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It’s How Phrase It: Andre 3000’s verse on ‘Royal Flush’

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Defenders of those less “lyrical” rappers fall back on the line that when it comes rap, “it’s not what you say but how you say it.” And there’s some truth to that, but lyrical rappers (lyrical does not mean stuff like Immortal Technique by the way) have to say it in a cool way too. That “how you say it” supposition forgets the fact that your favorite rappers’ favorite rapper probably says his lyrical shit pretty awesomely.

Rap’s always about “how you say it”, not in the sense that Jim Jones’ “swagger” makes up for the lyrical turds that fall out of his mouth (although they sometimes do) but rather, taking those extra few moments to properly present an idea makes all the difference. A tale of violence with the right kind of details is no longer another “I shot that dude” song. Scarface knows how to perfectly emote a line, Ghostface can tumble into a cry and then out into a full-speed ahead flow, and Rakim’s poise and confidence—that’s basically “swagger” by the way– perfectly reflect his terse rhymes.

But you already know all this. The reason for parsing out all this is because of the ongoing excitement and discussion about Andre 3000’s year-and-a-half slow build return to proper rapping. Maybe it’s because what Andre says is fairly obvious, but there’s been little discussion or focus on the content of Andre’s verses—especially odd, in light of the crazy and deserved fanfare for ‘Royal Flush’—and exactly what they are doing and saying. Part of it though, I think is because assholes like me spend a lot of time crapping on didactic rappers but are now crapping our pants about super-didactic Andre verses. If we got into the content of those verses, we’d look like big dumb hypocrities. Sort of.

Only “sort of” because what excites and endears so many to Andre’s verses, especially on ‘Royal Flush’ is Andre’s focused and purposeful word-choice, which rubs up against and in some ways, supports his purposefully off-kilter flow: it’s what Andre’s saying, how he spits it, and how he phrases it and that’s you know, the place where most good rap resides.

His lengthy verse on ‘Royal Flush’ is an especially interesting case of the what you say/how you say it divide because the verse is an exercise in style, and pointed, “conscious” rapper teaching. Not that those two things haven’t co-existed in rap before, but Andre’s past eighteen months of lecture raps occupy a weird place between that divide. Joey from Straight Bangin’ referred to it as Andre taking “a whimsical approach to some serious shit”, and he’s right. There’s a level of modesty and approachability to the way Andre chooses to say some “the teacher” type shit that doesn’t make the listener feel condescended to. Additionally, his instructions never fall-back on simple-minded answers.

Quite a few people have joked about how Big Boi and Raekwon drop a solid 16 while Andre rambles and fumbles for nearly half the song. Of course, that’s sort of the point. Big Boi and Rae come in quick and confident, Andre’s sort of stumbling and moving through his thoughts, trying to qualify and perfect his message as he says it. Andre’s verse is an experience, you’re traveling through his brain as he basically ponders some super-complicated shit about crime, what leads people to it, community, the double-bind of making money and lots of other stuff. Anyone listening who is angered by the rambling nature of the verse should recall the ‘Throw Some Ds’ remix where he talks about the “boys in blue” busting in and how “We act like we run track/Then we run straight to the back/But they’re coming from the back/So we run back to the front” which properly presents the chaos of running from the police and turns Andre’s rambling style into a physical description. Or think back to the song ‘Aquemini’ when Andre apologizes: “I’m sorry y’all/I often drift…”. One of Andre’s best assets is his disinterest in a tight 16 bars…

On ‘Royal Flush’, the rambling nature reminds me of some of the humanity and sensitivity one sees when they watch Barack Obama debate, as he pauses for a moment, or stops and dips back a few lines to correct himself, more interested in getting the exact thoughts in his head to the microphone than a quick political catchphrase (or hot line, if you will). There’s just a heightened level of awareness to Andre’s recent verses and even if it’s a little too self-conscious, it’s well-handled and sincere enough that no one should really be shitting on it.

One of the best word choices in when he discusses the oft-discussed nature of “the streets”—but it really applies to anyone who makes it out of any economically-fucked environment—and how “it’s unfortunate that if you come up fortunate/The streets consider you lame.” It’s some Andre wordplay, bouncing unfortunate and fortunate back and forth, but it’s also something of a response to the Jeezys and other rappers who rap about “haters” and have a very ME-centric take on why they’re no longer on the corner (their reason: I worked hard all by myself to get out). Andre’s calling his ability to move-out as “fortune” downplays his ego and points towards one reality of success that no one wants to face: A lot of it’s luck. Plenty of better rappers and better drug dealers never make it out and plenty of computer geniuses never become Bill Gates, you know? The concept of “luck” also undermines free-market and Capitalistic dogma about fairness and everyone having the potential that crack-rap further supports, but that’s a whole other post…

Andre also touches upon the other reality that hard-ass rappers like to pretend doesn’t exist: need. “Go show them that we’re more than slangin’ raw/That’s when I broke into my Big Rube impression/And I tried to enlighten/But that night I learned a lesson/That that morals that you think you got go out the window/When all the other kids are fresh and they got new Nintendo/ Wiis and your child is down on her knees/Praying hard up to God for a Whopper with cheese”.

