Alan Pyke

Certainty is the sickness. Doubt is the analgesic. There is no cure.

Posts tagged music

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On sheer quality, it’s more than enough to say that “Fancy Clown” is a stand-out sample flip on a record full of insanely good Madlib flips. The songwriting is as clever as MF DOOM fans have learned to expect, too, of course. Beyond his standard high level of lyricism in individual bars, the setup is a lot of fun— Viktor Vaughn writing a furious kiss-off to a lover who cheated on him with one of DOOM’s other characters.

But the verse traffics in a crippled understanding of fidelity. Forgive me for trying to extract a serious point from DOOM’s brilliant, light-hearted comic book world, but Viktor Vaughn is so pissed his girl stepped out on him with Metal Face that he tried to hurt her by boasting of his own infidelities? With her friend, their maid, and her mother? This misapprehension of fidelity as being optional or even unreasonable for men, but mandatory for the women they deem special from the rotating cast of partners they brag about, undermines many of hiphop’s best breakup anthems (Ghostface’s “Back Like That” for example).

But “Fancy Clown” and “Back Like That” and “Song Cry” and a dozen others that pretend separate, gendered standards of fidelity are valid still work in some essential way. By baking that regressive inequality into such magnetic breakup songs, male rappers are guarding their own privilege and validating other men’s refusal to let go of theirs, even as they lower their guard and emote. It’s troubling but it definitely doesn’t stop me listening to and enjoying these cuts. Maybe that’s partly because of the psychology of romantic collapse, where we often need to feel righteous and better-than, and where it’s easiest to succumb to the temptation to wound people we care(d) about. But it’s probably mostly because these songs are so damn effective on a musical, emotional level. That brings us back to the samples.* “Song Cry” has that chorus-of-weeping-angels backdrop taken from Bobby Glenn’s “Sounds Like A Love Song.” “Back Like That” has Neyo in top form, and if you listened to rap when Fishscale came out there’s a 93% chance you walked around humming or singing that hook for months in 2006. And “Fancy Clown” makes brilliant use of ZZ Hill’s “That Ain’t The Way You Make Love,” a spurned-lover anthem that can’t decide if it’s out for reconciliation or well-meaning slut-shaming:

A beatsmiths’ ear for the right emotion freeze-dried into even a single note from someone else’s record, and the fusion of a track to a vocal, is the source of all hiphop’s power. It’s what makes songs affecting. When it’s done well, it makes space for emcees to smuggle ideas into verses, to bury them a bit so that they can germinate with listeners. When it’s done really well, it can almost save painfully on-the-nose rappers from themselves, as with Macklemore’s equality anthem “Same Love.” But that fusion is just a tool. Hiphop’s revolutionary roots are no guarantor of it’s future concerns. It pays to be especially vigilant in moments that seem like progress, like Jigga making a smash hit out of a song that simultaneously highlights and defends a concept of manliness that is increasingly outmoded. Because those moments are progress, and should be celebrated, but never with blindness.


*WhoSampled.com is an incredible resource for this stuff, though if you’ve googled around to pin down a sample flip before you probably already know that. 

Filed under music strays hiphop feminism masculinity MF DOOM Jay-Z Ghostface sample flips

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Roky Erickson Show Writeup [BYT]

I’m really glad I watched the Roky Erickson documentary again the day of the show. It helped erase all expectations, which I think would’ve screwed up my ability to enjoy the man’s pure existence, which is such a triumph given where his life went. From my writeup:

You can still hear the raw material of about a dozen sub-genres of rock in Erickson’s vocals. The lilting top end of his range, where he made his money with the Elevators, isn’t all the way gone, but he spent far more time down in the gutty, rubble-strewn zones of his voice, the bits that James Hetfield would envy. That contents-under-pressure edge was there from the beginning of his career, packing menace and threat into the melodic drugged-out R&B stuff that made him famous. Now it’s moved in from the edge, taken up residence right in the middle of his cavernous chest, and his voice sounds like distant explosions filtered through a layer of ground-up glass and crusted-over heartache. For all the gruffness and sorrow and performative distance, though, it was impossible to miss how content he was to be playing music for enthusiastic strangers. […] 

Watching You’re Gonna Miss Me, it seemed like Erickson might be the sex, drugs, and rock&roll equivalent of one of those animals the Soviets launched into space—a pioneer who was never coming back to Earth’s gravity.

Rest of the review & some great pictures by Ryan Kelly at BYT.

Filed under BYT music Roky Erickson 13th Floor Elevators concerts

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Crazy People Make Great Music, Sometimes Get Second Chances

I’m watching You’re Gonna Miss Me this afternoon, the documentary about 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson, who is playing in DC tonight. It’s a wild story of drugs and psychological disorder and misdiagnosis and institutionalization and law enforcement example-making. I never picked up the album he did with Okkervil River, titled “True Love Cast Out All Evil,” and I regret that. Not just because I’d enjoy tonight’s show more for being familiar with Erickson’s new material, but because that pair of 13th Floor Elevators records from five decades ago were so surprising and lively and captivating, and he’s been through such extensive internal and external trials in the intervening period, that whatever music he’s making these days is bound to fascinate.

I discovered the Elevators, and Erickson’s nimble, swerving vocals, by way of High Fidelity. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” opens the movie, in that moment where John Cusack rips the headphone cord out of his amplifier and cranks the angry bluesy howl of the song up to help him feign defiance as his girlfriend leaves him. I’m among the millions of romantic self-absorbed music dorks my age who went through an obnoxious phase where we either reenacted High Fidelity or insisted that Rob was Just Like Us, Man. (We need a name for that experience, fellow nerds.)

