Saturday, May 12, 2007

Da Drought 3: Notes on the Temporal Nature of Rap

I'm excited about the recent development of mixtape artwork taking cues from the Legend poster.

Last week Straight Bangin' and The Passion of the Weiss teamed up for a milestone in hip-hop blogging: they asked all interested parties to submit their lists of the top twenty-five rap albums of all-time, then they weighed and tabulated the results. What emerged was a consensus of what the top twenty-five were overall, based on how many people voted for an album and how high they placed it. So we finally know that a whole lot of people in their mid-twenties who love rap are into Illmatic. Seriously though, it's an admirable project, and one that seems pretty damned accurate and successful. I've even started the intimidating challenge of copping all the records that got votes but that I don't own (about a hundred, sadly).

Anyway, since this list came out, I've been going back to a lot of these albums, some of which I haven't listened to in a long time, and I've been trying to determine what gives them that element, makes them classics. Is it timelessness? That I can listen to Aquemini and enjoy it just as much as I would have in 1998? Consistency, in that I can't pick a favorite track on Supreme Clientele? Innovation, in that I can list how many inferior copies of 3 Feet High and Rising have been released? How about thematic consistency? I've yet to hear another rap album that can sustain an outlook and mood as persistent and haunting as my own personal favorite, Ready to Die.

Chances are, besides the obvious package of commanding vocals and dope beats, an album needs a combination of all those intangible elements to linger in a listener's mind. This list comes amidst the circulation of the most highly anticipated mixtape ever, Lil' Wayne's Tha Drought 3, which--though I really like it--exhibits none of the qualities mentioned above.

Wayne's lyrical dexterity is undeniable. Over the finest beats of the past year or so, he slings metaphors so tight and obvious that you can't believe no one has rapped them before ("Smoke on the boat/Call it seaweed"), he stubbornly maintains thorny rhyme schemes for entire verses ("Peyton Manning flow: I just go no huddle/Baby girl gettin' straight dick, no cuddle/You know I'm out this world/I just bought a space shuttle"), and he does it all with an unusually carefree sprit and precarious mock-freestyle flow. He has reined in the non sequiturs and delievered lean, focused verses with few wasted lines--though he still throws in shit like, "I don't have time to deal with...Willie-the-Squid." His inimitable accent allows him to rhyme the couplet, "And I am so New Orleans/Like 1825 Tulane"--not to mention that dude is so insulated he can reference something as arcane as a fifteen-year-old jingle to a Rosenberg's furniture commercial. He also frequently tacks "no homo" onto the end of lines, which is still funny for some reason. All in all, this is as enjoyable a listen as I'll have all year.

I wonder how far this "no homo" stuff can extend. Is it possible that Cam could be like, "I prefer to have intercourse with other members of the male species. They sexually attract me, which causes my penis to be engorged with blood. I would prefer to satisfy the sexual urges of this erection by inserting the penis into the orifice of another man as well. I also like hair gel and the song 'Blue Da Be' homo"? We may find out.

However, beyond the occasional vague reference to Katrina, at no point does Weezy ever even try for poignancy or emotional resonance. Because of his warbly, uncommited delivery, not even his threats are convincing. Someone like Young Jeezy, although he's far less competent than the technically dazzling W.F. Baby, carves better albums because when he growls, "Now I command you niggas to get money," I kind of get an envie to visit the ATM. Weezy doesn't even sound as if he believes what he's saying.

Take "Promise," for example. The first disc's closer, it jacks the beat from Ciara's song of the same name and serves as an unabashed paean to her beauty. (Blech. Turns out all that gay speculation had some legs to stand on: Wayne's into dudes after all.) It's the only track with a cohesive theme, and it's clearly the weakest link. In trying to stay glued to the subject matter, Wayne betrays the allusions and whip-smart punchlines that make him so successful.

The answer to any of these assertions is, "So what's your point? This is a mixtape. He wasn't trying to do something serious--it's just about having fun."

The point is that Lil' Wayne is the first artist to legitimately make better mixtapes than albums. Before...well, before the blogging age, mixtapes were agreed upon as a more disposable, less developed medium than a studio album, which may no longer be the case. (That unspoken agreement basically involves the artist's dedication and intention. I think people are over-emphasizing the issue of the appropriation of other people's beats. Discussing whether or not that's artistically viable is kind of the same debate we had ten years ago about sampling.)

Wayne further complicates this by claiming to be the best rapper alive. If he's the best rapper alive, does that mean that the B.R.A. doesn't need to craft consistent studio albums? That's an honest question. Can you be the best rapper alive without achieving any of the hallmarks we associate with it?

Wayne has never crafted an album that is consistent all the way through; he has never completed a successful ballad; he has never, to my knowledge, even attempted a narrative song. Almost all of his material will sound dated in ten years, and he doesn't seem to care. Yet according to him, he's still a fine enough technician to hold such an esteemed title.

Mixtapes can be important documents that achieve the qualities I listed at the top--Joe Budden's Mood Muzik 2 is a great example. They should neither be relegated to footnotes in an artist's career nor always be judged within the prism of historical impact. But by both positioning himself as one of the most important rappers in the game and by putting so much into Tha Drought 3, Wayne forces us to consider it the same way we would an album. And in that light, it's beautiful but depressing.

What I'm asking is: are we beginning to under-value the merits of a mixtape or are we forgetting what we should require of a real artist?

Lil' Wayne- "Put Some Keys on That" (mp3)

Lil' Wayne- "Upgrade" (mp3)

No comments: