Monday, December 21, 2009

Over Rated 2009

R&B Singers That Are Beyond Reproach

Being in the public eye is difficult and today’s climate of gossip magazines/websites, bloggers and paparazzi ensure that even the most beloved celebrities will eventually falter (Christian Bale and Tiger Woods immediately come to mind). However in this extremely hostile environment, several celebrities, and in particular female R&B singers, have managed to evade the media’s magnifying glass and win in the court of public opinion. Exactly why these “Chosen Ones” can do no wrong is not clear, but it is truly remarkable the amount of leeway they get in the media intensive climate of 2009.

Over the course of the last 12 months Alicia Keys has remained at the top of female empowerment/musical talent/physical beauty lists and continues to win all kinds of “Presidential Awards” for good citizenship despite releasing several singles that failed to connect with fans (usually the sign of an album flop), obvious weight gain, needing Jay-Z to maintain relevance and clearly breaking up the marriage of Swizz Beats and aspiring singer Mashonda. Alicia Keys has been one of the most prominent artists of this decade, but it’s hard to imagine many other celebrities getting a pass like this from the media and fans.

Similarly, Beyonce can do no wrong in the eyes of America despite spending 90% of the year barely clothed and gyrating on stages around the country, releasing heavy-handed sex metaphors (“Big Ego”) and odes to sexual fetishes (“Video Phone”), changing her message to young fans from “Independent Woman” to “Put a Ring On It” (because, really, isn’t the whole point of female empowerment to marry a rich & powerful man?) and maintaining a “marriage” where it is unclear if husband and wife ever actually speak to each other.

The biggest beneficiary of the public’s love for certain female R&B singers is Whitney Houston. Houston has been out of the public eye for nearly a decade and after the poor sales of her 2009 “comeback album” (with production from Alicia Keys and Swizz Beats...who were conspicuously not blamed for the flop), went on Oprah and admitted that she spent the last 10 years in a drug induced haze, neglected her children and cost herself, family and business associates millions of dollars. I doubt many celebrities would be welcomed back with open arms after such a confession.

However, this virtual lovefest with the media and fans does not extend to all R&B singers. In most circles, Kelis is now known as a “the B**th that was married to Nas” despite a fairly successful career. And Mariah Carey (who has reached levels of success beyond any other female entertainer in history by releasing a seemingly endless string of hits and staying current after two decades in the business) is constantly ridiculed as a “Fat, Wanna-Be-Hip-Hop, Has Been” despite consistently selling records, being in better shape than most 40 year old women and releasing a bigger hit in 2009 (“Obsessed”) than any of the singers the media and fans chose to deify.

I’m not saying it’s not fair...I’m just saying.

The Kardashian’s Work Ethic

2009 saw Chloe marry Lamar Odom, Kim break up with Reggie Bush and Courtney become impregnated by erstwhile slacker Scott. On recent episodes, the Kardashian family/media conglomerate constantly bash Scott’s work ethic and claims he is “going nowhere in life.” This is an absurd claim from a group of people that have fallen ass backwards into numerous income streams because Kim fell ass backwards into Ray-J.

Summer Blockbusters

Trying to follow 2008 (“Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight,” etc.) was no easy task, and 2009 failed miserably. The summer blockbuster season was marred by movies filled with mindless action, poor plot/character development and offensive characters (“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”). At it’s best the Summer of 2009 provided a few hours of air conditioning that didn’t make you immediately regret your decision to spend $10 (G.I. Joe).

NOTE: This does NOT apply to “The Hangover” which is arguably the funniest movie of the decade.

“There’s No Good Hip-Hop Out There”

To put it simply, if you are not enjoying the current state of Hip-Hop, you are not looking hard enough. 2009 had great releases from legends like Jay-Z, Raekwon and Eminem, exciting new artists like Drake, Kid Cudi and Wale and underground/experimental releases from Cage, La Coka Nostra and Felt that all significantly raised the bar for the culture. The 2000’s closed on an extremely high note and fans should be excited about what the next decade will have in store.

Rihanna being a Strong/Courageous Women

Rihanna apparently got beat up pretty bad by Chris Brown, this is bad, violence against women is intolerable and should be punished. However, the media/general public’s initial declaration of Rihanna as the strongest female alive and the best role model for young girls since Eleanor Roosevelt and subsequently accepting her as a “Bad A** Rock-n-Roll Chick” seem misguided.

