sweeter version of ‘Illmatic’.

The added Wayne tattoos to the baby picture are Wayne’s update on the ‘Illmatic’ cover and perfectly fit his style; a weird mix of being really weird and interesting and totally retarded and questionable. It just makes sense. Lyrically, one of Wayne’s more interesting and affecting tricks is his—and I kinda mean this—near-Proustian ability to recall minor details of his childhood, be it pop-culture (“murder she wrote like Angela Lansbury”) or more specific details about growing up in New Orleans or remembering his mother or riding his bike or whatever. He merges this with his adult side; dips into thug talk and shit-talking and plenty of similes for getting head, and also, some complex adult/relationship rap. Just as in his raps, the cover to ‘Tha Carter III’ takes the two seemingly opposing “sides” and merges them and the merger is appropriately awkward.

Written by Brandon

April 10th, 2008 at 9:10 pm

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Long-Lost Siblings: ‘Illmatic’ & ‘Loveless’. By Christopher Adams.
1. Introduction
I’m new to rap. New in that I’ve only very recently been listening to it actively. When I was younger and the boat came and Puff Daddy was the captain I missed it. Missed it intentionally. Wasn’t this just bad Sting (as though there were good Sting) made worse? Or some kind of funeral karaoke in poor taste? I admit that the novelty was lost on me. I wrote it off and sat on the shore even as other better ships came in. I suppose it’s easy to abstain from things you haven’t had much to do with. Then as the years went by and I had friends other than television and the school bus radio I heard some things which caught my attention. But since I’d been out of the mix so long I never pursued them. This past September, I finally decided to pursue them and bought my first CD, the one that had meant the most to me, the one which seemed the strangest and most visceral of those I’d heard: ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’. It was weird and human and for me, the best place to start. A good pivot. In listening to it and other albums over the following months, I found myself applying a kind of theory I’d thought of for some time. Basically that creative works tend to have long-lost siblings, related works which have peculiar tensions and connections somewhat beyond the surface similarities of typically similar works, the objects of most normal, run-of-the-mill comparisons. I find that the more incongruous the works are superficially, the more insightful and helpful the correlation.

I listened to ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ by Clipse, an album I’d been aware of because it was something of a critical favorite. After I’d listened to it, I immediately thought of one of my all time favorites: ‘Songs From A Room’ by Leonard Cohen. In addition to the seeming ease of both albums and also their minimalism and matter-of-fact tone, I discovered a certain unifying principle, a concept which held both together and related them in my mind: the refusal of remorse as vindication. This seemed to me the underlying theme of each, something emotionally complex, something inexhaustible, something odd to write songs about. Doesn’t it make us feel good to feel bad for our sins? Well, these albums deny themselves such justification and in doing so, become unique yet comparable works about reality and responsibility. Having said all of this, and I hope having established a reasonable context for the main of this post, I now present you with my reaction to ‘Illmatic’ by Nas, comparing it to ‘Loveless’ by My Bloody Valentine to best express how it struck me.

