Criminology Raps

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Criminology - Raekwon

You can hear the moment when Ghostface Killah, née Dennis Coles, turned into a superhero. A horn loop, sampled from 1970’s soul group Black Ivory’s “I Keep Asking You Questions” and trapped in the basement via RZA’s signature Wu-Tang style, blasts over a snippet from Gangsta Rap ur-text Scarface (“I told you a long time ago…not to fuck with me“). Then the horn drops out, leaving the drums and an ominous ringing noise that slices through the empty space, and Raekwon mutters “taking you on another one” before his partner in crime Ghostface comes through on some superhero shit:

Yo, first of all son, peep the arson /
Many brothers I be sparking and busting mad light inside the dark /
Call me dough snatcher, just the brother for the rapture /
I hang glide, holding on strong, hard to capture /
Extravagant, RZA bake the track and it’s militant /
Then I react, like a convict, and start killing shit

Oh my goodness – criminology raps indeed. He goes on to throw people off airplanes, trap them inside his chamber and leave them smoked at the doorway. If you don’t know what it means to be sent back to the essence, he gladly explains that you’ll be covered in dirt while you’re resting. The energy emanates from every bar, each line crashing into the next, the fluidity seizing all the air in the room. He’s hungry – leveling up on the urgency he displayed when he opened Wu-Tang’s debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It was his best verse to date.

“Criminology” (video above) is the fourth track on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, an unequivocal masterpiece of a record that stands as a peak in Wu-Tang’s fertile five year run in the 1990’s – maybe the greatest musical period in American history. Raekwon’s solo debut crystalized the burgeoning gangsta rap trends that were coursing through New York City into a mafioso style, buttressed by gangster flick references and vivid noir writing, that has entwined with the rap’s DNA and can be still be noticed today.  The tape aims for its cinematic influences – complete with Ghostface getting a “Guest starring” credit as Tony Starks on the album cover – and for the most part surpasses them. The sense of place, the crime raps, the tempo and flow of the emotional narrative, are so sophisticated that mythical recluse Jay Electronica compared them to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Adopting the Tony Starks moniker for the first time on OB4CL, Ghostface used the tape as a stepping stone to rise from his status as a second-tier member of Wu-Tang to one of the most urgent voices in the New York scene. “Criminology” isn’t the best song on the album; it’s not even the best Ghostface moment! That could be “Verbal Intercourse” where he takes the hammer spot on a posse cut with an iconic Nas verse. Or it could be “Ice Cream,” where he has the lead verse on the only song on the album that was remotely close to a radio hit. My personal favorite moment of his is “Wisdom Body,” his only solo showcase that’s just him talking some game. He bursts into the room like DeNiro in Mean Streets (“Heads clocked once I came in the door”) sees a young lady and proceeds to talk his shit, showcasing not just his eye for detail but an empathy and intimacy that’s missing in today’s slew of emotional rappers dealings with women (“Yo, what’s your name hun? Hair wrapped in a bun, your eyes sparkle just like glass in the sun”). It’s a premonition of his career to come – where his vivid clarity transcended the crime sagas detailed on OB4CL.

“Criminology” isn’t the finest example of Ghostface’s performance on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx but it is the first verse he has on the album that stopped me in my tracks. It’s thrilling when you someone grows into their potential right before your eyes (or in this case, ears). It’s like when Stephen Curry went supernova for the first time in the 2013 NBA Playoffs and ousted the higher seeded Denver Nuggets. Or, in a more grand gesture worthy of Mr. Starks, when LeBron James took over in the 2007 NBA Eastern Conference Finals in a performance that Steve Kerr called “Jordanesque.” Ghostface Killah’s transformation into Tony Starks cemented his place as an all time great. His debut solo album the next year, Ironman – thus named for his Tony Starks nom de plume – secured his superhero status. Once the Wu-Tang Clan’s prime finished in the 90’s, Ghost leveled himself up once again. His solo stretch in the 2000’s was a marvel – matching Jay-Z’s output album for album for the GOAT status (if not commercially, then artistically). You could hear it all here first, when Starks first attacked the RZA baked track and started acting like a convict and killed shit.

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

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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: #3 – Run The Jewels

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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.