Words like “hungry” and “driven” are just euphemisms for the more vulnerable word “need”. A word like “hungry” downplays the necessity of the thing well, needed, and makes it sound like something one has of their own accord, decided is important. It misplaces basic, vulnerable emotions and tries to pass them off as capitalistic desire. These words are really played around with in fun ways, by framing the contrast between those that have and don’t have through funny pop-culture references (the Wii, a Whopper). Maybe it’s a stretch but the use of food certainly feels like a direct reference and/or joke on rappers talking about how “hungry” they were for a record deal. Fuck a record deal, the kid in the song is literally hungry.

Andre The Teacher permeates the song but plenty of lines and that overall “whimsy” move it away from being an old-ass rapper bitching to you. The same way a curmudgeonly line like “Your white-T/Looks to me/More like a nightgown” (from the ‘Walk It Out’ Remix) is saved by being a totally killer battle-rap line, Andre’s attitude on ‘Royal Flush’ prevents it from being a simple indictment of “the system” and or justification of the drug-dealers’ complacent pseudo-protest. We hear songs all the time from dudes who got sick of the way things were going and had the balls (and amorality) to start dealing, but we’ve heard enough of them. Andre’s verse is for those people in the same position that have the morals (and lack the balls) to start dealing. The reality is, “the streets” are more filled with people like that.

He concisely and entertainingly nails the place that need and the desire to commit crime come from, but doesn’t totally justify it. Biggie half-parodied his desires (and needs) on the song ‘Ready to Die’ when he rapped “My mother didn’t give me what I want, what the fuck?” and here, by taking an outsider view, Andre further articulates those feelings by not (or no longer) having them. There’s no way of mistaking the Andre’s descriptions for his rap character, while Biggie’s balancing a persona, a critique, and confession. Generally, the complexity of Biggie is preferred, but there’s a brilliance to Andre’s near-third-person rap-narration.

Andre even as he partially stands above teaching the listeners, he takes a few swipes at moral absolutism (the bane of conscious rap’s existence) and adds some empathy by qualifying the line about the morals that one has as, “the morals that you think you got”. Often, people will phrase negative actions in the sense of abandoning their morals, but the reality as Andre points out is, those were only morals you thought you had. If you really had them, you wouldn’t have done it! That makes it sounds as if he’s critiquing these people but he’s not. What he’s doing is suggesting that no one actually has these morals all the time; we’re all apt to rob, steal, etc. if we need or think we need to do it to survive (or get a new fresh pair of shoes). It’s a complex and partially muddled sense of empathy, but that’s what empathy is in a sense.

Go back through your Outkast CDs and think of how many times in one way or another, Andre demands listeners to empathize, to put their feet in his or someone else’s shoes. These newer verses, particularly the instructive ‘Royal Flush’ are further extensions of the warm-hearted anger and teaching Outkast have always done. Recent lines and verses parallel past instructive lines and just make them a little more obvious, but kinder as well. “No wonder they call it the trap” he muses on ‘Royal Flush’ and it reflects the angered, possessed Andre who called-out on ‘Y’all Scared’: “Have you ever thought of the meaning of the word trap?”. His anger with file-sharing and fans’ misunderstanding of the music business is touched upon on the Devin the Dude ‘What a Job’ remix, but it first came up back on ‘Elevators’: “I replied, that I’d been going through the same thing that he had/True, I got more fans than the average man but not enough loot to/Last me to the end of the week/I live by the beat like you live check to check/If you don’t move your feet then I don’t eat/ so we like neck to neck”.

Most rappers, be their persona unfuckwithable drug dealer or all-knowing, angry, political emcee, stand above or away from their listeners and the average person. Note how in that ‘Elevators’ verse, Andre’s interests are more as to what he has in common with his fan than how he is different. This is the key to what makes the ‘Royal Flush’ verse so entertaining, affecting, and even thought-provoking. It does not stand away from its listeners, even when it’s teaching.

