Archive for the 'music' Category


Sample Sunday: Silly, wasn’t I?

June 29th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

Murs put out this song “Silly Girl,” featuring Joe Scudda, on his Murray’s Revenge album with 9th Wonder. It’s about relationships, specifically stupid dudes chasing silly girls. It’s funny, I think, especially when Murs goes “Wait, that’s not the point.” Murs is good at walking this line of dead-serious earnestness and goofy self-consciousness, and even the hook of this song is on that level. Breakup songs are always interesting to me, because they’re a long-form insult, almost. They can be funny or rugged, relatable or fake, or even about murder. Norah Jones’s “Miriam” is a stand-out break-up song. This one’s good.

C-Rayz Walz’s “86” is a song I’ve liked for ages. He’s one of the few musicians I’ve seen live, on Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth tour, and he tore it down. “86” is from his Ravipops album, which is just straight spitting for 17 tracks. “The Lineup” is the posse cut, and it’s got Wordsworth, J-Treds, Thirstin Howl, Vast Aire, Breeze Brewin, and MF Doom, if you’re wondering where this sits in rap history. “86” is dope, it’s another “rap is dope, it’s forever in my heart” joints, like Tupac’s “Old School.” It’s also about how rap is soft now, like “your rap was critical, or the crowd got rid of you.” This one sounds smoother than a lot of those throwback tracks, though. It’s less standoffish and more cool. You could vibe to this. It sounds like summertime music.

I found myself listening to old Madlib Medicine Show records the other day and tripped over this one from Madlib Medicine Show # 1: Before The Verdict. It’s “I Must Love You (OJ Simpson Remix)” and that’s Guilty Simpson on the feature. The Medicine Show albums are Madlib chopping up and reinterpreting older songs, forcing vocals and beats and melodies into new shapes. I’m into it, it’s pretty definitively My Thing, and this one’s off the first one, Before the Verdict. It’s got Guilty kicking break-up raps, and Madlib flipping the beat makes it sound like a perfect—lyrically, thematically—guest spot for “Silly Girl.” I like the contrast between the original J Dilla beat and the Madlib one. The Dilla beat is church-y, hymnal with a rap twist.

All three songs have Valerie Simpson’s “Silly, Wasn’t I” at their foundation. It’s about getting cheated on and leaving your man, which actually makes it a pretty great counterpoint to the Murs and Madlib/Guilty joints. “86” moves away from the original meaning of “Silly, Wasn’t I,” instead just using a hot melody to make a hot track, but I always dig when songs with a sample actually play off the original.

Hearing “Silly, Wasn’t I” spin up makes me immediately flash to C-Rayz chanting “eighty-six, eighty-six.” I’ve probably heard that version more than any of the others, ’cause I got heavy into Ravipops when that came out.

I like the laugh on Simpson’s version the best. I like how it’s this rueful thing, a pointedly fake laugh to show that she’s so over him and can’t really believe she was ever into him. It’s remorseful, pinning blame to his chest and hers. It’s good writing, is what it is. She’s so personable that you’re totally on her side in the song, while Murs, Joe Scudda, and Guilty Simpson could kinda go either way, even when you laugh at their jokes.

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Happy birthday, Tupac Shakur (1971-1996)

June 16th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

“June one-six seven-one, the day/mama pushed me out her womb, told me, ‘Nigga, get paid.'”

“Krazy” is track eight on Tupac’s The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. It’s a little over five minutes long, was produced by Darryl “Big D” Harper, and it’s a pretty good example of what Tupac was best at: being honest. I don’t mean honest in the strictest sense of the word. Tupac’s honesty was rarely “this actually happened to me.” But he excelled at “this actually happens” honesty, that kind of realism where he’s reflecting real life and using himself or a story he tells as the message. He excelled at telling his story, your story, and my story.

Tupac explains himself immediately: “Last year was a hard one, but life goes on.” And it’s true. No matter how bad things get, no matter how heavy that weight, life is going to go on whether you want it to or not. You can keep up or fall behind. “Krazy” is an admission of vulnerability, a song that says that Tupac doesn’t have it all together, but he’s doing better than he was, and he’s gonna do better than he did.

Coping is hard. Waking up, putting on a smile, and going to work when you’d rather sink into your bed and sleep another day away is hard. Working up the nerve to do stuff you know you enjoy doing is an absurd situation, but a real one.

For Pac, coping meant looking toward the future, toward better days to come, and making sure he recognizes the blessings of today. It meant smoking weed and hoping that it gets you high so you can escape from the stress. Even when it’s dark, make it a point to emphasize the light. For Bad Azz, who holds down the third verse, it’s chasing money so he can chase the things he wants, even though that comes with pleasure and pain. “Having money’s not everything, but not having it is,” right?

I’ve been listening to a lot of coping music lately. Pharoahe Monch’s PTSD tackles despair head-on and balances it with dreams, discussing what it’s like to adjust to your new status quo after experiencing something awful or draining, and the idea of suicide as a potential energy. Kid Cudi’s made a career out of openly discussing depression and finding your own way. I think my favorite example is on “Just What I Am,” when he says “I had to ball for therapy, my shrink don’t think that helps at all, whatever/This man ain’t wearing these leather pants.” I like Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon for similar reasons.

The Cudi and Monch albums are two of my favorite releases this year for the same reason I like Tupac’s “Krazy” so much. There’s something deeply attractive about breaking the facade of perfection and revealing the human being underneath. It’s still a performance, all of these men are playing a role, but they artfully manage to not just express fears, but express them in such a way that you can deeply relate to what they’re talking about. It feels real, and because of that real-ness, we can steal a bit of strength from it for ourselves. If he made it, we can, too.

Tupac would’ve been 43 today. Happy birthday, Pac. I’m glad you shared your life with us.