The upside of that fixation was discovering a bunch of great music I wasn’t already listening to. The 13th Floor Elevators were my big takeaway. The surly kiss-off lyrics, the ringing lost-epoch guitar sound, that what-the-fuck? electric jug that signifies the band’s sound almost as much as Erickson’s voice… “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is a potent musical germ when you’re 14, and the incubation period is very short. I ran out and grabbed all the 13th Floor Elevators I could find pretty much right away, subconsciously expecting that I’d found the band that’d get me through the next few months of the Why Don’t Girls Like Me years. But “You’re Gonna Miss Me” sets the wrong expectations for the band in a lot of ways, and instead of having two records full of palliatives for my angst, I had something bigger and more spiritual to get my arms around. I may have taken the Nick Hornby/John Cusack back door into finding the band, but I think lots of fans got to wrestle with the weird expectations “You’re Gonna Miss Me” sets, since it was their breakout hit.

But they weren’t the ’60s equivalent of The Black Keys, or whatever the hell I was expecting based on “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” They were fathering a new music. They were birthing a sound to go with the tumult their generation was inflicting upon their own minds. They were giving us psychedelia, not lovelorn blues rock. I think my favorite tune of theirs is either “Pictures,” embedded above, or “I Had To Tell You,” even though it’s sonically boring by comparison to most of their stuff.  Just a couple chords recorded in that open-air tape-to-tape studio sound, and those squalls of harmonica, and the lyric about “if you fear I’ll lose my spirit like a drunkard’s wasted wine, don’t you even think about it— I’m feeling fine.” Those favorites stick to my ribs even though they can’t stand up to their “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” cover (a contender for Greatest Dylan Cover Ever) or the spooky invitation of “Kingdom Of Heaven.” But if they’re less innovative in musical terms, they’re still brilliant writing. Erickson’s ability to move between soulful balladeer and half-exalting, half-terrified keening is a huge part of what makes the band so fascinating, and when you watch You’re Gonna Miss Me you can’t help but connect his sound to his schizophrenia. It’s going to be very interesting to see if any one facet of his music identity has prevailed in this second career of his.

Filed under strays music movies Roky Erickson 13th Floor Elevators You're Gonna Miss Me High Fidelity

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On Rap And Politics And Lazy Journalists [ThinkProgress]

Alyssa Rosenberg was kind enough to let me join the guest-blogging crew while she R&R’d a couple months back, and serendipitously enough that meant I got to write about one of the dumber moments of the 2012 campaign, in media terms. Nicki Minaj cracked a joke about voting Romney in a verse on Li’l Wayne’s mixtape The Dedication 4, and a bunch of facile click-chasing stuff got written about it in supposedly-serious places like The Hill:

The line was bound to inspire the worst kind of crossover thinking from political pundits with a stronger understanding of tongue-in-cheek twitter rhythms than of hiphop. But any effort to extrapolate a serious political endorsement from a rich emcee’s calendar-sensitive braggodocio would be foolish, and I assumed only thepredictable cheerleadersof the right would bother.

Instead, after that tidy little wave of trolling passed, Google started registering credulous hits from actual news outlets. BuzzfeedPolitico, and DC’s unofficial insider-baseball digest The Hillall got in on the action. The Hill not only ran a “Nicki Minaj Raps Mitt Romney Endorsement” headline, but reported the second bar of the rhyme as “a shot at President Obama on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.” Whereas Buzzfeed submitted without comment andPolitico filed the “news” in their celebrity gossip column, that quote is from the “Conventions 2012” vertical on TheHill.com. Even Glenn Beck’s site used qualifiers in writing this up, but The Hill’s piece uses declarative language and naked assertions. (We’ll leave aside The Hill’s stylebook being okay with “bitches” but insisting on a prim “f——-” two words later in their Nicki quote.) […]

All this reflects a failure to grok what rappers do, what rap is, how songs and verses work. In this specific case, I’d even argue that it reflects a casual disrespect for the level of thought that goes into crafting a verse. Plucking those couple words out of context is an embarrassing reach, and also detracts from the (gulp) artistry of the verse as a whole. As a hiphop fan, I may have little use for Nicki Minaj, Wayne, and the entire YMCMB style of music. But though it pains me to defend these folks as writers, it’s worse that the politics internet is so willing to use pop culture as grist for the mill.

That last bit, about the political media making a hash of cultural writing, isn’t going anywhere just because the election’s over. At least, it isn’t going to get better on its own.

Filed under ThinkProgress hiphop Mitt Romney Nicki Minaj music journalism

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The Roots “undun” Review [The Grio/Rap Genius]

From my review on behalf of Rap Genius, up at TheGrio:

On the standout track “One Time,” Phonte refers to “the street’s Hammurabi code,” both a play on a common slang for guns (“hammers”) and a literate linkage of the draconian code of the street back to one of the oldest written legal codes.

Phonte’s talking directly about the same unwritten code that Black Thought evoked two tracks earlier on“Sleep,” saying “illegal activity controls my black symphony.” The loneliness, danger and confinement of living up to that code’s challenges take a more threatening form when Dice Raw kicks off “Lighthouse”with “If you can’t swizzim then ya bound to driddown.”

Dozens of those kinds of oblique lyrical connections make undun highly rewarding, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome at 39 excellent minutes. It deserves to join that category of hip hop albums that are best on a road trip — it’s symphonic, coherent, and only properly understood as a contiguous, ordered whole. The band’s playing in uneasy waters at the dark edge of neo soul, and by the climax of the record the emcees step back.

"undun" is a huge treat. The Roots threw down a(nother) marker for hiphop-as-high-art, and before you roll your eyes at that project, consider how damn enjoyable it is just as music. Just because rap gets high-concept doesn’t mean it has to stop being fun to listen to, to replay, to zone out to in your car.

Filed under music TheGrio Rap Genius hiphop The Roots reviews