Well Versed: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)


If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang…could be dangerous.

In my last article, I mentioned that the debut album of the Wu-Tang Clan, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was ranked as the greatest hip hop album of the last 30 years by Spin Magazine, and I can’t disagree. As I’ve written before, the Wu-Tang Clan was a group of such deep mythology and dynastic relevance that their debut album should be revered with the same respect as the bible. Every rap fan has their personal favorite Wu-Tang album, but their iconic debut has always been mine. Where the other classics excelled by perfecting a singular sound, Enter The Wu-Tang was dense and chaotic, a thousand possible flows and ideas and inspirations. The hiss of the record became the buzz of the killer bees. That RZA, the groups leader and producer, was able to perfectly calibrate that energy and turn it into a comprehensive album is remarkable and unrepeatable. Never before or again will we see an album that showcased this much talent working in such harmony.

In the first column of Well Versed, I’ll break down a rap album through the best verses; because a lot of times a record can be measured by the quality of its verses rather than its songs. Sometimes I might countdown the top 10 verses, or I might rank the guest verses (I’ll definitely rank the guest verses). But for Enter The Wu-Tang, we’ll do something different. In honor of the massive amount of MC’s that contributed, I’ll rank the best verse from each member. It’s not easy task, as all of the rappers here are working at peak capacity. And since it’s a matter of preference, everyone should of course go listen to the album at the source.

Let’s start with the easy ones.

U-God – “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”

Raw I’m gonna give it to you, with no trivia
Raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia
My hip-hop will rock and shock the nation
like the Emancipation Proclamation
Weak MC’s approach with slang that’s dead
you might as well run into the wall and bang your head
I’m pushin’ force, my force your doubtin’
I’m makin’ devils cower to the Caucus Mountains

Masta Killa – “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”

Homicide’s illegal and death is the penalty
What justifies the homicide, when he dies?
In his own iniquity it’s the
Master of the Mantis Rapture coming at you
We have an APB on an MC Killer
Looks like the work of a Master
Evidence indicates that’s it’s stature
Merciless like a terrorist hard to capture
The flow, changes like a chameleon
Plays like a friend and stabs you like a dagger
This technique attacks the immune system
Disguised like a lie paralyzing the victim
You scream as it enters your bloodstream
Erupts your brain from the pain these thoughts contain
Moving on a nigga with the speed of a centipede

U-God and Masta Killa only contributed one verse apiece for the clan’s debut, the first and last verse of “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin.” U-God only got to put in one verse because he was incarcerated for the majority of the recording sessions for the album, but his intro here still ranks as one of the more iconic moments of the tape. Masta Killa earned his spot as the 9th and last member of the clan with his verse here. RZA was producer as a roman emperor, with MC’s engaging in rap gladiatorial combat to see who would be on each song. Masta Killa beat out several other rappers for his shot at immortality. Rap as doctoral thesis.

RZA – “Protect Ya Neck”

Yo chill with the feedback black we don’t need that
It’s ten o’clock hoe, where the fuck’s your seed at?
Feeling mad hostile, ran the apostle
Flowing like Christ when I speaks the gospel
Stroll with the holy roll then attack the globe with the buckus style
the ruckus, ten times ten men committing mad sin
Turn the other cheek and I’ll break your fucking chin
Slaying boom-bangs like African drums (we’ll be)
Coming around the mountain when I come
Crazy flamboyant for the rap enjoyment
My clan increase like black unemployment
Yeah, another one dare,
Tuh-took a genius (to) take us the fuck outta here

GZA – “Protect Ya Neck”

The Wu is too slamming for these Cold Killing labels
Some ain’t had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel
Be doing artists in like Cain did Abel
Now they money’s gettin stuck to the gum under the table
That’s what you get when you misuse what I invent
Your empire falls and you lose every cent
For trying to blow up a scrub
Now that thought was just as bright as a 20-watt light bulb
Should’ve pumped it when I rocked it
Niggaz so stingy they got short arms and deep pockets
This goes on in some companies
With majors they’re scared to death to pump these
First of all, who’s your A&R
A mountain climber who plays an electric guitar
But he don’t know the meaning of dope
When he’s looking for a suit and tie rap
that’s cleaner than a bar of soap
And I’m the dirtiest thing in sight
Matter of fact bring out the girls and let’s have a mud fight

“Protect Ya Neck” was a mission statement. It was their first single, recorded and passed out on cassettes until it swarmed all over New York. It became such a street hit that when they put it on the album, they put an intro before the song of someone calling into a radio station asking for that Wu-Tang joint (Again? Aww yeah, again and again!). It could very well be the greatest song ever made, and every verse here is perfect. RZA and GZA, the oldest and most experienced members, got top billing and deliver their own sermon on the mount. RZA goes absolutely bonkers, foreshadowing his kinetic frenzied style that would characterize his later rapping, flowing like Christ and announcing his plans for world domination. He alley oops it to GZA who lives up to his Genius moniker. GZA and RZA had solo careers before starting the Wu but they were mishandled by their labels and left for dead. The clan was a rebirth for both of them, but not before GZA could give them a sendoff with this scathing undressing. There is no better summation of the divide between the street life of many rap artists and the business dealings of the labels than his devastating description of an A&R: a mountain climber who plays an electric guitar.

