I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

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Paul. Does. Rap!
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The Original... Paul
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August 28, 2014 - 6:26 pm
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(As in: Paul LISTENS to rap. And then tells you what he thinks of it. The world does not need to hear me rap, and probably wouldn't be able to stand it if it did.)

Yep, I've decided it's not enough any more just to say "I know nothing about rap music" whenever the subject comes up (which seems to be on a more-or-less weekly basis on these here forums). So I'm gonna be acquainting myself with some of the real classics, starting with the song that brought me here. (Yes, there's a reason why I've decided to do this at this specific time.)

Rap's a weird genre of music. On the one hand, you have a lot of radio stations, at least over there in the 'States, that promise specifically to NOT use rap music. On the other hand, it has huge popular appeal among a fairly widespread subset of people. It's not a "niche" thing - indeed, a great many pop songs nowadays have famous rappers on them. And what I've observed about all of this is that rap generally doesn't seem to know what to do with itself. Besides the fairly constant presence of rappers who "dis" other rappers, you've got the oddities. I mean, in any other art form, the once most-dangerous-man-in-America appearing on a music video in which he raises an army of gummy bears that's defeated by Katie Perry's... boob cannons? Anyway, in most art forms this would be truly bizarre. Not, as far as I can tell, in rap.

There's going to be one rule, and one rule only, going into this. I'm going to tackle the stuff that I like, and only that. That means no Lil Wayne, no Warren G, and absolutely no Eminem. This is the stuff that turned me OFF rap in the first place. The aim of this thing is to go into this looking for new and positive experiences. I don't want it to turn into a bitchfest.

The plan is... start with the song that gave me the inspiration to do this, a catchy little number by Notorious B I G. I'll then go onto a couple of songs from my past that I remember particularly fondly, and after that I'm winging it.

It's that last part that I want your help on, guys. What should I be listening to? Ideally I'm looking for the name of an artist; and either a good selection of what's considered their "best" songs, or their best album. One or the other. I'm looking for a good enough selection so that there's bound to be something there that I really like.

I start tomorrow. Hope anybody who reads this enjoys it.

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The Original... Paul
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August 30, 2014 - 2:20 pm
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Ok, here we go with the album that I heard, completely by chance, that made me want to take on this project in the first place: "Ready to Die", by Notorious B I G.

And the reason it got me here is simple: I kinda love this album. Went out and bought it as soon as I'd heard it the first time.

As to why this is, well, there's many reasons.

Let's start with the musical quality. The album is a mixture of fairly urgent up-tempo songs ("Gimme the Loot", "Machine Gun Funk") and occasional slower, more contemplative songs ("Suicidal Thoughts", "Dreams"). What immediately struck me about what I was hearing was that there was barely a lyric that sounded "out of place". There's something called "flow" that's often applied to particularly skillful rapping. Now I'm the first to admit that I know very, very little about this stuff; but I can tell the difference between the rhythmic complexity that Notorious brings to this, and the comparative simplicity of some other popular rappers I've heard on the radio - for example, 50 Cent.

And I think rapping needs that complexity. As a non-fan of the genre, my biggest complaint with much of what I've heard would simply be: it's boring! It's a lot of rich guys mumbling about how rich they are and how much pussy they get. I guess this is fine for some of the fans of the genre, but for me, it's not enough. Hearing Notorious' album just blew all of that stuff away. My favorite song on it would probably be "Gimme the Loot", just because of the urgency of the lyrics and the supreme confidence with which Notorious delivers the words of the song. It's by no means the most lyrically in-depth song on the album, but the "flow" might be the best I've ever heard. The lyrics, rhythm and rhyming patterns used sound utterly unforced, yet are so skillful.

And that brings me to the second huge positive - authenticity. Notorious sells what he's saying more than any other rapper I've heard, I think. (Well, except maybe the one I'm tackling next.) And what he's selling is desperation. And occasionally, in the more contemplative songs, despair. He raps about crime, drug abuse, and the struggle for survival in the harshest of conditions - heck, probably the most poignant moment on the entire album has him confess that he doesn't want his daughter to be an addict by the time she grows up. And he's totally believable. Again, none of his rhymes sound forced, none of the words sound out-of-place.

I felt, with this album, that I was being taken on a journey. A dark, often depressing one - I think at least three songs end in Notorious' implied violent death, and one ends in his outright suicide - but one that just perfectly captures the mood of where this man is coming from. It might be a chronicle of life in hell. It's a fascinating one because for the most part it's not about causes. There are infrequent references to black history - in particular, slavery - but it never sounds as though Notorious is blaming anybody for what he's going through. He's not giving us a look at the big picture, but at the minutiae, the day-to-day struggle for survival. And it's riveting stuff.

