Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Songs Heard In 2008 That I Will Undoubtedly Force On My Children

Hey all, I know it's been a long time since I've last written, but better that I pop in every three months with an okay-ish post rather than waste everyone's time with filler, right? This has been a difficult semester, as between working, playing music, and battling whackness in its several manifestations, keeping up with new music wasn't high on my list of priorities. Also, there weren't any hip-hop shows I could make my way to after seeing GZA, though I had some transcendent live experiences after thanks to O'Death and Ponytail. All this isn't to say that there haven't been songs I've heard this year that haven't left an impression on me, just that I won't front and present some master list of 2008's best songs. Instead, I'll present a brief list of songs both old and new that I've had the good luck of discovering, with a focus on new songs that I feel have been unfairly ignored by most top lists I've read.

Pharoahe Monch f. M.O.P - No Mercy
The most memorable rap song of the past few months for me is incidentally one that came out 9 years ago. I don't really know how to begin here, there are so many things that come together to make this into THE perfect hardcore battle rap track. Everything about it is overdone. The string part The Alchemist samples, when slowed down, sounds like it was originally written to be played as the Four Horsement are being summoned to Earth, and they're punctuated by these baritone horn blasts and timpani strikes that just add to track's franticness. Monch spits some of the most straightforwardly "hard" battle rhymes of his career, chock full of the multi rhyme patterns that have endeared him to rap nerds since his beginnings with Organized Konfusion. It is M.O.P, however, who are the real showstealers here. "Why are they yelling at me?" is the question my roommate asked when he heard Lil' Fame and Billy Danze doing their thing; but Paul, that's the entire point of the song! None of their punchlines are particularly impressive ("I got kick like Tae Kwon Do"?), but they spit like your life's at stake if you ignore them, and both of them have moments where they grab your attention by approximating machine gun fire. At the end, the beat rides on for a minute as the three cackle menacingly in the background, but I think it's also that they're laughing at how ridiculous the preceding 4 minute affair really was. They were having fun, and managed to escape the self-seriousness that makes 99% of hardcore undie rap tedious to listen to.


Nomo - Rings
This is one of those pieces that speak far better for themselves than any person really could, though this guy does a pretty good job explaining what Nomo is doing on Ghost Rock."Rings" is a fitting title for the song, as it's arranged so that each layer of instrumentation is introduced in order. The song reaches its apex with a great saxaphone solo (and eventually duet), and then each layer is removed in reverse order. It's incredible how they are able to draw such obvious inspiration from Fela Kuti while being so original.

Black Milk f. Royce Da 5'9 - Losing Out
I don't get how anybody can dismiss Black Milk as being some sort of boring, derivative boom-bap producer after listening to Tronic. While he is a skilled producer all around, his drums are really what draw me in; his percussion patterns are some of the most complex that I've heard. His flow also serves to complement, rather than distract from, his outstanding production work, something that can't be said for most producer-rappers. "Losing Out" is a great example of this, as he and Royce ride smoothly over a cymbal-driven groove supported by some crazy vocal sample in the background.

Jean Grae - My Story (Prod. 9th Wonder)
After Shapeshifters, Jeanius would most likely get my vote for most slept on album of 2008 (notice that both of these albums were crafted by female MCs... coincidence?). Although I saw it mentioned fleetingly by some during the summer, it seems to have largely (aside from this great review) escaped the critical consciousness of the Internets. This really shouldn't be the case. For one, of all the albums 9th Wonder has fully produced, Jeanius may contain his most consistently great set of beats yet. Although he is still mainly relying on soul samples and his drums still aren't crazy or whatever, I feel he does a great job varying each track's mood to suit Jean's subject matter. Jean's MCing is in peak shape as always, but there have always been complaints about her allegedly montoone and emotionless delivery. "My Story" should put these weak criticisms to rest, as she tells an intensely personal story about her struggles with abortion, faith, and family. She grabs your heart in a way that few artists, regardless of genre, ever manage to, and I'm disappointed that she hasn't gotten the acknowledgment she deserves for being brave enough to commit something like this to wax.

CYNE - Radiant Cool Boy

We needed a song like this in 2008. A rallying cry against the vacuous cynicism, "ironic" consumerism, and cultural misappropriation AS WELL as the self-congratulatory progressive worldview that has so characterized my generation. It also helps that the drums here smash something wonderful. The rest of the album is great, too, and I'd highly recommend you cop it. I'll provide yet another link (I really enjoy sharing the great work of others) to a great essay that tries to grapple with these themes.

Invincible f. Finale - Locusts (Docu-Music Video)
I've referenced this before during the summer, but it bears mentioning again. This is a moving testament to the ills of gentrification. At 10 minutes it is not overlong, and there is enough brilliant rapping interspersed between footage of Detroit and local residents to keep the impatient seated. Check for the rest of Shapeshifters if you can.

Young Jeezy - Word Play

So I may have just lost all credibility with my one backpacker reader out there, but so it goes. There's been a lot of talk about "My President" and "Put On," but it was the one-two combination of "Circulate" and "Word Play" that really grabbed me by the throat on The Recession. I love how playfully Jeezy shits on the critics who paint him stupid or whack because he isn't "lyrical" while stepping up his "lyrical" abilities. If he were angry, this song probably wouldn't have worked.

The Game f. DMX - Intro
Because this is perhaps the greatest arbitrary rap intro ever. Disagree? Well, then I rebuke you in the name of Jesus.

Pacewon and Mr. Green - Children Sing
Love the sample.

J-Live - It Don't Stop
Probably my favorite post-HHID "but hip-hop isn't dead yet!" anthem. A little corny, but I've always been a fan of J-Live's production and the energy he brings to the microphone.

Damu the Fudgemunk - Pulse Remix
I couldn't have left Damu out, especially when he blessed us with TWO great, free LPs this year, in Spare Time and Overtime. He's one of the most talented beatsmiths on the come up, and most likely my favorite. While drawing a lot upon the Golden Age jazzy boom-bap of yesteryear, Damu manages to make his music sound warmly familiar, and not boringly recycled. This is a remix of the original song "Pulse" by a wonderful group called Panacea, but as good as the original is, I prefer this version by leaps and bounds.

Nas - Queens Get The Money
I've defended Untitled enough. Though I like "Queens Get The Money" even more now than I did then.

Wale - The Artistic Integrity
I would've gone with "The Kramer" instead, but many others have already spoken to the great job Wale does in deconstructing the n-word on there, so I opted to go with this off of his fantastic Seinfeld themed The Mixtape About Nothing. He speaks on devouring lemons, life's being unfairly compared to Lupe and just about every other rapper, and being abandoned and raised by Nas. I can dig.

G-Side - G S I D E R
I have yet to fully absorb Starshipz and Rocketz, and this is very likely not the best song on the album, but tell me the combination of the emcees' slow, southern drawls, the rolling drums, the strings that sound straight out of an old Western flick, and spacey synths doesn't make you want to curl into a ball of joy. The production on every other song I've heard is also nothing short of superb. I can't even type as I listen to this.

People Under The Stairs - The Grind
PUTS quietly dropped one of the best albums of the year in Fun DMC. I would've rather put up the track "Gamin' On Ya" in which Thes flips what I assume to be an old NES sample to great success, but I couldn't find it. Still, "The Grind" is a great example of the relaxed, funky style that PUTS has gotten better at with each release.

GZA - 0% Finance
Talking about quietly dropped albums, whatever the hell happened with Pro Tools? Surprisingly few seemed to care about it, but I guess GZA didn't help by largely failing to perform any tracks off of it during his tour. In any case, GZA maintains the high caliber of writing that he's known for throughout the LP, and "0% Finance" is the most obvious example of how. Given that GZA has previously written conceptual narratives using the names of record labels, animals, and football teams, is his channeling of the auto industry to do the same thing a bit gimmicky at this point? Probably yes, but who cares? Who else could actually pull this off? In a sense, "0% Finance" is this year's antithesis to "A Milli." GZA also goes off on a 4 minute apparently stream-of-consciousness tangent, but GZA's manages to be extremely well-constructed, completely undanceable, and yet fun to listen to (not as fun as "A Milli," granted). I'd label it superior to all his own aforementioned concept tracks, perhaps save "Labels." Good work GZA, you've redeemed yourself somewhat.

Quarteto em Cy (with the Tamba Trio) - Imagem
Kinda random, but too beautiful for me not to include. Quarteto em Cy was originally a vocal group of four sisters from Brazil that was active in the bossa scene of the 60s. They still exist today, but their lineup has changed considerably with time. Anyhow, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon this gem of a group (originally consisting of four sisters named a few years ago on last.fm, and this review reminded me to check out more of their catalogue. If you have even the slightest preference for bossa nova, you will fall in love with this album and this. This isn't even my favorite song of theirs, but this was all I could find on YouTube. As listening to sublimely beautiful vocal harmonizing goes, you can do no better than Quarteto em Cy.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and I excluded most songs I've really liked that have appeared on most other lists, but if I want to include any more, I should probably do so in a second post. Thanks for reading, and happy holidays all.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Even Geniuses Get Old: GZA Live in Philly, 9/11/08

So, I went to see GZA live in Philly exactly two weeks ago. It was to be my first Wu concert. I would have all of 10 minutes the next morning to study for my quiz on African geography, plenty of enough time as long as I could witness the Genius in action.

