Wednesday, March 28, 2007

baby girl!... better known as, uh, maya

I haven’t ‘party-listened’ to the album so I won’t judge all the leaked tracks yet but the extra cheese on ‘Shock Value’ so far is not sitting well with me. An easy judgement comes with this ‘bonus track’ featuring M.I.A. though… Tight.
More difficult question: Why is Ms. Arulpragasam M.I.A. from ‘Shock Value’?
I’m always ready to look past how annoying she comes off outside of her music, especially in those Timbaland studio clips (any wonder why they were pulled off the internets?) as long as her vocals are working over some dope track. And today’s our lucky day.
The weird cultural collage of Middle Eastern?, East Indian? and/or Native American? references (“Go to your tee-pee…”) that this track holds together is that simple Timbo (that’s with an ‘O’ not an ‘A’ newbies!) thingthing that he can do in his sleep. M.I.A.’s simple hook and rapping adds enough texture to the relatively un-layered Tim track to make me wonder if anyone else could have done as successful job. Her minor twist on the threepeat of her ‘Come down’ and ‘Run down’ hooks hit the off-chord just right. And her percussive scat is gonna be great for the hip crowd to botch at her concerts. Tim’s freestyle is typically useless other than adding sound and rhythm… duh! No surprise he does it brilliantly.
Damn the leaked tracks off ‘Shock Value’ for really lowering my expectations for a successful solo Mosely. This might make up for that Elton John crap.

Timbaland, M.I.A – Come Around (via 4shared)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Return of the Prodigal Dun

P sees macs

‘Return of The Mac’ is not the return of Mobb Deep. And apparently it’s not even the return of the HNIC aka Prodigy. However, it IS a return to form for Prodigy, one of the most visionary vocalists of hip-hop. But it is still an odd title. The pimp pun of ‘mack’ doesn’t apply to P. And the Mac 10 reference begs the question: Has gun talk ever subsided in our favorite reality rap? Maybe there was the formality of a slight lull after Biggie’s violent murder. And that may be the reasoning, however twisted, behind Prodigy’s flip of Biggie’s (now ghostly) roll call of firearms for the titular ode to guns. P, like Big, will forever be remembered as bringing hip-hop’s epicenter back to NY. P didn’t have the approachability or variety of flows that Big had but he did achieve what could be the epitome of East Coast gangsta rap. The world P presented was endlessly detailed… or at least the details were endlessly described in new cold-blooded terms. Prodigy had a heavy-lidded myopic eye and he kept it focused looking down a tunnel. It wasn’t the transcendental third eye but for street tales it was capital-V ‘Vision.’ His delivery seemed brutally un-constructed and although the slang was far from beautiful, the 'dun' language (or ‘thun’ for us etymologists) became known for its unique blunt poetics. For whatever reason, the greatest hip-hop vocalists lose their way in a long career and Prodigy was no different. I wouldn’t discount his health or any of the comforts of success for letting him lapse in his lines. But it seems that the recent audience reaction to his G-Unit paychecks brought the fire (and ice) back to his to his bars. There should be guilt associated with ‘Blood Money’ and it’s as if Prodigy turned the interrogation lamps on his ‘Hollywood P’ self and said “OK... you know you done messed up right?” (What up, Duke?)
Alchemist has served in the Mobb Deep camp as something of a ‘fifth Beatle’. Al is most often brought up as one of the purist (and purest) disciples of the DJ Premier style which many would argue IS 'The New York Sound.’ His consistency for conjuring chopped sequences of head-nodding samples is impressive but can lapse into the bad version of repetition. Havoc, on the other hand, has repeated styles within an album but always seems to come up with a new sound for the lead into the next Mobb album. His diversity, nonetheless, adds up to the brilliant Mobb Deep catalogue: ‘Shook Ones Pt II’, ‘G.O.D. Pt III’, ‘Quiet Storm’, ‘Burn’, ‘Got it Twisted’.
Prodigy and Alchemist make it clear that ‘Return of The Mac’ is just a mixtape, the definition of which seems to be ever-changing. Although it is released on Koch it has only one sample credited which belies the abundance of recognizable music. These loops create the familiar and, dare I say, comforting vibe. I suppose there is a loose feel on this long-player with no commitment to crafting a ‘single.’ ‘Stuck On You’ may be the closest P comes to a love song but it is not radio ready (“Shots spread like flu through your lungs and your peoples”). The flip of the soulful vocal samples are exquisite examples of a style from the last decade that probably influenced Kanye’s work.
The tracks work well together maintaining familiarity with a few surprises much like uncovering one more dusty crate of records. The rhymed atmosphere is the smoky air of the world-weary but seemingly death-proof gangster.
The jump from the Scarface influenced imagery (and hook) of the ‘Mac 10 Handle’ video to this album cover is a bit jarring to those that hoped to see a more gutter level shot of the rapper. Instead P and Al survey their domain from a window seeming to enjoy their success… at least for the moment. Prodigy’s lyrics, however, contradict this satisfactory pose. His street knowledge and survival boasts always come tinged with regret or sadness. He creates classically weary and brilliantly ‘unlyrical’ bars for ‘Bang On Em’:
Don’t ask me why Queensbridge can’t stick together / If you don’t know the answer than you don’t know the ghetto / Everybody don’t get along and that’s what that is / We either shoot when we see them niggas or we gon’ get hit

