From time to time, I find it edifying to delve into some aspect of popular culture that I have normally ignored. For the last few years, it has been TV series. These last few weeks, I decided to get up to speed on some of the biggest names in hip-hop that I keep seeing on credible music sources like Pitchfork and AllMusic. I respect both of these far more than the watered-down Rolling Stone, the commercial Spotify or iTunes reviews and they have both raved about Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Danny Brown recently. I decided to spent the last to weeks listening to their catalogs and make my own opinion. Starting with the newcomer Brown, he is pretty funny on XXX and more mature and complex on 2013’s Old, but he does maintain much more of a gangsta approach to his lyrics. He is definitely a product of Detroit (Detroit 128 on XXX and other scattered references here and there) but doesn’t seem to have collaborated with fellow Detroit rapper Eminem. I think my favorite tracks from him are Wonderbread and Lonely from Old and the brutal Scrap or Die and the hilarious Outer Space from XXX.
Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter series mais pretty impressive with great (albeit megalomaniac) titles like This is Tha Carter and Get Down obviously built for the dance hall but more brutal titles like the murderous Tha Heat or the mysogynistic Hoes, Tha Carter is a complicated but impressive listen. Tha Carter II sounds better produced and has a bit more reflection there (Fly Out) but more of the braggadocio (Best Rapper Alive). The extremely highly critically acclaimed Tha Carter III does sound impressive – a more accomplished sound than the previous Carter albums with more mainstream tracks like Lollipop and Comfortable and Let the Beat Build and tongue in cheek tunes like Dr Carter. Last year’s Tha Carter IV was a bit of a letdown after Tha Carter III to be honest. Apparently, he has move from “Tha” to “Mr” to “Dr” and now “President Carter” (always the megalo in this genre) and there are some introspective tunes like the bitter How to Hate. But it still sounds like a recycled Kanye disk in some respects. In all of the stuff I listened to, Lil Wayne seems very tied to his native New Orleans at least in his lyrics, I would have been happier had some of the Nawlins traditional music made in into back tracks for his mix tapes and perhaps I missed something somewhere, but I didn’t really find that.
I listened far more to Kanye than to any of the others and since he has produced so much with Jay-Z (including the masterful Watch the Throne that they did together), I’ll discuss both in the same paragraph (sorry Jay-Z). Kanye hails from Chicago and comes from a far more privileged background than the former drug-dealing Brown or Wayne having already spent time in prison for weapons and drug possession. His music tends to be far more polished. I listened to nearly all of his catalog and found it very listenable for the most part. Each album is fairly introspective. My favorite songs from each album are All Fall Down (beautiful mix) from The College Dropout, Drive Slow (reminding me of my Miami Vice period in high school) and Diamonds (with great lyrics of looking at the diamond trade from several perspectives) from Late Registration, Good Life (happy but not condescending dance track) on Graduation (despite not really liking the Homecoming featuring vocals from Coldplay’s Chris Martin), Coldest Winter (inspired very clearly from Tears for Fears The Hurting – a childhood favorite) and Say You Will from the depressing and VERY introspective 808s and Heartbreak, Devil in a New Dress (with the great throwback 70s soul back track) and Who Will Survive in America (seemingly influenced by Gil Scott-Heron’s B Movie) from the ever-deep My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and lastly Black Skinhead (with interesting lyrics about how rappers have upended the music industry) and Hold My Liquor (how does he succeed in mixing introspection and braggadocio so well?) from 2013’s Yeezus. On the Watch the Throne, Otis is an awesome track – perhaps my favorite in the combined catalog – perfect blend of the old soul of Otis Redding with some incredible rhymes – a truly amazing track as is the beautiful Made in America. I guess I can appreciate why Kanye is the most decorated artist in popular music history even if his genre is not my favorite.
Do you like these artists? Are there others that I should give a listen to? Have I missed some great Jay-Z perhaps? Or am I making to much of these guys? I haven’t gone all the way to, say, R Kelly because R&B is really not my thing but perhaps that is too short-sighted?