2. ‘Illmatic’ and ‘Loveless’
First off, the colors of their respective covers pretty much sum up the overall feeling of the records. ‘Loveless’ is the fairly obvious womb-like pink, and the album is very violent and physical, but also very warm and gooey. ‘Illmatic’ is orange-brown, butterscotch if you will, and sounds orange-brown, the production, the mixing, etc. It is also much like a butterscotch candy. It is hard and very specifically of it’s own flavor though not terribly different from other sweets, if maybe slightly more refined, and less of an intense tasting experience. Once you enter into the record, past the cover, you find that they both very quickly establish a mood specific to the record itself, and not to be found exactly elsewhere, but once again not terribly far removed from other things, and doing so with more or less conventional elements, at least for their genres. Though the mood and feel, etc., is the same through, their are subtle differences within each song which keep the songs separate, but almost more so as they are in order, in sequence, than they would be in isolation, meaning, if you heard the songs individually, you might not be able to immediately say which song it was and which it wasn’t, whereas, when they play as a whole, they don’t necessarily sound the same. The mood, though specific to the record, is also in general, vague. A very individual vagueness. This leaves it open to interpretation, but also hard to find an opening into. This might be where part of the overall emotionlessness comes in: they’re more about a feeling than emotions, if you can make that distinction. To continue with something else, the vocals, oddly enough, are treated very much in the same fashion, although it may seem odd for such an MC-based record as is ‘Illmatic’. When you listen to Loveless the vocals are just another instrument in the mix. Strangely, the vocals on ‘Illmatic’, not because of volume, as they are in ‘Loveless’, but because of a certain seamlessness seem to blend in almost too well with the music. When you listen to it, the production seems to take up the same amount of attention as the vocals, and not because it is intrusive or draws attention to itself. I think it just may lack a certain necessary tension between the two. Also, while in ‘Loveless’ the vocals tend not to stand out because the lyrics are unheard, and therefore they are abstract, on ‘Illmatic’ the lyrics are clearly heard, but are in fact mostly abstract. This aids their slipping into the music more, but also in keeping the listening out of the experience completely. Both records keep their distance. They seem a little un-human despite being warm, and violent, though the violence is very much contained. All vibrant color but very much the same color, though altering shades and tints, but also very much within the lines. Still talking about the music, and to be more specific about similarities, though it’s more pointing out coincidence, certain tracks seem like parallels. ‘NY State of Mind’, the first proper song on ‘Illmatic’, and ‘Only Shallow’, the first song on ‘Loveless’ are both the most dangerous and ominous sounding. The middle songs on both also add more instrumentation than the beginning songs, but in somewhat same sounding patterns, like the strange feedback melodies in the middle of ‘Loveless’, and the electric keyboard and vibraphone sounds on ‘Illmatic’. Also, the last songs on each are these slightly lighter-sounding, dance-music influenced songs, not so much in the foundations, the beats, and drums and rhythms so much as the strange samples and vocals and strings added on top. Kind of airy and cotton candy-sounding compared to the earlier songs. I like both though. Very strange songs. The main thing, which all of this adds up to, is that both are records which it seems impossible to have a personal connection to.They don’t seem to be any different for having an audience. I think they’d sound the same in an empty room. They are complete in and of themselves, which makes listening to them weird.

Aside from the covers, presentation and music, the records both have similar, monolithic statuses, which once you listen to them you might not completely think of them as having yourself but you can certainly understand why others might. Both are considered impossible to better, that is impossible for their makers to better. But having said that, both seem despite their certain perfection, somewhat minor. This is probably due to the emotionless stuff. A lot of work was involved in both but to the point of squeezing out any heart that isn’t recognizable in terms of signifiers. Nas raps about sad stuff and angry stuff but doesn’t come across as sad or angry really, and the guitars on ‘Loveless’ are loud and screaming and violent but don’t really convey those feelings. All very odd. But I think as far as their reputations and statuses go as far as being “classics” is considered, unlike most “classics” which kind of disappoint because they are less well-made, or more inconsistent, or simply more half-assed than you’re led to believe before hand, they are almost exactly what the details you read, not what the “praise” say they are. If that makes sense. They are both somewhat conventional in that they use conventional elements, but are different and specific enough to be unlike other things, but create a noise and feeling which, while unique, isn’t necessarily something you have a great desire or need to return to very often. Like I said above, almost because they seem not to need you to listen, and not because they’re unmelodic or too hermetic.

-Christopher Adams on MySpace.

Written by Christopher

April 2nd, 2007 at 5:20 pm

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‘The Departed’ and ‘Thief’s Theme’

Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’ is at best, pretty-good. It is watchable from beginning to end which is more than you can say about most movies, but the only actually daring thing about the movie is the soundtrack, particularly the use of Nas’ ‘Thief’s Theme’. The song plays during a scene in which Costigan (DiCaprio) drives with his drug-dealing cousin. The scene is brief; Nas only plays as background music and isn’t afforded the same significance as ‘Gimme Shelter’ or ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’ nor does it act as “scource” (score and source music simultaneously) the way ‘Sail On Sailor’ by the Beach Boys does. ‘Thief’s Theme’ just plays in the background. Even so, the simple incorporation of rap music into a Scorsese movie is notable.

