Wednesday, January 10, 2007

2006: Year In Downloading -- Part 2

One of the overarching themes in hip hop music this past year was a seemingly-never-ending (Is it over yet? Please?) feud between New York and the South over who's really runnin' shit. The South has felt overdue for respect for a while regarding their relevance to hip hop, and now feel as if it's their time since they produce more platinum artists nowadays. As a result, New York rappers feel compelled to reference their city as much as possible in their music. While the South is rightfully getting more recognition now, they can never be the representation of what hip hop is, was, or ever will be, mainly because... well, the fact of the matter is, the South makes hip hop look bad way too often.

Mike Jones made a career out of repeating himself -- he's like a rapping HeadOn commercial -- before he found out how long 15 minutes really lasts; he was supposed to have an album out this year, but fortunately, there is a God. The Ying Yang Twins are like a less-talented 2 Live Crew, which probably qualifies them as being mentally retarded; working with someone like Wyclef Jean, who is actually somewhat talented, on their new album won't hide the fact that their "music" rarely strays away from talking about the parts of the female body that protrude and/or allow entry (kudos to Dave Chappelle for airing them out on one of the few funny moments of The Lost Episodes). D4L felt the need to create dance moves that even white people could do; either they're mocking me, or they really don't have any rhythm. Newcomer Jibbs made a song about expensive jewelry to the tune of a kids song, even having children sing the chorus; children are the future, Jibbs! Is this the message we want to send to our future? And while on the topic of taking advantage of children (no pedo), let's all pray that this doesn't catch on nationally -- I think even Michael Richards would see that and say, "Damn, that's some fucked up shit."

This isn't to say that the East coast doesn't have their own reasons to be ashamed, but just not as many as the South. Beyond the bullshit, however, there is some good music made by respectable artists coming out of the South.

Ludacris' 5th album, Release Therapy, finds him angrier than usual -- perhaps the cornrows were ripped out in a fit of rage? Clearly, he putting in work to lose the "funny song making rapper" label (dressing up like Austin Powers characters will do that for you) with tracks like "Grew Up A Screw Up" f/ Young Jeezy and "War With God", two of his hardest songs to date. He also shows some newfound range by showing off his storytelling abilities on "Runaway Love" f/ Mary J Blige (A depressing Ludacris song? What gives?!?), and getting deep on the nation's fucked up justice system on "Do Your Time" f/ Beanie Sigel, Pimp C and C-Murder, all three of whom recently served bids. While this newer side of Luda is certainly refreshing, it comes at somewhat of a cost -- the fun songs, while not bad, just aren't as fun as usual (I think most would agree that "Money Maker" was particularly ehhh), and for some reason the "R&B chorus" song quotient is up to 2 ("End Of The Night" f/ Bobby Valentino and "Woozy" f/ R Kelly, which fortunately are back-to-back so you can just hold down the SKIP button). And maybe I'm just being picky here, but the chorus structure of "Tell It Like It Is" and "Mouths To Feed" (i.e. saying the song title in every other line, see for yourself) makes the songs grow boring pretty quickly. While Release Therapy isn't the classic that Luda is capable of, it shows a versatility that has been otherwise absent throughout his career -- and hopefully it won't act to limit his talents on the next go-round.

T.I. took the "Jay-Z-best-rapper-alive" approach to being the so-called "King of the South" -- he put it on record first, then went out to prove it. Titling his 4th album King (and including Southern other heavyweights like Young Buck, UGK and Young Jeezy on it to co-sign), T.I. effectively takes another cue from Jay, making records catchy enough to pick up TV and radio airplay while also being likeable and smooth enough to not get tired quickly -- "What You Know" might be the biggest single of the year, "Front Back" serves as a fitting tribute/update to UGK's classic, and "Why You Wanna" was a nice head-nod to A Tribe Called Quest. Although the Southern drawl can a bit overwhelming at times ("Told You So" is particularly mush-mouthed), T.I. presents himself as a superior lyricist with an arsenal of flows, best evidenced when he turns up the intensity a bit on "You Know Who" and the Just Blaze-produced "I'm Talkin' To You", a subliminal diss likely aimed at rival/chump Lil' Flip.

