Monthly Archives: October 2011

Some rap reviews of varying merit from the past few months.

I review exclusively rap in Totally Dublin now because I am willing to do so and people into reviewing indie rock are easier to find I guess. I did a long one for One More Robot too. I am in the process of forming an argument in my mind that rap music is not only a separate genre but a mode unto itself – an action movie is a movie, but even if a play does a lot of the same things as a movie, it’s a different thing. Off the back of that, I’d plead that starting to review rap is like learning to do reviews all over again. The mode is different, so the criticism is different, and I’ve become gradually aware of how annoying an uninformed rock critic talking about rap is, no matter how good their intentions. I haven’t formed that modal argument fully yet, though, so all I can do is post some reviews.

Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch The Throne
(Totally Dublin, September 2011)

Some albums are statement albums by virtue of the circumstances surrounding their release – a rapper getting out of jail, say. Others are statement albums because they arrive from nowhere with a fully-formed, confident, unique sound. But sometimes it’s just a de facto statement album, because you’re probably the two most famous rappers in the world and everyone’s already paying attention. And you’ve called yourselves, by implication, The Throne. It’s not surprising that Jay-Z and Kanye came up with “throne” either. There can only be one king, but a throne can theoretically fit two, and it gives Kanye a great opportunity to patronise an up and coming upholsterer in Milan or somewhere. The music is lavish, as you’d expect. But this album’s only important because it’s already important.

Kanye is best where Jay-Z is weakest which, rather than making for a ‘best of both worlds’ situation (shouts out R. Kelly), means that neither seems like they’re making the album they should be making. Kanye’s not a technical rapper. He’s most interesting when he’s making ridiculous statements – “this is something like the holocaust” as the opening line of bro-step banger Who Gon Stop Me, for example. Jay-Z at this point in his career needs exactly the right context to avoid sounding old and staid. The scenarios he finds himself in alongside Kanye, who at one point advises his future son to avoid telethons, undermine even his fresher flows. On Niggas In Paris, for example, Jay-Z lays down a textbook verse about being so successful he no longer cares. Kanye then rolls in and manages to mention Prince William, Mary-Kate, Ashley, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and a Margiela jacket, whilst also noting that he is in Paris.

It’s hard to tell whether this was Kanye The Scrappy Kid’s idea, wanting to trade bars with his Hall of Famer mentor, or Gwyneth Paltrow’s Friend Jay-Z’s, wanting to hang on to relevance. It’s got flashes of genius, mostly from Kanye, but it is some heavily unnecessary stuff and it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) really mean anything for rap in general. Which is sad, considering what it could have been.


Gucci Mane & Waka Flocka Flame – Ferrari Boyz
(One More Robot, September 2011)

Gucci Mane, out of prison for the time being at least, is the postmodern man’s current king of the South, with a history of squeezing baseless absurdities into raps about cocaine. Waka Flocka Flame, his protégé and former literal weed-carrier, is the king of being insufferable in a club, encouraging all and sundry to throw gang signs, steal girlfriends and start fights. But they don’t always fit together, which is what they try to do fifteen times on Ferrari Boyz.

Maybe the best way to squeeze the most juice out of this collaboration would have been to make it a Gucci Mane album with a Waka Flocka Flame hooks, ad libs and three words per line final verses. But Flockaveli blew up, so like Jay-Z and Kanye on Watch The Throne, there’s some kind of implied parity here. With the two on equal standing, the strategy they’ve chosen is to flex over mean-mugging Southside beats. It’s not the fuck the club up party rap of Flockaveli, but it seems like Flocka territory, or at least the implication that it might be seems to have an effect on Gucci, who reins in his wholesale, non-sequitur-filled, insane flow and tries to play along. Of course there’s weirdness. It’s Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame. But it tends to come in the form of double take-inducing lines about driving a Ferrari like it was a Chevy, wedged amongst auto-pilot bars about being stoned or rich and even, at various points, Wiz Khalifa shout outs.

There’s wandering 808s and roof-scraping synth arpeggios with the guys who made that the legitimate default beat choice in modern rap, so there are highlights. Suicide Homicide, with Wooh Da Kid, has an eminently chantable hook and plenty of horrific lyrical bases touched (such as “putting seven in your chest” like “M. Vick” and “cooking up babies, call that shit abortion). The beat on 15th And The 1st is more mysterious than threatening, and though he’s still on B game even compared to his last mixtape Writings On The Wall 2, it seems like the most comfortable territory for Gucci on the record. It’s also got Flocka executing his traditional role to perfection: half-singing a hook about having a stomach so full that’s he’s burping hundreds. YG Hootie, solidifying his position as third best Bricksquad member, delivers a decent verse that acknowledges his anger about not actually selling records in his own right. Later, on Pacman, Flocka manages to deliver a verse that confusingly doesn’t make any mention of the fact that his name is the sound Pacman makes while eating pills and being chased by ghosts. Which is a missed opportunity, given that that’s a pretty functional blurb for his whole persona.

