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The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip-Hop Reviews, and Ab-Soul’s Rap Ingenuity

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The Plug is Consequence of Sound‘s monthly hip-hop zine. The aim is to explore the genre on a purely musical level and from a cultural standpoint. This inaugural issue includes a discussion of the Chuck D vs. Hot 97 feud, 11 reviews, and the lyrically focused third edition of Michael Madden’s Trappers and Philosophers column.

The Powers That Be: Chuck D and Hot 97

Following Hot 97’s Summer Jam on June 1st, Public Enemy founder Chuck D took to Twitter to troll the New Jersey radio station (“Where Hip-Hop Lives”), decrying the state of rap radio and the genre’s moral decline, among other things. Ultimately, Chuck’s tirade resulted in an ugly-but-necessary discourse.

chuck d04 The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap IngenuitySheldon Pearce (SP): There’s a belief that rap has devolved into a self-deprecating, amoral cesspool that is destroying the black community from the inside. If Chuck D doesn’t agree with that entirely, it’s certainly coming off like he does. I have a problem holding art, and especially rap, to a moral standard because it’s a medium for self-expression and not some type of manifesto laying the foundation upon which a society should operate. A kid from Compton like YG, who performed at Hot 97’s Summer Jam, is going to rap about what he knows, and what he knows is violence that in the grander scheme of things is less a derivative of rap music and more a product of classism. Yes, black culture is heavily influenced by the music, but the music is just as much a byproduct of black culture. It’s a cycle that didn’t start with rap. The issues existed long before the genre did, and it isn’t rap that is perpetuating them; it is rap that is continually bringing them to the forefront. It’s unfair to place the burden on rap culture to police itself. Rap’s moral code is not the problem.

I think it’s a bit single-minded to suggest that rap’s so-called Golden Age (the period where Public Enemy and collectives like the Native Tongues thrived) was some kind of era of utter rap purity when It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Straight Outta Compton both came out in 1988. 1982 had Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message”, but Too Short’s “Coke Dealers” came just a few years later. Violence, narcotics, and misogyny are a part of rap’s history. Modern rap isn’t some aberration; it disseminated from earlier incarnations of the art form, which has always been politically incorrect. Rap always has and always will document the issues that plague the black community. How it goes about doing that continuously evolves, but it’s unfair to ask every album to be Fear of a Black Planet or 3 Feet High and Rising.

(Read: Lauren Carter’s Why Chuck D was right about Hot 97)

Should more records be like them? Absolutely. But who are we to dictate the self-expression of others? BDP made Criminal Minded and By All Means Necessary back to back. Both are classics and both are important despite sporting radically different ideologies. I don’t believe that somehow over time rap has become the primary propaganda used to vilify black people. The media does that well enough on its own. Rap hasn’t deteriorated, and it isn’t promoting moral decay (though there will undoubtedly be casualties). Society as a whole has simply gotten more liberal.

While there’s no disputing hip-hop as a corporate entity that shifts on the whims of executives, you can’t tell me that Nas, 50 Cent, Wayne, and Nicki were handpicked by the anti-black propaganda machine as a part of some agenda to destroy the black community. Maybe that can be said of Troy Ave (joke). Nas is a legend. 50 will always be New York royalty. The G-Unit reunion is huge for rap right now. Wayne and Nicki are incredibly hot right now. Drake and Wayne’s “Believe Me” is everywhere and not because it’s being pushed. It’s everywhere because it’s dope. Consumer buying power does still have some say in where the culture goes.

Michael Madden (MM): Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg, during his Stephen A. Smith-intense on-air take on Chuck’s stance, called Chuck’s tweets “confusing.” That’s the only word for it and not just because of Chuck’s improvised punctuation. I think Chuck’s main message is that rap is already full of amoral ideas and that radio and other widely influential institutions should be wary of perpetuating those ideas. There’s no question that Hot 97’s playlists are dictated by forces besides Rosenberg, Ebro Darden, or anyone else in that studio. But the songs they do play are the hottest records out, and some happen to be loaded with lines about senseless violence, drug dealing, and misogyny.

On the other hand, we have more choice than ever to listen to the music we want to listen to — nothing is forced upon us. More than ever, listeners are finding their favorite music outside the airwaves. When I tune in to 89.9 KMOJ in Minneapolis, the Twin Cities’ foremost hip-hop and R&B station, it’s rare that I’m hearing a given song for the first time.

