We finally made it, internets. Here is the full list for your perusal.
1. Danny Brown – XXX
2. E-40 – Revenue Retrievin’: Graveyard Shift/Overtime Shift
3. Cults – Cults
4. Roach Gigz – Bitch I’m A Player
5. Half Man Half Biscuit – 90 Bisodol (Crimond)
6. Squarehead – Yeah Nothing
7. Das Racist – Relax
8. Hunx and His Punx – Too Young To Be In Love
9. Milk Maid – Yucca
10. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
11. Tune-Yards – Whokill
12. Rustie – Glass Swords
13. Vivian Girls – Share The Joy
14. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Belong
15. Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde
16. Young L – Domo Kun/As I Float: The Great John Nash/Praktica
17. Cousin Fik – Hacksaw Been Thuggin’
18. The Babies – The Babies
19. Gucci Mane – Writings On The Wall 2
20. SBTRKT – SBTRKT
21. Fucked Up – David Comes To Life
22. Male Bonding – Endless Now
23. Z-Ro – Meth
24. Fair Ohs – Everything Is Dancing
25. Panda Bear – Tomboy
Irish: 4% (2010: 12%, 2009: 12%, 2008: 12%) By bands I was already into before 2010: 28% (2010: 44%, 2009: 36%, 2008:40%) Saw live: 12% (2010: 40%, 2009: 64%, 2008: 48%) Reviewed for print: 44%, (2010: 48%, 2009: 52%, 2008: 32%) Interviewed for print: 16% (2010: 24%, 2009: 20%. 2008:12%)
Free to download: 20% Rap: 32% By a band currently or traditionally considered lo-fi (by me): 44% Top 3 things people guessed would be number one but turned out not to feature at all: Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne, Tyler, the Creator – Goblin, The Weeknd – House of Balloons.
Positive feedback from the maker of the best album of the year:
Not reviewed by Pitchfork: 24% (2010: 24%) Average Pitchfork rating of top 5*: 8.33 (2010: 8.75, 2009: 8.38) Average Pitchfork rating of top 25**: 7.74 (2010: 8.33, 2009: 8.03) Average Metacritic score of top 5***: 7.9 (2010: 8.03, 2009: 8.08) Overlap with top 25 of NME’s 50 Best Albums: 4% (2010: 28%, 2009: 36%) Overlap with top 25 of Pitchfork’s 50 Best Albums: 8% (2010: 24%, 2009: 28%) Overlap with top 25 of State’s 50 Best Albums: 12% (2010: 32%, 2009: 28%)
* Pitchfork did not review Roach Gigz or Half Man Half Biscuit so this is the average of the top 3.
** Pitchfork did not review Roach Gigz, Half Man Half Biscuit, Squarehead, Cousin Fik, Z-Ro and Fair Ohs.
*** Metacritic only aggregated reviews for Cults and Danny Brown so this is kinda meaningless.
Danny Brown is the best rapper out. They put him on the XXL Freshmen of the Year list for 2012 and he ended up making the whole exercise look as stupid as it is in about fifty ways, from the fact that he is a thirty-one year old man with two excellent albums already behind him to the bare evidence of how badly he showed up everyone else involved simply by being a confident, complete, ingenious rapper on the beat they provided and every other beat he’s been on. They could have put him on a notional XXL Rappers In General 2012 and he would have had a decent chance of doing the same. He put out the best album of 2012, rap or otherwise, and it’s time, in late March, to finally get around to talking about it. There’s a lot to talk about, so get your glasses.
A sage commenter on 2DopeBoyz said he was “on that goof troop hip hop” which is actually an interesting angle to take, because while it’s obvious that he can rap about anything over anything, he does litter his raps with ridiculous pop culture punchlines, even on the serious tracks. XXX itself, the first track on the album, opens with real gravity and a beat that sounds more modern but also more serious than his previous music, the kind of thing you open a ‘classic album’ with. The first line is “colder than them grits they fed slaves”. The fourth line is “sorta like Squidward and his clarinet”. That’s goof troop hip hop. It’s not even one of the many songs in the early-to-middle part of the record where it’s just a string of absurd punchlines about his dick. And it doesn’t even ruin the mood. This is one of the several weird things about Danny Brown.
By the time XXX came out he was already the dude with whose hair is “the most unfortunate decision for an up-and-coming rapper since Wale decided to work with Lady Gaga for his first single.” It seems at times like a legitimate effort to troll those who are into ‘real hip hop’, but ultimately, despite those noted influences in UK grime and post-punk, the dude is probably the best, most versatile, most charismatic rapper-qua-rapper out at the moment. So you can’t let the hair matter. And you can’t let the Squidward line matter. You have to take it for what it is, as you should on a ‘classic album’.
There is a spectrum of styles across the 19 songs (with no skits), as you might expect, but it’s coherent. If you thought a record label debut would result in a couple of radio singles or ones-for-the-ladies, never mind actually having to pay for the music, you would have been mistaken. Pitchfork called it “grubby production, laced with trashy electro” but they can obviously get fucked. Unpolished-sounding samples do mesh with synthesised sounds, but it’s an aesthetic decision, adding a looseness to the clinical squelches and drum machine hits. The looseness fits his style. The weirder the beat, the better he gets. Monopoly, which is the closest thing to actual grubbiness, leads to a tour de force rap when it kicks in, and Outer Space, with a tentative snare and some alien-sounding non-Pythagorean shit going on as a melody, causes a blackout featuring a Vagina Monologues punchline that he doesn’t even bother to properly rhyme.
