[16 April 2008]
On Self-Made, when Rocko says he’s got one thing on his mind and that one thing is “money, money, money”, you can take him at his word. The Atlanta, Georgia-based rapper, manager, and label head is not kidding. Rocko’s lyrics are all about the cash. You know, the riches. Cheddar. Loot. Paper stacks. Cream. By a conservative estimate, at least 90% of Self-Made is devoted to accumulating wealth and to the joys of conspicuous consumption. There’s more consumption than accumulation in that 90%, however, as Rocko’s fixation with money usually revolves around what he can buy rather than his methods of acquisition.
In this regard, the album is like a sonic advertisement for a multitude of products and name brands. Rocko’s big hit, the Drumma Boi production “Umma Do Me”, summarizes Rocko’s worldview quite nicely. And, just so you don’t make the same mistake I made, that’s pronounced “I’m'a do me”, with emphasis on “do” and “me”. When the song first arrived on BET’s 106 & Park countdown, my Hooked on Phonics techniques kept giving me weird results—“Um-uh, Dumb-uh?”, “I’m a dome?”, “You-mah-doo-mah?”—before I finally heard the brotha pronounce the word.
The album’s remaining bits veer away from the basic template, providing a couple of stories about backstabbers (“Snakes”), girl watching (“She Can Get It”), the need for love (“Thugs Need Love To”), and the revolving door of the golden rule (“Karma”). By contrast alone, these songs help to elevate Rocko’s lyrical game, although the set is lyrically weak as a whole. It doesn’t help matters that the crooning hooks in songs like “Hustlin’ Fo”, “She Can Get It”, and “Thugs Need Love Too” indicate that the album might have been better as an R&B showcase, with Rocko and (hopefully) others in cameo roles. Then there’s the production, consisting of familiar synth swirls and programmed drumbeats, but definitely the album’s biggest asset. Notwithstanding these positives, Self-Made makes for a weary listen and, except for the last song, the reggae-imitating “Can’t Stop”, you get the feeling you’re listening to the same track over and over again, musically and lyrically.
Not that synth-laden rap songs about possessing and spending money, and sometimes making money, can’t be entertaining. Of course they can! (I think). And it’s not that Rocko’s consumer exhibitionism falls into the crunk-rap or Southern rap category of hip-hop that has ignited much of the Chicken Little critique of the genre (“The music is falling! The music is falling!”). One of the biggest criticisms leveled at “crunk” and “ringtone rap” is that the subject matter is predictable and, most of all, frivolous. People don’t like it when rappers talk about clothes, cars, rims, and bling.
But sweeping generations are rarely useful in rating the qualities of art (unless we’re generalizing about the act of generalizing, like I’m doing), and this case is no different. I’m not prepared to categorically dismiss all songs that exalt the paper chase or equate the size of a person’s stacks of cash with his or her esteem or self-worth. Think of all the records we’d have to shoot down. That’s right, no Eric B. & Rakim in “Paid in Full”, with Rakim saying, “So I dig into my pocket, all my money’s spent” and “Thinkin’ ‘How can I get some dead presidents?’” or Wu-Tang Clan saying, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me, C.R.E.A.M., get the money—dollar dollar bill y’all”. I’m not even sure I believe “money is the root of all evil”. I think I agree with Ayn Rand’s character, Francisco D’Anconia, in Atlas Shrugged, saying, “Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort” and “Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men’s stupidity, but your talent to their reason.” Then the character detours through a long lecture about how the exchange of money represents honesty and morality and so on. I love me some Atlas Shrugged, but if you think double-disc hip-hop albums contain filler, check out an Ayn Rand soliloquy.
On the flipside, I’m not prepared to categorically anoint all “positive” or “socially conscious” records as superior to their bling-encrusted, rim-spinning counterparts. Granted, I’m not personally invested in rims or bling, but that’s not the sole reason for Self-Made‘s lack of appeal. I’m not personally invested in murder or death either, but I’m not against listening to a Scarface album or, to take a holistic view, watching one of The Godfather films for the billionth time. I could watch Michael Corleone all day.
