Allow us to reintroduce ourselves: Our name is Rec-Room Therapy. Each week, we debate, discuss, and dissect recent hip hop tracks. Today, we wrestle with the contradictions embedded in Kanye’s newest God flow, feel dirty after a two-day bender with the Weeknd, and take a peak into the RZA’s vaults. Along for the ride is our distinguished panel of Joshua Phelps, Marcus Dowling, Briana Younger, Phil R, Damion M, Aaron Miller, and Hip Hop Hooray’s Leah Manners. Also joining us this week is DDm, Baltimore’s tour-de-force of a rapper, who headlines BYT and Durkl’s Fat Lip TONIGHT at Zeba.
Kanye West: “New Slaves” (Live)
As you may have heard, Kanye West premiered a new song on Friday. More specifically, he projected a video for said song across 66 building around the world, because what Kanye wants, Kanye gets. As for the actual music, “New Slaves” – along with the Marilyn Manson sampling “Black Skinhead” – indeed lives up to the early reports of a “dark” record. (As if My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a ray of sunshine.) Kanye hasn’t revealed many details about “New Slaves”, but the fingerprints of G.O.O.D. Music in-house producer Hudson Mohawke are all over it, and Frank Ocean’s mother hinted that her son might be contributing some vocals at the end. Also, it will appear on album titled Yeezus.
Phelps: “The Kanye Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks.” Early Sunday morning, I started getting ranting texts from my man Eamon “Snitches” Redmond about how bad Kanye song’s on SNL were. Even outside of the context of SNL’s achingly bad sonic presentation – which is the norm – I have to admit he’s right about “New Slaves”. Just what the fuck are we talking about here, Yeezus? I enjoy a Kanye rant as much as the next person. I enjoy when he explores the trappings of fame in songs like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” I enjoy when he engages in petty, insecure defensiveness like “Cold.” But here we have a half-assed excuse to explain away his own marriage to corporate money.
Kanye, are you a slave to Samsung and Adult Swim because they paid you to reveal new music at surprise parties for “a well-heeled crowd of representatives from the TV and advertising industries” ? Are you a slave to Annheuser-Busch because they debuted Bud Light platinum with multi-million dollar Super Bowl ads soundtracked by “Runaway”? At least Beyonce got off her ass and did something at the event, although you slammed her for her Pepsi sponsorship. Or are you a slave to (insert car commercial here) because your song soundtracks their explanation about the new disc brakes? Are you a slave because you can afford to seclude yourself and your family in Paris, one of the most expensive cities in the world, and fly in collaborators at your beck and call, and even release music funded by your label without their consent? You can take the money and run but you still took the money and it’s an insult to your fans to think you can put out a song dissing the very corporations you lie in bed with to absolve yourself in the name of art. You can’t stand on the Samsung stage and rant about not being a celebrity while your baby’s momma – who sold herself ten times over to E! and Vivid Video – gets to make the first tweet to her 17 million sycophantic followers of the Yeezus packaging in your, oh, NIKE SPONSORED shoes. Nevermind that it was sandwiched between two other plugs – one for Cosmopolitan and the other a hairstylist. You want to talk about commercialism, I’ll motherfucking embarras you.
I want to put my hand on Kanye’s shoulder, “Good WIll Hunting” style, and let him know “It’s not your fault,” because he’s had a chip on his shoulder since his name was spelled wrong in liner notes and on plaques. And he was extremely undervalued as a rapper by Dame and Jay in the beginning. I get it. He’s haunted by his mother’s death, which arguably would have been somewhere other than a plastic surgeon’s table had he not made it big. But, at this point, Kanye is nearly above reproach in terms of his art and music. Not above criticism, but people value his work and he can take artistic chances that others can’t and people will at least listen. He’s earned the right to say no to corporate shilling if he wants, but he doesn’t. It looks like he loves it! As for the end of the track, if I wanted to hear awkward rhymes about blowjobs I’d listen to Akinyele. And don’t try to invoke some late night CNN private prison bullshit either – it’s so out of place here. Kanye’s not stupid, and neither are a lot of his fans, which is why this tantrum is so annoying. This could have been a hot song! Don’t put out music that’s only G.O.O.D. in a name. Don’t put out music that’s more Stuart Smalley than Biggie Small
Bri: Kanye does say “we,” so he’s included in the new slave trade he’s talking about, no? At the same time, he also seems to imply that he’s above it all, and they can’t control him, even though they do. He’s obviously conflicted. Or maybe I just missed the meaning of the song. Regardless, I hope this isn’t on the album. It doesn’t sound very impressive at this moment.
