Allow us to reintroduce ourselves: Our name is Rec-Room Therapy. Each week, we discuss recent hip-hop tracks. Today, pops some pills and potions; Ab-Soul has a cross to bear with Action Bronson and Asaad; and Ghostface Killah and Danny Brown just say no to hooks. Along for the ride is our distinguished panel of Marcus Dowling, Phil R, Aaron Miller, Damion M, Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious, and Hip Hop Hooray’s Leah Manners.
Nicki Minaj: “Pills N Potions”
In retrospect, it’s hardly a surprise that Nicki Minaj would pave the way for “Pills N Potions” with hard-as-fuck street singles “Lookin Ass Nigga”, “Yasss Bish”, and “Chi-Raq”. Those songs fueled the “focus on rap” narrative for the forthcoming The Pink Print LP and riled the base. They also, however, had zippy chance at radio play. “Pills N Potions” is another story. Produced by pop maestros Dr. Luke and Cirkuit – the duo behind Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”, among many other hits – the first proper The Pink Print single is as warm and inviting as “Lookin Ass Nigga” was snarling. In other words, get used to this ballad.
Marcus: This is the type of song that drives me bonkers these days and want to dropkick radios out of car windows. There was a time when rap music affected the world. This song feels like the worst of moments when the world effects rap music. I think everyone in the rap-aware universe is aware that Nicki’s kinda crushing it right now. She sounds focused, a bit temperamental and certainly edgy overall. I argue that rap needs less voices like the ones heard on every rap song released by Minaj this year, and fewer black-girl versions of Miley’s “Wrecking Ball” (which “Pills and Potions” is). I mean, I know that the turnt-up ballad is going to be “thing” now that “Wrecking Ball” and “Dark Horse” did so well, but I feel like music overall (and not just rap) needs more intellect and dissonance these days. Placating radio is what it is, but that feels like a hollow victory at this point when the average radio station plays a less diverse spread of songs per hour than ever before. But “Pills and Potions?” Ugh. It makes Nicki and rap feel like a trend follower instead of a trendsetter. The balance of power feels off here, and I don’t think I’m okay with that.
Phil: I don’t know if any rapper gets a rawer deal than Minaj, who seems to be perpetually damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. Like most people who root for her, I want to like “Pills N Potions”. But I can’t get there. Thematically, the conceit of “pills and potions” is held together with dental floss. The tasteful / ungrateful / graceful flip in the first verse is sub-Taylor Swift. And when Minaj rounds third base on the bridge, it’s hard not to wish she was a vocalist capable of ripping into this.
Ultimately, “anyone can sing these days” was the original “anyone can rap these days,” and both comes down to personality and creativity. The test-tubed “Pills N Potions” has neither. And, at the same time, it’s completely fine. No one is going to confuse it “Get Up / Say What”, but I appreciate the live quality of the percussion. There’s a compliment. This will sell a zillion records. That’s cool. Now, if you’ll excuse, I have to get back to listening to “I Be U”.
Aaron: Damn. Shit like this is so bland that it’s almost surreal. I have not used the word “Orwellian” in, like, six weeks, so fuck it. It’s like so many of the details have been slowly removed from hip-hop (and R&B) culture over the years, that anything that does not immediately generate millions or resonate with teeming hordes of turnt up teenagers, gets thrown right down the memory hole. No one remembers that is supposed to be there so no harm done,right?
This has always been hip-hop. We have always loved it. Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good.
This is like some kind of cheesecake stadium jam with some bars in the middle. I don’t even know what it’s about. Vague themes of alienation and self-reflection? Possibly some played-out lonely-at-the-top cliches? An ex-boyfriend song?
At this point, I’m not trying to give a shit. I’m selfish. I just want Nicki to rap because she is good when she raps and she’s not when she’s not.
“If you want a picture of the future of hip-hop, imagine a pair of studded Versace heels or sensible sneaker-style wedges stamping on a human face-forever.”
