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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Take What You Want: Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring

June 26th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

One thing I really like about TI’s “Front Back” is that he shouts out UGK at the top of the song. It’s not just a regular shout-out, either. He’s explicitly and purposefully trading on their fame by shouting them out as legends and then placing himself and others in the ranks of the “UGK alumni.” “They’re the greatest, they’re legends, and I studied at their feet,” in other words. It feels like he’s snatching a cosign, instead of suggesting or accepting one, because most people are much more subtle about it.

Either way, that stuff really counts. It adds to the verisimilitude of rap songs, something that’s important since these guys are implicitly playing a role on wax and believability makes all the difference. TI’s shouting out UGK on a song with UGK, and that’s got heads rubbing their chin and going “Pocket full of stones… yeah… yeah…” It connects the two in your head, especially so in the case of “Front Back” because the cosigned and cosigners are on the same track together. If you recognize and accept the one, you should do the same for the other.

It happens all the time. Yelawolf said “Bitch, you know I got Bun B in the front seat and we got these boppers on the chrome!/ One time for ya boy Pimp C: POCKET FULL OF STONES!/ Yeah, I got a pocket full of stones ’cause I fell off my dirt bike in cargo pants” on “Good to Go” because it was a way better choice than “I’m a white dude but I like raps too, plus these other established dudes like me and I like them.”

In a scene early on in The Bling Ring, three characters drive to the beach while blasting Rick Ross’s “9 Piece” (NSFW video here). It starts around the line that goes “MJG, bitch, I got 8Balls” before segueing into the Suave House shout-out and eventually fading out. It really tripped me out, because while I could see the cast of the film–abstractly wealthy kids in Calabasas, CA–banging Ross on their way somewhere, I had a harder time believing they’d be specifically yelling the part that shouts out 8Ball & MJG or being into anything Suave House. That feels like inside baseball to me, the rap equivalent of making a joke about Cypher from New Mutants. It’s prejudice, obviously, but my mental picture of that specific type of person doesn’t really involve them being into Memphis rap. I’m not particularly into the song (there are better MJG/8Ball references to be had elsewhere), but I liked seeing that specific stretch of the song in the movie. It’s Ross showing off his bonafides, bonafides that are entirely fictional and thus remarkably apropos for this movie. He’s an actor acting as if he has the cred his forebears do, and the actors in the film are buying into his hype and using it to generate hype of their own, or maybe just to get hype.

The presence of that song in the beginning came back into my mind further into the movie, as I was beginning to realize exactly how much of the soundtrack would be rap songs that I own or have intentionally enjoyed (Twelve rap songs in all, including Frank Ocean, and I knew seven and would have heard an eighth if I still listened to leaks). Like TI borrowed cred from UGK, like Ross borrowed from 8Ball and MJG, The Bling Ring borrows cred from rap music. There’s a lot of dance music in the movie, but the way the rap music is deployed (Kanye’s “Power” plays over the type of scene you’d expect, Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” plays over the credits, “All of the Lights” has a singalong, “212” plays in a hip club context) it’s associated with edginess, victory, the good life, fabulous crime or violence, and almost everything else that particular sort of rap is associated with.

A lot of the reason I like Rick Ross’s Teflon Don as much as I do, despite not really messing with Ross on a regular basis, is that it’s full of well-told tales of guilt-free and consequence-free crime. Ross-the-character does what he wants when he wants, and there’s something very enjoyable about that. It draws people in, myself included, and that aspirational aspect is part of why Ross is so much of a success.

The Bling Ring clicked for me when I realized that the celebrity culture Sofia Coppola was indicting has a similar effect on the cast of the movie. They want to be on, and the people who are most visibly “on” are Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Kirsten Dunst, and Megan Fox. There’s a similar type of aspirational motivation at work, and it’s easy to draw a line between, say, my wanting that confederate flag belt Andre 3000 wore in the “Ms. Jackson” video or watching a video of 2 Chainz getting robbed in San Francisco and Becca Ahn–played to the hilt by Katie Chang–taking note of the latest star to get caught drunk driving and wanting to wear what Lindsay wears, even if she has to go into Lindsay’s house to get it.

There are several sequences, usually after a break-in, that show the characters wearing their stolen goods and posting them to Instagram and Facebook. They’re showing off. They take incessant pictures while in the club when they aren’t spotting celebrities. They vamp in front of each other and the internet. Coppola, in conversation with Lee Radziwill, said, “When I go to a concert, everyone is filming and photographing themselves and then posting the pictures right away. It is almost as if your experiences don’t count unless you have an audience watching them.”

She means it as an indictment, but I don’t see it that way any more. A line from Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past comes to mind, Jeff Bailey saying “Nothing in the world is any good unless you can share it.” It’s my favorite movie and that’s one of the lines that’s stuck with me the most since I first saw it in school. It works for romance and friendship alike. Sometimes you want to share something’s majesty because you love someone else and want them to have that experience and sometimes you want to share it because you want confirmation that it’s dope. The two are twisted up with each other, almost to the point that the difference between them is academic. It’s selfish, sure, in a way, but utterly natural and sensible.

The Facebook shots in The Bling Ring struck me as being a clever way to show what was happening, instead of just saying it. What do you want to do when you get something new? You want to wear it immediately, you want to show it to people, you want them to compliment it and tell you how cool it is. It’s a twist on the quote from Out of the Past, but not much of one. When I finish this piece, I’m probably going to send it to a few trusted friends to read, and my hope is that they’ll enjoy it. After that, I’ll put it on this website. I don’t have to–I wrote this because I needed to organize my thoughts on the movie and essays are the easiest way to do that outside of conversation–but I want to share it. From sharing comes conversation, support, and a gang of other things I’m invested in.

All of this would be well-executed, but hollow, if not for the actors in the film. Chang’s Becca impressed me the most out of all the cast. There’s an emptiness to her that I enjoyed, a sense that she does things simply because she wants to do them, and consequences aren’t even on her radar. It isn’t heartlessness, though that was the first word to come to my mind, so much as “might makes right” played out on a different battlefield. “But I want it” as golden rule. She’s remarkably pretty, almost distractingly so, and I think that only adds to the effect. She’s the picture of a modern femme fatale. (Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat is the classic femme fatale for me, for very similar reasons.)

Israel Broussard’s Marc is a close second for me. He’s more or less the main character of the film, and Broussard balances the anxiety, love, and fun of the character very well. There’s a brief glimpse in the trailer of him dancing and goofing off with the girls, and he’s got a specific pose and smile that’s split between being goofy and loving life that killed me. The webcam scene, everything about the shoes, all of it felt real in a very warm and welcoming way.

There’s a lot of intentional comedy in The Bling Ring, more than I expected. The introductory shots of Paris Hilton’s house got a rising laugh out of the audience I saw the movie with, as we realized that 1) Hilton’s face is all over her house, like a musician who only plays his own records when he invites people over and 2) she has a lot of stuff. It felt like every scene in that house revealed a secret door, hidden box, or drawer full of jewels on top of all the ridiculous possessions that dot the house.

At one point, in a scene that struck me for its use of color as much as the (mostly-silent) acting, we watch a character eating while sirens play in the distance. The camera stays still as we watch the eater, their family, and pets going about their business. It clicks for us before it does for them–cops are coming. The scene goes on almost uncomfortably long, though it was probably just thirty seconds or a minute. It’s put-a-smile-on-your-face funny.

I didn’t find myself disgusted or troubled by the Bling Ring. I expected a little friction between my prejudices, tastes, and the movie itself. I was surprised to see aspects of myself and my friends reflected in these characters. Claire Julien’s Chloe was the most street-smart of the gang, and also the one most likely to be like “Hey, bitches” or use slang a certain way. Emma Watson’s Nicki was a lot of fun, too, a girl who rolls her eyes through life and its obstacles while looking for a chance to get big by any means. I know and have known Marcs, Beccas, Nickis, and Chloes.

