Tag Archives: hip-hop

Why? has always been an interesting band. Johnathan “Yoni” Wolf’s blend of melodic harmonies and endearingly rough rap styles have made them intriguing and addictive but overtime, as the amateur scruffiness of their younger days have be scuffed and shined over time, it’s become much harder to embrace them. That’s not to say their latest album Mumps, etc. isn’t good, just moreso stating that it’s not what it could be. 2008’s Alopecia was an instant obsession; blasted on repeat for that entire summer. The next release, 2009’s Eskimo Snow, wasn’t the best follow-up but it grew on me and I respected its focus on songmanship. Now after a small hiatus, Why? returned with a solid EP and album, that continues on that path of crafting great pop songs. Commendable and definitely worthwhile, Yoni’s just as great with words as ever, but his raps are what’s truly missed. He, and maybe everyone else, may not think so but his rap skill was just as intricate and engaging as anyone else’s; without them being a strong factor it feels incomplete.

At what point does rap music have to take responsibility for a destructive culture it’s helped to manifest?
Rap music has spent years taking listeners on a journey through a rough jungle of decadence, violence, history, philosophy and sex throughout its existence and, at times, it could be argued that it has gone too far at times. It’s at these times where the rap community (and it’s defendants) have come to its rescue —with the most readily available scapegoat being: “We’re speaking a truth about an environment we’re from”. By all accounts, this is pretty much true; rap and hip-hop culture spawned from the ugliness of living in poverty and violence. It was an escape from that place (whether mentally or physically through success), but more-so than that it was a testament and portrait of the other America, the place where the American dream doesn’t take place.

This argument can only go so far though, and after all steps need to be taken back, the scene needs to be purveyed and we need to evaluate whether we’re still telling a story or if we’re just nurturing a culture of violence. It’s hard to tell a kid living in abject poverty how to live a righteous life when he can’t put food in his stomach, it’s also hard to convince that same kid that crime doesn’t pay when all he has to do is turn on tv and become inundated with the message that it actually does pay. It’s a complex issue handling these types of situations, and naturally when something is too complex for us, instead of trying to deal with it we just sweep it under the rug as nothing more than a black and white issue that’s not our problem.

The truth is: all we have are the quandaries. A subject like this is such an enigma where every answer you can come up with leads to a dead end. Society is fucked; violence takes place because of the nature of living in turmoil, violence is celebrated in music, movies and television because that’s all we know and music is pushed to the masses because it’s profitable and—to paraphrase Breaking Bad—companies aren’t in the morality business, they’re in the empire business.

All we have our the moments where rational people can sit and discuss what is happening under our noses. The biggest issue with this though is that those same rational people aren’t taking part in saving these areas that they’re so torn up about. As someone who’s volunteered to at-risk youth, I know from experience that you should consider yourself lucky if you can save one; no matter how much time you spend with these kids, no matter what you try to tell them, when it’s all said and done you’ll leave and those kids will go back to that environment and culture of destruction that is sculpting their minds every day.

Violence is a natural function of life. It’s everywhere, always has been and always will be. Entire cultures and colonies were built on violence. (including this one.) We’re born violent; when we come out of the womb, we come out kicking and screaming. As we grow older society tells us our violent nature is wrong and tells us to stifle it. But stifling our nature doesn’t erase it, and the difference between areas with little to no violence and areas that are heavily violent is the rules we apply to ourselves. If you’re starving than you do whatever you need to just to eat, that’s just a given; there are neighborhoods are full of people starving and their pleas for food have gone ignored. Maybe there’s a chance that rap is just nurturing this mentality more than educating about it—it’s a high possibility; but, at the same time, no matter how much bloodshed has taken place in Chicago or New Orleans, it’s a helluva lot less than what’s taking place in countries all over the world. Not saying it because that makes the situation better, just saying it because it’s true. It’s a violent world. Just as societies have denigrated and destroyed themselves because of violence, no society has made any sort of “progression” without it.

