Songs of the Year—2000 How I learned to stop worrying and love Hip-Hop

Songs of the Year: “Yellow” Coldplay; “The Next Episode” Dr. Dre

Runners-Up: “Get Off”, The Dandy Warhols; “The Real Slim Shady” Eminem

Honorable Mentions: “Boyz N’ the Hood”, Dynamite Hack

The year with big releases by Radiohead and Greenday as well as by tertiary punk bands like Blink-182,  Sum 41 and Good Charlotte saw the charts dominated by acts from the 1980s (U2, Bon Jovi and Madonna) even as other bands released exciting albums ( Bright Eyes’ Fever and Mirrors, The White Stripes’ De Stijl, Coldplay’s Parachute, The Weakerthans’ Left and Leaving, WyClef’s mediocre Ecleftic, The Dandy Warhols’ Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia and Outkast’s Stankonia).

Continue reading

Advertisements

Songs of the Year—1991

Saying I love you
is not the words I want to hear from you
it’s not that I want you
not to say, but if you only knew
how easy it would be to show me how you feel…

-Extreme

(Before I even get to this post: how can I deal with the grammar of the first two lines of this song? I loved these lyrics, I really did. In 23 years will I think that the current me is as dumb as I now think that 1991 me was?  Will I actually be any smarter? Had I rejected the me from 1990? I know I was in denial about my NKOTB phase.)

Songs of the Year: “More than Words”, Extreme; “Summertime”, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince
Runners-Up: “I Touch Myself”, Divinyls; “Losing my Religion”, R.E.M.

In the year that “American Music” by the Violent Femmes, “Alive” by Pearl Jam, and “Smells like Teen Spirit”  were released as singles and during the same year that 2Pac, U2, Pixies and Guns N’ Roses released albums, I was listening to some real schmaltz. Some true crap. It is almost embarrassing to think of the two albums I remember buying that year after my sojourn with M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice.

The two albums: Pornograffiti (Extreme) and Homebase (D. J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince). My brother will probably remember that peppering this fine collection were such tasteful acquisitions as the debut album of Another Bad Creation, the hit record by Heavy D (R. I.P.)  and the Boyz and a copy of Color Me Badd’s self-titled offering (including the sublimely subtle “I wanna sex you up”).

(At least I wasn’t listening to “Everything I do…” by Bryan Adams or “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Michael Bolton. But, there’s only so much solace to be had there).

Now, the “More than Words” fixation is not one I am actually that embarrassed about. The song remains, if trite and a little too polished, a unique and pretty song. Certain aspects of it reflect tastes that I never quite shook: intricate harmonies and acoustic guitars. (As you can imagine, I saw the Simon and Garfunkel reunion special on PBS many times when I was very young. That explains it all, really. And this: I think my parents preferred Art to Paul. Seriously.)

“More than Words” came on the radio as I was just beginning to think about someday, just maybe, dating girls. The tone, rhythm, pace and overall arrangement made it sound like quite the love song. Upon contemplation, however, I was in a quandary. At first, I thought the singer was trying to guilt-trip his girl into sex. After almost rejecting the song for such a base message, I decided instead that it was really about matching words with actions (thus beginning a long personal practice of debating, rejecting, and reconciling song meanings).

The dark side of this song is the rest of the album. My recent album training under M. C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice led me to expect “More than Words” to be surrounded by songs that were more or less like it (just not quite as good). My shock, upon discovering that Extreme’s name was no accident, was incurable. I don’t think I could ever get through the screaming vocals and heavy guitars of the rest of the album.

Continue reading

On the Radio (New Music for me): Big K.R.I.T.

It has been raining a bit of late in my adopted home state. This is eventful because we often go 60 days or more

Please....

Please….

without rain. So infrequent is the rainfall that my two children are shocked and frightened by the sight, driven to chanting that childhood apotropaic chant: “rain, rain, go away…”.

Rain in states where rain rarely falls also means worse traffic. In even normal traffic situations, I am not a patient or un-profane man. I don’t like when people take forever to make right-hand turns or decide to take a few breaths, a sip of coffee and say a little prayer before heeding a green traffic signal. When it rains, everything slows down.