My reaction to The Bling Ring was way more positive than I expected. I bailed out of Girls pretty much as soon as Lena Dunham asked her parents for rent money, but this movie full of pretty people doing petty things really worked for me. They go to the bad school in town–Becca for dealing drugs, Marc because he was home-schooled and needs to catch up–but their school is much nicer than the good schools where I’m from. They’re young, well-off, and if you know the real story, you know how little jail time they got for stealing millions of bucks worth of stuff. There’s a lot in here that should’ve ruined the movie for me, but the aggregate and execution were on point. The Bling Ring is a low-key feel-good crime movie, like Rick Ross’s lyrics, where people do big things for the sake of doing them and brag about it later.

One last point: The Bling Ring has a title that derives from BG’s “Bling Bling,” featuring the Big Tymers and Hot Boys. The entire point of the song is getting something new and showing it off to the squares. “I pull up in a Expedition, they be like ah no, no, no he didn’t!/ Tattoos and fast cars, do you know who we are?” It would’ve been entirely too on-the-nose to fit it into The Bling Ring, even moreso than “Super Rich Kids,” but you know what? It’s the movie in miniature.

I often think of rap culture as being a black and brown thing, something we co-created and co-own with just a few others, but that isn’t really true now that we’re decades past the origins of rap. This stuff bleeds into the culture, whether it’s Miley Cyrus with golds in her mouth or a movie about a real group of burglars sporting a name that derives from one of the hottest songs from 1999. It’s bigger than hip-hop.

Related links:
Sofia Coppola’s Journey Into the Heart of Low-Culture Darkness, by Emily Yoshida
In Conversation | Lee Radziwill and Sofia Coppola, on Protecting Privacy
Girls in Hoodies Podcast: The Bling Ring, This Is the End, and Rape Jokes, with Molly Lambert, Tess Lynch, and Emily Yoshida
“Compton, USA made me an angel on angel dust” [Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city] by me
Sofia Coppola and Brian Reitzell, by Carrie Battan
-Rick Ross – “BMF”
-Rick Ross – “I’m Not A Star”
-8Ball & MJG – Pimp Hard”
-UGK – Pocket Full of Stones”

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monday mixtape garou

April 29th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

monday mixtape garou from brothers on 8tracks Radio.

Eight songs here, which should play in random order. The list:
-The Smiths – Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
-The Verve – The Drugs Don’t Work
-The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony
-Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart
-The Smith – There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
-The Stone Roses – Fools Gold
-Blur – Trimm Tabb
-Blur – Under the Westway

My friend Amy hooked me up with a playlist she called “Madchester and Manchester.” You can listen to it here if you have Spotify. I was going to embed it here, but it turns out you need Spotify to hear the songs, so… I did a lot of extra legwork and turned the tracks I like best (plus two more) into an 8tracks mix.

I say I like britpop, but what I really mean is “I like Damon Albarn-led or -related projects, like Blur, Gorillaz, and so on.” Albarn’s work has been the main way I’ve experienced britpop, even down to it being the lens through which I learn about britpop history. Oasis exists in relation to Blur. I was introduced to Justine Frischmann not through Elastica but via “Oh, she’s Damon Albarn’s girlfriend, some songs are probably about her, and the best Blur albums are post-breakup.” It’s not that I’m a superfan — I own a lot of his stuff and I figure his name is enough to get me onboard, but I wouldn’t say I’m obsessive about it — so much as I’m ignorant of the context. I wasn’t there, I was a kid when all of it was going on, and frankly, there ain’t a lot of young black kids in Small Towne, GA listening to The Smiths or whatever. I didn’t even hear an entire Beatles song, and recognize that it was The Beatles, until high school.

So I reached out to a few friends who’d know. Amy hooked me up weeks ago, and it took me forever to listen for stupid reasons. (I wanted time to be able to really listen to figure out what I liked, which is typical of me.) I got Ron Richards to kick me a lot of album recommendations in a few different genres, too, since we have so little overlap in taste.

I’m trying to broaden my horizons, and the best way I know how to do that is to do something new and then see how it makes me feel. In this case, I took Amy’s playlist and listened to it a few times on shuffle while walking around the city and commuting home. After an hour or so, I started starring whichever songs caught my ear for whatever reason. Maybe I liked the melody, maybe I liked a particular line, or maybe I liked something more ephemeral.

Whichever way it is, the star means I need to pay attention, and paying attention means either checking out more songs from the album the song originates from or asking friends what else sounds similar.

I don’t really have an endpoint for this. I just wanna know more, and spider-webbing my way to more seems good enough to me.

Thanks Amy. Sorry it took so long.

The two songs I added to round out the mix are a couple Blur joints I like a lot. The only Blur album I don’t own/haven’t heard is The Great Escape, I think. I passed it over when I was heavy into Blur, by accident maybe, and haven’t had a chance to go back yet. Which is weird of me, but hey.

I wrote about Frank Quitely & Mark Millar’s Jupiter’s Legacy. It’s soft like baby butts, but also the best comic Millar’s written in recent memory.

I wrote about Ananth Paragariya and Yuko Ota’s Johnny Wander. I like it a lot. Website.

ComicsAlliance is closed. To my knowledge, it wasn’t because of hits or performance or controversy. It didn’t fit, or something. Dunno. Either way, I spilled 477,770 words on 317 posts over about three and a half years.

-I watched Matthew Vaughan’s Kick-Ass finally, the adaptation of the odious Millar/JRjr comic. It was eleventy times better than the comic, but still pretty dumb. It’s like they intentionally shied away from making a good movie in favor of a weird quirky… thing. Hit-Girl was the most interesting part, and they botched every single action scene with her, including the big introduction where she rescues Kick-Ass.

It’s weird. It wanted to be an action movie, but the action was shot poorly almost as a general rule. The hallway run toward the end had so many good parts, like Hit-Girl dodging bullets, but it was delivered in the laziest, stupidest-looking way. Why cut every time someone moves an arm? I mean, maybe it was because they needed a stuntman (stunt-girl?) for Hit-Girl, but people have been using stuntmen for decades without it look like crap.

Anyway. The trailer for Kick-Ass 2 was funny, but ehhhh. Figure I’m good.

Open thread. What’re you reading/watching/hearing/enjoying?

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monday mixtape david

April 1st, 2013 Posted by david brothers

monday mixtape david from brothers on 8tracks Radio.

Eight songs here, which should play in random order. The list:

-Adina Howard – Freak Like Me – Do You Wanna Ride?
-Aesop Rock – 6b Panorama – Float
-Anthony Hamilton – Sucka For You – Back To Love
-Arrested Development – People Everyday – 3 Years, 5 Months And 2 Days In The Life Of…
-Asher Roth & Nottz – Gotta Get Up – Rawth
-Atmosphere – Good Times (Sick Pimpin) – Seven’s Travels
-Angie Martinez – Live at Jimmy’s
-Al Green – I Want To Hold Your Hand – Love Ritual

Originally, I had wanted to make this eight songs about death or dying, but then I woke up this morning and it’s gloomy out, so instead these are eight songs about enjoying your life, though some songs are more down than others. That strain runs through it, though — “life is beautiful.” It’s why we put up with all this nonsense that life throws at us. One day somebody pretty is gonna smile at us, we’re gonna see some movie we like or hear some song we love, and smile by accident.

Aesop Rock’s “6B Panorama” is one of my favorite songs. I love storytelling joints, and this one isn’t a story so much as a scene. It’s just what Aes Rock sees when he looks out of his window, and it’s so simple but deep that I can’t help but love it. I honestly love Aes’s delivery on “I saw a blind man with a dog screaming ‘someday I’ll see it all’/ and then he sat down with his hammer and saw.” It’s delivered like the stinger at the end of an episode of Peabody & Sherman on Rocky & Bullwinkle.