This is not "easy listening". It's a dark chronicle of life in a place where you have to kill or be killed. And an utterly compelling one. At times it's uncomfortable to listen to; whereas it's fairly blatant about its violence in pursuit of gain, it's a lot more subtle in terms of allusions to things like rape and child abuse (although such allusions are definitely there also). But that's ok. It's not meant to be the kind of thing you have as background music at family parties. I'm sure a lot of you guys could say a lot more than I could about this album, but again, I'm approaching it from the point of view of the complete novice here. The only other thing I can say is that it gains a whole new poignancy given how Notorious eventually ended up dying.

So "Ready to Die" is what prompted me to start this in the first place. The next one will be one of the few genuine rap artists who made an impression on my during my own youth.

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The Original... Paul
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October 2, 2014 - 3:46 pm
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Next entry: The "Gangasta's Paradise" EP, by Coolio. I bought this some time in the late nineties. It came with the songs "Mama I'm in love with a Gangsta" and "Fantastic Voyage".

So I've got my third entry into this thing planned out already, as you guys know. And it's a fair bet that it'll break the cycle of desperation that I've got going with Coolio and Notorious BIG. But right now, let's get straight into the angst.

I made the point in my introduction to this thing that rap music is basically a parade of "oddities". As such, the abnormal is pretty damn normal. Snoop Dogg, once the most dangerous man in America, can lead an army of gummi bears up against Katy Perry's boob cannons, and nobody bats an eyelid. Looking at what I've listened to so far, though, Coolio does seem to be completely unique in two specific ways:

1) Rapping isn't his main occupation. He's a firefighter who raps. Far from trading on his "gangsta" status, Coolio is a real-life hero. And:

2) He might be the only rapper I've come across yet who's completely and utterly true to his own persona (at least as far as his albums up to "My Soul" go, I haven't heard the last one). I can't think of a single song he's done where he's compromised this. Well, "Cruisin'" maybe. But even that has a tone of what I can only describe as joyful desperation. I still get the sense that he's cruisin' away from something.

Coolio made his name with a combination of ironically bouyant pop songs about extremely serious subjects ("Too hot" - a rap song about the rapper getting lots of sex! Also, AIDS! "Fantastic Voyage" - A rap song about the rapper going on a drive with his homies! Also, gang violence!) and more thoughtful, melodic pieces that still have uplifting melodies ("Mama I'm in love..." - a genuine love song! With one of the lovers stuck in prison where he can't see his child! "C U when U get there" - a gospel ensemble about the wonderful journey of life! Also, not getting gunned down while you're still a teenager!)

What I'm trying to get across here is that Coolio's big thing is irony. He takes desperate, sometimes horrifying lyrics, and puts them on top of happy uplifting melodies with pop videos that wouldn't look out of place on a Hanson song. (Come to think of it, "mmm-bop" - a song I love, by the way, so feel free to judge me for that one - was pretty much the supreme example of the whole irony thing.) What I'm saying is that Coolio is basically a troll on a mission. He even looks like one (have you seen his hair?) He's an absolute fucking master of making songs that everyone will listen to, and putting messages in them that make you stop and think about what a state we're in.

Of course his most famous, and easily his best, song is the exception to this rule: "Gangsta's Paradise", a song that takes the chorus of a third-rate Stevie Wonder joint, darkens it to the power of a hundred, adds weight and depth with that choir and some fantastic sound engineering, and has a video starring Michelle Pfeifer.

But before we talk about why "Gangsta's Paradise" is by far and away the best rap song I've ever heard, as well as the only one I've ever bought as an EP rather than as part of a full album, I'd like to provide a little context here as to just how accessible it is. My mother likes this song. (Yes, the same person who made the comment about gays being "unnatural" that caused a rift between us for days.) She loves it, in fact. This might be the rare example of a rap song that every single person who likes it just "gets". And it's not even because it's "populist". It's just that damn good. I've never heard of anybody hearing it and not liking it. Have you?

It's hard to overstate the kind of impact that this song made. I don't recall, and much googling has not brought up any examples of, another rap song that was this well-received before "Gangsta's Paradise". There were rappers, of course - plenty of them. Public Enemy had been making their mark for years. I'm pretty sure, though, that people like my mother weren't listening to Public Enemy on the radio on their way to work. "Gangsta's Paradise" was a tidal wave that slowly built up as more and more people heard it, before making an indelible mark on the public consciousness. It made people who for years had considered mainstream rap an "outlier", not something to take seriously, sit up and listen.

