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Friday, September 19, 2014

Rap Music Analysis - Importance Of The Rap Team

"Kanye first, then I'm coming after."

So goes Big Sean’s lines on his awesome “Supa Dupa Lemonade” song. He might be paying his proper dues to his mentor here, but what he says also simply isn’t true, as well-intentioned as it might be. The real situation of Big Sean’s clique (clique…clique…clique…) is, "Big Sean first, then Jay coming after, and Ye coming after, and maybe Chains last, sir." These lines would illustrates much better the important of the rap team, which goes beyond any particular crew or group that a rapper might be in.

Just check out the order of rappers’ appearances on these Kanye-affiliated mega singles.

1. Big Sean
2. Pusha T
3. Kanye West (at beat change)
4. 2chainz

“Ni**as in Paris:”
1. Jay-Z
2. Kanye West (at beat change)

1. Big Sean
2. Jay-Z
3. Kanye

“New God Flow:”
1. Pusha-T
2. Kanye West (at beat change)
3. Ghostface

“No Church In The Wild:”
1. Frank Ocean
2. Jay-Z
3. Kanye West

What’s the pattern here that holds almost all the time? The newbs open the song (Big Sean, Pusha T, and Frank Ocean.) Then, Jay-Z always comes right before Kanye, if he’s on the song, and usually in the middle of it. Then, Kanye West comes in at the end, usually right when the beat changes.

This is how it works artistically: Big Sean is the appetizer that whets your appetite, and gets you pumped. I think they figured out that Big Sean might not give you a great verse, but it won't be BS, and it will perfectly fit the party rap goal of the album. Then, Jay-Z is the entree that they try to hide between two better courses. People generally remember the beginning and the end of a song the most, and this places his middle verse in the background. And then Kanye always comes in and kills it at the end, usually right when the beat changes. A great recipe, as the huge success of these songs shows.

But the best example of the importance of the rap team is how 2Chainz fits into all this. 2Chainz, bereft of both good verbal content (Guru’s saving grace) and tight technical approaches (MF DOOM’s saving grace,) simply can't hold a song down by himself. His single “I’m Different” shows this perfectly. You only need to change a few of the words slightly and 2Chainz' petulant, protesting delivery comes across as what a little child might say when throwing a temper tantrum.

But on a song like “Mercy,” 2Chainz’ chanting cadence finds it's perfect place in the rap painting. His up and down rhythms stand in contrast to the other 3 rappers' syncopated flows that float around the beat. The 16 bars Chainz raps are the perfect length for him to make himself heard; as we've seen, those 3 verses and chorus of "I'm Different" just ask too much of him. But when 2Chainz isn't asked to carry a song, and just support other rappers, then we see how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. There's a hierarchy here: Big Sean gets the promo he needs, Kanye gets the main spotlight, and 2Chainz both amps it up and brings us down to prepare us for the end of the song.

A rap team that doesn't work quite as well is the Hot Boys, which is made up of Turk, B.G., Juvenile, and Lil Wayne. They simply step on each other toes. They seemed to know this themselves, as B.G. has his own solo song “Help,” Lil Wayne has his own “Clear Tha Set,” Juvenile has his “Ya Dig,” and Turk has “Bout Whatever.” Even on the song on which they’re constantly trading bars it doesn’t all come together, as they run into each other’s lines verbally during “We On Fire.”

Their problem is that while they’re each pretty good individual rappers, Lil Wayne and B.G. especially, they don’t work well together, and certainly not on the level that Kanye’s clique does. This is because while they were trying to reconcile everyone’s ego so that they all feel equal, GOOD Music recognizes the clear hierarchy of popularity and puts it to use for them.

Hopefully other rap teams can learn from this. Take it from well built NBA teams: have a superstar, one or two supporting guys who set the table, and then some role players. Maybe the Hot Boys should take a page out of their own hometown Pelicans playbook...nah. But the Spurs for sure, though.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Lil Wayne - Rap Music Analysis

I think for a lot of rappers here, no matter what you value strongly or disregard as minor in a rapper's style, you'd have to agree with me. My estimation as Lil Wayne as a very good but non-top 10 rapper is actually not one of those rappers, as long as you break agreement with my argument's premise of who the best rappers are and create your own. For the sake of argument, I will make that counterargument, for which I have no real way to prove wrong, and which I have to just end up by saying that we agree to disagree because our arguments premises are completely different.

