Tag Archives: Hip-hop

MF DOOM – Operation: Doomsday.

Operation: Doomsday

MF DOOMOperation: Doomsday. Fondle ’em FE-86-CD (1999)

MF DOOM (born Daniel Dumile) is an English born rapper who got his start in the music business under the name Zev Love X in the hip-hop group KMD.  But his brother and bandmate Subroc was killed in a car accident and –at the same time — the band was dropped by its label.  KMD disbanded.  After working open-mics and the like, Dumile re-emerged as a solo act under the MF DOOM name.  His solo debut album was Operation: Doomsday.

His type of hip-hop zigged while commercial hip-hop zagged.  Some call this “backpack rap”, in reference to its appeal to music nerds listening with headphones on trains and buses (while wearing a backpack) — not the sort of music intended for dancefloor play “in da club”.  It was a resolutely indie/underground phenomenon initially, but eventually rose to prominence through the likes of Kanye West.  MF DOOM achieved great success himself years later with his collaboration with Madlib, Madvillainy.

The samples used on the album draw heavily from late 70s jazz fusion and smooth R&B, through 80s smooth jazz.  There is also extensive use of superhero cartoon samples.  The MF DOOM character is based on the “Dr. Doom” character from Marvel comics, and there are many samples related to that character woven through the album in a series of skits.  The musical sources for the samples represented — mostly — passé stuff among the audiences listening to hip-hop at the time.  Though the superhero cartoon references were semi-established via the Wu-Tang Clan, particularly Ghostface Killah‘s persistent use of samples related to Mavel’s Iron Man character in his solo recordings around the same time.  DOOM’s rapping tends toward long, dense verses delivered with a kind of lackadaisical drawl.  In concert, he later took to wearing a metal mask based on a prop from the movie Gladiator (2000), released the year after Operation: Doomsday.  He had already performed in more improvised masks leading up to the release of his debut album.

A useful reference point, from outside hip-hop, is Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti.  Both draw from the music of their youth, especially the leftovers of media of the past that have lost most of the symbolic representation of cultural sophistication they once carried.  But the similarities largely end there.  While Pink uses a reverent/irreverent approach, MF DOOM instead builds a kind of protective cocoon of wounded cynicism.  He hides behind a mask and pseudonym, drawing from childhood cartoons/comics to construct a supervillain character.  As many have noted, this might be seen as a self-defense mechanism after Dumile’s personal traumas of the early/mid-1990s.  It also tends to close off and protect its innocence from corrosive outside forces of the adult world.  The invocation of a supervillain character rather than a superhero one is a slight twist.  But it is still a variation on the sort of worldview the writer Jean Genet expressed in Journal du voleur [The Thief’s Journal]: “Repudiating the virtues of your world, criminals hopelessly agree to organize a forbidden universe. They agree to live in it. The air there is nauseating: they can breathe it.”  Of course, at its extreme, this is a similar strategy to one that “hoarders” use in response to personal trauma. 

Harmony Korine‘s film Mister Lonely (2008) is more or less an attempt to analyze precisely the same thinking that drives Operation: Doomsday.  In that film, the main characters are celebrity impersonators who are unable or unwilling to live under their own identities, instead forming a commune.  Eventually, after circumstances cause the commune to fall apart, the protagonist sheds his costume and assumed identity and lives as himself.  There is something to the notion that the pressures of modern society to be an individual (and “personal brand”) are too great, especially for the most vulnerable and the traumatized.  But, still, there is a problem with the lack of a strategy to ever step out from behind an assumed identity.  There is never any hint of how that might happen on Operation: Doomsday.  This music seems to stop at presenting a defense mechanism.

At a time when hip-hop’s growing commercial dominance was causing the music to stagnate somewhat, Operation: Doomsday. came out of left field.  For instance, OutKast was considered by many hip-hop heads to represent something new and different, even as that group was (in the late 1990s at least) offering only a slight variation on the glorification of the same money-obsessed, misogynistic “playa” personas that were still commercially dominant.  MF DOOM, on the other hand, suggested there was a whole lot more possible, much further afield from the mainstream.  Sure, groups like Hieroglyphics already had a small following along these lines, but it was after Operation: Doomsday. found surprising success (even if only coincidentally) that momentum carried forward with the Anticon collective, the Project Blowed collective, Antipop Consortium, Kanye, and more.

