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:

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:

Website of DAM:
Website of Slingshot Hip-Hop:

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.