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Thursday, Jul 10, 2008
Tracks two and three...

You Can’t Stop Us Now


Salaam Remi, with whom Nas has worked more than any other producer this decade, based this track around a sample of the Whatnaut’s “Message From a Black Man”. Unlike RZA, who recently sampled the same track on his latest Bobby Digital album in raw form, Remi masks the central melody in a heavy baseline. The sound actually makes me wonder whether he sampled the song or just interpolated it. He also adds soulful blaxplotation-sounding horns as a lead into the chorus, sung by Eban Brown, who has been a member of both the Delfonics and the Stylistics throughout his career. He replaces “me” with “us” in his version of the classic hook. The track overall has a more polished yet similar feel to that of previous Remi-produced Nas songs like “Made You Look” and “Thief’s Theme”.


Nas’ two verses on “You Can’t Stop Us Now” run through a range of topics which add together to make the song a singular, astute statement of Black Pride. His first verse is an exploration of African American history in a series of poetic, internally-rhymed individual statements which are able to stand unaccompanied as powerful proclamations; his first line is: “From Willie Lynch to Willie Hutch” – six words that, alone, serve as a potent summation of the plight and triumph of blacks in America. Other lines like “from gold to shackles and back to gold” as well as “slave food turned to soul food” have similar effects and the verse ends with Nas claiming, “Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag / Bet she had a nigga with her to help her old ass.” I could not imagine a better verse examining African American heritage with such celebratory vitriol.


Nas approaches the second verse from a present-time point-of-view and assumes the task of exposing hypocrisies in the interpretations of African versus European culture. He uses the Michael Vick case as a talking point: “Gave a Blood time / Cause he fought with his canine / Bestiality / Humane Society / Go to China, see how they dine / See what they eat / Better yet ask PETA whoever / Which animal makes suede? / If not for suede would you have survived the Dark Ages?” He goes on to address Sammy Davis Jr. who “helped pave the way for Southern crankers and them Harlem shakers”, which has led Nas to assert, in the ending of his verse, “Now we getting our papers / They try to censor the words / To stop our money coming / But you can’t escape us / Haters.”


The Last Poets declaration, in between the first verse and the chorus, that, “as James Baldwin says, you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world considers a nigger” provides a literal link between Nas’ poetry and the original concept of Untitled, a discourse on the word “nigger” and an attempt to strip it of its rhetorical power.


Breathe


This song’s keyboard-driven production from J. Myers and Dustin Moore has a smoothed-out ‘90s R&B feel to it. The beat is not bad by any means, it’s slightly unremarkable. Its breezy style makes it easy for one to hear the song without actually listening to it. That’s unfortunate because “Breathe” is probably Nas’ most personal song on the album and his rhyme-schemes are awe-inspiring.


The lyrics are concerned with the true meaning of freedom in a free country, especially for a high-profile black man. His verses touch upon the theme of subliminal racism in white America which is present throughout the album. We get a glimpse of him at his most somber while contemplating his own identity. His paranoid, seemingly infinitely internally rhymed verses run quickly through his various anxieties (child-custody battles, police racial profiling, money and fame) and he portrays a world where everyone either wants part of him or wishes him harm; his chorus repeats the question: “Can a nigga just breathe?”


The concept of the song fits well into the whole theme of Untitled. It is the lament of a man who, despite all of his accomplishments and contributions to society, still feels unable to transcend the American subconscious from which a word like “nigger” was able to become dominant.


Had the production been a bit more interesting, this would have been an instant classic. It’s still damn good though.


To be continued…


Tagged as: nas, untitled
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Wednesday, Jul 9, 2008

The PopMatters writers guide recommends that record reviews run somewhere between 500 and 700 words. Sometimes I struggle to get 500 words out of an album and sometimes I have a hard time keeping the count under 700. This isn’t necessarily the difference between a good or bad album. Some very good recordings have qualities that are easily explained while some bad albums have complicated flaws that warrant deeper examination. To put it simply, as far as any art form is concerned, some pieces of work just generate more dialogue than others, often irrespective of actual quality.


I recently submitted my review for Nas’ new album Untitled and I had trouble keeping the word-count down, which ended up somewhere around 1,200. (Editor’s note: watch for the review on Monday.) Needless to say, this album caused me to think a lot—more so than any hip-hop album has since… well… I guess I started to put serious thought into any albums. The dialogue generated by content of Untitled should eclipse that which was generated by the controversy of Nas’ original desire to name it Nigger, which is funny because I was afraid that that controversy would be the only thing the LP had going for it. I feel like every song on this album deserves to be seriously discussed. I brushed over their essences in my review. Even at its extraordinary length, the piece still feels to me like a general assessment.