Marcus: For the past five years, there’s a well-reasoned argument that can be made for Kanye West legitimately believing he’s Jesus Christ. Possibly from a blend of professional stress, incredible success, and the death of his beloved mother, Kanye’s in an unusual and delusional creative place. Fortunately, his blasphemous belief has been a creative boon for the half-decade, Kanye creating three albums of work (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne and Cruel Summer) that feature an artist with an incredible level of creative confidence. The craziest notion though about this period is that, ultimately, this self-fetishizing divination featured Kanye as an artist who probably didn’t need to be placed on a pedestal. As wonderfully opulent as Watch the Throne was, it featured two artists – Kanye and Jay-Z – who likely raised the bar for hip-hop culture too far, too fast in celebrating each other’s complete commercial ethering of the game.
From hearing “New Slaves,” as well as “Black Skinhead,” Yeezus is going to be Kanye doing his best Jesus entering the temple at Gethsemane – ripping, tearing and anger included – but the true question to be answered is seeing if his radicalizing move will be appreciated by mainstream radio listeners. As Josh points out, the notion that West and Jay-Z crystallized in album form – while flawed – is something that they have benefited from, thus making Kanye’s umbrage-taking exposition in “New Slaves” absurd on multiple levels.
However ridiculous you may believe Kanye is, his statements are not without merit. Consumerism is eroding the base of rap, and for Kanye-as-Jesus-as Blaspheming Martyr to see the error of his ways and try to create a record where he puts himself on the cross of popular culture is pretty fucking amazing. This record is not so much about “great songs” as much as it is about one man internalizing the sins of an industry. Yeah, it’s high concept shit, but, yeah, rap music needs some high concept shit right now.
Leah: Yes, Kanye is a hypocrite. Yes, he’s the Lius Vuitton Don that’s railing against commercialism. Yes, he married and is having a child with probably the actual physical manifestation of consumer culture. But, I like this beat and whether you like it or not, this track is gonna be all over radio this summer (and Lauryn Hill’s definitely won’t), and kids will be rapping the words along to it, and they’ll internalize the message, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing, despite coming from a hypocritical place. For better or worse, Kanye is defining more than a generation – he’s the seminal figure in an epoch, shaping “music” for people in their 40’s, 30’s, 20’s, and teens. Whether you want to pen paragraph-free screeds on his narcissistic obliviousness, or just watch the crazy ride this surely mentally unstable individual is taking us all on, is up to you.
DDm: What I love about Kanye is his ability to innovate without being trendy, while not seeming out of touch with the musical landscape of the time. The tempo of “New Slaves” is like that of a trap beat, but the chord progressions and lyrical delivery channel Nine Inch Nails.
Leah: I hear NIN too.
Damion: This is hot, and Leah’s right: This will be everywhere, all summer long. I think its about to replace “Started from the Bottom” in Harlem as the sound you hear coming most often out of car stereos. It is a bit over the top, but that’s Kanye and his insatiable drive for attention. Its what makes him interesting too. I don’t think he’s necessarily removing himself from fault in the song though. He called himself out at the end of the first verse. I thought it was just really creative and well done.
Phil: Thematically, there is nothing in this song that isn’t wholly consistent with what Ye has been saying his whole career. Yes, it’s been a career full of contradictions, but not contradictions that he himself doesn’t shine a light on. What’s different about “New Slaves” is that listeners have nowhere to hide. The production provides no cover for the squeamish, and Adam Sandler references aside, Kanye never swerves off course. That video really says it all: a single close-up shot, as “listen the fuck up” as it comes. Whether it gets played on the radio is sort of besides the point: Kanye debuted a song – the first taste of a wildly anticipated regard – with a preposterously overblown rollout, and, somehow, listening to “New Slaves”, it all somehow feels appropriate. The song may be self-consciously important, but it is nevertheless Important. At a time when the moves of every major artists seems bloodsuckingly focus grouped, Kanye manages to keep sticking his neck out further. The very release of it is the embodiment of “you corporations can’t control me.” Don’t tell me it didn’t launch a million panicked e-mails across corporate headquarters worldwide. (“Yeah, Bob, it’s called ‘New Slaves’ and there are lynching allusions.”) I love the idea of that. I love that he can be brazenly subversive and force them to eat shit. I also, taking a step back, love this song. It’s more of a monster than “Monster” ever was, even as a bootleg, and especially as a Gozilla-esque terror projected across the skyline of major metropolises.
