Friday, June 26, 2009

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

When Cam Could Still Rap (Friendship)

Back when 'It's Goin' Down' was all the rage, my sister and I used to find Nitti's intro the funniest thing and repeat it in the car ad nauseam, for somewhat obscure reasons. I think, though, that it had something to do with the very proprietary sense you get about their relationship in that intro, coupled with the impression Nitti gives that they're practically strangers ("I want to introduce you to another motherfucker out my squad... this nigga goes by the name of Joc (Joc??)... he resides in College Park, right?"). And surely enough, by just the next year they weren't speaking anymore over money issues, though apparently that's been resolved. The art of what I'll call, for lack of a decent term, the plug in rap (not plug-in rap, the plug, full stop, in rap), whether done by a mixtape DJ, a producer, a label owner, or a superior artist, is something that hasn't been given much if any sustained analysis in rap blogland. Yet a plug can set the tone for and totally alter a record. As practiced by the Nittis and Diddys of the world, a plug can devalue a record, make it seem like a coldly calculated piece of product we shouldn't bother caring about (though this is mitigated at times in Diddy's case by his seemingly very sincere conviction in the excellence of whatever crappy artist he's pushing at the moment - but then that too is canceled out by the sense that he's bullshitting us, whether willfully or whether he deludes himself into thinking that, say, Loon is good so he can fool us next). In the case of, say, Baby on old Wayne or B.G. records, one's enjoyment of jeune Wayne/prime B.G. is reduced quite a bit by the reminder that we're witnessing a sickeningly exploitative, both financially and sexually, homo-pedophiliac jumpoff. (Pure speculation about the sexual part but I wouldn't at all be surprised if this was the reason Baby signed so many kids and adopted at least one, that and they're easier to cheat.) In the case of Jay plugs on Bleek records, at first there's something touching about Jay's belief in the guy, but by the point of 'Dear Summer' getting thrown on 534 and Jay's kind offer to leave a little something for Bleek in his will, or even the fact that a 534 existed at all, one started to get a queasy feeling that Jay enjoyed making a public spectacle of Bleek's total dependence on him. But then there are plugs that can elevate the most pedestrian record into something quite special, either simply by the charismatic authority of the co-sign, or, more interestingly, by a performance of the friendship between plugger and pluggee. As is the case with so many of the small things that go into making great rap, here Cam was a master.

A. Basic Plugs

Cam's work is littered with some of the best rapping you'll ever hear about friendship, and perhaps that will be the subject of a separate post. (To give one example, consider Freeky Zeek, who becomes an almost mythic figure just by Cam's talking about him so much.) But today we're just going to be talking about Cam's plugs for artists on their own shit. Some are very simple, though none the less effective; one of my favorites is on 'Stop-N-Go,' where JR Writer's handed probably one of the most memorable introductions to a career in rap of all time. (Technically he first shows up on Juelz's debut album a year prior, but who cares.) Cam, after affectionately running down a list of the artists on his roster, with little terms of endearment for each, announces, in what sounds like the voice of God, if God were a Diplomat, "the Writer of Writers - JR" to the world, and without missing a beat JR springs to life, as if he were some internal rhyming monster Cam cooked up in his basement. And thus the short-lived legend of JR Writer was born, through no small help from Cam. Not sure there's anything half as captivating or razor-sharp on Crime Pays as those two seconds. A slightly more complicated version of this dynamic is Cam's fabulous cheerleading on Juelz's first single, 'Santana's Town,' a song that's structured around Cam's voice (he starts it, he ends it, he does the hook) and is terribly convincing as an announcement of the arrival of Juelz as Next Big Thing, except, of course, when Juelz is rapping. When Cam says at the end that "that boy got that crack," you really believe it. You can't build, alas, a whole song around this sort of thing (although see below), but in a way Cam's talent for braggadocio is most appealing when he's using it to brag about others. Of all the Cam phrases that stick in my head as I go about my daily life, perhaps my favorite is at the end of his second verse on 'Bout It Bout It Pt. 3":

Pies get eight done, Dipset don't play none,
Jim Jones, Freeky, Killa and The Great One - Santana

Here and elsewhere, Cam has a talent for mythologizing that's totally persuasive even as you know it's total nonsense.

B. Performing Friendship

Far more interesting than Cam's simple plugs are his plugs where he acts out his friendship with the plugged artist. The video for S.A.N.T.A.N.A., pictured above, is a graphic illustration of this dynamic. S.A.N.T.A.N.A. is a pretty insufferable, though somehow addictive, chipmunk rap song. The sample (of someone saying 'Santana,' along with some crap about how he squeezes hammers) is sped up to the point where it's probably been clinically proven to damage the hearing of dogs, and Juelz doesn't really help matters. Yet Cam redeems the whole enterprise with his wacky decision to stand next to Juelz in a huge fur coat and lip-sync the chipmunk. (That's what he's doing in the still - lip-syncing 'Santana' and pointing to Juelz.) What was a really annoying, clunkily rapped song from Santana about how he's such a super guy turns into a video about a bizarre but sweet friendship between two guys in matching furs. By lip-syncing the chipmunk, Cam flips the obnoxious egotism of the production into a video about a guy who's so tight with his friend that he's way beyond just doing guest cheerleading on his friend's record, he'll actually lip-sync a chipmunk saying his friend's name over and over. It's like a meta-Santana's Town.

There are plenty more cases of amicable cheerleading in Cam's work; I particularly love 'Un Kasa,' the opening track of Diplomatic Immunity, where Cam repeats in seeming amazement every shitty line that comes out of the Krayon Man Rockstar's mouth. But now I want to turn my attention to something quite different, songs where Cam speaks on behalf of his friend and the artist he's plugging. I'm thinking of course of 'I Am Dame Dash' and 'This Is Jim Jones.' The conceit of 'I Am Dame Dash,' if you've never heard this novel piece of work, is that, since Dame can't rap, he needs Cam and Jim Jones to rap "about how I got that money and copped them cakes" for him. You could look at it as a unique product of Dame's megalomaniacial imagination, but it's also arguably a song with its roots in that forgotten art, the DJ song. (That is, those old-school songs where the rapper talks about what a great guy his DJ is.) Jim, predictably, raps about himself, but Cam offers a beautiful little mini-biography of his man:

In '87, dog, my man Dame was a cake chopper
Eighth chopper, now he got a gray chopper
Harlem, Brooklyn, Philly, the whole states proper

Shrimp, steak, 42nd, they ate lobsters
He used to stack up his chips
Crashed up his whip lookin' back at a bitch
Left it, 'F' it, we bout to get twelve Jeeps...

