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

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 clich├ęs 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?