Allow us to reintroduce ourselves: Our name is Rec-Room Therapy. Each week, we debate, discuss, and dissect recent hip-hop tracks. Today, we cheese it up on the wedding reception dance floor with Justin Timberlake and friends, revisit Danny Browns old days, and crash James Blake and Chance the Rapper’s Transatlantic bromance. Along for the ride is our distinguished panel of Marcus Dowling, Phil R, Aaron Miller, and Hip Hop Hooray’s Leah Manners.
Justin Timberlake: “Cabaret” (ft. Drake) & “Murder” (ft. Jay Z)
Justin Timberlake’s first 20/20 Experience was not a crowded affair. Aside from full-on collaborator and occasional kinda rapper Timbaland, the only big name to turn up was Jay Z. The guest list has ballooned to double that size with the second edition of 20/20 Experience, which boasts appearances from smirky-sad lord of rap Drake (on “Cabaret”) and Samsung-affiliate / sports agent Jay Z (on “Murder”). If you’re only going to have two features, might as well give them to the men behind what will assuredly be the year’s two highest selling rap albums, right? As usual, production is handled by Timbaland and presumably one or two of his associates.
Marcus: If Justin Timberlake is anything, he’s a team player on the “last of a dying breed” pro-label and FM radio squad. Both of these singles sound like they’re from 2006 – the last time that team outright won the Rap Zeitgeist Championship. Drake’s the only modernization on them, his uptempo flows this time sounding like something that Nelly or Ludacris would’ve done back then.
Jay Z on “Murder” edits himself for radio consumption. These days, Jigga is on his East Coast Ice Cube (safe, sane and consensual in a manner unlike BDSM), so you do that thing where you get all wistful about how rap has “arrived” at the top of popular culture and just charge his saccharine (yet well delivered) bars to the game.
And Timbaland’s just trolling people now on these tracks. I wonder just how many times he’s gone back to his Futuresex/Lovesongs session files and clicked and dragged drum patterns as of late. When excellence becomes that lazy, you’re a dated yet beloved relic. ZTimbaland is like Hulk Hogan winning the WWE Championship in 2002: a grizzled legend who had fans falling all over themselves in adoration even though nobody quite understood exactly why, until everyone realized that it was because the competition – by comparison – lacked the ability to be as compelling as an entertainer.
Leah: Dated, cliche, silly, and rushed, these tracks would have been more appealing produced posthumously (not wishing death on anyone here, bear with me) as a nostalgic look at a time and place where these would have been popular but weren’t given the chance. So, what I’m saying I guess is I wish I had never listened to these except in the hazy afterglow of pop music’s fifth golden age in my sixties, when I probably won’t know any better and will be so busy hating on what the kids are listening to that these will sound alright.
Aaron: Ugh. Drake. I can’t take it no more. I’m in a very dissonant place when it comes to Wheelchair Jimmy. Some days I just wanna go back in time and put real bullets in all the Degrassi set prop guns. The more the world loves him and accepts his mushy, fake rap bullshit, the more I hate him. If he doesn’t retire soon, I’m gonna have to go get my copy of “Catcher in the Rye” and handle it myself. (Heads up, Hov, you are not the only one that can make obtuse Lennon references.) I know they hadn’t invented Drake or Cosby Sweaters yet when PT Barnum wrote this, but I am positive that he was validating my pathological disdain for wack rappers across the vast expanse of history when he said: “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.”
“Murder” is aight, mostly because Drake is not on it. Justin Timberlake is the most functionally talented, universally marketable pop star on the planet and Jay Z, who has perfected the art of being perfect, will most likely be the next black president or the first rapper on the moon. Even phoned in verses like the one on this track remind you why he’s the Man.
Phil: To Marcus’ last point, I wonder if Timberlake grasps the irony of releasing a single called “TKO” in the midst of a year that’s been dominant in the most boringly inevitable way. (Given the “Take Back the Night” mess and the existence of nine-minute vampire metaphor called “True Blood”, my man probably isn’t thinking too deeply on these song titles.) Speaking of not grasping things: I didn’t fully understand Timberlake’s decision to resurrect Timbaland’s career for the first 20/20, and a second 70+ minute serving isn’t going to change my mind. Money is obviously of no concern in the conception of these records, and, as we discussed with Pusha last week, working with a stable of producers doesn’t mean sacrificing aesthetic cohesion. If Timberlake is intent on keeping it in the family and/or partying like it’s 2002, why not reunite with Pharrel, someone who’s managed to adapt and stay mostly relevant? And for that matter, let’s give Pusha a call and get the whole “Like I Love You” gang back together. We know what Terrence “I’m just young, rich, and tasteless” Thorton can do with 40 seconds. And he was kind of biting Mase on “Like I Love You” – give the man a second chance!
