Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Why I'm Excited About Hip Hop

This is just the list of artists that I'm aware of who are actively creating music and/or performing (in order that I like them within each category, the categories are NOT a hierarchy) that have had at least one song that I know of that I like at least enough to have a positive opinion of the artist. This is the longest the list has been in a long, long time.

Masters Still Working

Public Enemy
Eminem
Nas
The Coup
Kanye West
KRS-One
Mos Def
Outkast/Big Boi/Andre 3000
Ice Cube
De La Soul
RZA
Q-Tip
Dr. Dre
Jay-Z
Common
Talib Kweli
Ms. Lauryn Hill
Wu-Tang Clan
R.A. the Rugged Man
Dead Prez
Busta Rhymes
Del tha Funkee Homosapien
Wyclef Jean
Ludacris
Cypress Hill
Snoop
Naughty By Nature
E-40
DMX
Black Moon
Jean Grae
Cee-Lo Green/Goodie Mob
LL Cool J

The Next Generation

Kendrick Lamar
Childish Gambino
Saul Williams
Scroobius Pip
Macklemore
Afroman
Das Racist/Heems
Killer Mike
Danny Brown
D12
The Streets
M.I.A.
El-P
Busdriver
Lupe Fiasco
Atmosphere
Royce Da 5'9
Kid Cudi
Obie Trice
Latyrx
Dizzee Rascal
Roots Manuva
Paul Wall
Tragedy Khadafi

Up-and-comers to Watch

Mac Miller
Schoolboy Q
Jasiri X
Hopsin
J. Cole
Death Grips
Blackalicious
Angel Haze
Action Bronson
Jay Electronica
Final Outlaw
Beat Bop Scholar
Shabazz Palaces
Papoose
Earl Sweatshirt
Pusha T
Lil Dicky
Blu
Chimurenga Renaissance
Lil B
Homeboy Sandman
Ab-Soul
Iggy Azalea
Fashawn
A$AP Rocky
Joey Bada$$
Kid Ink
IamSu
Meek Mill
Lil Twist
Don Trip
Ty
A$AP Ferg
Trinidad James
Mikey Factz
English Frank
Giggs
Fredo Santana
Cory Mo
Big Sean
Yelawolf
A+
Machine Gun Kelly
Dizzy Wright
Ty Dolla $ign
David Dallas
Dev
Ptaf
Tyler, the Creator

"Born Sinner," by J. Cole (HHES Review)

Here's my review of the J. Cole album "Born Sinner," using the Hip Hop Evaluation System (HHES).

"Villuminati" is a great start. Interesting lyrics, good beat, skillfull flow, good references, bold statements.

"Kerney Sermon (Skit)" is a nice bit of ironic storytelling that illuminates themes on the rest of the album.

"LAnd of the Snakes" is a very interesting track. As with track one, the beat and flow are top-notch. At first glance, the song appears to be a typical "getting laid" track, but the song is much more introspective and uncertain in its moral point of view than most such songs. J. Cole doesn't necessarily love everything he's done in the past, but he also doesn't necessarily trust the motives of the women who want him.

"Power Trip" is one of the standout tracks on the album, with a very entertaining beat and yet another very good flow from J. Cole. The hook leaves a little to be desired, but it's not bad: Miguel has a great voice, but he doesn't always use it well. The song works very well on two levels, in the Common "I Used to Love HER" tradition, speaking about both a woman and hip hop itself.

"Mo Money (Interlude)" is short, but sweet. Another interesting beat, with lyrics that have a great poetic structure that I love.

"Trouble" is kind of the first misstep on the album. The chorus is pretty good, but the hook is weak, the beat is too trap-y for my tastes, and the lyrics and topics are starting to get repetitive at this point.

"Runaway" is the best-produced or performed song on the album, but it has some of the best lyrics. At this point, we're getting to the major theme of the album--men and women and their complicated relationships. And this has some of the best introspection and thoughtfulness on the topic that are on the album.

"She Knows" continues the theme of the last song, a man who is getting approached by women while he's out and about while having a woman at home devoted to him. This one has the biggest earworm on the album with the "she knows" hook and has some of the best production, which is saying something on this album. They personal revalations and deep thoughts aren't as good on this track as on "Runaway," but the cultural and hip hop references are better.

"Rich Niggaz" goes back into the deeply revealing lyrics of "Runaway," but moves on to topics related to manhood and the industry. It's marred by one of the worst hooks on the album, though.

"Where’s Jermaine? (Skit)" leaves me wondering why it's included.

"Forbidden Fruit" has an interesting sample and drum beat as its underlying sound and this is probably J. Cole's best and most varied flow on the album, but it dips a little too much into a trap sound and the Kendrick Lamar hook isn't k.dot's strongest.

"Chaining Day" is where the album starts to wear down a bit, with repetitive themes, sounds, flow. It's not bad, and might work in another context, but after the previous group of songs, you're left wondering if Cole is out of ideas.

"Ain't That Some Shit (Interlude)" totally turns things back around. It's a totally different sound in every way you can think of. It's upeat, the flow is unique on this album, the theme is different, and it's the first time in a while that the listener is inspired to dance.

"Crooked Smile" and the songs that follow show that J. Cole knows how to end an album. This song is a strong empowerment anthem that you can play for anyone that thinks that rap always hates women. Cole shouts out 2 Pac in the next track, lyrically, but he gives a conceptual shout out to 2 Pac's "Keep Ya Head Up" here and it works well.

"Let Nas Down," to me, is the best track on the album. It not only is built on a great beat and sample, the story and the knowledge it shows of the rap game and its foundations is spot on. It also has some bigger philosophy that really gets across one of the best messages on the album.

"Born Sinner" is another strong track to close out the album, with a great, and unique beat, a solid hook from James Fauntleroy and lyrics that encapsulate the overall message of the album quite well.

Overall Analysis

Flow: 9. J. Cole is good. Very good. He's fast, technically skilled, and varies his flow well.

Lyrics: 9. Other than the excessive use of words that start with N and B, his lyrics are amazing, if a little repetitive as the album moves on.

Message: 8. It's hard not to note some of the contradictions in message from time to time, but for the most part, he's raising big points and nailing his take on them, which is usually a good one.

