Originally posted on RapReviews. The non-indictment of police officers involved in the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island have led to protests all over the country in support of the murdered men. The narrative of the protesters and those supporting them is that the police unfairly target African-American men, treat them more harshly than whites for similar infractions (which is a documented fact), and that the police are not punished when they murder unarmed black men. "And fuck the popo because that 39% tax I pay Don't get me nuthin' but a choke hold and some pepper spray" - E-40, "It's All Bad" The argument in support of the police officers, which has been taken up by the more conservative elements in this country, has been that both Garner and Brown were crooks who were aggressive with police, that police interact more with African-Americans because they commit more crimes, and that blacks should really be more concerned with black-on-black homicides, since a young black man is far more likely to be murdered by another young black man than by a police officer. The conservative reaction is interesting and infuriating on a few levels. For one thing, it's interesting that a group that positions itself as being against government oppression would be in support of the government literally getting away with murder. At the very least, as a citizen it should concern you when law enforcement is able to kill an unarmed man in unclear circumstances (or in the case of Mr. Garner, all too clear), and get away without so much as an indictment. The only reason why Michael Brown's murder was even investigated by a grand jury is because citizens made a stink about it. If it hadn't become a national issue, nothing would have happened at all beyond the Browns having to go on with life without their son. "Fucking with me 'cause I'm a teenager With a little bit of gold and a pager Searchin my car, lookin for the product Thinking every nigga is sellin narcotics" - N.W.A., "Fuck Tha Police" There's also this idea that the problem in both cases is that the suspects did not cooperate with police. In the video of Eric Garner it's not clear to me that he was aggressively resisting, and the reaction to what resistance he did offer would have been overboard even if it hadn't killed him. Michael Brown's alleged reaction does sound unfortunate and not the best call. Giving lip to a police officer is never a good idea, much less getting physical with one. But even if we concede that both men's reaction to the police were overly aggressive and out of line (which I'm not saying is true), the outcome should not have been death. You don't get the death penalty for assaulting a police officer, shoplifting, or selling contraband cigarettes. Telling black men in the wake of this that the lesson they should learn is to be nice to cops is like telling a rape victim not to wear such revealing clothes or accept drinks from strangers next time she's goes out. It's focusing on the victim's behavior, as if the resulting act is inevitable and excusable. I can accept that if you pull a weapon on an officer of the law (or anyone for that matter), you should expect that they might react with lethal force. But getting mouthy with a cop should in no way be a death sentence, and we as a society cannot accept as much. "Now tell me who protects me from you?" - Jay Dilla "Fuck the Police" Now let's talk about the elephant in the room: black criminality. Conservative rocker Ted Nugent had a Facebook post in the wake of the Ferguson decision in which he said, among other things, "When a cop tells you to get out of the middle of the street, obey him & don't attack him as brainwashed by the gangsta a**holes you hang with & look up to….And don't claim that "black lives matter" when you ignore the millions you abort & slaughter each & every day by other blacks. Those of us with a soul do indeed believe black lives matter, as all lives matter. So quit killin each other you f**kin idiots." I normally wouldn't take anything Nugent says seriously since, like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, his whole schtick is more or less troll baiting liberals (or in this case, anyone with half a shred of decency). But since 517,000 people liked that post, I think it is worth addressing. Nugent is right on one count: blacks are much more likely to be killed by another black than by a police officer. (Whites are also more likely to be killed by other whites, for that matter.) Blacks are also more likely to be killed by heart disease than by a police officer. We don't have to solve every other problem African-Americans have in order to address police violence. And all 44 million African-Americans in this country don't have to be perfect before they can complain. More importantly, there is a difference between crimes committed by criminals and