And it probably has helped MF DOOM’s commercial success that Hollywood became absolutely fixated on making one big-budget superhero movie after another after Operation: Doomsday. was released — a trend that took off more or less immediately after the release of this album.  While certainly there is no direct connection between MF DOOM’s appropriation of comic book characters (or Ghostface’s, etc.) and Hollywood’s economic priorities, they both fit together in the same social context of neoliberal hyper-individualism.

When this album came out my roommate at the time was very into it, though I was more ambivalent.  I probably like it more now than back then, though I think DOOM did better later.  It does have its drawbacks, namely a few songs that overstay their welcome with gimmicks stretched out too long.  From a production and beats standpoint, Take Me to Your Leader (under another pseudonym King Geedorah) is better.  From a lyrics and straight rapping standpoint, Vaudeville Villain (under yet another pseduonym Viktor Vaughn) is better.  Overall, even the later effort under the MF DOOM name Mm..Food is a bit better.  Though this solo debut is still strong.

The album has been reissued numerous times.  One deluxe edition comes in a collectible lunchbox, complete with trading cards and a bonus disc with 12″ and instrumental versions of various songs.  Another reissue includes the bonus disc but omits the non-musical extras like the lunchbox.  The bonus disc is fine, but hardly essential.  Reissues have replaced the original cover artwork (by Lord Scotch 79th) due to unspecified licensing issues.  The lunchbox reissue instead uses artwork (by Jason Jagel) that vaguely resembles the original, but the other bonus disc reissue has cover artwork (also by Jason Jagel) that parodies Paul Robeson‘s Songs of Free Men.

Public Enemy – There’s a Poison Goin On….

There's a Poison Goin On....

Public EnemyThere’s a Poison Goin On…. Atomic Pop AP001 (1999)

After attempting to rethink the basis of Public Enemy’s music on the He Got Game soundtrack, which garnered mixed reviews at best, PE rethought their music again on There’s a Poison Goin On.  In a way, it sort of set the tone for a lot of what the rest of PE’s career would be about.  He Got Game catered to the more melodic R&B-inflected style of hip-hop that was gaining popularity at the time.  The title track was great, but the rest didn’t impress.  With There’s a Poison Goin On the group sort of splits the difference between more melodic beats and singing/raps and their old style.  The results?  Well, music nerds and hip-hop heads debate the best Wu-Tang Clan solo albums.  This might be the best Wu-Tang “solo” album made by people unaffiliated with Wu-Tang!  Chuck D is political, but less so than a decade earlier.  “World Tour Sessions” is the catchiest thing here, and it has a little bit of Chuck’s politics, but it has a softer hook than something like their early 1990s hit “Can’t Truss It.” “I” is great.  This was DJ Terminator X‘s last album with the group until a surprise reunion with the group more than a decade later.

Aside from the purely musical aspects of the album, Public Enemy established their new business model here.  They signed with a new label dedicated to online distribution (though this was released in physical format too).  The label flopped, as broadband internet access was not widespread yet.  But more than distribution channels, the group was ready to sidestep major labels and stick with a more independent path, allowing them to try new things and have more control over their work.

This is a middle-of-the-pack PE album, but one that is worthwhile for fans who have already heard the classics.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

This Unruly Mess I've Made

Macklemore & Ryan LewisThis Unruly Mess I’ve Made (2016)

Macklemore proves he is no fluke with his and Ryan Lewis’ follow-up to their surprise independent hit The Heist.  In many ways, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is an even better album.  There is some filler (“Dance Off”), like the last album, but there are more good songs here.  In fact, this album is pretty solid from top to bottom.

