Category Archives: New Music

Review: Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP2

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I was ten years old when Eminem stuck his middle finger up to the world with The Marshall Mathers LP.  To people who said he could never make it in hip-hop because he was white.  To naysayers who called him a never-will-amount-to-anything piece of white trash.  To his absent dad, his child’s mother, his English teacher, and his dope-head mom.  He didn’t give a fuck, God sent him to piss the world off.

And here we are, 13 years later.  Eminem is eight albums deep in his career.  He’s experienced inconceivable success, scandals, law suits, drug issues, recovery and finally, a full circle return in the form of The Marshall Mathers LP2. 

And me?  Well, Em and I have sort of lost touch.  I admired him for not giving a fuck.  I loved the way his witty lyricism hopped jumped and skipped through this maze of beats.  How he challenged himself at every turn.  How fast can I flow on this beat?  How much can I offend mainstream America?  Like he got off on the image of mothers covering their sons ears, begging him to stop bragging about slitting faggots’ throats and raping women.  His subject matter thrilled me.  Like the thought of running away for a night just to see how my parents reacted.  Or saying a swear word in sixth grade social studies to get a gasp out of the girl next to me.

But I’m twenty-three now, and honestly,  MMLP2 doesn’t really do it for me. Sure, Eminem exercises his renowned lyrical abilities.  He can spit as fast as Twista, tell graphic tales, and make hilarious allusions to current events all in one verse. But thirteen years later,  I no longer get a thrill from hearing about women being drowned and violently fucked, and frankly, It’s hard not to cringe from the image of my childhood idol breaking a table “over a couple of faggots backs.”

Now–before I get slim-shady’s fan group all riled up into thinking I’m some oblivious, easily offended critic—I get the whole alter-ego thing.  I understand that Eminem doesn’t actually believe all these things.  That slim shady is his evil rapping twin persona that was born to see how easily he could offend sensitive ears.  That Eminem actually supports gay rights, probably respects women, and has done his best to raise his daughter to believe the same.  I get it.  I just think the act is exhausted, and find myself asking: why?

Why is Eminem so angry? He’s not the same twenty-seven-year-old who had something to prove.  He’s a successful rap icon, self-proclaimed rap god who has earned a spot on most everyone’s list of top-ten MC’s alive.  Why does he find it necessary to rekindle the flame he sparked at the beginning of his career, revisiting the same subject matter, hunger, and angry-menace attitude? The very persona that earned my respect as a young fan of hip-hop has me at a loss, wondering why a forty-one year old mogul hasn’t really changed at all.  What was once an impermeable confidence now comes off as a desperate desire to prove that this middle-aged man still has his old tricks.

When I think of Eminem’s peers, rap icons like Jay-Z and Kanye, they’ve matured in ways we couldn’t have perceived at the start of their careers.  They’ve grown into icons who have learned how to revisit their past with more reminiscence than full-fledged embodiment.  Who can brag about how far they’ve come and how much they’ve learned with a newfound maturity, and a worldly awareness of what they represent in the world hip-hop.

The intro to “Rap God” really says it all.  We hear a comic book, Wu-Tang-esque voice : “Look, I was gonna go easy on you and not to hurt your feelings, But I’m only going to get this one chance.”  As if this is Slim-Shady’s only chance to prove something to the world.  Prove what?  That he can still portray this misogynist, homophobic persona?  That if he doesn’t do that, he’s going easy on us? Eminem hasn’t hurt my feelings, he’s just left me disenchanted by his range of material.  In thirteen years, he hasn’t found a way to prove his dominance in the rap game without bragging about sexuality dominating women?

He begins to acknowledge this lack of progress in “Asshole.”  In the last verse, he spits:

Only women that I love are my daughters

And sometimes I rhyme and it sounds

Like I forget I’m a father, and I push it farther

So father forgive me if I forget to draw the line

It’s apparent I shouldn’t of been a parent I’ll never grow up

 Eminem embraces some self-deprecation here, revisiting the self-criticism that has always added an admirable complexity to his music.  But at this point in his career, the wheels have fallen off.  Slim’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that made him so appealing in his early work feels different now.  Like he’s trying too hard to be careless.

