Archive for the 'Musings on Music' Category

200 Or Less: Flight 187

Fifty flirts with fatalism. Forget flirts, fancies futility. While a reluctant Jay-Z downplays conflict and heralds success, 50 Cent openly contests the value of earthly gains. Curtis Jackson has seen the mountaintop; his G4 jet crashes into it. Most compelling about “Flight 187”: video mural depicting a confused but decidedly ironic multi-millionaire. If celebration and champagne are in vogue, macabre meltdowns are 50’s leverage, his levee stemming the tide.

Drake, the reluctant baller, has purred about the pitfalls of progress. 50 hasn’t pretended as much about his need for riches. Here, the first signs of wealth’s drag on his conscience. Not one for window shopping, he’s indulged even the negative parts of fame, namely feuding and vanity. But the yield has been curious.

“Brought you from the hood/Destination, hell or heaven?”

The floating question mark deranges his song nearly as much as its groaning vocal thump. In one “mm,” there’s baby mama drama, death visions, astuteness. Like Biggie before him, 50’s been ready to die from the inception. Specifically, it’s the imminence of his dream. As he nears the symbolic end, life’s hold tightens inexplicably. Black manhood ultimately corrodes vitality, discarding dreamers in the offing.

I’m a rider.

ManchildInThePromisedLand

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Bring Some Soul For My Robot

The internet connection is squeaking again in fits of malcontent. Videos just don’t play like they used to. Need about 10 minutes to check my digital mailbox, another 15 to scroll through the article links friends posted, 20 more to go through the various feeds to publications. Instant information, or at least the semblance of it, is like daily milk for the suckling neurons. For every sensuous byte, there’s an equal fire sparking within, gluing to genetic circuitry and drawing the flesh ever so close to the machine. What of the modern art galleries that feature video stills and metal sculptures? Do they lose the essence of “art” because the forms change with the era? Music flows dually in the currents of art and information. Video killed the radio star by necessity as technology sectored the world of sound. Wax records swallowed up live musicians who couldn’t cross over to vinyl in time. It’s the stuff of science fiction: the Matrix descending on the airwaves first, then into the brain patterns, and on and on.

Both sides of the digital divide have their place, but only the artists whose voices we hear materially captive, confined to cassettes, compact discs, and videos exist for our grandchildren. All the same, cardiovascular rhythm burns off technology’s bulk, leaving traces of the human soul within the filaments. The music with the best chance of survival inside the techno-sphere, then, is the kind that forces its heart into the robot, filling it with lifeblood to make it distinguishable from just another voicebox. Audio recording methods will forever mold how songs are preserved, but the true measure of timelessness is our ability to operate both inside and outside of wiring. Aretha Franklin, Nas and Jimi Hendrix will outlast any disc where their voices are heard partly because of their extensive catalogs and partly because of their infinitely soulful stance.

Now, as before, there are countless tweaks to enhance the vocal register, including the machine we know simply as Auto-tune, which eponymously indicates just how to “automate” a human sound with a robot’s hand. The current music climate welcomes robotic sounds, the metallic hum of a thousand modems. But it can be hard to differentiate the refuse from the jewels. Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It On the Alcohol” exists in the same crowded room with Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex,” shoving one another for space along the same frequency. Foxx wins. Mavado and Vybz Kartel smooth the edges of gangster dancehall with bleats and beeps, while Drake and Lil Wayne observe looking for clues. Which of these robotic voices makes sense to the human ear over decades? Continue reading ‘Bring Some Soul For My Robot’

Best I Never Had: The Blank Drake

Be prepared for a wave of Idolatry in Rap unlike one we’ve seen in recent years. At least that’s what Drake, the Toronto actor and former CTV star, is banking on. Unfortunately, for all Aubrey Graham brings in terms of persona pump-priming, he badly copies the trite images we have grown tired of already. Whether it’s LL Cool J with his obsessive lingual luxuriating or Kanye with his fashionista obsessions, modern rap music has made more of the visual presentation of an artist’s sexuality than the quality they bring to our waiting ears. The canard in this picture is the rapper who combines familiar sounds of the moment with familiar visuals of the moment. That rapper du jour is Drake. He’s ruining the radio.