Raekwon – “C.R.E.A.M.”

I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side
Staying alive was no jive
Had second hands, moms bounced on old man
So then we moved to Shaolin land
A young youth, yo rockin the gold tooth, ‘Lo goose
Only way, I begin to G’ off was drug loot
And let’s start it like this son, rollin with this one
And that one, pullin out gats for fun
But it was just a dream for the teen, who was a fiend
Started smokin woolies at sixteen
And running up in gates, and doing hits for high stakes
Making my way on fire escapes
No question I would speed, for cracks and weed
The combination made my eyes bleed
No question I would flow off, and try to get the dough off
Sticking up white boys in ball courts
My life got no better, same damn ‘Lo sweater
Times is rough and tough like leather
Figured out I went the wrong route
So I got with a sick tight clique and went all out
Catchin keys from across seas
Rollin in MPV’s, every week we made forty G’s
Yo brothas respect mine, or anger the tech nine
Ch-POW! Move from the gate now

Inspectah Deck – “C.R.E.A.M.”

It’s been 22 long hard years and still strugglin
Survival got me buggin, but I’m alive on arrival
I peep at the shape of the streets
And stay awake to the ways of the world cause shit is deep
A man with a dream with plans to make C.R.E.A.M.
Which failed; I went to jail at the age of 15
A young buck sellin drugs and such who never had much
Trying to get a clutch at what I could not touch
The court played me short, now I face incarceration
Pacin’, going up state’s my destination
Handcuffed in back of a bus, 40 of us
Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough
But as the world turns I learned life is Hell
Living in the world, no different from a cell
Everyday I escape from Jakes givin chase, sellin base
Smokin bones in the staircase
Though I don’t know why I chose to smoke sess
I guess that’s the time when I’m not depressed
But I’m still depressed, and I ask what’s it worth?
Ready to give up so I seek the Old Earth
Who explained working hard may help you maintain
to learn to overcome the heartaches and pain
We got stickup kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks
and stray shots, all on the block that stays hot
Leave it up to me while I be living proof
To kick the truth to the young black youth
But shorty’s running wild, smokin sess, drinkin beer
And ain’t trying to hear what I’m kickin in his ear
Neglected for now, but yo, it gots to be accepted
That what? That life is hectic

If “Protect Ya Neck” is the greatest song on the album, then “C.R.E.A.M.” is the most iconic. Over one of RZA’s most indelible samples, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck flip the script on the gangsta rap that was coming from the west coast. All of L.A.’s takes of inner city life translated into big booming blockbusters, but this was film noir; dark shadows and understated horror. Raekwon the Chef shows his mastery of economical language, packing a lifetime into every bar. A young kid, born on the crime side, the NY times side, who’s only way out of poverty was the drug trade. Deck plays the yang to his yin, the warning conscience to Rae’s bad example. Inspectah Deck was the straight man of the Wu, always better within the team bouncing off of the other personalities than he was on his own. But he dropped some of the best verses on the album and “C.R.E.A.M.” was his shining moment, a plea for sanity and safety before giving up and accepting that life is hectic. The song would become immortal as the biggest missive against capitalism this side of Marx.

Ol Dirty Bastard – “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”

Here I go, deep type flow
Jacque Cousteau could never get this low..
I’m cherry bombing shits… BOOM
Just warming up a little bit, vroom vroom
Rappinin is what’s happening
Keep the pockets stacked and then, hands clapping and
At the party when I move my body
Gotta get up, and be somebody!
Grab the microphone go straight to the phone
DUH-DUH-DUH…enter the Wu-Tang zone
Sure enough when I rock that stuff
Guff puff? I’m gonna catch your bluff tough
rough, kicking rhymes like Jim Kelly
or Alex Haley I’m a Mi-..Beetle Bailey rhymes
coming raw style, hardcore
Niggas be coming to the hip-hop store
Coming to buy grocery from me
Trying to be a hip-hop MC
The law, in order to enter the Wu-Tang
You must bring the Ol’ Dirty Bastard type slang
Represent the GZA, Abbott, RZA, Shaquan, Inspectah Deck
Dirty Hoe getting low with his flow
Introducing, the Ghost..face.. Killahhhhhh!!
No one could get iller

The late ODB was one of the most singular personalities not just in the Clan but in all of hip hop. His rap style could not be imitated; twenty years later and just now we’re seeing young artists able to tap into his unique mania. His rap style predated adlibs, brought sing rapping to the forefront, and enlarged the circle of what was and wasn’t acceptable to rap. It’s hard to choose just one verse of his as the best, but “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'” balanced all the best parts of his style. He brought the bars and the energy, and in the middle of this posse cut he completely stole the show. There are so many gems; his Jacque Costeau shout out, his jerky flow, and the way he shouts out KILLLAHHHHHHHHHH at the end. He is missed.

