Saturday, April 18, 2009

Extremely Half-Assed Thoughts on Gangsta Rap

Yes, Hyman Roth's gangsta >>>>> Asher Roth's gangsta.

I was reading the liner notes of Critical Beatdown, which I only picked up a month ago and haven't stopped listening to since, and Kool Keith made a comment that struck me. He says he totally could have made a very real gangsta rap album (in the G Rap, Schooly D kind of sense, I imagine) just by talking about what he saw outside his window - it wasn't at all like the Brooklyn of the late 80s was this peaceful gentrified environment - but he intentionally chose not to in favor of making an album for dustheads. And Critical Beatdown isn't even, you know, about the experience of doing dust or any drug, it isn't about anything really, anything more than how much better Kool Keith and Ced Gee are than other MC's and how they'll do weird shit with other rappers' brains.* What makes it, in the view of some people who take rap pretty seriously, the greatest rap album of all time is entirely the execution. All of which is to say two things: A, rap doesn't have to be too topical, or to relate in any way to the experiences of the underclass to be great, and B, if the alternatives being offered to gangsta rap - which for the purposes of this discussion, we'll define as crime-related rap, particularly crime-related rap where the rapper is doing some of the crime being discussed - were nearly as interesting as something like Critical Beatdown (indeed, if the whole battle rap genre hadn't gone completely bleh/underground/same thing), certain people wouldn't be as upset about the erosion of label backing for gangsta rap, Asher Roth's proclamations of gangsta rap's demise,** etc.

(A) notwithstanding, I certainly agree that I don't want to see gangsta rap die, especially when people like Charles Hamilton and the Knux are, as noz points out, being offered up as leading non-gangsta rap alternatives. After all, I originally started listening to rap because I felt that basically all music made by white people was insufficiently hard-ass, so the Kanyeization*** of rap certainly doesn't make me happy. I just think that the question of what I'd like to see happen is an entirely separate one from what is happening. And what is happening is that gangsta rap has become, across the board, quite stale, largely dominated by mind-numbingly repetitive tales of selling crack (except that they aren't even tales, more just boasts to the effect that Rapper X sells tons of crack), and that the best-selling purveyors of gangsta rap are the stalest. See 50, see Game, see Jeezy right now, see Jim Jones, see, I'm sorry to say, Rick Ross, and see Wayne, who's mostly abandoned gangsta rap, the occasional threat of violence notwithstanding, for autotuned duets with Keri Hilson and the like. Now, you can point me to that great mixtape Pill did, or one of the few moments where Gucci Mane doesn't (intentionally?) sound like he's totally retarded, or Z-Ro's 18th album, or Lil Boosie, and those things are great! But that's sort of like someone in the 60s saying that the Western wasn't dying at all (when it most certainly was) because, look, Sam Peckinpah just made five great Westerns that for the most part nobody saw. The good news is that, just as jingoistic conservatives like me can still get their patriarchal macho-man jollies from all sorts of non-Western outlets, such as, 24, action movies, hitman movies, and gangsta rap itself, there's no reason why the concerns that gangsta rap addressed can only be addressed through gangsta rap. Rappers can still talk about poverty or growing up in a drug-ridden environment without professing to sell drugs themselves. I think that a guy like Z-Ro, whose occasional threats to shoot somebody up really aren't that essential to his project and basically serve to give him the cred to do his emo-rap thing, is already on this path. So are the Paper Route Gangstaz (in spite of the 'Gangstaz'); so is, to an extent, Killer Mike. I understand the fear that without gangsta rap, all we'll be left with is bougie, label-pushed Charles Hamilton bullshit, a nerdy underground, and a mealy-mouthed conscious rap sector, but that doesn't have to be the case. And really, if your concern in preserving gangsta rap is that the poor need a voice, I don't see how a Rick Ross or the millions of rappers just like him, who spend 98% of their albums talking about how much drugs they've sold, jewelry they wear, people they've killed, strippers they've fucked, etc., almost completely devoid of any context that might situate these activities in the rapper's neighborhood, and 2% on the obligatory "I came from a tough locale, many of my peoples are in prison, let's overhaul the criminal justice system and, like, get them out and shit" song, really serve that purpose. So as fun as albums like Thug Motivation, Port of Miami, Lord Willin, and Purple Haze were, I don't think it's the end of the world if labels are putting less money behind those sorts of projects - except perhaps in an aesthetic sense, but even there, not really, because the golden age of crack rap and gangsta rap more generally is clearly behind us.