The overall sonic coherence is especially impressive because there two distinct Danny Browns on XXX. One of them will bust a nut upon a bitch chest, so to speak, and he dominates the first section of the album, especially from Bruiser Brigade at track 7 to Adderall Admiral at track 12. The other one, conversely, is righteous, and he reappears on DNA, having partly introduced himself on the opening track, to rap about selling scrap metal with junkie relatives and vacant lots in Detroit. It could be incongruous but, without labouring the point, Danny Brown is a very good rapper, and it feels more like being invited with him through different aspects of his life than any attempt to shoehorn conscious raps onto a party rap record out of obligation or, worse, shoehorn party raps onto a conscious rap record to make it palatable.
That’s just not what’s happening. It’s just that what could be a brag on one beat is an admission of fault on another, in an artful way. Compare Die Like A Rockstar, a pretty ignorant track about being fucked up like various different dead celebrities, with DNA, about family history with addiction. From the former: “manuscript sick shit, prescription addiction/sniffin’ Adderall off the counter in my kitchen/experiment so much it’s a miracle I’m living”. The latter also has verses full of party brags (“Every night like a bachelor party in Sin City, bitches sniffing coke of each other titties with rolled 50s”) but the hook (“It’s in my DNA, cos my moms liked to get fucked up the same way”) and the beat (low-key with a clarinet) makes the whole thing seem less like bravado and more like description.
There’s a real gravity to some of those later songs. Fields (“and where I live, it was house-field-field, field-field-house, abandoned house-field-field”) is vivid and erudite about Detroit without being trite. Scrap or Die, which I’m going to have to quote more from, is a clever flip of Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die that manages to illuminate the other side of the drug dealer dynamic in rap without seeming preachy. Here’s a bit that’s probably too big to digest in text but fuck it:
We been looking at the house for about a whole month
A family live there, got put out last month
My uncle sniffing blow while I’m rolling up a blunt
His homey in the basement smoking crack with my aunt
And tonight’s that night we about to get right
Piled up in a van with a couple flashlights
Metal crowbars gonna get us through the door
Take everything, fuck the landlord.
So now we at the place, skullys on bareface
Bout to leave this bitch bare, strip the whole damn place
My unc outside, he ripping down the gutters
So we inside tearing up this motherfucker
Bust open the walls just to get the wiring
Took the hot water tank and the left over appliances
Aluminum siding and had to come back
Cause the furnace so big it wouldn’t fit in the back
And it’s copper by the pound
Wire by the inch
Got a cheque on the 1st and it’s gone by the 5th
Scrap or die.
I talked about this with E-40 and it applies to things like novels as well, not that I’m recommending that you should read novels or anything, but this kind of thing, unassuming exposition with a point that’s shown rather than stated, is what makes creates real meaning and profundity. The idea might be so common in society and culture in general that it’s filtered out amongst the white noise, but being able to tell the story is important and, as is obvious on this track above most, choosing the right story to tell can be incredibly effective.
Of course, I’m privileging the conscious stuff again here. There are upwards of ten songs on XXX that don’t purport to give you a point to chew on at all, and they’re just as good. Bruiser Brigade is pretty much just an ode to drinking over a grime-influenced beat, but it’s blood-boiling and it features the ad lib of the year, an E-40-esque faux naïve “Heineken?” in response to Brown’s claim that he is “about that drink of Heineken”. Pac Blood, which is non-ignorant in the sense that Elzhi would probably have bought the beat if Brown didn’t, boasts the following hook:
Tears to Mona Lisa, Medusa to liquid
Make Gandhi grab the burner while they shoot shit
Rhymes that make the Pope wanna get his dick sucked
Had Virgin Mary doing lines in the pickup
Make Sarah Palin deep-throat till she hiccup
Had T.D. Jakes round this bitch doing stick-ups
…before spitting, with remarkable venom, that these are:
Rhymes so real, thought I wrote it in Pac blood
Told me in my dreams that these n- is not thugs.
It’s not quite smoking his ashes, but if there’s a more weighty way to claim realness than actually writing your lyrics in the blood of Tupac, I haven’t heard it. And stray punchlines are everywhere. “You softer than Flanders’ son” is silly but it’s kind of withering because it’s so unexpected. “Rest in peace wack n-s with oversized clothes/Complain about me cos I’m taking all they hos” is pretty much the direct opposite of Z-Ro’s shit-talking about skinny jean rappers, but this is goof troop hip hop, so that’s fine. “I got them Penis Poems for your Vagina Monologues/Love a feminist bitch – ooh, that get my dick hard” is, as mentioned earlier, especially funny because it barely rhymes, and “I got hos in expensive high heels/Your hos toes is fucked/Beauty Supply sandals” is certainly one way to explain your superiority. It is also especially funny because it does not rhyme.
So there’s function and there’s fashion. The sheer consistency of the nineteen tracks would be enough to make it my favourite rap album of the year, but I’ve been dropping ‘classic album’ hints around the place, so let’s address that a little more. The thing flows, and it’s got scope and variety, as I’ve been talking about. What jumps it from being a good album to a great album, and I’m talking about the old ivory tower conception of ‘the album’ here, is the bookending. It opens with XXX and closes with 30, and they do the work of turning it from a collection of songs into what ultimately feels something like a concept album about the life and experiences of a Detroit rapper for whom things are finally happening. On the opener, he’s “getting old, time’s running out/repeating instrumentals, trying to figure patterns out” – because what rapper makes it at 30? He’s “weaving kicks and snares, trying to dodge these hooks/keeping it original, something that’s overlooked.” It’s a first person account of the dude as he comes across on The Hybrid, here and elsewhere, a rapper who’s just trying to make original rap music, who’s too old for the major label radio play dreams but still passionate enough to want to do it anyway. On 30, we meet that dude again, with all the context of the rest of the record behind us.