My serenity, thus already disrupted by the weather and traffic was dealt another mighty blow by the fact that because I have slain yet another iPod, I was cursed to listen to the radio. The stations were all on commercial, it seemed, and NPR was torturing me with another report of looming government shutdowns. I couldn’t take it. I pressed scan on the radio band.

And then I was taken back to a local college station I had forgotten about. A station whose existence had so slipped my mind that I actually googled it to make sure it really existed in my general area and wasn’t just some accident of weather induced serendipity. It wasn’t. It was real. And it was playing Big K.R.I.T.

“Dreamin'” is a masterful track that features the rapper’s drawled style and clever autobiographical rhymes.

Big K.R.I.T. hasn’t released many albums and is currently working on his second major solo work, but he has released a bunch of tracks, has collaborated with a bunch of well-known people, and is touring with Macklemore. (If you want to know more, read his damned wikipedia page for yourself). His song, wedged in between alt-rock tracks by bands named Still Life Still and No Age, made me happy about the length of time the drive was taking. I forgot about the traffic. I regained my serenity.

Of course, as soon as I got to my office I downloaded some more Big K.R.I.T. and I was not disappointed. (Yes, you can imagine 30-something white professor of humanities sitting in a University office bobbing his head to hip-hop. I don’t know what this means.) His production has a spare style that eschews much of the decadence and bloat of mainstream hip-hop. This track is mellow and reflective.

But what makes KRIT different is his ability to write rhymes that flow well with his southern drawl (in a way that builds upon and betters Nelly). Check out this verse:

I told them call me KRIT, they told me change my name
Don’t be alarmed if you don’t make it, that’s just part of the game
Besides I ain’t rapping about dope nor did I sell it
I guess the story of a country boy just ain’t compelling
A&R’s searching for a hit, I just need a meal
Couldn’t afford to pay the rent, but passed up on the deal
Cause, it wasn’t right sometimes you gotta wade the storm
In a class of my own, but I was scared to raise my arm

I realize that what attracts me to this artist is, in part, his reflective approach to hip-hop, his honesty, and his sparer treatment. In his rejection of the drug-dealer narrative and his putative refusal of money, he lays some claim to the starving artist position. And, yet, he prevaricates about his own integrity, implying in the final line that it is as much fear as artistic conviction that has limited him.

But, as you can tell from listening, he also has a fine sense of what makes music effective and what he has inherited from the artists before him. It will be interesting to see how he continues to navigate these influences in his next release.

What do you think, my brother?

Written Elsewhere: Frat Rap and a Final Word on Macklemore

After we posted no fewer than three entries about Macklemore and Lewis’ The Heist in a week (one review, one reaction and one fine guest-post traversing between the personal and the artistic), I swore that I was never going to write about Macklemore again (or at least not for a few weeks!). I still couldn’t quite figure out how to evaluate Macklemore fairly.

Vanilla Ice wasn’t ‘real’. And MC Hammer was?

Since the birth of hip-hop and its spread to the suburbs on the airwaves and through MTV thanks to unthreatening dance artists and, then, even later after gangtsa rap dominated the landscape, a rapper’s persona was in part defined by his color. The early pioneers, the Beastie Boys, were really just shouting. Vanilla Ice was a wannabe’s wannabe. Eminem was an exception because of his experience and his unique ability to rap at a machine gun pace and twist surprising rhymes.

Continue reading

Requiem for Grantland’s Quarter-Finals: Ni**as in Paris

This is probably violating some type of copyright. But, hey, free advertising for Grantland.com.

This is probably violating some type of copyright. But, hey, free advertising for Grantland.com.

Note: I wrote this post before the competition closed and quite erroneously predicted Adele’s victory. OutKast is victorious! This may undermine my claims about ‘recency effect’ or racism (although nostalgia and ‘safe’ hip-hop could be offered as explanations). For the wider public, I actually think that “Hey Ya” is more attractive than the subject of this post…

This is my third and final post about Grantland’s competition for the Best Song of the Millennium. My predictions have failed and the final competition is between Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya”. I feel fairly confident that Adele will win the competition for a few reasons. For one, pop culture seems to have its own type of ‘recency effect’ whereby contemporary or rather recent phenomena are judged as better than those more distant in memory. “Hey Ya” defeated some stiff competition along the way (“Hot in Herre” and “Ignition Remix”) but those songs were also outside the memory of the younger generation.

