If you’ve ever been around me for forty-five seconds or more, you know that she be to chocolate like I be to rap. I want to have conversations about rap all the time, give or take a few minutes in the day. Sometimes it’s over something big, sometimes it’s over something small. I like rap so much that I feel like saying “RAP MUSIC!!!!” is a coherent way to say “This song bangs.” I’m painfully earnest on this subject to an absurd extent.
So here are some loose thoughts on rap, because sometimes all you have is an idea, not an essay:
A lot of my love of books, and crime (or crime-inflected) stories specifically, comes from how basic acts, usually acts of violence, are turned into something more poetic or interesting than the flat statements like you’d see on the news. I really like this thing I read in Charlie Huston’s novel Skinner, his latest release: A single bullet that perhaps goes in one ear and out the other, like a complicated idea quickly dismissed for the effort it requires.
There is an elegance there that works really well. The mental image of a thought considered and discarded is a peaceful one, while a bullet passing through a head is anything but. But there’s a middle ground in there that makes the line sing. It’s very vivid and easy to imagine.
I get the same feeling out of that line as I do out of this sort of line, from Fabolous’s “Can’t Deny It” off the album Ghetto Fabolous: When the time’s right, I’ma put this nine right/ to the left side of your head, push ya mind right.
There’s a parallel in there that I really like. I feel like the rappers who are best at this sort of rap tend to be talented at creating innovative threats and boasts. Being direct is all well and good, but eventually you’ll have to make another song and you can’t reuse your old stuff. So rappers get creative, and that’s where they start to shine.
Shyne’s “That’s Gangsta” is another crime song I like a lot. Where Fab doubles down on his punchlines, winks, and sly grins, Shyne opens his mouth and a flood of apocalyptically nihilist lyrics come flooding out. He flips Rakim:
I got a question as serious as cancer
Where the fucking safe at? Somebody better answer
Got dead gangstas rollin over like, “Yo, this nigga cold”
The way he cut his coke, his murder game, to his flow
Mac-10s, crushed rocks, and drops
The best respect the feds only—cops
Riches my only reason for being, shit
I never had hope until I sold dope
So yeah, this song made an impression on me. The beat is memorable, too.
What got me earlier today, though, was hearing the sample on that beat on a new song. The sample’s Foster Sylvers’s “Misdemeanor,” and it’s been sampled more than a few times. I’ve heard it in other songs, but not in years, so when it popped up in a song called “Love Traps,” off Pete Rock & Camp Lo’s 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s 2, I sat up and paid attention.
It actually took me a second to figure out where I knew the sample from, since this song is pretty far from “That’s Gangsta” in sound, lyrics, and approach. But I kinda dig it, so I went digging.
And from here, I could easily fall down a rabbit hole. I could make an infinite number of connections from song to song, taking my own constantly shifting trip down memory lane, with just this at my base. Rakim leads to lyricism, which could loop back around to Fabolous (he’s nice) or anywhere basically, and from there, I could go anywhere. It’s all connected.
I tried to write an essay earlier this week about this RA the Rugged Man song, “Lessons.” It’s a catalog of things Rugged Man has experienced, from labels telling him to find a black dude to rap with to knowing Norah Jones before she blew up. Rugged Man is a talented dude, so even though this song is seriously just a series of one- and two-bar anecdotes, it still manages to be not just coherent, but pretty fascinating.
I couldn’t make the essay work, but I was going to focus on this line: I don’t want fans that don’t know who G Rap is.
At the time, I took it as Rugged separating the real from the fake, and I was into it for that reason. ’cause, you know, fake rap fans are annoying, and they probably didn’t even listen to real hip-hop, and several other equally tiresome thoughts. I’m older and smarter and hopefully less annoying now, and I still like the line, though I read it much differently.
It’s about curiosity and history to me now, about being in a constant state of learning about the music and culture. It’s not a requirement—I won’t hold out the “You Must Be Able To Name Three Big L Songs To Vibe” signs for now—but it enhances the experience of listening to rap so much to know a little bit about a little bit.
I talk and think about context a lot in terms of criticism or social issues, but it’s true of even something as culturally neutral as “music.” Connecting those dots is so much fun (I’ve done it before on here) and so enlightening that I can’t imagine listening to rap and not wanting to dig in. Things branch out to weird places, songs show up in weird places (remember the Numa Numa song? Just Blaze, TI, and Rihanna sure did), and sometimes you discover people who are right up your alley, despite being before your time.
Here’s Big Daddy Kane and Big L rapping together (kinda) on “Platinum Plus”:
They used this Big L verse on Lyricist Lounge Volume 2, sans Kane. That’s a shame, because Kane says this:
If you block the cash, we locking ass
I’ma put it in your chest like a Stockton pass
Only out to earn figures like we please
But I don’t mind to burn niggas like CDs
Now: exhibit, styles I kick with it
[*COUGH*] Pardon me, but I’m fuckin sickwiddit
Got me fanning myself like I’m in church over here.
Here’s Big L and Kool G Rap getting it in on “Fall Back”:
More head from chickens, it’s time to turn the ape loose
Bust out the cage and let the gauge loose
Blow the feathers out of your North Face goose
It’s G Rap coming back with a clique of brave troops
Have y’all niggas running for home base like Babe Ruth
Have you holding holes in your body like you play flute
Lay you down til you get found up in the sprayed coupe
Prepare for the takeover—give you the face makeover
The seat of your Rover, sheet draped over
Be found on the block with the street taped over
or comin out of deep coma, your speech made slower
What I like about G Rap is that he raps like this pretty much all the time.
