"Dedicated To The Winners & The Losers..." - Raekwon

Sunday, December 20, 2009

No Words... Jersey Shore Edition

When Snoop's the most well-adjusted person in the photo (and Tyson's the second!), you easily have a formula for awesomeness.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Eating Zombie Bizkits With Lil Wayne: Dame Dash, Blakroc and the Rebirth Of Dwayne Carter

"Like I was going to buy this album, anyway..."

When rap rock was found brutally murdered in a dilapidated mobile home on the outskirts of 8 Mile Road circa May 2004, there were very few people who shed a tear for this most maligned of musical genres. Fred Durst and his red backwards Yankees cap had long worn out their welcome on pop cultural landscape and thus the world watched in indifference as the icons of nu metal faded into inglorious obscurity. Although it was never the most critically respected of musical oeuvres, the middle class, faux-angst ridden teenage fans had grown up on these artists; and upon taking stock at their old CD booklets, learned that if one wanted to get laid by those cute, art chicks into Ani DiFranco and Ryan Adams records, they had to summarily dispose of those suspect Linkin Park records lowering their social queue. Thus, one of the most commercially successful genres disappeared into the ether; never to clumsily rhyme over distorted rock guitars, again.

Due to the hilarious serendipity of an Amazon shipping error, rap rock has returned from its grave in the last month of the last year of our indie rock overlords, MMIX, to haunt this craven world like a tracksuit be-suited zombie hellbent on fucking teen pop stars and screeching about rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ again. Two high-profile (well one is high profile, one is the the vanity project of Jay-Z’s former model moistener but let’s just say high profile for the sake of succinctness...) releases, Lil Wayne’s “The Rebirth” and BlakRoc’s self-titled debut, this last month have attempted to breathe life in to this necrotic genre with varying degrees of success.

I don’t know exactly how much cough syrup was consumed to make Lil Wayne think that he could make a rock album but it should have been immediately clear to all those concerned with selling him as an artistic genius that they needed to immediately convince Weezy that he simply had hallucinated the whole rap rock incident in one of his fevered drank-induced comas. Granted, Weezy is not the first nor the greatest rapper to fall to the siren call of the genre-bending crossover album (or as I’ve dubbed Love Below Syndrome) nor will he be the last. (Assuming, the rap industry is allowed to exist after this year.) Often when rappers reach the pinnacle of the rap genre, they feel like they need to validate their existence as “real” musicians to non-rap critics and fans. This leads to a lot of overwrought musical “fusion” and sublimation of the artists actual talent in service of hackneyed song-writing and poor (but glitterly produced) musicianship.

I’ve always found this approach vaguely disgusting as it buys into the rockist modes of thinking that rap is an inherently inferior genre. You can’t take your chair in the musical canon if your primary instrument is your speaking voice and when even the biggest names in rap buy into this mentality it only serves to reinforce this vaguely racist ideal. Granted, not all albums infected with Love Below Syndrome are worthless (Q-Tip’s eternally pushed-back jazz rap record, “Kamaal The Abstract”, is actually very solid and seems that it only languished in label hell because Jive had no idea how to promote it.) but they all seem to be working on this basic conceit. You gotta rock if you want to be taken serious as a musician.

Lil Wayne’s “Rebirth” is, of course, decidedly terrible and should serve as primary example on what not to do when attempting to make one of these records. If there is a saving grace to the few genre-fusing records that do work, its that the artist has a genuine appreciation and more importantly a deep understanding of why rock music works. (Take the Knux’s criminally overlooked hipster rap masterpiece “Remind Me In 3 Days...” as example. The Knux are incredibly skilled musicians at a variety of instruments and their music reflects that. The guitar riffs on “Cappuccino” seamlessly blend in with their electronica-influenced break beats and synthesizers to form perfectly synthesized rock-influenced rap music. The Knux understand rock music and their music reflects that.) Lil Wayne’s frame of reference seems to be lazily cribbed from watching about a half dozen old episodes of “Headbanger’s Ball” and calling it a night so he can go smoke himself retarded. Its as if he asked his producers to emulate Slash’s butt rock riffs so he can scream and warble his Weezyisms over the instrumentation in auto-tune. In a way, its kind of noble that nothing on the record resembles anything that would land itself on a Pitchfork year-end list (i.e. indie and lame) but it shows that Wayne has very little understanding of rock music in anything but a superficial way.

