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Sunday, Jul 20, 2008
Track eight...

Testify


I find it disappointing that a lot of reviews from other publications have called this out as one of the album’s weaker tracks, like Nas’ whole purpose here was to condemn his suburban white fans for not truly supporting his cause. In my review of the album, I called Untitled Nas’ Blood on the Tracks. I didn’t mean that so much in terms of concept but in terms of career context. If we talk in terms of concept though, “Testify” is this album’s “Idiot Wind”. It’s the frustrated, mournful breakdown of an artist in the midst of an emotionally complex situation.


Tagged as: nas, untitled
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Friday, Jul 18, 2008
"Let no one imagine that in owning a recording he has the music." -- John Cage

A partial digression from my previous post.


The summer of 2000 was when I first discovered Napster. After a bit of peer pressure, I was persuaded to download the software and start searching out MP3s, which were a new technology to me but not one that was completely esoteric. I had downloaded a few of them at tiny bitrates off the unofficial Tool web site to hear some their rarer, less available tracks. To my impressionable 18-year-old brain, it didn’t even occur to me that Napster’s services could be illegal or that they might even cause a wrinkle in the long-term spacetime continuum of music. At a 33k dialup connection, I could retrieve around one song per day before I started making significant dents in the phone bill. Without a CD burner at my disposal, I connected an ¼ inch connector cable from my computer’s speakers to my tape recorder and transferred 20 or so of the songs I downloaded onto a cassette so that I could play them in my car. It seemed no different at the time than taping those songs off the radio, except that I got to choose what the radio played.


Napster materialized as an ideal space to indulge my quirky tastes. I downloaded the Eminem song only available on the “clean” version of The Marshall Mathers LP, songs off the Transformers: The Movie soundtrack that I had been listening to diegetically since childhood, the Moby remix of “Beat It” I knew I’d never elsewise hear,  the Airwolf theme song I’d been humming for years but which no one I knew could validify, and many of the songs I’d heard and enjoyed in the pre-Amazon years through sound samples at the call service 1-800 Music-Now. Far be it for me to prognosticate the collapse off the behemoth music industry, I thought that Napster might have actually been doing the job of the major labels for them. Not only by promoting artists, but by eliminating the need for bootlegs, which at the time were running $40 or so for a single disc of live and/or rare material by major artists (which was still a bargain compared to tracking down overpriced imports) and, the companies claimed, hurting their sales significantly. As I continued to spend all the money earned from my summer job as a smoothie salesman on music, this previously illicit or overpriced material was the stuff I went for first on the free Napster service.


Looking back at all this now, it seems like a different world. Music thievery is practically a full-time job to some downloaders, who load up 800G external drives full of music that it would take a lifetime to sort through, let alone appreciate. CD burners come standard on any home computer and you can get five writable CDs for less than a bottled water. Bootlegs are pretty much nonexistent, as are import singles. All the chains I used to peruse in my hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY are gone: The Wall, Media Play, Sam Goody, Record Town, etc. Even the closest indie store I knew, Trash in Danbury, CT, a 40-minute drive from my house and the site of my first vinyl purchase, closed its doors after it was forced out of its location.


When I went off to college, I experienced a minor love-affair with my T1 Connection. Unaware of the speed of technology, I horded all the free music, movies, and software I could, fearing I would soon move off campus and never experience the lightning-fast joys of ethernet cable again. The transfer speeds remained undiminishingly novel as I devoutly watched the bars move across the screen. Within minutes, you could access any song. It was an instant jukebox, a radio station that didn’t suck. More than that, it brought the music closer and it brought all of us lonely freshmen closer together. My roommate Ben assigned a rule to our room; new visitors to 709B Cashin, which turned out to be quite a few people, had to sign his computer with a marker and download a song onto it. These songs got incorporated into his regular playlist and, by proxy, we inherited a little bit of the personality of the campus that year, as spazzcore, happy hardcore, and Shaggy co-mingled with each other.


