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GRAMMY Thoughts: Hip-Hop Matures Without Getting All "Mature"*


Like some weird, natural version of “bling”—mind the quotes—M.I.A moved through the stage subtly flaunting her in-stomach child…something universal and oddly, also way more jarring and discomforting to most than a diamond Jesus piece. M.I.A created a wonderful too-real moment, invoking body issues, TV standards and practices (recall when Lucille Ball was pregnant, the word couldn’t be uttered), and the right kind of fuck-it-all “this is my child!” pride all at once. It was “hip-hop” in that stupid nebulous sense of the word meaning “awesome” or “not giving a shit” and whatever else you want it to mean.

Like so much of hip-hop, it was about aggressively flipping the expected and making a salient–if easy to misinterpret and kinda confusing–point. And Kanye, Jay-Z, Wayne, and T.I upended expectations by waddling out like the forever cynical Rat Pack, dressed nicely, moving politely, but spitting out a song that good or bad, is sonically, a sick slow burn posse cut.

I called the beat “Unicron on his last legs”. Live, it was more some acid-trip Vegas shit, with a synth-line turned into a guitar-line ripped from Kanye’s hard-edged beats like “Two Words” but no less a little terrifying, especially when it was still being rapped with a casual effrontery, an “I’m in a dirty ass rap club not the Grammy’s” attitude that was still reverent enough of the whole spectacle.

We’re used to this and way weirder stuff but remember, this is the Grammy’s we’re talking about and so, pleasantly and politely performing a song like this, as an art-pop (versus Kanye’s Pop Art) indie star nine months pregnant wanders across the stage is pretty fucking subversive. And like, Erykah Badu twitter-ing her pregnancy, the performative aspect of the M.I.A made it more beautiful, more real, less contrived. A group of black rappers rhyme atop a pregnant London/Sri-Lankan bleating out a hook; that’s something a little more real and a little less showbiz. Coming not long after that inexplicably bizarre Katie Couric interview with Lil Wayne, it’s fun to see the unfortunate clichés and exorbitancies of hip-hop so finely fucked around with. The disconnect between what’s being said about rap and what rap is grows wider.

Wasn’t it absurd to see Ms. Katie wheeling out the cringe-inducing “He’s got the teeth and the tattoos” spiel for a rapper like Wayne? As her awful set-up before the humanizing punchline began, we see images of Wayne and he’s not looking “gangsta” at all. He’s rocking brightly colored BAPE or he’s pacing around the stage sheepishly smiling in V-neck wearing a tiny backpack. Couric’s conceit–I’m going to humanize this horrible in your eyes rapper—seems no longer absurd just to rap fans. With Wayne, there’s not that much to “get over” even if you are an outsider, as he’s not hoodied or mean-mugging or anything. The interview confirms your expectations, it doesn’t negate them.

Similarly weird (and even more relevatory) than “Swagger” was Wayne’s performance of “Tie My Hands”. It’s tough to make a song clearly about Katrina as images of Katrina project in the background and not seem really obvious, but Wayne did it. The light jazz re-interpretation of the already light Carter III version works in hooking non hip-hop listeners and also, acts as brilliant counter-point to the explosion of New Orleans music history that makes the history Katrina wiped away more palpable. He’s starts with the pained devastation of his own Katrina yelp and ends with the pleasures of the past by resurrecting them live. That’s some Dungeon Family, Ralph Ellison “that same pleasure and pain” type shit.

Even as T.I yelped out his verse before he’s going to jail for some real dumb shit and Lil Wayne’s still pushing purple like it’s not dangerous drug that’ll stop your heart and uh Kanye’s rocking a , hip-hop’s maturing without losing its plurality.

*It’s important to note that the most maturing though, was going on in the “indie” world as back when Kanye was annoying because he thought his soul beats needed Jon Brion’s unfortunate strings and mellotrons and chamberlains and shit, not annoying because he thought it next-level to sample Urban Outfitters in-store music staples, he was just as interested in people like M.I.A. Then though, M.I.A wasn’t interested in him. M.I.A rejected Kanye West’s invite to appear on Late Registration.

This is a fascinating end-note to Noz’s A Labyrinth, A Maze (2) in the sense that it muddles the whole “issue” further and further. One thing’s clear—the choice is yours whether it’s good or bad or anything—shit is reversed or flipped or some shit. Usually you know, it’s the mainstream artists that are behind on the times, no?

What’s changed other than it’s way more acceptable—because of Kanye’s fervent pushing of genre, borders, style the whole deal—to be a so-called indie artist and appear on-stage with Kanye West is now, there’s a lot more money in it. Or Diplo told her it was cool or Nylon magazine. Or maybe the whole “I’ll be preggers while I do it” was her London-born, third-world affected version of bucking the system? Intentions don’t matter much when it works and on the Grammy’s Sunday night, M.I.A—and the “Swagger” crew—made it work.