(See: WQHT – Hot 97 – Rotation Tracking Report – June 12th – 24th, 2014)

As someone who’s never lived in New York, I doubt I have a thorough grasp on Hot 97’s steady cultural importance. I can certainly understand lifelong listeners taking issue with the playlists today. But, in sum, I think it’s hazardous to enforce some kind of moral code, which is what Chuck insists on doing. “A universal HIPHOP standard should be created,” he tweeted. That sounds like it would lead to a lot of sameness and thwarted creativity. One thing I love about music in today’s climate is that there aren’t any standards; otherwise, we wouldn’t be hearing all the voices and perspectives that are out there. I listen to Chicago’s much-debated “drill rap” scene pretty much every day. The violence of that scene, as with most of street/mixtape rap, is a reflection of reality, however unfortunate that reality may be. I think it’s refreshing when virtually no corporate mediation takes place between a song’s genesis and its subsequent uploading to SoundCloud or DatPiff.

This situation seems to be all about authority (specifically because of Chuck’s decades-long career and pioneer status) and responsibility (specifically because of Hot 97’s status as a potential tastemaker). I think both are being blown out of proportion.

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Will Hagle (WH): It’s important to note that Chuck D and Public Enemy have had an enormously positive impact on hip-hop culture and that the group’s longevity speaks to the strength of the message they’ve been spreading for decades. Still, he’s not offering an opinion any different from the increasingly out-of-touch arguments made by those that were around in the genre’s earlier years. If Twitter had existed 20 years ago, I have a feeling Chuck D would have gone on a strikingly similar tirade.

Although Hot 97 is very much a cultural institution, as is Summer Jam in its own right, Mike is right that the industry has fragmented to the point that a “universal hip-hop standard” makes little to no sense in 2014. A bigger concern with Summer Jam this year could have been that YG had top billing over New York artists like Nas. I don’t know when the older generations will realize that things change with the culture, but I am getting tired of their recycled arguments. There may be a social responsibility for artists not to perpetuate the misogyny, racism, and homophobia that can be found throughout many hip-hop lyrics, but anyone who thinks that the culture has taken a nosedive into those dark territories is missing the point.

It’s an unfortunate yet undeniable truth that the corporate entities in the music business will exploit real-life violence — like the gang issues plaguing the streets of Chicago — for personal gain. This is a trend we’ve seen for years. Music execs are not concerned with what happens on the streets as long as the money is directed to their bank accounts.

hot97 where hip hop lives The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

Thankfully, execs that know little to nothing about street life or hip-hop play a small role in the industry when it comes down to it. Not only are listeners discovering music by means outside of traditional radio, but artists are finding their own lanes outside of the mainstream industry. It’s no longer the responsibility of major labels and stations like Hot 97 to dictate what’s popular or good. An artist with an internet connection will reach his or her audience, and the audience can dictate whether or not his or her message is socially acceptable or has a positive impact on the overall culture. We’re not totally there yet, but that’s the direction we’re heading.

As long as people continue making music that reflects real life, and fans like us continue discussing whether or not those types of songs should be made, then at least the genre is moving forward rather than stagnating.

SP: Any sort of standard would stifle individuality. Restricting rap’s ability to grow and expand into something different is incredibly counterproductive. How can Hot 97 push local acts when none are making a mark on the culture? Even the rap being funneled down the pipeline and force-fed to the masses has some sort of genuine following. Iggy Azalea may be some conspirator’s anti-black propagandist, but I knew “Fancy” would blow up when I stumbled upon it on an indie blog five months ago, not because she’s on Virgin EMI, but because it’s infectious.

public enemy 2012 The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap IngenuityHere’s the thing: Wherever there is a medium to be exploited, there will be an executive working to exploit it. We can harp on that until we’re blue in the face, but unless there is some pending economic revolution, it’s not going to change. Anything that can be monopolized will be. Anything that can be monetized will be. We live in a capitalist society. Rap isn’t exempt from that. Expecting music executives to put artistic integrity above profit margins is naive. Even at Public Enemy’s apex, Jive Records was releasing DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince albums. It is important to note, however — and this has been said already, but it bears repeating for emphasis — that there are more options for consuming music now than ever before. Executives have the power to push records, but consumers have the power to easily combat that just by surveying the market and deciding what to consume for themselves.