crimes committed and condoned by the system. I keep seeing people post things on social media asking why blacks aren't marching to protest (white) people killed by (black) muggers. The answer is simple: because the mugging victim's death wasn't caused and condoned by members of the system. I saw a sign at one of the Ferguson protests that summed this up perfectly. It said "We aren't mad because the system failed, we are mad because the system worked." "This fucking city Overrun by pigs They're taking the rights away From all us kids Understand, we're fighting a war we can't win They hate us, we hate them We can't win" - Black Flag, "Police Story" High rates of black criminality does something to explain the disproportionate amount of contact African-Americans have with police, in regards to other ethnicities. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the majority of high-crime areas are largely African-American. They are also the poorest areas, but class is an issue we don't talk about in the U.S., unless it is to label the poor "takers." Unfortunately, it seems that in the eyes of some police departments, the fact that some young black men are involved in crime has led to treating all of them as criminals. Nugent's phrase "don't claim that 'black lives matter' when you ignore the millions you abort & slaughter each & every day by other blacks" is instructive in its use of "you." He doesn't realize it, but Nugent is proving one of the main points of a lot of the protesters. He's condensing 44 million African-Americans into one person, one "you," and making them all responsible for one another's actions. He's saying in my eyes, you are all the same, and I don't differentiate between a vicious criminal, a young kid, a petty thief, a blue-collar father, a security guard, a white collar worker, a CEO, or the President of the United States of America. There's a Twitter hashtag #alivewhileblack that collects stories by African-Americans of uncomfortable interactions they've had with the police where they were treated like criminals whether or not they were doing anything wrong. Those stories echo what I've heard from my friends and colleagues of color. African-Americans are treated as suspects from the minute they enter the system. They are suspended from school at higher rates than their white classmates. They are stopped more frequently, arrested more frequently, and get longer jail terms than whites. From the cradle to the grave they are treated as defacto violent criminals. What's frustrating to me about this focus on black criminality is how the fact that Michael Brown and Eric Garner may have been involved in something criminal means, to many Americans, that they deserve what they got. Even if you think that both men were being aggressive, shouldn't the fact that they were killed during a routine police interaction raise some serious questions about how law enforcement are interacting with African-Americans in those communities? At the very least, from a management perspective, the police force in Ferguson and New York City should be questioning why the public they are serving has so much distrust and hostility towards them that questioning someone for a shoplifting or selling illegal cigarettes ends in an officer killing someone. Having someone's son, husband, or father lying dead shouldn't just be chalked up as the price we pay to be "safe." Even as a white guy who can't relate to the feelings these two verdicts have raised personally, I still felt deeply saddened by both of them. Because I can only imagine what it is like. Because Killer Mike was crying on stage about how scared he was for his two sons' lives. And because I know how deeply embedded the fear of black people, and especially black men, is in our culture. Fear of black men is what sells car alarms, security systems, and a lot of the firearms that are sold today. It is why parents in cities send their children to private schools. It is why we choose the neighborhoods we live in and the neighborhoods we don't visit. The weekly murders of young men of color in cities like Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco are barely make the local news unless it is a young child or a so-called "good kid," one who did well in school, played football, and thought about going to college. Otherwise we, as a society, assume that they have it coming, that is something that doesn't involve the rest of us, that their lives don't matter. We write them off as thugs, gangsters, or crooks. If there is any good to come out of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Kendrec McDade, Patrick Dorismond, Tamir Rice, and the many other unarmed men who have been killed by law enforcement, it is to bring to question how the police use force, the unequal treatment of African-Americans by police, and remind people that these men's lives mattered.