I’ve been doing this thing on Twitter for a month or two that I’ve just been calling “rap tweets.” I’ll get off work, head home, and chill outside while tweeting with people about raps. Usually it’s me picking three songs and sending out three tweets each, plus some conversation. I like it a lot, honestly. It’s low key, a nice distraction, and easy to do while doing other things. I just love talking about music, and rap specifically, and it’s cool to be able to do that with people on Twitter who are into it. Immediate feedback is nice, I guess.
I found an essay on gamers and geeks taking over rap on a video game site the other day. I saw it at work and decided to tweet about it that evening, after I’d had time to read it. But when I actually read it, I disagreed with basically every single point because I’m a snob/obsessed/whatever. It was ignorant of the greater context of everything in the article, including rap history and greater cultural trends. But it did make me think about the intersection of so-called nerd culture and rap music and how it’s been misrepresented over the years. There’s a gap between the perception and the truth, as there often is, in how we talk about rap and what it contains.
That essay prompted this one, in an indirect way, but really, I feel guilty for not posting here more often and that essay just gave me an excuse. So walk with me a minute while I talk about these three songs, each of which I like a whole lot.
If you asked me to boil down what I like about rap to just one sentence, I couldn’t, but I’d mumble something about “coded language” before you realized I was trying to cheat. The fact that a lot of things have two or three meanings is really impressive to me. I like having to do the work to pull the rhymes apart and see how somebody else created a puzzle. It’s fun, and it’s funny, and Beanie Sigel’s “Mac Man” is a great example why.
It’s a thugged out version of Here’s A List of Video Game Characters, where Beanie Sigel shouts out, references, or interpolates some aspect of a video game character over the course of a song. So you know, Latin King Koopa, Donkey Kong brings in weed by the barrel, Sonic can’t catch Beans because he’s good at Track & Field, and plenty more in that vein.
Beans places himself at the top of the pyramid as Mac Man, which is great, but then he also ties together every single video game he mentions in a story with a coherent plot and cast of characters. And I know that’s Tommy Westphall/Wold Newton conjecture, which is whatever, but it’s also funny. People, usually people who don’t listen to rap, talk about this kind of rap as if it were full of stoney faced thugs and ice-cold killers, but it really wasn’t. Jokes are a huge part of the style. 50 Cent, DMX, even hardheads like the Boot Camp Click had jokes. Otherwise this song is ridiculous.
XV’s “Mirror’s Edge” is sorta sadboy rap, but that’s cool, because I like that, too. I like this song so much because the metaphor is so strong. A lot of times I feel like metaphors for life in rap tend to be thin-but-good, like the idea that pigeons evolve into phoenixes on Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. It’s kind of dumb when you think about it, but it’s a really powerful and direct image. It’s strong and you can hook into it.
But in “Mirror’s Edge,” the central metaphor is dead-on. The video game is about Faith, a free-running messenger in a super-clean fascist utopia. The song takes the danger of the free-running and applies it to being happy with your life. It’s obvious when you read it: “It feels like I’m runnin’ on walls and I don’t wanna touch the ground/ And if they say that I’m lost, then I don’t wanna be found.” Obvious, but good.
“Super Brooklyn” is by the Cocoa Brovaz, who used to be Smif-n-Wessun of the almighty Boot Camp Clik on Duck Down Records. But they got cease-and-desisted by the gun manufacturer and switched to Cocoa Brovaz. “Super Brooklyn” is great because it leans so heavily on the Super Mario Bros. samples. (The album this came from, Game Over, also featured Eminem and Masta Ace on a Soul Calibur beat. I can’t find the interview where he’s asked about it now, but he only found out this song even came out within the past few years. He’d given a verse to someone and it ended up on there. Rap is weird.)
I feel like this song shouldn’t work half as well as it does. It’s weird, it’s not really something you want to play at high volume except for novelty reasons, and the rhymes and music are wild dissonant. But I dunno—it works for me. Sometimes songs just go.
I first heard Zola Jesus when she was singing backup for El-P on Conan O’Brien. They were performing a live version of “Works Every Time” from El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure, and I thought it was a pretty great take on the song. Jesus’s voice enhanced the original song to a level I wasn’t quite expecting. It put me in mind of Lissie’s cover of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” actually. Having female vocals where there were once male vocals was one trigger, but the biggest one was how the texture of the song changes when you change the gender of the vocalist. Jesus made enough of a mark on me that I wanted to see what her solo music was like.
It turns out her music sounds like nothing I’ve ever really sought out before. It’s a strange mix of electronic music, complex orchestration, and a deep-throated vocalist. It sounds like the kind of music that you can only record in a derelict church after midnight, in the secret basement that the founders put into the building 300 years ago. It feels like the soundtrack to a mass in a movie, and that’s real fascinating to me.
I asked around on Tumblr, I think it was, and got some music video recommendations. I backtracked from there to find her album Conatus, and was pleased to find that it was just as good as I was expecting, even though it doesn’t sound like anything I own. It sounds genuinely new to me, and it’s nice to break out of my comfort zone of old punk, ancient pop, your grandparents’ rock, and rap music.
