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“Paradise not lost, it’s in you” [On urban ennui]

July 18th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is a series of twenty focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the final entry. I had a conversation with a friend about Damon Albarn and what I’ve been calling urban ennui. This is me trying to quantify that feeling, and how the music I enjoy the most has reflected or dealt with that feeling. This is more a collection of thoughts than a proper essay, but I hope you underdig it regardless.

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, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots, on Betty Wright and strong songs, on screw music, on Goodie MOb’s “The Experience”, on blvck gxds and recurring ideas, on Killer Mike and political rap, on Ghostface Killah and storytelling

-One of my favorite, or maybe my most favorite, songs on the debut album from the Gorillaz is “M1A1.” Listen:

-The first couple minutes of this song are taken almost verbatim from George Romero’s Day of the Dead. The man’s shouts for other people turn the song into something a little creepy. He’s seeking companionship and finding none, but he keeps trying and the music eventually buries him. The implication is that he never finds anyone.

-“M1A1” could mean a lot of things. It’s a type of tank, a flamethrower, and a submachine gun. It’s also the name for a road in England, built toward the end of the ’90s. From wikipedia:

Between 1996 and 1999 the M1 section north of the M62 underwent a major reconstruction and extension to take the M1 on a new route to the A1(M) at Aberford. The new road involved the construction of a series of new junctions, bridges and viaducts to the east of Leeds. When the new section of M1 was completed and opened on 4 February 1999, the Leeds South Eastern Motorway section of the M1 was redesignated as the M621 and the junctions were given new numbers (M621 junctions 4 to 7).

-The song goes from empty loneliness to rapid-fire music and shouts. It’s an interesting balance. It’s not even remotely single-worthy or radio-ready, but it’s still a great song.

-It evokes a specific mood. It sounds like cities feel. You don’t talk to strangers. You don’t make friends. You stay in your bubble until you reach safety, and then you get to go wild — party, drugs, girls, sports, whatever.

-That mood puts me in mind of a Kid Cudi line from one of my favorite songs about depression: “Crush a bit, little bit, roll it up, take a hit. Feeling lit, feeling light, 2 a.m., summer night.” This is how we have fun. Looking out over a city when it’s long past bedtime, enjoying the quiet, the swoosh of cars going by outside or at street level, and the cool winds. But it’s a little futile, too. The song’s called “Pursuit of Happiness.”

I bailed out of my life and went to Los Angeles last week for a few days. No email, no tweets, no nada. I don’t think I even texted that much, beyond getting directions from the LA gang. I spent Saturday night in Santa Monica, and I woke up around 3am. I got something to drink, looked out of a window, and realized that it was bright outside. The city lights made 3am look like 7pm. The weather made it feel the same. An eternal comfortable twilight, the perfect time of day locked in place and preserved. I wanted to take a walk, but instead I just went back to bed.

-I live in San Francisco, and sometimes I take walks at night with my iPod. This city is really nice at night, and I live in a pretty busy part of town. It isn’t quite as bright as Santa Monica was after midnight, but it’s still nice. My only issue is with the weather — I have to bring a jacket when I go out. But, sometimes, you hit that perfect balance and the city is beautiful in all the right ways.

-A couple Sundays ago, I found myself sitting on a bench in Japantown (a district in SF, just a couple blocks from my place), pleasantly faded, reading stories out of a copy of William Gibson’s Burning Chrome that the homey Sean Witzke sent me. It sounds simple, I mean I was just reading outside on a bench, but that’s not an experience I could have back home in Georgia. The people going by, the location, the smell of food from Yakini-Q drifting down the block, the reflections from the New People building… there’s something special there. Something fascinating and appealing.

-One of my favorite images of a city is a Black Star song, “Respiration.” It opens with a woman saying “Escuchela… la ciudad respirando.” I don’t know where that’s from, but here’s the hook and a youtube:

So much on my mind that I can’t recline
Blastin holes in the night til she bled sunshine
Breathe in, inhale vapors from bright stars that shine
Breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline
Heard the bass ride out like an ancient mating call
I can’t take it y’all, I can feel the city breathin
Chest heavin, against the flesh of the evening
Sigh before we die like the last train leaving

It’s beautiful, yeah? I love “Breathe in: inhale vapors from bright stars that shine/ Breathe out: weed smoke retrace the skyline.” It’s crystal clear, a thousand words worth of imagery packed into two short lines. When I think of what I like about cities, this is what I think of. The city as a living, breathing organism and the citizens as people just trying to get by.

-I loved this song before I moved to a real city. I spent a couple years in Madrid, but that wasn’t quite the same. I wasn’t on my own. When I moved to SF and found myself alone, I finally understood the melancholy aspects of the song. City living is like nothing else, but it will burn you out if you can’t keep up.

“I don’t know why I chose to smoke sess. I guess that’s the time that I’m not depressed.”

-I was trying to explain this to a friend in email, and the only compact term I could come up with for what I’m talking about was “urban ennui.” Urban ennui is that feeling that arises when you’re caught between a city’s majesty and its dungeon. It’s the combination of pretending you’re sober enough to talk to a pretty girl on somebody’s balcony at midnight and curling into a fetal ball in your apartment because the pressure is too much a week later, and then doing it all again because escape is unthinkable and unwanted.

-The feeling isn’t ennui, not really. Ennui is a listlessness, a tiredness. It’s exhaustion. Depression. But that’s the closest feeling I could come up with, even though this is something different.

Urban ennui about the push and the pull between the sacred and the profane, and how both are required if you’re living in the city. It’s how a smile from a stranger can change your day just as fast as a mean mug from another. It’s how a snarl of cars is beautiful from four stories up and a nightmare at street level.

-I can hear traffic from my place late at night, when it’s real quiet. I like how cities sound, and if I’m up late, not sleeping, that quiet motion is comforting, like the ocean. I don’t know why I like it, I doubt if I could quantify it, but I do.

-One of my favorite rappers, a guy whose career has had almost undue influence on my writing style, is El-P. He started with Company Flow, moved to Definitive Jux, and I’ve followed him ever since I first heard CoFlow’s Funcrusher Plus. Here’s his song “For My Upstairs Neighbors (Mums The Word)” off his (very good) Cancer 4 Cure album.

He packs a lot in. Cops as hostile invaders and obstacles, New York attitude, snitching, abuse, but most of all, the unique relationship between neighbors in a city. You hear the noises from other apartments, the arguments and screams and orgasms and heels, and you ignore it. There’s no real common area, so you don’t hang out and become friends. Each apartment is a world unto itself, orbiting the sun of the apartment building but existing almost entirely apart from it, as well.

-I don’t know any of my neighbors. I’ve had conversations and introduced myself to a few, but I wouldn’t call any of them friends. We don’t hang out. We smile as we pass each other and continue on in our lives.

I live directly across from the main elevator and stairs, so I hear everyone. Snatches of conversation. Muttered arguments. Drunken ramblings. But I don’t know anyone. I don’t know faces, only voices, and I barely know those. I have neighbors, but they just live near me. They aren’t neighbors like I had back home.

-El-P is familiar with urban ennui. It bleeds out of his discography, in addition to his songs about abuse, addiction, and depression. It’s one of the things I like most about his work, honestly. That paranoia and pain that oozes out of songs like “Stepfather Factory” and “The Jig Is Up” hit me hard.

-It’s no surprise that whatever it is inside me that loves cities latched onto El-P and his love of the same. The actual surprise, though, was Damon Albarn.

-Blur just released two new songs: “Under the Westway” and “The Puritan.” They’re pretty good.

-The Westway is another road. Albarn sang about it in “For Tomorrow,” from Modern Life Is Rubbish. A video and another quote:

She’s a twentieth century girl,
With her hands on the wheel.
Trying not to be sick again,
Seeing what she can borrow.
London’s so nice back in your seamless rhymes
But we’re lost on the Westway.
So we hold each other tightly,
And we can wait until tomorrow.

“We’re lost on the Westway, so we hold each other tightly, and we can wait until tomorrow.” Terror and love, inseparable.

-I like “Under The Westway” more than I like “The Puritan,” but that’s more due to the fact that “Westway” sounds more like the era of Blur I’m really into, their 13 and Think Tank albums. “The Puritan” sounds more like Modern Life Is Rubbish to me. (Not a complaint, mind.)

“Westway” is properly melancholy and explicitly about cities. Here’s an excerpt:

There were blue skies in my city today
Ev’rything was sinking
Said snow would come on Sunday
The old school was due and the traffic grew
Up on the Westway

Where I stood watching comets on their lonesome trails
Shining up above me the jet fuel it fell
Down to earth where the money always comes first
And the sirens sing

Bring us the day they switch off the machines
Cos men in yellow jackets, putting adverts inside my dreams
An automated song and the whole world gone
Fallen under the spell of the

Distance between us when we communicate
Still picking up shortwave
Somewhere they’re out in space
It depends how you’re wired when the night’s on fire
Under the Westway

Love-horror-love-horror-love-cities. Again and again.