Jose: I’m not sure this song is going to be the massive hit that we’re all bracing ourselves for. Sure, it’s got the pop pedigree behind it, but it just sounds like a flat remix of Rihanna’s “Stay”. In terms of pure catchiness, both “Roar” and “Wrecking Ball” (as well as the aforementioned Rihanna track) had a much more dramatic, raw energy that helped elevate the tracks despite their sophomoric lyrical content. This track is… lukewarm. Nicki simply isn’t on her A-game for this one! It falls short as a rap song – for the reasons the rest of you have pointed out – and it also falls short as a true pop banger. But we shouldn’t underestimate the miraculous powers of a big label promoting your single, nor of emotional teenagers/sorority girls drunk off Franzia.
Also, do Dr. Luke and Cirkuit only know one chord progression?
Leah: I just have one message for Nicki Minaj: “Git it, gurl.”
Don’t get me wrong, I hate this song, and having listened to it this many times to review it just makes me re-examine what brought me to this point in my life where I have to listen to stuff like this all the time (drugs, probably). But, hey, she’s taking the temperature of pop culture and cashing in. And, before you point it out, yes I absolutely have a double standard for men and women creating formulaic pop crap that is mostly just a paycheck for them. That’s because you still don’t hear enough women’s voices on pop radio and even though this particular track is some real sad-sack desperate shit, it’s still Nicki in your car stereo or that song you take a break to at the club. I’m really just counting down to a Alchemist remix where Dynasty and Rapsody can go in (read:cash in) on this too.
Damion: Ima keep it real and tell you that I heard “I can never hate you /Even though what you did wasn’t tasteful” and stopped listening. I can only listen to Nicki when she’s talking trash. Like on that Danny Glover remix. I don’t want to hear pensive thoughts from her.
Ab-Soul ft. Action Bronson & Asaad: “Stigmata”
If you believe what you read on the Internet, Ab-Soul’s forthcoming These Days… has a good chance of dropping next month – asumming the rapper doesn’t leak it earlier. If true, it would make for an insanely productive first half of 2014 for TDE, with ScHoolboy Q, SZA, Isaiah Rashad all having put out records so far this year. (And according to Billboard, a Black Hippy group LP and Kendrick’s sequel to Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City are also slated for 2014.) Back to Ab-Soul: He teased These Days… a month ago with “Tree of Life”, and now he’s back with “Stigmata”, a gritty track that nods to Nas’ “The Cross” and features Philly’s Asaad and our beloved Bronsolino. Production comes courtesy of L.A.’s Rahki.
Marcus: I love the concept of Ab-Soul. However, when ever I hear him rhyme I feel like I want to drop him off in the middle of Chi-raq with no job, a quarter to his name, a loaf of Wonder bread to eat and only a slingshot to protect himself. Then (and only then) will I actively care about his struggle bars about his (supposedly) hard ass life. “Stigmata?” With a sample from “The Cross?” For real? Ab-Soul sounds like one of the guys that Nas and the Bravehearts would stick up on a street corner. Ridiculous. Again, I love Ab-Soul’s mindset, but feel he’s a little too inexperienced as a human being and rapper to truly pull it off.
As for Bronsolini here? He’s merely perfunctory, as he sounds like he smoked an enormous bowl and stream-of-consciousness rapped his way through his bars. Free associative rhymes were cute when everybody thought Action Bronson was a plus-sized white Ghostface Killah impersonator, but as he grows into his own persona, are unnecessary. As for Asaad? I felt he tried to do the most on this track, and while his Neo-Soul poetics didn’t truly connect with me, they were well delivered, which absolutely counts for something. Anybody know where I can hear more?
Phil: I keep waiting for an Ab-Soul song to turn the tide of recent so-so tracks and guest appearances. “Stigmata” isn’t it. If you have an itch for grimy early 90s NYC shit, this will probably scratch it. (Not a bad thing! See: Prodigy and Alchemist’s Albert Einstein.) I know that rap labels have learned to be on their ABCs (Always Be Chumming), but maybe TDE should hold off until it has Ab-Soul’s ace-in-the-hole lined up. Unrelated: It’s almost June 2014, do you know where your Action Bronson major label debut is?
Aaron: Stigmata. The fuck? Self-important much? Get off the Jesus piece – we need the gold.
