Feb 23, 2008
Opiate of the Masses.
Hey guys, I know I promised what I was gonna write about next. Truth be told, I think that might hold me back because both those entries will take some doing, and I just had a thought I think I have to share. So bear with me for a while, I'll talk about Ike and Grant and Wale eventually, but I had a bit of a philosophical thought on rap. So don't be too disappointed.

A good hip hop beat is the most democratic kind of music there is. A lot of us internet types, I think, tend to be very gung-ho about this democracy thing politically and a bit meritocratic musically. That hip hop songs are the ones that get stuck inside your head so often says something about their universal appeal. They're able to appeal to the lowest common denominator without being a total void. I find that hip hop tends to be a lot more accessible - a good, periodic beat or a clever play on words can latch to your brain faster than the most intricate of melodies. And that might be where a little of the pretentiousness comes from, that because hip hop, with its catchphrases, cross-referencing, signatures (by which I mean when a rapper says his own name, the most iconic of which starts with "One, two, three and to the four") appeals to our basest instincts - repetition and familiarity - it's somehow less worthy. But I think a rapper's job is to catch you and keep you, and that's where the biggest talents really show off. The best kind of hip hop song catches you, and might appeal to the casual listener who only needs one anchor point to latch onto, but offers something substantial to a more pretentious listener as well. Now, if only people weren't so up their asses with "Everything except rap and country!" and could realize that the catching is an important part.

Also, I think hip hop is more substantial because they're saying what they mean instead of what sounds good. This whole post might just be me romanticizing the genre, but my view of rap is that it's easy for anyone to access and feels so inclusive, and that my old stronghold of indie rock is getting more pretentious and elitist by the day. A lot of that indie rock culture is just a series of pats on the back, reminding us that we're so cultured to be able to dig this, that we're so much less bound by the conglomerations telling us what to listen to. We don't associate with the lesser folks, oh no. Not good enough.

Am I really the only one who is just constantly impressed at how good rappers are at writing? I can write obtuse lyrics for some song any day, but I'm not sure I could ever write a passable rap. Nothing's more intellectually stimulating to me, aurally, and yet I don't feel like it would go over any of my friends' heads. Perhaps under it, with their sneers, but never over it.

Rap!

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Feb 15, 2008
The best of the goddamn best.
Motherfuckers, I am going to try to be BACK. I know I've been ignoring this shit, but you gotta understand my pain and whatever. I've been drowning in presidential primaries. That stuff is like heroin, but there is absolutely no upside. I am hooked on the depression it gives me. I haven't picked up any good hip hop this year (anything good come out in January?) so I think it's time enough to give you my rundown of the best in hip hop of 2007, about a month late. "Any later, and it would be annoying." I'm pretty sure it's annoying now, actually.

9 Ghostface Killah - The Big Doe Rehab
I've told you my opinion on Ghostface before. I think this is a great record. His delivery is usually panicked, and he adds a layer of intensity to almost every verse he raps, and on tracks like Yapp the production really complements his delivery. This album is like a good action movie - fast, haphazard but precisely choreographed, and satisfying, but ultimately one where style overwhelms substance. And I won't fault it for that, but at least for me, the casual Ghostface listener who came late to the party, it makes the learning curve a bit steeper. I know the album is good, but it hasn't yet "clicked" with me. It's an album full of good tracks, I think, but no great moments.

8 Rhymefest & Mark Ronson - Man in the Mirror
I went over this one at length as well, but it's a mixtape. A fantastic mixtape, but ultimately there's so little material that I can't put it much higher than this.

7 Ohmega Watts - Watts Happening
This is probably the most hip-hop album on the whole album. I'd argue that a lot of the records on this list are this or that type of rap, some ever crossing over into pop territory, but Ohmega sounds the most like a classic hip hop act, like he could have been pulled from Brooklyn in the mid-80s. If pressed, I'd issue Rhymefest as the rapper with some of the best producers working with him - Kanye and Mark Ronson are easily my two favorite producers. Ohmega at one point worked with Shawn Lee, but on this album most of the production appears to be self-generated, and he's easily climbing the ranks. He's got a really good world-music sound, is positive without being preachy, and is simply generating some of the best chill-out rap in the universe. That he's not getting more press is a crime.

6 Wu-Tang Clan - 8 Diagrams
Again, I'm new to the Wu-Tang fold. Most any review of this album inevitably centers around the background, the fights, the division, the death of ODB and the release dates and how this might be their last album ever because they can't stand each other anymore. I can't speak to that. What I can speak to is the experience of listening to my first Wu-Tang album. My first introduction to any of the... Wus? Wu-Tangs? Clansmen? Oh god.

