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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Snoop Dogg - Rap Music Analysis

An excellent example of someone with dope rhymes, but a lack of a technical control over rhymes. A simplification of his problem is that he doesn't use longer rhymes; the correct evaluation is that he doesn't know what to do with long rhymes. Certainly, Snoop is one of the most original rappers of all time. Although he spawned a legion of imitators, in no small part because of his inseparable association with the funk rhythms of G-funk (go figure!). It's only farther testament to his skills that no imitator quite approached his apparent and complete lack of caring that his every word is being recorded. His best rhymes on Doggystyle or The Chronic, as great as the rhythms that they have are, consist largely of repetitions of him spelling his name, and him counting numbers. So that’s also the problem: that EVERY WORD HE SAYS IS BEING RECORDED. The result is verbal content that is pretty devoid of anything beyond rhythmic meaning; Snoop's insights into life will never be confused with that of Mos Def on “Mathematics” or Talib Kweli on “Black Girl Pain”. Sometimes people marvel at how Jay-Z and Lil’ Wayne never write down their rhymes; in fact, I find this extremely believable, and that’s because of the vapid content that they have recently been putting out.
Because of this innate feel for flow, almost rivaling Biggie’s, combined with some pretty vanilla poetic content, Snoop spawned a generation of imitators. It’s a testament to Snoop’s originality that no one ever quite got it down. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I most closely compare Snoop to his fellow California brethren who’s largely been forgotten: Hittman. If we compare the two, we’ll see how Snoop approaches his rhymes, and how Hittman imitates this. Let’s take Snoop’s rhymes on the famous “Gin And Juice.” These rhymes are the ones we want:

[but i / some how some way keep comin’ up with / funky ass shit like every single DAY] /
[MAY i kick a little something for the / G’S, and
make a few ends as i / BREEZE THROUGH]
[TWO in the morning and the / party’s still jumpin’
‘cause my momma ain’t HOME] /

This type of rhyming that eschews tight phrasing is typical of Snoop’s style. For instance, look at where the rhymes, capitalized here, happen in the sentences that are indicated by the brackets. Each rhyme group is flipped from the end of one sentence to the start of the next. For instance, “day” ends one sentence, and then the rhyme “may” starts the next one. Then, “through” ends the sentence after that one, and then the rhyme on the word “two” starts the next sentence. Finally, these bars, indicated by slashes, end with a word that doesn’t rhyme on any of the previous rhymes (but does start a rhyme group in the next bar.) This is what makes Snoop’s style: rhymes coming in unexpected places at unexpected times.

This is what Hittman does, and probably picked up from Snoop, being from California himself, and working with Snoop’s man Dr. Dre. Check out these rhymes from Hittman on the Chronic: 2001 song “Ackrite”:

[yo chase them girls in the black MAXIMA] [the PASSENGER almost FRACTURED her neckbone looking BACK AT US] [PLUS they on the dick ‘cause the cat is PLUSH] [they BLUSH I bumRUSH the HUSH]

Here, Hittman also ends sentences with rhymes that start the next sentence, just like Snoop did. “Maxima” ends the first sentence, and “passenger” opens the next one. Then, “us” ends the second sentence, and is rhymed on the first word of the next, “plus.” Then, the second sentence’s last word, “plush,” is rhymed on “blush,” that starts the last sentence here. So we see similarities, but what really makes them similar is their similar rhythms, which is harder to describe for non-musicians.

Qualitatively, Hittman’s and Snoop’s rhythms are more flowing, with longer syllables that are pronounced for a longer time. To really appreciate Snoop (or Hittman,) listen to those changes in how long the syllables last. Their rhymes aren’t gonna knock you out with crazy lengths and frequency, like for Eminem, such as on “Brain Damage.”

