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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Rap Game Academy Awards

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We take a break from our regular scheduled programming to bring you something a bit more topical. With the Oscars about to happen and considering the platform I have here, I’m giving you the Hungry Hippopotamus Movie Awards! It’s been an absolutely incredible year for movies, better than it was for music, and every Academy Award is overflowing with worthy candidates. Hip hop rarely inserts itself into the Oscar discussion however. Eminem and Three 6 Mafia have won Best Original Song in the past and Pharrell is up for the award this year, but otherwise you don’t find much rap. To remedy that, I’m forcibly combining the two in my own idiosyncratic way. Here are the album counterparts for all the Oscar Nominees for best picture.

American Hustle – Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail

David O. Russell doesn’t even come close to having the career and stature as Jay-Z, but what they both have is some great friends. For American Hustle, Russell brought back Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper from Silver Linings Playbook, and Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper from The Fighter. Likewise, Jay-Z sat on a couch with Pharrell, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, and Rick Rubin during the sessions for his platinum album. Both of these guys got some great performances and beats, but ultimately both American Hustle and Magna Carta Holy Grail got lost in the glamour. After it’s over, there’s the sense that nothing really happened and no amount of hairspray can cover that bald spot.

Captain Phillips – Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name

Captain Phillips was a film that could have gone terribly wrong: pirates capture America’s greatest treasure in Tom Hanks and the all powerful Navy saves the day. Luckily we were treated to a much more sensitive and thoughtful film than the trailer advertised. The pairing of Paul Greengrass’s shaky cam directing with Tom Hanks stoic charisma brought something new out in both actor and director.  Pusha T’s G.O.O.D. Music debut benefited greatly from Kanye’s minimalism. Pusha’s snarl sounds much better over Yeezus type bare bones than it did over the orchestral production of “Runaway.” Both Captain Phillips and My Name Is My Name were products that aimed for both critic lists and box office sales and perhaps suffered because of it. Pusha T made some clunky stereotypical major label songs and Greengrass got a little out of hand with the final action scene of the movie. But both were great when they stayed in their sparse lane, and Tom Hank’s brilliant selfless ending is as good an analogy to Pusha T’s list-topping collaboration with Kendrick at the end of the LP, where the good kid proved who is the captain now.

Dallas Buyer’s Club – Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris

Dallas Buyer’s Club was a pretty unremarkable movie that was made pretty darn good through Matthew McConaughey’s star making earth shaking performance. New director Jean-Marc Vallee sticks his lens directly behind McConaughey and proceeds to let him breath life into a pretty banal story. Likewise, Doris is a pretty reserved album. The beats are great but they aren’t extravagant. Rather they just serve as padding for the tour de force lyrical onslaught that is Earl’s tongue twisting syntax gymnastics. In this scenario, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples, a young talented gangsta rapper who says that if this was ’92 he’d be in Death Row, plays the role of Jared Leto, who plays a drag queen. Well alright alright alriiiiiight.

Gravity – Drake’s Nothing Was The Same

Two huge blockbuster events that ended up being among the most critically lauded works in each field. They’re both astounding technical achievements, with Alfonso Cuaron redefining what CGI and 3D can do for the cinema and producer Noah “40” Shebib scraping the ocean floor of the depths of Drake’s signature sound. They both could have used a rewrite though. Ultimately, it just comes down to the fact that neither could live up to the incredible trailers they dropped on us.

 

Her – Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet

In an always traditionalist pool, Spike Jonze’s Her is the only film that touches on the fleeting moments of human connection in the digital age. It’s strange premise and dexterous execution uncertainly left a mark on anybody under the age of 35, and probably alienated some older people. Childish Gambino’s entire career has been captured online and Because The Internet is his attempt at navigating humanity and real relationships when everything is transparent. Again, it’s an album that older critics didn’t like but several people my age are infatuated with. The themes of Because The Internet aren’t close to the fully fledged experience of Her, but both Glover and Jonze are reinterpreting classic love stories in a specifically 2013 context.

Nebraska – Danny Brown’s Old

The black and white Nebraska seems to be the literal opposite of Danny Brown’s colorful magnum opus. It’s a soft spoken film where Danny is more known for his kinetic squawk. But the works actually deal with the same thing in two very different ways. They tackle the fear of growing up and the desolation of looking back on your life and seeing a barren field. They speak on the generational divide and the acceptance (or full fledged flight) of who you’ve become. This is a lesson for people who can’t look beyond first appearances, be it the haircut on Bruce Dern or Danny Brown.  Plus, Danny’s self loathing would fit right at home in any Alexander Payne film.

Philomena – Run The Jewels’ Run The Jewels

Ok this one’s a stretch. Philomena isn’t the most hip hop movie even if Judi Dench is an OG. But regardless of the fact that Killer Mike is the rap game Dame Judi, both of these works are no frills, straight to the point pleasures. Both are duos working to get to the bottom of things, whether it’s where a catholic church sent a stolen baby or where all the fuckboys are hiding. Judi Dench and Steve Coogan display their own type of chemistry, which bristles a bit more than Killer Mike and El-P, but both are endearing opposites which work better together. And what’s great about both is the lack of extravagance surrounding each. Philomena doesn’t have any flashy performances or big melodramatic moments, it’s simply an engaging story told in an efficient way that harnesses the professionalism of it’s cast. Run The Jewels isn’t going for any kind of high minded concept either, they just want you to give them your jewelry with no delay.

12 Years A Slave – Kanye West’s Yeezus

I’m not the only person the make this connection. The similarities between Kanye West and director Steve McQueen have been documented before, in their collaboration at the MTV Video Music Awards or when McQueen interviewed ‘Ye for Interview Magazine. But beyond the political and thematic connections about black life in America and how the systemic oppression has infiltrated every facet of life, both Yeezus and 12 Years A Slave bear stylistic elements in common as well. They both use minimalism for maximum effect; the old “less is more” approach. West lets each sound hit the listener with full impact, whether it’s a glitchy synth barrage or lectures about the Correctional Corporation of America. There’s nowhere to hide on Yeezus. But that doesn’t come close to the soul destroying focus that McQueen demonstrates in his film, where he lets single shots linger for so long that you feel you’re suffocating. The restraint that both artists used in their work is uncannily effective for the heady, dramatic subjects their breaking down.