Technical: 8. He's not in the group of most technically proficient MCs in the game, but he's right below that.

Production: 8. Varied, well-done, repeatably listenable, if a little understated.

Versatility: 4. This is not a strength of Cole or this album. He's very good when he's in his area, but he doesn't wander outside of his main style much.

Collaborators: 6. There are some good collaborators on the album, but for the most part they aren't used very well and they don't add much.

History: 10. This is an album so steeped in history you're bound to learn something about hip hop just by listening.

References: 9. This is another strength of the album, Cole makes good and clever references on almost every song.

Originality: 6. It's original compared to many other current hip hop albums, but doesn't quite get to the level of a Kanye West or Childish Gambino and it repeats its ideas too much, meaning it doesn't have much in the way of internal originality.

Total Score: 77. J. Cole has produced a work to be proud of here, although it isn't loaded with tracks that will be stuck in your head or that you'll come back to over and over again. This is more an album that you'll listen to as a whole from time to time because you like his voice or style, but it falls a bit short of greatness.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Okay, Stop It With the Macklemore Hate

As I have made clear before, I like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Of the albums nominated for 2013 Grammys, there isn't one that I like more than "The Heist." But ever since I first heard of him, there has been a pretty divided response. Some of that is inevitable because of the fact that Macklemore's a white guy in a traditionally black music form and because their biggest hit, "Thrift Shop," could be seen as a novelty song. Couple that with their song "Same Love," which some have also complained about because Macklemore is straight and the song is about being not straight, and you have a lot of hate coming out for, well, Macklemore, if not Ryan Lewis.

Almost all of the hate is misguided. As a jump off for the key arguments in this fight, I'm going to use this annoying Thought Catalog article that made most of the bad arguments I've seen and collected them all in one convenient place.

But first, let me state my official position, so I'm not holding anything back:

  • Both Macklemore and Kendrick lost Album of the Year to Daft Punk. I think both albums were vastly superior to Daft Punk.
  • "Same Love" lost Song of the Year to "Royals," by Lorde. While I like both songs, the best song of the year, in my opinion, was "Collard Greens," by Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar.
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won Best New Artist. Kendrick Lamar should've won. While I'll point out below that I thought Macklemore's album was better (slightly) than Kendrick's, k.dot had a bunch of appearances that weren't on his album that rocked the year, most notably the most talked about hip hop moment of the year in his verse on "Control," by Big Sean. Based on the entire body of work, Kendrick both had a better year, musically speaking, he also had more impact on the music and on other artists moving forward.
  • In a loaded Best Rap Performance category, one that left out a lot of good songs, "Thrift Shop" beat Kendrick's "Swimming Pools (Drank)." I already said I thought "Collard Greens" was the best song of the year, but there were a number of other songs I would also put ahead of these two, even though I like both.
  • "Thrift Shop" won Best Rap Song. Kendrick was nominated for a guest verse on an A$AP Rocky song that didn't really belong. "Collard Greens" was still better, as were songs from Jay-Z & Justin Timberlake and Kanye West that were nominated.
  • "The Heist" beat Kendrick Lamar's album as well as good albums from West and Jay-Z. I think this win was deserved.

So, for the record, I think only one of the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis victories would've been one I would've voted for, but only one of those other categories would I have replaced Macklemore with Kendrick.

I'll also note that Kendrick lost Best Rap/Sung Collaboration to Jay-Z & Justin Timberlake and nobody's complaining about that.

So, on to the Thought Catalog article, titled "25 Reasons Macklemore Winning Over Kendrick Lamar Is Complete BS."

"1. Because other than Same Love and Thrift Shop, how many of us actually know any other Macklemore tracks? (And if we’re being honest, it’s the beat that makes Thrift Shop because the rap is mediocre.)"

Well, considering that "Can't Hold Us" hit #1 and was nominated for a Grammy, a BET award, an MTV award and a Teen Choice award, "Cowboy Boots" is a big enough song to have a karaoke version, "White Walls" hit #15, and "Wings" was used for the NBA all-star game weekend promos, I'm guessing people have heard some other songs. As for the rap being mediocre, I'd like to see the author perform it. Macklemore has a distinctive style that isn't easy to do.

"2. Because let’s face it: 90% of Macklemore’s demographic are 12-year-old white girls from the suburbs."

All of the available evidence suggests otherwise. The comment is so far from any kind of evidence as to be laughable.

"3. Because Kendrick Lamar is saving hip hop from future Macklemores (and Drakes, to be perfectly honest.)"

Macklemore, in both content and form, is much closer to Kendrick Lamar than Drake. And there's no conflict between what Macklemore does and what Kendrick does. Many people like both.

"4. Because he is riding his White, heterosexual privileges to the bank and it got annoying real fast once you saw beyond the surface."

If this is true, it has nothing to do with Macklemore (beyond making quality music) and everything to do with a racist media.

"5. Because from a purely academic standpoint, it is actually amazing that people who identify as gay or queer, PoCs, and queer PoCs, have had the same message as Macklemore in popular culture for decades. And all of a sudden it is being recognized because a White, heterosexual male is saying it?"

Again, that's because of a homophobic media and nothing to do with Macklemore.

"6. Because Macklemore is representative of everything that is wrong with the music industry – he is distracting people away from THE MUSIC, with THE PERFORMANCE."

This is utter nonsense. What's wrong with the industry is record companies, Ticketmaster, MTV, BET, the media. Macklemore made his success by ignoring all of these things and doing it independently. He paid his dues, made the music, toured relentlessly, and brought along artists that no one else had heard of and gave them exposure.

"7. Because the fact that there is even a comparison between Macklemore and Kendrick is nauseating. What next? Are we going to compare Taylor Swift’s vocals to Adele’s?"

Terrible analogy. They both rap. People like them. That's the only comparison anyone other than people like this author are making. And I'm starting to sense a lack of substance here that relates only to Macklemore's race.

"8. Because like it or not, his politics likely had something to do with the awards, and while that’s great and all, that should hardly be a substantiating factor for musical acclamation."

Good music with good politics should absolutely be rewarded more than good music with bad politics. Or bad music.

"9. Because even if Kendrick didn’t win, Kanye and Jay-Z were on that list. Like are we actually on planet earth or is this an alternate version of hell?"