* My favorite line in this regard is when Keith says, on 'Break North,'
Here's your brain for your girl I can give her messages, clues from a murderer
right after he talks about swallowing the listener's liver. For some reason when I hear this line I always think the messages/clues are somehow encoded, sci-fi style, in the dude's brain.
** To be fair to Senor Roth, Dr. Dre announced at the '96 MTV Music Awards that "gangsta rap is dead," and went on to make a song about it, 'Been There Done That.' Of course, my having pointed that out now someone will use that in an argument about how Dre never really got the point of gangsta rap in the first place and was just interested in making money off of stupid white kids like Tray, etc.
*** Where Kanyeization is defined as people imitating the less interesting or objectionable aspects of the Kanye oeuvre/persona, not the really great stuff on
College Dropout. More the corny punchlines, terrible flow, annoying lisp, rapping over stuff that sounds like really poor dumbed-down interpretations of house, rapping dullly about his clothes, wearing weird clothes, etc.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Brief Thoughts on The Charts

I don't really listen to new music anymore, but I do listen to the radio on the way to and from places. Here are some thoughts on what's on the radio.

Soulja Boy, 'Turn My Swag On' (#42, Hot 100, #15, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, #8, Hot Rap Tracks).

As Master P once said on the intro of his slept-on classic, Ice Cream Man, the cream really do rise to the top. It's so gratifying to hear this song that I championed about six months ago getting some play, and in the context of the radio, the thing sounds so avant-garde compared to what else is on. All it is is this shouted refrain and some sung-mumbled verselets. Besides the formal qualities of the song, it's cool that, unlike a Rick Ross or all the other rappers soporifically bragging about their opulent lifestyle, Soulja Boy really is getting money. I don't like to emphasize artist biography or stress over whether their real life and their lyrics match up, but what makes the song work, I think, is that this is a really young kid thrilled to have recently become obscenely rich, not some grizzled vet pretending to be thrilled about being obscenely rich. And it's nice to know that at least someone's getting money these days.

Yung LA f. Young Dro & T.I., 'Ain't I (Remix)' (#49, Hot 100, #10, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs).

It's so rare to hear a great or even good 16 bars on the radio these days. T.I.'s verse definitely qualifies. (Dro's is good too, although it's pretty lazy with all the cliches - choppers in the trunk that make you do the macarena and ice 30 below minus the wind chill in the same verse?) For about 40 seconds you totally get all the Jay-Z of the South hype dude used to get 3-5 years ago... then you remember Live Your Life, Dead And Gone, and Whatever You Like (worst first three singles off a rap album ever?) and you snap out of it. But even this verse, as masterful as it is, leaves me a little cold. Something about the tidiness of it, coupled with the sneers at his community's lack of gratitude, turns me off, and I've come to like Yung LA's bit the best, even though he can't rap and I can hardly understand what he's saying - is it Grand Hustle moooooney or Grand Hustle roooyalties?

Beyonce, 'Halo' (#18, Hot 100).

The Wicked Witch of R&B Pop returns with a power ballad. How does Beyonce so dependably turn out loathsome hit after loathsome hit? Besides the fact that 80% of this song is her shrilly shrieking "HALO HALO HALO, HALO HALO HALO (x 36)," there's this pretty creepy deification of the love interest going on that ultimately is just the dressed-up flipside of the sex slave/personal shopper/maid for hire arrangements she loves to croon about (see 'Upgrade You,' 'Cater 2 U,' etc.). Note the "walls" that came tumbling down, her imploring Halo-Dude to "hit me like a ray of sun," her "addict[ion] to [his] light." Now, Madonna famously did this same sort of conflation of the spirtual and sexual on 'Like A Prayer' ("down on my knees, I want to take you there") to brilliant effect, but besides that that's a ridiculously catchy song and this is an unpleasant woman doing multitracked screaming of HALO HALO for four minutes, Madonna was way more up front about it. Whereas Beyonce goes to great trouble to cloak her desire to be totally owned by dude's magic ray of sun in power ballad obscurities. I'm not sure what the difference is here but it's very real. Beyonce needs to retire, which brings me to...