-I got into Gorillaz (who I’d liked since high school) in a major way after I moved to SF. I reconsidered Demon Days, I dug Plastic Beach, and I grabbed all the b-sides I could find. Here’s a snap from my Google Music:

I don’t have everything (I haven’t grabbed the Laika album yet), but I do have most of their stuff.

-I also got into Blur, and Albarn in general. I’ve enjoyed all of his side projects to varying degrees. I haven’t disliked any of them. Some are just more good than others.

The internet makes it easy to binge on an artist’s discography (“damon albarn discography mp3 high quality”), but I don’t usually get into artists like I get into Albarn. I never felt like I needed to get every Joe Budden song ever, or Fabolous. But I did that with Albarn, and I’ve even got three zips of bootlegs and live recordings to go through even still.

-I think I binged so hard because Albarn scratched the same itch that El-P does. They’re both exploring these ideas of love, hunger, fear, and obsession on wax. They have a habit of seeing the beauty in pain — El-P enabling a neighbor to murder her abusive husband, Albarn focusing on the love that keeps us together in hard times — and being honest about who we are and where we live.

They don’t have a lot of common ground, but the common ground they do have is remarkable. I don’t think they’ve come to the same conclusions, either. Albarn seems like he’s made his peace with how things are, while El is much more abrasive and prickly about it. Maybe that’s that New York swagger vs whatever they have in London, I don’t know, but I enjoy thinking about it.

-I wouldn’t be the person or writer I am today without music. Specifically rap music, guys like Nas and El-P and Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox and Jay-Z and OutKast and Goodie MOb and Backbone and Cool Breeze and Too $hort and Mos Def and Talib Kweli and RA the Rugged Man and dozens more. They all either explored ideas that are near and dear to my heart or explored ideas in a particularly clever way.

The language they used and the ideas they explored are what made the difference. They opened something up to me, whether it was showing that every subject is worthy of consideration or just flipping a hysterical lyrical miracle off a spherical aerial toward the pinnacle, minimal satirical.

The way that I talk, the way I choose to write, is a direct product of a childhood spent listening to music. The books that I read ranged from classics to airport trash, and none of them hit me as hard as, say, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” or “Find A Way” or “2nd Round KO” or “Uni-4-Orm” or “Fugee-La” or “Scream Phoenix” or “Shadowboxin’/4th Chamber.”

-Music taught me to be willing to find different ways to explore ideas, rather than just being simple and straightforward and boring. If you have to work for something, even just a little, it tastes better.

-I realized that several of my most favorite songs and albums explore city life and urban ennui entirely by accident, but it made a lot of things about me fall into place. It’s like opening a safe. The tumblers fall, click click click click, and then the door slides open and you have that lightbulb moment.

It makes sense. City living is stressful, especially on your own, and why wouldn’t it be explored via music? San Francisco, London, Los Angeles, New York, whatever. There are differences, but I bet the basic foundation of living in those cities is the same. It’s one of those things you have to make your peace with, or else just leave the city entirely.

-I’ve started running in the mornings, since I’m not really biking currently. I know my neighborhood well, or at least maybe a three square block radius. It’s different when you’re up at 6 or 7 and winding your way through the sidewalks, portapotties, and overgrown trees. You look at different things because you can’t run with your head down. It’s easy to find something you never noticed before as you watch the fog burn off.

It’s another angle on the city, basically, something new to love and fear.

-Urban ennui isn’t a concrete concept, or like a dominant one or something like that. It’s part of a spectrum of things: depression, relationships, adulthood, son-hood, and whatever else. But this feels significant to me, it’s something that matters. It’s something that’s real.

-Thanks for reading.

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“To be continued…” [Ghostface Killah’s “Shakey Dog”]

May 22nd, 2012 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is a series of twenty focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the nineteenth. I wanted to write about storytelling rap, and then I wanted to write about Ghostface Killah’s “Shakey Dog” and “Run,” and then I wanted to write about Ghostface’s style, and then I just decided to pick apart “Shakey Dog” to see what I came up with. Hopefully it’s not just me explaining the song.

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, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots, on Betty Wright and strong songs, on screw music, on Goodie MOb’s “The Experience”, on blvck gxds and recurring ideas, on Killer Mike and political rap

Here’s the first eight bars of Ghostface Killah’s “Shakey Dog” off that Fishscale album. This would be half a verse in any other song:

Yo, making moves back and forth uptown
60 dollars plus toll is the cab fee
Wintertime bubble goose, goose, clouds of smoke
Music blastin’ and the Arab V blunted
Whip smelling like fish from 125th
Throwin’ ketchup on my fries, hitting baseball spliffs
Back seat with my leg all stiff
Push the fuckin’ seat up, tartar sauce on my S Dot kicks

It’s about nothing. It’s about riding in a cab, heading to Harlem, wearing a bubble goose ’cause it’s cold, smoking huge blunts, and how the cab smells like fish. This is the musical equivalent of a novelist writing about seventy-five whole pages about what Jane Eyre had for breakfast, the weird crick in her neck that won’t go away, and how she’s absolutely nuts peanut butter-covered celery before getting down to whatever it was Jane Eyre is actually about. It sets the stage, sure, but it’s not what you traditionally think of as something that a song is about.

But this is Ghost’s greatest strength. This is why he wins over most (95%, if not higher) other rappers. He’s the number one dude in rap at building a mood (save for fight music, where Lil Jon holds the crown, but that’s a special exception). Most rappers just go in from jump, hitting you with punchline after punchline about lyrical spherical miracles and how they pitch cracks kick raps and run traps. It’s direct and to the point, almost to a fault. I love Pusha T, but I know that he’s just going to get elbows deep into whatever song he’s on as soon as his verse starts, whether he’s telling a story or just talking about coke.

But Ghost will set the stage with an establishing shot, pan around to something irrelevant but interesting, and then get to the point when he feels like it. And even then, the point will be obfuscated and enhanced with dense language, new slang, and astute observations that you didn’t expect to see. I feel like Ghost is just like your uncle who has nothing but shaggy dog tales in his repertoire. They’re well-told, yeah, but dang, man, there’s so many extraneous details off in those stories. But when you set it to music, and when you give Ghost a chance to tell a story, you get something way more magical than Ghost’s rhymes seem on paper.

More “Shakey Dog”:

Made my usual gun check, safety off, come on, Frank
The moment is here, take your fuckin’ hood off and tell the driver to stay put
Fuck them niggas on the block, they shook, most of them won’t look
They frontin’, they no crooks and fuck up they own jux
Look out for Jackson 5-0 cause they on foot
Straight ahead is the doorway, see that lady with the shopping cart?
She keep a shottie cocked in the hallway
“Damn, she look pretty old Ghost,” she work for Kevin, she ’bout seventy seven
She paid her dues when she smoked his brother in law at his boss’s wedding
Flew to Venezuela quickly when the big fed stepped in

This is where the song starts to coalesce into a shape. It’s explicit storytelling, Tony Starks talking directly to us and relating what he said to Frank and did on this specific day. It’s part-conversation, part-story. And look, Ghost is keeping up the extra details that build this up into something more than just a heist song. The wannabe corner boys are no threat, but the beat cops might be. The old lady with the shotgun is one of my favorite images, because Ghost hints at this whole history. She shot somebody up at a wedding? She fled to Venezuela, but came back to New York? And now she runs security at a stash spot? I want a song about her, man.


This is the spot, yo son, your burner cocked?
These fuckin’ maricons on the couch watchin’ Sanford and Son
Passin’ they rum, fried plantains and rice
Big round onions on a T-bone steak, my stomach growling, yo I want some

Anybody else, this would’ve gone down differently. They would’ve kicked in the door, waving the .44, and have ’em screaming “Poppa don’t hit me no more.” But Ghost takes another detour. He takes the Cuban guys from faceless goons to people with actual personalities and he turns himself from a stick-up kid to something else. When he said “My stomach growling, yo, I want some” is the exact point I went from digging the song to loving it.

It’s such a beautiful little detail that I can’t help but love it. Sean Witzke and Brandon Graham, two people I love to talk stories with, have talked a lot about how important it is to see people eating and using the bathroom in action movies, and really fiction in general. (Sean on Brandon and BG on eating, turns out I got it from Sean who got it from Brandon) I didn’t realize it before they said so, but they’re absolutely right. It’s something that grounds characters and lets in to their minds and lives more than just watching Rambo tear through eighty thousand dudes does. It humanizes them, even if they’re larger than life, and it does it without sacrificing any of their potency. Ghostface pausing to talk about how hungry he is has the exact same effect. It’s like — “Whoa! Okay, one, he’s painted a picture of a delicious meal, and also, he’s a regular person.”