“6B Panorama” is about appreciation, I think, and that’s something I have a hard time with. When I’m in a bad mood and everything tastes like ashes and I hate everything I love, I wallow. I try to focus more on appreciating what I see on a day-to-day basis these days. I moved last year, and while I can’t see the sunrise or sunset, I can stand on my balcony and still enjoy the morning. There’s always something to look at and appreciate, right? I forget that sometimes.

It helps that “6B Panorama” is a killer bit of writing from one of rap’s best writers, too.

This mixtape is smiley face music, even if it’s a sheepish smile. “People Everyday” is probably the outlier, but it’s such a happy-sounding song about whipping somebody’s behind that I couldn’t resist, not to mention that flawless outro.

The instrumental version of Atmosphere’s “Good Times” was my alarm for two or three years, and it’s strange how weird it sounds to me now. I associated it with snapping awake and being late to work for so long that just hearing the opening of the song makes me physically anxious, though I know in my head that it isn’t a big deal. It’s like a spike of anxiety that slowly fades into suspicion. Basically, don’t make your favorite songs your alarms. I ruined Aesop Rock’s “None Shall Pass” that way, too.

I do a mean version of “Live At Jimmy’s.” Get at me.

Alex Pappademas interviewed DOC for Playboy, with a hat-tip to taterpie for the link. This interview? It’s fantastic. It’s wide-ranging and it put me up on things that I never even knew. I had an uncle who was into MC Breed as a kid, and finding out that DOC worked with him was a revelation. This is must-reading, but maybe not if you’re at work.

I liked Kiel Phegley interviewing Jim Rugg about his new project Supermag. Rugg is ferociously talented.

I liked Andrew Wheeler & Joe Hughes’s take on the Rick Remender Hobo Piss Avengers thing. It’s got an… academic approach, I guess is the best phrase to use, that I’m no good at. I don’t process this kind of conversation that way, which is why I rarely (a brief search says “never” on 4thletter! and mostly in jokes on twitter) talk about like, “white privilege” as a concept. It’s not what I’m good at, but Wheeler is, so give it a read. I also dig this more fan-oriented take.

Here’s a link to a transcript of the diversity-oriented panel I was on at ECCC, if’n you’re curious. I think the panel was pretty good, but I also think that I talked way too much. It was nice, though. The panel is continuing over here on Tumblr, if you’ve got questions/want to discuss things.

I reviewed Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon’s BPRD Vampire, which is very pretty but thin. I wrote about a scene I like a lot though. It’ll be a good book, I think, but weak first issue.

I wrote about… me? Kind of. It’s about learning to trust my taste and accepting the connections my brain draws between otherwise disparate projects. My brain’s smarter than I am. Next week’s I’m David will focus on a similar subject, but with a bulletproof twist.

I saw GI Joe Retaliation. Here’s the first trailer I found on youtube:

I still love that reaction to the North Korea joke. “Bro! What?! C’mon! I just GOT this job!”

I loved it. I’m sure people are gonna say it’s stupid or “turn off your brain” or whatever, but trust me: stay engaged, especially if you’re into the Joes. It’s a treat, and it’s exactly what a toy/comic movie should be. Is delightful a weird word to describe a movie? ’cause GI Joe was a delight on par with Fast Five or Dredd/The Raid. It’s a proper action movie, basically, with some devastatingly good jokes, shockingly solid casting (keep an eye out for dude who played Dick Casablancas in Veronica Mars, for instance), and some well put-together action scenes. A few fights were a little too blurry for my tastes, but by and large? Utterly, completely enjoyable. I saw it in Imax 3D and had a time.

Open thread. What’re you reading/watching/hearing/enjoying?

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Music, 2012: 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’

December 17th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I hated on 50 Cent for years because I was dumb enough to side with some rappers I’ve never met against him. To be fair, they made a pretty compelling case. Jay-Z’s “I’m about a dollar, what the fuck is 50 Cents?” is a pretty classic line, and Raekwon’s temper tantrum on Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele is something else. Plus, 50 was emblematic of a type of rap music that was easy to hate on, if you wanted to position yourself as “conscious” or a specific shade of underground.

As a result, I looked at 50’s successes as exceptions. “Fif is wack, but man, ‘Ayo Technology’ really goes.” “I’m not much for 50 Cent, but I really dig ‘I Get Money.'” It’s stupid, right? And unfair, probably. But past a certain point, you’ve got to sit and realize that an entire mixtape being really listenable — I spent most of NYCC 2010 listening to 50’s Forever King on repeat — isn’t an exception. That’s just now how exceptions work, so stop being stupid and start admitting you like the guy.

At some point this year, maybe a couple months ago, I put Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ onto my iPod. It hasn’t left it since. I’m continually impressed at how well the album flows from song to song, from the introduction up through “Back Down.” The stretch from “PIMP” to “Don’t Push Me” is rougher, in terms of flow, but the album ends on “Gotta Make It To Heaven,” which is nuts.

Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ has a surplus of hits. What’s great about the album is how it doesn’t just sound like a collection of radio-ready singles. 50 is going just as hard as any other hardcore New York rapper, but his swagger, charm, and cleverness keeps the songs from sounded calculatedly commercial. Call it mean mug smiley face rap, I guess, but it’s clear that 50’s having a good time.

Two songs always force the singalong: “What Up Gangsta” and “Many Men (Wish Death).” “In da Club” is tight or whatever, but it’s also pretty played out at this point. I dig it in context, but I don’t queue it up in and of itself.

But “What Up Gangsta” and “Many Men,” those I bang all the time. The former are just catchy tracks with fun hooks. “What up, blood? What up, cuz? What up, blood? What up, gangstaaaa?” and “Many men, many many many men wish death ‘pon me. Lord, I don’t cry no more, don’t look to the sky no more… have mercy on me!” There’s something pleasingly tough about the former and soulful about the former. It crawls up in your head the way good songs do. It makes something click, and I like the combination of a smiley face or old soul hook and gangster theatrics.

“Heat,” tho. “Heat” manages to have one of the coldest 50 lines and one of the corniest music videos ever. I love this construction:

Look nigga, don’t think you safe ’cause you moved out the hood
’cause ya mama still around dog, and that ain’t good
If you was smart you’d be shook of me
’cause I’ll get tired of lookin for ya
Spray ya mama’s crib, and let ya ass look for me

I can’t even really tell you why, outside of my deep and abiding appreciation for threats. But it’s his delivery, his swagger, that really sells it.

On the other hand, though, here’s the video:

Man. Son’s video looks like a Kingpin: Life of Crime ripoff. They must’ve cut this video in Hypercard or something.

What it comes down to, though, the reason why I have finally admitted to myself that I like Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ and 50 Cent in general so much, almost ten years after his album dropped, is that I finally understand that dude is just a consummate entertainer, through and through. I don’t like his more recent tunes, but you listen to this album or “Ayo Technology” and you can see how 50 managed to elbow his way into being the hardcore thug/R&B feature kingpin of his day.

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Lyricist Lounge: “It is the thickest blood on this planet.”

November 16th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I walked into a record store the other week after doing some apartment hunting. I was feeling good, the kind of good I haven’t felt in weeks. I felt like I was getting things done.

I hit the rap section and the first thing I saw, the very first record, made me stop in my tracks. It was sitting there in the used vinyl section, right at the front. I honestly couldn’t believe it, but there it was: Lyricist Lounge Volume 1. Four discs of some of the most important music I’ve ever heard. Twenty dollars.

I bought it. Even if I’d been broke at the time, I’d have bought it. I saw it and realized that I couldn’t live without it.

