(Or How We Can Learn To Stop Worrying And Bump The Bomb)…
Waka Flocka Flame “Live By The Gun”
Celph Titled “Eraserheads”
Producer/rapper/author J-Zone1 helmed a short-lived but excellent blog over at Dante Ross’s site; his writing is filled with praise for “guilty pleasures,” Â rappers whose simplistic or seemingly ignorant approach results in their absence from high-minded discussions of great music. J-Zone asserts that personality is key and the right combination of charisma, humor, and eccentricity is often more memorable than artistic pretense or technical prowess. He reasons that certain “bad” rappers are able to infuse their personality into the very structure of a song; their gritty deliveries, unsophisticated lyrics, and bizarre ad-libs function as additional instrumentation; violent and/or profane content adds a visceral thrill.2 I call this “The Tim Dog Effect” after the Â Bronx emcee of “Fuck Compton” fame that J-Zone praises for his ability to turn his bare-bones rhymes and even a series of grunts3 into a great song.
Critics that accept The Tim Dog Effect as one valid indicator of musical quality are better able to objectively assess a rapper’s work than those that zealously insist upon the adoption of universally applicable rubric for judging lyrics4 or who denigrate entire discographies at the first hint of objectionable content. Listeners can and should be guided towards objective methods of understanding and appreciating rap; this must logically entail discussions that focus on issues of context, symbolic representation, and Â implication.5Â Criticism that places well-executed vocals in high regard and lauds artists for their responsiveness to the listener’s desire to be entertained should not be marginalized.6 Two recent releases that I’ve come to enjoy after a period of initial skepticism, Celph Titled and Buckwild’s Nineteen Ninety Now and Waka Flocka Flame’s Flockaveli, epitomize the Tim Dog Effect but the online reception cultures7 surrounding these albums are hesitant to treat them as such, in effect underrating their finer points.
Nineteen Ninety Now and Flockaveli are certainly aesthetically different. The former sees Celph Titled rhyming over previously unused Buckwild beats from the ’94-’95 era, the very epitome of that ol’ boom-bap. The latter has Waka Flocka Flame paired with decidedly modern rumbling “post-crunk”8Â beats courtesy of Lex Luger and others. It is not entirely accurate to characterize these albums as a pair of diametric opposites, however. Aside from their shared fascination with meat-and-potatoes gun violence and raunchy sex talk, both albums express clear disdain for prevailing mainstream music trends, articulate a pro-indie ethos, and are consciously interested in reviving and revamping the music of a past era.9Â The problem is that the increasing fragmentation of hip-hop fans into regional/sub-genre networks makes it impossible for all of us to sit together at one table and enjoy some hardcore, no-frills, menacing rap shit. That’s wack because I remember when hard-rocks and college kids were both going crazy for “Rebel Without A Pause” and again, almost inexplicably for Â Bonecrusher’s “Never Scared” so many years later.
The online reviewers, almost as if collaborating on wartime propaganda, conjure up a gulf between imagined antagonistic audiences. These mutually reductive generalizations are formulated from a distance, in a manner that is cold and indirect. The reviewers that praise one album have generally not reviewed or otherwise acknowledged the other Â but in defending their respective choices they almost always resort to the construction of a hateful straw man adversary. Waka’s advocates burn Method Man in effigy as a catch-all representative for any backpackers who might foolishly deride him for lyrical simplicity10, claim that it is currently fashionable among purists to hate on his music11, and imply that the record’s detractors are uptight over-cultured killjoys.12 Celph’s supporters, on the other hand, shower us with unending praise for spry salt-of-the-earth old schoolers who will instinctively trot out to greet this album with their tongues hanging out in true Pavlovian fashion; Nineteen Ninety Now is frequently credited for reviving the entire genre from the death spell inflicted on it by the young and/or ignorant.13
Yet for all these daring preemptive strikes these reviewers are by and large chasing windmills; people who reviewed these albums rarely exhibit the extreme form of snobbish elitism or the mindless uncultivated adolescent conformity caricatured in the defensive appraisal of these artists.14 Reviewers, whether pro or am, chiefly stick to celebrating Celph’s racy punchlines, Buckwild’s boom-bap, Waka’s snarly shouts and ad-libs, and Lex Luger’s post-crunk greatness. Unfortunately, this cautious, apologetic approach fails to draw attention to the aspects of these albums that make them worth revisiting in the same way as vintage Tim Dog material. Flockaveli is not all menace and frivolity; there’s a lot of disconcerting paranoia and alienation on display as well.15 “Fuck Dis Industry”16 Â is one of the strangest, most compelling rap songs I have ever heard; the fact that it makes sense in light of Flaka’s influences does not make his hazy whispered stream of consciousness any less creepy or uncomfortably funny. This is not your average rap album.
