Thursday, May 14, 2009

Album Review: Cam'ron "Crime Pays"

Cam’ron emerges from a three-year hiatus with a quality album that seems custom-made for the current economic times. Clocking in at way over an hour and 23 tracks, including a few that have been leaked, “Crime Pays” is a bargain for consumers, and with no famous guest MC’s, no big-name producers, minimal marketing and promotion and being released on the independent Asylum Records, if this album sells, Killa Cam may have found the new blueprint for success in the record business. While it remains to be seen whether or not he’s cracked the code of the “New” music industry, what is clear is that Cam can still create original material that will engage listeners.

After one listen to “Crime Pays” it is clear that not much has changed for Cam’ron since 2006’s “Killa Season,” he’s still connected to the drug game (“Cookin Up” and “Homicide”), he’s still incredibly vulgar when dealing with females (“You Know What’s Up” and “Spend The Night”) and he’s still capable of making fun party songs that will resonate with everyone from thugs to hipsters (“Silky (No Homo)” and “Cookies-N-Apple Juice”). The one major change in Cam’s life, his estrangement from his Dipset crew, is evident by the lack of Dipset guest appearances, but disappointingly never addressed. And while most of the material that falls into the “Same Old Cam” category is solid, it is when he branches out to tackle new subject matter like the plight of the working class (“My Job”), his efforts to expand his empire beyond Harlem (“Get It In Ohio”) and motivating his fans to achieve success (“Get It Get It”) that the album really shines and distances itself from the rest of Cam’s formidable catalog.

“Crime Pays” is probably not the album to “bring New York back,” but it is a solid effort from one of the most unique MC’s in the game and should hold fans over until Dipset either reunites or starts the typical war of words that ensues when a crews break up.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Your "Top 5" Sucks!...and so does mine

It has become popular for websites, magazines and music television shows to ask artists to list their “Top 5, Dead or Alive” MC’s.  When this trend started it seemed like an interesting concept: fans get to hear what 5 rappers most influenced their favorite entertainers, however, like most things in the corporate controlled world of major label Hip-Hop this exercise quickly degenerated into everybody listing the same five rappers out of fear of being branded too eccentric to appeal to the masses.  This is the same kind of groupthink that makes all rappers dress alike regardless of how ridiculous the fashion statement (tight jeans and wallet chains, really?), view drug dealing as an acceptable career option and release formulaic albums that are completely devoid of creativity or artistic vision. 

It is also abundantly clear that most rappers have a memorized response (that was possibly written by a publicist or manager) to this question that they simply regurgitate to the interviewer whether it be Rocsi on “106 & Park” or Grouchy Greg from  I am reasonably sure of this because my personal “Top 5” changes constantly based on my mood, what I’m listening to and my surroundings.  If you ask me to list my “Top 5” when I’m working out or all fired up about something I will probably respond: DMX, Wu-Tang, MOP, 2Pac and Redman.  If you ask me when I’m in the library or deep in thought I might say: KRS-ONE, Chuck D, Ice Cube, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.  If you ask me in a club after a few cocktails I might answer: Nelly, Ludacris, Fabolous, 50 Cent and Juvenile (yeah, I occasionally get that drunk). Also, if I’m on the L Train from Penn Station to Yankee Stadium, my list absolutely includes Big Pun and Rakim and if I’m hanging out down south my list probably includes Outkast and Scarface.  If you ask me during Hot 97’s “Old School At Noon” I’m probably going to say: Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Run-DMC, LL and the Beastie Boys, but ask me a few hours later and I might say: Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem, Biggie and Lil’ Wayne and if you catch me with a hoodie and backpack my answer will probably be: Aesop Rock, Cage, Murs, MF Doom and Kool Keith.  And the funny thing is, when I say any of those responses I wholeheartedly believe in my list and can make an articulate and convincing argument as to why my “Top 5” are/were so great.  

