October 2, 2015

Ghostwriters Pushed To The Forefront: Should It Even Matter?

Recently, our chosen genre suffered through yet another battle between two established artists.  I say "suffered" because it was all a giant waste of everyone's time, and was far too one-sided for anybody to ever take remotely seriously.  I'm speaking, of course, of Drake versus Meek Mill.

From everything that I've gathered, the constantly-shouting Meek, whose rhymes must be scribbled down in all caps, was pissed that Aubrey didn't even bother to send out a tweet or some shit advising his followers that Meek's Dreams Worth More Than Money had dropped.  This was an album that featured Drake in a guest role, so Meek felt that it was doing both men a disservice to not promote it, as though Aubrey didn't have his own shit to push.  (As much as you two may not be fans of his, you can't deny that Drake has been awfully consistent with releasing new material for the majority of his career.)  Instead of speaking to him in person, or even through a DM, Meek felt it made the most sense to call the man out on social media, accusing him of not writing his own rhymes, which, while no Canibus versus LL Cool J, isn't a bad way to kick off a beef.

And then Meek just...stopped.  He was most likely convinced to do so by his girlfriend, and Drake's labelmate, Nicki Minaj, so the only follow-up we ever received were some stray shots in interviews, along with the lame-as-fuck "Wanna Know", which shouldn't even qualify as a dis track, since Meek's so out-of-pocket that the track lacks any sort of focus.  Meanwhile, Drake unleashed two hastily-recorded (or were they?) responses, "Charged Up" and "Back To Back", and not-so-graciously accepted the victory, all without ever dropping Meek's name in song.

Drake undeniably won the battle, even though we all now know of the existence of someone named Quentin Miller (Drake's apparent ghostwriter), but we, as listeners, lost the overall war: because of Aubrey's rather large fan base, mostly made up of younger folks who most likely don't know shit about shit and are quick to put on that cape for Wheelchair Jimmy, the idea that a rapper "has" to write his or her own rhymes has been called into question.  The issue itself is nothing new: hip hop heads have only given free passes to artists who are better known for their production work than their prowess with the pen (see: Dr. Dre, Pete Rock, Puff Daddy, Kanye West), or for those whose entire appeal is more style and less substance (see: the late Ol' Dirty Bastard, for instance).  Some of your favorite rappers have even made a decent side business out of writing for others.  But for the first time in a long while, having someone ghostwrite your lyrics for you appears to be an acceptable practice.  True, other musical genres have done this shit forever: when was the last time you ever heard Diane Warren actually sing a song?   But hip hop was supposed to be one of the last refuges for the "realness", a trait that is now called into question if it's perfectly acceptable for everyone to just hire the best and most "real" dude they know to come up with some good shit.

No matter how I feel about this matter, Drake will emerge unscathed, but I want to know what you two think of the idea of ghostwriters becoming more prevalent within our chosen genre.  Are you for it or severely against it?  Does it hurt any artists you've previously been huge fans of when you discover that someone else has written their ideas for them, or do you feel, like Aubrey himself seems to, that "need[ing], sometimes, individuals to spark an idea so that I can take off running,” (according to his recent interview with FADER) only helps the writing process?  Let's talk.


September 29, 2015

For The Max-Appproved Mixtape: Cannibal Ox - "Stress Rap"

Artist: Cannibal Ox
Title: "Stress Rap"
Producer: El-P
Album: The Cold Vein (2001)

Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein is considered an underground classic, so perhaps including a track off of the project for my ongoing playlist/mixtape thing is more self-serving than anything else: most of you two are already familiar with the album, and if you aren't, you never gave a shit about Cannibal Ox anyway.  But today I've chosen to highlight a song that doesn't seem to get all that much love on the blog circuit, which is ridiculous, since it's awesome.

