Saturday, August 15, 2015

1. Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique

A love letter written in exodus, Paul's Boutique glued the recollected pieces of the Beastie Boys' New York City into a mosaic, teaming with the fragrant food carts and steaming sewer grates missing from their newly acquired, palm tree-lined Los Angeles headquarters. Packing their sonic suitcases with the auto-biographical detail of a Hemingway novel and the memory of an elephant, the Boys managed to ignore the animosity back home and impart their collective positive vibes into a project of immense sprawl, one with the broad ambition of a Beatles' concept album and the contrasting intimacy of a secret diary. The sentiment was novel, particularly for a trio pigeonholed as derivative ruffians, but the experiment's real ingenuity lies in its structure, building new compositions from thousands of nanoseconds of prefab sound.

The resulting piece pushed sampling to its inevitable extreme, morphing songwriting into multimedia art and transforming cultural influences from figurative to literal contributors. Tampering with the form also propagated a certain reckless abandon and danger to recycling culture, giving artists carte blanche to recontextualize the past without permission, foreshadowing everything from the homage fiction of Quentin Tarantino to peer-to-peer file sharing. That being said, none who followed shared the enthusiasm or resourcefulness of our whimsically gabby pranksters, particularly in the specificity of their vision and uncanny ability to pair highfalutin approach with humble craftsmanship.

Converting the art of rhyming from individual competition to team sport, the Beasties shape each bar into a game of call and response, vigorously mimicking their compatriot as he doles out superlatives or singing his praises as he steps away from the podium. The tone cluster created by the abrasive, cheerleader-style chanting inspires a rambunctious and jovial demeanor, mirrored through lyrical content rife with shameless self-aggrandizing and sexual hubris, studiously obscured by sitcom allusion or private joke. Conveying these cryptic footnotes in toto adds a layer of complexity to the writing, exposing a collaborative effort that functions as transmission from the unit and individual notion, imparting a fortuitous universality to every proper noun and neighborhood colloquialism. Despite the rigorous fidelity of idea, a certain lived-in comfortability permeates the dialogue, allowing the vocalist to go off script and birth the most peculiar of similes, shaped by a brand obsession in the spirit of Pop Art and the jokey wit of a Catskills comedy act.

This jocularity, accompanied by MCA's budding spirituality, cradles the tone of the composition, souring only for the rarest act of metaphorical aggression, benign enough in execution to treat handguns as props or abandon them entirely in favor of farcical armaments like bags of ice and egg-launching slingshots. Any vulgar display is in the name of role playing or tall tale, pouring itself into the tough-guy mold personified by Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen, allowing posture to act as metaphor for group disgust towards racism, domestic violence and drug addiction. A certain paraphrastic glee is channeled through these gritty passages, seasoning the usual banality of street rap with frozen steaks atop puffy black eyes and rotten teeth circling the bathroom sink drain.

Marrying these lyrical eccentricities with the Dust Brothers' capacity for auditory collage, rhythm is propelled by an endless stream of rapid-fire percussion loops and cultural paraphernalia, meticulously pasted into an army of jingles and asides, all vying for space at the aural buffet table. The resulting composition is frantic and adolescent in its enthusiasm, but never sloppy, utilizing the bombast and swagger of "wah-wah" drenched funk guitar to mirror the winsome attitude of the lyricists. Its deviations from beat lead to moments of pure spontaneity, reinforcing the anarchic nature of the project with sonic non sequitur (bong rips, didgeridoo, banjo) and extrinsic bits of dialogue, finishing rhymed phrases like a game of musical Mad Libs.

Non-verbal samples serve a dual purpose, acting as rhythm and accentuation of theme, lending the proceedings an air of classic cool through insinuated association. Cinematic urgency lent by "Superfly" and its rump-shaking low end elevate "Egg Man" from stoned hijinks to Robin Hood myth, painting the Boy's childish capers as noble crusade, further exalted by misappropriated bits of Chuck D's dogmatic poetry and Janet Leigh's disembodied screams. This palpable menace and gravitas carries over to "High Plains Drifter," which is imbued with the paranoid skittishness of cocked pistol hammer and sleazy bass line, transforming the jailbreak fantasies of vicarious outlaws into an erratic, flesh-and-blood manhunt.