I still remember the day I first discovered Lyricist Lounge Volume 1. Not the specific day — it was the summer, it was boring, and that’s all I got — but the day is what I remember. That moment in time. I was at the Mall of Georgia with my aunt, my cousin, and my cousin’s friend. It was a warm summer day in 1998. My aunt went off somewhere to do grown-up things like shop at JC Penny and buy towels or whatever, and us teenagers had the run of the mall. It took me about twenty minutes to realize that shopping with two teenaged girls in a gigantic mall is secretly like being on an exclusive level of hell, but I stuck it out for the whole six hours, in part because I had no choice. I was too young to have my license, and that meant I was trapped. They weren’t trapped in there with me. I was trapped in there with them.

A couple hours in, we wandered into a music store. Maybe an FYE, but probably something else that has since gone out of business. I had a little money in my pocket — we used to clean houses with my aunt and she would pay us in small faces at first and eventually big face twenties — and I had to do something to drown out the trauma. I poked around and found a tape for cheap. A double-tap set, actually. It was Lyricist Lounge Volume 1.

I loved rap before I heard Lyricist Lounge, but after I heard that tape, that loved turned into something else. I went from a passive and “oh that sounds good, who is this? I like this” listener to an active one. I started paying attention and I started demanding more, two things that have served me well in life.

The thing about Lyricist Lounge Volume 1 is that it was my introduction to underground rap. I wouldn’t become a backpacker for another couple of years, but this set me down that path. At that point in time, underground rap was as much a reaction to mainstream rap as it was an attempt to reclaim past glories and invent new ones. All these gangsta rappers, these jiggy dudes, were fakers. They weren’t about that life. They’re actors. The underground is where the real raw is. If you want true rap, you had to head underground.

This probably sounds familiar to you. It happens in comics, too, and probably your favorite genre of music.

Underground rap was new to me at the time, and I was caught flat-footed by how lyrical these guys were. Don’t get me wrong, either. Jay-Z is nice, and has been nice for years. He knows his way around a similar and he can murder a metaphor. But like… this was a whole other level. It was like opening your front door and seeing your neighborhood different. Everything is thrown into high definition and you see details you never noticed before.

Lyricist Lounge is a paradigm shift. At the time, it was just a dope, funny album with weird skits. With the benefit of hindsight, though, I can see that it shattered what I knew about not just rap, but communication. It showed me a new way to use words. I learned, even though all I wanted was something that sounded cool so I wouldn’t have to answer whether I wanted to go to Claire’s or Spencer’s next.

This album was my introduction to the Indelible MCs, a crew composed of Queen Heroin, J-Treds, Breeze Brewin, and El-P and Bigg Jus of Company Flow.

Queen Heroin:

Flows aquatic like fishes’ surroundings
Underground and it’s pounding, like pregnancy
with the expectancy of three times three


I can be a bit demanding, accepting nothing less than the best
I don’t just flip shit. Anyone can, kid, I stick the landing
And stand out amongst most, so don’t stress
Trying to touch us? You can’t come close like phone sex


Background posers fiend for limelight exposure
When we rally back and touch the microphone playtime is over
Who’s trying to see the CF graf crew that visualize top to bottom
and stand out in New York like an LA gang tag do?


You talking about “Respect mines,” steady missing your layups?
Hoes to foes, I start staring, wild truculent
Heart-tearing style, fuck you then, order your demise


Prophets turned skeptics, skeptics found Jesus
Right-wingers turned leftist, everybody jumped on the dick of independence
Sorry, we don’t want you any more.
Get lost, kid, find the exit!
But is it live, you fucking suckers?

It’s the words plus the music plus the confidence that unlocked something in me. And not just this song, either. It’s the whole album. The thing about this type of rap is that you’re expected to keep up whether you understand what the lines mean at all. Breeze ends his verse with “Listen, you’ll hear voices like ‘Damn, that’s a sucker’/Paranoid, looking like Fuzzy Zoeller at the Rucker.” I didn’t have the internet as a kid, so Fuzzy Zoeller was as opaque to me as whatever the Rucker was. But I got it. I didn’t need to know the specifics to get the line. All I needed to know that it sounded great and that it’d make sense in time. “Be like water.”

It’s about magic tricks, basically. That’s what made me turn a corner in how I listened to rap and how I used words. School essays were nonsense. Five paragraph structure: introduction, thesis, content, conclusion. They were stiff and confining. I phoned them in when I had to write them and I skimmed them when I had to read them.

But raps? Raps demand close attention. “We’re bringing rap back like Wu did Wallabee Clarks” is nonsense at first glance, but once you learn about Ghostface making Wallabees some of the illest shoes ever, you get it. Literally: Ghostface made Wallys cool like Cipher Complete is about to make rap worthwhile again. Metatextually: Wallos were tired and busted before Ghost got to them, and then he hit them with that dye like boom, and check it: they’re cooler than glaciers of ice now. Rap is old and busted, behold to corporate interests, but Cipher Complete’s about to bring it back through the strength of sheer spitting.

The best rap punchlines work on several levels, no matter how dumb it is. When Jeezy’s talking about “my passenger’s a redbone, her weave look like some curly fries,” you’ve got color-based play and some incredibly evocative descriptions. You know exactly what this chick’s weave looks like. It’s like chicken & broccoli Timbs.

Clarity through obscurity.

It’s like jargon. There’s in and there’s out. If you’re in, you can listen and enjoy it. If you’re out, you’ve gotta consult white devil sophistry like RapGenius (shoulda stuck with OHHLA). Even the most basic of slang is segregated along regional lines. Everybody gets their own thing. You might want to cut or smash or drill (Black & Decker!) when you meet a pretty girl, and none of them have to do with hurting somebody else. You can shoot the fair one or scrap. Some people might squab, and the soft hearted might get their face rocked. Your girl can be your shorty or earth or ma or wiz or bird. Corner boys, d-boys, dope boys, and trap stars might hit you with the chopper or the ‘K or the nina or the ratchet or the roscoe if you’re not careful. Knahmean, yadadamean, knahmsaying, you feel me, g/gangsta/god? You can rock ice grills and mean mugs without ever seeing diamonds or coffee. Some people speak with criminal slang, and they’ll never stop speaking it.

The obscurity lets you own your words. No one can listen in and peep game unless they’re already in the know, and that in and of itself makes people want to pay attention to you. It’s yours and they want it. So they’ll do that work and figure it out, and that means you’ve won. You spun that web. You set up that trick. You made them come to you.

It’s not gibberish. It was never gibberish. You can’t treat it like gibberish and expect to ever actually understand it.

It’s a new way of thinking.

It was Lyricist Lounge first. That put me on game. I had a bunch of names to look out for now, so when Soundbombing 2 came out, I was right there. And Soundbombing 2, after the intros, starts with Eminem’s “Any Man,” a song I still know by heart. Em, at his nicest, is one of the nicest ever, and he goes off on that song.

It sets the stage for the album, because every song features somebody going off in a different way. It’s mind-expanding. “B-Boy Document ’99,” by the High & Mighty featuring Mos Def and Mad Skillz, is nuts. “1-9-9-9” by Common and Sadat X, is nuts. “Cross Town Beef,” “Next Universe,” that interlude with Tash and Dilated Peoples, and don’t even get me started on “Stanley Kubrick” (Stanley Kubrick, Stanley Kubrick…) and “Patriotism.”

A couple songs off Soundbombing 2 were too weird for me at first. I couldn’t make heads or tails of Pharaohe Monch’s “Mayor” because he had a weird flow and the song was awkward and weird. “7XL” was just aight, even if I kinda sorta knew about Brand Nubian at the time. I just didn’t get it, basically. I wasn’t on that level yet.