You'd have to start by saying that rappers should be judged not completely or even by a majority of their strictly musical aspects, but in their artistic yet non-musical forms of expression as well. That's because while Lil Wayne is good but not great at certain of the strictly musical aspects I've described, he is maybe the most compelling artist of the rap world. He became famous at 17. He's from a non-traditional Mecca of rap, New Orleans, that allows him a signature status he wouldn't have in NY or even LA. He gets the best producers. He's wildly famous, and keeps us intrigued with his antics, like going to jail. He made a rock album. He released a number one hit single where he sung. He has an entire about only chewin' the gine. But mostly, it's the fact that Wayne seems insane.

Because that is the ultimate response to the first strictly musical argument against Wayne that I made: that he isn't trying to be technical at all, but that his aesthetic is an uncontrolled one, like MIA's brutality and assault on your ears. An over zealous person might make this argument for many of the other rappers I leave off the top 10 list, such as Snoop Dogg, but Lil Wayne pulls it off with such a consistency and such an outlandishness that it's more convincing. If Lil Wayne added a tight technique to his rap's approach, he would lose much of what makes Lil Wayne, Lil Wayne.

We can further see this as a self-conscious choice on Wayne's part because he shows absolute brilliance at certain moments that, if he could only replicate them, would place him in the same stratosphere as Jean Grae, Nas, or Eminem. For instance, on "Walk In," he has these lines, where the brackets surround sentences and the capitalized words are rhymed:

[they handle all my pharmaCEUTICS]
[i got it from promethazine to metaMUCIL] 
[don't MEAN to SPOOK YOU]
[but this is new orleans so my QUEENS to VOO DOO]

Here, we have it all. The perfect imagery and emotions evoked with a single word: voo-doo. The big amount of rhymes. The long rhymes. The pacing, tight phrasing. This line would be right at home in the work of Jean Grae.

But elsewhere, Lil Wayne makes mistakes that the college white boys I heard at school who only got the confidence to rap when baked out of their mind wouldn't do. Check this line, from "Who Wanna:"

[i CLICK CLICK BLAST on ya bitch ass]
[squad up shit] [clique'll SMASH on ya bitch ass]
[smash on ya bitch ass]

That exact repetition of a line at the end, with no change in meaning or pun, would get booed as a stutter or stumble at a battle rap fight. And yet there it is, and he does this in a number of places.

Basically, this loose artitry works for Lil Wayne because it fits his artistic persona, where it doesn't for others with a lack of technique, such as Twista. Twista's hard as shit, so why isn't his phrasing just as concrete? But Lil Wayne's a complete weirdo. Saying, "I'm a Martian?" Calling himself a goblin? A whole song about eating pussy? "The nickname Tunechi?" Just like Ludacris, Lil Wayne puts an odd turn on the traditional gangsta persona. Lil Wayne would've fit in any rap era, where it's hard to imagine 808s and Heartbreaks getting play in the 90s, as influential as Kanye's album turned out to be.

But no, Wayne would fit with the chill-out have fun of the late 70s, the completely unique and signature albums of the 80s where each took a different approach, the gangsta rap of the 90s, post 808s And Heartbreak, and up until today.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Twista - Rap Music Analysis

My thoughts on Tech N9ne, Krayzie Bone, and Twista are all very similar, which might not be surprising since they are all considered to have Midwest "chopper" styles. Just like the other two, Twista is another good reason why I'm moving away from using the word "flow" to refer to the musical aspects of a rapper's style. It's hard to imagine Twista's staccato, quick rhythms as flowing at all, using the same word's other definition as something that goes smoothly. This whole article could be a very short entry:

1. Twista
2. Raps fast
3. One style

But then you probably wouldn't read my articles any more.

"But wait!" His legions (legions?) of admirers will cry. "He's got more than one style!" Alright, fine, I'm sure he does. I'm sure you can dig up some song from some album where he gives a smooth, Biggie-esque flow there. And you'd be right, in a way. You'd be on track for the argument's content, but you're not on track for the premise of the argument. 