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if you want me, you should find me [Pill x Suzanne Vega]

May 13th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

I was in a bike shop with a friend when something familiar came over the PA system: “If you want me, you can find me left of center off of the strip.” I knew the lyrics, but I was surprised to hear them as part of an unfamiliar song. I knew it from another song, Pill’s “On Da Korner,” produced by Needlz, from his 1140: The Overdose mixtape. I asked the clerk, and she said it was called something like “Left of the Center,” but she couldn’t remember who sang it.

It’s a good sample in a solid song off a solid mixtape that just recently re-entered the rotation. Pill was always a good complement to Freddie Gibbs. Where Gibbs had that grown-man nihilist perspective, Pill came with sheer unrepentant swagger. He’s gonna do what he’s gonna do, and that’s just how life is. Pill’s a dude other dudes tend to talk about in terms of realness, which is why you can see everything from wads of money to cooking crack to smoking in his videos. (Pill had the trap goin’ ham way before Kanye and Jay, too.)

I like the way the sample sits on the song. The subdued, almost melancholy vocals pair well with the driving beat and Pill’s verses. It’s an airy vocal sample sitting on top of a pounding song, the kind of combo that tends to lodge itself in my head. It’s a similar vibe to Vado’s “Badman” and “Off Hiatus,” both of which sample a couple of Lana Del Rey songs to give some flavor to crime raps.

The original song sampled in “On Da Korner” is Suzanne Vega’s “Left of Center,” a song from ’86 and part of the Pretty In Pink soundtrack. It’s a love song about being on the outskirts. It’s about being a little weird, but knowing that the person you like is a little weird, too. I’ve been spinning it since last night, and I like it. I like how Vega sings it, and I like what it’s about, too.

What I like the most, though, is understanding the difference between how Vega used her lyrics and the way Pill and Needlz did. “Left of Center” is obviously its own thing, and it’s successful at what it does. To make “On Da Korner” work, though, Needlz needed to find a sample that was not just exciting, but fit Pill’s milieu. On top of that, Pill needed to create a song that made the sample make sense.

Both songs use the same vocals, but have fairly different moods. “Left of Center” is full of longing and more than a little hope. “On Da Korner” uses Vega’s words as a statement of intent, and sounds more than a little prideful. Both songs are fundamentally the same—”If you want me, you can find me off the strip”—but Vega’s figurative usage contrasts with Pill’s literal usage.

As a kid, I found new music mostly by way of the radio and liner notes. Liner notes would point me toward artists that the original artist either dug, was partners with, or was influenced by. It let me spiderweb my way out into good music, and those habits carry on now.

I pretty much only get liner notes when I buy vinyl these days, but samples have quickly filled that gap for me. It’s like an impromptu history lesson, if I can source the sample and find the album. It goes both ways, too. Sometimes I’ll grab an old album or someone will recommend me something, and I’ll hear a line that makes everything snap into place and deepens my enjoyment. It’s like following breadcrumbs.

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Pharoahe Monch – “Time2”

May 6th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

One of my favorite aspects of music is how easily it can transport me to someplace else. Whether it’s uplifting, grimey, freaky, realistic, whatever—a song can change how you think for a moment in time. You’re not at your desk, filing papers and cheating with Tumblr. You’re doing WORK, reading BLOGS, at the SAME DAMN TIME. You’re not about to cheat on your old man or old lady. You’re about to creep, yeah, and keep that on the down low. It’s the music and the lyrics combining to be something incredible. Some artists are better at it than others, but I think good songs are generally songs you can fall into and believe in for three minutes.

Pharoahe Monch’s “Time2” is a song that hits it. It’s about overcoming, and the main ingredient in triumph is adversity. The chorus is a plea for help, the first line is about the eternal struggle, and the song is about being in over your head. It was inspired partially by a man’s real-life meltdown in Times Square, and this verse is crucial:

La-la-la-last ye-ye-year they hired me
And this-s-s-s we-we-we-we-week the-the-they fired me
And I g-g-g-got all these b-b-b-b-bills to pay
And what the f-f-f-f-fu-f-f-fuck am I supposed to say
T-t-t-t-to my wife she’s p-p-p-p-pregnant
And if the kid does not go to college his life’s irrelevant
And my-my-my melanin-n-n-n makes me a felon
And-nd I just wanna take this fuckin’ c-c-crack and sell it

Musicians are performers, and all of them play roles. Sometimes that role is limited to their own, but when they branch out and start bringing in or acknowledging other points of view, things get good. I’m thinking of Nas talking to a kid in “One Love,” Freddie Gibbs trying to figure out if his girl stepping out on him for somebody at her college makes her stank or him immature, Lana Del Rey mocking her lover on several songs, or Kanye making records about self-loathing and pride. There’s something special there, and here, Monch kills.

The role Monch is playing here is one of someone who has lost his job and has no real options left. It’s a common story, everyone knows the tune, but the stuttering is what got me here. It makes this character Monch is playing real. It’s a little addition that changes everything, like when characters in movies actually stop to eat or a martial artist pauses to visibly catch his breath mid-fight. It grounds the narrative, and in so doing, makes it something out of real life. It’s different from just saying it.

Monch is one of the most technically gifted rappers ever, and it shows in this verse. He’s always bending and blending syllables, but the effect I get from melanin/felon and/and, and the way they all play off “fuckin,” is the type of thing that makes you want to run a track back.

“Time2” is off Monch’s PTSD, an album that might just be my main thing this year. Heartfelt, emotional, and it’s so real that I keep coming back to it. This isn’t even the most emotionally-charged moment on the album, though it’s pretty high up there. It’s about depression, it’s about feeling bad, it’s about going through it, it’s about getting better and being better. Monch can take you somewhere real with lines as simple as “My family customs were not accustomed to dealing with mental health/It was more or less an issue for white families with wealth” or as rugged as “You dont figitty faze me yo, I won’t tigitty tase you bro/Figgity fucking cut you in half like it’s nothing minus the laser scope.”