The single most schizophrenic moment is "The Sounds of Science," which functions as a patchwork of 3 distinct movements squeezed into one package, only coming up for air by way of incongruous reggae sample or scratch passage. The introduction methodically bounces on an oompa-loompa bass line and warped siren wail, drained of the momentum of the previous 5 tracks and punctuated only by infrequent piano key clank. The team vocally matches the bass in tone and speed, gently lilting along with bleary eyes, but never losing intent or purpose ("expanding the horizons and expanding the parameters"). Laconic lyrics are dropped in a sort of stream-of-consciousness, free poetry, reflecting on a variety of "ologies" and aligning the fruitful endeavors of Sir Isaac Newton and Ben Franklin to their own experiments in hip-hop genre bending.

Ad-Rock signals the terse half-time show with loud, echoed exclamations of dominance and viridity, leading directly into a lyrical lightning round of relentless speed and raging libido. This proclivity for prurience and penchant for wisecracks doesn't change much for the coda, but the trio separates from formation to flex their individual abilities, highlighting personal preoccupations. Eagerly springing into action, Mike D's verses are as brash and foolhardy in construction as the warring Beatles samples they waltz upon, morphing a night of wine and women into a "freak unique penetration," drunk on a litigious brew of jaunty John Lennon guitar solo. MCA is just as enamored with the promiscuous and pernicious, but far more introspective, stressing epicurean taste over frugality in a life of indeterminate length. His capacity for debauchery and frivolity certainly matches that of his brothers in arms, but certain sacred cows remain untipped (i.e. illicit white powders), masterfully elucidated through a jarring cut to Pato Banton's paean to all things "sinsemilla."

As capricious as it is, boundless eclecticism and progressive thinking were bleeding edge in 1989, cutting far too close to the bone with fans unwilling to indulge in self-satire or fetishized 70's kitsch. With the progression of technology and society's ever-increasing cultural gluttony, artistic quotation has become ubiquitous and the once sophomoric and indulgent has become prophetic and revolutionary, inseminating everything that would follow and spawning a creative community of enthusiasts keen on making their work reflect their passions and existence.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

2. Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Enigmatic and argumentative, Wu-Tang Clan's 9-man battalion of impeccable lyricists and raconteurs capture the grim reality of inner-city survival with a startling thematic fluidity, a unity wholly unexpected from a soup stirred by far too many ladles. Marrying a fly on the wall realism to the supernatural mystique of Wuxia cinema, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) constructs its own language and cultural benchmarks from the unique perspective of each member, lending a contemplative demeanor, vigor and peculiarity to hardcore hip-hop's growing consonance. Through this democracy of voices and contrast in theme, Wu-Tang births a sound as socially conscious as it is sophisticated, stressing the equal importance of reflecting reality and deconstructing artistic forms.

Shouted in guttural monotones and intended as brusque provocation, Wu-Tang's vocals are brawny and quarrelsome, "murdering the rhythm," especially when the crew barks out the last word of each bar or parrots the primary vocalist's lyrics in the wake. Intellectually, the unit has a remarkable retention of pop culture minutiae, rifling through cagey in-jokes, 80's political footnotes and arcane aspects of Blaxploitation with striking volubility and velocity. A masterful cohesion is sustained on "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," capturing 6 members aligned in momentum and motif, breaking only to insert their own perspective or hand off the microphone to the succeeding focal point.

Functioning at the same level individually as they do in formation, each vocalist forges a unique role on the team, even if only given twelve bars. Ol' Dirty Bastard's comedic sashay stands out the most, tonally, due in part to a drunken stammer, not far removed from Redd Foxx's delivery, but met with a proclivity for fisticuffs and a charming boastfulness about the breadth of his depravity ("Jacques Cousteau could never get this low"). Raekwon is more focused and fluid, but no less indelible, compellingly capturing bleak moments without hint of fabrication or conceit. His sketches of teenage cocaine addiction and the paradox of drug dealing for sustenance are solemn and never preachy, carrying a transcendental verisimilitude.

