Tuesday, March 31, 2009
If 2007’s “Underground Kingz” was a sprawling, exploratory double album designed to highlight UGK’s vast versatility as artists, “UGK 4 Life” is a return to Bun B’s and Pimp C’s roots as the album is their tightest and most focused since 1996’s seminal classic, “Ridin’ Dirty.” The album mines the time-tested UGK formula of slow, grooving funk chords, Pimp’s southern-fried nasally choruses, tongue-twisting sex raps and hazy odes to the finer herbs to great rewards. The albums sound cohesive and fleshed out delving into the meat of the UGK brand which should make UGK loyalists extremely happy, a feat that often eludes posthumous releases like Dwayne Carter Jr. avoids similes beyond a third grade comprehension.
The album is right in the group’s wheelhouse and part of what it makes such a great listen is that the album miraculously seems contemporary and manages to avoid cheap nostalgia and tired “I’ll Be Missing You” tropes that an album like this might normally demand. The album seems keen to avoid the obvious fact that Pimp C is no longer with us and other than the ghostly invocation on the intro of Pimp C declaring UGK to be “back from the dead” (Seriously?! Do famous rappers just record these type of creepy statements in bulk, just in case, they wanna pull a Lazarus on wax after their unfortunate death? I don’t want to seem insensitive but damn...) and a Snoop Dogg “Rest In Peace” shout-out, you wouldn’t know that one of it’s chief architects had passed away in the process of recording the album. In fact, Pimp C is the dominant presence on the album. Pimp brings his trademark scatological charm to the proceedings in full force and at times, it feels Bun is a spectator on his own album. This isn’t a weakness. This might be Pimp C’s finest lyrical performance of his career and Bun B is wise enough to get out of Pimp’s way considering this will ostensibly be the last original verses we will ever hear from Chad Butler in our lives. Bun is savvy enough to realize that this is Pimp’s swan song so out-shining him on the last record would be in bad taste. I had figured that since Pimp died in the midst of this album’s production that “UGK 4 Life” would be a de-facto Bun B solo album with a few extraneous Pimp C verses tacked on so the opposite proving true only adds to the album’s overall enjoyment as well as adding a potent poignancy to the record.
That’s not to say the album is perfect because it’s not and while Pimp C’s voice is dominant what it probably lacks is his song-writing. While Bun B has always been considered the vastly superior rapper of the two, Pimp has always been the group’s chief producer and song-writer. Bun has always given credit to him as the group’s artistic leader and without his guidance the album manages to lack a little bit. While the album is overwhelmingly enjoyable, it’s lacking in a show-stopping centerpiece song like earlier UGK classics like “One Day”, “Pocket Full OF Stones” or “International Player’s Anthem” to push the album from merely really good territory to instant classic status. All of the songs cook (even the maligned Akon collabo “Hard As Hell”) but the album seems purposely understated and it lacks perhaps the balls-out panache that made “Underground Kingz” so successful. Where the former seemed to consciously be an attempt to craft a sprawling epic to perhaps make up for lost time between previous albums due to Pimp’s gun incarceration, “UGK 4 Life” seems to be primarily obsessed with not just sex but the gross, icky side of sex. The side that nobody told you about when you were watching Sex Ed videos in health class. Songs like “Harry Asshole”, “Feelin’ You”, and “She Luv It” seem to revel in the scatological and grosser details of sex. Pimp seems obsessed with describing his sexual contests in graphic detail such as noting the hair on a woman's ass to endlessly comparing oral sex to food.
Ultimately, this album as a fitting swan song to the UGK legacy and it would be my hope that this is the last album to come out under the UGK banner. Public figures rarely get the proper send-off and even when they do, they are often tempted to comeback for one last hurrah in the limelight. The last image, the public should have remembered about Michael Jordan, should have been his jumper over Byron Russell to win the 1998 NBA Finals and not have been him wrapped in Wizards jersey sadly fighting a losing battle with his dying athleticism. Hopefully, Bun B is smart enough to realize that you can’t rape your friend’s image if you ever really cared about them. You honor your friends by letting them rest in dignity and remember that one day you’re here baby and the next day you’re...
