You know how contradictory we are in hip-hop. We are gluttons for punishment mixed into our pleasure. Happily, there's an album that'll give us equal doses of both.
I bet Louis Logic and JJ Brown, like many other artists, are just looking for the right break. This emcee and deejay have already enjoyed independent success, traveling internationally to work the venues and move product. A little hard work plus being in the right place at the right time and... hey, who knows, right?
Unfortunately, we hip-hop fans are a fickle bunch, aren't we? No other audience gives its stars less leeway than we give ours. We are a difficult, if not impossible, crowd to please. We can't stand, for instance, the idea that one of our emcees is a "biter". Originality in hip-hop is sacrosanct. In the hip-hop version of the movie Seven, the Morgan Freeman character would look at the scene of a battered hip-hop career and say, "There are seven deadly sins -- greed, envy, sloth, player hating, biting, cloning beats, and crossing over. You can expect five more of these." Still, although we can't stand "biting", we still love a song with a clever sample. Somehow, we don't really consider "sampling" a form of "biting", no matter how blatant and obvious the sample. See? That's fickle.
For another example, take our almost violent rejection of "mainstream" hip-hop. Walk up to any "hardcore" hip-hop fan and politely mention the most popular rapper or hip-hop group of the day. Go on, I dare you. Then, watch the reaction -- the anger, the resentment, and the inevitable refrain, "Yo, there's better stuff than this junk on the radio. Underground, man, underground."
But, like I said, we're fickle. Since we hip-hop heads generally despise "mainstream" rap in favor of the underground, you'd think we'd be happy when one of our underground icons climbs up a level or two on the publicity meter. Yet, when it happens -- especially when there's a hefty record deal involved -- we complain. We think our underground crews are "selling out" or that they'll be compromised by corporate budgets and commercial fluff. The more records they sell, the more cynical we become.
Maybe we act that way because we feel we've nurtured these artists. We feel like we've supported their art and encouraged their creativity. What if the emcee is selling the album on CD-R via his or her website? "We love music," we say, "so we don't mind if it's not flashy." What if there's no hook? "That's that raw rap," we say. "A song ain't gotta have a hook. F#!@ all that cornball radio stuff." And on and on it goes.
My theory is that we identify with the "underground" as an ideal, a hideaway known only to those who understand its gifts, an Elysian Fields of sorts, a symbolic stomping ground for the "underdog". Many of us (the "masses", as we are called) feel like we're constantly battling forces greater than ourselves. Like a Rocky movie, the underground rapper becomes an icon because the "underground rapper" represents us. As the underground rapper struggles to get heard, so do we. Everything else belongs to the category of "other"; consequently, the "mainstream" represents "them", the people who listen to the radio when we think they shouldn't or the people in suits who wouldn't know a dope emcee from a circus clown. As soon as we hear that our beloved "underdog" has accepted an offer no one could have refused, the former "underdog" also becomes one of "them".
That's when the backlash begins. That's why, at the end of the movie 8 Mile, Eminem's Rabbit character doesn't get signed to a record deal. He walks his butt back to work. It's business as usual, but the dream of his hip-hop payday lives on. Had he parlayed his success in the freestyle competition into a radio hit, hardcore hip-hoppers would've thrown popcorn at the screen.
Whatever the reasons, be it straight-up player hating or manifestations of a collective psychosis, Louis Logic and JJ Brown could get mixed up in the drama simply by virtue of their presence on the independent scene. Plus, they've got fans. And when you've got them, you've got to treat them right. Louis Logic, in particular, tours relentlessly, and maintains a website where he interacts continually with his listeners. After just a few minutes on the site, you feel like you know the guy because, in addition to his humorous thoughts, he shares some intensely private occurrences as well. Moreover, he's compiled an impressive underground discography, having shared the spotlight with J-Zone, the Demigodz, Jedi Mind Tricks, and Pigeon John. It's going to be a sad day for the underground, the day the major label executives show up and convince Louis Logic to sign with them. And I do mean them.
The lesson for hip-hop fans and the struggling artists they love: keep your sense of humor. Louis Logic and JJ Brown seem intimately familiar with that lesson, since the title of their latest album is Misery Loves Comedy. Nevertheless, you could break this album into its "misery" components and its "comedy" components. And, as witty as Louis Logic is with his lyrics, it's the "misery" portions that work best. In fact, portions of Logic's "misery" reach pure genius.
