I reviewed the new SIFU Hotman vinyl. Read it here.
P.O.S. “Fuck Your Stuff” (prod. Lazerbeak) (2012)
I was convinced that We Don’t Even Live Here (2012) was going to be better than Kendrick’s album (they dropped on the same day), mostly because Never Better (2009) was so good and so weird, and because Stef had been playing this song (and this song) live for a good year or so before the album even had a name or release date. Sadly, the album was kind of just a string of aphorisms and high school level anarchist propaganda (at one point he says “peace to Anonymous, good lookin’ out" with no sense of irony).
But this is pretty much perfect. At his worst, P.O.S. can dip into pedantry, and songs about how Materialism Is Bad are setting themselves up to be irredeemable from the jump. “Fuck Your Stuff” circumvents both of those problems by playing free association the way rappers on the other side of the ideological divide already do. Bragging about how girls still like him while he wears “last year’s trash” and then “discussing Christopher Hitches”, building makeshift bombs, and pissing on convertibles on the Gaza strip, P.O.S. reigns in the song and is smart enough to know that it’s dumb to spit super scientific shit on beats meant to rattle your car. You make this to convey an emotion and maybe make people break shit, and the fact that it keeps its message intact is an added bonus.
I reviewed the new SIFU Hotman vinyl. Read it here.
Off the momentum of last year’s Waiting For Public Transit, Minneapolis rapper Z is preparing his new mixtape, The Curb Is Loose. I sat down with him to discuss both records, his influences, his writing process, and more as he lets loose of the video for lead single “We Don’t Talk About It”.
You put out an album at the end of last year that was extremely personal, partly focusing on a divorce. Was it hard to be public about what you were going through?
I think the idea of sharing it all with an unidentified group of people and allowing them into a space that really wasn’t even mine in the first place was difficult for me to grasp, yeah. I went through a lot of different phases as far as putting it out for people to connect with and debated back and forth in my head over whether I should put certain songs out at all or not. Of course, I’d say I do that with just about any song or album, but listening back I kind of guilt-tripped myself in and out of that record. Then again, nobody really even asked me about any of the themes involving personal matters after actually putting the album out, so I don’t know if anybody really put it all together like that. None of the parties involved were upset (or really even heard any of the material at all), so I think it was far worse in my head than it was in reality. In the end, it all kept me real focused though, so that was cool.
You also made an EP, Free Morgan Freeman, that was in large part about legal troubles of your own. Do you prefer to work conceptually like that, or do you just start writing and see where it takes you?
For the past…man… year and a half? I think that I’ve been working solely via stream of consciousness. That said, I don’t think that I’m leaving anything empty—it all serves a purpose and somehow makes sense to me, ha. I’ve tried going back to hitting concepts and creating timelines for when and where things are supposed to be, but it always comes out feeling real forced. I’d like to be able to do that again at some point… for now I’m a wanderer.
What does The Curb Is Loose mean?
It’s a play off of curbing your thoughts. “To curb” is to confine or restrain something with a raised margin. If that margin is loose, there’s room to move through, around it, or simply use it for its intended purpose. I think of the phrase as a piece of paper with no lines on it. You can certainly write horizontally, however, you don’t have to… Kind of goes with the idea of writing via stream of consciousness.
You’re extremely prolific writing and recording, but very careful about how you release music. Why is that?
I just think that you never want to exhaust a fan base with too many options. Keeping things concise can be a plus because then people are asking for more instead of expecting. I like to keep organized with drops because it gives me more control in my own head. Also, I have a hard time with listening to the material after it drops and I try to limit any regrets I have about putting certain shit out. I guess I’m just pretty hard on myself.
Who are you biggest influences, and who do you plan on working with in the near future?
I think I learned a lot from Lil Wayne as far as throwing harmonics into bars. Jay-Z is my favorite rapper, and I think he’s the epitome of using wit and charisma to highlight points in song and make them extraordinary. I’ve been listening to a lot of Robb Bank$ lately, he’s great at taking real life scenarios and expanding on things without losing any sort of flair. Since I’m from Minneapolis, it’d be a sin not to include Slug of Atmosphere. He’s incredible at organizing thoughts and focusing in on the subtleties of life. I met Psymun at a show a month or two ago. He was dope, I’d really love to rap over some of his shit. Dem Atlas has been incredible lately and I’d love to collaborate with him at some point. I could really use beats from Minneapolis-based producers, so anybody who’d be willing to work with me on that front would be cool. Major G and Greg Grease are also really cool to me, I’d love to get together with either of them.
The Curb Is Loose will be out this fall.
Chances are if you’ve found this blog, you’ve at least seen this piece referred to somewhere. Yell at me on twitter about it, but read it here.