Method Man – “Method Man”

Hey, you, get off my cloud
You don’t know me and you don’t know my style
Who be gettin flam when they come to a jam?
Here I am here I am, the Method Man
Patty cake patty cake hey the method man
Don’t eat Skippy, Jif or Peter Pan
Peanut butter, Cause I’m not butter
In fact I snap back like a rubber
band, I be Sam Sam I am
And I don’t eat green eggs and ham
Style will hit ya, wham!, then goddamn
You be like oh shit that’s the jam
Turn it up now hear me get buckwu-wu-wild
I’m about to blow light me up
Upside downside inside and outside
Hittin you from every angle there’s no doubt
I am, the one and only Method Man
The master of the plan wrappin shit like Saran
Wrap, with some of this and some of that
Hold up (what?) I tawt I tat I putty tat
Over there, but I think he best to beware
Of the diggy dog shit right here
Yippy yippy yay yippy yah yippy yo
Like Deck said this ain’t your average flow
Coming like rah ooh ah achie kah
Tell me how ya like it so far baby paw
The poetry’s in motion coast to coast and
Rub it on your skin like lotion
What’s the commotion, oh my lord
Another cord chopped by the Wu-Tang sword
Hey hey hey like Fat Albert
It’s the Method Man ain’t no if ands about it
It’s the Method

Method Man was the clear breakout star of the clan and for a minute in the mid 90’s might have been the best rapper alive. His movie star charisma was easily identified, which gave Method Man not only the best hook duties but his very own song on the album. Meth just glides over this beat, turning a goofy piano line into one of the catchiest songs in hip hop history. There isn’t even a verse per se, he just raps until he switches into a bridge and then starts again. You could argue that his solo career never lived up to the potential of this moment, but that’s more a testament to the song than anything else. He emptied everything in the tank on this one.

Ghostface Killah – “Bring Da Ruckus”

Ghostface, catch the blast of a hype verse
My glock bursts, leave in a hearse, I did worse
I come rough, tough like an elephant tusk
Ya head rush, fly like Egyptian musk
Aw shit, Wu-Tang Clan spark the wicks an’
However, I master the trick just like Nixon
Causin terror, quick damage ya whole era
Hardrocks is locked the fuck up, or found shot
P.L.O. style, hazardous, cause I wreck this dangerous
I blow sparks like Waco, Texas

We end at the beginning. Ghostface Killah, one of the few candidates for the GOAT position in rap, didn’t do as much to distinguish himself on their debut as his crew members. His trademark flamboyant style and visceral storytelling would manifest later in his solo career. But in the very first verse on Enter The Wu-Tang, no one could want a better opening. Over RZA’s snarls of “Bring da muthafuckin ruckus,” Ghost straight kills it, rhyming elephant tusk with Egyptian musk, disparaging Richard Nixon, and shouting out the P.L.O. The seeds of one of the greatest rappers ever were laid out.

It’s remarkable to listen to a tape that’s 22 years old and have it hold up. Enter The Wu-Tang is a big bang of an album; a claustrophobic force that could create a universe. We’re just blessed to be living in it.

Trapped In The 90’s: Hip Hop’s Obsession With The Past


Earlier this year, Spin Magazine released a landmark issue celebrating their 30 year anniversary. It was a list that counted down the 300 best albums from 1985-2014 — all 30 years of the magazine’s existence. Lists of this magnitude aren’t fun for the strict ranking; they’re fun for the dialogue they start, a chance to process history while it’s happening or revaluate more established classics. These big catchall lists are more amusing than provocative. The big guns one would expect all hang around the top ten. Nirvana, The Smiths, Radiohead, and Daft Punk all get to share the glory. But underneath this ranking is lurks something more interesting. There are 55 hip hop albums on this list, and given that the first iconic rap LP’s occurred near the ’84-’85 period, those 55 albums rank as a list of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. It’s interesting to see on its own. Here’s the top 10 (with their ranking in the original list as well).

  1. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan (1993) [2]
  2. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West (2010) [8]
  3. The Blueprint – Jay-Z (2001) [13]
  4. Fear Of A Black Planet – Public Enemy (1990) [15]
  5. Paul’s Boutique – Beastie Boys (1989) [17]
  6. Aquemini – Outkast (1998) [21]
  7. Illmatic – Nas (1994) 23]
  8. Ready To Die – The Notorious B.I.G. (1994) [27]
  9. The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest (1991) [32]
  10. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – Public Enemy (1988) [36]

As a list on it’s own, those ten albums are about as good as you can get in the genre, but looking through the whole list reveals some interesting things about how we process Hip Hop history.

  • Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is absolutely the greatest album of all time. As I’ve written before, there’s no other album that can create an entire universe for a listener to fall into. Rap was never the same after it.
  • Spin don’t got no love for the west coast? Well let it be known then!  Only six albums from L.A. crack the top 50 and they’re all legends: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, N.W.A., 2Pac. Kendrick’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City is apparently the greatest L.A. album ever, ranking in at 12th. There’s nothing from the Bay Area.
  • The golden age is over. Usually these lists are the type that idolize the first golden age of rap (1988) or that glorious ’93-’96 period, but albums from all over the hip hop timeline populate the list. No one doubts how good Kanye’s MBDTF is, but I never thought I’d see the day where it was the second greatest album ever.

No list is perfect, and this one is certainly flawed. It’s fun to see the whole of hip hop history be grappled with because there’s a big divide between classic and current rap music. Every new generation of every genre has to hear their elders complain about how much better music was back in the good old days, but given the speed of change in rap music, the generation gap is particularly acute.

Hip hop is a dynamic, evolving genre. It’s the sound of ebb and flow, volcanic tensions constantly dissolving into one another. One of my favorite dichotomies is the fight between past and present. Rap is inherently youthful, resting on the shoulders of young teenagers who vividly reimagine their world every couple of years. But it’s also music as archeology; the genre was literally born by repurposing the records that came before it. An artist can say more with with how they place a sample or a lyrical reference than with an actual bar of their own.

That tension manifests itself outside of the actual music. When Time Magazine ran an article and interview with Vince Staples where he claimed that the ’90s got too much credit in rap, the internet blew up. Old heads came at him saying that he was the problem in Hip Hop and he had no respect for the genre. The outrage even culminated in a war of words between Vince Staples and 90’s rapper Noreaga (aka N.O.R.E), the exact type of New York brass knuckles lyricist that’s been swept away by contemporary tastes. The irony is that Staples clearly has a ton of respect for hip hop, knows all of the classics, and can absolutely rap his ass off. The only L.A. rapper on the 2014 All-Star Rap Squad, Staples rewarded my trust in him with one of the seminal albums of the year, Summertime ’06.

Vince Staples doesn’t deserve all of the flack he’s received, but there’s a reasonable frustration from the older hip hop heads. In every other genre, the great records of the past have been able to institutionally enter the classic canon. Whether through enshrinement in a hall of fame or a countdown on VH1 or a list in Rolling Stone, rock and roll found a way to embed itself into the cultural consciousness. The fact that hip hop has made it so far into popular culture without acceptance by any of these gatekeepers is impressive on it’s own, but it’s also had a terrible side effect. The music business continually treats rap music as a continual fad, so only the young guns are given commercial opportunities. Old rappers don’t get radio play or label support. It’s one thing for new rappers to rebel against the old generation, it’s another thing entirely to grow up without knowing who they are.

Pitting past against present is a false binary. These rappers exist in completely different contexts. There’s only a handful of rappers working today that wouldn’t be laughed off of a stage in the 90’s; conversely there’s only a handful of rappers from the 90’s who would even get a record deal today. It’s crazy to fault a genre this propulsive for changing every year. It’s absurd that rap doesn’t have its own hall of fame and golden oldies stations (although we’re trying–word to KDAY). But that’s why these lists like SPIN made are fun. We get to span eras and see how the genre has evolved. Vince Staples might not sound like a 90’s rappers, but like many of his peers, his music is grappling with the ghosts of rappers past. The old king is dead, long live the new king. Here’s to the next 30 years being just as revolutionary.

Taking Us All Downtown: Macklemore’s Hip Hop History Lesson


It’s not going well if Macklemore starts to feel like a best case scenario. That’s how it looked when 2015 started. After Macklemore swept the country as an independent rap sensation, the rising backlash against his cultural presence came to an eruption after he won the Best Rap Album Grammy over rap titans Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Jay-Z, and Kanye West (even I had something to say). Right after the Grammys he went into hiding; no more music, no more videos, no more performances. In his stead there was now a Post-Mackled world. There was Iggy Azalea, G-Eazy, and other white rappers that were pushed on us after Macklemore proved successful at being, as Kris Ex says in Macklemore’s return Complex cover, “the first rapper to dominate the commercial sphere by speaking from a purely white gaze.” At least Macklemore had something to say, seemed concerned by his white privilege and his distant relationship with rap’s core fanbase. But his comeback’s queasy attempt to pay homage to hip hop’s golden era proves he’s just as clueless as the rest of the record industry and that he hasn’t learned anything from his Grammy debacle.

At first he seemed harmless enough. His first comeback song landed with a thud. “Growing Up (Sloane’s Song)” carries all the same detritus that dragged his previous work. Sappy overwrought production courtesy of equal partner Ryan Lewis, banal cliched lyrics from Macklemore, and a feature from Ed Sheeran to symbolize the vanilla coating on Macklemore’s flavor. After a tepid response, it looked like maybe Macklemania was over. But “Growing Up” was only testing the waters; Macklemore had his big radio single waiting in the wings. “Downtown” hits all the marks of his previous massive singles: big soaring chorus, expensive goofy video, an innocuous inclusivity aimed at liberal America.