Off came the latch, Frank pushed me into the door
The door flew open, dude had his mouth open
Frozen, stood still with his heat bulgin’
Told him “Freeze! Lay the fuck down and enjoy the moment”
Frank snatched his gat, slapped him, asked him
“Where’s the cash, coke and the crack? Get to smoking you fast”
His wife stood up speakin’ in Spanish, big titty bitch holdin’ the cannon
Ran in the kitchen, threw a shot, the kick in the four fifth
Broke the bone in her wrist and she dropped the heat
“Give up the coke!” But the bitch wouldn’t listen
I’m on the floor like holy shit! Watchin my man Frank get busy
He zoned out, finished off my man’s wiz
They let the pitbull out, big head Bruno with the little shark’s teeth chargin’
Foamin’ out the mouth, I’m scared
Frank screamin’, blowin’ shots in the air
Missin’ his target off the Frigidare, it grazed my ear
Killed that bullshit pit, ran to the bathroom butt first

And this is where the song would start under anyone else’s pen. Now that we’ve had two minutes and forty-five seconds of introductions in a song that lasts three minutes forty-five, Ghost is getting down to the nitty-gritty. It’s exactly how a heist isn’t supposed to go, but Ghost makes it both weird and incredibly detailed. You can see Cuban the guy’s wife wrecking her wrist ’cause of her .45 while talking Spanish. You know what a squat, ugly, vicious-looking pitbull sprinting across the floor looks like, but Ghost saying that it’s a “big head Bruno” changes the game. I doubt if he’s referring to the dog from Bosko cartoons, but “big head Bruno” is definitely something to spark a mental image. A dog that’s more head than body, shark’s teeth sitting there like potential energy, foam around the mouth… it works.

The craziest part, though, is “I’m on the floor like holy shit!” That’s another one of those touches that makes me love Ghostface and his music. He’s an observer, far from impartial, but even he can’t believe how crazy the day’s going. He’s half-impressed and half-horrified, going by his voice, because Frank is getting busy, but yo… things are crazy.

But the illest part of the entire song is this bit from the very end, after Frank has killed everybody but one guy and then gets killed himself:

To be continued…

It’s the perfect ending, because Ghost is in trouble deep, his connect’s house is a mess, and there’s no way he’s getting away scot-free.

“Shakey Dog” feels like a sprint. There’s no hook. Ghost only varies his voice a couple times, and he doesn’t do it to indicate someone else’s voice. He just does it to indicate distance (like when he’s talking through the door) or his own mood (“My stomach growling”). The conversations don’t break up the rhythm of the story at all. They’re just part of the same mass, that same sprint to “to be continued” and a quick fade. It’s exhausting because it’s so exciting.

Even the music makes it feel like a sprint. A cat named Lewis Parker produced it, and the primary sample is from The Dells’s “I Can Sing A Rainbow/Love Is Blue” (which Blu fans will definitely recognize from Below the Heavens). It’s soulful, but fast-paced, and the stretched out vocal sample (“I” stretched to the point of breaking, looped twice or thrice) builds tension before the distorted “Now I’m without you baby” drops in.

“Shakey Dog” is a genuinely undeniable headnodder. The music sets you up, and then Ghost hits you with a juggernaut flow and you’re lost. It’s an incredibly dense song, and even though only maybe a full sixty seconds are action, it’s still one of my most favorite storytelling joints.

I love all types of rap, from crack to trap to country to crunk to stoner to emo, but storytelling rap is probably my favorite. There’s something about bending a skill that’s usually used to kick clever metaphors and rapid-fire rhymes toward telling a story from start to finish. It enhances a simple or stupid story into something magical like “Shakey Dog.”

“Shakey Dog” is as real to me as Goodfellas or Four Brothers. Maybe even more so, since I built the world of “Shakey Dog” myself, instead of watching someone else act it out. Ghost throws some many details into the story that you can’t help but see it as real life when you watch it. The stairs are wooden and brown, Ghost is on the carpeted part of the apartment while the wife is firing her .45 while standing on linoleum in the kitchen, bullet holes in the white, old-fashioned fridge… the bathroom’s bright white before it turns red.

That’s why I love Ghostface’s style so much, and why I love storytelling rap. It builds up this incredibly vivid picture in your head and then it’s gone. It’s a taste of another world before it fades out. Even the title, “Shakey Dog” — it’s because Frank is acting like one of those annoying little shaky dogs before the jux goes down. But the e makes it seem like a name, rather than just an adjective. There’s flavor there, something to chew on.

When Ghost is on point, he’s giving you more than just a hot song. He’s giving you all these ideas and lines and images that stick to your ribs. Listen to Ghostface.

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“My life dope? (straight cocaine)” [On Killer Mike]

May 16th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is a series of twenty focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the eighteenth. Spending some time writing about what I don’t like about the political music of dead prez got me thinking about what I do like in terms of political music. One name came to mind almost immediately: Killer Mike.

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, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots, on Betty Wright and strong songs, on screw music, on Goodie MOb’s “The Experience”, on blvck gxds and recurring ideas

If you want my personal gold standard for political rap, it’s gotta be Killer Mike, and more specificaly, his I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II. “Pressure” is extraordinarily hard and as blatantly political as Mike gets on this album:

Here’s the intro to the album:

This is not your regular rap album. This is meant to be a soundtrack to your success, brother. A soundtrack to your success, sister. This is right now, real-time music, what the fuck is happening. What ain’t happening is the bullshit lies you been going through. What ain’t happening is the bad examples you been following. You see, the Grind believes in you because we know you believe in us, therefore we don’t bullshit you. Nuh-uh. I wanna see whoever’s buying this record win right now and do great things. But the only way you gonna do that is if you get up off your ass and get about the act of doing something. Grind Time Rap Gang, fucker, bang bang bang. 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. Your work ethic will determine your worth, meaning whatever you get is determined by how hard you work to get it. You understand what I’m telling you right now? What I’m saying is there’s nothing in the world that can stop you from achieving whatever it is you wanna achieve. And I want you to let I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind Part II be a soundtrack to your success. Until we meet again on that path of getting to the money… it’s Grind Time Rap Gang. Bang. Bang. Bang. C’mon, let’s go!

What I like about Pledge II is that I can hear a lot of Tupac in it. Pac is still probably my favorite rapper, just because he got it so well. He got it better than anybody else. He understood that you can play a role and still kick knowledge. Son didn’t have a criminal record until he rapped about having one. But he still managed to kick rhymes that had everybody relating to him. He was an everyman, in a way. I don’t mean that he was himself just like the rest of us — he clearly wasn’t, for better or worse — but he understood the value of theater and played a lot of roles. He made “Dear Mama” and “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch.” He rapped about living the fast life and being so depressed he wanted to kill himself. He was everyone, and that’s why he clicked so hard. It’s not that he was conscious or a thug or loved his mom or could spin a sex song. It’s that he was all of that in one.

Mike stepped into that role for me. I’ve liked Mike for years, ever since he hit the beat running like Randy Moss on his feature on OutKast’s “The Whole World,” and I love that he’s grown into this quietly revolutionary figure. Pledge II runs a range of subject matter. He pretty much hits every rap cliche but how much he loves his mom, I think. No, that’s not true: “Grandma’s House” counts there. Civic pride (“2 Sides”), fly rides (“Big Money, Big Cars”), drug dealing (“Good-Bye (City of Dope)”), and on and on. He glorifies drug dealing, stripping, big cars, education, looking out for your family, protecting yourself, and self-esteem. He touches on the power, occasional hypocrisy, and shortcomings of religion. He’s running through a wide range of experiences.

But what makes this political for me is that it’s an entire album not about how ill Mike is but how important it is to grind and get your own. It’s about being self-actualized, loyal, honest, and willing to do what you need to do to survive. On a very fundamental level, it’s about loving yourself because society hates your guts. You have to look out for yourself, your family, and your community.

His point of view is pointedly black southern and post-Reagan, too. The mistrust of authority, the matter-of-fact approach to the way crack ravaged the black community, an emphasis on money but a conscious knowledge of the evils that come from chasing it, and black power themes present on the album all scream that at me. Even the Grind Time Rap Gang stuff is part marketing and part motivation. You’ve gotta make money for yourself if you ever want to have anything of your own.

That’s the sort of political music I can get behind. It’s honest, direct, and if it came down to it, you could dance to it. Throw some elbows or groove, whatever you want. Killer Mike has demonstrated growth in his sound, but also in his politics and prejudices. I listen to Mike and I hear somebody who knows the game and is working to both fit in where he can get in and make things better, which sounds like a lot of people I know and look up to.

