Q-Tip’s Amplified (2000)

Amplified

Album: Amplified
Artist: Q-Tip
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #48 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000,
My Favorite Songs: Wait Up, Breathe and Stop, Let’s Ride, N.T.
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (3.5/5), NME (8/10), Pitchfork (6.8/10), Robert Christgau (A)
My Grade: 87%

I’ll put it to you this way: if you’re hankering for a record featuring a shirtless black man on the cover from 2000, you’d be better off with D’Angelo’s Voodoo than Q-Tip’s Amplified. This is about the best means of comparison I can come up with considering I’m woefully behind on checking out A Tribe Called Quest’s discography. Ergo, it’s hard to see how Q-Tip’s solo debut stacks up next to earlier collaborative work with that group.

You can take this whole shirtless analogy even further. Q-Tip stands arms-outstretched on his record’s cover, adorned in a grandiose coat and flanked by his postmodern posse. D’Angelo may be chiseled and impressive but its just him staring at the camera. Both poses typify what’s found therein. Amplified is a social record, one to put on when you and your friends want to bop your head while Voodoo is much more subtle, confident and demanding pensive listening.

Enough with this shirtless thing though before anyone thinks I’ve developed some bizarre fixation. Amplified is a hell of a good time even if there isn’t much here that’ll knock you backward in the kind of reverence Q-Tip seems to have for himself on the cover. The keyboard work on here is the real star, followed closely by the fluid but still edged-out raps themselves. (How can you resist the rapper role call on “Let’s Ride” in particular?) Contained here are glitchy beats shift to keep you partying; the songs on here have names like “All In,” “Go Hard,” and “Do It” so what would you expect? And as far as parties go, this is a pretty fun one to attend even if the host’s a bit more cocksure than he should be. Korn may be there (“End of Time”) but so’s J Dilla (co-produced every track with Q-Tip besides “Do It” and “N.T.,” which were handled by DJ Scratch). Everything evens out.

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Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)

The Marshall Mathers LP

Album: The Marshall Mathers LP
Artist: Eminem
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #4 on The Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop Poll for 2000, #1 Album for Rolling Stone’s Top Ten Albums of 2000, #7 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: Stan, The Real Slim Shady, I’m Back
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (4/5), NME (9/10), Robert Christgau (A)
My Grade: 50%

I wish I could rate The Marshall Mathers LP higher but my conscience won’t allow it. Eminem’s verbal gymnastics, relentless catchiness and distinctive musicality here are all admirable. His talent was undeniable in 2000 and it’s undeniable now. But, to me, The Marshall Mathers LP has more in common with Mein Kampf than it does with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Despite its brilliance in plenty of other areas, its ethical bankruptcy is a dealbreaker for me.

It’s not even that I find Eminem to be sociopathic in general. His LP, The Eminem Show, is one of my favorite rap records since it manages to be witty and provocative without being horrifying. The difference between The Marshall Mathers LP and, for all intents and purposes, hip-hop in general is the difference between Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. The latter is filled with wit, self-awareness and honor-among-thieves while the former seems to only pry around for the worst parts of the human condition in an aesthetic act of sadomasochism. How anyone could listen to the vengeful nightmare “Kim” and think it satirical or less than mortifying is beyond me. The same goes for “Kill You,” with its Oedipal inclinations and murderous delusions.

I’m definitely in the minority here. The vast critical consensus weighed in favor of this release, perhaps because others are better at compartmentalizing the ethical features of art than I am. But, for me, this is a record whose homophobia, misogyny, violence, anger and mental illness outweighs any aesthetic value it possesses. It saddens me that a record which can be as clever (“The Real Slim Shady”), impressive and even poignant (“Stan”) as this one is darkened by such off-putting depravity.

OutKast’s Stankonia (2000)

Stankonia
Album:
Stankonia
Artist: OutKast
Year: 2000
Reason Featured: #1 Album on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll for 2000, #6 Album for Rolling Stone’s Top Ten Albums of 2000, #42 on NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000, Grammy Award for Best Rap Album
My Favorite Songs: Ms. Jackson, Spaghetti Junction, I’ll Call B4 I Cum, B.O.B.
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (4/5), NME (9/10), Robert Christgau (A)
My Grade: 93%

It’s funny writing about OutKast after their huge comeback. The fact they headlined nearly every major festival they played this year should serve as proof their dormancy post-Idlewild has been something of a hip-hop sleeping giant. There’s a catchiness, originality and accessibility to their sound that still sounds so fresh, so clean all these years later. They released some of the best hip-hop ever recorded because they threw so many other elements into the blender and still made the drink taste good. Stankonia, in particular, is a great example of how they could make their hip-hop authenticity pop with funk and soul.

