[26 July 2012]
Eric B. & Rakim’s “Follow the Leader” is the greatest song in the history of mankind. While Eric B. whisks you into outer space on an impossibly deep bass squelch and Baby Huey horn stabs, Rakim lays down one of the most astounding solos ever committed to tape. Focus too much on the lyrics and you might miss his musical accomplishment: he unpacks the implications of Eric B.’s beat. Changing his rhythmic pattern with every line, Rakim traces the outlines of a core cadence that he never states directly. More than even the drums, Rakim propels the music using only the perfectly coordinated movements of his mouth and throat. That he does all this while saying actual words—quotable words (“I’m everlasting, I can go on for days and days”), words of winking audacity (“In this journey of the journal I’m the journalist / Am I eternal or an eternalist?”)... well, there’s just nothing like it, in music or art or literature or anywhere else you might care to look.
OK, maybe a couple other things compare. Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”; Ice Cube’s “The Nigga You Love to Hate”; The Coup’s “Breathing Apparatus”; A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario”; Mr. Lif’s “Heavy Artillery”; Eminem’s “Stan”—each audacious song becomes the greatest song in the history of mankind any time I listen to it. Of those, only “Follow the Leader” appears on the soundtrack to Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, Ice-T’s new documentary about the skill and craft that go into rapping. That’s fine; picking overlooked songs for soundtrack albums is a fool’s game, akin to yelling at people in the comments of their year-end Top 10 lists. Whatever your beef, at least listen to what this compilation is trying to tell you. But that’s the problem with this soundtrack: while it may make for a pretty good listen, it’s useless as an aesthetic manifesto. It doesn’t live up to its audacious subtitle.
First, the “pretty good listen” part. You can’t fault a compilation for roaring into your life with N.W.A.’s dive-bombing “Straight Outta Compton”, Run-DMC’s obnoxious “Sucker M.C.’s”, and “Follow the Leader”. Further along, Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock show up with “It Takes Two”, which still feels like waking up inside the party of your dreams. Speaking of dreams, Schoolly D’s proto-gangsta “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” is all whooshing nightmare: a gleeful sicko picks up a woman, discovers she’s a prostitute, and then goes to a party and pulls his gun on an MC for biting his style. Throw in Afrika Bambaataa’s “Don’t Stop… Planet Rock” and Nas’s “The World Is Yours”, and you’ve got yourself a big handful of rap essentials. No matter how much you love them, you need to hear them just to understand the conversation.
The album veers from such obvious tentpoles to overlooked gems. “As High As Wu-Tang Get”, a rarely anthologized song nestled within the mammoth Wu-Tang Forever, features a great verse of Method Man spitting so far behind the beat, he sounds like he’s stepping on chewing gum. Public Enemy represents not with one of their many classics, but with “Harder Than You Think”, a blazing song from their little-heard 2007 album. And since a good DJ feature never hurts, the soundtrack includes Mantronix’s largely instrumental “King of the Beats”. (Confidential to Shaun of the Dead: it’s not electro, it’s hip-hop!) Every so often a rapper appears between songs with one of Something From Nothing’s freestyle demostrations. These snippets are often impressive and they help keep the album moving along.
So far, so listenable. But as you listen, questions arise. Maybe seeing the movie clears things up. (No theaters near me are showing it.) There must be a reason, for instance, that the soundtrack producer picked Q-Tip’s pleasant little sing-song “Vivrant Thing (Club Mix)” over Tribe’s “Scenario”, which features the most joyful song lyric in the history of mankind: “So here’s Busta Rhymes with the scenario.” (If you’ve never heard the song, Busta goes on to destroy the world and rebuild it in the image of a dungeon dragon.) And there must be some rationale for including, out of 16 full-length songs, only one by a woman and two by non-New Yorkers. Poor MC Lyte appears next to last, in the Token spot, with her so-so “Cold Rock a Party”—and not even the more vivrant Bad Boy Remix, which would’ve at least let us hear Missy Elliott.
But then, giving the Virginia-raised Missy some time would have meant tentatively acknowledging the South, which is apparently off limits. OK, I understand, this is just a movie soundtrack and you can’t cover everything, so I will simply calm down and ask the soundtrack as politely as possible: where the fuck is the South? Because the cover of this innocuous soundtrack is emblazoned with the huge words “THE ART OF RAP”, implying that its contents will summarize the genre for proverbial men from Mars and other newbies. And IF I’M NOT MISTAKEN, Southern rap was arguably the most vivrant musical genre last decade. Of all music! Not just rap! It blew up the characteristic rhyming styles of Missy, Outkast, and Ludacris, who prioritize unique musical shapes that often twist their words out of place. The South produced production auteurs—including Mannie Fresh, Organized Noize, and, if we’re counting Virginia, Timbaland and the Neptunes—who reshaped rap’s sound. Weezy! Jeezy! Crunk! Um, Bushwick Bill, since it sounds like I’m calling dwarfs! Heck, Ice-T could’ve just slipped in the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” and he would have spared you this rant. Is the South’s embarrassment of riches not “art”?
Such omissions make Something From Nothing more conservative than it should have been, which means its portrait of rap is too conservative. Most everything here follows a similar template: male New Yorkers rapping virtuosically about how great they are, using the time-tested metaphors of money and violence to make their points, with beats that favor hard ambiance over hooks. There’s at least one exception to each of those criteria—Run-DMC weren’t all that virtuosic, for instance, and hooks don’t get any bigger than “It Takes Two”. But Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw”, Gang Starr’s “Full Clip”, Das EFX’s “Real Hip-Hop”, Ultramagnetic MCs’ “Ego Trippin’”, and Nas all fit the profile exactly, and the others come close. Each of these songs sounds fine on its own, but the overall effect gets a little old. Not as old as Das EFX’s “figgedy-faggot” bigoty-bullshit, but old nonetheless.
Something From Nothing ultimately sells rap short. Anybody who’ll give rap the time of day knows about virtuosic poetry. What’s missing here is more audacity—those times you can sense rappers achieving things that surprise themselves and us. Think of Jay-Z impersonating the cop in “99 Problems”; Eminem (who appears in the movie) flying free of the beat yet keeping perfect time in “Stan”; Roxanne Shanté beating U.T.F.O. at their own game; Trina and Gillette taunting the pants off everybody else’s men; or Nicki Minaj destroying the world and rebuilding it in the image of a “Monster”. And audacity doesn’t necessarily mean virtuosity. Witness the Ying Yang Twins, the Sugarhill Gang, and L’Trimm, all of whom continue to echo throughout the culture. Whether the producer of this soundtrack approves of all those examples hardly matters. They’ve all contributed to the art of rap, and together they tell a richer, more thrilling story than the one on Something From Nothing.