While this use of this rhyming style is original to Snoop, Snoop can’t then make new methods of phrasing out of old ones, which is what all my GOATs, like Jean Grae, can do. For instance, check out Snoop’s opening lines on “Gin And Juice:”

[with so much drama in the l.b.C, It’s kinda / hard being snoop d-o double-G, but Ii /
[somehow, someWAY, keep coming up with / funky ass shit like every single DAY]

Here, the phrasing is more traditional. It’s an AABB form, where the A’s represent the “-ee” rhyme sound on the letters “C” and “G,” and the B’s represents the rhyme vowel sound on “-ay,” on “way” and “day.” That’s a simple couplet form, with external, single-syllable rhymes that come at the end of sentences. Pretty boring. But to really get Snoop, listen to how the syllables “every single day” are pronounced. They’d look something like: “ev-RY SIN…gle…” But snoop doesn’t know how to take this simple couplet form and move past it.

For instance, because I analyzed this just yesterday, take a line from Your Old Droog. You can hear this track, “Nutty Bars,” here. I'm feeling this song a bit because Droog keeps changing up the type of rhymes he uses. Just check out the first lines he's got, sorry if the words are a little wrong:

[she knew that i would smash a little debbie and i still bagged the HOSTESS] /
[don't fuck with ENTENMANN'S] [GHOST from the TENAMENTS] /

I like this line a lot because Droog does what you expect, but slightly varies it, which Snoop doesn’t really do. That first sentence quoted, as indicated by the pairs of brackets, is exactly a bar long. (Again, the rhymed words are capitalized.) The obvious thing for an emcee to do here, then, is to make another external (end of sentence) rhyme on "hostess" in the next bar, which is shown where those slashes start and stop. For instance, this is exactly what Big Daddy Kane, and a lot of other rappers, do very often. Check Kane's song "Calling Mr. Welfare," you can hear it here. These are the opening lines:

[you know the lady on the top floor of my BUILDING] /
[the heavy set one with about ten CHILDREN ] /

Kane does what so many rappers have done before: there are 2 sentences, 1 bar each, with external rhymes. This is the first half of Snoop Dogg’s couplet form, just the AA. Being so natural, is what I thought Droog would do when I first heard the song.

But Droog doesn't complete that couplet, because he introduces a different rhyme from one that could be rhymed on "hostess." Instead, he rhymes “entenmann's” with “tenaments”, which new rhyme I didn't expect him to insert. But he still rhymes on "hostess," with the syllable "ghost." But, unlike Kane's external rhymes, he makes "ghost" an internal rhyme at the start of a sentence. However, Droog still has external rhymes on entenmann's/tenaments, just not the rhyme you expect, and these 2 bars still end and start with the bar line, just like Kane did. But now there are 3 sentences. So Droog has kept these elements traditional:

1. Length of 2 bars
2. Rhyme on external rhyme
3. 1-bar long opening sentences

But changed these elements:

1. New rhyme group introduced
2. External rhyme is now on internal rhyme
3. 3 sentences, not 2
4. 3-syllable rhyme, not 2-syllable rhyme

This is what Snoop doesn’t know how to do.

As original as Snoop's flow is today, still sounding fresh today after 20 years, he never moved comfortably beyond it. Snoop die-hards may point out the harder, more aggressive approaches of his post-Doggystyle albums, but he never seemed to convincingly pull off a more aggressive flow. As innate as it seems to 2pac, that's how foreign aggression seems to Snoop Dogg. No matter whether it's good or not, I give Snoop a lot of props for Snoop Lion, even if he seems to take the persona too far at times. It's in the same way I respect Lil’ Wayne for his rock album, even if it did suck. But Snoop Lion is reggae, not rap, and so I haven’t taken it into consideration here.

It boils down to this, and what separates so many of the rappers here from my top 10: Snoop doesn't have a complete and total control over every aspect of rap in the same way that Jean Grae does. When this is combined with a lack of compelling verbal content, the result is a very original, very talented rapper who is not quite a GOAT. He may top other top 10 lists, but my list relies only on rap: not how popular a rapper is, how long they’ve stuck around, or the great beats they’ve picked, all of which Snoop excelled at. However, top 10 here? No.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Rap Music Analysis - Prodigy and Mobb Deep

There is maybe no one who has ever done quintessential NYC boom-bap rap better, from both a rap and production point of view. The only problem is that that is the only area prodigy occupies. Make no mistake: just as there was no room for 50 cent's Get Rich Or Die Tryin' approach after Kanye's Graduation album, there is almost no place for Prodigy post Kendrick Lamar and his good kid, m.A.Ad city album. This accordance of NYC supremacy even shockingly includes the work of The Wu-Tang Clan. As great as RZA's management of Raekwon, Method Man, GZA's, and Ghostface's contributions was, I can't help but shake the feeling that the sound of kung-fu samples movies is, in the end, alien to an American urban, overbuilt metropolis.

