Saturday, February 28, 2009

#49 Album of the Decade- Diplomatic Immunity

#49- The Diplomats- Diplomatic Immunity (2003)

(Note: Since Blogger has been deleting any posts with direct links to mp3s, I'm going to practice some synergy for now by putting any track links on TANBR Deleted Scenes.)
Dipset, the Harlem crew originally made up of Cam'ron, Juelz Santana, Jim Jones, and Freaky Zeeky, had a habit of referring to themselves as "more than music, a movement" on their first LP, a double CD with Def Jam. In the years since its release, the Diplomats expanded recklessly (I gave up after downloading my first Dipset Euro mixtape) and eventually disintegrated over bullshit. Their biggest supporters were hip White bloggers--guilty--and those bloggers disguised the chasm between the crew's esteemed reputation on the Internet and their negligible influence on the pop landscape. The movement never really happened, but we have 2003 as the high-water mark of what could have been.

That's due, in part, to the fact that Diplomatic Immunity caught lightning in a bottle. If it had been released one year earlier or one year later, it would have had a fraction of the impact that it did. The Internet, as I mentioned, was a big part of its success. They were able to curry buzz on  message boards and pass tracks across the web with the first widespread availability of broadband. At the same time, we hadn't yet reached the point at which artists lost significant amounts of record sales from illegal downloads. It was the best of both worlds.

The Diplomats were also fortunate to be working at Roc-a-Fella's Baseline Studios at the first part of the decade. Kanye West lent one track, Just Blaze produced the seven best songs, and the Heatmakerz were responsible for a whopping eleven cuts on the album. Together, those producers, working just under the radar and way under the prices they would eventually demand, wrote the blueprint of the chipmunk-soul style of sampling that would explode by the next year. The Diplomats were able to have a consistent, recognizable style that was still wholly original.

That style in the beats had to be the cohesive element because the rappers are all over the place. You have two great rappers (Cam and Juelz) who are at their absolute hungriest prime, one rapper who is mediocre (Freaky), and one who is terrible but funny (Jimmy). Since Killa Cam and Juelz take the lion's share of the verses and are joined by above average guest spots from Dip-associates like J.R. Writer and Hell Rell (spitting over a phone from jail no less), this is not a problem. On this album--even more than Come Home with Me, the record that afforded him the opportunity to put the Diplomats on--Cam'ron pioneered the free-associative, wacky flow that ended up being way more influential than could have been expected at the time. For instance, he actually has the gravitas to pull off these rhymes on "I Really Mean It": I'm a genius, Papadopolous/Never leaning on your Zenith (I really mean it)/Killa, bag me more mutts, they actually all ducks/Caddy more trucks, it's Daddy Warbucks." (This blog probably would have been called Papadopolous if there wasn't already a blog called that.*) At the same time, he can mix in something as personal as "I just wanna see my son piss in the potty." Juelz raps with a lot of sound and fury, but he mostly rhymes about his propensity for wearing bandanas. It's all good. 

Does Diplomatic Immunity have to be two hours long? No. And the sequencing makes very little sense. For example, "Bout It, Bout It Pt. 3" with Master P should have been right after--oh wait, that song shouldn't exist. However, the fact that the ripples of this album are still being felt is enough evidence that it belongs on this list.

*It's now defunct. I think Jon Caramanica used to run it, but I can't find it now.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Can I Get a "Jai Ho"?

Was anyone else infuriated by this?

In general, this past week's Academy Awards coverage of the Indians involved in Slumdog Millionaire was belittling at some points and downright exploitative at others. 

The film itself didn't seem that way to me, thanks mostly to Danny Boyle's direction. It mined the melodrama and conventions of Bollywood cinema, but it always did it honestly, and the performances--of the children especially--never seemed contrived. The difference was that the Indians in Slumdog Millionaire were the subjects while its director was an outsider, whereas the real-life Indians were an exaggerated other.

I saw a ticker on Saturday morning that proclaimed "Slumdog Children Being Sent to America for Academy Awards," and it seemed portentous of this sort of thing. "Being sent" is already making them an object, as if they're a box of Slap-Chops or something; but the notion that this was a gift to them, rather than something they deserved, was the more insulting point. They were an integral part of the front-runner for Best Picture. Would there have been a ticker if the Weinstein Company had shipped Ralph Fiennes to sit next to the rest of the cast of The Reader? Would it have been so weird to see Michael Sheen sitting with Ron Howard? Probably not, but we had to hear repeatedly how generous it was of the Academy/Fox Searchlight to bring those brownies to the show.

