Reruns At The Drive In: Curren$y’s gritty reboot

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How does one measure consistency when it comes to greatness? It’s a question that comes into play in sports, music, even politics. Do you judge someone’s body of work by the highest peak they reach or the sum of their career? Curren$y has put together one of the greatest discographies of the new decade. The New Orleans native shadowed under the great Southern rap empires of No Limit and Cash Money and has combined their work ethic with 21st century internet distribution to create one of the strongest independent grinds in hip hop today. Through the dozens of projects that Curren$y has released in the past years, there hasn’t been a single bad one. He’s combined quality with quantity. But there also hasn’t been a truly great record, one that fans can point out to non Jet Lifers as the definitive Spitta Andretti project. And his new mixtape The Drive In Theater, while another fine entry in his career, isn’t going to win anyone over.

Some might think that this is a silly thing to argue about Curren$y’s music. From the get go he’s been a weed rapper who rarely spits about anything outside his zoned out sphere of influence. Rhymes about women and weed, planes and cars. JETS: Just Enjoy This Shit. But while that is true, it discounts the stylistic variety of his work. His flow may be what put him on the radar, but it’s his taste that has kept him interesting for so long. Very few have the ability to put together a cohesive record like Spitta. When he explores a new sound, he makes a whole project instead of just one song. Just last year, he made the dirty south thump of New Jet City (one of the best albums of the year) and rapped with Wiz Khalifa over African Jazz on the Live In Concert EP. The Drive In Theater has a beautiful cohesiveness to it as well. From the jazzy production to the movie skits to the album concept, this is a retro tinged affair. Thelonious Martin produced the bulk of the album and he said that 90’s legend Pete Rock was the main inspiration behind his work here. Thelonious is a frequent Curren$y collaborator and has scored a lot of retro sounding songs for several other rappers as well, and his work here isn’t bad. It’s just very familiar. The jazzy horn loops and open space on display here is Curren$y’s bread and butter, the type of beats that he rapped over on his breakthrough Pilot Talk albums four years ago. But when you release music as much as Curren$y does, you can’t afford to retread old terrain.

I feel like I’m coming off too harsh here because I like The Drive In Theater. It has earned a place in my car rotation and won’t be leaving anytime soon. Spitta has gotten better at rapping with every project and this tape is no exception. He’s never sounded sharper than he does here and lets you know it from the intro: “come at me and be upstaged, I’ve heard better raps read off page from my cousin, he in the fourth grade, so I don’t know how some of these suckers be getting paid.” He spits scenes with such clarity that it makes you wonder what the effects of marijuana on memory really are.  He has his enemies facetime with the fishes on “Godfather 4,” reminisces on trading jokes with millionaires during a wine tasting on “Vintage Vineyard,” and heats up some leftover hibachi steak and fried rice to go with his wake and bake session on “Hi Top Whites.” And like all Curren$y tapes, this one has it’s share of great guest verses. Action Bronson raps more classic Bronson raps on “Godfather 4” and Freddie Gibbs proves once again that he’s untouchable on the mic on “Grew Up In This.” Curren$y continues to prove that he’s the rap game Marc Gasol, an underrated cornerstone who makes everyone around him better. He’s made a cottage industry out of making older rap stars sound brand new and the project here is B-Real of Cypress Hill. “E.T.” showcases the incredible chemistry of the two MC’s, with B-Real’s agitated squeaking a perfect complement to Spitta’s laid back drawl. But Curren$y is more than a team player now, outshining his guests on several of the tracks.

