Friday, December 28, 2007

Rap Album of the Year: Wu-Tang's 8 Diagrams

Nothing perplexed me more in the world of music this year than the reaction to the new Wu-Tang Clan album, 8 Diagrams. 2007 has been undoubtedly the busiest of my life, which explains my lengthy absence from posting on this site, but also explains why I actually heard the new Wu record before I read anything about it (rare in this day and age, especially for a pop culture addict like myself). I listened to it the night I purchased it and then listened to it again and then again, and then one more time, so that I was going to sleep at 3 a.m. when I had to be up at the crack of dawn. I couldn't help myself. I felt like I was digesting a true masterpiece – am album that people will be talking about 10 and 20 years from now.

Then I went online the next to day to read what I assumed would be the dozens of glowing reviews, expecting an army of genuflecting critics kneeling before the alter of the Clan. Instead, what I found was a lot of harsh criticism, half-hearted praise, and, above all else, lukewarm responses galore.

What on earth?

And so it is that the new Wu-Tang Clan album has brought me out of my recent hiatus, both to defend its honor as well as to proclaim it my Hip-Hop Album of the Year. (Note: I stop short of calling it the overall album of the year, although it is in my top five. I just liked the 2007 efforts by The National and Wilco too much to give the Shaolin Soldiers the top spot.)

Granted, it wasn’t a banner year in rap, but I still feel like I’m alone on an island in regard to this choice. Until the flurry of fourth quarter releases, I was content to give the title to Kanye, along with everybody else. I loved Graduation and honestly didn’t expect anyone from the trio of Wu, Ghost, and Lupe to strip Mr. West of the honor of Hip-Hop Album of the Year. But then I had my all-night Wu-Tang listening party and the decision was pretty much made.

But just to be sure, I’ve given this record another 12 or 200 spins, broken it down piece by piece, reassembled it. I’ve listened to it on trains, planes, and in automobiles. Over speakers and through headphones. I’ve given it every chance to fail, for my ears to hear the mediocrity I keep reading about. It’s not happening.

Perhaps I’m just showing my age. The Wu’s epic reign over rap music in the 1990s coincided with the height of my hip-hop appreciation, when the only sounds playing in my 1983 Volvo and in my college dorm room where the beats and rhymes of rap. And while I flirted with the No Limit craze and always appreciated Redman and certainly got excited about Jay-Z and Eminem and the Alkoholics and a bunch of other great stuff from the back half of that decade, it was always about Wu-Tang for me. At 29, maybe I just represent the target market for the 2007 version of the Wu. It is entirely possible that I’m just getting old.

However, I think it is more than that. Because while I certainly fall somewhere in the general description of a “hipster” rap fan, I don’t quite glean my opinion from the hordes of snobby blogs and pretentious music websites like so many other hipsters out there. And I also don’t necessarily think that Ghostface is the greatest musical artist alive, which I believe is important.

You see, the Ghostface fascination has reached a point where he can do no wrong. From his genuine classics like Ironman and Supreme Clientele to his albums that were more scattered-but-still-treated-like-classics such as 2004’s The Pretty Toney Album and 2006’s doubleheader of Fishscale and More Fish (don’t get me wrong, I loved them all, but they weren’t as good as everyone made them out to be) to his cameo on 30 Rock to his children’s book (okay, I made that last one up), Ghost can do no wrong in the eyes of the hipsters and the critics.

So when he and Raekwon came out and launched a war against the RZA and tried to discredit 8 Diagrams while alternatively pushing Ghost’s new The Big Doe Rehab as the “real” Wu-Tang album, I think that a huge segment of the music critic population was influenced. To put it bluntly, they let their love of Ghostface blind them to the actual merits of 8 Diagrams, trusting his opinion over their own. They never gave this RZA masterpiece a chance. Never really listened, the way I did that first night (and probably never would have, had I too been aware of what Ghost was saying).

Because when you really listen to 8 Diagrams, what you hear is an incredible hip-hop album. RZA has arranged a collection of songs more varied and creative and atmospheric than anything else that came out this year. I’m not sure he could ever top Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) or his work on GZA’s Liquid Swords, but he gives those albums a pretty good run for their. His production work is just off the charts, which is saying something considering how impressed I was with Kanye’s work on the boards on Graduation. I’ll go as far as to say that if the RZA were to be the sole producer on a 50 Cent album, he could single-handedly restore Fifty’s credibility with just one record. He’s that smart and talented and aware of what he’s doing.

As for the rapping, you can’t ask for much more than an album full of dense lyrics from the whole Wu crew, bar after bar crammed onto hyperkenetic and foreboding tracks with few rote choruses and almost no real hooks at all. If you like radio rap or club jams, this probably isn’t the album for you, but if you love grimy rap, stripped of all its pretense and nonsense, I don’t see how you could NOT love 8 Diagrams.

To prove my thesis (which is impossible, because ultimately, the appreciation of music is about individual taste, but whatever), I’m going track by track, breaking down every beat and every verse. Maybe I have it all wrong and maybe I’m just too old to get it anymore, but I defy someone to set aside the Ghostface drama, listen to this album, and tell me its not awesome.

Anyway, here are the tracks:

1. Campfire. The kung-fu movie dialogue intro speaks to the way one should digest music in this day and age: “We must be patient.” This is followed with a gorgeous singing intro which leads to a rattling and rumbling beat and an immediate Method Man verse. This is the Method Man we haven’t heard in years, the one that I watched on season three of The Wire and wished would someday rap with the same passion he was displaying in his acting. And here he is (the “trying to bring the sexy back” line aside). The rest of the song packs in a crisp Ghost verse, a vicious 16 bars from Cappadonna (I loved that we only had to wait two and a half minutes into the album to hear from the Clan’s “unofficial” member), and more kung-fu dialogue. It’s all pretty simple and straightforward, but it screams “Wu-Tang” and sets the mood perfectly.

Beat: A-
Method Man verse: B+ (docked a few points for the “sexy back” line, which I just didn’t like)
Ghostface verse: A
Cappadonna verse: A-
Overall: A-

2. Take it Back. This is probably the biggest throwback track on the album and what it lacks in obvious creativity, it makes up for in simplicity. The beat just bounces along and stays out of the way, giving guys like Rae, Ghost, and Deck the chance to shine on the strength of their verses alone. Ghost in particularly absolutely murders this song and Deck goes back to his familiar role of “scene stealer” among the bigger names, providing a verse that will be worth listening to for years to come.

Beat: B+
Raekwon verse: A-
Deck verse: A
Ghostface verse: A
U-God verse: B
Meth and U-God Chorus: B-
Overall: A-

3. Get Them Out Ya Way Pa. The beat on this is almost impossibly slick. It just glides along with a pulsing bass line and sets up the aggressive call-and-response chorus, mixing in the occasional cymbal, guitar lick, and sprinkles of what sound like wind chimes. This is RZA giving a master’s course in the power of a subtle arrangement. No one is particularly good on the mic as Meth loses some of his momentum, U-God is only slightly above average, and Masta Killa is the star of the song (not typically a good sign).

Beat: A
Meth verse: B
U-God verse: B+
Masta Killa verse: B+
Rae and Ghost Chorus: A-
Overall: B+

4. Rushing Elephants. This is when things really start heating up on the album. This track is on every playlist I have working right now, from my writing mixes to the random CD’s I pop into my car on the way to work (no, I don’t have an iPod hookup). The first 45 seconds are pure magic: the little horns and Rae’s “yeah, yeah, yeah” leading into the colliding drums and bass and then the sharpest Raekwon verse in almost a decade (although he came surprisingly close on last year’s Ill Bill mixtape). Then no chorus and bam, the first GZA appearance on the record and it’s a good one. Who cares what the rest of the song even includes? (For the record though, it is RZA’s best verse on the album and another solid Masta Killa contribution.)