But the older I got, the more things changed, and now “Mayor” is one of my favorite songs. Pharoahe has some of the most amazing breath control in rap, despite his asthma, and “Mayor” is transcendant. The storytelling, the flow, the chorus, that beat, all of it is so real. Monch paints a perfect picture and gets across the stress and horror of the situation extremely well. “Peripheral vision now, doorknob shifting… optical illusion from all the coke that I’m sniffing.” dzed waggling my leg imagining i’m not afraid

But my jam is always going to be Company Flow’s “Patriotism.” I hadn’t heard Funcrusher Plus yet — good luck finding that stuff in Smalltown, GA — but I knew I liked those CoFlow cats from Lyricist Lounge. And “Patriotism” is like a blast of hate. It’s political, in the “a pox on both your houses” sense, but it’s so much more than that. The beat is dirty, dusty, digital ish, full of creeping menace, and DJ Mr Len the Space Ghost’s cuts make it sound even filthier.

The entire song is just El-Producto blacking out like so:

I’m the ugliest version of passed down toxic capitalist
rapid emcee perversion — I’m America!
Your bleeding-heart liberal drivel gets squashed
Wash em with sterilized rhyme patriot-guided weaponry bomb
from the makers of the devious hearts — I’m America!
You bitchy little dogs don’t even phase my basic policy
The bomb’s smarter, my Ronald Reagans crush Carter
With Bay of Pig tactics makin young men into martyrs

It’s coded, but the code is content, too. He’s saying things, layering words on top of words, but it gives the song an oppressive feel. You’ve gotta sprint to keep up. Who will survive in America? “Patriotism” has the answer.

It was a one-two punch for me. After Soundbombing 2, I was lost. The allure of coded language was too much, and I got big into this stuff. The homey Darryl Ayo was talking about Jadakiss freestyles on tumblr the other day, and how rappers are proof positive that writers’ block is only as real as you think it is. Rappers write and write and write and they’re always on, year after year. They produce an insane amount of content. I want to be able to do that.

All of my favorite writers, the most important inspirations for my craft, are rappers. Nas: being able to paint a photorealistic picture with just a few short lines. CoFlow: understanding that sometimes absurdity and opacity can make things crystal clear. OutKast: never, ever resting on your laurels and always pushing the envelope. Scarface: being real. UGK: being country. Jay-Z: confidence. Canibus: knowing how to stack wordplay on wordplay and come up with something ill. Lauryn Hill: carving out your own place and saying damn the consequences. Eminem: bending language to your will. Mos Def: talking about something bigger than yourself. Jadakiss: crucial punchlines. Method Man & Redman: the importance of having fun while you do it to it. Ghostface Killah: creating a new style and daring people to dislike it. Big Daddy Kane: being smoother than the average. CoFlow: being independent as fox. Rakim: being better than everyone else.

These are my heroes.

It’s only obvious to me in hindsight, but I haven’t been chasing Stephen King or Fred Saberhagen or Ezra Pound or Candide or whatever other writers I was really into as a kid. I’ve been chasing these other guys.

Lyricist Lounge changed my life, and I don’t mean that in the trite way where people actually mean “Oh, I just like this a lot and it means a lot to me.” I mean that buying those cassettes that said Lyricist Lounge down the side actually, literally, legitimately changed my life. It changed how I think and though it took a while to show, it changed how I write. I never struggled with writing, exactly, but I definitely felt more comfortable with it once I started trying to lace the phrases with magic tricks, even if every paragraph needed a translation attached to it. Make people keep up, but still keep it simple. That felt right.

Rap’s in my blood. It’s in how I approach conflict — “Be a man, say my name if you’re talking to me/ You ain’t said it? Well, I guess you ain’t talking to me” — and how I think. I love turns of phrase and dumb puns and stories and rap has all of that, and rap does it better than most everything else. I don’t think I’m that great of a dancer, and it’s probably because I grew up listening to songs that made you want throw bows or two-step rather than get down on the floor on the floor. “See, me and my niggas don’t dance, we just pull up our pants and do the rockaway… now lean back.”

Variations on a theme, off the top of my head:

Method Man, 1995: “I call my brother son ’cause he shine like one.”
Big Pun, 1998: “Been sonning niggas so long I think I got a grandson.”
Sauce Money, 1999: “Hammers fly, might miss you, but your man’ll die/ What’s the difference? Either way I’m sonning your crew.”
Talib Kweli, 1999: “I told him to slow down, he said the sun don’t chill.”
Angel Haze, 2012: “Naw, I run shit. I’m Ra, I son shit.”

There’s so many ways you can use the word son. It’s such a small word, but you can load it down with meaning.

I’ve been listening to Lyricist Lounge and Soundbombing 2 near-constantly since I picked up that album. It’s been a weird trip down memory lane, but it’s like tumblers falling into place. The act of listening, of living in these albums, has been revealing things I already knew to myself. I get it. I understand it. Just the fact that I own such a big album feels good to me.

Rap is a source of infinite inspiration for me. I went through that phase when underground rap was the only real rap, but now I realize that all rap is real. I get down with Kitty Pryde, 8Ball & MJG, the Dungeon Fam, Black Hippy, Rakim, Angel Haze, Azealia Banks, XV, Esso, Kilo Ali, and Kilo Kish. It’s whatever, man. If you’re coming with hard punchlines and speakerboxxx music, I’m there. If it’s murda muzik, I’m there. If it’s laid back music to smoke a blunt to, I’m there. If it’s goofball rap, I’m there. If it’s Jim Jones over an indie rock or dance band, I’m definitely there. If it sounds like the soundtrack to a black black mass, I’m there.

I don’t like everything, but I love it all. I love that it exists. I want it all. I want to be as prolific and diverse and amazing as my heroes. I’m trying to be That Dude, not just that dude. I want Pun’s punchlines, Vast Aire’s metaphors, Nas’s grace, El-P’s off-kilter ferocity, Killer Mike’s knowledge, The Clipse’s contempt, and Jadakiss’s steez. Bone Thugs’s style, Fabolous’s track record with punchlines. OutKast’s creativity, Goodie MOb’s sense of place and self. 50’s swagger, Weezy’s charisma. Even Drake knows how to build a situation with perfect clarity. “And promoters try to get me out to their clubs/ and say I’ll have fun, but I can’t imagine how/ ’cause I just seen my ex girl standing with my next girl/ Standing with the girl that I’m fucking right now.”

I want to do it all.

I tried rapping, back in high school. I wasn’t good at it. I can be spontaneous, but rap requires spontaneity within a structure. I can’t freestyle, but I could write. Me and my friends would kick raps over pause tapes full of homemade instrumentals. We’d load mp3s into our lackluster computers and create instrumentals out of hot singles, assuming there was enough of an outro for it. But what I wrote was a pale imitation of the people I liked. It wasn’t mine. I was trying to be them, instead of trying to be me, who had been influenced by them.

Evidence said that “emcees without a voice should write a book.” Aesop Rock said “That means when I wake up and decide to comprise the new shit/ It’s not some watered down version of what my favorite crews did.”

So I quit rapping after I graduated and focused on writing. You have to destroy to build, and you have to build to destroy.

I found my voice. I figured out how to move the crowd.

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A Brief History of Hip-Hop, Part 2 of 2

June 3rd, 2012 Posted by david brothers

This article about the history of rap, and Nathan Rabin’s relationship to it, at the Onion AV Club is reductive and sort of laughable. Check it out for some more context. Or don’t. No biggie. But Rabin’s point is that as he grew older, rap stayed the same, and eventually chased him out of the genre.

That is the exact opposite of my experience with hip-hop. For me, rap has been an explosion of infinite possibility. Every year brings me some new obsession or style, and even when I revisit older albums, I find the foundations for modern albums or idiosyncratic outcroppings that were never followed up on. I can’t imagine becoming bored of rap, or thinking that rap devolved, because rap, for me, is in a state of constant and rapid-fire evolution.

