Indie-Rap Survives the Crash
I miss Pen & Pixel
Last year was a bad year for rap, but at least a few people got to put out albums. We're in the fifth month of 2008, and the first thoroughly solid major-label rap album, the Roots' Rising Down, only just hit stores on Tuesday. Nobody's making any money anymore, and labels are habitually pushing records back until they get the vaguest indication that the things might move a couple of copies; I'm already looking forward to the third straight fourth-quarter deluge. These days, practically every working rapper considers himself a scrappy underdog whose label doesn't understand him, and that includes relative commercial titans like 50 Cent. But rap albums are still coming out; they're just coming out on indies that know better than to commit actual money to marketing these things. A whole left-behind generation of mid-90s NY rappers and their stylistic descendants are now shifting indie, releasing low-overhead product to devoted fanbases and realizing that their chances for crossover stardom are over. And considering the surprising number of comments-section denizens requesting that I say something about Guilty Simpson's Ode to the Ghetto, these guys are doing something right, so let's have a look.
Guilty Simpson owes his career to his J. Dilla connection, which, combined with his Stones Throw contract, probably means he's got more in common with old Rawkus-era notions of indie-rap than anyone else on this list. As a rapper, though, Guilty is a total everythug, rapping in a turgid and deliberate monotone and swinging back and forth between garden-variety tough-talk and conversational slice-of-life stuff (jealous girlfriends are a particular fixation). He's a solid rapper, and sometimes he comes with a really nice little turn of phrase ("To get paid some, go to every extreme / One black'll leave another red for green"), but I probably wouldn't pay this guy much mind if he was rapping on tinny mixtape-rap beats. But there's a pleasant dissonance in hearing him rap instead over the miasmic psyche-rap beats of Stones Throw's stable of Dilla acolytes like Black Milk and Madlib. The appeal of Ode to the Ghetto goes beyond novelty; it turns out that half-asleep gun-talk actually sounds pretty great over flanged-out guitars and falling-apart horns and evil robotic 80s movie synths. I especially like "Footwork," where Guilty's unimpressed sneer sinks easily and naturally into Oh No's dementedly vwerping homemade electro. But I can't help but notice how completely Sean Price hijacks "Run." Unlike Guilty, P never lets you forget how much he loves rapping; delivering his intricately constructed punchline-rap, he's just deliriously amped. I can't help but wonder what might've happened if Price, rather than a journeyman like Guilty, had an album full of beats like these.
Buckshot, Price's Boot Camp Clik compadre, had that same fire in his soul until pretty recently, and he still regularly summons it onstage, at those great NY BCC shows when at least half the crew reliably shows up regardless of whose name is on the bill. Consider Buck's turn on "And So," from BCC's 2002 group album, one of the great incensed performances from a rapper who knows exactly how underappreciated he is. Over the past few years, though, the Boot Camp Clik have solidified a decent little underground following, and Buck, in particular, seems completely satisfied with that. On The Formula, Buck's second collaborative album with the producer 9th Wonder, the little guy gets comfortable to the point of complacency. His lyrics, for the most part, are total autopilot stuff, the sorts of things that a rapper on his level should be able to come up with in the morning while he's pouring his Frosted Flakes: "I don't preach / But I do teach / My little homies in the hood how to outreach." (That's the first line on the album!) 9th, for his part, does little to justify his equal billing. His beats serviceably approximate that classic sweltering Beatminerz boom-bap, but they're too clean and orderly; there's none of that chaotic vinyl-pop grime. But then, nobody involved seems to be laboring under the perception that The Formula is going to be replacing Enta Da Stage anytime soon; this is low-risk, low-reward rap music, quite possibly the result of a few pleasantly lazy Sunday-afternoon studio sessions. Buck's still knows exactly how to use his pinched, craggy voice. With contentment gradually pushing out resentment, that voice over low-impact soul loops makes for perfectly acceptable sunny-day headphones material. The Formula is one of those albums that works better when you don't pay too much attention to it, and nobody could begrudge Buckshot the ability to consistently and steadily churn out albums just like it for the rest of his life.
As breezily pleasant as The Formula might be, though, it's hard to ignore the reality that Buckshot isn't quite as sharp as he once was. I honestly have no idea whether the same thing is true of AZ, though I find it hard to imagine. Undeniable is AZ's seventh studio album, but it's the first I've heard. AZ basically owes his career to his guest-verse on Nas's "Life's a Bitch," so I've always basically considered him the very first post-Illmatic NY rapper, and post-Illmatic NY rap has never been something I particularly cared about. In a better year for rap, I probably never would've bothered with Undeniable. That would've been my mistake. Along with Rising Down and H.N.I.C. 2, Undeniable is one of the very, very few end-to-end satisfying rap records I've heard this year. AZ's voice is nothing special; it's a punchy, ground-down east-coast mutter, but he does great things with it. Specifically, he jams every throwaway line with every internal rhyme he can find ("Doggy, since a shorty I was speaking like I'm forty"), keeping his lyrics on-message and making it sound easy. And he grounds all those writerly tricks in a shockingly cohesive and pretty musical palate. On the album's cover, AZ puffs a cigar while glancing over a New York Times and sipping a huge, expensive-looking glass of red wine, and the sound of the album goes a long way toward furthering that image of AZ as an urbane, mature, sophisticated voice. He favors underrated regional producers like Fizzy Womack and Nottz, who give the album an old-soul melodic sensibility. Koch, AZ's label, is notorious for conveniently forgetting to clear its samples, so these guys get to use all the unlicensed 70s-soul sounds they want: strings, bells, rippling quiet-storm guitars, spare snatches of vocal melody. Over tracks this luxuriant, AZ can't help but sound calm and assured. Barely any guests show up on the record, which is almost a shame; if even Ray J can sound like a grown-up on this stuff, imagine what he might've gotten out of somebody with actual talent.