Eminem (ft. RBX & Sticky Fingaz) “Remember Me?” (2000)
The mythology around Eminem is that he’s someone who beat the odds—the narrative of a disaffected, poor, white teenager from Detroit who made good in the hostile world of rap, etc—but that’s perhaps most true if we look at his creative development. The industry is littered with battle rappers who got people excited about their output before proving unable to put together a cohesive album, or even an interesting song that wasn’t eight punchlines per verse with a scratched hook. Eminem was at first a supremely talented linguist, someone who could string together multis like few can without sounding nonsensical or forced. But as early as his first major album (1999’s The Slim Shady LP), he showed promise in putting together deeply personal records (“Rock Bottom”, “If I Had”) and running with long-winded, ever-changing narrative tangents (“As The World Turns”, “I’m Shady”). The Marshall Mathers LP made him a superstar, and 2002’s The Eminem Show is his finest work, balancing the outrageous tics of his early material with a keen self-awareness about his place in American popular culture.
Unfortunately, 2004’s horrendous Encore was followed by a five year hiatus broken up only by laughable guest features and collaborations. He returned to release two albums (2009’s Relapse and the following year’s Recovery) almost as atrocious as Encore. Marking perhaps the most bizarre decline in rap’s history, the latter half of his catalog precludes him from being where his natural ability and one-time songwriting ability would otherwise suggest.
Common “The Light” (2000)
Common’s one of the rappers who was revered almost as soon as his career began. The mystique he carries now (or carried in 2008; he’s bizarrely trying to age himself down as I’m writing this) of the wise elder statesman is actually what sparked his career in the first place. After 1992’s solid but forgettable Can I Borrow a Dollar?, Common gained national attention with 1994’s Resurrection and its famed single, “I Used to Love H.E.R.”. For someone who seems to project an air of righteousness and social responsibility, there’s actually a great deal of tension in Common’s work between his ideological grasping and his gangster-rap-borne id, but that mix was perfectly backed by No ID, the late J Dilla and a small collection of others on minor classics like Like Water For Chocolate and One Day It’ll All Make Sense. As the fortunate beneficiary of Kanye West’s interest, 2005’s Be revitalized his career in a way few non-commercial rappers ever experience, and he continued to get top-shelf production on albums like 2012’s The Dreamer/The Believer (this time courtesy of a similarly rejuvenated No ID).
Unfortunately, the latter album is typical of Common’s late career—flaccid lyricism that stakes itself on appealing to the ‘conscious’ sensibilities that were more hungrily articulated by him as a younger rapper. This was also apparent in 2007’s Finding Forever, where Common showed a troubling tendency to try to recreate something successful (in this case Be) without any real thought or effort. His career is also hampered by his two famously misguided experiments, 2008’s Universal Mind Control and the infamous Badu-driven Electric Circus.
Jay Electronica “Exhibit C” (2009)
#28: Jay Electronica
If there’s ever been a case of boundless potential, this is it. When your unfinished album is hailed by the notoriously insecure Jay-Z as one of the greatest things he’s ever heard, most people would finish the album and give it a proper release. Instead, Jay Electronica seems content to ride camels and climb the Himalayas and sleep with the heiress to one of the most powerful families the world has ever seen.
I suppose there’s been greatness in catalogs this small before (Biggie, Lupe at one point, Tribe at one point, etc) but never in a catalog so unfocused. Jay’s released—or rather, we’ve been able to scrounge up from the internet—a few dozen unofficial songs and freestyles, nothing more. But the simple quality of the material is so staggering that Electronica’s built an ardent following while seemingly doing everything in his power to squander that goodwill. When Just Blaze got fed up with the procrastination and let loose of “Exhibit C” in 2009, it took the rap world by storm and still gets plays today, four full years later. Scattered releases like “The Shiny Suit Theory”, “Exhibit A”, and “The Announcement” continue to be in the top half of one percent of music released this decade. If Act II is a proper representation of the artist who made “The Departure” and “Eternal Sunshine”—and if it comes out—that album alone could vault him into the top ten.
Kendrick Lamar (ft. Ab Soul & Jay Rock) “The Heart Pt. 3” (2012)
For as much attention as that other verse is getting, this might have been a more audacious statement. In the run up to good kid, m.A.A.d. city's release, the hype was getting predictably juvenile and out of hand. The day the album leaked, Kendrick doubled down, claiming a commercial flop would signify the death of hip hop. Hyperbole maybe, but it's one of the most hungry songs in a catalog filled largely with hungry songs. (Soul might actually take top line honors with “the homies was still poor with work in a Jansport”.)
Kendrick Lamar “Cartoon & Cereal” (ft. Gunplay) (prod. THC) (2012)
#27: Kendrick Lamar
In the past four years, Kendrick Lamar has put out four projects, each leaps and bounds better than the last one. Section.80 (2011) is one of the more impressive indie records in the past five years, and good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2012) turned out to be the masterpiece fans and critics had come to expect, or at least pretty close to it. But the remarkable thing about Kendrick is the way those records sound and the sonic inventiveness he’s brought to pretty conventional subject matter. His repertoire of vocal tricks doesn’t seem that extensive or impressive when you put it on paper, but in practice he’s ever-changing and stubbornly determined to keep taking left turns until he can’t anymore. His steadfast commitment to being, well, weird when his appeal is predicated on simply being a great rapper is delightful to watch, both for its audacity and because it yields such great music.
