XXXTENTACION – Don’t Look At Me

With the recent domestic-abuse allegations, “17” album, a place on the 2017 XXL-freshmen list, and now a new music video for “Look At Me”; Florida-state rapper – XXXTentacion – has been placed firmly into the limelight of today’s Hip Hop. In fact, just last week his debut-album – 17 – sold 86,000 units on its first week, with streaming-services accounting for 85% of its sales alone (1,500 streams = 1 album sale. Do the math), thus outselling fellow XXL-Freshman Lil Yachty and his debut album – Teenage Emotionsby almost twice as much on its first week, all as an independent-artist too, while Lil Yachty is signed to QC and Capitol (a major label). Therefore, it’s safe to assume that XXXtentacion does have “star” power comparatively better than that of his contemporaries, and he will be here to stay in the industry until proven otherwise; but just what makes X so appealing to others? I just don’t get it.

Sure, X has got a couple of songs that “slaps in the whip” like “Look At Me”, and he has a plethora of songs that dwell in raw youthful-emotions like “I Don’t Wanna Do This Anymore” and “I spoke to the devil in miami, he said everything would be fine” – I get it, and I understand how people could connect with these songs or just find it appealing. But as an artist; is X really all that? Does he really deserve to transcend all his contemporaries in the rap-game?

17: X’s debut album, was a project he said was marketed to an audience of “those who suffer from Depression”; but did the music deliver what X intended it to? I don’t think so. Firstly, I think the album was heavily restricted by its 22-minute run time to really explore the many ideas about depression or dissect it from multiple lenses – it’s just such an intense topic with many layers of contexts, and it’s something that differs with each person’s experience, that I don’t think 20 minutes – or even 1 hour  – of music is enough for listeners to feel “satisfied” or feel as if they left the record with much more understanding of depression as a whole.

Secondly, I don’t think some of the sonics of this album are very good, nor did I personally enjoy them. Some of the instrumentals just don’t sound polished enough for a studio-effort; “Fuck Love” ft. Trippie Redd sounds like something straight out of SoundCloud, “Carry On” sounds like a Lo-Fi Hip Hop beat from SoundCloud too, “Ayala (Outro)” is a weird instrumental, and certain instruments like the pianos on “Dead Inside” and “Orlando” feel out of place for me.

Thirdly, I didn’t really like X’s “singing” nor did I enjoy his songwriting. I thought his rapping and singing were very monotonous too; I know that he’s trying to progress his sound forward and experiment with different textures but I don’t think these attempts really enhanced the songs and their meanings. You could argue that the monotonous delivery in his flow and his singing were used to convey an idea of “dehumanization” in his character due to mental illness and depression – I can acknowledge that, but I don’t think he executed that idea too well anyways.

Finally, I just don’t think there was enough substance to make this album a profound listen. For an album he marketed for “those suffer from depression”, X really made this album all about himself and his bouts with mental-illness/depression. He just tells you his story but he doesn’t do it with any kind of nuance added on to it; there’s nothing for listeners to really deconstruct in the album’s narrative since X just tells us the whole story anyways, therefore removing layers of characterization and songwriting. It’s hard for audiences to relate with X’s complete struggle against depression since most of them weren’t 19-year olds with a bunch of money, hoes, materialistic items and fame when they were in that mental space; instead, audiences can only relate to the simpler narrative of the songs like “I met a girl, we had a one-night stand, I kept avoiding her, her feelings were hurt, she killed herself and now I feel bad” because that’s something that listeners can – more or less – relate to (maybe not the “she killed herself “ part but definitely the “her feelings were hurt and now I feel bad”, or “her feelings were hurt, she made some bad decisions because of those feelings I brought to her, and I now I feel bad”).

