September 1, 2015

For The Max-Approved Mixtape: Group Home - "Serious Rap Shit"

Artist: Group Home featuring Guru and Big Shug
Title: "Serious Rap Shit"
Producer: Guru
Album: Livin' Proof (1995)

There has been enough virtual ink spilled writing about the New York rap duo Group Home.  Most of those articles and Twitter comments quickly veer into "Group Home is terrible" territory.  Honestly, that kind of talk isn't unwarranted: here we have a situation where two well-below-average rhyme spitters lucked into a working relationship with one of the finest producers our chosen genre has crafted (DJ Premier), and the end result was a debut album (Livin' Proof) that sounds much better than it has any right to.   The weak-ass lyrics are seemingly washed away in a sea of forgiveness that doubles as what makes up the best boom-bap Primo has ever managed to come up with outside of his own group, Gang Starr.  (Jeru The Damaja fans will probably balk at that statement, but it is what it is.)  

But here's the thing: Group Home is not made up of two below-average rappers.  Lil' Dap is actually pretty decent, his smarmy, streetwise flow merely elevated by the backing beats.  Melachi the Nutcracker, now that guy sucked: his excitable demeanor is that of a chihuahua frightened by his own shadow, a chihuahua who is awful at writing rhymes.  Why did he get the chance to spit weak-ass fire over pounding Primo production?  Right place at the right time, mostly.  The planets had long since shifted out of alignment once Group Home dropped their sophomore album, A Tear For The Ghetto, that featured one measly Primo beat, and people rightly stopped giving a shit about the team, but Livin' Proof stands as, um, living proof that the music has to be good in order for anyone to pay attention to the rhymes.
However, what most of those articles fails to mention is that DJ Premier did not produce every song on Livin' Proof.  The subject of today's post, "Serious Rap Shit", was actually handled by Primo's late Gang Starr partner Guru, who also spits the first verse.  The video above only features the song itself, but the actual album track includes an introduction with some obvious Primo board work: once that quickly cuts to Guru's own brand of boom-bap, the energy of the track (and the album as a whole) spikes, with a cavalcade of sounds mashed together that would sound corny on their own (is that the sound of lasers firing down upon mankind?), but come across as somewhat sinister on "Serious Rap Shit".  

Guru's verse is pretty good, if much simpler than anything present on the best Gang Starr tracks: it's kind of like he intentionally dumbed himself down in order to hang with his younger charges ("Yo, the G-U-R-U of the Gang can always hang", he says at one point without a trace of irony).  But, again, he still sounds good, as though he takes "this rap shit serious", as Lil' Dap recites during the hook.  Dap is, unfortunately, stuck exclusively with hook duty, leaving Melachi room to expand his verbal horizon, and, unsurprisingly, he isn't great.  But "Serious Rap Shit" is yet another example of the music helping to course-correct the bars.  Gang Starr Foundation affiliate Big Shug closes things out "bounc[ing MC's] off walls, like superballs" and actually turns in the best performance, meeting that sweet spot between aggression and clever writing: the only way this song could have ended better is if Bumpy Knuckles suddenly arrived on the scene for no reason.

I realize that last paragraph makes it seem like I'm trashing "Serious Rap Shit", but here's the thing: I actually love this track now.  My earlier, sparsely-written review makes it seem like I didn't care for it at the time, but I actually like a lot of Livin' Proof now for the same reasons everyone else kind of digs it: back then, DJ Premier could do no wrong.  So why go with the one song Guru produced?  "Serious Rap Shit" isn't better than the best songs on Livin' Proof (such as the title track, "Tha Realness", or, my personal favorite, "Suspended In Time"), but, well, it's actually underrated as fuck: Guru, Shug, and, yeah, even Melachi all rip it to shreds like the posse cut it claims to be, and Guru's instrumental is kind of dope in its essence.  Yes, it doesn't sound like DJ Premier: yes, Primo probably wasn't even on the fucking planet when Guru created the beat.  But none of that matters if the music works, and I'm happy to say that this song only gets better as it ages.  So maybe Group Home wasn't made up if the best rappers in the world: at least they can say that they took the art form as seriously as they were allowed.

Do you agree or disagree with this selection?  Discuss below.