I go back to this album regularly. It’s motivation music. I went and checked to see if I could see how often, and came up with this image:

I was actually surprised to see “Grandma’s House” at number one, but I do love that song. (“If she catch me serving hard, it’s gon’ break my nana’s heart, so I take them bricks, I cut ’em quick and hit the boulevard,” whooo) I figured that “Pressure” would be number one, but I’m okay with this result. It’s a powerful album, and there’s something that I can take away from every song. It’s intensely political without being in the dead prez or Immortal Technique vein of things. Mike is just talking about what he believes and what he knows. It’s real life rap, like Tupac used to kick, and I appreciate that. I feel like if I can’t apply your revolutionary or progressive or conservative or whichever philosophy to my real life, then it’s worthless. It’s not even hot air, because hot air actually has a use. Theory doesn’t do me any good.

“Burn” is a joint off Killer Mike’s Pl3dge. It’s sort of a sequel to “Pressure,” like how “Pressure” was sort of a sequel to “Bad Day/Worst Day.” If I had to use a song to pin down how I feel about a lot of stuff going down in America over the past few years… it’d probably be this joint.

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Method Man, Spaceghostpurrp, and Blvck Gxds

May 15th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is a series of twenty focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the seventeenth. It started as a simple post to make you go watch the new Spaceghostpurrp video, with a few things to watch for, but somehow turned into some lengthy remarks about Method Man’s horror phase and how that relates to 2012. You know how I do.

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, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots, on Betty Wright and strong songs, on screw music, on Goodie MOb’s “The Experience”

There’s this bit from Method Man & Mary J Blige’s “All I Need” video that’s stuck with me for years. No lie, ever since I was a kid. It’s a brief burst of strange horror in a video that’s set to a love song. If you start around 3:10, you’ll see it. Mef peeks up over a ledge. His eyes are whited out, the fronts in his mouth give his jaw a weird shape, and then he taps his fingers and disappears. There’s something alien about it. It didn’t scare me, but I recognized that it was scary, if that makes any type of sense. There’s a creepy, unsettling aspect to that specific image. It’s the beginnings of a horror movie.

Method Man’s Tical gave me the same feeling as that video. It’s an album that teeters on the edge of being uncomfortably dark. It definitely doesn’t sound like the other Wu joints from that first wave. It’s hazy, obviously, and the layered samples and ad-libs give it a haunting feel at times. The female vocalist on “Biscuits” isn’t harmonizing so much as wailing (which is different from a scream, mind you). His token love song has a deep, bass-y, and very un-love song sound, not to mention Streetlife salting Method Man’s game. It’s a down album, not quite as down as Pac’s Me Against the World, but it sounds and looks like it was recorded in a dungeon by an old black dude who used to be a slave and is wild upset about being in chains again.

Tical having such a horror influence is sorta funny, actually, because Method Man is by far the most fun-loving and charismatic member of the Wu. He was the crossover champion, the dude who rocked fly clothes because he could. He’s still classically handsome, even twenty years later. You can hear that charisma on “Release Yo’ Delf” more than anything else, I think. It’s strange that Tical was so dark, because if anything, Mef should’ve dropped a Ready to Die or like… I don’t even know, an “Ain’t No Nigga” (which “All I Need” eventually became once they drafted Mary J) instead of “Meth vs Chef.” Remember when he did “The Riddler” for that Batman Forever soundtrack? That’s no pop song. But: here we are. He should’ve been on songs with Blackstreet or whoever.

Meth doubled down on the dark image on Tical 2000, which I remember as being a lot of smoke and not enough fire. It’s gotten better as I’ve gotten older (everything from “Shaolin What” to “Spazzola” goes, and “Play IV Keeps” is no joke), but it’s still no Tical. But he made the subtle apocalyptic subtext of Tical into text, full stop. It was an interesting choice, and while how loyal he is to that sound meanders around (“Sweet Love” is out of place and off-tone, and the entire last quarter or so of the album are pop joints), it’s an album that puts the thought of the end of the world in your mind. I honestly haven’t gone back to listen if he’s Behold A Pale Horseing it, like a lot of rappers were doing around ’99. I don’t think so, for the record — I think he’s pulling from Mad Max, Cyborg (both of which are explicitly shouted out in the lyrics), and other pop-apocalyse films rather than conspiracy theories and secret societies. Secular apocalypse, rather than religious. The fall of man, and then the fall that comes after. Nuclear winters, poverty-stricken ghettos, whatever.

But Method Man’s steez around then (“around then” being like six years I guess) stuck with me, in part because precious few people were in the same lane of occasional horror rap (Company Flow is another highlight of this era, Bone Thugs was another, Three 6 Mafia of course, Geto Boys on occasion) and in part because it’s such a departure from his aboveground work. Somewhere out there lurks Method Man with the white eyes and the grill, waiting to pop out of a dark alley and hit you with a grin that chills the soul. In the meantime, we’ve got the laughing, cooldude stoner and family man.

The video for Spaceghost Purrp’s “The Black God” dropped the other day. It took me a minute to get into his sound for whatever reason, but Ray the Destroyer’s review over at Мишка got me pointed at the right project. I like God of Black volume 1 quite a bit, especially “The Black God.” Baow:

What’s crazy is how SGP reinvigorated and reinvented Meth’s ’90s lane. The grill and glasses, the Lee Bermejo-style skeleton, and a host of near-faceless black men in hoodies… it feels cultish, almost, like there’s a secret here and you’re not invited, even though that secret will definitely destroy your soul. “When you think of us, think of pyramids and pistols, and shimmering gold teeth that shine like crystals,” right, like dead prez said? This is that. It’s the barest hint of a face in the dark and a shine you can’t quite make out.

(Sidebar: consider the monsters in Attack The Block. Think of their shapes and their teeth.)

I wrote “faceless horrors” in my notes as something I wanted to talk about. I can’t fit it in here in a natural way, but I think it’s worth mentioning. The focal point of the video shifts and blurs as people move in front of the camera and change clothes. The only distinct figure is son in the white t-shirt, isn’t he?)

“The Black God” puts me in mind of The Nation of Gods and Earths, too. The idea that the Asiatic Blackman is God, Allah representing Arm Leg Leg Arm Head (a human body, keep up), the 5% knowing the truth while the 85% remain ignorant and self-destructive… all of that is in here. SGP talks about how he’s “no longer a black man,” meaning he evolved past that. He’s The Black God, and the song is all about self-improvement laid over a spooky piano melody and deep drums.

And I mean, SGP is obviously not biting Wu-Tang or whatever here. I doubt there’s many 5%ers in Florida, for that matter. But SGP in 2012 and Method Man in 1995 were both definitely working out some of the same ideas on wax and aesthetically, and even using some of the same language — whether that’s visual language or spoken language — to do so. I like that a whole lot. Grab The God of Black here. Amazon’s got Tical and Tical 2000: Judgement Day if you’ve somehow not heard them before now.

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“Should’ve known I couldn’t show ‘im no better than I was shown.” [Goodie MOb’s “The Experience”]

May 8th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the sixteenth. This is something I wrote in a burst just after getting off a plane about Goodie MOb’s “The Experience.” It’s… freestyled, for lack of a better term, in that I started with the idea of writing about the song and my reaction to it and let the essay go where it wanted to go. I dunno if it works, but I’m gonna let it ride because that seems like the right decision to make right now.

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, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots, on Betty Wright and strong songs, on screw music

I don’t know where I’m going with this one. I just got off a plane and this song came up on shuffle, and I felt like I should write about it. Follow along and hopefully we’ll get somewhere interesting. Strictly rough copy.

I wish I could say I remember the first time I heard Goodie MOb’s “The Experience,” off that Still Standing album. It’d make for a nice and neat story, a life-changing event that I could point to like the first time I saw Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. But I don’t remember the first time I heard it. I do have fond memories of going through the liner notes of my uncle’s CD. I’m not from Atlanta. I’m from a hour or so south of Atlanta, the country. I didn’t think it was the country growing up, I thought it was a real-deal city. So seeing those liner notes was interesting, because it was like peeking into another neighborhood. There was a slang dictionary in there, I think, that explained some of the real specific stuff that the Dungeon Family used to shout out, like SWATs or whatever. As a kid, I didn’t even get that the song “Inshallah” was specifically a Muslim thing, even though — on another song — Cee-Lo at one point says “I’m Islam, and we don’t want no bad blood, but it is some, it is some.”

But “The Experience” is a thunderclap to me, even nowadays. It’s just Cee-Lo Goodie’s voice, a light melody, and various versions of the word nigger for a couple minutes. It’s the sort of thing that the Dungeon made their stock in trade, another good example of which would be the Big Rube interludes on other Dungeon records. The Dungeon Family worked because they mixed knowledge with raw raps. And this song is the epitome of that for me.