You can make arguments that Kendrick's or Kanye's albums. It's much harder to make that case for Jay-Z's album, as much as some of it was pretty good. But, at this point, the author isn't actually giving new reasons, just repeating the old ones.

"10. Because Macklemore is that white guy with a little bit of talent in a particularly Black genre. And if the roles reversed, it would be 1000 times harder to receive that acclamation for such an ordinary artist."

"1000 times" is nonsense and the author knows this (see the Drake comment above). Yes, it was easier for him because was white. He's admitted that, rapped about it, given credit to where it was due, and explicitly avoided saying anything that would make it seem like he is co-opting the artform and not a true devotee.

"11. Because if I hear somebody compare him to Eminem one more time, I am going to scream. Eminem doesn’t need to be the face of “White rappers.” Eminem is a rapper, period. He is one of the greatest; love him or hate him. Sit down with that comparison."

I've actually never heard this comparison and I live on hip hop blogs.

"12. Because somehow Macklemore has FOUR Grammys, and Nas, DMX, and Snoop Dogg COMBINED do not have that total. (And yes, I stole that stat from Twitter and the fun fact is that the above mentioned artists actually have 0 Grammys each.)"

So, the Grammys suck. What does that have to do with hating Macklemore? He didn't cause it.

"13. Because the following text to Kendrick was cool and all but then showing it to the world to portray some kind of pretentious humility pretty much sums up Macklemore in one word: EXTRA."

Absolute BS. Kendrick doesn't need Macklemore's approval. This wasn't important because he sent it to Kendrick. It's important because he said it to the public, that's the only thing that makes the sentiment valid. Now all of Macklemore's fans know who Kendrick is and they know that the artist they respect thinks this guy's album is even better. What do you want to bet k.dot sends Macklemore a thank you for the sales boost.

"14. Because Kendrick is carrying hip hop on his back and preventing it from becoming a shittty genre that was honestly half way to imploding on itself with every other terrible dubstep beat ever made."

Also nonsense. Kendrick is amazing, but we're entering into a new hip hop golden age. The number of all-time greats producing great material is high (Jay-Z, Eminem, Nas all had great albums recently), the young group is so diverse and plentiful, it's ridiculous. I haven't been this excited about the state of hip hop in more than a decade.

"15. Because I have never met a single human being who is a legitimate fan of the hip hop genre and not solely that mainstream crack, who would choose Macklemore over Kendrick."

Now you have. I'll wager I know more about hip hop, particularly old school and underground hip hop, than the author of this post. I was singing Kool Moe Dee songs before the author was born.

"16. Because if we are now choosing what is good and quality work based solely on popularity, especially in the arts, then we as a society have truly lost our way."

Nothing in this sentence is even remotely accurate.

"17. Because WWPS….What Would Pac Say?"

Yes, because Pac is the only voice that counts in hip hop? What would Queen Latifah say? What would Pharrell say? What would Schoolboy Q say? What would Ab-Soul say? What would XXL say? What would Eminem say? What would Angel Haze say? What would Chance the Rapper say? What would Method Man say? What would the Source say? What would Pusha T say? What would Kanye West say? What would French Montana say? What would Mac Miller say? What would Big K.R.I.T. say? What would Meek Mill say? What would Trinidad James say? What would Jay-Z say? What would Questlove say? What would Bun B say? What would A$AP Rocky say? What would Danny Brown say? What would Big Sean say? What would Tyler the Creator say? What would Diddy say? What would Paul Wall say? What would J. Cole say? What would 2 Chainz say? What would DJ Premier say? What would Big Boi say? What would Sir Mix-a-Lot say? What would Wiz Khalifa say? What would Iggy Azalea say? What would the Lox say? What would Wale say? What would Nas say? And, importantly, what would Kendrick Lamar say? The point is that all of these rappers have worked with, endorsed, or in some way given props to Macklemore. That means something.

"18. Because if the future of hip hop rests on Macklemore, we might as well all just quit now. No seriously, put on top 40 and let’s all just go the hell home."

This is a repeat of a previous statement, but the future of hip hop is not Macklemore or Kendrick. It's both of them. And all those guys in the last question. And many others.

"19. Because the Grammys continues to certify that it is an establishment that doesn’t actually know anything about hip hop or rap. I mean if Nas of all people has not won one, there is hardly anything redeeming about this awards show."

While the Grammys have their problems, in almost all of the hip hop categories, the nominees were quite accurate for the best stuff from the past year. Even if you don't like Macklemore, suggesting that he shouldn't be nominated is silly. And, as the author noted, Kendrick was nominated in seven categories. Jay-Z has 19 Grammys at his house. You can't have it both ways.

"20. Because choosing Macklemore over Kendrick is creating a history that hip hop fans will be regretting for decades."

Hip hop fans who like Macklemore won't be. The album stands up and will stand up over time.

"21. Because even while we laud Macklemore for being hyper aware of his White privilege, that means nothing when he’s the one giving the thank you speech and getting the award. (Again, the greater focus must be on the consequences of acts, not the intentions.)"

He lived up to his intentions. Let's assume that the author is right and Macklemore only won because he's white (which isn't true, but whatever), that has NOTHING to do with Macklemore and is NOT a reason to hate him. If this were true, then you'd have to hate the Grammy voters, not the recipient. Besides this doesn't make any sense, logically speaking, since a group of voters doesn't have any intentions, they are individuals.

"22. Because Kendrick Lamar’s style and lyrics are actually grounded in authentic and genuine nuance personal and political talk. Not just politically correct, politically safe, and popular, political talk, like Macklemore’s. Which if you think about the roots and history of hip hop and rap as a whole, it is a damn shame."

While the Kendrick part here is accurate, the rest of this sentence shows, pretty clearly, that the author hasn't even listened to Macklemore's songs because this shit is all false.

"23. Because this prophetic article titled, “Macklemore, White Privilege, and Grammy For The Best Rap Album” sums it all up nicely."

This article that the author links to, while arguing for Kendrick (almost completely on subjective terms), explicitly rejects the Thought Catalog article's very point. Here's an extended excerpt:

Despite all this, Macklemore and his legion of fans don’t deserve such shabby treatment. The Heist deserves its nominations. You don’t have to be a fan of his music to respect Macklemore’s independent hustle, and it’s easy to appreciate his bold stand on social issues like gay rights—a topic about which hip-hop remains woefully behind-the-times.