With Napster, though no one was paying for it, every one was every one else’s Alan Freed. We all introduced each other to some kind of new sonic cultural experience. Detractors may say that all we were doing was stealing music. But that’s only half of the narrative. The larger story is that we were stealing all kinds of music, a shit-ton of it, and expanding our palettes in the process. Hippies were introduced to house, speed-punks found glory in electro and math-rock, hip-hoppers were able to track their roots in funk, and myriad others found out that Radiohead and Aphex Twin didn’t emerge from a bubble. It was the first and perhaps only time that I felt I was part of something important in music. It was not a democratization of music as some idealists still opine, but a full-fledged free-for-all. Anarchy. Autonomy. Freedom. Absolute leisure upon escaping the shackles of market capitalism. It was only forbidden to forbid. The concurrent college and rock star credos of sex, drugs, and music reigned. But you had to pay for drugs. You had to be careful who you slept with. The music just persisted, with or without you.


Yet, it was revolution communicated through the vernacular of mass consumption. Its problems persisted not in process, but in participation. Those downloading music were not all rebels trying to buck a corporate system. Some of them were just byproducts of a “gimmee” culture of entitlement. To them, there was no difference between ripping off the local band who pressed their LP with pocket change better served paying overdue student loans and the stadium giants hawking $25 T-shirts at their $75 concerts so they could harass hotel maintenance staffs and woo college-aged girls who had downloaded their latest album. It was almost a kind of absent-minded dadaist statement. The musician in absentia became the signatory to blame, for trying to make a living off of their art, or for trying to make art in the first place.


As income diminished for most of my fellow state school students, the cost of rising tuition meant that music, moreso perhaps than drugs and alcohol, was seen as something of a luxury item (and to be fair, it is). So why pay for it when you can just as easily get it free? Their market attention went elsewhere, and soon the cult of hegemony began to take notice.


Not everyone gave up so easily. I continued to spend whatever money I could scrounge together on CDs and concert tickets. So did plenty of others. Yet we were all criminals, victims of a pandemic of antisocial behavior. But perhaps that’s what felt so exciting. It was like prohibition, with industry playing the government’s role as moral policeman. As the lunatics had taken over the asylum, it had begun to look like culture at large, so quick to condemn and judge yet so slow to adapt, was our only real disease, our only lasting psychosis. The cure to this illness wasn’t file-sharing. It was the free flow of information and knowledge, the very thing going to college was all about. It was the choice to have musical literacy be part of our curriculum. It was the music itself, intangible sound waves unable to be captured, bottled, or stopped. It has continued to spread to the point of critical mass, nearly to where the music itself can no longer be governed, no matter how hard the mass media tries to gentrify it. Will we live to see the time when people finally forgo all this baggage and just listen to what they want regardless of what’s pertinent, what’s sanctioned, or what’s for sale?


This is the real deep-seeded fear of capitalism, which has always had an uncomfortable relationship with post-rock ‘n’ roll music (which frequently tries to sell its owners the ropes with which to hang themselves); that one day music will no longer be something they can control. In my previous post, I discussed how they’ve already lost part of that control by diverting its attention from its fragmented consumer base (instead opting to socialize its loses by pushing for federal lawsuits and ISP taxes). Next, I’ll take a look at those people like me, you, and everybody else you know, who take music that isn’t ours, but isn’t rightfully anybody else’s either.


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Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008
A trio of big names step into Abbey Road's famed Studio One this week.

Sundance Channel’s acclaimed Live from Abbey Road series airs the fifth episode of its second season this week (Thursday, July 17 at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific). The featured artists this time are all pretty big names and heavy hitters: Sheryl Crow, Hard-Fi and Diana Krall.