What makes Macklemore stand out more than anything is that in an era of “third way” politics, where those supposedly on the left have capitulated to the political right, leaving a vacuum of genuinely left perspectives (in other words, the third way faces off with the first way, glossing over the absence of engagement with the second way), he goes in another direction.  He is rather blunt and explicit, but in that he is just a countervailing force to the rise of unconcealed bigotry.

“Growing Up” is an ode to Macklemore’s daughter, reminiscent of The Coup‘s “Change Your Draws.”  “Kevin” takes on the corruption of the pharmaceutical industry and the complicity with the medical industry that over-prescribes medication.  “Let’s Eat” is about body-shaming and is a humorous exploration of the complex relationship with food people have in late capitalism (the Scott Joplin-like piano riff is pitch perfect).  “White Privilege II” ranges from snippets explaining how mothers let their kids listen to Macklemore because he’s “positive” to #blacklivesmatter activism.  All of these are issues marginalized — if not outright facilitated and exacerbated — by mainstream media.

The opener “Light Tunnels” is great.  It is a bunt commentary on Macklemore attending a major music award ceremony.  It is both blunt and critical because he spends much of the song probing the intersection of art and commerce, and making explicit the economics and exploitation built into the system.  As with his debut album, some listeners can’t stand this approach.  Their criticisms tend to be that he is impertinent.  But really, those critics tend to be the desperate lumpenproletariat who see no way forward and harbor delusions that hierarchies of power and oppression will somehow benefit them.  Macklemore is explicitly wondering about a system that is better (more egalitarian) and not based on exploitation — not that he outlines such a system (now that would be a boring song!) but he traces the contours of the present system to show how far removed it is from what he considers a better system.

In short, Macklemore continues trying to shift the locus of debate in hip-hop music.  He continues to question the way the genre and the music industry as a whole seems built on bias and discrimination (against women, the overweight, etc.), and dwells on empires of superficial attention-grabbing.  Liberals absolutely hate this, because they advocate a form of universal domination by capital and Macklemore is questioning the tactics of capital in ways that could be significant.  But, fuck ’em, seriously.  Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are not standing wholly apart from the music industry and it’s demands.  They get their hands dirty in it.  But they also advocate for an independent point of view that is not about just accumulating money and fame in a crass materialistic way.  If it also needs mentioning, there should now be no doubt about Macklemore’s rapping abilities.  He’s spot on here, with impeccable rhythm for his style of essay rapping.  Ryan Lewis also deserves special attention.  He may not be pushing any boundaries, but his melodic backing tracks, which lean heavily on piano and backing vocal harmonies with a sensibility heavily informed by the old boom-bap style, complement and enhance the raps deftly.  This album may have been a commercial flop, compared to the duo’s last album, but it is definitely an artistic triumph.

M.I.A. – Arular


M.I.A.Arular XL 05667 (2005)

M.I.A. (Missing In Action) makes damn good dance music.  It’s the kind that could just as easily bounce off the walls of a club in Great Britain, Sri Lanka, or the U.S.A.  Over rumbling, twitching bass, singer Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam ekes out her raps/vocals in short and choppy rhythms.  But the real stars here are the producers.  Huge drumbeats, sounding thicker than usual, and electronic bleeps blast through “Fire Fire.”  The steel drums of “Bingo” create a startling and infectious mash up with synthesized sounds that approximate grating a power saw along a steel washboard.  The sound is infectious without being fancy.  If anything, the music borders on the jaggedly raw.  These songs can, at any moment, sound like any folk music on the planet: dancehall ragga, seemingly ancient Southern bass hip-hop, or pretentious British IDM (so-called “intelligent dance music”).  Throwing in IDM influences on cuts like “Galang” is just another way of expanding M.I.A.’s folk music influences.  After all, IDM is folk music, just the kind that usually comes from middle class white kids.