In the final instance, the value of Ferrari Boyz will be as a museum piece exemplifying an entire genre. It’s further proof of the fact that one and one doesn’t necessarily always give two with rap records, especially when you’re dealing with people who’ve made their name off tracks where they’ve had space to let their idiosyncracies out with no self-consciousness. That it’s not even better than the last solo mixtape by each rapper is telling in that respect. But you could use it to teach post-Lex Luger ham rap to your hip hop class, for the same reason you get someone with a neutral accent to teach a language to kids. To call it ‘by numbers’ is uncharitable but not far off.


Das Racist – Relax
(Totally Dublin, October 2011)

Self-awareness is something only comedy rap troupe ever to school you on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak possess in almost dangerous quantities, so there’ll always be something slightly unwholesome about their off-hand punchlines about expensive cheese and being Eric Clapton. But their free association postmodern pop culture flow is confident now and the chaff has been discarded. They’re fun, different to anyone else, and there are serious ideas behind those raised eyebrows.


Lil B – Im Gay (Im Happy)
(Totally Dublin, 2011)

All praise be to Based God, but as laudable as his positive message is, he’s only really compelling when you can’t tell whether he’s serious or not. Im Gay (with no apostrophe) fulfilled its meme generation purpose by making everyone shocked that a rapper would call a record that, but the raps, though improving technically, are still not great. Clams Casino comes through with Unchain Me, but Lil B doesn’t seem to know what he’s saying.


Roach Gigz – Bitch I’m A Player
(Totally Dublin, August 2011)

It’s not that surprising that putting a big personality over dumb slaps results in more great music from the Bay Area. Over twelve C-Loz tracks (one of which is literally built around a sample of the words “big fat beat”), Roach Gigz is skilled and funny, rapping about holes in his brain from drug abuse and women trying to get to him through his publicist. Another for the ‘next to blow up’ column, but more of this is enough if he doesn’t.


The Chaff #2 (for TN2): You People Make Me Sick

The second of my back page columns for the student newspaper I used to edit in college, this time about wrestling. This is another article about wrestling I did for this blog.

Professional wrestling is anathema to grown-ups. It’s fake and it’s for kids. It’s probably been half a decade since you were last in a situation where you even had to argue that with a peer. But it hasn’t gone away. WWE’s Raw is the longest running weekly episodic programme in the history of American television and for eighteen years it has aired, mostly live but always at least recorded live, every Monday night. There is no inherent value in longevity obviously, but the fact that Raw has been a constant since January 1993 means that its story arcs, trends and stylistic decisions provide an interesting means of looking at how society changed in that time.

You could watch Reeling In The Years for a more straightforward account, no doubt, but news stories don’t happen in front of a live crowd. Events that do, like ‘real ‘ sports, aren’t scripted, so there’s no way you can find out anything useful about what people want from them. A wrestling crowd will only cheer or boo when they care. It’s the job of the bookers to make the crowd care in real time, live, every single Monday. And no disrespect to wrestling fans, but the average Raw attendee isn’t exactly a modern liberal. They’re not making a political statement with their ticket purchase, but the things they cheer and boo tell us something about societal attitudes and prejudices that we won’t get in the same form anywhere else.

Take, for example, the character of Goldust, portrayed by Dustin Runnels, son of Hall of Famer and lunatic Dusty Rhodes. Goldust entered the WWE (then WWF) in 1995 with the nickname “the bizarre one” and proceeded to develop a gimmick based on “creeping out” opponents by blowing kisses to them, groping them mid-fight and wearing a full-body metallic gold suit. Goldust’s gimmick, effectively, was that he was gay. It worked, too. Dig a little through YouTube archives and you can see the palpable discomfort of the crowd first hand as Goldust ‘accidentally’ bumps his crotch into his opponent from behind or strokes their chest before delivering a punch. You’ll also find an on-air interview with current wildly popular commentator Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler ahead of the 1996 King of the Ring in which the crowd totally erupts when Lawler calls Goldust a “flaming fag”.

It’s uncomfortable viewing, but the WWE is always looking for the path of least resistance to a reaction, and that got one. In 2004, just about far enough from September 11th, 2001 to get away with it, the company introduced a pair of characters, Daivari and Hassan, whose gimmick involved complaining about their mistreatment as Arab-Americans. Despite being Iranian-American and Italian-American (seriously) respectively, they wore Arabic headdress and made what the average university student would probably consider fairly profound points about racism in modern America. Guess what? They were wildly unpopular. Just like the Russian and Arab characters of old, they drew immediate cheap heat and USA chants just for showing up and being “foreign”.

