Shad, Curren$y, and Earl Sweatshirt (OFWGKTA): On The Rhythmic Path

In the third decade of recorded rap, we are privy to the subtle and sometimes mysterious distillation of stylistic influence; we need not rely on a blatant rehashing of an old favorite’s concepts in order to fall in love with genre again. Elements of A Tribe Called Quest’s debut LP People Instinctive Travels and the Paths Of Rhythm have trickled into far-flung nooks and crannies of the rap world; my best guess is that The Neptunes and Kanye West have played a major role in this process post-2000. Rather than redraw every strand of the web of influence I will examine how PITPOR shaped the sound of certain groups in the 90s and then point to contemporary artists whose works are reminiscent of these developments.

PITPOR‘s enduring contribution to the art of rapping is the melding of a deceptively relaxed vocal presence with odd unexpected cadences and similarly eccentric lyrics. Q-Tip’s matching of this vocal style with drums tweaked to sound harder than even Paul C’s productions and a surprisingly melodic set of samples inspired Mobb Deep to craft their distinctive deliveries. ((I expound on this argument, in far greater detail, here and here.)) However, while Mobb Deep recited damnation narratives and darkened their sound ((Arguably to the brink of self-parody.)) other groups that were likely inspired by PITPOR —namely K.M.D., The Future Sound, ((I wrote a piece on their brilliant debut The Whole Shabang, and another piece about their song “The Function” and the decline of dancing of hip hop dancing after 1992 here.)) and UMCs— were less hesitant to incorporate joyous digression into their lyrics.

It has been suggested —by Q-Tip and various critics— that the whimsical rhyming and left field sample choices of PITPOR give life to the album’s extended metaphor: an unhindered journey through a vast and diverse city that in turn represents the individual’s transcendence of limiting life circumstances. ((Author Shawn Taylor refers to this as the “psychosomatic megapolis” in his fascinating and ultimately frustrating book on PITPOR.)) In this interpretation, laid back rapping that hints  at impassioned reflection expresses the widened range of responses to the dynamic city —and by implication, the oceanic self it symbolizes— made possible by the adoption of an intellectually curious, cosmopolitan world view. The obstreperous styles of Run-DMC and LL Cool J are wholly inappropriate for this kind of undertaking.

Download: A Tribe Called Quest  “Youthful Expression”

“Youthful Expression” epitomizes Tribe’s early creative approach: the drums are hard, the samples come from another planet, the lyrics allude to the group’s core philosophies and values but are not overly preachy. Most importantly, the rapping is every bit as meandering as the groove and the rhetoric; Q-Tip’s rhymes land in odd pockets to accommodate even odder word choices; his flow changes pace or force at every instance where one might grow tired of his sedated style; he employs bizarre, almost childish rhyme patterns to keep concepts from drifting into the void; and his intonation shifts as if he is engaging you in spirited conversation.

DOWNLOAD: K.M.D. “Plumskinz”

K.M.D. employ nearly all of these tactics on tracks like “Figure Of Speech” and “Trial and Error” on their debut album Mr. Hood but their deliveries —along with their concepts– are decidedly more sophisticated on their initially shelved follow-up Black Bastards. The full version of “Plumskinz” sees Zev Luv X (b.k.a. MF Doom), Onyx The Birthstone Kid, and Subroc tackle the familiar topic of females from just about every angle previously attempted in rap. We get an ode to the ones that get away, the ones that should be avoided at all costs, an invitation to the ones in need of something new, and a serenade to the ones worth the effort, all at once. Their voices wrap snugly around the music and loosen up just as quickly. At times I am hypnotized into forgetting that the vocals are even present only to be stirred by some whimsical word choice or shift in cadence; no particular mood or message dominates even though a overall vibe, however difficult to describe, is preserved.

Download: The Future Sound “Flashback Relay and The Whole Shabang” (Wig Out Mix)

The sublimation of explicit messages in complex vocal/instrumental combinations sustains a serene mood at the same time that it presents a convincing case for revisiting the music. Vocals sink into the background but are not tertiary concerns. Rhymes that seem untethered to a solid theme can challenge the listener to seek order by identifying recurring motifs or charting gradual narrative exposition. Difficult content is made accessible through careful attention to rhythm and melody; experimentation that does not entertain or relax is left out. The Future Sound’s music is anything but simple and yet “Flashback Relay and The Whole Shabang” (Wig Out Mix) is easygoing and enjoyable. The song’s lyrics ask the listener to embrace their insistently artsy vision of rap’s new direction through an elaborate series of  loosely linked boasts that are rapped in a variety of energetic styles over beat switch-ups. Even if the braggadocio and the artistic manifesto are not to one’s liking, the manner in which Flashback and Relay act out these ideas through their spirited yet tailored flows appeals as widely as possible.

