Thursday, 6 December 2012

Rolling Stone stays failing.

A$AP Rocky, a leading scourge of get-off-my-lawn rap

Regular readers, if there were ever any, may by now have worked out the main reasons I still post at all on here. The first of these is when I'm struck by a wave of guilt over the fact that I don't actually write enough and am letting my innate laziness get the better of me. The other is when I get tired of wondering whether a better, more eloquent writer than myself is going to state something that's plainly fucking obvious (or obvious to me, at least), leaving me with no choice but to say it myself or go slightly mad with frustration.

Rolling Stone has just published its list of the 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs Of All Time. Before moving on to the meat-and-potatoes of the whole thing, let me quickly point out that it's one of those shitty, cynically-formatted click-bait features that are becoming more and more common nowadays (hi, Complex!) and which feel like part of a massive conspiracy to waste everyone's time. But since people are no longer prepared to do anything so d├ęclasse as...oh, I dunno, support the creators of physical media for which they pay once and can then read at their leisure at no further cost, then the subtext here would seem to be; eat those data charges and STFU like Sean Price.

And so, to the main event. The judging panel for this glorious exercise consisted of a broad selection of the great and good from the rap game, an assortment of hacks and a few randoms like Tom Morello and Vernon Reid, all of whom were asked to pick their favourites. Right now, elsewhere on teh internets, there is probably some over-earnest rap blogger twisting himself (it's always a "he") into a blind rage over the exclusion of deadprez, Immortal Technique or Lupe Fiasco, whilst wondering how it's possible that Talib Kweli would attach himself to a "greatest ever" list that makes room for Jay-Z (twice), Kanye and Missy. As it happens, I have few issues with the actual content itself. Taken as an arbitrary list of 50 great rap songs, rather than the definitive 50 Greatest Of All Time, there's not an awful lot on there that I'd argue against. On the other hand, the guiding principles behind it (or what I imagine them to be) are absolute fucking cocksnot – cosy, easily digestible rap nostalgia, lazy list-based journalism, and rock-crit values attempting to impose themselves on rap. Again.

To be honest, I've given up all hope of the rock press and its associated critical community ever managing to deal with rap on its own terms. You may as well try juggling smoke. Here’s what I mean. Take a random sample of English-language music publications from the last 10/15 years, possibly longer, and I'd bet large on at least half of them regularly defaulting to Public Enemy as the artistic yardstick whenever they cover hip-hop; "[rapper x] channels the spirit of Public Enemy", "[rapper y] will have the listener yearning for some of Public Enemy's righteous anger", et-fucking-cee. It won't matter a tuppenny fuck who they're writing about, and it's still happening. Now, try to imagine almost every review of a rock record you ever read trying to tell you it wasn't as good as Exile On Main Street. For clarity’s sake, Public Enemy are responsible for some of the greatest, most exciting music I've ever heard, but it's like this - they haven't made a truly great album in over twenty years. Public Enemy fell the fuck off ages ago. People might not like hearing it, and I don't particularly like saying it. But it's true.

Why should it matter, though? Who cares about the collective opinion of a bunch of people who'd probably insist that rap's been struggling against a long slide into irrelevance ever since PE failed to top Fear Of A Black Planet, as they make yet another drearily obvious attempt to establish A Canon, to re-order and re-shape rap into what they think it ought to be instead of accepting it for what it is? After all, they can comfortably tell you where rap was at twenty or even thirty years ago, but I wonder whether they'd have too much of a clue about where it's at now. I mean, doesn't anyone else think it funny that all these people seem to agree that the definitive high-water mark of the genre happens to be the exact point where the rock press finally declared that, yes, it might actually be possible for rap music to be more than just a craze, perhaps even something that could exist on the same plane of artistic worth as rock? And that that point was in 1982?

Which brings us to the rappers. Now, I'm not even remotely inclined to give them the same hard time I'd give the hacks. These are people who grew up on rap music, who lived and breathed it and, for the most part, continue to live and breathe it. Anybody who follows Dante Ross or ?uesto on Twitter can tell you that those two guys alone are on some super-heavyweight rap nerd shit - matter of fact, the latter's preamble might be the most worthwhile and entertaining thing about this whole shitshow. But I look at that list and factor in the age of all the rap dudes involved, and balance that with the strong likelihood that certain of the songs have vast nostalgic appeal that perhaps outweighs the usual consensus notions of “greatness”, and I still think, “Really..?” A bunch of rappers – this bunch of rappers - think Juicy is better than Hypnotize? Or that Paid In Full is better than I Know You Got Soul, and Strictly Business better than It's My Thing? They think – and this is really fucking suspect - the Jay tune that UGK got on is better than any other UGK record? Or any other Jay record, for that matter?