But, as Mobb Deep’s catalogue has proven, sometimes it is the skit that portrays Prodigy in his truest form, at least for the duration of an album. If that is the case ‘Return of the Mac’ is a misnomer. Prodigy looks forward to the ‘real album’ he and Alchemist are plotting (‘H.N.I.C. 2’) but he also looks back to days before G-Unit or ‘The Takeover’ or resurfacing childhood slides… to the sentimental days of going to battle with ‘L.A, L.A.’ while rocking the biggest chain. This ‘mixtape’ has been blessed upon fans of the cold dark corners of Prodigy’s mind but when ‘P. Speaks’ he assures us “We just havin’ fun.” A lighthearted statement from a maestro known for conducting his paranoia and depression might inspire the knee-jerk rejoinder “Well we’d hate to see this guy when he’s NOT having fun…” But, recently, I think we have seen him at his lowest although his paycheck may have been the largest it’s ever been. The promise of a true ‘return’ via the next ‘H.N.I.C.’ installment and then a reunion with Havoc (also currently doing solo work) is greater than anyone could have expected a year ago. And if it’s “just havin’ fun” that lets Prodigy get back to his cold, dismal verses then keep the playground open. But don’t bother sweeping up the broken glass.

Prodigy – Return of the Mac
Bang On Em
Nickel and A Nail

Monday, March 12, 2007

gotta learn to live with regrets

what a way to go out, out like a sucker

Man, I was wrong about that one!
It’s a dangerous thing to admit misjudgment in hip-hop circles. But since my track record is pretty solid I’m going out on a limb and listing my biggest missteps as a fan. This isn’t just unpopular opinion (“Tupac sucks!”) or not-yet-fulfilled predictions (“Peedi is the future!”). And although I thought Lord Shafiq would be the next Rakim there really wasn’t a body of work to support such a claim. And although Treach should have been the next LL it didn’t really matter to me personally. And just because Ski Beats or Camp Lo or Ebony Eyez didn’t blow-up as I expected, if I think about it, I can understand why they didn’t.
No… These are statements made with confidence and conviction, based on a certain amount of evidence (although sometimes misread) and proven to be egregiously off-base if not downright wrong. Some are just straight-up embarrassing. If someone actually believed in a ‘ghetto pass’ this is the kind of stuff that could get it revoked with a quickness. Good thing I’m down by law, right?

