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.)

Grantland’s Battle for the Best Song of the Millennium, the Elite 8

So, over the weekend while I was escaping my 35th birthday Grantland’s contest to find the best song of the century continued without me and without my very valuable commentary on the matter. For the time being, or all time let’s say, I’ll pass over the absurdity of the contest, the fact that it is just a bald attempt to garner some page hits, and the obscenity of the music that has been left out and just focus on celebrating the fact that Beyonce has been swept from the bracket.

There is no way this is a fair fight.

There is no way this is a fair fight.

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The Heist: “A Life Lived for Art is Never a Life Wasted”

Note: Today we bring you yet another post about Macklemore–who recently won the MTV VMA for best Hip-Hop artist–from a guest who has been a reader of the blog for a little while and a friend of the elder for much longer. The debate on Macklemore’s place in hip-hop seems to be flowing rather than ebbing, so we can’t promise we won’t chime in on the subject again. 

For now, here’s our friend and another teacher-extraordinaire, The Mr. and Only Moe.

I must start by saying that I grateful to the brothersj for allowing me to be a part of their endeavor, especially since my introduction is on a topic for which they have both sufficiently posted already. Before delving deeper into Macklemore and Lewis’s The Heist, some transparency is required. I agree with the elderj that my leftist political leaning effects my perspective on this album, but also I have found that the way in which I come by an album, where I am at in my life, greatly effects my affinity for an album as well, sometimes more.

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(Off and) On the Radio: Podcasts and Jaimeo Brown

I haven’t been listening to the radio as much lately because I have gone on a typical binge of audiobooks and podcasts. Even when running, I have forsaken some of the usual playlists (and, not because I have been using my wife’s iPod) for the spoken word. What, you might ask, do I listen to when I don’t listen to music?

I have a few go-to podcasts that I like to store up. I also periodically select audiobooks (especially long ones) to distract me. Here’s a quick list before I get to the musician of the day (Jaimeo Brown).

 

1. This American Life: I have to be completely honest about this one: I have downloaded all of the back episodes. I have donated money through my cell phone. I have dragged my poor, pregnant life to a live simulcast of this show. I regularly cry

Ira, you cruel, cruel bastard.

Ira, you cruel, cruel bastard.

while listening to it.

Now, I thought this attachment made me special. I thought my love for what I think of as the emancipatory power of narrative made me different. I even imagined that my ability to weep (while running, nonetheless) to Ira Glass’ nasally voice in some way indicated an emotional apparatus even my brother denied to me. When I mentioned this once at a party, I was quickly disabused of my fantasy: a woman around my age quipped “Everybody cries at This American Life.”

I am just shocked that the show doesn’t get its own entry on Stuff White People Like.

2. The Moth: If you don’t know the Moth–a series of events where people tell stories without notes live (often in a competition)–and This American Life is a little too structured for you, check out this podcast. The stories range from hysterical to heartbreaking. The common denominator? Narrative. Hearing these stories makes me feel more alive in a strange way because of the vicarious sharing of emotion and experience. Try out a few.

200px-Underworld3. Radiolab: This podcast is like This American Life for science. The episodes are always fascinating, enlightening, and entertaining. The problem? They don’t come out frequently enough.

4. Audiobooks: Recently, I finished listening to Delillo’s Underworld, a fascinating novel that uses as one of its conceits the story of the life of baseball hit by Bobby Thompson in 1951 to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers with a walk-off homerun after that game. The story is far more complex and finely written than that summary implies and it is one of the finer novels I have ‘read’ in a while. Of course, maybe this is because before I was obsessed with the Game of Thrones books…. 

Ok, ok. This was supposed to be a short post about something I heard on the radio and I digressed. After I finished underworld and before I downloaded a few books by William Gibson and Thomas Pynchon, I was listening to the Jazz station (the same one that metamorphoses into an Indie Rock station at night) and a breathy (probably adolescent or just a bit older) DJ introduced a track from the album Transcendence by Jaimeo Brown.

The lead single “This World is Not My Home”

Now, what first got me about this track is the phenomenal blend between blues sensibility and jazz instrumentation. After downloading the album and watching the performance, I realized that there was also a finely-tuned hip-hop aesthetic at the center of the choice to sample instead of performing some of the under-tracks. The sense of the performance is one of music history and present at the same time.

Jaimeo, the drummer, has a fantastic sense of rhythm and the composition blends parts blues, free-jazz and fusion (and hip-hop, the guitarist Sholar has worked as a producer with Jay-z and Kanye). But, what kind of shocked me about the music was the narrative frame provided by the DJ. He claimed that this album would prove to be “controversial”.  Why? The LA Times music reviewer Chris Barton alleges that  this album “should not work” but does because it is “a conversation between generations”.

Brown has real chops as a jazz drummer and an expansive mind for music, as well as  a great sense of its history. The album is eminently listenable–the tracks tend to be short (like blues instead of jazz) and each one offers something different. At times, the sound is more conventional, at times bluesy, at times I think I am listening to The Dirty Three.

If you have time, my brother, check out the track. I’d love to know what you think.

 

Grammys and Grammy Watching

450px-GrammySo, the Grammys are coming up soon and they promise to offer the typical menu of pageantry, performers, promotion and implicit prior authorization of music purchases. (Like that? Cynicism and alliteration at once?)

I mentioned not liking awards shows earlier this week, but I didn’t really state my objections rather clearly. For sake of clarity, then, here are my issues (and, yes, my brother, I am saying ‘issues’ the way our father would).

  1. The Grammys are about making money: The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (which gives out the award) was created by Recording executives. The process of nomination and the doling out of awards is really just one orgy of promotion for the recordings peddled by the sponsoring companies.
  2. The awards in every category are really about selling the most or being the best-known: It is obvious that to win an award, people need to know about you, but it isn’t true that just because something is well-known it is necessarily good or that it is better than something that isn’t as well-known. Further, just because a larger number of people buy something doesn’t mean that it is aesthetically superior. If anything, ‘products’ in wide circulation are often rather non-descript and mediocre.
  3. Awards shows are solipsistic and self-congratulatory parties thrown by rich people for other rich people. I think that says enough.
  4. The Grammys are historically bad at gauging important contributions to music: Pearl Jam won a grammy in 1996 for “Hard Rock Performance”, four years after Jeremy. Grammy voters are older and part of the record industry or institutionalized enough that they are universally conservative. Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991; Nirvana) is often cited as one of the most important albums of the 1990s. The year it was eligible for a Grammy The album of the year was Unforgettable …With Love (Natalie Cole). The Alternative album of the year was Out of Time (R.E.M). The next year? Album of the Year was Eric Clapton’s Unplugged. Alternative Album? Tom Waits’ Bone Machine. (Nine Inch Nails and Red Hot Chili Peppers got some love in the Rock Category but SIR MIX -A-LOT won the best Rap Solo Performance Grammy!).

The Academy authorized THIS? Perhaps I should rethink my criticisms….

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Songs of (My!) Year

So, we’re just about at the point where this blog has existed for a year. While there is something essentially arbitrary about this 365 day boundary—I mean, it isn’t like we really govern our years by the seasons any more…or something like that—but any boundary is at some point artificial (with the exception of death, I guess; there really isn’t denying that one).

There is definitely something to be said, however, for pausing a moment and reconsidering the way one has spent his or her time. As I have mentioned before, the younger Seneca, better known now for his tragedies and letters than his philosophical treatises, once remarked in De Brevitate Vitae that, contrary to popular opinion, life isn’t too short, most people just waste the time they have on this earth as to make it seem that way.

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On the Radio: Ni**as in Paris

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).

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