And Everything Was The Same: Drake’s Magnum Opus

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It has already been said and it is a little cliche, but I’m going to elaborate anyways.  Drake is the rap game LeBron James.  The points are pretty obvious.  They’re the most controversial players in their respective leagues, with millions of people who hate everything about them and claim they’re ruining the sport/genre.  They’re both the most versatile.  Drake both sings and raps, can operate in his own signature sound as well as go out and make hits for others.  LeBron can play big or small, score and defend, and turn into Darth Vader at will.  They’re both the most dominant, regardless of everything else.  Drake’s breakthrough mixtape So Far Gone was LeBron’s absurd 48 point performance against the Pistons in the 2007 playoffs, an announcement that a star was born.  Drake’s debut album Thank Me Later was LeBron’s first two MVP awards with the Cavs, a sign of success that still kept them out of the pantheon.  But 2011’s Take Care was LeBron’s first championship.  The biggest knocks on both of them were gone.  LeBron was a winner who came through in the clutch.  Drake had a critically acclaimed sophomore album that bent radio to his will and not the other way around.  After earning the respect of their critics, they went on to garner the respect of their peers.  LeBron led the 2012 US Olympic team to a gold medal and was undoubtedly the leader of the team.  Drake’s Club Paradise tour was the most successful tour of the year as he handpicked all of Hip Hop’s rising stars to open for him and then gave each of them hit radio songs that boosted their careers.  A list of artists that owe a LARGE thank you to Drake: Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, Meek Mill, 2 Chainz, French Montana, Waka Flocka Flame, Future, J. Cole, and others.  So I suppose in this analogy Drake’s new album Nothing Was The Same would be the equivalent of LeBron losing his headband in the 2013 finals and bulldozing past the Spurs for a second ring.  Well the headband may have come off, but in this album Ray Allen misses that buzzer beater.

That’s not to say that the album is bad.  This is one of the (admittedly rare) cases where the hype has overshadowed the actual work.  Drizzy Drake has an absolute stranglehold on the rap game, a radio midas touch.  His first two singles from NWTS show his dominance.  “Started From The Bottom,” a simple DJ Mustard-like banger cloaked in his cloudy Toronto sound, is all swagger and hook, the ultimate hashtag anthem for a man who’s made a living off of hashtag anthems.  “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is the exact opposite, a throwback 80’s feel good song, featuring no rapping and is more at home on the Breakfast Club soundtrack than a major label rap album.  And they’re both huge hits.  What other rapper, what other artist, has that kind of range and can still be successful?  I was expecting Nothing Was The Same to be his Blueprint, an album that showcases an MC at the peak of his commercial powers absolutely crushing the competition.  The promotional push this album has had has been unbelievable, like Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Friday series for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.  Every new song Drake leaked to his fans added a new element or a new direction for his music.  Would the album be more classic boom bap like his “Jodeci Freestyle” with J. Cole?  Or would it be a softer for-the-ladies approach like “Girls Love Beyonce.”  Or most excitingly, would it be the straight up rappity raps like “5 AM In Toronto” where Drizzy throws his hat in the ring for best rapper alive (and also claims he’s on his “King James shit”)?  But it turns out Nothing Was The Same actually is the same, with Drake staying safely in his own zone.

One of Drake’s greatest strengths is his producer and collaborator Noah “40” Shebib.  Together, the two have put together a unique sound, a dreary underwater desert inspired by Kanye’s 808’s & Heartbreak, which gives Drake ample room to sing or rap.  But this time it’s Drake’s biggest weakness.  Nothing Was The Same is Drake’s most insular record yet.  Instead of rising to new heights, the production eats itself from the inside out, constantly burrowing into itself.  Big melodic statements like the two singles are the exception, not the norm.  A lot of reviews have been praising the production and I suppose it sounds impressive.  It definitely deepens the sound that Drake and 40 have been pioneering the last four years, but it can get really boring.  Inverted self indulgence at it’s finest. The beats may be more sophisticated, but Drake doesn’t endow them with any substantial hooks.  It’s as if he’s letting the beats do the work for him and he’s content to drift platitudes over them.  Drake’s power before was how he was able to combine his rapping and singing into incredibly catchy refrains and choruses, like on “Headlines” and “Best I Ever Had.”  Here he forgoes that and the record pays for it.  Songs like “Own It,” “305 To My City” and “Connect” all drift lazily by.  “Connect” is the most frustrating because it’s a great concept gone to waste.  A beautiful baseball metaphor highlighting a failing relationship that always swings for a home run, just trying to connect but always strikes out.  It even opens with (I think) a recording of Joe Carter’s walk off homer for the Toronto Blue Jays in the world series.  A great idea but then he starts singing about pussy power and I have to skip it.

