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

Friday, August 27, 2010

No Words... Lil Wayne Has A Crush On Rafael Nadal Edition

Sometimes these things just write themselves...

Self-imposed summer sabbatical to end soon, y'all

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I'll Sleep When Justin Bieber Is Dead

"This is the most thugged out photo of the Biebster I could find on the internet and he still looks like a muppet."

As far as elaborate in-jokes on Twitter go, El-P's remix of Justin Bieber's "Baby" might as well be a "Modest Proposal" in terms of morose, we-are-going-there balls. El-P through the sheer force of his epically misanthropic will manages to turn Bieber's fledgling bubblegum soul into something approaching raw adult sexuality; an impressive feat alone if for nothing other than Bieber looks positively molestable by traditional Catholic standards and this remix makes his boyish falsetto seems shockingly sexy. (I don't think there is a "pause" button large enough to innoculate myself from the inherent, Uncle Chester creepiness of that previous sentence. The cops are knocking on my door as we speak.)

To say this song is superior to the original is a gross understatement. This song is superior to nearly everything you will ever hear. El-P's genius has always lied in his ability to use various elements of different musical genres as patische to serve his nihilistic musical world view. The Sam Kinison adlibs and (so expensive that it can't possibly be legal) sample of Paul McCartney's "Live And Let Die" is one thing but El-P manages to wield to Bieber's preteen falsetto as almost ambient noise on the track. Bieber's goofy "ahhs and oh girls" become geuinely sexy when combined with El-P's trademark synth buzz because El-P manages to add the tinge of menace that Justin Bieber's voice and music simply lack. If pre-teen girls managed to fawn obsessively over him when he was a nonthreatening, Disney-approved sex symbol, imagine the pandemonium he would cause if he performed this version at a concert. Kenny McCormick would be getting blown behind a T.G.I. Friday's for sure.

This song would be considering a raging success if it introduced one Justin Bieber fan to the music of El-P but this song simply kills. Terresterial radio needs to imbrace this song with the quickness.

Download: Justin Bieber - "Baby (El-P Death Remix)" (Via Definitive Jux)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Drake - Thank Me Later: Review


Who are we to judge? Maybe sleeping with swaths of women of a certain scandalous nature is as emotionally unfulfilling as Aubrey “Drake” Graham seems to suggest it is? Perhaps, having sex in a dorm room with your significant other is far superior than access to more beautiful strange than one reasonably knows what to do with? After all, we’re not famous (unless you are. In which case, I have to ask why are you wasting your time reading my blog when you could dipping your balls into Alison Brie? Priorities.) so how can we properly judge if it is as awful as Drake says it is.

It’s not like Drake is the first famous person to suggest that it truly sucks duck nuts living a life of unimagined privilege and wanton debauchery. It’s a theme our celebrity population have been desperately trying to convey to us for years. Consider how many of our more famous brothers and sisters have spoke of the hardships of lack of privacy, disloyal friends and sex addiction only to find their pleas for help ignored and ridiculed by a callous, unfeeling public desperate to feed the maw of celebrity schadenfreude but indifferent to it’s plight. Think of how many great works of arts have emerged from this lonely sentiment. Think of the poignancy that seeps from the dramatic pours of Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard”, West’s “808s & Heartbreak” and Lohan’s “Rumors.” The lonesome wail of celebrity’s bitter catch-22 can be found in Drake’s melancholic masterpiece of moodiness, “Thank Me Later,” screaming in silent suffering.

What is evident about “Thank Me Later” is that Drake’s ability to convey his heartbreaking sense of pain is not compromised by his meager ability to convert “word thoughts” into rhythmic speech patterns. Drake is not a subtle writer nor talented rapper for there is no idea or emotion that can’t be conveyed through the power of beautiful cliché. What Drake does is emote his emotions in a sing-song shorthand that allows the listener to breeze over his breathtaking sense of entitlement and connect with the wounded teen soap star deep within all of our eternal souls.