Although I doubt whether The Symphony or the remix of Flava In Ya Ear would be there at all without their input, I find it extremely hard to believe that the pros wouldn't have broader taste than this. Nah, this is something that has been skewed by a bunch of casual listeners who default to the same obvious choices every time and cannot fucking bear to deviate from the same rigid critical metric they've been pushing for the last three decades; the people who commission and occasionally write all those ridiculous “[X] Albums For People Who Don't Know Anything About Hip-Hop” pieces about a form of music that's existed on record for over 30 years. Just think about that for a minute. Imagine someone writing a piece called “[X] Albums For People Who Don't Know Anything About Rock” - in 1986. Seriously, if you still need to be led by the hand through hip-hop in 2012, then perhaps it isn't for you. Likewise, when your value judgements suggest that you stopped seriously listening to rap about twenty years ago, then you really need to fall back from any debate regarding what's what, and leave the arguing to the people who still give an actual fuck about it. You're welcome.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

"Will he make it out alive..?"

It's long been a suspicion of mine that part of the reason more rappers and R&B performers choose not to come out is the fear that there'll never again be a point, certainly not in their professional lives, where they won't be expected to discuss their sexuality. It won't make a blind bit of difference whether their music is on some perpetual next shit or if it's landfill. From now on, for a significant part of the media, "who's Frank Ocean fucking?" is always going to be a bigger story than his music. This is pretty depressing.

All the same, this is a big deal whichever way you slice it. Added to which, if your area of business is an idiom where, generally speaking, notions of masculinity are far from fluid, then that's quite a risk you're taking there. It'll be interesting to see how things are looking a couple of albums from now, when we'll know the extent to which the current fuss has shaped Frank Ocean's career path. Right now, as you'd expect, there's no shortage of people ready to declare that this news means they're no longer able to listen to his music, seemingly without a thought for how irrational that might appear. Meanwhile, Chris Brown.

Andrew Noz said something on Twitter that I thought was insightful, but for some reason he chose to delete it a couple of minutes later. I wouldn't want it to get lost in all the noise, though;  

"dude very carefully wrote about a complicated experience only to have it immediately reduced to a soundbite."

Frank's tumblr post is a nice bit of writing, after all, apart from being something of a cultural watershed. But that little observation from Noz also raises the issue of what our reactions, and those of the media, might be saying about us. I think it's perfectly possible to separate the art from the artist; you just have to want to do it. And unless Frank Ocean chooses to be gender-specific, I don't see where the issue is. I don't remember anybody being too bothered by this, and it's clear as fucking day what it's about now...

Speaking of which, isn't it funny who's turned out to be the first rap crew with an actively progressive attitude towards sexual orientation?

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Unsolicted Plug X MeMeMe Corner

Every now and again over the last couple of years, I've written the odd thing for The Arts Desk, a really rather good arts criticism portal. The most recent was a piece on Whitney Houston, but the whole lot can be found here in one handy little spot.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

" guess who's gonna take the blame for my big mouth..."

Noel Gallagher's political career in full. Suit c/o Paul Smith, champers c/o the taxpayer.

If you're a working class kid made good, the worst possible sin you can commit is to Forget Where You Came From. Being seen to betray the values that made you The Man/Woman You Are Today is simply not done. Indeed, cross that particular nexus and it requires a very generous reservoir of public goodwill if you're ever to be welcomed back into the affections of an audience who no longer see you as one of them, as the manifestation of their hopes, dreams or ambitions. I doubt Noel Gallagher has completely burned his bridges with his ''things were better under Thatcher'' grumblings in a recent interview for The Daily Blackshirt's website, but he probably hasn't done himself too many favours either.

Generally speaking, Noel Gallagher makes for an entertaining and often very funny interviewee. I'd certainly much rather read or hear what he has to say than listen to the last few Oasis albums, for example (although Don't Believe The Truth was alright). Now and again, however, his tendency to deal in absolutes has betrayed an unpleasant small-c conservative streak. His pronouncements on Jay-Z at Glastonbury were profoundly ignorant, especially coming from someone who, by his own admission, never went as a regular punter and never strayed beyond the VIP garrison when he was there as a performer. Here's a man who quite obviously doesn't trouble himself too much with actually knowing what he's talking about, as was borne out when Jay delivered a headlining performance significantly more dynamic than the "each half of the band static on opposite sides of the stage and Liam sat on the drum riser" model that served Oasis so well. And now here he goes again, peddling the line that "hard times = great art", proving in the process what a witless piece of received wisdom that is, particularly from the mouths of those too complacent to spend much time looking at the bigger picture.