I've still been managing a review a week at RapReviews. I thought I'd stop this year, but I'm managing so I'll keep going for now. I have three new reviews up;
I reviewed Jack Jetson's "Further Adventures of Johnny Strange" last week. I also reviewed Ruane Maurice's self-titled. And the Sleaford Mods "Divide and Exit," posted below. Sleaford Mods are not from Sleaford, not mods, and not a hip-hop group. They are generally classified as punk; I came across "Divide and Exit" after I heard several people call it the punk album of the year. All I could think of when I heard them, however, was that they were a rap group. Singer Jason Williamson speaks rhythmically over producer Andrew Fearn's beats. Sure, Williamson's heavily accented rants are more similar to Crass's Steve Ignorant than Lil Wayne, and Fearn's beats often feature guitar, bass, and drums. But they are beats, and Williamson's rants are not singing. They may not be classified as a hip-hop group, but it sounds a lot like rap music to me. In fact, it is one of the best pairings of punk and hip-hop since P.O.S.'s "Never Better." Semantics aside, "Divide and Exit" is a brutal but funny album. Williamson takes a cynical and caustic view of contemporary living. Every punk band since the Ramones has criticized the boring squares, but the fact that Williamson is in his forties gives his rants extra bite. It's one thing to skewer the middle-aged middle class when you are twenty years old and living under your parents' roof, but it is another thing altogether when a peer is doing it. On "You're Brave" he calls out a wealthy weekend warrior whose money hasn't managed to buy him taste or respect. On this song, as with most of the album, Williamson (or his character) is right there, doing drugs with the guy and sneering at him the whole time: "Sat around the bloke's house He liked me because I made some informed comment About the early history of his fucking country Big mirror Lumps of drugs His own private lift Shit pieces of art Matter-of-fact statements about how he is picking his kids up In two hours Twat As if You're brave" A lot of the songs have a stream-of-consciousness feel to them. That, along with the incessant swearing and frequent drug and scatological references, make "Divide and Exit" feel like an Irvine Welsh book come to life. There's a bit of "Trainspotting" in "Tied Up in Nottz," for example: "The smell of piss is so strong It smells like decent bacon Kevin's getting footloose on the overspill Under the piss-station Two pints destroyer on the cobbled floors No amount of whatever is gonna chirp the chip up It's the final countdown My fucking Journey I woke up with shit in my sock outside the Polish off-license 'They don't mind' said the asshole to the legs You got to be cruel to be kind, shit man Save it up like Norman Colon Release the stench of shit grub like a giant toilet kraken The lonely life that is touring I got an armful of decent tunes, mate But it's all so fucking boring" Williamson had been kicking around his ranting style for a while, but it is when he met Fearn that Sleaford Mods really became a group. Fearn's mix of punk rock with hip-hop beats provide a sonic backbone that perfectly supports Williamson's spoken word/singing/rapping/whatever. Williamson may be the core of Sleaford Mods, but without Fearn's beats it would just be a guy ranting for forty minutes. Fearn's beats give dynamics and variety to the album and to the band. The resulting album is an intense, visceral experience. It manages to combine the aggression of both punk and hip-hop. However you want to classify it, "Divide and Exit" is a great album.
As I write this, another night of protesting the grand jury's decision in the murder of Michael Brown is ending. I spent too much time arguing with people online yesterday about the case and reaction to it. So let me share my thoughts about it, for what it's worth.
"You all kicked me in my motherfucking ass. You all got me fucked up. Because I got a twenty year old son, I got a twelve year old son, and I'm scared to death for them." Killer Mike, on Monday night.
First of all, let's get this out of the way. The racists and haters and conservatives naysayers aren't wrong: black men in America are much more likely to be killed by their own than by a police officer, or even a white man. Black men are also statistically disproportionately involved in criminal activities, compared to whites. Let me lift from the NAACP:
Racial Disparities in Incarceration
African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today's prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
1 in 100 African American women are in prison
Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).
Drug Sentencing Disparities
About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug
5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). (Sentencing Project)
Inner city crime prompted by social and economic isolation
Crime/drug arrest rates: African Americans represent 12% of monthly drug users, but comprise 32% of persons arrested for drug possession
"Get tough on crime" and "war on drugs" policies
Mandatory minimum sentencing, especially disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine possession
In 2002, blacks constituted more than 80% of the people sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws and served substantially more time in prison for drug offenses than did whites, despite that fact that more than 2/3 of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic
"Three Strikes"/habitual offender policies
Zero Tolerance policies as a result of perceived problems of school violence; adverse affect on black children.
35% of black children grades 7-12 have been suspended or expelled at some point in their school careers compared to 20% of Hispanics and 15% of whites
If blacks are disproportionately involved in crime, they are also disproportionately arrested for it, and treated more harshly than whites by the system. In shorts, blacks, and particularly young black men, are seen as defacto criminals and treated thusly by the system.