Group Home - Livin' Proof (review)

August 28, 2015

For The Max-Approved Mixtape: Consequence - "Grammy Family"

Artist: Consequence featuring Kanye West and John Legend
Title: "Grammy Family"
Producer: Kanye West and Jon Brion
Album: Don't Quit Your Day Job! (2007)

Consequence is a dude whose career I've inadvertently followed more by default than anything resembling interest.  He kicked things off by appearing on a bunch of songs from the group that his cousin Q-Tip founded, A Tribe Called Quest (my second-favorite rap group of all time, mind you), and somehow parlayed that into a solo career that intrigued future hip hop titan Kanye West enough to offer him a spot within his G.O.O.D. Music family, which, back then, featured the likes of John Legend, GLC, and maybe KiD CuDi, I'm not sure about the exact timeline.  After a series of mixtapes, a properly-released solo album emerged, called Don't Quit Your Day Job! as a way to connect the thread between Consequence and Kanye West (whose debut album was called The College Dropout, but if you're reading this sentence, you already knew that and it's obvious that I'm just trying to boost my word count, so, how's your day been so far?  Any exciting plans for Labor Day weekend?).

Don't Quit Your Day Job! is a concept album starring Consequence as a kid who has big dreams but not much in the way of a gateway.  He spends most of the album dealing with the discouragement he receives from both his employer and his fucking family, which makes for a depressing-enough listen.  Within the context of the album, "Grammy Family", a standout track in the guy's entire goddamn career, is presented as a dream sequence, one where our host finally has enough success to be considered a part of the upper echelon that houses guest stars Kanye West (who also produced, alongside Jon Brion, which is why this track sounds so polished, like a Late Registration leftover) and John Legend-Teigen.  This is important to note, because "Grammy Family" appeared on DJ Khaled's Listennn... The Album first and had no such narrative baggage to carry up three flights of stairs.

The beat to "Grammy Family" is a fucking banger, soulful and triumphant all at once.  Legend delivers a simplistic hook that eventually morphs into actual words, while 'Ye and Consequence handle the verses.  Yeezy easily steals the show from his young upstart by (a) actually being an artist that has won a Grammy (Legend's won as well, which means Cons is surely sitting around in a dark bedroom waiting for what he believes is rightfully his), and (b) simply having a more interesting verse.  He boosts himself and the G.O.O.D. Music family right from the get-go, drops more than a few punchlines ("Even I hate us", he mentions at one point), and dips into a minor bit of unnecessary homophobia toward the end that I'm certain he wouldn't even bother with today, it's so inconsequential and pointless.  

Consequence does an entertaining job, to be sure, but "Grammy Family" may as well be 'Ye's to lose.  He probably thought he was doing his young charge a favor by gifting him the track, but in reality, he created a stark contrast between this song and everything else on Don't Quit Your Day Job!, which, for the most part, sounds like wasted potential (with a few bright spots, sure).  Cons probably wasn't too thrilled with the overall response to the album, and he quickly picked a fight with his boss and left the clique entirely.  Kanye pressed on, most likely happy to ditch the burden (even though he had also signed his cousin, Q-Tip, to G.O.O.D. Music, so that must have been a weird Thanksgiving at Kamaal's house), and became one of the biggest rappers on the fucking planet.  Consequence, to nobody's surprise, eventually relented and reconciled with his lord and savior Yeezus, even though, aside from a guest verse on Kanye's "Chain Heavy" (a freebie he tossed listeners during his G.O.O.D. Fridays campaign, which I wish he would bring back, don't you?), he really hasn't been heard from all that much.  Maybe he's too busy crafting that song that will finally put him in contention for a bullshit award that doesn't even mean anything and doesn't even like hip hop enough to include it in the televised portion of its ceremony.

But I digress.  "Grammy Family" is just good.

I didn't realize there was an actual video filmed for "Grammy Family", so I've thrown that in below.  It was obviously recorded when this was considered a DJ Khaled track, hence the reels of Khaled footage and barely any Kanye West, who couldn't be bothered to lip-sync to his verse, leading me to believe that 'Ye may have thought he was at a photo shoot.

For fun, I've included that Jay-Z freestyle over the "Grammy Family" beat that is so beloved by hip hop heads that he felt the need to include it as a part of his B-sides concert that was broadcast over TIDAL earlier this year.  Although he does slip up a couple of times, the bars he gives Funkmaster Flex and the rest of the Hot 97 audience are what most Jay-Z stans would consider to be some of his finest.  He probably should have just appeared on the original song: hell, Jay-Z makes a lot more sense than Consequence on a track entitled "Grammy Family", am I right?

And now to bring everything to a crashing halt:

That was "All Around The World", a No I.D.-produced Jay-Z track from the bloated The Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse, which, mind you, was released several years before "Grammy Family".  So it turns out that the reason Hova sounded so good over the "Grammy Family" beat is because "All Around The World" is essentially the same song.  The samples are different, but the general feel is, in my opinion, far too similar to be a mere coincidence.  If I were Kanye, I'd be a little worried about No I.D. asking too many questions.  Then again, if I were Kanye, I'd be rich, famous, and would probably have a fantastic legal team, so this is all a moot point.  Still, there you go.

Do you agree or disagree with this selection?  Leave your thoughts below.