Critics may scoff at Drake’s shallow misery as the petulance of an untalented hack given too much but it is only because these critics have lost their ability to feel emotions as deep and profound as the artist. Only a heartless cynic could deny such totems of naked humanity like “Miss Me” where Drake drunkenly proposes to an indifferent Nicki Minaj or the moment where he claims that he is an underground rapper although his ascent to pop stardom was clearly orchestrated by powerful music executives enamored with the magnitude of his eyebrows? Who can’t sympathize with that sort of anguish?

What makes Drake's music so powerful? The simplicity and lack of nuance is where the beauty lies. Drake's music, devoid of complexity, speaks to a generation of lost children desperately typing their thoughts 140 characters at a time to a cruel and indifferent world. Drake's narcissism should not be seen as a sign of weakness but as a sign that he better understands the world around him. A world where mundanity bears the direst of consequence and drama can be found in the tiniest of inconvenience. What is Drake? Drake is the zeitgest of youth culture itself.

Thank you later, Drake? No. I will thank you now. I will thank you for making it kosher to feel emotion again in commercial hip hop. I will thank you for helping me cope with the ragged truths of existence. I will thank you for helping me realize who I am as a human being. Who am I? I am a Drake fan. God save my soul.

Or it could be that Drake writes really, really, really, really, really catchy hooks? Seriously, try to stop humming "Light Up."

Adjusted Pitchfork Score: 6.9

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

On Bombast And King Crimson Samples: A Prayer For Lorne Michaels

"Call me when he starts sampling Night Ranger..."

Before we proceed with this de-facto review of Kanye West’s "Power," I want to make the most potentially and deliberately ignorant series of statements I might ever write quite clear. I do not care about sampling King Crimson in the slightest. Roughly a week ago, I was blissfully unaware of this band’s existence and was content to live in a universe where they did not exist. I do not have an opinion on King Crimson. I do not care about your opinion about King Crimson. In fact, I’m kind of resentful of being forced to live in a world where I’m forced to think about the implications of a King Crimson sample. Why? Because King Crimson does not matter. If they did, I most assuredly would have, at least, have HEARD of them. But I haven’t. So I can be reasonably be assured that a King Crimson sample is irrelevant to any possible enjoyment or hatred of a Kanye West song. Act accordingly, music geeks.

As for the offending song, Kanye West’s "Power", I like it more than I hate it. The song sounds like the mutant off-spring of Kanye’s production on "The Takeover" and Kanye’s (ghost producer’s) more bombastic production on "Swagger Like Us." This is a good thing. I thought "808s and Heartbreak" was a unique if slightly undercooked excursion into emo synth pop & b but it was not the Kanye West, I signed up for when I bought into the "College Dropout" hype. A return to the sample driven bombast of his earlier work would not only be welcome but a logical progression in the wake of his recent career missteps. I welcome this sound.

The song falls apart in terms of an attempt to address those aforementioned career missteps. "Power" is meant to be a defiant stand against those who vilified Kanye for his VMA disaster, his rampant, unchecked ego and his growing lack of self-awareness and humor about himself. He wants people to know that he’s not changing and is upset that you would even question his greatness. The problem is that he manages to undercut his entire message by wasting time battering limp pop culture institutions like Saturday Night Live. The song almost comes across as self-parody when he wastes 8 bars going after the venerable late night comedy program. Is Kanye really so thin skinned that he would attack a program that’s spent nearly four decades lampooning every relevant pop culture figure and institution? Does he not realize how sad and humorless that makes him look? If there is a reason to hate this song, it’s that.

Just know, I do not care about King Crimson. And never will.

Friday, May 21, 2010

No Words... Love Lost Edition

At what point, do we admit to ourselves that the man we loved is dead...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

An Open Letter To Lebron James

Dear LeBron,

I've only got one thing to say to you...

All that other shit is irrelevant. Just get your head out your damn ass and win us the fucking game.


The City Of Cleveland

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Prayer For Jay Electronica & Diddy

"Honestly, I'd prefer if Jay was working with the guy in the middle."

