Tuesday, December 13, 2011

REVIEW-SMITH: Hip Hop and Me. An introspective on rap music and reviews of the new Danny Brown, A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake

I am new to hip hop / rap. I am not going to stand here on a soap box to tell you all how many underground artists I have played on my last.fm or how Nas has not been good since the 90s or how Kanye is a game-changer—at least not today. Right now I’m here, loud and proud, ready to admit that I am new to rap fandom. I know about didily squat. This blog entry will probably rip all of the “critic / blogger” credibility from my grasp, but I think this sort of exercise is worth it. I have no idea how many people read this blog, but I do know that some people do, so to my 12 or so readers. . . enjoy as I try to find a way to explain why I’ve come to love rap music.

When I was in middle school, I was a fan. I liked the most popular and penis-measuring rap out there. I was a fan of Nelly and Eminem because my friends were, and I did not have a second thought about my taste and how it was imitation. I would sit on the bus on the way to Ray-Pec Middle School with my cd player spinning chimmy chimmy coco puff, thinking I was cool as I ignored everyone around me, not knowing that no one wanted to talk to me anyway.

High School brought me new tastes. I threw hip hop off my playlists because it was just “a bunch of thugs” and it “demeaned women” and “glorified drugs.” So I would go and listen to Nirvana and the Beatles, because THEY would never glorify drugs. . .  And sadly, my music tastes would mix the butt rock groups, like Seether or Three Days Grace, with some solid 90s and 00s alternative groups[i]. I did not expel all rap music from my repertoire. There were some rap songs that I liked, though I wouldn’t tell most of my friends, so not to look like the tools who DID like hip hop in high school. While curled in the closet, I would bust out some Outkast

Or the Roots

Or even the polarizing Kanye West.

Really though, minus the hyperbole, I would go Kazaa “Get By” by Talib Kweli

because I could reasonable defend its lyrical content to my naysayer friends. The funny things about high school students is that they simultaneously think they have the world figured out and appear as ignorant and arrogant simultaneously, but are occasionally filled with kernels of truth. Those rappers I liked in high school have stuck with me. But my distain for all other rap was not fully realized. It was general hate. Now, that isn’t to say early 2000s mainstream rap was uninspired, because a lot of it was. The Lil Johns and the Chingys released repetitive and annoying singles that would make the most diehard hip hop fan doubt their allegiance to the genre. But there was ambition in the mainstream realm. There were good rappers. They were buried, though, and especially to a close-minded high school student like I was from ‘03-‘07.

Last year was a special year for my musical taste. I was a Junior / Senior in college and I was hungry for something new. I have never hid my college-aged taste that resides within the indie/hipster realm. And as any good hipster, I hate being associated with hipsters. But to you all, my fellow fans of great bands like Grizzly Bear and Deerhunter and of Montreal and Sufjan Stevens and the National and Arcade Fire, we are kind of hipsters when it comes to our taste in music. And like any good hipster, there is nothing wrong with that ironic enjoyment from a shitty rap song. When you go to the bar, and they play a song that goes “The sweat drips down my balls!” you can’t help but laugh, sing along, and dance. And skeet skeet skeet[ii]

A few albums came out in 2010 that kept me from dipping into that enjoyment-for-sake-of-misplaced-irony syndrome too much. They were Big Boi’s retro Sir Lucious Leftfoot,

The Roots’ indie-rock sampling / collaborating How I Got Over,

and Kanye West’s ambitious My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

I still listen to these records because they’re undeniably good. Even if I was snooting my nose upward at the thought of lowering myself to rap, a very douche bag move, I could not deny that these records were creative. The reason why I wasn’t so know-it-all and arrogant to dismiss these records is due to the fact that I always liked the artists. These three records helped me go beyond these three artists’ recent output though. I moved beyond the late 2000s and early 2010s, looking backward as far back as the 80s in hip hop. First, I looked through the discographies of Outkast/Big Boi, The Roots, and Kanye. And their back catalogues are amazing.

I had to move past Big Boi and Andre 3000, past Black Thought of the Roots, past even the massive ego of Kanye West. I wanted to look into the politics behind hip hop, and the personalities, and the history in that style of music. Because regardless of what some our parents may think, rap and hip hop is undeniably music[iii]. First, I looked at Nas.