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Stuff I Liked In 2013: Discovering Vince Staples

December 11th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

I didn’t have a name for it until I read music critic Andrew Nosnitsky talking about Vince Staples, but I got into dead-eyed rap and Vince Staples in a big way this year. When it comes to threats, rap’s usual mode is like something out of John Woo’s heroic bloodshed films. The threats are amped up past the point of believability and into the realm of myth. I love 50’s “If you was smart, you’d be shook of me/’cause I’d get tired of lookin for you, spray your mama crib, and let your ass look for me.” It’s a threat, but there’s a playfulness, an exuberance, that makes it great. It’s showing off and showing out, a threat that’s a boast simultaneously.

Vince Staples goes in the other direction. I first really noticed dude on Earl Sweatshirt’s “Hive” from Doris, though he’d made appearance on a few other projects I’ve dug. But his verse there made me sit up and take notice. Doris is full of fallen world music, and Staples absolutely nailed the mood Earl was going for. It’s more fatalistic than braggy, more flat than simple posturing. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t a pose, but it’s a pose that Staples performs very well.

It’s the fatalism that gets me. 2012 was tough, and 2013 has been tough in an entirely different way. Things I took for granted aren’t there any more, habits I used to have don’t work, and things are complicated. I can be mad and feel bad about it, or I can accept that it is what it is and still feel bad about it. “It is what it is,” like its sisters “that’s life” and “that’s just the way it is,” is inherently fatalistic. They indicate acceptance of the fact that you can’t fix or control everything because it’s bigger than you. It’s an indicator that since you can’t win, you’re gonna make do.

Staples does a lot of making do. On “102,” he says, “Never could be rich enough/’cause I grew up broke as fuck.” “Trigga Witta Heart:” “Rap ain’t never did shit for a nigga with no options/ You want some positivity go listen to some Common.” “Versace Rap:” “I asked my mama what’s the key to life, she told me she ain’t know/ She just try to take it day to day, and pray I make it home.”

He talks about his mom a lot. She plays a variety of roles in his songs, but rarely hope. She’s reality, responsibility, love, missed opportunity, better, and worse. A few examples:

“Stuck In My Ways:”

Mama trying to figure what the fuck my problem is
And why I gotta live this way
I know my path ain’t straight
But in the field, don’t nothing but grit matter
Just get it how you live, and figure the shit after
Nigga, gotta get it before I die out here
Don’t wanna see my momma cry out tears

“Beeper King Exclusive:”

Hit a couple hundred licks, stash the money at the crib
Mama going through my shit, had to pass it off to Nick


Watch the shit that you talkin’, promise it’s with me often
I got to stop with the trigger talking, I promised mama


My momma told me I’m living crazy
I’m just being what she made me
Dealing with the luck she gave me

“Thought About You:”

Just found God and I still don’t pray
’cause Satan prey on the weak, swear I can do it myself
Soul stuck in the beats, it’s like I’m crying for help
Still my expression is bleak, because my mama ain’t raised no bitch
Never take no shit from no nigga unless he want to see the black four-fifth

“Winter in Prague:”

Now, back to the story at hand:
They handed me nothing, I took it in stride
Take a shot at your head for taking shots at my pride
The only son my mama got that she can talk to…
So you don’t want no problems. That’s never been a smart move.

There’s a lot going on here, a lot to chew on, and all of it’s dark. It’s not music to feel sad to. It doesn’t have the uplifting punch of songs that are meant to get you hype when you’re blue, nor the “You’re not alone” message the blues has. There’s no glory, no joy, and no hope, just expressionless faces and dead eyes that hide dark thoughts. It’s music to feel bad to, flat and hopeless raps.

Staples hasn’t had a proper album release yet, but he’s got three mixtapes I enjoyed a lot. Shyne Coldchain is good, and Winter in Prague (a collab with Michael Uzowuru) is a lot of fun, too. But the one that stole the show for me, upsetting expectations and surprising me with how solid it is, was Stolen Youth. It was produced by Mac Miller under his Larry Fisherman alias and features a fistful of entertaining rappers. This one made me go back and re-evaluate Mac Miller, because I’d honestly written him off before 2013. But his verses are good and his beats are a great foundation for Staples to show out on. “Guns and Roses” is fantastic and totally unexpected.

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It’s what you’re saying, and how you’re saying it

November 11th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

I like rap. I like the way rap feels.

It’s hard to quantify in human terms, but if you enjoy music, you definitely know what I’m talking about. It’s that thing that makes you nod your head to the bass coming out of somebody’s car, because even though you can’t hear it very well, you know exactly what Slim Thug’s “Get That Gwop” sounds like. It’s that thing that makes you dance a jig across your apartment in the dark, because Icona Pop and Charli XCX screaming “I DON’T CARE!” is super-motivational. It’s that thing that makes you feel momentarily brave enough to try to hit those same notes as Lauryn Hill when she goes “That thing, that thing, that thiiiiing,” even though you’ll never manage it, because you’re just feeling yourself so hard listening to that song. It’s why people get so hype for “Bohemian Rhapsody” at karaoke.

I really like the way “Pre,” the first track on Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris, feels. It makes me want to be a part of it, to own it. The beat feels slow and dragged out, like it’s been stretched. SK Laflare opens the song with “Baby girl, what you wanna do?/Hop in this ‘Cedes, girl/She like where we goin’ to/ A new life, new world”. It’s basic, but Laflare’s flow is tight, so full of confidence that I can’t help but get into it. Those bars, and a few more couplets down the line in Laflare’s verse, are what I’m talking about here, that je ne sais quoi that makes you grunt and run it back when somebody gets off a hot line.

Around the time of New York Comic Con last month, one lyric from this song kept running through my head. Earl starts his verse with “I’m a problem to niggas,” which is already one of the hardest things I’ve heard all year. But toward the end, Earl delivers these eight bars:

Hard as armed services, y’all might have heard of him
Escobarbarian, best call the lawyers up
Bruh, the broad aryan, know the squad loiterers
Not with the grain and these bitch niggas’ wishes
Dealt with addiction, fell for the bitch with the
Pale butter skin who just packed up and dipped
In the land of the rent-less, stand with my chips
In a stack and a grin, fuck ’em

“Bruh, the broad Aryan” killed me. He’s referring to his girlfriend, who is white, and the scansion of that line matches with the first half of the previous line, “Escobarbarian.”