That said, there's something a little forced about Cam's guest spot; he doesn't rap about Dame with a great deal of joy or even that undeserved sense of awe with which he frequently speaks of Juelz, 'The Great One.' You don't get the sense he likes Dame a great deal, and ultimately his verse feels less like a gesture of sincere friendship, though it clearly is that to an extent, than a returned favor. The opposite is the case of 'He Is Jim Jones,' probably the prettiest thing in the Dipset canon. Over a gorgeous Heatmakers beat - warm strings and a sample of Terry Huff, sped-up to the point of incomprehensibility, that sounds like a sweetly warbling bird - Cam shows up. So often a snarling amoral monster, here he's all warmth. Cam announces "my man Jim Jones," and then looks back on their many years of friendship in his daffy way, years filled, he says, with "a lot of devastation, larceny, defeat, misconceptions." But now is no time to look back on such miseries, not over this beautiful beat, so "fuck all that," Cam says - "I don't know what that's about but fuck all that," fuck the misfortunes he and his best friend in the world were dealt. Now is the time to look forward to their future, to Jim's future. "It's your turn, you up nigga, let's go!", Cam says, and off Jim goes. At first, of course, you think what a shame it is that this gorgeous beat is being wasted on a clod who says, in consecutive lines, that he's "an addictive obsession" and "my dick's an obsession." But then Cam comes back to deliver the hook:

This is Jim Jones, he's breezin' on chrome
Your best bet is leave him alone
O.G. in them stones, spent G's on them stones
Now mami, just sing me the tone

and any infelicity in Jim's rapping is forgotten. Every man, you think, should get a pocket symphony written to his life as beautiful as this. His ordinariness becomes besides the point, or rather it is the point, and when Jim cries "we did it, we did it!" you almost want to be his friend too.

The Diplomats, 'Stop-N-Go,' Diplomatic Immunity 2 (2004).

Juelz Santana f. Cam'ron, 'Dipset (Santana's Town),' From Me to U (2003).

The Diplomats, 'Un Casa,' Diplomatic Immunity (2003).

Dame Dash f. Cam'ron & Jim Jones, 'I Am Dame Dash,' Dame Dash Presents: Paid In Full Soundtrack (2002).

Jim Jones f. Cam'ron, 'This Is Jim Jones,' On My Way To Church (2004).

My Thoughts On Come Home With Me

Someone asked in comments so I thought, why bury my thoughts on this important transitional album in Cam's career. First, I should say that I generally hate pre-CHWM Cam, some great songs like 'Pull It,' 'S.D.E.,' and 'Horse and Carriage' notwithstanding. He's a completely different, far more conventional rapper in that period (this is why on message boards and really purist blogs you see a lot of "Cam fell off after S.D.E., my favorite Cam shit, besides the immortal [correction: totally worthless 'conceptual' crap] D'rugs is on some Children Of The Corn mixtape, bring the old Killa Cam back, blah blah blah); he also had a really annoying, high-pitched voice and accent that somehow he lost at the age of 26. Maybe puberty came late for Cam. Or the IBS had palliative effects on his vocals. Anyway, there are still traces of the old Cam on CHWM, so that always rankles me a bit. The full-fledged Don of Dipset persona doesn't really get filled out until Diplomatic Immunity. Other than that, before I get into the main thrust of my attack on the record, some positives. The album undeniably contains his best commercial work, stuff that's a lot more catchy and accessible than anything that would come later, yet doesn't really make any compromises (well, almost). So there's something to be said for those two huge singles. "On Fire Tonight," Stop Calling," and the hilarious part on "Boy Boy" where Cam pretends to be a woman complaining that he's destroying her ovaries and uterus, and then replies, "RELAX, I'm doing this" all easily make the Misogynist Rap Hall of Fame. And who doesn't love the bit on 'Losing Weight' about the girl who will poison your relish and piss in your lemonade? And the opening lines of the intro ("I advise you to step, son, before I fuck your moms, make you my stepson, you'll be calling me Dad'ron")? It's Cam, so of course it's all eminently quotable.

Other than the tracks mentioned though, and Cam's lyrical insanity, I've always felt most of it is Cam's attempt to do a fairly straight Roc-a-Fella record, or rather, maybe it's Just Blaze's attempt to squeeze a conventional album out of Cam. Either way, big mistake. Something like 'Welcome To New York City,' besides Juelz's spectacular hook, is a total failure. Sure, Jay's verse would have been great on a stand-alone Jay song, but the idea of putting these two together on the same rah-rah anthem makes no sense, and that's apparent from the moment Cam opens his mouth, when he starts retreating into this unfamiliar territory of Infamous-quoting classicism. 'Losing Weight,' similarly, kinda works, but it shouldn't; Just seems to be attempting to recreate 'Streets Is Watching' or some other similarly cinematic with a capital 'c,' ominous penitentiary chances tune, but he's giving it to the wrong rapper. I've never quite sorted out what the 'Losing Weight' series (which continues through 'Harlem Streets' and arguably 'I.B.S.') is really about , but it's clearly much more about an internal struggle than any sort of external risk, which Cam would never admit to fearing. Just later figures out how to produce for someone with such a cartoonish, almost inhuman sense of invincibility on 'I Really Mean It,' but here he keeps trying to give Cam stuff that would be better suited for Jay or Bleek. Most obviously in the case of the awful Roc posse cut, which seems to just exist to demonstrate that Cam was in a whole different universe than his labelmates (although Beans has a great verse in his very earthbound way). And when Just's not doing it, lesser producers are squeezing him into equally misfitting concepts - the love song (which Cam makes work, but it's not quite on his own terms), the "this is what my childhood was like" song, the "no album that's trying to be important would be complete without a homage to Pac" song, the tribute to his dead comrade song, and even the singles. Finally, the album of course suffers from too much J&J in their we-can't-rap-a-lick-and-we're-proud-of-it height.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

When Cam Could Still Rap (Well), 'Lord You Know' Edition/Kanye's A Biter

As I imagine many of you know, 'Lord You Know' began its ill-fated life back in 2003 as a Heatmakers-lite, Sam Cooke-sampling mixtape cut, featuring a blasphemic chipmunked sample of Cooke's 'A Change Is Gonna Come' on the hook and a raw Juelz batting cleanup. The twisted humor (or, depending on how, um, progressive your views on drugs and incarceration are, the perfect appropriateness) of Cam appropriating Cooke's civil rights anthem to decry his drug-lord friend's ten-year sentence was, I imagine, lost on the Cooke estate. So back to the drawing board, where Cooke got replaced by Jaheim - real even trade there - and Juelz's formally messy but quite affecting, triumphant, and, dare I say, even visionary verse got replaced by a virtuosic 16 from Cam that, given the context, is both a little too technically showy and a whole lot too concerned with his beef-stew G2 and GQ wardrobe to have any business being inserted into this song. Given the loss of the sample, the Juelz verse, which explicitly engages with and quotes the Cooke original (his verse actually begins, "now I was born by the river in a little tent/little gate, little fence, I climbed over"), may have had to go, but it's quite a loss. At their collaborative best, there was a humanism to Juelz, or at the very least a youthful optimism, that leavened Cam's world-weary cynicism. (Indeed, in the endlessly entertaining but ultimately pretty bleak universe of classic Dipset Cam, isn't, oddly enough, Juelz's rising stardom Cam's sole point of hope for the future? How many Cam tracks are a grim catalogue of rapes, murders, coke sales, and sundry other horrors, only to end with him urging us to "watch Santana"? Cam on Crime Pays, bereft of Dipset members to shout out, is very much like a pathetic cult leader who's lost his acolytes, but also like a father who's lost his son.) That's very much the case here.