Despite a youthful exuberance that often overshadows his vocal performance, the buds of a soon to be blossoming lyricist are there in Ghostface Killah's rough-hewn rhymes, particularly in his capacity for "kicking the fly cliches," that is, compartmentalizing the ennui of drug dealing into a blistering string of nouns (shots - knots - spots - hot). His counterpoint lies in Method Man, the group's front man pro tempore, who would rather take drugs than castigate them, his blunt-scorched throat lending credibility to those claims. His capacity for churning through kitschy catchphrases and interpolations is evident on his solo single, which strikes an interesting dichotomy between the two layers of his schizo persona: half cackling sadist, half channel-surfing burnout.

Handling production whole-hog, RZA lends a queasy menace to 36 Chambers, crafting sounds that echo from beneath the earth, rippling with water-damaged bits of piano and symphonic string, either played at the wrong speed or damaged beyond recognition. Fuzzy snippets of Kung fu flicks act as bookends, each airy swish of exaggerated jab or sword swing taking on new life, postmodern in its recontextualization, changing meaning to match the theme of the accompanying track. These disjointed passages of combat and proclamations of violence are especially chilling when paired with quick, clipped horn breaks and the atonal clang of woodblock, channeling malice when left unfiltered and curt against the vocals. No other forms of percussion are organic, always warped or filtered to add a supernatural ghastliness to the slam of a tenement door or the howl of the wind in the trees. The resulting creation is primitive despite its high-minded artifice, making for beats that stutter and stumble like they were pounded out on hollow buckets or thick phone books. The influence still stems from the soul and jazz that proceed it, but everything is filtered through RZA's frame of reference, burying the past beneath a craggy layer of grit.

"Clan in da Front" understands this marriage of disparate concepts, breaking into two distinct, autonomous portions. The first beat is decidedly less accessible, slowing a bass guitar sample down to a bruised stagger, lethargic enough to make each finger pluck audible, releasing its own agonized moan. The faint hum of a swarm of bees hovers above the low-end, personifying the vicious visuals militantly chanted by RZA and reproduced by his soldiers ("Wu-Tang Killa Bees, we on a swarm"). Each member and affiliate is named and accounted for, bellowing in compliance, preparing for battle, both physically and within the trappings of genre. The movements are separated by the magnified "shing" of a sword as if removed from a sheath, morphing into a jolly, drunken piano joint, stuttering awkwardly on the last note of the loop. A swirling "woo" fills the gaps between these jagged notes, adding a hallucinatory aura to the proceedings, deliberately contradicted by the elaborate vocal display of The Genius (also known simply as Gza), who rhymes uncontested for the remainder of the track. Emphasizing every "fuck" with pursed lips and a copious amount of saliva, Gza moves swiftly out of sheer excitement, littering his lines with allusions to pop and politics, just subtle enough to keep the anointed happy and leave the rest of us to our encyclopedias [Ed. - Who the hell remembers Geraldine Ferraro?]. He's a connoisseur of culture and superior linguist, but never is he more proficient than when disrespecting an opponent. His second verse is a devastating display of combative lyricism, lashing out at industry nepotism, dilettante MCs and cultural cows with the utmost meticulousness, much like the slice of a sharpened sword, which he so lovingly references.

Gza's moments of belligerence are Wu-Tang at their most quotable, but thinking of the Clan as talented tough guys is reductive and only half of the picture. Nostalgic passages on "Can It Be All So Simple" and "Tearz" brilliantly display the bittersweet nature of days remembered, reflecting on love, loss and poverty without inhibition. Hearing RZA recount his younger brother's final moments, as the Wonder Bread fell from the boy's clenched fist and warm blood pooled on the pavement, are hauntingly specific and genuinely distressing. Gone is the objective separation between writer/audience and entertainment, leaving behind an authentic portrayal of the permanence and damnable nature of violence. The fact that an emotional catharsis of this gravity is present on an otherwise rowdy piece of work is a testament to the magnitude of talent on display.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

3. A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory

Not content to recycle or reinterpret, The Low End Theory is an extension of the jazz that came before, merging the fluidity of hip-hop vocal with airy, open spaces and curt instrumentation. Abrupt stops and starts allow each word to hang over an abyss of negative space, contributing to the composition as much as an instrument and stoking the narcotic aura of jazz's profligacy. The mood set by the intimacy of the environment and propelled by the rumbling undercurrent of bass is warm and nostalgic, placid enough to strike a demeanor mirroring A Tribe Called Quest's silken, phonetic flow. The coherence in sound and vocal composure has inspired an expansion of lyrical scope, capturing the playfulness of the debut with a new found ardor for sexual politics and major label maneuvering.