An artist isn't judged just by the type of rap they have. They're also judged by the musical influence of that rap. It doesn't matter that Eminem wasn't the first person to use extended block rhymes of 3, 4, or even 6 syllables, such as on "Just Don't Give A Fuck:" 

[i'm BUZZIN']
[dirty DOZEN]
[cursin' at you players worse than MARTY SCHOTTENHEIMER]

There, "dirty rotten rhymer" is rhymed with "marty schottenheimer" in Eminem's opening bars. Hear the song here.

So, I don't care if Slick Rick rhymed 6 syllables in a bar in 1987 on some obscure song.

Slick Rick didn't go on to be a huge crossover hit and become as big as Elvis on a global stage; to sell millions of records; to have shows in Asia, Europe, and so on. Eminem did. Thus, it basically means that Eminem's use of extended block rhyming is more important and more notable in the history of rap. Eminem not only pulled off extended block rhymes well; he put them in such a format and package, like the smash single for a major motion film, 8 Mile, and brought them to millions of listeners. Thus, in some sense, Eminem was the first one to make block rhymes awesome. If a listener or future rapper hears Eminem and not Slick Rick use extended block rhymes for the first time, then in a sense Eminem is the true originator, not Rick.

This is also what you have to think about when you evaluate Twista, or any rapper who becomes notable for one style. Everyone has heard "Slow Jamz", so that's what Twista's style has come to be epitomized as. If all the most popular songs from Twista are ones where he raps fast, then he is a fast rapper.

My more general beef is that I've never heard any Midwest chopper rapper successfully merge quick rhythms with a tight technique on rhymes. Long 3 or 4 syllable block rhymes simply seem foreign to the style, maybe foreign to even the very physiological pronunciation of words so quickly. Twista falls into that pitfall, and doesn't use them.

Of course, you can't dismiss Twista without giving him praise for his breath control and articulation. It really is impressive, and fights the belief held by many that rappers are amateur musicians . But Twista never uses his technical expertise to its fully artistic extent. If you always rap fast, then that is the benchmark level a listener hears from you: you rapping fast. They expect that. But if you merge slow rapping with quick rapping, and know how to move back and forth from one to the other, that makes the quick rapping more interesting and impressive. 

I far prefer Kendrick's approach to quick rapping on "Rigamortis." Besides varying his rhythms beyond simply being fast and using triplets, Kendrick knows how to move from slow to quick rhythms. He starts the song slow, and then ends it quickly. This artistic move, as simple as it is, makes his rap much more re-listenable, once the unseasoned rap listener matures and moves beyond what are, at worst, Twista's inconsequential fireworks that sound pretty but don't do much. This is a great example of a (future) GOAT outlining the difference between what makes a good rapper and what makes a legendary rapper. In any event, Kendrick's breath control is more impressive, because he is constantly varying where he takes breaths, whereas Twista doesn't. Kendrick in a way puts Twista in his place: Lamar has completely assimilated Twista's style, improved on it, and then relegated it to the backwaters of his style. It's almost as if he got bored with something so easy.

Much of this can be applied to why Eminem's "Rap God" song didn't deserve all of the media attention it got. Major international publications with no specific connection to rap but who must deal with cultural icons like Eminem regardless lost their shit over "Rap God", such as Time Magazine. Just check out this quote: 

>If “Rap God” and his first single “Berzerk” are anything to go by, the world can expect an immortal recording.

But you can know not to trust Time at all when they go on to say this:

>“I’m beginning to feel like a Rap God / All my people from the front to the back nod” spits Eminem in his trademark staccato flow.

Eminem's trademark flow isn't staccato; it's legato and flowing.

But on "Rap God," Eminem basically makes the mistake Twista has made his whole career: thinking tight instrumental technique is all you need. But whereas Eminem has multiple classic albums to fall back on, Twista doesn't. And in any event, "Rap God" saw eminem try a new style very well and showed him growing as a rapper, even at 40 years old. That's what great rappers do, and Twista never learned that.