Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Blueprint for Retread

There comes a time for most artists when they finally scrape the bottom of the creative barrel clean. At that point, they can call it a career and rest on the laurels of their accomplishments. Or they can regurgitate their once innovative ideas or style, diluting the formula a bit more each subsequent go-around.

Jay-Z, arguably the most gifted rapper of the modern era, if not the most prominent, has chosen the second option. When Jay allegedly concluded his career with the 2003 Black Album, he left a track record and discography that backed his claims to title of “best rapper alive.”

His 2006 return to the studio gave us Kingdom Come and questions as to why Jay was tarnishing his legacy with such a lethargic, uninspired effort. The 2007 concept album based on the Denzel Washington film American Gangster produced a more fluid and focused Jay-Z.
With The Blueprint 3, the final installment of the Blueprint trilogy, Jay reverts to Kingdom Come form.

The album’s lead single “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” teased an album determined to separate itself from the mediocrity that makes up most of today’s mainstream rap scene. Intended to criticize the gimmicky nature of today’s rap music, Jay sounds like an old guard of rap who refuses to stand pat as others make a mockery of the genre he loves.

He comes out slinging lines such as, “I know we facin’ a recession, but the music ya’ll makin’ gonna make it the Great Depression.”

Unfortunately, most of Blueprint 3 fails to build on this concept in a manner that doesn’t make Jay look like the cantankerous old man demanding that these damn kids stay off his lawn.
When Jay-Z isn’t awkwardly reminding us of his greatness, he’s incorporating elements that contradict the principles of “D.O.A.”

Arrogance is a necessity in most hip-hop and Jay has built a career by masterfully conveying his strong points. This cleverness is mostly absent on Blueprint 3, as Jay resorts to lazy tactics such filling space by reciting each year since his 1996 debut. Jay chides the overuse of the auto-tune voice distorter, but complicates the stance by with an appearance by flavor-of-the-month rapper Drake and his usage of Rihanna in a role she’s done dozens of times elsewhere.

Jay-Z long ago cemented his legacy with his contributions to hip-hop. As difficult as it probably is for him to view those contributions in a past tense, it’s time for Jay to consider the ramifications of bogging down that legacy with lackluster outputs such as Blueprint 3.

Baggin' Crack, Slangin' Classics

Sequels to a classic rarely yield favorable results. The finished product either falls short of the original or is exposed as a shortcut to rake in easy cash.

Fourteen years after the release of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon shows it’s possible to produce a sequel on the level of its predecessor with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt II.

The album comes nearly four years after talks of the project first surfaced, putting to rest speculation that the album was more of fallacy than reality.

To understand the expectations Pt. II faced, one must grasp the impact of the original.

Arguably one of the defining hip-hop albums of the 1990s, Only Built ignited the Mafioso-themed rap movement. The first-person point of view that characterized the majority of rap gave way to grandiose narratives told through a cast of alter-egos.

Pt. II maintains this formula and thrives on a cohesion rarely seen with most hip-hop albums today. That this is accomplished in spite of a 22-track listing shows the precision in which Raekwon crafted the album.

Despite contributions from more than 10 producers, Pt. II retains a uniformed sound that only accentuates the cinematic-like experience a full listen provides.

Strategically placed samples from films, Wu-Tang albums, and vintage soul songs recreate the brooding soundscape Wu-Tang leader RZA popularized during the 1990s.

The album reunites the Raekwon-Ghostface Killah tandem that helped bump Only Built to classic status. Though 14 years older, neither rapper misses a step, from either a lyrical or delivery perspective.

Neither money nor notoriety has removed their desire to provide gritty tales about the environment of their youth.

On “Cold World,” Ghostface examines the depths man can sink to from economic and social struggles. “Me and son had beef, I had to murk him. We supposed to be brothers / Cause he came home fronting, feeling like that I owe him something,” he recalls.

Most of Pt. II seems to embrace the lifestyle the protagonist of Only Built was trying to escape. The narratives prevent glorification through attention to the underbelly of this lifestyle.

Whereas most hip-hop albums now feel like a mish-mash of ready-made singles and filler, Pt. II embraces the classic concept album. Frequent radio play and Top 10 singles aren’t on Raekwon’s agenda and Pt. II is stronger for it.

