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).

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Track Review: Mos Def's "Undeniable"

I recently got my hands on a copy of Mos Def's new album, which wasn't nearly as exciting as it would have been back in about 2002 or so. The New Danger was horrible and he really hasn't been all that good since he did Black Star with Talib Kweli. I really like his acting, I think he's a very positive and important rapper, and he seems like a great guy, but the recent albums have sucked. That's just the way it is.

However, when I saw that the track "Undeniable" had been nominated for a Grammy for best hip-hop record and was rumored to be a Kanye production, I had a whole new reason to give Tru3 Magic a spin. Imagine my disappointment then when I hit play only to discover that this is a song that has already been done before.

Now, I understand that this sort of thing happens all the time in hip-hop. Sampling is a staple element of the genre, dating back to when rap music consisted of an MC making various pronouncements while a DJ played existing records. The music came from sampling, so it makes sense that it plays a prominent role. I have absolutely nothing against the practice. I am also fine with various forms of imitation (Game and his Black Wall Street producers imitating Dre on Doctor's Advocate is one example), "borrowing" (like when Lupe used Kanye's "Diamonds" beat for "Conflict Diamonds" and then Kanye turned around and used Lupe's theme on "Diamonds From Sierra Leone"), and even blatant copying (see: Khari rapping on an Erick Sermon track that he would "walk through hell with gasoline drawers on" only to have both Mullyman and Young Jeezy use the same line on mixtapes this year).

The one thing I'm not ready to endorse is a blatant rip-off being nominated for a freaking Grammy.

"Undeniable" is a track that makes no bones about sampling, which is fine. From the "no matter how hard you try, you can't stop us now" chorus to the sparse, synthesized guitar pluck, Mos Def takes all of the best elements of the Temptations track "Message From a Black Man" and spins it into a modern, bluesy rap song. For a true aficionado of soul music, "Undeniable" probably feels like something caught between an homage and an act of highway robbery, but the overall effect for most critics is that Mos Def is incorporating both message and mood while offering a nod to important music of the past. It doesn't hurt his cause that he sings on the song and says things like "always be cool" and "always be you." I'm sure the folks tabbing Grammy nominees love that stuff. Me? I'd pay a pretty large sum for the assurance that Mos Def would never sing again.

But I digress. Because the problem here isn't that he sings or mails in the lyrics or spends the last 70 seconds just yelling out random comments or even that he made a fairly obvious remake of a Temptations song. The problem is that we already have a remake of "A Message From a Black Man." Ill Bill of the group Non Phixion featured a song titled "Unstoppable" on his 2004 release What's Wrong With Bill? and if you give it a listen you will hear the same chorus, the same beat (albeit a little faster), the same everything from "Undeniable" ... except that the Ill Bill version is probably better. "Unstoppable" isn't even one of the best tracks from that album, but Ill Bill's tenacious, angry flow is the update to "Message From a Black Man" that the song demanded, even if it wound be being a Message From a White Man. For that matter, even the use of the "no matter how hard you try" riff in the Rage Against the Machine song "Renegades of Funk" felt more appropriate than this pop-infused mess that Mos Def is slinging. (By the way, would you believe that this isn't even the worst transgression of production laziness on Tru3 Magic? Mos also raps over a Juvenile track for one song and then butchers a glorious GZA track on another.)

I doubt many people responsible for handing out Grammy's know who Ill Bill is so I guess I can't blame them for being complete suckers, but take one listen to "Unstoppable" and then switch over to Mos Def's "Undeniable" and you tell me which track is better. I can already tell you which one is more original.

What is undeniable is that this song is a total rip-off.

The Score: 6.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Track Review: "The Re-Up" by Eminem featuring 50 Cent

Eminem's new Shady/Aftermath compilation Eminem Presents the Re-Up is the latest hip-hop release to make an early "debut" on the net, which means that I've been spending the past few hours weeding out the crap from the quality. Considering we've got 22 tracks and that they run the gamut from recycled beats to relative genius, it took some work.

There are several quality songs on the album, most notably all of the stuff that Stat Quo is featured on (especially "Get Low" and "Tryin to Win"). Obviously, this is a good sign for the Aftermath's Atlanta rep and should serve to raise expectations for the long-awaited Statlanta. Another general observation is that most of the stuff I really liked on this release came from all the producers other than Eminem. Other than the remix to "Ski Mask Way" (which actually improves upon the overlooked Disco D original from The Massacre), Eminem doesn't really produce any true gems here, with the stellar cuts come courtesy of Alchemist, Dre, and Witt and Pep. Which sort of confirms my suspicion that Eminem isn't all that great of a producer and that he's been recycling his best song - Jay-Z's "Moment of Clarity" - for the past three years. But whatever.

One of the Dre tracks on the album is the title track, which isn't great as much as it is important. Why? Because "The Re-Up" announces the return of the Old 50 Cent. You know, the pre-Candy Shop 50, the "I'm not a marksman while sparkin' so I spray random" 50. There's no way to know whether this version is here to say or whether he will return to his quest of becoming the biggest R&B star on the planet, but I did an auditory double take the first time I heard this song.

The whole thing start off in rather innocuous fashion. A pretty mellow beat box kicks off the track before a throbbing base and typical Dre synth merge with a rather strange "boom, boom, cha" chant. The whole effect gives some sense of atmosphere and we are clued in that this is to be a "hard" track, especially when Eminem tries to launch into that aggressive style that used to be his whole persona but now feels like a role he's playing. He has a few typical Eminem rapid-fire rhymes that are on par with his verse from Obie Trice's "We All Die Someday" (probably his last great guest appearance), but certainly doesn't blow the lid off it.

By the time the song was 1:45 in, I was ready to chalk it up as a total loss, and I'll be honest, I definitely wasn't expecting Ferrari 50 to save the day. But boy does he ever. He launches right into a kiss my ass revelry that includes the lines "the clean parts/the s***** parts/my bullet wounds, my beauty marks/the fifth will tear your ass apart" and that just glides over the beat, suddenly making the previously boring track sound haunting and menacing. I hit rewind four times before moving on.