Beat: A
Raekwon verse: A
GZA verse: A-
RZA verse: A
Masta Killa verse: A-
Overall: A

5. Unpredictable. Here is one song where I pretty much know right off the top that I like it more than everyone else. And that is because it reminds me of my favorite stuff from Deck’s first solo album and also because RZA manages to accomplish the rare feat of successfully working in an electric guitar over the clanging and uber-aggressive track. (I would argue that it is the best use of electric guitar in a rap song since Kanye layered them into Freeway’s “Turn Out The Lights.”) It’s not my favorite RZA beat, mainly because it tends to overwhelm the rapping, but between the extra-long Deck banger and the psychedelic RZA/Dexter Wiggins chorus/bridge/ramble, I just love this song. It feels like a cross between the background music for a Bourne chase scene and something that might have existed if rap were around back when everyone was doing LSD.

Beat: B+
Deck verse: A
RZA verse: B+
RZA/Wiggins Chorus: A-
Overall: A-

6. The Heart Gently Weeps. This is the one song that all the critics are fawning over and it is easy to see why. Between the outstanding RZA track that (as you know by now) is the first to legally sample a Beatles song and the transcendent Ghostface verse about a shootout with the vengeful nephew of a guy that died from the drugs Ghost once sold to him, there is plenty to get the critics in a lather. There isn’t much I can add to the thousands of words that have already been written about this song, other than to say that while Ghost clearly steals the show (it is ironic, by the way, that Ghost is better here and on virtually all of his 8 Diagrams cuts than he is on his own album), Raekwon and Method Man both turn in underrated performances. I’m not sure how I feel about the fairly creepy Erykah Badu chorus.

Beat: A
Raekwon verse: A
Ghostface verse: A
Meth verse: A
Erykah Badu Chorus: B
Overall: A

7. Wolves . While it might not be the best track on the album from a technical standpoint, “Wolves” is my favorite song on this record. I love the George Clinton ramblings that recall 2Pac’s “U Can’t See Me,” the tiny little ODB sample 20 seconds in, the best U-God verse of all time, the eerie “oohs” in the background, the awesome lead-in and sparse mix that RZA throws on the beat at the beginning of Masta Killa’s verse and, well, pretty much everything on this song. Download this, throw it in a random mix, and tell me its not one of the best rap songs you’ve heard this year.

Beat: A
U-God verse: A
Meth verse: A-
Masta Killa verse: A
George Clinton Chorus: A
Overall: A

8. Gun Will Go . I used the word “slick” to define the beat of “Get Them Out Ya Way Pa,” but it is even more appropriate here. RZA shows ridiculous restraint, laying down a simple track for the verses and then incorporating a creepy violin during the rich, lush Sunny Valentine chorus. This arrangement certainly makes Rae sound good on the opening stanza, but it really brings Method Man to the forefront. I feel comfortable saying that this is the best Meth has sounded since about 1995. Seriously. And then, once again, RZA fiddles with the beat for the Masta Killa verse, this time complicating and distorting it with what sound like horns but could also be an alarm clock for all I know. It sort of buries the lyrics, but this is a good thing, because it makes an otherwise forgettable 16 bars infinitely more memorable. I know I keep raving about this, but RZA’s piecing together of this album is one of the top 20 all-time production efforts, in my opinion. Hand Mathematics or 4th Disciple or one of those other Wu apprentices the same basic concept and the same rappers and this song sucks balls. Instead, it’s a near-masterpiece. Now that is talent.

Beat: A
Raekwon verse: A-
Meth verse: A
Masta Killa verse: A-
Sunny Valentine Chorus: A
Overall: A

9. Sunlight . I will admit that this could be argued as a bit of a weak spot on the album, mainly because it feels too indulgent on RZA’s part. It sounds like a RZA song that would come from a solo record. That doesn’t change the fact that it is still arranged nicely and features a pretty solid lyrical effort, but it is just a letdown from the momentum of the previous four tracks and something that doesn’t really belong on a Wu album. This track and “Life Changes” are probably the sole reason why 8 Diagrams places #4 on my list of 2007 albums list, rather than #1 or #2. It doesn’t have as many misteps as Kanye’s, Lupe, or Jay-Z, but since The National and Wilco made virtually no mistakes, they get the nod.

Beat: B
RZA verse: B+
Overall: B

10. Stick Me For My Riches . I was ready to anoint this as an all-time classic Wu cut until my brother told me he didn’t even like it a little bit. That gave me pause. But I shook that off and am back to loving this song. Gerald Alston provides a perfect intro (it just builds and builds), Method Man is a house of fire here, and both Deck (sounding more like Freddie Foxx than himself – are we sure that’s him?) and GZA give their usual reliably tight verses. I will concede that the southern rap-sounding double time beat isn’t RZA’s most dominant on the album, but it is still solid in every way, especially because it set him up for his own very simple, but very effective choppy verse four minutes in.

Beat: A-
Meth verse: A
Deck verse: A
RZA verse: A-
GZA verse: A-
Gerald Alston Chorus: A
Overall: A

11. Starter . Here’s how I know this album is amazing – because even when Wu lowers itself to the obligatory sex track that plagues nearly every rap album of the 21st Century, the song is still pretty awesome. RZA comes through with a gurgling track full of punctuating horns and a driving beat that allows all comers to throw out tight and compelling verses. The lyrics aren’t anything terribly amazing, but they all sound fantastic. Even the Streetlife cameo is pretty awesome, which is saying something.

Beat: A
Streetlife verse: A-
GZA verse: A
Deck verse: A-
U-God verse: A-
Sunny Valentine Chorus: A-
Overall: A-

12. Windmill . I love this song. It is all sped up and frantic with that little wail in the background that make Rae and Ghost sound so at home (too bad Ghost isn’t on this one, he would have destroyed it). Once again, RZA gave his Wu members a better track to work with than anything they could go get from outside help. It doesn’t hurt a bit to have a killer GZA contribution right in the middle of it all. Oh, and this is probably the best Deck has sounded in years – probably since his guest spot on Gang Starr’s “Above the Clouds.”

Beat: A-
Raekwon verse: A
GZA verse: A
Masta Killa verse: B+
Deck verse: A
Meth verse: B+
Cappadonna verse: A-
Overall: A-

13. Weak Spot . Another vintage kung-fu intro that leads right into vintage Wu-Tang. This song is dark and dense and immediately identifiable as a Wu banger. You wouldn’t even need to hear the RZA verse to know that he made it. It isn’t transcendent in any way or anything too terribly new, but it is just flawless Wu-Tang. People who love these guys likely love this song. Rae brings it, GZA brings it, and it’s all smothered in a stomping beat and martial art sound bites. If only it was the final song on the album.

Beat: A
RZA verse: B
Raekwon verse: A
GZA verse: A-
Overall: A-

14. Life Changes . I believe this is the weakest song on the album. The Freda Payne sample is pretty much a straight rip and drop in and over half the verses are lazy and boring. I think that this mediocre tribute to ODB is one of the reasons that people are kind of down on the album, which is a little ludicrous. It is, after all, just one song. But I understand that it is disappointing. Other than GZA and Deck (whose verse was too short, but seemed truly heartfelt), nobody sounds like they put much time into this at all. It’s also weird that Ghost isn’t on here. Overall, there is no doubt that this should have been so much better.

Beat: B-
Meth verse: B-
Raekwon verse: B
GZA verse: A
Masta Killa verse: B-
Deck verse: A-
U-God verse: B-
RZA verse: C
Freda Payne Sample/Chorus: B-
Overall: B-

All told, this is an album with few flaws and a ton of highlights. I wish there was more GZA on the first half and Ghost on the second half and that they had done more with the ODB tribute, but overall, I have few complaints. My standards for this record were extremely high and it somehow lived up to my expectations and then some. RZA raised his game to another level in terms of arrangement, Method Man sounds like he got ahold of a time machine, Raekwon is on point throughout, and really every guy in the Clan performs at a high level. The album is a model of restraint as it opted to forgo radio-friendly singles and club bangers and Akon and T-Pain verses and instead went in the direction of a complete album full of diverse songs threaded together with mood and atmosphere.

Add it all up and it is enough to get the Wu past Kanye and into the top spot on my list of 2007 rap albums. I just wonder why no one else sees it that way.

Friday, September 14, 2007

50 vs. Kanye

When it comes to music, I've been out of the loop for a while. I didn't even realize there was a new Rogue Wave album and it took me over a week to finally listen to Ben Harper's new one. In fact, other than the latest Rilo Kiley offering, I can't remember the last time a new album become a key part of my day. Obviously, this is one of the many costs of working 60-hour weeks.