August 25, 2015

My Gut Reaction: Method Man - The Meth Lab (August 21, 2015)

Last week, television and film actor Method Man, who also moonlights as a founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, released his fifth solo album, The Meth Lab, with the assistance of Tommy Boy Records.  Considering that label's past history of screwing over its artists (including Meth's coworker GZA/Genius), I found that move pretty surprising.  I also was shocked to see that Tommy Boy Records still existed, until I remembered that Ghostface Killah's 36 Seasons was also distributed by the label.  Either way, this information pointed out the obvious: Method Man was no longer signed to Def Jam Records.  Or if he still is, they're being very lenient with the terms of his contract right now.  But I'd go with the former.

August 21, 2015

My Gut Reaction: Warren G. - Regulate... G Funk Era Part II (August 6, 2015)

Warren G. has lived a hard life in the music industry: his career kicked off at Death Row Records, underneath his older, more famous stepbrother Dr. Dre, but he signed a deal with Def Jam Records to (a) escape his brother's shadow and (b) escape Suge Knight's shadow.  This worked out well for a few albums, but when he stopped raking in the dough, Def Jam dropped him, as they are wont to do, and Warren G. struggled in the independent game.  He finally came up with a concept that could drive some of his older fans back to him: Regulate... G-Funk Era Part II, a sequel to his debut album released twenty-one fucking years ago (shit, I feel old), featuring unreleased vocals from the late Nate Dogg.  (For the sake of today's post, let's forget that he had already kind-of released a sequel, Return Of The Regulator, in 2001.)  He mixed and mastered the thing, and set it up for release on August 6, 2015.  This was announced roughly a month or two ahead of time, and everything was looking great.

And then Dr. Dre, who hadn't released an album in sixteen fucking years at that point, decided to announce a new project completely out of left field.  Its release date?  August 7, of course.

As you can imagine, Warren G. must have been fucking ecstatic that day.

August 18, 2015

N.W.A. Rules the Box Office. Who Woulda Thunk It?

                    No stupid-ass memes here   

A biopic of hip hop supergroup N.W.A. just rang up nearly sixty million dollars in its opening weekend.  None of that came from my wallet, though: I had prior engagements I had to deal with.  I understand Straight Outta Compton mostly plays as an Ice Cube origin story that also brings up his writing the screenplay to Friday (which, like Straight Outta Compton, was also directed by F. Gary Gray, thereby completing the circle of life), reducing MC Ren's role to that of "the other guy, no, the other other guy", and most likely skipping past N.W.A. & The Posse entirely, thereby erasing Arabian Prince from our timeline, but honestly, the movie does look pretty good, and I'll catch it in theaters as soon as I can.

Nobody really saw this coming, since none of the main characters are played by name-brand actors: the closest we get is Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller, who I hope is playing the man similar to how he portrayed Pig Vomit in Private Parts but probably isn't. But the main players and their producers (read: Cube and Dr. Dre) have been hitting the publicity scene pretty hard the last few weeks.  Hell, Dre even released an album, an actual rap album, out of fucking nowhere just to promote the flick (and anyone who tells you otherwise is just lying to themselves).

As is to be expected, Straight Outta Compton's massive haul has movie studios looking through dollar-sign irises, and the race is on for the next big hip hop movie, revisionist-historic or otherwise.  Last week, it was reported that Master P is going to take another crack at bringing his life story to a direct-to-video bin near you, but his flick is going to be produced independently: if he doesn't drive a tank or at least an actual ice cream truck at some point during the goddamn trailer, then he'll just be wasting everyone's time.

Here are some of my ideas for hip hop events I'd like to see recreated on the big screen:

- the story of 2Pac leading right up to his signing his life away to Death Row Records, or, conversely, a 2Pac story that takes place solely within the time he was signed to Death Row Records, with a montage sequence featuring him writing and recording three hundred fucking versions of the same fucking song just to get away from Suge Knight as quickly as possible

- the story of Kool Keith, featuring the man reinventing himself every twenty minutes or so (I'd actually pay money to see this)

- the story of that time Erick Sermon was caught banging some other dude's girl and jumped out of that window

- the story of Kurtis Blow starring Kanye West as he looked during the 808's & Heartbreak rollout

How about you two?  Are there any events in hip hop history that you'd like to see represented on the big screen?  Leave some feedback below.  Also, if you could let me know if Straight Outta Compton is worth paying money to watch, that woul dbe cool.


August 14, 2015

My Gut Reaction: Dr. Dre - Compton: A Soundtrack (August 7, 2015)

On August 7, 2015, after fourteen years of promises, noted headphone billionaire and occasional producer-slash-rapper Andre "Dr. Dre" Young finally released the follow-up to the critically-and-commercially-acclaimed 2001.  However, he must have forgotten that it was supposed to be called Detox, because the album that hit iTunes that morning was entitled Compton: A Soundtrack.  