After a brief trip to Genericville (although it still sounds good), the beat changes up and splices in the instrumental from "In Da Club," which is both a little surprising but also kind of nice, like getting a phone call from an old friend. And the change of pace is perfect, because 50 switches his flow up right along with the beat. Not only that, but he pulls off his greatest coup on the track within this mini interlude as he combats all of the vitriol and recent success of the Game with just a few bars, rhyming: "I carried Game's style for nine months and gave birth to it/now I feel like a proud father watching him do it." 50 really only has one card to play with Game and that is that he, in effect, "made him." I'm not sure I agree with the sentiment, especially since Game seems better now without 50, but the argument sure was presented beautifully. Less is more and all that.

After the brief segue into 50's favorite pastime of dissing Game, the beat is flipped back to the throbbing bassline, which 50 greets with manic energy and hammers home ("Every day is Dre day, front and cause a melee/turn a town upside down/with a frown upside down/I smile and do something foul/and watch my money pile/I'm f****** with straight stacks/I'm kicking you straight facts/I hit you where they bag it punk and bring me mine right back").

All told, it's my favorite 45 seconds of 50 Cent since he obliterated Ja Rule on "Back Down." And I have to tell you, it makes this song one to remember. We can only hope this version of 50 Cent (he also provides some memorable lyrics two tracks later on "Jimmy Crack Corn") is here to stay.

Track Score: 8/10.
50's Verse: 9.5/10

Monday, November 20, 2006

Track Review: Common's "I Have a Dream"

Rap songs from soundtracks usually blow. There are notable exceptions, sure, but as far as general rules go, this one is pretty safe. Another personal hip-hop rule of mine is that songs rarely wind up in my "favorites" folder on iTunes.

Imagine my surprise then that the first track of recent vintage that I really like comes in the form of a soundtrack cut. This unlikely triumph is "I Have a Dream," the newest song from Common, the guy that put Chicago on the map long before Kayne, Lupe, Rhymefest, and Kidz N The Hall made the Windy City an industry hotspot.

"I Have a Dream" comes from the upcoming film Freedom Writers, which at first glance appears to be nothing but the latest Great White Hope movie about a fresh-faced teacher (Hillary Swank) braving the trials and tribulations of the inner city in an effort to reach the disadvantaged youth of America. It turns out this movie might actually be more likely to reinvent the genre than imitate films like Dangerous Minds and Sunset Park. Based the book The Freedom Writers Diary, which tells the true story of author Erin Gruwell and the way she taught her students to use writing in order to inspire change, there is at least an outside chance that this movie will be pretty good.

The track "I Have a Dream" has all the makings of the "inspirational part of the movie where everyone rallies and starts to make a difference" theme song, but strictly as a hip-hop release, it holds up pretty well. displays an alarming level of subtlety (I did a double-take on the production credit) and his only blatant showoff stunt is the intercut of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, which is obvious and a little cheesy, but certainly thematic. The beat itself moves along with a nice pace and simple keyboards stand out and create a very melodic sound. The chorus isn't great, with crooning something pretty generic over the same beat as the verse. All in all, the production here is somewhere between "cheesy" and "average," but honestly, I can live with that when a member of the Black Eyed Peas is involved.

It is Common that makes this track something worth listening to.'s fingerprints are all over the chorus and the MLK vocals, but the producer's greatest gift to this song is staying out of Common's way for 32 bars. The guy who invented social conscious rap as a genre is electrifying here, easily moving within the beat while delivering complex lines loaded with commentary and snappy rhyme schemes. Starting with the opening lines of "In search of brighter days/I write through the maze of the madness/struggle is my address/where pain and crack lives," Common quickly establishes an environment and then pushes through to discuss how his own dreams persist.

In the second verse, one of the industry's leaders questions the role of hip-hop as a community influence and in the process demands more out of himself. If this sounds familiar, that is probably because it is. Common has gone down this road before, most notably on "The Light" off his 2000 release Like Water for Chocolate. However, that doesn't change the message or the flawless way it is delivered this time around. This 16 is damn near perfect.

This song as a whole certainly isn't perfect. It is a little too sunny, a little too "Hollywood Movie" (which makes sense, considering its purpose). And the beat isn't great and, well, neither is the chorus. But you know what? Common is. And stays out of the way long enough to let the legendary rapper shine, which is all anyone really needs to do.

The Score: 8.5/10.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Review of Five Recent Leaked Songs from Nas

What a November it has been for leaked hip-hop tracks and albums. I can't remember anything like this. AZ's The Format, Snoop Dogg's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment, the Game's Doctor's Advocate, Jay-Z's Kingdom Come, and the Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury have all leaked this month, creating a ton of activity on XXL's "Bangers" page and minor pandemonium on the world wide web. Why is this happening? We know that the Game leaked his own album, but what about Snoop, Jay-Z, and the Clipse? Are the labels responsible? Rogue reviewers with their advanced copies? The artists themselves?

Theories abound about rationales and strategies, but whatever the reason for this epidemic, it makes for some fun trolling on the Internet. The plan is to get full reviews of the Jay-Z and Clipse albums up over the weekend and maybe even Snoop if there is time (although I'm already ruling out a track-by-track format considering that Tha Blue Carpet Treatment is a whopping 22 cuts). For now, it seems like a good time to weigh in on Nas' upcoming Hip-Hop is Dead, based on the handful of leaked tracks that are floating around in cyberspace.

Note that this is not a prediction of the finished album's quality, as I was kind of hard on Jay-Z's first three songs, but ultimately really liked Kingdom Come (which puts me in the minority it seems, but we'll save that for the album review). Not only that, but I'm not even sure which tracks are going to wind up on Hip-Hop is Dead.

Hip-Hop is Dead. The title track is the latest almost-great rap song that has managed to mangle just enough to legitimately depress me. I honestly don't know how he has managed to infiltrate the upper echelon of hip-hop, but he needs to be stopped. If he wants to make millions by peddling "Fergalicious" and "Beep" to the masses, then more power to him. But please, stay off my favorite artists' albums.

