Monthly Archives: February 2013

Miguel, Frank Ocean, and the New Wave of R&B

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When my good friend Calvin told me that I needed to stop everything I was doing and listen to Miguel’s latest album Kaleidoscope Dream¸ I was a bit skeptical: “We’re talking about the same Miguel, right?  The R&B newbie whose only hit thus far was “Quickie?”  Yes, that guy.  He knew what I was thinking.  How could a guy whose best lyrical substance didn’t surpass “No bite marks, no scratches, no hickies, I just want a quickie,” release an album that was worth the stop-in-your-tracks kind of listen session that Calvin suggested?  But I rarely disagree with him on matters of hip-hop and r&b, and this case was no different.  If you haven’t listened to Miguel’s album, consider this a pay-it-forward from Calvin. Stop everything you’re doing, and give it a listen.

From start to finish, Kaleidoscope Dreams is a fantastic piece of work, well worthy of its Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album. If Miguel weren’t going against Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange¸ another R&B masterpiece, I would call his loss the biggest snub of the year.  We haven’t seen this many high-quality R&B albums since D’Angelo and Ginuwine ruled the scene.  Yet, I think the Grammys created a separate category for “Urban Contemporary Album” because these young crooners are taking R&B to a place the genre has never been before. Gone are the days of A Capella harmony ballads and smooth jazzy riffs.  Miguel and his talented peers (Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, and The Dream to name the elite), have created a new sound for love songs, intertwining synthesized heartache, thick bass, and sexy funk. Accompanied with the growing prevalence of love drugs in R&B, we’re seeing a new sense of euphoria overtaking the genre.

By now you’ve probably heard Kaleidoscope’s radio single “Adorn,” which won Miguel his first Grammy for Best R&B song. “Use Me,” my personal favorite from Miguel’s album, is an anthem of sexual surrender. The first lines “Sedate me…so that your salty is sweet” commence a slow, brewing buzz into a  chorus of sensational bliss.  “Do You,” perhaps the most catchy song on the album, is gaining radio play as well for its dream-like, hypnotizing crooning and repetitive chorus.  What all these songs have in common is their natural, simplified expressions of companionship.  Very much like his approach to sex, Miguel takes metaphors of love that we’ve heard 100 times over—“I’m gonna do you like drugs”–and makes us feel like we’re hearing them for the very first time.

I could go on naming other quality songs on the album, but listening to the album as a whole is an experience in itself.  You’ll find yourself getting lost in riffs that mix pain and pleasure, heartache and newfound love, celebration and mourning.  And even with all these contradicting emotions, the music comes as easy on the ear as a KC and Jo Jo song you’ve heard 100 times over.

My biggest problem with R&B is that often, the music lacks any sort of political message.  The soft sound and funky vibes don’t leave much room for an aggressive message of change that rappers such as Lupe Fiasco or Kanye West achieve on every album.  Frank Ocean and Miguel are beginning to change that.  Frank’s  “Crack Rock” is tells the sad story of how the crack epidemic can destroy lives: “Hit some stones, and broke your home, Smoking stones in abandoned homes.”

He criticizes corrupt police and racial profiling:

Crooked cop, dead cop

How much dope can you push to me

Crooked cop, dead cop

No good for community

Fucking pig get shot

Three hundred men will search for me

My brother get popped

And don’t no one hear the sound

The final verse depicts how corrupt police can make extra money involving themselves in the drug trade with very little risk, whereas young black men are dying every day from gang violence, largely fueled by the war on drugs.

Take a look at Miguel’s latest visual treatment for his song “Candles in the Sun,” the most politically charged track on the album:

The opening verse criticizes a lack of peace and compassion in the world:

Hey, Say we’re all created equal..

That’s what they teach us

But that ain’t how we treat each other

Naw, that ain’t how we treat each other

Shit, the truth is that we need each other, yea

                We consistently preach equality in schools and fairytales, but in reality, we never live up to these standards.  The chorus brings back Frank Ocean’s portrayal of the destruction of crack-cocaine, and further addresses a lack of peace in the world:

Diamond in the back, babies on crack

Kick in the door, wavin’ the 4-4

White collar, war, crime, money gets spent

Candles in the sun, blowin’ in the wind

Sun goes down, heroes often get shot

Peace has long been forgot

Ooh will it be too late when we find out?