In Sheryl Crow’s segment, she discusses how fortunate she has been to have had a long career, talks about being in Abbey Road studios before on The Globe Sessions and feeling the weight of its history, and she reiterates many of the themes expressed on her latest record (maturity, how environmentalism becomes personal when one is a parent, calling for change), Detours. In fact, the songs in this episode are taken exclusively from that album, and it’s very clear why. The rehearsal and performance footage demonstrate that this is surely her strongest material to date (“Now That You’re Gone” is the showstopper here, in my opinion.), which is all the more impressive when you think about the fact that Detours is her sixth regular release.


Hard-Fi has only two full-length releases so far, but they’re still aware of the “vibe” in the most famous studio in the world (and quite keen to have a go at the piano used on “Lady Madonna!”). We only get two songs from them, “Tied Up Too Tight” from 2005’s CCTV and “We Need Love” from last year’s Once Upon a Time in the West, but both songs are so perfectly executed (and “We Need Love”, particularly, so suited to the surroundings!) that another might simply have sent viewers over the edge. Is it too obvious that I’m a bit of a Hard-Fi fan? Well, when you see and hear these performances, you’ll understand why.


Diana Krall’s segment takes the energy back down a notch, but it’s no less compelling. She speaks of her passion for her life and lifestyle and her eclectic enthusiasm, but her laid back, almost understated manner seems at odds with her words at first. That is, until she starts swinging at the piano. “Exactly Like You” is infectiously energetic and “I’ll String Along with You” is all the more sublime within the resonance of the room. It’s truly amazing to notice—especially while watching it on a television—how much of a contribution the environment really makes! It’s not just superficial ambience, it’s like Studio One is another instrument in the mix.


Though this week’s episode seems to focus more on the final performances than the rehearsals or interviews, it certainly doesn’t suffer for it. I meant what I wrote last week, and if Live from Abbey Road keeps coming up with shows of this caliber, Sundance Channel is going to have to expand its production schedule.



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Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008
Tracks six and seven...

America


The production here comes from Stargate, the Nowegian duo who laid the track for Beyonce’s “Irreplacable”. Dark, slow synthesizer chords that occasionally break into quick, clubby stutters with partially vocoded female vocals over a break-beat give this an emotionally detached, Euro-poppy feel. The song’s mood and Nas’ delivery are reminiscent of one his greatest-ever songs: “You’re the Man” off 2001’s Stillmatic.


“You’re the Man” was Nas’ mournful appeal for fans to wake up and recognize he was still the same Illmatic emcee at a time when his artistic relevance was being seriously questioned. “America” is a similar plea for citizens to break out of the mystique of our nation’s concept and recognize that things are not right; we are not past the fight for civil rights and we cannot remain prosperous forever. Both songs contain the seamless blend of poetry and prose that has always been Nas’ strongest asset as an emcee. His words induce chills whether or not you pay attention to what he is actually saying. In that respect, “America” is the most Illmatic-esque song on Untitled. America’s ambassador to the Queensbridge housing projects has grown into a worldwide representative of the African American experience with the same eloquence.


Nas’ lyrics here mostly deal with various hypocrisies present in popular opinion. He addresses the notion that hip-hop culture is destructive to society: “If all I saw was gangsters / Coming up as a youngster / Pussy and money the only language I clung ta / Claim ta, unrolled myself up to become one / Ain’t ya happy I chose rap?” and later, “Who give you the latest dances, trends, and fashion? / But when it comes to residuals, they look past us / Woven into the fabric, they can’t stand us / Even in white tee’s, blue jeans, and red bandanas.” He claims, “We in chronic need of a second look of the law books / And the whole race dichotomy / Too many rappers, athletes, and actors / But not enough niggas in NASA.” Some of his most powerful lines come in the third verse when he talks about the plight of women since our nation’s inception: “Took a knife, split a woman naval / Took her premature baby / Let her man see you rape her / If I could travel to the 1700’s / I’d push a wheelbarrow full of dynamite / Through your covenant / Love to sit in on the Senate / And tell the whole government / Y’all don’t treat women fair / She read about herself in the bible / Believing she the reason sin is here / You played her, with an apron / Like bring me my dinner, dear / She the nigger here.” The dark song end with Nas disturbingly pondering, “How far are we really from third-world savagery / When the empire fall, imagine how crazy that’ll be.”