Luckily, the big 50 Cent and Kanye West duel popped up this week to ease me out of my slumber.

These are two artists that I've been following closely for pretty much this entire decade; 50 when he was the most feared and relentless underground rapper I can ever remember and Kanye when he was the masterful and anonymous sound behind some of Jay-Z's best work ever ("Kanye, you did it again; you're a genius!"). They both burst onto the scene as mainstream solo artists in a way that struck people as "out of nowhere," when really it was more of a "long time coming" kind of thing. They each dropped a debut that was met with both critical acclaim and massive commercial success. They quickly became known for their particular brands of charisma, their eccentric behavior, their massive egos, and their iconic videos and anthems. And while Kanye continued to expand his producer image behind the scenes (seriously, who has a bigger imprint in popular music right now?), 50 turned himself into a brand name that would make even P Diddy feel lazy. Trust me, the these two fellows are more similar than they are different.

However, this week of simultaneous 9/11 releases saw these two artists go in completely different directions. It's not just that Graduation is amazing while Curtis is dog poop (even though that is true), but rather that Kanye continued his trend of self-revelation and experimentation and commitment to the art form, while 50 Cent just recycled the same old formula and burned it onto a bunch of compact discs.

I'll start with 50's release. Curtis probably isn't bad as everyone is saying. There are a few "bangers" (as the kids are saying these days) on there and a lot of the production is technically solid. It's certainly a better collection of rap songs than we got on The Massacre, but that's not saying much. The problem is that it is just a copy of a copy of a copy. More specifically, it is a copy of a copy of Get Rich Or Die Tryin'. This is a problem. Where were all the soul samples that 50 was supposedly going to incorporate into this album? For that matter, where was the outstanding reported title of Before I Self Destruct? It is obvious that 50 has no hunger and probably no time to spend in the studio, because he just mailed this thing in. I will never turn on 50 like so many have and I'll always maintain that he was once great, but he's certainly not anymore. As an artist, he relies on passion and anger and whatever fueled his creative drive. In that way, he's like a less talented Eminem - massive success hasn't done either of them many favors as rappers. And that is why Curtis is unmemorable and disappointing and totally expected all at once. We all know that the old 50 is gone and is never coming back. And you know what? Good for him that he's not so full of pain and anger anymore. But bad for us.

Meanwhile, it seems that success only breads contempt for Kanye West. Contempt for the industry, the world, whatever. Over the course of three albums he has remade himself from a happy-go-lucky braggart into a egomaniac and then into an isolationist. But unlike 50, Kanye's journey has pushed him creatively. Every album tries more crazy things and features better songs and showcases even more exceptional composition skills. The man knows how to put a rap album together, that is for sure. And maybe I turned into a bit of a homer where rap is concerned after my time in Chicago, but I could honestly drop every single hip-hop artist that isn't from Chicago from my iTunes catalog and not suffer in the least. Give me Kanye and Common and Lupe and Rhymefest and I'm all good.

All told, I couldn't be happier to see Kanye bring the goods yet again ... although a small part of me wishes it had been Public Enemy #1 50 Cent that performed the trick.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Thoughts on the Season Finale of Lost

The two-hour season three finale of Lost was absolutely incredible. Twists, turns, promises fulfilled, great acting, some absurdly pleasing action hero moments, and several ticking clock plots. But for all that - for Charlie's heroic death and Jack and Juliette's kiss to the "I love you" proclamation to Hurley running a dude over in a van to Walt appearing before Locke as a vision - for ALL THAT, I can only fixate on the images of Jack, drunk and drugged out and completely lost in L.A.

In what appears to be a very clever flash forward device (and there were plenty of clues, not the least of which was the RAZR phone), Jack is back from the island and miserable. He is beyond sad, wants to kill himself, and can barely get through the day. To me, it is one of the most haunting things I've seen on a TV show and it left me hoping (begging) that the whole thing was an alternate universe or a Desmond vision or some other Lost-like creation that can be altered and fixed. Because I can take unsolved mysteries and characters dying, but I'm not sure I can deal with known futures devoid of hope. How do you root for these characters if you know things turn out so devastatingly bad for them?

Many seem to think that this finale signals a new trend for the show and that they will begin to show flash forwards off life after the island. I really hope that is not the case. Because a character devoid of hope, with a foretold future of tragedy, is the saddest character of all. And above all, Lost is a show about characters.

Amazing stuff. But haunting, rough stuff as well.

Now we wait for January 2008 to see if Jack's dad is somehow alive (which would prove some sort of alternate universe theory) and not just the result of the rantings of a shattered soul. I'm crossing my fingers, even if it means suspending my reality.

Album Review: Boxer by The National

Walking down a deserted (but perpetually shimmering) Michigan Avenue in Chicago the other night, listening to The National's fourth full-length album in my iPod, it dawned on me that I had to review this, and that it would continue a trend of only reviewing music that I love. I promise to rectify this by finding a truly crap album and crushing it sometime in the next month. Until then, bask in the positivity, people.

The first thing that strikes me about Boxer is that it sounds a lot like my other favorite albums of 2007, yet remains wholly original. Lead singer Matt Berninger sounds a bit like Andrew Bird, both in style (baritone, slightly monotonous voice) and substance (non sequiturs, clever imagery, and an extensive vocabulary), which is an absolute compliment. Bird's Armchair Apocrypha was probably my favorite 2007 release until Elliott Smith's New Moon. And if the vocals sound like Bird, the overall feel and mood of the album call to mind a more subtle and contained version of the Arcade Fire release Neon Bible. Again, this is a good thing.

The problem with comparing one artist to another is that it implies a derivative quality to the work; that the band is somewhere between an inspired cherry-picker with great taste and a rogue musical pickpocket. Know that resorting to such comparisons is the fault of the reviewer and not the band. Explaining all of the positive ways that an album matches other great works is the lazy man's method for expressing admiration. And tonight I'm feeling a bit lazy. But now, on to the album.

Boxer starts out with a bang, as the track "Fake Empire" works its way from a simple, subdued little song into an orchestral gem that climbs higher and higher and then just ends, without any ostentatious outros or distorted samples loaded with feedback and reverb. It is followed by the most pure "rock" song on the album, the quick, smart "Mistaken For Strangers." At the tale end of this "wow, they sound like they could be from Montreal" indie rock anthem, The National slows things down just a bit, fading out of the second track and easing into "Brainy," giving the listener time to absorb the first salvo and settle into the experience. Rarely has the first quarter of an album shown such care in regard to pacing. It is as if the three members of this Brooklyn band know some secret to engaging the brain's alpha frequencies.

If there is one criticism of Boxer, it is that the middle of the album lags just a bit. "Squalor Victoria," "Green Gloves," and "Start a War" are the only songs that feel like work the first couple of times through. That said, even from this tiny negative comes a positive, as "Green Gloves" became one of my favorite tracks on repeat listens. The first time through it bleeds into the background, but by lap number four, it actually stands out as a beautiful song with soaring instrumentals and perhaps the most melodic chorus on the album. Likewise, "Start a War" grows on the listener and seems to get better with each passing bus ride and jog through the park. These are among the most subtle tracks on the album and for that reason, they were overshadowed the first few times by more powerful and melodic songs such as "Slow Show" and "Apartment Story." In fact, "Slow Show" probably gets the nod as my favorite song on the album. It is a rich, escalating tour de force. The repeating line "You know I've dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you" is one of the best on the album and the anchor of a fabulously good and decidedly mature (i.e., not cheesy) love song.

After slowly building for nine tracks, the album finishes with a quiet flurry. "Racing Like a Pro" shows some of Berninger's strongest writing, offering clear, intelligent commentary and showcasing some of his most insightful (if still cleverly spun) storytelling to date. "Ada" is a brilliant song and is certainly aided by Sufjan Stevens' guest appearance on piano. And "Gospel" might very well be the best song on the album.

