How to Properly Incorporate Your Love of the Cocteau Twins into Rap, and Other Ideas

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Next time you need a genuine fairy lady, just call Kate Bush. Please.

Back on my grind: rap music. There’s been a lot of emotions and electronic music and self-reflectiveness afoot in rap music for the past few years. Blame it on Kanye: most of what we hear now is directly or indirectly linked back to that dude. (On a sidenote: I used to defend everything he did. But due to recent events that are too low-brow for even me to mention, I can’t handle him at the moment.)

Something really odd is going on now, though, and I’ve noticed it in a spate of releases from the past couple months. Apparently, women-led 80s gauzy British art rock is making a play for major sleeper influence in rap music.

This didn’t start with Kanye, but just so we’re clear, it couldn’t have been born without him. This fad, rather, is fathered by one of Kanye’s spiritual spawn, the once-villified, now-totally-established Drake. Take Care, which I once called “thoughtful, dextrous, and mature,” Drake’s 2011 album, continues to be a force to be reckoned with in most rap releases. The chilled-out, ambient production favored on that album’s contemplative (errr…navel-gazing) tracks struck me as sounding really nostalgic. They were nostalgic to me and my musical past, though, not nostalgic in relationship to rap. It’s because Take Care’s first jam, “Over My Dead Body” sounds basically like a Cocteau Twins song. (And I love the Cocteau Twins!!!)

But what I’m more interested in is not the trends in electronic sounds, but the production and voice choices for back-up vocals in rap songs. Whereas lady R&B singers could rest assured that they’d be included on a tune or two if vocals were needed a few years back, now the intrusion of indie into rap all but guarantees that some unknown English lily (get what I’m sayin’???) is lilting somewhere in the mix.

FOR INSTANCE: That Florence lady is on the ASAP Rocky album. She’s no good, if you ask me–all flim flam and no real guts. Her idol, I’m sure, is THE KATE BUSH, but you can’t just sing like you’re on the brink of orgasm/emotional breakdown all the time and think you’re THE Kate Bush. Kate Bush isn’t afraid to sound like a man/sea monster, isn’t afraid to stretch the limits of what the voice can do in the mold of some avant-garde Meredith Monk shit.

Along the same lines: the new Big Boi album features neither lovely chanteuse who appeared on his last album (Janelle Monae and Mary J), but rather some lady from “Phantogram.” I have never heard this band, but their wiki page tells me they belong to the “electronic pop” genre. The songs on which Phantogram appears are pretty okay, but they are very much “electronic pop” songs that will sound extremely silly in two years. One friend, upon hearing the Big Boi feat. Phantogram song “CPU,” likened it to Robyn. SO YEAH.

So, now you’re waiting for me to make a racist argument that rap music should feature soul singers. That black music has to be black. I am not saying this. I am saying, however, that the recent heavy hitters–this ASAP fella, Big Boi, Drake–are indulging in Kate Bush and Cocteau Twins, to some mixed results. Is this genuine experimentation, or are these albums just pushing genre barriers because that’s what rap is supposed to do nowadays? I know Big Boi can do Kate Bush–I KNOW HE CAN! But this album, mired in the bleep-blops of 2011-sounding club-ready indie jams–is not it.

Gotta bring it back to Kanye. Kanye is a borg who, on MBDTF, assimilated genres (King Crimson? James Brown? Gil Scott Heron spoken word? Black Sabbath? All of the above!) and made one of the best albums ever (yeah, I just said it). It was celebrated by rap and rock critics alike, and probably made a lot of doctrinaire rap fans even crankier about his rap-dilettantism than ever before. But art dies the moment it becomes doctrinaire, if it adheres to the conventions of genre, and, in the case of rap music, stays within the confines of its regional sound.

