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.

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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!

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.

Update: Kanye West in 2009

Shiny orbs reveal a contemplative Kanye

Last year this time I was sullenly nodding along to Kanye’s “808s and Heartbreak.” This year this time I am marveling at Kanye’s 2009 brand expansion. He didn’t put out an album, but he was all over everybody else’s, guesting, producing, sputtering, chuckling, but mostly, as some might say, spittin’ raw game.

Probably because everyone was so mad at him for making a depressing cd, Kanye made up for all that 2008 autotuning with some witty, sad, self-reflective, angry and haughty rhymes on his various guest appearances.

A playlist of Kanye’s 12–COUNT EM’–12 singles is available for your listening pleasure (or displeasure, depending on the song) here. The best of this crop is “Walkin’ on the Moon,” with the-Dream. I LOVE THAT SONG! But other artists with whom Kanye worked successfully include Rick Ross, Keri Hilson and Clipse. Least successful collabs were with the Teriyaki Boyz, as well as with everyone and their mom on “Forever,” which is an EPIC FAIL (to use internet speak) featuring the megastars Drake, Lil Wayne and Eminem. (I think it’s because I HATE DRAKE.)

Many of these songs feature similar themes and references to products. Below is a sort of index for Kanye’s songs of this last year. I was inspired by the index Slate compiled for Sarah Palin’s new book; the index topics revealed a lot about the book, so if you don’t have time to listen to Kanye, this list will fill you in on what you missed.

Brands (cars):

Mercedes Benz (Maybach Music 2, Poke Her Face, Whatever U Want)

Maybach (Maybach Music 2, obviously), also known as “May-what?” (Run This Town)

Lexus (Maybach Music 2, Whatever U Want)

Ferrari (Walkin’ On the Moon)

Volvo, did not buy for family a (Run This Town)

Rav 4, did not become a rapper to drive a (Run This Town)

Brands (not cars):

-Reebok, implying it is okay to wear a pair of (Knock You Down), scoffing that you still own pair of (Run This Town)

-Louis Vuitton, implying it is higher class to wear (Knock You Down),

-Dolce & Gabbana, in your closet, Kanye finds (The Big Screen)

-Grey Poupon, rhymes with poop (Mayback Music 2)

Women:

-dykes, at the club, men who are not Kanye get (Maybach Music 2)

-breasts, for women who want them, Kanye will purchase new (Whatever U Want)

-nipples, aka bee stings (Run This Town)

-Michelle Obama, just cuz (Forever)

-sororities, Kanye has seniority at (Poke Her Face)

Movies:

-Good Will Hunting, in a sea of ill-will, Kanye goes (Run This Town)

-Karate Kid, because Kanye is rhyming with Asians, he mentions (Teriyaking)

-Return of the Jedi, when Kanye returns from out of town, it is similar to (The Big Screen)

-Hollywood (The Big Screen, Forever)

Wine Varietals:

riesling, drank too much (Run This Town)

Champagne, drank a little (Poke Her Face)

Affecting Foreign Accents:

‘chahnce, ‘ British pronunciation of the word “chance” (Supernova)

‘ting,’ Jamaican pronunciation of the word “thing” (The Big Screen)

Technology:

Macbook Air, Digitial Girl in question watched on(Digital Girl)

Blackberry, please stop using your (Walkin’ On The Moon)

-Macberry, horrible pun referring to iPhone (Walkin’ On The Moon)

-OMG, Internet lingo (Knock You Down)

texting, drunk (Walkin’ on the Moon)

Biology/biological functions:

gonads, someone grabbed him by the (Teriyaking)

poop, used in extended metaphor about world as his commode (Maybach Music 2, Teriyaking)

dick,  to prove point to women, Kanye uses (all songs)

-Medulla Oblongata (Poke Her Face)

-scoliosis (Poke Her Face)

comatosis, rhymes with scoliosis (Poke Her Face)

-sex, in library (Poke Her Face), with mentally challenged girls (Kinda Like a Big Deal)

Musical References:

-Slick Rick, Kanye is the new (Knock You Down)

-Hey Young World, [Slick Rick reference] (Knock You Down)

-Michael Jackson, this is bad, real bad, similar to the album by (Knock You Down)

Joe Jackson, Kanye is mad, real mad, similar to the mood of (Knock You Down)

Emotional Themes:

-palpable regret (all songs, especially Kinda Like a Big Deal, Run This Town, Walkin on the Moon, Knock You Down)

-haughtiness (all songs, especially Mayback Music 2, Poke Her Face, Whatever U Want, Forever)

-combination regret & haughtiness (all songs)

But shiny bags can't take away the pain