Gas break honk. Honk honk punch. Gas gas gas: Screw Rock 'n' Roll Top 69 Singles of 2006, Nos. 6-10
I remember the first time I heard of hyphy. It was the chilly morning of September 18 2004, the second day I woke up in America, and the first day I woke up in Washington state. I was staying in a hotel called the Val-U-Inn, which sounds cheap and nasty, but was actually just cheap and unexceptional. The previous night had been crazy; I missed my flight and missed the opportunity to check into my actual apartment, so the Val-U-Inn was my only option to not sleep in a Fred Meyer parking lot, and one that I gladly took. So, on this morning I was feeling pretty optimistic, if slightly trepidatious; I'd eaten a big stack of American pancakes for breakfast, had read the New York Times and drunk copious amounts of coffee (seriously, is there a better way to start a morning?) and was all ready to get to know my new home, though so far it had seemed to be only confusing, cold and cloudy. So I was up in my hotel room, ironing my clothes for the day, and watching MTV, because at that time, American television was the most incredibly amazing thing in the world, and I wanted to absorb as much of it as possible. MTV was showing a program about regional hip hop — probably My Block, though I can't be certain — and I was half seriously thinking about checking into the hotel for another night just so I could watch the whole thing. Hip hop and American geography are two of my favorite things, and hours of television devoted to the best combination of those two things was like a dream come true. So after an introduction to Atlanta's crunk music, which I already knew plenty about, but did not at all mind discovering more, MTV went over to Northern California to discuss something utterly alien: hyphy. A bunch of rappers I'd never heard of told the camera various things about the music, mostly that it was their version of crunk, and they played snippets of songs, but I had no chance to really understand what was going on. Ordinarily I would have noted down some names and started researching, but I didn't even have a place to unpack my suitcase at the time, let alone an Internet connection. And as interested as I was in this heretofore unheard of music, there was an entire country full of stuff that was just as interesting and just as alien to me, and it quickly distracted me from any thoughts of Bay Area rap.
I completely forgot about hyphy for the next eighteen months, though I maintained the vague knowledge that round Oakland they listened to a weird form of hip hop that involved strange dancing and such. It wasn't until "Tell Me When to Go" came out that I was properly exposed to hyphy, and even then, I didn't actually recognize it.
It seems stupid now, but when I first heard "Tell Me When to Go," I didn't really pick it as anything particularly different. This was less than a year after the Ying Yang Twins released "Wait," and every second rapper was putting out sparse, minimalist derivatives of that song. "Tell Me When to Go" seemed like an unexceptional regurgitation long after regurgitations of "Wait" had ceased to be interesting. I'm not sure how I missed the distinct vocal styles of E-40 and Keak, the former's verbose eccentricities and the latter's raspy rattling. You can see my reaction here; I said that I liked the second half, where E-40 inducts the unfamiliar into hyphy culture, and that though "it will get old very quickly ... for now, the new twist on the excessively familiar is a whole lot of fun." Of course, it wasn't a new twist on the excessively familiar, and it didn't get old at all.
Once I started listening to more hyphy, I began seeing how weird "Tell Me When to Go" was. Rick Rock's battering productions made Lil' Jon's imitation of the same seem megalithic, not empty. Once nonsensical phrases like "Ghost ride the whip," "Gas, break dip," and "Put your stunna shades on" began to make sense. And the lyrics begun to seem like the untamed tangents they were rather than failed party chants. Hyphy ended up being a fascinating form of music, but for me the discovery of the genre was as enjoyable as the music.
Yes, terrible pun. I know.
9. Taking Back Sunday - MakeDamnSure
There's something quite admirable about a band that can make a great single that sounds like all their previous singles, but it's also rather unnerving. The best example from this year is Jimmy Eat World's marvellous but entirely unsurprising "Big Casino." A part of every music listener's mind loves hearing something they're familiar with (hence 40 year old bands that play greatest hits tours), and hearing a band that makes a new song that sounds like all their other songs, and is still just as enjoyable as their other songs, is particularly gratifying. But it also comes with the uneasy knowledge that the group appears to be settling into a rut, and there's a part of every music listener's mind that knows that when bands settle into ruts they get progressively worse until they devolve into the Rolling Stones.