I thought about doing a serious rebuttal to Rabin’s piece, personal though it is, because I disagree with so much of it. Half a second after having that thought, I got super bored with the idea. Instead, here’s a few of my rap memories. My memory’s not great, but music is one of those things that sticks with me. I want to try to illustrate rap’s infinite potential, my indelible love for the genre, and how I can chart my growth by way of rap history. For the record, and to provide a bit of context, I was born in 1983 and grew up (for all intents and purposes, if not literally) in Georgia. (Maybe this is a dumb idea, but I did it and you’re about to read it. Love to love to love ya, love ya, love ya!)

2002: There was one album that caused a seismic shift in my listening this year. It was The Clipse’s Lord Willin. Specifically this song:

All you gotta do is pound out this beat on a table to get my head nodding, and it’ll keep nodding for a week. I was working at Burger King on base when it dropped, and we’d bang it on the radio, on CD, and on the metal tables we used to make those stupid sandwiches on. We couldn’t even do that high pitched “grind-ing!” but we still gave it the old college try. It was the perfect antidote to all those Harlem shaking New York rappers who were still talking jiggy, and is still basically the gutterest rap song ever. Magic happens when you put the coke dealers with the skateboarders, I guess.

2003: 2003 is definitely defined by OutKast. Stankonia was great, but Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was something else. They dropped a combo funk and R&B album, and it somehow worked. And there was this, of course:

I think in a lot of ways, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is an actual endpoint for rap music. Rap has always been about reinventing and reinvigorating the past. The entire history of black music is enclosed within rap music, from the blues to James Brown, and this double album is what happens when those influences are not just foregrounded, but made the point of the album. Speakerboxxx goes from funk to electro to soul to crunk and back around again, while Andre gets his Prince and his Michael Jackson on in The Love Below There’s a really good essay lurking around somewhere on that subject, but from “Ghettomusick” to “Hey Ya!,” it’s hard to think of an album from 2003 that was harder than this. It’s such an amazing album, man. It felt new.

2004: Goodie MOb officially fell off in 2004, and that was unbelievably depressing, but a lot of people really stepped up to fill that gap for me. dead prez’s Revolutionary But Gangsta worked that black nationalist niche I love so much, but Jadakiss’s “Why” not only re-introduced me to Anthony Hamilton (also present on Heltah Skeltah’s Magnum Force!) but was the hands-down best political rap song that year.

Two of my favorite artists really arrived in 2004. TI and Kanye West both had killer years, which ended up being just foundations for even better albums a couple years down the line. TI’s Urban Legend had “Bring Em Out,” “ASAP,” and “U Don’t Know Me,” which I stayed putting on mixtapes. It was a comeback album, kinda, since he’d already started his habit of getting locked up between albums, and it was crazy ill. TI’s not lyrical, but he’s a skinny dude with heart, and it shows. His voice is way bigger than you’d expect, and there’s something seriously charming about dude. Put him on a DJ Toomp beat and he shows up with a fire that just can’t be matched. His trademark shout/growl “Yyyyyyyyeah!” is one of the hypest things in rap, second only to Jeezy’s “ha-haaaaaaa!” and Nore’s “WHAT!” in terms of being an iconic ad-lib. And it turns out if you put dude on a Swizz Beatz track, like on “Bring ‘Em Out,” things get even more hype.

Kanye blessed us with The College Dropout, which had a bunch of bangers, but was just a warm-up for his incredible and nigh-perfect Late Registration in 2005.

2005: I rediscovered Saul Williams in 2005, after a brief dalliance in 2000 or 2001. I loved “Coded Language” back then, so I was really pleased to find that his Saul Williams album hit just as hard. It’s an album that feels like conscious pop music, a revolution that you can dance to. I threw “Telegram,” “List of Demands,” and “Black Stacey” onto every mixtape I made that year, and “African Student Movement” still really goes.

2006: I discovered Khaled in 2006. Rather, I was introduced to Khaled by a friend when I stayed over and was forced to watch the video for “Holla At Me”. I wasn’t really checking for mainstream rap at this point, content to sorta mope in the corner on my own, so Khaled’s “Holla At Me” was stunning. For one thing, Paul Wall was back after “Sittin Sideways,” and he still had the internet goin’ nuts. The biggest surprise, though, was that Lil Wayne had transformed from the kid who hung around with Cash Money into a real spitter. He had an ill flow, and I totally didn’t expect that transition. Fat Joe came through with a solid verse, too.

“Holla At Me” was my intro to Rick Ross and Pitbull. I definitely hadn’t heard “Hustlin'” by this point, and I remember thinking that big goon was just aight. I liked that low, menacing flow he had, but he wasn’t really spitting anything interesting, and son had way too many punch-ins. Pitbull was excited, but… incoherent? He showed up and I tuned out.

2007: Andre 3000 ran my 2007. There’s not even a question here. He had at least five guest appearances that were worth five mics on their own. He completely outshined every single rapper on Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” remix, including a Jim Jones at the top of his game. I liked Andre as a rapper, but I didn’t realize that he was the type of rapper that could chew up other emcees and spit them out with little to no effort.

And then there was “Walk It Out,” Unk’s hit joint. Andre went first on this track, too, and Unk is lucky that Big Boi and Jim Jones were on this song. Otherwise, he would’ve been renegaded to death. Unk is wack, basically, and Andre leads off a verse that’s just tangentially related to the song and is ill as anything ever was. Capo gets it in, and Big Boi does too, but they just can’t compete with Andre.

Or “International Players Anthem,” the UGK song. Or Devin the Dude’s “What A Job.” Or “You,” Lloyd’s single. That verse on “You” is insane, real talk wrapped in an awesome verse about love. 2007 was the year Andre left rap at the top of the game, and he did it like it was nothing.

2008: I was positively obsessed with “Birthday Girl” by The Roots, and “75 Bars,” throughout 2008. But if I really had to pin down one memory from 2008… it would be Killer Mike saying “But allow me to weigh in on a couple of issues right now. Allow Killa Kill to say my part right now, homey. First and foremost, I wanna say: niggas, stop making fucking Obama songs if you can’t get in an interview and sound halfway motherfuckin’ intelligent.” on “The Devil Is A Lie.”

But past that, it’s Royce da 5’9″‘s “Shake This.” It was an unexpected and painful song from one of my favorite rappers, and the only dude who can reliably keep up with Eminem.

It’s one of those songs you just vibe to. It’s relatable, it’s honest… it’s inspirational music, as opposed to aspirational. It’s about not screwing up ay more and getting the job done, which is something I need to be reminded of on a regular basis. For one of the dudes who really started making me pay attention lyrics to drop this song, as opposed to someone like Slug from Atmosphere who I expected to be this open, was tremendous. It reignited my love for Royce in a major way.

And “Shake This” led me to “Onslaught” (“We up in this bitch like Tranzor Z” whoa), where Royce and Joe Budden buried their light beef and ignited SLAUGHTERHOUSE, which is basically a dream come true for me in terms of talent and make-up. Like, this track “The One”? That’s my rap. Mad lyrical, mad grimey, mad sleazy. And Buddens and Ortiz going back and forth on that Lox tip is mega-ill.

2009: I got into Blu way late, but 2009 is about when I really started clicking with him. I think I grabbed a mixtape off 2dopeboyz or something, and then it was off at the races. Blu was a guy that I could personally relate to in a lot of ways, from how he keeps releasing noodly, not-quite-finished albums to his steady work ethic. He comes off as a regular guy with more creativity than he knows what to do with, so he experiments constantly. That’s why one of his albums is about 50% chiptunes and 50% raw raps.

That regular guy-ness is something I really dig. Our experiences don’t overlap too much, I don’t think — I’m from Georgia and I write, he’s from Los Angeles and he’s a musician — but I can still look at him and see a kindred spirit. There’s this lo-fi DIY aspect I really appreciate.