Step inside a mind that revolves around the rhyme
And every time he close his eyes he sees visions of white lines
Dying in the arms of a blonde blue-eyed twenty-something
Don’t know her name, but the paramedics, chest-pumping
Thirty-something black male OD’d off of pills
That he wasn’t prescribed, but they took his life
Left behind a daughter that doesn’t really even know him
Cause her momma thought he wouldn’t make a living off them poems
But it was a long journey on a rocky road
Had a hoodie on and a jacket in the snow
Walking in the cold on the way to the studio
N- that was just a couple of years ago
Dropped a couple free mixtapes on the net
And n-s tryna front like it wasn’t all that
But guess what bitch, I’m coming back
Guess what bitch, I’m coming back
NFL analysts talk positively about players who have a “chip on their shoulder”, as if personal vendettas against specific teams, players or the media would supercharge them and make them more effective. I guess that’s what’s happening here. Danny Brown’s 30 years old (or he was when he made the record) and that’s a long time to be a rapper that hasn’t made it.
Never learned to rap, always knew how
Ever since a n- 8, I knew what I would do now
When I turned 28, they like ‘what you gonna do now?’
And now a n- 30 – so I don’t think you heard me
The last ten years I been so fucking stressed
Tears in my eyes, let me get this off my chest
The thoughts of no success
It got me chasing death
Doing all these drugs, thoughts of OD’ing next
And that’s how it ends, one final explanation that, above and beyond all the other shit, being a rapper is what Danny Brown does. A lot of rappers call themselves the greatest ever and it’s ridiculous to believe any of them, but there’s something special about Danny Brown. He is, as he says, “a smart n- who do dumb shit” and that makes him more entertaining than just about every rapper that isn’t making dance songs about specific celebrities they’ll never meet, but the consistency, originality and occasional patent genius of his music is down to more than just charisma and clever metaphors and punchlines. XXX proves that he is the complete package and if he never sells more or he overdoses in the arms of a blonde twenty-something, he will have left a mark on culture as an almost never-was who persevered, stepped up when it mattered and delivered something great.
Danny Brown – Outer Space Danny Brown – Scrap or Die Danny Brown – 30
The level of lateness we’re working at here means that I’ve had about five months of worrying about how to write about these records. But I can’t really avoid it any longer, so here it is. 2500 words about a dude who’s in his twenty-third year of releasing rap music. He’s worked with both 2Pac and Drake, which says something about how long his name has carried weight. And I just discovered he existed in 2011. It’s possible that I should have started with earlier records, like In A Major Way (1995) which is one of the best rap records of all time, or even My Ghetto Report Card (2006) with all its hyphy era classics. But I didn’t. I started with Revenue Retrievin’: Overtime Shift and Revenue Retrievin’: Graveyard Shift and I spent pretty much the whole year with both on my little 2GB mp3 player because I kept getting mad that I couldn’t listen to them every time I tried dumping them off to make space for Fucked Up or Keak Da Sneak or something.
It might be interesting that I came to E-40 with his most recent records because I literally had no context. I’d probably heard Tell Me When To Go once or twice incidentally, but I had no real idea who E-40 was. You know this already, I presume. I was that kid with the big and expanding collection of indie rock and pre-indie rock canon stuff, with five jazz, afrobeat, techno, funk, blues and hip hop albums just to make sure I was keeping my education broad. I was seriously into hip hop for a little while before I actually got around to E-40, but I guess I have two points here. Firstly, he’s the fucking dude and a huge part of my process of learning to listen to rap music. That sounds academic or something but it’s not. It didn’t happen with premeditation, he just kept saying cool shit and I kept listening. Secondly, I approached these albums without any idea of what E-40 had done before or what he was supposed to sound like. I didn’t become a Revenue Retrievin’ fan because I was an E-40 fan. I became an E-40 fan because I was a Revenue Retrievin’ fan. Which might be rare, I dunno. Anyway, let’s jump in.
On the David Drake episode of the Champale podcast, they talked about how hard it was to explain in writing why certain rappers or rap songs are so good. A lot of why Biggie is the best is because he sounds “fat and pissed off” regardless of what he’s actually rapping about. And sometimes a song is fire just because it’s fire. That sort of thinking is basically the only way to deal with E-40 when he’s fully on. On Serious, featuring an unexpectedly brilliant T-Pain soul hook, he drops three verses, each self-contained, like a three-act play, that manage to tell a real and affecting struggle story without ever seeming like ‘conscious rap’. But to talk about it like that doesn’t do full justice to the song. It might be the highlight of Graveyard Shift and that’s not just because it’s a perfect, watertight rap with a narrative. It’s because of the delivery. Biggie sounds fat and pissed off, certainly, but he also sounds like Biggie, in a way you can’t really word. So does E-40. I’m gonna transcribe my favourite part here, but realistically you’re just going to have to listen to it.
They found weed in my system, I told my girl I was quitting
They sent me back to San Quentin for ninety days, did my time and got out
Now I’m the unemployment line tryna figure shit out
But the penal system got me by the neck, sahab
With my trouble passed, I can’t even get me a job
My partner rap, he got his own record label, they doin’ they thang
If I holla at him, maybe he can shoot me some change
It’s such a vivid picture. Can’t help but think of young Kanye in Fade To Black saying “instead of the Black Album, it’s like the Black Movie n shit.” In the third verse he tells a weird an unexpected story about using his money to book old school r’n’b and soul groups instead of rappers for concerts because of venue insurance, and then explains that he doesn’t want to accept a job at a toll booth because he doesn’t want to work for a white man. Some rappers have an issue with bad exposition when they try to do this sort of thing and just compensate with bare energy, but Serious is a fucking novel, and a good one, and it’s only three and a half minutes long.