My first introduction to any member of the Wu-Tang Clan was Method Man's turn on N2Gether Now by Limp Bizkit.

Oh god.

The point is, since that introduction, I've heard just about every one of them individually - the ODB at the end of Blue Collar, Ghostface on Fishscale, the GZA when he hit Pitchfork, et alii. I pledge very little allegiance to any of them, but I recognize all of them distinctly. So to listen to this album all at once gives an instant sense of familiarity I don't get from a lot of albums. It's entirely composed of voices I know, but that I don't know well, so it feels like all these songs have been so embedded in me as a consumer of culture. It's not the kind of record where I pick it up and feel like I'm comparing it to a past body of work from a favorite artist, and it's not anonymous. It's an ideal listening experience, and the beats are massive. The track that gave them their press is "The Heart Gently Weeps," with it's Beatles interpolation, but I think I like the feel of "Wolves" the best here. The whole vibe of the album... it barely feels like hip hop, it feels like straight up Americana. An excellent introduction.

5 Jay-Z - American Gangster
Full disclosure. American Gangster is a great album. American Gangster is a great movie. It is entirely reasonable to see a film and be inspired to write an album, and it's clear that the album had an influence on the movie.

That said: Jay-Z, saying that you saw American Gangster and were subsequently inspired to make this album is the gayest thing in the world. It is gayer than gay. I hate that you said that. I hate that I have to sit down and think that you had to see a movie about a drug lord/businessman who is a hero at the end of the movie who everyone loves, and thought "man that is a good idea for an album!" THAT IS EVERY ALBUM YOU WRITE JAY-Z. YOU USED TO SELL DRUGS. YOU ARE A TERRIFIC BUSINESSMAN. EVERYONE LOVES YOU. YOU DID NOT NEED TO SEE A MOVIE TO FIGURE THIS OUT.

This might partially be because I read an interview with Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes after seeing this movie, which contained this passage:

MJ: Did you ever think there’d be this whole hip-hop thing? You guys are both mentioned in a million rap songs.

FL: Call them songs? When I came along, we had singing. They might make up songs about me, but I don’t have to like them.

MJ: What about you, Nick? You’re like a hip-hop folk hero.

NB: I never thought anything like this would happen. When hip-hop first started, everybody—I mean the music entrepreneurs—predicted that hip-hop would be dead in five years. They said, “Those motherfuckers ain’t gonna make no money.” But hip-hop rolled along, and look what they’re doing now. They got Jay-Z, Damon Dash, Kanye West, 50 Cent. These guys are doing something legitimate.

FL: At least Nick knows the names. I don’t know none of them. I know Puffy Combs, because of his father.

NB: Oh, Melvin! Melvin Combs.

FL: Melvin used to be at my house a couple of times a week. I’m proud to see Melvin’s son like that.

It's really funny they know Puff Daddy's dad. I mean P. Diddy I mean Diddy I mean Sean John I mean whatever.

You know what? I'm sorry this section is so long but I'm just too pissed at Jay-Z now. It's a really good album, but it's the fucking principle, so here's what I'm going to do.

6 Jay-Z - American Gangster
5 Wu-Tang Clan - 8 Diagrams


There, everyone happy? Goddammit Jay-Z.

4 Lupe Fiasco - The Cool
I've mentioned before on this BLOG that I don't give Food & Liquor enough credit. I don't give Lupe enough credit in general, though my opinion of him dipped entirely too low after his ATCQ blunder and his political debate with Rhymefest. There's no revisionist Jay-Z shit here, though, I really think he deserves this #4. I think there are no tracks as good as "I Gotcha" or "Kick Push" on this album, and I don't think he was aiming for that (Though Paris, Tokyo is a close 3rd on the all-time Lupe Tracks List). This was an interesting one - I hated the singles. I could not stand listening to Superstar or Dumb It Down when I thought about how good the first singles off Food & Liquor were, but this album was the opposite of Food & Liquor - where some stellar singles and bitchin' album art got me pumped for F&L and I ended up disappointed by a smattering of weak, repetitive and ultimately unmemorable while not necessarily bad tracks, The Cool snuck up on me - even Superstar and Dumb It Down, preachy and trite as they might be, sound a lot better in the context of the album. The number of great albums from end to end in my library are extremely low. Beulah's The Coast Is Never Clear, Camper van Beethoven's New Roman Times... never a rap album before. There's always a few anchor tracks, this offers a really rare full-album experience. The idea of the album is perhaps past its prime, but I can't recommend this record enough.