The jazz samples are engaging and the political messages of the lyrics are poetic and amazing. This album is considered one of the best rap albums of all time, and there is little doubt why. Beyond Nas’s early 90s output, there were older and stranger artists. . . like the Beastie Boys.


More than just loud debauchers (which they are), the Beastie Boys crafted the epitome of post-modern hip hop. Their use of samples and their round-robin rhyming makes for a fresh listen even now, over 20 years later. I continued to look at more artists, like Wu-Tang and Jay-Z, finding some gems that were just right for my eclectic ears. I was surprised to find verses by Eminem[iv] that I liked, off of Jay-Z’s Blueprint album.

I do like some really mainstream hip hop. Though he is incredibly inconsistent, and I dislike more songs than I like, some Lil Wayne songs are great. One of his most popular songs is “A Milli” and for good reason:

There are thousands of albums I need to listen to. I need to look into A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Run DMC, Biggie, Tupac, ect. 1000s of talented artists for me to explore. I hope every single album by them is as good as Mos Def and Talib Kweli are on the Black Star album

But it doesn’t matter, because they’re going to be different. They don’t have to be Toni Morrison-referencing political hip hop with a fantastic flow. And it doesn’t have to be the subject to white bias, because let’s face it, a lot of hip hop has been directed towards white people[v], at least by the record companies and music magazines. While forward thinking political rap is meant for forward thinking political African Americans, mostly-white periodicals like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone eat them up. Then their primarily white readership go out and buy their records or at least mediafire their songs. Is this bad? Is it racist? I have no idea, but thinking about it is another reason I’ve begun to really investigate the genre.  I want to understand racism and thinking about a white-led fan base for a black-led genre pushes me forward. Also, the songs are rad. . .

2011 has been a great year for hip hop. I’ve already looked at a lot of the albums here on this blog. Firstly, Tyler the Creator’s album was an interesting look into his stage persona, and while it had flaws, there were some great moments. Like “Yonkers”:

OFWGKTA was out-hyped and out-hated by the anime-sampling, gay-rights supporting internet personality Lil B. Here is one of my favorite songs by him:

Beastie Boys released a new album with a great Nas collaboration and a deep, fuzzed out beat that I’ve even heard Beastie Boy haters rock:

Big K.R.I.T.’s album has been rising in my estimation; working the retro flow as well as Big Boi did last year on his mix-tape, Return of 4eva. Here is one of the best tracks from that record:

Shabazz Palaces has released my favorite rap record of the year, and the most adventurous for sure. Their smooth, hazy, complexly layered hip hop led to one of the year’s best songs, regardless of genre, in “Swerve. . .”:

This all boils down to one idea: what the hell was I thinking before? There are some great musical rappers? I was only aware of some shitty surface garbage like Soulja Boy and TPain. Now that I have a broader rapper base and a broader appreciation for music in general, I’m happier with my place in the music criticism world. But there are still questions. I’m not incredibly schooled in the genre’s history, so why should I make amateur criticism? But I wonder what professional critics have extensive knowledge of the artists they review.

What I hope to accomplish with Review-smith (here on Your Personal Opinion Is Wrong) in the future is to create a place where I can comment on rock albums and rap albums and indie pop albums and electronic albums. When I comment on the albums, I hope I develop a readership that calls me out when I’m off[vi] in my opinions. I hope that this blog can become a community. I listen to The Needle Drop and Dead End Hip Hop because I enjoy their takes on albums. I read Pitchfork because I love to poke holes in their arguments, even though really, I love their site. I love 130-bpm. The music criticism world is growing every day, as is the music world itself, with bands becoming more vocal than ever (Titus Andronicus’ twitter account, anyone? Questlove) and genres are blending.

To close my thoughts on my history with hip hop, I have to say I love the newfound marriage between indie music and rap. Kanye worked with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. The Roots have worked with Jim James and Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens and Radiohead. Drake recently worked with Jamie xx. With the post-modern gelling of music, thanks to acts like the Gorillaz, we have a pop world more willing than ever to acknowledge the underground world. I mean Jesus people: Jay-Z and Beyoncé are big Grizzly Bear fans!