“Downtown” comes with some important distinctions that separate it from his previous massive singles “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us.” The silly concept of the video (a moped gang fight a la West Side Story) acts as a tribute to the old school park jams of Hip Hop’s birth. There’s the sparse breakbeat that’s the backbone of the song, the crew posturing in the video, the song title that recalls the downtown/uptown divide of New York in Hip Hop’s early years, but most notably there are the three features from OG legends: Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel. “Downtown” is a clear attempt by Macklemore to prove his Hip Hop bonafides. Even the most cynical critiques can’t take away the fact that three of the most important, most underappreciated legends in the game are on a pop song in 2015. Maybe the song really was made with good intentions, but that doesn’t change the fact that “Downtown” is exactly the type of cultural carpetbagging that those old school rappers were afraid of in the first place.

If this is Macklemore’s response to the racial critiques of his victory lap, then it’s also indicative of why he received those critiques in the first place. His absurdist moped gangland fantasy infantilizes the genre that it uses as inspiration. Instead of reveling in the complexities that made Hip Hop special or acknowledging the unjust conditions that caused black kids in New York to create this new music, he takes only the fun parts and incorporates it into his white world. His split between serious “important” songs and fun “party” songs isn’t Hip Hop; the mixture of the two is the dynamic heart of the whole genre.

Even though he’s using hip hop’s glory days for self serving purposes, the action of putting those legends on the song would speak louder than anything. But if anything Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel are left in the dust on “Downtown,” reduced to nameless black men that form Macklemore’s posse in the background. Their moments in the song are all rapped together in a generic old school style, with no distinction between them. Even the video, while it throws their names on a marquee, makes no attempt to identify these legends that Macklemore is using for his own street cred, and rest assured his fanbase watching the video doesn’t know either. References are embedded within hip hop, with rappers shouting out influences or paying respect to history through more subtle ways. Macklemore’s failure to do that is a damning silence.

“Downtown” specializes in the smug, self-serving condescension that Macklemore has perfected. Once again, his attempt to join in the culture actually further serves to divide it further. His response to the cultural and racial appropriation critiques that have been leveled at him is basically “I know more about hip hop more than anyone else does.” Even more sinisterly, he’s claiming that he knows more about REAL hip hop than anybody else. For all of his grandstanding about white privilege, Macklemore still doesn’t know the one rule about being a white ally: cede the mic and let other voices be heard. Now, Melle Mel and others have called out current rap stars like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar for not being true to the culture, as if their ambitious musical work pushing for civil rights and black pride is less important to Hip Hop than Macklemore’s moped. Rap music has always been about innovation and the future. It makes sense that the harbinger of the white takeover of the genre would also be the one to musically commercialize its past.

“Downtown” did not do nearly as well as his older songs. It topped out at #6 on the Hip Hop/R&B chart and failed to crack the top ten on the Hot 100 (peaking at #12). Maybe it’s a sign that Macklemore fatigue really has set in, or maybe it’s that his fanbase does not care about these 50 year old rappers he put on the track. But just because he doesn’t explain who they are doesn’t mean they have to stay in anonymity.

Kool Moe Dee, one third of the Treacherous Three before a successful solo career, is most known for inventing battle rap as we know it. In his live battle with party rapper Busy Bee Starski in 1981, he focused his rhymes not on rocking the crowd but on shaming his opponent. A whole new aspect of rapping was born.

Grandmaster Caz was a member of the Cold Crush Brothers, one of the most popular live rap acts in the early days. His greatest accomplishment isn’t even credited to him. His manager Big Bank Hank stole Caz’s rhymes for his verse on the first hip hop song to break nationally, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang.

Melle Mel probably held the crown for best rapper alive before the Def Jam era. The lead MC for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Melle Mel was the voice behind one of the greatest and most important rap songs ever made. “The Message” is a six minute tour de force rapped entirely by Melle Mel, starting political rap and pushing the genre into more conscious territory. Plus it bangs.

All of this material is more satisfying than “Downtown.” Hopefully they won’t be replaced by it.

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #1 – Freddie Gibbs


We’re finally here! Look back at the nine previous albums now!

In Sprite’s new hip hop focused ad campaign, our resident rap ruler Drake says something a bit disorienting: “Just rapping is not really that impressive anymore. There just has to be more. You have to be a multi-layered artist.” The age of the rap-singer is upon us. As rap has gotten intertwined with pop, it’s as if the only way to get noticed is to immerse yourself to radio or stand out completely. So far 2015 has been the year of the rapper who doesn’t want to rap; they want to be a rockstar, or a jazz icon, or a fashionista, or a conductor. The most popular rapper on the planet doesn’t even write his own raps! Maybe Drake’s right and rapping isn’t impressive anymore. That’s the only explanation for the unfair, lukewarm reception that has greeted Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s masterpiece Pinata. There’s nothing fancy, or even innovative, about this record. There’s just the best beats of the year from one of the greatest producers of all time and the best rhymes of the year from someone on the short list for best MC breathing. If that’s not impressive I don’t know what is.