Despite the myriads of his accomplishments over the span of his career, Sean Combs’ primary talent has always been surrounding himself with far more talented individuals and making it seem like he was doing THEM a favor by gracing them with his presence. If you are in the business of selling yourself as commodity, I can think of no greater skill than being able to convince others that they should be in awe of you and your accomplishments. This can be dangerous to those he’s in business with when Diddy’s second great talent is exploiting those same talented individuals to his benefit alone. For almost twenty years, Diddy has been hip hop’s great grifter content to run an endless shell game to keep himself in eternal relevance if not revelry.

Let’s take one of Bad Boy Records’ most iconic remixes as an example of what I’m talking about: Of the participants on the "Flava In Ya Ear Remix," Biggie is dead; LL Cool J is co-starring on a NCIS spinoff with the dude who played Robin; Busta is a roided up freak; Craig Mack is trying to hustle some poor stripper into sleeping with him on the strength that he once knew Biggie; Lord knows what Rampage the Last Boy Scout is doing these days. Yet, Sean Combs stays pimping his shitty reality TV shows and Ciroc Vodka. Why? Because Diddy never loses. He has the uncanny ability of knowing when to cut and run from an artist at the exact moment they lose the ability to make him look good. It seems nearly every act that has ever worked extensively with Diddy has grown to publicly regret it. (Hell, the L.O.X. threatened to throw a refrigerator at the man!) Diddy is perhaps hip hop’s all-time most loathsome individual (a genre that features both Suge Knight AND Curtis Jackson!) which makes the shine that Jay Electronica has taken to the legendary hustler all the more troubling.

It’s becoming rapidly apparent that Jay Electronica is perhaps the last of the great classical lyricists. Kool Moe Dee, in his excellent (and grammatical error-ridden) book, "There Is A God On The Mic", postulated that each generation of rappers has a trinity of great lyricists that follow in the tradition of the greats that came before them. Electronica is a true throwback to 90s classical lyricism in the grandest sense of the term. His hyper-literate references, evocative storytelling and dense narrative descriptions clearly place him in the lineage of the Melle Mel-Rakim-Nas tradition. Like many true school 90s holdouts, I have personally bemoaned the general decline in reverence for the lyricist. To me this lack of reverence has manifested two-fold. The most obvious is the decline in lyricism in mainstream popular rap music but also the rise of "punch line" lyricism in underground and hardcore rap scenes as well. A generation of rappers raised on mixtapes and "A Milli" freestyles have grown to believe that being a great lyricist is nothing more than being able to serve up a bunch of semi-clever punch lines. I cringe whenever somebody suggests that rappers like Fabolous or even somebody as respected as Jadakiss belong in the top 5 of working lyricists. Electronica seems far less concerned with writing a hot punch line than describing emotional turmoil of telling the mother of a friend her son has been killed. This alone makes Jay Electronica a special breed of rapper.

What makes his ascent to the cusp of the pantheon even more remarkable is that it can be owed to the strength of a handful of a few truly remarkable songs. The unlikely grass roots success of "Exhibit C" on terrestrial radio has launched Jay from the territory of perennial blog hype hero to something approaching a genuine true school, lyrical-ass lyricist rap star. Granted, Jay Electronica has been backed by some powerful industry figures like Just Blaze and Erykah Badu since his breakthrough mixtape, "Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge)" but his rise seems to be dictated by an organic following of fans who have discovered his music through word-of-mouth and file sharing. It doesn’t hurt that sheer infrequency of the release of his recordings have created a huge buzz amongst fans anytime Jay decides to descend from the mountain top and bless us with another track. The terrestrial breakthrough of "Exhibit C" was the logical conclusion of a growing critical mass that started way back with "Style Wars" and "Act 1" continued through "Queens Get The Money" and "Exhibit A" onward. Success has attracted a variety of industry leeches looking to mine his success for their own benefit. This is where Diddy comes in and my trepidation with his budding mentorship with Jay Electronica.

