“cold smooth like that dude sean connery was playing” [The Roots – 75 Bars]

November 7th, 2011 by | Tags: , ,

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the twelfth, and is all about “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction” by The Roots. It’s a growly, mean little song that I love very much.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes, on songs about places, Mellowhype’s Blackendwhite, a general post on punk, a snapshot of what I’m listening to

“75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)” off Rising Down by The Roots is pretty incredible. It’s the peak of the album, I think. There’s a couple of bars that run through my head on a weekly basis, at the barest minimum:

I’m in the field with a shield and a spear, nigga
I’m in your girl with her heels in the air, nigga

It’s catchy. It’s that sorta snap where you pause and go “Ohhhhhhh!” The beat even drops as Thought kicks it, like it’s paying homage. (I at least mouth it every time I hear it, and I only realized this tonight on listen 15 or 20 of this song.) It’s a headshot when it comes to rap braggadocio, basically. I like how Thought emphasizes a couple of negative stereotypes or slurs and takes control of them. It sort of inverts their purpose. A spearchucker, in this context, isn’t a way to denigrate an entire continent and a people as being primitive savages. It’s a threat. It starts with him being outside with a shield and a spear. It ends with a spear through the chest. Get it? And as far as your girl goes… he’s doing what you can’t.

(There’s another aspect to these lines that’s harder to draw, but still there, however gossamer. “In the field” puts me in mind of slave times, and the shield and spear sounds like a black fantasy of a slave rebellion. The next line is interesting in that context, too.)

Thought’s a smart dude. He’s top five, dead or alive, and in the running for GOAT. Over the past twenty years, he’s dominated every other emcee that was dumb enough to hire him for a feature. Common, Big Pun, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, whoever. Thought comes in and does work and just bodies the track basically every time. He doesn’t really do wicked tongue twisters like Big Pun used to, but he more than makes up for it with an undeniable flow, like a rap juggernaut. His connections, wordplay, and flow are all crazy on point. It’s disgusting, really. He understands how to ride a track a lot better than his peers and he’s creative enough that I can’t really put him into any box other than “definitively ill.”

“75 Bars” is a good example of why. It’s three minutes and change long, and mixed so that Thought’s voice sounds raw and less mastered than usual. There’s no hook or gimmick. It’s just raw spitting. It’s a rapper doing what rappers do best. There’s not much that’s conscious on this song. It’s about how Thought is better than you at everything and the fact that he’s about his money.

The beat sounds sparse, like it’s just ?uestlove on drums, but there’s a pulsing melody that breaks in and out of the track as Thought goes off. It gives the track this weird feel. It’s not exactly what I think a song sounds like. It’s stripped down, like a demo, but not so stripped down that it’s just a guy kicking rhymes over an instrumental. It’s something in-between, something lo-fi but fully realized.

The first thing you’ll notice about “75 Bars” is how he uses “nigga” as punctuation. I think it’s real interesting, even if I’ve probably heard songs that use it more often than this one does. It’s emphasized here, and hammered into your head over and over. Even if you say nigga this and nigga that every single day, this song is gonna make you pause. It pulls the word from a basic part of speech, something you ignore or say unconsciously, into something you notice. And because you notice it, you start to pay attention. And since you’re paying attention, you’re stuck off Thought’s realness.

Other rappers use “nigga” or “fuck” as a cheap attention-getter or emphasis. Sprinkle them over a track and watch people get hype. I’m thinking of joints like Ludacris’s “Get the Fuck Back” right here, with it’s chorus of “Fuck that! Get the FUCK back! Luda make your skull crack” or Lil Jon’s “Knockin Heads Off” and “Don’t-like-them-niggas/Can’t-stand-that-bitch.” You want to sing along to that because it’s so aggressive. It’s like Waka Flocka’s music. The loud, dirty nature of it makes you want to yell it, and maybe a BAOW BAOW BAOW to go along with it.

The way Thought uses “nigga” here is different. It’s not just an outburst or lazy (but effective) rhyme scheme. Every single instance makes perfect sense in a sentence. Like this here: “Niggas make dead niggas and hate black niggas/ Brown niggas, high yellow niggas, and them red niggas.” It’s redundant, sure, but it sounds great on the track. The rapid-fire repetition worms its way into your head. “Niggas bleed just like us” doesn’t have that same power. It’s just a hook. OutKast’s “?” doesn’t, either. It’s too short. They don’t have that same power because they aren’t onslaughts of “niggas.” The only song I can think of that really stands up to it is Goodie MOb’s “The Experience,” which starts off “I thought you said you was the G-O-D, sound like another nigger to me!” “75 Bars” starts out immediately transgressive before desensitizing you. When he stops ending bars with “nigga” maybe 1/4 of the way through, you’re surprised, but already hooked.

I don’t know if I’m doing a good job of explaining why this song is so ill. It’s the nigga thing, sure. Thought flips it so often that it can’t help but be attractive. But really, it’s just Thought’s skill. He’s kicking fast raps, so fast that his pregnant pauses are barely a breath long, and the pace never lets up. The song’s a sprint, and once he gets his hooks into you, you’re along for the ride. It starts out with studio commentary and then cuts out immediately after Thought’s last bar. There’s no frills. There’s no nonsense.