In fact, Macklemore’s been taking on social issues for years now. Including the issue of white privilege. Way before he was a huge star, before the recent explosions of white rappers, the first song on Macklemore’s 2005 album, The Language of My World, was called "White Privilege.” On it, he rhymed, “Where's my place in a music that's been taken by my race?/Culturally appropriated by the white face/And we don't want to admit that this is existing/So scared to acknowledge the benefits of our white privilege.”

He’s also talked about white privilege in high-profile interviews with Rolling Stone and, quoted below, his CRWN appearance with Elliot Wilson.

"But it's something that I absolutely, not only in terms of society, benefit from my White privilege but being a Hip Hop artist in 2013, I do as well. The people that are coming to shows, the people that are connecting, that are resonating with me, that are like, 'I look like that guy. I have an immediate connection with him.' I benefit from that privilege and I think that mainstream Pop culture has accepted me on a level that they might be reluctant to, in terms of a person of color. They're like, 'Oh, this is safe. This is okay. He's positive.' I'm cussing my ass off in 'Thrift Shop.' Families are like, 'Fucking awesome.' I think that it's an interesting case study and something that I feel, as a White rapper, I have a certain amount of responsibility to speak on the issue of race, knowing that it's uncomfortable, that it's awkward and that, in particular, White people are like, 'Let's just not talk about it. Everyone is equal.' The reality is that...that's bullshit. We absolutely see race. We all do. I think we can evolve as long as we are having discussions about it."

Yeah, that sounds like an entitled artist ripping off hip hop.

"24. Because Macklemore is just not that good people."

This is bullshit slander and has no basis in reality. See the quote just before this.

"25. And lastly, because of that KENDRICK VERSE!"

Which wasn't on the album, so can't be used to support an album of the year award, although it does go towards why I thought Kendrick should've won Best New Artist.

"Nothing Was the Same," by Drake (HHES Review)

Here's my review of the Drake album "Nothing Was the Same," using the Hip Hop Evaluation System (HHES).

"Tuscan Leather" has great production and some of the lyrics are pretty tight, but I don't love Drake's flow. He's better here than on some of the other stuff I've heard.

"Furthest Thing" might have my favorite lyrics of the album, particularly the parts of the song that have poetic structures. The beat is kind of mild, but not bad, but the negative, as usual is that Drake is kind of monotone and his flow is largely pedestrian.

"Started from the Bottom" is a song that has so few distinct lyrics it annoys me. It doesn't sound terrible, and he does some interesting vocal things during the song, but it only has like 22-23 distinct lines, with its 8 bar verses and ridiculously repetitive hook. The beat is kinda catchy and I would probably like this song if Drake had actually written some more words for it.

"Wu-Tang Forever" has a misleading title, since other than a couple of references, it doesn't have a lot to do with Wu-Tang, stylistically or lyrically. Drake mixes up his flow here more than on other songs, but his sing-rapping isn't as good as his straight-up rapping, so it's a mixed bag. The beat is, again, so mild as to almost not exist.

"Own It" is kind of embarrassingly bad, lyrically speaking. It doesn't sound much better. If I could forget how dull this song is, and its contradictory pointlessness, I would.

"Worst Behavior" has a bit more upbeat backing track than previous songs, but that isn't particularly a good thing since it's way too trap for my tastes. There are some very interesting lyrical things going on here, though, particularly the Mase shout-out.

"From Time" is mildly pleasant. The beat is solid, if understated, and Jhene Aiko has a beautiful voice. Drake does some of his better rapping on this song.

"Hold On, We're Going Home" is probably the catchiest song on the album, with it's direct attempt to sound like a Michael Jackson song. The beat is maybe the best on the album, but, once again, it's one the laziest songs, lyrically, on an album that is pretty lazy from an artist who is pretty lazy (as a writer).

"Connect" shows some of the contradictions running through this album very clearly. Drake is doing a good thing in singing about topics that are atypical among rappers, but he's throwing around hardcore words that undercut how he's more respectful and sophisticated than other rappers. That, and the song itself, is understanded and monotonous.

"The Language" is a song about how awesome Drake is, using lyrics and beats (and Birdman) that are pretty much exactly like everything else on the radio, so it totally misses the mark.

"305 to My City." I get it, I get it, writing lyrics is hard. Not repeating yourself is hard. Strippers are nice. Next.

"Too Much" contains the best hook on the album, by Sampha. Drake's rapping is pretty solid, too, and for once he tells a story worth listening to.

"Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2" contains the best guest appearance on the album, with Jay-Z, and an entertaining sample from Wu-Tang scratched for the hook. Drake's initial verse on the song is significanly weaker than Jay-Z, but his Paris Morton verse is much better, and is one of his better moments on the album.

Overall Analysis

Flow: 4. I hate Drake's flow. I generally think it's lazy and his shift to sing/rapping hasn't improved that. I have heard him do worse than this album, though, so it could be worse.

Lyrics: 5. This is probably the strong point of the album, but only on certain songs. On others the lyrics are atrocious and lazy.

Message: 4. If there are messages on this album, they're hard to figure out. Not because the lyrics are complex, either, but because it's filled with mixed messages (and NOT in an interesting way) and light on lyrics.

Technical: 3. Drake uses very little technical skill on this album. His raps are easy. His singing isn't difficult.

Production: 4. The beats here aren't terrible, but most of them are so understated as to feel like incomplete ideas. A few of them are solid and almost none of it is horrible, but I won't remember more than 1-2 beats on here.

Versatility: 2. This album is so repetitive, sound-wise, it's hard to listen to for very long, since it sounds like one long song.

Collaborators: 5. Jay-Z, Sampha and Jhene Aiko add a lot to the songs they are on, but they all overshadow Drake, which kind of defeats the point of a guest appearance, right?

History: 4. Drake shows some knowledge of hip hop history on this album, but some of it is misguided and doesn't get the point of the originals, and isn't true to the spirit. I mean, how un-Wu-Tang is "Wu-Tang Forever"?

References: 5. Some songs have quite a few solid and entertaining references, but a number of them miss the point and some songs abandon them altogether.

