Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Is your computer 'puting?

My new favorite NCAA basketball player (not that I had a particular favorite prior to now) is Spencer Hawes from the University of Washington. Not because he's a near-7-foot-tall freshman leading his team in scoring and with potential to become a quality NBA player -- lord knows I've put my faith in many a promising white dude in the past and have come out of it feeling shamed. Truth be told, while I don't wish any ill will on Hawes, I don't really care whether or not he amounts to anything in the pros. All I have to say about him is that I have the utmost respect for someone who wakes up in the morning and says to himself, "Hmmm, is coming over to takes pictures of my student apartment, I wonder what t-shirt I should wear?"... and then makes this decision.

Friday, February 09, 2007

2006: Year In Downloading -- Part 6

I chose not to actually rank my favorite albums of '06 because I wanted to make something a bit more readable, not just a big old list. Whether or not any of it actually got read, however, I may never know. But regardless of whether one feels the need to place others' work in an order of excellence, and say "this is better than this but not as good that", most people with opinions likely hold one particular piece of work as being above all others. How many debates have taken place over who's, for example, the 5th greatest something of some era of time? Probably none, though I'm sure there's some very lonely people out there who have given it thought. But there's always arguments as to what is the greatest, the pinnacle, the apex, the most-highest-thing (sorry, can't find a thesaurus). For that reason, I offer what I hold to be the best hip hop album that 2006 had to offer...

Allow me to make a ridiculously-vague statement before following it up with an explanation -- Hip Hop Is Dead is one of Nas' most important albums (pretty vague, right?). It's not as important to hip hop's history as his debut Illmatic, one of the greatest representations of the genre. It's not as important to Nas' own career as Stillmatic, which brought him up to par and, depending on who you ask, possibly ahead of Jay-Z in their famous battle. Nas isn't at the lyrical peak that he was at on It Was Written. But as far as really trying to make a statement through an album, Hip Hop Is Dead is Nas' best attempt yet.

Regardless of what the unfortunately-edited title track (I guess "wreck the DJ" is a little more PC than "murder the DJ") may say, the album conveys the idea that hip hop isn't really dead as a whole, but some of it's component parts are facing more damage than repair. Nas questions the lack of unity and increasing sense of hatred between rappers on "Carry On Tradition". Meanwhile, "Where Are They Now" sheds light on the ignorance of the past largely held by today's culture, as he name-drops numerous artists who have seemingly been long-forgotten and cast under the shadows of history -- if none of these names spark up nostalgia (Ill Al Skratch did it for me, personally), then you might want to question the worth of your existence. On tracks like "Not Going Back" f/ Kelis, the buttery "Hold Down The Block", and "Can't Forget About You" f/ Chrisette Michelle (a well-done sampling of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable"), Nas walks many thin lines that most rappers stumble over -- leaving his past behind him yet also not forgetting where he came from, and analyzing his successes without coming off as braggadocios and alienating his audience.

What makes Hip Hop Is Dead that much more impressive, however, is what can typically ruin a potentially-great hip hop album -- its guest appearances. Nas appears to have found the balance between making a song that features another MC his own, yet also allowing the guest to reach their own creative peak as well. Each example is stellar -- the laid back vibes of "Play On Playa" f/ Snoop Dogg, the pulsating Dr. Dre-produced "Hustlers" f/ The Game (easily Dre's best beat in an otherwise-quiet year for the Good Doctor), the harmonious "Still Dreaming" f/ Kanye West, and finally, the much-talked-about "Black Republican" f/ Jay-Z, which lives up to any expectation one may have placed on their long-awaited collaboration.

Since I was recently reminded that I know (possibly too) much about rap and basketball, I'll combine the two to sum everything up: Nas is hip hop's Kobe Bryant. Undeniable natural talent (often hated on as a result of it), cocky when necessary, willing to play his role for the team to do well, yet also knowing full well that sometimes he's got to put the team on his back. Hip Hop Is Dead is Nas' fadeaway jumper, down by a point, with the 4th quarter buzzer sounding.


Ah, fuck it. Here's a list as well.

10. Brotha Lynch Hung & MC Eiht - The New Season
9. T.I. - King
8. Murs - Murray's Revenge
7. Busta Rhymes - The Big Bang
6. Mr. Lif - Mo' Mega
5. J. Dilla - Donuts & The Shining (dude died a year ago tomorrow, I'll allow him to get two albums in one spot)
4. The Game - Doctor's Advocate
3. Ghostface - Fishscale
2. Lupe Fiasco - Food & Liquor
1. Nas - Hip Hop Is Dead

Saturday, February 03, 2007

2006: Year In Downloading -- Part 5

You know, I've done a good amount of shit-talking with regards to actual hip hop music thus far, but with hip hop artists having so expanded themselves to the business side of things as well, it's only fair to save some shit-talk for that area too. Call me a hater if you want, but I find it securing to know that people with so much money can do so many things worth criticizing. And really, who has more money, or is doing more things, than Jay-Z?

Not to knock the importance of selling Budweiser, NBA Basketball or Cherry Coke (and I wouldn't mind knocking Beyonce, personally), but Jay's status as President and CEO of Def Jam Records is certainly most relevant to the discussion at hand. Though the label remains somewhat lop-sided, the second full year of his tenure there has produced improvement. He did what many years ago would've been deemed impossible by signing former rival Nas, and did what surprised no one at all by coming out of his retirement. He invested in the dominant Southern scene and came out with Young Jeezy and Rick Ross, who may be identical in many ways, but are most importantly identical in the sense that both have seen success. Mix that with platinum-selling Nike-spokesrapper Juelz Santana, and of course Kanye West (who didn't put out an album last year but stayed relevant by throwing tantrums whenever in front of a camera), and you could say that Jay is coaching a pretty strong "starting five" of sorts.