Something about that combo, Escobarbarian and bruh the broad aryan, has stuck with me. “Bruh, the broad Aryan” has a “cellar door” feel, in that it’s pleasing to say and a pleasure to hear. It’s smooth, despite the hard D in broad and snap of the bruh.

There’s an easygoing glide in there that I enjoy a whole lot. I love rap music as a whole, from the culture on down to the weird samples, but I spend most of my time talking about the content of the lyrics. The truth is, the lyrics are hugely important to me, but so are the beats and how the rhymes shake out, the performance aspect of things, what the rhymes sound like. What everything feels like. Delivery and flow are harder to explain, but they’re so vital.

Saying “My girlfriend’s white” is one thing. “Bruh, the broad Aryan” shows a keen understanding of the fact that language can be pleasing to the ear, musical above and beyond the fact that it’s set to music…rap music, y’all. There’s so much to appreciate, so many songs that have moments of greatness lurking just under the surface.

More on Earl’s Doris (and Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady) here.

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Musical Crumbs

September 20th, 2013 Posted by Gavok

Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes a song will have that one part that I kind of obsess with more than the rest. As a kid, back when Wayne’s World was the big thing, I’d feel like I was waiting out Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for that section towards the end where it picks up and starts talking about devils and the fandango and whatnot. And while I’ve always loved Alice in Chains’ “Rooster”, it’s really the intro and outro that act as the star of that song.

There are times when I only hear a brief snippet of a song and find myself wanting more, whether it be part of a full-fledged song, a commercial or a cover medley. It’s kind of like how awesome it was when Eric Cartman sang “Poker Face” on South Park that they eventually released a full version for Rock Band. That was a dream come true.

Here are six other songs I would have killed for seeing expanded into something bigger.

6) The Snickers Carpool Singing “Greensleeves”

A few years ago, Snickers had a beautiful ad campaign about a Viking, a pilgrim, a Hawaiian dude, Henry VIII and Caesar on a road trip to Asgard, enjoying the FEAST of Snickers all the way. This led to a commercial where Henry VIII reminisces about how he used to have a troupe of minstrels sing to him when he’d eat. The Hawaiian dude, who hasn’t said a single word or done a single thing in all the other commercials ever since being picked up, starts singing “Greensleeves” with a most beautiful voice. After a moment of confusion, everyone joins in.

I’m inexplicably intrigued with Henry’s reaction when the singing starts. He freezes up like he either doesn’t know what the fuck is going on or he’s getting overly wistful. Then the comradery kicks in and I smile every time.

Coincidentally, the awesome “Every Man has a Plan” theme that played in the first commercial was released in full, which is sadly gone from YouTube.

5) Weird Al’s Polka Cover of “Chop Suey”

Weird Al Yankovic is known for tossing polka medleys onto most of his albums, usually to touch on songs from the era he didn’t get around to parodying. They tend to be catchy, though not especially spectacular compared to his other stuff. Off his album Poodle Hat, he sang a medley called “Angry White Boy Polka” featuring everything from “Down with the Sickness” to “Real Slim Shady”. 50 seconds into this song, he sings a really unique take on System of a Down’s “Chop Suey” that I’d love to hear a full version of.

Similarly, I would really love to hear more from his polka cover of “Blame it on the Alcohol” off his last album.

Read the rest of this entry �

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The Electric Lady & Doris: “Something sinister to it.”

September 20th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

For Janelle Monae’s Metropolis, a series of albums which in turn contain suites that tell the story of Cindi Mayweather, a robot sent from the future to restore freedom and love, the apocalypse brought with it stifling social mores, unbearable rules, and emotionally-devastating limits on personal expression. It gave us a squeaky clean Pleasantville at the expense of everything that makes us who we are.

Janelle Monae as Cindi Mayweather, and sometimes just Janelle Monae, has a lot to say to you, fellow citizen. Here she is on “Lettin’ Go”:

Oooh! I got a call today, from my job up the block
It was my boss to say, “You know we like you a lot
But we don’t need you, J, you daydream too much!”
Well, man, I’m glad y’all let me go!

’cause with no 9 to 5, it’s a brand new day!
My rent’s due but I’m a party any way!
I feel so alive, stress just faded away!
It’s time to live my own life!

Getting fired sucks, but she sees it as an opportunity, not a tragedy. It’s something that puts her closer to her goal, so she’s going to take it in stride. The stress came from not following her dream and living her own life, right?

On “Sincerely, Jane” after listing a litany of problems with how we live, she exhorts us to be better:

Are we really living or just walking dead now?
Or dreaming of a hope riding the wings of angels?
The way we live, the way we die
What a tragedy, I’m so terrified
Daydreamers, please wake up
We can’t sleep no more

On “Tightrope,” a collab with her longtime associate Big Boi of OutKast, she digs right into it:

Some people talk about you
Like they know all about you
When you get down they doubt you
And when you tipping on the scene
Yeah they talkin’ about it
‘Cause they can’t tip all on the scene with you
What you talk about it
Talkin’ about it
When you get elevated,
They love it or they hate it
You dance up on them haters
Keep getting funky on the scene
While they jumpin’ round you
They trying to take all your dreams
But you can’t allow it

People are going to hate on you, and the proper response is to dance all up on them. You let your glow do the talking. The point is that you do have dreams, but your dreams are being taken from you. You’re meant to keep your dreams closer and damn the consequences.

“QUEEN,” featuring Erykah Badu, opens with a punch:

They call us dirty ’cause we break all your rules down
And we just came to act a fool, is that all right (Girl, that’s alright)
They be like, “Ooh, let them eat cake.”
But we eat wings and throw them bones on the ground

Monae wants you to know exactly who she’s talking about through the android metaphor: it’s us, the normal people, the people with restrictions imposed upon us that we just can’t abide. We don’t play that aristocrat stuff over here. That’s not our life. I like that the music video is explicitly presented as being about how Monae and Badu created works of art that are repellent to the restrictive, oppressive future:

She’s got a few bits in here that sound like rhetorical questions, but they aren’t, not if you listen closely.

Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror?
And am I weird to dance alone late at night?
And is it true we’re all insane?
And I just tell ’em, “No, we ain’t,” and get down!

She’s not willing to argue any of these points. She’s just explaining to the person giving her grief about being who she is that she doesn’t care what they have to say. Is it crazy that we’re like this? No, of course it isn’t. None of this matters, no one else’s approval matters, because she’s going to do whatever she wants and have her a good old time. The booty don’t lie, because it knows what it’s meant to do. It has purpose, and that purpose is to dance. And that is true of Monae-as-Mayweather, too. She has a purpose. And you don’t get to stop it.

I like that she positions dancing as a weapon, in addition to being fun. Dancing is one of those things that’s often seen as a corruptive influence by puritans and squares. It’s about sex and getting to do whatever you want, no matter how illogical. This is closer to being a sexual and love-oriented revolution than a violent uprising. She makes it plain on this excerpt from a skit called “Good Morning, Midnight” on The Electric Lady:

Woah, woah, woah! That’s that ignorant rusty-dusty nano-thinking nonsense I been warning y’all about. Please stay away from fools like that. Love not war, we’re tired of fires, quiet no riots, we are jamming, dancing and loving. Don’t throw no rock, don’t, break no glass just shake your ass. Ooh just shock it shake it baby with the Electric Lady. Here at 105.5 WDRD.

But you get my point—Janelle Monae makes motivation music, and she’s doing it through a classic type of sci-fi story to do it. The Electric Lady, the latest release in Metropolis, parts four and five of seven. I’m having trouble picking a favorite song on this album, because though I like a few of them more than others, they all sound so good to me in context with each other that I couldn’t pick if I wanted to. The front of the album is weaker than the back half, but the back half has bangers, too.

I talk a lot about Young Jeezy over Lex Luger beats is black superhero music. And it is, or it was back when Jeezy was the man on these streets. Because Jeezy was talking about rising above, or having risen above, and doing incredibly exciting things with an iller-than-it-needed-to-be flow. Jeezy, at his height, is music to flex to.

But Monae’s motivation music is cut-a-rug music. You want to bounce, you bob, you tap your foot. I like the video for “Dance Apocalyptic” a lot, because at first you think it’s kind of a “Hey Ya!” riff:

which is super tight if you believe the totally untenable idea that Killer Mike is following in Big Boi’s footsteps and Monae stepped into Andre’s shoes, but honestly it’s just cool because it’s really cool. It’s well done. But if you think about what you know about those music performances in the context of The Electric Lady, you might realize that she’s spreading love and freedom through a format that was once considered harmful for teens because it got them all worked up with all the gyrating and such. Nothing’s an accident. You’re listening to a story.

Like the X-Men at their very best, Monae’s Cindi Mayweather represents all of us. She is dancing for all of us. She’s a messianic figure because she is meant to show us the way to brightening our lives, and through our lives, the world. It’s not necessarily afrofuturism, I don’t think, but she’s definitely doing that sci-fi thing of talking about the modern day through a very thinly-veiled metaphor.

Cindi Mayweather is here to save us all. But maybe we ain’t worth saving.

An early single from Doris, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All’s resident superlyrical dude Earl Sweatshirt’s highly-anticipated album, was “Chum.” Here’s a chunk of the first verse, and the music video, too:

It’s probably been twelve years since my father left, left me fatherless
And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest
When honestly I miss this nigga, like when I was six
And every time I got the chance to say it I would swallow it
Sixteen, I’m hollow, intolerant, skipped shots
I storm that whole bottle, I’ll show you a role model
I’m drunk pissy, pissing on somebody front lawn
Trying to figure out how in the fuck I missed moderate

And the first half of this kicks my guts out, and the flash-forward to sixteen hits bone. Doris isn’t a story like The Electric Lady, but it is a picture. It’s what Earl chose to reveal on wax, a point of view he has developed as filtered through music. That POV probably isn’t 100% Earl, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s here, and we can look at it, and we can figure out what kind of picture Earl is painting.

Earl’s Doris is post-apocalypse too, and this apocalypse brought with it a different kind of emotional devastation. Where Monae’s audience are suppressed, Earl’s are depressed, wobbling under the weight of the world. They’re depressed because nothing can be trusted, not girlfriends, as on “Pre”:

Dealt with addiction, fell for the bitch with the
Pale butter skin who just packed up and dipped

not his perception, as on “Sunday”:

All my dreams got dimmer when I stopped smoking pot
Nightmares got more vivid when I stopped smoking pot
And loving you is a little different, I don’t like you a lot
You see, it seems like

and definitely not his city, as on “Hive”:

From that city that’s recession-hit
With stress, niggas could flex metal with peddle to rake pennies in
Desolate testaments trying to stay Jekyll-ish
But most niggas Hyde and Brenda just stay pregnant
Breaking news: death’s less important when the Lakers lose
It’s lead in that baby food, heads try to make it through
Fish-netted legs for them eyes that she cater to
Ride dirty as the fucking sky that you praying to

Stress kills, and he smokes an incredible amount of weed, which is actually not surprising on “20 Wave Caps,” which features supersmoker Domo Genesis:

Smoking ’til I’m loopy as a motherfucking toucan
20 minutes, burn a fucking quarter back to two grams

and he can’t even trust himself, as on “Burgundy,” which opens with Vince Staples letting him know that nobody cares how he feels, they just want raps:

My grandma’s passin’
But I’m too busy tryin’ to get this fuckin’ album crackin’ too see her
So I apologize in advance if anything should happen
And my priorities fucked up, I know it, I’m afraid I’m gonna blow it
And all them expectations raising because daddy was a poet, right?
Talk all you want I’m takin’ no advice

I’m a sucker for all of this stuff pretty much, from the dadraps to the sadraps. And I think Earl is pretty great at it, and it’s down to both his lyrics but also something in his voice. He sells the frown better than most guys do. Drake can do it, but there’s no hint of opulence behind Earl’s words. Drake had it and lost it, but Earl never had it. The city’s dying and everything’s rotten inside.