Or maybe not. Defining the ontology of Stardom As Artistry and vice versa is a useless quest.

Maybe it’s just my merciless discerning taste. I fight tooth and nail for hip-hop culture because it’s the same culture that extends from blues and reggae. The Culture of Black Rhythm produces books, albums, artists and works of note. It also swaddles the individual voice in the rich cloth of collective, choric, chanting traditions. There’s a double-edged sword to the material manifestation of that kind of art: rap music, in its frenetic commercial cycle, produces none of the above. There are boastful gunmen, conniving hustlers, shameless players and romantic poets, but they exist in separate spaces of the public covenant. As critical listeners, we’re lucky to get a universal morsel out of a song, much less food for thought. Thus, I’m at a loss when it comes to Drake, the young performer whose entire portrait is a John Hughes caricature of the arrogant team captain.

But he sings, he acts, he raps. What more could you ask for?

Well, talent. Throw on your tap shoes, young man. There’s no longer room for mere method acting in rap music. Although that is a talent: fitting a perfectly scripted role provided by publicity managers and record labels, it won’t swim unaccompanied. For starters, if hip-hop is to thrive (not merely survive) rappers must bring a modicum of talent to their too-large audience. Meaning, they should know how to put syllables and metaphors together in a coherent way so that songs have a theme, beats sustain our active imaginations, and records have a shelf life beyond the corporate quarterly report. If they can muster it, they should learn a dance step, create an indomitable stage show and take it on the road.

Then again, Drake’s deference to an “acceptable Negro” template is also troublesome. In the age of Barack Obama, when multi-racial identity is synonymous with success, but where the same is not true for single, downcast racial groups, Drake represents the deceptively “safe choice” for teen girls of all colors. At first, the thug paradigm in hip-hop appealed to mainstream American teenagers because of its exoticism, but then African nationalism took over before finally giving way to genteel sportsman in Puffy, Jay-Z, and now Drake. The Aubrey Graham Experiment is no embrace of the diversity of multi-racial performers as much as it is an indictment of the rebellious, ill-fitting archetypes embodied by ruffians like Jadakiss, Freeway. Those black rapscallions provide a contrast from the American television-reared norm (except in the case of 50 Cent when that rebellion is commodified). Drake lives in the Eminem continuum, in this sense, because he blends with preconceived expectations of racial parity, of preconceived norms, and inoffensive vanilla appearances, while telling us that (really!) he’s all bad ass. This way, Sarah need not fret when that poster of the rap superstar hangs on Becky’s closet door. After all, she’s traded bare-chested pin-up shots of thugs with the tattooed tear for a beautiful petticoat and handsome knickers.

Which brings us to an important question about Drake: does his adherence to a standard, safe, orthodox style make him a poor artist, an unrealized artist, or merely a reflection of the current culture? As a lyricist, he falls somewhere between Lil Wayne’s casual and Kanye’s self-important. But those two artists showed verbal improvement during the various stages of their career before they were knighted as rulers of hip-hop’s mainstream. Lil Wayne had to release “Go DJ” and a slew of mixtapes before anyone dared notice how his improvisational skills could overshadow many of the prosaic songs of his contemporaries. Kanye West practically learned how to rap before an unforgiving audience, straining first for breath control, and then for more potent similes. His majesty behind the mixing board also built his legend in a tandem with his bold public statements. Drake has benefited from the iconoclastic traits of these two without necessarily carrying with him their attention to personal detail, to variety, and to composition. Of his slim volume, Drake has mostly touted the powers of auto-tuned, caramelized melodies. But in rap music, where the melody and harmony of blues music and reggae meet the archly defiant voice of the emcee, he is only half developed. His lyrics, when examined as an expressive tool, fail even at the rudimentary level of execution. With attempted double-entendres, Drake leaves the doubling unfinished, rhyming the same words over again without changing the meaning from couplet to couplet. Even more egregiously, his main duty as an artist, to demonstrate the full depth of his points, always seems just beyond his reach.