And now that I've been, I'm not sure that I'd go to another GZA show.

Let's start from the beginning. Trocadero opened its doors at 9 PM, but in anticipation of a late set, I had dinner with friends and got to Tracadero around 10. I was expecting the place to be flooded with the likes of UPenn hipsters, but I was surprised to find lots of working class white dudes in their place. There were also lots of younger black and latino kids, which was nice to see. So the Wu does have a diverse group of people who still care about them, but they just don't care enough to buy their records anymore.

Anyway, some generic, local undie group (I think they were called The Sharpest Blades?) was on stage, warning the audience not to front, talk smack behind their back, etc. All of the shows that I've been to in Philly in the past year have featured similarly unremarkable groups, which is disappointing considering the number of talented artists I've heard out of the city. Though I was impressed by how many aspiring rappers came to the show just to peddle their demos onto the crowd. Some MC named Burke gave me a copy of his CD 'Demolisten,' with a cover featuring an album collapsing and a picture of him placing headphones on. Still haven't listened to it yet, lest I end up like the building.

After a bunch of more subpar local performances, the stage was invaded by Killa Bees(!!!!!!!) around 10:45. They were a notch above the rappers that preceded them, though most failed to seriously impress besides one whose name I unfortunately can't remember. After about 15 minutes of them on stage, Killah Priest came out and ripped it. I'm not familiar with any of his stuff outside of "B.I.B.L.E," but his command on the mic made him a joy to listen to. He was backed by these thudding, grimey-yet-not-in-a-boring-way beats that started to get the place live.

Killah Priest on stage, courtesy of Natan Potler (as are all subsequent photos)

Once he got off stage, I was pumped, as was the rest of the crowd. The arguable best and most important Wu-Affiliate (not counting Cappadonna) had just rocked the mic, and GZA was surely to follow after, right? That's what any person would've figured anyhow, but instead, these two short kids named Folk & Stress (apparently brothers) came on, and while they were serviceable (more hardcore undie rap, but with relatively interesting production), their name is one of the corniest I've heard in rap (what a feat) and were nowhere near as good as Killah Priest. And besides, two and a half hours had past and the GZA was still a no show.

My sense of time at this point is kinda distorted, but I don't think they were on for too long. After they bounced, the DJ put on some random tracks for what felt like an eternity, until the Shogun Assassin skit from "Liquid Swords" finally came on a little before midnight.

Everyone went nuts, of course, and a sea of Ws went into the air, and then GZA came out and everyone was rapping along and jumping in the air and holy shit, Liquid Swords sounds GREAT when being performed live. RZA's beats sounded almost entirely different over the booming soundsystem. GZA wasn't jumping all over the stage or anything, but he was still visibly energized, commandingly rapping both his and others' verses on most tracks like "Duel of the Iron Mic" and "Cold World." Interestingly, he tried to avoid using the n-word in the beginning of the show, replacing it with "brotha," although he kinda gave up in the middle. I wonder if it's a general thing for him or if he was prompted to do so by the white audience.


But as I said, the Liquid Swords portion of his set was epic, aside from a slight technical disruption during "4th Chamber," and I've been blasting "I Gotcha Back" pretty consistently ever since the show. It was a great feeling when Killah Priest came out and finished things off with "B.I.B.L.E."

Things got a little dicey for him soon afterward, though. He did "Clan in da Front" and a few other Wu classics, which was great, then started going into the rest of his discography. I hadn't heard most of the tracks, save for "Animal Planet" and another I forget, but it was still obvious that his energy level had fallen. He kept telling the DJ to "slow it down," sometimes he'd walk off and Killah Priest would finish verses for him, etc. Although he kept promoting Pro Tools in the middle of his set, he waited until the very end to actually start performing tracks off of it. I'd been waiting for "0% Finance" all night, but by that point, he was obviously too tired to flow for the 4 straight minutes that the song would've required him to. He did "Groundbreaking" and "Paper Plates," but stuff like "Columbian Ties" or "Life is a Movie" or even "Pencil" would've translated better live than the 50 diss, I think. He peaced after those two tracks, a bit after 1 AM.

And that was that. While the first half of his set was incredible and the second part was solid (allowing for the pauses), I can't believe that it took 3 hours for the dude to come out on stage. I know he likes showing love to other aspiring rappers, but there's only so much you can do for guys named Folk & Stress, you know? I'd recommend the set to those that can see it, but go two hours late.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Let The Good TImes Roll: New DOOM?, New Organized Konfusion?, RJD2 Live

As I predicted, it's incredibly difficult for me to motivate myself to write while I'm here. There's ALWAYS work you can be doing, people you should be seeing, and I'm not allowing myself to get less than 7 hours of sleep a night on weeknights, and most college sophmores are not really the most thoughtful bunch on weekends. But there'll be a slew of interesting concerts coming up (GZA is performing Liquid Swords in Philly tomorrow), and I'll be starting my radio show in about a week and a half, so hopefully I'll be more inspired. Give me suggestions as to formats/ideas/themes for a show if you have any interesting ones, please!

Wow, this is a real shocker. A new DOOM (apparently he dropped the MF) album in six weeks with Dilla and Danger Mouse production? I'm a little skeptical about whether this will be a legit release with all original material, but I still can't help but be a little excited. I find the whole live-show impostor situation to be just as fucked as most people, his status as a "villain" notwithstanding, but at least this doesn't mean the dude is sick and that other people are just running around with his mask. The chances of Madvillainy 2 and/or Swift and Changeable coming out have also gone up from about 1 to 2 percent, as DOOM is at least showing us that he's still interested in recording.

Also just discovered today that Prince Po and Pharoahe Monch have recorded a new (as of now unreleased) track that may lead to a new Organized Konfusion album, which would be one of the greatest things I could ever hope for. I was listening to The Equinox before the end of summer, and even though people tend to shit on it, I don't think they really fell off from Stress (production just got a little more stale). This should be ill.

In other random news, RJD2 came to my school this past Saturday and opened for Broken Social Scene for this semester's "Large Scale Event." Even though generic indie rock is the usual order at Olde Club, our regular music venue (last year we only had The Last Emperor; this semester, there is NO hip-hop billed), the LSE's have been surprisingly good. The Roots were the LSE performers my first semester, and they were absolutely dopeilltastic. I even got to speak to Black Thought and shake his hand, and I spent the rest of the night running around campus throwing little girls into foliage out of sheer excitement.

Now, I didn't react to RJD2 in quite the same way, but he was also damn awesome. He surprisingly wasn't crouched over a laptop (not just mashup guys, but even Afrika Bambaataa was using a Mac when I saw him this summer), but actually had crates of vinyl with him that he played over four turntables. No microphone or acoustic guitar to be seen in his vicinity, thankfully. There was also a screen behind him where all of these weird, kinda corny but still really cool video clips were playing as he was spinning records from The Transporter, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Matrix, and even that old 80s orders-of-magnitude movie that every person who has taken high school physics has seen (the one with the guy and girl sleeping at the picnic). Stuff like that usually comes off as gimmicky, but I mention it because I think it really contributed to the performative aspect of the show and the sense that RJD2 wasn't taking himself too seriously.

So the show basically consisted of him recreating his tracks on Deadringer and Since We Last Spoke. But there was a bit of an improvisitory element to the show too, though, as he had some pad-keyboard device that allowed him to play drums over his instrumentals. He also had a good feel for when the crowd was beginning to fade away, throwing on "The Horror" and "Good Times Roll Pt. 2" to get everyone, and I mean everyone, really hype again. I've been saying that live DJ sets should be brought here for a long time, especially considering the amount of okayish mashup artists that've come through, and hopefully people will begin to see the light.

Anyway, I didn't stay for Broken Social Scene because I wasn't too thrilled by what I'd heard prior to the show, although I kinda regret that decision now. The two minutes of their show I heard (I returned for my umbrella) were really good, but I was about to embark on a misadventure involving high friends and Wendy's, so...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Auditions Being Held At Swarthmore for Musical: 'Written in the Stars'

I don't know how many people in the Tri-Co community read this, but I wanted to put this opportunity out there for anyone who'd be interested. Charles Inniss, class of 2009 and a good friend of mine, is directing a musical titled Written in the Stars that will be open to all students in Tri-Co (Swarthmore, Haverford, and Bryn Mawr) to audition for and watch. He is a very earnest, driven, and talented guy, and considering all of his past musical work that I've heard, I have high hopes for this being something great. Listen to one of the songs for yourself (you'll be just as impressed, believe me). Here's what he has to say about the project:

"The musical, titled Written in the Stars, is an original that my brother and I wrote.

