Tag Archives: Jay-Z

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.


Hip Hop Monday #2: Kanye West, Lil B.

Kanye West, Bon Iver, Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj – Monster

So Kanye West’s album leaked.

The thing about Kanye is that he jumped the shark and stayed relevant. It’s him and Lady Gaga when it comes to present, all-consuming fame at the moment and, as luck would have it, he’s also in the habit of producing excellent music. Everything gets that bit more significant when someone has enough of a profile to be an entire side of the cultural conversation unto themselves.

So Kanye went autotune, went out with that snaky woman, interrupted Taylor Swift and started being more accessibly strange hourly on Twitter. He’s still the guy. If you’re Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj or even Jay-Z, you have a different ringtone for him and you answer with the word ‘yes’. There are a few of these posse tracks on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but none of them are as good as this or as significant as this.

Bon Iver opens proceedings, because Kanye is plugged into the lumberjackcore scene or because he heard his voice with a sampler’s ear and thought ‘with distortion that could sing a hook’. Rick Ross trundles in and calls himself a “fat motherfucker”, in keeping with the be-self-deprecating-around-Kanye trend established recently, then decides 4 bars is enough.

Kanye? He calls himself “the best living or dead hands down”. People will tend to say this from time to time, but it’s different when you’ve got this much cultural (and actual) currency. He also says “have you ever had sex with a pharoah?/I put the pussy in a sarcophagus/Now she claiming I bruised her oesophagus” which is Lil Wayne batshit at best.

Then it’s Jay-Z. There was a time when he’d call himself the best rapper alive every 8 bars or so, and as far as something like that can be true, it was true. But here, after Kanye whose vaguely lazy, self-regarding but ultimately satisfying flow is clearly a cut above, he’s shown up as old. If you’re guesting on something as high profile as this, you don’t get killed, especially if you’re still hanging on to claims of ‘best’, and he’s dead as soon as he starts.

And then Nicki Minaj shows up – 3.30 will get you some of the hook, and then her verse. She does voices, if you didn’t know. Sri Lankan, normalish/reggaeton, nice girl, reggaeton, Barbie, growl, Barbie, normalish. She’s head and shoulders above anyone else on this track, and it’s probably the best verse on the album, in my early stages of listening. Guess what’s rumoured though? She has ghostwriters. Is that just sexism because a GIRL without even an album out managed to dance all over Jay-Z, Kanye West and Rick Ross for about 80 seconds on Kanye’s own track? Put it this way, there’s no evidence either way, and Nicki herself says this:

“I write my own raps, I go in the studio by myself. There are some female rappers who can’t go in the studio unless they have a ghostwriter sitting right next to them,” says Minaj. “I’m the complete opposite—I’ll go in and ghostwrite for someone.”

So that addresses that. As for the rest of the album, it’s Kanye coming back to take possession of his evolution of boom-bap rap. It’s a nutcase at the top of his game, lyrically astute but with an odd worldview as divorced from reality as you’d expect from a guy this far away from the real world for this long. The window might not stay open long, but it’s open now and he’s doing it without breaking a sweat.

Lil B – Bitch I’m Bill Clinton

In other news, Lil B, who is definitely bad milk, put out a mixtape that he claims is the greatest mixtape of all time. He tends to claim a lot of stuff that’s not true though. For example, that he’s Bill Clinton. It’s free.

Some reviews from print.

This year I edit the music reviews in Trinity News. I also write them sometimes. Totally Dublin album reviews are only 75 words, and this blog is rangy at the best of times, so I enjoy a good old-fashioned 300 word explication from time to time. Here are two from Issue 1, which would have been out in Fresher’s Week, around the 20th October.

