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UNFUCKINBELIEVABLE: Lil Wayne in Raleigh, NC 08/08/09

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So, I was asked by a paper to attend the ‘America’s Most Wanted’ tour and review it, but then the piece never ran and no one will tell me why, so here it is. It’s a good reminder of why, despite rawk-star trappings right now, Wayne’s still wonderfully weird and the only guy to pull something like this off.-b

Following a fun, but perfunctory performance from Soulja Boy, and a head-down, straight rapping set from Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne, the star of the “America’s Most Wanted Tour”, which came to Raleigh’s Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion a couple Saturdays ago, took the stage amidst a flurry of samples from Scarface and a screen projecting a psychedelic collage of eyeballs. The self-declared “best rapper alive” immediately let-out an unhinged freestyle (“Cannon”) before segueing into mega-hit, “A Milli…which is also an unhinged freestyle.

See, that’s the thing about Lil Wayne: There’s no difference between the rote (samples from a tough-guy rapper-approved classic, playing the hits) and the rarefied (a trippy eyeball video, endlessly thrilling nonsense raps)–it’s all awesomely muddled. This was a big, outdoor show where it often felt like the audience indulged the performer.

Because he’s at his best when he’s impulsive and scatter-brained, indulgence is less of a problem than it might seem. Remember, Wayne is a guy who–though he’s been rapping and making hits since the late 90s—carved out his one-of-a-kind path to pop stardom via quasi-official “mixtape” tracks that more often than not, consisted of hook-less, structure-less, oddball rapping. Part of the enjoyment of listening or seeing Wayne is the experience: the high-highs as well as the distracted asides.

Even though the performance was anchored in mixtape songs and hits from last year’s Tha Carter III, it was also mired in Wayne’s most recent whims, namely his underwhelming Young Money Crew—made more underwhelming here by the absence of breakout star Drake—and an interest in middling alt-rock, the apparent sound of Wayne’s upcoming album this fall, The Rebirth.

The Young Money Crew was easy to ignore, dropping in for a verse and rolling out, but nearly every song was revamped to fit Wayne’s newfound embrace of rawk. The transformation of well-known skittering beats to recycled butt-rock riffs isn’t as jarring or awful as it sounds, but it wasn’t great either and it didn’t help that right before, Young Jeezy expertly performed a set informed, but not reconfigured, by a live rock band.

Jeezy didn’t throw out the end-of-the-world stomping synths of his albums, he just had a band that tossed-in skronks of horns and slabs of guitar shredding overtop of them. Whammy-bar dangling, Jeezy’s guitarist punctuated “Who Dat”, a snarling beat from last year’s The Recession, with a chunk of strangled guitar, bringing a palpable sense of chaos to a purposefully no-frills, worker-bee rap performance.

And when the live instruments fully took over Jeezy’s set, it was at the end–a kind of coda to the Atlanta rapper’s show. Jeezy’s guitarist stepped forward and approximated Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” which shifted into Jeezy’s Obama-inspired, “My President”. There wasn’t any rapping though, Jeezy thanked the crowd and walked away, letting an instrumental play out, back-up singers howling out the defiant, conflicted chorus: “My president is black/My lambo is blue/And I’ll be godammned if my rims ain’t too”. It was absurd and arrogant and moving all at the same time.

Wayne’s performance was entirely made-up of confusingly awesome stuff like that, bouncing between sensational and stupid and then blurring the line between the two. There were a few moments of stirring clarity, particularly an almost spoken-word (read: respectable) performance of “Let the Beat Build” that seemed to suggest the ease in which Wayne could put on a “good” show, but moments like that gained power precisely because other moments were so transcendently nutty.

He performed “I’m Me” with the word UNFUCKINBELIEVABLE flashing behind him, indulged in an especially raucous mini-suite of mindless raps (“I Run This”, “Always Strapped”) with Cash-Money mentor Birdman, and endlessly two-stepped around the stage, getting the crowd to shout back his nonsense couplets (“I’m a great dane, I wear eight chains!”). The show didn’t make a lot of sense but that hardly matters—Wayne’s adept at making something monumental from a mess.