Last winter Rihanna got beat up and then went to the cops, two of the least bad a** activities an individual can do. A few months go by and now she shows up on BET talking about drinking and having sex like she’s Jenna Jameson, decked out in leather dominatrix gear with gun tattoos and sporting a haircut from Mad Max. Even if you ignore that she jacked this whole persona from Kelis, it’s hard to take this new “Bad Girl” image seriously.

Under Rated 2009

Licensed Video Games

In the past, Licensed Video Games were usually poor quality, short, frustrating games that were rushed to the market to coincide with the release of a movie in an effort to capitalize on the popularity of the characters/story/media blitz of the franchise. In 2009, games like Ghostbusters: The Video Game, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, among others changed that for the better. These games all featured familiar characters in innovative and polished games that were comparable to the best non-licensed games on the market. Hopefully, this trend continues in the next decade as game developers continue to devote more time and resources to providing quality content to fans of existing franchises and not simply use them to pad their bottom line.

“Other” Sneaker Releases

2009 was a relatively quiet year for two of the biggest sneaker lines of all time: Air Jordan and Air Force 1’s. Brand Jordan released a string of tepidly received retros (most of these are still available in your local Foot Locker) and some hybrids that have been constantly ridiculed online. It was also one of the quietest years for Air Force 1’s in recent memory, with the exception of a few super-limited quickstrike releases and several colorways popping up for the holiday season, there have been almost no significant AF1 releases in all of 2009. Also, the monthly releases of AJ/AF1 Hybrids have all been ridiculed online and are all still available at your favorite suburban mall.

In the absence of these two major players, other releases really got a chance to shine in 2009. Reebok’s 20th anniversary of The Pump, Fila’s Grant Hill collection, Nike’s Air Trainer Line (Bo Jacksons!), LeBron 7’s, Foamposites, Blazers and Air Max’s all kept Sneaker Heads happy and spending dough throughout the year.

The Rise of New Media

“King” and “Vibe” went out of business (albeit briefly), the biggest new Hip-Hop artist didn’t have a record deal, more people played Facebook games like “Farmville” and “Mafia Wars” than console games, record sales plummeted as major chain retailers continued to go out of business and celebrities “scooped” the gossip magazines via Twitter. Like Bob Dylan said: the times, they are a-changin’.

The “Reality” of MTV’s “Jersey Shore”

I have always been a proponent that everything on “reality TV” is carefully scripted and edited to have nothing in common with actual “reality,” however, with the release of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” I stand corrected. This show is the realist thing on TV!

I grew up at the Jersey Shore, not going there for the summers, a few fun weekends or after my senior prom, I lived there 24-7-365. This show perfectly depicts the drinking, fighting and general debauchery that vacationers from NY/Northern NJ engage in when they go “down the shore.”

Several groups have deemed the show derogatory for the Jersey Shore Community and Italian Americans. To those groups I say this: The show depicts “Jersey Shore People” (i.e. policemen, bouncers, barbers, the T-Shirt guy) as rational, hardworking and intelligent citizens, in contrast, the visitors or “Benny’s” are shown to be buffoonish revelers that drink to the point of hospitalization and punch women...I, for one, do not have a problem with this kind of realistic depiction. Secondly, older Italian Americans should worry more about their kids acting like idiots than MTV videotaping their kids acting like idiots.

We can only hope that the exploits of J-Wow, Snookie and The Situation continue to delight us in the new year.

Great Live Shows

The lack of revenue from record sales (see “Rise of New Media”) has forced acts to tour and become increasingly proficient live performers, because like B-Real from Cypress Hill said “You can’t bootleg a great live experience.” This new model for generating income has benefitted most music fans, but Hip-Hop fans in particular. In 2009, package tours like “Rock The Bells/Paid Dues” and “The Sneaker Pimps” and individual artists from superstars like Jay-Z to underground legends like Murs and upstarts like Kid Cudi, put on entertaining, professional and punctual (a rarity in Hip-Hop) shows that gave fans their money’s worth and a reason to spend money on music when artist’s entire catalogs are available online free of charge.

Tiger Woods as Athlete of the Decade

Many are offended that Tiger Woods can even be considered for this honor after his recently exposed “transgressions.” I disagree and challenge anyone that is appalled by this to come up with a better representative of what sports has to offer than Tiger Woods. Numerous extramarital affairs, exposing the mother of his children to any number of STD’s, embarrassing his children, alleged performance enhancing drug use, a contentious relationship with the media that made him rich and famous, constant use of foul language in public, contempt for his fans and a “win-at-all-costs” mentality...sorry to inform the outraged moralists, but THIS IS SPORTS.