Introspective and sneakily political, Q-Tip's brilliance lies in his ability to unveil obscured truths, whether they be as profound as a lyrical exploration of art's seasonality or as trivial as a comprehensive list of backstage snack requests. His mastery of the form lies in this alternation between serious and frivolous, respecting even the most foolish of his conceits enough to take it beyond the two-bar minimum. Vocally, he's deeper than his counterpart, but no less agile, managing to strike a balance with the beat much like the one he's struck between disparate thematic material.

Crucial concerns find his words spit out at a quick clip, adding a needed tension to arguments against racial discord, vanity and the wiles of record-industry "shing-dings" (his word for phonies). Breakneck speeds find him concise and crystal-clear, as he's never one to fumble over an unneeded syllable, but relaxation and comfort only truly shine through when he "fluctuates the diction," ruminating over his sexual prowess in the most floral and frequent manner. These dirty dalliances are buried in the knottiest of stanzas, peeking out in feline metaphors that smack of chauvinism, even if his tongue is planted firmly in cheek. Measuring his capacity for copulation as a stockpile of "Tender Vittles" is amusing for its Chaucerian bawdiness, but assuming any female rejection happens around the 28th day of the month sounds positively primitive in the 21st century.

Phife Dawg doesn't fare much better on "The Infamous Date Rape," but he earns all other moments, maturing into a splendid storyteller and uproarious comedic writer. "Butter" finds him as a high-school Casanova, conquering every female opponent in sight and whimsically harmonizing their first names, until "Flo" serves him an unexpected dose of teenage heartbreak. Thankfully, this two-timer only gave him the life experience needed to shuffle on to a new partner, which most certainly won't be a lady with a weave ("I asked who did your hair and you tell me Diane made it.") or one of the snobs that dissed him before his royalty checks cleared.

Vocal sounds are as pronounced as the lyricists and at the fore of the production, with omnipresent bass and the thrum of snare drum gently resting behind, coaxing out a seductive, organic rhythm. Libidinous urges are as fleshed out sonically as they are in the minds of the vocalists, resulting in grooves that shake the pelvis and demand a complicit head nod. The bed of samples selected is fertile and lively, alternating between boisterous horn and subtle, dulcet organ tone, tranquil enough to go unnoticed next to the speaker-rupturing low end. One particularly muted passage finds Tribe leaning towards ambient atmospherics, flipping a sumptuous Grant Green guitar improvisation into a floating, spacy psych segue, replete with trails of heavy echo and sustained keys. Morphing quotations from other artists into parts of a bigger puzzle has allowed Tribe to define their own style, instead of linking their legacy to one artist or movement in particular.

Sidestepping avant-garde jazz in favor of a more fundamental sound, Tribe refurbished a lumbering Mike Richmond bass line into chunky, melodic gold. The resulting track ("Buggin' Out") is gloriously groove-oriented and fixated on its sonorous, obsidian low-end, varying only for bits of contrasting, crisp drum clash and sharply struck high-hat. Stripped of studio-imparted formality and artificiality, the composition pares down the sound to a trinity of words, bass and percussion, striking a distinctly unrestrained space suited for lyrical exploration. Phife thrives in this environment, dishing out scrappy, nuanced banter from the first-person perspective, phrased as punchline or retaliatory exclamation, often in relation to his diminutive stature. Q-Tip is eminently more confident and effortlessly poetic, effusive in his applause of musical expression, black introspection and uplifting positivity. His words are beautifully strung and rife with meaning, likening the catharsis of emotion in his writing to the release of seminal fluid, proliferating a thoughtfulness and imagination in hip-hop that wouldn't succumb to the emptiness of intellectualism or gangster rap nihilism.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

4. DJ Shadow - Endtroducing.....

Constructed of 100% recycled sound material, Joshua Davis' bipolar, sublime ode to sampling exalted the sequencer as instrument, employing it to build the crescendos attributed to classical composition in the context of the hip-hop beat tape. As obsessed with the correlation of discordant sounds as he was record collecting, Davis used his DJ Shadow pen name to mine the potentiality of rap's form, abandoning benchmarks like funk and disco in favor of untraversed avenues. The product of this journey is a symphony in miniature, meticulously coupling the ethereal nature of strings and woodwinds with the galvanic kick of break-dance drum. Alternately exhilarating and analgesic, Endtroducing..... converts rap into a purely solitary experience, intended for headphones and nocturnal commutes, perpetually drawing you into folds of foggy humidity and dizzying passages of Gothic organ.