All in all: I guess I just consume music differently than today’s generation of audiences. I’ve come to realize that when I listen to music, I also listen to what an artist has to say and I value it very highly when I’m analyzing just how much I personally liked a project. I’m not suggesting that every artist has to drop something socially-aware like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly; I even said that my most personally-significant album this year was Rodeo by Travis Scott. I am, however, just saying that as an artist – you’re given a platform to express yourself, yes, but as listeners – we’re given the powers to critique your expression, analyze it and re-interpret it as our own. I think most artists in today’s mainstream, and most artists I dislike, just don’t have any layers or depth in their self-expression though, so as a listener there’s not much for me to analyze and re-interpret as my own.

This shallowness in an artist’s self-expression determines whether or not I like them, and just how much I really do. For example: compare an artist like Lil Uzi Vert to Travis Scott; both artists play on the same themes of heartbreak, drugs and alcohol, but the thing that separates their music fundamentally, for me anyways, is the depth and layers in their music. Travis Scott’s Rodeo was heavily centered on celebrating a lifestyle money, fame, drugs and alcohol – much like Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage – but underneath all of Rodeo‘s songs was a rich narrative of Travis Scott coming to terms with his newfound fame and wealth, and trying to stay true to himself despite being surrounded by distractions and fake friends. This narrative of the album is profound; it’s multi-layered and open for many interpretations from many different angles by listeners. Luv Is Rage however, is just a glorification of the lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, fame and money; Lil Uzi Vert doesn’t give listeners much to deconstruct with the way he wrote his songs – there’s not much characterization, and there’s no substantial metaphors; there’s no layers and there’s no open-to-interpretation concepts.

That same idea can be applied to X’s music. I thought 17 really had little-to-no substance behind its lyrics in the sense that there’s nothing for us to really deconstruct and re-interpret for ourselves since X tells his stories with a very heavy 1st-person perspective, with not much characterization of himself or anyone else, and a lack of open-ended ideas; it’s like “hey, this thing happened, and this is how it happened – all from my perspective though – we won’t even bother discussing or mentioning any other party’s perspective” therefore making his songs declarative and closed-off from re-interpretations. The songwriting is still a bit immature too, and I predict that it won’t age well in the next 5 years, or maybe even 12 months.

However, X’s fanbase and the concept of the album being “for depressed people” were what I think really drove the record’s sales, but sales don’t objectively define a product’s quality – it only objectively defines its demand. So perhaps we can assume that this album only sold well because of the demand for X’s music, and/or the demand for music “for depressed people”. Yet fans have been quick to claim that X’s 22-minute album is already album of the year; beating out Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Joey Badass’ All Amerikkkan Badass, Brockhampton’s Saturation, Jay Z’s 4:44 and Daniel Caesar’s Freudian. I’m sure I don’t have to compare the depth and layers between those 4 albums and X’s 17; you and I know what’s what.

So what’s with the appeal of XXXTentacion? Is it his aesthetic? Is it his “music for depressed people”? Is it the *sarcastic voice* many layers and depth in his lyrics? or is it just crowd-hype from social media? I don’t know for sure myself, and I’m sure people are attracted to his music for different reasons too, but after listening to his 17 album for a couple of times already, I just don’t get it.

 

 

 

 

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How Young Thug Bodied Drake’s Sacrifices On A Whole Other Level.

Of all the high moments on Drake’s More Life; from the multiple song transitions (especially 4422-Gyalchester), the string of melodic beats, great guest appearances, infectious hooks, and instant-classic punchlines after instant-classic punchlines… it’s almost universally agreed on by fans and casual listeners that Young Thug had one of the album’s defining moments when he dropped the last verse on Sacrifices, and proved just how much some people slept on him and overlooked his work.

The verse by itself is a story which contrasts Young Thug’s old life of crimes and ignorance, with his new life of fame and riches. It’s layered with double-entendres and allusions, but it goes further than that too. What Young Thug does from a literature-scope; is deconstruct particular scenes of his old life and new life into vignettes of brief lines, then he juxtaposes those lines together with a recurring series of similes.