I find myself in a weird situation when listening to Zola Jesus. I grew up with rap, and I’m used to thinking that people who think rappers rap too fast actually just listen too slow. “What do you mean you don’t understand ‘bing, boggledy, dong?'” type of elitism. But there are a few lyrics on this album I can’t quite catch. I could look them up, of course. I’m sure someone online has figured it out. But I like appreciating Jesus without knowing exactly what she’s saying at the same time. It’s weird and sounds kinda art school-y maybe, but it’s all about the way her voice complements or contradicts the music. I like French singer Camille for similar reasons, even though I don’t speak French. It’s that I like how her voice sounds.
It’s not that she sings too fast. It’s the opposite, really. She stretches syllables, bending them around several turns before finishing the sound. It’s not a wail — it’s not as desperate as that — but it is something I don’t come across too often. It’s a marriage of a child hyper-enunciating something (“But Moooooooom!”), a diva vamping as hard as she can, and the extremes that opera sings go to in search of that perfect note.
I think it’s cool that her videos match up with exactly how her music feels like it should look. It’s a little creepy, but never commits to going full horror. Unsettling is the word, maybe. A quiet itch at the back of your head that things aren’t quite as right as you thought they were.
I keep wanting to describe her music as “full,” as if that wasn’t as vague as anything ever. But it kinda fits, too. Jesus isn’t making speaker box music, not any type I’m familiar with, but I feel like her songs would still give your speakers a workout. It probably sounds great in a car with the windows and system turned all the way up.
Half the time I listen to Conatus, I do it one and a half times in a row. A side effect of the lyrics being fuzzy is that I can’t quite recognize when I’ve heard a song twice, so I let the album loop until I realize what I’m doing. That sounds like a complaint, like the album is a blur of same-y material, but it’s more like… I don’t have the ear for this yet. I’m still figuring out how these songs work, versus how rap songs work or whatever, and my own ignorance results in the loop. Or I just like the album enough to where I don’t really pay attention to how long it’s been on. One of the two. Maybe both.
The first song about abuse by El-P I ever heard was Company Flow’s “Last Good Sleep.” It was one of my least favorite tracks on the fantastic Funcrusher Plus because it was so weird and uncomfortable. El’s flow is slow and strange, just out of step with what I was used to hearing, and the content was simultaneously intimate and distant. He talks about how the man downstairs must’ve drunk one too many beers and how he beats his wife. It took a long time for me to learn to appreciate that song. It’s halting and tense, and it isn’t what I was expecting from CoFlow. It’s a song that sounds like a nightmare.
Two songs on Cancer 4 Cure are about explicitly about abuse and they’re feel much more accessible than “Last Good Sleep” was when I was a kid. “The Jig Is Up” is about hating yourself. “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)” is about being there for someone else.
I first listened to Cancer 4 Cure on a bike ride to work, and then at work, so I didn’t get the fullness of “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)” at first. I misinterpreted the chorus as being about police brutality and the benefits of keeping your eyes shut while working around New York City. I was wrong, obviously. The story’s even better than that.
“For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)” begins with El having been called into a police station for questioning. Someone was killed and the cops are checking for witnesses. El’s position is simple: he didn’t see nothing, he didn’t hear nothing, and if something did happen, that sounds like somebody else’s problem, boss. “I spent the day on my New York shit, didn’t even meet them once, and no I’m not upset — I’m just another guy minding his business.”
Verse two is the real story. He ran into his neighbor, an abused woman, in the hall. Rather than sticking to their status quo, which is walking past each other and pretending like he doesn’t hear the noises from the pain her husband inflicts on her, El stops and touches her shoulder and says the first and last thing to her: “Do the thing you have to do and I swear I’ll tell them nothing.”
It’s a song about showing support and being there when somebody or anybody needs it, dig? It’s about letting down the walls that cities build up inside us, looking at someone else, and making sure they know you have their back, no matter what. It doesn’t matter that the solution is a terrible thing. It may have been necessary, it may not, but it’s a solution. It’s a revenge fantasy, but a good one.
The line “The halls are thin and so is skin when bearing witness to the sound you’re generating every day… guess it reminded me of something” screams A Fistful of Dollars to me. There’s that scene where Clint Eastwood rescues a family for no apparent reason, considering this actions thus far. When asked why he did it, he says “Why? Because I knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help.” That sounds like it’s about his own family, right? I don’t know if El-P intended that connection or not, but man, what a detail.
“The Jig Is Up” is about rejecting that same feeling. It’s about looking a pretty girl in the face after she’s explained how much she likes you, calling her a liar, and then demanding to know who put her up to it. It’s about believing that no one could ever love you, and pushing away those that do due to your own insecurity.
El nails this one, too. Even the hook is a flat, high-speed, “I wouldn’t wanna be a part of any club that would have me,” a Groucho Marx joke that rings with finality, instead of humor, in this context. It’s meant to be a funny little turn of phrase, but sometimes funny turns of phrase hit too close for comfort.