If you are a sports fan and are completely flabbergasted by this shocking revelation I suggest you get involved in any number of past times with higher moral standards: adult films, the drug trade and politics are all good places to start.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Themes in Hip-Hop 2009

Any fool can list his Top 5 albums or singles from a given year (obviously it’s not that hard because I did it two posts ago). However, taking a step back and looking at Hip-Hop in 2009 a few clear themes emerge that are far too prevalent to be isolated occurrences or mere coincidence. Without further ado...the Top 5 Themes in Hip-Hop 2009!

FIVE: Grown A** Men Rapping

In 2009, Jay-Z, Eminem, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Everlast, KRS-ONE, Buckshot, Cage Tame-One, Del The Funkee Homosapien, Kurious and other veterans, all released stellar albums that were good beyond the typical “Well, I’ve bought all his other stuff so I might as well pick up the new one by ____________” (you can fill in the blank with whatever old school rapper that refuses to retire you like). All of these guys are in their late 30’s/early 40’s (whether they admit it or not) and have been producing music since the early 90’s. With solid albums, singles getting radio play and sold out tours by artists reaching middle-age Hip-Hop has finally grown up and ushered in it’s first group of adult-contemporary MC’s. Much like other “Adult” genres these artists come to the mic with a level of life experience and musical skill that even the most talented 20 year-old could only imagine.

While 2009 saw a talented freshmen class (Kid Cudi, Drake, Wale, Asher Roth, etc.) make respectable debuts, there is something to be said for the group of vets that dominated the year.

FOUR: Collaborative Projects Actually Being Released

Rumored full-length collaborations are the topic of about 80% (complete guess) of all postings on Hip-Hop websites and message boards, and while in the past nearly none of these projects ever saw the light of day (I have been waiting for Dr. Dre/Ice Cube and The Four Horsemen for well over a decade), 2009 actually saw the release of several collaborative albums.

This may be due to the fact that selling albums in today’s music industry is nearly impossible and record labels are willing to take more chances, but albums by “Super Groups” like Slaughterhouse, La Coka Nostra, KRS-ONE & Buckshot, Del & Tame One, AG & Ed OG and Street Sweeper Social Club kept real heads running to their local record store, if it didn’t already go out of business.

THREE: White People

2009 was an absurdly good year to be a White Rapper (see “Christmas Spectacular” movie if you disagree). Albums from artists as diverse as Eminem, Asher Roth, R.A. The Rugged Man, La Coka Nostra, Apathy, Cage and Felt were all received well by critics and fans.

While artists should clearly be measured on the merit of their material and not the color of their skin, this as simply too big of trend to ignore. The exact reason for this explosion of white MC’s is hard to pinpoint, but they all added something new to the game and released solid music all year long. Now, if we can just get Bubba Sparxxx to make a come back in 2010. (Don’t sleep, “Deliverance” is a sick album!).

TWO: Album Creativity

It has been said that when a man has nothing, he is truly free, well with album sales at an all time low and illegal downloads and purchasing individual songs clearly winning the race for consumers’ attention, record companies seem to have loosened the reigns on artist’s creativity and let them release some truly original and unique material in 2009.

Albums like Kid Cudi’s “Man on the Moon: The End of Day” or Ghostface Killah’s “R&B Project” are wildly innovative and stray far from the typical commercially released Hip-Hop album (see “5 Mic Formula” post). Even blockbuster albums by Eminem (the addiction/recovery themed “Relapse”) and Jay-Z (the extremely unformulaic “Blueprint 3”) were not the usual “let’s get as many hot producers as we can afford to make a collection of singles and some filler” affairs.

This renewed emphasis on creativity and producing cohesive works of art is one of the best aspects of Hip-Hop in 2009 and as a fan one can only hope it continues and further develops in 2009.

ONE: The “New Music Industry” in Full Effect

When 50 Cent got a deal from his mixtapes it started, when Lil’ Wayne became an international celebrity without an album it was continued and in 2009 when Drake became one of the “Hottest MC’s in the Game” (Shout out to MTV)without a record deal while multiple record stores went out of business it became undeniably clear that the old record industry was over. The new pop culture consumer in the coveted 18-24 year old bracket has never paid for a CD, does not remember when they couldn’t be “friends” with their favorite artists on social networking sites and has never had to wait for MTV, VH1 or BET to play their favorite video.

The internet and it’s far reaching effects, from person-to-person file sharing of songs to being able to order your favorite underground MC’s merchandise anywhere in the world, has had such a profound effect on the music industry that it’s hard to tell if the major labels have fully grasped the new parameters of the business.