Aaron: There is a fable about a frog carrying a scorpion across a river. Frog is scared but the scorpion says “be cool I won’t sting you ’cause we would both drown and die”. Frog says “word.” Then the Scorpion stings his ass and they both go down. Frog says, “What the fuck , dude? I was trying to take us both someplace and you fucked it up – why?” The Scorpion says, “It’s how I do. It’s in my nature.”
For years, I’ve been getting mad at Kanye for stinging us all to death halfway across a figurative river of potential. He can’t help it. He’s not doing it for us anymore. He is only concerned with one-upping himself and using the industry that made him as a giant mirror to preen in. These stylistic betrayals are in his nature. The up-side? The combination of predictably flawless marketing and shiny delivery makes for good eye/ear-candy-each endeavor more diluted than the last. He’s talking loud, but ain’t saying nothin’ too important on this track. It’s basically a verbal collage of pseudo-subversive imagery and his trademark woe-is-me-isms. Top Dog thinks he’s the underdog now.
I will quip about Nine Inch Nails and goth overtones with the rest of the gang I will forgive this pandering,crossover crowd-stealer. I will two-step to any number of Yeezy’s taste-making jams over the last decade. I will laugh at him when he bumps into street signs dodging paparazzi. What I will not do is buy my revolution from Kanye West.
tl;dr edit: Beyonce is more punk than Yeezy. This is fake weird. It’s Halloween punk rock lite, but everyone likes it, so I will bow down for now.
The Weeknd: “Kiss Land”
Leah: The first half of this “song” is just gross. Also, the screams? Why? Meanwhile, the whole second half is him admitting that he’s a hollow shell of a human being, and I don’t really see anything to refute that, much less his soulless music. I don’t think I like The Weeknd, you guys.
Phil: Leah, what did the Weeknd tell you about opening your mouth? I hope you at least wrote that comment topless.
Marcus: As much as Kanye West is laudable for his attempts at “high art,” The Weekend is just as easily abhorrent. None of Abel Tesfaye’s music is bad, it’s just bloated. The Weekend’s rise to stardom came at the precise apex of the second-wave mixtape movement, when just enough young kids who kind-of understood how music works enough to get “tastemaker” jobs at record labels were getting hired. Trim four minutes off of this song and move the disembodied howls to a bridge with a build and this is beautiful. At eight minutes, it’s tedious and heartbreaking, the soundtrack of middle-class cokeheads in Brooklyn trying heroin for the first time and banging a “hot” model in the same night. Much like Frank Ocean, The Weekend can really write a song. Also, much like the case of Frank Ocean, there aren’t any fundamental expectations for productions in place for artists like them in corporate label boardrooms, so hard-working journalists like us get tasked with having to listen to these assholes masturbate themselves on records. Life could be far worse, I guess.
Phil: For someone who began his career evoking endless nights of sex, drugs, and self-loathing, and proceeded to hammer that note for three straight “mixtapes,” where does the Weeknd go from here? If “Kiss Land” is any indication, it’s to dig deeper, into more debauched, soulless, and misogynistic escapades, and the results are slightly comical. And not comical in the way that The-Dream’s eight-minute fuck odyssey “Body Work”/”Fuck My Brains Out!” is comical; which is to say, intentionally. Who is this dude kidding? Are we really to believe that Tesfaye, nose bleeding, cup full of lean, is getting carted between strip clubs by a limo driver who is both high and contractually obligated to violate speed limit? I mean, I would love that to be the case. R&B could use a Hunter S. Thompson. I’m slightly skeptical, however, in part because the “started from the bottom, now we here” message effectively calls bullshit on the lifestyle he was selling with House of Balloons. But I would willingly suspend disbelief if he didn’t make it all sound like such a slog. If being a star and banging groupies is bumming you out so much, Tesfaye, take your “Crew Love” money and go open a fucking bodega. No matter how much I dig this song’s production, “Kiss Land” still feels like Tesfaye started with that “This ain’t nothing you can relate to” punchline and worked his backwards, for a joyless eight minutes.
Damion: When I hear the Weeknd, I think of what would happen if the guy who spoke at the beginning of those Boyz II Men tracks went solo. My man don’t even really sing. That said, after hearing “Remember Me” on that Sleepless in Atlanta mixtape, I’m a fan. I’m still waiting for my chance to tell some model chick “<ake me remember you, like you remember me” with harmony. But I digress. I didn’t like “Kiss Land” starts, but it picks up. I’m with this for the most part, save when he uses that high-ass Robin Thicke voice, and that weird Kanye interlude mid song. After the three minute mark, this joint is on point. It just didn’t have to be 7 minutes.