The beauty and the shame that comes from gangster rap music is that it gives a microphone to America’s forgotten children. From N.W.A., blasting street knowledge about being poor, angry and black with the kind of reckless abandon that can only come with youth to Chief Keef conveying that same abandon, albeit in a different way entirely. T.I. referred to Chief Keef as the future, the sad thing is he might be right. I’m not going to talk shit about him because I like the kid, I just think he’s incredibly misguided and has no idea just how grand the ramifications of his actions are–and that’s what makes him the voice of this new generation. A generation of mentally unstable young kids with no direction and no guidance from anyone, taking their cues from a culture that tells them their worth is based on what’s in their pockets and has taken guerrilla-like machismo and stylized prostitution and labeled it swag. George Carlin has a great bit about why man is driven to violence, basically saying that our need as men to destroy everything can be deconstructed to be just one big, “who’s got the bigger dick” contest. It only makes sense that that a culture as degraded and jaded as the black culture participate so heavily in this act.
However when all this is said and done, I’m still speaking in generalities. Violence is everywhere and in every culture, long before there was any music. (Not to speak of rap.) There is no direct correlation between rap music and violence, but that doesn’t excuse it. It’s nice to think that if the music was positive or, at least, cautionary then maybe things would be better and lives would be saved. I’m sure a few would. The issue though, lies in every other factor that drives these kids to take a person’s life. When Lupe Fiasco went on record to say that chief Keef scares him, he’s not speaking on him personally he’s speaking on an environment that made him who he is. The greatest American catastrophe that’s taking place right now is happening in the development of our youth, and it just shouldn’t be that way. The children are our future and each day that passes the future becomes desolate, and all one can really do is hope that those roses that will grow from the concrete bloom bright enough to turn it around.

I’m not a fan of rap label compilations. There’s way too much going on and they really serve no purpose than as a marketing tool to advertise for the rappers on your label. However, because this was Yeezy and the G.O.O.D crew, I was willing to give it a shot and see if they could sell me on it. They couldn’t.

I have the same issue with Cruel Summer that I had with Watch The Throne, there’s no luster in it. It’s like these guys were on vacation and, I don’t know, I guess it rained one day so they were stuck in their  expensive ass hotel and thought, “Hey, fuck it, let’s make an album to kill time.” Frankly, by the time the record was done I was exhausted with it–also, I don’t have to remind you of my feelings on luxury rap.

The album starts off with R. Kelly doing that thing he does, only this time it’s not sexual. Essentially a pale imitation of “Lift Off” from WTT, it wasn’t exactly the strongest of openings. (Especially with ‘Ye phoning it in.) Luckily enough, after this is the album’s strongest streak of songs with the infectious bop of “Clique”–which features Jay-Z, Big Sean and Yeezy bragging about his girlfriend’s sextape that  doesn’t star him–to what was arguably the jam of the summer “Mercy” and the “church-in-the-ghetto meets a hip-hop dungeon”-like style of “New God Flow” (Now with Ghostface, being who he’s always been, the fucking best).

I wanna like songs like “The Morning”; it sounds good and the repetitiveness of the beat works in this kind of song, but it’s way too feature heavy for me to get into. Just as soon as I’m feeling a rapper’s verse, he’s gone. Also, Kid CuDi’s “verse” on this song is only slightly less lazy as the one he did for “All Of The Lights”. Also, as tempting as it is for me to want to like a song with Ma$e on it… I just can’t get with this “Higher” song, but we’ll always have Harlem World bruh. Honestly, the rest of the album is just a blur of features I can’t keep track of and mostly interchangeable beats. (Just thinking about it is tiring; the Kid CuDi one was good though.) Finally, the album ends with the remix to Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like” and I’m left wondering  a few things, namely: does this change my feelings for the G.O.O.D crew, and how is it Cyphi got to only be on two songs with like a half a verse on both,that seems like a pretty raw deal.

Like Watch The Throne, I feel like Cruel Summer is a decent mixtape pretending to be an album. It’s fun and sounds great, but that doesn’t mean it’s no less phoned in. That being said, it’ll probably sell well and I’ll hear it at the clubs when I’m drunk enough to enjoy it more.