At any rate, the version with Jaheim was the one that ended up on Rap City. Which unfortunately is where it ended. As Cam immortally explained on 'Stop-N-Go,' "Purple Haze will be out this December 7th. Sorry for the delay. But it's business, never personal. New people, new money. I had to get that check." With the enormous delay, 'Lord You Know' had grown stale, and Cam left it off the album in favor of its abysmal B-side, 'Hey Lady.' So it often goes for first singles off pushed-back albums. Next disc, Cam learned, and put all his best songs out regardless of age, upon which he was of course bashed for hawking an album full of old material. To which I say, fuck that. If it weren't for idiots constantly fiending for new material, Purple Haze would be one song closer to being the album of the century.


Listen, with my muscle you'll be dazzled, but hustlin's a hassle
Percocet, Demerol, capsules of Paxil
Cops wanna cuff you, niggas wanna clap you
Bitches might burn you, they runnin' with that clap too
But the monster made it, do it for those incarcerated
Had it confiscated, hate it
When they take powder, upstate he take showers
Baby mom on Greyhound for eight hours
See her man face to face through a glass
On the phone, ten years he got chasin' that cash
Cocaine, he had the game in a smash
Fell like the towers when the planes went on crash
It wasn't 9/11, but it was 911
Gave him 9 plus 1, dropped a dime on dunn
I told him get his nine and run
Turned himself in, I had to find that dumb, that's too long

Aiyyo them niggas from the 3-2, said I can't breeze through
The forty if I cop bottles, we can't believe you
Me, who? Please, boo, landin' in that G2,
Same color as beef stew, favorite letters: GQ
That's me, true, peach blue, Hebrew
Lawyer on my side keep me out of jail, the fee stew, steep, whoo
But it might lead to, that R2D2, the mobsters creep through
We the new PE, shittin, PU
To the hood y'all don't need me, I need you
'Cause my mission's insane, you couldn't vision the pain
Always a snitch in the game, what you want, prison or fame?
Neither one, dunn, long as my digits are sane
He lookin' frigid, dig it, make sure them digits get changed
'Cause I can't be in hell's cell, shout out to Mel Mel
Cash and Hell Rell, Zeek doin three, he even fell, hell
He comin' home an '07 and 12 cells
'Cause you must have known, I can't trust the phones
For the dough you'll be like d'oh, stuck at home

Nowadays, dog, they raid up in the ballparks
Blaze 'em when they cross sharks
We raiders of the lost ark
I'm like a ballplayer, shake up and cross narcs
They get mad when I lay up in the Porsche Box
More props, R.I.P., my poor pops
Can't see his son shine like the Four Tops
My antennas will block the scanners
I got blammas, you'll drop your hammers
Lawyers to watch lawyers, cameras to watch cameras
Niggas to watch bitches, Nana to watch Grandma
In pajamas I snuck out to watch Santa
Now look at Killa, you gon' watch Santana

Cam'ron f. Juelz Santana and Sam 'Chipmunk' Cooke, 'Long Time Coming,' Diplomats Vol. 5 (2003).

Cam'ron f. Jaheim, 'Lord You Know', Lord You Know 12'' (2004).

Cam'ron f. Jaheim, 'Lord You Know' (A Capella). Not many rappers' a capellas hold up; it's a testament to the tightness of Cam's slow flow that this one really does. There are also a couple extra bars in the third verse for the completist.

Bonus: Cam'ron, 'Dynasty Intro Freestyle,' Diplomats Vol. 5 (2003). This unremarkable, even disappointing freestyle is notable for one reason: that it seems to be the source of Kanye's one good punchline. You may remember, back when Rap City was on its last legs and the set had famous lines from great rappers on the wall ("Is there a heaven for a G" was one), that Kanye, in one of his appearances, not-so-jokingly demanded that his "killin y'all niggas on that lyrical shit/mayonnaise colored Benz, I push miracle whips" make the wall. Which was nutty enough, but what if Kanye stole the line? College Dropout dropped in '04, this mixtape dropped in '03, and here's the quote from the freestyle (1:11-1:20):

Step to Cam, damn, on some lyrical shit
Slash spiritual tip, it's hysterical, dick
Just call my car mayonnaise, Miracle Whip

Now maybe Kanye was running around the Roc studios trying to impress everyone with his so-so punchline a year before the album dropped and Cam picked it up, but I seriously doubt it. The way Cam phrases the line, it's put the way he would have put it if he had written it. Kanye clearly took Cam's tossed-off throwaway, polished it up a bit, used it as the coup de grace of the closer on his debut album, and then turned it into a trademark. Google Kanye and miracle whips; it's downright sad how many people cite it as his best line, or even as the moment when they were sold on Kanye as lyricist. Charges of plagiarism in rap don't make much sense and I give Jay a ton of slack on his compulsive Biggie homage, but when you're stealing a line that nobody but the good people of Harlem and Jewish Cam obsessives have heard, and then build your whole reputation as a lyricist around it, that's beyond the pale.

Friday, June 19, 2009

When Cam Could Still Rap, Guest Appearance Edition

I'm sorry I don't have more rarities for you, but scouring the old Diplomats mixtapes is a lot of work. Typing up Cam lyrics, you realize that some of the charges of nonsensicality have a little merit and that some of his lines have no purpose other than to fit into his insane rhyme schemes. Either that or some of his shit is beyond me. Another thing that you notice is Cam's ad-libs, which, rather than serve as emphasis, function as a weird running commentary on what he's saying. Often Cam asks a question of himself in ad-lib, answers it in verse, and then goes "oh," like he's thanking himself for answering. Oddly enough, Styles, who you normally don't think of as being anything like Cam, uses ad-libs in a very similar - if anything even more wry - way. I should write about Styles sometime.

Yo, I leave jail smoothly, jump in the pale hooptie
Fuck the dick-suckin, ass-lickin male groupies
Diplomats, you look at alliance, you shook in defiance
I'm cookin up coke, lookin for clients (pure white!)
I got the AK, SK, 40 Cal
Scope red on your head still 40 thou
Worse than files of Nerf-Turf, burstin blaow
Give the church my child, ask to nurture thou
'Cause I've seen the hearses now,
But if this was Gilligan's Isle, Thirstin Howl, wow
Look at his kicks, they worth a thou
Isn't it sad, you do what I say and wish that you had
You Michigan crabs, you stabbed up, piss in a bag
Worse than that, zipped in a bag
Broke to fractions, a division of math
I'm, Hollywooood, shittin on Shaft, we go hard

DMX f. Cam'ron, 'We Go Hard,' Grand Champ (2003), 1:20-2:04.

All you got to say is "hide me," I ride free
I be, the one to change your birth date, S.S., or ID (I got all that)
No more hanging with the YG's, State Prop
No Roc, private dock, in case you need an IV,
No more Bent', that's Accord money, 420
See, can't afford money, money, he's award money
Whether ninety or the first degree
If it's murder in the first degree (what?), it'll be the third degree (oh!)
And they looking for the perjury (what else?)
If you ain't murk the G, perfectly, he'll be in surgery
Take your seed out the nursery, nurse him at the precinct
Give him dessert, that ain't where he deserve to be (not at all)
And I went through this personally, certainly (faggots!)
3-2 for burglary, [now it? Niles?] was referred to me
So they play us in no way, no way
Blaze up the roadways, A.C. and O.J.
Read the paper, eggs and OJ (OJ!)
Call CD, the head of the O'Jays (that's my African nigga)
That's a gipsy cab, risky all the chips we had
45 flea-flicker, we niggas, hit the gas
When the operation go stale, ain't no jail
I did my whole album on bail (that's the truth!)
I got you, Mac Mittens, send them a black ribbon
Attack with mac spittin', I can't go back prison

Beanie Sigel f. Cam'ron, "Wanted Dead or Alive," The B. Coming (2005), 2:47-4:04.