The bigger issue that I think helps to explain Adele’s success apart from the fact that her presence on the radio is concurrent with the competition (recency effect) and her overwhelming difference from other artists, is her relative ‘safe-ness’, by which I mean , her music is non-edgy but ‘soulful’ R&B derivative, she is not over-sexualized, and, she is white.

I don’t want to make too much of possible racial patterns in pop-culture voting, but from Elvis to Eminem and Macklemore, white artists who channel black music often enjoy more success than their counterparts. (And, I suspect that former American Idol contestants are correct that racism is operative in that competition as well, the difference is that they blame the contest and not the voters.)

This is not to detract from the beauty of “Rolling in the Deep” or the power of Adele as an artist but to attest, instead, that the voting is influenced unduly by prejudices basic to our culture and by the bizarre circumstances of the Best Song of the Millennium bracket to begin with. And, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that “Ni**as in Paris” is an abrasive and, for many people, alienating song. That said, it is better than Adele’s song and I thought this a long time back. So here’s a re-posting of why love this song.

As I have mentioned before, my wife brainwashed both of our children in utero with mainstream hip-hop and top 40’s formats. From the posts on this blog it would seem that I don’t care at all about hip-hop, which is not actually the case. The problem is more that the necessary ingredients to love hip-hop as an adolescent were absent from my youth (listening to R&B, funk; the right atmosphere and geography) and my gene pool (my parents were the whitest people on the planet and grew up in some of the whitest places on the planet; they never listened to jazz, blues or anything edgier than the Rolling Stones).

These, of course, are excuses. The real fault is my own. After an early love for bad mainstream rap (MC Hammer, I still feel you), I was a bit put off by the gangsta rap explosion (which came around the same time as grunge). The kids in my all white high school who were wearing cross colors, dropping their pants low, and talking about forties and the like just seemed like morons. So, I ignored the whole damn thing.

And missed out on some great artists. Sure, I heard enough Dre, Snoop, Tupac and the like to know one from the other, but I didn’t really get to appreciate hip-hop until I met my wife who listened to nothing but rap and hip-hop (with the exception of Bon Jovi, an addition I still do not understand) until she met me. Cross-pollination happened; and eventually so did children.

So, rather than wholly brainwash my children, or fight against their preferences (they really do seem to dislike some of the slower, guitar driven stuff I prefer), I play the local hip-hop station on occasion. And for about the past six  months or so I can’t get enough of one song: “Ni**as in Paris” by Kanye West and Jay-Z.

Here’s the first weird thing about this: I don’t really like either artist individually. Jay-z does too much that isn’t rapping (although, as a producer I find him to be a great deal less annoying than the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy); Kanye, whose talent cannot be denied, just seems too thin-skinned in his public proclamations and a bit of a nutjob.

But, because I am so unfamiliar with current hip-hop, no longer watch music videos, and habitually ignore what DJs say, I didn’t know who sang Ni**as_In_Paris. The music drives forward, the opening rapping is aggressive yet not violent. The alternation between rappers works really well. The contrast between the faster and more muscular phrasing of the first rapper (Jay-z) and the dirtier, drawn-out syllables of the second (Kanye) keeps the song from getting repetitive.

(I had to be told by my wife who the artists were, that Jay-z was saying “ball so hard” and not something like “Hasselhof”; I told her that the lines in the middle are from Will Ferrell and originally reference that “Milkshake” song.)

In fact, I think that it is Kanye whose vocals made me like the song the most. When he first takes over the mic, he raps “She said Ye can we get married at the mall? / I said look you need to crawl ‘fore you ball / Come and meet me in the bathroom stall /And show me why you deserve to have it all”. He stretches and builds the vowels at the end of each phrase, and the growl in his voice coupled with the slightly lazy articulation makes me think of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard (R.I.P.)

Here’s what else sets this song apart from the noise on the radio: like the best rap songs it is clever. The driving metaphor of the song is ‘ballin’ of some sort: Jay-z starts with a great boast (“So I ball so hard muhfuckas wanna fine me/ first ni**as gotta find me”) and later turns through a great list of luminaries (“Psycho, I’m liable to go Michael / Take your pick, Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6”).