Psychodrama and idiosyncrasy are everywhere apparent on Nineteen Ninety Now as well. Where Flaka’s lyrics are sparse and dwarfed by his ad-libs, leaving much to the listener’s imagination, Celph Titled stomps on almost every single available second of music. He thunders over Buckwild’s beats in a way that is not reminiscent of Â O.C. or anyone. At every turn Celph assures us that his penchant for guns and dirty sex is an indisputably authentic part of an admittedly contrived persona; he spares no detail in describing exactly how he navigated his way from obscurity to minor commercial success. His surreal punchlines test your ability to suspend disbelief but any artistic mystique is crushed under the weight of frank autobiography. Waka sheds light on his interior self in very small but jarringly potent doses while Celph talks your ear off. In both cases I felt as if I was cornered by two very different but equally unruly party guests, only to soon realize that I needed to look no farther than the background music for respite. The fictive pasts that these rappers long for is one in which music brought people together in cramped, tense spaces, if only to fight or stare each other down disapprovingly;17 Â it’s a shame that the discussion surrounding the two albums is so coldly passive-aggressive.
Let’s all lighten up and agree to enjoy the tracks at the top of the post for what they are.18 Â — Thun
- Read about his upcoming book in his guest blogger entry. [↩]
- Read his post “Great ‘Bad’ Rappers” in which he explains his appreciation for the unorthodox styling of Tim Dog, but also the Disco Rick, Project Pat, and Group Home’s Malachi The Nutcracker. [↩]
- Check “Dogs Gonna Getcha” if you don’t believe me. [↩]
- This usually amounts to drooling over multisyllabic rhyme schemes or the use of Latinate vocabulary. [↩]
- Additionally, coarse content should not be equated to the unironic advocacy of criminal or licentious behavior, and it should be stressed that all rap does not have to function as a forum for enlightenment or the promotion of moral uplift to be considered good. [↩]
- This is not to suggest that the Tim Dog Effect trumps every other measure of quality, or that lyrical complexity or technical virtuosity should not be lauded. It is also my view, and I think J-Zone is probably in agreement, that not every rapper deemed mediocre is somehow a misunderstood genius in the mold of Tim Dog. There is something else, perhaps a mysterious set of traits that have not yet been adequately described by critics, that makes such artists transcendent. Until a reliable rubric arrives, it’s ultimately subjective. [↩]
- For the sake of my sanity, I confined my analysis mostly to reviews and blog posts presented as reviews; YouTube comments reside in a dark corner of the earth I’m not yet ready to travel. [↩]
- In the comments section of his review “Flockaveli’s A Post-Crunk Masterpiece” critic Brandon Soderberg explains the term “post-crunk”: “Post-crunkâ€™s a cheap term, but itâ€™s also accurate. This is music building on the sounds and mainstream acceptance of â€œGet Lowâ€ and â€œKnuck If You Buckâ€.Â It wouldnâ€™t exist without Crunk, but itâ€™s very much transcending it.” I’m convinced enough to use the term here but since this kind of music is not my area of expertise, I can be persuaded otherwise. [↩]
- The difference being of course that Celph’s era is fifteen years ago while Waka has to contend with the post-millenial acceleration of culture and appear most obviously nostalgic for Lil’ Jon’s 2002 heyday. However, at least one reviewer was shrewd enough to note that Waka’s style “is a fusion of MC Ren (sturdy gangsta mindset, infrequent, but always obtuse punchlines,) DMX in his prime (raw anger,) a younger Busta Rhymes (high octane energy) and Flavor Flav (hypeman adlibs, technically incompetent, unspeakable charisma.)” Most other reviewers only made reference to Lil’ Jon and Tupac. [↩]
- SeeÂ “Method Man overlooked an important point…” [↩]
- “It is in vogue [sic] hate on Waka Flocka Flame, especially if you consider yourself a fan of ‘real’ hip hop” and “Anyone coming to this record expecting wordplay, or criticizing it for its lack thereof, is missing the point completely.” More of the same here, here, and here. [↩]
- CheckÂ “I would never put ‘Flockaveli’ in my CD player if I wanted to listen to music that was meaningfulâ€¦happyâ€¦deepâ€¦politicalâ€¦spiritualâ€¦orâ€¦thoughtful” and ““His glaring lack of actual skill in the midst of phenomenal success however is a slap in the face of anyone who ever thought of this culture and its accompanying soundtrack as a real artform.” [↩]
- Check “let this be your first hip-hop purchase in a minute, cuz this shit is exactly whats been missing for years”, and the same sentiment echoed over and over again. It’s kind of odd how these reviewers are insisting that an album rife with misogyny and gunplay is somehow a righteous representation of rap’s golden age … all of a sudden content doesn’t matter? [↩]
- One great exception: the stridently negative review of Flockaveli found here. Quotables for days. Even the blog’s comments expressÂ shockÂ that the reviewer even bothered with the write-up. But the the “Baracka Flocka Flames” spoof of “Hard In the Paint” has actually inspired more public outrage than Waka’s real music. [↩]
- This post at Blatant Ineptitude does a better job of explaining what I mean. [↩]
- Is a more backpacker friendly slogan possible? [↩]
- The Vh1-spoofing video for Celph Titled and Buckwild’s “Mad Ammo” drives the point home with zero subtlety. [↩]
- If we must mock some current shit, Joel Ortiz’s latest snorefest of a video is ripe for mockery. Or, just riff on how much you hate the new Nicki Minaj song with Eminem. [↩]