All in all, these songs present a cry for help to the American people.  While they lack the aggression of traditional political hip-hop, the sad lyrics and smooth sounds provide a much more peaceful criticism of our current values and actions.  These songs build a platform for R&B artists of the future, enabling them to incorporate a political critique into a genre that is used to nothing but sex, love, and heartache.  I’m excited to see where Miguel, Frank Ocean and this new crew of R&B pioneers take the genre next.  Moreover, I look forward to hearing how they might inspire our youth to build on their innovative music. I’ll conclude with a cliché, yet perfectly fitting quote from Miguel: “Tomorrow’s just a day away.”

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Drake: The Controversial Icon of Hip-Hop

Drake Take Care

It never fails:  every single time I tell someone that I’m into hip-hop, they ask me the same question: “What do you think about Drake?”  For being the smooth-talking, hook-cooking, hit-shitting icon that he is, Aubrey “Drake” Graham seems to be the most controversial figure in hip-hop.  Maybe it’s because we knew him first as the kid in the wheelchair in Degrassi (although no one seemed to have a problem with Will Smith when he started rapping).  Perhaps it’s because his ascent to stardom didn’t fit the traditional rapper’s come-up—growing up in the projects, dealing drugs on the corner, gaining ‘hood’ recognition, then rapping about it-.  Drake never did all that, but he maintains this odd cigar-smoking, wine-sipping swagger that makes you think he just inherited 20 million dollars and needs to spend it all in a week.  Then he throws in some sensitive, thoughtful spoken word poetry at the end of “Headlines” and you sit there wondering if you like it or not; and if you even like Drake, or hip-hop, or cigars and wine.  This is all very confusing, but it’ll be ok.

But to answer your question, I love Drake.  I love that no matter how many people question his authenticity as a rapper, he keeps making catchy music that gives me goosebumps the first time I hear it.  I love that, no matter how many people question his sexuality because he has the balls to talk about his relationship flaws with women, he stays as honest as they come.  Drake treats his music like a compiled diary of broken hearts and bitter ex-girlfriends and crazy nights with his friends. He has a way of putting his problems into catchy verses that make you understand exactly how he feels. I find myself empathizing with this multi-millionaire on a daily basis.  Maybe a comparative essay touting Mr. Graham as the 21st century beat poet is on the way. But anyways…

The only problem I have with Drake is that he signed to Young Money when he could’ve been just as successful on his own.  I was afraid he would plateau as the resident hook-maker for the YMCMB clan. Granted, while he does just that for Birdman, Weezy, and the rest, Drake remains entirely unique in his albums.  You see, Drake takes his music career much more seriously than anyone’s opinions, and the best rappers out there understand him and respect him for that.  Then our friend Aubrey releases a hilarious video like this and reminds us that despite his intense aura and life full of problems, he has quite a sense of humor:

Much like the “HYFR” video, “Started From The Bottom” has this jarring balance of non-chalant partying with friends, and Drake strutting around in front of his crew, taking himself as seriously as the Pope on Easter.  What the video says, to me, is that Drake is entirely comfortable with himself, enough to go prancing around in grocery markets with his white friends without worrying about what the haters might say about his legitimacy as a rapper in a genre full of thugs and ex-convicts.  No, Drake doesn’t care about that. He just surrounds himself with his genuine friends, swirls his Pinot Gris, and enjoys the view from the top.

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From the Hood to the Burbs; Balancing Authenticity and Success in the Rap Game

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What constitutes the failure of a rapper?  Losing all authenticity, or going bankrupt?  In an ideal hip-hop world, the two would go hand-in-hand.  Rappers who boast fake personas would lose their fan-base, record labels would drop their deals, and Rick Ross would watch the BET awards from his couch from 2013 on.  Alas, the reality is that rappers almost always have to face a choice between maintaining their integrity, or chasing money.  The only rappers we hear about have attained monetary success and dropped the authenticity that made them hungry for money in the first place; and the artists who remain devoted to their street credibility and authenticity? Well, let’s just say they’re still in the streets.

