Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Loser

So it looks like Kanye won. Reading the article, I couldn't help but feel like talking about the contest being a "marketing strategy" really insults the people who went out and bought the records. I mean, of course no matter who won, Universal profited, but I think people went out and bought a certain record because they wanted to side with one of the artists. I considered buying Graduation on Sept. 11 because I was disgusted by 50 Cent's belittling of rap artists for "reading too many books" and his assertion that record sales matter more than the craft. I'm sure a lot of rappers believe that, but to say it in interviews is like daring people not to buy your record. Does he think the public are such automatons that they won't read what he says and will just buy the record on the strength of a single?

As much as has been said about Kanye bringing vulnerability back to rap, I think 50 is and will always be the more interesting character between them. Have his records gotten stale? Sure. But his insecurities and flaws as a person are far more fascinating than Kanye's because they lurk under the surface of his persona. His contradictions aren't paraded out for all to see, like badges of honor. Since College Dropout, Kanye's "complex" personality more and more looks like a guy who won't take a good hard look at himself (especially when, as he says, his "wrongs" help him write his songs, and sell a ton of records). Over at No Trivia, Brandon Soderberg has spent entry after entry extolling the virtues of Graduation, explaining how humble and complex of a record it actually is, despite its surface subject being fame and "the good life." As much as I respect that opinion, I don't hear it in the music.

50 Cent, however, strikes me as someone truly fascinating because he seems perpetually trapped in a combative mode. Having made his millions by attacking other rappers and appearing to the world as some kind of thug superhero, it's clear that he can't calm down and enjoy his success. All over Get Rich or Die Tryin' or The Massacre are references to not only not needing other people, but to viewing friends as just enemies in waiting. This could be written off as just tough talk if 50 hadn't displayed this distrust so clearly in the past few months. Insulting his own crew of rappers and his label, 50 has isolated himself even further. Sure, he may have been on Rap City joking with the G-Unit, but it's clear most of them are just hanging around him now for the paycheck.

In one of the Beef documentaries, 50's old friend Bang Em Smurf recounts how, at the height of his success, 50 not only wouldn't help him out with bail money (even after, according to Bang Em Smurf's story, he had "taken care of" 50's shooter) but got on a mixtape and claimed he was "God" to Smurf. However much of the rest of the story is true it's hard to tell, but the recording of 50 saying he was God to Smurf is real and it paints a disturbing picture when placed next to the dozens of other incidents of 50's megalomania.

It's clear from his comments during the Kanye West feud that 50 truly believed he was somehow invincible. Why else would he have painted himself in such a corner? If you're going to talk all kinds of shit, then you had better have an album good enough to make everyone forget what you said, and if you have a clunker of an album, you should probably shut up and hope your name alone sells enough copies. 50's strategy, for all his "business savvy," was to both talk a ton of shit about being a hit maker, not an artist, and then release a terribly dull album. That strikes me as the work of someone who isn't really in touch with reality.

The problem is that 50 has long ago stopped tapping into his own psyche for inspiration. His records sound by-the-numbers even by gangsta rap standards (if you're not parodying yourself, you shouldn't release a sex rap called "Amusement Park" after having already released a song called "Candy Shop"--that's some Spinal Tap shit and even further evidence 50 is not all there). He's obviously scared he'll alienate fans and hurt his tougher than tough image if he reveals too much of himself. But the history of hardcore rap contains plenty of artists who managed to express their fear and vulnerability within the genre's often limited strictures.

I have to admire Kanye West for constantly growing as an artist both musically, and to a lesser extent, lyrically, but I sometimes want him to just go away. For a superstar of his stature, he has a pathetic mix of arrogance and neediness that just makes me uncomfortable. I saw a clip on YouTube of Kanye on "Entourage" which is just hard to watch because Kanye's acting is so transparent--his face both says "Fucking A, I'm on 'Entourage,' that is so cool" and "Hell yeah I'm on 'Entourage--why wouldn't I be? I'm Kanye fucking West." Kanye is clearly warring with himself, but not in a way I find at all interesting. If he thinks that he's God gift to the world than he should act like it, but he also shouldn't be angry and hurt when people talk shit, because people are going to talk shit. I'm "hating" on him right now. That's the reality of being someone with that kind of fame--part of the reason people "hate" is to feel like they're not just mindless consumers of someone else's genius.

I may sooner or later buy Graduation and maybe even get into it off the strength of the music, but when it comes down it,I'm just more interested in what's happening in the loser's corner.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Unmagnificent Lives of Adults

I've been listening to a lot of The National's new album, "Boxer," and I'm becoming a huge fan of Matt Berninger's lyrics. In the song "Mistaken for Strangers," he has three perfect lines that just blow me away:

Oh you wouldn't want an angel watching over you
Surprise surprise they wouldn't wanna watch

Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults

For me, those three lines make a meal out of a million "little girl lost in a city" songs. In fact, they pop the bubble of a bunch of other song cliches, including, among others, the vampiric hipster girl steals your soul cliche and the good girl meets bad people narrative, the latter often finding its way into otherwise good songs, like The Hold Steady's "Crucifixion Cruise."

What I love especially about the "Another uninnocent.." line is that it points out how boring self-destruction and bad behavior actually is. The man or woman the song is about is far from a doe-eyed innocent (the elegance of their fall reveals they've fallen before) and where they're falling is right smack dab into the banal dance of drugs, sex, and indecision. No matter how much pop culture tries to pretend the lifestyles of attractive people in their twenties and thirties are some larger metaphor for the whole of society, hauling out sad abstractions like "We've all had these kind of relationships" and passing off "lifestyle" columns that seem tailored to fictional "hip, young singles" as somehow relevant, the truth is that adult life is unmagnificent. That doesn't mean it's bad or not worth living, just that it's not the romance it's sold as.

The "angel" line is just as funny and true. I can just imagine the character, half faux-ashamed, half bragging, saying "I wouldn't want an angel watching me--he he he..." The line makes me think of an alternate "Wings of Desire" in which angels have to follow around skinny boring hipsters (or frat boys or sorority girls, same lifestyle just with better music) as they hop from party to party, scene to scene, bed to bed, pretending their life is more exciting than it really is. Poor angels...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Slug and Lettuce

After much procrastination, I finally finished an entry on Atmosphere's Slug (pictured above in maximum lameness--a My Chemical Romance t-shirt? No wonder fourteen year olds love this guy) for Brandon Soderberg's Biographical Dictionary of Rap. I'm not a huge Atmosphere fan ( I had to buy his first Felt album with MURS to help write the entry), but I feel like I did the man justice, or at least blogger justice.

"At heart, I think Slug wants to be a singer-songwriter, not a rapper. He's got a record label offshoot of Rhymesayers for signing rock bands, he name checks Tom Waits as an influence in interviews, and he raps about how, as a kid, he hated when LL Cool J started rapping about girls, even though any rap fan knows LLs been rapping about the ladies from the beginning. In this article, Slug says that a Cage song sampling Built to Spill's "I Could Hurt A Fly" was " one of the first hip-hop songs that touched me in a way outside of me wanting to bop my head or punch a cop." I'm not trying to make a federal case here, but isn't it odd that a guy who raps for a living would associate hip-hop with exclusively those two reactions?"

Please check out the entry, as well as the other entries on Beanie Sigel, J-Dilla, and Masta Ace. Brandon's idea is an awesome one and I think it could be a really exciting way for bloggers to come together to talk about hip-hop on the Internet without gay-baiting each other or using "U' for "you."