Written by Brandon

April 16th, 2008 at 8:21 pm

Posted in Andre 3000, Outkast

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

That Same Pleasure and Pain: Witchdoctor’s ‘God Is Good’

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-Click here to listen to ‘God Is Good’ by Witchdoctor.

Witchdoctor’s latest album, ‘Diary of an American Witchdoctor’ is a compilation of Witchdoctor tracks from his self-released albums of the past few years, released through Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Unlike the gimmicky personae-rap associated with that channel, Witchdoctor’s disc lacks obnoxious distance. I recall hearing ‘A.S.W.A.T. Healin’ Ritual’ and being sorta freaked-out by Witchdoctor’s image. He had always been sort of mysterious on those Dungeon Family records and with that “Mrs. Rogers are you theeerree? I got word that you wanted to see me” intro (which he half-parodies on ‘Suicide Bomber’) and his whole well, witch doctor persona, I thought of him as the Colonel Kurtz of rap or something. I mean, it worked, but I never felt the same kind of close-ness to this DF family member as I did listening to Outkast or Goodie Mob, who sounded very human. I never bothered getting Witchdoctor’s mail-order albums, so all of the songs on ‘Diary…’ are new to me.

On this compilation, Witchdoctor sounds more direct and sincere and did within seconds of putting in the disc; I didn’t need to adjust or “get” anything about the music, it just grabbed me right away. Maybe it was because it was so unexpected, but the intro track ‘God Is Good’, a lo-fi acoustic song that sounds recorded on a four-track and has more in common with early Animal Collective or Sebadoh than Southern rap, has got me obsessed. Maybe you recall ‘A.S.W.A.T’ closer ‘Lil Mama’s Gone’, an out-and-out acoustic soul number; ‘God Is Good’ sound similar. That track though, never worked for me and for awhile, I even drummed up some revisionist history as it being the first scary step that led to ‘The Love Below’ but what this newer singer-songwriter track reveals for me is, Witchdoctor could’ve pulled off a ‘Love Below’. There are plenty of interesting beats on this album and Witchdoctor can still only sort of rap (and can’t write a hook) and still manages to engage, but the few voice and guitar-driven tracks peppered throughout ‘Diary’ (‘DezOnly1′, ‘Prayer Call’,'Wonderful God’) are some of the best non-rap music I’ve heard in a long time.

Don’t listen to ‘God Is Good’ if you want a track representative of the album in terms of style, but it is an excellent introduction (or re-introduction) into the world of Witchdoctor and a reminder of just how smart the Dungeon Family collective once were (and could still be?). Their wise sense of contradiction and complement and a wonderfully complex understanding of the musical miscegenation Sasha Frere-Jones babbled about a few weeks ago (Indeed, ‘B.O.B’ was one of SFJ’s key examples) are all there in the one minute and forty-five second ‘God Is Good’.

The track begins with a high-quality recording of Witchdoctor beautifully humming what sounds like the beginning of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and then, a tape splice interrupts the Doctor; the sound quality lowers and gets that really-great tape hiss that four-tracks recordings get, and there’s some acoustic strumming, a “Thank you”, then a subtler, tape splice and the songs begins with faster strumming and a sing-song “My God is your God and I said he is goo-oo-odd/My God is your God and he’s damn sure good to me/And he’s good to you…”. The Americana, followed by recording fidelity that drums-up everything from proto-emo Lou Barlow to Woody Guthrie to Skip James to Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’, and then, a solidified blues connection with a sincere invocation of God’s greatness, is all in the vein of the best Dungeon Family material. Towards the end of the track, Witchdoctor begins chanting “Stay tuned for more, Stay tuned for more…”, which might be a joke plea to keep listening to this wonderful album, but is one more Dungeon Family-like exercise in contradiction, throwing in that television viewing cliche amongst inclusive declarations of spirituality. As the songs fumbles to an end, the humming of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is heard again, followed by a double-tracked voice asking “Did you enjoy that?”. Nationalism, God, the blues, mass media, entertainment, and performance are all mixed together. Racist America of the Star Spangled Banner and the actual home of the free, the blues that has been appropriated and destroyed for decades but kept alive at the same time, television and performance which gives us hours and hours of trash and also allows guys like Witchdoctor to get their message across, religion that causes wars and brings people together…what Ralph Ellison called “that same pain [and] that same pleasure”…it’s all a big appropriately fuzzy-sounding song that introduces Witchdoctor’s latest album.

Thanks to EarleyBird, for hooking me up with a free copy of ‘Diary…’. Earleybird appears on track two ‘Just Like You’. Also, a note to many of the rappers that’ve sent me their CDs, I’m working on something, I promise.-brandon

Written by Brandon

November 7th, 2007 at 5:01 am