My Lil Grimey N-, two tracks later on Graveyard Shift, is the same sort of thing except over a genuinely unsettling beat, except it’s a third-person character sketch sort of thing about a dead-eyed young man “lurking and prowling” and shooting people without any sort of humanity. As I often do, I sent it to my test subject Mos Def fan friend who said it was “too scary for me” which, without being a rap song with gun sounds and a chap shouting about fucking you up, is probably a pretty good endorsement of how good it is.
Concentrating too much on how artful a storyteller E-40 is sells short his ability to just talk shite over an empty beat though. His shit bang. Again, there is no real way to talk about this effectively without just sending you to listen, but I’ll transcribe a bit more. On the topic of a Puerto Rican woman’s ass, from Bad Bitch (on which Stressmatic also delivers the laziest verse in his long history of lazy verses, many of which are dealt with on various episodes of the podcast):
I met this Afro-American mixed with Spanish ho
Puerto Rican chick, love to cook mofungo
Donk so big you could play the bongos
Got a drum-roll booty, thick, juicy and jumbled.
More on the subject of racial preference, from Yankin’:
I don’t know what they’ve been putting in the water nowadays, but white girls got big booties
Ain’t no colour line, I’m colourblind – let me stop lying, mister
We all created equal, but I prefer a sister.
Like little girl right there, she got a big kadonkydonk
She probably work out three times a week and eat what the fuck she want.
As Them’s The Vagaries rapper-slash-exec Seán once pointed out, that is kind of a ridiculous presumption to make about a girl who he is ostensibly just noticing in a club for the first time, who only appears for appears in the song for two lines anyway. Given that E-40 put out two albums in 2010 and then these two in 2011, there are obviously some songs that aren’t on quite the peak level, but there’s always some kind of nugget like that, a weird phrase or just a weird phrasing that takes you out of the song for a moment and makes you think, “what?” Which is in common with a few of the other rappers I’ve come to think of as favourites, like Gucci or Danny Brown or Husalah.
Wait, yeah, E-40 put out two albums in 2011 and we haven’t even got to Overtime Shift yet. I’ll try to keep it relatively brief. It opens with an a capella soul verse sort of thing that then drops into a reimagining of the beat from his 1991 track Mr. Flamboyant, which E-40 explains is “one of them throwback, mobbed out, yola coppin’, truck robbin’, spark some kush, crack a bottle and sip some ‘yac beats, motherfucker”. As if that was an actual type of beat. This is what I mean about the moments that take you out of the song. You could not doze to this if you tried.
I actually started getting into E-40 at all with Overtime Shift, even though it later became clear that it was slightly worse than its more sinister sister, which means that I started with Mr. Flamboyant 2k11, and I still think the way he interacts with the beat is pretty remarkable, the way he twists words around it and shifts intensity (and syllable-per-second count) according to where he is. It’s dynamic as fuck. And when it finishes, the beat to Drugs drops, which opens with the following unassailably excellent bars:
This thing all the way mobbed out
This thing beating the truck loose
I’m on a big ass bottle of Goose and some Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice
And I strongly suggest that you don’t sit on my transportation
Cos the slock is so severe, and the beat’s excruciating
Mayhaps might pop your ear or possibly collapse your lung
(What colour is your exterior?)
The same as Grey Pupon
(What is you a baller?)
Yeah but not LeBron
(What kind of baller are you?)
The kind that sell heroin
Drugs also marks the first appearance of B-Legit, who is both family-orientated and game-related by being E-40’s cousin and shares his age and attendant lack of self-consciousness. He leans into the beat with the same flow for whole verse, but he’s got fat-man-from-Vallejo charisma, and “block move like James Wade and Chris Bosh” is pretty clever. The other B-Legit feature is probably the highlight of the whole two album set, Rear View Mirror. Let me set the scene here.
There is a big synth bassline that mayhaps might pop your ear or possibly collapse your lung, with that 808 cowbell reminding you sonically of what region and vintage of rapper you are about to be dealing with. You snap your neck. Then, in the least explicable move in forty-something Bay Area rap music up until Too $hort made a bizarre video of himself as a mime, Stressmatic appears to provide the hook, in character as Slick Rick. He says the words “my rear view mirror is vibrating” in a cod-English accent. This is all he does on the song. In the video, he actually plays E-40 and B-Legit’s uniformed chauffeur which is a weird power dynamic for Stressmatic to have agreed to, but that’s the video, which is neither here nor there. Still, it’s hard not to on some level imagine the day at the studio when Droop-E played the beat for his father and his first cousin once removed and someone said, “hey, do you know what would be perfect on this? TJ from the Federation doing an impression of Slick Rick.”
After spending what seems like forever in the insoluble labyrinth of the song’s opening segment, E-40 starts. He is incapable of driving effectively because Droop-E’s bassline keeps knocking down his rear view mirror. He then engages in some more absurd statements about a woman. I know I’ve been leaning hard on these throughout the post, but it’s unfathomably great stuff.
See that chick right there? She a little old slut.
She said “E-40’s a FILF – father I’d like to fuck”
Little girl, you way too young for me
What you need to do is go and get your mommy
I heard she got some vicious dome action, gobble game is fire
Suction cup lips, suck the air out of tyres
Hips, butt, tits, bitch, call me sire
And I won’t stop macking till I retire.
This is perhaps the 2011 Revenue Retrievin set’s greatest “wait, what?” moment. Still reeling from Stressmatic’s Slick Rick, E-40 dismisses a young woman who finds him attractive and explains to her exactly why her mother would be a better match for him due to her legendary ability to give head. If you can’t respect that, your whole perspective is wack. B-Legit arrives with a slightly less unusual approach to bragging about fucking women before confusingly instructing us to “honour thy mother, but fuck these bitches.” Is he still talking to the girl who hit on E-40? That would be cockblocking. Presumably he’s talking to men in general. Either way.
