2011: The Year Daftpop Stopped Writing But Learned to Love Drake

sometimes, i'm shallower than rap.

Another year has come and gone. I did very little writing. I did almost no listening to non-major label artists. Most people don’t even think that stuff is music, and sure, sometimes I think my mind is gradually atrophying from exposure to so much unchallenging trash; on the other hand, it is my belief that the respective talents of The-Dream, Kanye, Beyonce, and Jay-z are some of the best in any musical genre, and therefore worthy of my attentions. Maybe 2012 will offer itself as a new start for my musical collection and I will finally buy a record player and get into obscure soul and R&B from decades past (this is my musical dream). Or maybe I’ll just keep pumping up the volume when Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)” (seriously, have you heard this song? Drop everything and listen if you have not) comes on the radio and rapping along to the embarrassment of whoever is sitting in my passenger seat. Without further ado, here is a collection of my timely “bests and worsts” of hip hop, pop, and r&b in 2011.

Grossest sex jam of 2011 and definitely the grossest sex jam ever:
Chris Brown & Ludacris: “Wet the Bed.”
To quote my sister, “When I heard the song “Wet the Bed,” I almost pooped my pants.” Indeed, the extended metaphor of this song is so distasteful that one becomes bewildered enough to lose it. As though the song’s title and hook were not enough to drill home this mind-numbingly literal bedroom play-by-play, the beat consists of a synthesized DRIPPING SOUND, instead of, oh i dunno, an actual rhythmic instrument. Fuck you, Ludacris, and fuck you, Chris Brown, for thinking that a woman’s aroused state should ever be compared to pissing the sheets.

Sexiest Sex Jam of 2011:
Beyonce: “Dance For You”
Beyonce is too classy to make a sex jam in the “hey girl hey girl come back to my condo let me play yo booty like a congo” tradition of most contemporary sex jams. She is an artist of profound feeling and substance when it comes to the topic of love, and her album 4 was love’s showcase this year. “Dance For You,” on the deluxe edition of 4, is an epic, six-minute ode to her unending love, dedication and desire to one lucky individual (whom she decides to dance for). It was written by my man The-Dream (real name: Terius Nash), and like many of Nash’s weirdest and best songs, it does not follow any kind of traditional pop song structure. There are seven or eight distinct parts, which at times coalesce into a hook and other times not. A wailing, Purple Rain-era guitar underpins the end of the song, and then the album ends in a wash of sultry catharsis. This is obviously the best way to make an exit under any circumstances.

Best soundtrack to the next OWS protest:
Killer Mike: Pl3dge
Hey, you know how everyone thinks positive rappers are lame? But then those same people listen to politically-objectionable materialistic coke hustling rap because they prefer something “hard”? Well, H-town’s Killer Mike is political and yet not lame, hard and yet not rapping about counting his hundos. Pl3dge sounds pretty damn classic and could have come out any time between now and the past 15 years, but its raging pessimism regarding America’s economic plight is unmistakably of the now. Mike shatters illusions of what was once called “the American Dream” by applying X-Ray Marxist vision to the growing class and racial inequalities of our current ‘broke-as-shit’ capitalism. This is a particularly Richard Wright-esque insight on the track “That’s Life II”: “Mr. O’Reilly, Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity, how could you sell white America your insanity?/ You tell ’em that they’re different and manipulate their vanity/ when truthfully, financially their life is a calamity.” Like Wright, Killer Mike sees ruling class rhetoric dividing poor (white and black) people by creating racial resentment. He is not confident that “change” is going to happen any time soon. His solution?: “Burn this motherfucker down.” I don’t disagree.

Worst soundtrack for the next OWS protest:
Kanye & Jay-Z: Watch the Throne
Here Jay-Z is, again rapping about brands so expensive most of us have never heard of them. There Kanye is, lamenting, “What’s the last thing you expect to see at a black tie?/ A black guy.” Watch the Throne is undeniably a lot of fun, but it further entrenches both of these guys in what I have long seen as the inevitable existential inertia of famous rappers. Let me explain. The narrative of a rapper’s life is traditionally a rags-to-riches story. But when the struggle is over, and the rapper finds himself sitting pretty atop a pile of rap-gotten-gains like Audemars, Mongolian furs, and $150 million LiveNation contracts, what is there left to rap about? Besides watches that cost 300k, furs, and LiveNation contracts, I mean? Yeah, they don’t know either.