10. “Slick Rick is good but…” – This barely makes the list because I actually did respect and enjoy The Ruler’s style and records but I really didn’t think “The Adventures of Slick Rick” was the watershed album as many refer to it. The Bomb Squad was going in a direction that didn’t sit well with my PE infatuation and storytelling seemed too ‘soft’ with all of the radical militant / Five Percenter buzz floating around NYC at the time. Rick of course is one of the best MCs of all time and, some would argue, THE best. Since I embrace the intense raunch, casual flow and hilarious soft-spoken ego of Devin Tha Dude and Snoop I feel obliged to mention MC Ricky D as the template.

9. “Joe Budden is the next star after 50!” – When Curtis Jackson seemed to transform the arc of a rap career by flipping second-wind unofficial releases into a huge mainstream success, the parlor game of ‘Who’s next?’ became a fan pastime. I would have bet the house on Joe Budden who seemed to be the imminent mixtape king after ‘Focus.’ He even banged the radio with ‘Pump It Up.’ His ‘Regular Joe’ persona seemed like it wouldn’t have to compete with all of the post-50 gangstaism… especially with Def Jam behind him. Yeah… that last part was a bad assumption. Nothing bores me more than music industry bullshit and unfortunately Joe’s original perspective, flow and voice fell victim to it.

8. “’Chicken Noodle Soup’ is the beginning of a new New York sound!” – For all I know the movement IS thriving in the Harlem clubs and maybe kid friendly dance tracks not based on house music but on stripped down beats and buoyed by sing-song chants and simple raps ARE being prepped for a warm weather Rucker jam… but I thought a LOT more people would be digging it. It seemed like a perfect antidote to the self-serious street-tape mean-muggers. I don’t know why NY rappers can’t support a sound other than their own without feeling ‘soft.’ A lesson should be learned from Southern cats, particularly ATL MCs, who know that true gangsters can produce silly dance songs like ‘Laffy Taffy’ and that kids can ‘snap’ to a T.I. song… and it’s OK. Maybe Lil Mama is an indication that a change gon’ come but I’m not taking any bets with you closed-minded old folks.

7. “Cool Breeze is the next Outkast!” – He didn’t have the dexterity of Big Boi or the poetry of Andre but Cool Breeze seemed like the natural ‘next star’ from the Dungeon Family. His street cred was palpable in his delivery and his view seemed broad enough to escape cartoonish exploitation tough-guy raps. His album not only lived up to the promise he had in DF cameos but surpassed it and ‘East Points Greatest Hit’ had the benefit of hitting the sweet-spot of Organized Noize’ talent. Luckily ‘EPGH’ has enough cult status that it will probably make many ‘Most Underrated’ lists. Again, industry rule #4080 somehow screwed up Freddy Calhoun’s trajectory to stardom and, sadly, it doesn’t look like Purple Ribbon is going to do much better by him.

6. “Kid-N-Play will be the biggest rappers in the world!” – Younger heads may not believe it but the momentum Kid-N-Play had with lyrics, showmanship and understanding music-video power seemed to be an unstoppable force. They were poised to be the next Fresh Prince of hip-pop… but with more complex rhyme schemes! Of course, they DID go on to become HUGE stars but they are on this list because I didn’t see that they would do it without hit records. Obviously the Hudlins appreciated their skills to some degree but saw that the real appeal of the light-hearted duo would be shown through popular teen movies rather than hip-hop radio. They were more ‘Will Smith’ than ‘Fresh Prince.’

5. “Least likely to succeed from the Wu: Ghostface Killah!” – I’m not alone on this one… even U-God seemed to have more commercial potential. And although ‘Cuban Linx’ was a masterpiece I still credited Rae and RZA with the vision. Tony Starks ranks high on this list because his artistic greatness and continuing relevance surpassed all of the Wu MCs. Going from ‘Ghostwho?’ to one of the most creative MCs in hip-hop history was absolutely unpredictable.