Urban NY radio doesn’t have nearly the cachet it once did, and everyone outside New York seems to know that. Hot 97 does not have the same selling power the internet does. New York radio is more emblematic now, a symbol for the Burroughs’ influence on early hip-hop culture. There’s a certain respect factor at work there. But let’s be real: Hot 97 and Power 105 have very little impact on what people listen to anymore. Radio is no longer the gatekeeper that gets to parse through prospects and decide what’s hot. Funk Flex isn’t responsible for Macklemania. “We Dem Boys” was everywhere before Ebro got his hands on it. The two biggest young rappers right now, Drake and Kendrick, became staples without it. Chuck D is propping up and scapegoating an institution that isn’t nearly the maniacal puppeteer he is suggesting simply because it can’t be. Not to mention his argument is incredibly dated. I mean, Scarface essentially said the same thing a year ago with far more panache.

At the end of the day, though, we must take Chuck D’s comments for what they are: a begrudging finger wag at the next crop of MCs from an old guard purist who staunchly believes in his personal brand, which happens to be waging war against oppressive systems. While there is certainly some merit to his comments, this whole situation feels vaguely like a well-past-his-prime legend reaching for relevance by putting the onus on the next generation to live up to a standard that doesn’t exist.

061114 music peter rosenberg chuck d The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

Brian Josephs (BJ): Chuck D even remotely implying that there should be a “universal HIPHOP standard” in the first place is weird. Art underneath a singular worldview doesn’t raise standards but creates stagnation with the implied belief that everything that falls outside of those standards isn’t credible. Is The Low End Theory lesser than Nation of Millions because it doesn’t use militaristic abrasiveness? I can only hope Chuck D’s call for this “universal” mindset is a misguided, reactionary defense against The Man — namely corporate radio in this case.

The Man comes in many forms, though, and these days traditional radio is one of the more hapless ones. I guarantee you [insert fledgling rapper here] isn’t going to get more spins on my playlist because the Hot 97 crew decided to push it. As Sheldon noted, the corporation exploits whatever it sees as profitable — this isn’t specific to hip-hop. That’s the nature of capitalism, and Chuck D is going to be facing a much bigger fight if he’s going after a centuries-old system.

I suppose you can go after the hip-hop community itself for not protecting its art, but to do so ignores the messiness of the relationship between black ownership and capitalism. You can praise the prototypical golden standard albums from prior decades because of their artistic integrity and honest portrayals of crack epidemic-era strife. But in order to be distributed and exploited, to be heard by enough people to be exalted, it has to be sellable music. It’s a trade-off of sorts: I’ll compromise to give you what you want if you give me what I’m owed. The average rap cat isn’t going to turn down money to solely rap for the culture. Hip-hop is art. Unfortunately, it’s also product. Whether you want to label the selling of the product as minstrelsy or pimping is entirely up to you.

commonnobody'ssmilingMM: The multi-generation deluxe cover art of Common’s upcoming Nobody’s Smiling (which features his fellow Chicagoans King L and Lil Herb) struck me as surprisingly significant. It represents an openness to change, plain and simple. I hope this attitude is contagious. I can’t overstate Chuck D’s importance, his positive impact. I’m a Public Enemy fan. But old-school stubbornness is off-putting in a situation like this. Let’s circle back to the biggest issue here: moral decay. It’s tricky to talk about, admittedly. I agree there are terrible, offensive trends in rap now more than ever. Murder is hard to understand apart from kill-or-be-killed situations and the like. It’s also reprehensible to brag that part of your drug-dealing revenue comes from authentic fiends.

For each of these or any other gripes (which, by the way, rarely thwart my enjoyment of the music unless I think the person I’m with is uncomfortable), there’s something I don’t disapprove of. I’ve rarely been offended by use of the n-word in music made by black artists, because it just seems like the equivalent of “man.” Nor have I ever thought twice about censoring it when writing for this or any other outlet, unless asked to do otherwise (and that’s happened, too).

It’s all about perspective, finally. No matter where you rate on the liberality scale, the next person thinks slightly differently one way or the other. Rap’s stereotypes, as with those of any topic, leave the deepest impressions on the least informed. Nation of Millions and Straight Outta Compton did indeed come out in the same year, and they were both revolutionary. Put simply, they reinforced the value of the First Amendment and freedom of speech. I think that is an entirely positive thing.

hot 97 summer The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

WH: It’s obvious that Hot 97 is no longer the influential institution that it once was, and even Peter Rosenberg has to know that he has become the modern name attached to a company liked mostly for history and nostalgia’s sake. There are still merits to Hot 97 and Summer Jam in the present day, but we’ve established that they are now just one entity.
No matter how out of touch his arguments seem, Chuck D’s accusation of Hot 97 as a “CORPlantation” does carry some weight in the present day. Until JJ Redick came along this year, The Los Angeles Clippers were an entirely black team. Donald Sterling’s ignorance has deep, distant roots, but the recent scandal couldn’t help but make the comparisons to a slave owner seem accurate.