Keri Hilson f. Lil Wayne, 'Turnin Me On' (#16, Hot 100, #2, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs).

I liked this song when it first came out. Now when I hear it I feel like I'm listening to an incredibly annoying and way less talented version of Mya. The attitude is a good thing, but the bragging about herself in the same reductive terms that you hear in every Flo Rida/Plies/The Dream/Fat Joe song - i.e., she can buy out the bar, has her own dollars, etc. - is not. The whole thing's very boilerplate, and by the time she gets to the chorus line-y "ah, ah, ah, ahhhh" part, it gets very grating. Wayne's verse isn't enough to rescue this turkey. His remix verse, however, almost is, and would be if it weren't for Keri reaching new heights of unpleasant obnoxiousness when she goes on a not so related tangent to complain that Beyonce turns her off and should go have some babies because, like, Keri wrote one of her songs, and check the credits. Beyonce should have some babies, but even though she is the worst thing to happen to music in the past ten years, I don't see how Keri has any business telling her so. It's just very unbecoming. Know your place, ho. (Hey, that could be a great refrain for a Three 6 song.)

Black Eyed Peas, 'Boom Boom Pow' (#1, Hot 100).

How this became a hit is totally beyond me. What exactly do they think is so futuristic about this garbage? Don't you hate a song that keeps telling you that it's futuristic when it's not? And yeah, it may be true that there are some artists out there copying Fergie's swagger. But that doesn't make her or her bandmates less poor excuses for human beings, it just means that some people have awful taste. Besides, some of those artists have done way better things with it, see below.

Lady Gaga, 'Pokerface' (#2, Hot 100).

From one of the many imitators of Fergie Ferg's swagger comes this great tune that intriguingly walks the line between tough bitch clubtrash slut and vulnerable clubtrash slut. I even love the kooky breakdown.

Britney Spears, 'If U Seek Amy' (#21, Hot 100).

I continue to love all the singles off Brit's album. It will be said that the song is a sorry gimmick that plays at being transgressive because it nonsensically spells out radio-censored words. And that's true. But more importantly, what we have here is this very maligned woman, who's lost a great deal of her sex appeal, pathetically and somehow touchingly insisting that all the people - of both genders! - still want to fuck her, so fuck what you say about her bad choices because hey, at least she's still a very desired piece of ass. Which is all very sad and pathetic but at the same time a pretty authentic and honest depiction of the nutty thoughts that must run through this fucked-up woman's head. The Max Martin beat that sounds like something off a Kidz Bop CD only adds to the "I'm a fucked-up badly aging twentysomething with the mind of a 12-year-old" vibe. If you like 808s and Heartbreak, you ought to like this. (On the other hand, if you like this, you're not at all entitled to like 808s and Heartbreak.)

Ciara f. Justin Timberlake, 'Love Sex Magic' (#13, Hot 100).

This song is pretty clunky (starting off with the line "touch is so magic to me," making you believe in love and sex and magic all at once?) and uninspired, but I think it's wonderful that there are still artists at least trying to make pop that sounds like Golden Age Timbo and Neptunes and not just surrendering to the drive to make everything sound like autotuned Kidz Bop. There's a real grown-up-ness to the Timbo/Neptunes sound - even, dare I say, a grown and sexy-ness - that the Dr. Luke/Max Martin/Jim Jonsin produced crap on the radio totally lacks. Sometimes it got stale, take 'Change Clothes,' but it at least sounded like something way beyond the ken of your average 12-year-old. Back to the song itself, one of my complaints, besides the clunkiness, would be JT. Great at the breakup songs and cheap Jacko imitations, but does the guy - strictly aurally speaking - actually have sex appeal? N/h but I don't hear it at all, making this thing a total mismatch.

Craig David, 'Insomnia' (barely charted on anything but seems to get a lot of play in Philly).

On a similarly retro tip, this song is far from perfect and reminds me ever so slightly of 'Disturbia,' but the lead-in to the hook is gorgeous, and I love how the "never thought I met a girl I could trust, trust, trust, trust" part is in the same vein as that syncopated style Sisqo perfected on 'Thong Song' (I mean, of course, the 'bumps like a truck, truck, truck, thighs like what, what, what, lady move your butt, butt, butt' part).

That's all for now; I'll reflect on some other hits sometime soon.