November 20, 2010

My Gut Reaction: Northern State - Dying In Stereo (June 3, 2003)

No matter what I write about the New York rap trio Northern State, here's the most important thing you two need to know: these three white chicks started this group as a fucking goof

I'd understand if you don't feel the need to finish reading this post.  All our chosen genre needed was three white girls co-opting the culture while turning it into a joke at the same time.  However, the problem is that hip hop is already a fucking joke.  Have you heard what is played on the radio today? 

You should all be fucking ashamed of yourselves.

Anyway, Northern State is made up of three girls who met in high school.  Made up of Spero, Sprout, and Hesta Prynn, they named themselves after a highway in their hometown of Long Island.  Although they started life just fucking around behind the mic, they actually began to take this rap shit seriously, releasing an EP, Hip Hop You Haven't Heard, in 2002.  Encouraged by some mystifying positive reviews from people who almost certainly didn't really understand what hip hop was supposed to sound like in the new milennium, Northern State rerecorded the songs from that project (and conjured up a few extras) for what ended up being their debut album, Dying In Stereo, released independently in 2003. 

Northern State's sound is best described by me as a cross between the Beastie Boys (the most obvious influence on these ladies) and indie rock duo Tegan and Sara, which makes sense when you realize that Hesta Prynn has since moved on to a solo career that has included working with Tegan and Sara.  But before that happened, Dying In Stereo managed to impress enough people that Northern State's follow up, All City, inexplicably included production help from the likes of DJ Muggs and motherfucking Pete Rock, both of whom recovered rather quickly from their enormous lapses in judgment.

Okay, maybe this won't be that bad.  The Beastie Boys started off as parody of rap music (after they switched over from being a punk band, anyway) and then grew into their current roles as hip hop elder statesmen, so who's to say that Northern State can't do the same thing?

I'm going to raise my hand.

And so this ridiculous excursion begins. The first verse not only sounds like paint-by-numbers rapping, it even plays with the very idea of a rhyme scheme as if the group had somehow earned the right to do so (which, technically, they do), which could have been interesting, had this song been any good. The Beastie Boys comparisons are obvious, but these three don't yet sound excited enough to deserve them, The hip hop cliché “Where ya at?” is also repeated so many times that I'm convinced that Northern State has actually utilized one thousand words over this weak instrumental, credited to three entities: GoodandEvil, Jesse West (an artist in his own right, apparently), and Northern State themselves. I'm not looking forward to the rest of this.

The beat is fairly minimalist, which means that the lyrics are not obstructed in any way. Thankfully, all three ladies already sound much better than they did on “A Thousand Words”. The hook sucks (this is a rap song), but I actually liked the sample used, last heard (in my mind) on Ini Kamoze's “Here Comes The Hotstepper” and Ice Cube's title track from the Friday soundtrack. The Beastie Girls concept works much better on here.

Dying In Stereo is no Licensed To Ill, but this track comes the closest to the engaging non-stop party that was the Beastie's Def Jam Records debut. Modify these verses just a bit and you'll be convinced that Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D at the very least ghostwrote this shit. The instrumental, which is admittedly stagnant much of the time, goes into overdrive during the chorus, which, surprisingly, does not completely suck, as simple as it is. This was actually not horrible.

These three ladies straight spit all over the track. I just realized that last sentence could be interpreted in a dirty way, but you two just need to get your minds out of the gutter. Anyway, they are most definitely not three Rakims with the pen and the pad: hell, they're not even three Trinas. But do I prefer to hear these chicks on the mic than, say, a Nicki Minaj? Since I asked myself the question, the answer is obviously and unequivocally yes. (That's usually how it works.) Northern State chooses not to rhyme about sexuality, instead letting their rhymes speak for themselves, which, oddly, places them alongside the better female lyricists in the game such as Lauryn Hill and Bahamadia. Said rhymes are not great by any means, but this song is entertaining enough, I suppose, and I can't say that about anything I've heard thus far from Nicki Minaj.

The beat is actually fairly good: its calm demeanor masks a sinister undertone that is highly appreciated. The lyrics are all fairly shitty, though, as the ladies elect to fuck with rhyming conventions yet again, with poor results. The overall message is a decent one, though: one shouldn't discount women in the rap game (or anywhere else) simply because of their gender. (Perhaps if you didn't title the song after a phrase that could easily be turned against any woman depending on the time of the month, this could have been a more effective message.) If Northern State were to re-record this track today, I have no doubt that it would sound much better with their years of experience, but even if they did that, there's no guarantee that anybody would listen.

Bonus points for referencing both Nigella Bites, a now-defunct cooking show starring British hottie Nigella Lawson, and Brand Nubian's “Don't Let It Go To Your Head”, which is not the first Brand Nubian track that would pop into anybody's mind when thinking of their overall legacy in our chosen genre. Those points are taken away quickly, though, for resorting to the cliché “You can't fade me” in the title, as that phrase hasn't been cool since 1989. Just like this entire song, now that I think about it. And yes, I realize that last sentence made no sense.

Yeah, that's what I say about most hip hop. Congratulations, Northern State, you've just been lumped in with the majority!

Well, I can't say that Dying In Stereo doesn't end on a high note. The beat on this title track is fucking dope: delete the guest's ridiculous (reggae) contributions, and this could potentially even earn a spot on your iPod. No, seriously. I demand that some other rappers jack this instrumental for their next mixtape freestyle. The lyrics don't make any sense when you actually transcribe them, but they still sound decent. It's amazing what a good beat can do for mediocre rhymes (see: DJ Premier's work with Group Home), especially the phrase “I cast you out!” on the hook, which actually sounds good within this context.

THE LAST WORD: Northern State may have started life as a goof, but Dying In Stereo is far from being a parody: instead, it just sounds like a bad rap album. Hesta Prynn, Spero, and Sprout never shake off the stigma that they are three whits girls making fun of rap music, and since none of Dying In Stereo is (intentionally) funny, the entire project is rendered pointless. It wasn't the exercise in masochism that I was expecting, though: the title track is actually quite good, light years beyond the other seven songs presented. But you're not left wanting to hear more from Northern State, which is a problem: instead, you're left hoping that the Beastie Boys will file a federal lawsuit for copyright infringement. So yeah, I don't get what is supposed to be appealing about Northern State, but then again, nobody else does either, as the trio haven't exactly broken Billboard records. Dying In Stereo could have been much worse, but it could have also been a lot fucking better.


1 comment:

  1. Wow, still no comments for this particular review. And the album can be found for exactly one cent on Amazon. I don't know which is a sadder reflection on the career aspirations of Northern State. If it's any consolation I think they would have done much better for themselves had they released their album in the early to mid nineties. Probably the Beastie Boys would have signed them to Grand Royal and they could have scored a few covers of Spin magazine.