Let's talk about the song itself. I've already established, I think, that Coolio's music reeks of desperation. What "Gangsta's Paradise" adds to the mix, though, is anger. This is a song about a man who's furious at the system he's found himself in, at his own powerlessness to change it, and at the people who've allowed his world to become what it is. In a way, despite the obvious similarities to Notorious BIG's themes, this is the opposite of Notorious' music; whereas Notorious is all about the minutiae of everyday life, Coolio talks the wider picture. He's a frustrated observer, watching what's going on but not quite able to fully comprehend it, and certainly not able to change it. And all of this comes through perfectly in both his lyrics and his "flow".

Listen to the verses of this song. They're minimalist to the point of being threadbare. You get four slow repeating violin chords, a slow repeating beat (engineered to somehow sound more weighty and portentous), and that's pretty much it. The rest is all Coolio's lyrics. The arrangement of this song speaks to Coolio's utter self-confidence of being able to enthrall an audience using just his voice; and boy, does he pull it off. A far cry from the mumbling monotone of rappers like 50 Cent and his ilk, Coolio uses the dynamics of his instrument to invoke crescendos and pitch changes that emphasize every word that he's saying. He's mesmerising on this song. This is rap as a pure art form, with minimal accompaniment, just one man's voice telling a twisted parable of the streets in such a way that it's impossible to not listen.

All of this would mean nothing if the lyrics came across as forced or inauthentic - but they don't, at all. A lesser rapper would sound "preachy". Coolio never does. I think the reason that this song works so well, and strikes a chord with so many, is because he puts himself and the listener in the position of "observer" - specifically observing his own past life - and then uses it to sell the emotional toil at the centre of the song. He does this by making it clear from the outset that he's looking back from the grand old age of - 24?!

Look, as great as "Gimme the Loot" is, I can't empathise with a bank robber (although I might sympathise with him) as I've never robbed a bank, or been in the position where I had to do so in order to survive. I have an outsider's perspective on the problems of urban violence and poverty. Coolio takes that perspective and then invites us to look inwards, emphasizing the tragedy and - more than that - the powerlessness of the situation that the people who have to deal with those issues find themselves in. He frequently invites the listener to put themselves in that place, even when he's talking about himself:

"You better watch how you're talking and where you're walking
Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk."

It's not even clear who Coolio is rapping to when he says "you", which he does frequently throughout the song. Again, it's clear from the start that he's looking back at his own life, with the wisdom of the experience he's gained since then; but he can't actually be talking to his younger self, or a memory of himself. So who exactly is "you"? The listener, anybody who might come across him? Anybody who might just visit the place he's speaking of, naively step into that world? I don't know. In this, as in many things, the song doesn't provide easy answers. He suggests a variety of causes that have contributed to his situation - lack of education, unrealistic aspirations from television - but all of them come down to a lack of understanding between people. In fact, this line might summarise the point of the entire song:

"Everybody's running, but half of them ain't looking."

The theme of human blindness is emphasized again, and again, and again - hell, the mid-section is just LV (who does a fantastic job by the way) singing:

"Tell me why are we so blind to see
That the ones we hurt are you and me."

And that right there is the root of the song's accessibility. Coolio isn't calling for us to "fight the power". He doesn't want divisiveness - that makes things worse. In a desperate, angry song about gangsta culture, what Coolio is asking for here is simply for people to really look at each others' situations, and understand them. It's not a call to arms, but a call to empathy. And that's something I think that most people can agree with.

Look, I think it's obvious I could keep talking about this song for hours. But I think I've said all I wanted to, so I'll end on this note: I saw a video recently that described Coolio as a "foolish figure". This depressed me because I've never thought of him that way. Yes, there was the hair, and the cheesy videos, and the whole "pop" vibe that most of his songs gave out. But I think that dismissing Coolio as foolish misses the point entirely. The guy took serious themes and put them into songs that everyone wanted to listen to - in fact, he might have done that more successfully than any other rapper I can think of. And he did it without ever compromising his authenticity, and staying true to what he wanted to do. And I give him all the respect in the world for that.

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renfield
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October 16, 2014 - 6:41 pm
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Paul, I request any of the following, which will help you add some perspective on some of the acclaimed art/underground rap albums:

Latyrx - The Album, or really just the song "Latyrx" would suffice (entire album is worth your while though).  If you like this style, try Blackalicious - NIA

Quasimoto - The Unseen or Madvillain - Madvillainy (or both)

El-P - Fantastic Damage (or Company Flow or Cannibal Ox)

 

If you want to listen to some highly acclaimed hip hop from the last several years:

Kanye West - My Dark Twisted Fantasy  (which I personally don't like very much)

Kendrick Lamar - good kid, M.A.A.D. city (which I personally like very much) 

 

Other golden age standards you will want to check out for well rounded listening:

Pharcyde - Bizarre Ride ii tha Pharcyde

De La Soul - 3 Feet High and Rising

who am I kidding, you can find this stuff easily on anybody's Top 25 of all time hip hop list

 

Happy listening!

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