After spending the past weekend totally legitimately sampling the soon-to-be released G.O.O.D music album “Cruel Summer”, (review of which will be up soon) I realized a few things. Other than the fact that I’m still not entirely sure what Cyphi Da Prince’s role in G.O.O.D is and the constant hope that ‘Ye fooled us all and the real album hasn’t been leaked yet, I have to admit that I just don’t particularly care for luxury rap.
For those of you not in the know, luxury rap is like a good deal of other rap records; in that they rap about having and buying things, only this time it’s about elegance with your decadence. So instead of laying down a 16 about white tees and fitted caps, you would rap about the fine wines, french designers and that hermes bag you just had to get. To quote Mr. West, it’s “sophisticated ignorance”; which is fine enough, I’m sure my high school self would approve of this. (Anything to get the other black kids to stop being assholes to him for not wearing baggy clothes.)
For me though, I’m not particularly enthralled by the whole thing. It’s essentially a sequel to the “shiny suit” era-only a helluva lot more expensive-which was fun at times and undermined the violence in the hip-hop scene, which was pertinent but it was all so empty and crass and was all about selling shit and turning yourself into a billboard.
I guess this is where my real issue with most popular rap music lies (well one of the problems): the constant brand abuse.
Rap music, more than any other, is pretty damn guilty of brand abuse. The abuse that shit like it’s nothing; to the point where brands should get their own Sarah Mcgloughlin-scored commercial. Chances are if your product holds any water, a rapper has rapped about having it. Now, for a lot of brands this isn’t a big deal, most of them welcome the attention. The thing about luxury rap is that it’s all about bragging about things that pride itself on exclusivity. When you brag about having polo sock, polo shirts and polo draws it devalues the brand because it inspires everyone to get the same thing and erases the exclusivity you wanted from it in the first place. (Mind you we could also discuss the bullshit in things being exclusive, but that’s a whole other issue.) By extension, too much branding also devalues yourself. When you walk along the streets of your city whereing that Givenchy shirt you saw Rick Ross where and decided to spend your whole paycheck on, are people who see it on you reacting to you or the shirt? Thus getting back to you just being a billboard instead of being stylish. I’ve often said that the hip-hop scene is full of kids who are trendy but not necessarily stylish. Anyone can wear what’s popular so where’s your identity? I do my best to dress in a way that let’s someone know that my style is my own–as best you can with only so many things to wear and ways to wear them. (No humblebrag.) But even I fall for the occasional Maison Martin Margiela shoes or HUF panel hat when I see someone rocking it well. I’m not about judging, I’m just about suggesting–suggesting that maybe we can cool it on turning ourselves into ad space and rapping about extravagant items purely for the sake of doing it. Then again, if I wasn’t a broke engineer-by-day, writer-by-night, I’d probably be all for it.

Over the weekend, the BET music matters tour made it’s way to the Howard Theatre in DC. The tour—which is headlined by Kendrick Lamar featuring fellow TDE members Ab-Soul and Jay Rock, MMG artist Stalley and newcomers Fly Union—is all apart of BET’s supposed insistence that it cares about music and wanting you to believe that they do indeed “got you”.
The concert, I have to say, was a lot of fun. The Howard Theatre is an elegant looking place and, somehow, my friend and I ended up in the front row; a place where, as you can imagine, hilarity ensued.

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Pyramids might be the best song I’ve heard in a long time, not to speak of this year. It’s pop and R&B’s finest and most enthralling: 9 minutes of electro bounce goodness, subversive trance-style rhythm and black philosophy all rolled into one. It’s Frank’s “stairway to heaven” “bohemian rhapsody” or “only in dreams.”
But I’m sure you out there reading this know how good it sounds, so instead let’s talk about what this song is–which in a nutshell is a history of the sexual degradation and roles played in black history.

It’s kind of weird seeing girls tweet that they’re “working at the pyramid tonight” or some variation. Do they not realize what that implies or do they know but just think it sounds cool? If it’s the latter than I guess that’s fine; I mean I tweet gangsta rap lyrics all day long but it doesn’t mean I actually live that life. If it’s the former than it’s a little disheartening; a song with as good as lyrics as these shouldn’t be ignored.

Set the cheetahs on the loose
There’s a thief out on the move Underneath our legion’s view
They have taken Cleopatra, Cleopatra

Run run run come back for my glory
Bring her back to me
Run run run the crown of our pharaoh
The throne of our queen is empty

Now as anyone who’s taken any sort of history class (or at the very least aware of RapGenius) can tell you, the Cleopatra being referred to here is the actual queen of the nile herself who ruled over Egypt and was known for her incredible beauty. (among other things we’ll get to shortly).

