Monday, August 25, 2008

"Swagger Like Us": The Rap State of the Union

T.I. feat. Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lil' Wayne- "Swagger Like Us"

This song, supposedly off T.I.'s forthcoming Paper Trail,* isn't good per se, but it's interesting in that it's a cohesive, calculated entry from rap's foremost foursome. (A song called "Five Rings" with Jeezy would have captured the zeitgeist better though. I can already hear him claiming to "run tracks like Usain Bolt.") What I expected was four completely unrelated, thrown-together verses; and while it still doesn't sound as if these guys were all in the same room, it definitely comes off as a posse cut that can't help but describe what rap sounds like in 2008.

1. The beat by West is both timely and prescient. The (un-screwed) M.I.A. sample that skips across the track is vintage Kanye: pilfering hipster culture and showing how it was always-already more tied to Black culture than anyone wanted to acknowledge. (Hip-hop needs to move on from M.I.A. though. The minute Beanie Siegel is rapping over "Paper Planes" someone needs to move onto Vampire Weekend or something.) Over it West lays the reductive, martial, low-end roll that he used on the pretty horrible "Jockin' Jay-Z". So rap production is becoming both more inviting of hipster source material and more minimalist rhythmically--like Run DMC at private school.

2. West's voice on his verse is auto-tuned, but it lacks the purpose it had on the genuine and rousing "Put On," which is obviously one of the best songs of the year. Whereas the distance it provides enabled him to sound plaintive and conflicted and masked on that track, it's just ornamentation here, as it usually is. He also goes way too hard for the song, trying to prove something with an effort antithetical to the notion of swagger. He also doesn't use the term "butt-niggas," which kind of put him over the top on "Put On."

I write about these dudes so much that I ran out of relevant pictures.
Kanye- "Fresh. Niles was crazy."
Jay- "I liked him better on 'Cheers.'"
Lil' Wayne- "I ain't really up on all that 'Frasier' bullshit. That was on the same time as 'Moesha.'"
T.I.- "How'd you get a picture of my tattoo?"

3. Hov, a man familiar with swag, goes next, eager to show us that he's back to not giving a shit. I guess we're due for more Kingdom Come. The verse is growing on me, but it's still a bit too straight-ahead than what he's capable of and what we deserve. I counted one metaphor, you can see all of the rhymes a mile away, and he doesn't even try to enjamb or twist rhymes into anything other than aa, bb, etc. I could also do without ever hearing "You can pay for school, but you can't buy class" again. (Are you forty years old? Wait, don't answer that.) In 2008 we're back to standard Jay-Z indolence.

4. After having listened to hundreds of Lil' Wayne verses in the past year, it's almost impossible to tell objectively if he's becoming too satisfied with his boilerplate offerings or if he's developed such a standardized style that we're taking it for granted. Starting the verse by quoting the sample: check. Really approximate rhyme of "no mas" and "four thighs": check. Obvious but acceptable basketball metaphor--"blue and yellow/the type of shit that make 'em call you Carmelo": check. Wanted reference?: check. In "Swagger Like Us," in so many words, Lil' Wayne pretty much tells us he's Lil' Wayne, which is good enough for now.

5. T.I. proves once again that he can murder a song when he wants to, especially in the blustering double-rhyme that starts this verse. He seems to be the only one treating this as a competition, despite claiming that the "last thing I'm worried 'bout is what another rapper do," and his contribution shines. The best thing about T.I.'s technique is that when he's trying really hard he still sounds blase, which is kind of the definition of swagger. If I were West, I would have batted T.I. second and let Jay hit clean-up, because it would have built anticipation and kind of taken down our defenses. There's some weird reverb painted onto the end of T.I.'s sixteen, but I don't think he had anything to do with it. I might start playing just the T.I. portion of this in the car. If this song, rather than the other leaked tracks from Paper Trail,* tells the future, T.I.'s going to have a nice fall. What "Swagger Like Us" really seems to be telling us is that the second half of 2008 is going to be much like the first.

*- That is, if they can clear the sample. M.I.A. strikes me as being kind of a humorless killjoy. At the same time, I don't think she could get away with denying anyone else the right to sample when that's kind of what her whole persona is based on.

*- If you can't tell, I don't like the pandering ladies' man T.I., though the relatively devoted sweetness of "Whatever You Like" is refreshing in the wake of the Plies mumble competing with it on radio.

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