People like Ted Nugent who point out levels of black criminality to justify/explain the killing of Michael Brown are proving the point: because some of the group are involved in crime, the entire group is treated like criminals, and it is perfectly legal and acceptable to murder them. Never mind that law enforcement should be held to a higher standard than a 16-year-old gangbanger. Never mind that being treated as guilty until proven innocent is unconstitutional. Never mind that basic management skills teach you that treating people with disrespect and suspicion is not a good way to get them to be on your side.
There was a sign among the protesters in Ferguson that read something to the effect of "We aren't mad because the system failed, we are mad because the system worked." That sums up a lot of how I feel about Ferguson. I can say for sure if Wilson genuinely felt his life was in danger. His injuries don't seem to indicate a brutal attack by a "demon," but I'm not a doctor and I'm judging from a photo. I do think that cops should be able to apprehend robbery suspects without killing them, and that anytime an officer of the law shoots and unarmed person, it should be a Big Fucking Deal. I also think that the police in communities like Ferguson need to work doubly hard to work with the communities they serve, and take care that they aren't being perceived as an invading force who are there to keep the animals in line.
While all rap music could be considered poetry based on its form, not all rap music is poetry in the Merriam Webster definition of "writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm." Even good rappers only offer occasional "poetic" moments in their songs. The majority of their time is spent on less literary pursuits. Hip-hop is party music, after all, and it is hard to rock a party and comment on the human condition at the same time.
British rapper turned poet turned rapper Kate Tempest attacks rapping with a poet's ear for language. Her poetry is informed by her love of hip-hop, and her rapping is informed by her love of poetry. She's also a playwright and has performed Shakespeare. There's certainly a theatrical element to her debut album, "Everybody Down." Not only is it poetry by way of hip-hop, it's also a story divided into 12 songs. Let it never be said that Tempest takes the easy way out. Given that rock operas and concept albums have a history of being overlong, self-indulgent, and convoluted, the listener can be excused if they approach the idea of a hip-hop opera with trepidation. While "Everybody Down" falls into some of the common traps that plague rock operas, it mostly succeeds.
The most important part of any concept album is to focus on the music. Kate Tempest gets that part right by bringing in producer Dan Carey, who has worked with Bat for Lashes and M.I.A. His EDM-inspired beats are based in fuzzy synthesizers and throbbing bass, with elements of dub and electro pop sprinkled in for good measure. They have bite to them, but there are also soft edges and melodies.
Tempest has a thick South London accent, and you can definitely hear the spoken-word influence in her delivery. The most obvious comparison is Mike Skinner of The Streets, who has a similar accent, storytelling style, and outsider perspective. However, as amiable as Skinner is, his music often felt frivolous and inconsequential, at least to me. The same cannot be said of Kate Tempest. Her lyrics are serious as a heart attack, and she is intent on making art that Means Something. At a time when hip-hop is the template for a lot of meaningless pop music, it's nice to see someone treating it like art. Also, she can rap. She cites Roots Manuva as an influence, and you can hear some of his smooth, reggae-lilted flow in Tempest's delivery.
As a poet, Tempest has a gift for words. "Everybody Down" is full of moments in which she captures what it is like to be young and broke and confused in just a few short sentences. "Everywhere is monsters...shouting and screaming just to prove they exist" she starts out on opener "Marshall Law." She sums up the shallow crowd at a video after-party in just a few cutting words. "Everybody here has a hyphenated second name/Blowing more breeze/Than the wind at the weather vane." "The world is the world but it is all how you see it" she raps at the chorus. "One man's flash of lightening ripping through the air is another's passing glare, hardly there."
The story follows the exploits of a young woman named Becky who works as a waitress and masseuse and spends too much time and money drinking and doing drugs. Tempest describes her as having "Eyes full of mornings/Spent without sleeping/Grew up in a city where it's hard to be heard and nothing really has much meaning." Becky meets local drug dealer Harry at a party, then meets and falls in love with his younger brother Pete. Harry is trying to save up money to open his own club. Pete is just trying to make an honest living in post-recession London. Pete and Becky fall in love, but learn the hard way that love fades. "If I love you like I say," thinks Pete in "The Stink," I would not treat you this way."