In his most “thoughtful” song to date, “Successful,” with Trey Songs’s crybaby crooning as a charming backdrop, Drake recalls a murky story about his mother. The lyrics are an absolute puzzle of inadequate rhetoric however:

But as of late, alot of shit been going sideways

And my mother try to run away from home

But I left something in the car and so I caught her in the driveway

And she cried to me, so I cried too

And my stomach was soaking wet, she only 5’2″

Just as the story might have explored the reason his mother ran away, or the reason for her tears in the driveway, he talks about her height. How perplexing to even go down the road when only shallow discovery would come of the couplets. But berating Drake’s commercial hit seems neither here nor there as even legendary artists have stooped to numbing simplicity in the name of driving a hot beat to its eventual destination. For whatever he may lack in depth, he has certainly captured this summer’s imagination with his songs, videos, and all-around charisma. The striking thing here, though, is that there’s an overwhelming sentiment that he is the “next coming,” the singer with a rap sensibility, the polished actor with a brash hip-hop attitude. In the age of charlatanism, of surreal swagger (I swear some of these performers would gild their caskets for more swagger points), Drake is not just the perfect fit, he’s the only fit. He will be only what we, the ravenous audience of fickle followers, require him to be. As it is the charge of an artist to be both slave to his spirit, the thing that makes him human, and to be the frank interpreter of the common spirit, Drizzy makes short sloppy work of the tasks at hand.

Now, would we be pleased if he brought his Black Thought rhyme book out for every recording? Or if he displayed some surprising emotional clarity on a debut album? Who’s to say? The intrigue of Drake remains in his status as an incomplete but compelling demonstration of the ego’s influence on emceeing. In a sense, Drake does what Kanye did before him, daring listeners not to like him, as if those who do criticize are at a distance from what’s “hip.” Hipness notwithstanding, when you’re mantled with the label “Great” too early, the results can only be disastrous.

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Defending Love Lockdown, Gilbert Arenas

 

Kanye West is the most relevant musician on the current music scene, because he operates in a dying genre that he’s somehow resuscitating by reminding everyone what it’s like to take a gumbo of music forms and make it into one thing. He has this bold vision that he may never specifically articulate, except to say that it deals with greatness and dimensionality. Some of his best work is a berth of pride and spiritual boldness. “Love Lockdown” is part exceptionalism, not one rapped lyric finds its way in; and part leapfrog into a world of little accountability. If artistic liberation metes itself out in the quixotic “experimental” album moment for every musician, this is Kanye’s Electric Circus/Perfect Imperfections/Sgt. Pepper, if you will.

Continue reading ‘Defending Love Lockdown, Gilbert Arenas’

Oh You Mad Cuz’…I Punched You in the Face

I know about the narrative arc of hip-hop seemingly representing this “end to violence” in the South Bronx, giving way to breakers and b-boys to go along with emcees and DJs. But realistically, this is a romantic view of the tension and competition inherent in rap music. Freestyle battles, whether in a public space or at the local radio station drip with oneupmanship and dog-eat-dog fury. Of course, speaking as an armchair social scientist, this means that it ultimately feeds into the disunity complex among black men. It means that something that is partly responsible for a new creative class among blacks has much more of a destructive tendency than a constructive one. So there’s just as much aggression and violence in the outer world in this black art of hip-hop. Sometimes that manifests in good ways, like in Ice Cube’s “Today Was A Good Day” where Cube talked relief from the stresses of L.A. strife. Sometimes it just transfers violent memes to violent acts, as in its traditional stance on all things women.