But you can’t push it. It’s a delicate process. If your thing isn’t indiscriminately devouring all kinds of music which organically results in some genre-hopping expression, then… stay boring. Or, I mean, to bring up that old adage: Write/play/sing what you know. An EMCEE everyone respects is Freddie Gibbs, who has literally no ambitions to do anything new. He’s a gangsta rapper and he knows it. Pitchfork sent some dumbass to interview him in his trailer in a junkyard in LA and asked him to spin a yarn over a beat. The dumbass played Gibbs two different beat tracks–one a fairly standard beat clearly not produced by Skrillex, and the other beat a bunch of dubstep womp womps and flambouyant synths that was maybe produced by Skrillex–and Freddie was like, “Uh, I’ll take the first one.” And then he rapped about how he still sells drugs over the standard beat, and it was all good.

Some other dudes would do well to do like Freddie and stay true to their hearts. Or hire producers who aren’t second-rate chop shop jobbers jumping on a genre-bending band wagon. Being a good rapper, and staying relevant, does not mean you need to go into an enchanted English forest and pull out some fairy lady to back that track up.

Let Me Tell You ‘Bout This Country Shit

k.r.i.t. has practically been on my blog

Now granted, I of all people am not an authority on country shit. Sometimes I get confused and think my time in Southern Indiana gave me some sort of cred, as after four years in the area my Great Lakes accent faded and I stopped talking out of my nose 100% of the time, downgrading to about 90%. I occasionally said “pin” when I meant “pen” and “flowrs” instead of “flow-ers.”

My real country friends are quick to remind me that even my Hoosier cred is sorta in doubt; the main stealer-of-my-IN-cred is a friend named after a Bible personage and has a big, red, Amish lookin-beard. He grew up in a town where it wasn’t unusual to see dungareed men out with horse and buggy, and where the kids hung out at the gas station on Friday night, as it was the happenin’ place to be. Indeed, I don’t know nuthin’ about one gas station towns.

Anyway, someone who can tell u bout country shit is Mississippi producer Big K.R.I.T. About a week ago, everyone in the hip hop blogosphere went bat shit for his new album. Since I am a little slower to these things, it is only since yesterday that I have been bat shit for it. K.R.I.T. WUZ HERE (<—download from that link!!!) is an album of sweaty cruisin, bass thumpin, dirrrrty southern-ass beats. It’s laid back and breezy, and maybe a lil’ dank. Which is to say, it sounds like a day in Mississippi probably feels.

Everyone keeps heralding K.R.I.T. as Pimp C (of UGK) reincarnate, and that’s fine and all, but to me he sorta sounds like T.I., sans the fury. The tune “Country Shit,” a stuttering, bouncy, and at times, str8-up heroic declaration of what they got down thurrr in the South. He begins by inviting the listener into his narrative and elucidating some properties of country shit: “Let me tell ya bout this supah fly/dirty dirty/third(???) cold/muddy waters…” (I apologize for the question marks–sometimes this shit is so country, I can’t understand what is being said.) This is followed by an imperative: “Shorty, pop that pussy! If you wanna.” I appreciate  the ladies have a choice in the matter. Seriously.

Big K.R.I.T. is one of many Southern rappers who has immortalized his geography & lifestyle in a deeptrackkk. Other wonderful songs within this genre that come to mind are Outkast’s “ATLiens,” from the 1996 album of the same name. Obvs, ATLiens was an appropriate title for the ATL resident weirdos. Many hallmarks of Southern life are noted within this song, including an archetypal Southern meal: “If you like fish n’ grits, n’ all dat pimp shit, everybody let me hear you say oh yeah-yer.” Oh yeah-yer.

Clipse, ever despairing, have a down-trodden song dedicated to their home state: “Virginia.” It begins:  “I’m from Virginia, where there ain’t shit to do but cook.” Later, it is noted that “there ain’t shit to do but look.” In addition to cooking and looking, drug dealing and murder also happen in this song.

Overall, I’d much rather learn about country shit from K.R.I.T. or OutKast than from Clipse, but I guess it just depends on how fucking morbid and misanthropic your worldview is.

Anyway, wanna hear these songs? Here is a jank-ass myspace playlist of them.

Jesus and Big Boi Rise To Save The World

Who will be your savior? Me?