That does bring light to Drake’s growing writing skills.  He’s turned into a very talented rapper and flexes his muscle on a lot of the tracks.  There’s a lot of confidence to be found on this album, from the #anthem “Started From The Bottom” to the giant middle finger of “Worst Behaviour.”  He might have even written a response for Kendrick on “The Language,” where he opens “I don’t know why they been lying but your shit is not that inspiring” and goes on to say “fuck any nigga talkin’ that shit just to get a reaction.”  But while his writing has improved, he still raps in the same, totally in-the-pocket flow which can drag on for a while.  Every time he goes in on a verse it’s the same style.  There are some tweaks, like the southern style of “The Language” and the singing weaves in and out, but those feel like exercises rather than artistic statements.  The album is still a very insular record where the sounds all blend together.  When 2 Chainz comes in on the bonus track “All Me,” it’s a relief to hear someone actually rap unexpectedly.

Nothing Was The Same is disappointing in terms of aesthetic growth, but Drake is a star because of his empathy and universality.  His best songs come from talking about very personal subjects and the ones found on NWTS rank as the best in his career.  I don’t want to touch on the criticism Drake gets for talking about his feelings and writing love songs and such because it’s an embarrassing critique.  As if all rap has to be knucklehead hard shit.  As if you have to have a specific background in order to create great art.  As if a song like “Started From The Bottom” doesn’t perfectly capture the world conquering feeling that Hip Hop embodies and open a conversation in which people of all backgrounds can participate.  Enough of all that.  But Nothing Was The Same has a different quality than his previous work.  His digressions into his relationships are nastier, his reflections seem not as authentic.  When he calls out specific girls it seems like notches on the bedpost, not real relationships.  NWTS succeeds when Drake delves into his family and his childhood.  On “From Time” (a duet with TDE affiliated singer Jhene Aiko who sounds incredible here; if Drake ever does do an R&B only album, it would be way better with a girl singer) he’s bonding with his dad over tough relationships and worried about his own future.  “Wu-Tang Forever” has him slyly confronting his suburban past.  But the gem of the album is “Too Much.”  A haunting piano line underscores singer Sampha imploring Drake to “don’t think about it too much,” before the beat kicks in and Drizzy goes all stream of consciousness about growing up in Houston, his anxieties about performing, the change his family is going through and his own estrangement from them. It’s simply jawdropping.

I’ve been listening to Nothing Was The Same all week hoping it will grow on me the way Take Care did, but it doesn’t have the undeniable hook that his sophomore effort had.  There’s an air of self importance that consumes the album, as if Drake and 40 are already completely impressed with themselves.  Album closer “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2” is a great ending, but it doesn’t feel earned.  The first half has Drake out rapping Jay-Z, who’s in full on status symbol mode rather than rapper mode and says cake at least 20 times.  And then the second half is one long verse where Drake outlines where the theme of his album.  “Like I should be on my best behavior and not talk my shit and do it major like the niggas that paved the way for us, like I didn’t study the game to the letter and understand that I’m not doing it the same, man, I’m doing it better.”  It’s a complete knockout of all the criticism that’s been directed at his entire career, an explanation for the Wu-Tang references that pop up all throughout the album.  While his career may back up his words, this album doesn’t.  Take Care and his Club Paradise tour had already silenced the haters.  Nothing Was The Same sounds like the victory lap, not the home run it was supposed to be.

 

 

Drake ~ Hold On We’re Going Home from OctobersVeryOwn on Vimeo.