‘Under Thatcher, who ruled us with an iron rod,’ he says, ‘great art was made. Amazing designers and musicians. Acid house was born. Very colourful and progressive.’ That may well be true, but how much of that was directly or actively encouraged by the Tories? Very fucking little, unsurprisingly. As acid house was slowly beginning to take hold in the late 80s, full grants for students in higher education were coming to an end. This would be the last generation able to enjoy the absolute freedom to bum around at poly or uni while they figured out what they wanted to do with their lives; spending their student years forming bands, making films, writing, running club nights, painting or dicking around with graphic design and fashion, getting leathered and occasionally studying are the kind of luxuries no longer available to most kids from similar backgrounds to Noel, whose parents would invariably have to take a second job nowadays just to help pay for the books. If they could find a second job. In any event, the Tories saw little worth for "business" in the humanities or arts-related courses generally, so they were more or less doomed from the start. In fact, an education with no measurable practical value was considered little more than a frippery. Strike one, therefore, against Thatcher for dealing a death blow to precisely the kind of academic and cultural environment that helped produce and nurture the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, etc., etc. Difficult to believe you'd seriously want to cosign that, Noel. Difficult to believe you'd even have a fucking career without one half of those bands, frankly.

What's that, Sooty? What about all the kids who were politicised during a decade of war, strikes, riots, civil disobedience and spending cuts, you say (and my, how things change)? Didn't they support and help produce exactly the kind of great art Noel's talking about, you ask? Well, Sooty, let me answer your question with another question - aren't they just examples of great art thriving in spite of the circumstances? If you were to look at some of the places from where hip-hop emerged during roughly the same period - areas of incredible deprivation, with block after derelict block burnt out and abandoned to the mercy of fuck-knows-what - you wouldn't seriously call for a return to that, just to give Flo-Rida a bit of a reality check, would you? Do a Google image search for pictures of, say, the South Bronx or Bushwick during the 1970s or 1980s, and you might be inclined to think we weren't that badly off in the UK at all, relatively speaking. Certainly there wasn't anything like the same level of grinding poverty that many are facing now. Remember also that, during the 80s, we weren't yet looking at a mortally-wounded welfare state. Rather, one that was being ever-so-subtly run into the ground, to the point where public confidence in things like healthcare, education and transport would eventually decline to such a low that widespread privatisation and the "freedom" it purported to represent would be welcomed with open arms. You could still just about get by on the dole as well, although there were few greater folk devils in the eyes of the Tories during the Thatcher years than "the dole scrounger", except perhaps Arthur Scargill (and maybe Purple Akie). I ought to add at this point that I was never actually out of work under Thatcher, apart from when I was in further/higher Ed - nice little irony there if you like that sort of thing. Anyway, my point is that, theoretically, there still existed the freedom to indulge your nascent musical ambitions (or get yourself an education) without having to blow out band practice for Jobstart meetings, but this was only because the Tories hadn't figured out a way to dismantle the welfare state any quicker than they were doing already. It's funny to hear so many modern Tories attempt to claim the resourcefulness people displayed during those straitened times as vindication of the entrepreneurial spirit they stood for. The truth is they'd have wiped it off the face of the earth in an instant if they could have got away with it.

By the start of the 90s, after Thatcher had been tossed under a bus by her own party following the Poll Tax Riots, you began to notice more and more homeless people on the streets, especially in London, and the politics of selfishness the Tories had worked so hard to engender were beginning to bear fruit. It wasn't long before the kind of political engagement that was a hallmark of the previous decade began to dissipate, to be replaced by tens of thousands of people protesting the freedom to run around derelict grain warehouses in Great Harwood of a Saturday night flapping their arms about like e-brained biffs, while "Mersey Docks & Harbour Board v. all the striking dockers" continued on in comparative obscurity. One must presume that Noel Gallagher was too preoccupied at this point with getting Oasis off the ground to notice that the Tories had introduced the Criminal Justice Bill in an attempt to hold a pillow over the face of what remained of the "colourful and progressive" acid house movement, and that nightclubs would soon be safe once more for people wearing leather trousers and fluffy bras (sometimes together) and supping champers in roped-off VIP areas. A few years later, he was pictured shaking hands with Tony Blair. That's about as political as he's ever got, either before or since.

