Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Cocaine 80s are the best band in the world (this month).

Nowhere in the 2012 best-of round-ups could you have found even the mildest suggestion that the universal acclaim heaped upon Channel Orange may have been just a little bit for the backstory as for the music. I liked it, although not as much as some people, and possibly not even as much as I liked 2011's Nostalgia, Ultra. In any event, it was frustrating for me personally to observe the way that black pop music which was at least as interesting, if not more so, than Frank (or the equally effusively-praised Abel Tesfaye p/k/a The Weeknd) was being largely ignored amidst an apparent rush amongst commentators eager to assert their impeccable liberal credentials by endorsing a black r&b singer who might or might not be gay. Speaking of which, you'd think it might have occurred to a few more people to ask Rahsaan Patterson what he thought of all this?

I have my suspicions that the concept for Cocaine 80s may have arisen from, of all things, No ID's production gig on ex-Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft's most recent solo album United Nations of Sound, a couple of years back. As hook-ups go, it wasn't an obvious one; the man Kanye West has described as a mentor, responsible for a bunch of the most notable hip-hop tunes of the last two decades, and rock's leading Cosmic Woolyback. Despite the album being Ashcroft's least successful to date, it does seem to have had the side benefit of encouraging No ID's more experimental instincts. Certainly, both projects appear to involve a number of the same musicians, with guitarist Steve Wyreman's contribution being particularly outstanding. Otherwise it's multi-platinum singer-songwriter James Fauntleroy doing the singing and songwriting instead of Mad Richard, with vocal support from Makeba Riddick and, on their latest The Flower Of Life, the excellent Jhene Aiko. It's been spun as a Common project in some quarters, but it really isn't. If anything, Com seems unusually content just to play his position here (as does Nas on Chainglow), and his contributions are probably the most vital he's made to anything in quite some time.

It seems to me that the original five-word pitch might have been indie-rock/r&b/rap fusion, which admittedly sounds horrifying on paper. Yet, instead of the usual Mr. Potatohead shit you often get with things of this nature, everything's actually in the right proportion for a change. The writing's imaginative and a bit unpredictable, instead of the tedious four-chord looping Coldplay knock-offs that many rap/r&b acts fall into when they want to invoke a stadium rock vibe. Even the standard lyrical tropes sound fresher simply for being placed in a different musical context. I've actually been wanting someone to do something like this for a few years now - at least since Lewis Taylor went off the grid.

Cocaine 80s debuted with zero fuss whatsoever somewhere around June 2011 with The Pursuit EP, thus making them roughly contemporaneous to Frank Ocean's emergence with Nostalgia, Ultra, give or take a few months. Three EPs and plenty of accumulated word-of-mouth later, there's a little more weight lent to my belief that they're representative of how black artists have begun to draw upon a much broader palette than they might perhaps have done a decade ago. Back in the early 00s, performers like Anthony Hamilton appeared to be the ones swimming against the tide and the prevailing trends, even if they were still essentially traditionalists. Now there's suddenly more artists coming from a loosely similar angle, where the song is still central, but who along the way are drawing in strands from Radiohead, Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, Cocteau Twins, Elliott Smith and all kinds of strange textural shit that people wouldn't normally expect to hear referenced in black pop. And it works.

You can download all four EPs here, and you should.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Female rap beef is outta control

Rap beef has always possessed a kind of WWE quality by definition, but there's something rather dispiriting about the way in which dis wars between female performers tend to get hyped up that little bit more, as if the likes of beef-seeking-missile Azealia Banks and net-celeb femcee Angel Haze are only really interesting when they're pulling each other's metaphorical weaves out. Even supposedly liberal, left-leaning publications like the Guardian can't resist a good old-fashioned cat fight, it seems.

Of all the female rappers to have emerged over the last couple of years, Azealia Banks is one of the most intriguing. Unlike certain of her peers, who've sought validation via co-signs from established male performers or somewhat unreliable internet buzz, she's blessed with a strongly individualistic streak. She seems determined that she'll be the one to dictate the terms upon which she'll stand or fall, whether that be via all the “Little Mermaid in the hood” imagery or by choosing to rhyme on tracky house beats or over twitchy, Warp-inspired electronics, rather than voguish Lex Luger knock-offs or the obligatory Mike Will beat. All of which makes her propensity towards bouts of public bickering with the (often inferior) competition seem that much more bewildering.

But perhaps a more worthwhile question might be; in the already hyper-competitive world of hip-hop, how come female rappers generally exhibit a more alarming level of open aggression towards their peers than even their male counterparts? Never mind that it plays up to every lazy stereotype you've ever heard about some women being more anti-woman than even the most avowed misogynist. It sometimes seems as if there's a compulsion to view all other female emcees as threats to be torn down at every opportunity. I say “sometimes”, because it's worth pointing out that this applies much more readily to US performers than their British equivalents, who are models of virtuous, supportive sisterhood in comparison.

Perhaps it's because they've noticed that the industry at large only seems prepared to accommodate one successful female rapper at any one time. It's a little like the one-in,one-out situation with reggae acts. After all, how many people can name more than one currently active, internationally successful reggae act with widespread name recognition? I'll give you Sean Paul as a starter, but after that I'll bet that anyone else you name either isn't really that big, is in decline or is dead. But I digress.

There's a widely-held perception that, rightly or wrongly, rap's core audience simply isn't interested in female rappers. Consequently the industry will only seriously invest in either the most extraordinarily talented (Missy) or the ones with a strong image, preferably one which is highly sexualised (Lil' Kim). Occasionally, there's a striking confluence of both skills and image (Nicki and Azealia), but for the rest of the pack all that remains is a frantic scramble to get through the door before it slams shut. A big part of that scramble involves a ruthless trashing of the competition along the way, and so we end up perpetually witnessing something like the closing scene of Blue Collar, only with Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor replaced by a parade of rappers with two X chromosomes. Which, at its worst and most spiteful, manifests itself in the kind of smack-talk that involves a black woman making sideways remarks about another black woman's skintone. In the words of Jeru, ain't the devil happy.