Tag Archives: Hip hop

The Ten Most Important Artists Of The Last Decade – 2. Kanye West

Kanye West begins his 2010 song Power with line: “I’m living in the 21st century, doing something mean to it, doing it better than anybody you ever seen do it,”   It’s the public personality of Kanye West put to music – a song full of boasts, and shots at his critics.  Yet, at the end of the song as the chanting and electro-rock beat that drives the song dies down, West pulls back from the egomaniac we know – and admits that death seems comforting –  “it would be a beautiful death, dropping out the window”.  It’s no surprise that West would use a choir chant as the background like he did with “Jesus Walks”.  It’s a sonic link between the struggles of earth, and ultimately salvation.

The struggle between his ego and his insecurities is at the heart of some of West’s best music – “Through the Wire”, “Jesus Walks”, “Stronger”, “Runaway” etc. Bragging has always been a favorite past-time of many rappers, and while Kanye does plenty of that – he’s not afraid to shed his skin.  There’s a reason why Kanye never took a stage name – he’s never had to create a persona.  From the outbursts to his music, Kanye is telling his audience and his critics exactly who he is.  Even the detour into his tortured psyche – 808s & Heartbreak was interesting and bold (even if it didn’t reach the heights of his previous albums.)  Even through the auto-tuned vocals, West revealed a side of himself that few rappers (and even other musicians) have dared. It’s the hip-hop equivalent of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band – the soundtrack to a man who’s witnessing himself spinning out of control.  Time has been kinder to this album – it’s become the blueprint for what can now considered to be “emo-rap” influencing other artists, particularly West’s protege Kid Cudi.

But what really sets West apart from other artists, is his ear for music and sound.  Sampling has always been a tool for hip-hop, but West is one of the few producers to actually master it.  Instead of just sticking a sample in the song – West uses samples from all over the music world, particularly soul that become the driving force behind his beats.  Who else would think of using “Diamonds Are Forever” as a hook?  “We Major” contains of West’s best lyrics, but it’s really constant horns that make the song truly memorable.  “All Of The Lights” is a collage of sounds (horns, weird beats, over 40 vocalists) that on paper shouldn’t work, but has already become something of a classic.   The piano of  “Runaway” (perhaps West’s best song) pulls you into his dark twisted fantasy where the douche-bags and assholes deserve toasts. This is even before the song take a left turn into 3-minutes into a mix auto-tuned vocals, distorted guitars, and violin turning the song into a perfect mix of traditional instruments, and post-modern synthetic sounds.

Throughout the past decade, West has constantly defined what records can sound like.  His latest offering My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has been called “the Pet Sounds of hip-hop” for its scope, vision, and sound.  His personality, he can sometimes be insufferable.  But West not only pushes himself, but all of music.  He’s a true visionary, whose influence will continue for years to come.  As West himself says, “no one man should have all that power”.

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The Ten Most Important Artists Of The Last Decade – 3. Jay-Z

Last year, Jay-Z appeared on The Daily Show to promote his book Decoded.  Jay-Z has always come off as an intelligent dude, and the excerpts I’ve read from Decoded solidified this.  What really stood out from Jay-Z’s appearance on The Daily Show, was his humbleness.  As Jon Stewart asked the questions, Jay-Z seemed shy, awkward, and out of his element.  I’ve been a fan of Jay-Z for a while, but his demeanor made me like him even more.  It was direct contrast to his rap persona – bigger than life, and untouchable.  Jay-Z has always been larger than life.   And for those brief moments on The Daily Show, he seemed human.

Many rappers tend to boast – it’s part of hip-hop culture.  When Jay-Z declared himself the “8th Wonder of the World” in “Izzo”, it seemed ridiculous.  And it is.  But the crux of the line lies in the fact that Jay-Z views himself as simply great – not just the “greatest rapper alive” (which he is.)  It’s hard to accuse him of being arrogant, when it’s true.  It reminds me of Brian Wilson listing 8 Beach Boys songs as his Top 10 Songs of all time.  Are you really going to argue?

As a rapper, Jay-Z is instantly recognizable with that deep voice.  His flow is impeccable, and legend has it that he never writes down his lyrics, and if that is the case, it’s all the more impressive.  “Moment of Clarity” remains of one of his best songs – where he takes down his critics for going mainstream – “I dumb down for my audience/And double my dollars/They criticize me for it/Yet they all yell “Holla“.

Jay-Z has always been ahead of the game, and a trend-setter.   But with his 2001 release The Blueprint, he truly became a hip-hop titan.  His rhymes were tighter, and he tore down his rivals with such ease that almost every other rapper seemed small in comparison.  The Blueprint was also significant for bringing back sampling as a hip-hop tool, eschewing the keyboard heavy sound that was prominent at the time.   It was also one of the first albums to incorporate soul samples,which has now become something of a common practice in hip-hop.   His next release, The Black Album was a slight dip in quality (though not by much).  “99 Problems” is a fusion of rock and hip-hop where Jay-Z recalls his early days, as if it remind his audience that’s still the same guy he used to be.