HEALTH – Get Color (City Slang)

It’s striking that a band making what is essentially loud, esoteric experimental music would decide to name their album Get Color. Colour is what you associate with pop music, summer music, beach music. Happy music. Colour is catchy and accessible to everybody. HEALTH tick none of those boxes. They’re danceable, yes, but it’s the kind of post-apocalyptic dancing you do to music that uses peals of feedback as its melodic hook. So why Get Color? Why not Get Black? Get Dark? Darkness seems, on the surface, like HEALTH’s forte. “Nice Girls”, built over an intense, tom-heavy drum beat, approximates a particularly dead-eyed version of Liars, and the robotic/military sound of “Death+” is as ear-numbing as industrial noise can get.

The lyrics are never audible. But that’s part of the charm. Because the songs aren’t so much narratively about things as they are complete auditory experiences, as pretentious as that undoubtedly sounds. You can describe something to someone with as many words as you have in your head and they’ll still translate it back into picture using their own set of prejudices. It’s better to show them. That’s what HEALTH do. They take things like urges, aggression, fear and joy and turn them into slabs of danceable noise.

The key is “Die Slow”. At once both the most accessible and the best thing the band have ever done (imagine that), “Die Slow” is an undeniable giant. Driven along by a continent-sized bassline and BJ Miller dominating his drum-kit, it’s a statement in itself. You can have hypnotic, feedback guitars. You can have shoegaze vocals. Progressive is fine. Experimental is fine. Go that route if you like, but if you do it right, even the most close-minded club attendee is going to be sucked magnetically from wall-propping position to the middle of the dancefloor.

That’s what Get Color means, then. Get Color in the sense of hewing pop music from slabs of noise, but also Get Color in the sense of bringing a whole new palette into play, of bringing innovation to dancefloors whether they want it or not. You won’t hear many albums as simultaneously abrasive and immediately appealing as this, so my advice is to put it on in the dark, as loud as it deserves, and get a little colour yourself.
I (5/5)

Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3 (Roc Nation)

Alarm bells should be ringing when any artist releases an album entitled The Blueprint. It’s hubristic for a musician to set their music on a pedestal above predecessors and peers. It turns it into a competition. But that’s what mainstream hip-hop is all about, being the best right now, and it’s something to which Jay-Z has held a roughly recognised claim to for nearly a decade. After all, The Blueprint 3 is part of a series, the third in line after 2001’s original (triple platinum after its release on the day of the World Trade Centre attacks) and 2002’s three million-selling Blueprint²: The Gift and the Curse. Since then, Jay-Z has retired and returned, transcended musical prejudices with a headline set at Glastonbury and, historically, played at the inauguration concert of the President of the United States. It’s fair to say that if anyone can claim to know what the blueprint for a hip-hop album is, it’s Shawn Carter.

It’s a pity then that this album is so unsatisfying. With a cast of guests ranging from Rihanna to Young Jeezy to Luke Steele of electro-pop duo Empires of the Sun, Jay-Z has no material barriers to making whatever music he wants at this point in his career. However, fifteen years on from his debut, it’s not clear that he knows what he’s trying to say. One song that instantly sticks in the craw is the ham-fisted “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)”. Claiming itself to be “practically assault with a deadly weapon”, “D.O.A.” sets its sights on the hip-hop zeitgeist with a sharp tongue and no pitch correction. But over a staid guitar line and without any of Jay-Z’s truly cutting lyrics, it simply comes off as too calculated and, let’s face it pop fans, not half the tune that some of T-Pain, Lil Wayne and Kanye West’s singles are.

Oh yes, Kanye West. A man whose last album consisted of little more than auto-tuned vocals and 808 kick drums. And one who also features on The Blueprint 3, one whole song after “D.O.A.” Huh. “Run This Town”, the track with West and Rihanna, is actually quite good. So is much of the album. “Empire State of Mind”, an ode to New York with Alicia Keys over some ringing grand piano, would stand up against anything Jay-Z has done. But the problem, as the man himself calls it on the opening track, is thus: “I don’t run rap no more, I run the map”. Jay-Z’s more important right now in the grand scheme than he is, strictly speaking, musically relevant. We’ll find out soon if the two can be mutually exclusive for the Noughties’ greatest.

II.2 (3/5)