Originality: 3. There's some credit here for a somewhat cohesive sound and a few nice song concepts, but the last song sounds like the first one and most of this sounds like stuff I've heard before.

Total Score: 39. I gave Drake a chance. I listened to the album with as little prejudice as I could muster. And I was mildly surprised to realize that Drake wasn't as horrible as I thought. He's still bad, but he's no Chief Keef.

Friday, January 24, 2014

In Defense of Trash Talking and My New Favorite Player, Richard Sherman

So the big online hubbub in the last few days has revolved around a post-game interview with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman that was, shall we say, a little animated. Immediately the overreaction was in full effect, with plentiful direct racism and even more indirect racism, such as calling the black man with the masters from Stanford a "thug" or saying that Sherman had no "class," despite class in this case not being a thing that is required or defined in the league, or anywhere else for that matter. And many of the people who accused Sherman of having no class said nothing about explicit racism from someone like Richie Incognito, or homophobic comments from any number of players, or any number of obviously more classless things done by white players. So, at best, it's a selective outrage, driven by 49er homers, Seahawk haters, racists and old people who long for the days when players played with more class. Like the guys who tried to intentionally injure Jim Brown back in the day.

Here's the transcript of the rant heard round the league:

Sherman: "I'm the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you going to get. Don't you ever talk about me."

Erin Andrews: "Who was talking about you?"

Sherman: "Crabtree. Don't you open your mouth about the best or I'm going to shut it real quick. LOB!"

Sherman was loud in delivering these lines, but despite what some tell you he wasn't particularly louder than most guys are on field in a massive stadium after a big win. And if that were the whole story and there weren't any further context, that would seem a bit like a dick move to start saying that out of the blue.

But there's lots more.

The Crabtree in question is Michael Crabtree, who according to Sherman and his brother, previously disrespected Sherman at a earlier event, so the two had a history. Sherman beat Crabtree on maybe the play of the year, leading to an interception and his team making it to the Superbowl. Seconds later, Sherman went over to Crabtree, patted him on the butt, saying "hell of a game," tried to shake his hand and repeated himself. Crabtree responded by hitting Sherman in the face. Moments later, a microphone was shoved in Sherman's face and he made the above comments.

Having played lots of sports, been disrespected and been hit by players I beat, I absolutely would have said things much worse than Sherman did. As would many, many other athletes. I'm of the school that you never hit someone except in self defense and, in this case, Crabtree's hit was especially egregious because he was hitting Sherman because he knew Sherman bested him. And it was clear to any neutral source that what Sherman was doing was being the bigger man and congratulating an opponent who he had just bested on playing well. While anti-Shermanites will suggest otherwise, they have no evidence for any bad intentions from Sherman and it's clear that Sherman was respectful towards the 49ers. On the full video from the NFL, he is clearly shown going around and hugging and congratulating other 49ers players, including Quinton Patton and LaMichael James.

Sherman has a reputation for being a trash talker. And it's clear that he does talk to other players a lot. But unlike a lot of trash talk I've seen and heard in my life, Sherman's trash talk is incredibly mild. Sure, he's brash and arrogant by many people's standards, but who cares about those standards, they aren't mine, they aren't Sherman's. I think, and this is vitally important to me, that if you are playing sports and you are arrogant, but accurate, you aren't doing anything wrong. So the question becomes, "was Sherman accurate?" The answer would appear to be mostly, if not completely, "yes."

Is Sherman the best CB in the League? Yes, according to the AP and Sporting News, the two most well-known All-Pro team designators, both of whom named him a first team CB in each of the last two years, the only repeat CB and one of only 3 players to repeat at any defensive position (the others are Houston's JJ Watt and Seattle safety Earl Thomas). That seems to be pretty definitive.

But what do the stats say? During his time in the NFL, Sherman is first among all players in interceptions, passes defended, and lowest opponent QB rating when they target him, a paltry 39.4. Those numbers are kind of ridiculous over a three year span. More than 80 times in those three years, QBs have thrown at Sherman and he did exactly what he did to Crabtree, and said "no."

Take a look at the NFL Hall of Fame. You'll see that one of the standards they use is people who are among the best players on championship teams or teams with dominant units. While the Seahawks aren't champions yet, they came pretty close last year, and are playing for the championship this year. And they are the second youngest Super Bowl team ever, which suggests that they have a really good shot at winning one before Sherman's done. How dominating is the unit that Sherman anchors? They were the number one defense in the NFL this year, including a pass defense (what Sherman does) that allowed 60 yards fewer than the league average, the lowest total of any team during Sherman's time in the league and the lowest in the league since 2009.

So when Sherman says he's the "best doing this right now," he can make a pretty good case.

The one place where Sherman was inaccurate is in his reference to how bad Crabtree is. Crabtree is potentially a upper-tier receiver in the NFL. He hasn't quite proven that yet. He was just inside the top 15 in both touchdowns and yards in 2012, but an injury kept him off those lists this year. In 2011 and 2010, he was solid, a guy you probably want on your team, but certainly not your top guy. So do two solid seasons and one season in the top 15 make him one of the 20 bests receivers in the game? Absolutely not. But they make him far from "sorry."

So I think that what Sherman said is mostly accurate. After that I dug into his supposed "bad boy" persona and found almost all of it is unfounded. People claim he taunted Tom Brady, but most observers of the NFL realize that Brady is a bit of a prick and the full story on that one makes it look like Sherman acted with admirable restraint. A lot of the rest of the criticism of him is people saying things about him without there being any evidence to back it up. For instance, this NFL film on him called "the Trash Talking Cornerback," which makes a lot of claims about Sherman that aren't really backed up much. There's a few quotes that are arrogant by some standards, but almost all of them are responses to other players disrespecting him and him beating them and telling them about it. I absolutely support the idea of not letting people disrespect you, particularly when you're better than them. And almost everything he says is accurate. He is better than that other guy. He did have a mismatch over that weak receiver. As Deion Sanders once said, it ain't bragging if you can back it up.

Digging more into Sherman, I got to like him more and more. He's the son of working class parents in Compton who is the opposite of a thug and graduated from Stanford with a masters in communication and a high GPA. He's drastically underpaid, but you don't hear him whining about it. He self-identifies as a nerd. He's a charitable guy who takes care of kids in his old neighborhood. He's an intellectual ball player. And there are so many video clips of him just being awesome.

