Orange Is The New Rap: Breaking Through Hip Hop’s Glass Ceiling

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The age of difficult men is over. Four years into the new decade and it’s starting to gain an identity. With the rise of the internet comes the thousands of new voices breaking up any kind of monotonous worldview, and America is slowly (very slowly) seeing the unraveling of a phallic-centered pop culture. The signs are all over. After a decade of being forced to play by the rules of the patriarchy, women are breaking through and asserting their artistic force, whether it’s on TV with Shonda Rhimes “TGIT” and Jill Solloway’s Transparent, film though the incredible box office successes of “Gone Girl,” “Lucy,” and “Maleficent,” or pop music’s total domination via Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Lana Del Rey. Hip hop, once (wrongly) criticized as being one of the most misogynistic streams of mainstream media, is leading the revolutionary charge. From all across the country, more women than ever are making great rap music, and helping push the genre further into the 21st century.

Who else would be leading the charge than the woman who helped start it all. Nicki Minaj is the biggest female rap star the genre’s ever seen and her success at the beginning of the decade broke the gates open for the flood of new artists we’re seeing now. Nicki’s always been talented, but her tendency to skew more pop hasn’t made her a central figure within hip hop’s universe. Earlier this year I wrote about her reputation as the rap game Charizard and voiced concern that her latest songs, while seeming to be the hardcore rap that everyone wanted, were actually diminishing the creativity that made her so fixating in the first place. Boy was I wrong. Nicki has been an MVP candidate all year, rolling out her new album The Pinkprint with an incredible string of promotional singles and guest verses showcasing her world class talent and revolutionary fervor. She’s displaying a virtuosity that very few rappers can match, destroying street rap, stadium pop, and sultry R&B in equal measure. But her coronation as the queen of rap came not through the standard industry gatekeepers but from the Queen herself. Landing on Beyonce’s remix to the feminist anthem of the century was not only an artistic high point but a political statement.

To really understand the delicate political and cultural alchemy Nicki is accomplishing this year is to look at her own solo work. Each of her singles for The Pinkprint has completely flipped typical rap narratives on their head. “Anaconda,” one of the most divisive and popular songs of the year, is the loudest of her statements. Her ode to her powerful booty caused a lot of controversy over the graphic sexual nature of the video, but look for more than ten seconds and the radical commentary is self-evident. Sampling the ultimate ode to big butts, Nicki flips the script and reclaims her own sexuality, in turn objectifying each of the poor saps she encounters in the song. In an era where black female bodies are seemingly used as props and jokes for Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, Nicki plants a flag for her own identity in a time of rampant cultural appropriation. The music video separates her sexual flamboyancy from any kind of male gaze, taking place in an all female Amazon jungle. And if there was still any doubt of the political underpinnings here, she leaves the audience with some clues. Check out the smoothie scene, where after successfully making the banana a phallic representative, she cuts it up in maniacal rage. Or more importantly, at the very end, when she invites the biggest rap star on the planet to be her sexual object, giving Drake the bluest balls he’ll ever experience.

It might be strange for America to see a female pop star be so forthright about her sexuality (even though Madonna and Lady Gaga get labeled as eccentric), but for rap she fits right in. Hip hop is used to rappers calling themselves pretty, bragging about their sexual prowess, and talking about how fly they are. Even 2Pac knew that taking off his shirt was a good look. Nicki is just switching the dynamic and giving no quarter to anybody. And don’t forget how good “Anaconda” is. What’s remarkable is the level of detail packed into the song. The boys she’s taking advantage of, Troy and Michael, are given much more detail than any of the fictional love interests in, say, a J. Cole or Drake song. “Anaconda” dismisses her critics, hyper masculine hip hop stereotypes, and the peanut gallery in one fell swoop. Everyone complaining about the click-bait single art ended up reduced to the chorus: “Oh my god, look at her butt.”

Nicki Minaj has surrounded herself with a whirlwind of controversy. Every new song, magazine shoot, and quote is put under the microscope, seeing whether she’s living up to her unwanted role of feminist icon. Hopefully The Pinkprint will live up its name and Nicki is bearing the slings and arrows of a world who’s refusing to acknowledge her artistry, because there is a flood of great young female rappers who don’t have any time for clever political tactics. There are way too many to talk about in one article, but these are some of my favorites. Chicago has a huge flood of great rappers and a large percentage of them are female (with great names! Sasha Go Hard! Katie Got Bandz!). But the one with the most promise is Tink, who blends rap with R&B with great instinct and has the most potential to be a crossover success like Nicki. Her mixtape from earlier this year, Winter’s Diary 2, was an intimate affair, skewing more R&B and dealing with emotional breakups and gender relations. But her upcoming album should get you salivating, as she’s put in work with fellow Chicago sex savant Jeremih, Timbaland, DJ Dahi, and even rock group Sleigh Bells.