Hip Hop’s Reaching Ambition: Janelle Monae and Elvis Costello

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It’s funny how things go in cycles.  Hip Hop first emerged as a genre that appropriated other music, sampling older records to create new meanings for a new generation.  Kraftwerk, James Brown, George Clinton, Miles Davis were all smashed apart and fused together again.  The instruments were records and turntables, using history to write the future.  But a generation later, music is being rewritten again and this time Hip Hop is the preexisting framework.  The genre’s fingerprints are everywhere.  It has invaded Pop to the point where the two are practically indistinguishable, for good or for bad, with Disney stars trading in cuteness for a harder, urban look and a rap verse prerequisite for any hit song.  European Electronic DJ’s channel Atlanta’s Trap stomp.  Jazz band BADBADNOTGOOD reinterprets popular hip hop beats and bass player Thundercat has teamed up with L.A. producer extraordinaire Flying Lotus to fuse funk with hip hop with jazz in exciting ways.  But the most pervasive form of hip hop influence has been post millennial R&B (often called hipster R&B or PBR&B).  This new form of R&B has traded in soul traditions for modern technology, live bands for samples, vocal theatrics for understated singing.  What I find most Hip Hop about the new R&B is the lyricality of it all.  These singers have BARS and could be great rappers.  Not that they can’t sing; Frank Ocean, Miguel, The Weeknd, and others have all won over fans by the sheer beauty of their falsettos, but it never sounds like they’re trying to win American Idol.  This had led to some truly beautiful music but also led to records that are all atmosphere and no lightning.  That can be boring.  And that’s where Janelle Monae comes in.

There have been attempts to lump Monae in with this new wave of R&B and she is certainly influenced by Hip Hop.  She was discovered by Big Boi of Outkast and her independent label Wondaland is signed to Bad Boy Records.  And she can rap (Remember when she outrapped Lupe Fiasco, not that that’s hard to do).  But with her new album Electric Lady, there’s absolutely nothing soft or understated about her music.  This is a loud, proud, concept album and it’s wonderful.  Electric Lady is the fourth and fifth part of her 7 chapter story, inspired by the old German sci-fi classic Metropolis.  Robot protagonists using music to takeover Orwellian overlords, or something like that.  If that sounds ambitious then you should hear the music.  It opens with an orchestral flourish and transitions into a grungy blues riff which is actually a duet with Prince!  The music is as sprawling as the story, as Monae fluctuates between light 70’s pop, stadium rock, Titanic like ballads, and beautiful soul.  It’s refreshing to hear an artist go all out, vocally, musically, conceptually, in an era where there is so much mood music.  Whereas other R&B stars seductively invite you in, Monae demands your attention.  There’s a song called “We Were Rock ‘n’ Roll” where she sings, without a hint of irony, “we were unbreakable, we were like Rock ‘n’ Roll.”  It has all the wide eyed ambition and heartwarming faith in music that used to belong to Classic Rock elitists like Pete Townshend, only he never wrote such shuffling disco beats.

Even though much of Janelle Monae’s success has to do with her singular vision, some of the best moments come when she invites guests to play along.  One thing that Monae borrowed from Hip Hop is the genre’s predilection for collaboration and competition.  When Prince comes on for “Given Em What They Love,” it feels like an R&B anointment and allows Prince to flex his guitar muscle all over the track.  Erykah Badu (who’s neo-soul is an obvious touchstone for the new R&B) provides a cooing contrast to Monae’s operatic singing on lead single “Q.U.E.E.N.”  And maybe my favorite song on the album, “Primetime,” is a duet with R&B/Pop star Miguel.  Miguel can toe the line between the pop charts and classical soul more than anyone, and he sounds absolutely incredible opposite Monae, justifying the existence of a new genre that Monae is threatening to eliminate.  This is slow dance at Prom and then go make a baby music.  This could transform a grocery store into a wedding chapel.  Just gorgeous.  And there are still the blueprints of rap all over the album, marking Monae’s different vocal styles and deliveries.  Plus she got Big Boi and Cee Lo Green to actually rap on a remix!  That alone justifies the whole experiment.

