(Editor’s note: We interrupt Please Jam’s month-long celebration of Black Music Month to comment on the glut of new music released this past week. As usual, EIC Vince Thomas and associate editor James Carr are at the helm.)
Kanye West - “I Am A God”
JAMES: Dr. Dre’s line in Eminem’s “I Am” I’m a hornet/and I’mma only sting when I’m cornered comes to mind when thinking about the concept of this song, although Kanye has unleashed his stinger quite often. Still, it feels like the kind of mindset ’Ye mighta been in when writing this song, and to a certain extent this album. He’s demanding his all-out respect. “I am a God.”
There is a theory that says the economy has now replaced religion in the sense that it relies so much on confidence and belief to keep the system going, and it’s believed by the masses. Belief in the form of “consumer confidence” is almost purely what influences how our money performs (or what would be if elite banks weren’t rigging the system, but that is for another day).
Kanye West has a major influence on our economy and culture, and feels he would be much greater if the system would let him in, so he’s raging against the glass ceiling that’s keeping him from elevating. With the amount of money Kanye generates, and the amount of influence he’s had and still has with other artists, in that context, he is a God. But he’s trapped, not allowed to exercise his powers.
He channeled that energy into a ridiculous two-hour session with Rick Rubin during which he wrote lyrics for two songs and the vocals for five songs for Yeezus before catching a flight to Milan. It’s not the first time he’s done something like that. Kanye’s selection of nine beats for Jay-Z’s The Blueprint helped them knock out 90 percent of the album in a weekend.
VINCE: I’m going to save most of my Kanye thoughts for my essay on him and his career that’ll post next week. I’ll say this, though: I don’t really listen to ’Ye albums for enjoyment anymore. Seriously. After 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I don’t ever go in expecting to enjoy your boy’s joints. The last ’Ye album I enjoyed was Graduation. These days, I approach his albums looking to hear what kinda ish he’s on and what direction he’s pushing music. Not pushing his music -- pushing music, in general. So, although I don’t wanna hear this album anymore than, say, Talib Kweli’s new joint that dropped in May (still haven’t listened), I respect what Kanye’s done with Yeezus. I don’t like it very much, but I respect it a great deal. I’m past the days of thinking I’ll like every good album.
Final thought (and I’ll get into this more next week): Kanye West is the greatest artist of the past 15 years. It’s him and Radiohead. Everyone else can kick rocks.
J. Cole “Let Nas Down”
JAMES: The premise of this song is interesting considering the two most important figures behind it are Jay-Z and Nas, and they both thought the same thing about Cole’s early submissions. Jay held out until he was happy with the content and Cole found out that Nas hated “Work Out,” on Sideline Story.
They were both impressed with this joint, though. Cole’s expressing something that’s more likely to happen in this generation because we are all connected via the NSA Internet. Idols might not always become rivals, but it’s easily possible to be let down by people in your respective dream chase.
It’s also possible to get feedback and criticism, or in this case, tough love. Cole spoke about writing through a shaken confidence and rediscovering his writing ability. This obviously contributed, and the final product on Born Sinner is a marked improvement upon his debut -- especially Cole’s producing. This is a perfect example.
VINCE: Let me start by saying that I enjoyed Born Sinner, which surprised me. I kinda held J. Cole as a music trifle, but then I heard “Power Trip” and it ended up being one of my favorite songs of the spring. I thought the production and song-arrangement was straight-up sophisticated. The only reason I bothered checking his album, though, is because you, James, put it in my music Dropbox. I’m not going to say that what I ended up listening to was jaw-dropping, but I was legitimately impressed with the level of nuance and artistry Cole exhibited. I’m talking about tracks like “She Knows” and “Runaway” (I loved “Runaway”’s nod to Mos Def). And the way he repurposed Tribe’s “Electric Relaxation” for “Forbidden Fruit” is downright nasty. I played that joint over and over for a full commute one morning.
But let’s get at this “Let Nas Down” garbagio. Can he please give me a break? Give me several breaks, actually.
A few weeks ago, we brought in a kid to interview for one of our summer internships. We asked him what he was pumping at the moment and he mentioned J. Cole. What was noteworthy is the gushy way he referred to the album. He’s not the first Millennial I’ve had this experience with. When the intern started to talk about how great Cole’s new album was, I turned to (TSL deputy editor) Khalid and said, “It’s like he’s Nas with these young dudes.”
My tongue was all the way in my cheek.
I find “Let Nas Down” to be insufferable because of how self-reverent it is. It’s like this dude is saying, “Everyone looks to me as my generation’s Messiah and my early missteps crushed the hearts of a hip-hop icon.” Man, please. This dude is dropping lines in this song about how he was tasked with resurrecting hop. Again...man, please. There’s this mock-earnestness to this track that makes my skin crawl.
You, Jermaine Cole, are no Nas.