El-P will take you on highs and lows. Paranoid and anxious are two words that come to mind when thinking about his music. When he chooses to go low, he hits hard. There’s a bit on “The League of Extraordinary Nobodies” from I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, toward the end, that goes:
I’ve been noticing the fact that nothing glorious can happen anymore
We’ve run the gamut of our filth
But here I am again, pretending spontaneity exists with idiots
All lifted out their little gills
Aren’t you disturbed that everything you did tonight is something else you did already
And its meaning is still nil?
And all the people in your presence are just weapons
It’s as simple as the theory that the dying love to kill
and it’s just the most pathetic thing you ever heard in your life. And then there’s this, from “Request Denied” on Cancer 4 Cure:
I’m a holy fuck what the did he just utter marksman
Orphan, a whore-born, war-torn life for the harvest
A fair-trade target of air raid, starter kit
Used heart plucked from the bargain bin
I don’t give a fraction of fractal of fucks
I’m a Garbage Pail Kid calamity artist
Cancer 4 Cure is about recognizing that you’re the cancer for your cure, and always have been, but not letting that stop you from balling out on your own terms.
I hated on 50 Cent for years because I was dumb enough to side with some rappers I’ve never met against him. To be fair, they made a pretty compelling case. Jay-Z’s “I’m about a dollar, what the fuck is 50 Cents?” is a pretty classic line, and Raekwon’s temper tantrum on Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele is something else. Plus, 50 was emblematic of a type of rap music that was easy to hate on, if you wanted to position yourself as “conscious” or a specific shade of underground.
As a result, I looked at 50’s successes as exceptions. “Fif is wack, but man, ‘Ayo Technology’ really goes.” “I’m not much for 50 Cent, but I really dig ‘I Get Money.'” It’s stupid, right? And unfair, probably. But past a certain point, you’ve got to sit and realize that an entire mixtape being really listenable — I spent most of NYCC 2010 listening to 50’s Forever King on repeat — isn’t an exception. That’s just now how exceptions work, so stop being stupid and start admitting you like the guy.
At some point this year, maybe a couple months ago, I put Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ onto my iPod. It hasn’t left it since. I’m continually impressed at how well the album flows from song to song, from the introduction up through “Back Down.” The stretch from “PIMP” to “Don’t Push Me” is rougher, in terms of flow, but the album ends on “Gotta Make It To Heaven,” which is nuts.
Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ has a surplus of hits. What’s great about the album is how it doesn’t just sound like a collection of radio-ready singles. 50 is going just as hard as any other hardcore New York rapper, but his swagger, charm, and cleverness keeps the songs from sounded calculatedly commercial. Call it mean mug smiley face rap, I guess, but it’s clear that 50’s having a good time.
Two songs always force the singalong: “What Up Gangsta” and “Many Men (Wish Death).” “In da Club” is tight or whatever, but it’s also pretty played out at this point. I dig it in context, but I don’t queue it up in and of itself.
But “What Up Gangsta” and “Many Men,” those I bang all the time. The former are just catchy tracks with fun hooks. “What up, blood? What up, cuz? What up, blood? What up, gangstaaaa?” and “Many men, many many many men wish death ‘pon me. Lord, I don’t cry no more, don’t look to the sky no more… have mercy on me!” There’s something pleasingly tough about the former and soulful about the former. It crawls up in your head the way good songs do. It makes something click, and I like the combination of a smiley face or old soul hook and gangster theatrics.
“Heat,” tho. “Heat” manages to have one of the coldest 50 lines and one of the corniest music videos ever. I love this construction:
Look nigga, don’t think you safe ’cause you moved out the hood
’cause ya mama still around dog, and that ain’t good
If you was smart you’d be shook of me
’cause I’ll get tired of lookin for ya
Spray ya mama’s crib, and let ya ass look for me
I can’t even really tell you why, outside of my deep and abiding appreciation for threats. But it’s his delivery, his swagger, that really sells it.
On the other hand, though, here’s the video:
Man. Son’s video looks like a Kingpin: Life of Crime ripoff. They must’ve cut this video in Hypercard or something.
What it comes down to, though, the reason why I have finally admitted to myself that I like Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ and 50 Cent in general so much, almost ten years after his album dropped, is that I finally understand that dude is just a consummate entertainer, through and through. I don’t like his more recent tunes, but you listen to this album or “Ayo Technology” and you can see how 50 managed to elbow his way into being the hardcore thug/R&B feature kingpin of his day.
Y’all like Santigold? I like Santigold. My favorite song on her Master of My Make-Believe record has gotta be “Look At These Hoes.” I always forget that it doesn’t come last on the album, because it feels like such a victory lap type of song.
If someone asked me what Santigold sounded like, I’d point to “Look At These Hoes”. It feels like a distillation of everything that she does and is about, from the wordplay to the song structure to the beat to the subject matter. It’s a song that’s about Santigold, and more specifically, about her relationship to her competition.
Maybe it’s weird, but rap isn’t a genre to me so much as a gaping maw, eager to absorb and digest anything that happens to make it through its teeth. It snaps up dance music, soul, funk, jazz, rock, and whatever else is out there — afrobeat! — and absorbs it into the body of rap. The Roots and Curren$y and David Banner and Jean Grae all make rap music, even though none of their music even remotely sounds alike.
