If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you’ve probably realized that you won’t see a lot of hip-hop reviews here.
There are a couple reasons for this, most of them lame excuses for my lack of knowledge and excitement for the form. Just this week I was having a conversation with some friends about Kendrick Lamar’s hyped-to-the-skies Good Kid M.A.D.D. City, an album these friends quite like. I’ve heard the album a couple times, and it hasn’t made any impression on me at all. Lamar sounds to me like a skilled rhymer, but his songs and beats strike me as pretty average, and his “tales from the street” just get old after a while. There are only so many songs about motherfuckers shooting motherfuckers that I can take.
Maybe that’s cultural. Maybe the fact that I don’t know any motherfuckers shooting any other motherfuckers means I can’t relate to this record. I have no doubt this is Lamar’s real experience, that there is truth in his verses, and I agree that it’s an important perspective to shine a spotlight on. As a work of pop music, though, it just bores me. I have the same thought about most hip-hop. First minute: “That’s a cool beat, and I like the hook.” Third minute: “This song has done absolutely nothing since that first minute.” Bored.
Is there rap I like? Sure. I’m a big supporter of Kanye West’s early work, I think the first four De La Soul albums are unimpeachable, I have huge respect for Nas and Mos Def, I was beyond excited to get that second Deltron 3030 album last year, and Eminem can still occasionally knock me out. And I do realize that this entire paragraph makes me sound like the “cool dad” trying to talk to his kids about music. “Why don’t we put on some Bay City Rollers? Now that’s music!” It just isn’t in my wheelhouse.
But every once in a while I will hear a rap album I love. Lately, that’s been happening whenever The Roots decide to release something into the world. I will freely admit that I don’t have the knowledge to select the greatest rap band in the world. But if it’s not The Roots, I would like to hear who it is. Over 11 albums, the Philadelphia crew has explored the boundaries of live-instrument hip-hop, throwing in jazz and soul and half a dozen other musical influences, and that’s not even counting their killer record with John Legend a few years ago, and their eclectic collaboration with Elvis Costello last year. Can you name me another hip-hop outfit who would make a full album with Elvis Costello?
The Roots, led by their gregarious drummer ?uestlove, do whatever they want. Lately, that’s meant more compact and more bizarre records, culminating in 2012’s mini-opera Undun, which I justly praised here. But none of their recent efforts will prepare you for their new one, blessed with the awesome title …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. It clocks in at a scant 33 minutes, and is another conceptual piece, this one tracking several exaggerated characters through the violence of their lives, and the spiritual consequences. It is easily the most dense collection of tones this band has released, and to me, the most interesting.
It’s also, for many, their most off-putting, particularly those who enjoy the band on The Tonight Show. There are no hits on here, no moments when the band kicks in and Black Thought rips off a clever and fun verse. Instead, this record plays like a single song, full of dissonance and dread. It opens with two minutes of Nina Simone singing “Theme From Middle of the Night,” and it sets the tone – the next two tracks, “Never” and “When the People Cheer,” are the closest this record comes to traditional hip-hop, and it’s still filtered through shattered glass. There are jarring strings on “Never,” a strangely ugly piano line on “Black Rock,” a minute of pure noise called “Dies Irae,” and on and on. Never does this record sound like you’d expect.
Black Thought welcomes auxiliary Roots members Greg Porn and Dice Raw to lay down some of the hardest verses here, the ones that sound like sendups of gangsta, and while they go over the line every once in a while (“All I want from her is an abortion”), The Roots contrast these moments with the spirituality absent from these characters’ lives. They sample Mary Lou Williams’ “The Devil” (“The devil looks a lot like you and I…”) and, on “Understand,” sing about man searching for God, then running away when he finds him.
There’s a trilogy that makes up most of the back half, and it’s the finest material on this record, illustrating the band’s points. “The Coming” sets a lovely hook from Mercedes Martinez against some delicate piano by Kamal Gray, and into some dark, dissonant strings arranged by jazzhead DD Jackson. (This is the most Zappa-esque moment on an album full of Zappa-esque touches.) It’s like tumbling into hell, and “The Dark” lives up to it, the three rappers ripping through the ugliest verses on the record while the distorted electric piano reverberates under ?uestlove’s slow beat. “The law of gravity meets the law of averages, ain’t no sense in attempting to civilize savages…I’d rather O.D. than be the next O.G.”