Download: UMCs “Morals”

Such contrivance is welcome, not only because it infuses personality into what would otherwise be a looped instrumental. Rapping is such a uniquely imposing vocal expression; one can expect to be confronted by seemingly unstructured and often aggressive ramblings. Few of the lyrics will be repeated and a large portion of the music will be trod upon by vocals; bridges and solos are rare. The verbosity of most rap can repel listeners who find the digressive word mazes challenging as well as those who simply feel put upon by confident swagger. Skilled rappers strike a balance between lucidity and abstraction, and between arrogance and humility. UMCs “Morals” is an objective but empathetic take on the negative repercussions that emanate from overly strict parenting as well as the absence of any moral guidance; the song’s verses are fables with morals (aha!) that require a closer reading than rap’s canonical cautionary tales. Hass G and Kool Kim might have sugarcoated their stories to distract their listeners from weightier questions but this tactic would have ran counter to their lyrics; they choose instead to leap omnisciently between perspectives and recites their verses in the mellowest styles that still allow for catchiness and cohesion.

Download: Shad “I Don’t Like To”

Relative newcomer Shad utilizes negative space to great effect; his traditionalist, wordplay-heavy cockiness comes off as affable and sincere. He transitions from dense patterns to deceptively simple sentiments in order to express more complicated idea; it  is after his lyrics are stripped down to rhyming “nah, b!” with “alright, prolly” that he notes that overfunded major label rappers have pushed a perversely “sloppy,” “off-key” form of glitzy professionalism on the masses. His omission of the word “brag” from his rehearsed stuttering “I don’t really like to” hook is a tongue-in-cheek declaration of humble magnificence, a confession to not being entirely comfortable with one of the main functions of an emcee. Counterintuitive moves are important to his mission statement. He intends to prosper in a ruined music industry where giving away one’s art on a mass scale is a necessary step towards achieving recognition, and he wants to instill values like thoughtfulness in an audience that is increasingly addicted to impersonal, sub-literate technologies. A digressive style permits him to explore these concerns without forcing prematurely established views on easily distracted ears.

Download: Curren$y “Life Under The Scope”

Curren$y is similarly anxious about our age of information and the damage it wreaks upon personal privacy. His cool, luxuriating pose allows him to expound on this anxiety in spurts while cloaking his verses in the same montage of lush visuals that first attracted his fans. He desires freedom and wealth like any other artist but feels the pressure of having to cultivate an image based around unerring perfection. In an age where tales of superficiality and vice attract publicity but an unironic embrace of material comfort suggests a lack of authenticity, he knows he must tread carefully. He moves nimbly between scenes of splendid mobility and moments of doubt; his reflections are related in a calm but playful manner that could cause a careless listener to assume that the song’s content never transcends levity. The jewel of a conflicted, even contradictory persona is available to the listener who can set aside an idealized view of an artist as one who has exhausted his need for earthly pleasures.

Download: Earl Sweatshirt “Stapleton”

Earl Sweatshirt’s usage of a laid-back style is even more subversive than Curren$y; his content is coarser and darker than anything you might link to Tribe’s influence, including Mobb Deep. If there is any anxiety over the dissolution of privacy, it is submerged beneath Earl’s unapologetically violent stance and scatalogical lyrics. There is something undeniably sinister about an adolescent rapping so casually about the unspeakable but it would be unwise to characterize his macabre provocateur mask as some kind of literal advocacy of rape or a puerile cry for help. Like so many rappers before him, Earl stalks and slays invisible competitors, unseen social forces, uncontrollable life predicaments, and doubting haters, sometimes in the same bar; in this instance the figurative killing is conducted with less than the usual regard for how it might play in the sticks. This is not much different than Q-Tip’s relentlessly whimsical, nasally toned assault on the expectations of a hip-hop fanbase addicted to LL Cool J’s snarky bellowing, so it is fitting that Earl walks with a similarly smooth saunter even as his lyrics enter vulnerable emotional terrain. — Thun

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12 Responses to “Shad, Curren$y, and Earl Sweatshirt (OFWGKTA): On The Rhythmic Path”

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