Hip-Hop’s Mid-Life Crisis

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In hindsight, I bet the critics of the bling era of hip-hop who wanted to see Sean “Puffy” Combs burned at the stake would have hugged him if they knew what was to come. Even though Puffy’s more extravagant records had a stranglehold on the mainstream, urban radio still had variety, with a healthy mix of classic jams and current music of a totally different ilk. And while some criticized Bad Boy Records’ penchant for sampling and interpolation that nearly mimicked the original songs, this was merely an interpretation of the sampling that hip-hop was founded upon, which mainstream hip-hop today is noticeably devoid of.

Hip-hop moves fast and in “hip-hop years”, my 32 years of age can be considered old, specifically given my rather negative opinion on much of today’s mainstream rap. While there’s much about today’s hip-hop I enjoy, the hip-hop most visible to mainstream America and the world is foreign to me. Blaming criticism of modern hip-hop on age is simply a cop-out. Anyone with an ear for hip-hop and any understanding of what came before can tell that what’s being put out currently, while not always downright bad, is simply not being made with the same staying power as it once was. Whether the lightning-fast pace of modern technology and music acquisition is to blame or a desperately eager-to-please music business is to blame is a matter of chicken and egg. Personally, I think the generation gap also plays a major factor. While growing up I wasn’t necessarily digging up Sugar Hill Gang records, I was lucky enough to have a young-ish dad who was into hip-hop and always had some Ice Cube or Tribe playing in the home (among other genres). Many of my peers were fond of “borrowing” their older siblings’ cassette tapes, which they were too young to purchase on their own. Today, kids have their own iTunes accounts, their own iPods or Spotify accounts, and have no need to subject themselves to whatever classics their parents or older siblings are dusting off to play in the home. Since there’s no standard being set for timeless music, there’s no hunger for it.Despite near-unlimited access to any music from any generation, the youth have no interest in anything but the now for the most part and “current” seems to be representing a smaller and smaller expanse of time.

If anything, we should be able to rely on the elder statesmen of hip-hop fandom to provide some modicum of good taste based on simply knowing better. No one old enough to remember what Mecca And The Soul Brothersounded like should be calling the Rich Gang album “genius” and especially not “classic” (though sadly, I’ve seen this). While we won’t know what’s classic until it’s had years to settle into our hearts and minds, anyone who remembers what “T.R.O.Y.” sounded like at first listen knows what it should feel like to recognize a potential classic early on. Unfortunately, in their need to fit in, many of our elder statesman have instead chosen to co-sign new acts like Migos or Rae Sremmurd as opposed to pointing out how these acts pale in comparison to acts whose debuts were leaps and bounds above the material being offered now. We’re taking what we’re being given now and praising it as if we don’t know what better sounds like. Critics are praising music that sounds like it belongs on a Kidz Bop compilation as if they don’t know what timeless material really sounds like. Granted, all music doesn’t need to be timeless, but at the same time, it’s okay to label some things as a disposable good time and leave it at that. It’s unfortunate to see critical minds selling out just to appear “with it” and appeal to younger audiences.

We have to stop being afraid to “sound old” when it comes to critiquing hip-hop because, frankly, that’s the only voice that’s going to keep the culture alive. Why do we keep bringing up the 90s? Because hip-hop has yet to reach another peak. I just can’t sit idly by while a generation accustomed to free music is allowed to fully dictate the direction the culture is going in, not evolving but becoming less and less recognizable. If you’re like me and remember waiting for the local record store to open on Tuesday morning so you could buy whatever rap album was new, sight unseen, with cold, hard cash, you should feel entitled to have some opinions on hip-hop’s present and future. You earned your stripes ripping the plastic off of all those cassettes and CDs. You earned your voice by having real-time “best MC” arguments with people face to face as opposed to anonymously in the comments sections of your favorite rap blogs. I’m no curmudgeon. I’m a big Action Bronson fan, for example. He puts on a great live show and brings some unique references to his rhyming and has a great ear for beats. Every year on my site, I list a number of albums that I was impressed by, most of them by rappers. All current. I’m far from living in the 90’s. I’m not against the youth having fun, but I can remember being a youth, having fun, and the music still having some substance and authenticity to it…music that holds the same weight to this day. I can remember taking an album home and not hearing just a collection of wanna-be singles, but a complete vision letting you into the mind of an artist. Ignoring the fact that things have changed is just silly. The 90s were great for hip-hop and let’s just face the fact that no decade after it will compare until we take a serious look at quality control.

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The Mr. Wonderful Review

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One of the most selfish things we music fans do in an age of selfish music consumption is look on disapprovingly as an act we discovered at its inception gains more mainstream attention and inevitably changes to accommodate that attention. I admit to being one of those critics who will praise a band’s first album and then complain about how later efforts became “over-produced” and lack the grit and hunger of the debut. Admittedly, I’ve held a fear in my heart for the moment Action Bronson would “go mainstream” for some time now. Starting with his heavy output in 2011 (The Program EP, Dr. Lecter, Well Done, and Bon Appetit…Bitch), Bronson has brought a flavor to the game that had not been seen before, despite casual listeners feeling inclined to compare him vocally to Ghostface Killah. Despite some questionable creative decisions, I’m happy to say that Mr. Wonderful manages to appropriately represent the artist as he’s grown musically without compromising much for the approval of mainstream listeners.