As is the case with almost all rock operas, the storyline is hard to follow. Tempest tries to tackle a lot in the confines of an hour long album. Each track seems to introduce two or three new characters, and it is hard to track all of them. Essentially what happens is that Pete is jealous of Becky's side gig as a masseuse, Becky is pressured to blur the line between masseuse and sex worker, and Harry and his friend murder and steal drugs from a supplier. Pete ends up convincing his mother's boyfriend's son Dale to book a massage with Becky to see what happens, and Dale recounts how the massage went when he sees Becky and Pete at a surprise party on "Happy End." Pete and Dale get in a fight, and Becky runs off with Harry and his friend Leon, because they are both in trouble with Becky's uncle.
"Happy End" is indicative of what is right and wrong with "Everybody Down." There are so many characters that it is impossible to keep track of what's going on. Take this passage, for example: "Dale and Pete Were in a pile of trainers and feet Clenched fists and black eyes and chipped teeth Their dads had tried To get in-between them It was like they couldn't wait to get involved Graham was beating David's skull with his elbows David was kneeing Graham's nether regions And Miriam was at the bar weeping Ron was pleased as punch With the outcome of the evening While Becky, Harry and Leon headed for the beyond"
That's nine people mentioned in one verse. Even if it were a play, story, or movie there are too many characters. The fact that this is happening in song form makes it even more of an issue. Tempest is much more effective when she focuses on the little moments and doesn't try to bite off so much at once. The next verse in "Happy End" describes Harry, Leon, and Becky's getaway, and it packs a bigger emotional punch:
"Off to Dover for the ferry And from there, wherever Harry looked at Becky 'Let's feel this way forever?'"
Of course, that's the same thing she said to Pete earlier in the album, and you know that they are probably going to get caught by the mob, and even if they do escape Harry and Becky are probably doomed. The aggressive beat hammers in just how hopeless their situation is. Still, in just a few words, Tempest manages to capture the fleeting feel of young love.
What ultimately makes "Everybody Down" successful (and most concept albums for that matter) is the way in which it allows the listener to connect with the story. We care about what is going on with Becky and Harry and Pete because they reflect our own experiences. I can't relate to being a young sex worker or drug dealer, but I have definitely blown it with a cute girl by saying too much, and I've had to work a crap job that was beneath my degree, and I've been cruel to someone I was in love with, and I've experienced love fading, and my dreams fading, and felt like my life was losing its meaning. Tempest manages to bring those experiences to life in her songs in ways that seem real and true.
"Everybody Down" may try to tackle too much in its 48-minute run time, but even if the story isn't always coherent, the emotions of the characters shine through. Kate Tempests paints a world of young people who are searching for themselves and meaning in a world that seems to offer only disappointment. In doing so, Tempest reminds us that rap music can be art, and that the poetry of rap can indeed be poetic.
Detroit rapper and producer Curtis Cross, better known as Black Milk, has been pushing the classic hip-hop sound forward since his 2005 debut. He's in the lineage of DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip and Dilla, but constantly evolves so that his beats never sound stale. He's worked with electronic sounds and live bands, managing to stay true to his old school roots without being restricted by it. His beats are always grounded in hard-hitting drums, a nod to his boom-bap heritage. Those drums are all over his sixth album, "If There's a Hell Below," which contains some of his best production work to date.
The title is a reference to the Curtis Mayfield song "If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go." Milk's interpretation of that song is that that even though the inner city can resemble hell, there is also joy in it. Along with using the Curtis Mayfield song as a lyrical inspiration, he uses it as a musical inspiration as well. "If There's a Hell Below" is a soulful record. You can hear the influence of "Curtis!" and "Superfly" on "Everyday Was," "Hell Below," "Gold Piece," and "Up & Out." Those tracks have a dusty, nostalgic sound that makes you think of childhood and old records. They have the same beauty and power that Curtis Mayfield's music had. Black Milk gets compared to Dilla all the time, but Milk has moved beyond Dilla's innovative sample flipping. Milk is using a combination of samples, programming, and live instruments to create music that has an organic feel to it. His beats feel like songs.
