Dwight “Heavy D” Myers, who passed away November 8 from a heart attack at the age of 44, was part of hip-hop’s original “New School,” a wave of artists that brought the genre its first real critical attention. Before the “New School,” most music fans casually dismissed rappers as single-driven electro artists and black music novelties. Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, NWA, Public Enemy and others forced the world to accept them on their terms instead of the rockist criteria used to judge Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. With the “New School” emergence, hip-hop grew from a fad to a generational force to be reckoned with.
In Weezy-ology, there is good Lil Wayne and bad Lil Wayne. Good Lil Wayne is the dastardly New Orleans weed head, the sizzurp-drinking gangster that sires children with beautiful actresses, gets locked up on gun and drug charges and records hours and hours of songs; a fountain of countless punchlines so funny he personifies comedy, and the self-proclaimed “best rapper alive.” Bad Lil Wayne is the Auto-Tuned fool, the guy who straps on a guitar at shows even though he can barely play it, the “son” who used to kiss his “daddy” Birdman on the lips, the would-be artiste who sang too much on Tha Carter III, maker of the pillow-humping ode “Lollipop,” and the lovable ragamuffin whom teenage girls and middle-aged ladies from The View treat like a dreadlocked kewpie doll. We tend to treat these sides of Dwayne Carter as binary objects, deifying the former and cracking jokes about the latter. Still, they are one and the same man, and the Young Money clique is the summation of Lil Wayne’s true ambition.
Tyler, The Creator’s Scum Fuck Flower Boy is a good album — and that’s coming from someone who has criticized Tyler quite a bit over the years (and still feel the same, thanks). But it’s frustrating to see critics try to comprehend the sexual complexity Tyler reveals on the album in light of his earlier lyrical outrages. Being “queer” is not shorthand for progressivism. Roy Cohn was gay. Peter Thiel is gay. Tyler’s penchant for “dolphins” and “dancing in pink panties” doesn’t necessarily excuse his past homophobic and misogynist language.
BTW, I’m not being censorious here. I like Syd’s music despite her occasional reduction of women to drug-addled strippers. I like Frank Ocean’s music despite his bragging about boning “bitches.” Many rappers and R&B singers have espoused similar themes; take your pick. I didn’t like Goblin (although I acknowledge its game-changing nature) because it was a meandering mess, not because Tyler presented himself as a bigoted misanthrope.
Andre 3000, one of a handful of rappers who can legitimately claim to being one of the best ever, has delighted and flummoxed us for years. We can only speculate on the reasons why.
Every so often, Andre Three Stacks teases us with a handful of guest appearances on other artists’ songs. On the surface, that’s no big deal: When a rapper is hot, like Rick Ross and 2 Chainz, he can generate dozens of cameo appearances in less than a year. But when Andre blesses a track, it’s still a major event because OutKast has been silent since 2006’s uneven Idlewild soundtrack (and the inarguably bad movie it accompanied). They didn’t necessarily go out on top, but their string of classic albums matched only by Kanye West has left us hungry for fresh material, whether it’s a new Big Boi solo project like 2010’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty, or an odd verse from ‘Dre.
It doesn’t hurt that Andre 3000’s guest appearances tend to be terrific in that casual, offhand manner that only he and his inimitable ATL drawl can manage. His verse made Devin the Dude’s “What a Job” one of the best Southern rap songs of the past decade. He gets on such a roll when he woos a girl during the bridge of John Legend’s “Green Light,” that he chuckles at his audaciousness, and makes us laugh, too. And he made rap fans actually listen to a Ke$ha song, “Sleazy 2.0 Get Sleazier” (though we really didn’t want to). There is Jay-Z’s “30 Something (Remix),” Beyonce’s “Party,” and Drake’s “The Real Her”… perhaps the only time another rapper out-shined Andre 3000 is on an “Interlude” from Lil Wayne’s The Carter IV, when Tech N9ne speed-rapped a burner verse. Even legends have their off-days.
In July, two more verses from Andre 3000 appeared. For Frank Ocean’s “Pink Matter,” he remembers a woman who “had the kind of body that would probably intimidate/ Any of them that were un-Southern/ Not me cousin/ If models are made for modeling/ Thick girls are made for cuddling.” Rick Ross’ “Sixteen” finds him tortured over the concept of a 16-bar verse, and how he can’t fit what he has to say in such a short frame of time. Andre also plays guitar on both tracks, perhaps as a way of promoting his upcoming Jimi Hendrix biopic. On “Sixteen” in particular, he attempts a stilted, Hendrix-like solo with a few strummed notes and a little reverb. Such goofiness is to be expected from Andre Three Stacks – after all, this is the guy whose only solo album to date is a little-promoted children’s record, 2007’s Class of 3000. It’s what we love about him.
(Rhapsody – August 3, 2012)
Nina Simone is having a cultural moment. Songs like “Feeling Good” and “I Put a Spell on You” are used in numerous TV shows and commercials. A memorable Felix Da Housecat remix of “Sinnerman” continues to get play in nightclubs around the world. One of the most popular songs from Kanye West’s Yeezus, “Blood on the Leaves,” liberally samples from her haunting rendition of the anti-slavery classic “Strange Fruit.” The indie band Xiu Xiu recently issued Nina, a collection of songs she wrote and/or made famous. Last year, Meshell Ndegeocello did the same with Pour une âme souveraine: a dedication to nina simone. Finally, there is the controversial biopic on Simone’s final years in France, Nina, scheduled for release next year.
So the woman once lauded as the High Priestess of Soul seems remarkably present. But her activism, and the way she challenged audiences with her fearsome intellect, seems distant from our current societal mores for cheery pop capitalism. It is true that Xiu Xiu and Ndegeocello, both out-and-proud performers, have paid homage to a woman whose sexuality is the subject of fierce academic and fan debate. But lost on the contemporary listener is the way she incorporated motifs from classical and jazz compositions into her work. A mid-20th century listener that was raised on piano lessons and the great American songbook would have immediately picked up on these allusions. A post-millennial listener mostly educated through pop radio would not.
Simone, who passed away over ten years ago, left behind an intimidating catalog. Some were live performances, others were recorded in the studio, and many are a mixture of both. Her 1958 debut, Little Girl Blue, yielded the only top 40 hit of her career in “I Loves You Porgy,” which caught fire after the fortuitous release of the 1959 hit movie Porgy & Bess. But she didn’t earn her title as a vital cult act a la the great Gil Scott-Heron. Her albums sold well, and she landed a few hits on the R&B charts, too, including 1969’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
Where to dive in? Her voice, so deep and sonorous, yet sharp and expressive like a lovingly plucked cello bass, is a wonder everyone should hear.
(Rhapsody – December 10, 2013)