In terms of Hot 97, that accusation seems far from the truth. The station has done more to elevate and popularize hip-hop culture than it has to hurt/exploit it. As Sheldon noted, radio stations play songs because they’re catchy and people want to hear them. It’s highly unlikely that any executive has a social or political agenda aside from making sure their Bank of America account got six figures.

As Mike said, Chuck D’s opinion as to the ways in which rappers should speak and the messages they should be spreading are just as important to digest. Ironically, Chuck D’s made his living off exploiting that us-against-them mentality.

The best response to all of this came from Rosenberg himself, who stated, simply, “I didn’t really understand everything he was saying.” Hot 97 could be better, sure. But most hip-hop fans are participating in the culture using other avenues anyways.

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BJ: Every genre has its fans exploring music through avenues other than radio. I don’t know if it’s my ignorance to other genres compared to hip-hop, but I feel like you never hear such conversations with alternate rock, EDM, classical, etc. You hear about the New York post-punk scene or footwork scene, but never about an actual community in terms of having social responsibility. Yet we have to have a united hip-hop community. We need a united hip-hop community. Any thing that falls outside of the “betterment” of that rigid communal standard ought to be frowned upon. It’s like if I do something wrong, I fulfill some sort of stereotype. What are you doing? You’re making black people look bad!

It’s unfair, but it comes with the territory. Hip-hop came up as a force from a drug- and poverty-ravaged New York. It just so happens that as it lifted into the mainstream, the ugliness — murder, materialism — came with it. Instead of using its pop culture relevance to condemn its ailments, it ended up wearing them as credentials. Touré touched on this in his Washington Post essay “How America and hip-hop failed each other.”

“But the music could have been a tool of resistance, informing on the drug war’s hypocrisies instead of acquiescing to them,” Touré wrote. “Hip-hop didn’t have to become complicit in spreading the message of the criminal blackman, but the money it made from doing so was the drug it just couldn’t stop getting high on.”

Yes, hip-hop could’ve been a resistance against the powers that be. But doing so wouldn’t be quite true to individualistic, competitive aspects — two very American adjectives — it came upon. The genre has fallen in line with America’s materialistic ethos, just in a grittier, more unapologetic way. It’s also profited from doing so. As Nas puts it, “Everybody is looking for something.”

Reviews: 11 Hip-Hop Releases from June

Zelooperz – Help

 The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

Grade: B+

Danny Brown struggled for years to get where he is today, and that path is well-documented in his music. Now that he’s achieved the level of success he has, he’s setting out to bring other Detroit talents to the public consciousness, and now his Bruiser Brigade protégé Zelooperz has put out Help, a mixtape that lends credence to Brown’s ability as a mentor figure. In a recent interview with Complex, Brown compared Zelooperz to a 20-year-old version of himself, and the comparison is fitting. Zelooperz’s flow is discordant but endlessly entertaining, his backing beats (many of them produced by Matrax) consistently slap, and there is an immense amount of extremely raw talent on display — all things that people felt about Brown on his rise to prominence. There’s a lot about Zelooperz, and the rest of the Bruiser Brigade, that bodes well for Detroit rap, and these 17 tracks serve as a phenomenal first impression. –Pat Levy

Open Mike Eagle – Dark Comedy

ome dark comedy album The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

Grade: B+

Open Mike Eagle would be right at home on an early Rhymesayers roster or as a signee of Rawkus Records. He feels like an independent rap transplant from a different time. Dark Comedy embraces that realization with dry humor, surveying the digital rap landscape with acerbic wit and snickering at its follies like an inside joke – all while displaying comically good technical chops.