“The Dark” leaves you without hope – it’s suffocating, airless. That’s what makes follow-up “The Unraveling” so powerful. Singer Raheem DeVaughn cries out for rebirth over Gray’s piano, and then Black Thought gives us the album’s best verse, making us feel the yearning for redemption. “I’m somebody new today, free of my sins today…” It’s crushingly beautiful, and it leads into the joyous “Tomorrow,” the rap-free finale. DeVaughn sings a song of gratitude for life, regardless of circumstance. These lives are hard, the band is saying, but life is precious, and redemption is worth it. Just check out the lovely ascending piano chords that sign this record off.
The Roots are one of a kind, and they keep proving it. They’ve never made an album as bizarre and as focused as …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin – this may well be their best work. It makes me think that perhaps I am not the problem. If more hip-hop sounded like this, had this much imagination and artistry behind it, then I would like more hip-hop. As it is, The Roots are a rare and wonderful thing, and this record is a miniature masterpiece.
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If The Roots are justly celebrated for the new places they take the art form, then Atmosphere should be too.
Unfortunately, Slug and Ant, the Minneapolis duo that comprise Atmosphere, have largely labored in obscurity for more than 15 years. Their new album Southsiders is their seventh, not counting a slew of EPs, and it continues a string of conscientious, thought-provoking collections from these two. It also continues Ant’s style of fairly minimal beats, making room for Slug’s rhymes – there aren’t a lot of musical tricks on here, just solid foundations.
So why do I like this so much? The answer is Slug (real name Sean Daley). He’s one of the most literate rappers out there, and one of the most positive. Southsiders finds him in a more settled place – “I still kick it with angels, the difference is instead of the bar I’m at my kitchen table” – that serves as an extension of the new-father sentiments of 2011’s The Family Sign. I came aboard this train late, but I like this Slug a lot more than the angry young man of God Loves Ugly. This Slug is grateful for what he has, and determined to hold on to every day, even if he spends those days playing Legos with his kid.
It’s no accident that this album is called Southsiders – Slug is referencing the south side of Minneapolis, where he and Ant have lived for most of their lives, and this album is largely about knowing one place very well, and building a life. It’s also concerned with death, and what we leave behind for our loved ones. On the oddly titled “Kanye West,” Slug raps about finding the one love of your life, and having something to live for – which, naturally, makes him think about how he would want that love to react to his death. “She said she wanna find a cure for death, I know she meant that in the purest sense, but when I finally die, put on your Sunday best and throw your hands in the sky like Kanye West…”
“Fortunate” feels like the record’s mission statement, beginning as it does with these lines: “I highly doubt that y’all think about sex anywhere near as often as I think about death, go ahead and shout at the top of your lungs but don’t wake the baby up, we got a lot to get done.” The song is about what he hopes to leave behind: “I wanna leave the planet better off than it was handed to me,” he raps, and then admits “I don’t wanna leave my family tree behind, I don’t want no one to miss me like I miss you…” In the end, he declares “we’re not lucky, but we’re fortunate.” Death is ever present, but life is worth it.
Nowhere is that more poignantly stated than on “Flicker,” Slug’s tribute to his late friend and fellow MC Michael “Eyedea” Larsen. As Kim Manning sings “one little flicker of light can erase the dark,” Slug raps about how the guilt he feels – “It stays in my head that I was on a stage when you were laying in bed, body was discovered by your own mother” – and the perils of writing a tribute to another songwriter. “So I wrote these words to describe what I cry about but I’m certain if you were here right now, you’d ridicule these lyrics, you’d hate this chorus, you’d probably tell me that the concept is too straightforward.” It’s a funny and touching way to bid farewell, and probably the best piece of writing on this album.
Southsiders is the sound of a formerly angry man realizing what he has to live for, and celebrating it. “Everybody difficult, everybody simple, we all on death row, we all gonna tip toe,” Slug raps in the jaunty closer “Let Me Know That You Know What You Want Now.” “Get a taste of your soul when you hold breath, we act like we got a whole lot of road left, so don’t mind if I drive with the top down…” It’s a fine sentiment to leave on. Southsiders is a rap album like few that I’ve heard, capturing an honest writer at a fascinating point in his life. Again, if more hip-hop were like this, I would like more hip-hop.
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Next week, thoughts on the second annual Audiofeed Festival, and catching up on reviews with Phish, the Antlers, Camper Van Beethoven and others. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.