When my sister is exasperated or surprised, she says, “Jesus H. Christ!” What does the ‘h’ stand for? Nothing, that I know of. It’s sorta like the middle initial of our atom-bomb-dropping prez, Harry S. Truman. The ‘s’ stood for nothing; but like Christ’s ‘h,’ it just adds that extra oomph, that unquantifiable yet necessary je ne sais quoi.

Now that you’ve got the back story, let me just say, JESUS H. CHRIST, Big Boi is a geniusman. He could be the Jesus of hip hop this year; his rise means our salvation (from the likes of havoc-wreaking behemoths and apocalypse horsemen such as Drake.)

Lest we forget, Big Boi’s album Sir Luscious Left Foot is coming out this year, and it’s about goddamn time. Five–count em’–five singles have already been released from this album. These included a dro-celebration song with George Clinton (“Fo yo sorrows”). There was “Royal Flush,” featuring Raekwon and Andre 3000, which sounds like an ad hoc recording of a 1988 freestyle performed outside a Staten Island cooperative housing complex. There was even down-tempo neo-soul song with Mary J Blige about America’s socio-economic-geo-political situation (yes, really). That one was “Sumthin’s Gotta Give.”

Big Boi has released a new single, as of yesterday, entitled “Shutterbugg.” It is the most wonderful thing I’ve heard since… come to think of it, probably “Shine Blockas.” A layered arrangement of light, almost ethereal synth work and tinkling, Prince-ly guitar licks make for a delicate remedy to this era’s punchy, treble-y obsession with dance synths. The song reminds me of everything: George Clinton space funk , early Timbaland, Tupac talkboxing. But it also reminds me of nothing, of the future, of the shape of music to come in 2010.

Big boi says in the song he’s got “triple O.G. status/Atown’s very own.” As if we needed to be reminded of this!

So, cut a rug, do the shutterbug.

...or me?

Hypocrite Listener vs Daftpop Music Showdown

To Hypocrite Listener: Like all haterisms, hating hipsters sure gets old. I agree. What I’ve tried to convey is my boredom with the whole dismissive irony of some of the men making music in this genre. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the woman part of me feels left out from this entirely dude-ly genre. Trend-spotters have identified hipster style as gender-ambiguous, but I’d say it’s really more like women are dressing like men. I will be satisfied when men mix flannel with skirts and eyeliner. Anyway! Men are still the majority of music critics, the music makers, and the people at shows. And fo’ sho’, a majority of men present in a scene does not mean said scene is evil. But it does mean that I feel left out and will look elsewhere for a more colorful, various backdrop for my interests.

But, Anna! I can almost hear my detractors say: what about them women in the Dirty Projectors, what about Annie Clark and Natasha Khan? Yar, yar, yar: I agree and am very excited by the music they make. Also, for the record, I think the Dirty Projectors are totally, unequivocally awesome.

But besides the grievances I carry on behalf of my sex, Nige, I am probably more on your side than it seems. I get pissed too when people diss “hipsters” who live in our hoods. And I see that just by having a music blog, attending Pitchfork’s festival this summer, and owning a pair of black skinny jeans, I am clearly taking part in this massive subculture–as you pointed out, this subculture is a force that pretty much defines our generation. But I think it’s important to forever keep an eye on how this subculture bizness develops, what it includes, and what it leaves out. I think you’d agree with me on that.

But everything I’ve said so far makes it seem like taste is a conscious decision. In many ways, it is. But I’ve been bothered for a long time about the mystery of personal preference, especially when it comes to music taste. Can I tell you that you need to like T-Pain? Yes. But can I actually make you like him? No. Same goes for someone like Grizzly Bear. I can appreciate what the band is doing but still be totally bored by soft, mid-tempo acoustic songwriting. This might seem an evasive thing to say, because I am essentially acknowledging that even if we argue all day about the merits or demerits of T-Pain and Grizzly Bear, my ill-drawn pseudo-scientific theory about personal preference trumps all. Critics use ideas and objective material to discuss art; subjective likes and dislikes shouldn’t be an excuse. But at the same time, does not music possess mystical and intangible properties? We do our best to qualify all its empirical qualities, but still, the reason some songs sound awesome evades all logic. And besides, if all of art could be neatly codified into good and bad, wouldn’t it be something other than art?