4. “The ‘Criminal Minded’ album cover is a bite off of ‘Yo Bum Rush The Show’ and who are these ‘Boogie Down’ jokers?” – You would think this would rank higher on my ‘sin’ list but this was a judgment of the album cover only, not the music. I know now that BDP dropped before PE but Bay Area college radio (KUSF!) had only played PE and a couple of us were very, very hyped to buy their album. We weren’t getting the BDP street buzz in the Yay at that time (but I imagine KRS and Scott La Rock were rumbling in NYC). Dave Goldberg (a fellow PE early adapter) and I often checked the singular ‘Rap’ bin at a Market Street record shop (‘Rainbow Records’??). We ran across an album cover very reminiscent of the ‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show!’ cover. Harshly lit, dark backroom plotting by serious looking East Coast rap dudes in berets forced us to assume that ‘Boogie Down Productions’ was ripping off the PE cover imagery and we just straight up dissed the ‘copy cats.’ Of course, we had the sequence of album drops backwards and once I heard the record all proper respect and awe was directed to BDP. I am hip-hop…not!

3. “I’m not really into West Coast rap.” – I grew up in the Bay Area but couldn’t wait to move to the city that produced RunDMC and The Beasties and had Red Alert on the radio every week (I heard a tape recording of one of the KISS FM shows). I thought the East Coast sound WAS hip-hop with the ‘hard’ beats and varying rhyme schemes. I couldn’t appreciate the more laid back sound of Too Short or World Class Wrecking Cru. ‘Boyz-n-the-Hood’ sounded like something new and good but I was jetting off to NYC as it caught on. I was confused when, just as I had the chance to listen to Red Alert and Chuck Chillout break ‘local records,’ the BK locals were buzzing about NWA. And they were soon reciting every word from the dude that wrote that ‘Boyz-n-the Hood’ record and was now collaborating with the Bomb Squad. And I missed the hometown rise of the adventurous vocals by E-40 and Mac Dre. Although ‘Deep Cover’ was dark enough for my tastes I slept on the ‘sunnier’ sounds of ‘The Chronic,’ partly due to the story of Dre beating up Dee Barnes. I appreciated the freestyle moment via The Heiroglyphics crew but never got into the Project Blowed head (pause). None of my favorite MCs hail from the West but I’m ready to admit that I missed the boat on nearly EVERY important movement coming straight outta Cali (except Cypress Hill… who everyone initially thought was based in the East!).

2. “Craig Mack will be bigger than Biggie!” – I thought that the ‘BIG-Mack’ promotion that Bad Boy embarked on (right before ‘Project Funk Da World' and ‘Ready To Die’ came out) was kind of silly. It seemed obvious to me that the dude with ‘Flava in Ya Ear’ had a whole new vocal style with forward-looking if not futuristic beats. Biggie was the kid that lived next door to me. It made it more difficult to envision his success. MC EZ seemed like he was from another planet radio-ready with his futuristic flow. Both albums dropped within weeks of each other and it became clear that my neighbor, that dude on the ‘Flava In Ya Ear Remix,’ had a lot more to say and was still around the next year...

1. “Beanie Sigel is not a good MC!” – I just couldn’t hear it. I was judging Mac against Jay-Z but he was a totally different animal: perpetually stalking around the beat and always conveying ferocity. I was listening for dexterity instead of hearing directness. I needed some flash but Mac Mittens was showing all heart. I thought MCs had to deliver words assuredly so I didn’t recognize the wrenching emotion conveyed by Beans’ chewing and spitting. This oversight ranks as number one because Sigel went from being utterly dismissed by yours truly, to being one my favorite MCs. When I finally heard the truth and ‘The Truth’ it opened up my perception of what an MC could be. Rap complexity came in the vocal quality and the character it conveyed, not in how many syllables you could squeeze into a clever metaphor.

I know, I know... you NEVER made a bad call…