The last few weeks of Hassan’s run in the WWE involved one of the most shameful moments in the company’s history of tastelessness, as a crew of masked men with garrots – with obvious ‘Al Qaeda’ implications – came to the ring to do his bidding on an episode that aired the same day as the London bombings. This was the end of what could probably be described as WWE’s most recent straightforwardly racist angle as the Italian-American whose initial gimmick was to speak out against prejudice ended up losing his job because the WWE’s television network partners demanded that he be kept off air.

It’s not pleasant stuff, and it’s not all like this, but it says something about what the average person on the street in middle America, outside of idealistic discourse and worries about what others will think, wants to see in their live entertainment. Female characters are mocked for being ‘fat’ if they’re not skinny. The most popular wrestlers are always white and American, to the extent that the most important title has never been held by a black wrestler. But the company still fills arenas, sells pay-per-view events and makes money. It’s supply and demand, I suppose. Give the people what they want.

The Chaff #1 (for TN2): The Soil Where Them Rappers Be Gettin’ They Lingo From

In this year’s TN2 Magazine, a publication you may remember from the time I edited it last year, I have taken over responsibility for the back page column, attempting to fill the huge intellectual void left by Oisín Murphy’s post-Marxist pop culture criticism. I’ve decided to call it The Chaff, which is a reference to ‘the cast-offs of pop culture’. Basically I will be writing articles about all the stuff I like that everyone else gets annoyed with me for talking about. I started with E-40, obviously.

The second issue will be out on Tuesday, but I thought I’d put up the first one here so I can be criticised about it by the usual personages. Internet age personal responsibility. The illustration, as with every drawing of me ever, is by Fuchsia.

New York is the city on the hill when it comes to rap music, the place
where the music was invented and the home of most of its Hall of
Famers from Afrika Bambataa to Wu-Tang to 50 Cent. But out west,
350 miles north of Compton, the San Francisco Bay has a proud history
of remaking rap’s vocabulary, from ten new words for a car to things
that weren’t even concepts before of one the local self-contained
superstars imparted them over the hook of a Bay slap.

The most famous progenitors, or at least those who claim credit
regularly, are the venerable Too $hort and E-40, each recording since
the 80s and, though more so with the latter than the former, still
relevant. Too $hort, from Oakland, is broadly credited with inventing
the term “biotch” (i.e. bitch), having committed it to vinyl as early as
1988. In 2000, he told Vibe Magazine, “that’s my gift to rap music….
They didn’t ask me could they use it, but it’s cool.”

E-40, who’s been popular long enough to have songs with both Tupac
and T-Pain, developed a rap style that almost reaches Lewis Carroll
nonsense poetry at times, but a million times more threatening. In 1996
on Rapper’s Ball, he originated the term “fo’ shizzle” and thus
everything that followed that. “I told Jay-Z after he used it on its record
[H To The Izzo], I said, “That’s a Bay Area word, man.” That’s from
the land where they pop they collars and jack they slacks,” he told Vice
in 2009. He also claims to have invented saying “you feel me?” – “that’s
straight from me” – and “it’s all good” – “I was the first cat who ever put
that on wax” – in 1992. By the mid-2000s he was promising to write a
dictionary of slang that still hasn’t arrived, and being co-opted into
the ‘hyphy movement’, a super-energetic dance-led style of hip hop
emerging in the Bay.

Hyphy’s national hit, E-40’s confusingly Lil Jon-produced Tell Me
When To Go, is almost profligate in its use of slang. 40 Water invents
the word “ghettro” casually during the first verse (it’s a phone) and is
keen to point out that he does not “bump”, like every other American
hip hop artist at the time, but rather “knocks”, which essentially means
the same thing but geographically limited to the Bay Area. That’s a regular thing, denying that he has any time for something (e.g. gang-banging) but then admitting to what is basically a Bay-specific
synonym (e.g. set-tripping). It’s a matter of local pride – few Irish
people wear sneakers, for example, but plenty wear runners.

After an appearance by Keak da Sneak, who tells everyone he’s “off
that 1800 juice” (Jose Cuervo tequila) while sounding like he’s
swallowed a scissors, E-40 returns for what is effectively just a call-
and-response list of hyphy words and concepts. It’s an education, and
you can tell he takes no small joy from the idea that people in clubs
across America and the world are shouting “thizz face” (it’s drug-
related) and “ghostride the whip” (it’s complicated and involves
pretending to drive your still-running car while beside or on top of it).

There are plenty more. You might have even used some, in fact, which
is testament not only to the Bay’s influence on rap but also rap’s ever-
spreading influence on mainstream culture. If you’ve ever chillaxed
after ballin’ too much, holla at your boy. You know, the one with the
ginormous scraper (yes, even ginormous is claimed by the Bay; a
scraper is a car). But if you finna slang yayo to get that mayo, the
Elroys’ll get you. Undasmellz me?