Lyrically, much of the album deals with looking at where Black Milk has come from and where he's at today. There's a lot of references to hip-hop history, whether through clips of a eighties rap battle, an early news program about rap music, or snippets of Ghostface and Dilla that pop up. The theme of seeing the joy in difficult situations recurs throughout the album. On "Leave the Bones," Black Milk describes his childhood:
"Where the blood is spilled City bruhs get killed Little kids dodging bullets on their big wheels [...] Ignored all my teachers Bored by my preachers Instead I went home and played 'Liquid Swords' out my speakers Start writing something about the time my cousin Pookie got locked up"
On "What it's Worth," he explores his career: "Hear too many questions about Why you not working with the latest Never been one to go to another one to be validated [...] Let it breathe Heaven knows Me and my niggas had dreams Cashing checks with seven Os"
The theme of the album is especially clear on album closer "Up & Out," in which he describes the drama and the joy of where he grew up: "You seen hell before My niggas already lived it If There's a Hell below Then we're already in it Tell your white friends though Come and pay us a visit Our neighborhoods don't look like theirs Don't be scared When you see teddy bears on light poles everywhere You see Streets watching everywhere you be"
"If There's a Hell Below" is built around strong beats and a strong concept. Unfortunately, Black Milk's rapping isn't as strong. He's not a bad rapper, just an average one. There is a forgettable quality to his rhymes and delivery, at least to me. It's what has prevented me from getting more excited about him as an artist; I recently got rid of my copy of his 2010 "Album of the Year" when I realized I had only listened to it four times in as many years. There's a reason why his collaborations with other rappers always feature him on the boards and not on the mic. His mic skills can't compare to his beatmaking skills. Milk gets assists from Bun B, Blu, Mel, Ab and his Random Axe cohorts, who help elevate the album.
Even with Black Milk's limits as a rapper, "If There's a Hell Below" is a solid album. Black Milk nails the line between being retro and forward-thinking, between street and backpack, between nostalgia and honesty. Detroit's dominance over hip-hop shows no signs of slowing down.
Though Wara from the NBHD lives in Atlanta, the 24-year-old was raised in Brooklyn. That borough is all over "Kidnapped." For starters, Wara sounds like "Reasonable Doubt"-era Jay Z, both in terms of his voice and his delivery. His bittersweet tales of street life are also reminiscent of early Mobb Deep and Nas. Production-wise, there's some Mobb Deep, a little Neptunes, and hints of RZA at his peak. Wara also has a respect for the craft of hip-hop that comes from being raised near its birthplace.
Like many great producers, Wara comes from a musical family. His dad was a musician, and Wara knows his way around a piano, guitar, and drum set. He fills his songs with those instruments. As a result, his songs have strong melodies and choruses. Wara's specialty is adding unexpected bursts of upbeat melodies to songs that would otherwise be dour and melancholy. He'll build a skeleton around menacing bass and snapping drums, and then bring a bright guitar note in at the hook to add dynamics. Sometimes he'll change the song up completely. "Fuck You Mean/Composure" changes direction a third of the way in. "Scrilla" references Beenie Man's "Sim Simma" and Redman's "Who Am I?", but then veers off into its own direction at the end of the song. Wara keeps the album from being too downbeat, and injects his music with a healthy dose of soulfulness and optimism.
Unlike many great producers, Wara is actually as good in front of the mic as he is behind the boards. Lyrically and in terms of delivery, he treads the line between arrogance and pleading, bragging and asking forgiveness. He acknowledges the faults in his personality and lifestyle with self-awareness. On "Slangin," for example, he takes the role of his older brother telling him the downside of the life of a drug dealer. On "Beige," he uses the color as a metaphor for his skin tone and the color of crack rocks. On "Annoyed," he raps about how much he likes a girl and how much she annoys him. "Scrilla" and "Fuck You Mean/Composure" both detail life in the streets, a life full of fatherless children who are doomed to die before they are old enough to drink.