The biggest breakout star of this year might be Detroit rapper Dej Loaf. By adding a melodic sensibility to Chicago’s blunt drill music, “Try Me” was a genuine street hit. Her new tape Sell Sole is one of the best of the year, mixing her unique sound (shaped by producer DDS, who handles most of the project) with some fine lyricism. More than any other female rapper, Dej seems beholden to no artistic norms, gender or racial, and instead paves out a clear identity for herself. She threatens enemies and entices lovers with the same nondescript tone. Sell Sole oozes sensuality, which is a hard line to strike in a genre that’s fixated on promiscuity.

But the biggest challenger to Nicki’s crown is also the most unexpected. When Azealia Banks first arrived three years ago, she was hyped as the first artist in the new world that Nicki had opened up. But she’s spent the following years in label purgatory, burning bridges and self-sabotaging her career. But the Harlem ice princess has finally been given the rights to her debut and Broke With Expensive Taste is a schizophrenic tour de force, bending genre and breaking boundaries. Even if The Pinkprint can’t live up to the hype, there’s still been one groundbreaking female rap album that can be held up as a torchbearer.

All of these artists are pointing towards a future where women are no longer relegated to the margins of hip hop. They don’t have to fit in to the boxes of “hook singer” or “that one girl in the crew” or “hyper lyrical lesbian” or “horny sex kitten who has her lyrics ghost written by a famous rapper.” They can be simply themselves, just like any rapper can. But it’s a long road ahead. One needs only to look at the youtube comments to see how quickly these rappers are based on their looks rather than their talent, or how quickly they are dismissed because they don’t fit into pre-existing paradigms. I talked to a rap friend about Nicki and the first thing he said was “Man, I hate Nicki Minaj. Her ass isn’t even real!” as if that’s the first thing he judges in other rappers as well (spoiler: he doesn’t). Hip hop’s new decade has been marked by the widening of the inclusive circle. More people make and relate to music from all backgrounds than ever before. There’s no reason it should stop growing at the gender line. Girls deserve better than Iggy Azalea.

Now can someone please get Queen Latifah on a remix!

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From The Bay To The Murder Mitten: E-40’s Twilight Renaissance

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Big Sean released a video to his new hit song “I Don’t Fuck With You” this week. The video is just as obnoxiously charming as the song itself, in which Big Sean states how over his ex girlfriend he is by saying all the trillion things he’d rather do than to fuck with her (one of which I presume is make a song about those feelings). It’s one of the best songs of the year and easily the peak of Big Sean’s career.

There’s a lot of reasons this song works. There’s the chorus, so exaggerated it falls more goofy than spiteful, fun to chant along to no matter the situation. There’s that marvelous beat, co-produced by Kanye West and DJ Mustard with finishing touches by DJ Dahi, which is the best dream team I can think of. There’s the “And I’m rolling weed that’s fucking up the ozone” line which is one of the best obvious-great rap punchlines in recent memory. But most importantly, there’s E-40, who for a full verse steps on the pedestal that is this angelic ratchet beat and opens the doors to heaven for everyone and anyone listening. He’s driving in a rental with a blunt in his dental. He praises Pimp C, keeps his girl outside forever like the statue of liberty, and essentially translates the raw power of the song’s concept into the universal middle finger that it can be.

“I Don’t Fuck With You” is a top 10 hit (currently #7) on Billboard’s R&B/Hip Hop chart. At age 47, 24 years into his career, it is E-40’s third biggest national hit of his career. The other two also belong to him ephemerally: “Snap Yo Fingers,” a chart topper by then unstoppable force Lil Jon, and “U And Dat” which is E-40’s song but might as well be T-Pain’s. Which is a long way of saying that E-40, the greatest rapper in the history of the game (yes I’m calling it), is very much still under-appreciated, a cult treasure as opposed to a national one. But that doesn’t bother E-40. At a certain point, every rapper has to transition into elder statesmen of the genre, and no one has come close to doing it as effortlessly and efficiently as 40 water. At the turn of the decade, the ambassador of the Bay Area decided that he was done playing by the major label’s rules and went fully independent. Since then, he has been recording and releasing music at a staggering pace; since 2010 he has released twelve (twelve!!!) albums. And there are no plans to slow down.