In an effort to explore the themes of this album in more depth as well as further explain why I think this is such a special record, my intention is to conduct a track-by-track analysis of Untitled in a series of posts on this blog which should be viewed as a companion to my review to give a more complete appraisal of the project.


THE SONGS


Queens Get the Money


This was produced by Jay Electronica, who has been billed as the “next big thing” in underground hip-hop. A synthesis of J Dilla and Stones Throw, he crafts a beat that consists of only two alternating, off-kilter piano samples and no drums. Nas’ rapping, similar to the styles from which the production draws, sounds more like an a capella poetry recital that ostensibly ignores any discernible rhythm in the pianos. Some hardcore underground fans might view this as one of Nas’ best-ever tracks while more mainstream rap fans might hear this as only an odd mess of noise.


Nas’ lyrics for “Queens Get the Money” serve as an introduction to the world that Untitled was made to address. A world in which “niggas still screaming, paper chasing / But presidential candidates is planning wars with other nations over steak with masons.” For the “pregnant teens give birth to intelligent gangsters, they daddies faceless”, Nas offers love through his music: “Play this, by ya stomach / Let my words massage it and rub it / I’ll be his daddy if there’s nobody there to love it.” He goes on to address the detractors who only want from him another Illmatic and “Pray ‘please God, let him spit that Uzi and the army linin’ / ‘that shorty doowop rollin oo-whops in the park reclinin’” and states, “Hip hop was aborted, so Nas breaths life back into the embryo / Let us make man in our image.”


In the end, the eerily hectic quiet coupled with Nas’ transcendent poetry make for a great introduction to perhaps the most philosophically and thematically complex album of his career.


To be continued…


Tagged as: nas, untitled
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Tuesday, Jul 8, 2008

Robert Levine had an article in yesterday’s New York Times about corporations moving to fill the role once performed by record labels.


At a time when online file-sharing is rampant, record stores are closing and consumers are buying singles instead of albums, getting into the music business might seem like running into a burning building. But as record labels struggle to adjust to a harsh new digital reality, other companies are stepping up their involvement in music, going far beyond standard endorsement contracts and the use of songs in commercials.
These companies — like Procter & Gamble, Red Bull and Nike — are stepping outside of their core businesses to promote, finance and even distribute music themselves.
A few months ago, Bacardi announced that it would help the English electronic music duo Groove Armada pay for and promote its next release. Caress, the body-care line owned by Unilever, commissioned the Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger to record a version of Duran Duran’s “Rio” that it gave away on its Web site to promote its “Brazilian body wash” product. The energy drink company Red Bull is starting a label that is expected to release music before the end of the year.


This brings a whole new level of meaning to the epithet corporate rock. In some ways, this development seems almost inevitable: If recorded music is no longer profitable as a product in and of itself, its primary value is to serve as an adjunct to some form of advertising. Records are in the same position in the market as “free” TV shows once were. So it makes sense for corporations to buy bands the same way they would buy time on a network show back in broadcast TV’s heyday. And it’s not like songs and ads are of utterly different substances: all recorded commercial music can be regarded if necessary as an advertisement for something, even if it is just for the recording artists themselves. That may, in fact, how we will come to understand them instinctually, as jingles.


But on the other hand, it is hard not to be nauseated by this: “Two weeks ago, Converse released a single by a combination of artists that The Times of London called ‘a three-headed Frankenstein’s monster of coolness’: the Strokes singer Julian Casablancas, the producer Pharrell Williams and the R&B performer Santogold.” If the pop music we listen to is in large part an attempt to project our identity in a form our peers will immediately apprehend, think of the self-image the people listening to this song are communicating to the world. It’s not just the musicians who become inextricably associated with their corporate masters; it is potentially all of their fans as well.


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Tuesday, Jul 8, 2008
Sundance Channel's acclaimed series is well into its second season, and, again, is bringing all manner of artists to Abbey Road for a look into the process of music-making.

Sundance Channel’s Live from Abbey Road has returned for a second season. The popular original series once again features rehearsals, interviews and performances set inside the legendary London studios. One of the biggest strengths of the show is that it features such an eclectic mix of artists from many genres, and at all points of what is considered a successful career. Mid-career bands mingle with up-and-comers, and lesser-knowns are alongside legends.


Episode four, airing this week (Thursday, July 10 at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific), showcases Stereophonics, Colbie Caillat and Joan Armatrading. Diversity like this is not easily found at a summer music festival, let alone on your television schedule! It’s interesting to see how these artists react to being in the hallowed Studio 1, and although they are being followed about by what must be an enormous production crew, the entire affair feels very intimate. The best thing about this show, for me anyway, is that the joy in the performances is quite evident, as is the fact that the interviews are freely candid—no rehearsed and rehashed sound bites here! Personally, I loved episode four because I grew up on my mother’s Joan Armatrading albums (and it’s great to hear her discussing guitars in detail!), and I’m a massive Stereophonics fan, but I also enjoyed the exposure to the soulful, singer/songwriter stylings of Colbie Caillat, with whom I was previously unfamiliar.