It's a tale of disillusion. Eddie Hollman moves to a new community and starts his senior year at a performance high school. There he studies movement theater and gets chummy with a girl that lives next door. Throughout the show we learn about Eddie's turbulent past as he tries to break from a clown that haunts him and discover his destiny that's written in the stars.

Attached are advertisements for the show's auditions. Audition dates are Saturday, September 6th from 11am-1:00 pm, and Sunday, September 7th from 4:30-7:30 pm. Because this is a show that heavily involves movement, there will be a dance call on Sunday, September 7 also from 4:30-7:30 pm. All auditions will be held in Lang Music Building at Swarthmore College.

Thanks a lot, and I sincerely hope this clarifies any concerns. Please feel free to sign-up for an audition time posted in Parrish. Also email me at cinniss1@swarthmore.edu to continue this dialogue regarding the show's casting and vision. I look forward to seeing you at auditions!


Charles Inniss"

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Wrap-Up: Favorite Music I've Listened to in Summer '08, Pt. 1

Been doing a lot of running around the past several days, mainly seeing family and friends before I'm shipped away from home to begin the whole college thing again for a second year. I'm feeling mighty apprehensive about leaving New York, perhaps even more than I was last year. Not even so much for missing my friends and all of the amazing free events I've attended, but because you lose so much personal freedom once you're back at school, back in a routine, at least as far as time management goes. And I know time for music listening (outside of my radio show, which will be available for podcast in the near future!), is going to be the first casualty. This month off I've been able to go out and still find time to sit down and listen to 3 records in a day, but once shit starts up, I'll probably be lucky getting through 3 records in 2 weeks. So, I'll take some of the brief spare time I have remaining to briefly reflect on a few I've listened to that I thought was really good. This is an incomplete list, as I'll leave off most classic material (eg. 36 Chambers) and generally focus on things that I feel should've gotten more attention.

Invincible - Shapeshifters: I don't really have much to say that hasn't been covered in this fantastic review. The only thing really preventing me from declaring this the album of the year right now is its at-times relatively lackluster production (no beats here are outright bad), but everything else about it is remarkable. It's certainly the best thing out of Detroit that I've heard this year (and yes, I've listened to The Preface). Labeling Invincible a great lyricist is an understatement; in addition to dropping tongue twisting rhymes every other bar, she weaves a consistent and complex narrative of oppression as it manifests itself worldwide, from Ann Arbor to Detroit to Palestine, and makes a convincing case as to how music really is a "Sledgehammer" that can incite real grass-roots change. She even created a docu-music-video to "Locusts," having residents of her community in Detroit supplement the music by discussing how gentrification has affected them personally. I'm really disappointed that a record of such a high calibre has been so overlooked by the hip-hop media (AND blogosphere).

Nas - Untitled/Nigger: It's become fashionable for people to say The Nigger Tape is somehow vastly superior to Untitled, but I call bullshit on that. Granted, the beats knocked a little more, but aside from the stellar tracks "Esco Let's Go" and "Ghetto Remix" (which obviously couldn't have made the final cut), I don't think there's anything that I miss not having on the official record. And come on, you can make your own damn custom mix if you'd really like to. I still largely stand by my review, and believe that a lot of people failed to judge Nas' lyrics from a proper context. Nas is not trying to offer any concrete idea of what "success" for black America is/and should be, and he almost always DIRECTLY relates celebration of money to his life in Queensbridge, showing that the former is a product of the latter. When he talks about personal growth and having a broader worldview, he isn't being inconsistent, but is telling us that he's grown out of this mindset. Something else that's frustrated me with how this LP has been received is how Nas largely doesn't get credit for his still incredible rhyming talents. Often when this point is made, someone will retort "Well of course, it's Nas," as if that makes his achievement non-noteworthy. I'm not going to attempt to defend the production, though, as I've come to realize that enjoyment of beats is 99% a subjective thing.

Talking Heads - Remain in Light: I know I said I'd avoid obvious classics, but I'll briefly mention this because it is probably the favorite discovery I've made this summer. Few things in this world excite me as much as counterpoint and polyrhythms, and to find an album chock full of songs with MULTIPLE polyrythmic, funky grooves directly inspired by Afrobeat is almost too much to ask for. Also, where the fuck is my beautiful wife?

CYNE - Pretty Dark Things: So my original prediction was slightly off; I haven't seen ANY publication review this album, despite it definitely being one of the stronger LPs of the year. My enthusiasm for the production may have waned a little, and I would probably choose two different tracks to link to if I could do the review over, but I still stand by my basic point that album's content is more interesting than what you find your run-of-the-mill undie release (although not startling to those who read or think), and while not as thematically complex is in some ways far more accessible than Shapeshifters and other politically-oriented rap I've recently listened to.

Scientifik - Criminal: If it weren't for Dan Love's beat deconstruction of "Downlo Ho" and Max's review, I would've never heard of this great hidden gem of an album. Scientifik is a great rapper and kicks some great rhymes about how steals shit from dope dealers and disapproves of shady women, and practically every beat is perfect. The production almost always consists of hard, complex drum breaks (of the likes you don't hear these days) underneath subdued, jazzy bass and horn samples, giving the music a very consistent gloomy, wintry, yet melodic feel - essentially gritty boom-bap at its finest. Also, I nominate "As Long As You Know" as the most overlooked RZA cut in hip-hop history, as Scientifik and Edo G. just rip the track to shreds between the two of them. Sadly, Scientifik died about a year after the album was released. R.I.P.

Can't quite continue now, but I'll hopefully have time to finish this up within the next few days.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

New, Exciting Stereolab! - Chemical Chords

I go back to school in a week and a half. I'm not excited about this for a wide variety of reasons, not least of which being that my already modest writing output will probably decrease once I actually, y'know, have shit to do. As for this summer, my laziness surprisingly wasn't my main problem. I've just been more passionate about the old classics I've discovered than the new stuff I've heard. I mean, what is there left to be said about Remain in Light? Although on a personal note, it's simultaneously inspiring and disappointing to find out that one of the greatest bands ever masterfully accomplished 30 years ago what you're trying to do now while fucking around with your friend on a keyboard. But I digress.

Along with that new CYNE LP I just reviewed, this is probably the album I've been most eagerly anticipating this summer. I'll readily admit that I'm something of a Stereolab fanboy. When I first heard Dots and Loops this past spring, I couldn't bring myself to listen to anything else besides Stereolab for at least two weeks. I'm a sucker for "loungy" chord progressions and harmonies, and Stereolab manages to somewhat rely on them while making innovative and edgy music. Add Laetitia Sadier's and the late Mary Hansen's breezy vocal stylings to the mix, and you have magic.

A common complaint launched against Stereolab, and their post Emperor Tomato Ketchup catalogue in particular, is that all of their shit begins to sound the same after a while. While I would contend that the groop has evolved with each release, their "basic" (their stuff can be quite complex) formula of creating pretty, dreamy retro-leaning pop has pretty much remained unchanged since 1997, including Chemical Chords. Tim Gane has said that he was looking for a "Motown or girl group sound," specifically referring to the tightness of individual songs (I strongly recommend reading the interview, his method for creating this album is incredibly interesting and unorthodox).

And the songs on Chemical Chords are tight. At 16 songs, only one track extends beyond 5 minutes, which is a first for any Stereolab record. Chemical Chords also contains some of the most rhythmically complex work I've heard on any Stereolab release. "Daisy Click Clack" begins with an almost ragtime-y piano line, with the guitar soon coming in and playing a similarly syncopated part over shimmering synthesizers. The song is a great example of how Stereolab's music can be satisfying on multiple levels; although it makes for a very easy, pleasant listen, closer inspection reveals just how well arranged it is.

And because of its intricate rhythms and arrangements, Chemical Chords is easily one of the most upbeat, playful Stereolab LPs I've heard. If it had come out in June or July, it would've made a perfect soundtrack for the summer. Weaving between Sadier's vocals on "Three Women," there is a lot of light interplay between the horn, keyboard, and rhythm sections that I can only describe as uplifting. The same can be said all of the several other similarly packed moments on the album, as none of the sounds are ever layered to the point of becoming overbearing. Even on tracks with several harmonic and melodic changes such as "Fractal Dream of a Thing," every moment feels as if it logically progresses from the last.

I think this speaks to a criticism I've read that Chemical Chords, while a gorgeous album, fails to leave much of a lasting impression on its listener. There are many different recurring sections on a song that it takes multiple listens to fully absorb them, and with 16 tracks to listen through, it's difficult to instantly point to a particular moment as a favorite. I personally see this as the one of the album's strengths, as I'll be able to get more and more out of it a long time to come.

