May 20, 2011 § Leave a Comment
George Duke – For Love I Come from The Aura Will Prevail (1975)
Relatively unknown gem of acid funkadelia courtesy of George Duke, the great synth pioneer and astral soul traveller of the 1970s, who honed his monster chops with Frank Zappa before revolutionising jazz funk with massive injection of distorted, bubbly keyboard licks and thus inspiring everyone this side of groovy electronica: Daft Punk, for one, owes him A EFFIN’ LOT (one example: I Love You More ). For Love I Come recently resurfaced from obscurity thanks to bassman extraordinaire Thundercat whose superb reinterpretation of the song which will feature on his upcoming Flying Lotus-procuded LP. And if you read this blog, you already know how much I love this guy.
Mary J. Blige – Someone To Love Me (Naked Remix) feat. Diddy and Lil Wayne (2011)
Diddy’s verse is surprisingly decent and while Lil Wayne is in safe autopilot mode (no more syrup?), it’s all about Mary and the bass on this one. Feels like a lost tape from 1995, pure East Coast gold.
Fleet Foxes – The Shrine / An Argument from Helplessness Blues (2011) ; Bon Iver - Calgary from Bon Iver (TBC 2011)
Two stalwarts of the much-maligned “Pitchfolk” genre conquering new territories. Fleet Foxes‘ new album surely sounds pretty similar to their eponymous instant-classic debut (though admittedly darker) but if you listen closely, you’ll hear them adventuring here and there into wilder places: in this instance free jazz with the ballsy addition of an agonising saxophone during the last minute of the song, symbolising the end of the relationship. Nice touch guys. On the other hand, the shift towards a new sound is bolder with Bon Iver, whose wailing voice is still unmistakably unique and powerful. On Calgary, you know he definitely got out of the woods, as the production values are something different entirely – a lustrous, anthemic pop minus the lameness of rock FM ballads. Two succesful takes on the difficult exercice of sticking to what you do best without repeating yourself.
Get Calgary on free download via Pitchfork (it’ll only coast you an email address).
John Frusciante - 666 from Inside of Emptiness (2004)
Chili Peppers‘ reluctant guitar-hero and eternally tortured adolescant John Frusciante delivers an uncharacteristically furious take on lo-fi punk in his “rockier” solo album (also one of his most accessible, far away from the Syd Barret-esque eccentricities of the drug-fuelled Niandra Lades). Hard binary riffing combined to deep, manly screams soon makes way for a melodic third verse sang in his trademark falsetto and an atonal guitar battle with Omar Rodriguez Lopes from Mars Volta. HEAVY.
Earl Sweatshirt : Dat Ass (2010?)
Stand-alone track from the famously missing-in-action Earl Sweatshirt, without of doubt the best rapper from the gang of shit-stirring, casual homophobes skaters that makes up Odd Future. And while he’s somewhere in Samoa making pottery in a rehab workshop, I can’t get enough of this track that brillantly encapsulates everything brilliant about this brilliantly disturbed kid. Seriously though, how many one minute track do you know that are so perfectly self-sufficient: two bright chords looped, a beat that drops at the exact right time and a razor-sharp, relaxed delivery. I feel like I’m skating in the shadow of Venice Beach’s palm-trees when listening to this.
May 2, 2011 § 1 Comment
Like a couple of other articles previously published on this blog, I wrote most of the following paragraphs while interning at Sight & Sound. One day, when there wasn’t a single obscure foreign film left to review, the online editor asked me if I knew about short films or music videos that could be worthy of a feature on the website. I was running out of ideas but still pitched an article about what I perceived as a shift in rap videos’ aesthetic, encapsulated by Kanye West’s stylish production – drawing from a diverse range of influences usually alien to hip-hop, from contemporary art to indie films. For many reasons, it didn’t get published – mainly because it had nothing to do with S&S’ topics of interest and target demographics, which I perfectly knew at the time but still went ahead. T’was probably not that good too. Anyway. This was a year ago. Since then, I feel the trend has lost pace, but Ye’s film Runaway, which came out as a teaser for his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy last autumn still stands as the apogee (if not the epitaph) of this specific rap mutation. Whether its influence will be enduring, it remains to be seen, and maybe some of the points I originally made in this piece are not as relevant as then, but I believe it is still interesting to look at the evolution of rap music through the medium of moving images, revelatory of how hip-hop is continuously expanding its boundaries, which are increasingly crossing over (and blurring with) the cultural lines of mainstream pop.