On the surface, a Diddy/Jay Elect symbiotic relationship makes a certain logical sense. It seems unlikely that Jay Elect will continue to get radio play recording largely hookless, lyric driven songs in today’s hip hop environment. Diddy with his natural pop proclivities could easily help Jay Elect form a synthesis of his music that would be more welcome within the parameters of modern terrestrial pop radio. Regardless of his own self-aggrandizement over the years, Diddy’s one unquestioned achievement is the ability to turn a very raw, uncouth Christopher Wallace into hip hop’s biggest pop star without sacrificing the edge that made Biggie a critical favorite amongst hardcore hip hop fans. It would go along way into securing Diddy’s slightly tarnished legacy as a talent scout and music executive if he could repeat the achievement with Jay Electronica. Jay Elect has already shown flashes of pop potential in the past with songs like "I Feel Good" and "Walk With Me" and considering the range of Jay’s talent, it’s within the realm of possibility that he could comfortably switch into that form of music without losing what makes Jay Electronica so great. However, part of what makes Jay Electronica so great in the first place is the natural avant-garde weirdness in his music. More esoteric fare like "Depature/Are You Watching?", "Eternal Sunshine," and "A Prayer For Michael Vick & T.I." easily match "Exhibit C" in terms of sheer lyrical prowess and have a novel weirdness that doesn’t show up as naturally as when Jay Elect works with Just Blaze et al. I’d hate for that to dissipate from his music for the sake of satisfying some major label idea of what’s considered "hot" at the moment.

The first released song in the Diddy/Jay Elect relationship has been largely encouraging in both terms of dissipating fears that Diddy will suddenly transform Jay Electronica into Danity Kane and for the potential for greatness in their partnership. "The Ghost Of Christopher Wallace" features 3 minutes of Jay Elect spitting his patented brand of lyrical flames before 4 minutes of Diddy’s legendary shit-talking. The song is meant to evoke Biggie in both name and spirit as the song plays like a new millennium version of B.I.G.’s classic "Who Shot Ya?" The song is largely a success if Diddy’s rant at the end dangerously treads towards Kanye-esque levels of ridiculous self-absorption.

Ultimately, the greatest potential problem with a Jay Electronica/Diddy professional relationship is what happens if and when Jay Electronica starts to fade from the public eye. As I mentioned before, Diddy has a natural talent of miraculously disappearing when an artist fades from the public eye. (See: Barrow, Jamal) As long as you are profitable to his brand, Diddy will find a way to exploit you for his own benefit but if you don’t you might as well as not exist. As great as "The Ghost Of Christopher Wallace" is, Diddy still manages to steal the vast majority of the time on the song and turn it into a forum for a celebration of his own achievements. That isn’t exactly a confidence booster that things will be different this time simply because Jay Electronica is the greatest thing since sliced bread was introduced to a toaster. So thank Shyne for warning me because now I’m warning you. You’ve got the mac, Jay. Tell me what you’re gonna do.
-B.J. Steiner

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Death Of "The Real Slim Shady"

"I miss the blonde hair and the awkward doo rag..."

On perhaps his finest song, “The Way I Am”, Eminem lashed out against the pressure of having to continually record a “poppy sensation that got [him] rotation at rock and roll stations.” An irony that gets lost when you consider that he’s spent his career doing that exact same thing over and over to continually diminishing returns. It’s been a long time coming but Marshall Mathers finally got his wish. After five solo albums, two D12 albums, and tens of millions records sold, Eminem finally got to release a single that isn’t “My Name Is.” Eminem’s latest single, “Not Afraid,” bares no resemblance to the pop culture-lashing, pop chart chasing singles that have made him a mainstay of TRL (that still exists right? No? Well, don’t I look like an ass!) for over a decade.

