One of the things I value most in a writer is subtlety, or at least the ability to be subtle. There’s nothing more powerful than something that’s resonant without obviously trying to be.
This is not that.
I’ve admired the crew here at Dead End Hip Hop since they first started, so naturally when they brought me on board this month, I thought “Hey, what better way to introduce myself than to alienate everyone?”
5. Life After Death is better than Ready to Die: No conversation in real life or on any message board (which are, depressingly, kind of the same thing at this point) about a double album can go more than five minutes without someone suggesting that the album in question might fare better as a single disc. As an argument it’s old and tiresome, but it’s also almost universally true. One of the greatest things about rap as a medium is that the word count is so much higher than other forms of music, and it’s easier to explore ideas in full, but that’s also an awful lot of writing when you’re trying to fill 25 tracks. The truth is that would-be classics like All Eyez On Me and Wu Tang Forever (and would-be okay albums like Blueprint 2) are bloated and watered down to the point where they’re actually less than the sum of their parts, even when those ‘parts’ might include ten or twelve great songs. (Exceptions to this might be projects like Diplomatic Immunity or Drought 3–tapes that are meant to be scattershot collections of often great songs and therefore don’t depend on cohesion and consistency like a normal studio release.) Life After Death might stand alone as the double album in rap that justifies its length. Sure, the Lil Kim joint on disc 2 could go, and sure, “Nasty Boy” probably doesn’t get many spins in 2013, the album’s littered with classics, and actually plays shorter than its 109-minute running time. As anyone knows, Big’s strength was his storytelling, and he came into his own here with songs like “Somebody’s Gotta Die”, where he blends the lines between fiction and reality so cleverly that you think he really might be accidentally killing innocent kids (missing the person he wanted, doing ten year bids, etc).
I’d argue that “N****s Bleed” is the best thing he had the chance to do during his life and “Kick In The Door” is one of the finest posturing moments in the contentious mid 90s in New York. His eye for detail gets magnified when, on “I Got A Story To Tell”, he finishes the song by telling the same story he just rapped, but giving the spark notes version and mis-remembering the Knicks roster. The two songs I mentioned earlier are probably missteps, but everything else is exceptional up to and including the hilarious “Playa Hater”. Ready to Die is undoubtedly a classic that deserves every accolade that’s been thrown its way, but it’s poorly sequenced. “Machine Gun Funk” and “Gimme The Loot” would sound much better later in the album. They’re great songs that unfairly read as redundant after the superior “Things Done Changed” and kill the album’s momentum before it even gets going. Now consider that the second disc of Life After Death (the one people tend to write off as the weaker of the two) has gems like “Ten Crack Commandments”, “Going Back To Cali”, “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)”, and “Notorious Thugs”. The music speaks for itself.
4. Slug is in my top five: Yes, of all time. Any rapper with albums as good as Lucy Ford and the bizarrely overlooked When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold should get consideration in any all-time discussions, but the argument takes on an entirely new dimension when you consider how different the great Atmosphere albums are. And when I say ‘the great Atmosphere albums’, that’s not limited to the two previously mentioned. God Loves Ugly, You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, and the bootleg Sad Clown Bad Dub II are top-tier releases as well. In short, this is a guy who’s made classic albums in entirely different styles. Now, that’s not unheard of in rap history, but I can’t name many artists who have songs as divergent as “Body Pillow” and “Guarantees” that are equally great. From the introspective, cryptic stuff of earlier in his career to the naturalist, detail-oriented storytelling of the latter half, Slug’s been one of the most consistently great writers the genre’s ever seen. But as far as I can tell, there are a few things working against his reputation in rap circles. First, he’s unfairly maligned as a navel-gazing-hipster-emo rapper…which is kind of understandable. Superficially, some of the earlier Atmosphere records might seem this way, but a single thorough listen should reveal this isn’t the case. The vast majority of albums like Lucy Ford, God Loves Ugly, or Seven’s Travels are tongue-in-cheek and not the least bit self-serious. Of course, this spawned an entire cottage industry of ‘Slug-influenced’ rappers who either miss the point entirely or don’t have the ability to pull off the aesthetic. There are hundreds of faux-Atmosphere rappers on your twitter feed right now who are absolutely unbearable and, unfortunate as that is, they’re in no way representative of Slug’s level of skill or even his artistic direction. Second, Atmosphere’s often lumped in with turn-of-the-century faux-backpack emo neo-awful rappers who make music that purports to be technically amazing but is entirely unlistenable and devoid of fun. Again, the connection doesn’t seem like a huge leap, but it couldn’t be more wrong: As far back as 2003, Atmosphere was making polished, complete songs like “Trying To Find A Balance” and “Lift Her, Pull Her”. The amount of music he put out was staggering for most of the 2000s, and it was almost all fantastic. Basically, this guy’s good, listen to him.