In many ways, rappers try to maintain their authenticity by swearing fierce loyalty to their “hood.”  Young Jeezy might have a crib in the suburbs now, but, his music is “for the hood.”  Peep some lines from Jeezy’s hit single “My Hood” from Thug Motivation 101:

(Chorus)“Every time I do it I do it for my hood/

Every time I do it I do it for your hood/

Every time I do it I do it for they hood/

It’s understood, I do it for the hood!” (2x)

                                                                                                                          (Verse 1) The streets love Jeez and I love ‘em back

And If I still had to work I’d front you a sack.

It’s all gravy still reach ‘em with my words

And make ‘em feel good like the first and the third.

Young Jeezy, much like Jay-Z, jumpstarted his career and gained street credibility as a successful drug dealer.  Of course, he dropped that business when he gained fame as a rapper, seeing that he no longer needed the money from such a risky business.  He was evidently a friendly guy, loved by the whole neighborhood: “The streets love jeez and I love ‘em back/and If I still had to work I’d front you a sack.”  The ‘first and the third’ in the last verse refers to the bi-weekly arrival of welfare checks, as to say that Jeezy’s rap nourishes the hood.  His verses—stories of hood ambition and drug dealing success—are his version of a government handout, making the people “feel good” with motivation in times of poverty and hunger.

Jeezy creates his own public persona, this image of him strolling the streets and handing out drugs to smiling crack-heads who stand waving to the celebrity returning home: Hey Jeezy! Nice to see you again! Keep doing it for the hood! We’re still here…thanks for the drugs!

This is all hypothetical, of course.  Young Jeezy doesn’t walk around the hood.  It’s far too dangerous after boasting about all the money he has to go strolling through areas of poverty, and rappers complain about fake friends asking for handouts just as much they as they assert their street cred.  Instead, Young Jeezy uses rap to connect with the hood from a far.

Many successful rappers establish a sort of double-life, bragging that they can afford to move out to the suburbs, but still connect to the inner-city through their music.  T.I. speaks to this double life on his hit song  “I’m Illy:” “Rarely out my element, barely out the ghetto with/ One foot out and one foot in, intelligent as fellas get.”  He keeps “one foot in” the inner-city to maintain his authenticity, but still admits that—albeit barely–he is “out” of the “ghetto.”

The rapper’s double-life makes sense: Who wouldn’t brag about being able to afford a crib in the suburbs.  Despite the ugly cookie cutter houses, the suburbs come with many amenities that white people take for granted on a daily basis.  For black men, the suburbs represent a safe haven where they aren’t being monitored on an hourly basis with police drive-bys, or being stopped and frisked for simply walking from one house to another.  Black men have spent their entire lives being racially profiled, trying to evade the mass-incarcerating justice system that pinpoints them as the prime target in the war on drugs.

The problem is, rappers could do a lot more for their neighborhoods after they gain monetary success.  T.I. had a joke of a show on MTV “Road to Redemption,” attempting to show the world that he could change lives in the inner-city, one by one.  After the show, he ended up back in jail and destroyed any image of a role model he had established prior.  Rappers could use a bit of these bountiful portions they speak of to start high-quality programs for inner-city children. Instead of claiming that their rap is even close to a substantial handout for the poverty-stricken hood, they could give back to their neighborhoods without physically returning.  Perhaps, Jeezy, you could create a center for the arts where kids could go after school to record music or make beats, as a way to keep inner-city children away from the gang violence and drug trafficking that has led so many black youth to jail or death before the age of 21.

I’m not saying that this double-life is bad for hip-hop.  But I think rappers could do a lot more to re-connect with their roots in a way that would live up to what they portray in their music.  In many ways, that would give a rapper authenticity in my eyes, and give some credibility to rappers and hip-hop as a genre to the millions of people who write it off as a calamity of guns, drugs, and violence. Yes, you can be authentic and rich, if you just put your money where your mouth is.

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