Tuesday, March 04, 2008

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #51]

JAY-Z, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S.Carter
DMX,And Then There Was X
THE LOX, We Are The Streets
Uncut, May 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Critics love lost causes. It’s almost part of the job description. At a certain point, though, doggedly insisting “this should be pop, not that chart crap” gets counterproductive, blinding you to vital things going on in the world of the stuff that sells. It’s particularly problematic with rap, a megabuck entertainment industry these days, but still motored by the cruel fluctuations of popular desire, aka “the streets”. Predictably, last year’s critics polls endorsed such “lost causes” as the Roots and Prince Paul/Handsome Boy Modelling School, and overlooked huge-selling records by DMX and Eve, Lil Wayne and Hot Boys, despite the fact that the two labels/clans to which these artists are affiliated (Ruff Ryders and Cash Money) are at the forefront of a creative upsurge in hardcore rap. Yo, reality check: a bitter pill to swallow, but the truth is that Nineties rap was shaped not by 3 Feet High or Fear of A Black Planet (twin totems of the critic-cherished “lost golden age of 1988-91), but by NWA’s Efil4zaggin and Notorious BIG’s Ready To Die. Similarly, the directness of Tupac has proved far more influential than any Wu-Tang clansman’s virtuoso encryption skillz.

These new platinum-selling monsters by Ruff Ryders’ DMX, Cash Money’s Juvenile, and Jay-Z (don of his own dynasty, Roc-A-Fella) completely shred the tired critical line: major label = formula and indie (aka “undieground”) = inventive. Take Jay-Z's single "Do It Again": Rockwilder's production as harsh and mechanistic as a track by Jeff Mills, just a melody-free spasm of sub-bass, a nagging blurt of computer-in-distress bleeps, and an asymmetrical loop of punishing kicks and snares. Not for nothing does the track start with the warning: “it’s about to get real ugly in here”. Street rap like Jay-Z’s is unpretty in another sense. Like the Swans circa Greed, the lyrics--an interminable catalogue of boasts, threats and flaunted wealth--offer an X-Ray view of capitalism’s primary drives of will-to-power, alpha-male display and ravenous appetite. But where Gira’s vision was a Beckett-style dehumanized hell of domination/submission, Jay-Z and Juvenile make like they actually enjoy living like this. Lyrically, “Do It Again” revels in the playa's nightly cycle of clubbing, drinking, pulling, and taking the ho home: "6-AM I be digging her out/6-15 I be kicking her out". But the music (tres Swans, actually) makes it sound like a treadmill grind.

As superthugs go, DMX is the most interesting, because he doesn't glamorize the gangsta lifestyle. Produced by Ruff Ryders chief soundboy Swizz Beatz, "One More Road To Cross" has the accursed, burdened heft of Blacks Sabbath and Flag--a perfect fit for DMX's stoic description of a carefully planned liquor store heist that goes bloodily wrong. "The Professional" is a bleak glimpse into the mind of a hired assassin ("Shit ain't go too well/THAT'S MY LIFE/Know I'm going to hell/THAT'S MY LIFE") while the betrayal-and-retribution themed "Here We Go Again" starts with the insuperably fatigued murmur "Same old shit, dog/Just a different day". This vision of thug life as agony, repetition, and endurance is communicated as much through DMX's hoarse rasping timbre (pure Ozzy/Rollins) and his flow (alternating between pay-close-attention-this-is-hard-earned-knowledge-I'm-sharing slow to rapid-fire blurts like he's got too much pain to cram into the rhyme-scheme's stanzas.)

The Ruff Ryders camp has its moments of exuberance, like the rowdy call-and-response clamor and bruising bass-bounce of The Lox's "Wild Out" . It’s almost exhilirating enough to make you forget socially irresponsible couplets like "if a nigga step on your goddamn shoes/fuck him up/WILD OUT!!!"--virtually incitement to over-act to any perceived insult or threat. Lyrically, no two ways about it, street rap is pure evil: spiritually bankrupt, in thrall to false consciousness (delusions like “crime pays” and “some gangstas stay on top for ever”) and basically no advance on the black nihilism and commodity-fetishism of Schooly D circa 1986’s “PSK” and “Gucci Time”.

Word-wise the creativity resides in the endless, black-humorous twists on murder/money/misogyny. Jay-Z’s OG shtick pukes up some of his wittiest wordplay. In “Do It Again” he’s so iced-out with diamond-encrusted jewelry , his “wrists’s frostbit minus two degrees”, while “S. Carter” turns the rapper’s real name into the jeering chorus: “S dot carter/you must try harder/competition is NADA!”

Juvenile’s old-head-on-young-shoulders, worldly and slight-weary persona is much easier to warm to than Jay-Z’s richer-than-thou condescension. It helps, too, that Cash Money’s trackmaster, Mannie Fresh, is rap’s most creative producer right now, merging the joyous electro-style bass-boom and ear-tickling triple-time hi-hats of New Orleans bounce with incongruous stuff--baroque pseudo-classical synth-melodies, jazz-fusion guitar licks, techno stabs and textures. Fresh used to make house tracks with Chicago pioneer Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley. There’s been a bizarre convergence between rave and rap in the last year: Jay-Z’s "Snoopy Track" sees Timbaland blaring Numan-meets-Beltram synth-bombast, while his Swizz-produced “Girls Best Friend” has the off-kilter lurch of 4 Hero’s early breakbeat hardcore.

On the latest Ruff Ryder product, the Lox’s album, though, Swizz’s sample-free digital synth sound (theme-from-Rocky-style triumphal fanfares, spindly videogame semi-tunes, atonal keyboard trills) is sounding a little threadbare from over-use. The Lox don’t help with lines as blunt as “I turn your face into pudding”, “I’ma make a nigga leak”, and the niggativity nadir of call-that-a-worldview? couplet “all I know is drugs and guns and plenty of weed/and that bitches suck dick and niggas’ll bleed”.

The trouble with hardcore rap is that while producers keep coming up with sonic surprises, the MCs face a tougher challenge: how many different ways can you say “I don’t give a fuck”?

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