What Means W.A.R.?

I know everyone’s got their genitals out for the Kanye West/Jay-Z collaboration, Watch the Throne, but I haven’t even listened to it yet. I’m not saying I won’t like it, mind you – I’ve already found some surprisingly good hip-hop this year and I dug the hell out of Kanye’s last album . I just haven’t made time for Kanye and Mr. Beyoncé and I don’t know if I will for quite some time. I know they’ll get plenty of critical love (the most absurd thing about Pitchfork’s review? Writer Tom Breihan’s confession that he liked Ocean’s Twelve, a movie that crawled so far up its own ass that it couldn’t help but vomit up a shit-stinking, infuriatingly indulgent-yet-lazy-as-fuck ending that makes my eyes want to bleed just thinking about it) and move plenty of units and, even if I love Watch the Throne, I know Jay-Z and Kanye West couldn’t give less of a shit what I think about their album. And rightfully so.

I’m guessing Pharoahe Monch, being a fairly astute dude, also doesn’t give a rat’s ass what I think of his music so I’ll start my review of W.A.R. (which stands for We Are Renegades. I know. I know. But just bear with me, will ya?) with my own confession (in case you couldn’t tell already, there’s no chance that I’m about to admit to liking Ocean’s Twelve): I bought W.A.R. on the first day it was available in Amazon’s digital store because I fucking loved Pharoahe Monch’s 2007 album, Desire. Sorry, that’s not the confession. My confession is that I avoided listening to W.A.R. for months – months – because one song features a collaboration with Citizen Cope, a guy who manages to marry (in a predictably unsuccessful and cringe-inducing fashion) a strong desire to be Bob Dylan to an equally strong desire to be Chuck D. Before I’d heard even a single beat of Pharoahe Monch’s new album, it had inadvertently reminded me that Citizen Cope is allowed to make music for a living in an economy where some people have no job at all. So I shunned W.A.R. for a while, fearing the worst.

Which was, admittedly, a dumb thing to do.

Citizen Cope’s (thankfully non-rapping) cameo on W.A.R. is not great, but Cope avoids fucking up the entire album and that’s the nicest thing I’m ever going to write about him (unless he announces his retirement from music tomorrow). Goofy abbreviated title notwithstanding, W.A.R. is always good and often great, which is in accordance with my expectations for Pharoahe Monch, who I think might be one of the most underrated rappers working right now (by his own admission, on “Calculated Amalgamation,” Monch claims to have “raised the bar so high/ the bar’s afraid to look down”).

There’s a loose sort of concept behind W.A.R. that has something to do with some soldier in 2023 finding some hidden information in Afghanistan that reveals the nefarious plot of some ill-defined evil organization that presumably started the war (and maybe some other wars) in order to facilitate that most dreaded of all conspiracy tropes, the one-world government that just totally oppresses the shit out of everyone. You can completely ignore this concept while listening to W.A.R. and you’ll do just fine. In fact, Monch spends more of the album at war with mainstream hip-hop (both in sound and fashion – at one point during album highlight “Let My People Go,” he admonishes the hip-hop youth to pull their pants up) than anything else, which is just fine with me.

The thing I’ve loved most about Pharoahe Monch since the first time I heard him is his voice, both as a writer and the actual vocal tone of his rhymes. Dude’s voice sounds like a hot, buttered saxophone and, whether he’s delivering a bare-knuckled verbal beatdown to an inferior MC or preaching about the understandably uneasy relationship African-Americans still have with our police and/or government, his rhymes are compelling, intense, and sometimes just fucking hilarious. There are a couple great guest performances, most notably by Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, Jill Scott, and Ms. Jean Grae who is the second highest ranking member of my Make Another Fucking Album Already! Club (behind Santigold). Grae’s verse on “Assassins” is phenomenal and it’s just one of the ways in which W.A.R. overcomes its wonky concept and guest shot from Citizen Cope.

Should I have known better than to doubt Pharoahe Monch’s greatness, even given the presence of the aforementioned dopey Cope? Probably. But, assuming your reading comprehension is above about a first grade level, you’ve probably gleaned by now that W.A.R. is far from perfect, even if CC is the album’s most glaring weak spot. The concept, though easily ignored, isn’t even half baked and if there’s one thing I like more than an easy to ignore, half-assed concept, it’s the lack of such bullshit in the first place. The actual songs on W.A.R. are just fine on their own, especially for people who dug Desire as much as I did. But without its wisp of a concept, W.A.R. would simply be a collection of funk, soul, and gospel-tinged, wonderfully old-school rap tunes from a guy whose skills easily eclipse those of his better-known peers. And I think that would certainly be enough.

