Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Iamsu! Review

Sincerely Yours

First posted at  RapReviews.

 There has been a quiet revolution going on within hip-hop over the past few years: good kid rap. Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Sage the Gemini and Iamsu! are part of a new breed of rapper who may have grown up surrounded by gang bangers and drug dealers but didn't participate in the lifestyle. They don't celebrate self-destruction in their raps, but they also aren't as explicitly conscious as Talib Kweli or Common were back in the proverbial day. They aren't as nihilistic as the rappers coming out of Chicago's drill scene or the Odd Future gang (although Earl Sweatshirt could be called a good kid rapper), and they don't celebrate ridiculous excess like the Migos or Rick Ross or Jay Z or most mainstream rappers. These are kids rapping about what kids care about: friends, girls, and trying to make sense of the world.

Sudan Ameer Williams, better known as Iamsu! embodies this new breed of rapper that's not gangsta, backpack, macho, or overly materialistic. He was born and raised in Richmond, California, a city of 100,000 wedged between the aging hippies and university students in Berkeley and a Chevron oil refinery. Richmond has a reputation in the San Francisco Bay Area as a dangerous place, a reputation which isn't totally unearned, since it was once the 12th most dangerous city in America. (When I moved to nearby El Cerrito, two different burglar alarm salesman showed up on my door, and El Cerrito's proximity to Richmond was the basis of both their sales pitches.) Despite coming from a city best known by outsiders for its murder rate, Iamsu!'s music is dreamy and mellow. If you only knew about Richmond from "Sincerely Yours," you'd get the feeling it was some idyllic town where the only problem young men faced was having too many girls to choose from and too much money. On "No Secret" he raps:

"I see the Forbes List like this where I need to be
I was a youngun on his grind, mind on money
With his side kick thirsty trying to aim young honeys
Now I aim is to the top, never change, never stop
I was a good kid, never had to hang on the block
But the hood still cheering for him, burb still cheering for him
Made it out the Bay, overcame let's hear it for him
But never forgetting where I came from"

"Sincerely Yours" is a low-key album. Iamsu! sings most of his rhymes over a series of melodic, dreamy beats. It's what I ended up liking most about the album, but it was also what made me sleep on this album and his mixtapes. He doesn't make the most banging music in the world. It doesn't have the flash of a lot of stuff on the radio, even songs that feature him. Half the songs are slow. Things don't really take off until the last third of the album when the familiar pulsing hyphy beat kicks in and people like Too $hort and Two Chainz show up.

Ironically, those more uptempo, club-worthy tracks are also the least interesting songs on the album. They tread the same musical and lyrical territory as a hundred other songs on the radio. "Back On Your Mind," "What You ÔBout" and "T.W.D.Y." are all basically different versions of the same song, which also happens to be the same song DJ Mustard has been constantly rewriting for the past twenty-four months. It's a good sound, but every other song on hip-hop radio has that same minimalist beat, the same chanting "yeahs," the same farting bass. The prettier, more contemplative beats by The Bizness ("No Secret," "Girls," "Stop Signs") are far more interesting, and see Iamsu! rapping about less played out subject matter.

Iamsu!'s music has something lacking from a lot of recent hip-hop: Fun, and not the fun of being in the VIP section of a club none of the listeners could afford to be in even if their outfits made it past the dress code. Iamsu! is all about meeting cute girls at swap meets, hanging out with friends, getting high, and basically living like most late teens and early twenty-somethings live. While "Sincerely Yours" offers some decent club hits, it excels when Iamsu! is being sincere. Maybe good guys do win sometimes.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Punk Singer

I watched The Punk Singer last night, the documentary about Bikini Kill/Le Tigre singer and riot grrrl co-founder Kathleen Hannah. I wasn't in love with it - it reminded me of the Minuteman doc We Jam Econo in its overly-laudatory tone and slightly amateurish style. It would have been a better film if it hadn't been so hyperbolic in its praise of its subject. Not that Kathleen Hannah and Bikini Kill don't deserve praise, but when you have lines like 'They weren't just the best girl band, they were the best band PERIOD," it's a little much. It painted her as a hero/martyr, especially when discussing her struggles with Lyme disease.