Hip-Hop is much too big of a movement with way too many sub-genres to lump it all into one category (a la iTunes’ “Hip-Hop/Rap”) and make any kind of comparisons between artists as different as Talib Kweli and Young Jeezy or DJ Quick and Immortal Technique.    It is precisely this kind of differentiation that has made the genre the most important and consistently relevant youth movement of the last thirty years. Asking an artist or fan to list their “Top 5” is in stark contrast to this concept and completely overlooks the very thing that makes Hip-Hop relevant three decades after the Sugar Hill Gang committed “Rapper’s Delight” to wax.  It is like asking someone to to list their “Top 5 Modes of Transportation” and expecting them to compare a Bentley GT, the Concord, a yacht, Reebok Pumps and a Vision Phsycostick skateboard, they are all great, and there is some common thread between them, but are they alike enough that you can really say one is definitively better than the other?

Further, the homogenous “Top 5” list that populates most media outlets is so derivative and unoriginal that it should contain three sixteen bar verses, a chorus sung by a hot R&B chick, contain verses about money, drug sales and strippers and have an accompanying video with expensive cars, champagne, hot tubs and models from King Magazine. 


#1 Biggie or 2Pac

Both of these artists were immensely talented, contributed as much to Hip-Hop as anyone before or since and had lives and careers cut tragically short by senseless violence.  However, neither of these guys is beyond reproach and I find it hard to believe that every single man, woman or child to ever make a “Top 5” list thinks they are the top two rappers ever.  

To claim B.I.G. was the greatest rapper of all time you have to ignore the fact that he ushered in the era of “anything for money” commercialism that currently dominates the culture.  Puffy gets blamed for the obvious samples, shiny suits and club-ready tracks that most purists hate, but aren’t “Juicy,” “Hypnotize,” “One More Chance” and “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” exactly that kind of “Pop Rap”?  It is easy to blame Puffy for where Hip-Hop has gone, but to say Biggie did not play a major role in the culture moving in this direction is patently false.  Further, he championed the “Money, Hoes and Clothes” mentality that has hamstrung commercial Hip-Hop since the mid-90’s and displayed open disdain for education, physical fitness and women. 

However, Biggie at his best (“Unbelievable,” “Suicidal Thoughts,” “Kick In The Door”) was inarguably one of the best to ever do it.  “Ready to Die” and “Life After Death” are easily two of the best records ever made. I just find it hard to believe that every single person with a pulse feels this way.

#2 2Pac or Biggie

To list 2Pac as the greatest of all time you have to overlook about half of his recorded material, because of his insane work ethic and desire to express himself on a wide variety of topics he recorded more sub-par songs/verses than almost any other rapper in history. Also, while is best work is intensely emotional, his rhymes are simple by today’s standards and did not really stand out when he was alive (keeping it 100% real, Ice Cube, Kurupt, Redman, Nas and just about everybody in Wu-Tang rapped circles around him), he was unfocused as a lyricist and often contradicted himself (sometimes on the same song), had difficulty picking hot beats and writing choruses that resonated with fans and his movies, with the exception of “Juice,” were fair at best.  

With that being said I also understand that Pac was bigger than his music.  He was the quintessential “One Man Movement.” He related to legions of fans in ways most artists can only dream about and even though the beats were average, the rhymes were basic and the hooks/choruses were non-existent the majority of his catalog is bigger than the sum of it’s parts.  While this kind of amalgamation is fairly popular in rock music (The Grateful Dead, Nirvana, The Beastie Boys), 2pac is probably the only rapper to successfully pull this off.  And while he may be the most influential rapper of all time, with the majority of today’s stars focusing more on “Feeling” and “Swagger” than lyricism, it is also worth noting that the pre-Death Row period of 2Pac’s career was marked by intense political/social commentary and while today’s MC’s openly embrace “Thug Life” very few of them are trying to record the next “Brenda’s Got a Baby” or “Trapped.”  

#3 Jay-Z

This pick is pretty solid.  Jay-Z has recorded two or three times the amount of classic material than any other artist, his lyrics range from cleverly humorous to outright genius, his beat selection is impeccable, his song writing ability is unmatched and if only the “bad” Jay-Z albums existed (“In My Lifetime Vol. 1,” “The Blueprint 2” and “Kingdom Come”) he might still belong in the top 20 of all time.  However, there has got to be somebody that doesn’t like his work besides Cam, Jim Jones and Peedi Crack.