But you know what? I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt. He isn't above talking some right bollocks, as he's proved, but on the whole I don't think Noel Gallagher is anything like that daft. I don't believe he'd cut the legs from under himself like this. I'm going to assume that this whole thing has been spun massively by the Daily Blackshirt in an attempt to validate the mean-spirited, thin-lipped bigotry they so vigorously cheerlead for, and to shore up their position in anticipation of when they're swamped by the inevitable tide of delight at Thatcher's passing. A pity they couldn't have found someone to stitch up who was a little more "current", to use the parlance of our times, but that's to be expected. Still, My Big Mouth, eh, Noel?

UPDATE: It appears that Noel was indeed tucked up by the Maim. I'll let him off with this, but he'll be relieved to know I haven't stripped him of his Services to Gobshitery award for declaring side two of Abbey Road to be shit in The Word a few months back. Straight red, that.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

It's been a long time.

I fancy talking about music again.

I always think I'm going to be interested to hear a new Madonna record right up until the very moment I actually hear it. It seemed much more natural for the Madonna of old to collaborate with whoever the young tyros of the moment happened to be, but when she's done it in recent times, as was the case with Timbaland and the Neptunes, it's been several years after everyone else. Not to mention several years later than is necessary in order to comfortably laugh off accusations that you're desperately reaching for some "Trendy Mum" cred-by-association.

The time when Madonna could legitimately claim to be an enabler for fringe/non-mainstream ideas and artists seeking a way into the mainstream - because there was such a time and it wasn't as long ago as you'd think either - seems sadly to have passed, and Give Me All Your Luvin does rather seem to mark that point. Neither MIA nor Nicki Minaj particularly need to hitch their respective wagons to her star in order to dent the popular consciousness. If anything, doing so here slightly diminishes them. They can't possibly say no, of course, but there's no question of them ever being treated as anything more than set decoration - the perception that Madonna's largesse will enable them to reach a potential audience of a billion via Give Me All Your Luvin's official premiere during the Superbowl is what's important here. Also, there seems little point in attempting to conjure up landmark pop-culture "moments" such as those that have marked recent Superbowls with a song as woefully thin as this, and if you're falling back on drug puns for album titles at this stage in your career (MDNA, for Jesus' sake), then you're officially Trying Too Hard.

This is the sort of thing that would sound a whole lot more arch coming from someone with less of a legitimate claim to proper "soul man" credentials than R. Kelly. That said, it's still somewhat true of When A Woman Loves - another of his recent genre exercises and a shameless homage to early Jackie Wilson - that, once you take a break from admiring the obvious craft and care that's gone into it, it's a little difficult not to think of the scene in Coming To America with Prince Akeem wandering through Queens singing To Be Loved while getting pelted with shit from the upper tenement windows. Which isn't to say it's not a good song; it is. But if D'Angelo's decided he'd rather be wandering around Europe doing David Bowie and Soundgarden covers, and with Raphael Saadiq every bit as likely to make a record that sounds like Tony Joe White as David Ruffin nowadays, then there's clearly still some sort of an opening for somebody who fancies themselves as The Throwback Guy.

I like the simplicity of this though. Even with Kells' insanely precise vocal production, it's still kind of direct and uncomplicated. I also like how he seems to have wound his neck in with all that "I'm your sexosaurus" codswallop for a few minutes. Obviously a big part of what has made him so compelling in the past are those moments where he combines immaculately crafted music with the most overtly sexual and often downright crass imagery imaginable. I mean, I really do struggle to picture a world in which some of the wilder shit Kells comes out with actually works, but I guess I'm just not that kind of guy. In the light of recent events, perhaps it's finally occurred to him that it might be a little unwise to cultivate an artistic persona which depicts you in an almost perpetual state of arousal. Or, at least, wiser to suggest that you're capable of taking a breather now and again.

I've heard others make the observation that Share My Love owes something to Barry White, but apart from the odd similarity when it comes to the phrasing, I'm not really hearing it. In most respects, it's a fairly regular Kells four-chorder, nowhere near as ornate or as rhythmically detailed as its likely equivalent in Barry's repertoire; if anything, it's just a step on (no pun intended) from something like 2007's Happy People. It's no less sweet for any of that, though. Its strength lies in just that comparative absence of fussiness that'd make it ideal raw material for an early-to-mid-90s-vintage Masters At Work treatment, complete with banging SP1200 drums and ridiculous Gene Perez triplets all over the place. Somebody needs to make that happen.