Clocking in at over an hour, the skits and songs of Stankonia never stop running out of surprises. Boredom can’t really set in when every song has some hook, some vocal line by Andre 3000 or some clever turn of phrase (usually all three) to keep the listener engaged. Where Wu-Tang Clan’s The W set itself apart through its masterful use of horns, OutKast’s secret weapons on Stankonia were their mastery of keyboard atmosphere and Commodores-funky bass licks. “Ms. Jackson,” the album’s second most popular song after the anthemic and wild “B.O.B.,” is as much a perfect soul single as it is a hip-hop one. The same goes for “I’ll Call B4 I Cum” (yes, I am assessing a song entitled “I’ll Call B4 I Cum” critically right now and that assessment is “and he saw that it was good”) and plenty of the other songs here.

Stankonia remains so impressive because it’s as much Stevie Wonder with an edge as it is Dr. Dre declawed. It became a near-perfect hip-hop record because of how well it functions outside of the conventional boundaries of hip-hop. With Stankonia, you have great soul, great pop, great grooves, great comedy and great rap. Disagree with me? I’m sorry, Ms. Jackson. I am fo’ real.

Wu-Tang Clan’s The W (2000)

The W

Album: The W
Artist: Wu-Tang Clan
Year: 2000
Reason Featured:  #46 on The Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop Poll for 2000, #9 Album for Rolling Stone’s Top Ten Albums of 2000, #21 Album for NME’s Top Fifty Albums of 2000
My Favorite Songs: Careful (Click, Click), One Blood Under W, I Can’t Go to Sleep
Their Grades: Rolling Stone (4/5), NME (8/10), Robert Christgau (A-)
My Grade: 78%

I can’t see my hesitancy over writing on hip-hop disappearing anytime soon. It’s something for which I feel underqualified and unprepared. The genre is still new to me as I was just too caught up with what was on the oldies station when I was younger to take in all the rap that was popular. After my younger brother got me into spinning Kanye’s discography, Enter the Wu-Tang was one of the first hip-hop records I really got into by my own discretion. So the group is pretty near and dear to my heart. I was infatuated with their cinematic horn-and-sound-effects samples, their emphasis on propping each individual rapper up and giving them their time to shine and the way the beats laid down there can be found pounding as a foundation through most other rap records I’ve enjoyed. When it comes to The W, though, I can’t say I found as many places to hang my hat.

“Careful (Click, Click)” possesses the strength of Enter’s singsong and street-side hooks, as does “Gravel Pit.” The spy-movie trumpets, squeaky clean guitar strums and reggae intonations during “One Blood Under W” are highlights as is GZA’s minor-key rant after Snoop Dogg’s somewhat lackadaisical appearance on “Conditioner.” The song which I really gravitated to on here were the more slowed down ones which divorce themselves from “the mothafuckin’ ruckus” of their first album. The standout here is “I Can’t Go to Sleep,” inflected as it is with hints of Marvin Gaye’s socially and soulfully conscious What’s Going On while also, in turn, a template for what would come about on Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. city and Kanye West’s early albums and later tracks like “Blood on the Leaves” and “Bound 2.” So much soul here. Isaac Hayes contributes a verse for God’s sake!

Ironically, what I see as a strength on that track is something I see as an occasional weakness for the rest of the album. It sounds like a bridge between the charming, nostalgic hip-hop soul of the nineties and further on backward and the progressive, exploratory to come. This transitoriness is nice and intriguing but it mostly makes me want to turn back and head back home or forward into the genre’s destination. I wish they could’ve made a third record which sounded more like its own statement in hindsight that a mere passageway between worlds. It’s a recapitulation of what was great about hip-hop in the past and a prophecy of great things to come. Still, it has its inspired moments which make it important as a destination in itself rather than just as a prediction or recollection.

Triskaidekaphobia: How 2013 Turned Me Into a Hip-Hop Loving Homeboy

Hip Hop

Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number thirteen. Putting the need for exaggeration aside, the number of my irrational fears and neuroses far exceeds thirteen. I have a lot of phobias. On a scale of bedwetter to Braveheart, I situate myself mid-spectrum as a confident “I can take Cloverfield” type. This psychological metric notwithstanding, triskaidekaphobia is not on my radar. Superstition isn’t really my jam. But if I knew what 2013 held for me in 2012, my past self may have sung a different tune.