Rubber Spiders with Broken English

Now that most of my friends have real people jobs, I find myself looking for ways to fill my time. The typical person will usually remedy this by getting a pet or volunteering for something. But I hate cats and I don't plan to volunteer for anything until it's court ordered. So that means I'm dusting off the ol' DVD shelf (not literally, of course, I'm too lazy) and watching some of the reasons why I rarely had sufficient funds in my checking account.

Anyway, I watched the original Dracula a couple weeks back. I've seen it probably four or five times but I always seem to forget just how... dull it is outside of a couple things.

No one cares what I think about this, but I'm going to list off my reasoning in an effort to retard my impending illiteracy:

The Good

- Bela Lugosi: Chances are this is a pretty forgotten flick if not for our broken-English-speaking pal Bela. When anyone thinks of the Dracula character now, they think of Lugosi's Dracula: suave, thick accent, charming. They certainly aren't thinking of Bram Stoker's Dracula, who was a decrepit old man with less luck with the ladies than myself.

Lugosi wasn't much of an actor, but his own shortcomings with the English language and the subsequent halting delivery of his lines actually enhanced the Dracula character. The movie's at least interesting whenever he's on screen.

- Dwight Frye: The dude who plays Renfield, the real estate agent who makes the fateful journey to Dracula's castle at the outset of the movie. Most of the actors in the film have the personality of the chair I'm sitting on right now, but Frye's range from the polite gentleman at the start of Dracula to the slithering, deranged mideon of Dracula is remarkable. He almost gets you thinking maybe it isn't so bad to eat spiders.

The Not So Good

- Everyone Else: Like I said, I've seen this movie four or five times. Other than the aforementioned actors along with the character of Van Helsing, I couldn't properly ID anyone else in the movie if you put a gun to my head. Part of this blame probably can go to the static stage direction (read: almost no direction).

- The Direction: Tod Browning made his mark in silent film by churning out flick after flick about social outcasts. And he did a damn find job of it, too. But the guy was clearly out of his element with sound pictures. There is no soundtrack for the movie and with the sparse dialogue you would expect from a director still stuck in the silent film mindset, there are dozens of moments with nothing but static. This will occasionally work in the favor of the film, as it creates a tense atmosphere. But elsewhere, it becomes a source of hazy focus.

Innnnn Conclusion

I surely didn't set out to write hundreds of words about this, but I had to voice my surprise that this is only a key movie because of what it meant for the genre and popular culture, not because of its own isolated greatness.

I still wouldn't mind being a Count, though. Count Alex. Yes, yes. I like the sound of that very much. Maybe I'll go look into purchasing some crumbling castle.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Spaghetti Basterds

Alfred Hitchcock’s bomb theory remains perhaps the easiest way to describe suspense.

Hitchcock’s theory dictates that by showing the audience a bomb under the table two men are sitting at, the director is generating suspense. Pedestrian conversation between the two men subsequently turns into a white-knuckle experience, as the audience waits for the bomb to go off.

Quentin Tarantino uses this technique at least twice during Inglourious Basterds, his latest directorial creation, which features an alternative take on the Nazi regime and its eventual demise circa World War II.

Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, right) questions Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet).

The first instance of this is during the opening scene, in which Colonel Hans Landa (played by the show-stealing Christoph Waltz), nicknamed “The Jew Hunter,” visits a French dairy farmer.

Through pedestrian conversation, Landa’s purpose for the visit surfaces: He is searching for an unaccounted Jewish family. Instead of a bomb under a table, Tarantino uses the family under the floorboards. This extended scene firmly establishes Inglourious as much more than a film to later get labeled as standard war or action fare.

Yes, the film involves World War II and there are bursts of action. But Tarantino’s mastery of suspense paired with his uncanny ability to develop compelling characters and plot instantly plucks Inglourious far away from some paint-by-numbers action flick.

Some may dislike Tarantino’s revisionist history. Those people fail to understand Tarantino has no intention of translating pages from a history book to the screen.

Instead, he wants to put the Tarantino stamp on an infamous section of history. Factual characters such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels share an existence with the fictional Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his band of Basterds, who share a hunger to exterminate virtually every Nazi they meet.