Doggy, I seldom stunt, but got some pell 'em stunts
Call 'em dunts, tell them hoes, go sell them cunts
Roll hella blunts, and I'm only gonna tell you once (no, no no)
So you should tell a friend, to tell a friend, to tell a bitch
Tel-a-thon, telescope, televised, can tell I'm rich (damn!)
'Cause I sell my bricks (what else?),
call hoes poultry (why?), chickens that smell like fish, bitch (oh)
You rockin' Dada Dot, me I keep a Prada box
Ak', gotta rock the rocks, now I got the rock of rocks (minimum)
And I cop a top, AK, chop a Glock, suede beige knock-a-knocks
System in the drop of drops (damn!), get the mobsters mopped
Get the poppas popped, top a top, Chaka Khan,
Dog, they'll be shottas shot,
I done shot a lot, shot the nine, shot the rock
Sure shot, shot for sure - but I'm secure
No security, Killa keep Glocks and fours,
Plus blocks of raw, probably popped your whore
But I'm not for sure, bitch wanna, hop aboard
Hit up the docks and shores

Jae Millz f. Cam'ron and T.I., 'No No No (Remix)' (2003), 0:00-0:59. (Sorry the intro is missing, a non-clean version of this thing is notoriously difficult to find.)

A Darkhorse Contender for Song of the Summer

A semi-analogous Euro-American collabo.

As you may have noticed, the pickings for song of the summer this summer are insanely slim. Pickings were fairly slim last year too, but 'Lollipop,' I think, ended up growing on all of us, and there was 'Forever,' 'American Boy,' my personal favorite, 'Shake It,' and of course 'A Milli.' This year, not so good. 'Boom Boom Pow' is an abomination. 'Calle Ocho' is, like, the pared-down Platonic essence of every crappy single Pitbull's ever made, which is to say it really sucks. (I know back in the day it was cool among a certain set to say that Pitbull was actually a good and politically interesting rapper; I've never listened to his albums so I guess I shouldn't be assuming that Synth Gurgles Breihan and them were full of shit, but is there a worse singles artist in the last 5 years than Pit? Besides Beyonce? He always sounds like he's smirking to himself about the unspeakably naughty things he's going to do with some third-rate stripper after he gets out of the studio.) I've already spoken on 'Knock You Down.' 'Love Game' isn't totally awful, but for the most part comes off like it was made by a horny robot with a less than optimal knack for writing hooks. (When you have that great part with the disco stick, what do you need the "let's play a love game x 300" part for?) 'Fire Burning' is okay in a corny way, but it never really jumps all the way into the blissfully bad summery pop pool the way 'Me Love' did. It just kinda stands there on the edge. Very unsastisfying. I don't see 'Birthday Sex' as a summer song, per se, and same for 'Best I Ever Had,' which is just an okay cute relationship song anyway, who cares. And the nation, happily, seems to be rejecting Beyonce's Broadway musical ditty about how she loves the fact that her significant other has a really huge, wide ego that's too strong and won't fit, and how she, strangely, also has a huge, wide ego that's too strong and won't fit. I thought Ciara was the transvestite. Seriously, give Gaga credit for honesty, if nothing else; at least she's open about her desire to take a ride on dude's disco stick. Beyonce here has written a song about the length and girth of her husband's apparatus, masked as an innocent tribute to his and her healthy sense of self. And the sad thing is that the illiterate masses, for the most part, don't get it. Or they think it's clever. So wrong on so many levels.

Which brings me to Kelly Rowland. Kelly Rowland, of the sweet disposition, absurdly unnecessary implants, unremarkable but often endearing voice, and that platinum-selling dilemma that's entirely overshadowed the rest of her solo career. If it weren't bad enough playing the Mo Williams to Beyonce's LeBron, she was a supporting player to another superstar on her own biggest hit. On her second album, Ms. Kelly (the title alone says all you need to know about how derivative and uninspired and wannabe sassy the thing was), she came out upbraiding us for not believing she could make it bump like this... and then proceeded to totally fail to make it bump like this. Then came those absurdly unnecessary implants. It seemed like Kelly had really lost her way, doomed to a career of half-assed mimicry of whatever trend was hot at the moment (Polow beats, miserable collabos with washed-up celebrity rappers, plastic surgery). Until now. Out of the blue, Kelly decided to work with a funny-looking forty-something Parisian house DJ by the name of David Guetta, and together they've put out a lovely song, 'When Love Takes Over.' As far as the vocal goes, melodically and even lyrically it sounds like the songwriters thought they'd just repackage Jordin Sparks's "No Air" and hope no one would notice. That's cool though, "No Air" was a great song. What's interesting is the production. People have made a fuss over mildly houseish r&b in the past few years; this is actually a straight house record (though all the piano softens it a bit). At the same time, though, Kelly's still singing a fairly straight r&b vocal, and yet it all hangs together. The result is pretty great pop. Or it could be absolute crap, I love anything vaguely reminiscent of the shit I used to dance to in my Bar Mitzvah days (Real McCoy, La Bouche, Quad City DJ's, Mase, Mariah).

WLTO - with Popbytes Introduction! from Michael Knudsen on Vimeo.

Kelly Rowland f. David Guetta - When Love Takes Over.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

'Death of Autotune' Inspired Grumbling on the Death of Formalism

So I was reading a great post a couple weeks ago on The House Next Door about auteurism and Howard Hawks's awful 1965 racing movie, Red Line 7000. Hawks is one of the five or so greatest directors of American cinema, and probably its most versatile. Among other things, he made the original Scarface, two of our finest comedies (Bringing Up Baby, Our Girl Friday), a brilliant noir (The Big Sleep), a take on Casablanca that improves on the original in every respect (To Have or Have Not), two of the best Westerns ever made (Red River, Rio Bravo), some classic war movies, a pioneering science fiction film, and even a pretty great Cinemascope ancient historical epic. He made Cary Grant's best movies and John Wayne's best movies. To be great at one's a wonderful accomplishment, but to have a knack for both is truly mind-boggling. Imagine if Martin Scorsese, on top of everything he has done, were also the best director of comedies of the last thirty years, and you get an idea of the improbability of Hawks's achievement. Nevertheless, he also made some crap, especially towards the end of his career, and Red Line is a case in point, as you can probably imagine just from looking at the poster. Critics being critics though, some Hawks devotees, among them a very respected critic, Robin Wood, have taken to claiming it's a terribly underrated film, one that recapitulates various Hawksian themes and motifs (such as male bonding, hot women in passenger seats who speak in deep voices, etc.). Which may be true, but in order to convince themselves the thing was actually a good movie, they had to ignore all sorts of gaping aesthetic holes in the film:

Red Line 7000 is a fascinating train wreck of a film. It is stiff, angry, wayward, filled with random product placements and littered with stilted, uncertain acting. The film’s mostly young, unknown actors are so inept, in fact, that Red Line got more laughs from the BAM audience than most comedies do. In his Hawks book, Wood once again sees a platonic essence of this movie and doesn’t seem at all phased by the poor playing of most of the cast (it must be said that a young James Caan and the frankly libidinal Marianna Hill do what they can with their roles). Nor does Wood comment on the awkward editing, or the moth-eaten, lazy clichés that stand in for the psychology of the six main characters. Not even the atrocious talked-through musical number “Wild Cat Jones” phases Wood; according to him, every last moment of this film has been thought-out, judged and made perfectly clear, but the only thing that’s clear is that Wood has thought it out and made it infinitely better in his mind.