Check the introductory bars in his verse for example:

I was stealin’ from a bitch
Back when I was 21
My favorite gun was a SIG
20 in the clip, head one
Growin’ up, I was a runnin’ back
You never made me ran once
I got shot, sweat started runnin’
That shit was red like Hunt
I’m kickin’ pimpin’ like I punt
But don’t you think shit’s sweet
I’m talkin’ sweet like deer meat

This recurring series of similes is a nuanced approach for Young Thug to give us an insight into his perspective and subconscious. The similes which he uses throughout the verse are mixed with subtle shades of:

  • comicality (“I’m talkin’ neat like a geek”), 
  • jadedness (“I’m talkin’ wet like Katrina”),
  • childishness (“I’m talkin’ monkey like Jumanji”),
  • urban stereotypes (“I’m talkin’ Rose like Derrick”)
  • suggestiveness (“I’m talkin’ wet like it’s running”),
  • violence  (“Like the President, I’d kill him neat”),

by effect, this technique shows Thugga subtly implying the differences and similarities in his mentality as he transitioned from his life in the streets, into his life of newfound affluence today; he’s still got a sense of arrogance, and still acts a little bit childish thanks to the ghetto’s influence on his character, but he’s also grown more jaded and mature from the wealth he’s accumulated for himself and the violence he’s experienced.

By juxtaposing vignettes of his life with strongly nuanced similes, Young Thug is able to tell the listeners a reinterpretation of: the significance of all those vignettes, how they influenced him, what they symbolized for him, and how it translated into his similes and punchlines.

The verse itself is very self-interested too, and this is shown throughout by the heavy repetition of the “I” pronoun. Young Thug’s verse is all about him and the sacrifices he had to make.  He doesn’t discuss how other people in his life felt, or what they did which didn’t directly involve him – no, he only discusses how he felt, how he acted, and how he saw things. He’s being honest to listeners and that’s evident in the carefree, lack of hyper-articulation in his speech. Yet he’s also serious and critical about his past and wealth, and that’s evident in his less auto-tuned, more stripped-back tone.

I think that it’s ultimately an artist’s duty to be self-reflective of their environment, rather than to act as a representative or figure for others. I believe that’s why the genre and culture of Hip Hop, a particularly minority-driven and youth-based collective of artists and audiences, is seemingly saturated with songs about drugs, poverty, societal-taboos and such — because it’s very self-reflective of the artists lives, and its audiences may resonate well to it too since they may also be from similar experiences. It’s why artists in the genre often draw inspiration from one another, or important minority figures — because those people are relevant to the artists themselves, their perspectives and their culture. Lastly, I think it’s also why Jazz, blues, funk, soul and RnB; genres of music which were birthed and rose to relevance as a form of protest and anti-oppression for minorities, play important roles as the foundation of hip hop’s infrastructure.

I think how Young Thug is viewed as an artist reflects him to be a victim of vilification in a moral-panic situation, but it’s an instance where the moral-panic occurred within the in-group of Hip Hop’s culture rather than its out-group.

Throughout his whole career and rise to relevance, Young Thug was among the several contemporary artists from his time who were constantly denounced by fans of Hip Hop’s “Golden Ages” as the anti-thesis to its era and conscious-rap. It was fast and effortless for them to make these judgments since Young Thug seemingly went against a lot of Hip Hop’s status-quos and taboos from those times (eg. Dressed femininely, rapped about homosexual themes, heavy use of auto-tune), and was seemingly trying to promote a destruction in the negative stereotypes against cross-dressing and homosexuality — something which opposed the views of older rap audiences and “Hip Hop purists”.

Young Thug’s music, rise to relevance, and the controversy around his image also started reshaping the sonic-landscape and culture of Hip Hop by introducing new types of audiences, and influencing a new wave of similar artists into Hip Hop’s “in-group”. This caused older audiences of rap, and “Hip Hop purists“, to feel even more worried about Young Thug’s impact on the culture and genre, then scapegoat him as one of the main artists who were to blame for “rap going wrong”.

On Sacrifices, Young Thug seems to subtly acknowledge this by asking the listeners “do you get it?” several times throughout his verse. Young Thug’s got a seemingly playful tone in the way he asks the question, but that’s only because the song’s beat and pacing masks the line’s level of humourlessness. Contextually speaking, Young Thug’s really asking if: you — the listener of this rap song, which implies you’re in the in-group of this genre — get what he’s trying to artistically achieve? Or do you just skim through his music, and antagonize him for his public image instead?