So, I've come to the conclusion that Sherman is actually one of the coolest people in the game. He's the type of player I would be if I had that kind of talent and dedication. I don't. And neither does just about anyone else. So a lot of the animosity towards him is jealousy-based and that's a bullshit motivation. I'm a big fan of clever, intellectual athletes and I always root for people are falsely maligned and who are the target of racism and other such nonsense and ignore it to excel (one of my children is named after Jackie Robinson). I'm not aware of any player that combines all of those things better than Sherman. So he's my favorite player now.

A few people said that his antics distracted from his team and were selfish. But that's nonsense. He's a massive promoter for his teammates and talks about them in almost every interview. In the "selfish" interview he gave to Erin Andrews, note that the last thing he said was "LOB," as in "Legion of Boom," as in the nickname for his comrades in the Seahawks secondary. In a short, short rant about how mad he was at Crabtree, he got in a shout-out to his teammates. You might not have known that, but they did. And that's what matters. And if his trash talking, which is nothing new, was so distracting, why is his team playing for the Superbowl title and yours isn't?

Finally, though, there are people complaining that his way of bragging about himself and talking trash is arrogant or makes him an asshole. This is not only a misunderstanding of the way sports works, it's a misunderstanding of how life works.

Trash talking is an integral part of sports. Non-sports people may not understand it or like it, but if you are playing sports, people are going to be talking trash. The first time someone talked trash to me was in junior major league baseball, when I was in middle school. And it totally worked. That pitcher told me he was better than me, and I was afraid of him ever time I went up against him that season. And the only time I got on base was the time he hit me with a pitch, which intimidated me even more. Baseball wasn't my sport.

But the bigger thing is that mental games are part of the way sports works. It is absolutely acceptable and encouraged for players to use any legal tool they can to gain an advantage and win. Getting into someone's head psychologically and make them play worse so you can beat them is so widespread in sports and games that it happens in almost all sports and all games at every level. As long as you aren't being abusive, you're doing exactly what you should do. It's a plot element in almost every sports movie ever. Hell, it's the story of David and Goliath. Use the tools you have against an opponent who is bigger, faster, or stronger in order to equalize things and give yourself a chance to win. Again, as long as the tool you use is legal, you'd be dumb not to use it.

Sherman uses intimidation and trash talk better than most athletes I know of. And people get mad at him because he's better at them in every aspect of the game. They can't equalize things or neutralize his talent and intellect because he's better than them. So they hit him. Or call him names. Or say he has no class. Or say he's a thug. What they don't realize, though, is they're playing right into his hands. When you're worried about the next thing he's going to say, you aren't catching the pass that will beat him. Not that you were going to beat him anyway, but he's using failsafes to make sure he wins. Hence that AFC championship ring.

And before you say, "well the all-time great athletes didn't have to do that to win," I'll remind you that you're wrong. Some of them didn't, but many did. Go look up a list of the greatest trash-talkers of all time. I'll wait. Sure, on whatever list you found, you'll find some assholes. But you'll also find names like Deion Sanders, Charles Barkley, John McEnroe, Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller, Kevin Garnett, Michael Jordan, Satchell Paige, Larry Bird, and Muhammad Ali. Which of these guys is a thug? Or an asshole (not counting McEnroe)? These are some of the greatest and most beloved players in history. And they all trash-talked at a higher level that Sherman. Yet where's the hate for these guys (unless you were on the other team)?

Finally, and I know you're glad to see that word, what is it that Sherman is doing with his trash-talking? For the most part, if you've watched a lot of clips, is he's promoting himself. "I'm the best to be doing this right now." You'll probably say that sounds arrogant. I'll say that you're full of shit. That isn't just sports talk or the type of talk you hear rappers engage in, it's the type of thing most of us say all the time. And we have to. Promoting yourself is a necessary part of life. When you go into a job interview, do you not tell them you are the best person for the job? When you try to date someone that you really like, do you not make the case that you are the best person for them to date? When you perform on stage, do you not try to convince people that seeing you is better than seeing someone else? When you play pick-up basketball, do you not try to win and do you not start off with the assumption you're going to win? When you do favors for your best friend, do you not try to convince them that you are the best friend they have? When you teach classes, don't you want good student evaluations or a "teacher of the year award"? When you try to get a raise at work, do you not tell them that you deserve the raise because you are the shit? Of course you do. We all do at least some of these things and many others. The coffee mug you get from your children doesn't say World's Second-Best Dad. Most of us want to be the best at something. Most of us want recognition for that. Getting that recognition is very difficult if you don't promote yourself. So most of us do the same thing that people are up in arms about with Sherman all the time. Sherman just happens to not be a hypocrite about it.

Go Seahawks.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Lesson (With Footnotes)

Here is the twelfth in my series of lyrical examinations of the songs of my debut mixtape, "Core Nerd!"

As I say in the song Liquid Thunder, "My rhymes are so dense you're gonna need footnotes." Here they are...

This time, for the song "The Lesson."

"The Lesson" is the first song I ever wrote. After a Cap City Mob recording session that led to one of the verses that now appears in "Liquid Thunder," I wanted to take a stab at writing a full song. As an introduction to myself, I wanted to do something that talked about my overall beliefs and KRS-One's "My Philosophy" was playing in the background. I was already Professor Rex by that point, so combining the idea from KRS-One with my name, the idea was of "The Lesson" was born. I quickly settled on a structure that would include eight verses of eight bars each, providing an introduction and seven key areas of my personal philosophy. My idea was always that the song would have no chorus, following in the footsteps of the main cover song I did at the time, the Beastie Boys "Paul Revere." During the time I was in Cap City Mob, a chorus and intro were added, but they never quite felt right to me, so when I went solo, they were taken out. I've also struggled to find a backing track for it and have often performed it with only a beat box or totally a capella. The current beat that I use with it won't be the final one.

I step up to the mic and it's time to teach the class

The central metaphor of the song, and of my entire catalog, is me as the teacher. I was an actual college professor for 10 years, so it's not that far-fetched an idea. The idea is that here I can finally teach the things I couldn't teach in the classroom, the real truths.