I won’t pretend I managed to avoid some easy shortcuts and sweeping generalisations, disregarding some rather larger sections of alternative rap and forgetting golden-age pioneers; but in my defence, I was only concerned with mainstream artists, big names who marked pop culture and outgrew rap to become the epitome of how urban music was/is perceived as a whole by the mass media.
In the MTV-formatted world of pop music, rap videos are often described as the most clichéd, predictable and formulaic ones – when they are not criticised for being unashamedly misogynist, socially irresponsible or downright stoopid. This may sound like a snappy and ignorant assumption as there have been many worthy exceptions in the three decades of hip-hop existence to this assertion – from the tactful afro-bohemian videos of the dubiously called “conscious” rappers (De La Soul, Mos Def and the rest of the Soulaquarians etc.) to Eminem’s cartoonish sarcasm – but, overwhelmingly, as seen on the main music channels, the genre has be doomed by an over reliance on an unwritten set of rules: male domination of the screen, gangsta posturing, big pimping materialism and the mandatory “video vixen” – those bikini-clad, statuesque models surrounding the all-powerful priapic rappers: put simply, the bitch/biatch.
The 1980s videos were gritty, provocative and streetwise (see Public Enemy’s Fight The Power directed by Spike Lee, N.W.A’s vindicative promos) but also quite tongue-in-cheek, until the Hype Williams’ revolution in the mid-1990s. The young director’s work for Puff Daddy, Notorious B.I.G and Busta Rhymes, among legions of others, forced the rap video into the era of bling – expensive sets, glossy sunglasses, designer suits, bottles of Courvoisier and Lamborghinis filmed through a fisheye lens. The “video vixen” phenomenon emerged at the same time and soon became a staple of the genre. To have an idea of the amazing extremes that the biatch video has reached, check Nelly’s Tip Drill or Snoop Dogg’s own porn production.
Hip hop welcomes psychedelia
Outkast started to break the mould with a couple of psychedelic, sarcastic romps in the early noughties (Andre 3000 running from a horde of fans on purple grass remains a watershed image) but even back then they were seen as some sort of surprisingly successful outsiders by the rap masses. Even when the Wu-Tang Clan made the hilarious “Flintstones with ninjas” video for Gravel Pit (2001), they had to tie up a half-naked model to sing the chorus and drag Neanderthal pin ups by their hair to back up their street cred.
It is in that context that Kanye West’s recent efforts must been acknowledged: he is the first rap superstar to overtly turn his back to the mainstream rap aesthetic and its visual and topical tropes, as his collaboration with music video guru turned filmmaker Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) recently made clear. Of course, his previous videography was already rich with some original and memorable concepts (the P.O.V breakup in All Falls Down, the blockbuster parody of 70s daredevil Evel Knievel, featuring Pamela Anderson, in Touch The Sky) and his interest in fashion and design (he’s an art-school dropout) is well-documented, but his partnership with Jonze saw him working almost outside the genre, stretching the boundaries of music video like no rap artist did before.
Yeezy: feminist or masochist?
First came the astonishing Flashing Lights (2008); more a short film than a traditional music video really: the song is abruptly cut in its mid-section just under the three minute mark. A beat-up car parks in a lunar landscape at the top of an hill overhanging a large city (probably Las Vegas); a curvaceous woman comes out of it, strips down to her lingerie and burns her clothes. She then returns to the car and opens the trunk to reveal a bound-and-gagged Kanye in his tuxedo. She kisses him, gets a shovel out of the trunk and repeatedly stabs him as the camera pans out. Entirely filmed in slow-motion with a remarkable economy of shots, this is the savage revenge of the video vixen, coming from the man who committed one of the nastiest (but also funniest) misogynistic attack at hip-hop glamour models on The Game’s Wouldn’t Get Far.
Ye went even further into self-inflicted punishment with We Were Once A Fairly Tale, a fifteen minutes film co-directed with Jonze which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, that he later posted on his blog and sold on iTunes. Released in fall 2009, it serves as a companion piece to Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are that came out in cinemas a few weeks later. The short unfolds in three acts: first, we see a drunken, obnoxious and belligerent K. West embarrassing himself in a nightclub as his lewd advances are systematically turned down by the women partying there. First major stab at the rap star mythology. He then meets a stranger on the dancefloor with whom he ends up having sex in an empty side-room, before passing out. When he wakes up nauseous, he starts vomiting what looks like rose petals (not very “hard” for a rapper indeed*) before slicing his stomach open with a bowie knife to extract a tiny furry creature. Both startled, they look at each other apprehensively, before the creature commits hara-kiri using a miniature version of the knife.