“America” is the most poetic song on Untitled. It is a strong testimonial on the theme of oppression which, like the rest of the album, despite implication, never explicitly names the oppressors. This adds to Nas’ recurring notion that people of all colors and creeds have endured periods in which they were, figuratively speaking, “niggers”.


Sly Fox


Following a song that attempts to break the cocoon of popular thought comes this scathing examination Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and its ownership of FOX News, which has become the largest symbol of the American propaganda-machine (unless you’re a neo-conservative, which would make it the Huffington Post).


stic.man from Dead Prez provides a hard-thumping beat with heavily distorted hard-rock guitars to set the mood for Nas’ angry response to Bill O’Reilly’s bullshit campaign to have him taken off the list of performers for the “welcome back” concert to begin the first post-massacre semester at Virginia Tech.


O’Reilly based his entire argument around the song “Shoot ‘Em Up”, an out-of-context line from “Made You Look” and the fact that Nas had once been convicted on a gun-charge with no examination of the circumstances that led to it. He tried to portray Nas as some violent gangsta rapper who was just going to taunt a bunch of terrorized kids. He even went as far as to call for the firing of the university’s president. “Shoot ‘Em Up” was on Nastradamus, an album that was a consequence of the incredible, original version of I Am… being virtually the first major album to be leaked online in 1998. Corporate interests behind Nas’ music, not knowing how to handle such a situation, scrapped most of the album and forced him to record a bunch of commercial songs like “Shoot ‘Em Up” (violence sells) to compensate with two albums instead of one; the result was the uneven, official version of I Am… and the mostly bad Nastradamus. The line from “Made You Look” was a metaphor (who could expect FOX News to understand metaphor?). Finally, though I don’t know the specifics behind Nas’ gun charge, I know he is a successful man in a world filled with jealousy, living in a violent city; I would hope he has some protection.


Nas takes News Corp – which also owns MySpace – to task for enabling child predators and “monopolizing news / Your views / And the channel you choose.” He implies that their influence has spread across other networks in the best few bars of the song: “I watch CBS / And I See B.S. / Tryin’ to track us down with GPS / Make a nigga wanna invest in PBS.” He also calls FOX out for the hypocrisy in their condemnation of hip-hop in light of the violence in Hollywood and in shady foreign policy: “They say I’m all about murder-murder and kill-kill / But what about Grindhouse and Kill Bill? / What about Cheney and Halliburton? / The backdoor deals on oil fields / How’s Nas the most violent person?” Nas was smart to construct “Sly Fox” as an indictment on the entire machine behind FOX News instead of perpetuating a personal beef with one of its talking heads; Bill-O himself only gets a single shout out: “O’Reilly? Oh really?”.


With hip-hop’s status as a politically progressive art form, it’s a relief to see an artist putting real effort and research into attacking what might be the largest threat to liberal politics in America.


+ Parts: one, two, three


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Tuesday, Jul 15, 2008
Tracks four and five: the triumphant pop songs...

We Make the World Go Round (Featuring The Game and Chris Brown)


Miami-based duo Cool & Dre provide the production for this. The track has a feel similar to their work on some of DJ Khaled’s massive posse cuts. The beat contains looped synths, hand claps, a quiet 808 baseline, a harmonizing Chris Brown, and a few other elements mixed in. There is a lot going on, but it’s the exultant synthesizer melody that rises from the layers of sounds and becomes the essence of the song; Chris Brown repeats the song’s title in the chorus to the same, turned-up melody. Before each repetition in the hook, Nas provides quick one-liners, proposing toasts between hustlers, gangstas, ballers, and finally “all us”.