Trivia time: name a physically-large-in-stature rapper from the South, with an instantly-recognizeable style, simplistic yet subtly-clever lyrics, a Def Jam record deal, and the ability to make a 19-track album in which every song is in some way, shape, or form about cocaine, crack, or something in between. If you said either Rick Ross (who put out his debut Port Of Miami this year) or Young Jeezy (who put out his sophomore effort The Inspiration), pat yourself on the head. It's not tough to see how Jay's newest artist signing (Ross) is quite similar to his last one (Jeezy), but considering that Jeezy's Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 sold close to 1.5 million copies, and Ross' "Hustlin'" is the 1st platinum-selling ringtone (you must have heard it somewhere, I know I have), it ain't broke yet, so no need to fix it -- nor to break it, for that matter. Port Of Miami is a summertime-friendly album, with production that is much less dark than either of Jeezy's releases, which is not surprising knowing that the backdrop to Ross' drug tales are Miami's warm weather and view of the Atlantic (which he's got them muthafuckas flyin' over, rest assured). He's clearly trying to have some fun with it, rocking over cheesy '80's samples for "I'm Bad" (which is what I want to have playing if I'm ever in a high speed chase) and "Boss", and being the 1st rapper to have Scarface samples on TWO different songs ("Push It" and "Street Life" f/ Lloyd, the latter likely being the 1st time a Scarface sample has been made into a club song). Unlike Jeezy, Ross actually isn't terrible as an MC, able to put together some clever rhymes though also liable to rhyme the same words together every now and again. However, also unlike Jeezy, the somewhat-inspirational "rags to riches" story of Jeezy's work is not found here, as Ross prefers to speak mainly on the "riches" part, with a few exceptions like the finale "Prayer" (hmmm, a "prayer" on a rap album, where have I seen that before?). Furthermore, a 19-track album for someone with such limited subject matter will get a little monotonous, but never more so than when the R&B hooks come in -- "Pots & Pans" is downright lame, and "Cross That Line" f/ Akon might have been more likeable if Akon didn't sing the chorus to the exact same melody as his song with Obie Trice (hope he got a discount for that).

As for Jeezy's album, he's clearly heard all the criticism of his lyrical ability (or lack thereof), so he's tries a new approach here and there on The Inspiration -- not trying to rhyme. Oddly enough, it works to a degree, as Jeezy has more to say when he's not limiting himself by trying to find words to rhyme. And with the relatively low-tempo of most of the album's tracks, it seems like he's almost bragging about his ability to catapult himself to the top of rap music by hardly "rapping" at all (he's also clearly not ashamed to show that he can't pronounce "Hypnotize" on the opening track of the same name). Still though, there's no denying the power of some of his songs -- "Bury Me A 'G'" in all of it's 2Pac-ness, the raw emotion of "Dreamin'" f/ Keyshia Cole -- and The Inspiration's uniquely-consistent production seems to borrowly equally from the popular "crunk" sound of Southern rap as well as the soundtrack to Bladerunner; even the club-favored tracks "Go Getta" f/ R Kelly and "3 A.M." f/ Timbaland don't stray for the overall sound of the album. I like to think of myself as someone who can explain most things, but I'm kind of at a loss as to why everyone (myself included) is so crazy about Young Jeezy -- perhaps in this day in age where rappers are judged as much on how real they are versus how talented they are, Jeezy is just too real to focus on writing good rhymes.

Elsewhere in the South, Lil' Wayne and Birdman put out an album together, Like Father Like Son, which I can't say that I've listened to -- not because I'm not a big enough fan of Wayne as an MC (I am, actually), but because I'm not at all a fan of Birdman as one. I'll just echo the sentiments of everyone else and say that half of a Lil' Wayne album is better than none (and speaking of "better halves"... kinda homo). Young Dro, one of T.I.'s artists, got a strong buzz off of "Shoulder Lean" for his debut, Best Thang Smokin', which showcases Dro as a surprisingly nice lyricist. He has potential and hopefully will take advantage of it once he learns how to make songs that don't all sound the same (as a result, not too many really stand out), and when he stops name-dropping food products to describe his cars ("watermelon Nova", "Cutlass look like carrot juice", "brown Rover look like pork and beans"... the album starts to sound like an episode of Supermarket Sweep after a while). Unfortunately, Southern mainstays Young Buck, 8Ball & MJG, and UGK were all supposed to put out albums this year but had them pushed back for various reasons -- respectively, because G-Unit keeps taking losses (more on that next time), because Puff Daddy would rather promote himself than anyone else on Bad Boy, and because Jive Records sucks at promoting hip hop music.

Finally, speaking of Jive, they decided to do something productive and release The Clipse's sophomore effort Hell Hath No Fury, which had been discussed, promoted, and pushed back for about two years. It's difficult for anyone to root against the Virginia-born brothers (and I say "brothers" because they're actually brothers, not because they're black, silly) after they've unfairly been put through record label politics bullshit for so long, as noted by the great reviews their new album has been receiving. But, personally, I just can't bring myself to like it as much as everyone else, and it's not really the Clipse's fault -- the album's production, done entirely by the Neptunes, is pretty bland. Most of the Neptunes' beats can be placed into one of two categories: minimalistic, experimental, and undoubtedly rugged OR overly poppy shit that the masses will eat up. On Hell Hath, though a few of the beats favor the first category (like "Wamp Wamp" f/ Slim Thug and "Ride Around Shining" f/ Ab-Liva), the majority are failed attempts to reach the second category (like "Dirty Money", "Ain't Cha" and "Trill"). This could be due to the absence of Chad Hugo, the often-unseen Asian dude who makes up the "other half" of the Neptunes (notice where he's standing here -- interesting), from the album's production. Not to create rumors here, but, for the sake of argument, let's assume that Pharrell kicked Chad out of the group because he wasn't cool enough -- that, coupled with Pharrell's newfound desire to rap (I happily admit to having never listened to this album) and to market ugly ass shoes that no one except him or the people he pays would wear, could mean that we are dealing with someone here who is hellbent on world domination... or, at least, on being the most egomaniacal of the young, rich, male musicians of our time.

If this is the case, be warned, Pharrell: the competition is fierce.

[Part 3 coming soon]