In any event, the very dynamic of Mobb Deep as a group - just two guys, including a rapper producer, who collaborate on every album - is truer to the dynamic of rap than a group of 9 amazing rappers and businessmen, which is completely unique in the rap world.

In a way, Prodigy might be a victim of his own success. He was so good at gangsta rap for so long he might never have felt a need to diversify beyond the urban material that predominates his poetry. He certainly wasn't able to make the same rapping leap as Jean Grae from her Attack Of The Attacking Things to her Cookies Or Comas mixtape, or even the production leap of Dr. Dre between N.W.A, G-funk, and Chronic: 2001, or Kanye West from...any album to the next.

Although I was talking mostly about his production there, for the best gangsta rap, the production informs the content of the rap, and not the other way around. This makes it unlike other sub-genres of rap that have material that could be interchanged. For instance, as much as I like the beats on the G.O.O.D. music mixtape, the "Clique" raps could have been spit over any Hit-Boy beat.

However, it's hard to imagine Prodigy's first verse on shook ones pt. 2 having the same effect, even over other boom-bap beats, and that's what makes it awesome. "Shook Ones, Pt. 2" is completely the real deal as well. Some songs in rap that are passed around as classics really aren't good songs in the first place, or they've lost their punch over the years as their details were incorporated into other musician's songs. However, "Shook Ones" is right up there with "The Message" and "Jesus Walks", and maybe in contradiction to "Rapper's Delight."

"Shook Ones" is actually a great summation of Prodigy's style. What he's gonna kill you with is punch lines. But not punch lines that are jokes and will have you laughing, like Ludacris might; instead, they'll make you run and cry: "Take these words home and think em through / or the next rhyme I write might be about you." Prodigy's gangsta rap writing is especially notable for lacking the explicitness of other rappers, like Eminem. Eminem would shock you and describe every detail of his tortures. Instead, Prodigy relies on suggestion and subtlety, as he leaves his devilish plans for you unsaid.

Although prodigy is a better technical rapper than Snoop Dogg, he doesn't have the most original style of all time. He's just the best example of something of which many have done, and which many still do very, very well. He doesn't suffer from a lack of versatility in his technical approach, as Snoop does. He knows how to vary the type of his rhymes, and his rhythms at their best grab you and pull you in. Just notice how on "Shook Ones" he's always floating right around the downbeats of the music, but never quite on them. Prodigy's somewhat monotone flow suggests the sparseness of the urban life, especially when combined with the barebones production, not just in terms of the sounds they use - at most 2 samples, a snare, a bass kick, and hi-hats - but their mixing, which very often have holes in their frequency range. Furthermore, the mixing is amateur - the reverb is completely unbalanced off to the right on "Shook Ones". But it's this kind of brutal aesthetic that gives The Infamous the replayability that other gangsta raps have. 50 cent's debut album had crazy beats. But the life 50 describes might have been lived by any other gangsta rapper, and 50 tells you everything - he doesn't leave any part of the story for you to unfold yourself. Prodigy skillfully sidesteps this pitfall in his own work.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Rapper's Flow Encyclopedia - Ludacris And Old School Rap

So my editors at HipHopDX told me that my rap world centered heavily around the East and West Coasts, and I realized that they were right. I mean, my list of Top 10 rappers is heavily NYC-centric: Jean Grae…Talib Kweli…Pharoahe Monch….and so on. While I think it’s for good, justifiable reasons that I’m NYC-centric, I also have a duty and responsibility to you. The reader.

Yeah, you. Yes, even you, Greg.

If I’m gonna be your go-to guy for understanding this rap shit, I gotta be one knowledgeable guy. Can I really say Jean Grae is a GOAT if I’m not completely familiar with the work of, say, everyone who comes from Atlanta? I mean, I know OutKast, but what about their city brethren?