This isn’t an obvious match. Freddie Gibbs, an L.A. transplant from Gary, Indiana, a rap cyborg who was kicked off Interscope for not toning down his technically driven murder music, teaming up with the Beat Konducta himself, the patron saint of the L.A. underground. Pinata (originally the much better named “Cocaine Pinata”) is not a beautiful act of chemistry. This is rap as athletic activity, with Madlib lobbing out absurdly difficult beats for Gibbs to knock out of the park. But what could have been a genre exercise turned into a masterpiece and a career benchmark for both parties. Freddie Gibbs got a chance to flex over the best production he’s ever had, forcing him to be more creative with his songwriting. Madlib, after years of churning out instrumental projects, came out of the wilderness to find one of the best rappers he’s had a chance to collaborate with. They both provided what the other needed.

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib are both incredible at what they do. The sheer technical prowess is so evident on the record — the way Madlib cuts his samples into jagged soundscapes, and the way Gibbs finds a way to flow over them — that Pinata could be the best album of the year on that merit alone. What exceeds expectations is how they find greatness in simplicity. All the song titles are one word and yet perfectly named, summarizing the efficient style of the album. For all the (unwarranted) critiques that Freddie Gibbs can be boring because of the homogeneity of his lyrics, Pinata finds him as a master songwriter. He tells stories with the best of them, whether about lost love on “Deeper” or adolescent memories on “Knick.” There’s the gleeful hedonism on “High” and the paranoid noir of “Bomb.” He drops off the best diss track of the decade with “Real,” a scathing, explicit attack on former mentor and rap icon Young Jeezy. There’s the delirious, playful “Robes” immediately followed by the poignant, world wearied hush of “Broken.” Pinata is a study of contrasts, with Gibbs spanning a field of ideas and emotions without it ever feeling too disparate. He has Madlib to thank for that, who plays John Williams to his Steven Spielberg. Much respect to DJ Mustard, Flying Lotus, El-P and the rest of the great producers this year, but Madlib takes home the crown for best production front to back on an album this year. These are beats you can drown in, blunted jazz so luxurious that you’ll want to wear it.

Like most great art, what started out as a creative exercise has become so much more. Twenty, maybe even ten years ago, this album would have been deemed iconic, and it’s a shame it hasn’t received that attention. It sounds like it comes from another funkier age. There are a lot of talented guest rappers on the album, but the only ones that manage to hold their own with Gibbs are the two hall of fame hip hop legends, Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan and Southern rap godfather Scarface, who sound as good as they ever have over Madlib’s sculpted loops.

Rap is changing at such a fast pace it’s hard to keep up with it. Drake’s right. You can’t just rap anymore to break out from the crowd, but when you rap this well, over beats this great, perhaps anonymity is what you need. To hear a genre done well at such an elemental level, there isn’t a greater thrill as a music fan. Call me impressed.

Read the original review here

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #2 – YG


I swear this will be done before 2015 ends.

Catch up on the list here.

If you were to ask the world who ran the L.A. rap game, they would all say Kendrick Lamar. As the protege of Dr. Dre, the bearer of the torch passed down from Snoop and Game, the good kid from the mad city who remembered the lessons from MC Eiht, Kendrick deserves the key to the city. But K.Dot is too universal now, he’s hanging out with Taylor Swift and Imagine Dragons and Ellen Degeneres. He doesn’t inspire the same hometown rapture that Chance The Rapper does for Chicago or Drake does for Toronto. Kendrick knows this because his sister told him: YG is the prince of the city. Take a drive down the 110 and it’s obvious that the Young Gangsta is L.A.’s favorite. After years of building up grassroots support, YG’s debut album for Def Jam, My Krazy Life, is a classic Angeleno album and the best major label effort since Kendrick’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City.

 YG once said that “it’s easy to make a classic album” and judging from My Krazy Life he must have the secret. Rappers have been trying to figure out how to make great albums on major labels for the last fifteen years, yet YG makes it look so effortless that you have to wonder why everyone else has been failing. His debut hits all of the major label cliches but they’re not just boxes he’s checking off, they’re integral parts of a cohesive body of work. My Krazy Life has the strongest identity of any album in 2014. He’s done what no other rapper since Kendrick has been able to do; take a personal story with real stakes and transpose that over the canvas of a major label album. Guest stars show up in the perfect spots, sex jams are given context, and a narrative is built through the tape. Starting with the opening lines of YG’s mom warning him to not end up in jail like his dad, he takes us through a gangbanging odyssey, soundtracking the parties, petty crime, heartbreak, and the inevitable consequences.

My Krazy Life avoids cliche thanks to YG’s strong writing. He might be the most underrated MC in the game right now. He’s an incredibly descriptive rapper, charging his verses with an immediacy that doesn’t exist with his ratchet peers. “Meet The Flockers” puts the listener right in the middle of a home invasion. “I Just Wanna Party” and “Who Do You Love” toe the line of dangerous exuberance; party tracks with an undercurrent of menace. There are a lot of fantastic rappers on this record. Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, Schoolboy Q, Ty Dolla $ign, Young Jeezy; not a single one upstage YG. He not only holds his own, he is the star of each song.

