Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Best KEXP Studio Concert Ever?

Some videos have so many things going on in them, and are so indescribably awesome, that words wouldn’t do them justice. That is the case with Seattle radio station KEXP’s latest live set, featuring Despot, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Killer Mike and El-P. Especially of note is a preview of one of the songs from Despot’s new album, a collaboration with electronica group Ratatat. Watch the video below and decide for yourself what degree of perfect it is:

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El-P and Despot’s Selector Freestyle

It’s only been two days since I posted the last Selector freestyle and we already have another one. This one features El-P and Despot, two New York denizens who happen to be amongst the best MC’s currently making music. The scenery in this video is perfect, their interview is one of my recent favorites and the actual performance is outstanding. Listen below:

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5 Reasons Drake Is Good For Hip Hop

ImageDrake seems to have been a beacon of controversy recently, both due to his actions and due to his music. Critics of his work have been especially outspoken about his “soft” musical style and he has been dissed by a slew of established rappers and hip hop spokesmen, including Pusha TCharlemagne The God and Common (somewhat ironically). In this post I’d like to rebuke any criticisms aimed his way and argue that Drake is actually good for hip hop for the following reasons:

5) He’s really not that bad of a rapper

That’s not to say that Drake is a great rapper. He’s still prone to drop a clunky line and his delivery is a bit too repetitive despite some diversification on his latest album “Take Care”. He’s gotten better over the years but he’s never going to reach a ’94 Nas’ level of MCing. But he’s not a ‘bad’ rapper by any means. He can be incisive and witty at times, as on “HYFR” when he declares “What have I learned since getting richer? / I learned working with the negatives could make for better pictures.” He is also willing to experiment with his flow when on the same song he raps in a breathless double-time. His singing voice, while lacking the robustness to carry full songs, is the perfect tool for conveying Drake’s emotional musings during chorus’s and refrains. Although much is made by critics of Drake’s abilities as an MC, he’s really quite serviceable and at times downright good.

4) Drake is working with some of the most exciting producers making music

Over time hip hop audiences have (arguably) become more obsessed with the sonic backdrop of a song than its lyrical content. Luckily for Drake, he has a stable of supremely gifted in-house producers who are defining a certain ‘sound’, a form of airy, cerebral commercial production that fits Drake’s singing and rapping perfectly.  Synthy and echoic, the music provided by Noah “40” Shebib, Boi-1da, and T-Minus can be alternately slow and dreamy (“Lust for Life”) or hard and propulsive (“HYFR“). This style, in tandem with the similar work of frequent The Weeknd collaborator Illangelo, is beginning to define Toronto hip hop. Drake’s beat selection is a defining trait and his employment of such talented producers is another reason that he is good for hip hop.

3) The message behind Drake’s lyrics represent hip hop in a (comparably) positive light

Hip hop’s subject matter has been a lightning rod of controversy since the late 1980’s. ‘Gangster Rap’ became a favorite issue of political and social leaders around the time that NWA helped define West Coast hip hop. More recently, hip hop has come under intense scrutiny for its supposed materialistic and misogynistic tendencies. Drake’s lyrical content, while not being completely antithetical to other forms of commercial rap, displays a level of maturity and sensibility that makes it stand out.

His music seems downright philogynistic when compared to the music of many of his peers. Take the song “Fancy” for instance, in which he raps:

“Hit the gym, step on the scales stare at the number
You say you dropping 10 pounds, preparing for summer
And you don’t do it for the men, men never notice
You just do it for yourself, you’re the fucking coldest
Intelligent too, ooh, you’re my sweetheart
I’ve always liked my women book and street smart
Long as they got a little class like half days
And the confidence to overlook my past ways”

There seems to be a real attempt at understanding women in his music and he manages to paint them in a three-dimensional way that many Hip-Hop artists refuse to. Drake also manages to never sound too cloying or get tied up in ‘mansplaining’; his lyrics are palatable and reasonable without being condescending. This philogyny permeates much of his first two albums and presents hip hop music in a positive light.

Another complaint about modern hip hop is that it’s too material-obsessed and shallow. This argument becomes hard to deny when you hear an artist like Rick Ross compare women to “a bag of money” and rap about high priced sports cars that he, in all likelihood, can’t fit into comfortably. Drake’s subject matter touches on his commercial success, but offers a nuanced and balanced portrayal of stardom. Drake’s confessional style extends to the subject of his popularity and the insecurities that come with national exposure. His first album is devoted primarily to the subject, with lines like “I wish I wasn’t famous / I wish I was still in school” and “What am I afraid of? / This is supposed to be what dreams are made of.” He doesn’t take his success for granted either, rapping “I know that niggas would kill for this lifestyle/ I’m lookin’ forward to the memories of right now.” Although his music is not completely devoid of the monetary braggadocio that fills the rap airwaves, he offers enough balance to combat the critical image of rap as narcissistic and superficial.

2) Drake sells and sales are good for hip hop

One of the main criticisms of Drake, his commercial style and viability, is actually one of the best things about him. Hip hop fans and critics who are overly concerned with “selling out” and “going commercial” often disregard the fact that sales and radio airplay are beneficial to hip hop as an art form. Increased commercial success and profitability means that the market becomes more receptive to other hip hop acts. Consequently, record companies are more likely to seek out rappers and support them as long as similar music is selling. And there is little doubt that Drake’s music is some of the most commercially fruitful in the music industry today.

