Kanye, Kanye, prescription drugs, and an art-rap outsider
For the second week in a row, I am going to use this space to mourn the death of a weirdo cult figure only tangentially related to hip-hop. This time, it's director African-American filmmaker Jamaa Fanaka, best known for the 1979 prison fight flick Penitentiary. Dialogue from the film is sampled on plenty of hip-hop songs and it's the origin of cult rapper Lil 1/2 Dead's name. In addition to some sequels to Penitentiary, Fanaka made Welcome Home Brother Charles, an absurdist drama about the fear of black masculinity and the United States' ugly history of medical apartheid; Black Sister's Revenge, a good-girl-gone-bad tale that never pandered to its female protagonist; and an early, experimental short A Day in the Life of Willie Faust, or Death on the Installment Plan, which gives the gritty, straight-shooting Superfly the avant-garde Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song treatment (watch it here). Fanaka also infamously sued the Director's Guild of American for discrimination. If simply being a black filmmaker with a head full of odd, subversive ideas didn't kill his career, calling out Hollywood most certainly did.
G.O.O.D. Music (Big Sean, Pusha T, Kanye West, 2 Chainz) "Mercy"
"Mercy," presumably co-produced by Kanye West (along with some guy named Lifted, who according to every website on the Internet, is a newly signed G.O.O.D. producer from Phoenix), like most great rap singles right now, is an awesome-sounding whole bunch of nothing. But it is also the best awesome-sounding whole bunch of nothing. The only respite from the evil, regal sound is a sample of Super Beagle's "Dust A Sound Boy," diced like a Black Eyed Peas track for a few seconds before the song downshifts into a cruel, chopped-and-screwed hook. Otherwise, you're pretty much beat into submission by blasts of bass and money-burning boasts. When it comes to the raps, well Big Sean is Big Sean, and Pusha T is Pusha T, and woah — there's that Super Beagle sample again! For Kanye's verse (which is Kanye being Kanye), the whole thing molts into a rave remix of Giorgio Moroder's theme to Scarface, wrapping up with 2 Chainz, who is inexplicably on a hilarious tear right now, making reference to the old-school video game Rampage, and boasting, "All this Polo on, I got horsepower."
Kanye West. ft. DJ Khaled & DJ Pharris "Theraflu"
Tucked between this track's PETA-baiting and smart-dumb statement on black economic upward mobility (by way of Ma$e) is a nice, big chunk of magnanimity. Kanye, never the loser, even when he is the douchebag and the asshole, sincerely wishes Wiz Khalifa, now with Amber Rose, some goodwill. Then, he professes that he's in love with Kim Kardashian, and like a scheming super villain, admits that he considered getting big brother Jay-Z, the guy who (sort of) signs the checks of Nets player and Kardashian ex Kris Humphries, to screw the goof over for his indirect transgressions to Yeezy's heart. This is being viewed as a diss, but it isn't. Here's Kanye, mocking his hubris, admitting to just how petty and hurtful he can be, giving you a look into his dark, twisted thoughts when he feels wounded. He's good at that, isn't he? I shouldn't give a shit about any of this insider gossip blog crap, but Kanye actually turns it into a kind of touching theater.
Named after a drug prescribed for depression (and migraines), "Nortryptyline" is best summed-up by this thesis statement from Starlito: "Love's the worst drug they got out right now." The Nashville rapper details the way that lust and romance make people downright evil ("My momma's ex-boyfriend, he used to rape chicks / Her and her little sister, but they wouldn't say shit / Momma wouldn't believe her, and until this day, it's something they won't allow her to look in her face with") and provides some twisting, turning second-verse storytelling that traces A.I.D.S. from a fucking-around ex-con to a newborn baby. Total melodrama, but Lito's sincerity ("Make love, fuck sex," he declares), plus a lonely horn rolling through producer Trakksounds' beat, totally sells it. From Mental WARFare, the new Starlito mixtape, which the street-rap jokester released on April Fool's Day and charged $100 for (now it's free). Imagine if Lil Wayne just kept mining his 2005, thug-weirdo polarities — that's Starlito.
Willis Earl Beal "Ghost Robot"
While so many nefarious, blog-endorsed hustlers/musicians get a pass, it's weird how everyone's bullshit detectors suddenly started working again with the arrival of Willis Earl Beal, an absurdly talented vocalist and steampunk soul visionary. How does this guy going on a show like The X Factor make him less of a legitimate weirdo? Someone who consciously hopes to become "an underground cult legend," as he says in that Chicago Reader piece, is surely quite different from the rest of us. And if a mannered teen oddball awkwardly mixing blues and noise and rap like King Krule gets the CMJ crown, I'm really not sure why Acousmatic Sorcery received so many side eyes. On "Ghost Robot," Beal chants and rhymes, teasing hip-hop with references to "chillin' like a villain," G.O.A.T. MC Bob Dylan, and a rude beat of the sort that gets knocked out on lunch tables somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. Mark Richardson of Pitchfork suggested this was reminiscent of the Last Poets' "proto-rap" (I'm reminded of Can's Malcolm Mooney), but it also sounds like it could be rap from the future, after the apocalypse melts all the MPCs.
Zilla "Drank In My Cup"
The generic title to this Zilla Shit 2 track belies a fairly warts-and-all ode to sipping syrup. He paraphrases Rick James via Chappelle's Show ("Cough syrup, what a helluva a drug!") and comes pretty close to social responsibility — for a tribute to a potentially heart-stopping, prescription-strength party drug, at least — with this half-warning to lean n00bs: "Don't knock it till you tried it, but don't start if you can't maintain." The Block Beattaz' endlessly creative production matches his knotty presentation of drank (at different points in the song, Zilla nearly falls asleep at a red light like Layne in River's Edge, then passes out at the drive-thru, and just generally, stumbles around). Save for a slurred vocal on the hook, they avoid every sizzurp sonic signifier, mostly communicating the in-and-out-of-consciousness swerve of promethazine with fuzzy effects and a sludgy Seattle guitar riff.