The upshot of the post is that auteurist theory - which holds, in its more extreme versions, that the most minor works of the great directors (AKA, the auteurs) are more interesting than unusually brilliant work from otherwise undistinguished hacks - can go too far. I was reminded of this post the other day by The Assimilated Negro's college try at defending 'Death of Autotune,' along with his bizarrely bad Gawker hitjob on Jody Rosen of Slate for having the temerity to point out what I thought we all knew, that Jay can't rap anymore and isn't much of a lyricist anymore either.

First, my own thoughts on the record. I'm not one of those people who thinks that autotune has had such a pernicious effect on urban radio that it needs to go ASAP. Surely, most autotune shit is pretty bland and generic, and even autotune's crowning achievements (among which I'd personally place 'I'm Sprung,' 'Buy You a Drank,' 'Shawty Is The Shit,' 'Pop Champagne,' 'Hair Braider,' 'Robocop' before Kanye ruined it, and begrudgingly, 'Lollipop') are pretty limited. Nevertheless, I don't hate the trend and generally think that autotune-is-killing-rap talk is pretty silly. That said, a well executed autotuner-diss could have been a great song, in the same way that, say, Jeru Da Damaja's jeremiads against Bad Boy are great rap in spite of how wrong he was on the merits, or in the same way that Hip Hop Is Dead was a decent album in spite of the muddled message, simply because Nas was still a really good rapper. But 'Death of Autotune' isn't a well-executed diss, or even a mediocrely executed one. Putting aside Jay's total inability to rap anymore for just a second, this is a lyrically piss-poor song. We can argue over the individual quality of some of the lines, but two things are pretty undebatable.

1. First, this is barely a diss record. This is a song that claims to be a diss record. 80% of the song is spent proclaiming how good it is. For example:

This ain't a number one record
This is assault with a deadly weapon
I made this just for Flex and
Mr. Cee, I want people to feel threatened

And the whole song is like this. Jay spends all his time proclaiming his intentions for the record, but never makes good on any of them. He says that he wants - wants! - people to feel threatened, but doesn't provide anyone the slightest reason for feeling so. There eventually is something of an actual attack on rappers who use autotune, but only in the most sketchy, uncreative and uncutting of ways. He rails against tight jeans and says "you rappers singing too much, get back to rap, you T-Pain'n too much." Could you pen a worse autotune diss if you tried? And this is the part T.A.N. calls a "strong, quotable couplet"! "Get back to rap," strong and quotable! Yeah, I'll be quoting that. He really got them with that T-Pain'n wordplay. Damn. The "na na na na, hey hey, goodbye" part, though, is the real kicker of this stunningly impotent record. So plainly Jay's attempt to do his own version of the Billy Joel interpolation on 'The Bridge Is Over,' it feels more like a middle-aged father's pathetic attempt to tell a cool joke.

2. The whole song is suffused with this horribly strained effort to come off as transgressive, i.e., "this ain't politically correct/this might offend my political connects." On what you'd think would be a pretty obvious level to a smart fellow like Jay, you can't really play the "I'm a dangerous black guy who offends his corporate partners with his subversive music" card at the same time that you're making a song trashing the music of choice of America's youth. It's a patently absurd position to take. My political connects are offended... because I'm hating on the music their kids like. Nonsense. Now, Jay tries to square this circle with a pretty boring "manly and street"/"effeminate, corporate autotune-user" dichotomy. But what does this make the kids who listen to this stuff? (And what does this make his political connects - Lil Wayne fans?) And how can Jay, the richest rapper alive, the only rapper who has political connects, a guy who hangs out with Bill Gates and dates a superstar who performed at the Inaugural Ball, pull off this bullshit? He can't, of course. Which doesn't stop him from saying that he just might rob somebody because he's so Brooklyn. How full of shit can you get?

But even if this were a lyrically great record, it would still suck, for the very simple reason that Jay can no longer rap any better than you or I. As Cam said in the middle of his own death spiral into obsolescence, Jay is Jordan on the Wizards. Actually, Willie Mays on the 1973 Mets would have been a more apt comparison. Jay didn't go from being stellar to average; he's gone from stellar to Prodigy territory. Ask yourself this: if you were an A&R and a kid came into your office with Jay's flow, wheezing over his lines, punctuating the bad ones he liked with weird self-congratulatory "ahhhh!" noises, dragging out the end of every bar ("assault with a deadly weaponnnnnnn"), occasionally breaking out into senile drunken song, would you (a) sign him, (b) give it even a moment's thought, or (c) buy him an inhaler? C, of course.

Nevertheless, a lot of people like this shit, and when probed, their arguments boil down to the arguments made for Red Line 7000. Put aside his flow, and the clunkers, and how generic every word of the song is, because it's Jay, just as Red Line was Hawks, however bad, and even bad Jay matters, especially when he's doing anything that can be parsed as returning to his roots. The key passage in T.A.N.'s original piece is this:

Wrong, this ain’t politically correct (AHH)
This might offend my political connects (AHH)

a line like this is somewhat generic, but holds real weight cause it's Jay. the rule is: if your shit-talk is real talk, you earn points. this holds true across the board, i think. for example: all y'all dudes looking rolie polie (AHH), while i stay with my polie in Jolie (AHH). now if that's fake, it's wack. but if it's real, it's hot. Brad Pitt can say it, TAN can't. Even if my voice is hotter.

Leave aside the fact that the logical conclusion of this argument is that TAN would enjoy hearing Bill Gates rap about being a billionaire, or that Jay could say "I have a big house" and it would hold real weight because Jay really does have a big house, while "google earth Nas, got cribs on other continents" is not such a good line because Nas doesn't really have cribs on other continents. The notion that Jay can make the generic magical, that we should applaud Jay anytime he makes a generic allusion to the street, because it's JAY BACK ON HIS STREET SHIT, is flat-out wrong. It's true that 5-6 years ago, Jay could make a hot song just by reading the names in the phonebook. (He actually did have a great verse on 'Diamonds' largely just by reciting the names of the artists he'd soon drop from his label.) It's also true that back then it was a huge event when Jay dropped the Sinatra act for a minute and did a street record. But this isn't because there was something intrinsically interesting about the fact of Shawn Carter making a street record, reading the phonebook. It was because Shawn Carter did something interesting when he made the street record or read off the names of his tax write-offs on 'Diamonds.' Jay was the epitome of charisma in those days. Like he said on Izzo, he had the flow of the century. That's hardly the case anymore.