I've already heard some listeners bemoan the lack of simmering anger that was a hallmark of previous tracks by The National (most of them from 2005's breakout critical darling Alligator), but to me, this more subtle expression of joy, pain, boredom, claustrophobia (multiple songs are contained to basically one room) is far more rewarding. Rather than spell everything out with wild vocal inflections or searing lyrics, The National opted to weave together a tight tapestry of music, within which they could embed their stories and philosophy. On Boxer, they let the audience do its share of the heavy lifting in a way that is not dissimilar to a well-written television show or film.

This is not to say that listening to this album is hard work, because it's not. The Boxer is a smooth listen and an atmospheric experience (you simply have to find a deserted main street in a big city and give this a spin) and - bottom line - a really great album. It should be Exhibit A on how to make really smart, meaningful music that still sounds terrific.

Once again, I've got a new favorite album for 2007. I expect this one to hold on to the title for a while. Especially once I get to reviewing some real pieces of crap.

The Score: 9.3

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Album Review: New Moon by Elliott Smith

When I first heard about new Moon, the "new" double-disc, posthumous Elliott Smith release titled, I was extremely apprehensive. I suppose you could blame the estates of everyone from 2Pac to Jeff Buckley for the fact that music from the grave has became an uncomfortable proposition.

Too many posthumous releases are ragtag affairs; full of bits and pieces and sketches of songs that are slapped together by music engineers and producers and weaved into albums. Not surprisingly, they often aren't very good. In fact, the best releases are often those that simply never came out in time, such as Biggie's Life After Death (totally finished and just weeks away from hitting stores when he died), 2Pac's Makaveli: The 7 Day Theory (almost completely finished), and Elliott Smith's own From a Basement on a Hill (in later, if fitful, stages of completion) were all albums that came from the artist's own imagination. And when you compare those Pac and Biggie works with the abominations that came later, it is obvious why another Smith release might terrify me.

The possibility of New Moon being total crap was one fear, certainly. The other worry was that the album would be overwrought with meaning. My only problem with fully enjoying A Basement is that I couldn't separate the songs from the context. I kept searching for clues that would resolve Smith's awful death. Was it a suicide, or was he murdered? The L.A. coroners couldn't figure out, and neither can we. His last work-in-progress provided a peak into his mind; a mind that had been increasingly drug-addled and depressed in recent years but seemed to be finding some hope at the very end of his life. With all of that investigative work to be done, it was hard too just absorb the music. Furthermore, the details and circumstances surrounding Smith's death - indeed, the tragedy of him as a figure - lent the album an almost overwhelming dose of gravitas. Frankly, I wasn't ready to go down that path again.

Have a painted a clear enough picture? I was concerned. I was not eager to buy this. New Moon gave me feelings of trepidation.

For all of these reasons, I am both pleased and surprised to tell you that this is my favorite release so far in 2007. Granted, there haven't been a ton of masterpieces to challenge for that title, but I loved the new ones from Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, and Andrew Bird, and also enjoyed recent efforts from The Shins, Peter Bjorn and John, and Panda Bear. (And also, I must confess, Redman.) So there is enough good new music that I still feel like that statement means something.

Normally when I review an album, I drill down and tackle it almost song-by-song, but in this case, my feelings toward New Moon are more macro. That doesn't mean there aren't great individual songs, of course. "Angel in the Snow" gets things off to a great start and immediately brings to the forefront Smith's intimate recording style. By all accounts, he played extremely close to the microphone, which allowed him to sing quietly and make room for his chord progressions and the tiny little imperfections that came with them. Everything about a good Elliott Smith song is authentic and organic and that doesn't even account for the genius in the writing, bur rather comes about almost strictly from the brilliant technique that is on full display here.

Favorites abound. There is "High Times," which flashes Smith's energy and righteous anger. and "New Monkey," which shows his versatility as a songwriter and reveals frustrations over the way he (and indie music) was often portrayed. "Looking Over My Shoulder," "Whatever (Folk Song in C)," and "All Cleaned Out" put on display his almost irreconcilable wisdom and perspective. There are the brief glimpses of optimism ("First Timer"), the aching sadness on songs like "Georgia, Georgia," where he muses "oh man, what a plan, suicide," and, of course, those beautiful melodies that can't help but make you think of the Beatles.

Again though, drilling down on individual songs seems to miss the point. In fact, many of these gems have been floating around for years. I had seven of the 24 songs in my iTunes collection already, "Miss Misery" and "Pretty Mary K" are merely alternate versions, and "Thirteen" is a cover that Smith often played at life shows. So listening to this album in search of novelty or fresh tracks gets away from what makes it great.

New Moon is a fantastic album because it is comprised of 24 full, real, and terrific songs. It is adhesive and forms a narrative, and authentically feels like a release from the 1994-1997 period of time from which these songs were culled. And ultimately, that is the beauty of the record. It doesn't feel like a new Elliott Smith album at all. Instead, it is as if my collection of Smith albums suddenly has another classic imbedded in it. Right alongside masterpieces like his self-titled second album and Either/Or and XO is another classic.

So maybe calling it the best album of 2007 is a misnomer. It is more like the best album of 1996, preserved in a time capsule until today. Either way, it is fantastic stuff.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The View = G-Unit

A recent spin of the new Young Buck album got me thinking about the downfall of G Unit. Then, while I was thinking about that, my wife Jen was watching The View. Then it dawned on me. G Unit and The View are virtually the same. Hear me out ...

Rosie O'Donnell is 50 Cent. They are both larger than life (literally and figuratively, although 50's literal largeness is of the more desirable variety), opinionated, wildly popular yet also hated by many, and, of course, they are both totally crazy. They also highjack group projects to engage in individual rants and feuds. Rosie steals huge chunks of time on The View to spout her Google Education philosophies about the war or politics or whatever comes into her brain, and she used the show as a vehicle to war with Donald Trump. 50 does the same thing on pretty much every G-Unit album. They both have redeeming qualities (Rosie is actually a very good parent, Jen tells me, while 50 has an unbelievable work ethic), have had mixed success with their pop culture endeavors, and I'm pretty sure Larry David would be friends with both of them (since various episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm tell us that he is loved by lesbians and also that fictional rapper Crazy Eye Killa - had to be based at least in part on 50 - is "his caucasian").

Barbara Walters is Eminem. Both are way past their primes and the change happened overnight. One minute they were relevant and among the best at their respective professions, the next they were total has-beens. Eminem suddenly started making farting noises in all his songs and recycling the same beat over and over, while Walters got her 19th face lift and began mumbling on the air. The View is Walters' pet project, much like G-Unit was Eminem's first major group signed to Shady Records. Rosie is making Walters a lot of money and improving ratings, but bringing great embarrassment along with it and pissing her off with philosophical differences. Likewise, 50 made Eminem loads of cash, but has embroiled him in countless annoying feuds in the process.

Joy Behar is Lloyd Banks. Not much substance, just a bunch of witty punchlines. Totally willing to play the second banana role at all times. Also, both seems to like the color blue. Okay, I made that last one up.

Elizabeth Hasselbeck is Young Buck. Elizabeth is the lone conservative and also the only supporting member of The View to have random pop culture fame before the show (Survivor). Young Buck is the lone southern member of G-Unit and made a name for himself as a part of Cash Money before hooking up with 50. They also both have former names. Elizabeth used to be Elizabeth Filarski and Young Buck was David Brown before obeying the well-known rule in rap that says you can never, under any circumstances, use your real name as your rap name. (Making Kanye West's successful career even more surprising. It also surprising in light of the fact that he is TOTALLY INSANE.)

Star Jones is The Game. Both got kicked out of the group and both seem to be doing better on their own, against all odds. They are also equally fond of name-dropping, wearing expensive jewelry, and getting involved in legal disputes (although Jones does it as a lawyer and the Game as a defendant). Once Tracy Morgan impersonates The Game to great comedic effect, this pairing will be bulletproof.

Every guest host is Tony Yayo. The filler person just occupying space.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Regional Report: West Coast Up and Comers

It was a monster November/December combo for hip-hop, with leaked albums springing up everywhere, the Game emerging triumphantly from his Aftermath feud(s), Jay-Z returning with a legendary seven-city, 26-hour tour and not-so legendary album, Snoop releasing a keeper, Nas declaring that Hip Hop is dead, Ghostface putting out a second album in '06, and the Clipse making hipster hip-hop fans drool with the release of Hell Hath No Fury. There's been a lot to keep track of.

