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.