Worst Song Featuring a Talented Duo:
Rick Ross feat. Nicki Minaj: “You the Boss.”
Nicki Minaj was the great female hope of 2010, until her major label debut turned out to be a middling, money-grabbing…major label debut. But, the cynical downplay of Minaj’s freak image worked, and Pink Friday, the generally triflin’ collection of club hits and crossover R&B love songs, has officially gone platinum. “You the Boss,” from Ross’s forthcoming God Forgives, I Don’t album, is not only triflin, but also an undoing and betrayal of Minaj’s own bossness. Whereas back in the good old days, Minaj and Ross appeared on the Ye track “Monster” as equals, and Minaj’s verse obviously bested Ross and every other MC on it, this song features Minaj comely whispering, “I’ll do anything that you say/anything that you want/ cuz you da boss/ you you you da boss.” I know Rick Ross is the boss, and his name conveniently rhymes with boss, but this 2011 single absolutely offended me, and made me wonder where the fuck Minaj is taking her career. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but whatever happened to the MOTHERFUCKING MONSTER? This woman was born to be a star, not a background singer cooing about obeying another rapper’s whims!!!

Best Song Featuring a Talented Duo:
Drake feat. Rick Ross: “Lord Knows”
Ross, all drug-dealing braggadocio, husky vocals and heavy gold chains, is a strange bedfellow for the pretty-boy, emo-rapping, navel-gazing of young Drake. But as far as I’m concerned, Drake fucking turned his musical fortune around with the release of the sprawling, dextrous, thoughtful Take Care, the album on which the epic “Lord Knows” appears. Rick Ross should always be backed by such larger-than-life Just Blaze production, and Drake should always have this much feeling when regaling us with tales of his fame-induced malaise.

There was more to talk about this year, and I tried to write long-form reviews of Take Care, DJ Quik’s Book of David, and my other favorite releases from this year, but the words were not forthcoming. Here’s to 2012 and a renewed loquaciousness about music and culture.

Watch the Throne: Some Next Level Shit

a modest symbol announcing the coming of our lords

Recently, monolithic golden Greek crosses on black posters began popping up around town, announcing the forthcoming release of WATCH THE THRONE. And I awaited, with messianic fervor, the coming of August 8th, so I could hear two kings defend their rightful place at the altar of rap.

I’ve prevented myself from reading reviews so that my mind is not sullied by other critic’s opinions, though I know the world has been abuzz with love for the album. And I gotta say, this is the best shit Jay-Z has put out since… The Black Album? At it’s heart, though, Watch the Throne is a straight-up Kanye effort; each song has his musical tendrils curled all over it. WTT continues the adventuring spirit of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The dirty, dry-as-bone snare and clattering cymbals from Twisted Fantasy are again the dominant percussive sound, and the sneer of Ye’s recent rhymes has persevered well into 2011. Most notably, this album also offers a dizzying variety of samples and sounds that would only come natural to a voraciously omnivorous music consumer like Ye (I’m still stunned by the use of the hipster dupstep FLUX PAVILION sample, as well as the electronic percussion on “Why I Love You” — may as well have been jacked from M83’s “Kim & Jessie”). Last night, my buddy Andrew aptly pointed out that Kanye’s recent output proves he’s like the Borg: he assimilates indiscriminately.

Speaking from my podium as a Kanye scholar, this album provides something no others have previously done: it closes a loop dude started on his first album, providing coherence to a heretofore scattered body of work. He’s cultivated his own variety of mini-genres (the soul sample jam; the 60’s civil rights jangle; the chest thumping ode-to-ego; the inspirational hymn, etc), and my perception of his interests and career up to this point was that he was just going to keep expanding and conquering new genres every time he released a new album. But here he revisits his previous genres: “Lift Off” has the earnest autotune of 808s, and it’s uplifting (lit’rally) mood is something Kanye did best back on College Dropout. “Otis” is obvi the soul jam, and is possibly one of his best; “Murder to Excellence,” an absolute highlight of the album, features the afore mentioned 60s jangle, the bassy piano keys he so favored on Twisted Fantasy, and the chipmunked vocal sample he’s successfully employed all along.

Now for our elderrapsman of the album: Jay-Z goes DEEP on Throne. While Jigga’s done an album inspired by his autobiography and has also written a book, he has rarely been as emotionally forthcoming as he is here. Up to this point, he’s been a great self-mythologizer, reflecting on his rags-to-riches story from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. Kanye, on the other hand, rarely escapes the circuitous perils of navel-gazing, and this seems to have rubbed off on our man in a good way. We have him staring at himself in a mirror, noting that he’s his only enemy in “Welcome to the Jungle.” He also sits in his car, alone, feeling numb in “Why I Love You.” Furthermore, Jay seems to relish his rhymes in a way he rarely does. “Murder to Excellence” features a somewhat indulgent but also very enjoyable slithering alliteration of “s” sounds; Jay even imitates the “chsshh chsshh” of a cologne spray nozzle. On a music level tho, Jay-Z finally is succeeding at sounding cool with synths, something he has not done well on previous sans-Kanye attempts, such as on Blueprint 3’s embarrassingly horrible “Forever Young.”

