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The Importance of the "Genre Rapper": Scarface’s Emeritus


The connection between crime movies and hip-hop’s long been established, but a recent reading of Manny Farber’s essay “Underground Films” coincided with plenty of listens to Scarface’s latest, Emeritus and it seemed that so much of what Farber’s talking about, could easily be applied to Scarface’s music, for simplicity’s sake: “gangsta rap”. Farber’s essay touches upon a group of action films (mainly Westerns and gangster/crime movies) of the 1930s-1950s and celebrates them for their defiant quasi-accidental anti-Hollywood-ness. The way they function as both obvious genre films and finds all kinds of ways to do smarter, cooler stuff than the kind of movies that win awards and get written up in “Life Magazine”.

In film, many of the classic exploitation or low-budget directors are referred to as “genre directors”. I’d like to throw in the term “genre rappers”. Obviously, it’s a muddled term because rap’s a genre already but “sub-genre rappers” sounds sort of stupid and I think it’s clear what I mean.

Basically, there are the rappers that go beyond the expectations of their sub-genre, there are the rappers that sort of just wallow in the expectations, and then, there’s the “genre rapper”; the rapper that obsessively mines the same territory and creates a kind of outer-shell of cliché within which they are allowed to say and do pretty much anything. While conventional, smart-guy attitudes about “serious art” would praise the expectation-expanding rapper the most, it’s important to see the vitality of the genre rapper.

While the parallel between the movies Farber’s celebrating the music of Scarface is clear, I think the “genre rapper” exists in all of rap’s sub-genres. Take the so-called “conscious rap” sub-genre.

Groups like De La Soul or even Little Brother are groups that go beyond genre expectations (or in LB’s case, think they do) while say, Common on Resurrection, post-Dilla Slum Village, or dead prez only on R.B.G become genre rappers. They make albums that bask in the clichés but use them as a jumping-off point for odd, unconventional personal details and stylistics.

“…perfect examples of the anonymous artist, who is seemingly afraid of the polishing, hypocrisy, bragging, fake educating that goes on in serious art.”

Still, there’s something especially applicable about Farber’s quotes—especially the one above–and so many classic, gangsta rap minor epics. Namely, even the weirdest or dullest of “conscious” rappers occupy a place of protection and praise amongst rap fans and critics. They can always fall back on their positivity, no less or more of a cliché than gangsta talk of “keepin’ it real” but one that gets you a certain kind of praise amongst intellectuals and non-rap rap fans.

“The sharpest work of the last thirty years is to be found by studying the most unlikely, self-destroying, uncompromising, roundabout artists”

This could easily be a comment on hip-hop as a whole, but it’s especially pertinent to the kind of rap originated by Scarface and others in the beginning of the 90s. Rap that seemed to only be in conversation with itself and the few people who fucking got it. That it inexplicably turned into a big, sub-genre—and one that became “gangsta rap” when it could be exploited for trashy news stories—only makes sense because we’re all so used to it. What came from “gangsta rap” is the disinterest in the outside.

That’s to say, if you couldn’t get over the “foul” language or the violence and see the emotions and commentary going on in the music, you weren’t listening hard enough. Of course, there’s the additional point that the brilliance of the music comes through it’s plurality; the way it’s able to mix and match insight and tough-talk and never fall back on one or the other.

“the action directors accept the role of hack so that they can involve themselves with expedience and tough-guy insight in all types of action”

When the scratchy 20-dollar Timbaland beat of “High-Powered” drops and Scarface is on some more shit about snitches, he’s both expressing his beliefs and walking into a pit of cliché that indeed, he helped develop, but is a cliché nonetheless. That the beat’s produced by N.O Joe adds another level of weird “realness” and pop-rap concession to the whole thing.

For Scarface to continue spouting these hood mantras is a sign of confidence. A disinterest in hyper-originality, Scarface bases his observations or anger around the expected “gangsta rap” concerns and then, spirals out from there.

To the disinterested or cynical listener, it’s tough-talk and “stop snitching”—and therefore unoriginal and originality is highly overrated in capital-A art. To the attuned, sensitive listener, this is simply the canvas or the beginning, the jumping off point for Scarface’s deeper concerns, which he will weave throughout the expected boasts and threats of the gangsta rapper.

When you get to the third verse, Scarface has roped you in with the clichés and then, rattles off a deeply detailed outline of how snitching works on a personal and institutional level; the radical honesty and creativity of the genre rapper pops-out and we move a little further from the sort of thing rappers that make Blender’s year-end lists do.

“the virtues of action films expand as the pictures take on the outer appearance of junk jewelry”

When the dusty chipmunk soul of “Forgot About Me” comes in, a smile should come to any familiar listener’s face because “High Powered”, although complex and full of reversals, is very much operating in some attempt to meld rap trends—quasi reggae hook, electro synths—with Scarface’s style. It’s about as “pop” as someone like Scarface can get.