Written by Brandon

August 22nd, 2009 at 3:55 am

The House Next Door: "Music Video Round-Up" Young Jeezy’s "My President" & Relics of Cynicism

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I talk about the Young Jeezy videos “My President” and “Crazy World”, as well as Killer Mike’s “Pressure” video. I’d also like to note that very quietly–a surprise in the hype-everything world of rap–that “My President” director Gabriel Hart has tacked-on a terrible, terrible intro to the video. He’s also re-edited it, and so we get less Bun B about to cry with excitement and just a general fucking-with the rhythm. I wrote my review when the original only existed and rather than re-write or qualify it, I tossed-in a few lines about the re-edit and kept my initial reading:

“In light of Obama’s election and it’s positive implications for our country (made more than ideal by big moments like the impending closure of Guantanamo Bay and minor ones like not totally clowning McDonald’s worker “Julio”), politically-engaged protest art has the odd effect of feeling passe and cynical. Fully aware dissent don’t end when something good happens, the premiere of Young Jeezy’s “Crazy World” video a week or so after Obama won the presidency, felt decadent and irrelevant, a relic of knowing cynicism that we could now look beyond, right? Right? RIGHT?”

Written by Brandon

February 18th, 2009 at 8:30 am

On Bun B in the "My President" Video…

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More than a multi-racial sea of exuberant Obama supporters standing proud (or just as appropriately wilding out), more than John Lewis’ pensive cameo, more than just the existence of this epic victory lap rap from Young Jeezy, it’s the about-to-cry sincerity of Bun B’s face that makes the “My President” video.

Everybody but Bun’s acceptably sincere: Look pensive, nod your heard, jump up and down, cheer. Bun’s response is the one you’ll get a few moments later, the one that’s not cool, after the adrenaline stops, when the history-making, genuinely hopeful feeling for the first time in awhile sense of joy hits you and you tear up because it seems like maybe just maybe something really great’s really gonna happen.

He’s like, on the verge of tears, biting his lip a little, maintaining his cool, not on some “no homo” shit, but just because. That mix of keeping your cool and being totally okay with being a little bleary-eyed in a rap video’s basically what Bun’s been doing his whole career. It’s what he does when he raps on some much dopier Southern rapper’s “remix” and flips the song into some kinda complex political shit, or just plain raps harder, faster, whatever-er than the rest of the dudes. Whatever the rest of the group’s doing, Bun’s going to do that and then some and inject even more reality and honesty into the whole thing.

Neither a wizened “about damn time” stoic (although he’s probably in part, thinking that) or a treating it like a Super Bowl victory ball of enthusiasm, Bun’s modest and private, shooting the camera a few pensive glances with eyes that say more than Jeezy’s raps and simply raising his chain to Pimp C. It’s an insular kind of joy- the kind of joy you feel in those really glorious moments, where you step off to the side, away from everybody because somehow it’s all come together and you need to be alone. I think that’s what Bun B’s going through–or performing effectively enough–in this video: Tears of joy.

Written by Brandon

January 20th, 2009 at 6:44 am

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

What "Street Niggas" Really Listen To…

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On ‘20K Intro’ from the latest Clipse tape, Pusha mentions a “tree-huggin’ ass bitch” that told him he was “nice” but proceeded to give him a lot of shit about how his songs are all about “dope” and “street shit”, which of course, is very, very bad. Pusha, in one of the few points on the depressive tape where anyone climbs out of their frustration, responds with “Tree-huggin’ ass bitch please” and asserts who he really rhymes for: “niggas on the corner.”

This kind of defense or half-defense met with an angry assertion about “street niggas” or “niggas on the corner” isn’t new to rappers’ attempts at sounding “real” but it seems more glaring because well, the Clipse simply aren’t rapping for those “street niggas”. Maybe they are in the sense that that’s their intended audience, or maybe they mean it in some instructive way, but in terms of whose ears are open to Clipse, it is not who they claim to be rapping for; if this were true, Pusha wouldn’t even be confronted with a woman offended by their crack rap, you know?

Maybe some drug dealers have decent music taste, but the assumption that because one is from the street, one is apt to embrace street music, is incorrect. I see the logic, but most people are just more into ideas of escape and it’s why blue-collar whites listen to mainstream country music and not sad-sack songs about why their life sucks. The illusion that the drug-dealer is some near-Nietzschean businessman beyond good and evil that embraces his/her fate is a myth sold by dealers and the popular rappers that leech off of that myth. It’s a fucked-up circle of bullshit and the reality is, dealers are stupid too. They want to feel good about themselves like everybody else so, 50 Cent’s image of thuggery is way more appealing than say, ‘Chinese New Year’. In last night’s episode of ‘The Wire’, there’s a scene of Snoop and Chris driving down the street with Hurricane Chris playing out their speakers; that’s what I’m getting at!