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You Stay Classy, 50 Cent (And Some News)

If you read music news as much as I do, you might already know that 50 Cent said some really tasteless, stupid shit about the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan at the end of last week. Taking to his Twitter feed, Mr. Cent twatted (past tense of “Tweet,” at least according to Stephen Colbert, whom I implicitly trust in matters of this sort), “I had to evacuate all my hoe’s from LA, Hawaii, and Japan,” as a way of indicating the seriousness of a tragedy that has claimed, last I checked, almost 2500 lives and counting.

So sure, that was a dick move.

Fifty’s “apology,” such as it wasn’t, was to say that some of his tweets are “ignorant” and helpfully adding, “I do it for shock value.” Now, I wasn’t all that shocked that people would say stupid shit about a tragedy on the internet and, as a person who strongly values my right to say whatever the fuck I want here on Bollocks!, I don’t think Mr. Cent owes us an apology. He’s free to say horrible stuff and we’re all free to call him a tasteless sack of shit for saying it. That’s the deal.

What really gives me the red ass about what 50 Cent twatted is that it provides ammunition for idiots to write off the entire genre of hip-hop as the last refuge of illiterate, violent, uncaring thugs. Don’t believe me? Steel your nerve and click this link. Where are you? You poor bastard, you’re in a Fark comment thread. See the first comment there, by Birth Control 2 Major Tom (clever handle, that)? “I hate rap so much. It’s total bullshit and the idiots involved couldn’t get a job slinging fries at Jack-In-The-Box,” he says. I don’t think this Major Tom guy (who, given his knowledge of their hiring practices, probably manages a Jack-In-The-Box) would like hip-hop no matter what, but when people like 50 Cent say stupid shit for “shock value”, it gives people like Major Tom a little grist for their bitchy, anti-hip-hop mill. And that sucks for me. I don’t think rap record sales will plummet because of this, but it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Major Tom has stereotyped all rappers as assholes and/or idiots and 50 Cent just held that stereotype up as high as he could.

So you know what would be really shocking, 50 Cent? How about you stun the world by giving one million dollars to help the good people of Japan, some of whom might even listen to your music?

Okay. Time for some Bollocks! news.

Over past few days, I’ve been seriously thinking about what goes on here at Bollocks! and trying to evaluate whether or not it’s worth continuing this little music-blogging adventure. Specifically, I’m starting to feel like the blog is growing largely on the premise that I’m really, really good at not liking things. At first, when almost no one was reading Bollocks!, I thought this was kind of funny. But I’ve discovered a couple of things recently that give me pause: 1) I am increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of becoming even minimally well-known for disliking things. I actually like a lot of music and I’d like to think I’m pretty good at liking things; 2) people seem pretty willing to get on board with what I thought was comical negativity, but that changes drastically when the negativity is turned on a band or song that they actually really like. Though I have maintained time and time again that my opinion of music is just that and that we can be fine friends even if we hate each other’s record collections, music is something that is very personal to people, maybe more than any other type of art. It soundtracks our lives and the last thing I would want is someone who likes John Mayer to think that I hate them because I can’t stand “Waiting on the World to Change,” especially if that song has a context for you that I can’t possibly understand.

But here’s the rub: I can’t pretend that I think all music is good in some way and I damn sure can’t pretend that I like everything. I don’t. I’m kind of suspicious of people who claim to like everything (although I’ve met precious few people who make this claim). So I want to try to figure out how to make Bollocks! more positive (though no less visceral in terms of the language; sorry, everyone’s mom) and still keep it honest. It may sound trite, but all this news coming out of Japan has reinforced to me the need for real human positivity in the world; our precious lights can be extinguished at any minute and that should be the only excuse we need to refrain from shitting on each other constantly.

So here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna take the rest of the week off (give or take a day) and try to figure out how to have Bollocks! be fun for me to write, for you to read, and also have it be some minor force for awesomeness in the world. You can help, if you’ve any interest in reading this blog. Shoot me an e-mail with your thoughts. You can tell me what you’ve enjoyed about Bollocks! and what you haven’t. If you have a cool idea for improving things around here, let me know what it is. Next week, I’ll fire up the blogging engines and see if things feel better.

If you really can’t last four more days without any Bollocks!, here are some of my favorite posts from the last three years:

Here’s my review of Cee Lo Green’s last album, along with some thoughts about kids and dirty words.

I actually had a lot of fun writing about Wolf Parade’s Expo 86. It’s kind of a ridiculous post, but I thought it was funny.

Tom Waits is my hero.

A while ago, I sat down with Sarah Palin to discuss the Future of the Left. It didn’t go well.

One of the albums I think I’ve been best at liking is Middle Cyclone by Neko Case. She is a goddess.

Okay, kids. I’ll see you next week. Please do email your ideas, thoughts, and threats.