Stereolab's Myspace
Stereolab - "Fractal Dream of a Thing"

Friday, August 15, 2008

Oh, bring home your sweet lovin'

One of the best (and most slept on) releases of 2007

Blockhead's music always seems to bring me to a place of nostalgia that other most music just cannot, whether Aesop Rock is doing his thing over it or no. It may be that I began listening to him over the winter during a particularly emotionally rough time this year, but there's generally this dusty, dark quality to his stuff, even on this relatively upbeat record, that's hard to find elsewhere. Really, I'll just shut up and share this song that I cannot get over.

Blockhead - Trailer Love

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

August = Designated Month of Excess Cultural Consumption

Since I finished working last Friday, and since I don't go back to school until the 29th this month, I'll hopefully have lots of free time to catch up on old and new shit I've been sleeping on. Between driving lessons and jamming sessions, these next few weeks should make for a great end to an otherwise typical summer vacation.

I re-re-listened to Madlib and Mamao Conti's Sujinho. I was underwhelmed at first, but now I can't really understand why. I feel Madlib's skills as an arranger have improved tremendously since his early YNQ days, and Conti gave him some solid breaks to work with. It may sound a bit like muzak on surface inspection, but as always with Madlib, there's a lot going on underneath the pleasant sounds. I'm sure this is going to one of those records I'll spin regularly in my dorm that'll lure passerbys in and convince them of my superior taste.

I also managed to give AZ's new N.4.L "mixtape" a listen, and found it rushed and mediocre (even though it can be found at the Virgin Megastore, I guess AZ chose to label it a "mixtape" to denote its sloppiness). What is it with DJs feeling the need to rewind "nice" lines ad infinitum during the MIDDLE of a track? AZ still has the whole multi-syllable rhyming thing going for him, but it's AZ, it's what we've come to expect. Aside from that incredible banger "The Secret" (which is hampered by DJ Absolut's need to rewind and have Raekwon remind us that he has a feather in his cap 5 times), most of the other songs are forgettable. Aside from spitting some braggadocio mixed with 5% theology and speaking generally on "the system" and generally on black violence (although if you fuck with him he WILL get you), the closest he gets to the concept is "Runaway Slave," where he raps about being a runaway slave. And to be fair, it's actually well-executed, but c'mon, is that the best you can give us? This is what I was afraid Untitled was going to be.

In any event, I finally listened to that "Motown 25" joint with Elzhi and Royce, and all I can say is what the fuck! Hand me a late pass.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Review: CYNE - Pretty Dark Things (2008)

Don't sleep!

If you haven't heard of CYNE before, you can educate yourself on why they're so ill by reading what I've written here. If you already believe me, then I'll just provide a brief bio here. CYNE is a group of two West African MCs, Cise Starr and Akin, and two producers, Speck and Enoch, based in Gainsville, FL. Pretty Dark Things is technically their fourth LP, although this year's earlier Starship Utopia was really more a collection of unreleased material than a proper album. As such, it can be considered their proper follow up to their critically-acclaimed Evolution Fight (and my pick for favorite album of 2005).

If you've been sleeping on CYNE until now, Pretty Dark Things would make as great an entry point as any, as this contains some of their most realized work. As you can gather from the title, the album is thematically centered on discussions of blackness, the meaning of artistry (particularly as it relates to hip-hop), and more general social commentary. Cise Starr and Akin don't really drop any groundbreaking knowledge with the content of the lyrics, but their earnestness and urgency really set them apart from most of their peers.

On the opening track "Just Say No," over two beautiful guitar lines, some form of African chanting, and sparse hi-hats, Akin briefly explains that he'll always stay true to his roots before breaking up his rhyme out of nowhere and yelling:

"Wake the fuck up! Wake the fuck up! That Nelly shit sucks, little girls don't buy it! Wake he fuck up! Wake the fuck up!, They're underground stagnant, too scared to move!"

These words might read as being overly didactic, but combined with the magic of the instrumental, you can't help but nod in agreement. In the second verse, Cise Starr expounds further on Akin's earlier words:

"Money now, but you still act a fool/
doing Dr. Seuss rhymes, in your label play school/
Fuck this shit, I'm a grown ass man/
Doing grown ass things as I god damn can/
While you cop chains, I'm gonna buy me some land/
While you sit on 24s, I'm a build with my fans/
Giving you the real shit, shit you can deal with/
Listen on the corner while the plane hit the buildin/
CYNE mixtapes for the women and the children/
One per person, play it in your churches."

These are far from the most impressive rhymes on the album, but they outline CYNE's basic philosophy. Yeah, it doesn't sound very different from typical "conscious" fare, but the album is so MUSICALLY interesting that you want to hear everything that the MCs have to say. The next three tracks are on the same level as the first, with "The Runaway" featuring an abstract story about a man running away from life's pressures over a pounding Afrobeat (!?!) track . "Calor" continues in a similar vein, with Speck and Enoch providing African drum patterns for Cise Starr to briefly wax poetic about the implications of global warming. The track for "Escape" is one of the most atmospherically complex on the album, involving a call and answer of sorts between a guitar and dreamy keyboard, incredibly layered drums, and a thumping bass line. Cise and Akin spit double-time flows about gas prices, how intelligent design is bullshit, and how human rights must be generally be fought for.

This really is one those hip-hop those albums where the lyrics and beats equal more than the sum of their parts when joined together. While most of the tracks are similarly well done, one of the lyrical highlights of the album is probably "The Dance." Cise Starr reflects about whether a human being's achievements are meaningful if nobody is present to recognize them, and by extension, is asking himself why CYNE should continue to make the kind of music that will be slept on by the masses. He ultimately concludes that achieving "inner peace" is more important than trying to appeal to some "absolute" standard of what's good.

Another standout is "Radiant Cool Boy," where Akin and Cise rail against listeners who only listen to hip-hop for its negative excesses and actively deride rappers who try to discuss substantive issues (in other words, the so maligned on OKP "hipster" fan). Cise warns those who "stand for nothing and criticize everything" that although "everything can be reduced to clever little stickers, you better watch it ever call me nigga." Come to Swarthmore next year, please!

But as I said earlier, the rhymes on their own would probably fail to spark the interest of most hip-hop fans. While interesting, they are more centered around abstract imagery than grounded storytelling or catchy punchlines, and this is made all the more frustrating because their delivery is not always clear. Thankfully, Speck and Enoch, provide a nearly impeccable soundtrack for CYNE's two MCs to spit over. I don't think it would be hyperbole to say that this may be the best produced album of the year thus far. In addition to delving into African music, Speck and Enoch seem to have mastered the ambient/soul-based/electronic tinged sound that they've been gravitating toward since Evolution Fight. Their beats have never sounded so warm and organic, and they really are arranged to complement Akin and Cise's flows.

Groups like CYNE make me wonder about the amount of dope hip-hop out there that is ignored for whatever reason. Aside from what I've written, there'll probably be one or two more reviews on some obscure hip-hop sites, and then Pretty Dark Things will be forgotten in the wake of the year's big 3rd and 4th quarter releases. It's a damn shame, but if you've read this, hopefully you'll be one of the few who hasn't slept.

CYNE on myspace
Listen to "Just Say No"
Listen to "The Runaway"

Monday, July 28, 2008

Favorite Yearly Albums Since The Year I Was Born

Yeah, I know I'm late on this, but I'm interested to see how my tastes will change in a year, five years, ten years, etc. Here goes:

1990: Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet
1991: Organized Konfusioin - Organized Konfusion
1992: The Pharcyde - Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde
1993: Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers
1994: Organized Konfusion - Stress: The Extinction Agenda OR Nas - Illmatic
1995: Aceyalone - All Balls Don't Bounce
1996: De La Soul - Stakes is High
1997: Stereolab - Dots and Loops
1998: Aceyalone - A Book of Human Language
1999: MF DOOM - Operation: Doomsday
2000: Deltron 3030 - Deltron 3030 or Blackalicious - Nia
2001: Stereolab - Sound-Dust
2002: Nas - The Lost Tapes
2003: Broadcast - Haha Sound
2004: Madvillain - Madvillainy
2005: CYNE - Evolution Fight
2006: Lupe Fiasco - Food & Liquor
2007: Caribou - Andorra

Considering I only started getting into popular music a little over two years ago, I think this is a pretty good list, if a touch predictable. Unfortunately, some of these are on more by default than by my actual love for them. For example, I don't think I've heard any album from 1990 besides Fear of a Black Planet, and it'll probably be a damn long time before I listen to another one. 1994 was surprisingly easy for me to nail down after re-listening to Stress yesterday, but 93 (Buhloone Mindstate has three of my favorite songs of alltime in "I Am I Be," "Breakadawn," and "Ego Trippin' (Part Two)") and 96 (Illadelph Halflife, Reasonable Doubt, and just started getting into ATLiens) gave me the most trouble. I have a feeling 2002 is bound to go to The Streets' Original Pirate Material after another week of listening or so, and I'm still making it through lots of 2007 stuff. Feel free to share your lists or give me recommendations.

