An Outsider’s Ode to Hip Hop – Part 2

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Part 1 is here

Nas is indisputably one of the greatest MCs to ever grace the mic, as hip hop as rappers go. From what is widely considered one of, if not the best rap album ever, the gritty, streetwise Illmatic, up to the grown-man, nuanced, elegant hip hop on Life is Good, his discography is a play-by-play of the evolution of the genre through the eyes of one of its finest.

When he declared, then, that his beloved form of expression was “dead” halfway through his career on Hip Hop is Dead, then, the outburst of conversation was understandable. Fast forward 10 years, and Nas declares himself a proper fan of Future, the divisive rapper scores of hip hop heads declared as antithetical to “real hip hop.” He’d go on to explain his history with the genre on the watershed DJ Khaled track, Hip Hop with Scarface.

This dichotomy might seem contradictory to some, but to me, it’s where the spectacularly complex appeal of hip hop lay. There was a voice for every listener, and a listener for every voice. I was able to thus appreciate music across eras and stylistic evolution, and I grew to connect the dots linking a range of rappers.

I heard reflections of Tupac in Kendrick, Nas in J. Cole, Common in Kanye. But I also witnessed artists who’d carve out their own distinct places in hip-hop – Future, Mac Miller, Vince Staples, Childish Gambino, Young Thug and Chance the Rapper. The diversity of thought and sound in each of these musicians is perhaps lost on those ignorant to the genre’s nuances, but I had found a genre with an album for every mood, an artist for every day.

The street tales of Nas and Jay-Z drew me in with their vividness, with evocative descriptions of neighborhoods and lives completely foreign to me. Southern rappers such as T.I. offered another perspective towards the life of someone often, by their own admission, caught on the wrong side of the law. At times, it almost felt voyeuristic, but I was always educating myself about their circumstances – ghettoization, Reaganomics, racist power structures and police brutality. They led me to discover parallels between racial prejudice in America and casteist and communal politics in India.

It might be surprising to many, I attribute a significant base of my sociopolitcal awareness to trying to understand the contexts of the music I was listening to and its reflections in the contexts I was more familiar with. They were often revelatory, and as I dug deeper, I explored powerful voices such as The Roots, Black Star, Pharaohe Monch, and Killer Mike, who furthered my drive to understand the things they rapped about with such incisiveness.

But I was still a teenager – I had very adolescent emotions, and music was my go-to outlet for solace, sometimes for answers. Fortunately, by the time I was exposed to it, hip hop had begun embracing its sensitive side, thanks to Kid Cudi, Kanye, and yes, sometimes even Drake. Whether they be angst, heartbreak, or even anxiety and depression, I found a straightforwardness towards them in hip-hop that many other genres sidestepped.

Mac Miller’s Macadelic, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, and Faces were some of my favourite albums from that time because of the unabashedly unsure, and complicated way Mac rapped about the addictions, insecurities and weirdness he was plagued by. I couldn’t relate to his exact situations, but they felt similar; genuine.

Cudi and Childish Gambino helped me through my bitter lonely teen phase with their own candid confessions of the same feelings – they might’ve often come off as immature, but to someone who desperately needed a sense of belonging in that time, they were kindred spirits.

So I grew; learning, failing, learning some more, all the while accruing a select, and colourful cross-section of rappers whose music I loved and always looked out for. As I shed my inhibitions and childish notions of ‘real’ hip hop, I also began to develop a taste for music that was just fun – bangers. Chance, Rick Ross, Future, and Young Thug quickly filled those gaps, and I found I had times where I just wanted to turn up. Depriving myself of these joys of the genre felt increasingly pointless.

Through all of this, I also grew to be acutely aware of the language employed in hip-hop. I learnt only on of the painful history and powerful reclamation of the n-word; it reminds me of the Dalit identity in India. Colloquialisms littered throughout hip-hop were finding its way into pop culture, and I tried to be consciously aware of their usage. It helped me understand just how much White America owed to the section of the population it had oppressed for so long, and discover how language, often used as a tool of the elitist classes, could be subverted. It contributed immensely to my love affair with writing too, and my cherished belief that words were only as good as the messages they conveyed.

It’s now been several years since I first started listening to hip-hop, and I’m as fascinated and enamored by it as I ever was. Listening to a song like 1 Train fills me with an inexplicable joy – pure lyrical acrobatics over an amazing beat, by a range of rappers each with their own distinctive styles. It’s why I listen to Joey Bada$$, and I listen to Lil Uzi Vert. I listen to Vince Staples, and I listen to A$AP Rocky. I listen to Big Boi, and I listen to Run the Jewels. I listen to Black Milk, and I listen to Big Sean. I love all of their music. I have never had to choose, and I never intend to.