Where it gets, if you'll pardon the hideous Soderbergism, a little ugly is TAN's baffling Gawker hitjob on Jody Rosen. Apparently, not only is TAN convinced that this fart of a record is actually good, he thinks there's something a little suspect about anyone who disagrees. Now, Jody Rosen is not the smartest rap critic; today he wrote that jokes about white rappers aren't funny anymore, because there are lots of good white rappers these days (who??), including - Andy Samberg? Huh? Yeah, he said that. But Rosen's pretty on the money on 'Death of Autotune.' "Notably slack and witless recitation of would-be zinger couplets" - check. "Jay-Z... is playing the curmudgeonly hip-hop purist" - check. He even zeroes in on some of the song's worst lines! Shockingly good performance for a critic from a publication like Slate if you ask me. So what does TAN take Rosen to task for - or, to use his wacky conceit, what did Negropedia Brown see in the post? (TAN, for the purposes of this post, fancies himself as a black Encyclopedia Brown who solves media mysteries resulting from ethnocultural dissonance, AKA, from underinformed white people commenting on that which they don't know shit about.) Apparently, a guy who wrote a book on 'White Christmas,' as Rosen has, has no right to be knocking curmudgeonly purism. Of course, this makes absolutely no sense. 'White Christmas' is one of the greatest pop songs ever written, and is no more the stuff of curmudgeonly purism than 'Jingle Bells'; how does liking it preclude a healthy disdain for lazy, washed-up wannabe backpackers? I have no idea. Somewhat more to the point, TAN points out that Rosen wrote a piece bashing Akon. Well no shit, of all the artists who use autotune on a regular basis, Akon's the worst, hands down. He made 'Locked Up,' sang the hook on 'Soul Survivor,' and then fell into a masturbatory booty-obsessed wormhole. Besides, as we've been over, see above, there's a difference between a good autotune diss and an unbelievably sucky one. TAN also notes that, in Rosen's pan of Kingdom Come, he said Jay had made 11 solo albums when the real count was only 8. See, he doesn't know his hip-hop! (Isn't it obvious that Rosen counted Streets Is Watching and the two Best of Both Worlds? Are you really this petty?) And, Rosen once credited 50 Cent with the invention of beef as a post-modern media marketing strategy, which, though probably wrong, is at least a defensible position, depending on how narrowly you define media marketing strategy. Finally, his biggest complaint is with Rosen claiming that Jay called out iTunes when he said "this song ain't for iTunes." True, it's not exactly an attack on iTunes so much as it's a vague statement that could mean that the song isn't commercial, or isn't intended for the average iTunes user, but it is of a piece with the autotune bashing, tight jeans bashing, ringtone bashing. In any event, it's hardly a point on which Rosen's critique rests, and Rosen's hardly clearly wrong.

But what's really dismaying about the piece, besides the weakness of its arguments, are the sneaky insinuations that there's something racially amiss with Rosen's blurb. Of course, as TAN more or less admits, in the piece* and back at his own blog,** he's too scared of Slate to call Rosen a racist, but he implies that Rosen's failing to get the song is the result of a "culture gap," of "ethnocultural dissonance," and, when writing that there's something "amiss" with Rosen's piece, links to a comment on the original Slate post faulting Rosen for making an insensitive reference to cotton gins. Now I don't really know how racial dissonance might lead a white guy like myself to underrate Jay's song, but I could imagine some reasons, one that I think TAN hints at, namely that whites are purists about their own literature and music, and take it very seriously, but when it comes to rap, a primarily black medium, fetishize youthful elan over and above the purism and wisdom of older heads. And admittedly, I've never heard a rapper over the age of 35, with the surprising recent exception of Kurupt,*** who I didn't think had fallen the fuck off, so maybe there's some truth to that in the abstract. (Or maybe I'm just right.) But if you're going to pull the race card, however sneakily and subtly, please do it over someone worth fighting for. Don't do it on behalf of Jay-Z's rotting corpse.

* "Slate was one of the bigger media bullies on the block, nobody wanted to pick a beef with them unless they had their facts straight."

** "In my case, you keep it real and start too much beef with "bosses" and you might end up a window wiper."

*** Of course there are many other exceptions; Doom's 38, The Grind Date was a good album, etc.

Monday, June 15, 2009


While I compile more Cam for you (can't seem to find that classic Amerie remix anywhere), I just wanted to belatedly call attention to this bit of insanity. Apparently back when Obama was in Paris, he said something in his weekly radio address about Congress needing to act really quickly on healthcare, which may or may not make any sense, but it's not a grotesquely outre idea or anything. However, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican member on the Senate Finance Committee, took offense, and tweeted the following tweets:

1. "Pres Obama you got nerve while u sightseeing in Paris to tell us 'time to deliver' on health care. We still on skedul/even workinWKEND."

2. "Pres Obama while u sightseeing in Paris u said 'time to delivr on healthcare' When you are a 'hammer' u think evrything is NAIL I'm no NAIL"

And a day later Sen. Grassley, the Republican caucus's leading mind on matters of finance, had this to say of Al Gore:

"My carbon footprint is abt 25per cent of Al Gore. I'm greener than Al Gore. Is that enuf?"

I mean, no, but thanks for bringing back alternate spellings last seen on the back of Big L's overrated debut album. Like what is next? "Pres Obama come to Iowa u wil see that we don't play that socialized medicine shiznit, FALL BACK or get ur dome cracked"? Recall that this is the same guy who said that AIG executives should "take that deep bow" and body themselves with Japanese samurai swords. After which he tweeted, "Today was big TV day. Evrybody took me seriously that I wanted AIG management to commit suicide Intelligent journalist can't realize rhetoric." How is it that my party's would-be Senate Finance Chairman has the mind of a Spectacular in Pretty Ricky defending youtube-commenting 12 year old?

Other classic tweets from Grassley:

On way 2 Titonka 4 twn hall mtg. Just saw 1st farmr in field. Won't b long b4 all is green. He was sowing oats. Not the Wild kind

Great trnout in Titonka. Twn hall was in beautifl new libr. More outrage ovr 2 much fed spend, govt intrusn. [Wouldn't it be hillarious if the beautifl new libr was built with fed spend?]

Anthr pckd house in Clarion. Lots of outrage abt fed spending. I hear them.

Sorry I referred u to Greta and me last nite on Fox. Arrest of Chi murderer preempted. Tune in tonite

Just read WStJ Fri HOUSE of WORSHIP column abt Antisemitism in Chavez venezuela Wakeup call for all who blev in freedom of religionStopChavz

Thanx to Obama Afgan strategy Demo Sen that wantd pullout timeline in Irag now say no Afgan timeline Finally reconize u don't tell enrmy ...

U won't bleve this but just got intrvud by Joe Morton of Omaha World Herald abt why I TWEET. Only birds TWEET????? !!!!!!! Glad to xplain

Geithner call to tel me he's cancling 60 jobs in Wloo. No renewal of contract to collect bk taxes. Vry disapted

Sitting in on a Farb Bill Meeting

[One minute later]: Sitting in on a Farm Bill Meeting

Thursday, June 11, 2009

So Much Swag And I'm Super Cool!