Not that Clipse is the pinnacle of actual street realness- whatever that means- but they represent something a little less ideal than many of the other rappers talking about how street they are. The brilliance of Clipse is the way they offer up the same old bullshit but said a little better, song after song, and then suddenly drop a particularly dark insight or emotional reality. These details weave through ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ but they become palpable on the closer ‘Nightmares’, despite or in spite of its cloying acknowledgment of regret. Malice’s verse on the last track on ‘We Got it 4 Cheap Vol. 2’ about being “a hamster in a wheel” is all the more affecting because he hasn’t been this emotional, depressed rapper on every track. On the latest tape, the depression seems more real and upfront but the main point is still drug-pushing punchlines. Peppered throughout however, are lines like “we keep it from the kids and tell em’ it’s detergent”. Young Jeezy might say that line, but he’d be half-bragging or throw in one of those “Ha-HA”s to downplay the reality of selling crack with a bunch of kids around; Pusha just drops that fucked-up reality and keeps going.

If anything, Pusha should stop dropping weird defenses about who he makes his music for or who listens to it, because he should be proud “niggas on the corner” don’t want to hear his fucked-up version of reality: It means he’s doing his job! It also says something about how deluded the criminal element is, that Clipse don’t offer enough escapism and justification, but this is getting long already…

Although Clipse boast and glorify, their music never feels too exciting and their swagger is on the defensive and defiant, never there on principle or some fake-ass Tupac “I don’t give a fuck” thing…the Clipse care, a lot. The dudes aren’t perfect but they certainly do not create ideal forms that can be embraced by delusional thugs or angry too-cool for rock but too-dumb for real rap middle-schoolers. That’s what the current debate on hip-hop’s quality is really about and always has been: ideal vs. the reality.

On DocZeus’s entry on Clipse earlier this month, the lively comments debate went into a smart and even-handed breakdown of what exactly made Clipse more complex or better or less amoral than Young Jeezy. At first glance, the two have a lot in common. Both rap coke braggadocio with a vague catering to regret, over cold, sterile, electronic beats but as smart listeners have pointed out, even when the darkness of dealing is not apparent in the rhymes, it’s heard in those harsh, beats. But there’s a difference.

Indeed, Clipse are hardly the ideal non-ideal rappers and Jeezy is not totally in drug-dealing fantasy land, but comparing the two illustrates my point. Clipse have production that is almost tinny and truly minimalist and it underscores their bragging; Jeezy’s production is disturbing but has a triumphant edge that turns his non-rapping into an unstoppable force of hard-ass synths and regal horns. Jeezy is what a drug-dealer wants to be and Clipse are a little closer to what a drug dealer really is. So, it makes sense that “street niggas” would gravitate towards Jeezy and it makes sense that jerkoffs who think drug-dealers are cool or people who think they’re drug dealers, would also prefer the Jeezy treatment of dealing.

I’m reminded of a similar division between the ideal and the real in film scholar Ray Carney’s The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies. The book’s primary argument is that filmmaker Cassavetes consistently avoids the clean-edges of Hollywood cinema- including the Hollywood art of Welles, Hitchcock, etc.- for a less ideal and more accurate representation of life (I’m really simplifying…). Late in the book, Carney contrasts Cassavetes’ crime film ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’, a portrait of a down-and-out strip-club owner who has a lot of debt, with Orson Welles’ classic ‘Citizen Kane’, a very different kind of portrait of a failed man. Carney’s most effective point is to suggest that even as Orson Welles makes a movie opposed to Charles Foster Kane, it really only “pretends to criticize the excesses of capitalistic arrangements and manipulations in its content [and] collaborates with them in its form” (230); Welles’ movie is as bombastic and overblown as Kane. Cassavetes’ relationship to Cosmo (the main character of ‘Bookie’) is very different; the movie constantly seeks out ways to undermine Cosmo’s illusion of himself and his surroundings.

Cosmo is never smooth even when he tries to be, the women of his strip-club are either downright beat or beautiful in a way that is realistic*, and his gangster friends are hardly Deniro cool or handsome. To drive the point home, Carney creates a hypothetical, wherein the main character of each movie could watch the movie about themselves: “As his political rally suggests, Kane would love the style of his own film (even if he might have problems with its satiric point). Cosmo would hate his movie’s style.” (231).

