Friday, October 26, 2012

Gil Scott Heron's Johannesburg

Went to check out "Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life"-- an exhibition at the International Center of Photography. It runs through January 6. My experience definitely inspired me to learn more about that period in South Africa. Shows what can be accomplished by over 40 years of HARD WORK by THE PEOPLE: laborers, activists clergy, ordinary people of all races, classes, and genders. Shame it took so damn long.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

good kid, m.A.A.d city, and hip-hop without labels


"People don't have a problem with conscious rap; they have a problem with conscious beats. If you make some ignorant beats, you can say all the smart shit you want." -- Chris Rock, 2005

In 2005, Chris Rock's did a list of the 25 greatest hip hop albums for a big hip-hop issue of Rolling Stone. His list reads like a stand-up routine of music one-liners. Rock knows his hip hop and he knows how to poke fun at how the genre has been received and critiqued over the past two to three decades. He puts The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill at Number 23 and argues that she is able to sell a conscious message because the music is just that appealing to all audiences-- even audiences of "ignorant" music. I agree with him on that, and I think, as a joke, this little kernel of wisdom (ignorant beats!) is hilarious.

But as much as I agree with Rock as rap critic, his quip is still off the mark. Somewhere in Jeff Chang's monumental Can't Stop, Won't Stop, Chang made the point that I still think of as a lightbulb moment for me today: conscious rap is a marketing label. Just as the gangsta rap label defined for its audiences what they could expect from the musical content, conscious rap serves the same purpose. In an article about Talib Kweli for The Progressive in 2005, Chang continues the argument: "'Party' or 'gangsta rap' is marketed to mass audiences-- crucially through black and brown urban audiences first. But 'conscious rap' is seen as a rap sub-market and is often pushed first to educated, middle-class, multicultural--often white--audiences.

Of course, the problem with the mainstream/conscious distinction is the same trouble caused by any false dichotomy, and is one that I have written about previously here. It causes audiences to misrepresent and stereotype artists, often before they hear their music. A more dangerous effect -- and this is something I think flies under the radar on college campuses, for example -- is that audiences, perhaps not even realizing it, start thinking in vague terms of "black rap" and "white rap". I'm not sure what is worse: white suburban kids in the early 90s head-nodding to Eazy-E or white college kids today thinking of the rap their friends listen to as "smarter" than the rap they hear on the radio or at Kappa parties across the quad.

What should be obvious to anyone who has an interest in rap's history is that hip-hop has always been a mode of expression and critique of the surrounding environment. Back before rap hit the airwaves, they used it in the Bronx to bring rival gangs together for truces. Twenty or thirty years later, even when violent and misogynistic rap began (unfortunately) to rule the radio market, many of the most popular artists can push social commentary just as hard. Wu-Tang's "Tearz" -- in my Top 5 for songs with the most raw and touching portrayals of the horrors of violence -- comes directly after Method Man's vulgar and gratuitous depictions of stupid torture on Enter the 36 Chambers. Even Lil Wayne, who now seems hellbent on rapping exclusively about female genitalia, gave us all something to think about post-Katrina on "Tie My Hands" from The Carter III (2007). I have already written at length about Jay-Z and Kanye in this fashion, and Kweli held this point back in '05: "I'll play Jay-Z's 'Reasonable Doubt' for someone and they'll be surprised. I'll say, 'Well, you assumed Jay-Z is a gangsta rapper"


"If I told you I killed a n**** at sixteen
would you believe me?
Or see me to be
innocent Kendrick
you seen in the street
with a basketball
and some Now'n'Laters to eat?
... Would you say my intelligence now is great relief
and it's safe to say that our next generation maybe can sleep
with dreams of being a lawyer or doctor
instead of a boy with a chopper?"

Kendrick Lamar, "m.A.A.d city" (2012)

Kendrick Lamar's new album good kid, m.A.A.d city (Top Dawg, 2012) has already received deafening praise. It got a 9.5 on Pitchfork. Complex has dedicated this whole week to the man and the making of the album. But something that I haven't seen anyone writing about is the potential for this album to completely explode any and all genre distinctions in popular hip hop. There's substances and ignorant shit. There's crime. There's murder. There's also spiritual renewal. Yet the album is so deeply personal and evocative in its narrative that none of these subject matters manage to yield a label or category. The trials and decisions made by the protagonist take center stage. 

On the first third of the album, Lamar chooses for his material the stuff of (straight) boys in the hood. He chases girls, hotboxes in cars, and joyrides with his friends in a van he stole from his mama. The first evidence we get of an unsettling trajectory for this one day (read: life) comes, I think, in "The Art of Peer Pressure". Lamar writes about how his behavior changes when he's "with the homies". When his friends realize there's someone home in the house they are robbing, Lamar acts fast. Having learned from the subdued yet angular story-telling of Andre 3000, Lamar continues:

"I hit the back window in search of any Nintendo, DVDs, plasma screen TVs in the trunk/ We made a right, then made a left, then made a right, then made a left/ We were just circlin' life/ My mama called: "Hello what you doin?"/"Kickin' it"/ Shoulda told her I'm probably bout to catch my first offense/ With the homies."