#4 The most well known rapper from your town/region

I don’t care if you grew up in The Bay, sold tapes out of your trunk and have been getting “Hyphy” for the last 10 years, you don’t believe E-40 is better than Rakim.  You just don’t!  To borrow a line from Slick Rick “Stop Lyin’!” 

I understand the need to rep your hood, but this has degenerated into outright buffoonery.  On a personal level, I grew up in New Jersey, currently spend a significant amount of time in Newark (Brick City!), can recite “Time 4 Sum Akshun” right now without music backing me up and have about the exact same sense of humor as Redman, but I’m not about to put him in my “Top 5,” there’s just too many other MC’s that deserve to be on the list. In my opinion, Reggie Noble belongs in the conversation but to put him in the same category as LL, Run-DMC or Jay-Z  is like arguing the Nets are as good as the Lakers simply because I’m a fan.  

*Note: The only other option here is to list the rapper that put you on.  When an established artist puts a young cat under their wing and provides guidance/financial backing the young cat is clearly indebted to his/her “Big Brother,” but I don’t believe that anybody on Loon’s independent label or in Young Berg’s crew really believes they are in the “Top 5” or even the “Top 500.”

#5 Lil’ Wayne

 It is currently popular to say the “unpopular” thing and openly acknowledge the greatness of the MC purists love to hate.  Wayne is talented and charismatic, his creative output between 2005 and 2008 was as productive as any stretch by any rapper in history, “Tha Carter III” is a certified classic, his odd persona and rock star antics have made him an icon outside of Hip-Hop,  he is the walking embodiment of the narcism and “pleasure now” typical of his generation and he is the first  artist to truly understand and profit from the new music industry (while record labels were commissioning focus groups and funding studies of how to profit in the digital age Wayne was recording countless mixtapes and guest appearances and becoming a mega-star).  

While Lil’ Wayne has dominated the last few years and is arguably the face of Hip-Hop for the late-00’s, it remains to be seen whether his material will retain it’s relevance in years to come, and only time will tell if “A Milli” will still rock crowds in 2025.  Also, his work his incredibly inconsistent with lyrics ranging from awe-inspiring (“Gossip”) to sounding like a rambling drug addict drooling on the mic (“I Feel Like Dying”) and while he remains one of the only exciting artists on commercial radio it is not certain how long this creative hot-streak will last and if he will eventually establish himself as a viable artist with long-term longevity (Jay-Z) or a footnote in the history of Hip-Hop that had a nice three year run and then faded from the scene (DMX).  


While EVERYBODY lists those “Top 5,” I find it hard to believe that NOBODY thinks the following deserve consideration:

LL Cool J, KRS-ONE, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube, Scarface, Ice-T, Snoop Dogg, Nas (occasionally will be listed instead of Jay-Z if the person making the list has a personal beef with Jay), Big Pun (only listed if the person is hispanic), Big L, Slick Rick or Kool G Rap. Also, individual members of the following groups are also inexplicably ignored: Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, EPMD, Wu-Tang Clan, Outkast, Public Enemy or UGK.  

Monday, May 4, 2009

Movie Review: "Obsessed"

“Obsessed” starring Beyonce, Ali Larter and Idris Elba sets out to be the most suspenseful and sexy thriller of our time, unfortunately it’s mostly silly.  While the movie is entertaining (I did not fall asleep in the theatre, a rarity for movies not containing costumed vigilantes or Seth Rogan), it is not the defining thriller of the 2000’s.  

The movie has a few major shortcomings which can be summarized as follows:

1. There is absolutely no background on Ali Larter’s character and no explanation as to why she is so “obsessed” with the dude from “The Wire.” At one point she overdoses on pills and they mention a sister in San Francisco, except for this passing reference to a family member there is no motivation established or explanation as to why she is nuttier than a Chinese chicken salad.

2. Beyonce plays a former administrative assistant that is now a stay-at-home mother and finishing a degree in stereotypical “Happy Homemaker” fashion.  About 3/4 of the way through the movie this completely changes and she starts threatening to kick some a** like Jean Claude Van Dam in “Bloodsport”.  It is truly a remarkable transformation, she goes from June Cleaver to Foxxy Brown (the Pam Grier character from the 70’s, not the rapper) in the span of one phone call.  

