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2011: the year hip hop got weird

December 23, 2011


Extra Brolic Shit:

Lol - Danny Brown & Black Milk / Huzzah! (Extend-O-Mix) - Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire (feat. Despot, Das Racist, Danny Brown & El-P) / Light Years - Has-Lo & J-Zone / Science - DJ JS-1 & Jeru Da Damaja / Black Lagoon - Black-Tokyo / Drones Over BKLYN - El-P / That's Your Brain (Swangin) - PSY/OPSogist / Hoard 90 - Gangrene (feat. Roc Marciano) / Walls of Insurrection - Dälek & Gym Brown / M.A.S.H. - The Black Opera / Bubonic Plague #3 - Tenshun / Beware - Death Grips / an echo from the hosts that profess infinitum - Shabazz Palaces / Amphetamine - Teddy Faley & A.M. Breakups

So a couple of months ago I saw a headline in the Onion AV Club--"The Big Question: What makes music boring?"  I was all, neighbour please. (That's the culturally appropriate variant of 'nigga please.')  Music is definitely not boring right now.  Then the article is all about a bunch of indie-rock bullshit which is by definition boring.  So, that's your problem right there holmes.

Then the esteemed Dart Adams did his Abe Simpson of Rap thing with "Why There More Than Likely Won't Be Another Golden Era Of Hip Hop." No, Dart, there won't.  There won't be another Renaissance or Enlightenment either.  Hip-hop, like any human endeavour, progresses and adapts and changes.  And right now it's accelerating and smashing shit on a Large Hadron tip.

2011 was the Year Shit Got Weird.  The bar for weirdest-ass hip-hop LP was set by Dr. Octagonecologyst in 1996, and no one's ever made a freakier, more insane record.  But this was the year when weird-ass shit was everywhere and universally acclaimed.

Yeah, '11 was also about human tampon Drake and Hold The Phone...and '90s innovators sounding pretty stale (Jedi Mind, Immortal Technique).  But the collapse of the music industry and the rise of net-based DIY means cats are doing whatever the fuck they want.  The underground vs. bling schism collapses when there's only room for a handful who can move units...no point trying to hustle a record contract or radio play any more.  So dowhatchalike like Shock G.  (Brandon Soderberg of No Trivia breaks it down here.)

End of '10, everyone was all about Kanye's My Beautiful Laundrette Fantasy Island...I mean, everydamnbody jizzed themselves behind that.  About two of us were shouting Super Chron Flight Brothers instead.  2010 was all about Lil B and Odd Future too...OF, I feel the beats: the beats are really fucking weird.  But the rhyming is mediocre and the lyrics are just pointless teenage nonsense.  Both of them got outshone this year, maybe as Yayo says they "fell to the wayside due to a struggle to be taken serious (B), and what feels like an overall laziness (Odd Future)." I'd say they were trying too hard to be weird, and have been eclipsed by more innovative, more honest, nuttier shit.  Das Racist is another one of those.  I don't feel all that Adult Swim rap, but if it opens up kids' ears so they're ready for Shabazz Palaces rather than skateboarding down the road to hell that is frat rap, it's all good.

Some cats trace the Rise of the Weird-Ass through Lil Wayne, Outkast etc.  Dave Bry's article in The Awl makes a good distinction between the 'I'm crazy' lean of Eminem (or the Geto Boys), which really means 'I don't give a fuck' rather than 'I should seek professional help.'  Prefix similarly notes that "Even the most successful of today's emcees seem cagey, apologetic, paranoid."

A lot of what we call hip-hop now is not only damn strange-sounding, but pushes the definition of hip hop.  Take Open Mike Eagle--Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes took trophies on a lot of lists, and aside from really odd-ass sounding production, he doesn't really rap: he kind of talks/sings.  He, like, salks.  He tings.  Death Grips' Ex-Military got huge love in the underground, and that crazy ass hardcore punk shit is not Kurtis Blow's hip-hop.  Peep out the Uncommon best-of podcast: NASA wonders whether his top four picks can really be called hip-hop.  Most definitely envelope-pushing shit has been around since Anticon dropped Music for the Advancement of Hip Hop in '99, but this year it hit the big time.