Shadow builds layers from his unearthed elements, reconfiguring or obscuring sampled works to conform to the whims of a piece, never allowing familiarity to distract from the collaborative nature of the whole. Shifts in tone and milieu are signaled by a bout of record scratching or vocal excerpt, subtle enough to be a suggestion or jarringly edited to provoke a vulgar, tectonic shift. Oral passages initially feel opaque or incidental, but gradually reveal intent, expounding on a facet of the production process or cunningly emulating the beat's progression (i.e. "Now approaching midnight" is minced to mirror the tick of an alarm clock). Beats themselves are often exposed at their most basic before being ruptured and broken into shudders and stumbles, exhibiting a sound from all angles, drawing the listener into the experience of hearing and examining music unconventionally. Though the pairings seem incongruous, often intentionally, all roads and sound marriages lead back to the first movement, which foreshadows the cyclical nature of each respective piece. Creating structural continuity without sonic uniformity makes for a cohesive work free from redundancy, capable of nestling a multitude of genres and concepts beneath the same blanket.

Soldering together jittery bits of drill 'n' bass and jazz percussion, "The Number Song" counts up to five before folding into a high-wire, nervy drum solo and influx of low-frequency rumbles, droning perpetually behind a torrent of arithmomaniacal samples. "Just listen to this" repeats endlessly, boring a hole into your temporal lobe, further indoctrinated by the repetitive lull of indeterminate bass tones and shimmering scratch, wildly flailing between each earphone. A down-tempo shift is signaled by the Moon landing countdown and a busy bout of turntable work, if just for a moment, jostling back to full propulsion by way of fortuitous horn break and damaged soul vocal. Just as it seems to find a balance, settling from its caffeine high of rapid-fire sampling, the track doubles back to the intro and runs off the rails, squealing into isolated bits of clatter and crawling to a sludgy, stagnant glop of sound.

"Mutual Slump" shares this transient nature, but shifts gears erratically, anticipating the listener's gradual adjustment over the course of the composition. Bursting from beneath one of John Carpenter's direful dream transmissions, "Slump" is propelled by rollicking drum roll, urgent siren and twangy, bent guitar strum. As the beat steadies, tones clipped from Bjork's "Possibly Maybe" meet jazzy cymbal and the stoicism of monastic chanting. Furthering the solitary, isolated mood, the drum is separated from the other ingredients, extrapolating on the spacious, cavernous nature of the sound. Shadow once again brings the track back its origins, hitting the breaks and leaving behind the throbbing, tranquil nature of the primary intonation. A storm of primal scratching and resurgence of skittish drum is unleashed following a transmission of another kind, one that amusingly channels the American Dream via Xanadu's roller-skate kitsch.

The arrangement operates on a dream logic that pairs bits of sound and thought into cognitive, unified strands. It's sampling as psychological experiment, striking moods through seemingly unorganized ebbs and flows of sound, either as subtle as the hiss of a heat-rippled videotape or as harsh as the bleating of feverish, sweat-soaked saxophone. The constant shift can be unsettling and emotionally manipulative, as anxious as a Hitchcock set-piece or the slow ascent of a roller coaster just before hurtling down an endless chasm. Yet, this contrast elucidates the cerebral nature of the project, which is to expose the power and variety of sound and how each individual note strikes a different chord with the listener. Endtroducing..... functions on both mental and physical levels, manufacturing complex concertos to act as aural Rorschach test, varying between the serene and the turbulent.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

5. Dr. Octagon - Dr. Octagonecologyst

Signaling the end of populist hip-hop and shortsighted coastal rivalries, Dr. Octagonecologyst merged East Coast lyricism and West Coast experimentation, manufacturing an immersive, nebulous atmosphere built from the spare parts of splatter horror cinema, moody electronica and turntable work as staggering and vertiginous as a swarm of locusts. The hallucinatory effect of "Kool" Keith Thornton's oblique lyrical universe rivals the full-body assault of psychotropic drug use, vivid and transcendental in its ability to burnish a cartoon character (the eponymous Dr. Octagon) into a frighteningly misanthropic and palpable antithesis to literal-minded art.