“Look At These Hoes” is such a rap song, too. It’s all about how Santigold is iller than her competition. So much iller, in fact, that she’s off in a position of safety like “Look at these hoes trying to come up, not knowing they got no chance.” It’s braggy, full of swagger, and double-time. It sounds like a song you want to bop to, hitting b-boy poses and showing off your flashiest gear. It’s begging to be acted out.
I really dig how she flips a rap staple, too. She ain’t cold — she’s “so damn gold.” There’s barely a difference in pronunciation, but I love the difference between the two. Not to mention the pleasant connection between Santigold and gold, right? She’s positioning herself, being Santigold, as the standard for being cool. I dig that.
“Look At These Hoes” has layers. Her voice goes through a few different treatments over the course of the song — my favorite is the screw voice, to the surprise of no one — and her flow is rapid-fire but staccato, with emphasis placed on every word and extra emphasis on the end of a line. It’s like driving at high speeds around a curving mountain path, right? Turn-turn-turn-turn-TURN. I like how the song feels different epending on which voice she’s doing at the time or how her different voices play off each other when they appear simultaneously. I’m real curious how the acapella sounds.
You could pull this song apart, from the weird ultra-processed video game whistle to the subdued drum machine beat to the way Santigold’s voice bends words into new shapes and find plenty of things to talk about.
That’s what I like about Santigold, really. There’s a wide variety of sounds and styles on her Master of My Make-Believe, but it still feels like a cohesive album, from the first yelp on “Go” to the body-moving beat on “Big Mouth.” (A friend recently put me onto Buraka Som Sistema, producers of “Big Mouth.” I was already down with the sound of “Big Mouth,” and now I get MORE? Awesome.) I know I can depend on Santigold to deliver something just a little off-kilter and ultra-fresh. That faith lets me take it in stride when she throws something new at me, because I’m in the default position of being open to what she’s doing.
Master of My Make-Believe is eleven songs long, and all of them bang for almost entirely different reasons.
I forgot about Missy Elliott and found her again in 2012.
I don’t know how it happened, exactly. I was living in Virginia when she was on the come-up, and I was obviously a fan back then. That whole little spiderweb she belonged to — Nicole Wray, Aaliyah, Timbaland, Magoo, and Skillz on the outskirts — was real interesting to me. Missy made songs that were good and catchy, undeniably so, until I decided she didn’t do that, after high school, and quit listening to her.
I didn’t miss too much, since my hiatus more or less corresponded with her own hiatus, but I look back at that hiatus as such a weird decision to make. Maybe it was the last vestiges of backpacking or something. “Rap music? That you can dance to?!”
I dunno and I don’t remember, in part because it was stupid. Missy brought something to rap for me that I’ve actually grown to sorely miss: dance numbers in music videos. Which sounds like damning with faint praise, but let’s think it through here.
Nobody dances angry. There’s not a Mean Mug Merengue. So a music video with a dance number is a music video that can’t be your typical hood rap video. It’s not just gonna be somebody’s cousin’s boyfriend’s sister twerking on the corner. You’re going to have choreography, several dancers, and a song that allows for dancing. A rap video with dancing ain’t the same as one with a bunch of dudes looking at a camera and throwing up signs.
A lot of the rap I’m into isn’t dance-ready. It’s too aggressive or it’s too weird. Missy and Timbaland, though, managed to make weird into an artform. I feel like he did a lot of his best work with her, and she with him. Missy’s been doing funny voices and mixing up her flows basically since she started, in addition to singing, so she can cover a wide part of the spectrum of rap music. She’s her own R&B collab, if she wants to be. She’s a powerhouse.
The dancing shows that rap is way bigger than the little boxes we tend to put it in. It’s not too long ago that we had a bunch of dudes dressed in identical jerseys doing the same jig onstage, but that fell off. You’re not gonna see Rick Ross getting his boogie on. Fat Joe doesn’t dance. He just pulls up his pants and does the Rockaway. But Missy? Missy’ll get down, and she’ll get down extra hard if you can throw some weird wire effects in there, too.
Missy Elliott makes playful music, is what I’m saying. Her joints exist to put a smile on your face and a pep in your step. And it’s contagious.
When’s the last time you heard “One Minute Man?” I’m thinking specifically of the version with Jay-Z and his semi-tongue-in-cheek ode to the wonders of premature ejaculation and denouncement of all that is Destiny’s Child in the world. Or really any version of the song, come to think of it. They’re all pretty fun.
Making a hit song about dudes not lasting long enough in bed is amazing. I love songs that feature dueling male/female vocalists. They usually — not always, but usually — end up being real funny and clever, and I like how they break down when you’re talking or singing with friends. It’s like how every dude will yell “WE WANT PRE-NUP!” when you do Kanye’s “Gold Digger,” but both sides get to get it in.
I don’t listen to enough smileyface music, and Missy brings some of the best of it. Even her little guest appearance on J Cole’s album, “Nobody’s Perfect?” It’s just a reminder that Missy’s dumb talented, and all she does is a chorus. I didn’t know I missed her until I heard her voice and was like “Oh, yeah. That’s right.”
Word is she’s got a new album in the works. Looking forward to it. Rap needs more Missy.
You can never lead if you only follow. What I mean is, if you sit around, and you look at people, and you wait for them to give you permission to do something great, you will never do anything, so get up, brothers! Get about your grind! If you have a boss, maybe you should fire your boss. Maybe you should change your life.