I don’t know the actual accepted term for it, but there’s this thing I think about a lot that I call useful fictions. They’re things like the idea that black people come from a lineage of kings and queens in Africa. Basically, they’re like… they’re cheat codes. Imagine that living in America is like being in a race. One entrant in the race is forbidden from racing for hundreds of years, but is the guy who has to clean the track and paint the lines. When the officials finally let this guy into the race, they make him start half a mile back. When the guy finally sues and gets the right to start from the same starting line as everyone else, they sabotage his shoes and pretend like nothing is wrong.

This has a debilitating effect on morale. It destroys egos and families. The men and women trade abuse out of frustration, parents pass it on down to their children, and the children grow up with that poison in their system. And on it goes, on down the generations, until we hit today. Or maybe not today. I can’t speak to the current status quo. But I’m an ’80s baby, and I can guarantee you that things were a little sour growing up, both in terms of blatant racism and things like basic access to things that could make your life better, from education to living in a neighborhood that doesn’t suck.

So these useful fictions are cheat codes because they let you get a leg up. They serve as a tonic that acts against the poison that’s force-fed to black babies as soon as they’re old enough to talk. When I was growing up, black history was the guy who invented the peanut, the guy who got shot and had a dream, the angry black devil, the lady who ran the underground railroad, slavery, and Dred Scott. That was about it. Black history was a tale of misery and hate, with our contributions to the country either minimized or ignored completely.

The rest of history class was positively triumphant in comparison. Rome. England. Magna Carta. Greatest Generation. George Washington. Inventing lightning. Betsy Ross. “Look how awesome we are!” all day every day. Never mind the state-sponsored terrorism and hate crimes or slave labor or whatever. That was… not excused, exactly, but nobody looks at slaveholders like people today look at Nazis.

So those useful fictions are important. If your history is stolen from you, you have to invent one of your own. And if you’re going to invent one, it might as well be a good one. Kings and queens. Little Richard inventing every single aspect of rock’n’roll. Whatever whatever. I get it. And, more importantly, I greatly appreciated it.

In “The Experience,” Cee-Lo says a lot of silly stuff, but it’s not about the truth, really. It’s about grabbing somebody by the neck and making sure they pay attention. It’s about getting somebody to do better because they need to do better. I love the part when Cee-Lo says “She looked deeply into my eyes and said, ‘Brother, don’t you know? You complain about being black, when they mad ’cause they can’t be black no more.'” It’s laughable, because as near as I can tell, being white is awesome. No racist is sitting in her shack like “Ugh I wish I looked like Iman.” Please. I guess maybe if she’s more of a David Bowie stan than a racist, but that’s a big if.

But it’s a useful fiction, because it speaks to the idea that black people are more than they are. More than poverty, more than hate, more than fear, more than niggers. It speaks to the idea that the black man is the original man, a valuable part of history, and something to be not just respected, but jealous of. It puts that idea in your head, and the truth of it is entirely beside the point. It’s something that you have to embrace just to keep your head above water. It’s a life raft. “This isn’t all there is. We are more than this.”

If you put a gun to my head and told me to pick a favorite bit from this song, it’d probably be: “Since then a nigga done got grown, had a little bitty of nigga of my own/ should’ve known I couldn’t show ‘im no better than I was shown.” It’s such a sad statement, and the “should’ve known” puts it clearly in the past tense, like mistakes have been made. And it’s absolutely true. If you don’t know better, whether your knowing is composed of useful fictions or the actual incredible history of black people, you can’t do better. You need that knowledge or optimism or whatever to make things work, to crawl your way out of the muck. And it’s generational. If I can’t do better, then what is my son supposed to do? What am I supposed to teach him? Each generation improves on the next one, but no generation is perfect. I inherited some poison, despite my family’s best efforts, and because of them in some cases. It takes a long time to work that out of your body.

I’m appreciative of every single useful fiction people told me as a kid that convinced me I had worth before I knew the real story of that worth. I would much rather have a lie that helps me that I have to exorcise later than one that weighs down my shoulders. One of those is training wheels. The other is a thin wire stretched across a hallway. I love every rap song about how dope it is to be young, rich, and black. I love every t-shirt that says “DANGER: EDUCATED BLACK MAN.” I love every single thing that showed me that I had something to aspire to, and that I could (thus far at least) do something like make my own way in the world.

“The Experience” was really valuable to me growing up. It’s still valuable, even, but I’ve moved past some specific aspects of it. Like how “When in actuality, the fact is you ain’t a nigger because you black. You a nigger ’cause of how you act” is just old poison in a new, self-hating form, for example. But as a song, as something someone wrote and performed and pressed to disc, I’m deeply appreciative of it. It runs through my head every couple of weeks. It’s extremely resonant, on par with Blur’s “No Distance Left To Run” or “She Said She Said” by The Beatles or Tupac’s “Dear Mama” and “So Many Tears.”

There’s just something about it that crawls up inside your guts and makes room for itself. It’s kind of a mirror, in that it forces you to stop and look at what you think and why. I think a lot, not all but definitely a lot, of great songs, books, movies, poems, and whatever else make you do that. You make some type of connection with the content that goes beyond shaking your butt or nodding your head. That’s where favorite songs and anthems come from.

That’s probably why I keep coming back to “The Experience.” My racial identity, how I think about race, whatever whatever, evolves constantly. Listening to this song puts me in mind of a time when I thought differently, even if it was just a couple years ago, and makes me recognize whatever strides, or lack thereof, that I’ve made. I can’t passively listen to it.

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Screw Music: Cocaine Pentagrams and the Twerk Team at a Black Mass

February 17th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the fifteenth. I realized I had a lot of screw music in the official rotation. It’s a type of music I like a lot, but find it hard to articulate why. There’s a good reason for that, I think. I keep going to a few key words, though–it sounds evil, it sounds wrong, it sounds off, it sounds abstract, it sounds sideways, it sounds like Hell… it sounds great. It’s just that whenever those monks get around to updating the Ars Goetia, they’ll have to add a footnote that King Paimon is the patron demon of screw music.

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, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots, on Betty Wright and strong songs

Drive by Xheathcaresx

Press play on this joint while you read.

I’ve been thinking about writing about chopped and screwed music for a while now. This cat named Heath Caring created a C&S version of the Drive soundtrack and it came on my radar a little bit ago. I’ve been regularly spinning it ever since. The problem is that the appeal of screw music is such a weird and specific thing. Screw music is post-modernism stacked on the already pomo origins of rap. I’ve been mulling it over for days, trying to find an angle of attack, but it’s a slippery subject.

My man Ray, a dude who has put me onto a lot of good screw, recently said this while spotlighting a new screw mix:

I’ve come to realize, trying to explain chopped and screwed music to people makes you sound like you’re fucking insane. The idea of slowing down music and making it skip on purpose isn’t the easiest thing for heads to imagine. That’s why instead of explaining what the music actually sounds like it’s best to describe the feeling screw gives you. Sometimes you feel like you’re being dragged through a black hole where time and space are being warped. Other times screw feels like you’re at a dope pool party but you spent the entire affair chillin’ out at the bottom of the pool listening to the DJ do work.

And that’s it right there. It’s about the music, but it’s not. It’s about how it feels. Listening to screw, whether you’re sober or high, is like listening to regular music, sure. There’s a beat, and you can bop to it. You might could even do a slowed down version of the wop to it if you had the right song, and I mean the wop that your parents used to do when they hit up house parties, not the wack dance that swept youtube a few years back. But screw music is… it’s like abstracted rap. Not abstract, like Q-Tip or Aes Rock. Abstracted. Taking a thing and making it different. It’s psychedelia for people who were raised on Three 6 Mafia and UGK instead of The Beatles.

But it’s real hard to explain what screw music sounds like to people who can’t parse the idea that DJ Mr. Rogers’s chopped and screwed version of Drake’s “Say What’s Real” sounds like the feeling you get when you walk into a black mass in the basement of the club by accident and realize that the chief anti-priest is your ex-girlfriend. The way the harmonious melody in the background is slowed down changes its sound from a generic triumphant rap orchestra into a funeral dirge, Drake’s voice goes lower and he’s enunciating clearly, but the track keeps skipping and hopping and stripping all the smooth charm out his voice. That feels different from “I like how John Lennon sings this song because you can hear the hurt in his heart” to me.