Turn It Up Until the Cops Come

If there is some sort of Presidential or Congressional Medal for Fan Service, Atmosphere should probably plan a trip through Washington, D.C. very soon. The Minnesota rap duo have a habit of filling the time between proper releases with awesome little gifts for the people who allow them to do this for a living. Between 2005’s stellar You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having and 2008’s even more stellar When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold, Atmosphere dropped – for free – a “party” album called Strictly Leakage which probably ranks right behind When Life Gives You Lemons as one of the two best hip-hop releases of 2008.

Of course, a follow-up to When Life Gives You Lemons will be a most welcome thing whenever it gets here. Until it does, Atmosphere has kindly decided to release 2 EPs on one disc (some of us would call that an album, being 12 tracks and all) and they’ve given the whole package the unwieldy full title of To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EPs. We’ll be calling it To All My Friends for short and whether you think it’s an EP or an LP, you can assure yourself of one thing: like the bulk of Atmosphere’s recorded output, To All My Friends is fucking awesome.

Pitchfork’s review of To All My Friends, which was mostly positive, contained a pretty hefty jab at When Life Gives You Lemons for its tendency to use (gasp!) real instruments. The P-forkers accused Slug (MC Sean Daley) and Ant (DJ Anthony Davis) of aspiring to be Gym Class Heroes, an accusation every bit as baseless as Pitchfork’s assertion that Sufjan Stevens is some kind of musical wizard. In fact, Sufjan Stevens is a trust fund kid’s Andrew Bird. Pitchfork isn’t wrong to be nervous about the use of live instruments in hip-hop, though: the usual result is something horrifying known as rap/rock, which seems to be all frat kids can come up with when rapping around a real live rhythm section. Here’s a test: can you name any good rap/rock bands? No? Me either. But Pitchfork is missing two crucial points that set Atmosphere’s use of real instruments in a different class than, say, Linkin Park. First: while there is a certain rock undercurrent to a lot of Atmosphere’s instrumentation, some of it is clearly soul and R&B based, creating funkier rhythms for Slug to flow over. Second, Slug writes better lyrics than your average Gym Class Hero or any of their ilk. I realize that’s not hard, so allow me to clarify: Slug writes better lyrics than the bulk of his hip-hop contemporaries and lyrics matter a lot in hip-hop, maybe more than in any other style of music. Besides, attributing the shittiness of Gym Class Heroes to their use of live instruments is overlooking a whole pile of more terrible features of their music. Like collaborations with Fallout Boy on songs that steal their chorus melodies from Supertramp. But – and I can’t stress this enough – Gym Class Heroes (and Rage Against the Machine, still one of the most overrated bands ever) notwithstanding, live band hip-hop can still be done well. If you saw De La Soul’s set at Coachella last year (or presumably anywhere else), you have a good idea of what I’m talking about.

About the time Sage Francis dropped the Lyrical Master ball and crawled up his own asshole to restyle himself as some sort of hip-hop Johnny Cash (which, you know, when you put it that way, sounds like a fuck-terrible idea), Slug picked that ball up and has been eking out Heisman-worthy yardage with it ever since, occasionally pitching on an option to fellow Rhymesayer Brother Ali. Slug crafts witty, humorous stories of life at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, a position he has had experience occupying. Even when he’s engaging in that tired old tradition of dissing other rappers, he’s legitimately better than they are – “Hope” provides the best example on To All My Friends, and it hinges on a jaunting electric guitar lick. Mostly, though, To All My Friends spends a lot of lyrical time being positive and reminding the listener to do the same. “Free Fallin” and “To All My Friends” end the album (er, EP[s]) with a one-two punch of 1) be grateful for what you have and 2) I’m grateful for what I have. Now, gratitude is nice to hear from rappers (I mentioned this in my review of Brother Ali’s Us, which you should own by now), but it struck me while listening to To All My Friends that it’s really difficult to do the whole positivity thing without sounding like a deluded idiot – Atmosphere pulls it off with style, largely because he seems to be operating in earnest. His optimism is hard-won to be sure, but that’s the best kind of optimism. If I can digress here (only slightly) for a minute, I think the reason a lot of overtly positive music (think Christian rock) sucks is because the positivity tends to exist in a vacuum. I don’t begrudge you your optimism if you haven’t suffered much, but I don’t find it very interesting either. If life has never really hurt you, of course you’re going to be positive. But if that’s the case, your life is probably pretty fucking boring. It’s much more compelling to me to see someone who can keep their head up even though life keeps throwing rocks at their face. I think Atmosphere and fellow Minnesotans the Hold Steady possess a gift for making decent positive music because they’re not just telling you to put on a happy face because Jesus loves you. Their songs acknowledge the negative aspects of life which help us appreciate our good fortune. To All My Friends will never try to kid you into thinking that everything is going to be all right because Atmosphere doesn’t believe that everything can be all right – things can be pretty good for quite a while and, if you calibrate your brain right, you can let the good shit carry you through the bad times.