“Not Afraid” is a bombastic yet a paradoxically sober affair with Eminem beating his chest and crowing that he is prepared for a life of sobriety and responsibility after years of portraying himself as an unhinged, drug-addled gremlin both in his music and his personal life. If the song has a direct predecessor, it would be T.I.’s post-weapons charge anthem, “No Matter What,” in both tone and delivery. Both songs aim at being anthemic and Eminem remains as technically virtuosic as ever but if you close your eyes, it would seem as if the words were coming out of Tip Harris’ mouth himself. The flow is so obviously similar that it seems as if Eminem locked himself in his rehab suite and listened to “Paper Trail” ad infinitum while he nursed himself into sobriety.. Even the basic song structure and subject matter bare almost identical similarity where as Tip stood defiant in the face of a long jail sentence, Em stands against the difficulties of post-rehab sobriety. If one were completely cynical, one could easily accuse Em of biting Tip’s song wholesale which makes sense if you consider that T.I. was one of the few non-Shady/Aftermath artists that Em worked with during his post-Encore/Proof’s death exile from rap music.

Ignoring issues of artistic thievery for a moment, the ultimate problem with “Not Afraid” is that it seems far more flaccid and generic than Tip’s titanic anthem. Eminem seems unsure of how to make music outside of his typical oeuvre. “Not Afraid” not only lacks the caustic wit of the Slim Shady era but it bears none of the bitter catharsis of his darker, more personal work like “Kim” or “Kill You.” The song works like a B-grade “Lose Yourself” content to kick lyrical clichés that sound as if they are the lesser aphorisms of inspiration pimps like Tony Robbins. When Eminem says that he’s “not afraid to maker a stand,” one is forced to ask “Against what?” The self-seriousness is almost laughably Keith Olbermann-like.

The question remains is how will this new Eminem function beyond this song in the absence of the artistic crutches he usually relies on. His upcoming album, “Recovery,” suggests an album that will be reaching towards something that approaches maturity but can Eminem sustain an entire album without reaching into his old bag of tricks. Does the public even want that? What if the single is received far worse than it’s predecessors and Eminem is forced to go back to the Slim Shady reserves for one last run? It’s easily conceivable that if “Not Afraid” flops, he will be making dated Tiger Woods jokes before you know it. (It should be noted that “Not Afraid’ is #2 on iTunes as I’m writing this so my postulating could be as easily redundant as an Eminem pop culture reference.) Still if the execution is slightly rote, it’s hard to fault Eminem for taking such a chance on a song like “Not Afraid” so late into his career. Eminem remains one of the few viable album-selling monsters and one must be tempted to stick with the formula that keeps him successful. If he’s going to remain a viable artist, he has to change with the times. The question is what left does he have to say?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Artistic Necrophilia Or Why We Don’t Need Liquid Swords 2

“Although, I do appreciate the sentiment.”

Yesterday, RZA announced through the divine magic of Twitter that he was working with GZA on a sequel to their 1995 masterpiece, “Liquid Swords”. While my inner Wu-Tang fanboy was struck with the giddiness of a thousand shrieking Drake fans, I was torn by a profound realization that one of my favorite rappers of all-time has ostensibly hit a wall of personal creativity. It seems that despite his own personal misgivings on the concept of making a sequel to the album, it seems that GZA is out of ideas. Unfortunately, he’s not the only artist reaching into the well of artistic rehashery as their seems to be rash of sequels for decade-old classic albums on the rise.

The success of Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Lix II” in both commercial and critical respects have lead to a string of desperate, aging rappers to believe they can return to the casino one last time and cash out on the respect and admiration their decade-old classic albums have earned. While this is not a new concept per se, the sheer volume of these half-baked ideas recently is startling. It seems that every, struggling veteran rap act from Capone-N-Noreaga (“The War Report 2”) to Sadat X (“Wild Cowboys 2”) have made plans to produce sequels to the records that made us love them in the first place in one last desperate grab for relevancy. GZA is the latest rapper to hitch his wagon to such an inherently limited concept.

It’s easy to understand why artists feel the need to make sequels to their classic records. It’s easy publicity. When an artist announces they are planning to make a sequel to a beloved album, fans get excited on the promise of a return-to-form for an artist. "Yo, GZA’s making Liquid Swords 2? Oh word? It’s about damn time he gets back to making that classic shit! "
The fan is already invested in on the record before a single line is recorded. From an economic standpoint, this makes complete sense. If you are a veteran artist struggling to maintain an audience, the idea of creating a sequel to your most enduring work is guaranteed to draw an audience out of curiosity. Even if the material has little to no relationship to the original work, the name alone is bound to draw interest. The economics of the music industry are rough enough as is so if your new work is going to be virtually ignored on it’s own merit then grafting a familiar title to an otherwise unremarkable new work is downright smart.