I’ve been describing that screwed version of the Drive soundtrack to other people as evil, like a house party in Hell in the ’80s where all the coke’s run out. Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” turns into something else entirely when the upbeat synth-pop gives way to a voice that moans and groans the words out and the synths are stretched to the breaking point. It sounds slow, is the thing. It sounds wrong, and I mean wrong in the sense of what it feels like to come into your house and realize something is out of place, but not being able to figure out what that out of place thing is or who could have been in there but you. “Nightcall” turns into the musical equivalent of a gross leer, and you can’t do anything but let it wash over you.

The wildest part of the mix to me is the point when Kendrick Lamar’s “ADHD” rolls in. I didn’t even realize that it had faded in on my first listen, because it’s slipped in there so smoothly and the song sounds so different. There’s a great thematic link between Drive and Lamar’s Section.80, but the screwed “ADHD” tripped me out. It fits so well, and the Clipse joint that comes after is tremendous.

It sounds so full, like it’s just overflowing out of your speakers. It sounds like something you want to bang so loud on your speakers that your neighbors spontaneously shatter into dust from the bass. Like a… like a sustained earthquake, or something. It rolls over you and makes you feel trapped. Claustrophobic. The lyrics twist and turn uglier than they might be at first glance when they’re this slow.

This specific example of screw music is like the most comfortable uncomfortable situation ever, like the tail end of what happens when you screw up and eat an entire hash brownie, not realizing you only needed half to get right. It feels like that last hour or so of being over-high for thirteen hours straight, when you’re done panicking and you know you’re way too high, but man the couch feels too good right now and you feel so relaxed and life is so nice that it’s all to the good.

I like this Lil Sprite mix Ray hooked up, too. It’s called Cocaine Pentagrams, which makes it incredible from jump. Sean Witzke was on Twitter talking about how it made him think of David Bowie’s Station to Station, and I hadn’t made that connection, but it’s dead on. Station to Station is an incredibly funky album, and one of my favorite Bowie joints. He was so coked out while working on it that he doesn’t even remember doing it.

At the forefront of my mind was Andre 3000 beginning a verse “I came into this world high as a bird from second-hand cocaine powder” and ending another “They call it horny because it’s devilish, now see, we dead wrong.” on ATLiens. Bowie is just the icing (provided by Freeway Ricky Ross and the CIA) on the cake, the missing puzzle piece that pulls it all together. Just from the start, Cocaine Pentagrams is ill, and that’s without even hearing a single word. It’s evocative. It’s the precursor to an experience.

It’s not just about slowing down a song or getting high and turning on an mp3. It’s an experience that’s different from how I regularly listen to music. I try to really listen when I’m playing songs, but with screw music, I just go with it and see what happens. I do a lot of writing to screw music. It just sorta sits at the back of your head, infecting your subconscious until you’re through. It’s music that’s easy to absorb when you aren’t thinking too hard about it.

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on strong songs [Betty Wright & The Roots – Betty Wright: The Movie]

November 21st, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the fourteenth. I’ve still got The Roots on the brain, and this time Betty Wright is along for the ride. I’m trying to think through what makes a good R&B song and ended up talking about The-Dream’s album 1977, too.

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, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots

I feel like R&B, or soul, or whatever you call it, is one of those genres that’s timeless when perfectly executed. Nas’s Illmatic is insanely good, but it’s also distinctly 1994. You need Reagan in order to get an Illmatic. But good R&B? Aretha, Redding, Mayfield, and them? It sounds like every day. I really like R&B, though I don’t listen to near enough of it. I’m still sort of weirded out by cursing in R&B, honestly. Those cats from the ’60s and ’70s at least had ill metaphors, you know? Maybe I’m stupid and just never listened to it, but I didn’t know that “Me & Mrs Jones” was about sleeping with somebody else’s wife until my uncle told me. I was in my twenties.

Anyway, someone on Twitter, I think Duncan, mentioned that Terius Nash, bka The-Dream, had released a free album, 1977. Nash is a pretty good songwriter (“Umbrella” and “Single Ladies” were inescapable for a very good reason), though I dunno how successful his solo efforts have been. He’s got good chemistry with Fabolous (“Shawty Is A 10” is just aight, but I really get down with “Throw It In the Bag”). Fab has worked with basically R&B singer ever, and is the rapper most likely to make a full length album with a singer, Best of Both Worlds-style. I always put The-Dream, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, and a few of these other singing dudes in the same box. Maybe that’s unfair, I dunno.

1977 isn’t a bad album. It’s got Big Sean on there, which is basically an instant L (and real talk America, we need to bully him until his regular behind quits rapping and goes away), but The-Dream knows how to spin a song. The beat selection is a bit on the okay side of things. It sounds like a modern R&B album, for good or for ill. Actually, that’s probably for ill. There’s nothing here to distinguish this album from everything else that’s out there. The-Dream isn’t as good a singer as some of his contemporaries (I’d rate Chris Brown above him), he’s not as stylish (Ne-Yo at least has that Harlem Renaissance/wears a fedora and vest thing going on), and he’s not as much of a try-hard as Trey Songz.

The surprise, and I guess why I didn’t really take to the album like I was expecting, is that so much of it is concerned with simping. It seems like every other song is about how a lady done him wrong and now he’s an alcoholic. “You used to be so sweet, but now you act bitter/ And just so I don’t hear that shit, I drown my liver in this liquor” off “Used To Be” almost made me turn the album off. The other songs are about how jiggy he is, how much champagne he can drink, and how many women he’s run through. None of that’s new–that’s basically the state of black music in 2011 I guess–but it makes the album feel sorta weird.

It’s like he’s trying too hard. Maybe it’s because his voice isn’t in the same register as the dudes I like the most (Mayfield, Redding, Withers, Hayes, etc), but I’m not really buying it. He’s higher and lighter, but not like distinctively high, like Prince. He’s in this weird mid-range where he sounds as generic as possible. The best word for 1977 is “soft.” He’s going to sing about how a chick drove him to snort coke and somehow that’s an okay thing to sing about with a swagger like you’re a player.

Which brings me, in a weirdly roundabout way, to Betty Wright’s new album, Betty Wright: The Movie. Wright is from my grandmother’s generation, and I’m not over-familiar with her. If you’d said her name before a couple weeks ago, I would’ve had where I know her from on the tip of my tongue. I heard that The Roots co-produced her new record, though, and The Roots have rarely done me wrong, so I bought it without even hearing a sample track. Why not, right?

1977 is soft. Betty Wright: The Movie is hard. She deals with similar subject matter, from heartbreak to having a good time to a remarkably chaste song about doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well, but there’s a… a presence? Is that the best word for it? There’s a strength and depth to her voice that makes her songs sound and feel a lot better than Nash’s. She doesn’t simp like he does. She draws strength from her wounds, fictional or otherwise, and pours that out on the track.

The album opens with what’s basically a statement of intent in “Old Songs.” There’s a two-and-a-half-bar rap in there (“I must admit, your beats got phatter/ but add subject matter on subjects that matter… ’cause it matters, yeah it matters”), but for the most part, it’s about how old songs were stronger than current fare. It’s nostalgic, but she up-ends that nostalgia by shouting out modern artists who do “the strong songs.” It’s not the age that matters, it’s the content. She lists a lot of modern folks, The-Dream and Ne-Yo included, but exhorts them to listen to and learn from the old cats, too.

The rest of the album follows on from “Old Songs.” This is… the best phrase for it is grown folks music. It’s the kind of R&B that your parents or grandfolks wouldn’t mind listening to. It’s very wholesome, and several songs are about growing up, basically. The chorus to “Real Woman” goes “get yourself a real woman so you can be a real man,” and is flipped at the end to “be a real woman, then you can get a real man.” It’s kind of like love advice handed out by your grandmother, and that’s a little strange, but it works. She’s been around, right? Experience counts for a lot.

I think my favorite bit on the album might come on “In the Middle of the Game (Don’t Change the Play),” where she exhorts the audience to keep trying at love. It’s a bunch of suggestions for men and women to keep their relationship going, but it’s delivered with a grin and a sense of humor. “Make sure there’s gas in the car/ give her money to go to the spa/ and she’ll never forget who you are/ in fact, you’ll be a su-per-star/ When his friends are watching sports in the den/ get in the kitchen, hook him up something/ and even if you can’t cook nothin’/ have a little takeout brought in! (owww!)” There’s something sweet about this. It’s just about being into someone and doing things for them, and them doing the same for you.

Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne show up for a couple of guest spots. They’re shockingly clean, which is sort of weird in a way, but they both deliver pretty good verses. Weezy’s the standout here, though I feel like his metaphor gets muddled partway through (“You gotta pay the price, just keep the receipt,” really though?). Regardless, “Grapes on a Vine” is strong song, and sort of a rock meets soul number about sticking by your people and enduring. (Wright hits the highest note ever at the end of Wayne’s verse, too.)