I’ll still spin “Till I Collapse” on my heavy rotation and hell, I think MMLP2 has some great lines, killer flows, and stadium beats.  I still think that Eminem is a hilarious, complex rap icon who has filled a necessary hole in hip-hop.  His ability to paint horrifying pictures and embody a range of characters is unmatchable. It’s easy to see how his music has inspired a new generation of rappers–Odd Future, Kendrick Lamar, and Yelawolf to name a few.   Perhaps that’s why, as much as it pains me, I’m being so critical of my childhood icon.  Because, thirteen years later, I expected more from a rapper who is fully capable of doing so.

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The Same Love Conflict: Macklemore, Le1f, Angel Haze, and the Search for an Authentic Voice for Gay Rights

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I’ll admit it. I shed a tear or two when I first saw Macklemore’s “Same Love” music video.  The heartwarming story of two men sharing their lives together.  Walking along an aisle of scattered flowers to join hands in marriage. Embracing each other in a hospital room. The whole nine yards. Maybe it was because I had never seen gay marriage portrayed on the stage of mainstream media.  Perhaps I thought it represented a larger movement among straight allies to support LGBTQ rights. Possibly it’s because I had just began my journey as an openly gay male. Whatever the reason, the tears were there.

In retrospect, the video is somewhat of a token anthem; something for straight people to post on their facebook and say: “this song was a hit! Macklemore is such a great guy! It’s ok to be gay!”  Yet, we’re still at the point where queer hip-hop is forced underground, popular hip-hop groups still throw out “faggot” as an insult, and thousands of teens suffer from suicidal thoughts because they’re excommunicated by their families and churches, bullied by teens, and misrepresented in mainstream media.  Same-sex partners are forced out of hospital rooms, denied civil rights on a daily basis.

I’m not saying that Macklemore has done any wrong by making the video.  We need allies in the straight community to speak out in support. But there’s a part of me that’s nauseated at the fact that queer artists have been pushing the same message for years, and Macklemore comes along, makes one record in support of LGBTQ rights, and it goes platinum.

So when Le1f went on a twitter rant criticizing Macklemore’s video, I wasn’t surprised.  For those of you who don’t know Le1f, he’s a leading voice in queer hip-hop.  His most well-known song, “Wut,” features lyrics like “Ukrainian cutie –he really wanna cuddle/The fever in his eyes. He wanna suckle on my muscle.”  One of his songs is titled “Gayngsta.”  In “Fresh” he spits:

I made this song for my girls in Timbs, boys in gems posing real femme

It’s not pretend. No Barbie, no Ken. Hater step up and I poison them

I poison them with a 10 10 10. Homophobes, go watch ESPN

The point is, if anyone should be the authentic voice of queer America, it’s Le1f, not Macklemore.  Le1f is the man who unabashedly breaks the boundaries of mainstream hip-hop, pop music, and the narrow ideological views of the black community.  He slides seamlessly between what we’ve defined as masculine and feminine roles.  He boasts about his conquests of men, his fabulous fashion, and how “he’s the type of john closet dudes wanna go steady on.”

But as popular as Le1F has become in the queer rap scene, I haven’t heard one second of his voice on the radio.  In fact, the most recognition he ever received was when he spoke out against Macklemore, with many criticizing him for refusing the support of a perceived ally.  Well, can you blame him?  Le1f has devoted his entire career to giving a proud, authentic voice to the queer community, and a straight white man comes along, makes one song about gay rights, and he’s made a hero.  As Le1f said best in one of his many twitter-rants: “it saddens me out that a straight man is the voice pop music has chosen for gay rights.”