3. Lyrically speaking, Jay-Z absolutely defeated Nas: I love Nas. Illmatic is the greatest album of all time. And if we’re considering who got the most out of the famous feud, Nas’s career was helped immeasurably–resuscitated, actually–while Jay is universally considered the loser and ‘ether’ and ‘renegade’ have somehow become verbs. This is all a very neat and tidy narrative…and completely wrong. We could probably start by comparing and contrasting “Ether” with “Takeover”. I kind of can’t believe this is even up for debate. It should be so obvious. Anyway, “Ether”, almost universally hailed as the greatest diss song of all time…is kind of just a bunch of gay jokes. Nas, one of the best writers of all time, calls Jay “Gay-Z” (of “Cock-a-fella Records”, when it’s well known Nas “rocks hoes”) and claims Eminem “murdered [Jay] on [his] own shit” (he didn’t). On the other hand, Takeover’s verse about Nas; ridicules his career (which was considered to be in shambles at a time, even though critics and fans have rightly reversed course on It Was Written since then), laughs at the Queens native for not getting paid for either time Jay sampled lyrics from Illmatic, reminds the public of the debacle that was “Oochie Walley”, and delivers the damning “N****, you ain’t live it, you witnessed it from your folks’ pad/Scribbled in ya notepad and created your life/I showed you your first teck, on tour with Large Professor/Then I heard your album ’bout ‘your teck on the dresser'”. Finally, it teases what would become “Super Ugly”…the fact that Jay was sleeping with the mother of Nas’s child, leaving condoms on the baby seat and all. Then there’s the second verse on “Blueprint 2”, where he ridicules all the ways in which Nas contradicted his most cloyingly moralistic songs. Nas landed some good shots as well (“Last Real N**** Alive” is particularly underrated), but this was really no contest.
2. Lil B is one of the most influential artists in the world right now: Lil B makes fantastically interesting music. He’s shown time and time that he can rap, uh, ‘well’ in a conventional sense, confirming that his style is a creative choice…but that’s not the point. People cite that fact all the time when defending B and it drives me up the wall; someone’s ability to sound like an imitation of Nas, One Be Lo, or Elzhi is such a short-sighted measuring stick when we’re talking about how good their music is. Would “Straps on Deck” really be better if it was rapped in 4/4 about how many styles he has and how other emcees are wack? Should completely out-of-left-field artists have to tone it down and rap on 9th Wonder beats to be taken seriously (or at least seriously appreciated)? The answer to both of those questions should be a resounding ‘no’, but this is a rap discussion on the internet, so that’s obviously not the case. In any event, the point to be made here isn’t that Lil B is one of the most interesting artists making music right now (he is, but that’s for a longer post), it’s that he’s one of the most influential, and will continue to be for at least a few years. Rap in 2013 is incredibly and increasingly fragmented, so I recognize that this is reductionist and I could be overlooking people in smaller bubbles around the world (read: YouTube), but B started the rapping-over-ambient-beats thing in the current mainstream. (He’s hardly a part of that mainstream, but his mark is everywhere you look.) The album credits for Live.Love.Asap and the followup basically read as a we-love-Based-God tribute page. Huge mainstream rappers (Rick Ross et al, for starters) are swiping his ad libs. The stream of consciousness non sequitur is making a strong case for itself, as it should. Rappers like Rocky, Robb Bank$, and others who have popped up since B gained traction are following his lead in embedding bizarrely violent threats in otherwise non-violent songs. Influence doesn’t always manifest as imitation, either; process of elimination is a very real thing. It’s undeniable that B will cause some kids (and some old men) to jump on a new hyper-formalist bandwagon. Actually, he already has. Groups like Pro Era are, even by their own admission, partially a response to the always-dreaded ‘current state of hip hop’. This is best exemplified by Joey Bada$$’s humorless butchering of his playful ‘beef’ with B.