What this blog post boils down to is this: why listen to rap music? The answer is that there are good rap artists crafting good art. I speak highly of Kanye West, The Roots, Outkast, and all of the rest of the artists that have filled my ears for years because they are good. They are of undeniable quality. Why should anyone cut out entire genres because of a bias when someone is crafting something valuable to society in an art sense? This is not a race question. This is not a sociological question. This is a question between art and trash, and the best artists of any genre obviously qualify.

Review-smith is a home for music reviews, though. This blog entry would not be complete without some. In the past few weeks I have been listening to some good-to-great hip hop releases. All of them are receiving mixed reviews from the music fan world, especially my favorite of the four. For the sake of this blog, since it is a review-blog, I’m going to review the four 2011 albums I’ve been rocking in the last month or so.


Danny Brown’s XXX

Let me get it off my chest, Danny Brown occasionally annoys me. Most of the time, throughout this album, his voice is not obnoxious, but in those flamboyant tracks early in the album where he is delivering his yelping voice, making often times nasty jokes. He works his jokes in well because he is funny, and his flow is great. The talent of Danny Brown is undeniable, but it is hard to listen to his album without thinking that Tyler and OFWGKTA has paved the way for him. The horror-core aspect of the album, which is small, is certainly there. Danny Brown has the sort of adolescent personality that Tyler and co. have, except he backs up his rhymes with a much better production than Tyler had on Goblin. Between the two, I’d rather listen to Tyler, because his personality feels more original and powerful, but Danny Brown’s XXX is well worth checking out if you want some more hip hop of a similar style.

An interesting aspect of Danny Brown’s album—missing from Tyler’s clusterfuck—is the arc of the sound. For a while, Danny Brown’s flamboyant voice goes missing. The album becomes less about the jokes and more about booty shaking. And then “30” comes up and returns that Danny Brown yelp, as if he was hiding all along. The sonic arc makes this album interesting, when it could have been merely gimmicky. I’m interested in seeing where Danny Brown goes from here.

For the ratings-minded of you: *** out of *****


A$AP Rocky’s LiveLoveA$AP

This is an album where the production is solid, especially for an underground rapper. Now, A$AP won’t be underground for much longer—he is touring with Drake and he is receiving major publication endorsements from sources like Pitchfork’s recent Best New Music tag. It is still pretty interesting to see all of these underground rappers get major publicity this year. Along with K.R.I.T., Danny Brown, OFWGKTA, Kendrick Lamar, ect., these rappers have been building a brand, even though they’re completely different. Rocky’s aesthetic is that of the weed rapper, more like Wiz Khalifa and not really anywhere between Common or Jay-Z or Eminem. That leads to a certain level of “pure entertainment” over some real artistic statement. Though, do we need an artistic statement made by every popular rapper?


But while I enjoyed some of A$AP Rocky’s songs, none of them had lasting value, and unless they speak to me soon, they will fall out of my playlists and ITunes rotation. That really isn’t a fault to the artist, because his Kanye West-esque production with his druggy lyrics will appeal to a wide variety of rap fans, but to Review-smith, his is not funny enough to warrant the style, like a Das Racist.

** ½


Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80

Kendrick Lamar has one of the strongest rap albums of the year, and that is mostly thanks to his really great rapping flow, his immense production, and the fact that much of his album is dedicated to a really strong message. His voice is fun to listen to, sometimes sounding more like Drake, sometimes more like Kanye, but always like himself. Whether on songs like “The Spiteful Chant,” where he is partaking in the “too many niggas, not enough hos” chant, where he is not fully giving in, giving his rhymes in a half-assed, subtlety self-depreciating way, or on songs like “Keisha’s Song” where he is rapping about the horrors of rape and other women’s issues.