Conceptually, Thornton intends to merge futurism with a base carnality, twisting unnatural, oft-vulgar word pairings into catchy snatches of technobabble. His speed varies in relation to the content, slow and lumbering when building tension and blisteringly quick when rifling off bits of jargon or playing games of free association ("Equator ex my chance to flex skills on Ampex"). A predilection for the illogical also imparts Keith's writing with a lively, adolescent humor, brimming with acid-tinged celebrity gibes ("gerbils for rectums, I'll break you off like Richard Gere") and a synesthete's perception of color. Transference between the author and his fictional counterpart has also allowed an obsessive hypochondria and boundless libido to dictate the direction of the narrative, resulting in an unsettling paranoia and compulsiveness that contradicts hip-hop's passion for inviolable fortitude.

Dr. Octagon's sexuality reflects the mechanical, impersonal nature of pornography, focusing on body parts solely for their carnal function or capacity for modification. References to circumcision, insertion and butt play abound, though the vagina is suspiciously left out of the festivities, that is, unless it's in relation to a yeast infection. This sexual arrested development seems to fit the character's proclivity for anti-social, brutish behavior, merging the compulsive recklessness of a lunatic and the rambunctiousness of a child.

"I'm Destructive" could have been scrawled on a bathroom wall by a hyperactive 10-year-old. Recoil in horror or chuckle in disbelief as Dr. Octagon revels in the mischief of feeding a baby a stick of Bubble Yum and decapitating a parakeet with a pair of scissors. Keith can't even help himself from snickering at some of the more absurd passages, cracking up at the utterance of "baboon with buffalo wings" during a lengthy stretch of tasteless zoophilia. Indulgent or not, these explicit illustrations are accessories to the performance and Keith has managed to impart nuance and ingenuity, morphing an archetypal horror villain into a three-dimensional character.

Constructing the laboratory for Keith's mad scientist, Dan the Automator (nee Dan Nakamura) repackages the clich├ęd bits of sci-fi cinema into brainwashing, tonal soundscapes. His propensity for Moog keyboard and live bass result in chilly, nocturnal grooves replete with disembodied screams of pleasure and pain and indecipherable electronic whirr. Looped tones and zombified keys lie behind Keith's vocals like an airy breath of wind, as textural and wrapped in all-encompassing echo as the ambient work of Tetsu Inoue, but frequently broken free from the shell of repetition for aerobic blasts of drum machine and piquant touches of industrial clatter. It's the startling nature of these shifts in pace that spawns an overwhelming uneasiness, evoking images of darkened hallways and menacing prowlers.

"Blue Flowers" gurgles like stomach acid, churning through waves of coiled synth and lurking bass pluck, subtly contrasted in pitch by a violin passage on pins and needles. The chipped funk lick is brusque enough to be a suggestion, as are the cadaverous, indiscernible backing vocals, which waver between speakers and fade out like a lost radio transmission. Keith's vocals are just as cryptic and at a glacial pace, but far less delicate, marrying medical fetishism with a psychopath's delusions of grandeur. Aligning his experiments to a religious rite and mirroring the dehumanizing viciousness of the Schutzstaffel, Dr. Octagon's procedures befit his lust for power and sexual dominance, often resulting in regurgitated bodily fluids, accidental organ removal and streams of yellow rain.