1. Lil Wayne, in his prime, was better than Eminem in his: At his best, Eminem might be the greatest of all time at making words rhyme. He was a battle rapper who could get pretty effectively introspective when the stars lined up (“If I Had”, “Rock Bottom”, “Stan”) who later (albeit briefly) developed into a a compellingly personal, angry, and honest rapper (The Eminem Show). But here’s where I start to break the internet. Em’s first two albums haven’t aged very well. The Marshall Mathers LP in particular relies heavily on mutli-syllable rhyming, shock value, and easy pop-culture commentary in the form of celebrity baiting. The first two elements don’t hold up very well on repeat listens, and the third doesn’t really play at all today. Now, I’m opposed to the so-called “hip hop purist” mentality that we have to somehow determine if music is ‘timeless’ before we praise it, but some of the lines, verses, and entire songs, at times that Em was putting out at the beginning of his career, are extremely hard to listen to now. And while he was perfectly late-90s in his appeal, teenagers simply aren’t as angry anymore, and songs like “The Way I Am” come off far too woe-is-me and, frankly, embarrassing to be enjoyable…at least for me. In the interest of being fair (and protecting my family’s safety), I want to reiterate that Em was a technical genius from 99 through 03, and made some exceptionally good music. His catalog just doesn’t stack up well against those belonging to the artists that fans want to compare him to.
In contrast, let’s look at Wayne, one of the most oddly divisive rappers of the last generation. While he was the consensus “best rapper alive” in many circles during his 05-08 heyday, in others (quick, go to a Roots video on YouTube), he was and is the bastion of everything wrong with music. (I can only assume those commenters are banging the Pro Era tape in their dorm rooms right now, but again, that’s for another day.) Wayne started his incredible run with 2005’s Tha Carter 2, one of the better coke-rap albums of this century, but really rose to his current stature with the mixtape run between C2 and C3, a run that included Dedication 2, Da Drought 3, the impeccable Carter 3 session songs, and innumerable guest features and one-off songs. Wayne’s greatness is actually pretty easy to explain when you get right down to it: Rappers deal primarily in charisma. Sure, for some rappers, rhyming well in a classical sense is what makes them appealing. For others, their imagery, their humor, their rhyming ability, or something else might be what makes them an arresting figure that commands your attention. For four years, Wayne was the most charismatic person on the planet, and maintained that attention-grabbing quality by constantly taking left turns and executing all his weird creative choices with an ear for quality that’s overwhelming both for the sheer quality of most of his music during the period and the volume of music he released. When everyone was biting the hook of “Duffle Bag Boyz”, he made “I Feel Like Dying.” When everyone finally jumped on the autotune train, he made “La La La.” When people caught the appeal of “See I am God’s son, but you know I ain’t Nas/’Cause, see, he got a positive aim, and I aim nines”, he turned around and made “Tie My Hands.” When it comes right down to it, Wayne developed what was actually a pretty unique and subversive style and made it ubiquitous to the point it was unavoidable. Just like Eminem, Wayne has created legions of imitators who are capable only of making pale, awful renditions of his best work, but that shouldn’t cloud the fact that these guys were great rappers in their day…Wayne was just a bit better.
I’ll be fielding death threats on Twitter.
The opinions and views expressed here are the opinions of the designated author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or views of any of the individual members of Dead End Hip Hop.