The Wolf Of Wall Street – Juicy J’s Stay Trippy

I already brought this comparison to light in the year end album wrap up. Both movie and album treat drugs and hedonism as a professional enterprise. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Leo mutter “trippy mayn” in the movie or hear Juicy sample McConaughey’s humming for his next song.

The Oscars aren’t perfect by any measure and the nominees for best picture aren’t necessarily the best movies. So here are the Hungry Hippopotamus nominees and winners for the major categories. Five nominees for every race (as it should be), with the winners in bold.

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine

Scarlett Johannson – Her

Lupita N’yongo – 12 Years A Slave

June Squibb – Nebraska

Octavia Spencer – Fruitvale Station

June Squibb was a revelation in Nebraska, crafting hilarious scenes and serving as the moral backbone often at the same time. She stole the show every time she appeared and created a real character beyond the nagging wife she could have been. Scarlett Johannson also jumped a level in Her, doing more with her voice than she did with her whole body in movies like Don JonFruitvale Station was snubbed at every level by the Oscars this year, and you don’t get sensitive performances like Spencer’s without dipping into melodrama very often.

Best Supporting Actor

George Clooney – Gravity

Michael Fassbender – 12 Years A Slave

Will Forte – Nebraska

Nick Frost – The World’s End

Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

I understand the hesitancy of giving Fassbender the award here. Having the one white guy in the movie winning the only acting award, right after Christoph Waltz won for Django Unchained (IN ONE OF THE BIGGEST SNUBS IN HISTORY), isn’t a good look for the academy. So the award will go to Jared Leto, who delivered a touching, if not slightly kitchy, performance. But 12 Years A Slave would not have been nearly the gut wrenching experience it was if Fassbender had not gone 100% on an emotionally disturbing dive into the human psyche. Being able to fully encapsulate the oxymoron between ownership and affection, of love and hate, is what made 12 Years A Slave such a magnificent film. Fassbender’s slave owner is the perfect vessel for McQueen to explore the violent, psychological afflictions of slavery beyond just the tangible destruction.

Best Actress

Amy Adams – American Hustle

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Sandra Bullock – Gravity

Judi Dench – Philomena

Sarah Louise Dreyfuss – Enough Said

There’s no contest here. Everyone else in this category did some great work, especially Amy Adams who was the highlight performance in a movie filled with highlight performances, but no one is taking Cate’s crown here. Her tour de force showing as a mentally confused New York blue blood crash landed in the Bay Area was breathtaking. Watching Blanchett lend the same regal tone that she uses for movie stars and British Queens to a delusional housewife was amazing, especially with Woody Allen’s neurotic script. The brilliance here was convincing the audience of both her entitlement and wretchedness, often in the same sentence. There wasn’t a better performance all year, man or woman.

Best Actor

Leo Dicaprio – Wolf Of Wall Street

Chiwetal Ejiofor – 12 Years A Slave

Oscar Isaacs – Inside Llewin Davis

Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station

Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

It speaks to how good this year was for movies when you consider the great performances that were left off this list.  Tom Hanks, Christian Bale, Bruce Dern, any of them would have found a Hungry Hippo nomination in another year. But it doesn’t matter all that much because 2013 is the year of the McConaissance. Dallas Buyer’s Club was the denouement of McConaughey’s rise to the top of the acting chain, one anti-heroic Southern gentleman role at a time. The physical transformation, the rugged charisma, the emotional depth.  His performance here is remarkable because it combines two things that are usually disparate; a complete physical transformation for the role (a la Sean Penn in Milk or Daniel Day-Lewis in everything) and using the part to channel his own unique movie star charisma (a la Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart or Tom Hanks in nearly everything). McConaughey didn’t trade in his movie stardom for a serious role, he simply did both. Now that’s the entrance into an upper pantheon of acting.

Best Director

Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine

Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity

Spike Jonze – Her

Steve McQueen – 12 Years A Slave

Alexander Payne – Nebraska

All of these nominees are worthy and created deep worlds for their movies to inhabit. But it comes down to two directors who are also fighting it out for the best picture; Cuaron and McQueen. One is a technological marvel, going where film has never gone before in such detail. The other is a period piece, capturing the scope of such an intense problem like no film has ever tried. Both of the directors work is more subtle than you’d expect. These are both clearly the director’s movies and not an actors movie, but the strategies they use aren’t often called to attention. Gravity is such a thrill ride that the audience doesn’t notice the grace in which Cuaron’s camera moves around the scene. And the magnificence of McQueen’s work isn’t any kind of centrality but rather the fringes of the screen, what he lets you see rather than what he shows you. It’s almost a toss up between the two and it’s not fair to choose. But we have to. Both movies keep you on the edge of your seat, but towards the end of Gravity it gets to be overwhelming; oh no Sandra Bullock is caught in ANOTHER disaster. But 12 Years A Slave slowly amps up the brutality as to never let you turn away. Where the constant terror of Gravity drags on at the end, 12 Years A Slave delivers it’s most devastating blow, one of the most incredible scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. So for that McQueen gets the prize.

Best Picture

Blue Jasmine

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

12 Years A Slave

I suppose that would mean that 12 Years A Slave should win Best Picture right? It certainly deserves to, and I’ll be rooting for it at the Oscars. But for some reason comedy has fallen by the wayside in recent decades, somehow not deserving of critical appreciation. And Woody Allen’s latest chapter in his global travelling films is a pitch perfect movie. Not only is it hilarious but it’s meaningful, dealing with the current recession with such sensitivity that no other film can match. It’s relationships are both heartening and crushing and every character is nuanced. Normally having the best performance of the year would qualify for a best picture nod (look at Dallas Buyer’s Club), but Cate Blanchett wasn’t enough to carry this flick through the guys club of the Oscars. The other films here are great, but none of them are perfect. Gravity’s technological thrills grow old towards the end and 12 Years A Slave, as incredible a film as that is, sometimes bites off a bit more than it can chew. But Blue Jasmine is a perfect movie, thoughtful, touching, and timeless. It was my favorite experience of the year.