In several ways, Inglourious is Tarantino’s most daring film: a loaded statement when you consider his last two films were tributes to Hong Kong martial arts (Kill Bill Vol. 2) and exploitation movies (Death Proof).

He pulls himself away from his trademark retro-modern universe where characters frequent cafes and taverns and still listen to The Delfonics on vinyl. He relocates and sets up shop in a completely different time, where he strips away the pop culture references and ‘70s-fusedsoundtrack synonymous with his other directorial efforts.

And still, Inglourious unmistakably has Tarantino’s fingerprints all over it. There’s his knack for plugging famous actors into quirky roles.

Pitt as Aldo Raine is a far cry from the clean-cut, eloquent Pitt engaging in heists with George Clooney by his side in the Ocean’s trilogy. The scar- and abrasion-covered Raine is a gruff, Tennesseeborn bootlegger, who would most certainly rather kill a troop of “Natsees” than rip off a casino.

There is the fluid dialogue that always seems to knock 150 minutes off the clock quicker than films half as long. Then there is the unorthodox manner in which several characters are introduced. We might get a quick narrative introduction or a simple scribbling of the character’s name accompanied by an arrow on screen.

And of course, no Tarantino film is complete without an homage to some film niche. With Inglourious, it’s the Spaghetti Western, a genre popularized in the 1960s by then unknown Clint Eastwood. To this effect, Tarantino drops his traditionally nostalgic soundtrack in favor of compositions from Ennio Morricone, the Italian-born composer whose scores helped define these Eastwood features.

Inglourious serves as another testament not just to Tarantino’s personal love of movies, but also his ability to dabble in new areas and still create classic cinema.

**** out of ****

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Auto-Tunes & Heartbreak

Experimentation is dicey business within hip-hop. While the genre isn’t the one-note wasteland its detractors paint it as, rap albums that stray too far from the tried and true formulas more often miss than hit.

Six years after the fact, Common still hasn’t erased the hippie-channeled Electric Circus from the gray matter of most listeners.

Mos Def made his 1999 debut classic Black on Both Sides seem like a faint memory when he unleashed The New Danger in 2004; a mish-mash of elementary guitar licks and equally forgettable lyrics.

Even Andre 3000’s semi-brilliant The Love Below caused a stir because the more eccentric half of OutKast had benched his effortless delivery in favor of crooning.

Despite the resistance to anything too different in hip-hop, it’s vital for emcees to keep retooling and evolving as creative artists. Fail to do that and you either fall off the map or become a caricature of your former self (hi, Snoop Dogg!).

So maybe it shouldn’t come as any surprise to see, or rather hear, Kanye West wiping the drawing board clean and drawing up a new game plan on 808s and Heartbreaks.

After all, the producer-rapper invests almost as much energy in convincing the world of his complexities as he does creating music.

Unfortunately for Kanye followers, the self-professed Michael Jordan of the music industry’s new game plan is delivered to our eardrums via Auto-Tune.

The once rightfully mocked robotic voice distorter utilized strictly by atrocities like T-Pain has somehow become a hip-hop staple in the last two years.

Used sparingly by West not too long ago, he and the device are now as tough to pry apart as a parent dropping their kid off for the first day of kindergarten.

The Auto-Tune also makes any sort of fluid lyrical delivery an exercise in futility. But don’t worry, because Ye takes a page out of Andre 3000’s book here and scraps the rapping all together.

That in and of itself wouldn’t be such an issue if doing so hadn’t seemingly stripped the typically quotable Kanye of anything interesting to lament.

“Welcome to Heartbreak” is a potentially intriguing confession of self-loathing marred by cringe-worthy lyrics like, “My god said she’s getting married by the lake / But I couldn’t figure out who I’d wanna take / Bad enough that I showed up late / I had to leave before they even cut the cake.”

I’m sure Kanye meant well with tracks such as “Coldest Winter,” an ode to his mother, who died during surgery last year. But with precisely six paint-by-number lines spread over three verses, the content is too generic to generate anything poignant.

As with his catalog of solo classics, Kanye himself is at the helm of the production.

Unlike his first three albums, though, West opts to limit the crate-digging and sticks mostly to a sound best linked to electro pop.

The near-complete absence of rapping coupled with production that strays from hip-hop mores results in an album with lethargic, uninspired offerings.

