No, this is gangsta rap and my shirt's unbuttoned
We're stealing moments of brilliance in the limelights
choppin' up keys to break the floodgates
Maybe this is instrumental hip-hop and I don't know when to shut up
Or maybe this is turntable music,
scratch the I's and I'll scratch yours
Or what if this is honest music, and I mean every other word I say
Don't take anything literal, out-of-context,
just take it for what it is
If you want labels, we can divide, I'll still be strong
Bottom line it's all art (This is a good and a bad song) -"Bottle of Humans"
All the talk I do about not paying too much attention to lyrics goes out the window when I'm listening to a particular brand of hip hop. I still focus on the production and overall sound of the songs first and foremost, but if it becomes obvious that there's a certain density to the lyrics that merits a closer listen I'm not gonna resist. It makes sense that this happens more often in hip hop than other genres; the lyrics of a hip hop song are much more integral to the whole process than in other genres. Not just the words themselves, but the structure of the verses, the variety of poetic techniques put to use, the way they interact with the beats. It boils down to the way that the words can create a tapestry just as well as the instrumental elements can.
Most mainstream rappers can't approach that sort of thing which probably explains why most of my preferred rappers come from the more independent scenes. These scenes may not be important in the grand scheme of things, but they represent exactly what I look for in hip hop. The lyrics are dense, uncompromising and rarely resort to the overused cliches that their mainstream counterparts are guilty of instilling in the genre. The uncompromising nature extends to the beats as well, which are much more varied and interesting to my ears on underground releases. It's not that these releases are better solely because they're underground but because it's easier to spot the passion in the art when it's in the unvarnished form that the likes of Def Jux, Lex, anticon and their ilk are more fond of embracing. They're different, sure but that's not all they have going for them 9 times out of 10.
We can be friends or arch-rivals or we can share ideas
Or sip espresso, until we both have diarrhea
A lot of people are cool, and some are less intellectual
I like having a girlfriend and like them more when they're bisexual
Battle rhymes don't hurt people, battling AIDS isn't enjoyable
There's something about goth girls in short skirts I find delectable
So come back to my shelter you horny little pale raccoon wearing three chains
And I'll give you some more stupid sayings to put in your keychains - "Sole Has Issues"
The anticon collective may not have produced my absolute favorite hip hop album of the decade, but their ranks permeate this list more than any other underground-leaning collective or label. Starting in '99 with the seminal release of the compilation Music for the Advancement of Hip Hop the label seemed to be a breeding ground for exactly the sort of hip hop I enjoy, both from a lyrical and a production standpoint. The MCs went beyond the confines that mainstream hip hop seemed to impose and gave more expansive, deep and intellectual performances that encompassed such a wide range of moods that it was hard to get bored even in the cases where an album stretched well past the hour mark. The stable of MCs and producers that moved through the label's releases wasn't 100% amazing, but they covered such a wide range of sounds, from the ultra-abstract stylings of Themselves (Dose One and Jel) to the more personal and straightforward work that Buck 65 did on the label and hitting all points in between.
Today I downed 90 miligrams
After 20 i could feel the head rush
I raced to my gallery roof
Gazing at the beauty that we always take for granted
Its my opening night
Everyone will be there
Whos anyone to bear witness to my newest latest and greatest work
I'm a comet human cannibal swan dive never has the air been so clean
I inhale and exhale to become one my ends on the sidewalk
A vivid display of a 170 pounds of blood sweat and tears
But my greatest work is in the pavement
I made it for you - "Suicide Song"
Tim Holland (aka Sole) may have been the founder of the label but he never stood out on the first few things I heard him do. His contributions to Music for the Advancement of Hip Hop weren't top shelf and even when they were he was upstaged by his collaborators. He may have provided the single most intense moment on Deep Puddle Dynamics' lone album with the final verse of "Where the Wild Things Are" but none of his other contributions to that album were noteworthy enough for me to consider it anything other than a fluke. Of course once I heard his first two solo albums my tune changed quite dramatically. Bottle of Humans was a bit uneven but it's highs were some of the most personal, impassioned and emotional tracks the genre had spat out. The three I've pulled verses from above are the obvious highlights, but there's moments of lyrical brilliance scattered all across its (rather unwieldy) length. It's not a consistent album like it's follow up Selling Live Water would be, but it's an album where I can forgive the inconsistency simply because when it hits it hits hard.