And we’ll run to the future
Shining like diamonds in a rocky world
A rocky, rocky world
Our skin like bronze and our hair like cashmere
As we march to the rhythm On the palace floor
Chandeliers inside the pyramid
Tremble from the force
Cymbals crash inside the pyramid
Voices fill up the halls

Set the cheetahs on the loose There’s a thief out on the move

Underneath our legion’s view

They have taken Cleopatra, Cleopatra

The basic idea is that the quote “king of the throne” is looking for his queen who’s gone missing. Him and his queen were supposed to lead Africa to the future; make it stronger and uplift the people. Now if you know the history of Cleopatra then you know that she was a woman who loved and seeked power the only way she knew how: through her beauty and body. It’s known that she had used her sexuality in order to form alliances with greek kings to guarantee that her empire would be the strongest. Frank seems to have used this as a launching point on the history of prostitution as well as a look at what it feels like to love someone precious but not be able to have them.

The jewel of Africa
What good is a jewel that ain’t still precious
How could you run off on me?
How could you run off on us?
You feel like God inside that gold
I found you laying down with Samson And his full head of hair
Found my black queen Cleopatra
Bad dreams Cleopatra

Remove her
Send the cheetahs to the tomb
Our war is over, our queen has met her doom
No more she lives, no more serpent in her room
No more, it has killed Cleopatra, Cleopatra

The Samson reference is an interesting one. Samson is one of the judges of the ancient Israelites said to have been granted supernatural strength by God in order to battle his enemies. Nothing is worse for your ego than knowing your Queen is in bed with a man like that, not even to speak on the racial implications of it. Cleopatra eventually fell to her death, by suicide, upon her lover Mark Antony’s loss in the Battle of Actium. The snake imagery isn’t lost either, as both a reference to the snake bite Cleopatra allegedly used to kill herself as well as a euphemism for temptation and lust. In the end she met her fall through her need for power and riches.

Big sun coming strong through the motel blinds
Wake up to your girl for now let’s call her Cleopatra,
Cleopatra I watch you fix your hair
Then put your panties on in the mirror, Cleopatra
Then your lipstick, Cleopatra
Then your six inch heels
Catch her
She’s headed to the pyramid

She’s working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight

Pimping in my convos
Bubbles in my champagne
Let it be some jazz playing
Top floor motel suite, twisting my cigars
Floor model TV with the VCR
Got rubies in my damn chain
Whip ain’t got no gas tank
But it still got woodgrain
Got your girl working for me
Hit the strip and my bills paid
That keep my bills paid
Hit the strip and my bills paid
Keep a nigga bills paid

From here we move to present day. The life of your typical pimp benefiting off selling lust and using a woman’s body to help him profit and establish his “kingdom” so to speak. Going from once being kings and queens to instead the seedy underbelly using the same tactics that they’ve always thought would get them ahead. It’s no grand observation to point out the fact that we, as black people, are part of a hypersexualized culture. Lust has always been found in us throughout all of history even before slavery and the objectification of our women by our men. Here in this song, Frank draws the parallels between ancient Egypt and today; showing a pattern between our thought processes between then and today.

She’s working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid

You showed up after work
I’m bathing your body
Touch you in places only I know
You’re wet and you’re warm just like our bathwater
Can we make love before you go
The way you say my name makes me feel like I’m that nigga
But I’m still unemployed
You say it’s big but you take it
Ride cowgirl
But your love ain’t free no more, baby
But your love ain’t free no more

And then we get to the end of the song where everything comes full circle. Just as the king who loved Cleopatra and felt betrayed by her personal power grabbing, we are presented with someone in love with a hooker. A woman who, despite this man’s strong feelings, treats him no different than another client; doing things to make him feel like a man but still expecting compensation for it.

It’s a testament to how good and multilayered this song is, that you can gather so many insightful thoughts from it. Like most of Channel Orange, it’s yet another song about unrequited love but also a song about history and sexuality– not to mention a fun, danceable track. It’s not often a song you can party to is so full of education.

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