Yeah, the lyrics are about terrorism, guns, governments, resistance, boys.  But that was Earth(2005) — and also Earthy(2016).  Honestly, these are ordinary topics.  No big deal if you are alive and aware in the world today.  Then again, Maya Arulpragasam is a refugee of the Sri Lankan civil war, and these words do reflect what she knows.  The personal element is there, in the lyrics, but the album is more than that.  This is ass-shakin’, fist-pumpin’ music.  If you’re not moving — literally or figuratively — listening to this, something is broken but it isn’t anything on Arular.

“Galang” is one song not to miss.  It’s a tract against pushers, authoritarians and jackasses everywhere.  And it’s a practical tribute to that great unchampioned cause of worldwise, worldwide dancing togetherness.  At least, man, you gotta get into the moment and just go with this music.  Inside the beats, everything moves together.  If only this philosophy could translate outside dancefloors, that would be something. It’s also an accomplishment to make it happen anywhere.

With all the artists who have hopped on retro electronic dance beats, it is refreshing to listen to Arular and find it hold up so well a decade later.  This ruthlessly and unsentimentally plunders the past and puts those spoils and castoff debris to good and better use for a left/progressive political stance.  There is a hint of kitsch, but this is at the same time beyond kitsch.  Rarely do such approaches pull off the aggression and in-your-face attitude of Arular though.  Little of what M.I.A. did later had the unsettling power of this album — though Matangi eight years later was a return to form (if somewhat of a commercial disappointment).

Beyoncé – Beyoncé


BeyoncéBeyoncé Columbia 88843032522 (2013)

This album is an excellent encapsulation of contemporary pop music.  The first thing that stands out is how capital-intensive this music is.  In other words, it takes a tremendous amount of resources (capital) to make an album this finely layered, refined and varied.  Rather than one producer crafting many of the backing tracks across the whole album, there is an army of producers, songwriters and musicians.  Most singers could never summon the resources to make an album that way (Public Enemy‘s Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp is an exception that proves the rule, fueled by artistic credibility — and associated crowdfunding — rather than the largest bank account).  The eclecticism is stunning.  Some songs are in the style of electronic dance music, others like vintage Prince, or more recent D’Angelo.

What this album stands for is the “mogul” mentality, that the world needs big-shot moguls who are better than everyone else.  In a way, this is the ultimate (and most seductive) way of promoting collaboration with or resignation to the demands of the powerful cabal that controls the major institutions of society.  No, that is not meant as some sort of conspiracy theory.  Instead it means that the society in which Beyoncé was released is very polarized and unequal, and the repeated message across the album is that if you accept the dictates of the moguls then maybe you too can become one someday — like winning the lottery, this requires that many, many others lose, and discussions about the hardships of the winners say nothing of the hardships of the losers.  In an interesting way, the repeated interludes (like Beyoncé as a kid on the “Star Search” TV show) and the “it’s hard to live up to expectations to be pretty as a woman” theme make a cynical capitulation.  Rather than reject the social demands to be “pretty”, or reject the system that creates moguls by creating dire poverty and widespread insecurity, this kind of just shrugs that off and declares there is no alternative; just develop a coping strategy to accept it and deal with it.  This expresses the “survivor” mentality of a psychotic culture.

As reviewer Andrew Johnson wrote:

“Of course, the thing about this album is that it’s the ultimate undisputed-queen-of-pop power move, released as it was with no advance press, in the middle of the night on iTunes with no one driving it but Beyonce herself (and well, obviously her husband, but we won’t begrudge her that). Beyonce is in a position now that she doesn’t need anything but herself, and the musical result is an album that feels completely liberated: ‘Yonce indulging every filthy impulse she has, adorning beats that are dark and not explicitly radio-seeking, dictating that things are going to go her way, at least for the next 67 minutes. She’s got the best producers and songwriters alive working with her here and the guest list for features is the very top tier in the hip-hop world, but no one can take the spotlight away from Bey here. She’s a big enough figure now that she can carry a top-selling album on nothing but reputation alone and if her musical accomplishments never seemed to meet that stature before, well now she’s fixing that.”

