Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Is the ''one rapper/one producer'' hip-hop album on its way back?

Late last year, amongst the numerous attempts to summarise the decade before it ran out of road, one piece by Simon Reynolds on the Guardian’s music blog seemed to generate quite a bit of ire, as was perhaps to be expected of something decorated with the headline “When will hip-hop hurry up and die?” Echoing an earlier article in The New Yorker by Sasha Frere-Jones, Reynolds snottily attempted to wave away almost the entire decade, largely on the grounds that hip-hop had, in his eyes, floundered in its duty to pursue The New as an end in itself. Why he then flagged J-Kwon’s Tipsy – a Sainsbury’s Basics hip-pop knock-off of Grindin’ by The Clipse – as one of the decade’s high-water marks is all a matter of taste, I suppose, but it’s still a funny way to try and make an argument in favour of “more surprises…in terms of sound and style”.

In a later column, Reynolds went on to suggest that the widespread critical praise for Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt II (Time magazine called it the rap album of 2009) was somehow further evidence of the backward-facing creative stasis afflicting the music. Since the slender possibility of Reynolds paying much attention to anything rap-related this year is only likely to be matched by the increasing irrelevance of his disconnected musings, I'll say no more about him. The obsession some people have with The New above all else can be a bit tiresome, rather like the insistence that music should be “challenging”, “difficult” or “confrontational”. Personally, I’m happy enough for it just to be good, and to sound as though a bit of love and consideration has gone into it. If it also happens to sound like nothing I’ve ever heard before in my life, then so much the better, but that’s hardly a deal-breaker. After all, there’s a lot to be said for making sure you’ve got the fundamentals right, and three forthcoming rap releases suggest that, in some quarters, the creative focus could be returning to those very things.



A year or so ago, writing about Jake One’s album White Van Music, I hinted that a full-length collaboration with Freeway could be in the offing. Well, it’s finally here. The Stimulus Package is released in the US by Rhymesayers Entertainment two weeks from today (in an incredibly lavish package by Brent Rollins of Ego Trip fame/notoriety) and the pair’s buckshee mixtape from late last year, The Beat Made Me Do It, is still floating around as well. The latter is a good, solid listen – proper meat-and-potatoes rhyming over a grip of sample-heavy 80s r&b-flavoured beats, not too far removed from the boogie/modern soul flavour of Jake’s excellent A-R Music mixtape from a few years back. Whether or not The Stimulus Package follows a similar direction remains to be seen, but early reports are all positive. In any event, it appears Free has managed to put all that messy Roc/State Property business behind him and has adopted a Stakhanovite work ethic that’s resulted in some great music, especially over the last year or so. However, the anticipation this time around lies in hearing one great rapper vibing off one great producer, a combo that’s become increasingly rare in hip-hop. The age of guest-list rap albums with a multitude of names behind both the board and the mic may have helped disguise the comparative absence of strong, compelling personalities in hip-hop nowadays, but it’s also resulted in artist albums sounding like mixtapes, often lacking a clear or cohesive musical direction. How much this has to do with a shift in emphasis back towards rap’s roots as a singles-driven medium is anyone’s guess, but the way I see it is this; if you’re going to make an album, then make it sound like an album – something that can be listened to from end-to-end. Amidst the perpetual debate over whether old-school musical values are something to be cherished and maintained within hip-hop, or whether it’s all about looking forward and on-to-the-next-one, it’s easy to forget that the former approach resulted in some genuine classics, and there’s no real reason to believe it couldn’t do so again.