There’s the opposite of nonsense, really. It’s dense. He’s packed his bars with content. Every single line kicks like a mule. The last fistful of bars:

My hustle is long, my muscle is strong
My man, put the paper in the duffle, I’m gone
Y’all still a light year from the level I’m on
Just a pawn stepping right into the head of the storm
You been warned, I will blow y’all niggas and disintegrate
I’m a rebel, renegade, must stay paid

Every line has a point. They’re complete statements. With a few exceptions, you don’t need the lines before and after to make sense of it. Thought’s rapping like he’s running out of time and trying to throw as many punches as he can. Over the course of his seventy-five bars, he stacks threat on crack on snap like the world’s fastest game of Jenga. It’s a style showcase. It’s not pointless like Canibus’s “100 Bars,” the point of which was Canibus telling you how dope he is. It’s about Thought showing you. He gives you the evidence and then you get to recognize.

You don’t need the lines before and after it, but when you include them, the song gets crazier. It builds a picture of Black Thought. Maybe that’s the reconstruction in the title, I don’t know. You get his rap persona, and you realize that he can really spit.

I love this video of Mos Def freaking out and kicking almost all of “75 Bars” and thought just being stunned and comparing ?uestlove/Black Thought to Lennon/McCartney. I feel like I’m doing a crap job of explaining why this song goes so hard, but Mos’s reaction here is like validation. Songs like “75 Bars” are the 16-panel grid of rapping. They’re a marathon, an iron man competition.

As a rap fan, this is what I live for. It’s everything that can be wonderful about rap, from an ill song to an emcee flipping something common into something extraordinary and back again. Hearing somebody completely black out on a track never gets old. This isn’t an accidental or calculated (but still ill, to be fair) blacking out like Nicki Minaj on “Monster.” It’s Kool G Rap on “Fast Life” putting the fear of God into Nas, UGK on “Big Pimpin’,” Andre 3000 on that “Throw Some Ds” remix or “Walk It Out,” Ghost’s verse on “Impossible,” or Big Daddy Kane on “A Day At the Races.” It’s somebody doing something incredible, and sounding effortless while they do it. It’s a welcome pummeling. It’s the type of song you gotta rewind when you first hear it.

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3 comments to ““cold smooth like that dude sean connery was playing” [The Roots – 75 Bars]”

  1. Quick thought: The difference between Thought and Cee-Lo’s use of the word in 75 Bars/The Experience and other uses is that they’re clearly enunciating the word: nigger. They’re deliberately referencing its original connotation/meaning. More in a bit.

  2. First comment was eaten, so here’s another try:

    RE: the use of the term ‘nigga’ as punctuation

    I think 75 Bars and The Experience have a particular impact b/c Black Thought and Cee-Lo aren’t saying the word ‘nigga’, they’re saying ‘nigger’. Nigger’s a much heavier, more culturally powerful word. If you’re an American listening to either song, the use of the word w/ its ‘classic’ pronunciation hits you in the chest. Many (read: all) mcs use the word as empty filler, stretching out its meaning so far that it almost becomes meaningless (except to the extent that it (a) makes white fans of hip-hop a little uncomfortable when they sing along to their favorite hip-hop song and (b) inspires dull political debates over whether ‘nigga’ is still an ethnic slur). But nigger… it’s impossible to escape what nigger means. When Cee-Lo says ‘sound like another nigger to me”, it gets your attention, a signal that he’s adopting a prophetic voice (weird thing: listening to that song again, Cee-Lo seems to both embrace and mock that tradition… it’s that weird dissonance that’s key to Goodie Mob’s appeal (for the first two albums) – they really explored the confusion re: religion and cultural values in the AA community didn’t they? I must write about this…). In 75 Bars, Tariq uses the word nigger to twist the knife – embracing and undermining the stereotype (he’s got your hypersexed spearchucker right here!).

    Speaking of ‘nigger’, you know who else regularly used the word ‘nigger’ in its original meaning/pronunciation? Spice-1. I’m not super-familiar w/ his work, but I think it made his odes to nihilism sound even bleaker.

  3. @Jamaal: I think you’re dead-on in terms of Cee-Lo, but I almost feel like Black Thought flip-flops between the two versions. “Niggers make dead niggas, and kill black niggas.” It’s hard to tell which is which, there’s a blurring there. I think that may be why the song is so confrontational, because he’s switching back and forth. It gives me an off-balance feeling.

    And yeah, Goodie’s Still Standing may be my favorite “black condition/experience” album since the ’70s. “Inshallah” is fantastic, and “I Refuse Limitation” starts off with this amazing verse by Backbone (“Uh for these freaky hoes I lust/ But I’m still flickin ashes/ a lot of other motherfuckers snort dust/ But that’s they thang/ A lot of us fall victim somehow/ But that’s that game”) that’s full of pitch perfect resignation and then Cee-Lo ends the song with a long verse about a man’s responsibilities that’s just a little too fast for the song and so feels strange, like it’s overflowing.

    I haven’t heard Spice-1 in years. I remember either one of his tapes or MC Eiht’s kicking around when I was a kid. I should rediscover it.