The highlights could sneak into a stand-up set. Hannibal Burress has a feature. So does Kool A.D., who basically made a name off satirical rap with Das Racist, and Mike is at his best when he’s laughing at the expense of others. On “Doug Stamper (Advice Raps)” he offers up his opinion on just about everything. On “Thirsty Ego Raps” he explores his concerns about not getting his due. “Let’s talk about the nada this positive shit gets me,” he spits. With Dark Comedy, his ability to take everything lightly gets him some of the attention he deserves. –Sheldon Pearce

Katie Got Bandz – Drillary Clinton 2

drillary2 The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

Grade: B

With Drillary Clinton 2, Chicago’s Katie Got Bandz proves that she is the most important female figure in the drill scene, bringing a new perspective to a genre dominated by vacuous personas and songs that don’t require much thinking on the part of the listener or, presumably, the performer. Katie’s energy never subsides, and while the beats (all produced by Block On Da Trakk) don’t differentiate themselves all too much, it’s Katie’s verses that keep the focus solely on her. There isn’t a huge chance that any of these songs become new drill anthems like past tracks from Chief Keef and King L, but that’s not necessarily just because of the female element; there just isn’t much on the tape that could go mainstream that type of way. Regardless, it’s clear that Katie is a legit talent, repping both her city and her gender with tenacity. –Pat Levy

Various Artists – XXL 2014 Freshmen Mixtape

gangsta grillz The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

Grade: B

XXL magazine’s annual, heavily debated Freshmen list — the pile of burning-up MCs and, this year for the first time, R&B singers who are projected to have a big year — is probably not worth fighting about. Inevitably, though, the roster provides a thorough glimpse of hip-hop culture, including hard-spitting grinders and ascendant true rookies. The XXL 2014 Freshmen Mixtape, then, is an informative listen because there’s a sense that this is now. The tape is eclectic, but per XXL‘s 17-year existence, these artists seem to play up their most time-tested skills over production by The Olympicks and DJ Montay, among others. Chicago teen Lil Bibby, for instance, abandons his gun talk on “Thoughts” in favor of honest meditation: “These are private thoughts/ Why I’m sayin’ this shit?” On “The Good”, Aftermath’s Jon Connor continues to put his hometown of Flint on the map, bringing the compilation’s toughest MC work. As for those crooners, the silk-voiced Ty Dolla Sign and August Alsina honey hip-hop’s dirty tendencies on the likes of “Type of Shit I Hate” and “Right On”, respectively. They fit right in. –Michael Madden

50 Cent – Animal Ambition: An Untamed Desire to Win

animal ambition The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

Grade: C

When 50 Cent’s 2003 debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, came out, it’s not like he was a particularly dexterous or inventive rapper. But there was something about him — probably his charisma, which was more youthful than that of New York’s reigning king, Jay Z — that made him the favorite of seemingly every athlete I read about in Sports Illustrated for Kids. And everyone else for that matter. Flash forward to Animal Ambition: An Untamed Desire to Win, his “comeback album” and follow-up to 2009’s Before I Self Destruct. 50 seems increasingly apathetic about his position and his artistry. There’s a beat here from 2008. Nearing 39 years of age, 50 is still rapping about being rich, hollowly so. Frankly, it’s amazing he’s never released a song called “Hustler” until now (though Get Rich had “Hustler’s Ambition”).

But his seeming boredom isn’t always a bad thing; sometimes, it fits the air of nonchalance he’s trying to convey. 50 has released dozens of songs over the past five years, but surprisingly, Animal (which features production by Dr. Dre and Jake One) weighs in at just 11 songs, 38 minutes. Accordingly, it feels fast-paced, which turns out to be a good thing even though there’s not much to latch onto. There are a couple concept songs here (the title track actually features elephant noises and growling, while “Heartbeat”‘s deep kick mimics the title function). More crucial is the bloody-knuckles tough talk, which 50 is still capable of selling. The opener, “Hold On”, features the memorable line “Fuck a boy scout/ I’ll lay your ass out,” then something even more squirmy: “Don’t make me write my name across your face with a razor.” I wish 50 were about that life more often. It’s not like the Queens native has wronged us in any way, so it’s still easy to root for him. Animal Ambition gives some reason to cheer, just not enough. –Michael Madden

Sage Francis – Copper Gone

sage copper The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

Grade: C

Providence’s Sage Francis sits as the resident godfather of underground rap. On previous efforts, Francis gave a multifaceted attack of lyrical prowess and diverse themes; however, on Copper Gone, his first outing following a four-year hiatus, his focus is a bit singular and flat. The beats (by Doomtree’s Cecil Otter and Francis’s longtime friend Buck 65, among others) often eclipse Francis’s lyrics — never a good sign. The lyrics get boring as the rest of the album blasts scattershot with rage aimed at nothing. Is he mad at himself when he says, “I am what I am/ That’s all I am/ Bullshit ain’t got that right touch”? Or is he mad at the internet when, on “The Place She Feared the Most”, he says, “I am not a tween/ Don’t wanna talk in memes or let the internet infiltrate all my dreams”? It’s never clear, and so the album seems in disarray. “Make ‘Em Purr” and “Grace” both stand out because Francis hones in on heartbreak, focusing the laser on the right spot and doing so in a wonderfully metaphorical way. Still, it’s not enough to save the album from overall mediocrity. –Nick Freed