So, like Jordan and Bird in the offseason, I hit the court and went to add another dimension to my game, addressing my weaknesses in the process. One of those weaknesses was my lack of knowledge about Ludacris, another one of André’s and Big Boi’s metropolitan colleagues.

Oh, Ludacris. You and I have come such a long way together. From you being the soundtrack to the whitest, suburbanest grade school “mixers” you’ve ever seen, to you being part of an Academy Award winning movie, to…The Fast and The Furious…and to you being on the speed dial of every producer who needs a guest verse, we’ve gone through our ups and downs. But, once I got past yelling out the closing rhymes of every line on “Move Bitch,” I can now give you a fair, TCC-Patented rap analysis look.

Ludacris, along with Big Sean and T-Pain, might be the most unexpected rap artists that I’m a fan of. I’m not saying they’re anywhere close to my real Top 10 list, but I’ve been turning my iTunes to Word Of Mouf and Chicken-n-Beer fairly often recently, which, along with 30 or so guest verses (comprising only 10% of all his cameos, probably,) form the basis for my takes on his style here. (A google search of Ludacris guest verses returns no less than 6 results trying to identify his greatest.) You might think I’d dismiss Ludacris as easily as, say, Rick Ross, if you’ve read my other articles, like my one on Biggie here. 

I mean, Ross' and Ludacris' styles are pretty similar. As a simplification and symbol of their whole styles, but without making me have to get too technical, let’s just say that both rappers, for instance, have simple, 1 or 2-syllable rhymes that always come at the end of sentences. But I’m actually a kinda big fan of Ludacris. Not necessarily because of the technique of his rap, but because of the persona he portrays.

Now, I don’t talk a whole lot about delivery or non-musical artistic styles a lot, because they’re harder to quantify, and because they’re not necessarily what makes my articles unique and what you come here for. But while dudes are misusing the use of musical terms like double-time ALL the time, I figured I’d try to do their job better than they do mine.

I like Ludacris more than I expected because I’ve recently been really influenced by old school Hip Hop. I’ve been turning my ears more towards Slick Rick’s The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick, Run-D.M.C.’s Raisin’ Hell, DJ Quik’s Quik Is The Name, E-40’s Mr. Flamboyant, and Boogie Down Production’s Criminal Minded. If you haven’t heard those, I suggest checking out any and all of them. I’ve even dug the new old school, like Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s Black Star album.

I love the music and the beats these albums have. There’s still no question in my mind that rappers have gotten better over the decades of rap’s existence — KRS-One couldn’t have dreamed of the metric transference André 3000 would use on “Aquemini,” as I explain here. But what those old school rappers unquestionably do a better job of is having more varied approaches than rappers today, and they also do a better job of…having more fun.

They just have more fun than rappers today.

I mean, dude, rappers today are so…serious. You ever turn on the radio? These guys are just way too focused on being the man. I could never imagine 2Chainz or Waka Flacka making fun of themselves. Could even modern Kanye pull off a song with the verbal themes of DJ Quik’s “Sweet Black Pussy?” On this song Quik is just talking about how much he loves girls, but not like how Kanye does on “I’m In It,” from Yeezus. DJ Quik’s “Sweet Black Pussy” becomes “I’m In It” in Kanye’s hands. Kanye’s saying, when you get a girl, don’t flirt and enjoy the chase, you gotta really, grrrrr, grit your teeth and give it to her:

[uh, picked up where we LEFT OFF] /
[uh, i need you home when i GET OFF] /
[uh, you know i need that WET MOUTH] /
[uh, i know you need that REPTILE] /

*In my lyrical transcriptions, the rhymed words are capitalized, the brackets [ ] surround sentences, and the slashes / represent where one bar ends and the next starts. If you don’t know what bars are, you’ll still understand almost all of what I say, but you can also learn what they are here*

Kanye’s hard, growling delivery really makes the difference between him and DJ Quik.

But Quik’s approach isn’t like Kanye’s. Quik is saying it’s great to have sex and all, but he’s also saying how girls themselves are great. Just talking to girls at parties is amazing. Quik mocks himself as a rapper by making fake mistakes, such as when the beat of "Sweet Black Pussy" drops at 2:20, when Quik can be heard flipping through his pages:

“Aw shit, hold up man, this the wrong motherfuckin’ page and shit. Awww shit, I need to start on the...Aw, okay, here we go.”