The Black Eyed Peas producer already screwed up, "Compton," a potentially great cut from the Game's Doctor's Advocate ("gangsta boogie!") and now he has done some damage to the title track from Nas' new album by inserting a ridiculous electric guitar riff into the chorus. My brother once noted that electric guitars rarely work in hip-hop and usually only when Kanye is involved. For every "Takeover," there are a dozen Diddy songs like "All About the Benjamins" or that hideous Robert Plant remake from Godzilla. Add "Hip-Hop is Dead" to that list. Which is a real shame, because the rest of the beat is pretty solid. The drums kicking in before each verse, followed by a very nice progressive bass line gives Nas' bars a solid framework, and most of's clever little tricks (the piano twinkle, the burst of congas, the crowd chanting) work out okay. But can a song be really good with a cringe-worthy chorus?

For Nas' part, he does his best to save the track from itself. He sounds energized and after years of trying to sound passionate about important topics, he finally stumbled upon something that truly matters to him - rap itself. Calling hip-hop his first wife, he goes on a tirade about the state of the industry and the dilution of the art. Musicians making music about music is not usually where we find great art, but in this case, Nas is following a popular axiom, which is "write what you know." It's not an attempt to inspire cultural change like "I Can" or even a social critique like that "Imagine" track he did with Pitbull, but he attacks the topic with energy and vigor and the result is some of his best rapping in years.

Too bad was around to taint it. Oh well, at least he didn't lace us with one of those awful sing-song choruses like he did on Busta's Big Bang.

The Score: 8/10.

Black Presidents. This is one of those songs that just feels important. After all, Jay-Z guests on it, which seemed like an impossible scenario a few years ago, at the height of the Takeover/Ether/Super Ugly/Got Yourself a Gun era. The hatchet was buried between Jay-Z and Nas last year at a big concert spectacle, but somehow, the two of them appearing on an official track seems to mean more. The former feels like a publicity stunt done for the benefit of the audience (see: 50 and the Game) while the latter is an actual artistic collaboration with far-reaching implications. So this is kind of a big deal.

As for the song itself, I think it holds the weight of those lofty expectations. Nas lets Jay-Z rap first over a scorching L.E.S. beat and Hova delivers 16 bars that rival anything he dropped on Kingdom Come, or really anything he's done since "Diamonds From Sierra Leone." With lines like "peddling over the oven/we was like brothers then/though you was nothing other than the son of my mother's friend" Jay launches into a nostalgic "what went wrong?" reflection that is 10 times more effective than his similar efforts on "Lost Ones."

As for Nas, I think he actually gets the better of Jay here, in spite of the fact that the beginning of his verse is interrupted by that stupid "play it back" gimmick (exhausted in 50 Cent's "I'm an Animal"). He is razor sharp here, layering hood critiques with bravado and mixing it with the same autobiographical flavor that Jay-Z lends to his verse. When Nas spits out the lines "I'm standing on the roof of my building/a feeling/a whirlwind of beef I'm inhaling/just like an acrobat ready to hurl myself through the hoops and fires/sippin' 80 proof, bulletproof under my attire" you have to resist the urge to hit rewind before the song is even over.

The Score: 10/10.

Where Y'all At. For years rappers have been sampling lyrics from other rap songs and using them as choruses in new tracks, but you don't often find a rapper borrowing from his own material. And you almost never find a rapper building a new chorus by sampling from one of his old choruses. Nas and producer Salaam Remi do so here and the net effect is extremely positive. Borrowing the "Where them gangstas at, where them dimes at" from there God's Son collaboration "Made You Look," Nas and Remi create a very layered effect with this one.

The sampled chorus introduces the song and is played at low levels, as if to alert the listener that this is old Nas, not new Nas. It is not unlike a film in which a flashback scene is done in a different color scheme, thus providing a visual clue without bludgeoning the viewer over the head with text. The combination of the chorus-sampled-for-the-chorus intricacy and the lower decibel level creates a very subtle chorus that works perfectly as a bridge from one understated-but-deadly verse to another.

I'm not sure if Nas has ever been better lyrically than he is on this song. He is packing so much imagery into such small spaces that it honestly takes multiple listens to absorb what is going on. Not only that, but his dexterity is highly advanced here, chopping up syllables and creating multiple rhyming schemes within the same lines in a way that harkens back to an up-and-coming Eminem. It's hard to find rhyming that comes better than "Fought through with Diesel jeans/lethal green/Oliver People shades when I creep through Queens/with no AK's/I'm the ambassador/Robin Hood in the Aston Mar/lotta blood gonna splash in War."

The track isn't big and explosive, but this is as hard as it gets. In the "who is the best rapper alive" debates, I've always taken Jay-Z, but this one made me look at Nas in a new light. (Pun totally intended.)

The Score: 10/10.

The following songs have been leaked in recent weeks but don't show up on the track listings floating around for Hip-Hop is Dead. So I'm not sure what to make of them, but I'll review them anyway.

Blood Diamonds. In case you missed it, conflict diamonds have become a pretty hot topic these days and hip-hop has been at the forefront of the issue. Given the importance of jewelry in hip-hop culture, it is natural that the controversy surrounding the illicit diamond trades of Western Africa would reach rap music. Lupe Fiasco kicked the whole thing off with his song "Conflict Diamonds," which spun the beat from Kanye West's celebration of all things diamonds into a scathing social commentary. Kanye ran with the idea and the result was the aforementioned "Diamonds From Sierra Leone." Now Nas is in the mix in a huge way. He's rumored to be finishing up the score for Blood Diamonds, the new Leo DiCaprio Oscar vehicle dealing with conflict diamonds. The soundtrack/score for that film may be where we ultimately find this song, as most of the track listings I've seen for Hip-Hop is Dead do not include "Blood Diamonds."