So I was listening to the new crappy Clipse single, scratching my head trying to figure out which so-so Southern rapper they both sound just like and why all of a sudden they're saying things like 'errbody' and 'mayn,' and then it hit me - Rick Ross! They're using Rick Ross's flow on this song. (And little parts of Lil Wayne's and Plies'.) Is it their view that by sounding like way less entertaining, slightly more lyrical versions of popular Southern rappers, they can get non-XM radio play too? I am so tired of the Clipse. In other Zshare news, Lil Wayne and Gucci did a track together. Wayne's autotuney verses are instantly forgettable, while Gucci's verse is very good but sounds like every other good Gucci rap you've ever heard. Finally, the 'Who's Real (Who's Not?)' video came out, and rather than take advantage of the comic potential of the hook, e.g. dramatizing the "she's real, he's not" part, all the people in the video are of the real persuasion. (You can tell because they're all clapping their hands.) That's no fun. Sheek and Styles's 2-second cameo >>>> the rest of the whole thing. (Which reminds me, Sheek just dropped an album I should listen to.) I've always felt it's a big shame that the most talented member of that group is easily the least likable. I also think it's annoying that (a) Swizz Beatz has been behind every overblown "we're bringing New York back" would-be-banger of the last 3 or 4 years, and that (b) virtually all of them, like this one, have sucked.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

When Cam Could Still Rap

A disturbing trend in rap criticism today is the inability to discern the difference between a technically good and a technically bad rapper, or worse yet, the tendency to dismiss technical criticisms as 'rockist' concerns that have no place in a post-lyrical, post-technical, post-everything rap landscape. Last time I checked, rap was music, not spoken word disquisitions on urban poverty/fruity skinny jeans with synth accompaniment. The musicality of a rapper's flow, of its interplay with the beat, matters deeply - far more, in fact, than what the rapper's saying. If Rakim's first three albums were about eating babies (or worse yet to some sensibilities, cutting taxes), they'd still be masterpieces, albeit of a perverse sort. Conversely, if the members of G-Side got access to Nas's old rhymebook, they still couldn't make a classic or even an especially memorable album. That all said, I think the problem in most cases is less ideological than an issue of simply bad hearing. How else do you explain people writing things about Crime Pays like "the Harlem MC remains one of hip-hop's most compelling eccentrics, enlivening clichéd gangsta subject matter and pro forma beats with his deceptively virtuosic flow" or "he's still redeeming those deadly boring cliches with inventive rhyme schemes and a well-developed sense of sarcasm," or "listening to this crackling disc that overflows with wit and brilliant rhyme schemes, you wonder why the New York MC has been so far eclipsed by Lil Wayne... after all, Cam'ron offers just as many dizzying, free-associating turns of phrases and couplets as Wayne and has been doing it for years" (essential track on this review: 'Curve'? Really??), or worse yet, "the fabulously snotty attitude, the melodic wit, the rhymes that tend toward glossolalia: yes, Cam’ron has returned to form." Jon Caramanica, YOU CAN'T BE SERIOUS. So, to illustrate the difference between great and deeply mediocre Cam, I'll be sporadically posting some classic Cam verses from obscure and not-so obscure tracks for the next week or so. Enjoy.

I can't get with you sissies
Take a sip of the sizzy
Mix it with Cris till I'm pissy
Dizzy, dizzy, get me quickly
Like they slipped me a mickey (nope)
Nah, I slipped off with Mickey (who else?)
Mandy, Mallory, Maya, I'm slick like I'm Ricky
Take a pic 'cause I'm picky
Suck my dick through my dickies
Put a condom on first, nothing itchy to get me
Get me? (Get me?) Now get the picture, pour the pitcher
All the more, more to pour
with your niggas, now here's your liquor

Three 6 Mafia f. Bun B, Cam'ron, Juelz Santana & Jim Jones, 'Sippin on Some Sizzurp,' 2:17-2:43.

I got a rock habit, I cop carats
How could I not have it?
Ice dripping down my neck, even the lock lavish
But my most prized possession? Cop badges.
That I got in a scuffle with those cop bastards (faggot niggas)
I unlock handcuffs, I cock 'matics
I don't want to talk to yall if yall not addicts
I'm not average, my old school, stopped past it
Seen my principal, showed off my fox fabric
No hard feelings though, sir, got past it
See you failed me in math, but I got past it
Guns, credit cards, dog, got plastic
When I floss in the street, man, I stop traffic
You should stop [?] and pay homage
How I got cabbage,
when I tell you I love you, ma, it's not marriage
But L, with that speech you spit
You'll have your own beach in six, and that's a fact of life

Cam'ron and Juelz Santana, 'Facts of Life,' 1:30-2:32.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A (Not So) Desultory Post on Desultory Crap