It yields a humorous distance from reality for me. I like a good rap battle as much as the next fan. But when it deteriorates–like these do–into fights for physical dominance, I still appreciate it for just showing its ass. Hip-hop can never really be bought or framed for the positive or negative because it’s visceral. These reactions come from outside factors even if the music itself has a dandy relationship with violence. Violence courted hip-hop from the get-go, and now we have YouTube to watch the result. Enjoy!

In the storied legacy of rap battles, there have been some heated exchanges on wax. Since the millennium turned, those turned into knockout blows knuckle-up style in the form of Smack DVD clips and YouTube snippets. These fist-fighting battles trumped the tradition of wordplay, and sunk hip-hop into the dregs of other internt sensations like Bum Fights, Street Fights and Kimbo slice marauding.

Here are the HeardonmyStoop faves:

Oh You Mad Cuz I’m Stylin On You

Nikz and ENJ are having a pretty sound, typical street-style battle until ENJ drops the line of the year “Oh you mad cuz I’m stylin’ on you” which throws Nikz into a rage unseen…and then KNOCKOUT! Continue reading ‘Oh You Mad Cuz’…I Punched You in the Face’

MixWeek – Da Gif “Classick”

Da Gif is a Harlem emcee who made his way to Delaware and then back to Brooklyn to link with my fellows from The Dugout. Gif has an amazing penchant for soulful rap songs with sewn-in storylines. “No Born ID” is his lead single and stand-out effort off his album All Hail the New Nigga Nation. The way Gif’s voice, full of urgency and bluster, match a soul track is testament to his talents as a Black musician. Rather than approach a song with dry verses for preset instrumentation, he meshes thematic concerns with the funky or soulful part of his song. J Soul, producer phenom from Flatbush, Brooklyn, defines this imprint with his jumpy piano riffs (“Peace of the Pie”) and encompassing horns come by way of Big Raim on “Oh Love”. Gif makes the careful balance between conscious emcee and prominent songwriter by avoiding moralistic leanings, sticking to his compelling ghetto allegories. This evenness is particularly pertinent on “No Born ID” which details a confused college-aged woman in the throes of racial displacement because of her mixed ancestry. “Crop Boys” also assumes this mood of part-commentary, part-irony in its shared verses between Gif and Cavalier. Both artists talk about the impropriety of the U.S. government and the field slave/house slave mentality bent on dividing blacks but with a humorous undertone, almost staring in the face of righteous rappers like NYOIL who have not often matched lyrical skill with prophetic messaging. The song starts with “Uncle Tom arm in arm with Uncle Sam” painting a rosy picture of the spoiled marriage between duped blacks and their state-sponsored shepherds.


Download Classick here

Choice Cuts: No Born ID, Peace of the Pie, Oh Love, 2 Strong

French Rap’s Cred Takes Hit

Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s newly elected conservative, has some dark secrets…darker than anyone on the political stage would ever embrace. His son Mosey is a hip-hop producer. France has a storied filial relationship with hip hop music. Like American teenagers, French kids were always apt to admire the style of hip hop artists and the verbal wizardry within the music. Moreover, the tension between North African emigres living in the depressed urban centers of France and the government’s xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiments. Sarkozy represents the latter. He has been famously racist, conservative, chauvinist about defending his perceived ideas of French nationalism. And even though hip-hop is part of the national fabric, Sarkozy would prefer to ignore it. Too late for that, it seems.

Poison is a group from France’s banlieues (ghetto) whose anti-Sarko raps blare loudly across those locales. Mosey penned a song for Poison during Sarkozy’s election run which decries his bias, and extols youth to reject him at all costs. Talk about close to home.

And in case you weren’t sure about the power of hip-hop’s influence on French 20-somethings, peep Tony Parker’s YouTube rap video. TP is a recognized rap star near the level of his basketball fame. Not to get all profound about it, but there’s some meaty cultural implications there.