It’s a real inspirational album, as opposed to being merely aspirational, like most flossy rap records. Mike’s entire point is that you, you sitting there reading this, you need something of your own. You need something that’s yours that you can be proud of. It’ll improve your quality of life and open doors for you that were previously closed. If you’re lucky, and by “lucky” I definitely mean “talented at your thing and in the right place at the right time” and not “lucky” because luck is worthless, it might let you make money, too.
I heard this at the right time and it really sunk in. Working for someone is all to the good, if it works for you, but it’s not the same as owning your own thing. “Maybe you should fire your boss” is a mantra. You need to have something of your own.
4thletter! is mine. It’s Gavin’s and Esther’s, too, of course, but the parts I wrote are mine, like the parts they wrote are theirs. I do what I want to do when I want to do it, and I can’t understate how important that is to me. It’s freeing. It’s freedom. 4l! is like a refuge, if that makes sense. I know that I can come here and write posts about rap music with a little stinger at the end that’ll make my friends laugh. I can try and improve my craft in public and try new things. I feel comfortable failing here, and that sometimes counts for more than succeeding elsewhere.
If you’re an adult, you’ve got to be about your grind, even if you spend some of your time being about someone else’s grind. You have to make money, but money isn’t everything. You need something that makes you happy, too. You have to dream, and sometimes, you need to dream a little bigger, darling. Aesop Rock got at this a little in “9-5ers Anthem” on the exquisite Labor Days when he said, “We, the American working population, hate the fact that eight hours a day is wasted on chasing the dream of someone that isn’t us. And we may not hate our jobs, but we hate jobs in general that don’t have to do with fighting our own causes.”
Cycling back to Mister Michael Render, alias Killer Mike: Lauryn Hill once said “And even after all my logic and my theory, I add a ‘motherfucker’ so you ignant niggas hear me.” That’s close to what Mike does, but it isn’t right. It’s not about ignorance. It’s about meeting people on their level. It’s about knowing that you can’t just preach to people and expect them to listen. You’ve got to get in the door and show and prove before people listen. Meet them on the couch and talk face-to-face, rather than hollering at them from the pulpit.
That’s what Mike does. He effortlessly switches from inspirational talk to drug raps to jiggy raps and back again. It’s not even a switch, if we’re being real. He’s just reflecting the full spectrum of our lives. Sometimes smarty-art types just want to fool around, and sometimes that listless stoner you know has some real smart ideas. And who doesn’t like having money?
Common, on “The Questions,” asked “Yo, if I’m a intellectual, I can’t be sexual?/ If I want to uhh tah uhh does that mean I lack respect for you?” (Uhh tah uhh is I guess onomatopoeia for sex. It makes more sense if you can hear it. Kinda.) There’s this idea that if you’re one thing, you can’t be another thing at the same time, but we all know that ain’t true. Everybody’s got their hands in all types of pots. We all like a wide spectrum of things, even things that may go against what we or others perceive as what we’re all about.
One song I like a lot off Pledge II is “Can You Buy That,” featuring Rock-D. It’s a good song, and pretty representative of Mike’s style and the way he can flip any subject. It’s about having things that other people don’t have, which is undoubtedly a rap staple. But when viewed in the context of the thesis of the album — “Work hard and get yours” — it’s not just braggadocio. It’s an example. It’s rejoicing in having things of your own. I like that.
“Can You Buy That” opens with and features a sample from The Mack, a 1973 film directed by Michael Campus and starring Max Julien and Richard Pryor. You can hear the source of the sample around three minutes into this video:
The Mack is a classic. I know that Shaft and Superfly are probably more respected or whatever whatever, but The Mack will always be a favorite of mine. An uncle showed it to me when I was (too) young and hyped it up super high, and it somehow still delivered. It’s a raw blaxploitation flick, sleazy and violent and wonderful.
Blaxploitation is weird, isn’t it? It came hot on the heels of the collapse of the civil rights movement, and a lot of people feel like it puts black people in
a bad light. Which is maybe true, but it was also a chance for black people to get their foot in the door of Hollywood and make the types of movies they wanted to make. But when I think about the genre, I feel like blaxploitation was something that black people owned. (Aside: a lot of people don’t know that Shaft was created by a white guy. True story.) Not entirely, obviously, but Ron O’Neal, Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, and a dozen others made a mark that Hollywood will never be able to forget, no matter how far they run from it. They proved that a market was there.
They made their mark.
Another thing about blaxploitation is how it was an answer to the decade before. It was a statement. “This is what life is like. This is what our dreams are like.” You saw scumbag slumlords and people fought “the man” in whatever form the man chose to take. Why? ’cause the man was screwing up the country in real life, too. A lot of those movies were sublimated revenge fantasies, like how Punisher comics in the ’80s were ripped from the headlines. What do you do when the man is keeping you down? You tell him to move over and let you pass ‘fore they have be to pullin’ these Hush Puppies out his motherfuckin’ ass! Can you dig it?
The Mack is a good example of how art imitates life and vice versa, too. The Mack is where the player’s ball, an annual gathering of pimps, originated, or at least that’s how the story goes. You don’t get Snoop Dogg without The Mack, either. And surely you’ve heard OutKast’s ode to the ball? It’s an all-time classic.