As with all things, there is a grey area here.  I’m not mad at Macklemore.  I appreciate his support for gay rights as much as I want to see Le1f’s music to go platinum.  I want the straight community to support gay rights without needing a straight white guy to lead the charge with a feel-good story.  A story that hides all the bullying and suicide and discrimination.  A story that makes everyone think that the world is fully accepting of any lifestyle.  Realistically, the fact that Macklemore’s video has become this anthem for gay rights speaks volumes to how far we stand from true equality, genuine acceptance, and a space for an authentic voice for the queer community like Le1f.

If you want to hear the real story about growing up in America as a queer individual, listen to Angel Haze’s remix of “Same Love.”    Here’s a glimpse of her message, which tears down the fairytale that is so happily portrayed in the original video:

So don’t badger and abuse the solemnly defenseless

See us as yourself

There’s no equality in difference

Until we all get it, we’ll be drowning in the same blood

Despite orientation, we all feel the same love

We’ll be drowning in the same blood

Despite orientation, we all feel the same love

Angel Haze has rested perfectly in the middle of this Le1f vs. Macklemore conflict.  She tells the real, bloody tale of facing childhood bullying and a narrow-minded family without bashing allies.  She provides a message of hope without ignoring the reality that we still have a long way to go.  And hopefully, her message will make us realize that how Macklemore’s video doesn’t begin to tell the real story of the present state of acceptance in America.  For now, it’s a feel-good pop anthem for straight America.

Queer rappers like Le1f, Angel Haze, and Mykki Blanco continue to devote their careers to providing an authentic voice to the gay community.  But until they gain recognition and popularity on the mainstream stage, I’ll remain unimpressed with the progress we’ve made in hip-hop, music, or the American social atmosphere as a whole.  If you’re going to be an ally, then at least be cognizant that a video of rainbows and flower petals isn’t exactly an accurate representation of acceptance in mainstream America.

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Acid Rap: Chance The Rapper’s Good Ass Job

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The first time I heard Chance the Rapper’s voice, it was on the intro to his latest mixtape Acid Rap, appropriately titled “Good Ass Intro.”  With this perfect blend of joy, rasp, and charisma, Chance interrupts the gospel-swoon background to announce: “We back, and we back, and we back….”

I knew, after only ten seconds, that this was a man who was happy to be alive.   Ecstatic that he’s finally emerging as a new voice in hip-hop.  Thankful that he can financially support his mother.  And by the end of the song, confidently content that: “this your favorite fucking album and ain’t even fucking done.”

In a style that many rappers attempt but few can master, Acid Rap is full of self-praise. It’s a “Good Ass Intro,” he’s done a “Good ass job,” he’s “better than I was the last time,” it’s your “favorite fucking album,” that includes “your favorite song, you just don’t know the words.”

Sure, he’s tripping balls on acid right now, but can you blame him?  Chance is alive, he’s not in jail, and he has emerged as one of the best new rappers on the scene, thanks to his original sound, hilarious ad-lib, well-chosen sampling, and witty lyricism.  Coming from a city that tallied more deaths than Afghanistan last year, I think he has the right to rejoice.

But as all acid trips go, there’s a handful of loneliness, mistrust, and abandonment on Chance’s mind.  On “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” he yearns for familial affection, looking back on his childhood days when life was simpler; his family was close, and he wasn’t afraid to hug his grandmother without putting visine in his eyes, or get a kiss from his mother without reeking of cigarettes.

But Chance is grown up, now.  Despite burning up a fair amount of his brain cells, he’s still cognizant enough to recognize the tragic stench of death in his hometown.  On “Pusha Man,” Chance takes us “to a land where the lake made of sand, and the milk don’t pour, and the honey don’t dance and the money ain’t yours.”