One of the most satisfying things about this album is, obviously, the interaction between the two rappers. Like poets anxious about their influence, they freely quote their own and the other’s past work. Kanye says: “I’m from the murder capital, where we murder for capital.” Jay sings along with Kanye: “puh-puh-puh-paranoia.” They finish each other’s rhymes. They don’t compete: they meet as equal ballers in the game. From “Niggas in Paris”: “ain’t that just like LeBron James?/ ain’t that just like D. Wade?” They once were enemies, but now they play for the same bloated/egomaniacal team!

Notably, there are no guest appearances on this album from any of rap’s minor princes or would-be heirs. Thank goodness they left Drake to his naked lady sexts and Weezy to his purple haze. It would have been distracting to include these proteges and wannabes. Appropriately, our kings are buffeted by the ghosts of music’s best: a James Brown motif/sample breezes jazzily in and out between a few songs; Brown has four or five additional samples on this album; Nina Simone’s profound “Feeling Good” (“it’s a new day/ it’s a new dawn!”) provides the sentimental backdrop for “New Day,” Otis Redding stomps and grunts in “Otis.” Why play H.O.R.S.E. with the little guys when you can get your picture in the Hall of Fame?

Dudes could have totally phoned some shit in, because that’s what absolute monarchs are allowed to do. But they didn’t. This album isn’t perfect, but if I explained why it ain’t, then we’d all be here till 2012. (It has something to do with Kanye’s newly appalling sexual politics… some other time, though.) Watch the Throne is a completely edifying listening experience for long-time fans, and this is largely because Kanye is an evil genius/Borg-like musical being to whom our resistance is futile!

Daftpop’s Extreme Reverence 4 Beyonce’s 4

i got shipwrecked and made this vest out of crow feathers & ferrets

There is a beat-up old minivan parked on my block with possibly the best and also most jank-ass bumper sticker of all time. The bumper sticker was clearly created by an enthusiastic but graphic designedly-challenged individual. It reads quite simply, in black font on a white background: BEYONCE.

I can’t think of a more appropriate singer for whom this touching, homemade declaration of love would be made. Beyonce is one of our superstars. She maintains an aura of glamour and composure in an era when so many other women have been overexposed and exploited by the Internet, TMZ, and our own fucked up need to see them drunkenly stumble over their 5″ Louboutins. Girl’s most naked moment this year did not involve reality television, wardrobe malfunctions, or rehab: it was a backstage video taken by Jigga of her rehearsing, and flawlessly executing, the song “1+1”. A pure, old fashioned star, Beyonce allows us to see our dreams in the reflection of her gleaming American smile.

Sure, sure, she’s been trained from a young age by her Joe Jackson-like father to be a megastar. But Beyonce is that rare combination of manufactured performer and raw skill.

Nowhere has this been more evident than on 4, her recent and fourth (obvi) solo album. This album doesn’t give a fuck about sounding contemporary. The overall production flourishes are closer in style to latter-day Earth, Wind & Fire, or another adult contemporary group of “smoov” musicians than to any recent R&B. There’s a Slick Rick sample on “Party.” “Love On Top” is basically a Jackson 5 song. “1+1” features a guitar solo eerily reminiscient of Purple Rain, cleary the result of producers The-Dream & Tricky Stewart’s Prince obsession. While at first I was shocked by the startlingly out-of-touch production choices, I have now decided that this was a bold move in the right direction. It’s not pandering to commercial interests, because it sounds so incredibly corny. It accurately reflects Beyonce’s recent musical influences, and therefore comes off as a labor of love. But, really, sorry for the red herring, the production is beside the point. The album’s sole purpose is to showcase the expressive, ostentatiously powerful VOICE OF BEYONCE, which it does with aplomb.

So far this album has received very positive reviews from the critics I read: pfork, Sasha Frere Jones, the guy for the NYT. All those critics are men, and I’m honestly surprised they like it as much as I do. 4, like many of B’s hit singles, is essentially for the ladies. It’s about the thrill of succumbing to soul-eating love (see: “1+1”, “End of Time”, “Rather Die Young”), something pretty much only women are excited about. It’s about making an effort even after your man has given up on you (See: “I Care”). It’s about working out your problems and communicating about them (“Start Over”, “I Miss You”). Very occasionally, on the few bangers on the album, it’s about sex (“Party”, “Countdown”). But always, it’s about monogamy, true love, marriage, life-long companionship. To co-opt a phrase: this is some grown-woman shit!