"Stress Rap" is the ninth song on The Cold Vein, and by the time you get to this track, you've either bought into rappers Vast Aire and Vordul Mega's brand of articulate shit-talking, or you've tuned out and are still hanging to to the music, provided in its entirety by a pre-Run The Jewels El-P, who was so instrumental in the way this project sounded that he may as well have been the third member of the team (which is the main reason why I have zero interest in a Cannibal Ox album without production from El-P).  Luckily for both camps, "Stress Rap" has something for everyone: the bars present are confident and cocky, with just a hint of oh-my-god-this-shit-is-depressing underneath, while El-Producto's beat is, as I wrote in my previous review, "magnificent", with Vast and Vordul walking and dodging the piano keys that are raining down upon them, while their deejay, DJ Cip One, provides light scratching.

Lyrically, Vordul Mega and Vast Aire, who will never appear on any best-of lists but have pretty good chemistry together, explore how stressful living in New York City can be, as the lure of the streets threatens to overtake every aspect of their lives.  Mega, in particular, is "moving through these odd days watching every snake breathing", describing the NYC as being filled with "nothing but stressed cats" during the hook: this makes perfect sense because it is indeed fucking stressful living in New York, whether you're a hustler, an actor, a politician, or just some dude living in Brooklyn decrying the gentrification of your hood, although you may be a fan of artisinal mayonnaise, that doesn't make it right, you know?

Vast Aire goes a different route, layering his boasts with punchlines and threats, practically daring anyone to test him in a rhyme battle.  He rides for his then-label boss El-P (The Cold Vein was released by Definitive Jux back when that label still existed) by dissing underground stalwart Sole, who was in the middle of a beef with the jewel runner that he lost spectacularly (that story has nothing to do with today's post, but you can find out more about it online), even dangling a carrot for religious zealots who will most certainly take offense at the line "fuck a soul (Sole), even God knows this body is hollow".  He follows up all this by saying, "On the mic it's all magic, and I got short sleeves", which is possibly one of the best boasts ever delivered in a fucking rap song, so there's that.

El-P's gotten kudos from all over for his production on The Cold Vein, but while "Stress Rap" is more low-key than some of the other bangers present on the album, it still deserves attention.  For fans of Run The Jewels, you may appreciate hearing a different side of his musical talent: "Stress Rap" doesn't resemble anything he's ever crafted with Killer Mike in tow.  But it's perfect for Vast AIre and Vordul Mega, two NYC spitters who lucked out by having a master producer help bring out the best in them lyrically.  And even though I've already made this comparison in my original write-up, that last sentence kind of makes Cannibal Ox seem like the more underground version of Group Home, which I suppose isn't really all that far off.

Anyway, listen to it.  It's great.

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


Cannibal Ox - The Cold Vein (review)

September 25, 2015

Reader Review: Too $hort - $hort Dog's In The House (September 11, 1990)

(Today's Reader Review stays firmly set in Cali territory, as Hansgrohe writes up Too $hort's third album, Short Dog's In The House, which just hit the twenty-five year mark a couple of weeks ago, but you don't see $hort complaining about not having a cake.  Leave your thoughts for Hansgrohe below.)

September 22, 2015

For The Max-Approved Mixtape: De La Soul - "Big Brother Beat"

Artist: De La Soul featuring Mos Def
Title: "Big Brother Beat"
Producer: Skeff Anselm
Album: Stakes Is High (1996)

Stakes Is High is a De La Soul album that I think a lot of people like well enough, but it won't ever come up in a discussion of finest Native Tongues projects.  Posdnuos, Dave, and Maseo were venturing out on their own without producer Prince Paul, who worked the boards for their first three full-length efforts (although, to hear them tell it, Paul's contributions weren't quite as all-encompassing as hip hop heads would like to believe).  Stakes Is High was also released three years after their previous album, Buhloone Mindstate, and the hip hop landscape had changed dramatically during their absence: gangsta rap's dominance of the culture had paved the way for New York's fascination with Italian mobster fantasies, leaving De La Soul on the outside looking in even more so than they normally would be.

The straight butter hit "Big Brother Beat" served as my introduction to rapper-slash-singer-slash-actor Mos Def, who hadn't yet changed his moniker to Yaasin Bey.  As the song dropped two years before the rest of the hip hop world caught up with his collaboration with Talib Kweli, Black Star, The Mighty Mos is positioned as merely a newcomer in the game, albeit one who found himself underneath the wing of the Native Tongues (which most certainly resulted in his collaborations with Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and, more indirectly, his partnership with Native Tongue superfan Kanye West).  His breakthrough with Da Bush Babees, "The Love Song", most likely reached more people (since it was released as a single, whereas "Big Brother Beat" was not), and his work with Reflection Eternal, Medina Green, Urban Thermo Dynamics, and pretty much the entire Rawkus Records roster sealed his fate as an underground stalwart with lots of connections, but "Big Brother Beat" is where it all started for me, anyway.