It’s almost cliche.  The album starts with some crunchy synth, the sound of a car rushing by, and the sparsest drums you’ll hear all year.  I can see the image; a white guy walking through Harlem, gleefully looking at all the urban sights.  I half expected someone to say “hey daddio.”  That’s the danger when you embark on any creative cross-pollination.  Luckily for us, Elvis Costello and ?uestlove Thompson are scholars and professionals.  Wise Up Ghost is another Hip Hop inspired experiment, a collaboration between first ballot hall of famer Elvis Costello and the greatest hip hop band in the world, the legendary Roots crew.  This just makes sense.  Costello’s career has been defined by his explorations into other styles and his musical fearlessness, and the Roots know how to vibe with other artists as the house band for Jimmy Fallon.  But I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard this one.  There hasn’t been a rock/rap collaboration the size of this one.  Aging rock stars have embraced the synths of the 80’s and the alternative vibes of the 90’s, but rap has been mainly left alone (We’ll give Bruce Springsteen credit for having a rap verse on his latest album Wrecking Ball).  Would the Angry Young Man be rapping or dueting with Black Thought?  Would there be scratches over guitar solos a la Rick Rubin and Eminem?  It turns out there’s no rapping, and Roots MC Black Thought is not involved with the record.  But that leaves Wise Up Ghost as one of the best albums Costello’s made since his prime.   Even though there isn’t rapping, Costello is singing over the funkiest, tightest beats of his career.  The snares hit hard, Stax horns stab in, and it gives Costello’s wizened rasp proper room to breath.  Dinosaur rock acts almost never have this muscle behind them.  Even if they have some songwriting left in them, they never have the means to carry it out well.  They usually fall into two categories: acoustic musings on their own mortality or bloated overproduced rock records to prove they’re still hip (Oh, hi Paul McCartney and Nirvana).  But The Roots are the best backing band Elvis Costello has had since his original Attractions.  There’s some great music here, pedigree be damned.  After 40 years, it turns out Hip Hop is still music’s fountain of youth, making the old young again.

 

One Man And His Chainz

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Picture a house so large a dinosaur could run through it.  It had been previously vacated, but was recently purchased just to fuck you in.  Usually there are parties rollicking from the mansion, but tonight it’s quiet.  Dollar bills litter the floor, so many that it would be impossible to fold them.  All the ottomans are left with large butt prints with no hoes to sit in them.  All the lights are out, but still there is one man shining.  His dreads hang on his designer clothes.  He’s tired.  He’s invented a new app called iTrap.  He’s had a threesome for three weeks in a row.  He’s created sex tapes that have been popular on both Netflix and Youtube.  But now he has some quiet.  No big booty hoes, just him and a pen and paper.  He starts writing: last name Chainz, first name Two.  He smiles.  It’s time for some Me Time.

Yes, 2 Chainz is back with his sophomore album B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time.  For those who don’t know 2 Chainz, just know that you’ve probably heard him somewhere.  He has become the feature king, taking Lil Wayne’s vacated throne by killing every guest verse with cornball puns and adding a healthy dose of his unflappable charisma.  Following the paths of Wayne and fellow ATLien Gucci Mane, he bludgeoned his way into cultural consciousness one song at a time.  All his guest verses allowed him the goodwill and social networking to create a successful major label debut, calling in Drake, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj and others to put him on Top 40 with Based On A T.R.U. Story.  Now he’s everywhere, batting cleanup on almost every significant remix (All Gold Everything, U.O.E.N.O.) and powerful enough to create a hit song with a single line (Fuckin Problems, Rich As Fuck).  But B.O.A.T.S. II is handily less radio friendly than any of his previous work.

One of 2 Chainz’s greatest assets is his ear and sense of timing.  With precision a la late 90’s Jay-Z, he was able to locate trends right before they become overbearing and cliche.  “No Lie” used Mike Will Made It and predated the New Atlanta digital weirdness before it took over this year, just as “I’m Different” used DJ Mustard and the L.A. Ratchet scene.  It seemed like Mr. Chainz was at it again when he released his first single from B.O.A.T.S II, teaming up with Pharrell for “Feds Watching.”  Pharrell is having the summer of his life, singing and producing the two biggest hits of the year (Get Lucky, Blurred Lines), all coated with his sexy lounge singer vibe.  This should be a win win, but as fun and breezy as it is, “Feds Watching” didn’t blow up on the radio.  That goes for the whole album.  It’s a bit too large for radio, as if FM can’t handle 2 Chainz’ puns.  A telling moment happens at the end of “I Do It.”  The song is probably the most radio friendly on the album with Drake, Wayne, and 2 Chainz all trading bars with admirable chemistry.  Then, a gospel choir counts you in and pleads for some Me Time.  It’s just one more knuckleball from the Tim Wakefield of rap; you don’t know how he’s pitching so well but he keeps doing it.  And B.O.A.T.S. II is a shutout.