Entertainment Weekly ran an interesting article about conflict diamonds and whether a large enough American audience exists that even cares about this issue enough to support a major feature film. I have no idea whether such an audience exists or not, but there seems to be no debating the relevance of the topic in hip-hop circles and I applaud Nas for getting involved on multiple levels. That said, this song isn't that great. Like "Black Presidents," this track is making its first appearance on the seminal mixtape East Coast Slang: The Sun Still Rises in the East, but unlike the former cut, this one doesn't stand out among the host of tracks from Jay-Z, the Clipse, and various New York artists.

The beat has the racing, cinematic feel of movie music and I have no doubt that we will find a breathtaking chase scene in the film, accompanied by this track. In that way, it feels more like a movie score than part of a highly anticipated rap album. More importantly, the music doesn't fit Nas' style very well. He feels a step behind the rapid fire drums and rocketing violins and while the message is a good one (although taking more of a preachy tone than Lupe's version), it is a strain to take it all in. And the chorus is just a disaster - so simplistic it comes off as lazy. I like the thought here, but unlike birthday gifts, it's not just the thought that counts. Fortunately, I think this will be wind up on the Blood Diamonds soundtrack and not on Nas' new album.

The Score: 7/10.

The N. This is your classic "I'm here now" brag track. From lines like "Dior, Christian pimpin'" right down to the generic horns-and-synths "monster" beat, everything about this song feels like everything we've heard a million times already, including from Nas.

That said, it is still Nas and when he's on, he does almost any kind of rap song better than almost anyone else. So when he brags about his vintage Gucci frames or threatens to come with "a hundred guns" or to "grab your only son," it still sounds fresh and intense.

My only real problem with this song is that he claims to have an "offensive" chain as part of his treasure trove of material goods, which is all well and good, except that he just chastised the general population for making jewelry stores crowded during Christmas season. Now, I realize that hip-hop is filled with such contradictions and it seems possible that that this song won't ever wind up on an album with "Blood Diamonds," but when I only have five new Nas tracks to listen to, I could go without the 180 degree about-face rhymes.

In the end, Nas blazes this, but the combination of hypocrisy and redundancy (the more I think about it this is just another "Hate Me Now") is too much to overcome. The only question is whether this will be on Hip-Hop is Dead. XXL's listed this as a single from the album, but none of the recent track listings make any mention of it. Ah, the mystery.

The Score: 7/10

Overall, these five tracks have gravitated toward both ends of the spectrum for me. "Where Y'All At" and "Black Presidents" are two of my favorite hip-hop songs from the entire year, while "Blood Diamonds" and "The N" just didn't really do it for me. Only "Hip-Hop is Dead" landed in the middle. At that rate, the worst case scenario is that I'm going love about six songs from Hip-Hop is Dead, hate five of them, and be on the fence for the other three. I can absolutely live with that.

Even better is the possibility that the three best tracks are the only ones that will be on the actual album and that we are headed toward a work of true genius. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Album Review: The Game's Doctor's Advocate

I can't believe its the middle of November already. Wasn't it just Labor Day? For that matter, the Fourth of July feels like just yesterday. Kind of depressing, really. However, while the early darkness and dropping temperatures are a bummer, November is a huge month for hip-hop, with a plethora of big releases looming. I couldn't be more excited for Jay-Z's Kingdom Come (even if the first three leaked tracks were a bit disappointing). Nas has a new one. So does Snoop. The Clipse finally get to release Hell Hath No Fury. It's an exciting time.

However, there might not be a more riveting album release than the Game's Doctor's Advocate, which is hitting shelves this Tuesday. Given all the controversy surrounding this guy, people have been eager to find out what happens after, well, Aftermath. The Terrell Owens of rap music has been a whirling dervish of anger and self destruction over the past nine months, but through it all, he's actually made some big strides as an artist. Sometimes we lose sight of creative growth in hip-hop since actions can often speak louder than words, but this has been a case of a guy getting better at this craft through sheer drive, practice, and effort.

That said, the Game is going at this alone. There's no Dr. Dre on an album that is named after him, which strikes me as both ironic and pathetic. There's no 50 Cent, no Eminem, and really no sign of Aftermath at all, short of a Busta Rhymes appearance.

So what kind of album can we expect? Is the Game ready to carry the load as the face of West Coast hip-hop? There might not be a more polarizing artist out there right now, as it seems that for every person that wants to see him succeed, there is another that roots for his complete and utter failure. As the Game himself expressed on his debut album The Documentary (on a song that 50 Cent wrote, interestingly enough) you can "Hate it or Love it."

I've been getting ready to break this all down on the November 14th release, but much to my surprise, the wait might just be over. While Doctor's Advocate is still a few days away from official release, it had its "Internet debut" last week when the album was leaked by Game himself onto the web. At first it seemed that five tracks had been released, but within a day, it was clear that the whole thing was out there. How this effects record sales remains to be seen, but it has given us the chance to come up with some answers ahead of schedule. Of course, there is always the chance that the leaked version could be incomplete or different from the final album. The available tracks seem to match those on official track lists, but there are also rumors swirling that some Cool and Dre cuts are being stashed away for the "real" Doctor's Advocate. I've heard that as many as seven songs could be "lying in wait," so to speak. We shall see.

For now, here is a track-by-track review of Doctor's Advocate, as leaked by the Game himself. And since you can't ever analyze the Game from one perspective, I've taken the liberty to break down both the "Hate it" and "Love It" elements of each song, complete with a verdict and rating. Let's get to it.

(Several tracks are linked to XXL-hosted files, affording you the chance to listen for yourself.)

1. "Lookin' At You." The introductory track has the typical epic sound of a good West Coast album and reminds me a lot of how Xzibit's Restless album kicked off with "Front 2 Back."

Love It: It is so weird to hear the album open with a song that feels as if Dr. Dre is not only producing it, but also doing the rapping, especially since Game announces that he did "his second album with a Dr. Dre track" during this actual song. The Game sounds just like his former mentor on this one, which is probably a good thing, given the fact that Dre has been the driving force behind at least three classic West Coast rap albums in his life. If you are going to imitate someone, you could do worse, even if rapping isn't Dre's strong suit. The beat is from some dude named Urban EP Pope and it is pretty sweet, if a blatant rip. The Game also lends some of his cleanest bars here and sounds really good bragging and boasting about being the "messiah of gangsta rap."