But the real trick here is that she may be “liberated” and in charge, but only because she is following the dictates of big-business entertainment and endorsing the “mogul” view of the world.  She still reiterates the precepts of reactionary “social darwinist” theory

In spite of any misgivings about the premise of the album, it is a marvel.  There is practically a flawless delivery.  The pure craftsmanship is stunning.  And the beats are absorbing.  Beyoncé is not an especially captivating singer on her own, but she more than lives up to everything these songs demand.  Certainly this is a collaborative effort, but she also emerges as someone nominally in charge of the proceedings.

I was pleasantly surprised at how good this album was.  I do retain the same general misgivings as I had for Taylor Swift‘s 1989Beyoncé is a more evolved album though.  It concedes something to cynicism, even as it reaffirms something very similar to what Swift promotes (with denial in place of cynicism).  But this does carry more baggage and internal contradictions than it lets on.  Still, when the beats get going this is hard to argue with.  In an effort to be open-minded, I listened to a Britney Spears best-of collection, and there the simplistic, even crude brushstrokes seemed to lack the detail and extreme talent brought to bear on Beyoncé.  Frankly, the Spears stuff was terrible.  So this is really one of the finest examples of mainstream pop music of its era.

Antipop Consortium – Arrhythmia


Antipop ConsortiumArrhythmia Warp WARPCD94 (2002)

Hip-hop often is very boring, because so much of it is so conservative.  There are plenty of acts following the party line, so-to-speak.  Everything is wrapped in the protective blanket of genre “rules”, and expectations and ambitions are contained within carefully delineated formulas that can seem like an inescapable supermassive black hole.  Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there are acts like APC.  With cerebral, abstract lyrics jammed full of non sequiturs and poetic wordplay, plus production that bears more resemblance to European electronica than traditional breakbeats, these guys definitely offered a unique sound.  And they were willing to depart completely from convention to do that.  It seems APC are loathed by many solely because their records don’t resemble so much other hip-hop music.  But that kind of criticism (if I’m generous enough to even call it that) is so thick-headed and laden with narrow-minded assumptions that it hardly is worth the effort to debunk such obviously flawed logic.

One of my favorite aspects of Arrhythmia, clearly the group’s best album, is the way in which it sidesteps all the nonsense that I earlier dubbed “the party line”.  This album isn’t about grown men trying to live out adolescent fantasies.  It isn’t about macho boasting of vicious and violent tendencies, not to mention empty self-promotion and grandstanding about non-existent talent.  It isn’t really about demeaning women or homosexuals.  It isn’t an apologist’s monologue on life as a dimwitted fool.  Of course, the album isn’t explicitly about avoiding those things, in some kind of preachy, paternalistic fashion either (except maybe parts of “We Kill Soap Scum,” if I read the symbolism right).  Like I said, it sidesteps all that, and ultimately derives its power from allowing us listeners to ignore the party line out of existence.  Instead the listener is treated to esoteric wisdom, abstract personal narratives and funny musical tricksterism.

The group:  M. Sayyid was perhaps the best rapper around at the time, in terms of his technical ability to vocalize, and yet was still willing to joke around with his lyrics.  Then there’s Beans, who is an incredibly well-rounded rapper, capable of writing some impressively complex lyrics.  High Priest may have the least imposing talents, but he’s a master of rhythm and timing, and he can build tension by applying those skills like few others.  Producer Earl Blaize finely crafts minimalist, glitchy beats in a way that smoothly pulls together the contributions of three rappers who are really quite different in their individual styles.

This disc is definitely not the kind of thing you would throw on at a party or a dance club.  It’s more inwardly drawn and inflected.  There is hardly a single sample on the whole disc, stripping the affair of clear reference points.  This isn’t to say more dance-oriented stuff is automatically whack, but why must everything be that way?  APC go in another direction.  They certainly aren’t the only ones who do that.  Although I do feel like they were among the few acts around the turn of the millennium identified with the hip-hop genre that made music that was interesting for what new ideas it presented rather than merely how well it satisfied genre formulas.  Hell, there ain’t many act period that can do that, hip-hop or otherwise.