Another note, for another blog post–I didn’t like 2009. It was a desert for good music no matter the genre. It was so bad, some people even postulated hip hop was dead. Maybe it’s all dying, or it’s just end-of-naughties fatigue.

Anyway, you may not prefer to listen to any of these songs, but perhaps you can appreciate them.

THE PLAYLIST IS LINKED HERE

Here they are, in no particular order:

–Beyonce: “Halo” and “Single Ladies”

There are few stars that I would indulge a double album showcasing the two sides of their persona. But Beyonce endlessly fascinates; she’s reserved, classy and a great old fashioned star, akin to Diana Ross, but with better pipes. Though I’ve seen her bare most body parts, B retains mystery and tact when overexposure is the norm. But more important than her persona is her voice. The brassy sass of “Single Ladies,” is all the more impressive heard in the context of “Halo.” Turns out, I need both sides of B’s coin. “Single Ladies,” which I have positively described elsewhere as a “robotic Motown stomp,” is alone in its aural universe; there’s really no other song like it. “Halo” is obviously one of millions of ballads, but Beyonce’s singing on that one sorta makes me cry.

–Big Boi feat. Gucci Mane: “Shine Blockas”

This is probably the most refreshing hip hop song of the year. Seriously, I was attentive to everything that came out. In the classics we had Ghostface, Mos Def and Raekwon. Commercial faves like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and to a much lesser extent Fabolous all released albums. There was a come back from Eminem. Clipse finally released their third album the other day. But you know somefink? Though some of that stuff was good, none of it was really new. (Although Clipse’s pandering to commercial hip hop was new, but that’s for another blog post.) Big Boi picked up hot-on-the-streets-today Gucci Mane and made a song that embodies a warm, breezy Georgia day, with slightly nostalgic and thankfully un-2009 instrumentation, and made an unassuming track that sounds like it’s been here for a while but will stick around forever.

–Most the-Dream songs, notably “Rockin’ That Thang,” “Walkin’ on the Moon,” even his collab with Fabo on “Throw It In the Bag,” and his production on Electrik Red’s album.

I object to the idea that most pop is “the set-it-and-forget-it trend of auto-tuned to death vocals over recycled beats and increasingly boring sampled material.” The-Dream and his buddy Tricky Stewart guarantee that a lot of the music on the radio sounds interesting. The warm, human option in a radioverse of T-Pain’s playful robotics, the-Dream is very like a chubby cherubim with a bewitchingly lovely voice. He also knows his way around the studio, channeling MJ on “Walkin’ on the Moon,” Prince on the Electrik Red song “Friend Lover,” R Kelly every which way, including a persona favorite, Electrik Red’s song “Freaky Freaky.” He’s not copping these masters, though, he’s paying a dutiful tribute while adding his own shit: speeding up the songs and adding like 16 tracks of bleeps, bops, strings, space sounds, etc: there’s literally never a dull moment on one of his songs. Pitchfork identified his style as rococo; indeed, the-Dreams interior design equivalent is probably this room. Did I mention the-Dream co-wrote “Umbrella” and “Single Ladies”? And that he is younger than you and me? ! ! !

–Ghostface: “Do Over”

Turns out Ghostdini didn’t have the lasting power I’d hoped for. Many long-time fans complained that Ghost didn’t bring it on this album as he had on his soul songs elsewhere. But I still think this song is a success.

–Pet Shop Boys: “All Over the World”

Okay, this song is totally ridiculous. It sounds like it was produced in 1996 and features gruesomely tacky faux-strings playing a famous ditty from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” But whatever! This song is totally exhilarating; every time I hear the chorus, I imagine the aging Pet Shop Boys standing on top of a mountain with their arms majestically stretched out to the sky. As the feverish 90s-British-gay-club bass pounds, we see the snow-capped peaks around the P.S. Boys, and the expanse of this colorful world unfolds before our eyes.