I do intend to keep learning about hip-hop, and the environment it draws upon, and playing YG’s Fuck Donald Trump as loudly as I canHip-hop is now the most popular genre of music in the USA, and for this young adult across the world in India, its gospel is one I will never stop preaching.

 

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An Outsider’s Ode to Hip Hop – Part 2

Five Songs for the Weekend – VI

A weekly series where we pick 5 songs that we think you’d like to listen to over the weekend

#1. Rollin ft. Future, Khalid by Calvin Harris

(full track on Spotify) 

Calvin Harris is on a roll (pardon the pun). With this track, he continues to bring together artists you might not have expected to hear together over warm, bouncy production that is a far cry from his past of big room EDM. Khalid reaffirms his place as a musician to keep an eye on, with an insanely catchy hook that’s a perfect fit for this beat, while Future brings his signature melodic flow and warbly vocals to keep the danceability quotient high. If you’d told me a couple of months back that I’d be heaping such high praise on a Calvin Harris song, I’d laugh; but here we are.

#2. Wildfire by blink-182

Ah, 90s bands that attempt a comeback. They’re always hit-or-miss, and for a while it seemed blink-182 would fall on the side of the misses, which might’ve been a little saddening (All the Small Things is still a great song). But Wildfire is a pretty great track – it’s got the relentless energy of classic blink, but with production and vocals that sound like a band realizing they grew up. Here’s to them finding their place in a new musical landscape.

#3. Shreddy Krueger by MANWOLVES

It’s rare to find a band that makes rap work with live instrumentation – but when it does work, it can make for pretty great music. MANWOLVES takes instrumentation you wouldn’t expect backing most rappers – trumpets and percussion that’s more snares than deep kicks or hi hats. The vocals aren’t the focus – this is truly a band. With that said, they sound at home with the production, and the hook makes for a good sing-along. They might not be the next Twenty One Pilots yet, but MANWOLVES are worth your time.

#4. Whatever It Takes by Imagine Dragons

It’s hard to call Imagine Dragons great – their hits are inconsistent, and not particularly outstanding musically. But every once in a while, they put out songs that are inescapable – epic tracks with anthemic hooks and rousing production. Whatever It Takes is such a record – Dan Reynolds is an accomplished vocalist who knows exactly what the song requires from him, and the electronic-tinged instrumental drives the powerful pre-chorus and chorus to soaring high. They may not make the most innovative music, but they definitely make some of the most memorable mainstream electro-rock.

#5. The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness by The National

It’s been a while since The National put out new music, and it seems like something’s changed in the intermediary years – The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness seems to leave behind the subdued, atmospheric sound of Trouble Will Find Me for a more aggressive, driven sound. Even Matt Berninger’s signature one-liners sound more purposeful – The National seem to have a more definite path ahead, as opposed to the melancholy abstractness of their previous work. I cannot explain it any other way.

 

 

 

Five Songs for the Weekend – VI

Five Songs for the Weekend – III

A weekly series where we pick 5 songs that we think you’d like to listen to over the weekend

#1. Slide ft. Frank Ocean and Migos by Calvin Harris

The excitement for this unlikely collaboration has been extremely high since it was first teased, and thankfully, it delivers. Backed by shimmering retro-pop production courtesy of Calvin, Frank Oceans delivers some fantastically smooth vocals – think sipping on some rum in a hammock by the beach – before the track transitions seamlessly to the melodic rap of Quavos and Offset. It’s reminiscent in parts of of 90s/early-00s rap-RnB collabs, with some distinctly trap stylings. Summer it is not, but it’s one of Calvin’s best songs in a while, and perfect for the summer. (Find the full song on Spotify)

#2. 2 Lovin U by DJ Premier and Miguel

This was unexpected. Premier hasn’t lost a step with the beats – the funk on this is crazy with some rich guitars, the scratched vocal samples adding that signature Preemo touch. Miguel lays on the silken vocals, floating over the production with unmatched swagger. Everything about this song screams a hit.

#3. Incredible by Future

Damn, Future went from underground trapper to straight up alt-RnB superstar in a week with HNDRXX. A true tropical jam, the synths are vibrant, with just a little edge, and the bass-heavy drums give this a deep house vibe. Future’s vocals are at their cleanest, crafting a trap-RnB ode to his woman in a way only he can. This has the potential to be in heavy rotation in the coming months.

#4. Anoxia by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard is decidedly one of the weirdest bands out there, and thankfully, also one of the most prolific. No two of their albums sound the same, and their latest, Flying Microtonal Banana is no different. Finding a strange middle ground between desert and psychedelic rock, Anoxia sounds like a snake charmer on acid. Coupled with their lo-fi vocals, esoteric lyrics and impeccable mixing, the track sounds like one’s stumbled into a dimension that straddles the nomad and the shaman. What could they possibly come up with next?

