• Notes

    Notes on Ne-Yo

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    For much of his career, Ne-Yo has presented himself as a 21st century gentleman, a handsome performer who dresses stylishly, sings incredibly and at times angelically, and dances with lithe grace. His 2006 debut In My Own Words superimposed his face against a notebook, a nod to his origins as a songwriter responsible for Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable,” among other hits. It was a sign to the audience that he was a man with real talent, and not just another cookie-cutter pinup from the black pop machine. Other songwriters during that era tried to emerge from behind the scenes — remember Sean “the Pen” Garrett and Johnta Austin? But Ne-Yo radiated star quality.

    The “Mr. Perfect” image has also haunted him. There’s a funny moment on “She Said I’m Hood Tho” from his new album Non-Fiction when a woman (played by R&B singer Candice, one of his protégés) says, “I prefer your old shit to your new shit. That song with Pitbull was kinda cool, but after that you went left and I couldn’t fuck with you.” Ne-Yo wasn’t the only one who alienated his core urban audience while chasing pop crossovers like Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” and Calvin Harris’ “Let’s Go.” Unlike Rihanna, Usher and Chris Brown, however, Ne-Yo’s adventures in EDM seemed to generate confusion over who he is, and what he represents.

    On Non-Fiction, he assures us that he’s an R&B singer, although he can’t help but take a few sonic detours, whether it’s progressive house for “Who’s Taking You Home” or hip-house, of all styles, for “Coming With You.” One mystery remains – he’s recorded several memorable singles full of warmth and honeyed charm, but not a critically hailed masterwork. Usher has his Confessions; Trey Songz has Ready. But the same ability to channel his pencil-and-pad skills into any kind of style, whether it be R&B, dance-pop, or country (see his “Only Human” and “She Is” duets with Tim McGraw) also keeps Ne-Yo from defining himself, if only for the space of a singular full-length work.

    Still, Ne-Yo is a creative force to reckon with. The solidly constructed Non-Fiction proves that, as does its breakout hit, “She Knows,” which finds him recapturing the pulse of R&B with help from Juicy J. With time, perhaps he’ll unravel his perfect but enigmatic personality and channel it into a classic as exceptional as his musical talents.

    (Rhapsody – January 26, 2015)

    Photo by Alex Flint.

  • Spotlight

    Spotlight On: Wale

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    It’s not a coincidence that Wale’s new album is inspired by his most critically-acclaimed project to date, 2008’s The Mixtape About Nothing. With The Album About Nothing, he wants to regain some of that praise. “This is my fourth album. I want some respect,” he recently told Billboard.com.

    In some ways, Wale can only blame himself. After the failure of his messily assembled but intermittently inspiring 2009 debut Attention Deficit led to a break with Mark Ronson’s Allido imprint, Wale aligned himself with Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group and took on the louche trappings of mainstream rap. His tonal shift was marked by a cameo appearance on Waka Flocka Flame’s “No Hands.” “I’m with Roscoe [Dash], I’m with Waka, I think I deserve a chance,” he rapped. “I’m a bad mu’fucka.”

    Wale’s 2011 comeback album, Ambition, had much better production than Attention Deficit, and a pair of hits in “That Way” and “Lotus Flower Bomb.” But it sounded anonymous, as if Ross and Co. had cooked up a batch of urban pop bangers for maximum commercial impact. Ambition remains his biggest seller to date, yet it had the effect of perplexing his audience. Now, we don’t know what to expect from him.

    In most cases, that’s a good thing. Wale is an unusual vocalist, and he rhymes as if he’s skittering across the track, rushing to get all of the words out of his mouth, and adding odd time signatures to the beat. When he’s matched with a compelling topic, like “Diary’s” end of a love affair, or “LoveHate Thing’s” conflictions about being famous, he engages in ways unlike any other rapper. But his stylistic quirks sometimes leave him sounding disengaged, as if he’s trying to find the center of a song that often doesn’t warrant his effort.

    2013’s The Gifted amplified the confusion. Does he consider himself a proud inheritor of D.C.’s vaunted go-go funk tradition, as displayed on “88”? Is he an introspective vocalist akin to J Cole? Or is he a shamelessly pop rapper who isn’t afraid to make dumb radio hits like “Clappers” and its “Da Butt”-inspired chorus. Perhaps that’s why his work tends to draw sharply divided reviews. In his zeal to encompass post-millennial hip-hop, he often splits us into gratified and enthusiastic supporters, nonplussed critics, and pure haters.

    If early reviews are an indication, The Album About Nothing won’t change that dynamic. Jerry Seinfeld may appear as advertised, but it’s largely in the form of interludes. For example, Seinfeld notes how someone stops him mid-walk on the street and says, “You’ve got really white shoes”; Wale turns that into a dense commentary about the price of materialism. Contrary to the famed Seinfeld observational comedy “about nothing,” The Album About Nothing is packed with weighty societal issues. And some of the music Wale employs isn’t memorable. Much like Lupe Fiasco, Nas, and too many other superior lyricists, he’s not as adept at picking strong backgrounds as he is at laying out a subject.