I'm here to drop some science bout the present, future, past

"Dropping science" was always my favorite hip hop metaphor, so I get it in here at the beginning of my first song.

This is T. Rex's Guide to Life

My nickname in college was T. Rex and my first blog was called "T. Rex's Guide to Life."

This is dedicated to the heroes in my life

This line originally read "this is dedicated to my children and my wife," but I changed it to this once I got divorced. Tributes to my kids appear in other songs.

Professor Rex is here to dispel your illusions

This was always a central philosophy for me, both as a teacher and as a writer (song or otherwise), debunking things that people believe but they shouldn't.

Like Obama's election I'll shatter your delusions

The song was originally written before Obama was running for office and it read "Like the midterm elections...." Prior to the 2006, a lot of Republicans were giddy with recent successes and were starting to talk about becoming a "permanent majority." I knew it was nonsense, but they couldn't see that their victories were shallow and the 2006 elections, where Democrats took control of Congress, were the first sign of that. In 2008, they couldn't believe that the voters soundly rejected their view of the country.

You people get your info from all the wrong places
Give your respect to all the wrong faces

This one is still talking to those Republicans alluded to in the previous lines, but is also broadened to include anybody who gets most of their info from television and the mainstream media.

The first thing you do is turn off your TV
The world wide web is the place you need to be
Freedom of information that's the key
That bland corporate truth will eat you like a zombie

Tying into the previous verse, this one makes my position clear: corporate media, particularly on television, is terrible for you and does not give you good information. Instead, you're much more likely to find the truth somewhere on the Internet, even though a lot of what is on the Internet sucks. And, of course, the more free information is, the better off people are.

28 days later you still don't know the truth

This line plays off the word zombie in the previous line, referencing one of my favorite movies in the genre. Zombie is a term also often used to describe political lies spread by conservatives that won't die no matter how many times they are debunked, which leads into the next few lines.

Bible beaters got you rejecting the proof
Global warming, evolution, science and logic
Ignorant neocons say it's nothing but a trick

Despite the undeniable truth of these things, conservatives still find a way to deny them.

The second thing you need to do is learn to free your mind

There are so many constraints on the way people think and the world (and our lives) would be a lot better if we could get past them.

The history book's written for the blind by the blind

Most of the history that we collectively know is pretty bad and inaccurate and people accept too many historical accounts from people who don't know what they're talking about.

The things they teach you in school in reality
The lies they feed you defy all morality

In much of the country, school curricula are controlled and influenced heavily by small-minded people with religious and political agendas that have little to do with reality and frequently include immoral components that are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc.

They leave out the people who really took a chance
White washing history in ethnocentric rants

Real history is often sanitized and forced to fit into neat narratives that aren't real and that leave out people who don't fit the official story, even if that story is false.

Dumb-ass textbooks are a waste of your day

Never met a textbook that wasn't a piece of crap.

Get with the people, hear what they got to say

Oral history is one of the most important ways to learn about reality. Never take any one person's memory as fact, but gathering lots of memories from lots of people is the best way to get at most history and reality.

The third thing you do is put down your credit card
Close up your wallet, put up your guard

So much of American culture is focused on making us all into consumers, teaching us that, somehow, we're better people the more we spend. I'm saying we need to change that habit.

Quit buying shit that you don't need

And focus on only spending money when we need to or when it contributes to our happiness, not just to show off our status.

Fuck the Joneses, kill the greed

Based on the old-fashioned saying "keeping up with the Joneses," I here reject that concept and greed in general.

The whole world's trying to make you consumer

It's hard to stay away from consumerism when so many people and entities are forcing it upon us.

But that shit'll rot your brain just like a tumor

But we have to do it, because consumerism doesn't serve our purposes or improve our lives. It's all about transferring money from the many to the few, and therefore is evil.

Evil is the root of all money

A play on the traditional saying "money is the root of all evil." This term agrees with that, but flips it to the viewpoint that evil came first and the evil we see emanating from money and consumerism is why money was created in the first place.

Kills more people than crack, this shit ain't funny

While drug abuse is a serious issue, greed kills way more people than any drug ever would (or could).

The fourth thing you need to do is learn to use your power

Maybe the most important line in the song, as most people don't know how much power they have over their own lives and how much power they have to influence the lives of others.

It's democracy, don't vote then you're a coward

There's long been a debate about whether or not voting "matters," I'm obviously coming down on the side of it mattering here.

On election day, get out the vote

And just as important as individually voting is doing something to help make sure that others vote, too.

Shake up the system and rock the boat

And while voting is important, it's also important to do things that go further and shake the system to it's foundations and to ignore the old warning not to rock the boat.

American idiot? Man that's too nice

The line here was a clear statement that Green Day's scathing attack didn't go too far.

George fucking Bush got elected twice

The idea that even one person thought "you know what, George W. Bush would make a good president" is ludicrous, much less the fact that he actually became president.

Don't get started, I know he stole that shit
The vote was too close, that's how he jacked it

While there's very clear evidence that George W. Bush, with help of his brother Jeb and Kathryn Harris, stole the 2000 election, they were only able to do it because the election was too close. Smarter voters would've never allowed the two candidates to be that close together.

The fifth thing you do is kill all that noise
Drop the propaganda, learn some fucking poise

So many people talk so much nonsense about issues they don't really know about or understand. They're mostly just repeating propaganda they've heard from someone who has an agenda that doesn't involve telling the truth.

You spend all day on imaginary problems
Like you're worried bout ogres and goblins

These lines are particularly critical of right-wing politicians and pundits, who talk about things that aren't real problems in order to distract from the fact that not only aren't they solving the real problems, they're creating them.

Communists and terrorists ain't coming to get you

While terrorists, when they exists are a real problem, there just aren't as many of them and they aren't as likely to attack us in the U.S. as the fearmongers would have you to believe. The Communists that are around these days aren't a threat at all. And communism itself was never the problem, totalitarianism was.

Our biggest global problem is your short-sighted views
Racism, sexism, hatred and poverty

All of these problems affect the everyday lives of Americans more than terrorism or Communism did.

Open up your eyes and learn to see

Blindness is the biggest roadblock to Americans having the ability to solve the problems we face.

The next thing you need to do is start making love
Getting love and giving love

People act like sex is a bad thing. It's not, particularly consensual sex between adults. When it happens and people understand what they are doing, it's almost always a positive thing.