Over a simple, melodic "oh shit, Skeff Anselm, he gets props too" instrumental (word to Phife Dawg), Pos and Dave (who was still going by Trugoy the Dove back then) share screen time with their guest, passing the microphone around while spending the duration of the track spitting the type of boasts that were popular at the time: that's why both Dave and Yaasin both have lines about making money (although Dave's description is funnier: "See, I'm out to get the coin like in them rainbow pots").  The Mighty Mos also points out Posdnuos's ability to "bag dimes", which, again, isn't the kind of thing one would expect from a bunch of conscious rappers.  But it's clear that these guys are just fucking around, and their playfulness is as infectious as Anselm's beat.

"Big Brother Beat" isn't entirely successful at introducing Mos Def as someone who could be the second coming of the D.A.I.S.Y Age: the dude spits his bars with the confidence of a guy who had already been rhyming for ten years, and it was painfully obvious that he would find the success he craved, at least before changing his name and opting to never release his collaborative project with producer Mannie Fresh, apparently.  But as a posse cut, it works wonders, as Dave and Pos both sound rejuvenated with the injection of youthful energy in the booth.  "Big Brother Beat" might not have been the springboard "The Love Song" ended up being for Yaasin Bey, but it's still an enjoyable song, one of many from Stakes Is High, an album you two should revisit.

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


De La Soul - Stakes Is High (review)

September 18, 2015

For The Max-Approved Mixtape: Busta Rhymes - "Abandon Ship"

Artist: Busta Rhymes featuring Rampage The Last Boy Scout
Title: "Abandon Ship"
Producer: Busta Rhymes
Album: The Coming (1996)

The fact that there are two songs on this playlist/mixtape thing thus far that feature Rampage The Last Boy Scout points to one of two explanations: either he's actually a pretty good rapper (which, we all know, he is not), or he was fantastic at being in the right place at the right time.  I, clearly, veer toward the latter option, with an addendum: the motherfucker was extremely lucky that his cousin is Busta Rhymes, hip hop cameo king of the mid-1990s.

It's difficult to recall today, since the only way Busta receives any press these days is either if he is getting charged with yet another DUI or if he's attacking people in public gyms while working through a bout of roid rage (seriously, one does not bulk up as much as Busta has without getting some form of assistance), but back in the mid-1990s, it was questionable as to whether or not the guy had what it took to sustain a solo career.  After disbanding his group, the Leaders Of The New School, on national television (on MTV, of all places), the man born Trevor Smith set forth building up his name the old-fashioned way: by impressing listeners (and industry heads) with frenetic, animated guest spots on a bunch of your favorite rap songs if you're of a certain age.  You know, like people should be doing.  None of this YouTube phenomenon shit or the ability to record and release an album from the comfort of your bedroom existed in the 1990s: in order to get a record deal, you had to prove that you were good enough to warrant a label taking a chance on you.  Which is exactly what happened with Busta Rhymes, who secured a deal through Elektra Records (which was also the home of fellow psychotic personality Ol' Dirty Bastard, which is a story for another time).

The Coming, Busta's debut album, isn't perfect, nor is it the classic many hip hop heads wrongly classify it as being, but it is entertaining, and besides, Busta was still trying to find his way through the solo album seas.  It's not always the easiest transition to go from pinch hitter to star attraction, but Busta had the energy level to fake it until he made it, for the most part.  But his finest performances on The Coming, save for "Everything Remains Raw", take place when the man is accompanied by a guest.  Take "Abandon Ship", for example: this collaboration with his cousin, Rampage, is playful, fun, and catchy enough to get folks to take notice.