Overtime Shift has some other high points as well. Beastin is a sort of hyphy Chad Hugo (Neptunes) beat that works as a great throwaway up-tempo track about partying. Guns is a song about guns with a hook that just consists of the word “guns” eight times and has a second verse that is mostly a list of types of guns. Punkin ‘Em Out involves E-40 explaining the definition of the word “domitore” to someone over the intro (it means helmet) before sounding threatening over a mid-tempo snap.
The track that follows Punkin ‘Em Out is pretty remarkable though. It’s called Born In The Struggle and opens with a Cornel West quote – it’s ‘conscious rap’ in a way that doesn’t make you forget it’s conscious ‘rap’ like Serious manages to. But that’s a good thing; Born In The Struggle is a different beast to Serious. It’s a pretty powerful explication of race relations in America, based on personal experiences, with all the shame and anger that comes with that territory.
I had to handwash my clothes. Didn’t have a washing machine or a dryer.
Momma used to have to hang her period panties out on a clothesline wire.
If that doesn’t hit you in the gut off the bat, there’s something wrong with your empathy function. He talks about “pissy sidewalks, human shit on the ground”, and a general sense of powerlessness in the face of history, flipping between childhood recollection and broader things like slave-trading. It’s kind of remarkable that he can do something like this and bring it off as well as he does on the same record as all the other stuff, but he’s not a normal rapper. He’s not likely to get significantly bigger at this point, obviously, but as he says, “I’m not rapping too fast, you’re listening too slow”. He’s putting out copious amounts of actual, barcoded music. He’s doing it at a point in his career where he (presumably) doesn’t actually have to, which means that he can be confident, say what he wants and work with who he wants, whether that means his son and cousin or Bun B and Devin The Dude or Cousin Fik, Beeda Weeda and J. Stalin.
Rappers at this age are a relatively new phenomenon. There isn’t much of a prototype for the greybeard rapper the way there is for the older rock star. E-40’s not likely to become Rev. Run, even if he’s good at giving excellent advice to young men who keep thinking with their peter. He’s not likely to become Snoop Dogg because he’s not famous enough nationwide/worldwide. He’s not likely to become Ice T, unless they come up with a serial drama where a large black man who mean mugs by default and speaks almost exclusively Bay slang can play a prominent role. He might end up like Heavy D if he doesn’t drop a few pounds but barring that, he’s not likely to disappear either. So he’s got to feel it out as he goes, and he’s doing that by putting out more music than ever. This is, by my count, his third musical peak and, at 43 when he made these two records, he’s still good enough to maintain the title of best rapper alive in my estimation, even if that’s meaningless. Because he sounds fat and pissed off, and his raps are fire.
E-40 feat. T-Pain – Serious (Graveyard Shift)
E-40 – My Lil Grimey Nigga (Graveyard Shift)
E-40 – Mr. Flamboyant 2K11 (Overtime Shift)
E-40 feat. B-Legit and Stressmatic (Overtime Shift)
Notes: Joking about rappers being family-orientated and/or game-related was invented or at least brought to my attention by done, who made the joke, a Sprinkle Me reference, about Cousin Fik. This correction was made out of the goodness of my heart even though he never did his guest post.
“There’s lads in Finglas that sound like this chap.” As part of my ongoing campaign to get the dude who got me into rap in the first place to appreciate that you don’t have to actually call yourself a lyrical prophet to be a good rapper, I sent him a Roach Gigz video. He pretty much responds the same way every time, but there might be something to this for once. Do I like Roach Gigz because he has a dirty moustache and looks like the kind of guy who’d call you a faggot and then laugh and say you’re a sound lad and hug you in such a way that it turned into a headlock outside a chipper at 4am? Because he’s familiar, in other words? Hopefully not. There’s enough reasons to justify fucking with Roach Gigz without having to sit around feeling guilty about race issues afterwards. First off, this is a dude with weird, interesting things to say, or at least a weird, interesting way of saying things.
The opener, Fuck A Chorus, feels like the monumental track, full of drive and purpose even though it’s not exactly about anything. But like those Lil Wayne songs where he sounds full of drive and purpose even though it’s not exactly about anything, it still seems like you get all the important information, like Roach Gigz being from the Bay Area and liking sex, interspersed with batshit punchline statements like “when I get rich, Imma have midget doormen who make me feel important”. He’s having fun, which is clear across the whole tape. It seems like some people thought it was a sub-par version of the type of ADD rap he did on Can I Rap, but to me, this was the big moment on the tape, the one that sounds like a mission statement as well as just a blap.
The beats, exclusively by C-Loz, contribute heavily to the slightly manic atmosphere, especially on songs like Big Fat Beat (which is a big fat beat pegged on a vocal hook consisting of the words “big fat beat” over and over) or Drugs, the most popular Roach Gigz song on Spotify, which is around an old-timey newsreader type voice saying the word “drugs”. The bass is big, the percussion pops, things are shot through with hints of techno and they’re not afraid to cut up Roach’s voice to serve the song. When it’s up-tempo, the dude can shine, scattering punchlines about being crazy, smoking blunts and liking riding. He fits that kind of beat, a party thing where lines catch you here and there and make you laugh or just think, “fuck yeah”.