Hate It: One of the chief criticisms of The Game is his inability to write complete songs with bridges and choruses and he doesn't do much to refute those claims here, avoiding a chorus altogether and subbing in a strange ranting interlude that presumably is meant to call to mind the memorable "blind stares of a million pairs of eyes" rant from "U Can't See Me" on 2Pac's All Eyes On Me. Whatever the rationale, the interlude sucks. It interrupts the flow of the song and becomes increasingly disruptive and annoying on repeat listens.

The Verdict: The interlude is awful and the blatant thievery of Dre's production style and delivery kind of bothers me, but I can't deny that the first 75 seconds of this song got me pretty excited for the rest of the album. Score: 8/10.

2. "Da S***." This is another track that comes right out of the West Coast Gangsta Rap tradition, full of synthesizers, ridiculous keyboards, and a pseudo chorus that fuses some half-sung words from an anonymous female singer with some half-rapping by the Game.

Love It: The track was done by another relatively unknown producer named DJ Khalil (his most notable previous song appears to be the underrated "Lay U Down" from G-Unit's Beg for Mercy, although it looks like he will have a production credit on Kingdom Come). It sounds modern but also reminds me of the the L.A. stuff I loved in the mid 90's. Even though the chorus is fragmented at best, the song actually turns this into a positive by splicing the girl's voice into the actual versus, like when Game raps "I let the whole world known that I can't be stopped, even without Doc, I'm still ..." and a sing-song "streets of Compton" comes in to finish the thought. Hey, it works. I also like the Game's brief explanation of his odyssey from Interscope to Geffen that comes at the end of the song. He obsesses over this the entire album, but only directly expresses his confusion and frustration this one time and in the song's outro says, "One day I walked in the ... house, and all my s*** was gone."

Hate It: The usual criticisms can be trotted out here, should you be so inclined. The beat sounds like it could have been swiped off of Dre's G4, there's no chorus to speak of, and the name-dropping that plagues all of the Game's work begins in earnest on this track with mentions of Daz, Al Green, The Chronic, Doggystyle, Dre, Rakim, Snoop, and 2Pac (not to mention The Source, XXL, Crips, Bloods, Walter Payton, and Aftermath, but I'm not going to count those as official name-drops, since they weren't about rappers or rap albums). I think mentioning other rappers, singers, and familiar pop culture set pieces is pretty common in hip-hop and that people are probably too eager to point it out when the Game does it, but that is because he does it so much. To go back to the Terrell Owens analogy, he's not the only wide receiver that yells at his quarterback and causes a scene on the sidelines, but once he became known for doing it, people started seeking it out. Kind of a "you've made your bed" situation.

The Verdict: Neither the name-dropping habit or the flawed choruses bother me all that much, so this song ranks as one of my favorites. I'm really impressed that the Game, DJ Khalil, and an anonymous backup singer were able to throw together something that sounded so emblematic of West Coast rap, both past and present. I have a feeling this will be the most underrated song on the album when it is all said and done. The Score: 9/10.

3. "It's Okay (One Blood)." This is the first single off the album and the song that really took people by surprise this summer. It isn't the typical club song or radio-friendly release you would expect, but I think it sent a message that the Game was approaching this second album with a certain amount of ferocity. It is a relentless track that doesn't even bother with a chorus and the Game spends an inordinate amount of time picking fights and then immediately running from them. They should probably make this song required listening in Psych 101 classes.

Love It: This was our second glimpse at the new-and-improved Game ("300 Bars" being the first) and the moment when people first started to speculate that he could carry his own album. It has held up surprisingly well over the past five months and remains one of the strongest offerings on Doctor's Advocate.

Hate It: The Game has never been more bipolar than he is here, getting into and out of feuds almost in one breath, peppering the track with shout-outs to Dre, and letting a hard-as-nails front bleed into a desperate need for attention. It is riveting, but confusing.

The Verdict: This one has already stood the test of time. It was voted the best single of the summer on a XXL poll and received a healthy amount of critical acclaim. We might look back on this as the most important song of his career. The Score: 10/10.

4. "Compton." I don't mind saying that this is a strange song. It is meant to sound ominous and epic, but a cheesy "gangsta boogie" refrain pretty much dooms that effort right from the start. Why the Game choose The Black Eyed Peas' to produce his Compton anthem is beyond me.

Love It: The Game actually kills this track, which makes it all the more regrettable that had to try and turn it into something "funky." The beat itself is actually pretty sweet and the highs and lows allow The Game to emote more than normal, but the chorus just sucks. If I had time, I would splice this up in Garage Band so I could just listen to the versus, which are pretty awesome.

Hate It: You know what I hate about this song. You can throw in the fact that Game raps the word "myself" with "myself" three times in a row. I don't know when rappers started thinking it was a good idea to rhyme the same word over and over, but it isn't.

The Verdict: Combining the throbbing baseline and thumping drums with The Game's A-game snarl was a great idea, as was titling a song "Compton." Unfortunately, there is all this other crap to contend with. The best way I can describe it is that parts of the song felt like one of those Black Eyed Peas break-dancing moves. There's a time and place for that, but this wasn't really it. Too bad, because this could have been one for the books. The Score: 8/10.

5. "The Remedy." Just Blaze makes his first appearance on this album and goes for the throw-back feel by blatantly sampling a Public Enemy song. The effect is not great.

Love It: Honestly, there isn't anything to truly love here. The Game has always been good at packing a lot of imagery into a short burst - he's rap's version of a minimalist author like Brett Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk. So when he bursts onto the track and hammers about 75 L.A. references into the first 16 bars, it is kind of impressive. But that's about all I can say.