"Abandon Ship" is built on a simple, pounding instrumental that was apparently crafted by Busta himself, in one of his not-quite-rare-but-still-infrequent-enough-to-surprise-you adventures behind the boards.  (There are remixes easily found online from the likes of DJ Scratch and the late J. Dilla, but I prefer the original album cut.)  Trevor and Rampage pass the microphone back and forth every few bars, talking so much smack that it's a miracle that they didn't deplete their reserviors entirely ("Abandon Ship" is only the fourth track on The Coming).  Decrying "n----s [that] talk shit, then abandon ship", Rampage and Busta quickly parse through various boasts, bullshit, and vague threats, both men sounding engaging as shit.  

"Abandon Ship" contains one of Rampage's best performances, even when he dives into ridiculous references ("I'm gettin' phone calls from my n---a Howard Stern / He wants to know about my Flipmode clique" - yeah, I seriously doubt Stern ever gave a shit about Busta's Flipmode Squad) and unrealistic expectations ("I'm getting five [mics] in The Source").  "Abandon Ship" is the reason there was renewed interest in the man after his failed attempt at his first debut album, Beware Of The Rampsack, was locked away in a vault.  (Well, "Abandon Ship" and Craig Mack's "Flava In Ya Ear" remix, obviously.)  "Wild For Da Night", the Last Boy Scout's finest moment of his entire career, would never have happened had Busta not snagged him for this particular track.  There's even the added mystery of why his verses are partially censored, although not enough of one to make a listener want to try digging up the original vocal track or anything.

Speaking of Busta, he's no slouch: the dude still had something to prove to the hip hop heads out there who were convinced that he should have stuck with the supporting roles.  His chorus, which opens the song, is pretty long, but not overly so, and it sounds good regardless, but once Rampage gives up the microphone for his first smoke break, Trevor Smith hits the ground running: "I always roam through the forest, just like a brontosaurus / Born in the month of May, so my sign is Taurus / Kick you in the face like my fuckin' name was Chuck Norris / Make you sing my chorus".  It's verses like that which propelled him to the forefront of the hip hop culture, at least for a brief period before everyone realized the man was obsessed with alcohol and Y2K.  

"Abandon Ship" is propelled by Busta's jumpy, catchy beat, which is simple, but effective, and is smart enough to not get in the way, whether Trevor and Rampage are spitting bars or if Busta is sort-of singing the hook.  It's easily one of my favorite tracks off of The Coming, and a moment I always find myself hoping that Busta Rhymes will return to whenever a new song or project drops from him.  Maybe the familial ties helped in this regard, who the fuck knows?  All I can say is that I love this song, and there are a lot of heads that agree with me, even if it's been several years since you've last heard it.

A few of you may also recognize that instrumental interlude that ends the track, as well.

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


Busta Rhymes - The Coming (review)

September 15, 2015

My Gut Reaction: Knoc-turn'al - L.A. Confidential Presents: Knoc-Turn'al (July 30, 2002)

For whatever reason, the release of Dr. Dre's Compton: A Soundtrack prompted me to revisit the other two solo albums in his catalog.  The Chronic is a classic, there will be no argument here, but his follow-up 2001 always felt a bit, well, off to me, because while half of that particular project knocked six ways from Sunday, the other half of 2001 pretty much sucks.  It's a strange balance, one which many hip hop heads claim to not hear, since a lot of my peers love that album as though it were a flawless masterpiece.  I like the album a lot, and I still listen to songs like "The Next Episode" (every other day, to be honest) and "Forgot About Dre" (significantly less so, as it is now remembered more as part of an in-joke between my wife and I than it is as a song I once liked, although Eminem still murders that track), but there's quite a bit of filler.  So, as a writing exercise, I decided to pluck one of the no-names from 2001's guest list to see if I could figure out what Andre Young saw in them, because I still for the life of me can't figure out the Anderson .Paak thing.

Knoc-Turn'al, ye of the dumbass rap name and horribly self-serious album cover, come on down!