Scorsese’s movies, along with ‘Scarface’ and a few others, have played a significant part in rap music culture. An oft-quoted and very reasonable comparison between Scorsese movies and rap music has been made in defense of rap’s violence: Marty doesn’t get the load of shit that every rapper gets for portraying violence realistically. I’m sure at some point, Scorsese heard this comparison and there’s no way he hasn’t seen Nas’ ‘Casino’ homage video ‘Street Dreams’, so the inclusion of ‘Thief’s Theme’ is Scorsese embracing his relevance to rap culture rather than ignoring or even being embarrassed by it, like so many other directors. Or maybe, Marty somehow feels responsible for this? Just kidding…

‘Thief’s Theme’ also conceptually fits within the movie. The song makes sense as something that DiCaprio’s character would be listening to and becomes an interesting comment on the background of his character. Early-on, we learn that the father’s side of Costigan’s family were all mob-affiliated, while his mother’s side was a bit more upper-class. He is both in and out of the world of crime, in it enough to have experience but out of it enough that he has a distance. He is like a rapper in this sense, connected to the world of crime but with something of an outsider’s perspective on it because like a rapper, they have chosen to analyze “the life” in addition to live in it. Costigan is not quite a criminal and not quite a cop, navigating somewhere in the middle, pulling from both experiences and observing them all. Think of Nas or Mobb Depp, rappers whose “street cred” has been questioned but who are arguably better able to articulate the life of crime than those who directly live it. Chris Rock, in an article on Kanye West from ‘Time Magazine’ made the point that “the best rappers weren’t necessarily from the hood…they lived next to the hood” (57). This is also true of Costigan, who is a better cop and more of a hard-ass than Sullivan (Matt Damon) because of his connection and distance from “the life”. I also chuckled at the scene where Nicholson breaks Costigan’s cast open to look for a wire, using the ultimate signifier of 90s New-York rap: a Timberland workboot!

The movie is set in and is about Boston, a city infamous for its racism, so using a Nas track, even if it is only briefly, is an interesting way acknowledge blackness in the movie without it becoming cloying. We’re thankfully not presented with a scene where Anthony Anderson’s character spouts off ‘Crash’-like about race, not only because it would be stupid but because we’re in the era of postmodern racists, racist that no longer say “nigger” in front of a nigger. You know? Scorsese is brave enough to use the word “nigger” and not the way a movie like ‘Crash’ uses racial epithets, to shock the audience but to simply reflect the realistic way these people talk. Movies like ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ address race much better but it still shows that Scorsese is still addressing racism.

So much of the time, many hermetically-sealed subcultures like the mafia (or police or unions etc. etc.) spend a great deal of time differentiating themselves from other groups, particularly blacks. Scorsese takes an essentially deconstructive approach, making Nicholson’s introductory speech where he discusses the difference between the Irish and “the niggers” absurd. In a scene where mafia-mole Matt Damon is investigating a crime, he feels the effects of “stop snitching” but it is not a black community where this occurs, it is in an all-white, Irish, working class neighborhood! The entire movie explicitly deconstructs the split between cops and criminal but in subtler ways, addresses issues of race in a similarly deconstructive way. The entire movie is deconstructive and the title, a reference to the dead, points towards the ultimate deconstructive act: death.

The same deconstructive approach is taken when Scorsese chooses a Nas song for the same soundtrack that contains a Dropkick Murphys song. Everything is being cut down to the same level, annoying rock-oriented rules about music are being ignored. It is an interesting step for rap music to be incorporated into movies in realistic or even emotional ways. So often, it is used to only signify danger or the inner-city and when it isn’t being used towards those ends, it plays as simple party music. My very-specific interest in rap music, which is probably clear to anyone who reads this blog, is the “legitimization” of rap music as actual, emotional, humanistic music. When movies like ‘The Departed’ make an attempt, it’s just another reason why I do not understand why arguments like this even exist. No one ever makes the argument that they can’t relate to ‘The Departed’ because they aren’t Irish or from Boston or in the mob or whatever else. There’s still plenty to think about or even relate to in ‘The Departed’ even if you’re some jerk-off music writer for ‘The Onion’, why not the same for rap?

-Tyrangiel, Josh. “Why You Can’t Ignore Kanye.” ‘Time Magazine’ 29 August 2005: 54-61.

Written by Brandon

March 1st, 2007 at 7:10 am

Posted in Nas, Scorsese, The Departed