I love this production on this though.Tight Kendrick sample. The snare alone makes not sweat the tired, almost meme-like trappings of Struggle-Rap. Motherfucker, you were born in 1987. Everything bad except for 9/11 already happened, son. The fuck are you struggling so hard for? Rap practically makes itself these days. All you need is Ableton and the internet, right?
This track bangs without a doubt and I secretly wish that Action Bronson could be on every track ever. Dude can do no wrong. But it does make me wish struggle was more about “we’ than “me”. I give it a strong 6.
Rappers: Move out of the hood already. I know you have money. Did you not learn from all those Hood movies?
Jose: I’m with you on this one, Aaron. The production of this song is fantastic, and that sample? Oof. Everything else on this song, every single verse, I could do without. Yep. I’d like an instrumental version of this to groove to.
Leah: I appreciate Action Bronson straight up ignoring the self-righteous bullshit that comes with Soulo obliquely calling himself Jesus and instead sticks to dune buggies and grabbing his dick, I guess. But Marcus is right, he doesn’t sound like he goes in particularly hard on this track. On the other hand, Asaad is feelin’ himself and reminding me a bit of another Philly MC Black Thought.
Ghostface Killah & BADBADNOTGOOD ft. Danny Brown:
The Wu-Tang reunion album is apparently a go now that RZA and Raekwon have ended their pissing match, but the rap collective’s member states aren’t really the type to stand on ceremony while that shakes out, so this week we received new songs from two of the Wu’s marquee spitters. The first, “Call of Duty”, comes from Raekwon, and with a whole lot of Akon, it comes off a bit, shall we say, dated. More interesting is “Six Degrees”, the A-side to a 10″ collaborative single that pairs Ghostface Killah with Toronto jazz / “post-bop” outfit BADBADNOTGOOD. The song is a slim three minutes, but that’s enough time for Detroit motormouth Danny Brown to join the party too.
Damion: Its only 10:30 a.m. and I already need another shower. This is too gutter. Ghostface will forever sound like late ’80s/early ’90s, huh? The beat is perfectly simple – it gives these dudes the canvas to paint whatever scene they want. This is going in the rotation.
Marcus: Jazz band basically plays an interpolation of Biggie’s “Dead Wrong” while Ghostface raps in the spaces between the beat (like Biggie does on “Dead Wrong”) and Danny Brown portrays Eminem. Ghost isn’t quite at Biggie’s level of charisma, but he does body the hell out of this, while, yeah…Danny is as spastic as Em used to be. Yep, this is great. It’s not the best song of the year, but it is absolutely well executed.
Old man Starks brings it too, especially in that second verse, like Danny lit a fire under his ass. “Brag about 2 chainz, 4 chainz, 6 chainz / Spread eagle bitches in the crib giving brains.” [Z spelling open to interpretation.]
Is it selfish to wish for a hook though? And doesn’t this instrumental feel a little 2004? No shots fired at BADBADNOTGOOD, but RATATAT.
Aaron: Fuck yeah. This is bananas. I’m feeling it. Marcus, excellent Biggie/Em analogy. Mind Blown. Well played.
This is a solid team up. Theodore is always killing it. Danny Brown continues to perfect his Hood Party Monster mystique. And it’s pretty refreshing to hear some (gasp) music in it.
Jose: I was waiting on a hook too, and had to look down at my phone when the song went silent. What is it with all these songs that just feel unfinished? Have I been conditioned so strongly to expect a hook/chorus?
The track as a whole, however, is dope. The guitar work is great, the subtle bass, it all sits nicely and lets Ghostface and Danny Brown do their thing. Danny Brown sounds slightly unhinged, and the contrast with the laid back groove works really well. Ghost is great on both of his verses. Ultimately, it’s a perfectly serviceable track that doesn’t really have the bombast associated with a single, but I guess it fits with the feel of the collaboration.
Leah: HOOKS ARE OVER. No one likes singing along anyway. I’m set to just memorize these 174 bars and wile out like it’s 2004 in some animal-print built-in-bow blouses n shit.