You get the feeling David Banner would agree. His forthcoming album, Death Of A Pop Star, also adopts the “one rapper/one producer” method, although it might surprise some people to learn that the Mississippi maverick (no mug as a producer himself) has stepped back from the board and brought in 9th Wonder to take care of the beats. Needless to say, this has resulted in some outrage amongst the hair-shirted “four elements” Taliban for whom 9th is something of a hero, one commenter on Nah Right even suggesting that the collaboration “might be the worst idea in music history”. Amusing as it is to observe the reaction when it dawns on a certain strain of rap fan that their heroes don’t necessarily share the same tastes as them, collaborations between performers with seemingly little in common are still fairly unusual. That said, from Crooked Lettaz onwards, Banner’s never been afraid to make room for thoughtful lyricism and musical diversity alongside “throw dem bows” raucousness, so perhaps this isn’t as awkward a fit as some are suggesting. Death Of A Pop Star’s broader concept is somewhat vague at this point, but for anybody seeking clues, Banner can be found most days enthusiastically talking up the project on his Twitter feed. There are also a couple of teaser/trailer-type things on YouTube, one of which (see above) shows the two of them, dressed buppie-style, playing chess in the library of some country pile. It looks a bit Ron Burgundy – “I have many leather-bound books, and my apartment smells of rich mahogany” – and a teeny bit pretentious, but at least they’re making an effort. Certainly, on the evidence of the freshly leaked Slow Down and last year’s Something’s Wrong, there’s a distinct whiff of “grown-ass man rap” about the proceedings, which should bring a bit of much-needed balance to the hip-hop landscape. 9th’s beats are typically chocka with reconfigured soul samples, while Banner delivers the “I don’t know what this world is coming to” subject matter in characteristically declamatory fashion. Not sure quite when it’s out - there was talk of the pair making it available for free, but Banner has since poured water on this. However, he's offering fans and bedroom producers the chances to remix tracks from the album, the best of which will feature on a freebie remix album later in the year. All in all, this is looking like one to catch.



If these two albums do indeed represent a trend of sorts, then by rights Just Blaze and Saigon ought to have been at least 18 months ahead of it. When Just signed Saigon to his Fort Knocks imprint in 2005, it was on the back of probably the most impressive street buzz for a New York rapper since 50 Cent. Coming from more or less the same part of Jamaica, Queens as Fiddy, Saigon had also spent more than a little time on the corner and in the nick, but rather than choose the self-mythologising route favoured by Fiddy, Sai saw an opportunity to position himself as a somewhat more conscious, but no less uncompromising Yin to Fiddy’s Yang. A few enthusiastically received mixtapes (the high-points from which were later compiled on the Warning Shots album) and a short stint playing a West Coast version of himself in Season 2 of HBO’s Entourage saw both the momentum and the profile building nicely. Fort Knocks had signed a label deal with Atlantic, and Sai’s first single - the rowdy, J. Geils-sampling Come On Baby - came out in the spring of 2007. Jay-Z’s guest verse on the remix was seen in some quarters almost as an endorsement of an emcee many saw as being capable of putting New York City back at the centre of the rap universe, and Sai’s Just Blaze-produced debut album, The Greatest Story Never Told, was scheduled for release later that year. Only it never happened. What happened instead was a salutary lesson in Industry Rule #4080 – postponement followed postponement, Sai began to use his MySpace blog to rail against the record biz politics that had stalled his career (he even announced, then quickly withdrew, plans to quit music altogether at one point), and sundry internet wiseacres began to snarkily refer to the album as “the Chinese Democracy of hip-hop”. Eventually, and just before the release of a second single (the glorious (Gotta) Believe It, above), Just managed to extricate Fort Knocks from its Atlantic deal, taking the masters of Sai’s now somewhat ironically titled album with him. A new deal was said to be in the offing. This was mid-2008, and although one or two cuts from The Greatest Story Never Told have since turned up on mixtapes, the album itself has yet to see daylight.

Miraculously, though, neither has it leaked, and if the latest release date – a somewhat vague “first quarter 2010” – is to be trusted, Just and Sai may actually find themselves bang on trend. Music is one of those fields of endeavour where leading the pack may not always be beneficial. History is littered with tales of innovators who were too far ahead of their time, or of trendsetting performers who had to wait years for the rest of the world to catch up, but perhaps the sight of three rapper’s rappers and three producer’s producers (rather than one of each) all purposefully moving in a similar direction will encourage a few more people to follow.

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