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Jim Jones should not have a rap career. It’s a force of fate that Joseph Guillermo Jones happened to use to sell weed to Cameron Giles in the tenth grade (One would assume...) and because of this, Jim Jones has managed to weasel his way into a fairly, succesful musical career. Jim Jones is a terrible rapper and not in the sense that Melachi The Nutcracker is a terrible rapper. Melachi The Nutcracker is a terrible rapper because he’s not very good at the actual act of rapping and thus, his music is inherently limited. Jim Jones can’t rap very well either but Jim Jones is a terrible rapper because he‘s never met a cliche that he didn’t want to make sweet passionate love to. Jim Jones has never had an original idea in his life and every single song on “Pray IV Reign” is naked bite of songs that have long moved into the dreaded cliche zone. In some sense, he’s the spiritual child of The Game and Young Jeezy combining their worst, most ingratiating traits (with none of their charm and/or talent) into one Uber-Wack Rapper of Suck.
In some sense, Jim Jones is a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the modern rap music industry. In the Golden-era of Hip Hop, rap music was, more or less, a meritocracy. If you were dope, you got put on and you sold records. That’s how it worked. These days, all that is required to be a rapper is to be childhood friends of an already famous rapper and with minimal qualification and/or talent, you can parlay your relationship into a “successful” rap career. Now, originally, this isn’t necessarily a bad idea as the massive success of the Wu-Tang Clan and it’s ever-expanding collective have proven but over the years as standards and taste declined amongst rap fans, more and more, people began to think it was acceptable to let your personal chef spit a verse on your album; thus contributing to a spiral of wacker and wacker weed carriers getting record deals. Jim Jones is the logical extension of that mentality. A man with no discernible talent except for wanton self-promotion gets to become one of the biggest rap stars on the planet simply because he had a childhood friendship with Cam’ron. He’s literally an artistic cipher on his own record album but nevertheless, people love him (or tolerate him at minimum).
Which brings us back to “Pray IV Reign”, an album that works despite the artistic additions of it’s ostensible creator. The music is immaculately produced, the virtual unending parade of guest artists are unquestionably the highlights, and the MVP of the record, producer/singer Rob Browz, can be best described as a bootleg T-Pain. It’s an album that should fail in spectacular (and hilarious) fashion but it doesn’t seemingly in spite of its’ creator’s best efforts. The only thing that I can attribute to the record’s success is Dame Dash’s efforts as an executive producer on this record. Dame Dash, for all his legendary douchebaggery, is a man that simply knows how to put together a great record. He’s helped Cam’ron shape himself from fledgling Big L clone to a cult hip hop icon, discovered Kanye West, and it should come to no surprise (but will to those who worship Shawn Carter’s testicles) that Jay-Z hasn’t made a great album or even any transcendent singles since Dame Dash left Rocafella Records in the wake of their massive pissing contest somewhere around the year 2005. Dame Dash’s presence as an executive producer no doubt influenced Jim Jones’ decision on the record to eschew the tried and true Dipset formula of his early, shittier records and go for a more pop, club-friendly auto-tuned R&B filled affair. This decision is ultimately why the record works. The record is loaded with R&B singers carrying the hooks, and the production is carried by producers who primarily work with R&B singers like Ryan Leslie, Chink Santana, Polow Da Don and even Babyface (?!?!?!) shows up to co-produce a track. By keeping it a more R&B affair, it keeps Jim Jones rapping at such a minimum that he sounds like the guest rapper on his own songs. This is absolutely not a bad thing when Jim Jones is the rapper of concern. “Pray IV Reign” is the record that Ja Rule would kill to make these days.