In 2009, Drake had a string of hits...from a mixtape that was not made commercially available until after he had the song of the summer, internet beefs (50 Cent/Rick Ross, Cam’Ron/Dipset, etc.) garnered more attention than several major label releases and grass roots artists like Tech-Nine, Slaughterhouse and Murs continued to gain exposure and new fans through aggressive internet campaigns and relentless touring. While it is still unclear what direction the music industry will take in the next several years, it is abundantly clear that the old model of: Street Single > Pop Single > Album Release > A Few Promo Shows > Sit Back and Count The Money As it Rolls In, is a thing of the past.

As fans, this new paradigm is much better than the old system. There is virtually endless amounts of free music available from our favorite artists for no cost, merchandise is readily available to anyone with a credit card and an internet connection and there is an abundance of live Hip-Hop shows just about anywhere in the US (the shows and merchandise allow artists to make up the expenses of providing free music).

The first decade of the 21st century has been incredibly exciting in regards to how we consume media and there doesn’t seem to be any signs of slowing down in the near future. Hip-Hop has always been full of early-adopters of technology and how this culture is disseminated in the next decade will be watched and decided by Hip-Hop Heads worldwide.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Best Movies of 2009

Movies 2009

2009 was undoubtedly the worst year for movies in recent memory. The majority of major studio releases were overwhelmingly lackluster and few indie movies garnered much fanfare outside of the art-house circuit. While it was a terrible year to spend hard-earned money at the theatre, there were a few movies that were actually acceptable way to kill a few hours.

Best Movies of 2009

Watchmen: The supposedly “impossible-to-film” genre-defining graphic novel from the 80’s was finally brought to the screen in 2009, and the results were awesome. Watchmen flew in the face of accepted norms for Comic Book Movies: it was too long, introduced too many new characters, dealt with concepts that were too big and morally ambiguous and mad absolutely no effort to update the story (based around the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War) to appeal to a younger audience. Even with all of those strikes against it, Watchmen provided three of the coolest hours of 2009.

The Hangover:Arguably the funniest movie of the decade and easily the most fun anybody had in a theatre this year, The Hangover is so funny and every joke/scene works so well that it’s hard to imagine this DVD not being in heavy rotation in just about every household this holiday season.

Good Hair: A serious look into the hair-care habits of African Americans interspersed with a documentary about a “hair show” so outrageous it could only be true. One of the most entertaining and eye-opening movies released in a while.

Food, Inc.: This documentary of the food industry starts with the line “What we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 5 million years...” and goes on to detail how the current agricultural-industrial complex uses pesticides, antibiotics, gene engineering and questionable slaughter/storage practices to produce high profit margins but nutrient deficient food that may be reeking havoc on the American people. If you are not at least mildly interested in this topic, you are dumb.

Away We Go: Jim Halpert and that chick from SNL have a baby, it’s pretty funny and the the love story/dramatic parts work pretty well too.

Sugar: This documentary-style drama exposes the underside of professional baseball and what happens when supposed superstars from South America don’t make it in America’s Past Time, entertaining and informative for sports fans and non-sports fans alike.
G.I. Joe: It wasn’t high-art but it was the best of the summer blockbusters and the relentless action and thrill of seeing some of my favorite toys come to life more than made up for the lack of an interesting plot and lifeless acting.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Best Albums of 2009

Top 5 Albums of 2009

FIVE: Kid Cudi-Man on the Moon: The End of Day

The debut album by Scott Mescudi can best be described as “Anti-Swagger.” The young rapper debuted at the end of 2008 with the bangin’ “Day-N-Night” and after taking almost 10 months to produce an official debut he emerged with an album so different, so innovative,so plain good, that it pushed “Emo Hip-Hop” out of the underground and to the forefront of the industry. The album is trip into the young MC’s mind and deals with such issues as alienation, trouble with women, family struggle and even hints at a chemical imbalance...this takes “keeping it real” to the next level.

Four: Slaughterhouse-Self Titled

4 of the “best to never do it” got together and released a full-length LP full of hard beats and relentless lyrics that made even the most disgruntled, “Hip Hop Is Dead” backpackers admit there was still some life left in the genre. Every verse on this record is an event, as Royce, Joey, Joell and Crook rhyme like their very life depends on every syllable they spit, and in an industry where second chances are rare, they just may have saved their careers and lyrical Hip-Hop at the same time.