The problem with this practice is that at best it’s artistic necrophilia and at worst, it’s gross commercial exploitation. Raekwon’s “Cuban Linx II” was an excellent album but the practice of wantonly stealing concepts of your older work only leads down a path where neither the genre or the artist can’t grow. Stealing from your older material leads to an endless feedback loop of the same material being produced over and over again. It’s circular. You can’t grow because you are stealing from yourself and you are stealing from yourself because you can’t grow. When a significant portion of artists in the genre continue to try and remake their classic album, the inevitability of stagnancy in the genre becomes entirely manifest. This is a problem that rap music has been assuredly facing for years. While the mainstream market for hip hop has withered from major label artists continuing to compromise their art by making pandering artistic choices to appeal a wider audience, the indie market has been flooded with album after album that sounds virtually identical to each other. Hip Hop cannot sustain itself that way especially when so much of what forms hip hop’s musical identity is the recycling and reinvention of the ideas of other artists. People will simply lose interest if they listen to the same music produced over and over again.

As Raekwon proved with his album, none of this prevents GZA from making a really, really good album when it comes down to actually producing “Liquid Swords 2.” GZA might be able to successfully execute a sequel that is as darkly chilling and brooding as his original masterpiece but the simple fact remains that he will still be trading in on the promise of the original product. However, it will be comfort food designed to soothe the soul of the true school hip hop fan. As hip hop fan, I demand more of my favorite artists than to simply have my favorite album rehashed for me. Say what you want about the bubblegum pop rap of B.o.B or the emo space rap of Kid Cudi but it’s a step in a new direction. Innovation will save the genre from stagnation because liquid swords can’t carve out a new lane for hip hop to flow through. Besides does the world really need "The Hunger For More 2?" (Yes, that's happening.)Be warned.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In Memory Of... Guru

This just really, really sucks. Hip Hop has suffered an unimaginable loss as Keith "Guru" Elam passed away this morning after a long battle with cancer. Guru's last days on earth were unimaginably tragic as he was shut off from his long-time friends and family by a particularly exploitative, hack producer looking to capitalize on Guru's notoriety.

However, I feel it's time like this when we shouldn't focus on the way the man died but focus on the achievements that the man have reached. When you think of New York hardcore hip hop and the 1990s, you realize that Gang Starr was synonymous with that iconic period of music Guru's work with Gang Starr stands premier. The chemistry he had with DJ Premier was quite simply impeccable. He had this almost velvet-like baritone that was employed in his trademark monotone delivery that underscored a fierceness to his rhymes. Gang Starr was a group that continued to pump out classic record after classic record; great single after great single; iconic video after iconic video.

Guru did not deserve to be treated the way he was during the last days on earth. He will be missed.

(Here's what I wrote about my favorite Gang Starr record, Moment Of Truth, way back when I started this blog in 2007: Albums You Should Own - Gang Starr's Moment Of Truth)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Curious Case Of Die Antwoord

"This is the coolest song I've ever heard."

I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty about Die Antwoord: post-modern South African rave-rap bands with aspirations of Daniel Dumile-level conceptual character performance is assuredly that new, new hotness. Outside of that truism, nearly everything about zef rap group, Die Antwoord, is starkly alien and indecipherable to Western audiences. Their breakthrough video, “Enter The Ninja”, is like peaking into a trans-dimensional portal to another universe where crew cut rocking samurais frolic with blond mulleted pixies and progeria survivors in a bizarre cartoonish landscape. What language are they rapping in? Why does it look like they broke onto the set of "Parent's Just Don't Understand?" What the fuck is "zef"? Is this shit for real? AND FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH THAT BLOND CHICK'S BANGS (and why am I strangely attracted to her? It's creeping me out...)?!?!?!