And that’s that! I’m certainly no expert on film as I pretend to be in Hip Hop, so let me know what I got wrong or what films I missed!

Macklemore’s Burden: A Few Thoughts On His Heist At The Grammys

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tv show gifsI know Taylor Swift, I know

The Grammys have never gotten it right.  Since the beginning, it’s missed the boat on every exciting musical trend.  Frank Sinatra won Album Of The Year during the summer of love, the soundtracks of Grease and Star Wars were nominated over signature punk albums in the late 70’s, and the golden age of hip hop was completely ignored.  The Grammy’s aren’t about rewarding the year’s best music, but about opening the doors of the industry and accepting the new flock into the fold.  So when talking about the history of terrible winners for Hip Hop album of the year, the forest is being missed for the trees.  The nominations are never even close to being correct.  Hell, this year most of the hip hop awards weren’t even televised!  Think about the lack of respect there.  The hip hop album of the year category was the only one where all the nominees had gone platinum, including best album; Macklemore, Kendrick, Jay-Z, Kanye, and Drake.  Yet they didn’t even televise it.  The biggest night in music is certainly not the most important, or at all significant.  It stings this year because hip hop has clearly become the most progressive and critically appreciated genre and found no love.  But the Grammy’s have always been off base and always will be.

Macklemore’s rise to success is problematic for a number of reasons that have been elaborated in several think pieces following his big wins at the Grammy’s.  There are great pieces in the New York Times and Spin Magazine worth reading.  It’s pretty gross seeing a white rapper instantly become a superstar because he’s a conscious voice in the genre, as if there aren’t decades of political, conscious, independent rap that have gone completely unnoticed by the masses.  It’s more nauseating knowing that he jump started his fame thanks to a novelty hit that racked up millions of views on youtube, which thanks to Billboard now counts in tallying up the Pop charts. Seeing “Thrift Shop” turn into a major hit was like watching Rebecca Black’s “Friday” or any other goofy youtube phenomenon turn into a hit song. The Heist is a very boring album. Ryan Lewis deserves most of the credit for it’s success, padding it with stadium filling, electro tinged beats that aim for self importance but land perfectly on the radio.  Macklemore is a decent enough rapper, but his double time flow he steps into constantly and his pauses in the middle of his bars put him in the same category as club rappers like Pitbull, Flo Rida, and (maybe) Ace Hood, not the conscious heroes he looks up to.    He’s managed to inherit all the lousy qualities from guys like Talib Kweli (who is opening on tour for him) like awkward stuffed sentences and eye rolling superiority, without any of the hyper lyricality.

I think there a couple things that most of the critics are missing about the Macklemania and why he’s so popular.  First is his voice.  It sounds absurdly white, much more so than other white rappers like Action Bronson, Yelawolf, Evidence, Alchemist, or anyone else.  Most of these rappers take some kind of vocal tone or presentation to avoid sounding so white, but here Macklemore is sounding like a cold ass honky.  For suburbanites, the white voice is easier to understand.  There’s a familiar nasal quality, and it’s one of the reasons Eminem became so popular.  People think he can rap better because they can easily understand all the things he is saying, even in the double time flow.  Combine that with Macklemore’s penchant for using very deep singers (Ray Dalton on “Can’t Hold Us,” Wanz on “Thrift Shop,” the fantastic Allen Stone on “Neon Cathedral”) for his choruses to create the faux-soul vibe tinging the whole project and it’s an instant hit.  But that’s an aesthetic choice that isn’t necessarily problematic.  The real issue (that I see) isn’t his conscious platitudes, but what problems he chooses to confront.  And they’re all very middle class social issues: materialism, artistic integrity, same sex marriage.  It’s horrifying to see America hold him up as a champion of social justice because “finally someone in Hip Hop is acknowledging these things” when no one cares about the problems rap regularly talks about, like inner city violence, drug abuse, poverty etc etc.  The Heist throws hip hop under a bus. He mocks it on “Wing$,” where he confesses that he loves Nike’s too but man they’re just shoes and why are young kids killing themselves over them.  He burns it on “Same Love” where he actually says “if I was gay, Hip Hop would hate me.” Oversimplifying issues in rap music in order to make your case is stuff that unaware 1% congressman do, not Grammy winners within the whole genre.  The song that sums up everything that’s wrong with The Heist and Macklemore in general is “A Wake.”  The song laments all the tragedy in the world, and then something interesting happens in the second verse.  He worries about his position to speak on all these problems.  “Don’t wanna be that white dude million man marching, fighting for a freedom that my people stole.”  In a noble attempt to grapple with being a white rapper, he ends up sounding sanctimonious and turning his own white privilege into a victimized position.  Maybe he really doesn’t understand how condescending it sounds when he says “I’m not more or less conscious than rappers rappin’ ’bout them strippers up on the pole, popping. These interviews are obnoxious, saying that ‘it’s poetry, you’re so well spoken’, stop it,” just like he doesn’t understand how texting Kendrick he should have won for best Rap album (but not artist or album of the year) is pandering as well.  His impressive humble brag does a great job of reinforcing the distinction between the two styles while looking like he’s being supportive.  And it’s cultural carpetbagging at its finest when he jacks the chopped and screwed style on the very next song “Gold”, which of course is intrinsically paired with the type of rap music that he subtly dismissed.