Do you understand how much I love Beyonce? Maybe. But the important thing is that Beyonce understands how much we love her. She delivers on everything we want from her: her voice cracks with emotion, she gives utterance to our pain, confusion, joy, she identifies our nameless if terribly mundane emotional problems with our boyfriends.

I know my subjective, first-person emotional relationship with this music has all the perspective of a 15-year-old’s obsession with, say, Kurt Cobain, or something. But my earliest, most primal instinct is to love music with my heart, and then think about it later. This only happens to me once in a great while these days; I am a grizzled old lady with a cynical ear. But something punched my soul awake on 4. This is music for people who find catharsis in belting along to songs that sound like your howling heart. Now go, be set free by Beyonce’s transcendent pipes.

Unforgiven: The Worst Samples by the Best Rappers

Haddaway: Inspiration to Rappers in the year 2011

Over the last decade, Kanye popularized pairing rap verses with old school soul samples; T.I. favors rapping over chugging fierce synths and horns; Lil Wayne’s most memorable verses have been sputtered over monstrously huge beats produced by Bangladesh.

But it has come to my attention recently that several hip hop artists have chosen some of the certifiably worst, most played-out and most mocked songs in history to rap over. The first is Nicki Minaj’s “Your Love,” which samples Annie Lennox’s “Love You No More.” Do you know this song? It’s the one that goes “dooby dooby do-do-do, waaah.”

Second offenders are Wayne and Eminem on the track “No Love.” This song features the 90s club hit “What is Love? (Baby, Don’t Hurt Me)” by a man apparently called Haddaway. The song is mostly about haters hatin’ and bitches hatin’ on Wayne and Eminem. The hook interweaves the rappers’ verses with the sample’s lyrics, creating gems like these: “Bitch you get (no love)…./I don’t need you (don’t hurt me)/You (don’t hurt me no more).”

I would like to think that in both of these instances, the rappers have decided to employ these soft 90s hits in order to radically retool our conceptions of the original songs; maybe it’s post-modern pastiche; or maybe it’s a clever homage to a much-maligned genre, like the yacht-rock stylings of Gayngs, or something.

But sadly, it is almost certainly bad taste that has guided these choices. Minaj’s first studio album is an incredible disappointment; artistically atrocious and lacking any of the fire or schizophrenia of her guest verses, the album comes off as her label’s attempts to downscale her freak image and remold her into a traditional top 40 r&b/hip hop star. The most frightening thing about “Your Love,” which was also her album’s first single, is it’s bleeding sincerity. It’s a love song, and Nicki’s eccentricity has been harnessed and tamed: she raps sentimental over the new age beat, noting “Shorty, imma only tell you this once, you da illest/and for that imma die hard like Bruce Willis.” Ordinarily, I would welcome a Bruce Willis reference from Minaj, but here, it just comes off as so tired and so one-dimensional. Whatever happened to the lady with the pink wig, thick ass who would give us whiplash?!?!? Whatever happened to the MOTHERFUCKIN MONSTER?!!??!

As for Wayne, dude is not known for his good taste. Which is fine and charming in its own right, but makes it frustrating to be a fan. His Drought mixtapes showcase an ear for hot tracks, even if said are sometimes obvious (BK & Jigga’s “Upgrade You,” for instance, and NaS’ “Black Republican” are two stand-out tracks remixed by Wayne on Drought 3). But then he had his electric guitar era. But now this??!? I exhaled in true resignation the first time I heard “No Love,” thinking I’d have no more love for Wayne. But then fortunately Bangladesh re-emerged from the ashes of “A Milli” and made the song “Six Foot, Seven Foot.

There’s always hope for Wayne, as one of rap’s most notable personages. He’s been allowed to reinvent himself with mixed results, and we forgive him, because he’s eccentric, he’s an oddball, and that’s what we love about him. But I’m afraid the record industry has already derailed Nicki Minaj by robbing her of her many identities and replacing her with this startling new image. She’s plastic. She’s girly. She’s a doll whose arms are twisted and bound by the whims of (ironically) Wayne’s Young Money imprint on the Motown label.  Women in big money biznesses aren’t allowed agency to be weird or subversive. And Minaj will die hard just like Bruce Willis before she’s allowed to reinvent herself again.