    Give Wale credit: He raps with audible passion on this one. “I can’t move with too many rap dudes,” he rhymes on “The Middle Finger.” “In the booth, truth the only tool I trust.” He proves he’s not an opportunist, and that he cares about his art. While it may be years before the rap world decides what Wale’s legacy will be, he’s not going to wait around for us to figure him out.

    (Rhapsody – April 1, 2015)

  • Notes

    A Brief History of Scarface

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    If there is a definitive list of the greatest rappers of all time, then Scarface ranks highly on it. He’s widely regarded as one of the first and greatest voices to emerge from the South.

    Born Brad Jordan in Houston, Texas, Scarface’s career dates back to the post-NWA rise of reality rappers across the nation. His group, the Geto Boys, nearly equaled NWA’s infamy. Their self-titled album, which included titles like “Mind of a Lunatic” and “Assassins,” led to several major retailers and distributors refusing to carry the album. But the Geto Boys’ finest song was “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” a top 40 hit from We Can’t Be Stopped that famously begins with Scarface’s words, “I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles…At night I can’t sleep, toss and turn/Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned.”

    “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” prefaced the haunted, remorseful tone of Scarface’s solo career. His debut album, Mr. Scarface Is Back, was a frightening and unrelenting volley of gunfire rhymes over funky drummer beats. But by 1994’s The Diary, he struck a compromise between his coldhearted gangsta cuts; a love rap for the ladies; and tracks like “Hand of the Dead Body,” a duet with Ice Cube that not only rues our frequent censorship of gangsta rap, but also distances Scarface the rap character from the successful real-life musician that Brad Jordan had become.

    As Scarface racked up three platinum and two gold albums through the 90s, he developed quirks, like the all-black suits that made him resemble a grim reaper in his music videos. Beyond the commercial ticks, however, what sustained him was his mastery of tone and his engaging storytelling. With its funereal, gloomy production by Mike Dean and Tone Capone, Scarface’s 1997 top 15 hit “Smile” is the best of the many songs dedicated to the late 2Pac (who recorded a verse for it before he died in late 1996). On “I Seen a Man Die” from The Diary, he details an ex-con who tries to return to the streets, only to be murdered, cursed to drift through the netherworld until he finally accepts his demise. “I still gotta wonder why/ I never seen a man cry until I seen a man die,” he raps on the chorus.

    This year marks the revival of Scarface the solo artist after years of silence and a fitful, sometimes-combative reunion with his Geto Boys crew. He released a critically acclaimed autobiography, Diary of a Madman: The Geto Boys, Life, Death, and the Roots of Southern Rap, where he discussed his lifelong battle with depression. On September 4 he’ll release his first album in 7 years, Deeply Rooted, an addition to a legacy that’s already secure.

    (Rhapsody – August 28, 2015)

  • Notes

    Snoop Goes Pop

    Two decades ago, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s ascent from Long Beach Crip to number-one debut album with a bullet and a murder charge was the target of a Newsweek cover story that asked, damningly, “When is Rap 2 Violent?” Today, he’s known as Uncle Snoop, and his wink-wink naughtiness seems harmlessly all-American. His youth football league warrants regular coverage on ESPN, while he costars with his UCLA college football-bound son, Cordell Broadus, in the documentary Snoop & Son: A Dad’s Dream. He makes regular appearances on WWE Raw, and bro comedies like Old School and Entourage.

    Perhaps the most remarkable transformation lies in Snoop Dogg’s music. For millennials, he’s the dogg buried in the sand, cornrowed head wagging about, as Katy Perry sings about “California Gurls.” Smoker icons in training like Wiz Khalifa are his “nephews.” He makes EDM bangers with David Guetta and Afrojack, and offers his imprimatur to everyone from Kendrick Lamar and Dam-Funk to K-Pop stars Girls’ Generation and Psy (the “Gangnam Style” guy). His just-released album, a full-length collaboration with Pharrell Williams titled Bush, barely has any rapping at all, just Snoop crooning blissfully about big booties and THC edibles over a light disco-funk beat.

    How did Snoop grow from the man who rapped on “Deep Cover,” “It’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop,” to singing duets with Willie Nelson? Perhaps the turning point was his 2004 album and arguable highlight of his post-Death Row career, R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece. Or maybe a bit earlier, when he and Pharrell cavorted in Rio De Janeiro on the video clip “Beautiful.” Ever since then, his biggest moments have had a decidedly pop tone, whether it’s hanging with Wiz on “Young, Wild & Free,” or singing in auto-tune on “Sexual Seduction.”

    Nowadays, he’s everyone’s favorite uncle, the young-at-heart OG who gets a little too drunk at the family barbecue, is probably too old to know the latest rap hits, and is definitely too old to be flirting with the young ladies in the backyard. Who doesn’t love that guy?