Guys this is literally the rap version of the White Man’s Burden, where Macklemore can’t stand idly by at all the injustice in the world that he just has to do something despite his own awkward social position, and I’m a little shocked that none of the crazy liberal people at the colleges he’s appealing too haven’t picked up on this yet. Yes, misogyny and homophobia in hip hop is an issue, but it’s not nearly as simple as Macklemore would have you believe and in 2014 there are an incredible amount of ways that hip hop has for dealing with it. Great rappers take problems within the genre and use them to illuminate the systemic issues within the country at large, not pin the larger issues on the genre.  And as far as we still need to go when it comes to gay rights, it’s not ok for Macklemore to say “hip hop hates gays” when fellow nominees Jay-Z and Kendrick have come out in support for same sex marriage, Drake has challenged the entire hip hop definition of masculinity, and Kanye wears a dress.  Not to mention the incredibly vibrant scene of queer and female rappers creating interesting progressive music. I don’t want to take away from everyone who’s had a meaningful experience with “Same Love,” and it is awesome to see a pro gay rights anthem make the rounds, but it’s painful to see it come at the expense of the genre he’s using to make the statement. And when there are so many great rappers out there, challenging the norms of the genre, this kind of undercooked fodder winning awards is unacceptable. 

Best Albums Of 2013: Part 1

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gravity (188) Animated Gif on Giphy

It’s gonna be a bumpy ride…

2013 was the year of the failed blockbuster.  From television to Hollywood, 2013 was filled with capital E Events, from epic finales to world ending movies.  And the music industry was no different.  Every week seemed to bring a new album hyped up by extravagant promotional tactics.  Justin Timberlake started it off by teasing his new album with a video and then became unavoidable through his commercial sponsors, but it only got more absurd.  Daft Punk played a 15 second video at Coachella, Miley Cyrus twerked at the VMAs, Katy Perry drove a truck on a cross country road trip, Arcade Fire donned giant heads in a fake band, and Lady Gaga spent $25 million of Interscope’s money creating an immersive party/performance art piece for her album’s launch.  This opulence spread to Hip Hop as well.  Kanye used guerilla fighters to display his face on buildings around the world.  Jay-Z scored an unprecedented deal with Samsung that sold a million copies before the album even dropped. Drake dropped off remixes and loosies that kept the internet buzzing and the radio spinning at 4 in the morning.  Even Eminem joined in on the high stakes, low reward fun by dropping a sequel to his classic Marshall Mathers LP and appearing on everything from Call Of Duty commercials to ESPN.  But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  This year felt like major label rap’s reaction to the excellence of last year, with a new generation of internet bred rappers collectively raising the bar for radio rap.  J. Cole, Wale, Big Sean, Pusha T, Drake, and all of the young major label signees released albums that tried to copy the grandeur and scope of Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and even if they failed it still produced some of the better rap we’ve heard on the radio in a long time.  Things like “concept albums” and “lyricism” and “artistic talent” are being hailed as something good again.  Rap has taken over as the critically lauded genre.  Pitchfork ranked Drake and Kanye as their top 2 songs of the year.  Spin put Kanye and Chance as one and two on their best albums of the year and even ranked ATL dystopian strip club producer Mike Will Made It as their artist of the year.  So even though 2013 sometimes felt like a down year and maybe even a death knell for the “big albums,” there are more great things are on the way.  And there were still some dope albums.  Without further ado, the #hungryhippopotamus best albums of the year!

P.S.: There are maybe a couple non rap albums on this list and I feel silly about it.  I can’t judge how good they are because I can’t even pretend to say I listened to everything rock/edm/indie/R&B etc etc…, but I would also feel silly leaving them out because they were some of my favorites of the year.  So take them with a grain of salt.  Except the rap, that’s completely factual and true.

15: Young Thug – 1017 Thug

Brick Squad could have been one of the top crews this year.  Gucci Mane had positioned himself as a godfather of the New ATL movement and released a staggering number of projects that all ranged from ok to really good, Waka Flocka Flame put out his most exciting music in years, and a slew of new members helped secure the Squad’s new identity.  Unfortunately it all self-combusted as Flocka bailed and Gucci had a very public meltdown where he called out every rapper in the game on twitter.  But the brightest spot in all this was Young Thug, who’s 1017 Thug tape was one of the benchmarks for the new Atlanta production and the best thing Brick Squad did all year.  The beats just sparkle all over, with production from new ATL stalwarts such as Dun Deal, TM88, 808 Mafia, and C4.  Synths twinkle over skittering Hi-Hats, creating joyous hooks that needle into your brain and stay there.  But it doesn’t upstage Thugga himself, one of the most interesting rappers around right now.  Sounding like a cross between Lil Wayne and Future, Young Thug yelps, chirps, and raps unhinged throughout the whole tape. Riding unconventional flows, the beauty of the tape is how he’s able to make seemingly jarring noises into catchy strong songs.  Whether it’s through repetition on “2 Cups Stuffed,” or outright operatic singing on “Condo Music,” Young Thug finds his way around square pegs and forces them into round holes seamlessly.  Atlanta’s new digital drone may have found it’s way to radio this year, but 1017 Thug is proof that it sounds best paired with the ATL rapper who can outweird it.

     

14: Don Trip & Starlito – Step Brothers Two

Don Trip and Starlito, two rappers from from Tennessee, were hard working solo artists who made a lot of noise when they teamed up to make one of the best albums of 2011 with Step Brothers.  Inspired by the Will Ferrell film, the two rappers displayed absurd amounts of chemistry as both of them tried to one up the other with each song.  It was the closest thing there was to vintage Lil Wayne when Weezy was busy making songs for soccer moms.  A lot of good it did them.  Two years later, Trip and ‘Lito are still stuck in record label hell with just a devoted fan base to show for their efforts.  So instead of the free spirited fun that powered the original, Step Brothers Two is a combination of vivid emotional clarity and complex lyricism. Don Trip and Starlito prove once again that they’re one of the best duos around, with Trip’s high pitched wheeze matching perfectly with Lito’s sleep deprived drawl.  Starlito raps in run on sentences where he just keeps layering his points upon points, while Don Trip raps as if he’s about to detonate at any second, punctuating all of his lines with perfect end notes.  And they sound best when working together, whether it’s on the Shakespearean betrayal of “Caesar & Brutus” or a story of gun violence on “Leash On Life.”  Starlito and Don Trip have the type of chemistry that ranks with the best of them and simply can’t be taught.  Here’s hoping they find another Will Ferrell movie to inspire them.