3. “Obsessed” climaxes with an unbelievably drawn out fight scene in which Larter (in nothing but Elba’s T-Shirt and panties) and Beyonce (fully clothed, complete with boots made for stomping a hole in somebody’s a**) proceed to beat the living sh*t out of each other for an unbelievable amount of time.  It is the kind of scene where you just know there was a board meeting and some dude was like “let’s make the hottest fight scene ever, so 13 year-olds pleasure themselves to this for years to come, the DVD/Blu Ray residuals will be huge!”  Not only does this scene add nothing to the movie, it is incredibly silly and actually caused some viewers to laugh out loud in the theatre.  This scene is unintentionally funnier than anything in “Austin Powers in Gold Member.”  

4. The previously mentioned fight scene involves Beyonce beating up Ali Larter in just about every room in a three story mansion, dragging her down multiple flights of steps and eventually pushing her through the attic floor and somehow she accomplishes all of this without losing her vest!  I have extensive experience wearing vests (North Face, Tuxedo, the kind that tie in the back, etc.) and limited experience with fighting (have seen many, participated in very few since puberty) and I am willing to say it’s impossible to deliver that kind of a** whooping and not have your vest fall off or at least get rumpled. I realize enjoying most movies requires a suspension of disbelief, but there are limits.  

With all of that being said, “Obsessed” is not terrible.  It is an entertaining warm-up for the summer blockbusters that will be even sillier but we will all rush to see.  

Album Review: Asleep In The Bread Aisle

If you have ever been at a bar or party and a bunch of preppy white guys started free-styling (this has become exponentially more prevalent after the widespread popularity of “8 Mile”) and wondered what would happen the next morning if one of these shaggy haired, Wedding-Crasher-Look-A-Likes woke up, shook off the hangover and tried to get a record deal, you now have an answer: Asher Roth.  

Much like another white MC (no, not that one), Roth has had the “Internet Going Nuts” for the last 12 months.  His DJ Drama/Don Cannon Mixtape “The Greenhouse Effect” garnered instant respect and credibility, his collaborations with young mc’s like Charles Hamilton, legends like Slick Rick and street cats like Beanie Sigel quickly separated him from the typical youtube sensations, his appearance (more J. Crew than Juice Crew) made him something of a curiosity in these fashion/swagger conscious times, his Rick Flair reference filled freestyle over Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys” immediately put fans on notice that he was not a gimmick and his resemblance to Eminem (both physical and vocal) have made him a topic of discussion on as many message boards as Rick Ross’ past, Joe Budden’s girlfriend and Cam’ron sightings.  

Asher Roth is the first of the current crop of new artists (Charles Hamilton, Kid Cudi, Drake, Nipsey Hustle, Corey Gunz, etc.) to produce a full-length major label release and while the album does not dazzle from start to finish, it is solid enough to calm older heads down about where the game is going.  At only 10 tracks the album is short, but this self-editing actually enhances the project because there is very little filler and most of the songs actually present coherent concepts as opposed to they typical “Let’s get a hot producer and rap about being in a club” songs that are common on most LP’s.  The lead single (and arguably strongest cut) “I Love College” is a pretty good example of everything on “Asleep In The Bread Aisle”: Asher raps straightforward but clever lyrics about partying, girls and drinking over rock-inspired beats while fully accepting his class clown status. In the age of MC’s incessantly discussing drug sales, $500,000 cars and strippers this type of happy-go-lucky soundtrack for the suburbs is a welcome distraction from the typical commercial urban radio playlist, but the fact that college has become such a homogenized experience that just about anybody that has ever visited a college campus can relate to every line of this song is somewhat lamentable.

Musically the album draws heavily on Roth’s  suburban roots and samples bands like Weezer (“I Love College”) to produce a stoner/rocker vibe on most of the tracks.  The majority of the beats are provided by newcomer Oren Yoel, who should see his stock in the industry rise dramatically after this album.  The beats are accessible enough to entice non-Hip-Hop heads to listen and garner play on Top 40 radio, but have enough Boom Bap to keep them out of the genre limbo of artists like Beck or The Bloodhound.  