Kendrick essentially stole his spot on the list from one Chuck D, a rapper who—no matter how good “Money Trees” and “m.A.A.d. city” are—made It Takes A Nation Of MIllions To Hold Us Back (1988) and Fear Of A Black Planet (1990). Now, I’m fully aware that Kendrick could spend the next twenty years making increasingly embarrassing retreads of the same topics,* but as of now that hasn’t happened. Perhaps the most technically proficient and most technically inventive rapper of his generation, Kendrick’s also shown a consistent ability to mine the nature-vs-nurture psychological struggle and his past for stories and concepts that are engaging and unique without being alienating.
* Even if Kendrick pulls a Chuck and deteriorates that much as a rapper and a writer, it’s unlikely he—or anyone else, for that matter—will have a string of album titles as vomit-inducing as these: Muse Sick-n-Our Message; Revolverlution; New Whirl Odor; How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??; and, of course, The Evil Empire Of Everything. Sadly, Public Enemy’s music has become just as cartoonish.
Nas “Esco Let’s Go” (prod. DJ Khalil) (2008)
In case you somehow missed this, it’s what Nas should have been doing for the past ten years. He raps about the Elizabeth Taylor’s ghost mocking his jewelry and chopping it up about the Wu Tang days and says “tip the doorman/racist neighbors flinching—they don’t know if I’ma rob ‘em/or if I’m Russell Simmons”. DJ Khalil should get a medal for 'accidentally' leaking it.
(The fact that we don’t have at least one Nas/Big song about stealing green cards is worse than the fact that we have this.)
Eric B. & Rakim “Paid In Full” (prod. Eric B. & Rakim)* (1987)
For someone who quite clearly fathered almost all modern approaches to rhyming, homage to Rakim is usually relegated to token name-drops in interviews. Maybe that’s how it should be—new art can and should stand on its own, and the student can certainly surpass the teacher. The only problem with this in Rakim’s case is that he’s quietly (as strange as that sounds) put together one of the more unimpeachable catalogs anyone’s ever had. Where some of the more famous pioneers tried to cash in on hip hop’s commercial boom years when they were past their prime, Rakim’s post-Eric B. career is confined to The 18th Letter (1997), The Master (1999), and The Seventh Seal (2009). While the latter two certainly aren’t as good as 18th Letter or the four Eric B. albums, they’re filled with highlights (“When I B On Tha Mic”, “Won’t Be Long”). More importantly, from ‘87 through ‘92, Rakim was at or near the absolute pinnacle of rap. Paid In Full (1987) is wrongly cited as the essential work from that time. It—while great—falls short of the perfect Follow The Leader (1988). That Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em (1990) and Don’t Sweat The Technique (1992) were as relevant and obviously brilliant as they are at a time when listeners were shifting their attention to the more personality-driven rappers of the early ’90s is a testament to Ra’s undeniable and impeccable mic skills and focused, uncomplicated songwriting.
* Rumor has it Eric B. did almost nothing on the music side of things. There’s a story that Eric B. briefly ran Kool G Rap out of New York to Arizona (or somewhere) after G Rap revealed that Large Professor had done lots of the production work for which Eric B. was credited. Rakim also is said to have produced lots of beats by himself, with assists from the 45 King, Paul C, and probably some others. It’s also widely known that Marley Marl actually did the cuts on “Eric B. Is President” and most of the other joints.
The Notorious B.I.G. “Long Kiss Goodnight” (prod. The RZA) (1997)
The internal politics of the major New York rappers right around then are pretty fascinating. Not only do you have the obvious conflict of Method Man being on Ready to Die* while Rae and Ghost directed the greatest skit of all time at Big, but RZA produced this even after Ghostface allegedly broke Ma$e’s jaw. There’s a version of this song floating around that has Cappadonna muttering unintelligible threats slightly different than Puff’s unintelligible threats on the album version. Allegedly, the original version of the song had some slick talk about Tupac that was cut after his death, but who knows.
* The version of “The What” I linked to is the demo version that didn’t appear on Ready to Die. Meth’s verses are the same (as is the hook), but Big’s first verse is comprised primarily of bars from a freestyle from Mister Cee’s show in ‘94. Maybe they cut it because you can’t refer to the Holocaust and statutory rape in the same sixteen. In the freestyle he goes on to talk about going “raw dog with the rash/I don’t fuck with condoms/the condoms is a problem from the AIDS gettin’ sprayed/diseases, B.I.G. pleases.” Hence the opening lines of the album version.