Sasha Go Hard – Feel So Good

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Grade: C

Sasha Go Hard is tucked somewhere just behind Katie Got Bandz in the Chicago drill rap scene. It’s unclear whether or not there is a place for her. She is a far more skilled rapper lyrically, but her punches don’t always land. Her pitch can be piercing, and it gets difficult to endure for long stretches. On her latest tape, Feel So Good, the trend continues, but not for lack of trying. Feel So Good is super inconsistent and uneven for a 40-minute listen. There’s no opportunity to settle in; for every moment of promise there is a moment that’s painful to sit through. While songs like the blistering “Chiraq Pt. 2” and “Out the Bottle” are examples of the heights Sasha can achieve, records like “Blame It on You” and the title track, which features former White Girl Mob rapper Lil Debbie, prove that she is a long way from standing at the precipice of her budding subgenre. –Sheldon Pearce

Canibus – Fait Accompli

canibus fat The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

Grade: C-

You thought this was a rap album? You (and I) thought wrong. It seems like we’re hearing Canibus’ voice 25% of the time on the 79-minute Fait Accompli, his 15th studio album. The redeeming factor of the album — an overly political record with excessive interludes, themes of government and religion, and mentions of martial law — is that he sounds focused and purposeful when he actually is spouting lyrics. For every sarcastically placed sample, there’s a stretch when he gets back to his classic, snarly style for three or four minutes. After all, technique is important to the now 39-year-old; he has an album called Mic Club: The Curriculum, after all. There’s merit in releasing an album that won’t gain you any new fans, that only old heads will have the patience for. But the problem is this seems more like a Michael Moore documentary than an album. I wish big homie would just take a stab at the Migos flow already. –Michael Madden

G-Eazy – These Things Happen

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Grade: C-

Has anybody ever asked you, “Did you hear [insert album here] yet?” and you have to think about it despite hearing it just hours ago? It’s not that G-Eazy’s These Things Happen is an abysmal album; there are somewhat witty lyrics from the Oakland rapper, and the production is solid overall. But at least try to come off a little affable. If you’re aware of the “I was struggling to make it here, so since I’m here now, I’ll flaunt my wealth and get the girls — maybe your girl because you’re broke” narrative, you’re not missing much. The bigger problem is how much G-Eazy seems to be aware of that fact. He sounds remarkably uninspired or bummed out on every track. This sucks enjoyment from any of his great lines. You can picture him rolling his eyes in I’m-so-over-this-shit disgust when he raps, “I just want to stay broke forever/ Yeah that’s that shit no one ever said” (“I Mean It”). It’s a lot of party rap without the energy, and that’s why These Things Happen feels vapid. –Brian Josephs

Lil B – Hoop Life

lil b The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

Grade: C-

Can you imagine being pulled up at a stoplight next to a soccer mom and her clan as Lil B repeats, “I fucked a cheerleader in the butt”? Unfortunately, that’s one of this tape’s most memorable moments, and the overall silliness overshadows its worthwhile stretches. “Fuck KD”, the infamous Kevin Durant diss track, will be the best-known song here by far thanks to its concept and WTF rock chorus, but it’s not the strongest. That would be the bustling “Good Day”, the syrupy “Payton on Broncos Jordan on Wizards”, or the woozy “Scouts Report”. Meanwhile, the half-ratchet “Clink Clink” and the Blueprint-evoking “Marble Floors and Pain” are beats worthy of summer freestyles. On “Gotta Make the NBA”, B pretends that he’s on that early morning workout grind. The feeling, though, is that he’s never actually worked that hard at anything besides his social media game. Hoop Life, in turn, sounds slapped-together, spanning 33 songs in 121 minutes. Then again, there’s no off-season for this martian, and that’s kind of the point — take it or leave it. –Michael Madden