It’s not the Israel that God promised Moses–try Chiraq.  And if you’re patient enough to wait through the silence following “Pusha Man,” you’ll be rewarded even more tales of fear and murder and crooked cops on the mixtape’s secret track “Paranoia:”

They merking kids, they murder kids here

Why you think they don’t talk about it? They deserted us here

Where the fuck is Matt Lauer at? Somebody get Katie Couric in here

Probably scared of all the refugees, look like we had a fucking hurricane here

Really, though, where the fuck is Matt Lauer?  While The Today Show is busy reporting on the latest fashion trend, or interviewing a rescued white girl, there are hundreds of young black men dying from gun violence in our inner cities.  While school shootings are mourned across the nation, inner-city schools provide the only glimpse of shelter for many of today’s youth.  The media spotlight has consistently avoided the tragic genocide and mass incarceration of black teens.

But who needs Matt Lauer when we have Chance the Rapper.  He’s here to report that, while he has successfully escaped the dangers of his hometown, his peers are dying from Chicago’s summer heat:

And I ponder what’s worse between knowing it’s over and dying first

Cause everybody dies in the summer

Wanna say ya goodbyes, tell them while it’s spring

I heard everybody’s dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring

This third verse in “Paranoia” is as telling as it is haunting.  It’s springtime, and the summer is approaching, so he’s saying his goodbyes.  He’s already accepted that hundreds of his city’s youth, and probably a handful of his friends, will die in the coming season.  He’s heartbroken.  He’s perplexed.  But he’s brutally frank.  If only spring could last forever, perhaps Chicago wouldn’t lose another hundred teens.

Acid Rap is much more than a blissful hallucination.  We see Chance bounce seamlessly between pure joy and sadness.  Between mourning and thankfulness.  Paranoia and confidence.  We see the duality hidden in the life of a newly successful black man.  A man who can’t help but rejoice in his triumph, but refuses to forget the calamity he has narrowly escaped.

I’m excited to hear what Chance has to offer in the future.  He’s already established himself as a thought-provoking, innovative artist in an industry full of rappers with a get-rich-and-brag mentality.  For now, I think we can certainly reaffirm Chance’s claim.  So far, he’s done a good ass job.

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The Compelling Duality of Kanye West: The Participatory Critic in “New Slaves”

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I didn’t get a chance to see Kanye West’s world-wide broadcast of his latest single “New Slaves,” the first track unveiled from his sixth studio album Yeezus.  For some reason, Yeezy chose to bypass Pittsburgh for the 66-building international music video projection (who knows why, but I’m thinking it’s a subtle shot at Mac Miller).  But I did have the pleasure of seeing Kanye’s SNL performance.  There he stood, shouting from the shadows, embracing this new ranting-monster-menace role into which we’ve slowly seen him evolve.  Very much by his own motivations, Yeezy has forced mainstream America to tout him as its very own exiled poet.

Although I’m sure the building premier would have been a fascinating experience, I’m much more excited for the album’s June 18th release.  If “New Slaves” stands as an appropriate preview for the nature of the 14-track work, critics best get their keyboards ready.  The single presents a bold commentary on American race relations.  West assails the racial politics of present-day consumerism, labeling it as a new form of slavery.

You see it’s broke nigga racism

That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”

And this rich nigga racism

That’s that “Come here, please buy more

What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?

All you blacks want all the same things”

In the first verse, Kanye speaks from his own experience, moving from his status as a “broke” black man in Chicago to his current post among the self-crowned “new black elite.” Regardless of economic standing, he endures consumer racism.  If a black man is perceived to be in poverty he suffers from “broke nigga racism,” consistently suspected of stealing.  If he is wealthy, he’ll find himself plagued with “rich nigga racism,” forever pressured to participate in a decadent lifestyle to prove his escape from poverty.

Already, critics have blasted Kanye on his new single, calling him a hypocrite for participating in the very system he attacks.  Earnest Owens calls him “that one cousin in the family that never tends to shut up at the dinner table” in an article in The Huffington Post.

In short, Owens claims that Kanye spends too much time complaining about present-day racism, rather than putting his efforts towards fixing the problem.  In The Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper dissects Kanye’s lavish lifestyle to argue that the icon spends far too much time (and money) embracing consumer capitalism to have a pertinent voice in its criticism.