*Sorry about the soft-porn link, there’s not a lot out there on Azizi Johari…

I know that comparison is not perfect, for rappers are not in the same exact position as the movie director, but despite most rappers’ tendency to use the “I” whether telling the truth or not, both rapper and director tell stories, create portraits, and generally, subjectivize experience. And just as Kane would approve of the however negative still aggrandizing portrayal of self in ‘Citizen Kane’, would most “street niggas” prefer the version that paints them as larger-than-life transgressors. Replace “Welles” with just about any drug-talk rapper in the following quotation and the connection seems clear: “Welles [or Young Jeezy?] is addicted to crafting a self-contained, self-justifying, self-referential imaginative world…” (230). Carney of course, is interested in art and so, his focus is on the creator but I’m shifting the focus on the audience- or a part of the audience.

The world Carney describes is the one that Jeezy chooses to reside in, but it is also the world that his audience prefers because it breeds complacency and zero self-reflection. Those “true” dealers on the corner like it because it justifies their way of living and then pumps it up a few sizes. Those outside “the life” generally think its either cool or somehow want to connect their own dreams to Jeezy’s motivational speech rap, so they too prefer the idealized form. It’s not how Jeezy intended it, but he really is like a motivational speaker in the sense that like Tony Robbins or Dr. Phil or those twin midgets that sell real-estate kids on TV at 3am, he feeds his audience a load of complacent bullshit masquerading as insight or theory.

I think I need to clarify that the embrace of this ideal is held by everyone, and is hardly exclusive to black drug-dealers (which is what we must assume Pusha means by “niggas on the corner”). I generally do not concern myself with being offensive, but I do fear this could be misread as a critique of the black criminal mind-set or blacks in general, when I’m first, discussing the escapism of popular rap and second, the growing obsession with escapism in the world at-large. That is to say, Pusha is not referring to white drug dealers or criminals, not because he uses the word “nigga”- for this word is often used as nearly all-inclusive, go to a Ghostface show, he’ll call his crowd of many white faces “my niggas”- but because going back to ‘Lord Willin’, Pusha and company have been focused on their community and their world.

Basically, when it comes to ideals, everyone likes to feel cool and smart and not part of the shitty reality in which they live. Rock musicians still revel in an ideal version of the debauched rocker, or, when it comes to crime, escapist forms of the life of crime are hardly exclusive to black drug-dealers. The best example would be the mafia, which has pushed idealized forms of their life since their life came about during the 1920s and 30s. Most “gangster” movies end morally and have an edge of justice to them, but they are first and foremost, obsessed with the criminal and his (especially during that early era) transgressive acts of crime.

It is interesting to note that so much of the glorification of the criminal life that is so pervasive and sensitive to criticism in rap, has its roots in white crime films that mainstream critics have praised since the 1930s. The pinnacle of course, is hip-hop movie royalty, ‘Scarface’ and ‘Goodfellas’ and rappers have continually picked apart these movies for influence. Ridley Scott’s recent ‘American Gangster’ and in some ways, Jay-Z’s accompanying album, would be the pinnacle of this embrace of the ideal life of crime and a conflation of the white-oriented “gangster” ideals with the black oriented “gangsta” ideals.

As Jay-Z recently said on ‘Ignorant Shit’, “Scarface the movie did more than Scarface the rapper for me”, and of course, that’s true because despite occasional forays into a less glamorous image of thug-life, Jay-Z has worked in ideal gangsta forms in a way that Scarface the rapper, never has. Even on his recent semi-hit ‘Girl, You Know’- a song that is a rejection of love, another ideal- there’s that reference to how “she don’t suck dick like she used to do” and he dubs in this gross slurping sound, which you now, is real because getting your dick sucked is this weird thing of this girl like slurping all over your dong; it’s weird if you think about it.

The point is, you watch ‘Scarface’ or ‘Goodfellas’ and while they end poorly and do not approve of their characters’ actions, the movies are celebrations of the swagger and confidence of the lifestyle. The directors reject the moral perspective of Henry Hill or Tony Montana, but love the attitude. This is why you read stories of real-life mobsters watching and performing the actions of these characters; it makes them feel awesome and not you know, gross weird, kinda pathetic criminals (which is how ‘The Killing of Chinese Bookie’ and maybe a Clipse album and certainly a Ghostface album, makes you feel…). Corner dealers, once given the option, will choose nebulous coke rap over the well-wrought realities of Ghostface and to a lesser extent, Clipse, every time: Nobody wants reality!

-Stills stolen from

-Carney, Ray. ‘The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies’. Cambridge UP, 1994.

Written by Brandon

February 25th, 2008 at 6:54 am

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The Crack-Rap Conundrum.