There was a particularly tone-deaf moment when someone was saying how feminism was equality for all races and classes and for the disabled, and then it went into how Hannah had gotten so sick she's been unable to work for the past nine years. Not that her illness hasn't been debilitating, but to somehow compare her struggle with the disease with the struggle for the poor and women of color was a bad look. There's a point in the film where Hannah discusses her father, and says she calls him sexually inappropriate rather than sexually abusive because she knows people who have been sexually abused and her story isn't anywhere near as horrific. That's what framing her illness with the struggles of other marginalized people made me think of - terrible and traumatic and worthy of sympathy and exploration, but maybe not as horrific as the stories of people experiencing institutionalized racism or generational poverty. Given the frequent accusations by feminists of color that white feminists ignore issues of race and their own privilege, it struck me as a particularly unskillful way to introduce her illness.

There was also very little mention of the criticism Hannah received in the 90s from the feminist and punk communities. They mention the awful media attention they got, and the hateful letters they got from guys threatening to kill or rape them, but there wasn't much in way of feminist criticisms of Hannah or riot grrrl. I knew a Latina woman who was involved in riot grrrl and ended up being very disillusioned by how much of it came from a position of white privilege, and how it's format (punk rock and zines) almost by design excluded people of color, who were less likely to be into that culture.

Also, Hannah's voice. She speaks in a valley girl accent, full of "likes," and "you knows." It makes her sound so trivial and dumb, and she's not. The film addresses this, the contradiction between the way she talks and the ideas she's expressing, but Hannah's expiation is that she adopted the accent in jr. high to sound rich. That was 30 years ago - why has she kept it? As someone who is plagued with a surfer accent of my own, I especially sensitive to it. I think it is one of the biggest issues of my generation and the ones younger than me: we, like, you know, sound like fucking dumbasses or whatever.

Still, it was an inspiring film in many ways. It was great to relive the early days of riot grrrl and be reminded of what a powerful movement it was. They had input by people from Tribe 8, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, and Sonic Youth, although why none of those bands were really profiled is a mystery. They also could have spent more time discussing other female punk bands that came before Bikini Kill - the women that inspired them. I would also love to hear what Hannah thinks about feminism in the 21st century, but maybe I should just find some interviews she's done.

So see it if you want to, but I would take the many positive reviews it has gotten with a grain of salt.

Friday, July 04, 2014


I had some extra credits this month, so I downloaded a few Nomeansno songs from Emusic. I loved the Canadian band in the late 80s when I used to listen to The Day Everything Became Isolated and Destroyed and Wrong over and over.  I first heard of them when the local college radio station played "Dad."

It's a three chord punk song about an abusive father with a sick sense of humor (the last line is "I'm seriously considering leaving home"). What I liked about Nomeansno was that their songs were more intelligent and interesting than your average hardcore band. They have serious musical chops, and would swing between jazz, blues, punk, and prog, sometimes in the same song. There is something nerdy about them as well - they are in the same camp as Primus and Rush, in a way. Virtuoso musicians whose music is probably better appreciated if you know some music theory and/or are high. Neither of those descriptions fit me, but I still like Nomeansno.

Open Mike Eagle Review

Open Mike Eagle
Dark Comedy
Mello Music Group, 2014

Originally posted on

L.A. transplant Open Mike Eagle is often called a smart rapper. While it is an accurate description of his brainy rhymes, it's also a backhanded compliment to both Mike and other rappers. Calling Mike a smart rapper implies that his intellect is the most interesting aspect of his music. It also implies that other rappers are dumb, or that Mike is the only person in hip-hop with a college degree. It's hard to be stupid and make a living spitting complex rhymes, and most rappers have more going on upstairs than their songs about sex, drugs, and violence let on.