But I think there is a self-deprecating play going on here (or else I should hate the song for being another anthem to how rich and awesome the rappers are). Let’s start with the obvious contrast in the song’s title between the reclaimed yet still powerful racial epithet and the European city known for its sophistication. From the beginning, then, I would suggest that this song declares “we, who are from the outside, are now where you live; we have the best”.

But rappers have declared this before. Kanye seems to play with this concept by poking holes in the pretense during one of the best parts of the song:

What’s Gucci my ni**a?
What’s Louie my killa?
What’s drugs my deala?
What’s that jacket, Margiela?
Doctors say I’m the illest
Cause I’m suffering from realness
Got my ni**as in Paris
And they going gorillas, huh!

Note the inverted invocation of brand names (Kanye declaring he knows them by claiming not to know them) followed by a re-assertion of the artist’s realness as he reminds us again of the scene that might have been (and still is if we accept “ni**as” as denoting a particularly American identity) one of fish out of water, of outsiders dwelling (and now buying) where they shouldn’t. Implicit then in the last line of this verse is the cumulative force of racism and stereotyped expectation that both rappers buy into even as they undermine their own identities as hip-hop artists by indicating the shifting and problematic nature of their realness.

Moments like this are what I love the most about hop-hop—it provides a framework for some of the most complicated identity negotiation that occurs in modern music. I may spend most of my time listening to whiny indie music, and I have to admit that there is as much crap on the hip-hop frequency as on any other dial, but there is a reason that 100 years from now the rise of hip-hop will garner more notice than the zenith of alternative rock. It is more vibrant, worldly and often packed with the power of great poetry.

Oh, and my children love the beats.

I am also so on board with this:

(Yes. I drive a prius and listen to NPR. We are all stereotypes to some degree.)

Macklemore: Same love of the Thrift Shop

Beyond all the deep stuff my brother got into with his post about Macklemore, the one thing I find coolest about this song is how catchy it is without being annoying. The beats are fantastic and I think Ryan Lewis will do big things in that department.  Due to this phenomenon, I have seen everyone from four year-olds to middle-schoolers  and adults of all ages to my ninety year old mother react positively to this song. When I chaperoned an overnight trip to an ecology school on the coast in Maine last spring, I got up at 4:30 am to see the sunrise with a bunch of enthusiastic 8th graders. This one girl was wearing pajamas with footies and I wondered out loud where a grown man could find nightwear of this nature. She quickly replied, “I dunno, try the thrift shop.”

My brother wrote a very thorough and heartfelt review of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s album The Heist that impressed me as most of his posts do. I will definitely cover some of the same ground, however, I think one of the good things about our blog is the different ways we write and approach what we write about. At least that’s what people tell me who read our blog regularly, so I will try and keep it up.

Continue reading

“The Content of His Character”, Album Review, Macklemore’s The Heist

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” ~ Martin Luther King

(Ok, ok. That quote is a bit heavy to start with, but it makes sense. I think. This is the first of a few posts about Macklemore. My brother writes about the song “Same Love” almost exclusively; our friend the one and only Moe writes about why he thinks The Heist is a great album.)

More than a few months ago now, my good friend and once roommate Another J asked me if I would consider reviewing the album The Heist by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. I immediately agreed (because I love to please and the childhood schoolboy in me still likes specific assignments), but then I procrastinated after listening to the album. I told myself that I didn’t have time; that I wanted to listen to the album more; and that I had other deadlines that came first. But most of that is bunk.macklemore1

The fact is that I have been trying for months to figure out a way to talk about Macklemore without talking about race, without mentioning his whiteness in a world of mostly non-white hip-hop artists and without comparing him to that other successful white rapper (you know, Eminem). In one sentence I have now acknowledged all of those things because  it is impossible to evaluate the accomplishment of this album without appreciating its (1) context and (2) the obstacles that faced it.

No one who is even half-way intelligent believes we live in a post-racial society. And no one should. The lie that we are somehow past prejudice, profiling, and systematic discrimination is the very thing that makes it possible for the heinous attack on civil rights through the recent evisceration of the Voters’ Rights Act and which perpetuates an economic and criminal system that continues to obliterate Black families and the futures of young minority men. Yet, at the same time, our hyper-consciousness of race and its possible effects also makes it nearly impossible for people of different experiences to discuss something like the death of Trayvon Martin.

Continue reading