I received this e-mail earlier today and my response got a little long. I thought the initial e-mail and my response might be interesting enough to post here. Plus, I haven’t posted yet this week, so anything is better than nothing…right?
“hey man, cool blog you got goin’. i’ve commented on at least one (a couple?) of your posts so far, and since i noticed a link to what you thought of Jeezy’s Inspiration album recently i figured i’d see what you thought on somethin’ that’s been buggin’ me ’bout dude’s music lately.

like you, i find a lot to like ’bout The Inspiration in terms of beats, hooks, the way Jeezy carries himself — i’d go as far to say it’s one of my favorite recent albums. however, there’s this kinda white-boy guilt that keeps naggin’ at me when i listen to it. i know Jeezy ain’t the first cat to rap ’bout drugs, but whereas other rappers — take Jay and Biggie just for the sake of example — have shades of complexity that can be pointed out, the way Jeezy does things strikes me as borderline (if not outright) glorification of the lifestyle, which irks me. if he did more excellent tracks like “Dreamin’” i wouldn’t feel uncomfortable ’bout it, but the fact that a _lot_ of his album has him mentioning selling coke and material gain in the same breath, and in easy-to-understand terms, is troubling.

i know the standard defense is that it’s just music, but when these guys go on ’bout how “real” they are and are bein’ listened to by kids who can’t grasp music in the same way we do, i can’t help but wonder if kids in poor urban communities are gettin’ bad signals from this stuff. i would like to think that everyone’s just takin’ it as music that’s fun and purpose-driven, but i’m not so sure that’s the case. and Jeezy’s easily way more popular than any cat who’s ever rapped ’bout drugs as explicitly.

kinda outta the blue, but might make an interesting blog post. just seein’ your thoughts on this.

-(name witheld until I get permission)”

Thanks for the comments and interest. I appreciate the personal email as well, that’s real.

It seems that we like Jeezy for many of the same reasons. Many of them almost seem to be in spite of him or out some kind of begrudging respect. He WORKS on his albums which is more than I can say about many of my favorite rappers. He has a sonic consistency and something like a vision for his album and persona and that’s really cool.

The contrasts between Jeezy and Jay and Biggie are apt because they work so well. Certainly, on the surface level they are unfair because Jeezy barely even raps and Biggie and Jay are two greats but it works. See if this makes sense…

Pardon me, if I’m being too pretentious or appear pedantic, I’m not trying to, but as my blog mentions, I’ve begun a ‘Film Studies’ program and we read an essay by ‘Taxi Driver’ screenwriter, Paul Schrader in which he discusses the importance, art, greatness and everything else of Film Noir. Film Noir being, American crime movies of the 40s and 50s noted by dark lighting and even darker, cynical stories and blah, blah, blah.

Well, Schrader contrasts the sophistication of Film Noir with other “genres”. He calls Westerns moral[ly] primitive[]” and adds that the Gangster movies of the 1930s, which preceded Film Noir, contained “Horatio Alger” values. Horatio Alger, was a late 19th century writer for young teens, his big book was ‘Ragged Dick’ about a raggedy orphan living on the streets, who through his own might and gusto comes to be wealthy. Hmm..sound familiar? What Schrader was getting at with old Gangster movies and what I’m getting at (and you too) with Jeezy which is, an intellectual problem. He presents the story too simplistically, too melodramatically, he skips over the rotten details. Jay-Z and Biggie are Film Noir; Jeezy is the 1930s Gangster movie. Of course, it says something about the current rap climate that the change is a devolution not an evolution as it was in “filmmaking”.

In terms of sophistication, there’s a change but in terms of influence I don’t know how much that really matters. The easily-influenced are easily-influenced by everything, not just super-obvious crack-rap, but more complicated crack-rap as well. Young Jeezy gives you a super-clear melodramatic version of the life that is therefore easier to grasp. Sort of.

I say “sort of” because I think his music contains some complexities and in a way, those complexities are even more subtle than Jay or Biggie’s. They can be found in his vocal inflection, and his dark and disturbing beats. This of course, flies over the heads of the people listening to the music. This, I find exciting but it is also disturbing because this subtlety is in-line with or right next to Jeezy’s super obvious coke-referencing. While Biggie and Jay-Z rapped about coke, it was often hard for a typical listener to grasp or pull-out the “sell crack, get rich” message that both of them, in their own ways, also espouse(d). Jeezy’s message is clearer because he just chants it at you for an hour straight.