"MakeDamnSure" is a great song, tightly coiled and cathartic, with a soaring chorus and flawless execution. It ranks with "Cute Without the E (Cut from the Team)," "There's No "I" in Team" and "One-Eighty By Summer" amongst Taking Back Sunday's best work. But it sounds so easy, like Taking Back Sunday write great songs that sound exactly like this every night of their lives, and as every economist will tell you, the value of a resource is dependent on its scarcity. (Uh, and also its demand, perhaps, but let's not let economists have too much control over music criticism.) "MakeDamnSure" is everything I love about Taking Back Sunday, but I hope the band's fourth album sounds nothing like this song. Even better than a great new song that sounds familiar is a great new song that you never expected. And fourth albums are usually the time bands look at exploring those new territories (I could write a whole entry on this, but as a quick argument: The Unforgettable Fire, Adore, Kid A, etc. etc.)
Rick Ross. A big beard, a big gut, big organ swells. From Miami, money soaked, rain soaked city, Southern but not Southern. Hurricanes, Scarface, art deco buildings. It's a great story undone by the fact that Ross is a lousy rapper, but that doesn't stop "Hustlin'" from being a great record. It's the best delivery I've ever heard from Mr. Ralph Wiggum of rap, and the best performance as well. I could overlook Ross' poor rapping if he had the swagger, but he too often fails to be convincing or talented. In "Hustlin'," however, he's sneeringly confident, Tony Montana at his peak. It doesn't even matter that he rhymes "Atlantic" with "Atlantic," because when he does it, he sounds like he's hammering his point home; the extent of his distribution is international, whether explained in terms of geography or international commerce. When Ross released Port of Miami he said he wanted to make a classic. The best, and worst, thing about "Hustlin'" is that it suggests he may actually have been able to do it.
"Hey, my name's Malik. And Killer Mike's my dad. If you don't like what he's saying, so what? That's life!" And so begins Killer Mike's marvellous spray against "Oprah, Bill — Clinton, Cosby — anybody!" He's more insightful than Common, more entertaining than Dead Prez and funnier and more furious than damn near anyone in the rap game today you could care to name. And who gives a fuck if he goes straight back to rapping about slanging coke? He's already done enough with this song.
It isn't that he says the right things, it's the way he says them. He turns hood populism into a stump speech, connecting the dots, in the best way possible, between politician and rapper. His arguments aren't all good ones — and some are pretty suspect — but his conviction more than makes up for that. Whether he's Martin Luther King or P.T. Barnum is irrelevent.
Of the Killers' Sam's Town, the New York Times' Sia Michel wrote "It's an interesting time to re-examine the mythical West, as it transforms into a land of button-down exurbs. But Mr. Flower's purple lyrics tell us nothing about the region, or what it really feels like to live in a dream-killing ''two-star town.''"
That's a valid criticism. The idea she pitches is an interesting record, and if the Killers had made it, I'd find it a fascinating project. Perhaps that is why Sam's Town doesn't work as a record. But, even if "When You Were Young" is a song based on myth rather than reportage, it remains compelling and beautiful, the equal to the Springsteen songs it tries to emulate.
Springsteen has said that he was inspired from movie narratives when he wrote Born to Run, and that's what makes me like some Springsteen tracks, but also what makes me hate others; they all sound like they are describing characters in a movie, not real people. "When We Were Young," does sound like it's describing a movie, but it sounds like a movie as described by someone who only knows that movie as it has been described by Springsteen songs. It sounds like someone reaching to old rock 'n' roll to describe their life, rather than old movies, and that's something I can relate to. When Flowers sings of a girl imagining someone who "talked like a gentlemen," is he talking about a woman whose pre-teen fantasy was George Michael? When he sings "We're burning down the highway skyline on the back of a hurricane," is he talking about driving in his dad's Camry down the Las Vegas strip? The song would be more compelling if that tension was made more clear, but even if it's not explicit, I still get the feeling that Flowers is trying to find the mythlogy in the "button-down exurbs." That he goes to the extent of excising the button-down exurbs from their mythology is testament to his effort, but also symbolic of his failure. But there's the appeal: how do you talk about the wild west when you grew up in a tamed Las Vegas?
Labels: Top 69 Singles 2006