So you can forgive me for taking a break from the Regional Report's "up-and-comers" theme. It's hard to stay focused on the next breakout star when Jay-Z is flying around in a plane that has his face painted on it, and putting on concerts in Atlanta at seven in the morning. The tail end of 2006 was all about the heavy hitters.

However, the first quarter of 2007 stands to serve as a breakout campaign for new hip-hop stars across the country, and nowhere does the youth movement seem to be picking up more steam than in sunny Southern California. "New West" is the catch phrase in L.A. as a bumper crop of stars look to make their mark early and often in the year to come.

The dynamic for emerging rappers on the West Coast is different from other regions of the country. Artists in Chicago are grappling with the challenge of maintaining Kanye's aesthetic while sidestepping his rather large shadow. Those in New York are trying to bring the birthplace of hip-hop back to the forefront while competing for airtime against veteran heavyweights like Jay-Z and Nas. In the South the new guys are finding it tough to get a piece of the limelight, with fairly new stars like Young Jeezy and Chamillionaire (not to mention "King" T.I.) already in place. In the Mid-Atlantic, some incredibly talented artists are simply trying to put cities not named Virginia Beach and Philadelphia on the hip-hop map. Everywhere you look, there are substantial challenges.

Then there is the West Coast. Always one of the powers in hip-hop, L.A. has been in rough shape for the better part of the last decade. Dr. Dre continues to loom over the rap industry, but he's become less regional and more national with each passing year. He hardly qualifies. Snoop's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment is probably his best release since Doggystyle in 1993, but even Snoop is more of an MTV star than a West Coast gangsta rapper. That pretty much leaves the Game to hold down the entire fort, which he is actually doing an admirable job of. More important to would-be stars in the L.A. area is the fact that the Game's success has put the whole region back on the map. Game will be the first to tell you that he's saved the West Coast and brought it back to prominence.

Now the West is once again in the mix. The momentum exists and it is up to the new wave to cash in. Nature abhors a vacuum, so you'd better believe that there is room for a host of new stars to break though and into the forefront, which is probably why almost every artist coming out of L.A. these days is quick to yell out "New West!" at a show or on a mixtape. No one wants to be associated with the dog days that have made up the better part of this decade. They don't necessarily want to be associated with Game either, but that's only because he's a one-man army who doesn't know how to play nice. These newcomers simply want to occupy spots that are destined to be filled.

It all means that there is a ton of opportunity out West, which works out nice, because there's also a ton of talent.

Primary Challenger - Bishop Lamont. It wasn't easy to pick between Bishop and Glasses Malone, but in the end, I went with the better long-term option. Arguably already the best rapper to ever come out of Carson, California, Bishop Lamont is poised to become mega star. Why? Let me count the ways.

For starters, he's looming as Dr. Dre's newest protege and unless you haven't been paying attention to the drama surrounding the Game over the past year, you know that there's a vacancy for that particular lead chair. Considering the success of artists ranging from Snoop Dogg to Eminem to 50 to Game, being Dr. Dre's running mate is the rap equivalent to being tabbed by Martin Scorsese to be his new go-to actor (see: Robert DeNiro 1973-1995, Leo DiCaprio 2002-current). So he's got that going for him.

(I love the story of how this came to be, by the way. Apparently, Bishop was supposed to meet Kanye West with demo in hand at the "Dreams" video shoot, but Kanye was a no-show. Bummed out and ready to head home, Bishop saw Dr. Dre come out of a trailer so he walked right up and handed him his mixtape Who Do I Have to Kill to Get a Record Deal?. A few days later he was driving around listening to Power 106 when all of a sudden Dre was on the air talking about how excited he is to work with a new artist named Bishop Lamont. Great stuff.)

Even better news is that this right-hand man position looks like it will provide some immediate results. There have been countless artists that have signed with Interscope and Aftermath only to collect dust while waiting for a chance to shine, but the word is that Lamont's first album, The Reformation will release during the first quarter of next year. According to an interview he did for West Coast Rydaz, Bishop will be getting beats from virtually every big name in the production biz, including Just Blaze, Pete Rock, DJ Quick, Battlecat, Dre, Scott Storch, J Dilla, DJ Premier, and Salaam Remi. Not only that, but he figures to be the top gun on Dre's Detox if and when that actually happens. Plus he's already got a follow-up project in the works titled The Possible Impossible that will feature all beats from Dre and Storch. He's also aiming to work with artists such as Chris Martin, Korn, Mike Shinoda, and the White Stripes in order to expand hip-hop. 2007 could be Bishop's year, regardless of newcomer status or West Coast location.

The best thing he has going for him, of course, is skill. His flow still needs a little bit of work, but a few sessions in the studio with Dre and Eminem should take care of that. Otherwise, he is a ready-made star. He has the voice, style, and smarts to be a mainstay. My favorite thing about Bishop is that he features witty wordplay and clever rhymes that one would typically associate with an underground, or "backpack" rapper, yet he maintains an authentic West Coast sound that glides smoothly from gangsta rap to G-Funk and back again. He himself described his sound as backpack rap ... but with guns and drugs stuffed inside of the backpack. In other words, he's smart and witty and can rap about topics as diverse as The Doors, Todd McFarlane's "Spawn" comic books, Nintendo's "Duck Hunt," and Hercules, but he's also not afraid to throw on a huge G-Funk beat and boast about white tees and '64 Impalas.

The only word of caution regarding Bishop is the story of the one Dre protege that got away: Hitman. You might remember Hitman from Dre's Chronic 2001. Just as Bishop is expected to be the new young gun on Dre's next release, Hitman was that guy the last time around, appearing on over a quarter of the tracks on that classic release. He too was expected to be a huge star, but it never happened. In fact, Game even brought this up when he went at Bishop in the recent G-Unit centric diss track, "100 Bars (The Funeral)" (I'm gunning for Bishop/I'm the king of this L.A. s***/tell me homie is you blood or crip/is you thug or b****/cause the Essey's say they don't ever see holmes run around L.A./fake ass ghostwriter get your little flow tighter/before I put you in the trunk of this f****** lowrider/you ain't nuthin' but Hitman in quicksand"). That said, it is probably more noteworthy that Game even felt compelled to go at Bishop on a diss track, when most of the world doesn't even know who he is yet.

Armed with savvy, a sense of humor, the best production team on the planet (including local guys like J Wells and Diverse that he's bringing along with him), and talent to spare (not to mention a sweet logo comprised of a bishop chess piece and a giant L), Bishop appears to be a mortal lock to blow up huge. Which means that the Game better get a few more diss tracks ready to roll.

Listen to: "I Am a Soldier," "Up and Down," "It's Bishop," "Let's Get it Poppin'," and "I'm a Warrior."

Secondary Challenger - Glasses Malone. This should probably be 1B to Bishop's 1A as the two seem to be rising to stardom hand-in-hand. Their goal is to take the New West movement to the top of the industry and make L.A. the new Atlanta, with a spirit of cooperation and regional dominance leading to national prominence. And right now, Glasses Malone might be in the best position to be the T.I. in that analogy. Formerly a member of the Game's Black Wall Street crew, Glasses moved on when it became obvious that Game was probably never going to get around to bringing anyone up behind him (the unwritten rule in rap). Then, when Game had a falling out with his Piru Blood older brother Big Face, G. Malone became the newest beneficiary of Face's connections.

After releasing the acclaimed mixtape White Lightenin' (Sticks), Glasses quickly became a household name in Los Angeles rap circles and before long, he was commanding a $1.7 million deal with Sony that included his own imprint, Blu Division. In a short span he has become the de facto leader of the New West movement and the most immediate threat to challenge Game for West Coast supremacy.

In fact, Malone's first LP is coming out in just two months, as The Beach Cruiser is expected to drop on February 20th. Sony has such high hopes for the record that they've asked Glasses to leave behind the local L.A. producers - at least for the time being - and make a national album. Production is expected from the likes of Blaze, Pharrell, DJ Toomp, and Cool and Dre. While collaborations with a host of eclectic and Southern producers sounds like a risky proposition, there is already evidence that the pairings will work. The track "F*** Wit Me" has became a local sensation and while it is a club jam above all else, it maintains a West Coast feel despite getting production from Southern mainstay Mannie Fresh.