Rappers keep going back to The Mack for inspiration. “Now we can settle this like you got some class… or we can get into some gangsta shit” is a pretty incredible threat, one that’s been sampled or used or spoken by everyone from Snoop Dogg to your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. Ghostface borrowed Pretty Tony’s name for his Pretty Toney alias, and I’m pretty sure you could make a case for Goldie having inspired Goldie Loc’s name, too. If you ever hear somebody say “stick yourself, fool” or talk about throwing someone in a trunk with rats? They either got it from The Mack or got it from somebody else who got it from The Mack. This movie looms large.
I know you’ve heard this song before. It’s UGK’s “International Player’s Anthem (I Choose You)”, featuring none other than Antwan Patton and Andre Benjamin.
(I love it when Andre 3000 says “I know you ain’t a pimp, but pimp, remember what I taught ya.” This came out at a point when Three Stacks was killing every song he got on, and this is no different.)
The sample on this song is Willie Hutch’s “I Choose You.” It’s from The Mack‘s soundtrack.
Ain’t it the most majestic-sounding thing tho? It’s about getting married to the prettiest girl you ever did see, which is exactly what Andre’s verse is about on the UGK version. He’s homaging the original song on a remix that’s all about pimpery and divorce. Kinda wild. I like how deep that goes. It’s like a tribute, a thank you note, for Willie Hutch.
I think my favorite use of Willie Hutch in any song not actually by Willie Hutch is in Sugar Tongue Slim’s “Sole Music,” a love song about shoes and girls. (I straight up love this song because those are two of my favorite things.)
In the second verse, he says, “Okay, so now she’s in the mood, I got her in the groove/ She into soul music, no pun on the shoes/ I turned on some tunes and rolled up a dutch/ ‘I Choose You,’ she don’t know ’bout Willie Hutch” and right when he says “I Choose You” that melody comes in and a voice starts singing the original song.
It’s clever, like pretty near everything else STS does, and I like how it adds to the song. If you know about “I Choose You,” you get that he’s talking about a girl he’s really, really into. He’s doing that dorky dude thing where he puts on a song that’s actually a hint, right? Y’all never did that? That was just me? Yeah, right. Okay.
I like this love song because it flips the script. It’s not just about bubble butts and make-outs. STS makes the shoe and fashion comparisons work, and if you’re looking to be put on game with regard to sneakers, he’s got you. I’m an Air Force 1 type of dude personally — six pairs and counting, scholar at your boy — but I like certain Jordans, too. But it’s still cool how STS flips his encyclopedic knowledge of shoes into useful and clever commentary on dating and relationships. I especially like the bit where he talks about how if a girl chills with her shoes off in your place, it means she’s pretty comfortable. It sounds dumb, but when you think about it, what do you do when you kick back and relax? You kick off your shoes. It’s a sign of comfort and safety. (“The way she rock Dunks got your boy in love” is all about how dumb little inconsequential things can be incredibly endearing and make your heart jump into your throat.)
I can especially relate when he says that “Let me slow it down, I’m moving too fast/ I don’t wanna scuff it up/ I’m hoping this might last.” You want to keep your shoes clean because yo, shoes are wild expensive and you need to show them off to people. The same is true of relationships. I remember the second day I wore my pair of Chris Pauls (CP 2’Quicks in White/Dark Concord/Black), I had my bike accident. At first, I could recognize that my bloody knee was going to be a problem and was actually hurting kind of a lot, but I was more upset over the fact that I’d just put a big fat scuff on my new sneakers. I had just got them and didn’t even really get a chance to show them off before I ruined them. I was so mad that I went to Walgreens on my way home from work, bought toothpaste, and was in the process of trying to scrub it out when I finally decided to hobble to the hospital. Now, take that feeling and apply it to a relationship. You’re the person who says something dumb too soon and blow everything. Hurts times ten, yeah? The shoe comparison works. “This could’ve been something cool!”
STS is another rapper that was influenced by The Mack, I figure. It’s not as overt as it is with Snoop or Kast, but that aura is there, plus the fact that Slim was the name of another cat in the movie. STS is a self-professed former pimp turned poet, which is shades of the marketing that OutKast got buried under in the ’90s (The Pimp and The Poet, screamed the label, not realizing that both men were both things and so much more.). He’s one of those rappers that never met a pun he wouldn’t make or joke he wouldn’t tell. I forget when I first discovered him, probably on an album from The Roots or a mixtape somewheres, but I dig this remix of La Roux’s song “In For the Kill” that I heard fairly early on.
STS has turned flipping songs into a solid gimmick with his GOLDRUSH series of mixtapes. It’s fun to see how he incorporates the original themes of the song but turns it into his own specific thing. I think it works because dude is funny, even when he’s saying things that would make me grimace.
I like how he flipped Gotye’s song into a really good breakup tale:
Rapping, at its best, is a kind of acting, I think. You have to play a character and do it well enough to convince people that your character is you. He’s acting here, and pulling from a lot of different sources. That “crazy bitch, crazy bitch” bit is straight outta OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, specifically Andre 3000’s “Roses,” Which is interesting in terms of rap geography and influences, because STS is from Atlanta, but moved to Philadelphia and connected with The Roots, who he shouts out in this song as being real important to him. I can hear OutKast and Black Thought and The Roots in him, but his sound is all his own. He builds on what came before him and pays homage to it with his skill, like how Andre and Big Boi paid homage to The Beatles (amongst others, including Motown in general) in a couple different ways with that “Hey Ya!” video.