2010: It’s gotta be that boy Yelawolf, because of songs like this:

As an introduction to a rapper, “I Wish” is killer. Yela’s a country rapper, so his accent is real familiar, but his subject matter and flow is something else entirely. Add the driving and sparse beat to the cool chorus (I love when they mix up the chorus a little) to Yela’s verse (which is heat rocks from word one) to CyHi and Pill’s ill features. What’s the result? Something crazy, a song where all three artists go in and leave you thirsty for more.

It helps that it’s southern, of course. I’ve got a fondness for country rap, and these guys are part of the new vanguard. This is speakerbox music, and makes me wish I still owned a car. That’s one of the things I miss about back home, and I definitely make it a point to go for a drive or two solo every time I go back. “I Wish” is so aggressive in tone that I bet it knocks.

2011: I didn’t see Danny Brown coming. His flow is a combo of some of Vordul Mega’s more out-there verses and Ol Dirty’s flow, real off-kilter and shrill. Some words get squeaked, others get grunted, and no verse is the same. He’s weird, even to my ears, but he grew on me really quickly. He’s clever, which is one of my must-haves for a rapper, and he knows how to write a song.

It’s that off-kilterness that’s so attractive, I figure. I never know where his songs are going to go in terms of flow and lyrics. He opens XXX with “Colder than them grits they fed slaves” and I’m instantly interested. Over the course of the rest of the album, he does party joints, emotional joints, cold-hearted joints… he’s got a real range that I enjoy, and his metaphors are juuuust weird enough to force me to pay attention more than I do with artists I’m more familiar with.

2012: And Danny’s verse on “The Last Huzzah” is partially responsible for me running into Mr Muthafuckin’ eXquire, king of sleaze rap and the dude who dropped the single best verse of 2011 on “Two 22’s b/w Twenty-two 2’s”, which came out on Christmas Day.

I was in Los Angeles for Christmas, and made a conscious decision to stay off the internet. I only got on to see if a Jean Grae tape I’d been looking forward to had dropped and went for eXqo’s tape because it was there. I was blown away, because it’s seriously heat rocks and I didn’t know he was that ill. It made me go back and reconsider Lost in Translation, his prior mixtape, and start grabbing any little freestyles or bootlegs I could find. He’s in a lane of his own, with broad subject matter, a fantastic sense of humor, and great storytelling.

I don’t know how anyone can look at rap and say that it isn’t constantly innovating and evolving for the better. All of these are off the top of my head, pure stream of consciousness, and this wasn’t even hard. I cut other anecdotes because they had me way off-topic. Every year I find something new to fall in love with, and I find a new artist who leads me to other new artists or rediscover an old artist (like Fiend from No Limit) who’s back and hungry.

Rap will never stagnate.

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A Brief History of Hip-Hop, Part 1 of 2

June 1st, 2012 Posted by david brothers

This article about the history of rap, and Nathan Rabin’s relationship to it, at the Onion AV Club is reductive and sort of laughable. Check it out for some more context. Or don’t. No biggie. But Rabin’s point is that as he grew older, rap stayed the same, and eventually chased him out of the genre.

That is the exact opposite of my experience with hip-hop. For me, rap has been an explosion of infinite possibility. Every year brings me some new obsession or style, and even when I revisit older albums, I find the foundations for modern albums or idiosyncratic outcroppings that were never followed up on. I can’t imagine becoming bored of rap, or thinking that rap devolved, because rap, for me, is in a state of constant and rapid-fire evolution.

I thought about doing a serious rebuttal to Rabin’s piece, personal though it is, because I disagree with so much of it. Half a second after having that thought, I got super bored with the idea. Instead, here’s a few of my rap memories. My memory’s not great, but music is one of those things that sticks with me. I want to try to illustrate rap’s infinite potential, my indelible love for the genre, and how I can chart my growth by way of rap history. For the record, and to provide a bit of context, I was born in 1983 and grew up (for all intents and purposes, if not literally) in Georgia. (Maybe this is a dumb idea, but I did it and you’re about to read it. Love to love to love ya, love ya, love ya!)

Circa late ’80s: At some point, I got DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s He’s the DJ, I’m The Rapper on cassette. It was a white cassette, and I played and handled it so often that the words smudged off. I still know about half the album by heart. The only other music I remember personally owning was a Sesame Street tape that included Kermit the Frog’s “Kokomo,” I think, and Big Bird’s “ABCDEFG.” I don’t think the Sesame Street tape counts as rap, though.

1995: I probably became conscious of music as something to pay attention to a little before 1995, but my earliest specific music memories are from ’95. I’d been watching music videos, and I loved Michael Jackson, but it was just something that was there. I would sing songs with my mom — I remember really, really loving the Jackson 5’s “ABC,” and do to this day even though my voice is way too deep for that mug — I wasn’t really paying attention. Either my memory is worse than I thought, or 1995 was a serious milestone year for me. It was when I discovered the Wu-Tang Clan, too.

I came to the Wu a little late, and the T-H-O-D Man was my introduction. “All I Need” was blowing up on BET and Rap City. I knew and loved “All I Need,” and I obviously wanted to hear more. While going through my uncle’s collection, I found his copy of Tical and threw it into his stereo with the volume turned down real low. His room was right next to the living room, and I didn’t want the music to blare through the walls. Come to find out I put the CD on and not only does “All I Need” sound COMPLETELY different, but Method Man is cursing up a blue streak. This was a HUGE surprise to my ears, being a mostly innocent 12 years old.

By the end of the year, though, I was banging GZA’s Liquid Swords like it was going out of style. I’ve known the long speech from Shogun Assassin by heart since 1995, with proper inflection and pauses inserted as needed. Me and my cousin would often say it to each other while on trips in the family van. In hindsight, we were both bastards (is there a special word for girl-bastards, as opposed to boy-bastards?) so it was probably a little creepy and insensitive, but listen: that speech is incredible.

1996: ’96 is defined entirely by two acts for me: Tupac and OutKast. I’d heard both before, obviously, but Tupac ran rap that year. He was inescapable. “California Love” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” alone loom large in my memory, but once I got ahold of the full album of All Eyez On Me, it was over. I was a Tupac fan, soon to become a Tupac stan.

I still remember being in middle school and talking about Tupac’s death. We didn’t have the internet, so all we had were rumors. It was heartbreaking, like a hero had died. The next year, I remember hearing about how Faith Evans collapsed onstage at an awards show when she heard Tupac died, but how she didn’t do anything when Biggie died. It’s a lie, obviously, but it sounded true, no matter how bad it made Faith look. Makaveli is still an amazing album, but back then, it was legendary. A blast of hate and skill, the last gasp of a hero on his way out the door.

OutKast, of course, is OutKast. Do I even have to explain the appeal? They were from Georgia, they were weird, and every single song on ATLiens goes. “Elevators” is the biggest joint on that album, and I swear everyone I knew knew it by heart.

The Fugees were definitely a close second, almost entirely because of Lauryn Hill. The Score was the one rap album that me and my mom could listen to together. She liked the singing, I liked the rhymes and beats, and I don’t remember how we reacted to that awful skit in the Chinese restaurant. It’s sort of funny in hindsight how this was my introduction to Rah Digga, Young Zee, and Pacewon of the Outsidaz, who I got into in a major way years later.

1997: The weirdest thing about 1997 is how Master P arrived out of nowhere, at least back home in Georgia, and made his name off the back of Tupac’s death. Or so I thought at the time. His song “I Miss My Homies” felt like a Tupac tribute to me, but it turns out it was about Master P’s brother. I was salty at the time, but by the time “Make Em Say Uhh!” (na na na na) hit, I was all-in as far as No Limit went. They were undeniable, and while I’d rather not listen to Silkk the Shocker these days… I listened to a lot of Silkk the Shocker back then.