Earl paints a vivid picture, and I’ve been spinning Doris pretty much since I got it, with A$AP Ferg’s Trap Lord being the previous winner and Monae’s The Electric Lady being the latest. There’s something about Earl’s lyrics, and Monae’s lyrics, that keep me thinking about the songs and mulling over lines until they take crystal-clear shape, and it’s for entirely different reasons.

Monae wants us to rise up from the mud. Earl makes us follow him through it. It’s frustration music, that kind of thing you put on so you can say “Bruh, I don’t fuck with no cops” or feel bad about your absentee father or just narrow your eyebrows and put a mean look on your face. Earl’s stuck, and we’re stuck alongside him. He’s not going to be doing any dancing any time soon, and really, he talks about his vices like they’re burdens, too. He’s doing what he can to cope and keep his head above water, but that doesn’t mean that he’s thriving. He’s getting by. He’s maintaining maybe. But even that can slip. And then it’s a wrap.

“Muddy” is how Doris feels to me, but without any of the negative connotations “muddy” might bring with it. It’s slow head nod music, something to vibe to or relax to, but not necessarily something I would want to drive around to, even though I bet it sounds amazing coming out of a trunk. It’s a downer, but a pointed one. Earl’s lyrics and the music are both gonna wear at you, but they feel good when you’re in a foul mood. It lets you focus that black cloud over your head onto something other than yourself for a minute. And that’s necessary.

Monae and Earl are both talking about us as we live today. They just have different points of view on what we need to do to survive. Dancing is catharsis, but moping and spewing venom can be cathartic, too. Monae wants you to know that there is a brighter day, a better way. You can dog on her all you want, you can raise your voice all you want, but you do not have a say in her life. She’s going to do her thing, and in so doing, show us the path to Heaven. Earl, though. He has no interest in saving anyone, not even himself, but the act of just telling his story is enough to tell somebody else “You’re not alone.” When he said that he used to say he hated his father in dishonest jest, but couldn’t work up the nerve to just say he misses him, that kind of thing is heart-stopping. I know what that feels like.

Monae is salvation. Earl is confirmation.

Two sides of an argument. Both well worth listening to.

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Loosies: Off to the Races b/w Murda Something

August 30th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

I like Lana Del Rey in part because there’s something about her lyrics and performance that makes me want to ask questions. Fabolous and blur are pretty self-evident to me. I don’t listen to “No Distance Left to Run” or The Soul Tape II and have to untangle what they’re talking about. I still have to untangle how they’re saying it, yeah, but the subject matter I get pretty much instantly. But something about Del Rey makes me listen real closely to her music. I’m sharp enough to know there’s something there, but not sharp enough to catch it.

“Off to the Races” is one of those songs that made me sit up and take notice. The song blends Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita with a bit of Bonnie & Clyde. But there’s a performative aspect to it, something in her voice and delivery that makes it feel like a role or pose, one that goes beyond the implied roles in every other song. She’s portraying something or someone, building a world and telling a story, that I want to know more about. There’s a performance there.

None of this would matter if she didn’t sound good, obviously. Liz Barker at Strawberry Fields Whatever described her style as being “sexy music that feels like being asleep,” and I like that. The music feels very relaxed, something to sit around with friends and vibe to, but the tension comes from how the play against the music, like a smiling face saying “I’m going to kill you.” The juxtaposition clicks.

A lot of the songs on Born To Die feel like they’re about relationships, rather than love. There’s not a lot that feels like the usual I Love Him, He Loves Me, or He Did Me Wrong. It’s more about the structures we build and the ways power works in male/female relationships, who has control and when or how. In “Off to the Races,” Del Rey sings about a lover who spends a decent amount of the song watching her, whether she’s swimming or getting dressed, as opposed to doing things or being loving. There’s a voyeuristic aspect that feels significant. “National Anthem,” on the other hand, sounds like obsession to me.

The video for “National Anthem,” like a lot of Del Rey’s work and videos, feels like coded language. It features Del Rey as Jackie Kennedy and A$AP Rocky as John F Kennedy. It’s a simple thing and they don’t do much that’s transgressive or surprising with the idea, but that makes it even more interesting to me. It’s pretty much just a 1:1 swap, with allowances made for our idea of fun—Rocky playing dice, Del Rey dropping low, that kind of thing.

But by and large, the video portrays the First Family having fun and living life before Rocky gets shot. It’s touching and loving. There’s a weird tension here, too. The idea of a black husband and white wife, their cute children, their friends, their parties, all of these things are normal to me. But push it back to the ’60s, and slip it into the fantasy of Camelot, and it makes me feel uneasy. It feels a little unreal, a little like a dream where you know things are about to go hideously wrong, but still compelling.

I’m really interested in Del Rey and Rocky’s hands in this video, how he touches Del Rey and how she touches him back. His hand on her thigh before dying, their closeness on the beach, the butt grab when they’re dancing, her playing with his braids… “sexy music that feels like being asleep.”

I like Lana Del Rey because she makes me want to have conversations about her music. There is something there that I want to know.

I hated on A$AP Rocky for a long time because he tended to rap like the dudes who influenced him and that bothered me. But at the same time, I’d praise his features, like somehow all of the features I liked were exceptions to the rule that Rocky sucked. But I was wrong, obviously, because that’s silly. “I don’t like dude, except for all these songs where I like dude, but really, son is wack.”

The first feature where I sat up like “Wow, this guy is getting it in” was probably Rocky’s turn on Schoolboy Q’s “Hands on the Wheel,” from Habits & Contradictions. The song has a great sample. The woman singing “hands on the wheel” on the chorus is an artist named Lissie. She covered Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness”, a song I like quite a bit. I like the different feeling songs have when women sing songs originally sung by men or vice versa. Otis Redding’s “Respect” is a different animal than Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” both for the mechanical differences between the songs and the way both singers apply their own style to that blueprint.

