Friday, January 26, 2007

2006: Year In Downloading -- Part 4

It's difficult to get all that excited about a West Coast revival (of sorts) when every year it seems like someone else is talking about bringing the West Coast "back". So, to avoid any further confusion, let's just clarify that the West Coast is in fact "back"... from having already been back before. What 2006 had to offer, though, was a bit more enticing, as "gangsta rap", that which we all grew up on and subsequently hid from our parents, seemed to be bouncing back with some hunger. A few familiar faces popped up out of L.A. this year to drop some records that took them back to their roots, either because they had previously experimented with new styles, or because they had nothing else to bank on.

Snoop Dogg's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment falls in line with most of Snoop's previous albums in that it's a bit of a mixed bag, but the high points are undoubtedly higher (pun intended) than expected. You'll see all the usual suspects of a Snoop Dogg album -- the weed song ("Get A Light" f/ Damian Marley), the Nate-Dogg-hook song ("Crazy"), the posse cut ("Candy" f/ E-40, MC Eiht, Goldie Loc, Daz & Kurupt) -- but each one sounds more inspired and motivated than on past releases. In fact, "Think About It" is the closest Snoop has sounded to Snoop Doggy Dogg (remember him?) in a long, long time. The album is a good mix of old and new Snoop, as it features tracks with the man that brought him into hip hop, Dr. Dre (the best of which is their twist on the "ode to hip hop" song, "Imagine", which features a verse from Dre and hook by D'Angelo), as well as with the people he'd made his most recent money with, the Neptunes (whose offerings of "Vato" f/ B-Real and "10 Lil' Crips" are infinitely-many-times more hard-hitting than the bubble-gum shit that was R&G). As usually is the case, though, Snoop still doesn't know when to quit, and at 21 tracks long, the album loses interest with tracks like "Beat Up On Your Pads" (it's admirable that Snoop's into the whole youth football thing, but this one should've been saved for the sidelines) and "Psst!" f/ Jamie Foxx (who is great at imitating Ray Charles, and awful at imitating Prince, Bilal, or whoever he thinks he is on this song). Nonetheless, on Tha Blue Carpet Treatment, the effort is there and is much appreciated, as Snoop is no longer rushing out his albums like he did while on No Limit Records.

Continuing in the return to his roots, Snoop helped reunite Daz and Kurupt, better known as the Dogg Pound, for their first major release in over a decade, Cali Iz Active. The duo became bitter rivals after Kurupt jumped back into Suge Knight's arms back in '02 in an attempt to lead Death Row Records back to prominence (... yeah, that went well), but under the guidance of Snoop, who probably just simply reminded them both how little they've accomplished in each of their solo careers (with the exception of Kurupt's classic Tha Streetz Iz A Mutha, which did feature Daz on at least half of the album), they appear to have put their differences aside. And it's a good thing, too, because the chemistry is still there, be it on songs like the title track f/ Snoop Dogg and "It's All Hood", which capture more of the vintage Dogg Pound sound, or "Kush'n N' Push'n" and "Sittin' On 23z", which are fr-fr-fresh for '06. If the subject matter, or lack thereof, gets to be too much, then this album probably wasn't meant for you anyways. The only real downside to it is the number of out-of-place guest appearances -- no disrespect to Puff Daddy (who actually doesn't ruin "It's Craccin' All Night"), David Banner (who I actually don't mind as a rapper), Paul Wall (who I could really do without), or Jazze Pha (on second thought, a lot of disrespect to him), but how "active" does Cali appear when it's campaigning to other areas for guest spots on a Dogg Pound reunion album, which should be enough to sell itself?

Much like his debut album, being able to enjoy The Game's follow-up, the Doctor's Advocate, is an up-hill battle which most fans should be able to overcome eventually. On '05's The Documentary, it was the constant name-dropping of fellow artists (specifically 50 Cent and Dr. Dre) that made it difficult to fully embrace Game as the West's next big thing. This time around, it's the state of confusion created by Game's rampant inconsistencies with exactly where he stands -- is it "still Aftermath, and ain't nothin' after that", or is it "the Aftermath chain is gone"? If he's "got no beef with 50", why does he "wanna call 50 and let him know what's on his mind"? Listening to the album, it seems as if half of it was recorded while Game still thought he was an Aftermath artist and Dre's associate, and half after he was let go. Fortunately, once that's out of the way, the album is full of quality material -- he dismisses former friends on "One Night", pays homage to those lost on "Ol' English", and shows a sincerity most rappers would probably be ashamed to admit on the title track and the superb closer "Why You Hate The Game" f/ Nas. And, of course, the album is overflowing with West Coast flavor, highlights being "Da Shit", "Compton" (featuring production from an underrated-when-not-overexposed from the Black Eyed Peas), and "California Vacation" f/ Snoop Dogg & Xzibit. Continuing to never hold any part of himself back, the Game comes off as a lot of things on Doctor's Advocate -- flamboyant, full of himself, emotional, confused -- but never anything less than genuine.

Not to be outdone, the B(/Y)ay Area made a big splash, with E-40 and Too Short each getting their greatest national exposure within the past 10 years, and with both now double-digit-albums deep into their respective catalogs, it was just in time. Not that 40 Water shows any signs of slowing down, though -- My Ghetto Report Card is some of his best work ever, and definitely his most well-produced album. Short Dog, on the other hand, seems to have phoned in the effort on Blow The Whistle. Not to take any credit away from the man, as 16 albums is certainly a milestone (although he arguably hadn't had a hit single since album number 10), and even the most stuck-up, feminist, "who you callin' a bitch?" hip hop fans have a place in their heart for the one and only Todd Shaw. But missing from Blow The Whistle is the meaningful, social commentary that Short sprinkled on past classics like "The Ghetto" and "I Want To Be Free". In it's place instead? More Jazze Pha than the average person deserves to stomach. I really don't understand what's so appealing about this dude -- his beats suck, his singing is worse than his beats, and he introduces every track he's on with the same, tired "Ladies and gentlemen..." schtick (as if that's necessary when you're halfway through the album). Hopefully, Short can make some bank on the group he discovered recently, The Pack, who won't have to worry about making music people would actually enjoy as long as they name-drop brand names. Another NorCal vet, Brotha Lynch Hung, avoided the popular "hyphy" sound in favor of collaborating with Compton legend MC Eiht for The New Season, which is appealing in the same vein as Sean Price's album from last year (see #4) -- not groundbreaking in any sense, but consistently solid, and no songs worth skipping.

The rebirth of a vintage gangsta rap sound in West Coast hip hop really couldn't have come at a better time, as groups whose reputations were to stray from this sound struggled to find success in '06. I tried to be somewhat kind to Dilated Peoples' 20/20 earlier in the year, but looking back now, very little of it is worth remembering. Meanwhile, Jurassic 5, who downsized to an "official" quintet (they previously had six members -- four MCs and two DJs -- but stuck with the numerically-misleading name after a flier typo) for Feedback, were sorely missing the presence of former producer Cut Chemist, who apparently took everything that made the group interesting with him when he bounced. There's a reason the "old school" is called the "old school" -- not only because of it's elder status, but also because after a while, well... it gets old. Pretty much every song on Feedback sounds like a Jurassic 5 song I'd heard at least five times before, which is only forgivable for "In The House", a song that appeared on the soundtrack for NBA Live '06, the last good NBA video game. How many songs can a group make about how cool/dope/stupid fresh that particular song is? The answer: a mediocre album's worth.

[Part 5 coming soon... and yes, I too am getting kind of tired of this]