EDIT: If you consider Nia by Blackalicious to have come out in 2000 (it was released in Europe in 99, but released in the US in 2000) it would beat out Deltron 3030.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Nas' Untitled - Review and Discussion

I'm glad I waited a little while before writing this. I was practically ready to declare the album a classic the first time I heard it, mainly because Nas exceeded my expectations lyrically. Although the true title of the LP is Nigger, Nas doesn't so much examine the word as much as he examines Black America and its history as a whole. And he does a pretty damn good job, without at all diluting his awesome wordplay and flow. Of course, as you've probably already expected or read elsewhere, the production doesn't QUITE live up to Nas' caliber of rhymes, but fuck it, there are only one or two arguably unlistenable beats here, and I think it the beats tend to complement rather than hinder him on most of the tracks. But still, I realize you cannot judge a hip-hop album for its content alone, and so Untitled just misses the instant "classic" label from a purely musical standpoint.

Then again, with a record like this, the content/theme is so central to its purpose that you have to take it into heavy consideration when judging its quality. From a thematic standpoint, it is a huge success. When's the last time a mainstream release in hip-hop has tackled issues of racism and corporate media control head on? And considering the current social/political climate in America (a black man may become president, and yet a poll shows race relations have not improved since the beginning of the decade; Jena 6; Sean Bell... etc.) I think the timing is right. Hip-hop fans may be able to look back one day and bestow "classic" status upon it for its achievement in that regard.

There is a second, underlying narrative that I haven't seen anyone explicitly mention in their reviews of the album, however, and so I'll focus on that first. Nas repeatedly reflects and discusses his transition from being a Queensbridge kid with a sick flow to becoming a cosmopolitan man who has achieved success and stardom. This also seems to have become a source of confusion for some, with more than a few writers criticizing Nas for falling into gangster cliches because they have missed the context and voice from which Nas is speaking. For example, on "Breathe," Nas raps:

"The pestilence of the ghetto informed me, as a shorty
To push nothing less than a 740
With fresh linen
Sip Pellegrino with heirs on
They sick, mixing they water when airborn"

He is not embracing materialism, but instead relating the effects of living in the ghetto on a man's ultimate goals in life (one would think this is self-evident, but alas). In the second to last track, "We're Not Alone," Nas states:

"Give us twenty more years to grow up
Already geniuses; what I mean is this
I used to worship a certain Queens police murderer
'Til I read the words of Ivan van Sertima
He inserted something in me
That made me feel worthier
Now I spit revolution
I'm his hood interpreter"

Presumably, if he was able to go from celebrating Pappy Mason to celebrating Michael Eric Dyson, Nas is saying, there is hope in changing the "get rich or die trying" mindset of black youth today. This personal dimension carries throughout the album, and is a significant reason as to why I find it so compelling.

Alright, so what exactly is Nas doing and saying about race and America? As much as I love the intro "Queens Get The Money," I must admit that it doesn't really do a good job introducing the album's concept. I love Jay Electronica's sparse piano loop, and Nas' performance is amazing, but he is kinda all over the place, announcing his love for single-parent children in one line to cleverly dissing 50 Cent the next. Untitled really takes off with "You Can't Stop Us Now," a track featuring a smooth guitar sample (also used by RZA and MF DOOM, but that doesn't stop it from being good), and Salaam Remi's enhanced bass and inclusion of horns on the hook do enough to distinguish it, anyhow. Nas raps about the unrecognized contribution that blacks have made in building America's foundation, only veering into questionable territory when he half-defends Michael Vick.

After this comes "Breathe," another personal favorite of mine. I really enjoy this relaxed, soulful beat (I'm one of a few, it seems) and this is the track that establishes that underlying theme I was discussing earlier. It also features some of Nas' most beautiful poetry on the album:

"Intense hustle
It's pain like a pinched muscle
'Til it rains and my Timbs stain my socks
'Til I dodge enough shots and the presiding judge
Slams a mallet and says 'life', I'ma guap
Then I cop, then I yacht, then I dock
Island-hopping, away from nightmare-holders
Or cowboy slangers, who shoot up any club
To see their names ring loud on some FBI poster
Must be on X or he coked up, suggesting I post the
Bail, I'm like yes, 'cause we soldiers
We just getting older
In time, we still in our prime
I can't afford a new arrest on my folder
Nigga, breathe"

After here the album suffers its first and most serious misstep, with the generic pop produced "Make The World Go Round" featuring The Game and Chris Brown. This could've easily been left off for a more hard hitting cut from the Nigger Tape (why isn't "Esco Let's Go" on here!?), but now that I think about it, I think it is a logical extension of "Breathe" as far as its content goes. The Queensbridge hustler has finally achieved success, and is celebrating in a sheer display of wealth before he realizes he must be a "Hero" (if you accuse me of reaching at this point, I won't hold it against you).

"Hero" more than makes up for the preceding song as it is most likely one of the best pop songs of Nas' career, and the album doesn't reach any comparable lows from that point on. Nas makes some key insights on institutional racism and disparity in America on the aptly titled "America":

"Too many rappers, athletes, and actors
But not enough niggas in NASA
Who give you the latest dances, trends, and fashion
But when it comes to residuals, they look past us
Woven into the fabric, they can't stand us
Even in white tee's, blue jeans, and red bandanas"

He rounds out the song with a verse about how women have specifically been marginalized in America since its inception, something that I wish were commented on more often in hip-hop.

I could easily continue quoting standout lines from his songs, and in fact I'm tempted to, but by now I think readers can tell that Nas just is taking his album's concept seriously. Nas stages a much-needed attack on Fox News and Bill O'Reilly in "Sly Fox," another standout, and asks his fans (specifically his privileged white ones) whether they're committed to making the ideals of racial and economic equality a reality, beyond just listening to his songs on "Testify."

Nas proceeds to use the remainder of the album to really dig in and spit his social commentary (I won't elaborate too much because this is becoming overlong). Over the title track "N.I.G.G.E.R", Nas rhymes about the creativity and ingenuity of residents of the ghetto, and notes that "Any time we mention our condition/ our history or existence/ They calling it reverse racism," all the more telling as I've already read one person unfairly accuse Nas of "race-baiting." In a light moment, Nas and Busta Rhymes get together on "Fried Chicken" and compare its allure to that of a seductress. On "Project Roach" and "Ya'll My Niggas," Nas most overtly talks about the etymology of the word "nigger" and actually explains why he feels banning or censoring the word is counter-productive. He does not make necessarily novel arguments (the destructive mindset of blacks is what needs to change, black youths have appropriated the term for positive use, etc.), but he yet again shows that he'd had his head on his shoulders when he decided to make this album, and that fears of it being a "publicity stunt" were unfounded.

After the relatively weak "We're Not Alone" (shitty R&B hook coupled with rhymes about aliens kinda kills it for me), Untitled ends on a high note with "Black President." Some may find it cheesy and cliche, but I think the chorus is brilliant. It juxtaposes the line from Tupac's "Changes" where Tupac declares "Even though it's heaven sent/we ain't ready, to have a president" with Obama announcing that Americans can "change the world!" by believing in his candidacy. I literally got goosebumps when I first heard it, if only Tupac were still alive to see this... As for the song, Nas is both hopeful and skeptical of an Obama presidency, hopeful because he feels it may ease racial tensions, skeptical because he's afraid Obama won't address the real concerns of black, urban America. Again, I don't see this as evidence of "race-baiting" or being a "crank," but instead of Nas being a serious thinker and brilliant lyricist. "Black President" is also a great example of how an average stand-alone beat compliments Nas' flow and intentions wonderfully, as DJ Green Lantern's militant drums and synths also serve as the perfect backdrop for Nas to rhyme about the issue with the urgency that he brings.

After typing all that in one sitting, I STILL feel that this is woefully inadequate, mainly because you could carry a thorough discussion with someone based on the content of almost any one of these songs, let alone the entire album. This in itself is an amazing achievement, one that already puts Untitled in contention for best hip-hop album of the year. Add Nas' lyrical wizardry and maturity on top of that, and I can't see another mainstream album coming too close in 2008 (I have yet to fully absorb Rising Down or ShapeShifters or another number of stellar alternative/underground releases). Although Illmatic-era Nas is long gone, I'm not at all disappointed with the present Nas; the Nas that spat "uzi and the army linin" wasn't mature enough to comment on society as broadly as the current one, as he admits himself.