No, Self-Made sinks on its own. Surprisingly, it might have been a sharper, more consistent album with a more ambitious approach. “Can’t Stop”, as mentioned before, reaches for a reggae vibe. Although the song falls short, and leans toward mimicry, the attempt is still appreciated, at least as an effort to move outside of the rapper’s comfort zone. Lyrically, Rocko’s skills as an emcee are in need of improvement, mostly in terms of moving away from his slow drawling rhymes and reevaluating the complexity and logical congruence of his verses. On some songs, like “Hustlin’ Fo” (“Who you think I hustle fo?”) and “Meal” (“I’m huuuungry as heeeell”), the drawl accentuates the emotion. If he’s rapping about being hungry or being down on his luck, the drawl becomes a passably handy device for matching delivery with subject matter. Otherwise, it sounds tedious and, when multiple vocal tracks are layered to complete a verse, a bit on the lazy side.
By “complexity”, I don’t mean using bigger words. Rhyming “onomatopoeia” and “gonorrhea” might have been a nice trick but, then again, Rocko ties “cinematic” and “charismatic” together in “That’s My Money” and it didn’t add much spice. And I’m not complaining about him “rhyming” a single word with itself either. That type of repetition doesn’t really bother me so much, and I’m not sure why everybody gets bent out of shape about it. My problem with Rocko’s lack of lyrical complexity is that his songs about money and material possessions tend to be one-dimensional. Even when he offers justifications for his worldview, those justifications are usually too obvious to make an impact. “Scared of last place, that’s why I get my hustlin’ on”, he tells us. And so we’re forced to swim in the shallow end of the pool.
Couple this with Rocko’s droning delivery, and the results are flat and uninspired. The human being behind the money and materialism, whether real or imagined, gets lost in the bling. It’s harder to take an album seriously when the rapper’s persona becomes a caricature. Rappers can rhyme about cars and rims if they want to, but the challenge is to somehow make us care. Otherwise, we’re listening to self-indulgent monologues instead of engaging songs. Admittedly, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two, but Jill Scott belting “I’m gon’ be who I be” in “Hate on Me” (2007) has way more credibility than Rocko saying, “You make it sprinkle, I make it tsunami” in “Umma Do Me”.
The logic problem is equally glaring. Take “That’s My Money”, a song about the ladies who are only interested in Rocko’s money. Such women are depicted as shallow and solely focused on worming into position as Rocko’s wife to stake a claim on his riches. Peep the chorus, “She only got one thing on her mind and that’s my money”. Now, it would be unrealistic to say money isn’t sometimes a motivating factor in relationships. I get that. But isn’t it equally unrealistic to be shocked or, worse, outraged that your potential romantic partners are interested in your money after you’ve spent most of your album and video advance flaunting your riches? That’s like opening a restaurant and advertising beef burgers as your specialty and then getting exasperated when burger lovers show up. “Damn, why they wanna stick me for my burgers? Why can’t I get some vegetarians up in here?” Honestly.
Another example is “Priceless”, in which Rocko assures us he’s aware that there are people who have more money than he’s got. This sets the stage for his contention that his “swag” makes him unique. It’s his impeccable sense of style, not his money, you dig? You can’t put a price on “swag”, right? Well, sort of, because his idea of “swag” nevertheless appears to be based on money and purchasing power. What it boils down to is this: (1) Rocko has money, (2) money won’t buy you the respect Rocko has, (3) Rocko has respect and “swag” because he can buy stuff, and (4) don’t question it. Likewise, “Old Skool” doesn’t take a trip down memory lane or stake a claim on artistic integrity, as we might expect from the title. “My old school costs more than your new school”, Rocko insists, rattling off his prizes, like having a different expensive car for each day of the week, and hobbies, such as racing those luxury cars.
Normally, we as listeners don’t require thematic unity among an album’s songs. We’ll generally accept some variations in perspective as artistic license. Here, money is intertwined in the album’s mission statement, but the monetary themes don’t make sense. When the inconsistencies aren’t mitigated by impressive rhyming skills or a captivating delivery, trouble is sure to follow.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/rocko-self-made/