#5. Walk On By ft. Kendrick Lamar by Thundercat

Thundercat is possibly one of the most creative purveyors of the new wave of RnB, and his collaborations with Kendrick are always phenomenal – Walk On By is no different. While Bruner reflects on the disorientation following the end of a relationship, Kendrick continues to paint striking images of the lives of the disenfranchised. The hazy production is an appropriately melancholy backdrop to their verses, and ties together a track that would be a perfect soundtrack to a plodding, sad walk.

Five Songs for the Weekend – III

Five Songs For the Weekend – II

A weekly series where we pick 5 songs that we think you’d like to listen to over the weekend

1. Keep it Low by Generationals

An indie pop-rock gem driven by lo-fi vocals and serrated guitar licks, this track has a catchy melody that keeps its edge intact. If you like your pop music with a bit of a punk aesthetic – a la The Strokes – this is worth a listen.

#2. Cool Your Heart ft. Dawn Richards by Dirty Projectors

From the first album to come out since Dirty Projectors basically became David Longstreth’s solo project, this dynamic, vibrant track is, in his own words, “an anti-co-dependency anthem.” The production is by far, one of the most intriguing pieces to come out this year – minimal, with blocks of sound moving around and snapping into each other like Tetris pieces. Dawn Richards fits into this puzzle perfectly, her vocals a perfect foil to David’s deadpan delivery. Quite the satisfying concoction.

#3. Shining by DJ Khaled, Beyoncé and JAY Z

DJ Khaled keeps outdoing himself. After a supersized – “major” – 2016, he brings together the power couple of music, Beyoncé and JAY Z, for a toast to success, the black tie variety. The production is appropriately luxurious, and Bey is at her swaggering best, soaring with confidence few rappers have the right to. Jay’s verse is short, but as he is wont to do, carves his niche with cool assurance, and deftly hands the mic back to his woman. This is the suave anthem.

#4. Kinda Bonkers by Animal Collective

The wonderfully weird Animal Collective return with a psychedelic-pop beauty, the production slightly glossier than than one is used to from them, but with their trademark irreverence. The background vocals add another interesting layer, while the primary vocals themselves are fun, with esoteric lyrics and an insanely catchy hook. This one’s going to be playing in your head for a while to come.

#5. Mask Off  by Future

Future cannot lose. After a 2016 where he saw his profile rising, but also had his detractors saying he’d lost touch with his original trap sound in favour of a more pop-ish sound, 2017’s self-titled Future album is enough assurance he’s always going to be a trapper at heart. Mask Off is one of the best tracks off the project, with an audible sneer and chest-thumping production to accompayny Future Hendrix’s boasts. You know he’s going to be around for a long time.

Five Songs For the Weekend – II

Favourite Albums of 2015 (#25 to #23)

I’ve been posting my favourite albums of the year for two years now on Instagram, primarily as a way to reminisce, but also (hopefully) to get my friends to listen to some great music. This was pretty much the only way I shared my music with people; so I thought it’d also be the ideal start to my blog, which is wholly about the music I enjoy.  So here we go.

 

#25. Mutant – Arca

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Arca’s Mutant is the most eccentric, twisted album that I enjoyed this year. The repulsive cover art probably cued you to its contents; Mutant is unapologetically harsh and difficult to listen to. But its true appeal lies in its ability to reconcile this aggressiveness with some incredibly gorgeous, operatic sounds. Mutant is a medium for the gifted producer to revel in the idea that it escapes comprehension, demands that you give it a listen, and reinforces the absurdity of life as he sees it.

Listen to: Vanity, Alive

 

#24. DS2 – Future

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Everyone knows exactly what to expect from Future: lean-saturated, warbly melodies floating on bass-heavy beats. But the music is so goddamn fun. Whether he’s insisting you ‘fuck up some commas’ or detailing hes sexual escapades in Gucci flip-flops, Future Hendrix keeps dropping the quotables. And yet, Future’s fascinating brand of sharp honesty prevents the music from crossing into the territory of inane droll. The codeine haze may or may not murky the depths of DS2, but the music is simply too exuberant for you to care.

Listen to: Stick TalkWhere Ya At

#24. The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us – Beach Slang

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To anyone who complains that punk is lost today, listen to this album.  The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us is filled with the same aggressiveness that made 90s punk the phenomenon it was, but is tempered by the middle-age wisdom of singer-songwriter James Alex, and is driven by glimmers of hope. Driven by unrelenting guitar and searing vocals, this album is lean(9/10 songs clock in under 3 minutes) and mean. This LP is as much a statement of brutally honest introspection as a piece of music. What the listener gets, then, is loud, guttural music, built on emotions to match.

Listen: Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas, I Break Guitars 

(I’ll be posting about 3 albums per day, till I get to #1. Stick around)

Favourite Albums of 2015 (#25 to #23)