In terms of the song’s message, Young Thug’s verse fits too. He’s saying he had to make a lot of sacrifices to be where he is now, but it’s not just done in the simplistic rap-cliche of “I sold drugs, I did crimes, my friends died…”, but rather it’s done in a profound level of literary technique use, and by also exploring the idea that he had to sacrifice his image to Hip Hop’s “in-group” to be where he is now.

Young Thug’s verse on Sacrifices was extremely well-nuanced, and clever, I think it’s level of complexity and thoughtfulness truly went over most peoples’ heads. but I think that also says something somewhat-worrying about how music is personally consumed and interpreted by the different generations and types of Hip Hop audiences in 2017.

 

Common — Be

Be: Common’s triumphant second-wind in his career, which saw him regaining his focus in messages and ability to lyrically explore/connect ideas. Further assisted by the production efforts of a younger Kanye West and J Dilla, “Be” re-established Common as a premiere lyricist in the genre of Hip Hop after his string of “soulquarian”/90s albums had come to an end, and fans had felt way too disconnected to understand the ambitious vision of “Electric Circus” – his last studio album prior to this one.

“Be” was a textbook showcase of strong Hip Hop fundamentals – Beats, rhymes and empowerment. Audiences hear Common rap over tasteful soul samples throughout the album; vividly painting stories of Chicago’s ghettos and how it affected himself and the black-youth. Promoting listeners to find new inspirations instead of alcohol-dependency and circumstance-complacency through lyrical motifs which praise his daughter, music, sobriety, role models, god and family. I think Common even addresses how the then-prevalent “Bling-era” of rap had negatively affected black culture on a few songs too.

However, the lyrical content of “Be” never feels too cliché or boring and actually encourages a lot of repeat-listens; Common seems to have meticulously laced each song with layers of double-entendres and wordplay. Of course, there’s the style of Kanye’s early soul-sampling and J Dilla’s production talent too, but I think the strength of those two factors should be credited to Common’s ability to marry vulnerability and self-reflection harmoniously in his flows and lyrics – thus creating one of Hip Hop’s most honest and empowering albums, and further setting a new standard of “conscious-rap”.

Listen to the full album below:

GIL

Before the Cilvia Demo EP dropped, Isaiah Rashad was originally gonna drop a mixtape titled “Pieces of a Kid”. The rumoured mixtape was never released but fans made their own versions instead with songs released by Zay on SoundCloud and others scattered elsewhere. The finished products are 2 well-known mixtapes – Welcome To The Game and Pieces Of A Kid – which to me, could’ve possibly gone down as one or two of Hip Hop’s greatest mixtapes ever.

Instead the fan mixes we’ve got left are just pieces of a hype that could’ve been. Not to take anything away from Cilvia Demo at all, but had Isaiah dropped a mixtape, there may have been a much bigger hype around him, like Joey Badass before he dropped B4.Da.$$ , when he had 2 cult-classic mixtapes under his name already: 1999 and Summer Knights  

Nowadays, the Pieces Of A Kid mixtapes and the story of what they could’ve been, are only really known to Isaiah’s rather small fan-base. I listen to the tapes every now and then and try to imagine what they could’ve been too but instead, I’m more intrigued about how Zay’s pre-TDE SoundCloud leftovers actually formed one of Hip Hop’s most consistent, honest, conceptual and unique 50 minutes.

In less than 2 minutes on GIL/Sounds From Friday Morning, from both mixtapes (and Zay’s Soundcloud), Isaiah performs one of the most heartfelt and personally-relatable songs I’ve ever heard. He expresses, what-could-only-be years of personal turmoil and feelings through juxtapositions and contrasting ideas, with a sense of intoxication in his vocal delivery, Zay also uses clever euphemisms and metaphors to lessen the severity of his depressing topics.