Then, the beat drops back in, and the relaxed party atmosphere is back in full swing. 

Even the superficially joking songs of today are actually deadly serious. For instance, Macklemore makes fun of himself by saying he wears cheap thrift shop clothing on “Thrift Shop:”

“Dressed in all pink except my gator shoes, those are green
Draped in a leopard mink, girl standing next to me
Probably should’ve washed this, smells like R. Kelly sheets
But shit, it was 99 cents!”

But make no mistake. He's still the man:

“Fuck it, coppin’ it, washin’ it, ‘bout to go and get some compliments”

Macklemore then backs this up by saying that his cheap fashion actually makes him cooler than people who spend big bucks for nicer clothes:

“I hit the party and they stop in that motherfucker
They be like, “Oh, that Gucci, that’s hella tight”
I’m like, yo that’s fifty dollars for a t-shirt
Limited edition, let’s do some simple addition
Fifty dollars for a t-shirt, that’s just some ignorant bitch shit"

Ah, gimme a break man. My life is serious enough — jobs, schoo, girlsl — that I don’t want to listen to songs anymore and hear about your fucking problems, or how you’re trying to be the man.

Quik even has a song called “Tha Bombudd.” It’s not about who can smoke more than who (“Niggas say smoke me out, yeah, I really doubt it” – Snoop Dogg, from “Kush”,) or who’s got better weed, (“And I smoke that kill, y’all blowin’ on begonias” – Lil Wayne, on Birdman’s “Cali Dro”) or not coughing when you smoke, it’s just about smoking weed, because weed is awesome. Quik also adopts a fake Jamaican accent for the whole song.

Shit, The Pharcyde even have an entire song consisting of just "Ya Mama" jokes on their 1992 album Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. Would Game ever do something like that? Drake? Nicki Minaj? No, no, and no.

This is where Ludacris comes in. I see him as a continuation of this more carefree theme in rap. Yes, Ludacris portrays himself as a gangsta. But he emphasizes the mack aspect of the gangsta persona, and not the criminal aspect. He says what makes him a gangsta is just a mindset, not any crime he’s committed and got away with.I couldn’t find any evidence of Ludacris actually having a criminal record. What makes him a gangsta is that he’s good with girls. Other rappers will emphasize how they steal and kill people, or deal drugs, but Ludacris will talk more about how he’s good with girls, and how he likes to have a good time when he goes out. He’ll make more jokes, and tell less stories about all of his supposed crimes.

A representative song of this style from Ludacris is the 4th track from his Word Of Mouf album, which is called “Cry Babies (Oh No.)” It’s just hilarious joke after hilarious joke:

[so put your belly on a PLATE and watch your WEIGHT] /
[you frosted like a FLAKE and ludacris feels GREAT] /

[a drug dealer’s dream] [so fresh and i’m so CLEAN] /
[i’m a grown ass man and you’re sweeter than sixTEEN] /

[my cars got big tv’s and SATELLITES] /
[i got a wheel of fortune ‘cause i flipped o’s like VANNA WHITE] /

[i’m shakin’ your tale FEATHERS] /
[i got big balls] [i’m a sac- king like chris WEBBER] /

[i smell puss from fifty YARDS] /
[y’all not playin with a full deck as if i jacked out ya jacks and left fifty CARDS] /

The gangsta persona hasn’t been in rap since 1978, but puns, jokes, metaphors, similes, analogies, and humor in rap has always been there. Just check out these lyrics from rap's first mainstream hit, "Rapper's Delight:"

"Well like Johnny Carson on the late show
Like frankie Crocker in stereo
Well like the barkay's (?( singing ohly Ghost
The sounds to throw down they're played the most."