Even New York fucking Magazine sees this, calling out ASAP, Clams Casino and eXquire as New York rappers pushing boundaries away from "the insular mentality of the city's rap revanchists" like Joell Ortiz. (Oh snap! Joell! Son! They just called you a...revanchist?)  Even the goddamn New Yorker--in an article about fucking Drake, no less--sees that "hip hop...is in a period of transition in which formal constraints have dissolved almost entirely.  How do you even know whether something is hip hop?" (No doubt, but I do know this: Drake isn't.)

In an era where the music industry is dead, hip-hop has once again adapted to stay ahead of the curve and survive, creating a wider scene.  There's a greater diversity, and more cross-hybridization and less statification--it's not just Dirty South vs. East Coast, or backpackers vs. superstars.  Check out the rap nerdery of this chart in SPIN.  A lotta cats were pissed off because they weren't on it or their favorite MC wasn't on it or whatever.  I think the problem is that it's too small.  MORE BUBBLES, GODDAMN IT.  There's no bubble for all the hip hop what came out of the Arab Spring...fear of a rap planet, holla.  (Side note: Ibn Thabit, has hung up his mic now that Qaddafi's gone.)  Where's the mighty Midwestern cats?  The Overintelligent White MCs Who All Sound The Same?  The M.O.P.-for-Vendetta, Public Enemy Meets Farewell My Concubine sound of The Black Opera?

Nah, dun.  You finna make a bigger chart.

Past few years, everyone's best-of lists felt lazy and boring to me. This year, I ain't seen one single list that didn't have something on it I was feeling.  (And here's a couple of lists with joints I mighta slept on and need to check out from Scratched Vinyl and DJ Jazzpants.)  A lot of critics/bloggers managed somehow to like Drake and Watch Me Drone AND XXX or not forget the Muthafuckin' (like the NY Times).  How the fuck does that happen? I mean, aside from the Village Voice maybe, I don't remember anyone putting Fear of a Black Planet on the same best-of list as Bon Jovi.  A lot of cats I don't really like got end-of-year love, like Action Bronson and ASAP Rocky and whatever the fuck (and XXL managed to do a dozen lists which were all clueless), but the biggest champs of weird-ass hip hop in 2011 were:


Danny Brown: The Tigger of Rap

Everybody loves this dude, no question.  He hands down snatched the crown.  And dukes is fucking weird.  The waterfall hair and jumble-of-chiclets teeth goes with his intense, nervous slanging.  He's the Constant Consonant Eater.  Revanchist of the Gangster Duck Flow.  Brown takes the overboard getting-high-and-eating-pussy of Ol' Dirty but combines it with a paranoid sense of mortality, and gives us flashes that his crazed behaviour emerges from the ruins of Detroit, still waiting for Robocop's redemption.

Black & Brown with Black Milk is my shit over XXX.  XXX definitely picks up the last third, when it becomes painful and honest, and I'll revisit the rest while waiting to see what he gets up to next.

Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire: Bringing Back The Stupid

eXo brought back the gleeful don't-give-a-fuck: he's broke, he's flabby, he's drunk. It took balls to straight-up jack El-P and Necro's beats--and then lace them with odes to late-night fried chicken spots and general miscreant R&R. But co-signs came fast and furious, and no doubt I had "Huzzah" on repeat for a month straight.

We'll see what he builds off the back of Lost In Translation, but if "Gold Watch" is any clue, he might give Roc Marciano a run for his money.

Shabazz Palaces: Wow, These Are Some Really Good Mushrooms

Shabazz Palaces went pretty much ignored for their first two (far superior) self-released EPs, pretty much by their own doing.  Once they hopped to Sub Pop they got a bump, and also because everyone wanted to know what Ishmael Butler (formerly known as Butterfly of Digable Planets and now calling himself Palaceer Pink Gators or some shit) has been up to for the past decade.  (Besides that godawful Cherrywine thing.)  Answer: studying up, thinking hard, and eating a lot of hallucinogens.  Possibly also Afrofuturist sweat lodges were involved.

Black Up is confounding, demanding and challenging.  It's totally discordant yet addictively compelling--seeking, chasing, laying back in the swirl.  It creates its own world and trades in backpacks for paperbacks.  Like in The Terminator, it came across time to love you.  If the bar for a truly avant garde hip hop LP was set by The Cold Vein, a decade later Black Up raises the stakes.  Its amazing success will hopefully crack ears open for overlooked acts like Elucid, DJ Spooky and Dälek.

2011 felt like the end of The Wire, where the central characters were replaced with their younger figuras.  The new decade--and a new Atomic Age--has just begun.