YG isn’t the only star though. This record owes just as much to DJ Mustard, who provides the same consistency musically as YG does lyrically. Mustard was one of the all stars of 2014 as his sound shaped not only the music of L.A. but all of mainstream hip hop as well. With all of his hits on the radio, My Krazy Life was an opportunity to flex his muscle and show his sound is capable of holding up a classic. And the tape is loaded with gems. There’s the aggressiveness of “BPT,” the R&B throwback of “Do It To Ya,” and the eastern flavored euphoria of “Left, Right.” There are sonic easter eggs hidden throughout the album, making you think you’re listening to a classic West Coast album without actually making an inferior copy of one. That’s why My Krazy Life is so spectacular: it was able to update a classic formula that people had left for dead. If you grew up in California, it’s impossible not to like this album.

My Krazy Life, above all else, is a showcase of the best producer/MC partnership in the game. YG and DJ Mustard know each other. DJ Mustard provides the canvas to make a hit, and YG’s elastic flows find all the nuances in his beats to make them stand apart. Like the other partnerships on this list, they bring the best out in each other. There were rumors that they were in a fight and now YG’s new single isn’t produced by Mustard, and Mustard’s new mixtape doesn’t have YG on it. If they have to go their separate ways, they will both be fine. But at least for one album they were able to make a West Coast masterpiece.

Read the original review here.

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums Of 2014: #3 – Run The Jewels


Almost at the finish line. Check out the previous albums in these  three  posts.

“Run The Jewels is the answer to the question of what’s popping!” So states El-P, one half of the most charming and unlikely success stories of the decade. Two hall of fame solo artists, Dungeon Family B-lister Killer Mike and New York underground stalwart El-P, link together and create the best music of their careers, uniting young and old, north and south, and black and white in the process. I’ve told this story before because they’ve been on these lists before: their first team up, Killer Mike’s (El-P produced) R.A.P. Music was one of the best albums of 2012 and their original Run The Jewels landed on the 2013 list. But those last two albums seem like experiments compared to this. Whereas R.A.P. Music was an aesthetic partnership that marveled at the difference of sounds and styles being combined and the RTJ debut was a low stakes shit-talk record, Run The Jewels 2 finds the partnership fully complete. Their chemistry is organic, their personalities complement each other, and they’ve brought the fire that made them so special as solo artists and made some new and inspiring.

“I’M BOUT TO BANG THIS BITCH THE FUCK OUT” Killer Mike bellows on opening track “Jeopardy” and what follows is 11 songs of revolutionary wildfire, burning down corrupt police, capitalist pigs, misogynistic hypocrites, the military industrial complex, and whatever helpless fuck boys get in the way. Killer Mike says it best:

“Me and El-P got time to kill, got folks to kill on overkill. He hangin’ out the window, I hold the wheel, one black, one white, we shoot to kill
That fuckboy life about to be repealed, that fuckboy shit about to be repelled, fuckboy Jihad, kill infidels, Allahu Akbar, BOOM from Mike and El.”

On their previous album, Killer Mike was the star of the show, contending for a spot on the All Rap team. He’s phenomenal here, tip toeing on the track like a ballerina, and then bludgeoning everything in his path. But this time El-P goes bar for bar with Mike, rapping better than I’ve ever heard him. He plays the sneer to Mike’s roar, tossing up such devastating insults that you have to pause the tape to fully internalize them (“You can all run backward through a field of dicks” or “I’d fall back if your casting calls are ending in semen”). His double time sneaks in and out of the beat, linking verses together and keeping pace with the gleeful mania of the record. Nothing is as fun as listening to the two of them tag team a song, trading bars back and forth.

What’s different about this record though is that it’s not just Mike and El. After signing to Mass Appeal, Run The Jewels expanded in scope and the guest artists up the ante. Zach De La Rocha (formerly of Rage Against The Machine) delivers an absolutely blistering verse on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” shouting out Miles Davis and Phillip K. Dick in the same breath and predicting mass factory closures. Beyonce collaborator BOOTS adds a drip of pathos on “Early.” But Gangsta Boo might just steal the show on “Love Again (Akinyele Back),” delivering a filthy, man-eating verse that flips the script on decades of rap sexual norms.

The production has grown as well. El-P’s work on the first RTJ stripped his dissonant industrial sound to the bare essentials, playing like a reworking of Rick Rubin’s rock rap. He’s built that sound into something new here, and there’s really nothing else right now that sounds like it. Listen to “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” the way he incorporates Police Academy’s Michael Winslow vocal noises to create the schizophrenic atmosphere. Or the sledgehammer riffs on “Blockbuster Night Part 1” that could accompany a Mad Max chase scene. Or the chanting breakdowns in “All Due Respect.” Or the ghostly guitar that drifts in and out of “Crown.” El-Producto earns his moniker here, proving he can reinvent his sound fifteen years after his debut.