Even with the slew of music already up for grabs, a new quadruple album Sharp On All 4 Corners is coming out by the end of the year. The first two discs come out in December, the next two early 2015. All of his recent material has followed the same stylistic template so there’s no reason to expect much difference. New single “Choices (Yup)” is a more radio-ready version of the songs that have gone on his Revenue Retrievin’ and The Block Brochure album series. West coast minimalist bangers peppered with game from the man himself. “Choices (Yup)” sounds great and fits right in with what’s being played on the radio right now. After toiling away in cult obscurity almost his entire career, 40 finds himself in a great position. The DJ Mustard ruled ratchet radio landscape has its stylistic origins in E-40’s Bay Area slaps, and he sounds phenomenal over them (as “IDFWU” proves). His preferred production is matching up with the mainstream’s for the first time, and all of California’s heavy hitters recognize him as one of the greats. If there was ever a time to pull a Juicy J and find a commercial peak in the twilight of his career, it’s now.

The only question is can there be too much of a good thing? E-40’s business model has actually been astoundingly successful. Without the expensive process of recording an album on a major label, putting out all this product for modest returns ends up being profitable. For example, his 2012 triple album The Block Brochure: Welcome To The Soil (which landed on my best albums of the year list) didn’t do well commercially on its own. But all four copies, the individual volumes and the compilation itself, all charted on Billboards top 100. Add it all up and you’ve got a lot of album sales in an era where that doesn’t happen that often. But there might be some fatigue. His triple album sequel to that project (parts 4,5, and 6) has the lowest sales of any of the 12 projects in this new independent period. And they’re probably the least essential as well.

It’s a rare double album that wouldn’t be better as a single album. Since he’s not wavering from the same types of sounds, he could trim down all of these triple albums into one unstoppable force. 15 incredible tracks back to back to back. It would be a dream for E-40 to make one album, not too big in scope, with only legendary guests and producers. Or he could go in the opposite direction! If he’s going to make a quadruple album, go all in and really have a diverse collection of sounds and tastes. E-40 still has the slickest flow in the game and he sounds great over everything. He teams up with L.A. legend Kurupt to just destroy the Salva produced metallic monster that is “Motel” (he says his diamonds are colorful like Starburst!). Maybe Sharp On All 4 Corners will be a summation of the crazy disparate ideas that make up modern California rap and be a benchmark for the period. Either way, any new 40 is great 40. Just remember: he’s not rapping too fast, you’re just listening too slow.

A Better Tomorrow Can’t Live Up To Yesterday

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Wu-Tang Clan Share New Track Let’s throw out a couple of bold declarations about the most mythic group in popular music. The Wu-Tang Clan are the greatest crew in hip hop history. They fundamentally changed the music industry from the ground up; becoming an integral part of the rap universe while still remaining a niche. Their initial five year run from 1993 to 1997, from their earth shaking debut to their chart topping follow up and all of the solo landmarks in between, is quite simply the greatest streak in musical history. Better than The Beatles ’65-’70, The Rolling Stones ’68-’72, Stevie Wonders ’72-’76, all of them. One of the greatest parts of rap music is its world creating powers, and no one was better at that than RZA and the clan. After they debuted and brought a whole new universe of personality, beat making, and style with them on Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, each subsequent release from a member opened a new door. It’s not a “you had to be there” event either. Even with all the acclaim and subsequent releases around the group, the chambers still conceal a rabbit hole for anyone who wants to fall in. With A Better Tomorrow on the way, the first Wu-Tang group album in seven years, the clan is hoping to live up to its promise of “Wu-Tang Is Forever.” But does it have a chance to compete with it’s past?

The answer is no. Every great debut casts a shadow over the rest of the work, but the Wu managed to avoid that curse by having so many divergent personalities. We’re talking about 9 of the most talented MC’s to ever breath here, there’s no way one album could sum up all their talent. Even their post ’97 body of work is vast and extraordinary. But it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly goes wrong here. It’s not fun to hear all the second stringers lead off on the track. The raps are fine, though nothing jumps out from the song.

From the first two singles, I think the problem is the production. RZA is the greatest producer of all time and he deserves the lions share of the credit for the clan’s takeover, not just for creating the murky sonic underworld that embodied the Staten Island rappers, but for the business acumen and leadership qualities that he used to squeeze out so many classics. These songs just aren’t it though. It’s as if he’s updating the dirty samples of the groups origin into a more regal setting. “Ruckus In B Minor” is a much better title than song; the ambitious beat changes for each rapper and yet none of it really connects. “Ron O’Neal” fares better from a rapping standpoint but suffers the same problem. There’s a disconnect between the clan and their producer. This isn’t new. Their last album, 8 Diagrams, drew so much controversy over RZA’s production choices that there was a fissure in the group that wasn’t patched up until now. But where the psychedelic wistfulness of 8 Diagrams was bold and framed the clan in a new light following the death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, these new songs don’t seem particularly inspired.

If I was their personal adviser, I’d let them know that the days of the Wu-Tang Clan are over, but that doesn’t mean that Wu-Tang isn’t forever. These are still some of the most accomplished artists in the history of the genre and they’re all in the middle of great things. Raekwon has been bodying guest verses on all sorts of acclaimed albums this year, and he recently dropped a new mixtape We Wanna Thank You, a collection of his freestyles over old school soul songs. It’s his best project in years; a loose, fun exercise showcasing his densely packed rhymes.