Now here is the twist. Even though, “Pray IV Reign” is a ostensibly a good album, this is not a record that I actually would want to listen to. This seems like it would be a contradiction (and it is...) but that’s only because I dislike most modern R&B. I have long been a cynic when it comes to the T-Pain World Order of auto-tuned R&B that dominates urban radio (and it makes such a black hole of despair that I actively listen to NPR if I’m forced to listen to it in my car). This record fits in with that category and even though, it’s not my style to listen to these record I can’t deny that this is undeniably well-executed. It would unfair of me to say this record sucks because it doesn’t but if you don’t like this type of music, you will hate this record with a fiery passion because it offers nothing else other than soulless hip pop music and Jim Jones is a not talented enough artist that he can make up for that with his lyrical insights. I thus find myself in the uncompromising position of recommending an album, I don’t actually want to listen to. You win, Jimmy. I concede.
Friday, March 20, 2009
In the last couple of years since 50 Cent finished the job that Jay-Z and a rapidly maturing audience base started, Cam’ron has been quickly approaching (and also somewhat inexplicably considering he’s always been…) total self-parody. It started first with
In some sense,
In the last couple of months,
One of the underrated and underutilized strengths of
Does this suggest
While I’ve never been a particular fan of
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
...And What Exactly Will Black Thought Be Doing Now?: Thoughts On Jimmy Fallon, The Roots & Signs Of The Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse
I think America, nay, the World owes the Roots a very public and sincere apology for what I can only imagine is one of the most painful and degrading experiences of their lives. Ahmir... Tariq... if we had simply attended more of your shows and bought more of your records, we would not be subjecting you to one of the greatest injustices in the history of mankind ever. It’s patently unfair, this is happening to you. I’ll do anything to make it stop. I’ll buy a copy of “Things Fall Apart” again. I’ll stop talking about how much “Phrenology” sucked. I’ll even subsidize ?uestlove’s epic interracial porn habit if it helps (provided I get a copy of the material transferred to my hard drive. You know, for...uh... billing purposes...). This shouldn’t be happening to you. I can’t stress how deeply and painfully sorry I am that you are being forced to work as the new house band for Jimmy Fuckin’ Fallon. The world didn’t realize what it had until you started toting marijuana for the star of “Taxi” (and not the classic ‘70s sitcom starring Danny DeVito and Andy Kaufman but the shitty crime comedy movie starring Queen Latifah...) I sincerely apologize on the world’s behalf.
The slightly less legendary Roots crew debuted last night on NBC’s sure-fire late night impending aborto-pocalypse “Late Night With Jimmy Falllon” and I watched in a dazed confusion while one of the world’s greatest live bands was wasted playing Bee Gee covers for Justin Timberlake as he and Jimmy Fallon re-hashed marginally, amusing decade old skits from Saturday Night Live; something that can only be described as “Frat-Boys-Doing-Dave-Chappelle-Doing-Rick-James”-esque. This is an experience that can only be more lame by Jimmy Fallon desperately attempting (and completely failing) not to laugh at it his own jokes and a special performance by Van Morrison’s corpse...which all happened. It was the kind of the hallucinogenic, bizzaro experience you expect while either dreaming or in a drug-enhanced, dream-like coma inevitably induced by ingesting the contents of a pharmacy. I half expected Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook (the other two thirds of the trifecta of stand-up comedy awfulness) to appear and perform “Who’s On First?” while Sean Penn provides political commentary and Alex Rodriguez attempts to appear human. It was a true exercise in lame mediocrity. At one point in the show, Jimmy actually had ?uestlove performing drum rolls for college kids from Long Island as they licked household appliances for ten dollars. I really wish I was kidding. All in all, it was a haunting experience and something that can only be appropriately described as apocalyptic. Utterly and completely apocalyptic.