Despite its frankly ludicrous conclusion, like Flashing Lights, the short has a similarly Lynchian, post-Mulholand Drive feel in the way the blurred, dark photography and unsteady camera moves bring an eerie uneasiness in the mundane and familiar rap territory of the nightclub. West parodies his well-documented immature public behaviour with an uncomfortable degree of self-awareness. Once again concerned with objectification of the female body and rap masculinity, the film is also an ominous coda to Where The Wild Things Are, West playing a grown-up version of the kid from Jonze’s long feature, who has to kill his inner wild thing to join the adult world (a concept perfectly rendered by this sarcastic piece of photoshopping). The arty mood of both shorts is a massive departure from the literal storytelling of most rap videos.
Deconstructing the rap star imagery
Most importantly, rap videos have always put the artist in a position of power – literally and aesthetically. Never the victim or the weak, the rapper always dominates the camera, spitting his text at the viewer and swaggering in the centre of the screen. In Spike Jonze’s videos, West is systematically powerless, filmed under unflattering angles – whether pathetically drunk or tied up in the trunk of his car at the mercy of the blow-up doll he previously despised. Not the image music companies want to use to promote their artists in a genre where authenticity, maleness and street credibility are paramount.
Stoners, hipsters and modern art conoisseurs
Kanye West’s blunt attempts at challenging hip-hop topical boundaries also extend to form, privileging a more abstract, purely graphic way of promoting his songs. In that sense, the deliberately rough pixilation and vivid colours of Welcome to Heartbreak are remarkable. Most viewers originally thought this was due to a faulty upload or a problem with their internet connexion or latest pluggins; it was in fact a design prank. The video can be seen as a comment on the way music fans now consume videos using streaming platforms like Youtube rather than watching them on (M)TV.
Kid Cudi, the young star of stoner rap and one of Kanye West’s protégé, provides an interesting illustration of this argument with the two versions of his 2009 hit Day n’ Night, which had an official music video on heavy rotation on traditional music channels and an alternative one released a year later directly on the web, in which he had much more creative input. Unsurprisingly, the label’s one is all about vixens taking their clothes off despite Cudi’s nonchalant, apologetic charm – while the alternative one is a much darker, cleverly edited take on the solitude and paranoia of the “lonely loner” portrayed in the lyrics. Like West, Kid Cudi exposes himself as a swagger-free, vulnerable artist rather than the almighty rapper persona hip-hop fans got used to. Cudi repeated the same twin music vids strategy with Pursuit of Happiness: first the spraying-champagne-on-some-chicks-with-Drake promo, then the Michel Gondry-esque psychdelic excursion.
There is no doubt that this new aesthetic is coincidental with the curious recent “rapprochement” of rap and indie rock: the psychedelic duo MGMT worked with Kid Cudi, Vampire Weekend recently had RZA (leader of the Wu-Tang Clan) do an appearance in their baffling tennis-themed new video Give Up The Gun and Jay-Z publicly endorsed Grizzly Bear (notorious for their trippy video output, see Two Weeks or Knife) as the most exciting band of the moment. Consequently, Jay-Z, who always had the flair to follow the latest trend, got his own arty video out earlier this year for his latest single, On To The Next One. An energetic succession of gothic made-up faces, various fluids and random hip-hop totems (dollars, basketballs, chrome rims, sneakers) shot in a classy contrasted back and white, the video displays a fascination for Damien Hirst’s “Diamond Skull” that could be read as a symbol of rap materialism in relation to mortality (literally, as rap has a history of violent deaths but also metaphorically – Jay-Z as an ageing rapper is conscious of his own musical expiration date, having already retired once from the “game”).
Is rap entering a post-thug era or are Kanye West and his fellow middle-class rappers just crossing-over in the pop realm, now dominated by egotistic, pseudo-eccentric conceptual freaks a la Lady Gaga?