Another great review: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/60810/nas-untitled1/

If you have any thoughts at all, please comment!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Slingshot Hip-Hop: Rap Brings Hope to Palestine

Last night I attended a free screening of Slingshot Hip-Hop, the first film shown of the Socrates Scultpure Park 10th Annual International Film Festival. Any New Yorker who is at a loss for what to do with his or her Wednesday nights should consider making the trip to Astoria to view one of these screenings. In addition to airing films that focus on different cultures each week, the festival also includes live performances from musicians and food from local ethnic restaurants for sale. Bring a date, think of some profound Big Statement to make while the sun sets majestically below the the Manhattan skyline, and then you'll have rounded out a great evening.

I got to the park with my friend Nico around 7 PM, and we waited about 30 minutes for the live performances to begin. Rapper and PR (Palestinian Rapperz) memberMohammed Al Farra and (apparently first ever) female Arab R&B singer Abeer took to the stage, and their passion was obvious from the getgo. Last night's audience was quite possibly the least engaged audience I've ever been a part of, however, so I felt kinda bad for them. Mohammed asked everyone to stand up and put their hands in the air, and maybe 30 out of 200 people did so (I unfortunately remained seated, as I was in the midst of devouring a spinach pie). Maybe about 5 minutes later, he again implored audience members to stand up, reminding us "This is a hip-hop show! And I came all the way from Gaza for you people!" A few more people, including myself and Nico, stood this time around, but the energy level didn't really increase. This probably had a lot to do with the artists' choice to perform in Arabic, but I was still disappointed.

It began to rain soon after the performances ended, and I worried that the screening would be cancelled, but thankfully it stopped and the film began to roll after 9. I'm glad I stuck through the rain, because Slingshot Hip-Hop really opened my eyes to just how much of a global and inspirational force hip-hop has become. The film began with first Palestinian rap group DAM (Da Arabian MC's) and Chuck D in a studio, and DAM is absolutely giddy to be in the same room as the man; "Hip-hop is our CNN," they excitedly tell him. One of the most powerful statements of the film also comes in this scene, as one member laments that Israel has "Fear of an Arab Nation" just as America has "Fear of a Black Planet."

DAM was founded in the Israeli town of Lod in the late 90s, but judging by the rappers' immediate surroundings, you wouldn't know that it was only 10 miles away from Tel Aviv. Boulders lay in undeveloped plots because the Palestinian residents couldn't acquire building permits, a school library had just been transformed into a police precinct, some roads are unpaved, etc. Children look up to local drug dealers as role models because they are the only ones that live in some kind of relative luxury. In effect, the children can only choose to "go to prison" for crime "or die." PR (Palestinian Rapperz), another landmark group, hail from Gaza, where the situation was (and is moreso today) even more bleak. Imagine being prevented from ever leaving your borough, imagine not being able to drive to the other side of your borough without going through multiple hours worth of checkpoints. Imagine being confined to such a space your entire life.

It seems that hip-hop thrives under these kinds of seemingly hopeless conditions. DAM said they always felt a certain connection to rap when they heard it on the radio, and began to kick it for fun. But it was not until seeing Tupac's "Holla If You Hear Me" music video chronicling inner-city police brutality that they recognized hip-hop's revolutionary potential. DAM's subsequent political call-to-arms "Min Irhabi" (Who's The Terrorist?), released in 2001, would be downloaded by over 1 million people in the following month. PR found similar success in Gaza after their first public performance, with Palestinians of all generations supporting and encouraging their music.

Honestly, the amount of importance hip-hop has had in personally transforming the lives of these rappers and their fans was astounding. They all said it gave them a voice to vent their frustrations that they would otherwise lack. One rapper described hip-hop as his "oxygen." Another went as far as to say he "felt empty" before channeling hip-hop for self-expression. One of the most poignant parts of the film involved a scene where DAM illegally snuck into a refugee camp to perform alongside a group from the camp itself. One of the group's members, Kifahn, had been killed in an Israeli Army attack, and before rapping, one person said "Let's bring [Kifahn] back to life with a song." Even more tragically, two of the group's members would be detained by the Israeli police two months after the performance in a raid on the camp, officially on charges of "throwing rocks" at a protest two years prior. After going 8 months without trial, one was finally sentenced for ten years imprisonment while the other was sentenced for three years.

The rappers featured in the film weren't content with just spitting about these injustices, but used their broad appeal to help their communities. DAM opened a youth center in Lod that currently sees over 300 children, and a lot of the kids come asking for advice to pen their own hip-hop lyrics. By only looking at hip-hop as it relates to the vast majority of American listeners today, one can forget how much awesome potential it has in organizing and motivating people.

So I encourage all who have the opportunity to watch this eye-opening documentary to do so. Not only did I learn a little more about hip-hop abroad, but I've gotten back a little faith I'd lost in hip-hop's potential to promote social change.

Trailer for Slingshot Hip-Hop: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rdS8zNp3ow

Website of DAM: http://www.dampalestine.com/main.html
Website of Slingshot Hip-Hop: http://www.slingshothiphop.com/

A review of film Hip-Hop Slingshot and Nas' Untitled is coming soon, but for now...

I'll just put up this link:


I'm glad one other person on the interweb finds this album just as fascinating beyond "Nas' spits hard, but beats are wack" as I do.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Satoshi Kon at the Lincoln Center Film Society

Satoshi Kon smiling (he really likes to smile)

I had the privilege yesterday of attending a screening of Paprika yesterday followed by a Q&A session with the director himself, Satoshi Kon. Kon is probably my favorite person working in anime right now. He directed Paranoia Agent, my favorite anime series of the decade (if we are friends, I have probably tried getting you to watch it at some point). His work is a breath of fresh air, not least because he can avoid falling into the tired cliches that most of his peers do. In the span of 13 episodes, Kon did not only tackle themes that are virtually non-existent in mainstream anime (the fetishization of "cute" in Japan, the excesses of otaku culture, the contrast between Japan's post-war ideals and today's consumer driven culture, and lots else), but did so without being at all pedantic. And the visual presentation of his work, is of course, stunning.

Lil Slugger, seemingly the show's main antagonist

At one point, the host of the program asked Kon whether he had gone into directing Paranoia Agent knowing how it would end or if the ending was an unplanned, natural culmination of the creating process. To my great surprise, he admitted it to be the latter case, claiming that "if I knew the ending before I wrote it, the audience would probably know the ending too." He said he realized around the 11th episode or so that he only had two more episodes to tie everything together, and really struggled to think of a way out, almost wishing for Lil Slugger to be real and put him out of his misery (that was a real laugh out loud moment for those in the room who'd seen the series). I did not have any impression that the ending was forced or rushed, although it felt big. I'm getting a little carried away in talking about Paranoia Agent here, but only because it's that good. Please watch it if you have even a minimal interest in anime.

I was also highly impressed by Paprika, it's one of those movies you can watch multiple times and get more out of on each viewing. It's quite a mindfuck, from a narrative and especially a visual perspective, but it is by no means impossible to follow. Generally, the film examines the role of technology in blurring the line between dreams and reality, but of course there is more to it. Being the geek that I am, I got REALLY excited when I picked up on what must have been a slight nod to Dragonball Z; the character Paprika enters one of the dream worlds riding on a cloud with a red staff in hand (Goku and the Flying Nimbus, anyone?) I meant to ask Kon about it, but by the end of the movie I needed to pee so badly that any question I would've asked after would've probably formed into rambling nonsense.

If you are reading this and happen to be in New York until this Tuesday, I highly suggest you make your way over to Lincoln Center and catch the screening of one of his films and/or Paranoia Agent. I believe he'll be having another Q&A session tomorrow following the end of PA, and he's a very humorous, insightful fellow. Here's the link to the event:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Operation:Doomsday is a classic

And this is why I took the time to write this silly post. First, I would like to direct your attention to a much shorter yet generally accurate review of the album here.

Newer hip-hop fans may not know this, but there was a time when MF DOOM was not an indie sensation. There was a time when he did not have his own line of Nike SB Dunks, a time when was unknown to those watching Adult Swim, a time when he couldn't afford to send impostors wearing DOOM masks to his live performances in his place. There was even a time when MF DOOM rapped and was not MF DOOM. Instead, Daniel Dumile was first known as Zev Love X, an Afrocentric MC who made music with his twin brother DJ Subroc and friend Rodan under the moniker KMD (Kausing Much Damage). Tragically, during the recording of their 1994 sophomore LP Black Bastards (not to be released until 2001 due to its political content, a source of frustration for Dumile), Subroc was hit by a car and killed. This loss profoundly shook Dumile, who has admitted that he was "damn near homeless" afterward, "walking the streets of Manhattan, sleeping on benches."

