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

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.