“Sole Music” is a straight-up storytelling song, too, which is one of my favorite kinds of rappity-rapping showcases. It’s kinda Slick Rick-y in tone. He was killer at that singsong/half-serious storytelling style. Both of these guys just ooze charm, like hanging out with somebody’s cool uncle, so when STS is talking about how he thought he saw his girl, but it was just somebody who reminded him of somebody he used to know, you feel a little sad for him. It’s a pretty great take on the original song, I think, and the conversational format is a whole lot of fun.
Where was I…. oh. You want to learn something?
Listen to rap music. You just gotta scratch the surface to get started, because this stuff runs deep, pimp, like Iceberg Slim.
(I didn’t even talk about how Willie Hutch doing the soundtrack for The Mack relates to Curtis Mayfield doing the soundtrack for Superfly, did I? Or the influence of Mayfield on Anthony Hamilton, the best R&B singer alive today? And how he works with several rappers on songs that generally turn out to be awesome? Or how Hamilton got a shout-out in Santa Inoue’s Tokyo Tribes, a manga that’s basically a rap-oriented sensational crime comic set in Japan? Blaxploitation by way of Shibuya, 1997. Follow the breadcrumbs. History is amazing.)
I like it when songs, or musicians, rather, come up with an ill metaphor for living life. I like it because it’s always interesting to see life through someone else’s eyes, and seeing how they approach that life is often valuable or uplifting. My favorite’s probably always going to be the pigeon/phoenix metaphor on Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein (Pigeon bird got a breath left/ Heart beat no more/ Phoenix bird morph and we live off the G-force”), but XV’s “Mirror’s Edge” is one that I think about a lot lately, and dig a whole lot.
The hook sets it up: “It feels like I’m running on walls, and I don’t wanna touch the ground/ And if you say that I’m lost, then I don’t wanna be found.” The verses are about being on the come-up and living life better than you ever expected, and they always come back around to the chorus by way of a direct lead-in. The chorus is kind of the point of the song. It’s what XV is feeling about where he’s at in life.
I like that this song sounds very open and casual, kinda dreamy. There’s a pointed refusal in the chorus and XV’s delivery, like someone’s pointed out that he’s about to fall, but he’s too busy enjoying the moment to take a moment to accept that. And that’s why this POV works so well for me, I think. It’s about being in a moment and appreciating that moment. It’s about understanding that moments are momentary, but that isn’t a reason to not enjoy that moment to the fullest.
But “Mirror’s Edge” is also about appreciating what you’ve got, but not getting so wrapped up in that moment that you lose sight of what’s coming. Enjoy, but be prepared. Walk that knife’s edge, but have the stitches ready. You can hear it in his voice. He’s incredulous and elated, but with his eyes wide open.
It’s a simple metaphor about living in the moment, but it works so well because XV doesn’t drape it in magic tricks or wordplay. Even if you don’t know Mirror’s Edge, the game that inspired XV’s song, it’s easy to get. It works.
(The reverb-y sound of the song puts me in mind of Gorillaz’s “Doncamatic,” too.)
On the night my tub flooded, after I’d bailed out most of the water and ruined every towel I own, I went for a walk. It was maybe 0200, if not a little later. I’d re-bought Brandy’s Brandy a few days earlier, since it was on sale and I hadn’t heard it since the ’90s. It was part of my Recently Added playlist, but I’d thrown my iPod onto shuffle.
“I Wanna Be Down” came up around when I hit the outskirts of Japantown, and I nearly drowned in the barest hint of a memory. It messed up my pace, and I stumbled as I tried to pull the memory into focus while walking home.
All I thought about for several blocks was Brandy, “I Wanna Be Down,” and the ’90s. It took forever to think it through. Someone — maybe my cousin, maybe my aunt — had the album on a CD, but the only one of us that owned a boombox CD player was my grandmother. She was protective of it, since it was a big purchase at the time, and we had to be very careful with it.
The memory I had wasn’t a specific point in time so much as a spectrum of time. It was a collection of feelings and tactile memories. The slide of the disc coming out of the sleeve in the albums. The fat zip of the binder opening and shutting. The feel of the button that opened the CD player. (It was top-loading, and pressing a button, I think in the front and on top, lifted the lid.) The weak resistance the CD player gave up when you closed it, the quiet click when the hinge latched. The hollow hiss that signified the CD beginning to spin and the weird spiral of electronic noise that it played when you changed tracks.
There are a few other albums I consciously associate with certain places, times, or moods (Atmosphere’s God Loves Ugly and depression, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein and high school, Aesop Rock’s “None Shall Pass” was my alarm clock for a couple years which makes the song nearly unlistenable now), but I can’t remember feeling anything like that before. In fact, I’ll go a step farther and say that I’ve never had that happen to me before. It was weird, simultaneously pleasurable and devastating. It felt like 1995 or 1996 or whenever it was I spent a summer listening to Brandy and swimming in a pool, but it was a hard memory to take hold of. I was maybe more open to it, more vulnerable after having had a catastrophically bad night in the middle of an incredibly frustrating year, but it stopped me dead in my tracks.
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