On the comedy tip, Logic sounds so much like Eminem, you have to wonder if you're listening to outtakes from The Slim Shady LP. Biting, of course, is a serious charge to level at an emcee, so let's not go that far. Instead, let's say the influence is extremely heavy. Further, Logic maintains a circus-like "Step right up, folks" sound to his vocals, a cadence that gets sing-songy in spots so that, despite what he's saying and despite the complexity of his rhyme schemes, it's as if you're listening to a song for kids. Which is quite a shame since Louis Logic has a serious way with his words. His delivery obscures that complexity, leaving you to focus less on what he's saying and more on how he's saying it.
Otherwise, Logic is quick with his punchlines. On "New Leaf", he says, "Louis and J didn't just turn over a new leaf / This music we made is growin' a few trees". What makes such a line forgivable is the expert production work from JJ Brown. The bass line holds this joint together, along with the percussion's bouncy rhythm and well-timed breaks. Actually, the production shines on every song, to the point that it's disappointing that there hasn't been more publicity for JJ Brown. He's obviously got skills.
On "Captain Lou El Wino" -- a song with similar production techniques as "New Leaf" -- we find our underground hero introducing himself like this:
"I'm your misguided leader, nice to meet'cha
Liken me to a sick high school teacher
The type you'd see under a stall on his tippie toes
Women know it's him by his nice new sneakers"
"Wino" is a lighthearted song that plays into the mythos Logic has cultivated in the underground, as he's known for writing songs about alcohol. On "Rule By a Fool", he let's you know that if you see him out and about, you won't see him guzzling fancy drinks and, "If you're an AA sponsor, you won't find me at all".
Still, nothing in the comedy section ("New Leaf", Captain Lou El Wino", "The Line", Beginner's Lust", "Rule By a Fool") rises to the level of the "misery" in Logic and Brown's masterpiece, "A Perfect Circle". The song begins, innocently enough, with a sample, possibly from an Art History lecture:
"When Pope Benedict asked Giotto for a drawing to prove his worth as an artist, Giotto drew a perfect circle... freehand. Perfection is a powerful message."
Then the beat drops and, when Logic's verse dips in, he thankfully turns down the Barker-at-the-County-Fair persona and switches on his laidback and lyrically focused storytelling skills. Logic plays a "single white male, 32 years old" who has "never been too great with the women". Most of his "human contact" has been "through the phone" and so we hear him using his gift of gab in an attempt to reach out and touch a potential mate:
"But fate had forgiven my shortcomings and brought somethin'
forth from inside me that guides me when a call comes in.
It's as if I'm blessed with a gift to talk someone into a spell unknown
when I'm lecturing on the telephone."
Like a born telemarketer (he thinks he can "sell Antarctica ice in wintertime with 29 inches that won't melt and mark up the price"), Logic dials all kinds of random numbers. He gets an old guy sleeping and a flower shop before he hears the voice of his dreams (played by Marisa Croce). From there, the story gets wilder. I won't spoil it -- see, it actually has a plot -- but let's just say you'll never predict where this story goes. Lyrically, Logic brings an intricately patterned tale of love, jealousy, and regret, definitely on par with Eminem's "Stan". Both songs feature clever and witty dialogue, as well as monologues from letters and, along with Slick Rick's A Children's Story, represent some of hip-hop's finest storytelling and introspection. Musically, JJ Brown lets you know, through his arsenal of sound effects and chilling guitar sounds, that something ominous is on its way.
While "A Perfect Circle" acts as the album's centerpiece, other wonderfully miserable tracks include: "All Girls Cheat" (note: guys, it's not just us), "Classy McNasty", "The Great Divide", "Up To No Good", "Morning After Pill" (note: the pill is for misery), "Misery Loves Comedy", and the folk-like hidden remix for "The Great Divide".
Perhaps Logic rhymes best over minor chords. I happen to think he's just a smart guy whose writing is stronger when it's intimate, even (and maybe especially) if it's fictional. Still, the "misery" can only do so much, since it's only half the album and, unfortunately, half an album doesn't completely get the job done. Luckily, that's when the fickleness of the hip-hop fan kicks in -- we'll say, "Hey, that's okay, the flashes of brilliance show how good these guys might be. Pretty soon, they're gonna blow up." Of course, until they do "blow up". See? It's just like I said. Hip-hoppers are hard to please. Save the joy, leave us the misery.