All of this would be enough to make Run The Jewel 2 a major album. What makes it so special, and so universal, is how it became the major hip hop response to the civil unrest in the country. Killer Mike became a pundit after this, appearing on CNN and Bill Maher, but his views are clear on the album. There’s the fury of the riots (“we killin them for freedom cuz they tortured us for boredom, and even if some good ones die, fuck it, the lord’ll sort them”), the pain of injustice (“I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away right in front of my beautiful son”), and the guilt of survival (“Give me the fame and I promise to change, won’t be the same, won’t be the same type of man who puts cocaine in this lady’s hands”). No other rapper is delivering such nuanced commentary. El-P is right there with him, letting Mike speak his mind while stretching the issues into universal problems. Someone tell Macklemore that this is how you deal with social injustice without looking like some kind of white messiah. Run The Jewels takes the anti-fuckboy creed on their first album and utilizes it for something positive. It was the album America needed.

I saw Run The Jewels live a couple summers ago in San Francisco. It was a fantastic show. As fun as it was, the most powerful part was when Killer Mike dedicated a song to Oscar Grant, the kid who was murdered by BART police in Oakland. It was maybe the most powerful concert experience I’ve ever witnessed. A year later Run The Jewels had a concert in St. Louis right after officer Darren Wilson was acquitted for murdering Mike Brown. Once again Killer Mike took the stage and spoke for the grief and rage of the people. It was touching and it was moving and it was more grounded and emotional than anything else about it. It was a reminder of how important hip hop can be. And it’s proof that these two rappers earned every second of their latter day fortune.

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #4 – Rich Gang


Reacquaint yourself with the list here and here.

Atlanta is one of the most creative and chaotic places in rap, offering up new stars and seeing them fizzle out in the time span it takes a major label to make a decision. It has the greatest rap infrastructure in the country, but in 2014 it yielded more hot singles than lasting projects. Enter Birdman, CEO of Cash Money Records, always on the hunt for new talent, taking two of ATL’s hottest new rappers under his wing and putting them in his own collective, Rich Gang. It was a match made in heaven. Tha Tour Part 1 is a showcase for the chemistry between Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan, their natural pop instincts highlighted by the opulent sparkle of breakout producer London On Da Track, and their shrill ebullience given gravitas by Birdman’s (absolutely essential) shit talk peppered all over the record. The tape was supposed to just be a preview; an advertisement for greater things to come. But Tha Tour Part 1 exceeded expectations and ended up as the best mixtape of the year.

Young Thug spent 2014 as a rap supernova, stopping time and bending gravity with every verse. But he always did his best work with partners who either provided a strong base to bounce off of (see T.I. or Trae The Truth), or ones who could keep up the energy and let Thug stay in the stratosphere (see PeeWee Longway and Bloody Jay). But Quan is different. They speak the same language and carve out areas in their music that weren’t there before. Their chemistry is vidid in every bar; the way they finish each other’s thoughts, the way they relate to what the other said, the obscure references to each other’s songs. There are strong solo moments on the tape. Quan delivers a touching love ballad in “Milk Marie” and Thugga goes super saiyan on opener “Givenchy,” but they really just act as filler for the glorious duets that highlight the mixtape. Quan claimed that him and Thug were the best duo since Outkast and that’s a heavy crown to bear. But after hearing them harmonize (harmonies! in rap!) it’s hard not to believe it too.

There a ton of great moments on Tha Tour Part 1, from the bonkers beats from London On Da Track and Dun Deal, to the way Birdman describes his bathroom, to Young Thug saying Uber (UUUUUU-BAHHH, it can never be said any other way now), but the thread connecting this large, unorganized project is the fraternity between the two leads. Rich Homie Quan plays the romantic, always searching for love, always crusading for a better lot in life. Thugga Thug plays the cynic, enjoying the moment while hardening his heart for the next. They’re like a rap game Boy Meets World. It’s a partnership that allows them to celebrate the joys of cunnilingus in “Tell Em (Lies)” and then drop a heartbreakingly poignant song about teaching their kids how to grow up on “Freestyle” without any dissonance. It’s a reminder that these guys are artists and their music has just as much depth as any other rap out there.

Looking back from a distance, the best mixtape of 2014 seems like a lost opportunity. The cast and characters that made this tape so wonderful are no longer together. Rich Homie Quan has focused on his solo career, leading to a rift with him and Young Thug. Birdman’s relationship with Thug has shifted from inspirational to menacing due to all the drama with his former protege Lil Wayne. Tha Tour Pt. 1 was named for two reasons: there would be a tour featuring Quan and Thug, and there would be a part two. Neither has happened. If this was going to be their one moment it would have been great if they made it truly spectacular: cleaned up the sound quality, edited out the excess tracks, added their hit single “Lifestyle” and some other standouts from the hundreds of songs they recorded, and really carved out their spot in rap history. But alas, Tha Tour Pt. 1 remains a beautiful anomaly, a brief moment where the sum total of its parts added up to something greater than the individuals. 

Get the mixtape here. It’s free!