Conclusion: Runaway, because the Future is Odd
This was my conclusion at the time. I think it’s still holding up – especially regarding post-thugism, regardless of what Rick Ross might think. With his latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye put a spectacular stop to his flagellating phase (probably due to the Taylor Swift shenaningans that resulted in him becoming the “abomination of the Obama nation”) to come back even more self-centered, displaying a degree of megalomania that it will be difficult to top – he’s now a Pharaoh, a Roman god and a motherfucking monster, all at once. However, Kanye didn’t stop experimenting with form. First came Power, the visually stunning ”moving painting” by Marco Brambilla (previewed by the New York Times, no less) that had all the conspiracy theorists screaming “illuminati!”. Then Runaway, that I like to refer as Yeezy in Wonderland, a 34 minute film illustrating most of the album’s new songs around the following nutcase premise: what if a gorgeously-hot phoenix crash-landed on of my Lamborghini while I was riding in the forest? There is no point looking for a narrative or a deep underlaying message in Kanye’s reverie, which breathes life into his dreams of grandeur with a succession of stunning tableaux, showing a real flair for composition and striking imagery. Besides, it is interesting to remark that he anticipated by a few months the whole Black Swan craze for woman becoming birds and ballerinas (unless he saw the movie at the Venice film festival earlier – which is very plausible – and decided to go for blatant plagiarism).
Kanye West (or his assistants at least) still keeps a keen eye on arthouse cinema: check out the obvious recycling of Gaspard Noe’s Enter The Void credits in the promo for his latest single All of The Lights. But the next shift in rap’s visual representation will probably come from a totally different kind of rapper. I’m thinking of the noisy collective of skateboarding vandals Odd Future that managed to have the media fawning over them in a mere few months. Their head honcho, Tyler, The Creator is a 20 year old who bluntly declared on MTV that “[he] raps and directs videos, and that [he] wants to show Kanye West he’s not the only one who can do that.” Odd Future’s visual signature (somewhere between Jackass and Larry Clark shot by VICE; an amalgam of hipsters’ sardonic postmodernism and skate culture literalism) is light-years away from the haute-couture style of Kanye’s latest stuff – but just as remote from any rap tropes seen before. More on them in a future post…
* Kanye West’s delicate flowers bursting out of his rapper’s armour reminded me of Ghostface Killah’s diss directed at soft-rap king Drake: ”You cut the nigga open n you gon get feathers flying around the room n shit.”
April 22, 2011 § Leave a Comment
The nihilist skate kids of OFWGKTA are clearly doing it big at the moment, swagging their way to superstardom with their morbid anarcho rap that iTunes itself files under the “Fucking Awesome” genre. Key to the hype surrounding the LA crew is stage antics that brought the good ol’ fashionned art of punkrock theatrics to the Twitter generation, starting with relentless stage diving and nose breaking. That’s cool.
But, dear Tyler & Co, I’m sorry to say, you are still mosh-pit newbies. Here’s some pointers from hairy headbangers of the 90s if you want to up your game and/or avoid breaking your neck before you reach the drinking age. SWAG.
TIP #1: Get creative.
See that TV crane right here? It’s mobile and high as fuck. A bit like the one Kanye used for his Coachella concert last week, except that he didn’t jump from it, because he’s now so above it all, so christic and so old and so boring. But if you’re young and restless, or some sweaty grunge god with greasy hair, you can do it.
TIP #2: Start a fight when you land…
… then tell everyone to fuck off and go home and create a massive riot. 90 injured and 16 arrested is the record to beat.
… and then get beaten up by some irritable douchy biker you hired as security. Of course, you won’t have a guitar to bash his face in, but I’m sure you’ll find something else.
Tip #3: Climb stuff. (at 2:53)Get some “serious elevation” as they say on the NBA Top 10. A balcony is a good jumping point.
Tip #4: Avoid the traditional rap crowds.
They don’t get stage diving. They’re high and unreactive. They’ll split like the Red sea, then reluctantly pick you up (in this case, uniquely because they’re English. I guess in America they’ll just let you bleed on the ground, laugh a little and take pictures with their iPhones).
Tip #5: Listen to Kurt. Imagine you’re a beach ball.
Originally I wanted to post something very profound and insightful about how Odd Future’s success is not only due to their mastery of new media (Twitter, Tumblr etc.) but also to some kind of 90s grunge revival – in this case unlikely channelled by black suburban kids wearing Supreme gear – but I ended up being lazy and writing this. The other piece will come soon though.