It’s the film noir director starting the movie—think of J. Prince’s “Intro” as a really cool and odd opening credits sequence—with the genre’s clichés but shooting them from a different angle or something. “Forgot About Me” though, is in the style we expect from Scarface and in that way, moves into the kind of hard-ass, single-minded focus that the rest of Emeritus follows.

Interestingly, “Forgot About Me” features rapper of the year(s) Lil Wayne and in that sense still keeps some of “High-Powered”s acknowledgement of current hip-hop—and critically acclaimed rap—even as it moves further into the hermetic territory that only Scarface and a few others can occupy.

“The important thing is not so much the banal-seeming journeys to nowhere that make up the stories, but the tunneling that goes on inside the classic Western-gangster incidents…”

“Can’t Get Right” stops having anything to do with rap music and mines the territory exclusively owned by Scarface and a few others (some of which guest on the album like Z-Ro or K-Rino). A dive straight into darkness but one that’s still wrapped around the hood, violence and all the stuff that closes the ears of certain listeners or makes them cry-out “unoriginal” even as it’s also—and more importantly–this multi-directional focus on how and why shit’s fucked the fuck up, starting with Scarface’s problems (“My momma’s pregnant with a son she should abort”) and ended up in Baghdad, having touched upon community violence, economic strife and just about everything else.

“Unfortunately, the action directors suffer from presentation problems.”

Say, instead of aping the cover of Power, Corruption, & Lies, it’s sort of this cheap-o, goofball, trophy cover or an almost powerful if not for some unfortunate photoshopping, image of Scarface staring harshly into a mirror. There’s an oddball brilliance to these kinda bad covers though and it comes to mind every time some douchebag hipster or serious rap fan makes fun of say, the CASH-MONEY covers.

Their ugliness, their formula is an affront, alright? An affront to capital-A art albums that refuses to admit they’re still corporate product and affront to polite taste. Just as pretty much every Rap-A-Lot disc is about not giving a fuck, those covers are about not giving a fuck too.

I’d prefer the cover of Emeritus to be some recreation of a plaque with ‘Face’s name on it photographed and put on the album cover. Why Scarface didn’t just walk into his bathroom, stare at a mirror, and have someone take a shot of it for Made, is frustrating but logical. It would suggest a concern about presentation that Scarface isn’t really about. Those early Geto Boys records were triumphs of design as well as music but now, the design represents too much and so, it’s been abandoned for the expected photoshop shit-job or something just generally underwhelming.

These photoshop covers connect to a low-budget, made-cheap, keep-it-real aesthetic that needs to not be forgotten. And, in a fascinating reversal that says as much about regional rap’s impulse for real-ness sincere or performed, the simple font atop a fucking bad-ass, off-the-cuff picture’s long ago been co-opted as another thing you learn in graphic design and so, they’ve moved onto the kind of image that’s never going to be lifted…a style that dares you to not take the music serious. Self-destructive indeed.

“The small buried attempt to pierce the banal pulp of underground stories with fanciful grace notes is one of the important feats of the underground director.”

“Grace notes”?

The way the talking for way too long “Intro” track of so many rap albums is turned into a rarified, political, personal, social, and everything else statement by J. Prince.

How “Who Are They” features guest verses from S.P.C veteran K-Rino and Slim Thug, the kind of rapper that like, girls in sororities probably associate with “dirty south”. It’s both an acknowledgment of rap’s changing landscape and a hard-ass attention to friends and fellow legends.

The minor detail on “Still Here” that apparently Scarface’s ring-tone is a Donny Hathaway song, which reminds us that he’s still just this awesome old dude who digs blissed-out soul classics, and maybe some kind of quick comment whether it’s supposed to be or not about ringtone rap. And this detail’s a preamble in a song that outlines the tragic murders of friends, family, etc. with novelistic detail!

There’s all this shit talking and assertion of importance (“High Powered”, “Redemption Song” the title of the album being Emeritus) in the rap game by ‘Face, but he also gives up the album for extended periods of time to the guests. The female hooks are longer and often turn into R & B outros, he often raps last after a guest or two, or giving up the intro of his album to J. Prince.

The mournful but confident “Outro” that’s really kind of inexplicable and odd for a rap album and only sort of makes sense because this isn’t the first time a Scarface album’s ended in this way.

Written by Brandon

December 7th, 2008 at 9:40 pm

Posted in Scarface, film, movies

Top 10 Album Tracks Pt. 3

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‘Right Or Wrong?’ by Median off Median’s Relief: Median’s sort of what people think Lupe Fiasco is or maybe, what Lupe should be…the “nimble flow”, decidedly Native Tongues in-spirit (fuck what Lupe says, he is)…even the embrace of never-were-a-good-idea concept songs and corny-as-fuck lines are found in much better (and worse) form on ‘Median’s Relief’.