 

13: Curren$y – New Jet City

The cliche that Curren$y is the hardest working stoner is getting old.  After years of running the mixtape circuit, his major label debut The Stoned Immaculate didn’t elevate him into the upper echelon last year like he hoped.  Taking a left turn, Curren$y spent most of 2013 putting on for his team Jet Life, securing a distribution deal with BitTorrent and releasing group tapes and collaborative EP’s.  But that still left New Jet City, the only solo project that Curren$y dropped all year.  It plays like an inversion of his major label album, a big budget project gone to the dirty south.  The beats range among the most varied Curren$y’s ever tried, from the horn stabs of “New Jet City” to the EDM riff of “Coolie In The Cut” to the interstellar boom bap of “Clear.”  Curren$y remains a deceptively strong rapper who’s usually relies on his effortless flows but New Jet City ends up standing above the rest of his work because of his hooks.  Without even trying, Spitta Andretti accomplished what he was trying to do with The Stoned Immaculate; create a radio friendly album.  Credit that to his self awareness and knowing exactly how far he can push his style without losing his quality.  High profile rap stars like Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, and French Montana sound equally comfortable rapping with him as older legends like Styles P, Jadakiss, or Juvenile.  And for a laid back rapper, Curren$y has evolved his style into one of the most unpredictable flows in the game.  He can slow it down to a syllabic crawl on “Bitch Get Up” or he can body a double time flow on “Mary.”  But he’s at his best when he combines his relaxed charm with his “put it on a t-shirt” lyrics like he does on “Choosin.”  As long as Curren$y stays fly, his music won’t be coming down anytime soon.

 

12: Haim – Days Are Gone

These three sisters from LA are about the farthest thing there is from Hip Hop so it speaks volumes that they’ve already collaborated with Kid Cudi, A$AP Rocky, and Childish Gambino.  So far this decade guitar groups have been practically irrelevant.  Most of the big rock bands have copied electronica producers and dealt mostly in textures and mood rather than riffs and power chords.  Arcade Fire teamed up with indie-electronic producer extraordinaire James Murphy to create a stadium dance record.  Vampire Weekend retreated into their textbooks and spent 45 minutes lightly treading over soft melodies.  My Bloody Valentine returned triumphant to an indie landscape completely influenced by their shoegaze dronings.  Haim blasted through all the fog with their pitch perfect pop rock debut Days Are Gone.  They are a reincarnation of Fleetwood Mac, with every song on the album a possible hit if it was 1977.  But the album isn’t just a nostalgia trip.  It’s remarkable in its ability to channel the Laurel Canyon influences of Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks and put a modern edge to it.  See the Prince-esque gasps of “Falling,” or the Jack White dirty guitar wobble of “My Song 5.”  The harmonies, the riffs, the hooks, Haim makes all these old-fashioned songwriting tropes fresh again.  It’s like you’re hearing rock and roll for the first time.

 

11: Childish Gambino – Because The Internet

Donald Glover is the renaissance man of the 21st century.  He’s a stand up comic who became internet-famous for his sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy.  He won an Emmy as a writer for 30 Rock and plays a main character on the cult TV show Community.  And he’s the rapper inspired by the Wu-Tang Name Generator, Childish Gambino.  Gambino’s writing bears the wit of someone who wrote for Tina Fey but that’s a gift and a curse.  Sometimes he has laugh out loud “I can’t believe he thought of that” bars and then sometimes it feels like a bad sketch on SNL.  When he avoids cornball jokes to delve into serious territory, he merely reiterates the trailblazing of Kanye and Drake, hoping to stir up racial norms but just ends up being unimaginative.  In some ways, Because The Internet succeeds because Gambino has found better source material.  Opener “The Crawl” sounds like a burnt out Ab-Soul and “Urn” openly apes for Frank Ocean’s lingering soul.  But the biggest influence here is Kendrick, who’s cinematic vision is being emulated here quite literally.  Not only are their sketches in the middle of songs, but the tracklisting is numbered like a play and there is an accompanying screenplay.  Ambition doesn’t equal success however, and the second half of the tape falls apart under the weight of the concept.  Punctuated by strong sections of rapping, the latter half is simply a mess, with sloppy transitions, no hooks, and no focus whatsoever.  Maybe it works better when paired with the script.  Because The Internet arrives on this list because the first half is one of the strongest collections of songs this year with Childish Gambino finally using all his talent to full advantage.  He’s improved tremendously as a rapper, pairing his best punchline bars with a double time flow on “Sweatpants” or playing around with his voice on “Worldstar.”  His beats have gotten way better as well, using sunny wah wah guitars at the end of “The Worst Guys” or inviting space funk bassist Thundercat to rumble over “Shadows.”  Childish Gambino uses the album not necessarily as a large concept album about the internet (although he might, I haven’t read the screenplay), but as a way to show how people relate to their surroundings with all the constant stimulation.  And it allows a glorious look inside his head on “Telegraph,” where you hear Gambino start listening to a song on the radio and then starts singing along, until it actually turns into his song.  The album may be a bit of a mess, but there are more than enough good parts to make up for it.    

http://vimeo.com/80831476

(can’t play it here because it’s private, but that’s the link to “The Worst Guys” music video.  You should watch it, Chance The Rapper smokes a doobie on a surfboard. The password is 12.10.13SIXTY)