I suppose with such a long delay, some details were bound to be looked over.

August 11, 2015

For The Max-Approved Mixtape: Dr. Dre - "Kush"

Artist: Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg and Akon
Title: "Kush"
Producer: DJ Khalil
Album: Non-album single (2010)

It's taking me a lot longer to write about Compton than I had anticipated (work, life, and not really wanting to listen to anything after hearing about Sean Price's passing this past weekend can do that to a guy), so as a way to buy myself some time, I present to you the mixtape post that I was actually going to run on Friday, August 14.  Yep, it was to have been a Dr. Dre-themed week, and your respective God willing, it still will be, if I can finish my write-up on time.  

"Kush" is a song without a country, originally recorded for Dr. Dre's long-promised 2001 follow-up Detox, but later dropped from Detox altogether, and now Detox has officially been cancelled, so who the fuck knows just exactly what Andre was thinking with this shit.  "Kush" is actually one of two singles originally planned for the now-defunct Detox marketing campaign, along with the atrocious "I Need A Doctor", which was just a fucking terrible piece of garbage music (I think most of you two will agree with me on that).  Both tracks were officially released as singles, with videos shot for them and everything, but then they were both dropped from Detox for not sounding enough like the rest of the fabled project (I'm just guessing here).  

The difference between the two songs is that "Kush" is a banger, and I feel that enough time has passed where we can all admit that as fact.

"Kush" is, obviously, an allusion to weed, or "chronic", as it were, an illicit substance Dre will never be able to get away from, which happens when you name your solo debut The Chronic and hire one of the finest weed spokesmen in history, Snoop Doggy Dogg, to perform all over that motherfucker.  Not coincidentally, Snoop also appears on "Kush", older, wiser, and able to afford better strains of that good good.  Dre himself mentioned that "Kush" was to have been the only track on Detox that prominently discussed pot, since he was trying to move forward with his career, but it's not like any of that matters anyway.

The beat behind "Kush" is instantly accessible to anyone who enjoyed 2001: had it not been for the obvious fact that Dre himself didn't produce the track and that it only just came out five years ago, it would be easy to assume that this was yet another one of the man's prescriptions.  DJ Khalil does a credible Dre impersonation with an instrumental that continually evolves while maintaining the status quo, leaving room for Dre and his guests to breathe.

I imagine "Kush" received a lot of blowback upon its initial release because of crooner Akon, who performs on the hook and sings about, well, weed, clearly, and the vocals from Sly Jordan, who was mistaken for the late, great Nate Dogg (R.I.P.) by Interweb minions the world over.  Since "Kush" appears to be a natural extension of 2001's "The Next Episode", I'm positive Nate would have appeared had he not been otherwise preoccupied in the afterlife, and I totally get that Akon and Sly aren't acceptable substitutes for the kind of blunt, blunted and matter-of-fact singing he excelled at, but if you look past the shit that you cannot control, you will begin to enjoy "Kush", a song that sounds great in both your car and in a club setting.

Dre, as always, recites his lines well, "roll[ing] shit that burn slow as fucking molasses": if he sounds singularly focused during his lone verse, well, come on now.  He would have to in order to catch up to Snoop and his cataracts: Calvin Broadus sounds as effortless and smooth as he did back when he first made his debut, except all of the weed he can now afford has clearly mellowed out his flow, making his flow more conversation-like instead of boastful.

And honestly, I kind of like Akon's chorus.  He doesn't get in the way, and he sounds pretty good, embracing the opportunity to work alongside two legends in our chosen genre when he really doesn't have to, since he has all of that Lady Gaga money lying around somewhere.  Sly, on the other hand, makes me wish Nate Dogg were still with us, but that's easily fixed by merely pretending that it is Nate Dogg.  It calms you down, at least.

"I Need A Doctor" was a piece of shit song that didn't deserve as much attention as it did, but "Kush" needs a bit more love.  Without any of those Detox expectations to worry about, and especially after listening to Compton and hearing Dr. Dre's newly-evolved sound, methinks you'll appreciate this song a bit more today.  Go ahead.  You deserve it.

Since "Kush" was released as an official single that you could purchase and everything, a clip was commissioned from Joseph Kahn, music video director extraordinaire and the guy whose ridiculous mind came up with both Detention (a hilarious and silly flick) and that unofficial and NSFW Mighty Morphing Power Rangers short film thing that hit the Web recently.  The video isn't the greatest, but it's funny to pretend that the newly-buff Dr. Dre still wastes away his days puffing on blunts and drinking on Tanqueray, right?

Do you agree or disagree with this selection?  Discuss below.