It’s not the same situation, but you should probably listen to Notorious BIG’s reference track for “Queen Bitch” and then Lil Kim’s version, too. Just having a different voice in there changes the game.

Q rides the beat real well in this song, as usual, but Rocky kinda outshines him. His flow is super swaggery, with colorful punchlines and a killer interpolation of the chorus. It’s not particularly deep or technically proficient in the spherical lyrical miracle sense, but it’s good. It’s rapping. Saying something mundane in a tight way is equal to saying something tight to me, and Rocky does it real well.

I especially like his feature on A$AP Ferg’s “Shabba.” The song is raunchy, but supremely catchy thanks to a great gimmick. The music video, though…

I like this new trend of rap videos being conceived as weird, stressed-out, feverish nightmares, and this is definitely a solid example. It’s just off, from the Shabba Ranks impersonator to the cameos to the last supper scene to the 4th wall suddenly shattering about three minutes in…and that’s all before Shabba Ranks himself shows up. This song is real hype, but the video is just uncomfortable enough to be super tight. It’s a party video, no different than “I Get Around,” but slanted.

Rocky’s on the remix to A$AP Ferg’s “Work,” along with Trinidad Jame$, Schoolboy Q, and French Montana. Rocky comes correct, Trinidad Jame$ too, but man. French Montana? Dude is wack, but “When they mask up, comin’ for your ice/When they barefaced, they comin for your life” is pretty tight. But even then, he can’t compete with Schoolboy Q’s “Yeah, put in work, spray his ass in front the church/ Deacon said I did my shit, the pastor said, ‘That nigga turnt!'” It puts me in mind of Ghostface’s “Wu Banga 101,” where he kicked a whole verse about a crooked church.

Euge Ahn, alias Adam Warrock, put me onto A$AP Ferg. I had basically written off the whole A$AP Mob as weed carriers, but Euge’s enthusiasm for Ferg’s Trap Lord record got me to buy it sight unseen… and it was worth it. With the exception of a sex skit, the whole album pretty much goes. Euge said it was something like gangster music made by a space alien, and that’s pretty close to how I feel. There’s a lot of singing, some patois, and a lot of swag rap. There’s a lot of posturing for the sake of other men in there, too, which leads to some truly absurd scenarios, but sure. I listen to rap, I can deal.

It’s tight, though. Ferg knows how to utilize a feature, too. Bone Thugs is on “Lord,” and Krayzie Bone blacks all the way out when he steps up to bat. Ferg brings out B-Real and Onyx on “Fuck Out My Face,” which gives Sticky a chance to say “I’m a CBGB… crazy bald-head grimy bastard!” and make my year.

Ferg’s not really saying anything new, lyrical content-wise, but again, he’s saying it in a dope way, so who cares, really? He reminds me a lot of Young Dro, who I like a lot. They just do what they do and do it well. Reliable dudes who go in on occasion.

The highlight of the album for me is “Murda Something” with Waka Flocka Flame. I know Waka is on record as not wanting to be seen as a lyrical dude for whatever dumb reason, but this type of song is exactly why I like him. It’s fast, almost to the point that he can’t keep up with his own raps, and A$AP Ferg chanting “ain’t afraid to murda something” before he comes in with a verse that’s half the speed of Waka’s is too dope. It’s music to throw bows to, run miles to, lift weights to. It’s motivation music. Black superhero music.

Also Ferg drops this during that song:

Y’all quick for the tweeting, y’all quick to be tumbling
How about a Vine? Two clips to your spine
And Instagram pics of me dumping

First rapper to beef with tumblr? Might be.

I keep talking about Schoolboy Q on this, but he’s been on my mind. He’s got a new album dropping this year, #oxymoron, and he’s been on a tear all year with hot songs and hotter features. This is “Collard Greens,” with Kendrick Lamar:

This is what I like. The beat’s remarkable, Schoolboy Q’s flow is… I called it a eurostep flow on Twitter the other day, because it takes a step in one direction before jetting down another. It’s jerky, but jerky in a way that feels natural, or normal. It’s not like “Dang, son’s way off-beat.” He’s hitting different marks and changing direction, is all.

I like the video, for the most part. It turns out adding a kaleidoscope effect to your average video featuring parties, half-naked girls grinding on dudes, and Macklemore turns something average into something that’s a little interesting. The inset transparent rapping faces aren’t special, neither are the colorful visual effects, but for some reason, that kaleidoscope effect feels perfectly paced for the song. This is another nightmare video, too, and Q kinda dances like Grover at a few different points, thanks to the jittery cut frames.

Kendrick’s got verse two, and he blacks out, as usual. I like the whole TDE crew, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar, and Jay Rock. It’s dope they have such a range of personas and characters, from Soul’s stoned conspiracy theorist to Q’s groovy gangster. I have half a hunch—I haven’t put a lot of thought into it yet but it feels right—that if Kendrick is the GZA of the group, the most technically proficient and deep, for whatever value of deep you prefer, that makes Q the Method Man. Remember when Meth was the charming one in the Wu-Tang, the fashionable player? That, and their shared smiley face/dark subject styles, makes me think that’s a fair comparison, even if it isn’t 1:1.

Here’s E-40, Danny Brown, and Schoolboy Q, “All My Niggas”:

40 is one of those dudes like Bun B or Scarface who go extra hard when they’re featured on someone else’s song or have hype guest features. 40 can phone in verses better than a lot of dudes, but Danny Brown and Q simultaneously keep up and pay homage to the legend.

I like this old video for “There He Go”:

“Got my daughter swaggin’ like her motherfuckin’ daddy, though!”

Let’s go out on the first A$AP Rocky song I heard and a video I’ve grown to like a lot, “Purple Swag”:

This song has grown on me over the past couple years, and the sample from the Akira soundtrack is hot.

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Loosies: RAP MUSIC!!!

