Curren$y’s debut album, Pilot Talk, is pure braggadocio, with rhymes about fancy cars and free-flowing liquor and free-loving women. The music, loving produced and arranged by Ski Beatz, sounds like an update of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, all the way down to the New York session musicians recruited to crank out mellow grooves. Curren$y clearly made it on blunted terms: the album artwork depicts a lone airplane flying over a landscape of lush green marijuana foliage. So Pilot Talk is like weed talk, with several narratives hidden underneath the stoner blather. On “Example,” Curren$y claims “reimbursement for paid dues,” then claims, “I am an example of what can happen when you quit being afraid to gamble.” For “Seat Change,” he mocks girls who want to “ride with a G” but “somewhere along the line she fucked up and realized she lost her seat.” His lines are pimp slick but thankfully shorn of delusion. When he flips a bevy of yeyo metaphors for “Audio Dope,” he clearly does it in service of the concept, not to build a farcical image of himself as a drug kingpin. The image is of a neighborhood (or, more accurately, Internet) baller. Pilot Talk boasts the cream of the blog rap crop, including Mikey Rocks from the Cool Kids, Big K.R.I.T. and Jay Electronica (who sharply compares Flavor Flav’s signature bowtie to the Nation of Islam’s attire). Even much-beloved weed rapper Devin the Dude drops a verse for “Chilled Coughphee.” A writer friend of mine, Christopher Weingarten, remarked to me that when Devin the Dude jumps in with sly wit like “I can fuck a bum up quick/ But that’s some tenth grade shit,” it only underscores Curren$y’s relative lack of vocal presence. Other critics have theorized that Pilot Talk’s artistic triumph is largely due to Ski Beatz’s memorable accompaniment. An NY vet whose catalog ranges from membership in early 90s woulda-beens Original Flavor to credits on Jay-Z’s classic Reasonable Doubt and Camp Lo’s “Luchini AKA (This Is It),” Ski Beatz initially produced Pilot Talk’s tracks himself, and then hired talented unknowns like bassist Brady Watt to transform them into instrumental gems. True, any rapper would sound incredible against the majestic sunshine funk of “Address.” But give Curren$y credit for lodging its hook into your brain – “Still nothing changed but the address.”
Late last year, Stones Throw Records announced that it would release a full-length album of tunes by its veritable resident producer, Madlib, in 2010 … every month. Dubbed Madlib Medicine Show, the 12-part series sounds like a rap nerd fantasy. The first installment, No. 1: Before the Verdict, is particularly pointed in its message of commerce as a soul-destroying, mind-blowing shit-stem. The cover depicts a charred one-dollar bill (with a weed leaf embedded in a corner), an industrial plant spewing toxic waste, and the World Trade Center being bombed by an airplane. The interior features photos of strangely voodoo-fied Africans — one has a hand protruding from her mouth — and the cryptic message: “There were only three witnesses. Two are dead. The other isn’t talking.” Before the Verdict’s 17 tracks consist of remixes of Guilty Simpson’s 2007 album Ode to the Ghetto, and a few previews of a forthcoming collaboration tentatively titled OJ Simpson. Guilty is a decent if ornery thug rapper, but he’s clearly no match for Madlib’s symphony of 70s soul “rapps,” funky howls, vinyl hiss, DJ cuts, burps and farts, pungent jokes culled from 60s comedy albums (Redd Foxx and Millie Jackson!) and police scanner snippets. The Detroit rapper’s litanies about “Gettin’ Bitches” and “Robbery” are vocal anchors drowned by the Madlib Invazion’s furiously funky creativity. Remember when that Quasimoto album intoned at the very beginning, “Welcome to violence”? These days, Madlib doesn’t just promise it. In rave terms, he has entered his hardcore phase. No longer positive and consciousness-expanding, the blessed weed smoke is fuel for a crank personality. The transformation is compelling, hilarious and frightening. As the rap world’s version of “reality” narrows into a handful of masculine fantasies, Madlib has become the era’s pamphleteer, printing out screaming headlines like a crazed prophet of doom.