While the Roots have never enjoyed anything remotely resembling mass commercial success, they are group whose bread and butter has always been touring and they seemed to have carved a nice, little niche for themselves as the world’s premier hip hop live band. Better writers have articulated this before but the experience of seeing the Roots live is nothing less than a revelation and none of their recorded music can start to compete with their stage show. The Roots are meant to be seen and not necessarily heard. The musicianship lead by ?uestlove is, of course, fantastic but Black Thought, who despite being one of the great lyrical ass lyrical emcees of his generation is often prone to getting lost on recorded songs, simply dominates the stage when you see him live. Nobody works harder. To wallow in hyperbole for moment, Black Thought to some extent is the James Brown of hip hop. He’s the best live performer the genre has. What makes the Roots decision to join Jimmy Fallon in his quest to ruin late night television so pointless is that unless they have an innovative way to work Black Thought into the proceedings, they are essentially forcing Thought to the background. They are taking one of the strongest assets of their live shows and rendering him moot.
On the first show last night, Thought awkwardly sat to the side of the band as they performed until Fallon engaged him in some short, sub-Kevin Eubanksian chit chat and a short(and I’ll admit pretty funny) musical interlude where he crooned a slow jam about the stimulus package during Fallon’s opening monologue . If they are planning to use him as Fallon’s Paul Shaffer-esque sidekick than I can’t imagine a bigger waste of talent than that. For one, unlike Kevin Eubanks, Paul Shaffer or even Max Weinberg, Black Thought isn’t exactly known for his charismatic personality. He lurks in the background on the tracks when he’s recorded, content to kick thoughtful verses seemingly full of force and hunger but at the same time, inexplicably indistinguishable and unmemorable between each other. If the Roots failed commercially, it’s because the rapper of the group isn’t exactly dripping with Jigga-esque charisma. I can’t imagine Fallon playing off a monotone Black Thought would make great television especially considering ?uestlove, the group’s drummer and de-facto leader, is such a goofy and charming personality. If anybody is going to play Fallon’s Kevin Eubanks, it should be ?uestlove.
I really don’t know why this happening, either. I can’t imagine playing the role of Fallon’s house band is going to make their next record magically sell a million records nor is it going to win them many new fans. Pretty much, everybody I know likes the group in theory regardless if they like hip hop or not. It's strange phenomenon. Everybody likes the group but I don't know many who actually own Roots records but perhaps that's because their biggest hit, "The Seed 2.0", is this bizarre neo-soul rap rock hybrid. All I can really see this move doing is alienating them from their core of self-righteous, okayplaying real hip hop cargo shorters. Remember this is a fan base that almost revolted when they attempted to make a pop song with the lead singer of Fall Out Boy last year (not that I’m suggesting “Birthday Girl” wasn’t the worst song the Roots have ever recorded)? I can only think of three reasons why they would do this and none of them are because they are fans of Jimmy Fallon’s stint destroying Saturday Night Live:
1. They hate themselves and are secretly sado-masochists and think that watching Jimmy Fallon fumble his lines is a cost-effective way to punish themselves for their sins.
While I personally can respect a group hell-bent on self destruction as recent forays into my own personal life have displayed, nothing strikes me about the Roots as being that particularly dark.
2. They are being PAID.
NBC backed up the money truck on Black Thought’s front lawn and provided ?uestlove with a lifetime supply of Jenna Haze DVD’s and hired Tera Patrick to be his personal sex slave.
3. They are tired of touring.
This is the most logical conclusion considering the band has been touring for damn near two decades without stop and acting as Jimmy Fallon’s house band gives them a sense of stability. It’s a grind to tour and the endless whirlwind of the process must have worn thin with the group. They are never going to be superstars and they figured that this would be an easy way to make some money and not have to deal with the constant pressures that life on tour provided.
The Roots are better than this. They shouldn’t have to be working for Jimmy Fallon this late into their careers. You have to wonder what this says about the world we live in right now when even a successful and famous band are being forced to take up shitty day jobs to make ends meet. With the world collapsing around us and Wall Street kicking and screaming into a unsure economic future even our celebrities need to sacrifice. I just wish the Roots didn’t have to work for Jimmy Fallon. He ruined the Red Sox first World Series win in 86 years by running out on the field and making out with Drew Barrymore.... Actually, that was pretty awesome. Fuck Boston.