At the same time, I’m not sure how much more obvious Jeezy’s rapping about coke is to that of Jay or Biggie’s. Jeezy’s rapping is more obvious and therefore the subject matter more apparent but I would say his production is more bizarre and strange; It blows my mind that these songs are on the radio. Jay-Z and Biggie rapped more subtle, more nuanced crack-talk but over very catchy and digestable production. Whose the true or truer “pusher”? I don’t know.

All of these dudes glorify the lifestyle and all of them, in one way or another, show you the downside. Jeezy works more in the super-obvious and in generalities, that is to say, his rapping is not detail-oriented and is more like a Hollywood version of the crack game. However, as I go back, do Jay or Biggie really give you any more detail? Do they glorify it less? Compare their crack rap to that of Raekwon and Ghostface and Jay and Biggie end up in the Jeezy spot.

When discussing the topic of crack-rap, there are two arguments/ideas, running next to one another that barely ever intersect. The first is, for lack of a better word, the rap fan’s perspective, and that primarily relates to an appreciation of lyrics and beats in all of their complexity. The second, is some kind of sociological or cultural studies perspective relating to the impact of crack-rap on poor “urban” kids. I’m sorry if I appear facetious but we all know what one means when they talk about crack and its effect on urban communities so I think it would be better, although less politically correct, to just say black kids. If country singers sang about selling crystal-meth, we’d be concerned with its effect on poor whites or even “rednecks” not poor “rural communities”…

Either way, the real issue you raised is the artist’s responsibility. I find the “it’s just music” argument weak and disingenuous, and I think all who use it know it is. However, they use it because if they don’t, they’ll just be shutup because this is some really complicated shit! Jeezy or whoever can’t jump on television and drop some kind of hyper-complex thesis on crack-rap and its positive and negative and in-between-ative aspects so they just blow it off with “it’s just me expressin’ myself” because it shuts people up and the shit sells so it isn’t going anywhere.

From a rap fan’s perspective, I like Jeezy; I don’t love him but his album is pretty damn good and for me, as a thinking person, like yourself (NAME), can reconcile these good qualities with the apparent bad qualities and (I don’t know if you’d agree here) I think Jeezy’s music does hint at and emote some of the negative aspects of hustling even if it doesn’t do it through subtle or conventionally artistic means. ‘Bury Me a G’ is an amazing, amazing, song, powerful, cinematic, emotional, everything. I said this in my little review, but I think if Jeezy’s album ended with ‘Bury Me…’ and ‘Dreamin’ it would have been lauded as a complicated address of the crack world.

From a sociological perspective, I totally differ from you and that is okay. I understand my opinion here is flawed and maybe even dismissive, but I’ve yet to find a “better” opinion I can feel comfortable having. We differ in that I do not believe in the transformative qualities of art. That is to say, I don’t think the art or even popular culture of the world truly does affect people for good or bad. There have been plenty of wars since Picasso painted Guernica. ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ didn’t end cocaine problems. People will sell and deal crack way after Jeezy’s albums are relegated to discount bins. Does that make it right to perpetuate it? No. But if it does perpetuate it, as you and others suggest and I totally see why you would say that, I do not think better-wrought or more complex raps about crack perpetuate it any less. So in that way, Jay and Biggie are equally guilty.

As a cultural trend or oddity however, the thinly-veiled coke stuff is weird. Weird the way popular songs that are really about blowjobs or other “subversive” stuff is weird. I think this is seen as stranger and more problematic because it is crack-dealing and not only dealing, but a perpetuation of the worst cliche being pushed in the ghetto (next to stop snitching): sell crack, make money. While I want to believe in tiers of suffering, that is to say, Jeezy is worse than Paris Hilton because Jeezy is affecting impoverished, mind-bogglingly fucked-over black youth, I have a hard time lying down with that idea. Primarily, because I find it simple-minded and in favor of victimization which I generally have a problem with… but more so than that, I find the “this negatively affects poor blacks” argument condescending towards the black youth. A black youth that myself and so many others claim to be concerned about. To suggest these kids and teens don’t understand the moralistic issues of crack-dealing is a bit condescending. This is the problem with D.A.R.E and other stuff like that, it assumes that these kids dealing are stupid which they are not. They know what they are doing is not a good idea but they do it anyway. That is unfortunate. That is sad, even tragic but people do things they know are wrong everyday. Most murders are thought-out to some extent, and just like a murderer who in some way, accepted or embraced his fate, those selling drugs have accepted the fate that may fall upon them for dealing. Now, many do not see the full implication of this choice and misinterpret the positives and that is unfortunate, particularly because so many choose crack-dealing out of decision that it is the best of the worst choices they have access to, but still- the issue remains more complex and morally ambiguous than Officer Friendly wants to admit or consider.