Aaron: I actually only like the part in the middle where he shuts the fuck up. Is this what passes for forward thinking R&B these days? I would pay good money to see Twin Shadow ,Dam Funk, and/or Frank Ocean beat this guy with a pillowcase full of D’Angelo records. “You gotta check out The Weekend. It’s like Washed Out with a boring, sleazy, black dude instead of a nerdy, white, librarian kid!”
The Wu-Tang Clan: “Execution in Autumn”
No longer do we have to settle for the Spirit of the Wu. Behold: new Wu-Tang Clan. Maybe. While a sixth LP – titled A Better Tomorrow – is still technically on track for a July release, it’s unclear whether “Execution in Autumn” has anything to do with it. All we’ve been told is that the track is “from the personal vaults of RZA.” It’s produced by Frank Dukes, who’s had a hand in recent Wu-affiliated efforts, so it was probably recorded somewhat recently. (“Somewhat recently”, in the context of the band’s two decade history, being the last few years.) Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, RZA, and U-God all make appearances during the track’s brisk three minutes.
Marcus: Frank Dukes is fucking up the Wu-Formula. Yeah, I get it. RZA’s probably way too expensive to man the boards, plus too busy shopping at Marshall’s for Wu-Wear hoodies with Quentin Tarantino. That’s cool. Just like Weezy signing Paris Hilton, it’s an earned stupidity that comes with fame. But, yeah. Frank Dukes. I’m all for this guy getting a chance. But fuck. He’s a boy doing a man’s job. Frank Dukes makes New York shit. It’s dirty and dusty, but too heavy on the classic boom bap for me. When I hear a Wu-Tang record I want to imagine Mr. Han’s Enter the Dragon island as being located on Rikers, a rag tag crew of dudes from Staten Island with ghetto kung fu styles – throwing stars meeting semi-automatic rifles – saving the day. This ain’t that. It’s good, but, as a unit, the Wu-Tang Clan should be as strong as their component parts have been over the past decade. The guys try here – Raekwon really showcasing why he’s consistently one of the best to ever do it – but, yeah. If Wu-Tang is for the children, underwhelming yawners like this show that the kids of this generation are being sold a bill of goods.
Leah: I don’t mind the boom bap as much as Marcus does, and this track doesn’t taint or detract from the Wu catalog. It’s not riding anywhere near the top 20 either though. The problem here, that I think Marcus points out well, is that this is only half a Wu-Tang song and should probably live out the rest of its existence buried in a rarities and B-sides compilation that only the most diehard fans will listen to once.
Phil: I don’t need my Wu-Tang Clan Manual decoder ring to figure out that “Execution in Autumn” is a table scrap from The Man With the Iron Fists soundtrack: Frank Dukes had a hand in eight of those sixteen track, and like this song, they were both respectably serviceable and utterly forgettable. As a freebie “from the vaults of the RZA” – please, God, let there be an actual vault – “Execution in Autumn” doesn’t have to clear a high bar, and it exerts the bare minimum effort to skim over it. But, at this point, I’d rather hear a Wu song attempt to be bold, trip, and slam face first into Plexitrac than be served outsourced “classic Wu”. Again, I’m beating up on something that amounts to a bobble head giveaway, but we’re theoretically a few months from a new Wu album, and this is what RZA is chumming the water with? Maybe he’s trying to keep expectations low. Maybe I missed that chapter in The Manual. But RZA is working with a stable of talent that unquestionably – and remarkably – still has it: It would be nice to hear their oversized personalities matched by oversized production somewhere other than a Kanye record. Although, by no means am I discouraging the latter from happening. As Clarence famously said in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, every time Big Sean gets a feature that Ghostface could have had, an angel suffocates itself.
Aaron: I have no problem with some off-brand Wu shit. It’s like finding your favorite gear at thrift shop – it’s a little busted, but still wearable if you tuck in that part with the stain. It’s like buying a dope pair of shoes a half-size too small, because, fuck it, they are the only pair left and they just looked good on you. Or maybe it’s like a comfortable, worn out, Wu Wear shirt with a hole in it that you would wear to the store real quick, but if any homies saw it, you would make it clear that it’s laundry day. I like “Execution in Autumn” way more than I hate it. Also, I have the Wu Tang Manual in my bathroom.
Damion: Marcus, I don’t appreciate what you’re insinuating about Paris Hilton’s musical talent. I’m definitely going to watch that music video on mute until Wayne’s part. I like this Wu track. It’s that got that old school Wu beat that reminds of the days when 85 hood ninjas (lets go with that term) piled on a track. It’s simple, but sometimes that’s best when you really want to hear what people are saying. I’m with this too.