The deliberate, mainstream sound of the song seems more intended to bridge a gap between Nas—whose appeal in today’s hip-hop market is more underground—and popular rappers of the moment than to earn radio-play. It can be considered as sort of a peace offering to mainstream rappers—those hustlers, gangstas, and ballers—who were offended by Nas’s Hip-Hop is Dead campaign two years ago. A lot of hip-hop fans view pop-concessions by respected artists as immature moves, but this song proves quite the opposite. Nas has matured since his last album; he has abandoned his rockist sentiments and learned to accept what is popular now, however far it deviates from what purists consider “real hip-hop”, as legitimate art. This change of philosophy is best categorized when he mentions his own platinum records but also congratulates the rappers of today’s market by telling them, “Y’all is ringtone-platinum / But 99 cents adds up / I don’t hate ‘em / I congratulate him.” The hip-hop and R&B generation gap is finally bridged when Nas ends his last verse, boasting about having “the New York prince and young Mike Jackson on the same track”.


The braggadocio in the lyrics is celebratory of the level of importance black artists have gained in entertainment worldwide and, consequently, the affect they have had on public consciousness, hence the song’s title. The Game’s second verse is impressive, but its contribution to the song is somewhat minor causing his usually strong presence to get a bit lost in the mix. In the end though, “We Make the World Go Round” is a triumphant ode to African American success that fits well into the context of the album.


Hero (Featuring Keri Hilson)


Speaking of Nas’ acceptance of popular trends, I’m really happy he ended up working with Polow Da Don on this album. If synthesizers and Southern rappers were more respected amongst hip-hop purists, Polow’s work on last year’s Rich Boy album would have earned him respect just short of a DJ Premier-type level. Plus, he has been the driving force behind a lot of genuinely good songs from uninteresting artists. His beat on “Hero” is incredible. The song starts out with a chime-sounding loop over hard drums and from there goes through all kinds of movements, incorporating different synths, electric guitars and other sounds. Polow has a true composer’s sense of music. Whether dropping the beat or pulling and inserting sounds, he always seems to find the right combination of elements to properly emphasize what the lyrics are saying. Keri Hilson comes in for the huge, synthed-out chorus and the song has a very cinematic feel.


Nas addresses the whole N-Word controversy more directly here than anywhere else on the album. His insanely energetic verses serve as a defiant affirmation of his career accomplishments in the face of naysayers and a statement of desire to carry on and fight in his role as people’s champion. He keeps things relatively vague until the third verse, where he applies all of the preceding sentiment to specifically address the censorship of his title:


This Universal apartheid
I’m hog-tied, the corporate side
Blocking y’all from going to stores and buying it
First L.A. and… [Doug Morris, censored in released version]… was riding with it
But Newsweek article startled big wigs
They said, Nas, why is you trying it?
My lawyers only see the Billboard charts as winning
Forgetting - Nas the only true rebel since the beginning
Still in musical prison, in jail for the flow
Try telling Bob Dylan, Bruce, or Billy Joel
They can’t sing what’s in their soul
So Untitled it is
I never changed nothin’
But people remember this
If Nas can’t say it, think about these talented kids
With new ideas being told what they can and can’t spit
I can’t sit and watch it
So, shit, I’ma drop it
Like it or not
You ain’t gotta cop it…
…No matter what the CD called
I’m unbeatable, y’all!


“Hero” is Nas’ best radio-friendly song since “If I Ruled the World” (“One Mic” was a masterpiece but I wouldn’t call its sound “radio-friendly”, despite the fact that it was a hit). With a producer and singer involved who are both currently hot, this might be his best chance to seriously break into the mainstream since 2001, when he was one side of the highest-profile battle in rap history. No hip-hop artist has ever sounded this relevant so many years after what a lot consider his prime.


To be continued…


+ Parts: one two


Tagged as: nas, untitled
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