–Bassment Jaxx: “Scars” & “Raindrops”

Sasha Frere Jones helpfully pointed this out earlier in the year:

Two dance acts emerged around the turn of the century, both of which had the visas to pass between the worlds of pop and dance. One was Daft Punk and the other was Basement Jaxx. Especially since Basement Jaxx used actual human vocals and wove a wide range of references into their music, I thought they would reach more people, and for longer. Quite the opposite.

Daft Punk offered the nexus of studied unhumanity, the final solution of Kraftwerk’s menschmachine universe. And yeah, I think DP is more accessible than BJ, because even though BJ offer uplifting melodies, they are often hidden in an unintelligible chaos. DP makes a squeaky clean sound, even when they’ve got a shit ton of distortion on. Anyway, Bassment Jaxx is becoming a much more compelling group than DP–they’re a lot more prolific, and their emotional register is wide and varied. “Scars” is an auditory thesis in desperation and darkness. (This song also puts Kelis’ at-times gruff alto to much better use than her new single “Acapella.”) “Raindrops” is the opposite, the refreshing washing away of darkness, like the last drizzle before a rainbow appears! Yay.

–MSTRKRFT: “Heartbreaker”

You’re probably mad at me because I am including a bunch of dance music in my list, and most fans of dance/electro/whatevs wear skinny jeans. But alas, it’s technically a different genre. I know most MSTRKRFT songs consist of Justice-esque power-punching distortion, (their 2009 album is called Fist of God, for heaven’s sake), but this walk on the sensitive side plucks my heart-strings every time. The piano is simple but more emotionally effective than the catharsis-mongering of, say, Alicia Keys. The lyrics are rather basic: “I feel like crying/just want to die.” But the spirit is similar to the substance of Kanye’s 808s, and who hasn’t felt that desperate?

–Raekwon + Ghostface: “Cold Outside”

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II is so dense that I haven’t absorbed more than half of it. But this song stuck out during my first listens; it’s all street-elegy, a pointed picture of what sucks about being poor, cold and stuck in the hood. Kids are smoking weed, mothers can’t afford diapers and no one can afford Newports at $7.50 a pack. Mariachi horns blare in and out of tune in an endless loop, sounding a bit like the undying cycle of human misery.

–Keri Hilson, Ne-yo, Kanye, “Knock You Down.”

Sure did love this song.

–Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”

I had to acknowledge this one-woman phenomenon in some way, and it is by honoring her with a place on my playlist. “Bad Romance” has just the right amount of Gaga affectation; “Poker Face” was as static as the visage it describes; “LoveGame” featured a hook so obnoxious that it lulled you into a state of catatonic braindeath; “Paparazzi” was effectively creepy, but less because it’s about a stalker and more because it sounds uncannily like Gwen Stefani.  But the way she pronounces the word “romance” in this new single is brilliant: she slips in and out of a linguistic anachronism like she slips in and out of pop star cliches and robot outfits.  I am still embarrassed every time she says, “I’m a free bitch, baby,” but then again, no Gaga song is complete without something stupid like a “disco stick” popping up. Beside that, this song is pretty cool in a farty, thumping, idiotic sort of way.

–Jay-Z: “Thank You”

As previously mentioned, this song ain’t nothin new. But it suits Jigga to a ‘t’–I can just see him in his $4,000 suit, shimmying up his Italian silk tie, nonchalantly thanking all of us for providing him with riches. The marching horns on this track are a more effective testament to his old school New York cred than they are on “D.O.A.,” and, despite the questionable analogy about “9-11″ing his enemies, this song is a relaxed and enjoyable example of the rapper comfortably gazing down on us from his pedestal.

–Cam’ron: “I Hate My Job”

If there was a theme song for enduring a job during the recession, it’d be this one. Obviously being unemployed is miserable, but being locked into a job with a shitty commute, shitty boss, shitty hours, and shitty wages can be just as demeaning and dehumanizing. The piano loop sounds more like a Billy Joel rag or a Kermit the Frog sing-along than a track for the rapper of Purple Haze infamy, but I guess that just shows us that Cam’ron’s got the flexibility and wherewithal required to survive hard times.