The only downside to G. Malone is that his voice sounds a whole lot like the Game's. He has the same raspy sound and his delivery has a similar pace and rhythm. I think he is actually a much better lyricist than Game, but he doesn't emote quite as well. So it's kind of a toss up on who is actually better. The problem for Glasses? Game's already out there. In the legal world (and maybe other worlds for all I know), they call this the "first mover problem." Will millions of hip-hop fans be willing to embrace another cocky West Coast artist that sounds just like the Game? That hiccup, plus Bishop's superior long-term label situation gives Lamont the slight edge going forward. That said, expect big things from both.

Listen to: "F*** Wit Me," "Take a Fade," "I'm Bout a Dolla," and "Two Hunned."

Darkhorse - Lil Eazy E. In almost every walk of life, you eventually get to put the "legacy" factor to the test. Whether it is college admissions, politics, or the NBA, carrying the last name of those that came before has always been a tried-and-true method for getting opportunities that others only dream of. But hip-hop is a young industry, so we're not yet sure of the roles that nepotism and legacy interests will play. We're about to find out. Lil Eazy E is the most prominent of a host of rising stars that can claim famous fathers in the rap world. Cory Gunz (son of Peter) and Sun God (Ghostface's lad) are emerging in the East, while Dr. Dre's son Curtis Young (more on him in a minute) and Lil Eazy E are making waves out West.

Lil Eazy appears to be the most talented of the group and could become a massive star. He's got the same nasally flow that his dad brought to the forefront as a member of N.W.A. and as a controversial solo artist. Not only that, but the Lil version of Eazy E seems to possess the same taste for battle, already engaging in a publicized feud with the Game throughout most of 2006. The best thing about Lil Eazy E is that he routinely outshines the other artists on tracks featuring multiple rappers. He buries G-Unit's Spider Loc on the song "Two Step" and has outperformed the likes of Ice Cube, Bizzy Bone, and even some recycled Biggie and 2Pac (on "Us Against the World"). Granted, that's not like coming out on top against the likes of Nas and Ghostface, but it counts for something. Based on the quality of his recent mixtape This Ain't a Game, we should expect good things on his upcoming The Prince of Compton LP.

Listen to: "Us Against the World," "Two Step," "Life of a G," and "That Fire."

Others to Watch - Ca$his, Spider Loc, Hood Surgeon, Eastwood, Crooked I, and 40 Glocc.

Ca$his is an intriguing guy to watch for a variety of reasons. For starters, he's on Aftermath, which always raises an eyebrow. However, unlike many G-Unit and Interscope signees of late, Ca$his appears to actually have some talent. He's got his own sound and a pretty polished flow and is getting some serious run on mixtapes. He is featured heavily on Eminem Presents the Re-up and while he can't quite hang with the likes of Stat Quo and Obie Trice at this point, he avails himself pretty well. Needless to say, he's certainly the top gun out of Orange County right now.

Spider Loc represents 50 Cent's best effort to replace the Game with a West Coast G-Unit affiliate. Sounds pretty good on paper, but the result is not so great. Spider sounds like a Tone Loc retread (is that where he got the name?) and thus far has produced very few memorable tracks or verses (the best probably being his guest appearance on Lloyd Banks' Rotten Apple bonus track "Life"). I can't imagine him being a major part of the West Coast rebirth, let alone righting the G-Unit ship.

Hood Surgeon is also known as Curtis Young, son of Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre. So he's got the pedigree. However, as mentioned above, we have yet to see how this whole legacy thing plays out. Hood Surgeon is taking a unique approach (by choice or by necessity?) to his rap career, building from the ground up. He is the founder and CEO of So Hood Records and has a pretty solid mixtape floating around titled The Autopsy. He claims to be going at this alone, yet everything about him seems derivative of Dre, from his themes to his name to his "monster" sound as a producer. It will be interesting to see if the general public gives him a chance.

Eastwood is a talented artist that was formerly a member of Death Row, where he sat on the shelf for years before being liberated by Game, who signed him to Black Wall Street and made him part of the group M.O.B. which combines Eastwood with rappers Problem (hailing from Compton) and Techneic (a Mac 10 protege) and looks to position itself as a new age Dogg Pound. But can Eastwood really fill the Snoop Dogg role in that scenario? I doubt it.

Crooked I is another rapper that got put on ice for a few years at Death Row but now looks to emerge as a West Coast force. The Long Beach artist is known in certain circles as a talented ghostwriter with some real ability. He recently floated a song called "Say Dr. Dre" that appears to be a track originally destined for Dre's Detox album, since all Crooked I's verses are delivered as if he himself were Dre. The message seems to be, "Hey, this is yet another hit I wrote but since it might not see the light of day, I'll go ahead and throw it out there." The only problem? Dre's not much of a rapper, but I would have definitely preferred this track coming from the good Doctor, regardless of who wrote it. That doesn't bode well for Crooked I.

Finally, 40 Glocc is one of the best true rappers in the West, but he appears to be cut from more of the "veteran underground artist" mold rather than the up-and-comer type that will likely break big. That said, he's pretty damn good. His song "Finer Thangzzz" was a true highlight on DJ Exclusive's Dretox mixtape and 40 Glocc has handled beats from the likes of Rick Rock, Dre, Havoc, and the Alchemist. So I'm not going to rule out a rise to prominence.

Album Review: Kingdom Come by Jay-Z

Jay-Z’s comeback album has been out for almost a full month now – even longer if you count the “Internet Release” (also know as album leak). And for the most part, it has been knocked down and then kicked and then covered with dirt by most Internet music sites.

I acknowledge that Kingdom Come was disappointing, but was it worthy of such vitriol? I don’t think so. In fact, I was careful to let this one soak in before rushing to judgment (like I did with the first three leaked tracks off the album) and I’ve come to the conclusion that Kingdom Come is much better than it is getting credit for. Maybe not a classic, but not a piece of crap either.

Of course, when confronting a strong opposition, one must try to determine where the proverbial fork in the road takes place. Why do so many critics my age hate this album (Tom Breihan from The Village Voice, Byron Crawford from XXL, and Pitchfork, to name a few), when I like it? I’ve got a few possible theories on this, each of which will be examined on a sliding scale that ranges from “no chance” to “sounds good to me” (with “doubtful,” “maybe,” and “likely” as the middle options). Here we go.

Theory #1 – Subject Matter. One of the biggest criticisms of the album is that Jay-Z’s content isn’t what it used to be. It seems that all the rapping about being a CEO and the bragging about possessions and trips and celeb friends isn’t going over so well. I understand that, but my question is … since when? This is America, land of capitalism and home of the “anyone can make it” dream. Now that Jay has “made it” why wouldn’t he talk about it? This is his life now and it wouldn’t make any sense to rap about hugging the block or cooking crack in a dank duplex. I mean, seriously. Plus, this complaint is disingenuous. Brag rapping has been loved and respected for years in hip hop and just this year, the Clipse received heaps of critical love despite spending well over half their album (which I loved, by the way) rapping about all the stuff they have. So to criticize Jay-Z for boasting is hypocritical.

Besides, few can brag like Jigga. In the (admittedly overwrought) Just Blaze stadium epic “Oh My God” Jay-Z pretty much lays it out there. (“Coming through roofless/ yeah, your boy ruthless/ like Ice Cub was/ turn the whole city on, I’m the new plug/ So if this is your first time hearing this/ you are about to experience/ someone so cold/ a journey seldom seen/ the American Dream/ from the bottom to the top of the globe/ they call me Hov.”)