This beat’s got a lot going for it. Really elegant piano and what sounds like vibraphone taps underneath it all, fit his pleasant flow. The serious but not too-serious feeling makes lines like “So you run it like a rebel/Chris Brown, pedal to the medal” and “if you get caught/Then you get to lose your rights and stuff” just sort of funny and not totally embarrassing. Is Common to blame for this bizarre conscious rapper conflation of message-music and punchlines that are so bad they negate the message entirely? To Median’s defense, he’s genuinely kinda poetic at times, like when he describes the voice he uses to say “Hello” to a chick as “an after-school ‘hello” and shifts his voice into a Guidance Counselor-esque soft voice for that “hello”, that’s good stuff.

‘Jus’ Ridin’ by 8ball & Devius off The Vet & the Rookie: This song is truly glorious. Seriously. Like I won’t even try again to explain how great it is, here’s what I said before:

“Jus’ Ridin’ is probably one of the greatest songs ever made, the sort of song that makes sense the first time you hear it. These super-clean kinda hard-ass guitars that play under the chorus, complemented by some typical Southern rap drums and an even cleaner sounding acoustic sound, with 8 Ball and Devius trading a few verses back and forth, it’s really simple and straightforward and great. The drums slightly change during each verse or an instrument is dropped-out, especially during Devius’ last verse, when its just drums and a slightly different acoustic part, it all makes the return of that riff even more exciting.

Plenty of straight rapping on this too. 8 Ball’s voice just gets deeper as he grows older and fatter, sounding like Baron Harkonnen should sound like or something: this angry, smart, decadent fat guy dropping classic lines. Devius is a good counterpoint as he raps with a youthful but still self-aware voice but he has more enthusiasm (“You know today look good”) and sounds like he’s having fun. I like Devius’ line about laughing at the chick he and his friends “ran a train on”. Also, Devius refers to himself as “Ted Deviase” or something like that, in reference to Ted “Million Dollar Man” Dibiase.”

‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ by Radiohead off In Rainbows:This is probably the kind of song these guys do in their sleep, but its better than third-rate electronics and it actually seems to be about something. Thommy boy dropped the “unborn chicken voices” junk and just talks about getting a number from a girl or some sort of like, Virginia Woolf – or just ‘You’re Beautiful’ by James Blunt- shared but minor moment between two people. The tenuous acoustic and the way it slowly builds layers upon layer of voice and bouncing bass and everything else, it’s predictable but that hardly matters because ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ (an awful title by the way) grabs the perfect mix of enthusiasm and melancholy appropriate for a song about complicated human interaction. I was joking about the James Blunt connection but it kind of works, it’s the anti-’You’re Beautiful’!

‘Suicide Note’ by Scarface off Made: I’m a big fan of Scarface but I really don’t think he has any classic albums and ‘Made’ is no different, a bunch of really fucking great songs and some mediocre ones and a misstep or two. Is ‘The Fix’ ‘Face’s best? I think it might be. Anyways- for obvious reasons, this song is doubly affecting, but I’ve always been partial to these kind of emotionally-honest rap songs.

I’m sure plenty of rap songs do this and I can’t think of any at the moment, but the way Scarface’s voice comes in before the beat is sorta surprising and gives you like, no time to breathe or prepare for his story. The beat itself is on some Brothers Johnson ‘Land of Ladies’ shit, sort of dreamy and distant but then complicated by that really kinda scary backwardsy chorus…it fits the crazy emotions, the “this doesn’t really feel real at all” feeling one gets when someone they knew and loved has killed themselves.

Scarface maintains an interesting distance in the song in that he never overtly emotes, he just straight spits and assumes we know it’s fucking him up inside. The details are so well-wrought and just well, real, that it is clear without him going Ghostface-whine or Pimp C wistful (not that there’s anything wrong with those guys doing that or anything…). Going out of his way to say he was on his way to get with “some Asian bitch”, discussing in weird hindsight, the way he, for some reason went back to his friend’s house, the level-headed without being above-it-all details like “his wife read the bible” and then, ‘Face’s matter of fact ability to totally confront the real fact that the friend is gone forever and there’s nothing nobody can do about it…fuck!

I refused to “rank” these tracks because most of them have very little in-common, so I just went through them in the order that they album they correspond to was released, but looking back at the playlist, a little re-ordering makes a pretty satisfying 45 minutes of music. So, below is my suggested listening order for these songs…and, here’s a zipfile of all the tracks.

1. Jesu – ‘Weightless & Horizontal’
2. Crime Mob featuring Pimp C & Lil’ Scrappy – ‘Go To War’
3. Justice – ‘Stress’
4. UGK featuring Cory Mo – ‘Top Drop Dyne Remix’
5. Kanye West featuring Trick Daddy – ‘Can’t Say No’
6. Median – ‘Right Or Wrong?’
7. 8ball & Devius – ‘Jus’ Ridin’
8. Radiohead – ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’
9. Scarface – ‘The Suicide Note’
10. Boris – ‘My Rain’

Written by Brandon

December 28th, 2007 at 11:29 pm