10: Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels

It’s like Ghostface Killah said.  All you need for great rap is just fly rhymes over dope beats.  And that’s exactly what Run The Jewels was.  After an incredible 2012 which found Killer Mike releasing the best political album in recent memory and El-P emerging as a godfather to the new New York underground and updating his signature dystopian production style, Run The Jewels sees the duo teaming up for an old school beat em up record.  Without the constraints of serious topics, Killer Mike and El-P just show off their chemistry and mic skills to fantastic results.  The real hero of the tape is Mike, who is quietly asserting himself as an All-Rap first team candidate.  He rifles down the competition on “Sea Legs,” goes on a drug addled romantic tryst on “No Come Down” and just rips apart the beat on some Arnold Schwarzenegger steez in “Job Well Done.”  El-P does a great job as sidekick here and the chemistry between the two is fantastic.  But his real addition for the tape is the head knocking beats.  He abandons his sci-fi apocalyptic fervor to create an old-school boom bap canvas that put Eminem and his Rick Rubin beats to shame.  Every beat sounds like it was made out metal, which underlines the two MC’s threats perfectly as they chew their way through it.  El-P even brings old school legend DJ Q-Bert to scratch on “Get It.”  This is the type of old school rap album that everyone was clamoring for in 2013.  Here’s hoping the sequel (coming out in 2014) will be just as good.

 

9: Juicy J – Stay Trippy

For Juicy J, “stay trippy” isn’t just a slogan; it’s a life motto.  It’s how a 38 year old rapper who’s prime was behind him ended up becoming king of the ratchets and a radio staple.  He rewrote the rap book on second acts.  Noticing the influence of his old group Three 6 Mafia on a whole generation of young fans, Juicy J jumped into the internet head first and linked up with aspiring young producers like Lex Luger and Mike Will Made It who looked up to him as a hero.  Signing with Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang (easily the most successful pairing of old rapper with young rapper) and scoring a huge hit with “Bands A Make Her Dance,” Juicy had a coalition of fans that other artists would envy.  Stay Trippy finds him balancing summer radio jams, dark Memphis murder raps, and ethereal stoner trance without losing any of his core identity.  It was the party album of the summer.  There are no awkward radio grabs and no forced collaborations.  Every song is a showcase for a master at work.  He makes his features come into his world, not the other way around, as he creates the hooks himself for “Bands” and “Bounce It.”  “Wax” sounds like heaven opened its doors for a devil to come through while “Gun Plus A Mask” is a horror movie on record.  And even though Juicy stays in his own lane he still manages to surprise, like when he combines a posthumous Pimp C verse with a Weekend sample on “Smokin Rollin”, or creates a love song with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland on “The Woods” (which is seriously the best thing JT has done all year. How is this not a single??).  Stay Trippy plays out like Juicy J is in “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” a professional partier who’s hedonism is hard work.  By the time it ends with “If I Ain’t,” his words become anthems; “If it ain’t kush it won’t touch my lighter, I only smoke that shit that get me higher.  If it ain’t drank it ain’t in my cup, it gotta be that purple and yellow; I’m turning up.”  Stay trippy indeed.

 

8: Kanye West – Yeezus

Has there even been an album like Yeezus before?  Has a monolithic pop star at the peak of his career ever released an album this divisive?  No wonder it drew the respect of the late Lou Reed. It’s easy to forget about the music of Yeezus when so much of Kanye’s press was about other factors.  The guerilla album rollout.  His “no art” album art.  His press run of rants on Jools Holland, Jimmy Kimmel, and Sway In The Morning.  His too fake to be real relationship with Kim Kardashian.  His immense national tour.  His confederate flag appropriating tour merchandise.  All of that leaves Yeezus in a tough position.  It is easy for it to be merely a symbol for Kanye West, the divisive cultural figure.  But even without all of that, the music would speak for itself.  The production hits like a sledgehammer, Daft Punk produced house music edged down with Rick Rubin’s boom bap.  The minimalistic setting lets every sound have meaning: the glitchy synths of “On Sight,” the drum roll of “Black Skinhead,” Chief Keef’s distorted mumble on “Hold My Liquor,” the horn blasts of “Blood On The Leaves.”  And above it all is Kanye, who snarls about civil rights and croons about sexual wrongs in the same breath before coming to the best ending the year had after Breaking Bad.  Egotists like Kanye rarely make something as focused as Yeezus, so give credit to Mr. West that his genius is able to be reeled in.  And just in case there was doubt that Kanye isn’t the most eminent taste maker this world has seen since Walt Disney and Steve Jobs and Jesus Christ and Fabio, note how even this abrasive single-less album has found it’s way into the heart of pop culture.  Whether it’s “Black Skinhead” playing on commercials, James Franco and Seth Rogen parodying his music videos, or his silhouette hanging from a poplar tree the same night as Miley twerked for the nation, Kanye has proved he’s the epicenter of pop culture even when he’s trying to push everyone away.  Yeezus isn’t the best album of the year but it might be the most important.

The Last Living Rock Star: The Yeezus Tour

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Lou Reed died this last October.  The founder of The Velvet Underground is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, challenging all musical conventions of pop music and basically created the alternative genre. We’re at an age where classic rock practically seems like antiquity, with more obituaries coming every year.  But Lou Reed’s death seemed particularly poignant.  Although I’ve never truly cared for him, his death sent me into a strange existential crisis.  Lou Reed was a rock star in every sense of the word.  He was rude and confrontational, enigmatic and charismatic.  He challenged gender and societal norms, rewrote the rock and pop songbook and redefined what it meant to be cool.  Rock stars don’t look like that anymore.  Rock stars don’t act like that anymore.  Yet a week after Reed’s death, I watched Kanye West climb a mountain, fight off a demon, get blessed by Jesus and proclaim himself a God.  Yeezus is a rock star and maybe the country’s last one.

