Plus, Denmark Vessey, Haleek Maul, and Tree
How do you honor an R&B legend? Do you drop said legend in 2012, pair them with hip musicians like Damon Albarn and buzzy artists like Lana Del Rey and take full advantage of their straggly old man voice, as is the case with Bobby Womack's The Bravest Man In The Universe? I don't think so. This new Womack record makes a good case for his scruffy old dude mortality, but who cares, because this is music we're talking about. The cool kids sure do love redundancy, though, don't they? Womack has a whole discography of pain and loss and mordant humanity, but that isn't enough, it's all gotta be underlined and highlighted with broken-down electronic beats and ghostly vocal samples. I think in a few years, The Bravest Man will sound about as dated as the quiet storm-tinged '80s records Womack has pretty much disowned. There are exciting ways to selfishly reinvent a artist from the past. Producer Oddisee's recent brilliant remix of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar" comes to mind. As for Womack, if you want to hear him dropped into retrofuturistically dropped into current times, go back to the opening of Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, in which the director turns Pam Grier into Benjamin Braddock and Womack's "Across 110th Street" into Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence," making all kinds of comments on race and age and struggle and ennui. I'm still holding out for Jamie XX getting a shot at sprucing up The Bravest Man In The Universe.
Big K.R.I.T. ft. B.B. King "Praying Man"
Big K.R.I.T. is a wise aesthete with the chops to match his dirty south influences and the balls to adjust the nihilism and violence of those influences into a more reasonable, viable worldview. A few months ago, I said he's to southern rap what Liturgy is to black metal. Curmudgeonly wannabe southern rap gatekeepers on the Internet, this does not make K.R.I.T. the enemy! Keep telling yourself he's the problem as you celebrate the consistency of Z-Ro (or Gucci Mane or whoever) then bemoan how K.R.I.T. keeps doing the same thing over and over. Question his hook-writing skills, then bump Three 6 Mafia transcendentally repetitive, When the Smoke Clears. Whatever you think, there's no country rap tunes father to K.R.I.T.'s style on "Praying Man." Three verses, from the perspective of three victims of virulent racism during the slavery and reconstruction period — a hanged man, a survivor of middle passage, a runaway slave — who are saved only in death, tied together by a leaky blues beat and a world-weary hook from B.B. King, making clear the connections between hip-hop and an African-American storytelling tradition. Rap game's Jean Toomer?
Del The Funky Homosapien & Parallel Thought "Different Guidelines"
Like IAMSU!'s "Different" from last month, here's another Bay Area yammerer declaring his significance by not acting and sounding like all the other clowns out there, and avoiding the "swag" celebrations and all that nonsense. When Del's second verse on "Different Guidelines" races through his early career, and he exclaims, "I was basically a misfit," it's more of a boast than an yokelish underdog's lament about being an outsider and all that. "Different Guidelines," is also nice follow-up to K.R.I.T.'s "Praying Man," in that here you've got Del, virtuoso whirler of words and a dude who doesn't take himself too seriously ever (which can be a problem for K.R.I.T.), doing some of the same time-traveling, proto-hip-hop history lesson planning. He dubiously locates himself in a wider musical tradition ("..add improvements, like the bluesmen before me / That showed the path that I walk on now, and I hold the flag") and functions as a vessel for black music's long gone, never appreciated spirits: "Ain't come to teach fools, I just like to speak through that / African rhythms, that's trapped in my system/ Like the anguish and pain." Producers Parallel Thought invert whatever sexy sax sample they also used on G-Side's "Cast Away," pushing thumping drums to the forefront for Del to go off over, lessening the cloud rappy atmosphere just a little bit.
Denmark Vessey "Quit Smoking"
David Foster Wallace from an interview with David Eggers from The Believer, in 2003: "Besides all the well-documented psychic fall-out, the hardest thing about quitting for me is that it makes me stupid. Really stupid. As in walking into rooms and forgetting why I'm there, drifting off in the middle of sentences, feeling coolness on my chin and discovering I've been drooling." Detroit's Denmark Vessey, over a jazz loop that sounds like something I should recognize, but do not, in 2012: "I know that these cigarettes are killing me inside/ But I still support it though because it's quick and it provides me / This temporary high, brief sigh of relief." In the second verse, Vessey combines world's-bigger-than-me sensitivity and the grandiose justifcations of an addict, making a case that cigarettes ain't all that bad in the grand scheme of things: "All this post-racism is killing me / I heard hipsters saying 'nigga' real liberally / I know some of your best friends is niggas, nigga please!"; "You know how much these cigarettes are killing you?… Not as much as these police are willing to, what the fuck?" WTF, indeed. Thanks to Steady Bloggin for hipping me to this one.
Haleek Maul "Fraulein"
Producer King Britt's beat here's gonna get categorized as part of hip-hop's bloggy fascination with rumbling, glowing sounds, but he's built a dungeony, damaged pop soundscape for Haleek Maul that feels like the rap version of Talk Talk's Laughing Stock or some lost minimal 12-inch that soon enough, a label like Sacred Bones or Stones Throw will re-release. You know, stuff the legendary Britt is old enough to remember the first time around (16 year-old Haleek, not so much). And rather than burrow into the beat and add another layer of atmosphere, Haleek steps up and vents, about a dickhead dad he doesn't wanna become, a mom he cares so much about he feels like it'd be easier not to care, and the kind of pissed-off pain that teens all over the world feel, but rarely vomit up into music with this much focus and intention. Climbing through Britt's dubby, grubby fog is a gorgeous vocal that suggests the chance for something resembling hope, even as Haleek garbles out the word "suicide," over and over again, making "Fraulein" the most cryptic cry for help since My Bloody Valentine's "Sueisfine."
Young Giftz ft. Tree "Nino"
While Chief Keef speeds up the end of his already probably pretty short career by signing to Interscope, Chicago producer and rapper Tree, whose mixtape Sunday School was one of my slept-on releases from the first quarter, continues to casually elevate tough guy rap into rarefied air, tweaking Kanye West and all of Roc-a-Fella's wailing soul beat style into something even more twisted-up and gothic, sucking out all the big head confidence and replacing it with street rap enthusiasm and dead-eyed honesty. "Nino" is off Young Giftz's upcoming The Lake Effect 1.5: The Re-Rock, and Giftz has some clever, lines, particularly the part where he stomps through the Billboard Charts, turning Kirko Bangz and LMFAO into brutal punchlines, but this song belongs to Tree, whose theatrical voice and rickety production style invoke Tom Waits as much as any gruff, a little off-center early 2000s MC. Mostly though, this is just excellent, excitable rapping over great production, which hits all the pleasure centers but just isn't as easy to blog about as a teenaged Flocka Flame derivative with a tenuous co-sign from Yeezy and company.