Not only that, but honing in on the brag raps fails to look at the whole package. While it might have been nice to see Jay use a more narrative structure for his new CEO status (maybe some sort of running gangster movie theme, like all the old Pain N Da Ass skits), he makes up for it by throwing in a few other interesting topics. He discusses everything from his ascension to the corporate world to the push and pull of being a born hustler (in “Prelude”), from a feud with Cam’ron (“Dig a Hole”) to Hurricane Katrina (“Minority Report”), and from far-reaching Biblical themes to the end of his career (and life). It’s far from a terrible mix, topically and thematically. And the Hurricane Katrina commentary, in particular, is extremely powerful (“Sure I ponied up a mil/ but I didn’t give my time/ so in reality, I didn’t give a dime/ or a damn/ just put my money in the hands/ of the same people that left my people stranded.”)

Strength of Theory #1 – Doubtful.

Theory #2 – Lyrical Skill. I’ll be the first to admit that this album doesn’t have the usual plethora of Press Rewind moments from One Take Jay, and he probably does spend too much time using the whisper voice (the one from “Allure”). That said, it also isn’t fair to measure him by his own extremely high bar. Compared to most of the stuff coming out in 2006, Hova is still an elite lyricist. He may not be hungry like he was on Reasonable Doubt or at the height of his game like on The Blueprint, which explains some of the repetitive lines and lazy rhymes, but he’s still Jay. Which means you are going to get a lot of effortless verses that fuse intelligence and wit in bold, brash, decisive strokes.

From clever little lines like “Guess who’s back/ Since this is a New Era I got a new hat” (“Prelude”) and “Kingpin of the ink pen/ monster of the double entendre” (“Do U Wanna Ride”) to classically complex Jay-Z (“Think I’m in the office, I’m off the grind?/ That’s how kids become orphans, ya lost your mind?/ I keep my enemies close/ I give ‘em enough rope/ they put themselves in the air/ I just kick away the chair” – that last part perfectly describes Sacha Baron Cohen’s style of comedy in Borat, by the way), he still has “it.”

If those aren’t good enough examples, there is always this gem from “Beach Chair,” which layers pop culture, with soul-baring questions, all while employing multiple meanings of a word (for which I am a total sucker): “Not afraid of dyin’/ I’m afraid of not tryin’/ every day, hit every wave like I’m Hawaiian/ I don’t surf the net/ no I ain’t never been on MySpace/ too busy lettin’ my voice vibrate/ carvin’ out my space.”

Of course, gems like that are offset by some meandering efforts, like the up-and-comer bashing on “Trouble” and the excessive spelling on the horrendous Neptunes-produced “Anything.” So I can see the complaint.

Strength of Theory #2 – Maybe.

Theory #3 – Beats. One complaint I can get behind is that Jay-Z didn’t exactly load up with the best beats for Kingdom Come. When I sort my iTunes music by producer, I can’t help but notice that many of the best producers’ finest beats have been for Jay. Kanye West and Just Blaze are the primary examples of this, but even guys like DJ Premier, the Neptunes, Eminem, Rick Rock, and Dr. Dre (“The Watcher”) have busted out some career-best type performances when providing a track for Jay-Z.

Um, not this time. Just Blaze has three entries on the album: “Kingdom Come” is arguably a great beat, but “Oh My God” and “Show Me What You Got” are just average. Dre provided three cuts, but only “Trouble” (the Dre quality without the Dre genericness) is a standout and it turns out that Snoop got the best of the Dr. Dre Fall 2006 Collection. The Neptunes track is horrible. The beats for “Hollywood” and “I Made It” are not good. When the Chris Martin-produced (complete with expected alt-pop distortion) “Beach Chair” is a standout, you know you have some problems.

However, it really isn’t what is on the album that is the issue, it is what’s NOT on Kingdom Come that is most noticeable. Timbaland is arguably one of the hottest producers in the music industry right now (check out tracks ranging from Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” to Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy/Back” to Snoop’s “Get a Light” to Young Jeezy’s “3 A.M.”) and has collaborated with Jay in the past (12 Jay-Z tracks on eight albums, by my count) … so where is he? DJ Premier, anyone? Just one Kanye West song? (Although, it should be noted that “Do U Wanna Ride” is a good one – a subtler version of Kanye.) Even 9th Wonder or Bink would have been a welcomed addition at this point.

Strength of Theory #3 – Likely.

Theory #4 – He’s Too Old. People have been taking cracks at “30 Something” and insinuating that Jay-Z is too old to make a good hip hop record. This seems insane on a few levels. For starters, he just turned 37, which means that he was 34 when he put out a certifiable classic in the form of The Black Album. Is 37 that much older than 34? It’s not like he turned 35 and started aging in dog years. Not only that, but there are plenty of hip hop stars picking up steam in their 30’s. Nas’ new one is a heater and he’s 33. Ghostface was rap’s critical darling for ’06 and he’s 36. Hell, Snoop Dogg is as old as dirt and he just put out his best album in 13 years. Yes, Jay’s new record was built for an “adult audience.” No, he’s not too old to be good.

Strength of Theory #4 – No Chance.

Theory #5 – Backlash.. Let’s face it, we live in a society that loves to bring people down. This is the pop culture universe that built 50 Cent up and then tore him down in the span of 12 months. And that’s just the obvious hip hop example. There was Leo after Titanic (it took him over five years and a half dozen incredible roles to get all the way back). It started happening with Dwayne Wade during the NBA Finals last year when people started complaining about all the calls he got. It just happened this week regarding SNL’s new digital short “A Special Box,” which should have been enjoyed by all as a truly funny sketch, but was instead beat down lest we get too excited ala the “Narnia Rap.” It’s happening with Lost. It will probably happen with Sacha Baron Cohen if it hasn’t already. And so on and so forth.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Jay-Z would get the same treatment. After all, he’s everywhere these days. Running Def Jam, owning the Nets, dating Beyonce, appearing on Budweiser commercials, doing the Hanger Tour, popping into the booth on Monday Night Football, you name it. Naturally, people are going to push back. Jay even saw this coming, rapping on Trouble that it’s “just a matter of time before the steady hate/ starts to overflow and then the levee breaks.”

Of course, people won’t stay down on him forever, which means that his next album is already money in the bank. The same critics slamming him now will be frothing at the mouth to redeem him by the time the 10th disc rolls around.

Strength of Theory #5 – Sounds good to me.

The Verdict. Based on my irrefutable methodology (that’s sarcasm, people), it seems that Jigga’s album is getting the cold shoulder mainly because of natural backlash, followed by shaky beats, and possibly a letdown on the lyricism front. Which means that people are crushing this thing for reasons that have little to do with Jay-Z. Nice.

Like I said at the top, I am somewhat fond of Kingdom Come. It’s certainly not a classic, thanks in large part to a rough patch in the middle of the album (tracks 7-10). And the beats could certainly have been better. Still, this is the one of the best rappers ever putting in solid work. No complaints here. In fact, among Jay-Z albums (excluding the R. Kelly fiascos, of course), I put it right in the middle:

1. The Blueprint
2. Reasonable Doubt
3. The Black Album
4. Hard Knock Life
5. Kingdom Come
6. Vol. 1
7. Vol. 2
8. The Dynasty
9. The Blueprint 2*

(* Note: I am referring to the double disc album that was originally released, not the nicely salvaged The Blueprint 2.1 re-release.)

The Score: 7.9

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Big Month for Papoose

Brooklyn rapper Papoose is a bit of an enigma. One the one hand, he has a pretty good pedigree which includes the 2005 Justo mixtape artist award and a recently inked $1.5 million deal with Violator. On the other hand, I've combed through about 150 Papoose songs looking for some classics and I have yet to find anything truly memorable. Other than the notorious "Alphabetical Slaughter" track, which tries to take Saigon's "Letter P" to the next level, Pap has been incredibly, consistently mediocre. Track after track after track.

Fortunately for Papoose, the tide seems to be turning in December, and just in time for the upcoming release of his LP Nacirema Dream. First, he launched an immediate and passionate (if not terribly artful) response to the NYPD police shooting of Sean Bell with "50 Shots," an angry political track that harkens back to the days of Public Enemy. The song itself isn't all that great, but that's not the point. I wish they had continued with the Sam Cooke "A Change Gonna Come" sample rather than just using it for the intro and fake bridge, but whatever. This song isn't important because of the lame beat or even Pap's clumsy rhyming, but rather because he calls everyone out and basically spells out the problem with the whole incident, even explaining some of the legal nuances ("the law states a cop is not permitted to shoot at a moving car/it doesn't make a difference if its coming straight at him"). All in all, it speaks highly of Papoose as an individual and at least gives him a leg up in the substance department.