Hate It: This is probably the worst chorus I've ever heard, and I really don't care about choruses. Should Just Blaze even get paid for this beat? He completely re-imagined "Super Freak" when he made "Kingdom Come" and even "Show Me What You Got" does something with Public Enemy's 'Show Em What You Got," but what was done here, exactly? It sounds like the Game is just rapping over an instrumental version of that old PE track (name escapes me). I don't get it. Not only that, but you don't create an old school, nostalgic West Coast track by "sampling" a seminal East Coast song. The better "throwback" song is "Da S***," where new and old is fused together to create an authentic sound. This just sounds like a song you'd find on one of those dumb "In the Beginning" albums where Redman does Sugarhill Gang tracks and Too Short remakes, well, Too Short songs. Whatever.

The Verdict: To me, this is the most disappointing song on the album. But maybe I only feel that way because the prospect of a Blaze retro beat had me hoping for another "No More Fun and Games." The Score: 5/10.

6. "Let's Ride (Strip Club)." I think this was supposed to be the new "How We Do" or something, but ... yikes.

Love It: This sounds like a run-of-the-mill Scott Storch beat. Oh wait, it is.

Hate It: I suppose there are worse tracks that could come on at a club, but we won't be confusing it for The Best of Pitbull anytime soon.

The Verdict: Dr. Dre's absence isn't really felt on this album since the Game sort of sounds like him in half the songs and a few of the new producers did their best Andre Young impersonations. As for 50 Cent, his absence isn't really felt on this album either, but that is only because the Game generally stays away from the dance floor, this-one's-for-the-ladies stuff that has become G-Unit's modus operandi. Here though, he tries for the club banger and he fails. He needed 50 to even have a shot at pulling it off. I wish they would have just left this off the album. The Score: 5/10.

7. "Too Much." Coming out of a two-song lull, I worried when I saw that both Scott Storch and Nate Dogg were involved in this one. If that doesn't sound like the recipe for worthless filler, I don't know what does.

Love It: I was pleasantly surprised with this one. Storch shows some restraint and lets a rather hypnotizing keyboard twinkle roll over a simple bass line, which allows the beat to sound fairly expensive without getting in the way. Or maybe "Let's Ride" was just so bad that this sounds good by comparison. I'm not entirely sure. The Game does the rhyming-the-same-word thing again with multiple "my hood" references, although at least this time there is a homonym in play. (Although I think he was going for a "I've got the hood on me like Abu Grab" line like Lupe Fiasco fired off, and boy does Lupe bury him on that front.) Other than that, he's pretty decent here.

Hate it: The name dropping is pretty out of control, but you almost have to appreciate both the breadth and depth with which he employs this tactic. He manages to cram three athletes (Tracy McGrady, Ken Griffey Jr., Ben Wallace), nine hip-hop figures (Suge Knight, Kanye, Young Jeezy, Biggie, 2Pac, Nate Dogg, Snoop, Scott Storch, and Dre) and even a Wild West outlaw (Billy the Kid) into the first two versus of this thing, which is pretty incredible. The Nate Dogg chorus is typical fare, which isn't really a compliment.

The Verdict: I kind of talked myself out of this one even as I wrote it up, but the truth is I like listening to this song. I'll hedge. The Score: 7/10.

8. Wouldn't Get Far." This song is a beast. It has a theme (albeit an incredibly misogynistic one), a structure, one of the best Kanye beats of the past two years, and a pretty hilarious homage to 2Pac's "It's All About You."

Love It: Kanye's production here is just sick. He traded in the chipmunk voices for a soulful female backing, but layered in the elegant "wouldn't get far" refrain with the same frequency. The net gain is huge. The Game and Kanye seem to have really good chemistry when rapping together, and as much as I liked "Crack Music" from Late Registration, this is far superior.

Hate It: The whole song makes fun of groupies and aspiring video dancers, so the gender-bashing implications are huge. Fortunately, the barbs are mostly contained to specific audiences, allowing me to enjoy the song in good conscience.

The Verdict: My favorite song on the album. The Score: 10/10.

9. "Scream On 'Em." Swizz Beats produces this, probably to keep the whole "The Game raps like a New Yorker" myth alive. What did that ever mean anyway? That he's lyrical? Because he's really not all that lyrical. (Or at least he wasn't until this song, but to count that would mean that someone can see the future.) That he uses a lot of metaphors? I don't get it. But I digress.

Love It: I actually really like this track, which puts me in the minority among the half-dozen people I've discussed the album with. I like the chanting in the background, the violent scream subbing in for a bridge, and I love the simple progression beat that lets The Game "spit hot fire, mon" (as Dave Chappelle-as-Dylan would say). Say what you want about Swizz Beats, but he might have got the best bars out of Game on the whole album. Chuck Taylor murders this track.

Hate It: Could have done without the Swizz outro and I can understand why some people might feel like the song has some flaws.

The Verdict: It could be that I'm still riding high from the Kanye track, but I really love this song. I thought it played to The Game's strengths while also bringing some diversity to the album, which is a pretty impressive twofer. The Score: 9/10.

10. One Night It sounds like Nottz was trying to produce another "Keep Me Down" (from Scarface's classic album "The Fix"), but A) The Game - although improved - is not Scarface, and B) the chorus is kind of awful on this one.

Love It: The subtle horns spice up a very basic beat just enough that the verses flow rather nicely and The Game is well above average rapping on this as he delves back into his tumultuous 2006.

Hate It: This really makes me want to listen to Scarface.

The Verdict: People seem to really like this one, but I'm not that excited. It certainly isn't "cutting room floor" material, but I think Game had better tracks on DJ Exclusive's Dretox mixtape. The Score: 7/10.

11. "Ol' English." This isn't the best song on the album, but it is probably The Game's best rapping, maybe ever. He does a fantastic job of storytelling here and while he's offering up many familiar themes and probably making up half of it, he delivers it with real passion. It sounds like he believes it, at least. And as George Costanza once said, "It's not a lie if you believe it's true."

Love It: I like Hi-Tek more than most, so while some might find the beat a bit blase, I love it. It stays out of the way, creates a mood, and that little whistle is fantastic. Make no mistake though, the Game is the star here. I really don't think he was capable of making this song last year, so this should probably be Exhibit A for his improvement as an artist. I also like the two uses of Old English, because I'm a sucker for wordplay of any sort, especially when it is done thematically.