Live from Abbey Road has a little something for everyone, it seems. Casual viewers, music lovers and even the featured artists themselves (in episode three Panic at the Disco were obviously pleased to be able to perform a stellar cover of the Band’s “The Weight”, while this week, Caillat warms up with a brief, impromptu version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” that clearly thrills her.). If each episode is as consistently as good as this one, Sundance Channel may have to expand the series beyond its 12-part format.


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Thursday, Jul 3, 2008
Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever. It isn’t. It’s better.

Part One
HalleluJAH: Heart of the Congos


Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae music, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. And so, since summer can be considered in full swing with the holiday weekend coming up, the time is right to talk about reggae. Where to begin? How about with the best.


Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.


The ‘70s were, without question, the golden age of reggae, and aside from the ubiquitous (and, let’s face it, omnipotent) Bob Marley, no single figure loomed larger during this decade than Lee “Scratch” Perry. His own albums (as the Upsetter, with the Upsetters) are more than enough to secure his legacy, but it’s his work as the Dub Shepherd—producing everyone from a baby-faced Bob Marley to the mature Max Romeo—that seals the deal for his enshrinement. Although he had more immediate commercial and critical success with Party Time (The Heptones), War Ina Babylon (Max Romeo) and especially Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Heart of the Congos has come to be fully appreciated as his masterpiece—and the Rosetta Stone of roots reggae. While Perry’s patented production skills are in overdrive on everything he touched circa ‘76/’77, this is the one where everything went right.


(Sidenote: these 24-odd months are a veritable embarrassment of reggae riches, considering that the albums mentioned above, as well as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds, also dropped during this time. Not only was this a high-water mark for reggae, it’s always interesting—and instructive—to consider that this unsurpassed creativity was churning out of Jamaica while, stateside, prog rock sat, constipated on the sidelines as punk and disco duked it out on the dance floor.)


Heart of the Congos is a sufficiently suitable title, but this album could very plausibly have been called Back to the Future. It is an uncanny document that in every facet—lyrically, vocally, sonically—seems to be stretching into the past even as it strains toward the future. Where virtually any reggae album of this (or really, any) time has the expected—even obligatory—shout-outs to Jah and the invocations of Rastafarianism, Heart of the Congos dives even deeper into biblical texts and—crucially—the civilization that preceded Jamaica, and everything else in the west: Africa.


Send my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the world…


This line, from “Open up the Gate” crystallizes the powerful consciousness the Congos are tapping into here: in one line they capture the essence of both the Old Testament and Repatriation—from slaves to immigrants to artists. It is spoken (quoted) as the voice of God (literally), but more, the voice of memory, summarizing the story of our time on this planet.


Virtually any song could be singled out for analysis, but the second track, “Congoman” best represents the culmination of Perry’s—and the Congos’s—vision. This song, a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices”, is an effective, almost unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. This might be, if one were forced to choose, Perry’s ultimate achievement: listening to what he constructed in his (by today’s standards) primitive studio is breathtaking. This track (and the entire album) remains a living testament to the more natural, (if old-fashioned, and/or out of fashion) instinctive abilities of fingers, ears, brain and especially heart. Just as the most incredible effects can be manufactured with the click of a mouse in today’s movies, the technology certainly exists to embolden a million paint-by-number producers. In other words, what Perry did does not merely epitomize ingenuity from the oldest of schools, it stands apart as an honest, utterly human artifact.


“Congoman” brings all of Perry’s innovations into play: after an undulating beat unfolds with percussion, piano and bass setting a trance-like tone, all of a sudden an overdubbed refrain (heard repeatedly throughout the song) jars the moment: all sound ceases and it’s only the voices: “Out of Africa comes the Congoman”. It is at once eerie (or, Irie) and astonishing. With one masterstroke, Perry makes the composition future-proof: it is already deconstructed on the first go round: no mash-ups or remixes (then, now) are necessary, or even possible, since the first version is already reworked as a work in progress (and make no mistake: everyone with an MC or DJ before their name sprung forth from the tradition the mighty Upsetter originated). Perry takes what would have been a stirring, melodic and beautiful song and makes it richer, messier, more complicated, and inscrutably tantalizing: he transforms a masterpiece into a miracle. As the song unfolds it establishes the deepest of grooves (naturally, most of Perry’s regular posse is on hand here, including “Sly” Dunbar on drums, Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Boris Gardiner on bass), while Cedric Myton’s falsetto blends with Roy “Ashanti” Johnson’s tenor to cast their spell of longing and redemption. Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.


We come with our culture to enlighten the world…


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