More good news for Pap comes on the style side with his recently dropped verse over Nas' "Black Republicans" beat. It seems like everyone is rapping over this track these days and for the most part, none of them are touching Jay-Z's and Nas' original versus (with the exception of Sean Price, who is always potent). And that includes Young Hot Rod of G-Unit, who joins Papoose on this particular effort. But while this L.E.S. cut hasn't been a breeding ground for hot verses (unlike, say, Just Blaze's "Show Me What You Got" which led to some fantastic freestyles), it certainly served as a staging ground for Pap. He still uses his put-the-accent-on-the-last-syllable style and starts out with his familiar drab flow and trying-just-a-bit-too-hard metaphors ("I take my time/ya'll be Russian like the Soviet Union"), but about halfway through the track, he just goes nuts. Papoose launches into a double-time explosion that leaves the listener dizzy. ("I smoke the bubonic/ tonic/ exotic/ melodic/ brollic/ bionic/ psychotic/ ironic/ hypnotic kind of chronic/ on every project/ my object /is to make the product the hardest/ smartest/ calmest/ modest/ honest/ oddest/New York is accomplice [this word isn't clear]/ I abolish/ demolish/ astonish/ promise no college/ Harvard is garbage/ acknowledge its home to fathers and martyrs/ sick of these offices often causing the coughing and walking/ so I decided to comment and got responses from Congress/ this is retarded/ this nonsense.") He keeps going at that pace, if you can believe it.

Honestly, this is like nothing I've ever heard. I know Twista, Busta Rhymes, and Mystikal were faster, but Papoose's ability to spin a powerful statement into such a complex rhymes scheme is pretty amazing. The only guy that I've heard layer up that effectively is Eminem.

All told, this may be just what Papoose needed. He's known as a bright guy with a relentless work ethic and razor sharp lyrics, but up to this point, he's lacked flair and polish in his delivery (not to mention his hooks and choice of beats). The road to hip hop greatness is littered with would-be lyricists, from Sauce Money to Ali Vegas to Cannibus, so it was always going to take something more to launch Pap to superstardom. Perhaps this new combination of political fire and verbal dexterity is just what he needed.

Album Review: Hip Hop is Dead by Nas

Just about every “year in review” article and recap has already been turned in, which means you won’t find Nas on many top 10 lists for 2006. This is a shame, because Nasty Nas has undoubtedly turned in one of the finest hip hop efforts of the year with his grimy, gritty Hip Hop is Dead.

This is not to say that Nas has submitted a classic. As the fall rolled along, I started to get my hopes up that this would be the case. Between a general upturn in rap (thanks to the Game, the Clipse, Lupe Fiasco, and Ghostface Killah, among others) and the sterling efforts of Nas himself, it felt like he had all the momentum necessary to absolutely knock this one out of the park. With a memorable guest spot on “Why You Hate the Game” from the Game’s Doctor’s Advocate, the ridiculously good pre-release mixtape The N … The Resurrection of Hip Hop, and a handful of terrific leaked tracks including “Hustlers” (previously known as “QB True G”), there was ample evidence that Nas would once again reach the heights of Illmatic.

Alas, while Hip Hop is Dead is an outstanding rap album, it doesn’t quite merit a “classic” tag. The irony here is that it is Nas’ relentless dedication to traditionalism that holds him back. There is no doubt Nas wanted to make a statement about the hip hop industry on this and one need only to check the title to know how he feels about the genre. This might explain why the album is so straightforward, almost entirely devoid of gimmicks and tricks. For the purist in me, it is a breath of fresh air and harkens back to a bygone era when hip hop was simply constructed on clean beats and skillful rapping about crime, politics, and the hustle. Unfortunately, there is another part of me that is spoiled by some of the chances that other artists have taken in recent years. The result is that I am left feeling like Hip Hop is Dead is “this close” to being perfect.

The album gets off to a blistering start with “Money Over Bullshit.” L.E.S. hooks Nas up with a menacing beat as a throbbing bass line is augmented with haunting keyboards and a downright creepy whistle. The vocals are trademark Nas; complex rhyme schemes detailing a fairly simple story, which is basically the rise to the top (“from nine-blaster to I don’t have to blast mine/they blast my, black nine/you flat line/my cash climb”). The third song on the track, “Carry on Tradition” makes good use of a decent Scott Storch beat and combines with the outstanding Salaam Remi throwback track “Where Are They Now” to form an instant hip hop history lesson.

The title track and the Jay-Z collaboration “Black Republicans” have both been heard far and wide over the past month but still pack punch in the middle of the album, lending the weight that a popular single often provides and serving as an anchor for the surrounding pieces.

The back half of the album sees a bit of a change of pace, as two Kanye West songs set the tone for a more reflective, soulful stretch of music. However, in what can only be described as an upset of massive proportions, Kanye is matched by a journeyman producer named Mark Batson, who lends Nas a smooth, basic beat for “Hold Down the Block,” one of the album’s best tracks. This is followed by “Can’t Forget About You,” a kind of throwback song featuring a cacophony of horns, Nat King Cole melodies, and other big band sounds that don’t quite work. It’s an ambitious effort from Nas and, but the verdict is still out on whether it is any good.

The back half of the album isn’t as strong as the front. The Kanye tracks aren’t the standouts I hoped for, the Chris Webber-produced (yes, that Chris Webber) “Blunt Ashes” is rather boring, and in all honesty, I wish the Snoop-assisted “Play on Playa” would have been left on the cutting room floor. Fortunately, “Hustlers” makes up for any and all of that. I’m prone to hyperbole, so I don’t want to get carried away, but this Nas-Game-Dre collaboration might be the best rap song of the year. With lines like “the Jordan’s sportin’/come off the dice game with a fortune walkin’/you a walkin’ coffin/the musket, I tucked it/you bluff it, I bust it” you get the sense that Nas has been saving his best rhymes for the chance to drop them on a escalating, menacing Dre track.

All told, this album may not be perfect, but it’s good enough. Most importantly, it is proof that Nas himself is wrong. Hip hop is very much alive.

Score: 8.3

Where Are the Dropkick Murphys?

I took a look at the Golden Globe nominations today and couldn't help but notice that there is a glaring omission from the category of "Best Original Song." That would be "I'm Shipping Off to Boston" by the Dropkick Murphys, from The Departed.

This loud, violent rock song replete with chanting and bagpipes was one of the most memorable songs I've heard in a movie in a long time. Who can say they saw The Departed and didn't feel a shiver go down their neck during the scene when everyone is racing to the shipping yard with "I'm a sailor peg!/And I've lost my leg!" screaming in the background. Mandolins and huge guitars and yelling and those magical bagpipes and it created some of the most haunting music to ever hit the big screen.

That song epitomized the Boston setting, the violence of the movie, the tension of that eerie late night car ride when everyone is trying to figure out which side they are going to take before the bullets start flying.

How in the hell is that not being nominated for a Golden Globe?

A Special Box

Granted, "A Special Box" was more of a Justin Timberlake skit than anything, but give Sandberg credit for coming through with another hit via SNL's digital short series.

Timberlake is the star here, but Sandberg is the perfect counterpart and seems to be the only actor currently working for SNL with any sort of star potential.

By the way, I know that many of the snarky Internet columnists and bloggers are making an effort to difuse this one, which is probably attributable to the Narnia mania from last year. There is nothing the pop culture illuminati does better than hating something that becomes too successful, so the backlash is probably to be expected. That said, this is genuinely funny, even if the concept isn't all that novel. Timberlake swinging from the basketball hoop, the Color Me Badd outfits, the step-by-step process for creating the box ... it all seems to work.

Anyway, here's a nod to Timberlake for constantly being able to surprise us with his versatile talents (get ready for more of that with the upcoming release of Alpha Dog) and good humor (see: those classic episodes of Punk'D). But also give a nod to Sandberg, who has been a driving force behind the two funniest things SNL has done in years (and had a solid cameo in the other video hit - the Natalie Portman gangsta rap).