But back to reality: While we at least got the airy glide of “Suit & Tie” and monster truck ballad “Mirrors” out of the first disc, the second seems to be scraping the bottom of the barrel, as is on ample display here. “Cabaret” is more Under Construction, Part II than FutureSex/LoveSounds, and is guaranteed to blow the minds of anyone who hasn’t listened to a rap radio station in a decade, which, admittedly, is probably this album’s target demo. Seriously, who the fuck was craving Timbaland doing his beatbox thing? And as far as “Murder” goes, didn’t we move on from bhangra fusions ten years ago? Is Jay Z here to recreate that “Beware” magic? JT, meanwhile, is just unbearably cheesy on both of these tracks. I don’t even know where to start with the groan-worthy lines. If “Cabaret” was released as a Lonely Island sex jam spoof, no one would blink an eye. “I got you saying ‘Jesus’ so much it’s like we’re laying the manger”?!? That doesn’t even make sense! Drake might just be the only redeeming quality to that song, which I take absolutely no pleasure in saying, because prolonged exposure to Nothing Was the Same has my tolerance to his creepy, narcissistic sad clown shit pretty low. (Side note: Is Drake on a mission to shout out every movie in the Eddie Murphy filmography? Is this his Sufjan Stevens 50 States project?)
Oh, is this comment too long? Well, I want the 74 minutes I spent listening to The 20/20 Experience Part 2 of 2 back. Life’s not fair. Sweet album title, bro.
Danny Brown: “Side A (Old)”
“I listened to Old every day and thought, ‘I need to make this more entertaining.’ But in my heart it felt right,” Danny Brown said in a recent interview, describing the darker and less ecstatic tone of his forthcoming LP, out October 8th. The article described the back half of the record as higher energy, more indebted to electronic dance music and ready for the festival circuit, and, sure enough, the recently released track list seemed to confirm this with production credits to Fool’s Gold label head A-Trak and three (!) for maximalist Rustie. But in the wake of the claustrophobic “Kush Coma” and club raver “Dip”, Brown has released something decidedly more gruff: “Side A (Old)”, the album’s lead-off track. It’s produced by Paul White, the relatively low-profile London producer behind five of the album’s first ten tracks.
Marcus: Danny Brown won the hype game, hands down. Wacky hair and fucked-up teeth that guarantee “nightlife photographer” photos? Win. Rap about drugs while sounding like you’re on them? Win. Being that “legit, underground dude” that “legit, underground dudes” can look at and go, “yeah, fuck the man!” Win.
But then, Danny puts out a track like “Side A (old)” and sounds like our frank and earnest street reporter telling us a tale of a darkside that feels like Eminem’s 8 Mile Road, but is probably even more worse for wear. I like this track as well because the storytelling flow feels like Andre 3000’s “A Day in the Life of Benjamin Andre” from The Love Below, but is SO much moodier and just as evocative. Yes, Danny Brown wins at hype. But then, he delivers and the package is complete.
Aaron: Oh hell yeah, pimp! Danny Brown is straight-up #11 on my list of top 10 rappers. He really is just good on all fronts: Lyrically innovative; ill enough to fuck with pretty much anybody; young enough to be tapped in; old enough to pull rank. He also has this thing: It’s like every rapper that did weird shit, or dressed really fucked up and convinced the world it was the bleeding edge of fashion, or had a funny voice ,or rapped about computers and drugs, or maybe shot somebody… HE DOES ALL THAT SHIT AT THE SAME TIME. Like some kind of Symbiotic rap-beast made up of the best parts of every rapper you ever loved. I hope he gets that Illuminati money one day and does the halftime show at the Superbowl.
Leah: I saw Danny Brown perform at Fun Fun Fun Fest 2012 in a straight-up damn nightshirt. He is able to be the most honest rapper on the scene right now, and it seems like it’s because he’s grown into himself without the spotlight – the least afraid of failure because he has nothing to lose except his own self-respect. He hit success late in life (according to him) and it’s made him sincere, transparent, and mature. Also crazy talented.
Phil: I find the narrative forming around Old to be a little off. XXX is being retroactively spun as a some carefree, hedonistic joyride, and while it certainly had moments of abandon and no shortage of cunnilingus jokes, I think it shortchanges a lot of that record’s darker undertones. XXX always struck me as the work of a guy on the edge, someone turning 30 – i.e., XXX – and realizing he’s drank and smoked away most of his life. You don’t even need to go further than that record’s title track, which like “Side A (Old)”, opened the album: “The way a n*gga going might go out like Sam Cooke / Or locked up calling home for money on my books / Cause if this shit don’t work, n*gga I failed at life / Turning to these drugs, now these drugs turn my life / And it’s the downward spiral, got me suicidal / But too scared to do it so these pills will be the rifle.” That’s heavy stuff!