However, as usual, it's the people on the bench who are causing the stir. LL Cool J, upset with sucking and in need of a scapegoat, took a shot at Jay for not knowing how to promote anything other than himself -- maybe true, but I can't blame Jay for not knowing how to promote shitty music. Joe Budden has been without a new album for over 3 years now, Redman for over 5 years, and Jay's leftovers from his split with Damon Dash are either waiting in the shadows (Freeway, Peedi Crakk) or have already proven their worth to be very little (Memphis Bleek, Young Gunz). Considering how often the blame-game gets played in these situations, we may never know whether it's Jay or the artists themselves who are more responsible for these hold-ups, but consider this -- for the following four albums Def Jam released this year from the following three well-respected artists/groups, only TWO music videos were made. Total.

One of those videos was awarded to Ghostface's single "Back Like That" off of the superb Fishscale, which I enjoyed immensely earlier in the year, and still do. However, trying to sell a Ghostface album beyond his fanbase of Wu-Tang aficionados remains a difficult task. So, clearly the way to get past that is to... release another album in the same year?!? Well, not making the same mistake Nas made in '99, the late-year release More Fish plays like a companion piece rather than a entirely-new album, as can be noted in it's more-than-fitting title (as well as it's inclusion of a "Back Like That" remix). It plays more like a mixtape to (once again) showcase Ghostface's crew, the Theodore Unit, except with better production (Hi-Tek, Madlib, MF Doom) and more solo Ghostface songs, among them the laid-back "Outta Town Shit" and the intense track "Alex", on which Ghost continues to make everyone wonder how he comes up with his ideas, spitting a story about someone stealing the original script to Ray(?!?). While Ghost may continue to boggle minds, and while More Fish may be nothing but more leftovers, I doubt that anyone can truly be mad at the two-albums-a-year rate that Ghostface is starting to maintain.

Being the Wu-Tang fan that I am, the mere fact that Method Man's 4:21... The Day After was a step up from '04's critically-acclaimed beverage coaster/weed plate/frisbee Tical 0: The Prequel is enough to earn it praise from me. Even though simply getting better production would have made it an improvement over his last album, Meth sounds like he really put pressure on himself to make the album he's capable of making, and hadn't made for over 10 years (and with the little promotion it's received, one has to wonder if anyone else put pressure on him). With a familiar supporting cast of producers, Meth is back to his old self on tracks like "Somebody Done Fucked Up" (produced by Havoc), "Problem" (Erick Sermon) and weed anthem "4:20" (RZA, who contributes 4 much-needed beats in total). The most pleasant surprise is a collaboration with a since-deceased, clean-sounding Ol' Dirty on the simplistically-titled "Dirty Mef". It's very strange to know that last year, the best Wu-Tang albums were released by Def Jam, considering that the two legendary hip hop entities had never really crossed paths before (the only other Wu release worth mentioning is Masta Killa's sophomore release Made In Brooklyn, but only because it featured all remaining Clan members, and not because it was any good).

The second video I referred to earlier belongs to The Roots, for their Def Jam debut Game Theory, although I can honestly say I've never seen it on TV and I'm not entirely sure which song(s) it was for (though I too must admit that I don't watch TV as much as I used to). It seems as if every release by The Roots since '99's highly-touted Things Fall Apart has been equally praised as a crowning achievement and panned as a disappointment. Critiques of Game Theory have shown how little things have changed, as the album has received ratings of "5" from two prominent hip-hop online magazines in (whose scale is out of 5, making it a "classic") and Spine Magazine (whose scale is out of 10, making it terrible). I can't say I agree with either of these opinions, because even though the "live band" feel proves a bit formulaic at times (i.e. "Baby", which sounds a lot like Phrenology's "The Seed"), the formula is still able to create some fresh music. I will say that it is their best work since Things Fall Apart, and definitely their hardest-hitting. The re-addition of previously-ousted rapper Malik B. to the group's line-up adds energy and takes some pressure off of lead MC Black Thought to carry the weight of the album lyrically, as shown on album highlights "Here I Come" and "In The Music". The album hits a stagnant point towards the end due to some overly-mellow songs with poorly-sung hooks (which sound out of place with the album's overwhelmingly darker tone), but ends strongly with "Can't Stop This", a J-Dilla produced track (jacked from Dilla's superb instrumental album Donuts) which serves as the first recorded dedication to the late producer's memory.

It almost seems like the most backing Jay gave another rapper's album this year was someone who's not even on Def Jam -- that would be Atlantic recording artist Lupe Fiasco and his debut, Food & Liquor
. I short-sightedly criticized Lupe around the time Kanye West dropped Late Registration (see #6), considering his rather-unimpressive debut verse on that album -- at that time, I had no idea that he had such a great album in him. Combining Kanye's penchant for unique subject matter with Jay-Z's style and flare (and looking like the love child, no homo, of Pharrell and MC Serch), Lupe shows an impressive array of songmaking talents, from storytelling (the Kanye-produced "Cool" and the incredible single-parent anthem "He Say She Say") to extended metaphors ("The Instrumental" and "Kick, Push", the latter of which isn't necessarily just about skateboarding) to historical perspective ("American Terrorist" and "Hurt Me Soul"). The varying song topics that make up Food & Liquor present Lupe as a unique talent with a bright future, assuming that poor record sales (surprise, surpise) don't hamper his status. Suprisingly, the Neptunes-produced "I Got'cha" serves as the album's only real weak offering, where Lupe embraces his different-from-all-those-other-rappers persona to the fullest extent, even though every other song on the album makes that same statement without throwing it in your face.

[Part 6 coming soon... and rest assured, it'll be the last part, too]