In high school, my friends knew there were a couple things I just wouldn’t do. Besides heroin and Velvet Undergroundy sex stuff, I’d refuse to drive in a car with hip-hop on the radio without putting up some kind of pretentious fight for the rights of post-punk or indie rock. Apologies for this kind of behavior have been made. Another rule of mine: movie nights with Mack meant no scary movies. This traced back to a childhood of traumatic experiences passing by the horror section in Blockbuster. Maybe seeing Chucky’s face on Child’s Play 3 didn’t wonk you out but, if it didn’t, I’d wager you rank high on the list of “Possible Sociopaths” in most of your immediate friend groups.

In late 2012, I would’ve joked about going to record and DVD burnings for hip-hop and horror related delicacies. Not for any misguided moral reason but simply because I thought they were unnecessary forms of entertainment. But, in the last week, I listened to Yeezus for the twenty thousandth time this year and watched Hellraiser. 2013 did weird things to me. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to the new Danny Brown album and am thinking whether I should finally go to Knott’s Scary Farm this year.

Jay Z

This new horror and hip-hop fixation indicates a lot of things which have changed about my personality since the clock tolled midnight on January 1, 2013. For one thing, the entire year has been a sort of identity crisis. Before 2013, my greatest fears were being part of the crowd and/or being taken by surprise by the unknown. Also, loud startling noises and urban environments where I believed my cracker ass was just waiting to get a proverbial cap busted into it. I feel like I ran from Freddy Krueger and Yeezy for those reasons. But, for now, let’s talk about Yeezy.

This year, I started doing penance with Yeezus, Jay-Zeesus and Everything In Betweenzus. Penance may be the wrong word since hip-hop lyrics tend to be the Freudian id unshackled. Bad desires are discussed with a startling degree of offensiveness but I’m willing to wager that offense is derived from their familiarity to us in our most honestly self-reflective moments, not their foreignness. I find most of their lyrics to be humorous in their lack of ethicality so how do I justify listening to these misogynous, hedonistic messages? Well, honesty and the possibility of redemption.

Kendrick Lamar

Musically, I’ve been surprised at the amount of creativity which is possible and actual within hip-hop. Not to mention, artists like Shad and Kendrick Lamar’s work couple socially conscious self-deprecation with their more indie friendly styles. It doesn’t all have to be about sex and drugs. Even if Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy talks about those things with more arrogantly human honesty than a lot of rock records.

But what are we to make of art which, as a whole, is morally bankrupt? Whether or not you listen to hip-hop is a matter of personal preference. The messages of the music tend to be far from uplifting. Moreover, I’d really earnestly suggest for you not to imitate any of the behavior detailed on a Tyler, the Creator or Earl Sweatshirt record. But the thing that finally turned me this year, besides my younger brother’s nonstop insistence the genre was better than either of us had imagined, was a growing awareness of myself.

Self-awareness is shopped around today as a primarily positive thing. The power lies within you and all that business. But there are inevitably aspects of the human condition which become startling to the self once they are made knowable. We are capable of great good and great evil, sometimes within the same hour. What I appreciate about Kanye West is the same thing I appreciate about Thom Yorke. They both exemplify negative aspects of the human condition so you don’t have to go down the road as far as they did. Yorke gave me a vocabulary for depression and West gave me a lexicon of vice.

Yeezus

And though we’d like to join the blissfully ignorant, it’s more important to become aware of your darker parts as well if there’s to be any hope of redemption. Because, if redemption is possible, it is only redemption of the person you actually are which is available.

Perhaps I’m kidding myself when I read these lyrics like a modern-day, vulgar Ecclesiastes. When you listen to these men rap about their copious amounts of money, sex, drugs and occasionally violent power, it’s hard not to see them as Solomons. Before you decry their lack of wisdom standing against the great king, try to realize they’ve reached the same conclusion as he. And that they merely use a different word for “concubines.” I doubt Solomon would’ve snatched Taylor Swift’s joy away on national television or gotten mad at Jimmy Kimmel. But that’s not the point. Unlike the rest of us, they really have tried everything under the sun. And, for that matter, they’ve come from darker, more impoverished backgrounds too. They know the highs and lows of human experience better than most.

It would be folly to deny the vices represented in their lyricism. But I hazard to say they are just more honest about their ids than the rest of us and the offensiveness of their tongues is an indicator of that. Most important of all, there is a deep, conscientious sadness which seems to permeate modern hip-hop. When Kanye West raps “Runaway” or when Kendrick Lamar crafts Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, their awareness that power and pleasure have left them unsatisfied means even more than it would should a normal human being recognize it.

For me, 2013 made life even weirder, homeys. Next post, how I learned to stop worrying and love The Blob.

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