For those that aren't all up in the perverse bazaar of the "interwebs" the last couple of weeks, their music video, "Enter The Ninja", exploded across the internet in a wave of bemused confusion and shocked awe. Writers openly opined, whether or not, what they were watching was the work of meth head rednecks from the ghettos of South Africa or of sneering, irony-obsessed art students looking to prank music critics obsessed with the concept of authenticity. Die Antwoord claims to be a a "zef" rap group ("zef" is Afrikaans slang for redneck) consisting of lead MC Ninja, a hyper violent madman, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, a foul-mouthed pixie firecracker, and DJ Hi-Tek (not that one...), their deaf-mute producer. They identify their brand of music as a multi-cultural mish-mash of various South Africans cultures "fucked into one." Die Antwoord is loud, brash and hilarious with elements of UK Grime, 8-bit, and rave music smashed into one uber-anarchic package. The most intriguing part? It's complete conceptual performance.

Die Antwoord is the creation of long-time South African hip hop scene veteran and mixed media artist, Waddy Jones. Jones has been creating conceptual characters for his music since the mid-90s and is primarily known for his sad sack, "corporate" rapper persona, Max Normal. Die Antwoord is his latest and perhaps most brilliant creation yet. Jones plays "Ninja," the group's psychotic front-man. His character and the group plays almost as a dark parody of hip hop obsessed white kids across the globe. Ninja is covered in tattoos, bears gold fronts and speaks of his music in slightly delusional grandiose terms of cultural inclusiveness. On "Jou Ma Se Poes In A Fishpaste Jar," Jones (or rather "Ninja") repeatedly refers to himself (one assumes "ironically) as a "colored" for self-described and completely nonsensical reasons. Even the name "Ninja" itself is phonetically similar to "n-bomb" and one assumes it was chosen for it's aesthetic similarity. Meanwhile, Yo-Landi and Hi-Tek are draped in pro wrestling t-shirts and FUBU gear that is aesthetically similar (at least to Western eyes) to stereotypes of American redneck culture. It skates a very thin line between parody and just being offensive.

What separates the group is their music while delivered with a wink and a smirk is really fucking good. Their self-released debut album, "$0$", is witty, anarchic rave-rap that sport some instantly catchy hooks and bad-ass production. You can tell that Jones has been a rapper for long time because his rhymes are sharp, witty and delivered with a preciseness that belies a talented rapper. He's not some art punk fucking around with a culture and music that he doesn't understand. Meanwhile, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, the group's hypewoman and singer, is a true scene stealer.She bares a high-pitched and squeaky voice that is made incongrously hilarious by the foul-mouthed and hyper sexual nature of her rhymes and delivery. She's a pit-bull in a bad haircut. The chemistry that Ninja and Yo-Landi possess is striking. They bounce rhymes off of each other with a forceful swagger and compliment each other. "$0$", is an accomplished album musically in it's own right. The beats are obviously inspired by UK grime rap and hold your attention for it's rave inspired aspirations. Songs like "Wat Pomp" and "Wat Kyk Jy" swagger with an electronic stomp that is fresh to my ears. If this is "zef rap" than I'm definitely on board with the whole scene.

As much as I enjoy their music, I can't help but find some aspects about the group and its reception problematic though. I'm a Western critic living in New York and no matter how much I research and get to know their music, I still have a feeling their is going to be an inherent disconnect going on. "Zef culture" is something I'm not only unaware but I profoundly do not understand. If Die Antwoord is a parody of that culture then I can't help but I feel that I'm losing half the joke in translation. It's inevitable. I don't speak the language; neither literally (half of the album is rapped in Afrikaans) nor in a broader culture context. Die Antwoord also deals with some dicey cultural and racial issues that is bound to make me a little uncomfortable coming from my western sensibilities and prejudices. As previously mentioned, Ninja does refer to himself as "colored" which seems profoundly insensitive in a western context of racial boundaries due to the fact that he's a white South African. Is this kosher in South Africa, though? Am I misreading his (character's) intentions? Does it even matter? There is a moment in the video for "Wat Pomp" where Jones briefly appears in black-face that is bound to raise a few eyebrows. As a critic hailing from America, I'm resigned to shrug it off and assume that I'm simply missing the joke but it does make me rather skittish.