But of course, if there is no other reason to love this album, I must add that here High Priest delivers one of my favorite lines in hip-hop on “Dead In Motion”:

“Shasta after I slash rap with a protractor”

Airborn Audio – Good Fortune

Good Fortune

Airborn AudioGood Fortune Ninja Tune ZENCD95 (2005)

Years ago, the groundbreaking hip-hop trio Antipop Consortium broke up (they later reunited for a tepid “comeback”). Beans went solo, releasing two albums and an EP in the following two years. The other members, M. Sayyid and High Priest, formed Airborn Audio. A full two years after the breakup, Airborn Audio’s debut Good Fortune arrived. It would seem that an appropriate response would be, “Why the wait?” Good Fortune is pretty disappointing. It certainly is a solid album, one as good or better than any mainstream hip-hop album of the day you could name. Still, Sayyid and Priest have to be held to a higher standard. On Antipop’s landmark Arrhythmia, Sayyid could tear up lyrics with speed, clarity and rhythm that most rappers only dream of attaining (well, contemporaries like DMX and 50 Cent probably gave up on that dream a long time ago). Now, his rhymes are mostly lethargic, and always heartbreakingly mundane. Both Sayyid and Priest waste most of Good Fortune on pointless jabs at and nods to other rappers, boring pop culture references and lame self-promotion. Their raw talent bubbles up from time to time, but mostly it is hidden behind hokey effects.

The major disappointment with Good Fortune is that these former innovators have now thrown their hats into the same ring as countless others. Despite the claim on “Monday Through Sunday” that Airborn Audio has the “same agenda” as Antipop, it comes out sounding like a lie. If even if this album is slightly ahead of the pack that counts for little. That would give too much credit to direction in which the pack was headed! The best songs, like “Bright Lights,” lean on beats that probably would have been cutting edge eight or ten years ago on a DJ Spooky album. Today it’s hard to get excited about them.

Good Fortune proved far less interesting and nowhere near as the best releases from former bandmate Beans. This album seems like a step backward for two of hip-hop’s brightest young talents.

Eric B. & Rakim – Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em

Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em

Eric B. & RakimLet the Rhythm Hit ‘Em MCA MCAD-6416 (1990)

Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em was an ambitious hip-hop album in its day. The duo pulled rank. Their earlier albums were more popular and acclaimed then, but it’s those other ones that today sound like relics.

There are at least three stages to hearing this album. First, you just dig it because it’s a solid album with a snap to the beats. Next, you start to decipher Rakim’s intricate lyrics. Finally, you realize how intricate Eric B.’s mixes are and how they intensify everything on the disc. You don’t even have to get past phase one. Really that’s the beauty of it. Bobbing to it or dissecting it, either works.

That “Keep ‘Em Eager to Listen” comes right before “Set ‘Em Straight” says it all. Nothing on the album is accidental. This feels like the album Eric B. & Rakim always wanted to make if they could. Well they did it. The record receives all the talent like uninvited guests who arrive with inexplicable expectancy.

There seem to be more than enough James Brown samples to go around. It takes quite a Godfather fan to pick out precisely where they come from though. Eric B. breaks everything down a rebuilds something of an entirely different form. He was a bridge between old school and new school. As a DJ he could scratch with anybody, but he could build cohesive songs through improvisation. Eric B. seems to have a greater awareness of why he’s improvising and where this is all headed.

Rakim was simply one of the most talented rappers and lyricists of his day — a status that isn’t exclusive to hip-hop. “In the Ghetto” is the unsentimental tale of his grim existence. Rakim flexes his lyrical muscle to get some needed breathing room.

This is known as a lyricist’s album, but that sells Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em short. Rakim lays out some fine lyrics but it’s the delivery and the assembly of the choice whole that make this a classic. Bleak in a dense mass. The lyrics fit into an orchestrated statement said in more than words.

Hip-hop albums too often end up disposable vehicles for nonsense fads. Eric B. & Rakim set out to make an album for the ages. Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em quickened hip-hop’s ascension. A few have continued the challenge. The others perhaps ignore this as it might reveal their own weaknesses.