3 Chamillionaire - Ultimate Victory
This is the most underrated album of the year. This is the most underrated album of the year. This is the most underrated album of the year.

I'm sorry, this album has been so... so... ignored. No one talked about it, no one listened to it, you have one of the biggest rap smashes in recent memory with Ridin', and his incredibly good follow-up album is completely overlooked. No one touched it. I have no idea why. I don't listen to a whole hell of a lot of Southern rap, to my own handicap. And I've expressed my love for Chamillionaire in the past, but this album just shouts it.

The real kicker is his three-song trilogy, "The Morning News," "Hip Hop Police," and "The Evening News," which you can listen to back to back to back. These three songs are all explicitly political commentary - not social commentary, but political commentary. Which is different. There's a frustration here, that he wants to be taken seriously. He's a smart guy, but you need a good beat and some solid controversy to get anyone to listen to you - what do you see on the news, Chamillionaire's rapid-fire list of political opinions, or Cam'ron not snitching on the serial murderer next door? Shit, I'd be pissed too. Seems like no one takes you seriously as a rapper with a message unless you know Kanye. Sucks.

Then there's his opinions on the hip hop industry (where he half-assedly tries to
piss off people, but I think he's not enough of an asshole to really stir up shit), on "Industry Groupie", the classic chill-out track "The Ultimate Vacation," some actually very funny skits, and the incredibly gracious and flat-out nice track, "The Ultimate Victory." This record is an example of where Kanye would be if he didn't have the ego: broke.

2 Kanye West - Graduation
But while we're on Kanye, god DAMN. I think this is my favorite Kanye record, this is his victory lap, this is the one where he has nothing left to prove, this is still not an Album of the Year winner WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT THE GRAMMYS.

Kanye is a better MC than he was, a more interesting producer than he was. Just about every song on this album seems like an event, even the ones that I don't dig as much.

Whenever I hear Will Wright speak, whenever I read something Chris Onstad wrote, whenever I listen to a Girl Talk song, I get the same impression as I'm starting to get from Kanye. This is true for a lot of rap, lyrically, but Kanye is getting there sonically. That impression is that you're getting something from someone who is a frantic consumer of all that's new in the world. I think Onstad put it best:

"Creative work is from a lifetime of constant influences. You can't help but be affected by Mark Twain books, Lay's Potato Chip ads, a fat lady who is yelling outside, David Letterman, etc."

I think the really genius creative forces are the ones who manage to put everything - lowbrow to highbrow, genius to inane, on the same plane and know how to keep that perfect balance. That's what makes a creative lyricist in the rap game so appealing, that they have such a rich palette from which to draw, but I think that's what makes Kanye's production work so perfect. The irrepressible Kanye style cannot be contained, and it's not so amazing that he crammed so much into 13 tracks as that he crammed so little - It feels like Kanye is such a unending well of creativity that I wonder what we're missing out on. Anyhow, Good Life is the best song of the year.

1 The Hood Internet - The Collected Works Of
I'm real sorry.

I know this doesn't count, but I couldn't in good faith put this anywhere other than #1.

It feels like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. A lot of mainstream hip hop is boring, just like a lot of any other genre is boring. Indie Rock, by nature of being the critical darlings of the medium, is supposed to be better - but it too bores me fantastically, perhaps because it's trended so... white. There's no soul left in Indie rock. My musical taste, outside of hip hop, falls largely in the realm of what Pitchfork Media considers a "6.8."

The Hood has done something brilliant in the last year, that I've thought too much about and have very little left to say. But for anyone to say "If more hip hop sounded like this, more people would listen to hip hop," it's kind of telling about the state of the genre. It's too insular. For all that Kanye can do, I think that hip hop spends a lot of time looking in on itself, for all the talk about bringing "real hip hop" back, they look backwards when they should be looking outwards. There's a reason people say they listen to "anything but rap and country."

I lied last time around - the best song of the year is "I'm a Flirt (Shoreline)," but that doesn't count because it's a mashup. I've listened to it hundreds of times and never get sick of it. I hate Broken Social Scene and I think some of R. Kelly's less experimental stuff gets a little bland.

I think that there are two approaches for hip hop. The first is trying to start a revolution, trying to make the argument that so many in the past have tried to make, trying to affect social change. The second is a more passive method - get more people listening. Don't get the people listening now to act more than they have been, you, anonymous rapper, are not Martin Luther King. Get more people listening. This does not mean selling out. This does not mean watering down. This means experimenting, this means getting away from the insular shit that put the industry in the toilet this year. This is what just about every artist on this list has been doing, but this is what the Hood Internet has demonstrated so brilliantly - that the current bar for hip hop is set too low. Congratulations on going Internet Platinum, guys. I'll be on the Hood for all of 2008. This is a window into where hip hop could be some day, if they ever get their shit together. To think we have to wait for it is discouraging. Maybe two dudes on laptops doing mashups aren't influential enough to change shit, but until shit changes on its own, I'll be listening to them.