More complicated because I don’t know if dealing drugs really is that bad. It’s bad because it is criminal. It is bad because you’re leading to the destruction of others. It’s bad because it will get your ass thrown in jail, especially if you’re dealing crack and not cocaine and especially if you’re black and not white and all that good stuff we already know…

Sorry about the length. haha. I guess that’s a blog entry??


Written by Brandon

June 21st, 2007 at 5:10 am

Posted in Young Jeezy, crack rap

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Rap Music and “Experimental” Music

I was dancing around this topic in my ‘Harmony in Ultraviolet’ review because I didn’t think many people think or care why Tim Hecker and Young Jeezy are similar musicians. As my girlfriend, kind-of default editor, and imminent contributor to this little blog said: “Who would [that entry] be for?” I’m not really sure. But, who’s reading this shit anyway?

While I was writing my Hecker review, I kept thinking of ‘The Inspiration’ and how ‘Inspiration’ and ‘Harmony…’ are more alike than any of the other albums I’ve written about. If I had to compare ‘The Inspiration’, I’d say it is sonically similar to Three-Six Mafia ‘Most Known Unknown’, ‘M83’s ‘Before the Dawn Heals Us’, and the aforementioned Hecker album. A weird group, but seriously: What makes Tim Hecker avant-garde and Young Jeezy (and his producers) stupid mainstream rap? The music is primarily created through sampling and electronics. Those soundtrack to ‘Thief’ whips and beeps on ‘Hypnotize’ sound a lot like the in-and-out helicopter-sounding whooshes that provide the backing to ‘Dungeoneering’. More importantly, the songs are after the same feeling: Some kind of claustrophobic, scary world-collapsing paranoia that occasionally breaks open into minor joy. The way ‘Dungeoneering’ lets up towards the end and segues into the next track is a lot like the feeling Jeezy provides with a defiant chorus or Shawty Red or Timbo provide the listener with through a change-up of the beat. What about those sub-level basstones that suddenly push forward on a lot of ‘The Inspiration’s tracks? Electronic music, especially the kind Hecker makes, is all production. The minor details and subtle shifts are what make it good. The organ stabs on ‘Whitecaps of White Noise I’ sound a lot like DJ Toomp’s now signature synth-tone. This stuff isn’t that different!

If we think of Jeezy’s album as a rap album but still, not that different from glitch or ambient electronic or whatever, then the whole “Bring lyricism back/Bring New York back” argument is trivial because an end-run around that argument has been made. Why must Jeezy be eloquent? Is he even rapping on ‘The Inspiration’? He’s just sort of saying stuff that occasionally, doesn’t even rhyme. All I know is, the total package, what Jeezy says, lyrical or not, coupled with the production, is a really satisfying musical experience. Jeezy’s just some guy saying some shit about what he knows. It is unfortunate that rappers are so closely tied to precedent and tradition, but its evern sadder that they are asked to cover all of their bases socially, politically, and ethically. These concerns with racial representation and social consciousness don’t and shouldn’t mean a thing to Jeezy. I’m not interested in only listening to stuff I already know about or stuff that I agree with. I’m Black Metal obsessed and most of those guys are screaming about some Heathen/Preserve-the-White race stuff that’s scary, but also awesome because it’s just some guy in Norway pouring his heart into his music. Even if he’s pouring his heart into music that promotes church-burning. I think the first step towards this disinterest in purity of genre, while still being deathly afraid of “fusion”- could come about if more people realized what is going on in mainstream rap and gave these guys some credit. If ‘Wire Magazine’ had any balls, if the magazine was honestly interested in “adventures in modern music” and dropped their elitism, their rap coverboys wouldn’t be lames like MF Doom or Edan. Three-Six Mafia would have made the cover a decade ago. So would The Neptunes and Timbaland, even Jazze Pha or Kanye West. Are Broadcast or Boards of Canada more “adventurous” than a Phizzle production like ‘So What’? The magazine’s year-end list might include ‘Late Registration’ or something, but it’s more like them conceding to it so they don’t look totally out of touch. There isn’t anything spectacular about Edan, he’s entirely a throwback and I guess that’s cool or post-innovative or something, but I think it’s just annoying. The rap music that sells (not Edan), the rap music so many people have a problem with, is really, really good and forward-thinking and yes, “experimental”. More experimental than the “underground”. Noz wrote on this topic better than I ever could, particularly his passage on how “weird” rap music is. Go check it out: ‘The Good Die Mostly Over Bullshit Post-Rap Side Projects’.I sort of wish one of those anthologies like the Dave Eggers-edited ‘The Best American Non-Required Reading’ anthologies existed for the best web-based rap writing. This Noz article would make it. So would Peter Macia’s review of Little Brother’s ‘The Minstrel Show’ because if this rap-blogging stuff ever means something to anyone, I feel like that review was sort of a significant, throwing down the gauntlet. And yeah, if I were the editor of some sort of rap-blog anthology, it would be so Wigster your ‘Morehouse Class of 94’ Reunion’ commemorative kufi would fucking spin.