If I made a proper list out of the albums I'm covering in this project Bottle of Humans might rank near the bottom, but it's hard to not give it credit when it's got stuff as good as its title track and "Suicide Song" especially. The former is also one of the best production jobs on the album as Sole's former DPD co-member Alias lays out a simple, mournful cello figure with some skittering drums and a perfect soul vocal sample to use as a chorus. It's as bare bones as these things get, especially when you compare it to some of Jel's work later on the album, but it's a perfect underpinning to Sole's brutally honest lyrics. Aside from the final section quoted above you've got proclamations like 'I'm ahead of my time/I fear my time will never come' and 'I'm known by most, hated by many, endured by the rest' highlighting the high levels of self-deprecation that go into his best lyrics. "Suicide Song" is even more harrowing, a series of half-finished suicide notes each punctuated by the sound of crumpling paper and all laced with some remarkable gallows humour like 'Why do I keep dying in public places?/The medication should take two hours to take effect/But last time, I was killed eating my last meal/It's embarassing and I die inside' or an entire tangent about dying during oral sex and living in death with his female companion. Sole's a fucked up dude, but he's putting his issues to good use here, and even though it's not a great-great album it's one of the most affecting hip hop releases the decade has to offer.
Cops ain't shit to me
Jobs ain't nothing but free pens and long distance calls
Thought I had it all, then God got birth control
White man's the fucking devil
I wanted to be black at age fourteen
So when they say I don't respect the cuture
Truth is I only rap 'cuz I ain't smart enough to write a book
I've never paid parking ticket:
It's 20 dollars now or 300 then;
You want your money, come and get it
But better bring 200 guns and a 100 men - "Da Baddest Poet"
His follow up, 2003's Selling Live Water isn't hampered by the inconsistency that marks Bottle of Humans but also never reaches its heights. It's a front-to-back great album though, probably the single most consistent work to come from the anticon label, and finds Sole just as issue-laden as before but much more self assured on the mic. His style was pretty well in place on Bottle but it's at full force here. The consistency is probably helped by the fairly constant presence of Alias as a producer. Odd Nosdam, Jel and Telephone Jim Jesus each get a pair of production credits it's pretty much Alias' show the whole way through. The funny thing is that it's the other producers that get the best results for whatever reason. Alias' cuts are great, don't get me wrong, but there's a certain otherness to the three others' songs that makes them stand out amidst what is a pretty consistent album form a quality standpoint. Nosdam especially produces a real winner in "Salt on Everything" whose sparse verses give way to a crushing, guitar based chorus that foreshadows his shoegaze-indebted solo work albeit in a much more paranoid context. Jel's much more abstract style is toned down quite a bit on his two contributions but the way he gives "Respect Pt. 3" over to what I'm 90% sure is a Portishead sample at the end ensure that it will stand out quite a bit. And while he's got the album's only clunker in the closing "Ode to the War on Terrorism," TJJ's beat for "Da Baddest Poet" is the perfect start to the album, even when it modulates into a weird drum-n-bass section out of nowhere.
Then you realize it was only a dream and you were tied to a tree the whole time
watching friends drag by 'cause they can't look at the scars under your eyes
Burned to hell covered by locusts, they're trying to quote us
now that they finally broke us into ridiculous names and meaningless titles
I won't forget, the little things escape
through the pores in my skin so I can pour it on thick
And watch them scurry to escape the glass, leave the collection
and have a life of their own, well get rich you'll hate it too..
I promise.. - "The Priziest Horse"
Of course this is Sole's show, so despite how great the production line up is the real greatness here is in his rapping. It's pretty much a full solo album, with no guest verses from his cohorts outside of some harmony vocals from Why? on the penultimate track, and there's very little fat on any of the tracks, or on the album as a whole His style here is much less transparent than on his debut, upping the density of the lyrics and impenetrability of the subject matter to the point where it's hard to know what he's talking about most places but he sounds incredible saying it. There aren't rhymes a lot of the time so much as free verse poetry spat out with remarkable amounts of fire and confidence. It's the same trick Dose One plays with on most of his releases, but Sole's not as much of an acquired taste as far as vocal style goes, still not polished thank goodness but far less outre than even Dose's more standard material. He's also a lot angrier here than on his previous outings, doing away with the bits of levity that would creep in every so often on Bottle in favor of a full bore screed against the state of everything for the whole album. And it works so well that I can't even fault it for ending on as sour a note as the underdone "Ode to the War on Terrorism" when the 14 previous tracks represent some of the best hip hop made this decade.
Coming up tomorrow: One of the key figures in American post-punk gets his americana on.