August 15th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

If you’re on tumblr, you’ve probably seen this fantastic gif set of Rinko Kikuchi talking about chocolate from this interview with What’s Up Hollywood:

rinko kikuchi chocolate 01 rinko kikuchi chocolate 02 rinko kikuchi chocolate 03

If you’ve ever been around me for forty-five seconds or more, you know that she be to chocolate like I be to rap. I want to have conversations about rap all the time, give or take a few minutes in the day. Sometimes it’s over something big, sometimes it’s over something small. I like rap so much that I feel like saying “RAP MUSIC!!!!” is a coherent way to say “This song bangs.” I’m painfully earnest on this subject to an absurd extent.

So here are some loose thoughts on rap, because sometimes all you have is an idea, not an essay:

A lot of my love of books, and crime (or crime-inflected) stories specifically, comes from how basic acts, usually acts of violence, are turned into something more poetic or interesting than the flat statements like you’d see on the news. I really like this thing I read in Charlie Huston’s novel Skinner, his latest release: A single bullet that perhaps goes in one ear and out the other, like a complicated idea quickly dismissed for the effort it requires.

There is an elegance there that works really well. The mental image of a thought considered and discarded is a peaceful one, while a bullet passing through a head is anything but. But there’s a middle ground in there that makes the line sing. It’s very vivid and easy to imagine.

I get the same feeling out of that line as I do out of this sort of line, from Fabolous’s “Can’t Deny It” off the album Ghetto Fabolous: When the time’s right, I’ma put this nine right/ to the left side of your head, push ya mind right.

There’s a parallel in there that I really like. I feel like the rappers who are best at this sort of rap tend to be talented at creating innovative threats and boasts. Being direct is all well and good, but eventually you’ll have to make another song and you can’t reuse your old stuff. So rappers get creative, and that’s where they start to shine.

Shyne’s “That’s Gangsta” is another crime song I like a lot. Where Fab doubles down on his punchlines, winks, and sly grins, Shyne opens his mouth and a flood of apocalyptically nihilist lyrics come flooding out. He flips Rakim:

I got a question as serious as cancer
Where the fucking safe at? Somebody better answer


Got dead gangstas rollin over like, “Yo, this nigga cold”
The way he cut his coke, his murder game, to his flow

and even:

Mac-10s, crushed rocks, and drops
The best respect the feds only—cops

and especially:

Riches my only reason for being, shit
I never had hope until I sold dope

So yeah, this song made an impression on me. The beat is memorable, too.

What got me earlier today, though, was hearing the sample on that beat on a new song. The sample’s Foster Sylvers’s “Misdemeanor,” and it’s been sampled more than a few times. I’ve heard it in other songs, but not in years, so when it popped up in a song called “Love Traps,” off Pete Rock & Camp Lo’s 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s 2, I sat up and paid attention.

It actually took me a second to figure out where I knew the sample from, since this song is pretty far from “That’s Gangsta” in sound, lyrics, and approach. But I kinda dig it, so I went digging.

There’s a neat symmetry in Shyne flipping that Rakim line on “That’s Gangsta,” because Eric B, of the legendary Eric B & Rakim, made a song called “Love Trap” back in the day.

And from here, I could easily fall down a rabbit hole. I could make an infinite number of connections from song to song, taking my own constantly shifting trip down memory lane, with just this at my base. Rakim leads to lyricism, which could loop back around to Fabolous (he’s nice) or anywhere basically, and from there, I could go anywhere. It’s all connected.

I tried to write an essay earlier this week about this RA the Rugged Man song, “Lessons.” It’s a catalog of things Rugged Man has experienced, from labels telling him to find a black dude to rap with to knowing Norah Jones before she blew up. Rugged Man is a talented dude, so even though this song is seriously just a series of one- and two-bar anecdotes, it still manages to be not just coherent, but pretty fascinating.

I couldn’t make the essay work, but I was going to focus on this line: I don’t want fans that don’t know who G Rap is.

At the time, I took it as Rugged separating the real from the fake, and I was into it for that reason. ’cause, you know, fake rap fans are annoying, and they probably didn’t even listen to real hip-hop, and several other equally tiresome thoughts. I’m older and smarter and hopefully less annoying now, and I still like the line, though I read it much differently.

It’s about curiosity and history to me now, about being in a constant state of learning about the music and culture. It’s not a requirement—I won’t hold out the “You Must Be Able To Name Three Big L Songs To Vibe” signs for now—but it enhances the experience of listening to rap so much to know a little bit about a little bit.

I talk and think about context a lot in terms of criticism or social issues, but it’s true of even something as culturally neutral as “music.” Connecting those dots is so much fun (I’ve done it before on here) and so enlightening that I can’t imagine listening to rap and not wanting to dig in. Things branch out to weird places, songs show up in weird places (remember the Numa Numa song? Just Blaze, TI, and Rihanna sure did), and sometimes you discover people who are right up your alley, despite being before your time.

Here’s Big Daddy Kane and Big L rapping together (kinda) on “Platinum Plus”:

They used this Big L verse on Lyricist Lounge Volume 2, sans Kane. That’s a shame, because Kane says this:

If you block the cash, we locking ass
I’ma put it in your chest like a Stockton pass
Only out to earn figures like we please
But I don’t mind to burn niggas like CDs
Now: exhibit, styles I kick with it
[*COUGH*] Pardon me, but I’m fuckin sickwiddit

Got me fanning myself like I’m in church over here.

Here’s Big L and Kool G Rap getting it in on “Fall Back”:

More head from chickens, it’s time to turn the ape loose
Bust out the cage and let the gauge loose
Blow the feathers out of your North Face goose
It’s G Rap coming back with a clique of brave troops
Have y’all niggas running for home base like Babe Ruth
Have you holding holes in your body like you play flute
Lay you down til you get found up in the sprayed coupe
Prepare for the takeover—give you the face makeover
The seat of your Rover, sheet draped over
Be found on the block with the street taped over
or comin out of deep coma, your speech made slower

What I like about G Rap is that he raps like this pretty much all the time.

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