Fast forward to 1999. Daniel Dumile has finally started to rap again. Zev Love X, however, is no longer; MF DOOM has now taken his place. DOOM does not release an incendiary follow-up to Black Bastards, but instead drops Operation:Doomsday, a loose concept album relating the story of Dr. Doom to MF DOOM, ultimately portraying DOOM as half-street smart/half-comic book nerd supervillain. The concept would make it a remarkable record in its own right, but in light of Dumile's history and stunning transformation, it strikes me as even more fascinating. I've been bumping this since late April and I seem to find more to love about it on each listen and yet I never see it mentioned when people talk about the best hip-hop albums of the 90s. Of course, one could easily respond by saying "well, that's because it ISN'T one of the best albums of the 90s," and from a purely technical standpoint, that may be true. Still, I think DOOM deserves a lot of credit for his originality and creativity; he created one hell of a persona for himself within the course of 19 tracks. And while DOOM the MC may be overrated in a few circles, DOOM the producer is most certainly underrated by about everyone, and he shows that he can give even Prince Paul competition when it comes to sampling creativity. So, I think I'll grace my two or so readers with a detailed track-by-track write up on Operation:Doomsday (I hope you aren't scared away by its length!), mainly because it appears to be so overlooked by hip-hop fans.

While he was no longer Zev Love, DOOM was still undoubtedly influenced by the unfortunate events in his recent past during the making of Operation:Doomsday. DOOM does not only refer to Subroc throughout the LP, but there is something different about his delivery on this album vs. both his earlier AND his later work. A lot of people tend criticize DOOM for having a monotone voice and off-beat/boring flow, although I think his low-key delivery adds to his mystique as a laid-back, successful supervillain. I think his performance on this will silence those critics, however, as he sounds a lot more lively and urgent on this disc anywhere else. I'd like to think that his identity was still somewhat in flux during this time; he was done being Zev Love X, but how would he let his audience know that DOOM was an entirely different creature? That his new DOOM incarnation (with the mask and all) wasn't just some marketing gimmick? To erase these doubts, he steps to the mic boisterously and confidently without sounding self-satisfied.

Okay, so onto the actual music. MF DOOM himself doesn't narrate the story of Dr. Doom, but relies on Fantastic Four samples to do the job for him, weaving his full-length tracks in between them. He doesn't necessarily directly relate his songs to these skits, but they work to make the LP more cohesive and provide a general sense of where DOOM is coming from. I don't really know where to start, so I think I'll go with a track by track rundown on this (don't worry, I won't dedicate a whole paragraph each to every song). I'm not a big fan of the format, but it's the only way I can provide links to SAMPLES for each song! Ooh, I know you crate diggers out there must be getting excited (though I didn't do any digging of my own, these were found courtesy of the-breaks.com).

This is a bit long, so first I'll just tell you songs that I consider MUST reads/listens if you're strapped for time (alternatively, you can jump to the end for a summary):

Go With the Flow
Red And Gold
Dead Bent
Gas Drawls
? feat. Kurious
I Hear Voices, Part 1

1) The Time We Faced Doom (Skit)

This isn't your typical bullshit intro skit, as it actually sets the tone for the remainder of the album. The Fantastic Four are beginning to tell the story of how they beat Dr. Doom when Doom suddenly calls in to tell the story himself.

2) Doomsday
"Definition 'super-villain': a killer who love children
One who is well-skilled in destruction, as well as buildin"

I love love love this. This captures MF DOOM's character in a nutshell. He really goes all over the place as far as lyrical content this track, and yet somehow you get the feeling that you understand his style more and more with each line. There are really too many quotables on this to go through the entire thing, as there is practically no hook and he raps straight for 3+ minutes. There is a short refrain that appears twice in the track that I find especially moving, though:

"On Doomsday!
Ever since the womb til I'm back where my brother went
That's what my tomb will say
Right above my government, Doom will lay (probably a play on his last name, Dumile)
Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who's to say?"

The beat fits DOOM perfectly. Mellow drums, a jazzy keyboard loop, somber female vocals, scratching, it's all there. Did I mention that he produced the entire album? Anyway, here's the track for you to listen to:

He samples singer Sade Adu's "Kiss of Life" and makes her voice work in an entirely different context. Peep the video around the 1:20 mark: http://youtube.com/watch?v=zfl7lhJuTis

3) Rhymes Like Dimes

The first time I heard this track I was underwhelmed (mainly because Doomsday put me in such an incredible high), but it's grown a lot on me with repeated listens. DOOM rides this strange game show sounding beat really well (or perhaps doesn't ride it at all, depending on how you look at things), with some quotable lines again:

"I sell rhymes like dimes
The one who mostly keep cash but brag about the broker times
Joker rhymes, like the 'Is you just happy to see me?' trick
Classical slap-stick rappers need Chapstick
A lot of 'em sound like they in a talent show
So I give 'em something to remember, like the Alamo
Tally-ho! A high Joker like Spades game
Came back from five year layin' and stayed the same"

You can listen to the track here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=rgZX71tbr3w

He samples James Ingram's "One Hundred Ways," again unpredictably. Check this: http://youtube.com/watch?v=H3v3vWNp-YU

4) The Finest feat. Tommy Gunn

Alright, I think I'm going to start highlighting my personal favorites after this lest I get repetitive. Another good track, DOOM and his partner just trade hard and humorous battle rhymes:

"I know about going paid to broke, to next day well-off
To bust a shell off, to 'Dick-riders! Get the hell off!'"
The song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=UHKIg17oHPI&feature=related

Samples The SOS Band's "The Finest" pretty straight forwardly: http://youtube.com/watch?v=2Pn9zDVyPHM

5) Back In The Days (Skit)

6) Go With The Flow

Another one of my favorites. DOOM samples Kool G. Rap's "Truly Yours" and The Spinners' "Ain't No Price On Happiness" to create a beat of magic here, one that can "make a Arab thief clap/With no hands, I chop these drums off Truly Yours, G rap." There's no need for me to quote anything, just listen to it: http://youtube.com/watch?v=NK4YB64XT0c

Sample - DJ Polo and Kool G. Rap: http://youtube.com/watch?v=cHdCVipO1mY

Sample - The Spinners: http://youtube.com/watch?v=ztuPbFZ-r9o

7) Tick, Tick Feat. MF Grimm

I didn't really like this track at first until I looked up the original Beatles sample. DOOM plays with the actual tempo of the beat throughout while Grimm does his thing. I thought it was annoying at first, but seeing just how much he altered it… you'll have to hear for yourself; it might even take you a few listens to pick up on the sample.

Song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=I_wWbcWfxZA

Sample - The Beatles' "Glass Onion": http://youtube.com/watch?v=sCTbO5w-m4o

8) Red And Gold Feat. King Geedorah

Okay okay so I know I said I'd stop highlighting every track, but as I go through the tracklisting, it's hard to find one that isn't notable in some way. Although the title says it's featuring an MC named King Geedorah, King Geedorah is actually just another alter-ego of Daniel Dumile based on King Ghidra, Godzilla's three headed nemesis. How fucking ill is that? I'll leave it to you readers to do a little research on the full premise of Geedorah, but just know this is another serious contender for favorite track/best beat on the album. These drums are HUGE, and MF DOOM creatively interpolates a seemingly simple cheesy 80s sample yet again. Everything is just perfect here. Quotes don't do Geedorah's lyrics justice, but what the hell:

"No science-fiction to no theater near you, coming soon to
Fuck with you frequently like how phases of the moon would do
You could gather 'round like it was an eclipse
Just don't look directly to the bitch, you may be blinded by the crips"

Just listen to this PLEASE: http://youtube.com/watch?v=nepVH1FI_Tg

Sample – The Deele "Shoot Em Up Movies": http://youtube.com/watch?v=IWT9MEPLWFE

9) The Hands of Doom (Skit)

10) Who You Think I Am? Feat. Featuring King Caesar, Rodan, Megalon, Kamackeris & Kong

The album's posse cut. DOOM samples jazz musician Yusef Lateef's "Eastern Market," which is actually a really good standalone piece, probably a better track than DOOM's. Still, some of the guest verses are pretty good, so it's worth hearing.

Song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=wKKeQMXPfPM

Sample – Yusef Lateef's "Eastern Market": http://youtube.com/watch?v=Z-2bT8_x_Dw

11) Doom, Are You Awake? (Skit)

12) Hey!

Cool little diddy, DOOM talks about drug dealing in his own way over a Scooby Doo sample.

Song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=aCB8xg7J4PE

13) Operation: Greenbacks Feat. Megalon and King Geedorah

"What a fella! Like Salt, Pepa, Spinderella
I came to spark the deaf, dumb and blind like Helen Keller
If I'm not with George of the Jungle, if he not with Stella
Or either Priscilla, I'm doing dips on Godzilla
…Though y'all know he don't play, right?"

How he (now King Geedorah/Ghidra again, not MF DOOM) was able to incorporate lines like these into a song about getting money, I'm still not sure. People say Weezy F. Baby's strength relies on his ability to string together rambling incoherent boasts for the sake of fun, but guys like Dumile have been doing it for years. Really ill soulful beat on this, too.