Yeezus arrived with seismic impact.  2013 was the year of the high profile album, with every major rap and pop star dropping off their record in the most elaborate way possible.  But Yeezus remained distinct from the masses, an iconoclastic statement of power in an age where shocking means dancing at the VMAs.  More than any other album, rap or otherwise, Yeezus had the strongest impact upon first listen.  You can read about my reaction here. What struck me then was its “minimalistic” Rick Rubin infused production and sexual rage, combining on the centerpiece “Blood On The Leaves.”  Yeezus seemed like an album about his impending fatherhood, a last chance romp through his Freudian Id before returning to himself.  As incredible as it was, a lot of the album seemed designed for an immediate “wtf” factor rather than multiple listens.  The Yeezus Tour was an opportunity to see how well this work has aged and if it still holds as much merit as critics gave it when it first dropped.

You already know several things about the tour.  He brought out Jesus and there was a giant mountain on stage.  It was spectacle worthy of a man who calls himself a genius and the next Steve Jobs (or Walt Disney…or Andy Warhol).  The tour was half concert/half performance art, divided into five sections that allowed Kanye to take the audience on the journey that was Yeezus.  Fighting, Rising, Falling, Searching, Finding.  The show was focused on late-period Kanye, serving as a funereal procession for the old Ye.  So long to the the backpack wearing college dropout of yore.  Mr. West is now a volcanic controversial lightning rod, creating epic stadium mosaics that are meant to purge you rather than please you.  I was stunned by how well the sparse arrangements of Yeezus worked with the maximalist production of his recent work.  “On Sight” and “Send It Up” meshed perfectly with big hits like “Mercy” and “Power.”

Going into the concert, I wasn’t sure what the emphasis was going to be on Yeezus (other than the name).  While it was adored by critics, Yeezus was Ye’s least successful album.  But not only did he play every song on the album, the rest of his work was pulled into the same black whole.  “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” turned from underdog anthem to snarling resentment, “Runaway” changed from iconic apology to self-righteousness.  The recesses of pain from 808 & Heartbreaks laid bare next to the sexual howl of Yeezus.  

But the strangest, most in your face moment of the new Kanye, was when he stripped away his Daft Punk sampling stadium smash “Stronger” of all the anthemic value it has as a hit.  Suddenly “now that that don’t kill me, can only make me stronger” became an epitaph rather than a hook.  It came towards the end of the concert, after “Coldest Winter” had covered the mountain in snow and “Blood On The Leaves” created a volcanic eruption.  He had segued into what seemed to be an hour rant/monologue in the middle of “Runaway.”  And when he launched into “Stronger,” my favorite moment of the night might have been the crowd’s huge cheer at finally hearing a Top 40 friendly song and then that cheer slowly, awkwardly, dying as Kanye proceeded to ground that song into the dirt.  As soon as they like you, make them unlike you.  

For all the complaints about the mechanical kinks of the tour, I found no problem with it.  The scenes were majestic.  The mountain turned into an active volcano right when the TNGHT riff hit in “Blood On The Leaves,” which is the only possible way you could visualize such an astounding musical moment.  And after “Stronger,” the mountain split in twain to reveal Jesus.  Now Kanye wore a mask for the whole show, changing it every so often, and that bugged a lot of people.  Who knew his expressions were so important to his music?  How do we know it’s even him?  So when Jesus came out, ‘Ye took off his mask, revealed he was still human and ended the show with a sequence of hits: “Jesus Walks,” “Flashing Lights,” “All Of The Lights,” “Good Life,” and the Yeezus closer “Bound 2.”  Even though the ending was superb, the mask and the theatricality didn’t bug me.  The show was so unmistakably Kanye, from his vocal inflection, his impassioned screams, to his jerky dance moves.  It was impressive how he kept up the energy for such a long show.  He gave his all to every song and even bicycle kicked across the stage during “Cold.”  So the ending was a sweet catharsis from the anger and pain of the whole concert.  It re-contextualized his earlier work as idyllic and something to be earned rather than the starting point.  Hopefully it made everyone at that concert think a bit harder about Mr. West.

The Yeezus Tour proved a lot about the staying power of Kanye’s new album, but the meaning has changed a bit.  Kanye has blitzed through one of the most intriguing press runs on the 21st century, making bloated claims and always seeming on the verge of a meltdown.  But to me it seems like he’s broken through the matrix.  ‘Ye has been making some great points and his erratic nature has allowed people to marginalize all the political and racial statements that he’s made, things that people are afraid to say or even think in the Obama/Trayvon era.  When Lou Reed died, one of the things that was most mourned was his fuck off attitude.  Chuck Klosterman wrote “you were allowed to think whatever you wanted about who [Lou Reed] was as a person…but there was never any argument over the veracity of his genius.”  Sound familiar?  How does one man become a beloved rock star and the other an egocentric asshole?  Now, close to the end of the year, Yeezus feels like a gigantic middle finger at everyone who tries to put Kanye in a box, musically, socially, or culturally.  After the concert, someone I went to the show with said he liked Kanye’s earlier stuff more, that it was “real hip hop.”  Even though the show seemed to be an entire mission statement against thoughts like that, maybe he’s right.  Yeezy has changed the rules so many times that those definitions don’t even matter anymore.  But one thing is true, Kanye West is a rock star in a land filled with sweet pop stars.  And we should cherish that quality rather than tear it down.

 

All Praise To Yeezus And The Rap-lic Church

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Kanye West is the most influential artist of the 21st century.  It’s not even up to debate.  Every album launches a brand new paradigm that the entire musical world slowly follows.  And this was established before the new decade.  Since then he’s created his magnum opus, leveled the playing field between him and Jay-Z, and fashioned the best possible soundscape for 2 Chainz to drink champagne on an airplane.  And now there’s this, his confusing, short album that acts as a middle finger to everyone who’s followed him since day one.  And the whole time I was listening to Yeezus, I was just thinking “Holy shit, is Kanye in the top 5 of all time?”