Hate It: What's not to like? Some will point to the conflicting accounts of Game's life story and scoff at anything resembling a biographical tale, but that is splitting hairs. If a screenwriter crafts a riveting script, do we make him vouch for every word? It's not a memoir and this guy isn't James Frey - he's making rap songs for crying out loud.

The Verdict: This song has convinced me that the Game has staying power and that this is going to wind up being a seminal album. The Score: 10/10.

12. "Doctor's Advocate." The Game returns to that weird, high-pitched voice he used on "Start From Scratch" and the word is that this is his "drunk voice." I guess he got wasted with Dr. Dre one night and then they pumped out "Start From Scratch," so it is probably fitting if he really did go back into the studio to get hammered and wound up recording his apology/explanation to Dre.

Love It: This is such a strange song. After an entire album of bragging and boasting and standing on his own two, The Game just melts into a puddle here. But it is so riveting at the same time. Is this the only venue he has to speak to Dre? The way he vacillates from full-on apology mode to head-strong and back again is remarkable, if not a little terrifying.

Hate It: Many will take this as another sign of Game's instability and tell him to quit being a baby. I personally didn't care for Busta Rhymes' verse here and actually thought it was an even stranger segment. Is Busta reduced to speaking to Dre on an album as well?

The Verdict: This stands to be one of the more critically acclaimed songs on the album given the raw emotion and intriguing backstory, not to mention the haunting Jonathan Rotem beat. However, as Randy Jackson would say, "It was just okay for me." Once was enough with Drunk Game. The Score: 8/10.

13. "California Vacation." Rotem goes back-to-back here with what I guess you could call a posse cut. The problem is that the Game's posse is Snoop and Xzibit, which means that the boring synthesizer isn't the only relic from the 20th century to appear on this song. If Game wanted to do a "we're the West Coast" song he should have buried the hatchet with Glasses Malone and Bishop LaMont, got himself a J Wells beat, and done something that sounds like it came from 2006 instead of 1996.

Love It: I like Game's verse here and Xzibit does his usual serviceable job in a guest role (the "red and blue can make green" line is classic), but that's about it.

Hate It: If this is the best Snoop can do, then the new album might be a disappointment (although the recently leaked track "Get a Light" gives me hope). The big problem here is that everything is just average.

The Verdict: Pretty mediocre stuff. The Score: 7/10.

14. "Bang." Speaking of 1996 ...

Love It: I'm a sucker for the Dogg Pound and Kurupt has always been a personal favorite, but I just got a DPG fix with Cali Iz Active so I'm not sure I needed this. The second verse is much better than the first as all three guys seem to benefit from Jelly Roll giving them that pounding piano lead-in.

Hate It: Too much mediocrity down the stretch on this album.

The Verdict: Yawn. The Score: 6/10.

15. "Around the World." Here we've got Jamie Foxx on the hook, where he continues to prove that he's a good singer, but a much better actor. Denaun Porter is one of my favorite producers, but this just seems like he scooped up a 50 Cent beat off the cutting room floor and tossed the Kanye chipmunk thing onto it and collected his check.

Love It: I don't care for rap songs about sex, but at least Game gives the subject all of his energy and vitriol. There's no charm here, just pure intensity. If I was a woman, I'd stay the hell away from this guy.

Hate It: Pretty much everything.

The Verdict: The only way to describe this is that it sounds like 50 decided to loan one more track to the Game, so he gave him the one song that didn't make the cut on The Massacre Yeah, pretty bad. The Score: 4/10.

16. "Why You Hate The Game." This is presumably a nine-minute track (although the leaked version is "just" five minutes and feels plenty long) featuring Nas doing the first verse and Marsha of Floetry on the hook. The beat is by Just Blaze, who seems to be putting out a new track every other day. Does he have these things lying around? Does he ever go outside? I have many questions.

Love It: This isn't the beat from "Song Cry" or anything, but it is still a pretty soulful track. It sounds a bit like a leftover Kanye or Just Blaze number from The Blueprint, but it still feels as if some time and effort was put into it, which is probably all that counts these days. Comparing the beat to Blaze's recent Jay-Z tracks, I like it a lot better than "Show Me What You Got," but not as much as "Kingdom Come." As for the actual rapping, Nas' verse is solid, but nothing special. It kind of sounds like he's following blueprints devised from his old albums; it is technically flawless, but just not that interesting. As for Game, he displays some of his growth as a lyricist, but is ultimately overshadowed by the beat, the hook, and by Nas. There are other tracks that serve as better examples of his improvement as a rapper.

Hate It: People will be quick to point out the fact that the Game ducked yet another hook by letting Marsha sing it, but again, I'm not sure what the big deal is on that front. The bigger issue is that his habit of name-dropping crests and becomes completely out of control on this song. His first line goes "Pac is watching, Big is listening, while Pun talking to us, Jam J still spinning" and then he goes on to mention Shyne, Cam'ron, Dre (three times), Nas (twice), Jay-Z, Flava Flav, Proof, 50 Cent, Biggie (again), and Pac (again). Some of these mentions are actually used really well and the Nas stuff certainly makes sense, but that is a hell of a lot of name-dropping. 17 mentions in 32 bars is pretty ridiculous. It's like he's got some sort of Randy Ratio (the famous game plan the Vikings used in 2004 to get Randy Moss the ball) for name drops. Also, there is a stretch of the song, about four minutes in, when Blaze drops everything short of the piano and gives the Game a platform to shine vocally, and the results aren't very good. He sounds forced and in desperate need of a metronome.

The Verdict: This comes off as a cohesive, well-done song, but when you parse it up, there isn't that much to get fired up about. I guess the biggest thing here is that The Game was able to assemble the pieces to this puzzle. It makes for a nice finishing piece and I will go ahead and take the sum into account, rather than the individual parts. Score: 9/10.

