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 will.i.am songs rarely wind up in my "favorites" folder on iTunes.

Imagine my surprise then that the first will.i.am 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. Will.i.am 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 will.i.am 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. Will.i.am'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 will.i.am 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 will.i.am 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 will.i.am'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 will.i.am 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' will.i.am to produce his Compton anthem is beyond me.

Love It: The Game actually kills this track, which makes it all the more regrettable that will.i.am 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.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Pitbull's El Mariel: Worth your $9.99

The other day a buddy of mine called me his "rap clearinghouse." There's so much music out there and he likes so little of it that he had given up on hip-hop for about three years. Then a few weeks ago I started bugging him to listen to Rhymefest and Lupe Fiasco (since we are living in Chicago, it felt almost like his duty) and now he's got about 86 dudes in Taiwan cranking "Get Down" and "I Gotcha." Good times all around.

Well, Pitbull's new album El Mariel is the latest album I've insisted he check out. I know that Miami's hip-hop scene isn't for everyone, but this is a beast. Nearly every song is worth repeat listens, the production level is very high, and Pitbull himself is finally fulfilling the promise of that Nas track he jumped on a few years ago.

The track "Hey You Girl" is my new favorite "club jam" rap song, incorporating a crazy sample from The B-52's "Rock Lobster." I'm not sure if I like the sample, the fact that it sounds like it could be the background music from a Bond video game, or how stupid people are going to look trying to dance to it (only the truly rhythmic should hit the floor for this one), or all of the above, but I can't get enough of it. In addition to "Hey You Girl," there are at least five other tracks that rank somewhere in the neighborhood of "awesome." Plus, while I don't have the production credits on this yet, I am pretty sure that there are multiple tracks by my favorite Southern producer, DJ Toomp. There is quite a bit to be excited about here.

There's a lot of new hip-hop music out there demanding your attention - from the leaked Game album to Jay-Z's comeback tour to the return of Nas, Snoop, and the Clipse - so this bad boy could easily slip through the cracks. Don't let it happen. This joins T.I.'s King, Lil Wayne's Tha Carter 2, and Chamillionare's The Sound of Revenge as one of the best albums to come out of the South in the last two years.