My other favorite moment is probably all of “Tonight Again,” which Wright opens with a warning to put the kids to bed. It’s a love song, or rather, a making love song. The song begins, “Light up a candle, we got business to handle” and then it’s off to the races. And I mean, let’s be real here: most of the music I listen to is explicit. Beyond explicit, probably. Danny Brown’s “I Will” is basically off-puttingly earnest and honest about oral sex. In contrast, Wright’s restrained romance on “Tonight Again” is fantastic. There aren’t a lot of limits on what you can say in a love song these days, but Wright sticks to the old school style of doing these songs. It’s all hints and promises delivered with a wink. You know exact what she’s talking about, but she doesn’t have to be as blunt as R Kelly or The-Dream or whoever. The hint is enough. It’s sexy on its own. It’s on that grown & sexy level. “A little knowledge that you can’t get from college/ Lessons that you learned from me, not from the university.”

Grown folks music, right? This is R&B for the thirty-plus set, people who might wanna settle down. Fireplace and house shoes music. Mortgage music.

It’s not all love songs. “Go!,” the second bonus track, is about bouncing up out of abusive relationships and getting your life back on track. It’s not really what I expected to hear on an R&B album, and it’s nine minutes and forty seconds are time well spent. It’s sad and mournful and pragmatic. I think it was this track that really unlocked the album for me. 1977 is full of simpery. A lady dumps him and he uses it as an excuse to feel bad for himself in-between songs about how cool he is. Betty Wright: The Movie takes that bad feeling and uses it as motivation. Your husband beats you? You leave. It’s heartbreaking and sad, but abuse isn’t a secret worth keeping, so you leave. The difference in approach, and granted the subject matter in this specific instance are apples and oranges, is tremendous. “Such a big big man/ Why you gotta beat up on me?/ Just lets me know you ain’t the man you sposed to be.”

That way of processing emotion runs through to the rest of her songs, too. If you love somebody? Then keep trying. If you don’t love someone? Leave. If you never seem to meet a real woman, make sure that you’re a real man. If you feel bad about a friend, reach out a hand. It feels motherly, in a way, like an R&B album that’s about nurturing and doing better, not just being in love.

I think that’s what makes good R&B. It’s not about being sad or being in love. It’s about the process, or the feeling, behind it. That has to shine through. Sort of a, “Anyone can say he loves you, but it takes a man to really mean it” sort of thing. Wright sings like she means it. “You and Me, Leroy” is the last official track on the album and it’s deadly. It turns “stand by your man” subject matter into “We’re in this together, and as long as that’s true, we’re gonna be okay.” It goes.

It helps that The Roots are her backing band on this album. Some songs feel more live than others, complete with count-ins and mid-song direction, but it all sounds very full. “Look Around (Be A Man)” has a little Zapp flavor, “Hollywould” has a bit of that ’80s throb (like Drive), and I swear “So Long, So Wrong” feels like The Dove Shack’s “Summertime in the LBC.” Betty Wright: The Movie is a soulful and funky record.

Betty Wright: The Movie actually puts me in mind of their John Legend collabo Wake Up! (there’s a really nice iTunes-only live version, too). Those were cover songs from the ’60s and ’70s, which actually provides some interesting connective tissue between the two albums. If Wake Up! was proving that specific things from the past are still relevant to the present, then Betty Wright: The Movie proves that past methods still work, too. I would’ve vastly preferred Black Thought drop a couple verses on the album than Snoop or Weezy, but that’s whatever. (Wright also vamps a lot less than John Legend does.)

Wright and The Roots are a good combo, sonically and thematically. The Roots have been together for a couple decades now, and they’re in a place where they can afford to do rap songs that aren’t just traditional rap songs. They still have songs where they can show off or whatever, but their more recent albums have been attempts to… I don’t want to say transcend, because that’s condescending, but “get past it” is as close as I can get. Black Thought’s 40, which practically makes him an elder statesman in rap. They’re going for meatier concepts and subject matter. They’re aiming for timelessness.

(You know has that timeless feel, too? Anthony Hamilton. Dude might well be my favorite R&B sanger. More on that later, maybe.)

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“i deal with the real” [The Roots – Things Fall Apart]

November 9th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the thirteenth. I’ve had The Roots on my mind ever since their album undun was announced. I thought it would be interesting to try and take a look at where my relationship with the music of The Roots began. (This is an interesting exercise in avoiding typing “The Roots’s” as much as possible.)

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, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”

I first became conscious of The Roots around the time “You Got Me” dropped. 1998? 1999? Thinking back, I figure it was because my mom was heavy into Erykah Badu and liked the song, which was the lead single from Things Fall Apart. I thought that song was really good, because I also secretly liked Badu at the time, too. The video had a great concept at a point in time I remember as being pretty creatively bankrupt. You were either Hype Williams or jocking him. I think Little X might have been going then, I don’t remember. (After googling: He was active, and the video for “Neck Uv Da Woodz” shows a pretty okay sense of style with that Russian text, but he hadn’t yet reached the heights of Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass.” And man, I forgot how much Andre ran wild over “Neck Uv Da Woodz.” And in the “Shake It Fast” video, the girl with the Evil cropped tee? Yowza, no wonder I loved this video as a kid.) But the video, with the twist at the end and haunting imagery, made a melancholy song even more melancholy. It turned the song into the flip side of “Renee” by the Lost Boyz, only the guy dies at the end.

I started paying attention after that. I don’t remember if I got Things Fall Apart on tape or if we just spun the single for a while. I eventually got the album, and at some point, I saw the video for “The Next Movement.” (For some reason, every time I refer to this song, I call it “Adrenaline,” which is totally wrong. I didn’t even write the name right on here until I youtubed up the video.) Regardless, the video for “The Next Movement” was good. Great, even. I’d watch Rap City when I came home after school, and I feel like they gave it a lot of spins.

The video’s got a lot of flavor. It’s clever and funny, thanks to the gimmick of the band moving in space every time the showgirls close the curtains. and interesting enough to be worth watching. The part where they open the curtains too soon and you can see the production guys setting up–that’s good. It also does a great job of getting across exactly what the band is about. It’s live instruments, an emcee, and good tunes. Neo-soul swagger before it was properly termed neo-soul, even.

One thing that’s nice about The Roots is how well put-together their albums are. I didn’t feel particularly compared to seek out Ja Rule after his guest verse on “Can I Get A…” In fact, word around school was that he was Tupac’s cousin or DMX’s brother or something, so who cared? But on Things Fall Apart, I wanted more. More Eve, more Badu, more Common, more Jazzy Jeff… It’s all because The Roots are perfectionists. That may be an unfair term. It’s more that they care so much about what they do that they don’t bother phoning it in. If you’re on a Roots album, you don’t get to come wack. You black out or you go home.

Beanie Sigel was on “Adrenaline,” which might be the track that stands out the most on the album for me right now. It’s an essential part of The Roots’ catalog. I love the way the music warps around the words. I like hearing Malik B on tracks. Dice Raw’s first five bars go hard, and his last three are the perfect capstone.

Beans, though. Man. I remember reading in the liner notes that Beanie Mac’s verse (I think ?uest called it his “and ’em” flow? maybe “and them”) was originally fifty bars long and that Jay-Z signed him after hearing him freestyle once. There’s probably some exaggeration in there, but listening to this verse, I can tell why Jay was so hot on him. This verse is heat rocks. It’s half Beans shouting out people he knows and half telling you exactly what type of dude he is. For a debut verse, this is a pretty fantastic effort. I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if Beans had stayed Roots-affiliated rather than signing to the Roc. He probably would’ve quit much sooner than he did, actually, which means no Freeway, which is wack.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but a lot of things I like I discovered via or alongside The Roots. It featured Eve and Beanie Sigel before they were really on. It was the first time I saw Jay Dee, later known as J Dilla, in the credits of an album. (By this point, I’d taken to obsessively reading liner notes to figure out who I needed to be listening to.) I spent a year or two on the Okayplayer boards a little later. Jill Scott’s named showed up in here, I think, and she was on the original version of “You Got Me.” Bilal is or was Roots-affiliated. I was introduced to Rahzel, who I thought was endlessly dope. I’m a sucker for beat boxers, and have been ever since Ready Rock C let the Fresh Prince play a game of Donkey Kong. I hadn’t heard Common before “Act Too (The Love Of My Life),” and this was one of the first times I heard Mos Def outside of Black Star. I think I maybe had that first Lyricist Lounge tape at the time, which Black Thought actually has a freestyle on. That timeline is a little fuzzy, and the narrative doesn’t really matter, anyway. At the time, though, Things Fall Apart was seismic. And that’s not even mentioning the black history implications of the title.