You would think that Lil Wayne would be a somewhat natural fit for hair metal-inspired rap music considering he seems primarily obsessed with the same lifestyle that hair metal promoted. Wayne likes to get head from slutty women, get high and do inexplicably stupid things, a sentiment that Bret Michaels assuredly sympathizes with. The problem is that Lil Wayne’s approach to writing rock music is resoundingly cliché. While Lil Wayne has grown more and more great a rap technician over the years to the point that’s impossible to deny that Lil Wayne is a great rapper (There I said it, people.), his approach to song-writing remains resoundingly insipid. When he tries to get serious like on “Misunderstood,” it ends up being rambling nonsense. So when he attempts to ply his trade to rock, a song like “Prom Queen” trades on the lowest common denominator of rock music, drawing well-worn tropes about love-gone-bad, revenge fantasies. And that’s one of the better songs on the album. In a way, Lil Wayne’s approach to rock music is the mirror approach that rock artists have towards hip hop. When Rivers Cuomo attempts to marry hip hop to his “guitar music” on the exceedingly awful “Can’t Stop Partying,” he just ends up repeating the most stereotypical elements of rap culture as if all that rap encompasses is blinged-out excess. All superficiality.

Of course, Dame Dash knows hip hop. This should be an exceedingly obvious statement considering the man was the mastermind behind Roc-A-Fella Records dominance as rap label this decade. He understands the modes of the genre and is able to discern between a good idea and a bad idea. What’s surprising is that the Black Keys know hip hop because nothing in their brand of hazy, indie blues rock suggests that they listen to anything other than Led Zeppelin II all day long. (Granted, there is nothing to suggest that they don’t listen to hip hop, either. I happen to love Ace Of Base’s “The Sign” although no one would know it, either.) Blakroc’s self-titled debut, Dame Dash’s vanity rap rock experiment with the Black Keys, might be the greatest rap rock album of all-time (depending on if you feel Rage Against The Machine qualifies) as it manages to synthesize both genres better than can reasonably be expected. The record works because it primarily defies some of the traditional aesthetics of the genre to create a newer more blues-based sound contrasting with the traditional heavy metal template that nu metal provides. Why rap rock records often fail is that being based on the aesthetics of heavy metal, the overly loud and grandiose musicianship that is a tradition in metal can overpower the spoken-word vocals of rap. The opposite is true in rap music where a great rap performance can make the production seem almost secondary. When you combine this with the clumsy rapping of nu metal singers like Fred Durst, it becomes formula for embarrassment.

The Black Keys’ brand of rock being primarily blues-based works infinitely better with the traditionally sample heavy formula of rap music production. The woozy guitar strings blend seamlessly into the background and let the rapping dominate and when you have an all-star cast of rappers like Blakroc does (Mos Def, Raekwon, RZA, Ludacris, Pharaohe Monche and the disembodied voice of Ol’ Dirty Bastard all make an appearance on the record) you want to sublimate the production into the background and let your rappers shine. “Stay Of The Fucking Flowers” and “Why Can’t I Forget About Him” sound amazing because the rappers and singers are given equal billing to the Keys production.

Dame Dash should be commended for the vision and his A&R work on this album because you can’t imagine this record would work nearly as successful without his keen ear for knowing how to put talented musicians in contact with each other. If more successful music moguls were willing to take chances like this perhaps hip hop wouldn’t be in such dire straits. This record has even done relatively well for an independent release selling 30,000 copies since its release mostly on strong word of mouth between music fans. If Lil Wayne wants to save “The Rebirth” from being a commercial and artistic disaster in the two months before it’s official release in February. He might consider calling Dash a call and see if he can’t have the Black Keys re-work the entire album for him. You never know…

Friday, December 11, 2009

Eating Leftovers With Elzhi

"Ugh, Nice watch..."

I always get hostilely indignant when "rap" fans claim that Jason Powers is "boring" as if simply being preternaturally gifted at the art of rapping is somehow akin to having the scarlet letter of unforgivable wackness affixed to one's lapel . If you can't appreciate the subtle yet thrilling intricacies of Elzhi's raps that's more an indictment of your own personal attention span (or perhaps need for instant gratification with easily digestible swagger) than any flaw in Elzhi as an artist. Elzhi is a rapper meticulously obsessed with the craft of rapping and his taste in the neo-boom-bap beats in the Black Milk variety is just as impeccable. Not only that but he's a rapper that is able to translate that ability into crafting perfect, little concept songs that have fully constructed narratives, themes and morals. His lyrical flash is backed up by true substance. If that's boring to you than I'm not sure why you are even interested in listening to rap music in the first place.