As to the label "smart rapper," while Open Mike Eagle's literate rhymes and obscure references may be his most obvious trait, the "rapper" part is more important. Being smart only matters if you can rap, and Mike's biggest gift is his ability to translate his intellect into compelling rhymes. He's been working on his craft for the better part of a decade. "Dark Comedy," his fourth solo album, is his best work to date.

As on his previous albums, he works with electronica-influenced beats, avoiding boom-bap or club rap. There are eleven different producers on "Dark Comedy," unlike his last album, where Awkward produced all the beats. Most of the tracks are melodic and pretty, with the exception of Jeremiah Jae's abrasive beat on "A History of Modern Dance," and Alpha MC's menacing beat on "Doug Stamper." Mike adds to the melodicism by singing most of his rhymes. He experimented with singing rhymes on "4NML HSPTL," but he perfects it here. The sung vocals add emotion to the songs and offset Mike's sometimes monotone delivery.

There is a definite nerdy vibe to Open Mike Eagle. He quotes nerd icons They Might Be Giants, raps about role playing games, and uses ten dollar words like "synesthesia" (which is where you perceive sounds as colors). The combination of high-brow lyrics, muted vibe and indie pop sensibilities on "Dark Comedy" also mean that it will probably appeal to many of the college-educated, left-leaning intellectual types that tune in to "This American Life" on a weekly basis (a description which includes myself). However, it would be unfairly reductive and inaccurate to label Mike's music "NPR rap" or "Nerdcore." As brainy and nerdy as he gets at points, there is bite to his songs. He's said in interviews that each of his song is based on something that bothers him, and he tackles a host of problems on "Dark Comedy." Things like racism, sexism, depression, addiction, and trying to make it as an artist in a genre where people use $1,500 laptops and $800 phones to illegally download an $8 album. "And nobody ever has to pay for anything," he raps on "Golden Age Raps," "Which is pretty cool 'cause everybody's unemployed." "My friends are superheroes," he raps on "Very Much Money (Ice King Raps)," "None of us have very much money though." He takes on his detractors and freeloaders on at the chorus. "That shit's not valuable/Come say it to my face/It's all disposable/Come say it to my face." On "Qualifiers," Mike twists rap braggadocio on its head, claiming "We're the best, mostly/Sometimes the freshest rhymers/We the tightest kinda/Respect my qualifiers."

He supposedly had an album worth of songs ready to go a while back, but realized they were all downers and so decided to make a less depressing album. Hence "Dark Comedy," with Mike "on that to keep from crying tip." There is a sadness to the album that comes through in the rhymes and in the subdued beats. In that sense it is a good companion to Atmosphere's recent "Southsiders," another album of somber, contemplative rap. Also like "Southsiders," "Dark Comedy" takes a while to truly appreciate. When you are dealing with four-minute songs with whispered rapping and a beat that isn't much more than a piano ("Idaho"), you can't just put it on in the car and hope to immediately get it. It's only after a few listens that you realize it is a song that is either about driving late at night drunk and high, or a metaphor about feeling out of control in life.
"Damn near fucking blind, don't know why you trust me to drive
I guess cause everytime you trust, we survive, but it's time
Is a motherfucking gamble
Eventually lady luck will call and say she cancels
You betting on my confidence when I was extra high, now I'm extra high
We'll pull over just to rest my eyes
And the only thing, fueling me is that I'm scared to die
And I'm scared for you cause you could die and never said goodbye
Why you trust me so? Why'd you let me lead
When I don't know where I'm going and I speed?
And this vehicle's the jankiest
Feel this coffee ruining my stomach and my pancreas
Sounds make me the angriest
So foggy the words, seem to be turning in different languages"

There are a lot of rappers who complain about the state of rap music: how it is full of sex and violence, how there is a lack of lyricism, how it is full of crass pop crossovers. Open Mike Eagle does one better and shows a path forward for hip-hop. His music isn't stuck in golden age worship, it isn't trying to be street, and it is more concerned with being good than with calling out other rappers for being bad. Sure he's a smart rapper, but he's a good rapper who infuses his music with melodies and meaning. "Dark Comedy" may not be the most banging album of the year, but it is one of the better ones.

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