Mac Miller ft. Action Bronson “Red Dot Music”
JAMES: Mac Miller has come a long way since “Donald Trump.” He rode the wave of success that he built on K.I.D.S. and sold on Blue Slide Park, the first album in 20 years to top Billboard independently. He moved to the West Coast and his sound moved with him. He built a studio in his crib and started hanging out with Odd Future and Black Hippy. Members from both crews are featured on the album and his tracks with Ab-Soul have been fire. That’d be an excellent collab album.
A perfect example of both is on his collab tape with Vince Staples, that also dropped this week, which Miller produced under the alias "Larry Fisherman."
But Action Bronson is more memorable on “Red Dot Music.” He’s got a unique voice and his flow goes so well over slower tempo beats. He just joined forces with TDE, so there’s major collaboration potential with all of these artists.
VINCE: James, I am vowing to you that I will go back and listen to this kid’s entire discography before the end of the summer and write about it. I’ll listen to Blue Slide Park and all his mixtapes. I’ll read all the features that have been written on him. Check all his videos. I’ll do the knowledge and then give him the Music Dude treatment.
What I’m starting to suspect is that the kid is talented. He definitely exhibits some legit production chops. This joint right here is a good example. Very ambient. And, after hating Action Bronson’s guts for about year because I thought he was a criminally foul Ghostface biter, dude is one of my favs now. So, I’m typically a fan of almost every new joint Bronson guests on. Hence, I’m digging this joint. I’m guessing that Mac’s new album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, has some merit.
But let me get at the most important issue, here...
Why is this kid so cotdang famous? Is he that talented?
My Mac Miller introduction was basically a controversy. Lord Finesse sued the kid for sampling “Hip 2 Da Game.” It was sort of a d-bag move from the vet, but it was also symbolic of Miller’s lack of credibility and the undercurrent of incredulity held for him by some in the hop community. It’s like Finesse was saying, “Nah, fam. Not you. I’mma need some cash.” When I checked a few of Mac’s tracks at that time, I came away with a bit of a grudge. Typical. A teenage white kid getting rich off of hop. You gotta understand that this kid was dropping indie albums that land atop Billboard (as you mentioned), but Section.80 wasn’t moving units. Next thing you know, this kid has an MTV reality show. I just wasn’t feeling it. He was getting the Gas Face from me.
Tell me, though: Is this kid a more talented rapper/producer than J. Cole? So why exactly is he getting the Myspace commercials? The easy answer to that is, Because he’s more charismatic. And that’s probably true. But no one can convince me that Miller’s race doesn’t factor heavily into his popularity.
With that said, I think my initial dismissal of the kid was premature. This summer’s research will reveal the truth.
Statik Selektah ft. Prodigy “Pinky Ring”
JAMES: I’m confident that what you lack in Mac Miller knowledge, you more than make up for with Prodigy information; a much better tradeoff.
Statik is a bit newer to me though, as well. He’d produced a few beats I enjoyed and then he came down to SXSW and DJ’d for the Pro Era set. He’s dope, though he’s been in the game since 2007 (whoops).
You talk about co-signs with artists and both Mac and Statik earn a lot of cred in that department. He’s got Raekwon, Joell Ortiz, Action Bronson, Joey Bada$$, Black Thought, Freddie Gibbs... the list goes on.
It’s easy to see why with beats like this one. He blends newer electronic sounds over live drums with old school samples that go so well with the Northeast classic hip-hop sound -- hence, the attraction from the underground and originators.
VINCE: Yeah. We actually featured a Statik joint in a Please Jam a while ago and I mentioned how this dude has a remarkable amount of high-level co-signs . The production on this track is cold-blooded. I’ve spent the last 15 minutes trying to determine what influences it bears, but I’m having a hard time. That could mean that Statik has a wholly unique production style, but I can’t believe that’s the case. I will say that it has slight Roc Marc’ leanings in that it’s spare and somewhat paranoid. I’ve yet to check the full album, but I will soon.
Let’s rap about Prodigy real quick, though.
He and frequent collaborator The Alchemist (they make more music together these days than Prodigy and Hav’) just dropped another album last week, narrowly missing our June 18 criteria for this week’s PJ. As usual, it’s full of gutter, East Coast boom bap with Prodigy in shine mode. Prodigy is a beacon. His style has yet to age. More so than his contemporaries, he’s continued to do him, seemingly resisting elements of new style-trends out of defiance. Nas sounds like Meek Mill half the time these days. Jay-Z will rhyme like whomever is hot. Prodigy only does Prodigy. His kindred spirit in that mission is Raekwon, who refuses to stoop to mimicking these young cats. With Prodigy, it’s like his verses are one long monologue. He’s perfected the hip-hop element of ish-talking. “I’ll bang on you so loud, I’ll put you with crickets.”
A self-righteous snob (like me) might perceive Prodigy’s on-going conviction to his personal style of violent threats and misogyny as the worst kind of Second Childhood. After all, there’s not much difference between 2013 Prodigy subject matter and The Infamous Prodigy subject matter of 1994. But the way Prodigy mastered his style and has stuck with it is actually something to marvel at.