  • Every song on the radio sucks right now. (With the exception of 'Turn My Swag On.') The worst offender, though, by far is Keri Hilson's 'Knock You Down.' As grating as she is when enumerating her list of pick-up tactics that turn her imitation Mya ass awwwff, she's ten times worse when pretending to be in love (that faux-swept-off-her-feet tone she affects when she talks about thinking about getting a "house and kids, yeahhhhh" - ughh). And why is it that when love knocks you down you're supposed to get back up? I thought the whole song was about how great it is to fall in love? Did she just say that because once Aaliyah instructed listeners to dust themselves off and try again? That made sense. This doesn't. It's one thing to be a bad writer, but when your shit is so boilerplate that you're regurgitating cliches that don't even make any fucking sense in the context of what you're saying, you have problems. Ne-Yo steps in to make allusions to 'Miss Independent' (is the rest of his competent but boring career going to be Miss Independent remixes?), and Kanye provides the only dose of human interest on the record, albeit in a verse strewn with typically retarded punchlines that are not, I repeat, not, intentionally bad. He's just that dumb. But the O-M-G/woe is me bit is cute. Bad vocalists singing along with their guest rappers, however, is not.
  • Jazmine Sullivan's 'Lions, Tigers, and Bears,' however, is a great song, though a little mannered and fussy and accompanied by a really crappy video. It's weird how Salaam Remi produces killer R&B and such bad rap.
  • Jeezy's new mixtape is quite unremarkable, though rarely as flat-out awful as most of The Recession. Far cry from classic shit like this, off the underrated I Am The Street Dream. Breihan once wrote that The Inspiration was "straight uninterrupted epic evilness," a description which really only applies to the first four tracks, but epic evilness (sic) is definitely an apt description of shit like the above, especially the sneeringly malevolent that's riiiight's on the hook, and the moment (2:52) where Jeezy goes, "they say they can't believe what comes out my mouth/'cause I talk about the shit I keep in my stash-house," and sing-songs the stashhouse in this curiously ashamed way, like only an irredeemable human being could reveal the details of what he keeps in his stashhouse. To me, moments like these separate Jeezy from the rest of the trap-a-rappers (and even, dare I say, the post Lord Willin Clipse). Unfortunately, I doubt that Jeezy is ever coming back.
  • Speaking of unremarkable rap and Young Jeezy, how about that awful Cam album? Pitchfork is unusually spot-on on it, noting quite correctly that Cam would've been much wiser to go the Mickey Rourke in Wrestler route, or even the Prodigy on Return of the Mac route, instead of this Purple Haze on a really tiny budget and no more flow route. Perhaps most shameful among the album's many lowlights is 'Where I Know You From,' where Cam lays down some sleep-inducing raps over Jeezy's 'Get Your Mind Right' beat, only banged out on his cheap label's cheap Koch keyboard. Who could've imagined, 5 years ago, a scenario where you wouldn't take Cam's remake of a Jeezy song over the original? Not I. The sad thing is that, unlike Jay or Prodigy, who not only forgot how to rap but also how to write, Cam's lyrics are still pretty top notch. (Though it's true that Cam's persona derived a lot from his role as the leader/"don" of Dipset, and it's really weird to hear a Cam album without shout-outs to Juelz, Jim, and the Writer of Writers.) He just can't quite rap anymore. Time after time he drags out the ends of lines in the most annoying, momentum-killing way because he's just lost his crisp flow. (I may do a post on obscurities from Cam's prime to illustrate the difference.) He also doesn't sound very interested in rapping. 'Spend The Night,' to my mind, is the only song where he manages, Prodigy-style, to take advantage of what a dessicated shell of himself he's become, painting a pretty brilliant picture of the lame sex life of an over-the-hill aging rapper. Even the obnoxiously elongated syllables help to emphasize (3:04) the pathetic creepiness of his come-on lines ("wanna shoot it and cock it/not the blammer, baby girl, I'm talkin somethin' elsssssssse..."). The somehow seedy house-ish beat, far from being an annoying obligatory experiment as some folks have claimed, perfectly complements what Cam's doing here. And in an oblique iconoclastic way, I think the opening lines are Cam's cleverest Jay dis yet: "Some girls say that I'm the cutest/some say that I'm the rudest/meditate, like a Buddhist/expose them like a nudist." The meditate like a Buddhist, of course, is a quote from Jay's 'Can I Live.' Only Cam would quote from Reasonable Doubt (a criminally overrated record) in such a frivolous context.
  • Speaking of unremarkable mixtapes, I wonder if our friend the remix killer's schtick is getting a little thin. One expects much, much more of Kells remixes of 'Birthday Sex,' 'Turn My Swag On,' and 'Turning Me On.' I mean, the originals of these songs are better than his remixes! Inconceivable from a man who crooned a year ago on the 'You're A Customer' remix that "if you're thirsty, I've got some good good lemonade/12 Play 4th Quarter gonna make you want to scrape the plate!" Dude openly bragged about pissing on women and then pivots to a shameless plug for his shit album. Masterful. (Another great '08 Kells remix moment came on 'Touch My Body,' when, after opening his verse with the untoppable couplet, "it's the remix killer, and I think she want me to feel her," sang, "if there some honies up in here who want me to touch their bodies, say I do," and, hearing no reply from Mariah or even a background female vocalist, sings, in his imitation of a woman's voice, 'I do.' That 'I do' > Ne-Yo's career.)
  • The Dream alternates, in his guest work, between sounding like a bleating autotuned sheep ('Throw It In The Bag') and being a ridiculously charming loverman ('All I Really Want'). Hopefully the latter song will be a hit soon. Rick's raps don't really compare to some of his past for-the-ladies highlights (remember "look at me, I cook for her, then I make her cook for me/She make me cook her lobster tails/then I make her go cook a keyyyyy"?), but they're still better than what 99% of the game has to say on the subject. Oh, and could Fab retire some time soon? Maybe go into acting? I know some people think he was good on Rockin That Shit, and he was, but he's still just such a waste of potential. All he has going for him anymore is his haughty disdain for everyone and everything, which I enjoy actually in a "wouldn't it be cool if snobby white pricks like myself could rap" sense - he kind of reps for the spoiled suburban state of mind in a strange way ("Neiman Marcus on me!") - but that only goes so far.
  • Quik and Kurrupt sounds fantastic. Too bad two hoary old vets probably can't bring rap back.
  • Soulja Boy is doing interesting work right now. Seriously. Check out this bizarre attempt at storytelling (kinda feels like a teenbop take on early Pastor Troy), or this autotuned, superior to anything Wayne's done in eons, and clearly recorded-while-intoxicated freestyle about how he has so much swagger it don't make no motherfucking sense. Which he shortly followed up with a track the hook of which goes "motherfuck a swag (fuck swag!), bitch I got mojo." Which is retarded as all Soulja Boy stuff is, but also pretty sharp in a way, because isn't swag getting pretty played out? Soulja Boy: turning his back on the swag movement he helped create.
  • I'm never really going to come all the way around on Gucci, but tracks like these are awfully good. What's interesting here to me is Gucci's flow. Most rappers who start out a song in this kind of rapid-fire DUH-duh-duh-DUH-duh-duh pattern are usually going somewhere; Jay, for instance, would often, on his more serious stuff, build a conflict, so to speak, with his flow, and then close on a coda of transcendence. (A classic example would be his verse on 'Diamonds,' or the Dynasty Intro.) So as a listener, when you hear a flow like this you're conditioned to expect a certain release. But Gucci just goes into a throwaway hook and then picks right up where he left off the next verse. There is a bit of a resolution at the 'don't try me with that sissy stuff' line at the end of verse 2, but it's the weakest thing on the song and as it turns out, he can't leave it there and uses just the same flow on verse 3. His verse on 'Shopping Spree' is similar - where another rapper would ease back into something more relaxed after the virtuosic display on the first few bars, Gucci keeps coming. For a formalist like me, it's this sense of denied release, of irresolved conflict, this disposition to keep treating a beat like a punching back after he's already shredded it to bits and the listener is waiting for him to step back and strike a pose of satisfaction, that makes Gucci an interesting rapper. In a quiet way it's a sort of shattering of the medium's formal and narrative conventions.
  • In movies, I got around to seeing Sugar, the movie about a Dominican pitcher who comes to America that was hailed by A.O. Scott as some kind of neo-neo-realist triumph, and I hated it. Of course, maybe this is because I don't much care for neo-realism in the first place (seminal snoozy neo-realist works include The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D,) so neo-neo-realism is bound to disappoint me. But really, 80% of the film is indifferently shot montage of the kid looking out bus windows, or throwing pitches and pumping his fist, or running around on the field... it's not storytelling and it's not really character study either. It's just a dull realist inventory of Shit That Happens In A Dominican Pitching Prospect's Life. (For ex., Miguel goes to Iowan club. Miguel sees blondes dancing to Cassie's 'Me and You.' Miguel dances with one. The director never turns the volume down on the Cassie because it's a Very Realistic Movie. Then blonde's boyfriend shows up and wants to fight. But they don't fight and Miguel just walks out with his pitching arm unscathed. And then he goes and eats some French toast. Because that's all he can order in English. Very realist and very why do I care.)
  • Another half-assed movie that's gotten way too smooth a ride from critics is Adventureland. It works on a throwaway 80s nostalgia trip level, but a few things doom this movie. One, the star can't act. It's completely out of this kid's range (the kid in question being Jesse Eisenberg) to act upset when he discovers that his girlfriend, the first love of his life, has been sleeping with the amusement park maintenance man. (Stupid puppydog faces, of course, are very within this kid's range.) Two, the pathetic superficiality of Eisenberg's performance is matched by the superficiality of the direction. Ultimately, the film doesn't take itself very seriously. The story deals with serious subjects - first love, abusive stepmothers from hell - and everytime these issues come to boil, the camera runs away. There's this awful moment where Kristen Stewart, who's pretty decent here, rips off her stepmother's wig after the stepmother called her a selfish little bitch, and it should be a pretty great cathartic scene, but instead of playing it out, Kristen darts off to her room, the camera darts away with her, and that's that. It's as if the director (Greg Mottola, Superbad) decided that the movie was just, after all, a light coming-of-age comedy and resolutely determined to keep it tethered to the shallow end of the pool he thinks such fare demands. Fortunately, we already have one great American movie this year, namely Two Lovers, which is more than you can say about much of the rest of the past decade.