2 Chainz created an album that is as otherworldly and ostentatious as he is.  The beats really sell it here.  They are huge and uncompromising.  Tity 2 Necklace got together a gang of underappreciated southern all stars: Drumma Boy, Mannie Fresh, DJ Toomp.  Subtlety is not the name of the game as the sounds are a combination of pummeling Trap Rap and the digital blips of the new Atlanta, all injected with PED’s. The songs always veer in strange, awesome directions.  The stuttering breakdown in “Netflix,”  or the old-school scratching and cutting in “So We Can Live.”  2 Chainz swaggers over all the beats, rapping like Dhalsim stretching out his limbs and breathing fire, always off balance but landing every punch.  He shouts out his wrists and his stove on “Fork,” claims to have a plethora of hoes on “Extra,” and tells a dickhead to get testicular cancer (get it???) on “Beautiful Pain.”  Now I’m not going to argue that 2 Chainz jokes should put him on the same level as Nas or something, but there is way too much Tity Boi apologizing going on.  Stop being ashamed of liking 2 Chainz!  The man has a great voice, and the way he twists his words could truly make the dictionary entertaining.  And he’s got flow up the wazoo, rapping like the drunken master from kung fu movies (R.I.P. ODB).  Check out how he interpolates the “Fuckin Problems” flow on “Used 2,” or the way he languidly sighs onto bonus track “Live And Learn.”  He still has room to grow of course.  It’d be nice to see a bit more seriousness, which comes in flashes like the story telling on “So We Can Live.”  But this is a step in the right direction.

The best moments on the album come toward the end and encapsulate what’s so great about 2 Chainz.  Two songs, “Mainstream Ratchet” and “Black Unicorn” (which are the greatest 2 Chainz song titles ever) capture what’s so quirky and wonderful about our Tity Boi.  “Mainstream Ratchet” opens with some gregorian chant, giving way to Phantom Of The Opera organs and an Adele from hell vocal sample, before hitting you with a bass line that seems like it was made for a doomsday device.  Then 2 Chains shouts “HER ASS SO BIG IT LOOKS LIKE SHE’S TRYING TO WALK BACKWARDS BRUH!”  It’s audible beauty and should be played 24/7.  It could make my Nana get ratchet.  That transitions into a female spoken word piece that opens up “Black Unicorn.”  It sounds like it could be found on an old Outkast record. “Black Unicorn” builds upon 2 Chainz ethos that he’s been building ever since he first sipped champagne on an airplane.  It’s cool to be weird.  It’s what makes “I’m Different” such an anthem.  And isn’t 2 Chainz a black unicorn, magical and mystical since the day that he was born?  I believe it.  It is surprisingly cheesy motto for a rapper who raps about drug dealing as much as he does, but 2 Chainz has always been kind of cheesy.  He’s even made a cook book (which is number one on the hannukah wish list right now).  I’m giving this album 2 out of 2 chainz, cuban links and all.  I hope the radio catches up because we all deserve to hear this bumping out of cars.  Now go turn up.

 

Eminem And The Generation Gap

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The way I feel about Eminem is probably the way a lot of people my age feel about him.  He was the first rapper I ever really listened to.  I saw 8 Mile when I was in 6th grade and the rap battle scenes blew my mind.  The Eminem Show was the first Rap album I loved and I wore out my walkman playing it over and over.  He combined the suburban nihilism of The Ramones with the racial iconoclasm of Elvis Presley, only he had the technical skills to justify all the attention.  He was a performer, creating the role of Slim Shady to hold a mirror up to White America and confronting it with its own preconceived notions about Hip Hop, right when the genre was still in the shadow of Biggie and 2Pac’s ghosts.   His evolution is one of the most iconic in all of pop culture; from cartoon to controversy to underdog hero to pop star.  It culminated with “Lose Yourself” and his academy award.  But the most powerful attribute of Marshall Mathers was his connection to the Freudian id, his ability to tap into his own primal emotions and create some of the most scarily raw music ever made.  No wonder teenagers (like me) worshipped at his pale feet.