Song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=aLMNxtKpzdQ

Sample - Isaac Hayes' "Our Day Will Come": http://www.last.fm/music/Isaac+Hayes/_/Our+Day+Will+Come

14) The Mic

Very solid, if slightly abstract storytelling track about DOOM doing live performances and meeting women. Like all other DOOM songs, repeated listenings allow you to pick up golden lines like these:

"Myself and two a alikes had ran through this crew of three
In my earlier days they showed me things new to me
So we knew mad brothers who they had hit off
They even used to watch each other just to rock they shit off"

Song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=n1srVcu25t8
Sample – Atlantic Starr's "All In The Name of Love": http://youtube.com/watch?v=B2MYRh2syx4

15) The Mystery of Doom (Skit)

16) Dead Bent

The way he flips Isaac Hayes' "Walk on By" here is just ridiculous. He effortlessly turns a bluesy, soulful ballad into an aggressive, edgy beat.

Song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=hL5cun2kQ6M (this is actually a quite clever video)

Sample – Isaac Hayes' "Walk on By": http://youtube.com/watch?v=0XIIivxCtzM

17) Gas Drawls

Between Doomsday and this, it's really hard to choose the album's best cut. DOOM is really on some other shit here. It features some of my favorite lines on the album:

"the super villain-
cooler than a million
i be chillin
still quick to slice squares like sicilian
dont make me have to hurt them feelins
ill ruin you in the dirt that i be doin in my dealins
sendin spirits through the ceilin'-
chrome peelin'-
dome blown
within the comforts of your own home
grown big
wheelin' and high rollin'
I hold the lye-
it keeps the sty on my eye swollen"

Beyond examining particular rhymes, it's really hard to describe any of these tracks just because he can spit from 13418 directions within a single verse. And really, you have to actually hear his flow for the lines to be compelling. Anyway, he scratches the laid back vocals from "Black Cow" by Steely Dan into the track to create what may be the best beat on the album (only Red And Gold gives this competition, IMO).

Song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=_g3D_05Hd_Y&feature=related

Sample – Steely Dan's "Black Cow": http://youtube.com/watch?v=kS9Ll02CNjU

18) ? feat. Kurious

You get the feeling that the entire LP was leading up to this point, as the beat has already appeared on several skits. Dr. Doom announces that “the last thing to fit... was the mask” before MF DOOM spits:
“He cleans his metal mask with gasoline
Then after I'm last seen
Pullin' a chick like a fiend
Pull a fast one
Can't put shit past him
Got niggas on his own team mad enough to blast him”

This is the first time DOOM uses a Fantastic Four skit to lead directly into a track. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he waits this long to assert that he and Dr. Doom are essentially the same; he uses all of the preceding tracks to establish how the music industry and personal tragedy have forced him to become like said supervillain. This is reinforced on the last verse, containing DOOM’s most detailed and heartfelt lyrics concerning Subroc’s death:

“By candlelight my hand will write these rhymes 'til I'm burnt out
Mostly from experience, shit that I learned about
You know I know
These hos be asking me if I'm you
Like my twin brother we did everything together
From under ? to coppin butter leathers
Remember when you went and got the dark blue Ballys
I had all the different color Cazale Cazales
But SubRoc, you shoulda went with the Ruby and the old Ock
Truly the illest dynamic duo on the whole block
I keep a flick of you with the machete sword in your hand
Everything is going according to plan man”

Dr. Doom returns after this verse, announcing that he has come to seek revenge on those who forced him to don his mask. Before he can enact his revenge, an explosion can be heard followed by a voice declaring “well, that’s the end of Doom!” There is still one track left, however...

Song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=mkhhwg8dRDM

19) I Hear Voices (Part 2)

“You thought I was done for, eh? Well I’m very much... ALIVE” proclaims Dr. Doom before DOOM steps in and obliterates this track. And I mean obliterates. I’m getting lazy here, but DOOM demonstrates why he’s lyrically ill and picks up women and what not before cutting back to a Dr. Doom sample where Doom threatens the world with mass destruction if he is not elected world leader. He counts down to 2 seconds before an explosion is heard, and Operation:Doomsday comes to a close.

Song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=lIpVZlBvscA


MAN, I can’t believe I just did that. Tracking down some of those links where harder than I’d thought they’d be. If you decided to skip all of that, it’s fine, just know that I consider Operation:Doomsday to be a classic. I remember someone arguing that MF DOOM has never been a Dilla, Premier, or Madlib behind the boards, but I think that’s missing the point. With almost no blueprint before him, DOOM was able to create a marriage of beats and rhymes that almost perfectly accomplished his goal of creating a new (if whacky) identity for himself. I would even go as far as to say that it’s the 90s’ answer to De La’s 3 Feet High And Rising, given both LPs were littered with quirky samples that served to boldly distinguish their creators from their peers. Really, when you try to put yourself in Dumile’s shoes in 1999, crafting this LP must’ve posed quite a risk; he could’ve alienated the already narrow fan base he’d established with KMD, the Beatles sample probably wasn’t cleared, etc. The album is out of print now, but I suggest you get your hands on this via ALL MEANS NECESSARY. E-mail me if you’re at a loss of how to do so.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The greatest alive?

I had a hazy idea of who Lil Wayne was before the beginning of the school year. I'd heard from a few that he was "hot" if not "the hottest rapper in the game," but only from people whose opinions I didn't take too seriously (I wasn't quite up on the blogosphere just yet). I unfairly labeled him as another Southern one-trick crunk pony, without actually bothering to listen to any of his material.

Surprisingly, it was at Swarthmore that I began to see first-hand the amount of hype and importance that has been attached to Lil Wayne. I remember one time I was doing statistics with my friend Ray in the library, both listening to our iPods, and him suddenly telling me,"Berto, I can't feel my face!" "Wait, what, Ray?" "I said I can't feel my FACE!" "Um." With increasing frequency, both kids who could and couldn't really give a damn about hip-hop beyond The Hood Internet or whatever mashup group started trying to convince me of the genius of Lil Wayne. Unique voice, humour, crazy flows, what was there not to like?

Still, I slept, dismissing most of his supporters as those who'd enjoy only rap ironically. Outside of occasionally listening to him in a friend's room or being told that she wants to lick him like a lollipop at EVERY campus gathering from March onward, I didn't make time to listen to him. Too much other classic material to get through, I told myself.

Between taking the train to and from work and sitting idly at my work desk for entire days on end, I've actually had plenty of free time to myself now, most of which was spent reading other people's reactions to Tha Carter III. While I'd already arranged a list of albums to get through for the week, my curiosity finally got the best of me today and I listened to Tha Carter III (I love typing out this album title!).

Now, if this were a review of Tha Carter III, I wouldn't have wasted your time with this ridiculously long introduction. No, I feel some have already critiqued the album down insightfully enough (if not getting a little too hyped about doing so).

What I find truly interesting is the diversity of opinion you find on the album and Lil Wayne in general; the critical media (Pitchfork especially) mostly love him, while the bloggers I read think he's above average to awfully overrated. My basic thoughts are that Tha Carter III, while not a bad album bad any means, is nowhere near the classic that Wayne was aiming for. I was both pleasantly surprised and disappointed by this album; I finally recognized Wayne's flow and word-bending talents, but I wish he could've just focused a bit more on using those talents to make the album more cohesive.

A friend of mine recently told me he feels people shit on Lil Wayne just because he likes to have fun. After reading so many different takes on him, though, I think the divide between his fans and his ardent critics are more fundamental than a lack of humour on the part of hardcore rap nerds (I have seen Redman on too many Top 10 lists to count). Not so implicit in all of these discussions are differing notions how great hip-hop should be defined in the year 2008.

In the comment section of one of the blogs I linked to, Doctor Zeus suggested that Lil Wayne study GZA to learn about the art of the extended metaphor. I think that's a perfect example of what a lot of older rap fans expect; to be heralded as "the greatest rapper alive" today, Wayne would have to match or surpass the quality of the work that's come before him. That's a tall order, and a reasonable argument could be made that it's a snobbish one. Why can't Lil Wayne just make great music, why must he be compared to other people? The fact is, however, that Lil Wayne very self-conciously aspires to be mentioned alongside Jay-Z, Biggie, etc., and a lot of media outlets and fans have already embraced the idea. This makes other heads, the ones who've bumped Liquid Swords since '94, defensive. If the hype machine is able to make Lil Wayne into the greatest rapper of the decade despite his technical shortcomings, it almost feels like there's been a breach of continuity in hip-hop's story.

Of course, it is only natural that as a form of popular music, hip-hop can be consumed and critiqued by anybody from an ahistorical context, so I don't personally sweat all of the acclaim too much. In fact, I'll probably be bumping "Dr. Carter" for a good while, I think it shows what Weezy F. Baby can do when he actually sticks to a concept. And even if future pop-rappers lacking Wayne's talent take his free-associative rhyming-without-writing approach too far, at least I'll always have Operation:Doomsday (I have fallen in love with this album, write-up to come soon hopefully).