Just being crazy for the guts of an hour would probably get tiring though, and the thing that makes this feel like a keeper, the kind of tape you call great rather than just fun, is the raps over slower beats, songs like Overdose and Headache. Being able to make these tracks as good as the fast ones is proof of depth of personality, a sign of a rounded rapper rather than a dude’s who just attention-grabbing. It’s tat sort of thing that seems to drive people to start talking about whether or not he’s going to get properly mainstream famous. He’s funny enough and white enough to do it, maybe, but it’s hard to pick ways that Bitch I’m A Player would be or could be better if it was an international sensation or even an A$AP level sensation, so from a fan’s perspective, what’s the fucking difference? Unlike Rocky or Tyler, none of the fun of Roach Gigz has anything to do with that weird fetishisation of the young rapper “learning his craft”, getting new releases and trying to figure out if he’s any better yet. The fun of Roach Gigz is that he’s already great.
It’s also tape full of “moments”, not just a succession of good tracks. Beyond the two central figures (Gigz and C-Loz), there’s an excellent selection of Bay Area rappers than are even more apparently crazy than Roach Gigz. Husalah and Lil B are on the same track, Stupid, which, at a breakneck tempo, is pretty remarkably weird. Gigz pays special tribute to Lil B by biting him thoroughly through his verse while Lil B, not to be outdone, responds to the challenge and the title of the song by delivering one of the dumbest verses in his huge catalogue of dumb verses, pulling off a total of 0.5 rhymes that don’t sound atrocious. When you take Husalah, who has an uncanny ability to sound mental even when he’s not saying particularly mental things, into account, you end up with the type of song that just results in a halo of question marks and an elevated heart rate. They let Lil B go last, obviously, because he’s the nicest.
It’s weird but it’s cool. Or it’s cool because it’s weird. And you definitely wouldn’t get it in Finglas (no shots at Finglas).
5. Half Man Half Biscuit – 90 Bisodol (Crimond) [UK]
It’s appealing to just quote things and hope that the quotations convey the simultaneous humour, withering disdain and dejected wisdom that have made Half Man Half Biscuit the kind of band who inspire fans to maintain a comprehensive list of the lyrical references other fans have slipped into headlines of the stories they write for their media jobs. There is also, it might be interesting to note, a comprehensive list of times their lives in general reminded people of Half Man Half Biscuit. It’s a lifestyle choice, to an extent. Quoting Half Man Half Biscuit just becomes, subconsciously and consciously, something that happens. You fill the student newspaper someone let you edit with references. You name your podcast after one of their songs.
And focusing on the songs as songs, as you might (and I do) with every other indie rock band in the world isn’t exactly that fruitful with Half Man Half Biscuit. There’s a lot of genre pastiche, like trad rock of RSVP, and otherwise it’s not that far from what you’d expect a band that was on C86 to be doing when they got old, most of the time. That doesn’t mean the songs aren’t great, but they’re great because of Nigel Blackwell’s lyrics. Which convey simultaneous humour, withering disdain and dejected wisdom that inspires fans to do fan shit.
Let’s get this out of the way, then. This is not a joke band. It is, however, an incredibly funny band. Several of the songs of 90 Bisodol (Crimond) are elaborate, single-barrel jokes. Fun Day In The Park is effectively an extended family comedian joke complete with an actual punchline. I’ll type out the lyrics so you can get the idea:
I saw posters all around town
Fun day in the park, bring the family down
Bric-a-brac, puppet show, fire engine, steam train, face painting, mask making, falconry, tombola, climbing wall, cake stall, hook-a-duck, candy floss, balloons, Punch and Judy, Shetland ponies, hot dog, beat the goalie, soft play area with free bananas, Iguana Andy and his iguanas, jousting, hoopla, ghost train, pedal cars, quad bikes, stunt kites, sundries and much, much more.
For further enquiries ring this number. I rang it and asked about the “much, much more.” I was greeted with awkward silence.
They had lied to me. They had lied to me on their posters.
You’d be surprised how much repeat listening that track bears. L’Enfer C’est Autres is another song that it’s fair to consider primarily ‘funny’ and secondarily everything else, but in a different way. It returns to the important subject of pedestrian etiquette, which you’d think had been comprehensively dealt with the last time they dealt with it. Not so. As is often the structural move, it’s in two parts. In the first one, a couple walks down a path, forcing Blackwell to walk in the road. In the second half, he declares (brilliantly, bitingly, hilariously, nail-on-the-head-like): “I feel I’ve just been cornered by a man who’s just discovered Johnny Cash/He’s pissed and he’s boring and he’s telling me all about The Man In Black.” An annoying type of driver, to a pedestrian, of course. Not so much a joke as a wry eye cast on aggressively normal stuff.
As many times as I try to stop myself, I can’t help thinking of Leaving Cert English and being told to write that Patrick Kavanagh finds the drama of Homer’s epics in the bullshit everyday events of Monaghan. The closing track, Rock And Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools, a sequel to the last album’s glorious National Shite Day in terms of threatening sound and gall at the mundane, consists of a dystopian reading of the events of a specific episode of what must be Soccer AM. The protagonist, a singer in a band, shows himself to be merely a casual football supporter and earns the ire of Blackwell and a headlock from Neil Ruddock. Heston Blumenthal is also mentioned by name.
In the second half of the song, Blackwell unleashes one of his most aesthetically pleasing lines to date as he switches tack completely: “In other news I went along to what I thought was Curry Night at what I’d hitherto perceived to be a pub that I could trust and it transpired/Curry Night were there to play Crowded House and David Gray.” The overall moral, I think, is that both lad-like indie rock bands and pub covers bands are shit. These are fairly well-worn topics for Half Man Half Biscuit songs, strangely enough, but if you were to go in for structural criticism, this one’s bigger in scale and scope and pulled off better than any of the previous ones. It’s a little fearsome.