“Side A (Old)” is good. The boom-bap knock of the production works just fine. But it’s self-consciously “hard,” and I’m not so sold on the idea that it’s any realer than “XXX” just Brown’s painting a more literal picture. Who this “old Danny Brown”? I don’t think we’ve met. “Matter of fact, go and bring them AK’s back”? What AK’s? In fact, all that does is remind me of the opening bars on – again – “XXX”: “Colder than them grits they fed slaves / Me to rap is like water to raves / AK’s with bayonets on deck, rep my set / Sorta like Squidward and his clarinet.” There you had Brown taking the cliche of an AK, flipping into something fantastical, and tucking it within a larger picture. The wordplay is dizzying, the imagery vivid. In contrast, “Side A (Old)” feels by-the-numbers. Anyone could have made this. Ultimately, I have no issue with Brown walking away from the hornball jester persona, because I don’t think he’s capable of making something bad, but wherever he goes, I just hope all that creativity follows.
James Blake ft. Chance the Rapper: “Life Round Here (Remix)”
James Blake already collaborated with Robert Diggs on Overgrown’s slightly awkward but endearing “Take a Fall for Me”, and he’s back at it with a remix of that album’s “Life Round Here”. This time around, he’s gone with the youth vote, bringing in meteorically rising star – and current Complex cover boy – Chance the Rapper. The partnership came about after a lovefest in Austin, according to Chance: “I met James Blake at SXSW this year before my tape even dropped. He came to one of my shows and I freaked the fuck out. I’m a huge James Blake fan. I don’t even know if he knew I was a fan.” Chance says the two worked on a different version of the song, as well as some original material, but so far details are mum on any official releases.
Marcus: I love Chance the Rapper because he – at first – was a 19-year old black kid who, like me at 30, probably thought that these weird white people and hipsters making their weird white people and hipster music lived inside of wires and boxes. Of course, without direct access to these people or their communities, doing things that they did – for Chance, taking acid, and for me, popping caffeine pills while drinking Sparks – didn’t have the same effects, and the outcome was always intriguingly disjointed, a science fair project gone wrong.
When hearing this track, my fear is that the Chance the Rapper story is being told too fast, and in an in-organic manner. While a nice track featuring nice rapping, “Life Round Here (Remix)” track feels like what happens when someone who thinks they can handle their drugs takes their drugs “for real.” It feels like that time I went to Taxlo and did my pills and Sparks combo. The world flashed, there were lots of colors, and I suddenly began to sweat profusely. It was the most amazing feeling ever, and while it was everything right, was everything wrong, too. Of course, I never left the club (shout out to KW Griff), and eventually found a way to create synergy and balance with myself and a crazy new situation that I never imagined would ever happen. With Chance’s talks with Skrillex’s OWSLA being discussed in the EDM press, here’s to hoping that everything comes together and that he can truly find himself in this lane.
Leah: Maybe because I’ve lived with and felt more comfortable over the long term with RZA’s voice, it made it okay for him to take on a Blake track, because it became an experiment to see what changed and what stayed Wu. In this case, I’ll take a wild guess that the two tapes and several features I’ve heard from Chance don’t make him as familiar to me. This track fits him like a sweatshirt with too-small arms. He does his best with it, but it seems forced.
Aaron: Weird. Did I miss something? This is barely a rap track. It’s like somebody woke Chance up after he fell asleep in the middle of Blake’s really chill party. “I guess I’ll spit a hot 8.5 bars and get back to feeling myself while James tucks everyone into bed.” Production is pleasant and Chance is still Chance, but life ’round here is a little lazy on both ends. Blake never quite hits that lick for me. It’s too subdued. Too polite.
Phil: There are a lot of qualities to love about Chance the Rapper, his youthful energy and ping-ponging wordplay chief amongst them . His voice, however, does not make that list. It’s squeaky and more than a little thin, and if there’s a barrier to Chance fandom, that’s it. But he makes it work, mostly because those other attributes are so overwhelming, and partly because he chooses productions that let him slip-and-slide all over the place.
Pairing him with James Blake is just not a good idea: It draws attention to his shortcomings while capping his upside. Blake has the voice of goddamn angel. Sandwiching Chance’s sing-songy mutterings in between the crevices of the song where Blake needs to breathe only puts on full display Chance’s vocal deficiencies. Obviously the RZA can’t sing either, but what he does have is presence. He may be talking straight nonsense on “Take a Fall for Me”, but he owns that nonsense with blustering confidence. Chance, meanwhile, just kind of floats through this, never making it his own, or even an equal timeshare. He also pulls a page from RZA’s playbook and peppers his verse with references to England, which felt stupid and reductive the first time around.
We’re at a place and time when Drake has worked with Sampha and Jamie xx, and Kanye lifts from Flux Pavillion and TNGHT. “Life Round Here (Remix)” shouldn’t get credit just for existing. It’s a good story that these two are friends, fine, but this doesn’t make me that excited to hear more.