Drake’s first album “Thank Me Later” has sold over 1.5 million copies since its release in 2010, and his critically-revered follow up “Take Care” has been even more successful, to the tune of 1.9 million albums sold. In the present (deflated) market where only 10-15 albums a year crack sales of a million, these are pretty significant numbers. In 2010, the only rapper to sell more records was Eminem, whose comeback record “Recovery” held the #1 spot for the year. Similarly, only Drake’s mentor Lil’ Wayne, the radio-friendly Black Eyed Peas and the superstar duo of Kanye West & Jay-Z sold more records in 2011. That puts Drake in an elite group when it comes to commercial profitability.

Even more important from a visibility standpoint, Drake’s music is played constantly on the radio. It’s almost impossible to listen to a major commercial station without hearing at least one or two songs that feature Drake. His remarkable list of Top 25 singles includes “Over”, “Fancy”, “Miss Me”, “Best I Ever Had”, “Find Your Love”, “Successful”, “Headlines”, “Take Care”, “Marvin’s Room”, “Make Me Proud” and “The Motto”. At the present moment alone Drake is featured on 4 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 list. In the end, Drake’s commercial success increases his value to the genre that he represents

1) Drake’s albums are actually pretty good

None of the above-mentioned points would matter if Drake’s albums were disappointing overall. I would argue that other commercially viable artists like the Black Eyed Peas are ultimately not good for hip hop’s overall image because the quality of their music is so poor. This is not the case with Drake; not only is he well-received commercially but he is also a success with critics. His first album “Thank Me Later” received much praise and ended up on a few publications “Best of 2010” lists. His follow-up “Take Care” was arguably better. According to Metacritic, a site that compiles reviews of many of the major music publications, “Take Care” was the ninth-best rated album of 2011.

Drake’s music speaks for itself. Ultimately, what’s good for hip hop’s image is having a wealth of sonically pleasing, lyrically intelligent and monetarily successful music. Drake’s output manages to embody all three of these traits and that is why he is good for hip hop.

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About The Website’s Title

The inspiration for this blog came from an idea I had a while back for a rather long, researched and thorough essay. I wanted to call this essay “Is Hip-Hop Dead: Historical Declinism In Rap Music.”

Declinism is the belief that something, particularly a country or a political/economic system, is undergoing a significant and possibly irreversible decline. When I learned about this principle in a History course I took last year it immediately reminded me of Nas’s 2006 album “Hip-Hop Is Dead.” Although some have criticized Nas for his decision to name the album as such, stating that the title was a simple publicity stunt, this brand of ‘Declinism’ in Hip-Hop is neither unprecedented nor recent. In fact, both Hip-Hop artists and outside commentators have been bemoaning the state of Hip-Hop since it’s inception. East Coast artists such as Common complained about the emergence of West Coast Gangster rap during the early 90’s and the toll it was taking on the art-form. ‘Underground’ MC’s have been complaining about the commercialization of Hip-Hop since at least the rise of ‘Jiggy Rap’ in the mid-to-late 90’s. Southern Rap is still struggling to find a foothold amongst rap ‘purists’.

All of these trends demonstrate a conviction amongst artists and fans that Hip-Hop is or has been in a state of decline. With my essay I wanted to attempt to answer whether Hip-Hop really is in this decline, all the while giving an account of the many declinist models throughout Hip-Hop’s history. This is going to be an ongoing project that I hope to have finished by the end of December.

I also titled my blog “Is Hip-Hop Dead?” because I think the aims of this essay extend to all the writing that I want to do for the website; in essence I want to examine the intricacies of the music I love and raise/answer intriguing questions about how we listen to and interpret music. I hope I can satisfy these aims and will try to the best of my abilities to achieve this goal.

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Pro Era Crew’s Selector Freestyle

I’m admittedly a huge fan of Pitchfork’s ongoing “Selector” series of videos. The basic premise is simple: take an MC or group of MC’s, play two unconventional beats for them, and have them freestyle over the one that they like the most. The series has had some great moments including Curren$y flowing over Gold Panda’s “Heaps” and DJ Quik destroying Loyal Divide’s “Vision Vision”. Essentially the greatness of the Selector videos lie in the way that they showcases each artists diversity and display their talents in a new light.

That is not the case with Selector’s latest episode however. In the newest feature Joey Bada$$ and his Pro Era crew freestyle over a beat that would sound completely at home on Joey’s latest mixtape 1999. The beat, Nick Wiz’s “Overdrive”, proves to be a perfect encapsulation of the Pro Era crew’s sound (revivalist 90’s NY Rap) and instead of bringing out something different from the group it plays to their strengths. It gives this Selector the welcome feel of a Lyricist Lounge-era freestyle. Check the video below:

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Humble Intentions

Welcome to “Is Hip-Hop Dead?”.

I’m writing this blog with the simplest of intentions: to set aside a place where I can divulge my thoughts on music and continually maintain a hub of personal ideas. I don’t expect a mass readership or loyal, devoted following. I can only hope to fully develop the musical postulations that are floating around inside my mind while concurrently increasing my skills as an author.

I hope you, whoever “you” are, enjoy what I have to say. If you are unfortunate enough to stumble across this blog please take the time to comment and let me know what you think.

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