Needless to say, Lamar and his homies escape the law, but the stage is set for the increased pressures he will face throughout the rest of his adolescence. This part of the album is remarkable for how detached the narrator is from his content. He neither brags nor laments. If the telltale sign of mainstream rap is braggadocio (and of conscious rap, preaching), Lamar frees himself from the spectrum with grace.

The tension mounts until we arrive at the title track and "Swimming Pool". Lamar's day joyriding around Compton with his friends in his mama's van veers toward its chaotic and frenzied apex, when a friend is killed in a shoot-out. What started as a narration of immature teenage boy pursuits has careened toward gunshots, then a fallen brother, and, finally, the cries of his friend over his body. This last part of the sequence was always absent in the shoot-out skits that were a dime-a-dozen in the early 90s. We never heard Biggie's voice like we do Lamar's: "Say something! Say something! Damn, those n**** killed my brother!" 

Where can a concept album go from here? Lesser, lazier artists might turn their rap toward the audience, speaking directly about the tolls of gun violence. But Lamar continues with his first-person account narration, and allows striking imagery and metaphor to replace what could have otherwise been surface-level didacticism. Who would have expected that ALL of the protagonist's crew end up meeting a woman who leads them in over a minute of somber baptismal call-and-response. How moving is it to consider the millions of boys in Compton, Chicago, and so many other centers of blight and violence, reciting this same prayer for personal salvation along with Lamar and his homies. 

good kid, m.A.A.d city ends with Lamar teaming up with Dr. Dre to deliver an ode to their city. This as well as various bonus tracks drive home the message that you don't have to be a gunslinger to rep Compton. But, just as importantly, you don't have to be a preacher to show how scary it can be to grow up there. Despite its redemptive ending, good kid, m.A.A.d city is not a moral indictment of past sins. It is polyphonic, driven by the voice of Kendrick as youthful experimenter, as scared teenager, as hesitant thug, as, finally, a young man who has learned from his past. 

A reviewer would be remiss to not include the presence of Lamar's parents on this album. They are everywhere, floating like ghosts between the tracks, but nowhere are they more potent and stirring than at the album's end. His mother speaks: "I hope you come back." His father: "Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherfuckin' family. Real is God." 

So let's not call this conscious rap. Let's just call it real.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How Could This Be?

Parking lot, 4747 S. Marshfield Ave.
Friday, October 12, 2012
6:38 am

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Letter

I heard Joe Cocker's cover of "The Letter" one foggy morning on the ride to work last month. It put in motion a host of realizations and memories that I am finally now committing to words. I hope these recollections provide some insight to the casual reader who would like to learn a little more about the subject.

First things first: even though I was a huge fan of Alex Chilton and Big Star two years ago, it wasn't until I played in a tribute show on Chilton's birthday that I found out that Chilton wrote "The Letter". He was in the Box Tops? I had no idea. I didn't even realize he was writing music, let alone producing hits, as far back as 1967. This is the original. You might know the melody from listening to oldies stations in your babysitter Mary Lou's car when she used to pick you up from 1st grade in Staten Island. Oh wait, that's me.

When I heard Joe Cocker's interpretation, it brought me back to another memory from my school days, this time from 9th grade, when my guitar teacher Jake Ezra let me borrow Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Listening to this album when you only know Joe Cocker as the guy who covered the Beatles for The Wonder Years theme and who also did a rather wallpapery version of "You Are So Beautiful"-- well, it blows your mind. I recommend everyone listen to this fiery roller coaster of a live album.

But to get a feel of the album, just watch the video of them doing "The Letter" from that tour in 1970. And from watching this footage I had my last few revelations. Like, for example, I didn't know that Leon Russell played piano in that band. And I also didn't know that all of Joe Cocker's appendages can move in different directions and different speeds at the same time. But, most importantly, even though I had always liked the catchy hook from "The Letter", I had never heard the groove and the blues in it -- until the Englishman showed me.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Six Words for Kid Cudi

I slept on a deep listen to Kid Cudi's Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager after only having given it a cursory glance a year back. It's been going loud in the car stereo for the last few days, to and from work. I know I shouldn't have students and their moms turning their heads when I drive by... I was guilty of that today while blasting "Ashin' Kusher", an amazing song with a terrible name.

What has stood out to me most about Cudi on this album is his versatility. He can rap; his singing voice is unique. And what about "Erase Me"! I guess this was a single two (?) years ago. I totally missed it. I keep listening to this song, so much so that I thought back to my old "six word review" game and couldn't help but consider:

Kid Cudi: Ric Ocasek Rap Star

Seriously. I know he's giving it up to Hendrix in the video, but are the Cars not all over this track?