Written by Brandon

February 11th, 2009 at 8:18 pm

"Swagger Like Us" Is Good But Not Very Fun

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The boner-kill feeling that’s spread across the internet when “Swagger Like Us” wasn’t the event record of the year–or really an event record at all–isn’t a surprise, but it’s unfortunate because it’s closed too many ears to one of the weirder and rewind-able songs in quite some time. “Swagger’s not ready for the club and it won’t get the real head’s heads’ bopping either; it’s a truly out-there song from really, the only four rappers that still sell records and even sort of give a shit about rapping or artistry. They just also happen to four of the most delusional, navel-gazing performers around; stuff is complicated like that.

“Swagger Like Us” is exactly what comes out when two really creative rappers who’ve been spoiled their entire lives collaborate with two pretty-smart rappers who weren’t spoiled but think they worked harder than they really did to get where they’ve gotten, meet on tape. If there’s a problem with the song, it’s that the whole thing just feels disconnected from what fans of these superstar rappers would want to hear. Again though, that’s exactly why it’s a really good song. It’s a dissapointment but it’s still fascinating and good. This is not a calculated “banger” and it’s not a super-star collabo that’ll sell ringtones or iTunes downloads or anything. This is a great album cut that’s also a victim of the Internet hype and obsessive-ness where a song that’s yet to be played on the radio for an album that doesn’t come out for a few weeks, is already being discussed as a disappointment.

Both Tom Breihan and Sasha Frere-Jones tellingly invoked the ‘Oceans’ movies but a more apt movie comparison would be those weird times when Hollywood lets some art-film director make a blockbuster–say, Alfonso Cuaron directing Harry Potter–or those even weirder times when a big, Hollywood director does a small movie (like when the ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ director made ‘The Weather Man’).

“Swagger’s a fucked-up, inverted version of one of those DJ Khaled type songs. It’s not trying to be one. This song is not a failed “banger”. The synths don’t bounce around playfully or sound fake-menacing, they stumble in with enough fuzz and buzz to rival a Burzum record. Instead of an annoying Akon or T-Pain hook, there’s an awkwardly chopped M.I.A sample (it’s still annoying though). While the drums are defiant, they aren’t club-ready at all. The drums are all about production tricks like the strange hi-hat, an occasional addition to the drum pattern that’s got some insane low-end (basically his ‘Takeover’ drums), and really artful removal of those drums for extended periods of time. Kanye’s beat sounds like Unicron on his last legs: grumbling electronics, weirdo sound effects, and just an overall messy muddle of sound. According to this T.I interview, the beat for “Swagger” is “[Kanye's] first beat…since the untimely passing of his mom.” Put in that context, maybe “Swagger Like Us” is the sound of someone devastated, trying to drum-up the enthusiasm to make a DJ Khaled-style jam and just not having it. Most people don’t seem to like it, but the sloppy immediacy of “Swagger Like Us” and “Jockin’ Jay-Z” makes for Kanye’s most engaging and humane beats since ‘The College Dropout’ or at least, ‘Be’.

But then, there’s the verses, which sound fun and enthusiastic, but particularly vapid as well. In a sense, the contrast works. A beat this brooding with brooding rapswould fit together in a music-critic-friendly way, but the bigger offense isn’t that nothing’s being said, but that those nothings aren’t being said in particularly creative ways. Creativity wise, Kanye tries the hardest but his attempt at humor or weirdness or whatever just doesn’t work. That Kanye, who presumably set the tone with the beat, would decide to go really goofball on his verse is strange. If there’s validity to that ‘Oceans’ comparison–or rather, where that comparison gets really strong–it’s Kanye doing the rap equivalent of Clooney and company’s insular goof-offs at the beginning of this song. The feeling is that Kanye’s trying out his most gleefully groan-inducing lines (“shit and the urine”, “thousand-trillion”, Columbus and Pilgrims) in an attempt to match Lil Wayne’s most retarded punchlines, so the two can laugh about it later on. Jay-Z and Wayne bring it back by doing what they do and doing it well. They act as the perfect build-up for T.I’s song-ending fury and negate Kanye’s low-energy, pranksterism. Each rapper rises above the previous rapper’s intensity and even though none of them really say anything (and it sure would be nice if they did), there’s a palpable level of excitement to the track. Who knows how or even who decides the order in which they appear on the song, but it would seem, that falls under the umbrella of producing and so, Kanye was wise to start the song off and hand it over to the others.

The song “Swagger Like Us” seems closest to another weirdo multi-rapper jam from this year, “You’re Everything” by Bun B (featuring Rick Ross, David Banner, and MJG) and produced by Mr. Lee. That song too, is a kind of inverted posse cut and features a decidedly weird and sophisticated beat, but unlike “Swagger”, there’s no dropping-the-ball content-wise. “You’re Everything”, a song about the South and Pimp C–it’s also subtle, unlike “Swagger”–sounds like a bunch of like-minded rappers getting together and being real with one another and expressing emotion. “Swagger” sounds like a group of friends getting together and all being too-cool to do anything but talk some shit.

Written by Brandon

September 4th, 2008 at 4:39 am