Regardless, I'm buying into the hype about Die Antwoord. They are the real deal. "$0$" is an early front-runner for album of the year and I can't imagine I'm going to find a group more engaging than them in this rap climate. This really is the coolest shit I've ever heard.

Video: Die Antwoord - "Wot Pomp"

Video: Die Antwoord - "Zef Side/Beat Boy"

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Few Words On Drake

"This guy is a rap star. Never forget that."

Let’s face it: Drake is a rather unlikeable dude. Regardless of how you feel about Aubrey Drake Graham’s music, it’s hard to root for the guy to succeed. For one, he is a Canadian teen soap actor who by all accounts decided to arbitrarily start a rap career simply because he could. This dude should have been subject to damning Brian Austin Greenian ridicule the moment that asinine idea floated through the space between his off-puttingly bushy, caterpillar eyebrows. He’s too pretty, too Canadian, too much of a Weezy biter and his music is liked a little too much by teenage girls. No! Just no...

With all that serving as a caveat, last year’s mixtape, the “So Far Gone,” was quietly if shockingly excellent. Borrowing heavily from the spacious, sad synth minimalism of Kanye’s “808s & Heartbreak,” Drake captured an unabashedly pop melancholy that seemed strangely addictive and charming. Drake is not a great rapper and yet “So Far Gone” works without a single great or memorable line to its credit. What works is the way that Drake is able to breezily switch from rapping to this mournful teen pop falsetto and how tightly structured each of the songs on the tape are produced and written. Drake is an atomic grade hook writer and you’ll find yourself humming the melodies and words to nearly every one of these songs. The songs don’t break ground thematically as it deals with the same pitfalls of fame material that “808s & Heartbreak” dealt with but Drake manages to somehow sound less cloying and whiny than Kanye did on the record. It’s goofy if shallow fun. It’s like some sort of weird synthesis of Nelly and Slug (and miraculously not nearly as awful as one would imagine that would sound like.)

Honestly, Drake should abandon any aspirations of being a traditionally “great” rapper because whenever, he tries to rappity rap he almost always sounds ridiculous. Take Drake’s latest single, “Over”, as an example. The production is as typically immaculate as nearly everything he’s been releasing the last year but the only thing remotely memorable on Drake’s part is the hook and bridge of the song. The verse is lifted straight out of the Lil Wayne playbook of forced and awkward punchlines but unlike Weezy, Drake lacks Weezy’s natural effortlessness in his delivery to compensate for his lyrical clunkers so Drake ends up sounding...well, forced and awkward. His confidence as a rapper seems unearned so he ends up sounding like the musical equivalent of that cocky asshole that needs to constantly validate his manhood by hitting on everything with a functioning pair of legs. Drake plays against his strengths when he tries to really, really rap.

The best moments of “So Far Gone” are the moments he let’s his guard down like on “Lust For Life’ where he is lamenting about the expectations of being continually approached by groupies for sex and he kind of croons the line “And who the hell am I to say no, no, nooooo.” It kills me everytime because it expresses a weary trepidation about the direction of his life. I relate to that even if that his problems sound like the problems I only can dream about. When Drake is swaggering over “Over”, he’s totally unlikeable but on “Successful” when he’s expressing his desire to get famous he seems like a genuine human. Call me crazy but that seems like a virtue an artist should strive for.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Shadowboxin' Jeremy Roenick With Zilla Rocca

"The Pinnacle Of American Cinema"

The incomparable Zilla Rocca of Clean Guns/5 O'Clock Shadowboxers/Clap Cowards fame and I recently collaborated on a piece about our mutual love of the video game artistry of NHL 94. If you aren't familiar with the game's supreme genius than quite simply you lost at childhood.

-Note: At some point in the near future, I plan to get back to updating my blog at a semi-regular interval. I plan to take a broader scope at the world so it'll probably less about rap music and more about the minutae of life. So take heart, five people who still care enough to read. I haven't quit hating on shit.