K Camp – SlumLords

slumlords The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

Grade: C-

Can Atlanta’s K Camp, who made the sticky single “Cut Her Off”, hold your attention for a full mixtape? Perhaps, but not here. Over beats that balance outer space vibes and trap urgency (courtesy of guys like Bobby Kritical and Big Fruit), K Camp’s warbly sing-song and melodic cadence works decently in SlumLords‘ first half — that is, after we get past the awful “Your hoe will get slayed” on the project’s intro. It’s formulaic, but “Down Bad”‘s bounce and “Long Live the Kings 2″‘s druggy melancholy can be addictive. It’s still a very spotty set of songs, though. The “These hoes ain’t got no manners” chant on “No Manners” is so contradictory and misogynist that it edges into satire with that Euro-bounce synth twirling behind it. K Camp straight-up runs out of gas as the mixtape draws to a close. It’s hard to argue against that with lines like “I blame the toilet for this shit” (“Don’t Blame Me”) and “I swear these niggas trash/ They remind me of the grouch” (“Off the Floor”). Let’s trim chop off the fat a little next time. –Brian Joesephs

Bonus: Video of the Month

Yung Lean – “Yoshi City”

Grade: A+

There’s just too much right about this video. Literally every part of it warms my heart. As a rapper, 17-year-old Swede Yung Lean is about as divisive as they come, but even a hater has to enjoy someone making an effort to bring rap hands back with a vengeance while a My Little Pony stuffed animal and a Renault Twizy adorn his video. The real star of “Yoshi City” might be producer Yung Gud, who smokes the fuck out of a cigarette while looking melancholy as hell at the end of the video. To those who don’t fuck with Yung Lean, this video got 100K views its first day up, so you better get on board or get left behind. –Pat Levy

Trappers and Philosophers: Ab-Soul and Rap Ingenuity

By Michael Madden

Itrappers philosophers The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuityn the third edition of his hip-hop-and-other-things column, Trappers and Philosophers, Michael Madden focuses on Ab-Soul’s lyrics and why, in rap, wordier isn’t always better.

Even though I’ve read brilliant books like A. J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science and a handful of boxing biographies, I feel clueless toward the sport’s cultural relevance at its peak. Just can’t quite grasp it. Still, there’s no doubt in my mind Muhammad Ali was singular thanks to his balletic dominance in the ring and his freethinking beyond it, especially in political situations. (Legendary shit: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”)

What’s more (and what’s more relevant to this rap column), he was a pioneer of braggadocio going back to his days in Louisville as Cassius Clay, before he ever earned the heavyweight title. Ali’s wordsworth rep might actually be more widely appealing than his profession, and thankfully it has overshadowed his other intellectual shortcomings — he struggled with simple math, for example.

While Ali’s powerful-yet-artful boxing style inspired peers and later fighters to an unthinkable degree, his temperament, his swagger, influenced the rest of the athletic world and practitioners of hubris elsewhere. I’m not going to say today’s rappers watch YouTube clips of Ali’s taunts for motivation, but there’s no question there are glints of his cockiness in the genre. I mean, there’s one huge giveaway: Ali used to rhyme his taunts, carefully constructing flurries of syntax to detonate during interviews.

muhammad ali The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

Of course, Ali didn’t have musical accompaniment during those pre-fight takedowns. Neither does my favorite lyricist in hip-hop at the moment, California’s Ab-Soul, on his new album’s closer, the 23-minute “W.R.O.H.” — that’s “We Really Out Here”. The thing is so long because, for most of the duration, the premise is that Ab is in the studio with friends and colleagues, just rapping away and squaring off against the regrettably tattooed battler Daylyt. My favorite line from Ab: “I’ll put this man in ERs if he don’t got no manners.” Suffice it to say that the crowd’s literal oohs and ahhs are the real deal Holyfield.

It’s supposed to sound casual, but Ab, who’s signed to Top Dawg Entertainment and one-fourth of the group Black Hippy with Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and Jay Rock, sounds like a loner even among his admirers. (Full disclosure, he has a lovely girlfriend, Yaris Sanchez.) There’s another spot on These Days…, “Tree of Life”, when Soul just doesn’t want to stop rapping. He’s already made a bunch of tree-related references: “Rarely do I bark, hope you get the analogy/ Top Dawg embarkin’ on the whole industry.” Then, during the outro, he rattles off explanation after explanation for his moniker. This is just the end, after the beat cuts out: “I’m the Soul-ution, nigga, Soul-ute me… That was a stretch… I’m Ab-Soul-utely the best.” In the spirit of the World Cup, these elongated deliveries remind me of someone juggling a soccer ball. It’s cat-and-yarn, see-what-I-did-there lyricism.

ab soul The Plug, Vol. 1: Chuck D vs. Hot 97, 11 Hip Hop Reviews, and Ab Souls Rap Ingenuity

At least that’s what I call it. Ab’s own description: “Rap like I go to church with work in the trunk,” he says on “Tree of Life”, still botanically minded as he references his evangelistic youth and the concept of lyrical dopeness. Yet that only sums up the moral balance in his music. I particularly like this hilarious image, which seems applicable to every Ab studio session ever: “I’m in a fucking lab coat rhyming high as shit.” By the way, the first song on Ab’s debut album, 2011’s Longterm Mentality, is called “Real Thinkers”.