–Clipse + Kanye: “Kinda Like a Big Deal.”

I listened to this song about 5 billion times this year, and I can’t remember what I ever liked about it. However, from an objective stand-point, this song features Kanye’s best verse of the year, and the guitars on this song are a much better way to rock in rap, as opposed to, say, Lil Wayne’s idea of how to rock in rap.

Gucci Mane: An Introduction

My head hurts from all this jail
My head hurts from all this jail

Gucci Mane: love him or never heard of him? If you are white, tis likely you’ve never heard of him. Gucci Mane (oft pronounced Gucci Man) is, of course, really hot on “the streets,” which means that Power 92 plays him a lot. That blog about stuff white people like once pointed out that white people enjoy black music that black people no longer care about. Anyway, Gucci is cared about now, so this is the chance to catch up on everything you (you, if you’re a white person) have missed while listening to 90s Wu Tang on repeat.

Gucci’s sure got an ugly mug, and sometimes he acts even uglier, but his laid back, husky and somewhat blubbery flow has its fans… one of them is even me. At his best, Gucci exhibits a breezy, self possessed confidence. Unlike his former ATL associate/current big beef Young Jeezy, he doesn’t sound like he’s hoarsely coughing nonsense at you. (Remember that crucial moment in history, right before Obama was elected? Jeezy had this to say about it: MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK/MY LAMBO’S BLUE/I’LL BE GOD DAMNED IF MY RIMS AIN’T TOO.) Gucci seems like a good-natured fellow, and his raps sound as natural as if he were merely breathing them. He’s lyrical, clever, and, according to imeem’s bio on him, liked writing poetry when he was little. It shows.

Let’s be real though. Gucci Mane is thug life 2009. There are youtube videos of him punching a woman, he also shot someone in Jeezy’s coterie a couple years ago, and he’s in jail again. Not that being thug life makes you punch women. Tupac would never do that.

Anyway, it’s taken me some time to understand what Gucci’s discography looks like. He is truly a rapper 3.0, because most of his impressively prolific oeuvre consists of many mixtapes. However, he’s still got some studio albums called Trap House and also Back to the Trap House. In two weeks, The State vs. Radric Davis drops. (Gucci’s given name is Radric Davis.) Sensing a theme here?

Do you want to understand the charms of Gucci Mane? No, you don’t want to listen to someone who beats women? Well, let’s hope that jail rehabilitates him a little this time.

Please enjoy my top 3 2009 Gucci traxxx:

Pretty Girls

Instead of peddling pap to larger audiences with Lady Gaga on “Chillin,'” Wale should have led his debut album Attention Deficit with this summer-appropriate jam about girls, featuring Gucci. Gaga’s poor imitation of M.I.A. really ruined it for Wale on that first single. “Pretty Girls” features some lively street percussion (think hand claps and plastic buckets) paired with a gospel-esque organ. Gucci rhymes about riding girls like a Huffy, and seeing similarities between diamonds and slushies. The whole thing makes for a tune I’d like to blare out of my convertible on a hot day.

Spotlight

This is Gucci’s nicest single from his forthcoming studio album. There was the very crunk “Wasted,” with Plies (who the fuck is that?), which sounds as though everyone was wasted while recording it. And now we have a modest, unpretentious Usher club song that provides the basic bump and grind it aimed to. Most amusing moment: Usher asks, “How you doin Gucci?” at beginning of the song, and Gucci responds by saying, “Yeaaaah…” as though he is slowly, reluctantly rising from his lazyboy when someone calls him from the kitchen. Second most amusing moment: the line that starts with “Gucci on Elimidate.”

Shine Blockas

Gucci will never make art like a member of Outkast, but he can keep up with Big Boi’s bounce in this optimistic ditty about maintaining one’s shine, regardless of circumstances. As always, Gucci’s presence is introduced by a series of excited self proclamations: “Gucci!” Wait a couple measures… then: “Gucci!” I guess I’d be that excited about myself if I was Gucci Mane too.