If I ruled the world, people'd fuck every day
It wouldn't even matter if you're bi, straight or gay

Again, consensual sex between adults is valid in its many different forms.

Everybody needs to get laid more

The more good things we have in our life, the less bad things we have.

And stop calling sexual women fucking whores

Women have the equal right to want or desire sex and shouldn't be judged negatively for enjoying or wanting sex.

The more sex we get the more relaxed we are
We stop blowing kids up in imperialistic wars

Not a lot of wars and killings are engaged in by people who are getting regular sex.

The last thing you do is get up off your butt
Get out the house, get out of the rut
America needs you, and the world does, too
There's so much shit that we gotta do
We can't leave this mess for future generations
We gotta overcome our doubts and frustrations
We need your help to make the world a better place

The last section doesn't have any deeper meaning, it's just a direct call to action.

Till you get up off your ass, I'm gonna be in your face!

And a reminder that I'm not going anyway and until we solve these problems, I'll be here to remind you about them and your role in solving them.

"Because the Internet," by Childish Gambino (HHES Review)

Here's my review of the Childish Gambino album "Because the Internet," using the Hip Hop Evaluation System (HHES). "The Library (Intro)" is an interesting five seconds, but not sure it deserves a track listing.

"crawl" is amazing. Amazing hook, outstanding rapping from Childish, and a lot of interesting sonic experiments that all seem to work.

"Worldstar" has a very interesting song structure. It's not quite as successful as "crawl," but still works pretty well, particularly when Gambino is rapping. The structure interrupts his flow though in a way that makes it less effective, I think.

"dial up" is apparently part of the soundtrack for the visual version of this concept album. Separate from that visual, I'm not sure how well it works.

"the worst guys" has a mildly interesting hook from Chance the Rapper and Childish, that surrounds more top-notch rapping from Childish.

"shadows" begins a series of songs on the album that, while they have some interesting ideas and some technically solid rapping, they don't amount to solid songs independent of the on-going story cycle on the album. Both "shadows" and "telegraph ave." fail to stand alone as great songs, although the latter is a solid song on its own.

"sweatpants" breaks the cycle, though, and is a solid song regardless of the album's story. The song features several things that make Gambino one of the best rappers in the game: a great sense of humor, strong technical skills, an encyclopedic knowledge of pop and Internet culture. And it keeps up the experimental nature of much of the album and here it all succeeds.

"3005" is not only the centerpiece of the album in terms of quality and songwriting. It's a perfect song and moreso than any other song on the album, it reflects Childish's recent trend of introspection and reflects his inescurities and questioning of the way people act and react to him. The more airplay a song like this gets, the better a place the world will be.

"playing around before the party starts" is an interesting piece of music, but again, I'm not sure it works independent of the film it's supposed to be a part of.

"the party" is awesome, though. Again, really strong vocals from Childish, leading into one of the best jokes on the album and a great addition to the character that the album revolves around. I also love the lyrically creativity here, there's a line where Childish has an obvious opportunity to rhyme party with Bacardi, but decides to use vodka instead, which works really, really well.

"no exist" has a great division to it, between the somewhat upbeat, poppy hook, and the menace of the beat and Childish's delivery. Very effective development of the continuing concept/story of the album.

"death by numbers" apparently connected to the main character of the album attempting suicide. But I don't get that at all from the track, either lyrically (there are only a handful of words here), or sonically.

"flight of the navigator" returns to the cycle that began with "shadows." It's more introspective and experimental, but that doesn't necessarily mean the song is that great. The rest of the album continues in this vein, which means that it isn't as strong as the earlier portions. That being said, it's still stronger than most of what's on the radio.

"zealots of stockholm," "urn," "pink toes," and "earth: the oldest computer" continue the introspective/experimental cycle, so much so that they don't seem to be particularly distinct songs, particularly because they are so focused on similar themes. Some guest appearances from talented women come in here, but they seem to get lost in the shuffle.

"life: the biggest troll" steps it back up a little bit to end the album on a strong note. It's not the best song on the album, but it's better the five songs preceeding it, it's just harder to get through those songs to get to it.

Overall Analysis

Flow: 10. Gambino has one of the most diverse and interesting flows of any rapper in the business. All of that is on ample display here.

Lyrics: 10. These are some of the most thoughtful and introspective lyrics on any album I've heard in years. And they're still loaded with good poetry, good jokes and good wordplay.

Message: 10. This is a message album. Gambino has a lot of thoughts about life, death, love, friendship, fame, the Internet, etc. He doesn't necessarily have all the answers, but that's an important message, too.

Technical: 9. Most of the album is very technically adept, but certain songs are so sparse or so slow as to not be difficult to perform, even if they might be thought-provoking.

Production: 8. Most of it is really good. It's really experimental and doesn't sound like anything else I've heard in a while, but it doesn't all work, particularly on the last third of the album, which gets a little monotonous, sound-wise.

Versatility: 9. There is a pretty wide variety of song structures, sonic ideas, and flows here. They don't all succeed, but none of them fails.

Collaborators: 7. Other than his long-time collaborator Ludwig Göransson, there are very few collaborations here. There are a few hooks sung by others, but not much more than that. This lends to a cohesive vision that is very true to what Childish wants to communicate, but it doesn't allow for other voices in the conversation and doesn't give as much variation as you would like, although the production and samples make up for that quite a bit.

History: 9. There are enough cultural references to show the album knows something of history, but much of the connection to history here is in the production, particularly with a string of choices that reject what's expected and go in new directions.

References: 10. Gambino is a master of references that other rappers either can't make or don't know enough to make. He also writes puns and metaphors that few others can.

Originality: 10. This album is fiercely original. There's nothing like it anywhere and that was the point, I think. Gambio tries more new things per song than just about anyone in the business and they frequently work, much more so than many experimental song creators.

Total Score: 92. On the first few listens, I didn't think I liked this album as much as I did "Camp," but this has so many more layers and ideas that just about anything being produced these days and while it doesn't all work, it gets a lot of credit for trying things that more people should be trying. Gambino has cemented himself as one of the most creative minds working in the realm of hip hop, it's just too bad more hip hop fans don't know this (or if they do know, they don't care).