I’ve been in a rare R&B mood lately, probably brought on by the Grammys and all the attention that Frank Ocean and Miguel have been receiving recently. Specifically, this has meant listening to a lot of Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream and Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One & Part Two. The trio of albums pull off the neat trick of being retro, futuristic and sexy at the same time.
“Adorn”, Miguel’s biggest hit from Kaleidoscope Dream, was ubiquitous on R&B radio for a while, but it failed to make an impression because of it’s similarities to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” It’s the album’s poppiest effort and probably worthy of its popularity, but the beauty of Kaleidoscope Dream lies in its weirder and more rock oriented moments. The guitar heavy duo of “Don’t Look Back” and “Arch & Point”, and the eponymous “Kaleidoscope Dream” (which apes the bassline of Eminem’s “My Name Is”), demonstrate the album’s artsier ambitions and the winding paths Miguel ventured to achieve that goal.
But it was the chorus of album closer “Candles In The Sun” that captured my attention. It only takes a 1:14 minutes for Miguel to drop the “kick in the door” from the Notorious B.I.G. song of the same name. It’s a fun moment and not terribly important, but it somehow feels meaningful and it’s a soulful context in which to repurpose an otherwise menacing lyric.
New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh starts strong with standouts “20 Feet Tall” and “Agitation” and I was already kind of in love with the album when I reached “Fall In Love (Your Funeral)” towards its tail end. And then this happens:
Erykah sings there’s gonna be some slow singing / flower bringing / if my burglar alarm starts ringing which is of course lifted from Notorious B.I.G’s glorious “Warning”. Two Notorious B.I.G. callbacks in the same day!
Pay attention at 1:27.
“Warning” is the song that best captures everything that was great and which was lost with Christopher Wallace’s death. The entire package is on display here: the masterful storytelling, the effortless flow, and the creative wordsmith-ery. During the Ready To Die era it’s clear that The Notorious B.I.G. took pride in writing his rhymes. “Warning” begins as a conversation in which Big is informed of an impending robbery and then shifts to plotting a brutal counter-attack. He avoids gibberish, broken phrases, and inscrutable slang and instead focuses on fitting the English language as it is spoken into the rhyme scheme (I find this more impressive than simply rapping quickly). Details pervade, giving life to the scene. And there is the slow singing – I’ve always been struck by the oblique brilliance of that line. Most writers would probably argue that simpler is better, but Big makes hiding his meaning just an inch beneath the surface feel so natural. It’s one thing to say that the victim’s family will be sad, and it’s another to paint the funeral procession.
And that’s why Badu’s strikes me as the more significant of the two quotations. Erykah and Biggie are both offering threats, but the dangers come from opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Big’s warning is to home invaders destined for violent ends. Badu’s is to her lover who is about to fall for the wrong woman. While B.I.G. goes all scorched earth with a hail of gunfire and gunpowder-fed rottweilers, Badu playfully acknowledges that she’s only using her man until a better one comes along. You don’t want to fall in love with me, but if you do… what the hell? It’s your funeral.
Photo by Shot By Drew from The Come Up Show
Lupe Fiasco recently reached into his bag of controversy and pulled out a weird, broken record performance at the StartUp RockOn presidential inauguration party. According to the noted hip-hop journalists over at Politico, he was kicked off the stage after 30 minutes of repeating his anti-Obama lyrics from “Words I Never Said.”
I like “Words I Never Said” and I support artists including political content in their work. I like giving the middle finger to the man. But I don’t like screwing over paying customers. Disruptive activism should piss off the people who’ve abused their power and not the ones who happily pay your bills. Instead of bringing people’s attention to the very real reasons not to vote for Barack Obama, Lupe Fiasco comes off less like a political firebrand and more like a petulant asshole.
It pains me to say that I’m not surprised by the incident. I’ve been a Lupe supporter since his guest feature on Kanye West’s “Touch The Sky” and I consider Food & Liquor a minor classic. He was young, weird (name-checking Lupin III), and possessed of a unique voice capable of rhyming from the perspective of an anime mecha-warrior without sounding cheesy.
Things have changed dramatically in the times since “Kick, Push” was his signature track. There’s been label drama, retirement announcements, and enough general BS to make me sick of the baggage that he brings. But this all helps to mask the fact that there has been a remarkable decline in the quality of his music since The Cool. For all the fighting it took to get Lasers released, it probably shouldn’t have been, and Lupe has never sunk lower than he does on the atrocious “Bitch Bad.”
The song is mind-bogglingly terrible. There is so much wrong here: the stilted rapping, dangerously high levels of didacticism (an 8.7 as measured on the Nas Scale), the beat Lex Luger would make if he was sad and bored, and a vocabulary that displays no faith in the intelligence of its audience. “Bitch Bad” is “conscious” rap at its preachy worst and what it preaches doesn’t fly. Mychal Denzel Smith offers a spot on analysis of it’s shortcomings, but it suffices to say that Lupe’s politics are a little lacking (women infect the boys, girls infect themselves, and the women need to be lectured to). It all makes the false retirement announcement seem like a broken promise.