As he explains on "Slangin": "You know what the streets do? The streets breed assholes Who sit around with frowns contemplating cash flows Have their mommas paranoid Waiting for phone calls Like 'Mama I'm in jail' Or 'He's as dead as a doorknob Most kids around here they don't live past 21"
The standard template for rapping about street life is to have nine songs about how awesome it is to be a gangster, and one song where the rapper apologizes for all the trouble he causes. Wara manages to give both the good and bad in each song, laying out why people fall into the life (namely lack of role models and lack of other opportunities), and the fallout from the life. The payoff in fast cash and women is always overshadowed by the very real threat of death and jail time. And it's not private jet money he and his co-conspirators are making. He's not in the game to buy a Maybach or get a black card, he's in it for new sneakers and a new Hilfiger outfit.
Wara isn't the only rapper who pays tribute to the mid-nineties in his music and rhymes. There's a generation of younger rappers who are digging deep into album collections of their older brothers and parents for inspiration. Rappers like Joey Bada$$ and Vince Staples who make rap music that reflects an era when the music was all about substance with style rather than style with no substance. These artists aren't being slavishly retro, however. Wara's music may nodd back to the era of beepers and Cross Colors, but it's not frozen in amber. His lyrics are as much a product of this age of social media oversharing as they are a nod to the Queensbridge sound. It's hard to imagine a rapper from 90s Brooklyn being so upfront about their faults and so unconcerned with acting tough. Wara uses old school sounds as a jumping off point, not as a set of rules to rigidly adhere to.
"Kidnapped" is a well-thought out and fully realized album in the vein of "Reasonable Doubt," "Illmatic," and "The Infamous." Every note and lyric seems carefully placed, and there is not a single tossed off track on the album. It is a banging, thought-provoking album, and one of the best debuts in a long time.
I was going to do a long post about cultural appropriation, but I don't have it in me. Here's the short version: mocking other cultures is generally a bad thing, shaming people for interacting with cultures is generally a bad thing, outrage porn is generally a bad thing, being a self-righteous twat is generally a bad thing.
My review of Ariana Grande's latest is up at RapReviews. Why am I reviewing a pop/R&B album? Partially because me and my kid sort of like "Bang Bang" and "Problem." Partially because I feel like I should review more high-profile stuff. And partially because Ariana Grande doesn't totally make sense to me. So there you have it. Originally posted at RapReviews.
At 21, Grande is already eight years deep into a career that has spanned singing on cruise ships to singing in a Broadway musical to staring in a Nickelodeon show to releasing a debut album and touring with Justin Bieber in 2013. "My Everything" is her second album. Grande's main attribute is her voice, which is somewhere between Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey. (The fact that she is good-looking doesn't hurt either - there aren't any plain female pop stars, after all.)
I get the sense from the music and marketing for Ariana Grande's "My Everything" that she and her handlers don't quite know what to do with her. Is she a teen pop idol or a dance diva or an R&B singer? Is she the squeaky clean Nickelodeon star or is she a sexy sexy grown up? Does she let the focus be on her singing chops, or does she hide her range with layers of Auto-Tune and EDM? ÊThe approach seems to be to try and maintain multiple conflicting images at once, even when they are contradictory. It seems to be working for her, but it's confusing.
To start off with, Grande is old enough to drink but doesn't look old enough to vote. Her barely-legal looks give a creepy sheen to her sexed up image. She's posing in lingerie and heels on the album cover and she's wearing a miniskirt and high-heeled boots in most of her marketing material and videos. Yes, Grande is a grown-ass woman and can dress however she wants to dress and get as sexy as she wants to get, and no, she's not nearly as trashy as Miley Cyrus or "Dirrty"-era Christina Aguilera. However, while it seemed like Miley and Xtina's hyper-sexualized image was driven by the artists themselves, with Grande it just feels like a management-imposed marketing strategy. They are trying to get her to land somewhere between girl next door and high class call girl. Sexy enough to differentiate her from her Nick days, but not sexy enough to scare any of those fans (or their parents) off. Her sly, coquettish looks to the camera in "Problem" are stiff. Her hip-grinding is desultory and phoned in. It all feels as scripted and test-marketed as a Hollywood blockbuster starring an actress who is fulfilling a contractual obligation. Her visual presentation doesn't seems to be connected with who she actually is.