Anyone who’s followed West’s career knows a workaholic lies beneath the childish fa├žade. Let’s commend him for his attempt to nudge along his innovator status. But then let’s tell him he needs to head back to the drawing board.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Opening with a Bang III

It seems only fitting we put our sights on something early from Kanye's catalog to take our mind off this autotone album he's got brewing right now...

Kanye West- "We Don't Care" from the album The College Dropout (2004)

Kanye never goes long without giving the paparazzi and his detractors fresh ammunition. When he's not working the boards or dropping clunky, but clever lines on the mic, he's having expensive cooked food flown across the globe, posting whiney, 20,000-word, all-cap manifestos on his blog, or smashing the ever-loving shit out of someone's camera in an airport. That said, the man is remains an innovator in hip-hop production and quite the showman, both on wax and on stage. Those things have given him some free reign w/r/t his extra-curricular antics.

Ye isn't the most talented emcee, but he delivers his rhymes in such an unabashed fashion you can't help to issue a free pass or even dig what he's offering. With three solo LPs and hundreds of guest verses under his belt, there's a lot of Kanye to choose from. But the track that doubles as a Kanye primer is this opener from his debut album.

It's not West's best song. It's not even my favorite Kanye track. But if I had to pick one song to illustrate what Kanye's all about, not just as a rapper, but as a producer, it's this one. You could listen to this one track and know what The College Dropout is all about. It doesn't take a genius to decode the album title's meaning, but Ye's three verses here elaborate on the ideology behind achieving material fulfillment without the benefit of college courses.

The pictures West paints could fill the inner-city blight template were the lyrics not so witty and draped over celebratory horn and handclap-heavy beat. With a bit of tweaking, lyrics like "You trying to cut our lights out like we don't live here / Look at what's handed us /Fathers abandon us /When we get the hammers go and call the ambulance / Sometimes I feel no one in this world understands us" could easily get dropped into a song where making listeners upbeat and optimistic is the last thing the artist wants. As it is, West taps everyone on the shoulder to remind them of these all-too-real situations, but at the same time, assure you they're taking it in stride.

And then there's the wordplay. Kanye borders on the ridiculous at times in this category, but he effortlessly makes it across the tightrope walk between clever wordplay and Lil Wayne "how many drugs is he under the influence of right now" wordplay. Again, lines such as "The drug game bulimic it's hard to get weight / Some niggas money is homo it's hard to get straight" brings forth serious situations with a grin without mocking them.

Ye isn't going to be part of many serious "best emcee" discussions as we press on, but the guy knows how to entertain. His mastery on the production side of things is his real bread and butter, but tracks like "We Don't Care" show he's capable of at least hanging in the big boys' neighborhood.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Opening with a Bang: The Return

“Shakey Dog” (Ghostface Killah): I’ve long since conceded that Ghost is the most entertaining storyteller in the game today. Even if you disagree, it’s tough to argue that his narratives aren’t as exhaustive as trying to reel off in succession all of his aliases.

“Shakey Dog,” the opener to Tony Starks’ critically acclaimed 2006 effort Fishscale is about as good an example of this as anything in GFK’s catalog. Ghostface packs what could pass as an entire plot for a movie in less than four minutes. Ghost, perhaps aware that even his most loyal listeners might not be prepared for content-packed track, advises everyone to “buckle up one time” before he delves into the first verse.

Actually, the term “verse” isn’t applicable here, since Ghost shows just how insane he is by not even letting a hook into the mix to let him catch a quick breather. No, instead the master of the hood yarn unpacks a tale of a drug deal gone sour and its subsequent chase, packing in more lyrics than a lot of alleged emcees fight on their entire LP.

But where Ghost really flourishes is with his attention to detail. Gangsta rap fixtures such as robberies, killings, and pursuit of women get redundant rolling off the tongues of the unimaginative rapper. Ghost takes what could easily serve as a paint-by-number scenario and creates vivid imagery with lines like, “This is the spot, yo son, your burner cocked? / These fuckin' maricons on the couch watchin' Sanford and Son / Passin' they rum, fried plantains and rice / Big round onions on a T-bone steak, my stomach growling, yo I want some!”

Stuff like this is why Ghost is able to remain relevant, even as an aging player in a young man’s game.