Yeezus is a powerful album and one that demands attention.  Even before I reached an opinion on it, I was awed by the energy that courses through it.  It sounds like nothing in his career, hell it’s a reach for the whole genre (and yes there were some groups experimenting with this sound but people who listen to Kanye don’t listen to those guys).  There’s an electronic vibe on the album.  It’s as if he took the auto-tune ideas of 808’s & Heartbreak and fed them black kryptonite.  Sometimes it sounds like a deconstruction of the stadium-rap that he’s nearly perfected with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne, keeping all the power but with a minimalist edge.  It seems to be the antithesis of the chipmunk soul of Kanye’s origins, as if we’re watching him being burned by lava and transformed into a soulless metallic rap Darth Vader (and Jay-Z is screaming “YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BRING BALANCE TO RAP, NOT DESTROY IT!“)  Yeezus does sound sterile at times, shiny and hollow.  There’s not much that can prepare you for the glitchy nintendo breakdown of “On Sight,” which made me park my car to make sure my system hadn’t exploded.  It’s jarring, and it’s only something that Kanye could have done.

There’s a lot to be said about the electronic overhaul Yeezy has done with his sound.  Industrial metal, witch-house, Euro-dubstep all play a part in Yeezus.  This has two effects.  It connects Kanye with the techno history of Chicago, in a different avenue than his soul samples used to.  But more interestingly, it’s Kanye’s reflection of Chicago right now and the bleakness of the Drill scene.  Remember, Kanye West has been decrying the poor living situation in his hometown since “Jesus Walks,” and the mechanical violence of Yeezus can be seen as complementary to what young producers like Young Chop are doing in the Chi right now.  Chief Keef and King L, two stars of the scene, make appearances and fit right into the dark void of the album.

Yeezus realizes the brute strength of these sounds.  Kanye wields every individual sound like a sledgehammer, and with the help of such producers like Daft Punk, Hudson Mohawke, and Rick Rubin, has been able to create a soundtrack that pounds the listener at every opportunity.  Even more impressive is his utilization of voices.  He’s like a conductor, bringing in a new instrument every so often but always keeping it distinct.  Who else could pair the mumble of Chief Keef with the angelic Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on “Hold My Liquor,”  or use a Jamaican patois so powerfully on “I’m In It.”  Whether it’s a lifeless soul sample or a high pitched scream, Kanye finds power in the solitude of these sounds, which makes Yeezus a minimal recording as compared to his orchestral achievements of the past where he piled on as many voices as he could.

Of course the most powerful voice is Yeezy’s itself.  Kanye has evolved from being a lower-level producer MC into a rapper worthy of his own beats.  Much has been made out of the lyrics on the album, how they were wrote very quickly and that shows in their simplicity, but it’s all classic ‘Ye.  The obvious punchlines, the way he changes how a word sounds for emphasis (got more niggas off than COCH-A-RANE), and the incisive dashes into the beat, they’re all what people have come to love or hate about Kanye.  Whether he’s demanding croissants or rocking Chewbacca fur, that’s Ye.  But what is special here is how strong his voice itself is.  Not many rappers could ride a terrain as jagged as Yeezus, but Kanye has morphed his voice from the awkward delivery of his earlier years into a deafening HUNHHHHHHH!  The way he repeats his lines, just a bit stronger each time, gives me chills.  Hearing him work himself into a rage on “New Slaves,” screaming about what he plans to do to your Hampton wife is exhilarating.

But there is something problematic about the blatant misogyny that runs through Yeezus and it’s been the most lambasted part of the album.   For a while I’ve been thinking about he’s using his sexuality as a blunt object, deigned to offend the listener just like the sounds of the album.  But beneath his alienating comparisons between his sexual advances and the civil rights movement, there are some of the most resonant love stories of his career.  Yeezus shows Kanye in his element, dealing with love and lust, and poignantly displaying his fears of settling down.  He captures the duality of love, being completely in control but losing it at the same time, the aggressiveness of lovemaking and the fragility when it’s over.  On “Hold My Liquor,” he loves how his girl cares for him sober or drunk, happy or hungover, but her aunt tells her he’s bogus.  “I’m In It,” a storming stripclub anthem from Hell, finds him ruminating how he has “the kids and the wife life, but can’t wake up from the night life.”  You can hear his heart breaking through the autotune as he sings “let’s take it back to the first party, when you tried your first molly” on “Blood On The Leaves.”   It’s a tale of nostalgia and despair that’s on par with the youthful drug indulgences of Springsteen or the Hold Steady.  When “Bound 2” plays at the very end of the album, it’s as if Kanye’s coming home after a long night of drinking.  It’s the old Kanye, sobered up, sampling soul records but he’s hungover so they’re a little choppy (“B-B-B-B-Bounddddddd to falllll in loveeeeeee”), about to make his case to his significant other.   He’s seething with irritation.  She’s in the club ordering champagne but still looks thirsty, rocking Forever 21 but just turned thirty.  She complains even on vacation, dutty whining around all these Jamaicans.  So when Ye realizes that “one good girl is worth a thousand bitches,” it’s heartwarming.  Maybe they can still make it to the church steps.

I like Yeezus.  It’s not for everybody.  It’s disruptive and offensive and I played it for my mom once and it was a huge mistake.  There are abrupt beat changes, odd outros, and a moment where Kanye sounds like Napoleon Dynamite and calls himself God.  I’m pretty sure Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t talking about a girl’s breasts when he said “Free at last!” and I don’t think Nina Simone would appreciate the connection made between lynching and paying alimony.  But when you’re in love (especially with Kim Kardashian), you make stupid mistakes.  I think Yeezus ranks real high in his discography.   For the record I’d have to say my favorite albums are:

  1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
  2. The College Dropout
  3. Yeezus
  4. Watch The Throne (with Jay-Z)
  5. Graduation
  6. 808’s And Heartbreak
  7. Late Registration

That’s one of the greatest discographies in hip hop and you could argue literally any single one of those albums for the number one spot.  That’s just my preference.  But the connecting thread through all of them is the propelling motion into the future and the boundaries that have been shattered in their wake.  Now just watch the rest of the rap game slowly start speaking Swaghili.