Elzhi's latest offering,"The Leftovers Unmixtape," is another fine edition into the Detroit rappers growing catalog. It's mostly compromised of b-sides, rarities, and remixes from Elzhi's excellent and underrated tandem ("Euro Pass" and "The Preface") of street albums last year and for fans of Elzhi's razor sharp lyrical ass lyricism, this won't disappoint. The tape features beats from long-time Elzhi collaborators, Black Milk and DJ Dez, as well neo-Dilla beatsmith luminaries like Jake One, Oh No and Moss. While this doesn't quite match the highs of its predecessors, it does feature some particularly stirring remixes of some Elzhi's classics. "Dream", Jake One's remix of personal classic "Talkin' In My Sleep", is particularly evocative.

Download: Elzhi - The Leftovers Unmixtape

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Video: 5 O'Clock Shadowboxers - High Noon

For a guy I've never actually met in person, I converse with Zilla Rocca on the daily more often than I do with some of my closest friends (Shout out to the What?) so I'm going to be proud when Zilla breaks through the rap blog ghetto and turns himself into a genuine indie rap star. "High Noon" was my favorite song off of Zilla's and fellow "fruity little indie rap circle jerk" friend, Douglas Martin's 5 O'Clock Shadowboxers project from earlier this year. This is the video.

Prepare for full-on film noir awesomeness. I think more underground rappers need to have to the same level of conceptual ambition as Zilla does. If I have to listen to another goddamn "D.O.A." freestyle...

Adult Swim: Better Than Diplo

"B.T.W. A.T.H.F. F.T.W."

One of my personal tests, to determine whether or not a human being is worthy of spending my precious time with, is determining if one finds the material dispensed by Cartoon Network's Adult Swim funny. If one doesn't find the comedic stylings of Master Shake (or god forbid, Frisky Dingo...) hilarious, I inherently distrust your world view and thus you must be exterminated (or at least, summarily removed from my presence) off the face of this earth. (You probably would vote for Sarah Palin, anyway, so clearly you have nothing to offer the human species.) I find Adult Swim to be great not only because their humor gels with my inherent schadenfreudic enjoyment of the cruel absurdities of the world but their celebration of all things bizarre leads them to spearhead moments of weirdo musical genius like this amazing little southern rap remix project, "ATL RMX."

The idea of a record that dares to combine the trunk rattle of Atlanta-based street rap with the sounds of the luminaries of modern avant garde, electronic beat making is going to win it's share of ironically appreciative fans and knee-jerk reactionary haters alike but it's an album (or is it more of a mixtape? At this point, the lines have been blurred so much that my screed against mixtapes, two years ago, is largely anachronistic) that deserves a more thoughtful approach than both. I've always contended that a lot of southern rap icons like Young Jeezy and Three 6 Mafia whose music is often lazily described as "gothic" or "monolithic" would sound amazing if paired with producers like El-P who specialize in ambient swaths of dystopic buzz. El-P's beat-making approach is often all dark ambient mood anyway so it seemed like a natural pairing to combine it with rappers who specialize in dysfunctional amorality. The idea being that you could amplify the strengths of the artists involved and hide their weaknesses. For example, El-P's remix of Young Jeezy's "I Got This" fills in the awkward pauses and holes in Jeezy's flow with punctuating buzzing flourishes while Jeezy's natural charm makes El-P far more palatable to casual rap fans.

Not everything works, the two Lil Jon remixes are particularly heinous, but there is a lot to love on this. Ann Arbor-based, glitch hop producer, Dabrye's remix of Goodie Mob's "Is That You God?" is pretty much perfect. While Starkey somehow manages to turn Guerrilla Zoe's "Lost" into something approaching the auto-tuned hipster hop of Kid CuDi. The best cut on the record is the previously mentioned, "I Got This (El-P Remix)," which miraculously manages to be the best Young Jeezy record released since "3 A.M."

Download: Adult Swim & Beaterator Present... ATL RMX (Left-Click) [Via Adult Swim]

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Kickspit Underground Rock Festival '09

Every couple of summers, I inexplicably decide to spend a few hundred dollars of my parent's hard-earned money and attend one of these outdoor music festivals and immediately regret it within the first hour of the show. For one, it serves as an instant reminder how much I hate the human race and to be herded amongst the worst of the human species, inches me ever so closer to my inevitable descent into multiple homicide, Joker-style supervillainy. Armed with this knowledge, you will realize why Saturday Night Live's pitch perfect send-up of these events resonated so spectacularly hilarious with me.

Of course, this was nothing compared to the genius of the potato chip sketch.

Blake Lively, I didn't think it was possible you could ratchet up your status within my heart but you have defied the odds and pulled it off. Serena van der Woodsen Forever! XOXO!