Written by Brandon

December 31st, 2006 at 11:29 pm

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4. Young Jeezy – The Inspiration – I just bought this two days ago so my enthusiasm may wane, but I don’t think so. I’ve been obsessed with ‘Go Getta’ since I heard it on my SIRIUS radio last week. I bought the CD the way I’d bought a coffee earlier in the evening: to make my procrastinating Christmas shopping a little easier. I bought it, with plans on selling it for store credit because I assumed it wouldn’t be very good. I figured I would listen to ‘I Luv It’ and ‘Go Getta’ a few times and then the mediocrity of the album would entertain me through the shopping traffic. So, I put in ‘The Inspiration’ and heard these crazy Tangerine Dream-sounding blips and electronics and Jeezy breathing “ayyyyy…” on ‘Hypnotize’ and I was already kind of impressed. There isn’t a skippable track on this album and that’s more than can be said for most rap albums, even some that I enjoy. ‘The Inspiration’ sounds worked-on, which is refreshing. If he really did have “80 songs in the can” as the XXL feature from this month says, and out of those 80, the 16 that make up ‘The Inspiration’ came out, it was worth it (Rubin 88). Jeezy clearly did what so many rappers seem disinterested in doing or just can’t do: edit themselves. Not only has he edited himself, but he’s made an album that makes me believe Jeezy when he says “It ain’t about no money…I just want to be heard” (Jeezy qtd. in Rubin 88). If it was about money, or should I say, if it were only about money, those tracks with Snoop or Three-Six Mafia would be on there (Rubin 88). So would that “joint from Scott Storch” (Rubin 86).People are buying this album but what are they getting from it? There’s no “indicating”; you never get the sad, serious song or a club song, you just get this slow, futuristic dirge for 64 minutes. What do you do listening to this kind of music? Search for fugitive androids? Bang Sean Young?

I don’t know if this metaphor has been used before (and it only kind of works anyway), but for most rappers, the rapper is the actor and the producer is the director. If the rapper is given a slow beat with a soul sample, they rap about their Moms or regret, if they get a poppy beat, they rap about the club. This isn’t true on ‘The Inspiration’; Jeezy isn’t fitting his beats, the beats are fitted for him. This allows him to drop something sad, serious, motivational, insightful, or completely retarded (“call it pro-tools”???) all in the same song. Jeezy’s consistency pulls his lyrics out of the pit of coke rap cliché because he isn’t being “directed” by the beats. I can trust what he is saying, whether it’s well-said or not because it’s not dictated by the production, the guests, or the blueprint for having a rap album that sells well. The album has no concessions, even something like ‘Dreamin’ featuring Keyshia Cole, is still anchored by this super-flanged, sped-up vocal sample that sounds like a Vangelis synth. The sequencing of the album is excellent as well, putting this r & b song right after the intense ‘Bury Me a G’ is a logical transition that downplays the less interesting aspects of ‘Dreamin’.

I never heard ‘Motivation’ and didn’t like the singles except for ‘Go Crazy.’ The ‘Go Crazy’ remix is one of my favorite rap songs of the past few years but I basically ignored Jeezy. Summer of 05’ and into the fall, I was amazed by people of varying interests and devotions to rap loving this guy. He looks boring, he sounds boring, he just doesn’t have that much going for him. It sounds like the one thing Jeezy has going for him is that he works really hard to make good albums. I’ll even argue that if the last track on ‘Inspiration’ was ‘Dreamin’ or if you removed a few tracks and reordered a few others, this album would be as “good” (good, in some Platonic music-critic perspective I only sort of understand) as ‘Hell Hath No Fury’.

Tommorrow: Honorable Mentions of the year.

-Rubin, Peter. “The Undeniable”. XXL Magazine, Jan/Feb 2007. (82-88).

Written by Brandon

December 26th, 2006 at 3:00 am

Posted in 2006, Young Jeezy