Lyrically, Asher Roth holds his own, but does not have the same “rewind factor” of early Eminem.  While the comparisons to Marshall Mathers are somewhat warranted (race, voice, flow, inflections), the subject matter on “Asleep In The Bread Aisle” (college, smoking pot, forgetting your iPod, world poverty and  the importance of a father figure) in some ways establish Roth as the Anti-Slim Shady.  Put simply, Asher Roth is the rich white kid with friends, nice clothes and the keys to his parent’s car that Eminem railed against on his early work.  However, the fact that Eminem’s influence extended beyond trailer parks and grimy open mics to upper class suburbs and college campuses is a testament to the incredible impact he had on the entire generation of kids that grew up on Slim Shady.  

Also, while older rap fans may bristle at an affluent white dude rapping it should be acknowledged that Asher Roth is completely representative of the current Hip-Hop demographic.  In the 80’s and 90’s Hip-Hop was a predominantly Black cultural movement that was only accepted by groups on the fringes of White America.  Accordingly, the White artists that gained notoriety during this period where representative of these fringe movements: skateboarders/punk rockers (The Beastie Boys),  rabble rousing hooligans (House of Pain), intellectuals interested in new and emerging cultures (3rd Bass) and angry, latch-key kids that had more in common with rappers than any other kind of entertainer (Eminem).  In 2009, the “typical” consumer of Hip-Hop music has never been “on the block,” does not buy $5 mixtapes, but downloads them on computers worth thousands of dollars, drinks 40’s as a joke and thinks nothing of dancing to current hits by Rick Ross or Flo Rida at fraternity parties.  Hip Hop music (and the bastardized version of the culture presented by most media outlets and record labels) has become so pervasive that most people under 25 see no difference between Kanye West and Miley Cyrus-they are both cool artists that make fun party songs for your iPod. While it is hard to pinpoint exactly when in the early 2000’s this demographic change happened (Eminem? Jay-Z? Nelly? Puffy? Who really knows?) it is clear that by 2003 the overwhelming majority of the ten million people that bought 50 Cent’s “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’” bought them in suburban shopping malls and not corner bodegas.  Asher Roth represents this new breed of Hip-Hop fan more so than any other rapper.  On the album closer “Fallin’” he tells the story of his earliest Hip-Hop memories and they include buying Jay-Z’s “Hark Knock Life Vol. 2” (1998), by this point Hip-Hop was already the biggest selling music on the Billboard charts, rappers where winning Grammy’s and driving Bentley’s and artists like Puffy, Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes and Lil’ Kim where A-List celebrities. Asher Roth (and everybody his age) is completely unaware of the outsider status of the music and culture simply because they came of age in an era where Hip-Hop was widely accepted as part of mainstream youth culture.  To younger Hip-Hop heads a white college kid rapping is as natural as changing their status on Facebook, texting their friends and twittering about “My Super Sweet 16.” 

While the comparisons to Eminem are inevitable (and addressed quite nicely in “As I ‘Em”) the current MC that Roth most resembles is Travis Mc Coy from Gym Class Heroes.  Musically the album is a mash-up of several genres and made for today’s generation of listeners raised on the iPod shuffle, much like GCH, but Asher’s lyrics are also similar to the band’s frontman in the way that he starts verses with sick ideas and great flows, but often fails to deliver on the promise shown when he starts spitting, in this respect they are both somewhat like sprinters that come out of the blocks strong but pull up before reaching the finish line.  Hopefully, Roth can address this on future releases and put the “nail in the coffin” to truly deserve comparisons to Marshall Mathers.  

While “Asleep In The Break Aisle” may fail to be the cultural phenomenon of other debut albums by great white hypes like “License To Ill” or “The Slim Shady LP” it is a solid disk of party tracks (“I Love College,” “Be By Myself” and “She Don’t Want a Man”), humorous stories (“Blunt cruisin’” and “Bad Day”) and serious subject matter (“Sour Patch Kids,” “His Dream” and “Fallin’”) to warrant at least a listen from real Hip-Hop fans and while the ultimate impact this album will have on the genre remains to be seen, it definitely provides a welcome respite from the version of Hip-Hop constantly presented by radio and video outlets.