Last time in this space, I talked about Kevin Gates’ introspection and his occasional severity. Soul has a similar thing going on at spots during These Days… He can be depressive, particularly on “Closure”, which is dedicated to his late longtime girlfriend and collaborator Alori Joh. Elsewhere, on “God’s Reign”, Ab voices concern for his own sanity, penning a humorous take on his drug use (“Got Mary, got Lucy, got Molly/ That’s wifey, girlfriend, and mistress”) and eventually admitting its negative toll. But even though Soul has a gift for honesty, narrative is not his greatest strength. That would be his ingenuity.

***

rap geniusLaunched in October 2009 by Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory, the lyrics site Rap Genius has been controversial and informative in equal measure. Scratch that: From the user-friendly interface to the enthusiastic annotators, its usefulness is immeasurable. Ever listen to a rap song and notice there’s slang in every single line? Rap Genius will enlighten you. For the most part, though, I don’t use RG so I know this slang. Rather, I visit the site almost daily because (1) it’s sometimes hard to understand what these artists are saying in the first place, and (2) even certain references are going to go over the heads of cultural omnivores. Rap Genius, then, broadens horizons.

No artist has sent me scurrying to RG more than Ab-Soul has. His style, however, isn’t the only one that can impress me. Actually, I might be too easy to impress. True life: I like the lyrics of some rappers who can barely talk straight. They might not employ wordplay, but they’ll somehow be exquisitely direct.

I confess that I’ve been listening to “Murder” by L’A Capone, the recently slain Chicagoan. I say “confess” because it’s a simple, mumble-mouthed song. “Hole in his head, he a dolphin,” raps Capone in a Shy Ronnie flow, referencing homicide and the animal’s biological peculiarity in one swoop. I just like the coldness and the out-of-nowhere-ness. Is it idiotic? I dunno. I also love this boast from Memphis rapper Chris Travis’ “Crunch Time”: “Fuck up your whole career with one punchline/ Beat a nigga ass down in the fuckin’ lunch line.” Modern writing wisdom says nouns and verbs are better than adjectives and adverbs and that small words are better than big ones. These guys, whether they mean to or not, adhere to this advice.

You have a good dictionary, don’t you? I recently upgraded to the fourth American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language from my relatively eensy Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus. My Heritage has pronunciations, thorough definitions, images, and it’s all in alphabetical order. OK, maybe it’s not unique. But taken together, the volume is as advertised: “Discover the richness of the English language.” Here are the first five unfamiliar words I see: phratry, hockshop, morganatic, pozzolan, and ramet. You can go look up the definitions for yourself. You’ll remember them better that way.

The point is that I’ve got the whole world in my hands, more or less. Ab-Soul seems to want to harness the power and the variety of it all, though not in the sense that prolix vets like Canibus or Ras Kass do. I don’t feel that silly comparing Ab to literary stuntmen like David Foster Wallace. Is rap poetry? Nas’ tensely panoramic Illmatic is — I have no problem with the widely held belief that it’s The One, rap’s lyrical masterpiece. Aesop Rock’s catalog and Earl Sweatshirt’s so far are also poetic on many levels, from their dexterity to their themes.

I’m not much of a literary critic, and though I claim to be interested in poetry, I’m streaky with my reading. Regardless, my feeling is that, much like the poets who live on paper and divide their words into “stanzas,” rappers interpret one vast reality and do so in their individual ways. There are jokes, there’s pain, and there other triumphs and drama. The wordplay and general verbal trickery might be the least important factor of its relevance.

But whether it’s Muhammad Ali, Cormac McCarthy, Nas, or Ab-Soul, dazzling linguistics pop up all the time in culture. Maybe more than any other segment of art, rap unites voices — arguably too many given all the unnecessary freestyling at parties. Meanwhile, the rest of us sit back and pay attention, waiting for that next dope line to knock us on our asses.

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