Thursday, August 27, 2009
#126. 'No time to get down cuz I'm movin' up'
Me and hip-hop have an odd relationship. In high school I had a brief flirtation with it at the behest of my friends, but could never quite muster the enthusiasm for it that many of them could. I could appreciate the level of craft that people like Eminem and Busta Rhymes put into their lyrics and delivery, but a lot of the other mainstream stuff just left me cold on all levels. By the time 50 Cent had ascended to the top of the hip hop mountain I was about ready to swear off the stuff...other than The Roots that is. My reasons for holding The Roots in such high esteem as compared to the rest of hip-hop was simple back then: they played their own instruments. I don't think I ever used that in the way a lot of people would, it was never that they were inherently more talented than their peers by virtue of their instrument playing, just that the live instrumentation made them sound so far removed from the rest of the genre that it made me take more notice. It wasn't that they were better because they were also instrumentalists, they were better because they sounded somewhat unique in a landscape that was getting increasingly homogenous, at least at the mainstream level.
The other artist that stood out, albeit on a smaller level, at this time was Canadian veteran k-os. He'd been kicking around in guest spots for other, more visible Canadian hip-hop acts for almost a decade before his debut album Exit was released in 2002, but it wasn't til 2004's Joyful Rebellion that he really managed to take off. The album itself one of the best Canadian hip-hop albums ever, a glorious melting pot of a wide range of musical styles all rendered with organic-sounding production and exceptional songcraft. The fact that it was embraced by the mainstream up here is pretty shocking if you think about it: in a genre where usually the means of getting attention was through flash, shock tactics or blatant pop-baiting here was an album that was fiercely original, uncompromisingly eclectic and low key that managed to not only debut in the top 10 but spawned a pair of top 30 singles in "Man I Used to Be" and "Crabbuckit." In the states I'm pretty certain that it would have been relegated to a tiny label and would have only gained a level of notoriety in the underground.
"Crabbuckit" was probably responsible for a lot of the album's success. Beyond the fact that it was the first single and was in fairly heavy rotation on Muchmusic, it was night on impossible to ignore it in most contexts. It's one of the few clear examples of a song that immediately put me in the headspace of 'I need to hear this album' from the first moment it started. The simple hand clap and bass introduction would come on and it would completely draw me in, and by the time the song took a break after the first chorus for a sax solo I was hooked. Like The Roots it was doing something that was, to my quite novice ears at the time, so far removed from the the genre that it forced me to sit up and pay attention. k-os' previous singles were of the same cloth but much less remarkable, "Crabbuckit" was just phenomenal on all levels and still is.
If you haven't heard the song, and if you're outside of Canada and don't pay too much attention to hip hop this is probably the case, imagine if Ray Charles decided to make a hip hop track in the style of Digible Planets circa Blowout Comb. The base of the track is old school blues more than it is straight hip-hop. The stand-up bass, simple percussion, old timey piano and light acoustic guitar foundation sounds like it was transplanted from the 50s, both in arrangement and overall sound. The song comes across as somewhat timeless. Strip away k-os' verses and you might be able to pass it off as a long-lost jazz-blues record that was just unearthed, but with those verses it has the duality of being both wholly old-school and wholly new. It's a testament to k-os' production that he pulls that off as well as this.
The lyrics aren't that great though, to be honest. The general idea of comparing humanity to crabs in a bucket, where the masses will pull those who try to get out of the muck back down so that we all suffer the same fate, makes a great base for the song, but outside of the last verse the words don't work as anything other than sounds within the arrangement. Now, I'm not gonna make too big a deal of that since my main concern is that they sound good in context, substance be damned, but it's important to note that until the last verse the song is missing something. Then k-os starts actually rapping. It's not the best verse ever, k-os doesn't hold a candle to the likes of Aesop Rock and Doseone as far as verbal complexity and flow goes, but it brings the lyrics to the song's level for one verse. It's a great example of one of my core beliefs, that good lyrics can elevate a song more than bad lyrics can drag it down. Once k-os starts that third verse everything sounds better somehow. The beat seems sharper, the tone seems more complimentary, and the chorus sound much more triumphant coming out of it than it did at any other point in the song. If the first two verses were at that level this would probably wind up a lot higher in the list, but as it is it's still among the best hip-hop adjacent tracks of the decade.
Coming up tomorrow: The newest single to grace the list (and probably a bit on why that is.)