Overall. The album should have been four songs shorter (my choices to get the axe: "The Remedy," "Let's Ride (Strip Club), "Bang," and "Around the World"). At 12 songs - most of them really, really good - this would have been a virtually flawless album. And it is possible that the rumors are true and that a few more gems are on the way. As it stands, Doctor's Advocate is still an incredibly important release and one of the better efforts in hip-hop for 2006. The Game has evolved as an artist and is one of the few rappers out there making music that winds up being this vulnerable (whether that is intended or not). The presence of stellar tracks from producing heavyweights like Kanye, Just Blaze, Swizz Beats, and Hi-Tek blends well with the surprisingly terrific efforts by upstarts like Reefa, Urban EP Pope, and DJ Khalil. The album may not be a classic but I think it might be even better than The Documentary and is a major accomplishment for one of the most maligned rappers in the industry. The Score: 8.3/10.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Track Review: "Phantom Limb" by The Shins

It's been several years since The Shins gave us Chutes Too Narrow, which makes their upcoming LP Wincing The Night Away one of my most highly anticipated albums of 2007. And now it's the second sentence of a blog post about The Shins, which means I am required to make a Natalie Portman or Zach Braff joke here. Let's just pretend I did and move on, because the truth of the matter is that while "New Slang" and Natalie Portman became clich├ęd after Garden State, the emotional resonance of that song remains.

It is that emotional resonance that makes The Shins' music compelling. And while these guys are no longer your favorite "unknown" band, they retain that magic that made them everyone's secret find once upon a time.

"Phantom Limb" is everything you love about The Shins, evolved. The tambourine is there, but so is a hazy synthesizer that thickens the song and gives it a bit more of a mainstream feel. The bridge rises and crests until hitting a falsetto that I'm not entirely sure I like, but that works inside the framework of the song. The wordless chorus generates a mood that most will connect with 2001's Oh, Inverted World. James Mercer's words are sad and tell of a lonely guy doing depressing things in a lonely town and they would probably make you cry if the music didn't uplift even as the lyrics break down. It is an interesting case of juxtaposition, blending enthusiastic sounds (for The Shins, at least) with a melancholy story constructed on bizarre imagery (including the phantom limbs of sheep walking across snow) and acknowledged truths.

The end result is another fantastic song from the prototypical college/indie/soundtrack band. Yes, it sounds like something you might hear on The O.C. or Laguna Beach or, of course, the next Zach Braff movie, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. And while The Shins are surely bound for a meteoric rise in popularity after the pop culture imprint made in the "this song will change your life" scene, the heart and soul of this band is unchanged. This is still the music that changed your life, on some small level, long before Natalie Portman told you it would.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Mourning Mr. Eko (and other TV thoughts)

Last week when Lost completed and they ran the "next week" previews, I latched onto the part they wanted me to latch onto, which was the ominous "one of the survivors won't survive" teaser. Now, they've done this before to great effect, most notably when Shannon was gatted in the jungle. So unlike many shows who find a way to weave in a minor character just in time to kill them off and therefore fulfill their promise, or still other shows that advertise a fake death as a real death (see the second episode of this season's Prison Break), Lost tends to deliver. So I was kind of nervous for the episode on Wednesday night. Then, when I noticed that there were only a few minutes left in the show and the island monster thing was pretending to be Eko's brother, I realized it was all over.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. Why did they have to kill off Mr. Eko? Is this a David Palmer situation where the actor is heading to another show? Is it because Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was arrested recently for disobeying a police officer? After all, this is the same show that watched Anna-Lucia and Libby get killed off just a short time after the actors, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Watros, were both arrested for DUI's. Or is it simply a case where the death was needed to further the story? After all, it has been a while since we've seen that cloud-like monster and what better way to reintroduce that particular tormenter than by having it kill a favorite character. Not to mention the ominous "We're next" revelation at the end.

I guess the point is that whatever the reason, I trust the creators of Lost. I was bummed out that Mr. Eko (who has the best flashbacks, by the way - they feel like movies) is off the show, but I wasn't irritated the way I was when 24 killed off Tony Almeda, because the latter felt like pure shock value. The creators of 24 have proven that they will kill off favorite characters just to get people talking, which I find dubious at best. So that's the difference. I don't think Lindelof and Cuse (the head writers) work that way, so I can live with whatever they chose to do. If an actor needs to get off the show, more power to him. If Lost wants to serve as the last moral place in television, I'm fine with that as well. And obviously if they are doing this to make the show better, it goes without saying that I'm down.

But if they start killing off Sayid, Hurley, and Desmond "just to keep us guessing," I have the right to change my mind. For now, I'm still on board one hundred percent. What a great show.

Here are some other quick thoughts:

- The season premier of The O.C. might have been the most ridiculous hour of television since Paradise Hotel went off the air. Ryan as a cage fighter, Summer as a hippie, a comic book slide show presentation that was almost unbearable to sit through, and even one of those "I'm seeing Marissa's ghost" moments that I was begging them not to throw in there. Just a trainwreck from start to finish. The good news? I heard from someone that saw the first four episodes that the premier was one of the worst episodes in the show's history but that the next three are among the best. So there's still hope. But boy, the summer of 2003 feels like a long, long time ago.

- Jericho sucks. I will cover this in more detail when the "New TV Show Power Rankings" gets fired back up (now a monthly feature instead of weekly), but the show has become unwatchable. There is very little action and when there is, it is dreadfully over the top. The lack of action is replaced with boring scenes relying upon actors that are mediocre at best. I think the show is trying for a juxtaposition of the epic (the world teetering on the brink of elimination) and the ordinary. Thus, the painfully adolescent teen working through his issues, the shrew selfishly hoarding supplies in her store, the hick taking in the D.C. city girl, the family stuff, and so on. The problem is that because the actors are average and the writing is poor, it is just boring and cheesy. This show got off to a strong start in the ratings and CBS ordered a full season, but I'm telling you, Jericho sucks.

- Is Isiah Thomas running NBC these days? They just announced a budget cut of $750 million which means that most of their good new shoes are going down. To make matters worse, they finally gave Friday Night Lights some promotional help and then they go and put in Studio 60's time slot across from Monday Night Football. It was like they were trying to kill off two shoes at once. Amazing. (By the way, Minka Kelly is the next Rachel Bilson. You heard it here first.)

That should do for now.