Maintaining the nauseating leitmotif, DJ Qbert consummates the track with an unsettling segue of record evisceration, dizzying in its rapid-fire sonic depiction of tortured squeals and death rattles. The result is asymmetrical and divisive, nearly as provocative as the lyrical content, striking a rather uncomfortable balance between B-movie camp and shocking, sexualized violence. It's a corrupt concept, morally speaking, but artistically fruitful, particularly in the "magical realism" of transporting vivid depictions of murder and degradation into a world that was secure in making vague implications. It's through this disparity that Dr. Octagonecologyst transcends the alter-ego side project and gallantry of comic books and becomes dangerous, transgressive art.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

6. Ghostface Killah - Supreme Clientele

Entrancing on the surface and rife with meaning just beneath, Dennis Coles crafts flavorful vignettes of meticulous detail, so consumed with the minutiae of gang life and the flavor of a hot meal that he compels his listeners to hear the clap of each gun shot and burn their lips on piping hot Ziti. The veracity of his street tales made him a standout in the sprawling Wu-Tang Clan collective in the 1990s, but his early work seemed restricted by the group setting, begging for the freedom of a three-dimensional solo effort. Though 1996's Ironman gave him room to breathe, it never possessed a singular vision, one that would define Ghostface Killah (Cole's alter ego) as an artist outside of the shadow of the Wu empire. Luckily, patience and hard work provided Ghost with a second opportunity to separate himself from the pack and his seminal sophomore effort, Supreme Clientele, manages to capture his abundance of raw talent, delicately balanced with an ability to self edit and a renewed sense of compassion. It's an enlightened and sophisticated work of art, painstakingly precise in its passion for language and triumphant in its separation from the superficiality of turn-of-the-century avarice.

Ghostface's delivery is a nimble stream of rhyming suffixes, punctuated with a colorful specificity and decorative nuance, built for both narrative and linguistic gamesmanship. It's a foreign and endless stream of food buzzwords and street crime colloquialisms upon discovery, but as a relationship develops, themes begin to unfurl, particularly in the newly-cultivated political bent and sentimentality. Investigating the dense and dazzling "Mighty Healthy" reveals an incisive analysis of racism, particularly in the ability of prejudice to morph a culture into its antithesis. Dispelling rumors that the black community is "immune" to the oppression surrounding them, Ghost takes aim at the malnourished, drug-addled stereotype masquerading as the visage of black America and urges an intellectual awakening.

The shrewd observations and invigorated confidence have even seeped into his moments of whimsy, resulting in "The Grain": a splendid satire of celebrity, replete with ice-adorned Pope John Paul II and passionate Vanna White make-out-session. While a Whopper-eating, horny "Queen Mum" may step far beyond the boundaries of good taste, paralleling Malcolm X and John F. Kennedy's assassinations and correlating sleep to the placement of a hyphen are the kind of epigrammatic writing choices that outweigh lapses in judgment, barring the far-too-frequent dalliances with homophobia. Thankfully, the artist is capable of seeing his own flaws and making amends, willingly leaving in a bit of botched dialogue here ("slaf-hash") or positively comparing himself to Boy George there, reflecting a humility developing alongside the artistic growth.

Overseeing the mixing and a lion's share of the production work, RZA broadens his scope to match Ghost's vision, but wisely maintains the cinematic atmosphere and low-tech grit of his oeuvre. Adorning the smoky rooms and rainy streets of Ghost's Gotham with shimmering horn and spectral music box, the body of sounds delicately walks the line between majestic and ghastly, tingling spines with each infernal echoed note and break. Sampled elements are noticeably brief, even rushed, toiling to keep pace with the furious vocal work, stranded as transitory shudders and gasps of wind instrument and girl-group chorus. "Stroke of Death" takes this penchant for brevity to its apogee, dragging a needle over the surface of a record for every solitary second of the track's length, resulting in a forcibly anti-commercial bit of agitation, almost liberating in its discomfort.

"Child's Play" also rides a single, indecipherable note ragged, but sets an altogether different mood, turning the high-pitched into placid and balancing out the rough edges with a dollop of George Jackson's rich, contemplative keys. A youthful, nostalgic tone is struck even before Ghost utters a syllable, captured in passing snippets of record scratch and half-heard 70's guitar lick. Lyrical passages occupy the space between pleasant reminiscence and lingering melancholy, as Ghostface goes out on a limb to divulge the focus of his youthful sexual desires, sparing none of the adolescent embarrassment that comes with reproductive maturity. Revealed in a matter-of-fact patter, wholly unashamed, Ghost's expounds on his carnal awakening, evoked by a brief glimpse of "Pretty Little Sally's" panties as she swayed back and forth on a swing-set. The image resonated deeply, resulting in virtuous moments of experimentation and aroused daydreaming, temporarily removing Ghost from his humble surroundings, if only in his mind.