Metal bands also get it, on the album’s apex in terms of noticing things everyone notices but then actually expressing it in a surprising and humorous way, Left Lyrics In The Practice Room. Over a fast I-IV-V chord progression, Blackwell shouts an empirically perfect opening four lines, which I will have to block quote so I can put in the quotation marks.
“Demon fiend, leave your tomb,
Seek out the virgin womb”
Hey Chris from Future Doom,
You left your lyrics in the practice room.
It’s hard to really express how perfect this song is if you have no experience of the type of teenage metal bands that spawn in the dark corners of practice spaces. That sounds ridiculous and exclusionary, but that’s kind of Half Man Half Biscuit’s thing. I had to check the already-twice-linked Lyrics Project to develop a vague idea of what Joy In Leeuwarden is about (an international korfball tournament taking place in Holland) and Tommy Walsh’s Eco House probably loses a lot of its bite if you’re not familiar with soft hands English prime-time television. You have to roll with the punches.
I was worried before I started this that I would fail to say anything useful at all about Half Man Half Biscuit. Both better writers and more hardened fans than me have failed consistently to do anything more than just defend or cheerlead. I did fail, really. I did exactly what I said it would be appealing to do. I quoted lyrics. As a last ditch effort, I’m going to abandon all pretence of writing anything relevant and important and just go full bore with directly hectoring you.
Listen to this band. There is nothing else like a Half Man Half Biscuit album. Nigel Blackwell is a genius who, on the types of scales geniuses tend to work on, is being completely ignored. It’s not cleverness or glibness. It is genius. The songs might not sound like the kind of thing you like, but you need to sit with an album for a little while just to blood yourself into the slightly different mode of listening you’re going to have to adjust to. That might sound condescending. If so, I apologise, you were born with the facilities to immediately understand and appreciate all types of music. But you do need to listen to this band. Get the words into your interior monologue. This record is as good as any of the latter-day HMHB records and there’s no reason not to start here.
Half Man Half Biscuit – Left Lyrics In The Practice Room Half Man Half Biscuit – Rock And Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools
List of things I attempted and failed to do instead of reviewing this album again:
Study of all the Irish reviews of the album for themes and crutches (nothing interesting emerged)
Word cloud of all the Irish reviews of the album (same level of nothing interesting emerged)
Word cloud of all the lyrics (hand-typed, gave up after four songs)
Transcribing full 52 minute interview from August (stretches are inaudible because of some sort of extractor fan)
Autobiographical sketch listing all the Squarehead-related things I can remember doing in 2011 (pointless, self-indulgent)
What I’m going to do, then, is just repost my review from AU when the album was initially released and talk a little bit about it:
I like that review. It says everything I would end up saying at great length here. When I submitted it, I had a conversation with Chris Jones, the editor of AU, about the score I wanted to give the record. I hope he doesn’t mind me mentioning it, but I think it might be interesting and I don’t think it reflects badly on either of us. I was pushing for a 9 initially, but he reminded that me that giving it a 9 meant that AU would have to look to stick by that, at the end of the year for example. I was speaking for the magazine rather than myself, saying that it was genuinely a great record. I suspect, also, that having heard the record himself, he felt like I was overshooting a little. He didn’t push it, either, he just raised it with me.
I got what he was saying. I’ve been aware of the general trend towards overrating Irish music in the native media for as long as I’ve been paying attention to the native media’s coverage of Irish music. And I didn’t come to the album blind. I have all the seven inches too. I’d seen these songs live over and over again. When I heard the songs on the record, they were instantly recognisable to me. Yeah Nothing wasn’t just an album in a critical vacuum to me as I reviewed it. It was the LP that a band I’d already come to really like ended up putting out. I thought about it, and I thought, yeah, you have a point. Maybe an 8.
Because there’s nothing particularly new or awe-inspiring about Yeah Nothing. I have friends that listened to it once, thought ‘derivative’ and then shelved it on iTunes potentially forever. I wasn’t even sure I could expect a large percentage of people to listen to it and hear what I heard, even if that was something people did. For the purposes of AU, it was an 8/10, a genre album the reviewer thought was really good and catchy. It wasn’t going to change anyone’s world view.
For me though, it was a 9/10. It was obviously better than other Irish indie pop albums put out in 2011, even though many of them were very good in their own right. The songwriting was more rounded and more confident, the hooks were better, the songs could play with emotions and it was fun, in a specific type of way that I can’t help but love in music. It was better than pretty much every non-Irish indie pop album for me too, for the same reasons. A lot of the best American and English indie pop is plagued by either a dead-eyed detachment or an earnestness that’s a little off-putting whether or not it’s affected with irony.
Yeah Nothing has an inner personality that insulates it from that and makes it relatable straight away. And, like I said, I’d had those songs beaten into me already. I was just happy to have them all together. At some point since August, every single track on the album has been the one I’ve skipped to while walking around. If I was worried, in that conversation with Chris, that I’d end up revising my own opinion downwards as time went by, I needn’t have been. It was an 8 for AU purposes, it was and still is a 9 for mine, and it’s the sixth best album of the year.
And that is the end of this insight into the machinations of the Irish music press and also the way I sort music in my mind and the boring and annoying level of seriousness to my thought processes. Yeah Nothing is great, listen to it.
White devils like it. You’re a rap crew educated at Wesleyan, exposed to the world by a joke dance song about fast food and you’re actually called Das Racist, and that’s the line you choose to open your debut album. There’s a lot in those first four words though. It might say ‘confrontation’, in the sense that white people are devils and they can fuck off. It might say ‘guilt’, in the sense that the natural fanbase for pop art raps about products and identity politics turned out to be the white people they were (only sometimes) attacking. It might say college. It might say humour. It might imply that they’re engaging in some uncomfortable cultural appropriation of their own. It possibly says all of that, but the point is it definitely connotes.