The album starts with a speech, setting the scene, where the album tells us, its audience, “Fuck your ethnicity.” The song itself, of the same title, is a catchy diatribe simultaneously against our divisions and a sad acknowledgement that society frowns on those divisions. The Yin and Yang of Tammy’s Song, and the anger towards that female character, when compared to the incredibly sad “Keisha’s Song,” is an interesting dichotomy. The book-like quality of Section.80 shows in some of the song titles (“Chapter Six,” “Chapter Ten”), and there is a storyline built in through the album, though it is not always the clearest plotline. But even outside of his impressive message and lyricism, his melodies and samples are memorable. You will sing along to “The Spiteful Chant” and “Fuck Your Ethnicity.” You will remember the fun game-show sounding samples of “Hol’ Up” and “Rigamortus.” The jazzy sample of “Ab-Souls Outro” works perfectly in context. Single-quality tracks like “HiiiPower” and “ADHD” could get a lot of radio play with more label backing.

The album is fun and it is ambitious. It is everything you want in a good record, regardless of genre.



Drake’s Take Care

Oh, Drake. How I hated you for your shitty, rap-pop songs and your annoying Sprite commercial I had to see/hear every time I went to the movies or turned on the TV. Oh, Drake, here you are against, showing how terrible you are. I give you the ever-meaningless score of shitty shitty bang bang . . . . wait. . . Wait! What the. . . Take Care is good?

Yeah, I guess it is. The first things about Take Care that makes it undeniably memorable, and in a good way, are the sonic textures. The album begins with two slower, introspective tracks before it even thinks about a radio hit. Gutsy move, Drake. The upbeat, radio-ready songs are there, of course: “Headlines” and “Lord Knows,” which are both strong tracks. But the album is not filled with songs meant to be overplayed during summer drives where all you have is the FM radio. Or during Sprite commercials.

The dark, 90s video-game synth textures on the Kendrick Lamar featured “Marvin’s Room” and the unique beats on songs like the Weeknd featured “Crew Love” make this a valuable hip hop record for anyone’s collection. “Lord Knows” is immense with a fantastic choir sample, while “Make Me Proud” is an earworm for the ages. Much like Kanye’s masterpiece last year, Drake is crafting an album that is not always genre specific. Some of the songs on this album are not rap songs. They’re R&B, they’re pop, and they’re experimental. That lack of rap history in mind, Drake’s reputation as a rapper dwindles a bit, but he improves his standing as a recording artist, and in his case, that is ideal for his career arc.

His collaborations with the Weeknd through the album, and his specific work with Jamie xx on the cover of a cover of a cover with the title track, show that he knows how to surround himself with fantastic producers and song writers. Now, Drake’s weaknesses come from his own personality, and one could argue that produces like “40” are the reason Take Care is such a strong record. Drake is not hiding his credits. He just wants to create a great record. And now, in our post-modern society, we have one. Thanks to this record, we see how a personality like Drake bounces off the hyperactive-but-inconsistent rappers like Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne, how he synthesizes with the always-smooth likes of Andre 3000, and how he allows the great up-and-comer Kendrick Lamar to do his thing on the album’s best track.

It goes back to art. This album is a good look into the soul of a man, who may be famous, but struggles with inner demons as the rest of us do. Check the record out, even if you hate Drake. Like me, you may be surprised how much you enjoy it.



[i] Incubus may not be critic darlings nowadays, but they’re certainly 100 times better than Nickleback, even on their last, lukewarm album.

[ii] Gross. Not at the bar, please.

[iii] This seems obvious to many of you reading this blog, but there is a large section of this country that dismisses the genre as I once did. Some of you may be rap haters, too.

[iv] Back handed compliment? Yes, but I have a hard time enjoying his recent output, mostly because he sounds like an angry fucking robot—a sound none of our poor ears should ever have to endure. Auto effects and repetitive, robotic inflections on your words are never a good idea. I just want to hug Em and tell him it is okay. That isn’t to say Em doesn’t have good songs. Like this one

[v] Like myself. Those great minds at Dead End Hip Hop discussed here in reference to the fan base of Odd Future:

[vi] Like someone did on my Tyler review, when I was blatently called out for being that “Bob Dylan fan” who Tyler wouldn’t give the time of day to.  However, I think I was right in my criticisms of Goblin. . . ;-) Read my Tyler review here.



  1. Nice work man! I don't think Danny Brown is in any way influenced by OF though. Yeah he's probably a fan but he was rapping before they were born and the style of lyrics you mention go way back. Check this brilliant interview with him http://www.cbrap.com/?p=6646

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  3. That is a great interview! Much appreciated!