Wednesday, December 9, 2009

#23. 'Just keep it very cool, or we will bury you'

T.I. "What You Know"

Wanna take a wild guess as to what it is about "What You Know" that gives it the distinction of being my favorite mainstream hip hop single of the decade? Come on, it's not hard to figure out that that fucking cinematic keyboard crawl that producer DJ Tooms set up to anchor the song is high up on the list of things that make "What You Know" awesome. It's such a distinctive sonic base, not as bright as a lot of mainstream hip hop but nowhere near as dark as a lot of his Southern counterparts, slower than the norm but not to the levels of that whole chopped & screwed style, (speaking of, the C&S remix of "What You Know"? Amazing.) anchored mostly by that thick keyboard line instead of a drum loop and the whole thing sounds absolutely huge, even on a shitty pair of headphones. It's not as meticulously detailed as some of the more underground rap singles to come on the list, but it makes up for its relative simplicity by focusing on being completely enveloping, sort of like the old wall of sound effect rendered with little more than a keyboard and a drum machine. Something that massive is bound to be undeniable.

But as with any hip hop song the beat is only half the equation. Sure, it may make up a fair bit more of my enjoyment of the song in question, but without at least a decent MC, one who doesn't sound awkward or less than confident, the song could easily fall apart. I've heard plenty of great beats that wind up used as a backing for absolutely horrible MCs and it all but makes the producers work impossible to sit through no matter how great it is at its heart. Luckily for Tooms, and let's face it, for humanity in general, if there's one thing that T.I. has it's a confident, smooth flow and a great sense of how to work with the beat he's given. As a result he manages to glide over the beat without distracting from it, working his delivery to best suit the surroundings by slowing it down and drawing out key bits of phrases to get in line with Tooms' production without being distractingly outside his own style. The best way to describe it would be that it sounds natural, a bit odd considering the fact that no one would actually speak in the cadence that T.I. adopts at a few points, notably the chorus, but it just sounds so perfect in practice that it's hard to imagine it being done any other way.

Then there's the lyrics themselves which seem to take two of the most common hip hop topics - the 'day in the life of a hustler/dealer/MC' and the standard diss track - and merge them together into something that's familiar yet feels as though it's being gone about from a different angle. The backstory seems to involve T.I.'s beef with Lil' Flip - who never crossed my radar until I was reading the wiki article on this song - but by alternating the attacks with simple descriptions of his lifestyle it doesn't so much feel like a straight diss track but a much more general slice of 'you don't understand this shit' braggadoccio. Not my preferred type of lyric, but damn does it ever sound good coming out of his mouth. Of course as the attacks get more specific and incisive the seemingly general proclamations take on a much heavier air.

Just think about the chorus, alternating between talk about the usual thug life shit - cocaine, guns etc. - and the addictive title chant of 'What you know about that?/I know all about that'. At first it seems aimed squarely at the listener, but when it becomes clear that the rest of the lyrics are aimed at a specific target they come off as less of a simple question than a pretty vicious attack. The way that the song lets such an innocuous lyric become the ultimate insult without changing anything but the context is as much a testament to T.I.'s lyricism as anything, but that's not the only thing I'd have to praise him for on that front. A lot of the best parts come down to delivery above content, but a line like 'not even square, he's cuuuube' is the best kind of wordplay I could ask for. And of course there's the background chants of 'nigga WHAT?!' and what sounds like 'Hey asshole' during the chorus that underline the confrontational nature of the song. As much as the beat is the major hook here, it's hard to fault the rest of the song either. It's one of the best whole package hip hop singles I've heard - I'll admit to a fair bit of oversight in this field though, so dont' jump on that proclamation - a perfect synthesis of producer and MC with dynamic lyrics, HUGE sound and a great deal of catchiness to ground it. Even if T.I.'s later singles didn't quite deliver on the promise here, though I have come around to "Live Your Life" recently, and even if DJ Tooms didn't do anything else of note at least they met up for this nigh-on essential 4 minutes.

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