I was real surprised to see Jazzy Jeff on the album, honestly, because I’d assumed he retired. I don’t know if I’ve ever said so, but He’s the DJ, I’m The Rapper is one of my most favorite albums ever. To find out that he was involved with something as ill as Things Fall Apart after I thought he was finished with rap was a real nice realization. Which is really the perfect summary of Things Fall Apart. It was a nice thing to experience, something undeniably ill dropped dead in the center of a somewhat fallow period for rap music (unless my memory is way off), and one of my favorite albums to this day. Part of that is hindsight, sure, but then I listen to that sublime stereo blend on “Double Trouble” and remember that Things Fall Apart is just a good album, no qualifiers needed.

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

November 7th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

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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international record player’s anthem

October 23rd, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the eleventh, and has been converted from a quick email to a friend into a post that is considerably longer. I listen to a lot of music, and this is just a snapshot of where I’m at right now.

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

Graeme McMillan, bka “One Of My Favorite People On Or Off The Internet,” sent me a link to “Allez” from French artist Camille’s latest CD, Ilo Veyou. I was talking about how much I liked Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Terrible Angels EP, particularly this song:

I’ve liked Gainsbourg since someone (Sean Witzke, probably) introduced me to IRM last year. I think he recommended it after I heard and enjoyed the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack? I dunno, it’s irrelevant I guess. “I like her, here are some boring words on how I found her.”

What I like about “Terrible Angels” is that it evokes a very specific mental image for me. The throbbing sound of the melody (is that the word? the electronic throb and buzz) and the snap of the snare play off each other, and it all ends up sounding like a dance single that’s just slightly out of pitch. The lyrics run counter to the snare, too–“I want release from absolution” is delivered as something between a moan and exhortation. “Terrible Angels” sounds like this:

It sounds like the soundtrack to the dance party at the end of the world, as conceived by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.

I really like pretty much any song that has an “Oh-I” or “Oh-why” or “Oh-anything” part, really, like TLC’s “Creep” or Blur’s “Tender”. “Oh my baby… oh my bayabeh… oh why… oh my…”

I like “Allez” a lot, too, and it’s pretty easy to like, isn’t it? I’ve been really fond of rounds (typoed that as “found of rounds” at first, hey hey hey) since I was a kid, and I like how this one builds in on itself. It’s weird, too–she’s putting on a voice, right? She sounds younger, but also more growly than she usually does. Maybe it’s the backmasking that shows up later in the song. It definitely makes me want to check out her full-length record Ilo Veyou, which drops physically on Tuesday and hopefully digitally, too. But probably not? Amazon has them listed as Imports, which is a new one by me.

I liked Camille’s Le Fil and Le Sac Des Filles, but I’m not sure which I like more. Maybe Le Sac, because the first two tracks (“1, 2, 3” and “Paris”) are really strong. I’ll have to listen to both again to figure it out for sure, but Camille was a really good recommendation on Graeme’s part.

I like her voice a lot, though it’s a little tough to put my finger on why. She has that throaty lounge singer sound, a little bit, and the fact that it’s in French gives it a whole nother level of appeal, like a classy diva sort of thing.

Have you heard Soko? Another French singer:

I first heard Soko on a remix of this song that Cee-Lo did for a mixtape. I like her voice more than the music, I’m pretty sure. Cee-Lo’s version is sort of in the same vein as “Fuck You,” but I like it a lot more, actually. It’s more fun to sing and listen to. “Fuck You” has that edgy feeling or whatever, but this feels a lot more solid, despite being a hodge-podge. In fact, his Stray Bullets mixtape? Better than the album Fuck You was on. Whatever it was called.

I also love dueling love songs like that, too, with both the boy and the girl on the same track. It changes the tone without breaking the tone, if that makes sense. It adds texture.

I’ve been listening to The Kinks off and on. I don’t have a lot to say yet, but I’ve listened to Village Green, Low Budget, and Something Else. Something Else didn’t make much of an impression after a couple spins, but Low Budget was instantly great. It’s sorta melancholy, but still poppy, if those aren’t mutually exclusive. You can bop to it while Ray Davies sings about how much it sucks to not have any money.

Maybe it’s really corny, but the two superhero songs on Low Budget (“Catch Me Now I’m Falling” and “Superman”) are both really good songs and well considered metaphors. And relevant to today, I’d say, but I feel like songs about economic unhappiness are pretty evergreen. There’s something about “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” in particular. It doesn’t feel like it’s about America so much as Captain America–a single person. It’s one man asking for help. And to get a little comic book-y about it, Captain America has theoretically always represented not America, but the American Dream. He’s an ideal. He’s the kind, possibly fictional, side of the empire, and now he needs help, but he’s gotta beg for it. I dunno, there’s half of something there. There’s also a connection in Aesop Rock’s “Commencement at the Obedience Academy”: “Point: I guess I could spare a splash for a couple of heads/Counterpoint: During my famine I never got broke your bread.”

Low Budget is much more my speed, as far as The Kinks goes, I think. It doesn’t feel as Faux Beatles as Village Green feels. Which isn’t necessarily a criticism, because I do like Village Green quite a bit. But the two albums sound very different, and I like Low Budget a lot more.

David Bowie: I’m still learning. I like The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars a lot, though. I’ve heard Aladdin Sane once through thus far and it’s… okay? Not as good as Ziggy. Luckily, a friend sent me a Bowie manual, so I expect that to change soon as I explore more of his catalog. Bowie feels like one of those people I should like. I’ve got a fistful of friends who swear by him.

Esperanza Spalding’s Chamber Music Society is really good. Esperanza Spaulding won the best new artist or best new album Grammy over Bieber this year, which caused a flood of Twitter hate. The anti-hype got my attention, I checked out the album when Amazon dropped it down to five bucks. It puts me in mind of Kassin+2 and some of the more Brazilian-influenced jazz/samba on the Lupin the Third soundtracks by Yuji Ohno.

I like jazz, but I’m far from an expert. I know the greatest hits, right? Past that is a smoky haze of trumpets and unknown singers. I do really, seriously enjoy the Lupin the Third soundtracks by Yuji Ohno, though. I mean, sure, it’s the soundtrack to a cartoon, whatever, but they’re really well put together and feature diverse influences and sounds. Like “Lupin III Samba Temperado”. The arrangement is just fantastic, and it feels like a complete song by the time you hit two minutes in, but then it just keeps building.

Ohno makes great music to write to, too. I bought a fistful of his CDs from a game store in like 05, maybe ’03, and I kept them on my computers ever since. I’ve probably written hundreds of thousands of words to this guy’s sound. He’s got such a diverse catalog, though I guess all of it can be called “jazzy,” that I never get bored queuing up that playlist.

The Brazilian influence on his work is really obvious. He’s got a bunch of bossa nova numbers, several more songs that feature Portuguese titles or lyrics, and a lot of samba-ready tunes. He’s probably responsible for opening my ears to that diverse Brazilian sound. I like pretty much all of it, unsurprisingly. There’s crooning, there’s hard drums, there’s booty shake dutty wine beats, and more. Fantastic stuff.

Keeping it in Brazil, I really dig The +2’s. It’s a cool concept for a group, where one person takes the lead and the title per project. I own and regularly spin Kassin+2’s Futurismo, and I need to go ahead and buy Sincerely Hot and Music Typewriter considering how much I like them. I’ve been putting it off for whatever reason–my own wackness, probably.

I discovered The+2’s via the cartoon Michiko e Hatchin, a Japanese joint that is custom built for me (girls, Brazil, and crime) but still hasn’t managed to get a stateside release. Kassin did the soundtrack for that one by himself, and it’s a doozy. Like this joint, from the strip club episode:

It’s “Papo Cafajeste,” and it goes so hard. Tight flow, great thump, and it’s comfortably situated in a long line of songs that use gun sounds to great effect. Bone and Pac’s “Thug Luv” is still king, though. The soundtrack is full of bangers. It’s another good one to write to, very headnod-inducing.

I didn’t intend this when I started writing, but I guess I’m in an international phase. A lot of France, a lot of Brazil, some Brazil/Japan fusion, and a bit of the UK. It just sort of happened, I figure. I have some vinyl coming tomorrow, Blu’s Jesus. It’s this noodly, experimental, strangely mixed rap album that’s still straight out of Los Angeles. I’ve been meaning to write about Blu for weeks now, ever since his NoYork! officially leaked (my drafts say I started writing about it on 09/26), and I figure getting jesus on vinyl will kickstart another Blu phase. Matter of fact, I just saw that Blu & Exile’s Below the Heavens, one of my favorite joints, is hitting vinyl later this year. So that’s a definite.

I like “My Sunshine” off NoYork!:

My Sunshine | Blu feat Nia Andrews from aaronisnotcool on Vimeo.

This is more or less how I listen to music, though. I spin from trend to trend and back again.

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