Three: Raekwon-Only Built For Cuban Linx...Pt. 2

Released a full 14 years after the original, the sequel to The Chef’s seminal debut was worth every second of the loooooooong wait. Vivid imagery, detailed story telling, guest appearances by nearly every Wu-Tang affiliate and beats by a wide array of producers culminated in another cinematic masterpiece for the Shoalin Masters. NOTE: Ghostface Killah’s “Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City” was released less than a month after OB4CL2, if these two albums were released simultaneously (e.g. OUTKAST’s “Speakerbox/The Love Below”) this would have undoubtedly been the best album of the year and the best Wu album in well over a decade.

Two: Eminem-Relapse

Marshall Mathers took a full five years between albums and while the majority of Soulja Boy Tell’em fans and the “106 & Park” crowd didn’t seem to appreciate this release, real heads knew...Slim Shady was Back! “Relapse” did have a few misfires, but highlights like “My Mom,” “Deja Vu,” “Beautiful,” and “Underground” were so far beyond the capabilities of the average rapper that this album in easily in the top few releases of the year.

One: Jay-Z-Blueprint 3

At this point in his career, arguing that anybody else is on Shawn Carter’s level is flat out silly. This album was a entertainment industry event and by all measures it lived up to the hype. Jay’s typically dazzling lyrics combined with inventive beats and just the right amount of pop sensibility to form THE album of 2009. Between dominating radio and video outlets from September to December, nearly every song getting radio play, completely obliterating the “Autotune/Ringtone” aesthetic dominating Hip-Hop for the last several years and releasing this generation’s New York anthem, there was simply nobody in Jay-Z’s category in 2009.

Best Independant/Underground Albums of 2009

La Coka Nostra: A Brand You Can Trust

All three original members of House of Pain, Non-Phixion/Solo MC Ill Bill and newcomer Slaine released arguably the best album of the year. This filled the void of white-trash hooligan music that has been pretty vacant since HOP’s last album in ’96 and is by far the best workout CD of the last several years as the aggressive beats and relentless lyrics from three of the most slept-on MC’s of all-time combine to form, what Danny Boy calls “that old 90’s swinging from the chandelier music.”

R.A. The Rugged Man: Legendary Classics Vol. 1

“Legendary Classics Vol. 1” chronicles the unreleased and hard-to-find classics from one of the best rappers to never blow up. The collection spans 15 years and contains mid-90’s cult classics like “Every Record Label Sucks D**k” and the Biggie assisted “C*nt. Renaissance” all the way up to more recent classics like the awe-inspiring “Uncommon Valor (A Vietnam Story)” and “Renaissance” This collection should be mandatory listening for longtime Rugged Man fans and newcomers alike.

Cage: Depart From Me

In 2009 Chris Palko walked out of “Against All Odds” and into “Hot Topic” as “Depart From Me” was awash in fuzzy guitars, sung chorus’ and screamed/mumbled lyrics. The album was a definite departure (get it?) from Cage’s normal shock-value lyrics and NYC inspired beats, but taken as a complete statement it unquestionably paints a vivid picture of an artist and man at a crossroads in his life and music, where Cage’s career goes in the next few years should interesting to say the least.

Mic Savvy: Freshman Year Flashbacks

“Freshmen Year Flashbacks” is the best album to come of North Carolina since Little Brother’s 2005 opus “The Minstrel Show.” Soulful production, thoughtful lyrics and a laid back delivery combine to form an organic sound that perfectly bridges the gap between the dirty south, backpackers and radio accessibility.
Del The Funkee Homosapien & Tame One: Parallel UNI-Verses

Oakland’s Del and Newark NJ’s Tame-UNO produced a solid album of underground heat in 2009. The MC’s divergent but similar vocal styles and producer Parallel Thought’s spaced out soundscapes produced one of the most unique and pleasurable listening experiences of the year.

Rick Mujerus’s Instant O-Fense 2009

Shakira: She Wolf-This should have been the song of the summer, it was not and we are all worse because of it.

Lady Gaga: Entire Catalog- Despite her bizarre fashion sense, Lady Gaga brought the New York club scene to the masses, and whether you want to admit it or not, you liked it.

Black Eyed Peas: I Got a Feeling & Meet Me Half Way-Considering how bad most BEP music is, these two masterpieces are actually fun party records and not just 3 min. of unbridled buffoonery.

Tre Songs feat. Fabolous: Say Ahh-Not much to say about the best ode to oral sex this year.

The Dream feat. Kanye West: Walking on the Moon-The best “Michael Jackson Song” not made by the King of Pop.