Examining one's masturbatory habits is a foolhardy endeavor, but Ghostface's execution and honesty is strikingly moral, especially in the juxtaposition between the inculpability of young love and the accountability, disappointment and jealousy of adult relationships. His experiences are highly subjective and seen through rose-colored glasses, but his yearning is universal and, no matter the topic (politics, religion, culture), Ghost succeeds in taking a dialectic approach, seasoning his words with lived-in realism and sophisticated exposition. It's a refreshingly naked approach to a form far too interested in affectation and generality.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

7. J Dilla - Donuts

As an artist, James Yancey was more concerned with how sound is interpreted and how it affects mood than with his audience making a direct connection between his samples and their source material. Unlike the cultural collaboration of mash-up and its ironic pretense, Donuts is all cerebral exercise, emphasizing and expounding upon the commonplace just before stripping it of meaning and origin. Freed of context, individual sounds, even the most distinguishable, become pieces of a new framework, one sophisticated enough to satirize the old guard on one hand, while celebrating its influence on the other.

The sheer technical wizardry and innovation, evident in Yancey's ability to transform simple elements into knotty concertos, are enough to make Donuts memorable as beat tape, but his genius lies in the ability to convey compassion without lyrical accompaniment. Moments of profound warmth lurk beneath the layers of twitchy drum and disorienting vocals, providing an emotional connection between performer and audience in defiance of the intentionally shrouded meaning and subliminal use of samples. It's personal, surprisingly sweet and occasionally rather forceful, reflecting a clear vision and vulnerability uncommon for hip-hop producers, even at their most progressive. The fact that it was recorded from a hospital bed by a terminally ill man only adds to the bittersweet finality of the work, which feels like a sketch book of everything Yancey wanted to say in his life, but never had the chance.

Essentially a collection of shorts, some built to accommodate a vocalist, others too anxious to exist anywhere else, Donuts is a ceaselessly ascending and descending smattering of half thoughts, joyous and free in its state of impatient flailing. Breaks and loops are awkwardly yanked from their homes and placed in stark contrast to the tempo, resulting in a disorienting garble of words and a limping drum fidget. Vocal sounds, once so full of vigor and pomp, have been transformed into befuddled nonsense, perverted as a drunken wobble far removed from their intended physicality. Using sampling as a vehicle for satire, J Dilla (Yancey's nom de plume) has playfully sapped hip-hop and R&B of their potency, mutating proclamations of brute force and sexual proclivity into desperate whimpers and flatulent grumbles.

"The Twister (Huh, What)" is a hand grenade thrown into the church of hip-hop posturing, subversively reorganizing threatening chants of "huh" and "what" into a mine field of horrifying siren and indecipherable, adolescent wail. Stranding the vocals in a pile of sound rubble and draining them of their passion creates a concussed confusion, far removed from rap's customary confidence and narcissism, crippled by the overwhelming sonic punishment. It's a startlingly effective protest against mediocrity, stern and straight-faced enough to make the epilogue of "One Eleven" come as a bona-fide shock. In a moment that's both victorious and a bit self-congratulatory, Dilla decides to follow his diatribe with the essence of what he was fighting against, the soul-inflected, hook-laden banality that his targets produce in bulk. Though initially off-putting, it's a perfect bit of irony from an artist having his cake and eating it too, pointing a finger at a formula mere seconds before taking a stab at it.

However noble creating art as a means of critiquing art may be, Yancey realizes that a personal connection always outweighs ideological regard and builds resonance through self-revelation. "Time: The Donut of the Heart" is his most candid moment, awash in warm guitar and cloaked vocal warbling, imbued with yearning for a lover left behind, beautifully evoked through a slowed tempo and wave of orgasmic moans. Its eroticism is unabashed, but never lurid, and there's an unequivocal honesty to the catharsis that never feels calculated, as if it couldn't be left unsaid. Donuts is brimming with these urgent moments of confession, forced into an endless loop and rattled off at full tilt by an artist unwilling to take a fountain of brilliant ideas to the grave.