My dissatisfaction with The Drive In Theater has less to do with what it is than what it isn’t. Before it felt that every Curren$y project was building to the next on but there’s no signs of progress here. Where are the hooks of New Jet City, the gloss of The Stoned Immaculate, the psychedelic dissonance of Covert Coup? As well as having a song named Godfather 4, the tape has excerpts from The Godfather movies at the end of tracks. While The Drive In Theater doesn’t come close to approaching the heights of Coppola’s masterpieces, there’s a thematic connection between Curren$y’s growth and Michael Corleone’s transformation. Both men tried to play the game the industry approved way but failed. Curren$y’s string of free releases were all leading to his studio debut of The Stoned Immaculate in 2012, but it bricked on the charts. Even a lead single featuring 2 Chainz didn’t help. Since then, Curren$y has been more reserved (by his standards) in his musical offerings, instead focusing on putting his label Jet Life on the map in unconventional ways. The Drive In Theater was released as a free mixtape but it was also packaged into a torrent bundle thanks to a specific deal between Jet Life and BitTorrent. Fans could download (for free) the album in both Mp3 quality and higher quality, get high resolution liner notes, and even get a video of Curren$y cruising around and pictures of his handwritten lyrics. This is a great idea in theory but it’s not so effective. The things he’s offering are fun fan items, but they don’t translate digitally. And with every new Jet Life release, it goes to show that label members Young Roddy, Trademark Da Skydiver, and Cornerboy P just aren’t compelling solo artists.

The frustration of all this is on the tape. Where before Spitta would revel in all of his cash, now he has a money migraine. When he chants “I could take 10 G’s and make 20 more 10 G’s with that” on “10 G’s,” it’s more of a fierce challenge than a humble brag. The larger in life drug kingpin persona has been exchanged with a calmer, ruthless figure that’s practically tragic. Less Scarface and more Michael Corleone. On “Hi Top Whites” he pines “I wish I could have stayed more but that ain’t what a nigga get paid for, that’s how it is, wish that I could say more.” The Drive In Theater is a good tape, but it points to a future where Jet Life may be running out of fuel. And while there’s no moral problem in failing to be legitimate like there is for the young Godfather, it would be a shame if Curren$y changed from expanding his empire to merely sustaining it.

 

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Nail Me To The Cross And I’m Just Hangin’: Isaiah Rashad’s TDE Debut

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Can we fall in love while Southernplayalistic banging through the night? It’s the question posed on “West Savannah,” a song located right in the middle of Isaiah Rashad’s debut album Cilvia Demo. Rashad isn’t afraid to wear his southern influences on his sleeve, from the aforementioned Outkast reference to shout outs to Scarface, Master P, Juvenile and many more. It’s the type of hero worship that could undermine any record, but Isaiah snaps it into focus when he answers his own question: “At least we fell in love with something greater than debating suicide.”

2014 is set to be the year of Top Dawg Entertainment. After spending last year basking in the glow of Kendrick’s critical and commercial success and inserting the good kid into the mainstream, the Los Angeles label is primed to bring the rest of the crew there too. Schoolboy Q is dropping his long awaited Oxymoron later this month, Ab-Soul has been rumored to be working on his (possibly titled) “Black Lip Pastor” and of course there’s Kendrick, who shakes the earth with every new verse.  Bur first off there’s Isaiah Rashad, the newest member of TDE. Perhaps that pressure is why his project is titled as a demo, to let everyone know he’s not at the same level as Black Hippy. He’s just marveling at the momentous year this will be for the label. But Cilvia Demo more than proves that he’s ready to play with these guys; it’s another engaging chapter in the book of music history that TDE is rapidly rewriting.

This has been a hard record to write about because it defies conventions. It’s an ambitious coming of age album yet incredibly insular. Simultaneously universal and singular. Isaiah delves deep into cliches, shouting out old legends and claiming the game needs saving, but manages to revive some life to them. Cilvia Demo touches on some deep complex issues; how the plight of young black men is tied to the perception of hip hop, specifically the southern hip hop that he fell in love with and is now being paraded around for laughs, and the drug addiction that seems to be only solution for the depression that ensues. Isaiah manage to glide over these major issues, turning them into allusions rather than news headlines, and uses them to strengthen his story: How can I be a great father when I never had an example?

The shadow of Isaiah’s father is the only thing that’s blunt about the record. He’s brought up on the album opener “Hereditary,” where after telling his girl she’s wasting her time on him he drops “my daddy taught me how to drink my pain away, my daddy taught me how to use somebody. My daddy taught me how to smoke my load and go, my daddy taught me you don’t need nobody.” He goes on to explain in “Banana.” “My daddy left me with no details, came back with a bitch and a stepson, I guess he forgot that he left something.” But Isaiah doesn’t dwell on these events, rather he weaves them into his blue collar story. Much of this tape is reality rap at its finest as he raps about how music will be his way out of flipping burgers and selling retail and how he’s “done grown up for his child sake.” That’s really the crux of the album, the transition between growing up and being grown.  He’s trying to bed this girl but is distracted when he sees her kid looking at him the same way he used to when his dad came back home.  He lashes out at his baby momma on “Tranquility” and then is immediately worried about what his son will think.