A final announcement, now that my list is done. In an effort to make my updates more regular, I am going to announce my upcoming topics in advance, so that I stick to it. It's a bit like announcing a lecture series or something. It took me forever and a half to write this entry because I had to listen to all these albums again. So here are the next two topics.

Presidents: Why Eisenhower is a President and Grant is a General
Rap: Wale, and why content doesn't matter.

Stay fresh like stay fresh guys. I am finally done with this one.

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Feb 7, 2008
I am a-goin' for to tell you here to-day; yes, I'm a-goin for to tell you all, that I'm a plebian!
OK Guys This is the new shit. This is an all-president article. You're excited.

This is #2 in my series on redeeming terrible presidents in hopes of illustrating the absolute horribility of George Bush. Plenty has been made of Bush's cronyism, ineptitude, deceit, and there's even some shit coming out now that rejects conservatism as a governing philosophy (sit down with a libertarian some time and have them try to explain to you why it is a good thing the FDA is trimmed down, how the free market will take care of salmonella and e. coli, why you shouldn't be paying taxes to run FEMA, which failed in New Orleans because it's severely understaffed and underfunded, not because of rote cronyism. You'll have fun). But for some to argue he's the worst president in history, well, I'm sure Andrew Johnson has something to say about that.

So how can we redeem a drunkard who nearly was impeached twice? I'm trying to defend a man who once said, and I quote, "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men."

Oh boy.

Well, let's start with the good. Johnson ended up doing a good job in terms of foreign policy, forcing the French from Mexico and purchasing Alaska from the Russians - perhaps a baffling move at the time, but with the discovery of gold, oil, and the strategic importance of the region during the Cold War, it ended up being a valuable purchase. It's debatable how much credit that gives him - you could say it was just dumb luck that the territory ended up paying off, or you could just say he knew a good investment when he saw it.

Johnson was a man of compromise. He was the only Southern senator to remain in Washington D.C. when the South seceded from the Union, and Lincoln rewarded him for his loyalty. He freed his slaves and supported black suffrage, arguing that "a loyal negro is more worthy than a disloyal white man." He favored quickly readmitting southern states to the Union, a matter on which he clashed with congress but borrowed from Lincoln. He had grown up poor and uneducated, and resented the rich. He wished to punish the leaders of the confederacy and rob them of their social power, but at the same time offer reconciliation to the masses which they misled. He let them have elections in 1865 - a number of prominent former Confederates were elected, but congress would not seat them.

Then there was his opposition to a civil rights bill. He opposed it, at the time, because it infringed upon state's rights, and because it was trying to give blacks citizenship when the southern states were still without representation. Now, you know me. I'm all for centralization and civil rights and all that other big-government crap, but I think Johnson should be judged by the era he lived in. He was given the unique legislative task of reconstructing a nation, legislatively. His goal from the outset was to maintain the stability of the Union - it might be sad to say, but at the time, slavery had been outlawed, the big one was taken care of, and the law wasn't going to out-and-out de-racist the backwards-ass southerners who started this shit in the first place. The biggest concern was to try to get the Union back together and keep it together. Johnson did follow Lincoln's admirable policy of leniency and forgiveness, which was a smart one (hey, we all saw how that victor's quest for vengeance post WWI worked out. Hint: WWII). But leaders are a product of the people they represent and the eras in which they lived. He aligned with the Democrats for most of his time in office, but maybe that was for the best - I suspect that had Lincoln survived, he might have taken a similar stance and taken a little bit of flak - though perhaps he would have handled it more astutely. Johnson was not a good President, but he was an uneducated man faced with a monumental task. Let's not forget why he was picked as Lincoln's running mate in the first place - he was a pro-Union Democrat and symbolized a certain unity, showing whatever your party was, the most important part was the stability of the Union.

Johnson's goal was to be a Uniter, not a divider. Lincoln was the master, and Johnson tried to live up to his ideals. Lincoln was a Republican who empathized with the south, Johnson was a Democrat whose main goal was that of the north. Sure, maybe he was largely ineffective as a politician, but he was faced with extraordinary circumstances. So he was an average president, not much more harmful than any other small-government politician. I wouldn't say he fucked things up more than Bush. He improved things, albeit slightly. But he wasn't Lincoln, and that's what hurt him.

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