It’s hard to watch someone like that grow old.  It’s why we deify our music martyrs.  We’ll never have to see a Kurt Cobain solo album in Starbucks and we’ll never watch Biggie team up with Miley Cyrus (although people still try).  You may not lose your talent, but you lose your artistry.  Slim Shady has stumbled in post retirement.  Relapse was just plain ugly; it’s one thing to talk about rape and murder when you’re the bleached personification of the zeitgeist but another thing entirely when you’re a grown man.  Recovery was ok in some places but it felt like Marshall had been neutered.  The Eminem I fell in love with would have made fun of the type of pop star that he had become.

Here’s where Em’s new single comes in.  “Berzerk” is the first single from The Marshall Mathers LP 2 coming out later this year and part of his new super duper lyrical style.  After traditional rap fans thought Recovery was too pop, he counteracted by making his brand all about lyricism. revamping his Shady 2.0 Records and signing Slaughterhouse and Yelawolf.  But both of those acts bombed critically, selling out both their styles for an awkward pop mesh.

“Berzerk” is another “look at how good I am at rapping song” but it’s combined with another more problematic element: nostalgia.  Let’s look at the good parts first.  The beat is tremendous.  Rick Rubin, architect of the old rock-rap of the 80’s pioneered by Run DMC and LL Cool J, creates a throwback track, complete with loud drums, record scratching, and Beastie Boys samples.  It’s great to see Eminem rapping over a good beat that’s not his own or a cheesy radio grab.  And Eminem does rap well…kind of.  From a strictly lyrical sense it’s well orchestrated, but it’s as if the man has forgotten all of his own songwriting instincts.  His voice sounds terrible, a high pitch whine that grates against the sparseness of the beat.  While sometimes impressive, his flow is all over the place and gives the song no consistency.  In laymans terms, it doesn’t sound good!  The lyrics are peppered with old man sentiments, ranging from pretentious grandpa (let’s take it back it real hip hop) to goofy out of touch dad (I woke up with a Kardashian).  Nostalgia like this, even when it has to do with classic technique, can often be lazier than the modern hip hop that gets demonized by these purists.

Right when the song was released, editor at Spin Magazine Chris Weingarten tweeted “Rap is fucking back.  Hope you all had fun pretending Curren$y was interesting.”  Well that’s rude.  Curren$y is the hardest working rapper out there and probably the most unappreciated.  After putting in work in No Limit and then Young Money, the New Orleans rapper left for solo at the beginning of the decade and has put together one of the most consistent discographies in recent memory.  Why call him out?  In many ways, Curren$y is the opposite of this “Berzerk” track.  All of Curren$y’s music is smooth, beats rippling through jazz or funk influences, mining different source materials but never losing the vibe.  “Berzerk” is all abrasive and loud, losing your mind over keeping it cool.  Where Eminem’s strength lies in his articulation, how he pronounces every word perfectly and always have it fit the beat, Curren$y’s southern drawl allows his words to float on top of the beat, letting only the key thoughts and words linger.

I realize I’m setting up a false dichotomy between these two artists.  Curren$y and Eminem shouldn’t be compared in any way, but all of a sudden a world exists where Eminem’s nostalgia bait is “good hip hop” and Curren$y’s laid back stoner raps are “bad hip hop.”  Don’t be fooled.  Curren$y is a terrific rapper, who has been improving with every project.  His sonic identity is stronger than 95% of the rap game and his hustle is off the charts.  Just this year, he’s released an african jazz inspired EP with Wiz Khalifa, a posse mixtape for his label Jet Life (under a deal with Bit Torrent), and a joint project with protegee Young Roddy.  But his best has been New Jet City, a free tape released at the beginning of the year, which took his major label connections down to the deep south and features some of his catchiest stuff to date.  It’s one of my favorite tapes of year, and every song is more listenable than Eminem’s screeching.