I got Wu-Tang Forever in ’97 and hated most of it. It was weird, it wasn’t the Wu I was used to, and it took about ten years before I really appreciated it for what it was. I liked a few songs — “Dog Shit,” for some reason, and “Hell’z Wind Staff” in particular — but on the whole, I didn’t really bang this album that much. It didn’t help that I couldn’t listen to half the album around my mom.

Busta Rhymes hit for me in ’97, too. It was entirely “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.” The video was nuts, the beat was incredible, and Busta’s style was this weirdly comedic slash satanic style, with a hard dose of the Shogun of Harlem. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile the Busta I grew up on with the modern Busta, but it is what it is.

1998: I bought my first CD this year. It was Heltah Skeltah’s Magnum Force. I knew of the Boot Camp Clik because my uncle was into that grimey New York rap, and they had an ill logo, so I went for it. It’s still a great album, totally worth banging if you haven’t heard it. It even has good skits, which is rare for a rap album. Method Man’s feature on “Gunz’n’Onez” is one of the top 5 Meth verses ever, and the video for “I Ain’t Havin That” is great. I talked my mom into buying OutKast’s Aquemini, too, which is probably still my favorite Kast record.

I was in Virginia for the last half of the decade, and that meant that I had to know every Timbaland or Timbaland-adjacent song out there. He was from Norfolk, I lived in Hampton, and that was it. Timbaland & Magoo, Missy Elliot, his guest spots on Aaliyah songs… all of it banged. Up jumps da boogie. He was as inescapable as Jay-Z, and I feel like that was just a regional thing, because it seems like he didn’t really blow up until “Big Pimpin” dropped. Remember “Here We Come”? The Buddha Brothers and whoever else it was who ran the mix at the rap station used to play this joint out on the radio in Hampton.

1999: I met this guy at my afterschool job. I can’t remember his name now — Carl, Kevin, something — but he was a white dude who put me up on game. He was really into UndergroundHipHop.com, which had all types of RealMedia files for the downloading of artists I’d never heard of before. I got into Eminem right before the Slim Shady LP dropped via falling in love with him and Royce da 5’9″ as Bad Meets Evil. My friend thought that Eminem sold out with the Slim Shady LP, which is totally a backpacker thing, even if I didn’t know that term back then.

Through UGHH I discovered Company Flow, which was honestly life-changing, which led to Rawkus, which led to Soundbombing volumes one and two, Lyricist Lounge, Last Emperor, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. That put me onto Black Star’s album from ’98, and by this point, I was well on my way toward hating on music I’d liked previously (peace out Jay and Juvie, what’s happenin’ Canibus and The Porn Theater Ushers and The High & Mighty) and turning into a real deal backpacker.

2000: I moved to Spain in 2000, which derailed music for me. I was still backpackin’ it — especially that Jurassic 5 Quality Control — but I was also probably pretty homesick, which had me banging UGK, 8ball & MJG, and OutKast like it was going out of style. Space Age 4 Eva >>>>>> everything.

Ludacris hit like an atom bomb before I left the US. “What’s Your Fantasy” was crazy, the sort of song that boys and girls would sing at each other, instead of with. Luda had this funny, charming, and still hard style that appealed to basically everybody. It was like if De La Soul and DMX had managed to merge their styles. And don’t even get me started on “Southern Hospitality”. Rap was invented for those kinds of songs. (Watching the video now, I realize that Scarface and Too $hort were in there, which is tight.)

I think I could handwave away digging Luda and being a backpacker because Luda could spit. He was super lyrical in a way a lot of rappers like DMX and Jay-Z weren’t. But he didn’t Canibus it up and only rap about rapping. He took that lyrical-ness and bent it toward some real country rap. The freestyles on those early Luda albums with 4-Ize are super ill.

I actually made one of my best friends in high school because of the Jurassic 5. I had the album, his parents wouldn’t let him have it, and he wouldn’t stop bugging me about it. I eventually relented, found out he was backpacking it up, too, and we bonded. We even had a little rap group for a while.

2001: Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. I could mention other albums, but I was definitely a def jukie, and this is the only album that actually matters from 2001. Sorry if you liked anything else. You could maybe make a case for The Blueprint, but no. Cold Vein. It was the album I listened to on repeat for days at a time. It was the album with flows I struggled to memorize and then decode. It was the album that had me wishing OHHLA had actual experts transcribing lyrics, instead of fans.

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On Kanye, Regular Dudes, and Douchebags

February 21st, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I asked Twitter what their favorite song on Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the other day. I got a lot of answers, most of ’em good, but the one that caught me the most was from my friend EC. She said this:

Runaway. At the end of the day, when Kanye feels like a douchebag, he needs a hug from Donda, but she’s gone. 🙁

A close second, and I mean painfully close, was this from Ray:

AllOfTheLights. Peak of his maximalism, sonically. But ponders depths of being minmal in life. Take together w/Power which is flip

These two comments unlocked something in my head. It’s dangerous to try to psychoanalyze somebody through their music, but Kanye paints a really interesting picture. He’s a regular dude with new money pretensions. Success is a goal in and of itself, and I think that goes a long way toward explaining why his sound is so different on each of his albums.

Kanye’s the picture of the regular dude who is good at something but feel he isn’t recognized enough for that fact. It’s not arrogance or egomania so much as having the confidence you need to make it. It’s about not getting what you’re due, whether or not anybody else agrees. I bet most creative people, whether they’re gainfully employed or just scribble erotic fanfiction in their dorm rooms when their roomie isn’t around, feel the same. If you don’t feel like you’re any good, then nobody else will, either.

At the heart of that creative drive is a sense of inferiority. What if you aren’t as good as you think you are, what if people hate you, or what if you are that good, but no one notices. And Kanye thinks he’s very good. So good, in fact, that he’ll drop an album like 808s and Heartbreak, which I thought was punishingly average, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a thirteen track album with six songs that approach or beat six minutes. That’s confidence, to me, because Kanye could’ve just made a bunch of College Dropouts and seen plenty of success instead. So I’d be willing to put cash money toward the idea that Kanye’s sense of inferiority is tremendous. He’s got to out-do himself every single time.

EC and Ray hit on what that regular dude style is so attractive, though. “Runaway” humanizes a champion when you realize what the song’s about. And Ray’s point about “All of the Lights” being the peak of his maximalism but being about mundane things is the perfect complement to that. It elevates the common man to where we think Kanye is, that point where life is majestic and exciting.

It’s such a subtle, unconscious thing, but it clicks so hard with me. My favorite Kanye song, or at least one of them, is “Mama’s Boyfriend,” which he has yet to officially release, and probably won’t since some scrub bootlegged it and threw a beat on top of it. It’s about growing up with a single mom and watching how men treat her, and then growing up to do the same thing to women even though he swore he’d do better. “I never liked you niggas,” goes the chorus, “who knew one day I’d be just like you niggas?” It’s about trying to protect your mother and then becoming the man you used to hate. There’s too much there for me to grab onto.

It’s kind of a sad song, in a way. It’s about cycles and inevitability and growing up black and poor with just your mom. It’s about a lot of things. I do like how it’s plain that it’s the man at fault in both instances, though. The kid is bitter and suspicious of newcomers to his family. The man loves a lady and wants his kid to like, or at least tolerate, him. The mother is immaculate in both verses.

I like that a lot. There’s a depth to Kanye that I feel like a lot of people miss because they don’t look past “I’ma let you finish” and “George W Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He knows about being the man of the house at a young age, heartbreak, confidence, perseverance, making the same mistakes over and over, and being a douchebag.

I forget what I said my favorite song off that album is. It’s changed by this point anyway. At the moment though, just after midnight on 03/21, it’s the 9-minute version of “Runaway.” No, wait–it’s that version of “Runaway” that he played on SNL, with the clusterbomb of live samples, painful snares, and Pusha mixed way too low for the track.

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