A Not-Bad Badly Broken Code

I am rooting so hard for women in hip-hop, it’s not even funny. So much mainstream hip-hop is male-dominated, macho asshole bullshit (50 Cent and Eminem come to mind) and I find myself longing for a female perspective delivered in awesome rhymes over seriously heavy beats. If you recommend a female hip-hop artist to me, I will check her out without reservation. Because I want them to succeed. Not just a little, either. I want a woman who performs hip-hop the way Suzan-Lori Parks writes plays, which is the way John Coltrane played the saxophone (seriously, her plays  are – among other things – jazz. You can snap your fingers to that dialogue*). Is that a tall order? Sure. But life’s too short to accept mediocrity (which is why, incidentally, I don’t drink shitty beer. Life’s too fucking short. If you can’t afford the good stuff, don’t buy beer. And I don’t want to hear any wild accusations of elitism. Respect for craft is not elitism, it is the understanding of and appreciation for real art. Some people drink Budweiser and like Thomas Kinkade paintings. I drink Guinness and prefer the works of, say, James Ensor to the so-called Painter of Light, which is, I shit you not, really what Kinkade calls himself. The prick).

So where, in the broad spectrum of my extraordinarily high hopes, does A Badly Broken Code, the full-length debut by Dessa (born Margret Wander. She once dated fellow Doomtree artist and Linkin Park soundalike P.O.S. Okay, to be fair, he sounds a little smarter than Linkin Park, but the overall aesthetic strikes me the same way. Maybe punk and rap weren’t meant to go together, the Clash’s “Magnificent Seven” notwithstanding), land? She’s no Suzan-Lori Parks of hip-hop, but A Badly Broken Code is probably not best classified as a hip-hop album. Yes, Dessa raps on a lot of the tracks and graciously avoids some of the typical things that piss me off about hip-hop albums, namely skits and songs about what a badass MC she is (there is one song, “Crew,” which is about how awesome Doomtree is. I’m okay with that, because it’s showing respect for the people who allowed her to make and put out this record. In fact, more rappers should try showing gratitude instead of just bragging all the time. See Dessa’s fellow Minnesotan, Brother Ali, for other excellent examples of gratitude in hip-hop) but there’s some very captivating R&B-style singing on A Badly Broken Code (truly gorgeous harmonies adorn both “Poor Atlas” and “Into the Spin”) and some tracks possess a meter that shows Dessa’s spoken word roots pretty clearly. None of which is a bad thing, mind you, but it does muddy up the album’s clear distinction as a hip-hop record.

So let’s call it hip-hoppish and get down to whether or not A Badly Broken Code is a good album, whatever genre you or I or anyone cares to stamp on it. The answer is an overwhelming “mostly.” It’s not so bad that I can get away with saying, “More like a badly broken album!” and then guffawing myself into a coma. It’s not bad at all, really. Here’s the thing that seems to be troubling me about it and I just realized it this last time listening to it – I like all the bits where Dessa sings way better than the ones where she raps. Her lyrics are fine, her cadence and meter are usually okay, it’s just that part of me really likes the sound of her singing.

And it’s also that part of me wants the female equivalent of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and I haven’t heard that yet (if you have, tell me what it is and I will listen to it and then either belligerently argue with you or belligerently agree with you). Dessa is probably never going to make that album because her musical curiosity pulls her in too many directions at once to have that kind of focused outrage and those kind of pounding beats. A Badly Broken Code doesn’t grab my attention the way my favorite hip-hop albums do, but it is a lovely listen with really ornate instrumental arrangements and better takes on the old themes of love, fidelity, loss of innocence, and death than your favorite emo band is likely to offer in their entire career (although “Matches to Paper Dolls” is a little too trite for my taste. The simile feels forced to me). All expectations aside, Dessa is an intelligent, strong-voiced woman with a wide range of talent. Like all good artists, she fearlessly risks pretension and melodrama in the attempt to tell her stories her way. Though Dessa has been praised for her dense, verbose lyrics, I would suggest that she work on finding a way to be erudite in a little tighter meter – it helps things flow a little better and, if you’re handy with a thesaurus, you can still get across the same intelligent content while preserving a true hip-hop hook. But maybe hip-hop hooks are not what Dessa is interested in and I will not try to mold her into my hip-hop heroine if that’s not what she wants to be. In which case, ladies, the job is still open.

*Okay. I’ve noticed in the last week that my spell-check on Gmail and now here on WordPress doesn’t like the proper spellings of words like dialogue and catalogue. They seem to prefer the aesthetically awful “catalog” and “dialog” which were not in common usage earlier in my lifetime. I can’t help but feel like you have a “dialog” if you grew up in America and still can’t really read or write English. Like maybe you think professional wrestling is real and the Marmaduke movie is gonna be hilarious.