The album’s earlier tracks are more the Bronson one might expect, from “Brand New Car” (which borrows excellently from Billy Joel’s “Zanzibar”) to “The Rising”, which features the ever-present Big Body Bes, who has the unique ability to crush your ego and build it up to unreasonable levels simultaneously with his eccentric rants. “Falconry” has Bronson and cohort Meyhem Lauren in rare form, with Bronson stating that “your ideas lack adobo” before Lauren declares he’s “New York before it turned into a bike lane”, no doubt commenting on the gentrification of New York City and its transformation into hipster central.

“Terry” is easily a standout on this album, along with the other singles like “Actin’ Crazy” and “Easy Rider”, which all seem to highlight the two qualities that make Bronson a top MC: his ability to paint an abstract picture and his ear for great production. It’s this that allows one to not only excuse songs like “A Light In The Addict” and “The Passage (Live From Prague)”, but even appreciate Bronson’s conviction about including them on the album. While it all may come off like a hodgepodge at first, the common thread here seems to me to be musicality. Bronson appreciates music to the point he doesn’t mind it obscuring or completely replacing his rapping at times. Songs like “Only In America” solidify my theory that Mr. Wonderful is the kind of album that will appeal to rap fans who also like Whitesnake and Phil Collins. The robust electric guitar on this record takes you right back to the 1980s, an era Bronson seems quite fond of if you recall he and Party Supplies’ concoction “Contemporary Man”.

The flaws on this album, however, sit in the middle of the album like a malignant tumor, just waiting for an excision from your otherwise palatable tracklist. Starting with “Thug Love Story 2017 The Musical”, which is an interlude, Bronson allots two minutes and twenty seconds to allowing what appears to be some random person on the street to sing (badly) which leads into Bronson himself singing badly on the next song. “City Boy Blues”. While musically solid, “City Boy Blues” has Bronson overdoing his faux-crooning (which, to date, is mildly amusing everywhere except here), leaving the listener hoping for a sixteen bars that never comes. It’s the kind of song that probably sounded great in Bronson’s head but has the avid listener wishing the track had been replaced by something better, like the recent “Big League Chew” with Alchemist. The other stinker is “Baby Blue”, an obvious Mark Ronson product by the plodding piano and old-time vibe. Given the artists we’ve seen Bronson collaborate with, Chance the Rapper is also an odd choice for a guest feature, leaving one to think his addition was something the label was probably excited about, hoping for some attention from fans that wouldn’t normally pick up the album. Needless to say, it wasn’t an interesting collaborative effort and again, the money could have been better used on the guest artist and the slot could have been filled by a better record. These forays into subject matter and romance pale in comparison to earlier concept tracks like the stellar “Hookers At The Point”.

Mr. Wonderful is a bizarre album, to say the least. To me, it resonates as an experiment in sound, mixing very new-sounding, “out there” backdrops with a very comfortable 90’s-era flow. While I appreciate the boom-bap Action floats effortlessly over on older records like “Get Off The PP” or “Imported Goods”, he’s also got an impeccable ear for off-the-beaten-path tunes provided to him by the likes of Alchemist, Party Supplies, Statik Selektah, and Mark Ronson. Where else in rap are you going to hear an arbitrary Chuck Knoblauch reference on top of a track that sounds like a tranquil gondola ride (“Terry”)? This album isn’t for everyone and by no means is it without its fumbles, but this is the kind of evolution artists should be looking at musically because artists should be making music that’s true to them and not so much what will appeal to everyone. Action Bronson continues to be in his own lane in rap and that’s to be applauded within a music industry that’s focused on taking minimal risks.

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Think B.I.G. :: 18 Years Later

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Though many of us may not remember much of Canibus’ body of solo work, we can remember the line “the greatest rapper of all time died on March 9th” with reference to Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls.  Beloved in hip-hop for dropping some of the smoothest singles right alongside some of the hardest street bangers, B.I.G. can never be forgotten, to say the least.  I could say a lot more, but I’d rather let the music speak for me and for his memory.  Shout out to 2DopeBoyz for the mixtape!

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Woodwork :: SHIRT

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SHIRT provides a smooth single from his MUSEUM album, out now and seemingly sold only as hard copy to be ordered online (?).  Either way, I co-sign SHIRT off the strength of his RAP album.  Don’t let the man’s minimalist approach fool you; there’s some art here to be absorbed.

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Get Familiar :: Andre Damar

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Representng from Diamond Bar, California, Andre Damar is a rapper with a little more to say than a lot of the stars of his generation.  Regarding the single “No Hope”: “I tried to show a vision through my words about the everyday struggles a lot of young black men go through in America through my eyes…I talk about the grind we go through just to survive and I feel we all share the same grind of making it in America day to day. My grind is rapping and the next man grind is hustling and I just think the two worlds are very similar, especially for a black man in my city.”  Given his heartfelt delivery and good ear for beats, I’m definitely looking for what this guy has for us in the future.

No Hope :: Andre Damar

Top Drawer :: Andre Damar f. A.T.

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FORKS [Video] :: Ivan Ave

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I’m just going to stand up and say that if you haven’t yet heard Ivan Ave’s Low Jams EP from last year, you’re missing out on something you would have every right to have missed out on due to its obscurity, but should still go listen.  Ivan Ave is a Norwegian rapper whose bizarre but laid-back approach to rap is a breath of fresh Nordic air (yeah, I just typed that).  “Forks” is his latest effort and I can’t wait to see what the lay of the land is on whatever project this is part of.  Check the video below and note how my man kicks part of a verse embracing some woman while rapping over her shoulder.  Priceless.

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