This leads back to Cilvia Demo‘s preoccupation with southern icons. “R.I.P. Kevin Miller,” titled after Master P’s late brother, is half sermon half lament.  It’s a motivational speech about priorities and how the rappers of his youth are being misinterpreted.  He chants “I need diamond teeth living like it’s 1998, back when Percy was the king, back when Juvie was the great, bitch this doobie is the bait, Patton taught me how to pimp, like one day you’re here then gone, that’s why Chad was downing shrimp.”  He connects the balling of his idols to the work ethic that got them there, screaming at his peers to wake up and find some ambition. This type of rapping is usually uninteresting, a holier-than-thou “let’s go back to the good old days” moralizing, but Isaiah pulls it off because of the intensely personal touch he brings to his memories, whether it’s Outkast’s debut keeping him from committing suicide or transforming the rapper Scarface into a symbol of confidence and a wizened voice of responsibility on “Brad Jordan,” similar to what Outkast did with “Rosa Parks” way back when. It all comes together on “Heavenly Father,” a spiritual plea for some kind of guidance.  On the first verse Isaiah sings “Now everybody telling me a lie, Lordie give me something for my soul” before spitting “The story stole, they tell it till it’s wrong, they glorify the horror and the wealth.”  On the second verse he brings it back home in horrifying detail: “And they don’t know my issues as a child, because I was busy cutting on myself. And hanging on the playground wasn’t wrong until you got a rope up on your neck.” The song ends with Isaiah rapping at everyone else “These niggas really think I give a fuck about the shit they give a fuck about” before ending somberly “And I’m so misrepresented by these niggas who claim trill and their souls were never in it.”  Suddenly the trends that have been so popular the last few years get viciously rendered distasteful.

This is all heavy content and you can’t rap about this kind of stuff if you can’t back it up or make it listenable. Luckily, Isaiah is signed to the label where “your favorite rappers get replaced” and the tape bangs from front to back.  Isaiah is a very talented MC.  He can rap his ass off, like on “Soliloquy” where he just blacks out on the track for almost two minutes over dissonant jazz breaks. He can condense incredibly complex issues into a single couplet, like on “Ronnie Drake” where he says “Don’t call me a nigga, unless you call me my nigga” and “gotta look real and tough, gotta keep your hands in the cart, know they stealing stuff.” His southern voice has incredible versatility, as he can drop into a raspy croon on “Hereditary” and “West Savannah” as easily as a chest beating chant on “R.I.P. Kevin Miller” and “Modest.” TDE production crew Digi-Phonics don’t have any input in the record (except for the lovely “Menthol,” produced by Kendrick favorite Sounwave), and yet Cilvia Demo has the same loping jazz loops, the same warm airy feeling as the older 2011 TDE releases like Kendrick’s Section.80, Schoolboy’s Setbacks, and Ab-Soul’s Longterm Mentality.  The lightness of the production counterbalances the weight of Isaiah’s thoughts.  It’s why the record is sometimes hard to engage; it’s as if the whole album is an aside.  It’s something you can zone out to and have it wash over you or engage it with all of its layers.

Cilvia Demo shares a lot of common themes with Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and the rest of TDE. It deals with the golden age of hip hop not through appropriation but through inspiration, a way of writing the next chapter. It has that warm feeling of rapping about past heroes while knowing you’re becoming one yourself. Isaiah actually managed to pull it off. The new member of Top Dawg Entertainment was able to create an album that does for the south what Kendrick and the others did for the west. Black Hippy doesn’t show up on this record, just Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock on the very last song, a victory lap instead of a consolation prize. With his debut out of the way, Isaiah Rashad is going to have to create his own major label masterpiece like the rest of the crew but you get the sense that he’s not worried about that kind of pressure. As he says on the tape, “I’m blessed now, I’m only stressing bout the stress now.” Maybe some kid in Tennessee will find Cilvia Demo and fall in love with it and bump it through the night.

The Tightrope of Pop-Rap: Nicki Minaj’s Next Move

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Last summer when Kendrick dropped the lyrical bombshell that was his “Control” verse, he specifically called out a whole gang of rappers who could be considered in the same weight class as him. Young rappers who were either inked to major label deals (Meek Mill, J. Cole, Wale, Big Sean) or moved enough units independently to make noise at the same level (Tyler, Mac Miller). Some pundits were upset over the list, based on who was unfairly included or who was left off. But after all the dust settled, and “Control” turned into a stepping stone into a bigger rivalry between Kendrick and Drake, it was clear that one very important person was left of the list. Nicki Minaj is arguably the most popular rapper on the planet, let alone the young crowd that Kendrick called out. Her crossover appeal rivals the Kanye’s, Jay-Z’s, and Drake’s of the world and she’s perhaps most responsible for the pop-rap monogenre that’s dominating the radio. So she took some umbrage at being left off Kendrick’s list. And now she’s released a stretch of rappity rap singles that are apparently leading up to her newest album.

Nicki played nice about being left off the list (Kendrick was probably “one of those respectful gentlemen that probably felt like ‘I don’t want to say a female’s name'”), but the real reason she wasn’t mentioned is more likely due to her tenuous relationship with the genre. Her two albums, 2010’s Pink Friday and 2012’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded are huge platinum successes but mainly pop albums. Mega hits “Superbass” and “Starships” have more in common with Britney than the Bronx. On the other side she’s released a string of incredible rap verses, featured on hip hop, R&B, and pop records alike, that have made her one of the most talented and unpredictable rappers in the game. Since her star making moment on Kanye West’s “Monster” four years ago, Nicki has consistently stolen the show on every song she’s been invited on. She’s the rap game Charizard, an all powerful beast who only tries when there’s a worthy opponent.

After a year of hosting American Idol and becoming an entertainment mogul, it looks like Nicki is actually granting everyone’s (and by everyone I mean a tiny quadrant of the internet) wish and releasing an actual rap album. Usually backed by neon pop production or blitzing EDM, her new songs place her in sparse snapping West Coast production. On her remix to P.T.A.F.’s “Boss Ass Bitch,” she inverses the usual tough guy player talk in classic Nicki fashion, laying down all the rules for how to be a boss ass bitch and creating a new holiday specifically for her vagina before saying she’s just tossing off a random freestyle before the style gets old. Even better is the official remix to YG’s Dj Mustard produced hit “My Niggas,” where Nicki demolishes Lil Wayne and Meek Mill and says things like “like an injured Chris Paul you ain’t got no point.”

Her latest remix, this time to Young Thug’s viral hit “Danny Glover,” continues the same shit talking rap rapping vein as the previous two. It’s a good enough song with some good lines, but it’s something that Nicki has never been for the past four years: boring. She seems tame compared to Young Thug and in emulating his autotuned delivery she loses the manic energy that’s defined her. She does the Drake thing where she mimics Migos‘ now-patented flow and it’s cute for a minute and then it gets boring fast. The rap world is now filled with a weirdness that owes a debt to Nicki, but here she misses the connection by staying on her “lyrical” tip. This may be a complete overreaction (after all these are only remixes), but I don’t want to hear the rap classic Nicki has if it’s just going to be her rapping. Because the same qualities that made her a pop star are what made her a rap star as well. The schizophrenic personality, the abrupt voice changes, the barbie swagger, it all makes her a compelling personality to hear on record. The shit-talking battle rap Nicki is a great part of her persona, but it isn’t the only part. The line between pop success and rap credibility is a thin tightrope to walk on. Jay-Z learned how to balance on it perfectly. Drake did gymnastics and made sweet love to it. Kendrick is moving slowly, making sure every next step is on proper footing. Guys like Lupe Fiasco and B.o.B. treated it like Tarzan to swing into the pop world and are now drowning in the waters. And even though Nicki has been called out on her poppy characteristics, she’s always seemed to float above it. Her last album was primarily a pop record, but the first six songs were some of the most inventive rap records that came out on a major label that year.  So here’s hoping that she can continue to stay above the line and eventually make the great album we all know she can produce, and not be swayed by either side of the rope.