I’m still going to listen to the MMLP2, but if it’s filled with this old-school strictness I’m not interested.  There’s nothing wrong with being going back to the past, but there’s a difference between inspiration and escape.  Curren$y has a great respect for the past, and he’s revived several 90’s rap stars from all over the country.  NY Bad Boy Styles P, L.A. gangsta Daz Dillinger, and New Orleans Cash Money millionaire Juvenile all sound at home with Curren$y, creating some of their best work in years.  “Berzerk” is a one way time capsule, a portal that doesn’t come back to the present, no matter how many lame contemporary celebrity jokes can be stuffed in.  Lyricism isn’t the only part of hip hop and all of the old school rap artists that Eminem tributes in the song focused way more on hooks and attitude than stuffing as many words as they could.  “Berzerk” doesn’t have any of the fun that made Run DMC or the Beasties such icons.  But I wasn’t alive in the 80’s so what do I know.

Black Hippies Or Black Beatles?

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He walks out wearing a white tee and an LA fitted.  His backing band transforms the G-Funk synths into crunching guitars.  He commands his absurdly large audience to jump and they all respond, including an old dude who looks exactly like Jay Pritchett from Modern Family.  If you don’t know, now you know; Kendrick Lamar is a rock star.  Above are two videos from Jay-Z’s Made In America music festival a couple weeks ago.  The first is a documentary made about Black Hippy, Top Dawg Entertainment’s all star team of Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock.  The second is part of Kendrick’s set at the festival.  They’re both essential in understanding the greatest group of rap talent our generation has seen.  The documentary not only has great bits of concert footage from the Black Hippy world tour but also interviews explaining how they all met and why each of the characters are so compelling in the first place.  The affection they have for each other, the dedication they have to the craft, and the competition that drives them all to new heights.  But watch the concert footage and you’ll see an artist at the top of the game, at the top of his game, fully coming into his own.  When I saw K.Dot back in October, it was the last stop of his BET Music Matters tour, a week before Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City came out.  “Backseat Freestyle” had just been leaked a few days before but he didn’t play that or any new music (although he did bring out Dr. Dre for “Compton” which may be the greatest live experience I’ve ever had).   Now he’s got a crowd of thousands singing along to the chorus, shouting “KENDRICK HAS A DREAMMMM” when told, and ruminating on the Eiffel-Tower size of his dick.   His live show supports this change.  Before he just rapped with his DJ, now he has a live band mutating his songs into stadium anthems, adding menacing piano lines to “Backseat Freestyle,” punk riffs to “Fuckin’ Problems” and soaring guitars to “Money Trees.”  It’s like watching Michael Jordan win his first title.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Kendrick or TDE and it can seem a bit like overkill, but these guys are in their Pax Romana.  Think about this; in three years (2010-12) Black Hippy has released TEN ALBUMS that have ranged from good to great to deserving-a-place-in-the-Pantheon.  That’s not counting all the great guest verses they’ve given out.  You can see the influences of their artistry everywhere.  The best album of the year so far, Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap, owes a heavy thematic debt to Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.  J. Cole, Wale, and Big Sean have all released their sophomore albums this year, trying to replicate GKMC’s cohesiveness in an effort to prove their own artistry and have all fallen absurdly short.  Schoolboy Q is playing Will Smith’s Hitch for all the awkward white guys trying to rap and somehow making Mac Miller and Macklemore cool (or at least listenable).  The rest of the world finally took notice when Kendrick shouted out a bunch of his peers on “Control,” claiming to be on the short list of best rappers alive. taking the vacated throne of Biggie and Nas, and ethering all his major label competition.  It’s fun watching the rest of the game scramble and try to keep up with the kid but the real people worth watching aren’t Kendrick’s mainstream opponents but the team working with him.  Q’s Oxymoron is up next and looks incredible.  Kendrick’s opening for Kanye West on his Yeezus tour and it’s sure to be great.  Kendrick will get a chance to play to an even larger audience and step up his show to bloated heights.  I can’t wait to see Kendrick live again in superstar status, but there is a fondness to that first concert.  It’s like seeing The Beatles playing at the Cavern or Bruce Springsteen playing the Roxy.  It’s a legend in the making.