Ludacris is a throwback rapper like Master Gee, Big Bank Hank, and Wonder Mike in a lot of ways, at least when he's at his best. Shit, almost more than a verse and a half out of 3 on "Cry Babies" is completely jokes, puns, and double entendres:

[catch me in vegas, SPINNING THE GREEN] /
[i re-up with more chips than a VENDING MACHINE] /

[bull’s-eye][i stunt growth and STOP LIVES] /
[you run with niggas that’s more chicken than POT PIES] /

[i kick niggas in they ass][reboot ‘em like LAPTOPS] /
[and they wouldn’t even BOX if i gave ‘em a FLAT TOP] /

[you punks pucker and pout, bicker and BABBLE] /
[now they all lost for words like I beat ‘em in SCRABBLE] /

[when i KICK and RIP and FLIP an indispensable RHYME] /
[my black ass is so hungry i’ll take a bite out of CRIME] /

[i just bought some new guns] [my mama said it ain’t WORTH IT] /
[but i’m at the shootin’ range just ‘cause practice makes PERFECT] /

Great puns; maybe Top 10, as I discuss below. But this kind of harmless fun is what I get out of Luda’s rap, because there isn’t much to go on technique-wise. Just like those songs are excellent examples of Ludacris’ puns, they’re also good example of his pretty average technique. Just look at the lines I quoted above. Not much change in phrasing or sentences, which all last about half or 1 bar, unlike Notorious B.I.G. All of the sentences also start and end with the bar line. Like so many good but not great rappers, Ludacris does one thing really well, but doesn’t bring the versatility of someone like Eminem or Jean Grae.

Most of Ludacris’ rhymes are external rhymes that come at the end of sentences, and they’re all 1 or 2 syllables long. For example, “i smell puss from fifty YARDS” rhymed with “y’all not playin with a full deck as if i jacked out ya jacks and left fifty CARDS,” or “i’m shakin’ your tale FEATHERS” rhymed with “i got big balls, i’m a sac- king like chris WEBBER.” That’s far away from Jean Grae’s 8-syllable rhymes on “Casebasket.” “Cry Babies (Oh No)” also isn’t an isolated incident; much of what I just said about jokes, phrasing, and rhymes can be applied just as much to the album’s first first song, “Coming 2 America,” as to the track we just looked at.

This shows us that Luda couldn’t begin to think of Jean Grae’s crazy syncopated rhythms, like I say here, or Notorious B.I.G.’s innovative rhymes schemes like I explain in the article I linked to at the start. Ludacris, unlike my other favorite rappers, doesn’t fully utilize the musical systems he sets up for himself. For instance, he clears out a lot of musical space in his rap, but then doesn’t fill it in later. Check out his song “Move Bitch and the big pauses in its opening lines: “oh no…fights out…’bout to punch your…lights out.” But Ludacris doesn’t go back and fill in that musical space later to insert some variation into his style.

In a way, it seems like there’s a lot of untapped potential in Ludacris. On “Coming 2 America,” the Atlanta rapper cleverly flips his initially more laid back flow into a really quick one for the 3rd verse at 2:52, which fits the slower beat’s double time really well, and which Big Boi has made almost a whole career out of. But Ludacris doesn’t smartly prepare a transition to a quicker flow like Kendrick does on “Rigamortis,” where Lamar starts slow and then ends quick. Additionally, Ludacris doesn’t do this sudden flow change enough on other songs. Like so many rappers, he hasn’t changed his rapping style over the years, such as how Jean Grae did between her album Attack Of The Attacking Things and her Cookies Or Comas mixtape. While no one could’ve predicted that Yeezus would eventually come from Kanye after his more traditional College Dropout album, what with all of its soul samples, I can pretty much guarantee that Kanye will pretty much be rapping the same way 10 years from now, just with different topics.

So where does this leave Ludacris, when compared to the greatest rappers of all time that I've mentioned throughout this article? When evaluating rappers as GOAT’s or not, I first grade them on 3 different categories: Storytelling, Technique, and Puns, as I explain in my 2pac article here. I’m not an expert on my comedian Top 10, but I’ve got a pretty good handle on storytelling and a great handle on technique. So from what I’ve heard, Ludacris is right on the Top 10 Comedian list along with Big Sean and early Kanye West. But as I said before, his technique doesn’t really pop off the page, and telling a compelling personal story isn’t as essential to his work as it is for, say, Kendrick Lamar or 2pac. This means that Ludacris is a really good rapper, as long as you know what you’re going to get from him: pun, pun, and more puns, without a lot of thought behind them.