It’s annoying to think of an album in a purely heady way, but the way Das Racist present themselves and the way they slid to prominence might demand it. When Relax came out, it wasn’t an album to listen to with fresh ears, it was the thing that Das Racist were finally willing to stand behind, supposedly free of the excuses that could save the often lazy-sounding, patchy mixtapes. Much as you might like to ignore them, they’re fascinating. Witness Heems go through his questions on Tumblr hammering the paste shortcut with the words ‘wet dog’ in all caps because everyone kept saying “I’m white and I think you are being rude to your fans”. Witness them venture a joke about John Boehner to a New York Times journalist who responds by saying she that that sort of thing is why she never asks rappers questions about politics as if they’d just uncovered the gay mafia that runs the entertainment industry. They are internet-era public figures who happen to rap. And if it’s worth hearing what they have to say about burgers and glasses of water, it’s worth at least checking out what they’re presenting as a debut album.
It’s a minefield, really. The album, not the broader cultural presence. It’s rife with ill-fitting juxtapositions and even when they work, it’s never comfortable. In fact, it’s only good when it’s not comfortable. The beats, some contributed by members of bands like Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer, are broadly indie-sounding, even touching the reprehensible chillwave at times. They snap, sometimes, like when El-P or Danny Brown need something resembling an actual rap beat to go over. But mostly they don’t. Kool A.D.’s complex flow fits any beat simply by filling it with syllables, mostly dripping in irony and sometimes even delivered in a half-laugh. It’s indigestible to call it postmodern so, as lay music fans, maybe we should stick to “throwing shit at a wall”. Sometimes it sticks. Sometimes it slides off, but rarely in an offensively bad way. Heems on the other hand, with a huskier rap voice possibly developed especially for this record, either nails it or sounds lost. When he nails it, he’s a hundred times the rapper Kool A.D. is with half the word count.
It’s easy to pick out the songs where the stars align and both just rap good verses without disappearing into either failed shit-at-a-wall collage or hectoring. I have no idea if it’s bad critical practice for me to just list them, but here they are: Relax, Michael Jackson, Middle Of The Cake and Rainbow In The Dark. Kool A.D. goes in especially on the first two, in slightly different ways. On the first one (or ‘the eponymous opener’), he presents Das Racist, as alluded to earlier, in scrapbook form. White devils, coffee, fire and brimstone, bringing light to the kids, the word ‘negro’, being an idiot, maybe getting more popular, Abramovic, Lady Gaga, the word ‘fag’, the Wesleyan, a poetry slam. With various levels of mockery. Aimed at himself and the listener. In an undiscernable ratio. On Michael Jackson it seems slightly less deft, just a string of cool-sounding bullshit, but then what was the verse on Relax? It is hard to find the line, especially when it’s probably not there to be found at all. When it works it, it’s self-evident.
Heems’ highlights are as the moments where he sounds like he feels it, in an immediate sense and not just a general one. On Relax, it goes from background story/identity politics to an aggressive present/identity politics as he growls “I ain’t backin’ out till I own a bank to brag about” and from then on he murders it. The moments aren’t all necessarily political righteousness though, they’re just the parts where he spits the line you remember. The parody brag “known to rock the flyest shit and eat the best pizza,” on Rainbow In The Dark, semi-disowned as meaningless joke music recently (although again, where the fuck is the line?), is cool. Outside of the violent self-definition on Relax, his verse on Middle Of The Cake hits the nail on the head. It’s direct, it’s never clumsy, he fits identity shit in without it sounding forced and he says good shit, like using Fran Drescher as a metaphor for money.
Middle Of The Cake just about evades being annoying for being agenda rap, but other songs don’t, not because agenda rap’s a problem per se, but just because they’re not as good. Brand New Dance is secondary school-level sarcasm (“it’s a brand new dance, give us all your money/everybody, love everybody”). Power feels aimless before Danny Brown comes in and provides an actual, normal rap verse about spending money and getting his dick sucked. Other songs have their own problems. They all have high points – quotables especially – but they have problems too. I am going to strategically ignore the songs that are either genre parody or self-indulgence. They’re alright, but they’re profoundly out of place, and they can fuck off.
But Relax is, above all else, engaging. It’s pleasant to listen to, even if ‘pleasant’ doesn’t sound like a compliment. It is definitely flawed. Pitchfork had a point in bringing up the “incomplete framework of a record meant to be aesthetically unified and audience-dividing”. But that’s partly why it’s so engaging. A uniform success in artistic terms would seem almost crude coming from Das Racist at this point. Yes, you could easily pare off a couple of tracks and there’s a recurring urge to take the red pen to certain lines and ideas, correcting and improving, but it’s the gamble that makes it exciting when it works. The arrogant disinterest they try to project actually ends up creating a sort of vulnerability, especially for Heems, who can suck really badly when he doesn’t get it exactly right. The confusion created by the sometimes meaningless flows and the ideas that don’t quite come off is the atmosphere that defines the album, and it’s that that makes the high points seem really, really high. It’s a reassuring sign that there’s no autopilot. That is enough, somehow, to compensate for everything that’s wrong.
I'm Karl. I write this blog and write for Totally Dublin. In a past life I got way too personal with my criticism of Sean McTiernan's predilection for Kendrick Lamar and dulcimer music made by psychotic men in forests on the legendary Them's The Vagaries podcast. Available to sell out in almost any way for money.
m c d o n a k j @ t c d . i e is my e-mail address. I don't really attempt to break new music here or anything, but every few months when I'm bored I pick random shit out of my inbox and free associate with it, so send me your Bjork remix or whatever.