Along with the chilling instrumental too, all of the song’s elements translate to a song which perfectly encapsulates Rashad’s alcohol and narcotics-dependency, depression, social influences, social detachment and youthful restlessness. All in less than 2 minutes.

Other songs from the mixtapes and Zay’s SoundCloud like Part III, 2x Pills, Part II, Hurt Cobaine and ’95 are also worth noting too. Although, both mixtapes are really worth giving a listen. Download Pieces Of A Kid here or Welcome To The Game here. Check out Zay’s SoundCloud, Cilvia Demo EP and The Sun’s Tirade too.

ODB’s Genius

When I first heard Ol Dirty Bastard’s (ODB for short) cult-favourite album: “Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version”, I was completely taken back by the album’s cover-art and its intro. Truthfully, I was drunk by myself on a Saturday night when I first heard it too, but I ironically found myself laughing really hysterically by the end of the intro itself and also thoroughly enjoying the rest of the music.

Much like ODB’s real-life personality and stories, the character he plays throughout the album are also just as ear-grabbing and attention-demanding as his true-life counterpart, perhaps ODB was just playing himself. However, I think it’s really interesting and worth noting on how ODB’s 1995 debut album intro predicted much of the personalities we see in mainstream rap today too, in 2017.

ODB is introduced to us on the album by a character named Russell Jones played by fellow Wu-Tang Clan member and album producer The RZA, who also has the same name in real life. Perhaps The RZA’s playing himself too but I doubt it since there’s a clear difference between Russell Jones and The RZA’s real voice. It could be possible The RZA’s just satirizing himself though since members of the Wu-Tang Clan had such a negative image associated with them at the time, they still do now too but most of Hip Hop just praise their work to the point of overshadowing it, so perhaps he’s just overdoing his character’s delivery to expose how ridiculous the Hip Hop audience had painted himself to be.

The RZA’s character constantly stutters and mumbles as he tries to introduce and hype up ODB to an audience of eagerly cheering and screaming fans. The drums and synths start irregularly and pause, they rise and die out as the RZA’s still introducing ODB. Then Ol Dirty himself finally appears but the crowd gradually grows silent as he performs a monologue and shares his story of a woman who ‘burnt’ him with gonorrhea. He has a pianist playing for him as he further explains his story, states he killed her, professes his regret and love for her, then tributes a Blowfly song to her aptly, yet inappropriately titled “The First Time Ever You Sucked My Dick” (all in that said order).

The crowd loves it by the end, then ODB snaps out of his character to say he was just messin’ around with us this whole time; “How y’all feelin? listen to the album cuz it’s BANGIN” and cuts to a dialogue-sample of the English-dub version of “The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin”, which by the way, is in my opinion one of The RZA’s better kung-fu film dialogue samples being hidden in introductions and interludes. Since we can assume ODB is the 2nd speaker, his response to “We have only thirty-five chambers, there is no thirty-six” is “I know that, but, I want to create a new chamber”. The 1st speaker then replies: “Oh? And what would that be?”, then Ol Dirty responds with the next song in the album: “Shimmy Shimmy-ya”, which is therefore the 36th chamber.

I think ODB’s unyielding genius of character on this album would only reveal itself in the following decades after its public release. It seems like ODB almost predicted exactly how much Hip Hop audiences today would adore an idiotic rapper, who raps about immature and grotesque subjects in such an ignorant approach and low standard of presentation. Rappers like Kodak Black, for example, show such a striking similarity to ODB’s character, that it almost seems like they’ve been paying homage to him via imitation all this time. Seriously, Kodak Black’s comical string of legal issues honestly seem like something ODB himself would get into, let alone his character.

Audiences love Kodak Black too. I think that might be the strongest point I can make about ODB’s intro on his debut album, and how it predicted the rappers of 2017. Kodak Black’s fan-base show so much support to him that it makes you wonder how Kodak’s music even affected them to the extent of their high gratitude. Regardless, ODB’s still a legend and this album of his has been on heavy rotation for a past couple of weeks. I just wanted to share an observation of mine I hadn’t seen anyone else comment about.