Isn't it presumptuous in the first place to believe that there's nowhere a ten-year-old Indian boy would rather be than sitting down for three hours at the Kodak Theater in a tuxedo? Isn't that part of our best-of-all-possible-cultures thinking? Who is really being served here? These children or our idea that we need to save someone from a far-off slum, if only for one night?

Classic. There's only one TV for the whole village. Thanks major news outlets.

During the E! red carpet show, there was a "dance like Slumdog" segment. Ryan Seacrest, a bit after the above clip ends, condescendingly complimented one of these tweens on her English after not even attempting her "weird" Indian name.* Presenters mispronounced composer A.R. Rahman's name three times, and this is a guy who has sold 200 million albums worldwide. We're lucky he knew Danny Boyle's name.

I don't mean to blow this out of proportion. Everyone likes a free trip, and all the Indian guests seemed genuinely happy to be here. (And it's not as if I don't objectify.) However, tokenism is pervasive. It upsets me that whenever a cultural event like this movie exposes the average American to a different way of life, the power of that understanding is rendered meaningless. 

* You can't completely blame Seacrest. Those shows are fast and furious, and there's no telling what information his producers gave him beforehand. But something tells me if there was enough preparation to have all the kids' names on a card, there was enough preparation for someone to say, "Hey, do you need help with these pronunciations?" Holding the card up to the screen is pretty xenophobic.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Report: Blue-Blooded Uptowner to Reign as King of Carnival

When I was at Tulane, it was frustrating to watch out-of-towners experience 'Mardi Gras' without ever attending Rex or Zulu. Yes, it's early in the morning. No, it doesn't feature a super krewe. And Comus hasn't paraded since 1992.

But the appeal of Fat Tuesday as a symbol of the city's racial coexistence seems to be lost on my generation. Zulu parades through former housing projects that have been razed. Rex is now the only krewe to parade through the affluent stretch of Napoleon bounded by Claiborne and St. Charles avenues. In fact, Zulu used to parade without a predetermined route-- not unlike Mardi Gras Indians-- before NOPD forced their hand. Rex has rarely diverged from its 10 AM start at Napoleon & Claiborne, and those years usually feature a tardy Zulu, perhaps purposely, delaying Rex at Jackson & St. Charles.

Aside from family traditions like Rex, Zulu, and the truck parades, Mardi Gras features lesser-known traditions nearly as old as New Orleans Carnival itself. Jefferson City Buzzards, for example, is the oldest continually-parading marching club and will celebrate its 120th anniversary next season. Pete Fountain's Half-Fast Walking Club starts at Commander's Palace in the Garden District before merging onto St. Charles. Part of the appeal of these marching clubs is their relative anonymity: Buzzards starts at the unremarkable intersection of Laurel and Exposition streets at 6:45 AM. For the first mile and a half of the Buzzards' route, the only revelers are grumpy Uptown residents awakened by an unforgiving brass band. These are the guys that give paper flowers and creepy kisses to unattractive women.

My favorite Mardi Gras memory consists of having a McKenzie's doughnut while reading about the year's Rex in a folded Times-Picayune before heading to Buzzards. It's a tradition I still find special to this day; it's also comforting how the King and Queen of Carnival change but always remain the same. The Monarch of Merriment probably owns his own local business-- think Entergy or Tabasco or Zapp's. He's also quite active in the community and probably a chairman of the Audubon Society or some task group concerning the wetlands, Katrina, or neighborhood crime. He probably has a cheeky anecdote about when his father or grandfather was king back in the day. The Queen is always a junior or senior in college who attended Newman, Sacred Heart, or McGehee for high school. Popular college choices for the QoC include: Emory, Virginia, Washington and Lee, and-- in a worse case scenario-- Tulane. She's active in the community as well, probably as an English tutor at some inner-city school. After graduating, she'd like to attend grad school.

It's a shame that native New Orleanians and out-of-towners alike probably have no idea what the Boeuf Gras or a Social Aid and Pleasure Club is. Then again, that's probably what makes Mardi Gras the most special day of Carnival. Coffee Exec Thomas Westfeldt II to Reign as Rex, King of Carnival