Ghostface Killah has slowed down after an outstanding decade that positioned him as a contender for G.O.A.T., but he’s starting to sound inspired again. Teaming up with hip hop/jazz fusion band BadBadNotGood for a collaborative album dropping next year, Ghost luxuriates in his legacy and goes toe to toe with some of the best contemporary rappers around. And he’s not the only clan member finding new life. GZA’s giving talks about science and the universe at Ivy League universities. Method Man is rapping better than he has in years. Even RZA sounds inspired by his new stuff, turning in the highlight verses on the new singles. I’m all for new Wu-Tang and whatever creative muses these guys have they should follow, but maybe a group album isn’t the best way to do it anymore. There’s too much personality to try to wrangle into a room and try to relive the glory days. They deserve better than that. But hopefully I’m wrong and A Better Tomorrow will paint the glorious future that the album art suggests.

What In The World Happened To Kendrick Lamar??

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I apologize for my extended absence from HungryHippopotamus. But it doesn’t mean I wasn’t working! Feel free to look at goodkidhippocity.tumblr.com for a compilation of my freelance work over this time

What is going on? This time last year, Kendrick Lamar was the odds on favorite to be the new king of rap. After his major label debut made him a Grammy nominee and a pop star, K. Dot doubled down and called out all his peers on the infamous “Control” verse. He had positioned himself as the rare rapper who could hold down the charts and the streets organically. This year he was supposed to drop his sophomore album and battle it out with Drake for the crown. But it’s close to New Years, and all we have to show is a controversial lead single, a few pop grabs, and a general decline from TDE. What happened?

When Kendrick finally dropped his feverishly anticipated lead single i, it wasn’t the triumphant return he had hoped. Fueled by an obvious Isley Brothers sample, it alternates between corny and catchy with Kendrick shouting out self affirmations of “I love myself.” i was bemoaned for being an industry sellout, a capitulation to the people that voted for Macklemore. It was also praised for being a radical statement of self love for young black men in a year where they were being gunned down all around the country. The truth is a little of both. Major label rappers need pop crossovers to sustain their success and if you have to make that pop grab there are worse sources than old school soul. It is a catchy song and after a couple of listens I was grooving to it (plus my mom loved it right away so there’s that). But that doesn’t excuse its saccharine tone; plenty of rappers made radio hits that sound much less poppy than this. This feels like it’s meant to be slotted in between Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande and sure enough I’ve heard it played much more often on Hot 97 than on the hip hop station Power 106. For an artist who cultivated such a deep fan base for his work, he made his return single for everyone else, and that’s what feels weird.

I don’t mind though, because it’s some of the best Kendrick of 2014. The song is carefully considered; every verse uses a different flow, the production is constantly changing, and there’s a dope Thundercat bass breakdown at the end. All we’ve had this year from Kendrick are uninspired guest verses. After spending all of last year demolishing every guest spot he was on, lately it’s just been a series of awkward pop verses. It displays a frightening lack of brand awareness. And the worst part is that none of them are doing well! He was even on the lead single for the hottest producer in the game with Lil Wayne and Future and it bricked. This spiral reached its nadir last week with the new Jay Rock song “Pay For It.”

The problem with most of Kendrick’s verses this year is that they’ve all been hollow. Technically precise with nothing much to say. It’s as if he’s just going through the motions. But “Pay For It,” a new song for TDE labelmate Jay Rock and a big commercial opportunity, is a new low. Already bearing a kitschy chorus, Kendrick rambles about being king, throws in some obtuse biblical allusions, and calls it day. It may be his first garbage verse. There’s nothing even remotely impressive about it. It’s one thing to throw half-assed verses for random pop singers, it’s another to deliver the same effort to your rapping comrade.

 

Kendrick is trapped by the prison that “Control” has built. Ever since that verse, his features have been marked by a constipated anger. His voice has been contorted into a throaty yell that seems to aim for the Linkin Park crowd. His lyrical rebellion that was so exciting on “Control” has waned into petulant tantrums. But there’s still hope. Perhaps all of these phoned in verses are the result of saving all of the good stuff for his album, which might be released before the end of the year. He’s scheduled for an appearance on Saturday Night Live next week and he’ll probably debut a new song, maybe this “King Kunta” we’ve been hearing about. And he’s still put in great work this year with Flying Lotus, appearing on “Never Catch Me” which is one of the best songs of the year (and one of the best videos, please please PLEASE watch it above). Kendrick Lamar has already proved his talent so he doesn’t need to appease anybody, but this is not how you follow up a title year. The expectations for his album are higher than ever. Hopefully he can live up to them.