Grande's voice is ostensibly why she is famous, and to their credit the producers give her room to show off her impressive chops. She gets to do some full-on belting on ballads like "Just A Little Bit of Your Heart" and "Why Try." They don't trust her enough to actually let her voice carry the songs though; the metallic fingerprint of Auto-Tune is all over "My Everything," even the vocal trills that start off the album. I understand correcting the pitch of an artist who isn't a strong singer, but why mess with the vocals of someone who can actually sing?
Speaking of producers, "My Everything" assemble a huge international crew. All the songs but the intro have more than one producer, and "One Last Time" has five. No song has less than three songwriters listed, and "Break Your Heart Right Back" has six. That's a whole lot of chefs to craft a three minute pop song. The benefit of having so many people involved is that the end product is well-position to acquire maximum market share across multiple platforms with significant cross-promotional potential. A song like the A$AP Ferg track "Hands On Me" has the snaps and whistles of club rap with some big EDM synths to smooth it out and prevent it from appealing only to the Urban market. "Love Me Harder" has the indie R&B/chillwave thing going courtesy of the Weeknd, but given a pop makeover so that it isn't too weird for the Walmart crowd (who get exclusive bonus tracks when they buy the album from the mega-retailer). This song-by-committee approach pays off, to a certain extent. As much as I might dis "My Everything" for its lack of sincerity, it's not a bad album. In fact, I kind of like some of it. "Problem" is a perfect combination of hip-hop sass and Mariah Carey worship, "One Last Time" and "Break Free" are big dumb dance songs done with style and class, "Bang Bang," which is available on some deluxe versions of the album, is a great song, although Jessie J. and Nikki Minaj are the ones responsible for its greatness. Ariana Grande's music may not be my cup of tea, but it doesn't suck.
The same can't be said for the rappers who accompany Grande on the mic. Iggy Azalea, Childish Gambino, A$AP Ferg and Big Sean all share verses with Grande, and they all fall on their faces. They fail in a few different ways. Azalea's verse would almost be good if it wasn't her rapping them. I've always admired how Australian rappers adapted the music to their own idiom and slang, so it's a shame to see that the most well-known Australian rapper sounds like she's doing an impression of someone from Brooklyn. Big Sean's verses on "Best You Ever Had" aren't bad, but he's having to deliver them as ballad rap which makes them clumsy. Childish Gambino and A$AP Ferg both sound neutered by having to give PG-rated raps. Listening to them is like watching an episode of the Brady Bunch directed by Quentin Tarantino. They are playing far outside their strengths and most of their standard vocabulary and subject matter are off-limits. You can tell Ferg would really, really like to clearly state where he wants Ariana's hands on him, and if the song was just aimed at hip-hop radio he would.
There's a couple of well-worn paths ahead of Grande. Since we love to tear down artists, and especially female artists, a backlash is inevitable. At some point she is going to have to shed her teeny bop image for once and for all. I don't think she could pull of Taylor Swift's whole "every girl's best friend" thing, which even Taylor is having trouble maintaining. She could go full slut like Christina and Miley and Brittany, start dry humping things, make out with Madonna, maybe date a woman for a minute, but that doesn't seem like Grande's style either. She could have a public meltdown like her idol Mariah, then try and make a comeback, maybe in an unflattering acting role. Personally, I see her having a hit with a big anthem from a Disney movie and then going back to Broadway, which is where her voice seems most suited.
I was at a wedding recently where a twelve-year-old girl jumped up onstage when "Bang Bang" came on. She danced and lip-synched to the entire song, putting her hand on her ear when Grande's part came on, like a singer checking her monitor. I may not love Grande's music, and I am definitely not her target audience, but seeing a young girl connect with it was a heartwarming experience. Grande's music and image may make no sense to me, but it's connecting with millions of people to whom the lines between R&B, hip-hop and dance aren't as rigid. That is no small feat.
I grew up near Santa Cruz and live in San Francisco. The first album I bought was Herbie Hancock's Future Shock. I buy too many albums. I think about music too much. This is an outlet for my musings on everything from punk to hip hop, so my friends don't have to put up with my rambling.
I am a regular contributor to RapReviews. I used to write for Blogcritics.org. My work has appeared in print in the now-defunct Clamor magazine.