There’s no denying that Kanye is an active participant in the scheme of American consumerism, and therefore perpetuates the conventions that he voraciously attacks.  Of course, this isn’t something out of the ordinary for Kanye.  Critique of American racism–through consumerism, mass incarceration, and faulty education to name a few—has always held prominence in Kanye’s work. At every level, he is the first to admit participatory guilt for almost everything he critiques.

Early on, in Yeezy’s debut album The College Dropout, “All Falls Down” portrays materialism’s plague the black community.  In the final verse, he confesses: “But I ain’t even gonna act holier than thou/Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with twenty-five thou,” and a few lines later: “‘I got a problem with spendin’ before I get it/We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.”

In “Breathe In Breathe Out,” from the same album, Kanye calls himself part of the problem yet again:

Golly, more of that bullshit ice rap

I got to ‘pologize to Mos and Kweli

But is it cool to rap about gold

If I told the world I copped it from Ghana and Mali?

First nigga with a Benz and a backpack

Ice chain, Carti lens, and a knapsack

Always said if I rapped I’d say somethin’ significant

But now I’m rappin’ ’bout money, hoes, and rims again

Kanye is compelled to “’pologize to Mos and Kweli,” admitting that he has let down two prominent socially conscious hip-hop artists—Mos Def and Talib Kweli—by succumbing to “bullshit ice rap,” instead of following his initial goal to “say somethin’ significant.” In “Breathe in Breathe Out,” Kanye participates in the “bullshit ice rap” trend by rapping about “money, hoes, and rims.” But the track is also very much a parody of gangster rap, Yeezy’s way of demonstrating how easy it is to fall into the laziness of meaningless lyricism.

Why then, are we just starting to hear about Kanye’s so called hypocrisy?  Perhaps his most recent work is more aggressive than his earlier critique.  Whereas his participant/critic duality was more subtle in The College Dropout, “New Slaves” has very little comic relief, making for a much louder social commentary.    But seriously, do critics really think they’re making an original point by criticizing him for participating in the problems of hip-hop?  If anything, Yeezy beat the critics at their own game by embracing his participation from the beginning of his career. His honest participation complicates the very issues he attacks.  Despite Kanye’s full awareness that he is part of the problem, his continued participation shows that the issues of hip-hop are far too embedded in black culture to simply avoid.  Not to say that we should give Kanye a free pass, or let him stand alone as his own critic.  Instead, we should use his participatory guilt as a prime example of the issues within hip-hop, not simply dismiss him as a hypocrite.

As for the argument that Kanye spends too much effort criticizing rather than fixing the problems, I must question why we place that mountain responsibility on the artist. Should we criticize Richard Wright for not including practical solutions in Native Son?  That’s a bit of an extreme example, but one essential step to fixing the racial issues embedded in our country is to identify, publicize, and criticize these issues in the first place.  Then, it becomes our own responsibility to pursue action for what we believe is right.  Kanye isn’t a politician or social activist.  He’s a world-famous rapper who has a knack for stirring controversy.  We shouldn’t put his face on a stamp, nor should we dismiss him as a hollow hypocrite.  Instead, let’s take him for what he is: a worldwide megaphone of racial tension.  I’m excited to see just how many fires he can ignite with Yeezus.  If “New Slaves” is any indication of what’s to come, I hope critics can come up with a better reaction than simply crying hypocrite.  The issues here are far too complicated and important to mute that simply.

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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Mystikal Resurfaces with “Hit Me!”

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Just when you thought the last you’d seen of Mystikal was “Shake Ya Ass” (WATCH yaself!), the king of loudmouth aggression comes out with a preview track “Hit Me,” leaked from his so-called “comeback album” Original, expected to arrive in 2013.  Two years out of the Louisiana State Prison, Mystikal’s new jam has a James Brown feel, taking this hit in a refreshing direction that distinguishes “Hit Me” from his other attempts to resurface in the rap game.

Have fun waking up to lines like this: “We go together like stinky and smelly, tummy and belly, peanut butter jelly!”

It’s 2012, and Mystikal is still making noise! Hit me!

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