September 11, 2015

For The Max-Approved Mixtape: Mobb Deep - "When U Hear The"

Artist: Mobb Deep
Title: "When U Hear The"
Producer: The Alchemist
Album: Amerikaz Nightmare (2004)

When Loud Records folded like a newspaper, it was the end of Mobb Deep's career as we all knew it.  Although their identity as dope rappers with a supportive label home that gave them full creative control was fully facilitated by Steve Rifkind, Prodigy and Havoc's downshifting into their current less-than-stellar rhyming personas was not directly tied in to their move over to Jive Records, home of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and, at one point, Prodigy's sworn enemy Keith "Keith Murray" Murray.  However, both events coincided with one another fairly closely, so you're forgiven if you thought otherwise.

So, anyway, Mobb Deep sucks now.  Their music doesn't hit nearly as hard as it once did, which happens as rappers age, but it's especially disappointing when it comes to Hav and Cellblock P, since they have actual classic songs and albums under their collective belt.   Prodigy's rhyme skills have rightfully come under fire over the past decade, mostly for being terrible, but he's shown some sporadic signs of improvement with his past couple of projects, although the deep thinker we all loved back when The Infamous dropped is long gone.  Havoc, on the other hand, has actually improved his writing, but his beats have taken a turn for the worse.  You don't need me to tell you that, but I'm going to anyway.

The duo's sole album for Jive Records, Amerikaz Nightmare, is a nightmare of a rap album, with no real focus from the principal players, random guest spots handed out like candy (Jadakiss!  Littles!  Lil' Jon?), and hardly any entertainment value whatsoever.  There are two exceptions, both of which were produced by Mobb enthusiast The Alchemist: the first single "Got It Twisted", which manages to make Thomas Dolby's new wave leanings on "She Blinded Me With Science" sound sinister as shit, and the subject of today's post, "When U Hear The", whose inclusion on this playlist thing should come as no surprise to anyone that has read this blog with any regularity.

The instrumental for "When U Hear The", yet another claim of assumed victory by Hav and P, is a striking, desolate, and disturbing death march.  For me, it ranks in Alan's top five: it grabs you immediately and forces you to pay attention, no matter how much you don't care for what you're about to see.  As most rap songs tend to do, it runs as a continuous loop, taking breaks only where predetermined hooks are to be laid down, but in its bleakness lies an energy that our hosts tap into for their respective verses.

Prodigy, naturally, takes to the microphone first, shouting out Alan and delivering both the first verse and the chorus, which ends up being an excuse to keep saying the incomplete thought "when you hear the" over and over again (although the Mobb slips and also throws in a couple of "when you hear that"'s, which is less obtuse to me).  His verse is, at times, hilariously awful: he gets saved by the instrumental more than a little bit.  For reasons unknown to me, Cellblock P decides to inform listeners that he "need[s] a woman like Christina Aguilery (sic) for a broad" without ever providing any thoughts as to why Aguilera would be the perfect match for someone who lives "the infamous life".  Thankfully, he gets all of that bullshit out of the way fairly quickly, switching to boasts about his back catalog that are well-founded, along with threats that are less so, but still, par for the course.  Alan even tosses in a perfect callback to The Infamous' "Survival Of The Fittest", although it will most likely cause you two to stop listening to "When You Hear The" and put on that album instead.  I implore you, at least finish this article first.

Havoc comes in second, as he has done almost all his life, with the better verse, although, funnily enough, he also brags about Mobb Deep's back catalog, almost as though the two men consulted each other during the writing process.  Hav has always needed to try harder to be noticed (which is strange, since he's the one with the more varied guest spots outside of the camp), but it shows in his performance, which is cocky and entertaining.  "When U Hear The" is one of the few times that Prodigy was outshined by Havoc on a track, which had to have contributed somewhat to Hav's decision to record and release a number of solo albums: a rapper's confidence level can be a powerful thing.  It should be harnessed and used to provide energy in a third world country.

Still, what makes this track for me is the instrumental, which makes it a fine mixtape entry.  Not only is it dope, it's also very intuitive, as though it somehow knew that anyone listening to Amerikaz Nightmare up to that point would need to hear something, anything that could potentially remind them of prime Mobb Deep.  Sadly, this is one of only a handful of songs from 2004 on that could definitively hold a spot on a Mobb Deep playlist: their material has really spiraled downward since then.  But you can still listen to "When U Hear The", so enjoy.

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


Mobb Deep - Amerikaz Nightmare (review)