Friday, June 16, 2006

My High School Years re-visited

Rap releases in recent months have had me thinking that it was 1995 instead of 2006.

Rappers like The Coup, Ice Cube, E-40 and Busta Rhymes have all put out new albums this year. All released albums 10 years ago within a year's time frame.

In 1994, The Coup released "Genocide and Juice," the same year Ice Cube released "Lethal Injection" and E-40 delivered "The Mail Man." Busta Rhymes was a member of the group Leaders of the New School, whose sophomore album "T.I.M.E." dropped in 1993.

I was still in high school during this time, and remember buying all of those releases back then. So I figured it was worth checking out the new releases from these rappers, especially considering that a 10-year rap career is equivalent to a 20-year career in Major League Baseball. Rap is a young man's game and the grizzled veterans still pumping out product deserve at least a nod from the hip-hop public, if not a curtain call ovation.

First on the list, E-40's album, "My Ghetto Report Card," has been out for a few months now. It's release was intended to be the nation's introduction to the Bay Area's "Hyphy Movement," which I've been pining about in my blog for a few months now.

The album, produced by Lil Jon and Rick Rock, has it's highs and lows. A definite high is the opening number, "Yay Area," which jacks Digable Planets (another veteran act attempting a comeback) on the hook. The "We be to rap what key be to lock" vocal sample sounds insanely pitch perfect when combined with Rick Rock's trembling drums. Another winner is the single "Tell Me When To Go," a club anthem and new school Yay area classic. If you haven't heard this one, you haven't been paying any attention to rap music in the past six months.

The Debbie Downer points come about six songs in, when you realize that the album is a marathon length when it only needed to be a sprint. At a robust 22 tracks, the album filler is half and half. By the time you drag across the finish line to the best lyrics on the song, the outstanding "Happy Just To Be Here," you feel so spent you almost can't appreciate the extended run.

Busta Rhymes is centering his latest album, "The Big Bang," as the platform for his "King of New York" campaign. He corronated himself such at Hot 97's Summer Jam a few weeks ago, according to written reports, but he has as much a chance of being Frank Black as Lil Wayne (which is to say, not much).

The problem is that "The Big Bang just doesn't pack that much bang. The best song, "NY S***" jacks a beat that's several years old (An old Diamond D track), and aspires to be the biggest NYC anthem since "Deja Vu" by Corey Guns and Al Tariq. Yes, NYC rap has been in steady decline since Snoop came through and crushed the buildings, but Busta as its savior? I love Bussa Bus, but even he can't bring the city out of its rut. And when you're trying to resurrect the NY state of mind using Dre's beats, maybe you're fighting a long-lost cause.

Ice Cube, meanwhile, could himself have tried to bill his latest album "Laugh Now, Cry Later," as another attempt to resurrect the West Coast, but he knows better. Instead, he simply reaffirms his status as West Coast don, almost like" The Soprano's" Johnny Sac returning from the pen and taking back his spot as the boss of Brooklyn.

Cube's first sing, the hell-raising "Why We Thugs," updates the revolutionary but gangsta steez he originated on his first two albums, the classics "Amerikka's Most Wanted" and "Death Certificate." The album's hook asks the very serious question "They give us guns and drugs/then wonder why in the f*** we thugs." It takes aim at Bush and Clinton without falling into arm chair political rhetoric, and the beat is a monster.

The rest of the album falls right in line with that barn burner. Cube wins by simply doing what he's always done: big upping the West Coast and apologizing for nothing. The gangsta you love to hate is back.

So to are hip-hop's favorite anarchists, The Coup. Their debut, 1993's "Kill My Landlord," is easily one of my top ten all time favorite albums. And with "Pick a Bigger Weapon," they bust out as rap's version of SF Giants shortstop Omar Vizquel, savvy veterans who maintain success by simply improving on their winning formula.
Whereas Vizquel uses his golden glove and on-base-percentage, The Coup dazzle with grass-roots activism and Oakland funk. Like Vizquel joining the Giants lineup, The Coup strayed from long-time independent status to release an album on punk rock imprint Epitaph.

"Pick a Bigger Weapon's" secret weapon is Boots Riley's underappreciated lyricism. Boots has always been a thought-provoking rapper, but he seems to have found the balance this time out, with songs like "I Just Want to Lay Around All Day in Bed With You" and "My Favorite Mutiny" serving as the perfect framework for Riley's mind spray. And the latter finds Riley in appropriate company: MC's Black Thought and Talib Kweli, some of the most effective lyrical assassins, stand side by side with Rilly in killing the track.

And more than a decade after my first exposure to The Coup, it's great to hear that they are maintaining not only their relevancy, but quality of work this far in the game.

Quick Note: Savvy readers may have picked up on the fact that I have been on an unannounced hiatus the past few weeks. I will continue to be on hiatus through the rest of June (although a show review may pop up in spots). Fear not. I have not abandoned ship, but am merely taking a moment to re-charge my batteries and line up some more goodness through the summer. In the meantime, be patient, shoot me your comments, and keep clicking the link to the picture of the guy with the chubby cheeks. Al Rato.

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