Pharrell and Twista Discover Baltimore Club
That is just a terrible sweater
When it's used right, a Twista guest-verse can be a seriously powerful weapon. Twista's speed-rap style is a very specific and specialized gift, and it only works in certain contexts, but when he finds the right space for it, it dazzles. Think of his appearance on Beanie Sigel's "Gotta Have It," where he weaves his voice in and out of Chad Hamilton's off-kilter drum-shuffle, first throwing syllables all over the place in concentrated bursts of chaos and then switching up and only putting words on the downbeats. Or the original version of Jay-Z's "Is That Yo Bitch," before he gave it to Memphis Bleek, where Twista raps circles around one of Timbaland's most cluttered and intense beats. The way he raps is amazing just on a purely physical level: he clearly enunciates every single word, but he does it so quickly that it can be tough to hear what he's saying. And that's fine; Twista rarely says much. His style is more of a parlor trick than anything else; there's a reason you never hear about whoever broke his fastest-rapper Guinness Book record. His solo albums have always been a bit uneven because it's hard to hear someone rap that fast for an hour and because he always sounds a bit uncomfortable whenever he tries to slow it down. Twista went platinum a couple of years ago with Kamikaze largely because of a couple of Kanye West collaborations, but I always thought that the album itself was a perfect representation of a rapper overreaching his limitations by trying to be as well-rounded as possible. I've been thinking a lot, though, about Twista's new single, the Neptunes-produced "Give It Up," a track that I find both really frustrating and really intriguing. The song itself is just OK, but I'd really love to hear Twista do more stuff like it.
A couple weeks ago, Pharrell told MTV that "Give It Up" was going to be his take on Baltimore club music, the raunchy and hyperanimated form of dance music that developed in my hometown and only started getting noticed elsewhere a couple of years ago. Here's what Pharrell says: "I wanted to give my own interpretation of it, which is a little bit of Miami, a little bit of Baltimore house. The way I'm doing it don't sound like B-More and don't sound like Miami. It just kind of [has] a lot of the remnants of the sounds of the things that I would use ... arranged with the mentality of the B-More stuff but with the low end of Miami." Pharrell's been interested in club music for a while now, and I've read reports that both Clipse's "Grindin'" and Kelis's "Milkshake" are Neptunes versions of club music even though neither one of them actually sounds anything like club music. But "Give It Up" isn't far off. The frenetic conga loop and the insanely repetitive and deadpan Pharrell chorus both rank as pretty good approximations of club. The synths are a little cleaner and the tempo is a little slower, but this is the first time I've heard a real musical connection to club music in a Neptunes track, which is pretty exciting. But the song still falls sort of the blockbuster club-rap monster I was hoping for when I read Pharrell talking about it. There have been plenty of attempts to combine rap with Baltimore club in the past, and most of them have sounded like ass. Club music in its distilled form is extremely fast and frenetic, usually hovering around 120 beats per minute, and most rappers just can't go that fast without turning their voices into wordless mush. And when club tracks are slowed down, as on local hits like Bossman's "Oh," they sound emaciated and wrong. Labtekwon's "Sex Machine" was one of my favorite singles of last year partly because it's a rare example of a rapper technically gifted enough to keep up with club in its natural state going nuts over an undiluted club track. I've always wanted to hear what Twista could do over a club track because I can't think of another rapper more naturally suited to the sound. But on "Give It Up," Twista talks about girls dancing, and so he delivers all his lyrics in his for-the-ladies voice, which is something like what LL Cool J might've sounded like if he'd slammed five triple-espressos immediately before recording "I Need Love." We also have to deal with a typically awful Pharrell verse, and honestly, I have no idea why a rapper as ass-ugly as Twista is even bothering to record for-the-ladies tracks. He still does amazing things with his timing and his meter, and he manages to cram a couple of pretty-funny Red Hot Chili Peppers references into the first verse, but the song still strikes me more as a missed opportunity than anything else.
It's also an interesting jumping-off point. Pharrell says that he's going to try using his hybridized club-sound on a few more singles this year. That's a good look for Pharrell, since "Give It Up" comes closer to the neon synth-addled weirdness of early Neptunes tracks than almost anything he's done in the past few years. And if Twista can afford more than one Neptunes track, it could be a good look for him as well. If not, there are plenty of actual Baltimore club producers willing to work cheap. Twista's new album is called Adrenaline Rush 2007, and that style probably wouldn't work too well if he's trying to recreate the organic midwestern bounce-rap sound of the original Adrenaline Rush. And it probably also wouldn't work to well on the collaborative album he's supposedly making with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. (Imagine the syllable-count on that thing.) But I'd still love to see Twista dig a little deeper into Baltimore club. After all, he's built for it.
Voice review: Jon Caramanica on Twista's Kamikaze