To some, Jay-Z tirade against auto-tune  – “D.O.A.” – may have made him seem like a cranky old man who doesn’t understand the new trends.  But rather, it cemented the fact that he still be the greatest by existing in his own world.  And when he played Glastonbury a couple years back – to Noel Gallagher’s chagrin – Jay-Z proved that he wasn’t bound by the hip-hop world.  He could draw a crowd, and put on a show that everybody loved.

Over the past decade, Jay-Z has proved time and again that as a hip-hop artist you can be huge, and still create music that is intelligent, while still maintaining street-cred.

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 8. Lil Wayne

The first time I heard Lil Wayne’s voice was on the song, “Barry Bonds” off of Kanye West’s Graduation in 2007. I knew of him, but never actually listened to him. When he appeared on the second verse on the song, in his thick syrup induced drawl, my head turned. “What the fuck is this?”, I thought in astonishment. It was unlike anything I heard in hip-hop. His flow seemed to work around the beat, as opposed to be linked to it. And then there were the bizarre lyrics: “my drink’s still pinker than the easter rabbit”; “stove on my waist turn beef to patties”. It was clear even then, that the dude followed his own path. Instead of following the normal rules, he seemed to be re-writing them as he went along.

His voice is everywhere these days – besides his own songs, it seems that he is on almost every single hip-hop song on the radio. It seems so commonplace, so it’s easy to forget how weird, bizarre, and how good he can be. Many rappers stick to a constant flow in the song, making it easy to rap along. In any one of his songs, Wayne takes detours that others would be afraid to take. His voice is not normal, and he often enunciates particular words that would otherwise be un-rhymeable – “I’m rare like mr clean with hair, No brake lights on my car rear” from “Phone Home”. “A Milli” is one of the strangest hip-hop songs to be released in the past few decades. There’s no hook, except for the statement, “motherfucker I’m ill”. From anything other rapper, the strange beats and repeated “a milli” voice in the background would have been annoying, but Wayne sees it as a challenge, delivering a tour de force of a song.

Prior to Tha Carter III, he built up a following with the albums 500 Degreez, and Tha Carter. But it was really his mix-tapes Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3 and his appearances on singles from Fat Joe (“Make it Rain”), Chris Brown (“Gimme That”) and Wyclef Jean (“Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)”) among numerous others in 2006 and 2007 that gained him a wider audience. When Tha Carter III was released in June 2008, it was clear that hip-hop belonged to Lil Wayne.

But being his unpredictable self, Wayne followed-up the blockbuster Carter III with the critically panned Rebirth, which was his much touted rock album. To some, Rebirth might be seen as mistake (and while it certainly is forgettable) it proves that Lil Wayne does whatever he wants, critics and detractors be damned.

Is Weezy, the best rapper alive, as he has often claimed?  Perhaps.  If nothing else he is without a doubt one of the most innovative, prolific, entertaining and wildest rappers out there.

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The Absurd Review: Kanye West & Jay-Z: “H.A.M.”

“H.A.M.”, the first single from the Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration Watch The Throne surfaced earlier today.  The idea of the two hip-hop giants making an album together sounds exciting, but if H.A.M. is any indication of what direction Watch The Throne will take count me out.  Both rappers sound uninspired, the beat is sub-par, and what’s with the weird 80s synth in the background?   The final half of the song contains violins, and a choir.  Kanye, dude you already did similar things with better results on “Power”.

What do you think of “H.A.M.”?

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The Absurd Review – Kid Cudi -Man on the Moon II – The Legend of Mr. Rager

Kid Cudi’s sophomore effort, Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager plays like a hip-hop version of In Utero – an artist gets big and decides that he doesn’t like what he’s seen.  Since the release of Man on the Moon last year, Cudi developed a coke habit, eventually getting arrested this past summer.

There is no boasting about how great Cudi’s life was a coke-head (even though much of the album sounds like a hip-hop version of Dark Side of the Moon, especially Marijuana which has a Gilmour-like solo throughout).  Cudi not only loves the darkness, he “wants to marry it.”  “It is my cloak.  It is my shield.  It is my cape,” He declares in “Maniac”  a haunting track featuring indie singer Saint Vincent.  Elsewhere, “Wild’n Cuz I’m Young” sounds like it was recorded in a dark basement or underground.  If this is what Cudi meant by marrying the darkness, he found it in this song.  Unfortunately, what would have other-wise been an album highlight is marred by the use of Autotune.  “Marijuana”

“Erase Me” finds Cudi taking on arena rock – it’s even got a softer verse and loud chorus which proves that Cudi seems to have a a better understanding of a rock song than Lil Wayne.  Interestingly on the song where he actually does sing, he ditches the Autotune.  The only problem with the song, is the inclusion of the usually reliable Kanye West, who seems sapped of his energy and his muse on his verse.

Some reviews have stated that this album is over indulgent but the blend of spaced-out rock and hip-hop elevates Man on the Moon II above Cudi’s indulgences and self-loathing.  But the main flaw of the album isn’t Cudi using the album as catharsis, it’s that it doesn’t seem convincing. Cudi seems to like the darkness too much or is stoned too much to really break out and exorcise his demons.  If only his delivery matched the music and the lyrics, Man on the Moon II could be hip-hop’s version of In Utero or Plastic Ono Band. As it is though, it’s an impressive effort from an emerging artist.

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