Allow us to reintroduce ourselves: Our name is Rec-Room Therapy. Each week, we debate, discuss, and dissect recent hip hop tracks. Today, we bust out the suit and tie – again – for Jay-Z, roll around H-Town with Dizzee Rascal and some “trill OGs”, and do some free association word exercises with Earl Sweatshirt and Riff Raff. Along for the ride is our distinguished panel of Marcus Dowling, Briana Younger, Phil R, Damion M, Aaron Miller, Shelly Bell, Steve Place, and Hip Hop Hooray’s Leah Manners.
As a programming note, check out this week’s Rec-Room Therapy-assisted interview with Juicy J.
The soundtrack to Baz Lurhman’s “The Great Gatsby” is a throwback, not to the 1920s, but to the 1990s, when star-studded, overstuffed albums “from and inspired by [a] motion picture” were pretty much de rigueur. This particular soundtrack bears the distinction of being executive-produced by mogul and open letter writer Jay-Z , which means that insane ideas like Beyonce and Andre 3000 covering Amy Winehouse actually come to fruition. Less fanciful is opening track “100$ Bill”, a straight-up solo effort from Mr. Carter.
Phil: Prior to the release of Watch the Throne, a behind-the-scenes “mini-documentary” appeared online. Most of the film presents images of Jay-Z and Kanye doing exactly what we expect them to be doing: making songs in an Australian mansion, getting into expensive cars in slow motion, playing music at unnecessarily loud levels, hanging out with Russell Crowe. But two-and-half minutes – almost a quarter of the film’s length – are dedicated to Jay working on his contribution to “Why I Love You”. It shows him listening to the beat, over and over, working through his lines, mumbling to himself. The point is to show how much thought Jay puts into his rhymes, to show that hecares. “Words are just so tough,” he posits at one point to someone off screen, and he’s not talking about these particular words having the characteristic of toughness, but rather “words” just generally being a tough thing. I find myself thinking of that scene whenever I listen to a new Jay-Z track, because taken as a whole, it encapsulates everything that is right and wrong with Jay-Z this decade. On one hand, I think that he really does care – about a song like “100$ Bill”, about his legacy, about the correlation between the two – and I respect that he so rarely phones it in. But, on the other hand, the sound of Jay-Z caring is a mostly joyless thing. There are few lines that don’t feel completely belabored. There’s no spark in the methodical, clipped cadence that’s become his go-to in recent years. I’d gladly ignore the fact that “100$ Bill” is a curdled soup of haphazard references to “The Great Gatsby”, drug dealing, and his current state of domestic bliss if Jay-Z sounded like he had fun making it.
Marcus: From Watch the Throne onward, it’s important to note the proximity of Barack Obama to Jay-Z in regard to Jigga’s rap aspirations. The moment that you go from being a dude who made (a rumored) one million dollars selling crack cocaine to being a dude who is one degree of separation from the man who is the “leader of the free world,” everything changes. Jay-Z hasn’t uttered a word since 2011 that hasn’t been delivered with the weight of what I would wager a lot of money is believing that he feels is his ascension to being the President of Hip-Hop Culture. He assumes roles and positions now with such a different air to his presentation that it’s truly inspiring to watch. Jay doesn’t really rap anymore so much as make broad proclamations about the world-at-large as seen through couplets delivered over beats. “Open Letter” was one type of work in this realm, “Suit and Tie,” yet another. “100$ Bill” is, again, another interpretation of what a universe of urban culture loving people can aspire to be once they become men (or women) of means and importance. President Carter on his Pink Floyd shit. Rap game Jay Gatsby. Next level raps.
Leah: I think you’re both right in the amount of care he puts into his tracks and the legacy he keeps in mind as he continues to build his catalog, but really none of that changes the fact that this song is nigh-unlistenable. Seriously, I hate this song. Maybe this is the bleeding edge of hip hop and it’s just not to my taste, but it feels collage-y without unity and the delivery sounds off-beat with and often shoehorned into the cadence.
Phil: That’s basically what I said.
Leah: “Curdled soup of haphazard references” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. See: Earl, Busdriver, and MF DOOM.
Phil: “Curdled” has a pejorative connotation in the context of soup.
Leah: You’re curdled.
Damion: The first verse was boring. The second verse was mildly tough. Just like in sports, once you do something great, people expect you to repeat it, time and time again. At times, we even want to be more impressed than we were the first time we noticed the greatness. This track is lazy and unmemorable. I need better content and wordplay if Jay’s not going to switch up his flow. It’s uninspired. Jay has decided that rap is his second sport. If he was Deion Sanders, rap music is his baseball. He still comes to work like a pro, but its not the stage he cares most about.
Marcus: The key thing to remember about Jay here is that I don’t feel like he’s actually “rapping” anymore as much as speechifying in his flow. The delivery isn’t as important as the statement. It feels like a lot of folks are in this mode these days of being experimental with their flows just to see what else is out there with what they can do with rap music. Gotta imagine that Jay’s pretty much having fun right now and thinking outside the box because he’s at a place where reviewers not understanding his vision (a) doesn’t bother him and (b) isn’t going to break his wallet.
Steve: “100$ Bill” was made for a soundtrack, what did you guys expect? I don’t think it should be treated like a regular track. This is the functional equivalent of Green Day remixing “Brain Stew” for Godzilla.
Damion: Yes, it is just a soundtrack track, but at the same time, if you claim to sit at the throne, you gotta prove it constantly.
Marcus: Jay gave the throne to Yeezy. He’s the President now. Totally different job. Hip-hop culture’s a democracy and he’s signing treaties, creating cabinet departments and shit.
Bri: This song is the least exciting part of “The Great Gatsby” soundtrack.
Aaron: Sorry, you crazy for this one, Hov. This is a classic case of someone being so famous and so marketable that nobody told him it just doesn’t work. Jay is notorious for his quality control and beat selection, so I can’t figure out how this odd beat and Trap-lite flow made it past the reptilian Illuminati that control his destiny. I like this awkward, menacing, clip show of a track, but I feel that this beat would be better paired up with a weirdo emcee you’ve never heard of – not The Most Famous Rapper on Earth. I know we’re not reviewing movies here, but Baz Luhrmann specializes in dated, ham-fisted, fashion-filled, musical/visual assaults on the senses. He has essentially turned the Great American Novel into an episode of “Glee”, and that’s some shit I don’t like. Also, there are about 8 bars at the 1:35 mark where Jay is like, “Fuck it – I’ma do the old flow,” the song perks up for a second, and then just dies again. Why? Because no one in the room was powerful enough to override the decision of a kingmaker like Jay-Z, aka Jesus H. Carter, aka Rap Game Henry Kissinger.
Dizzee Rascal ft. Bun-B and Trae Tha Truth: “H-Town”
The first single from Dizzee Rascal’s forthcoming fifth LP – the accurately titled The Fifth – is not “H-Town”. Instead, it’s called “Goin’ Crazy” and it features Robbie Williams, because when you’re a pop-rap star in England, you make songs called “Goin’ Crazy” with Robbie Williams. The more cred-establishing “H-Town”, however, features actual Houston rappers Bun-B and Trae, and (unfortunately) rare production from A-Trak, a man who doesn’t make hip hop beats often enough. “H-Town” is a continuation of Dizzee Rascal’s love affair with the Texas city, something previously manifested on his “Where’s Da G” and UGK’s “Two Types of B”. The Fifth – his first album for new home Universal Records – was recorded mostly in Miami, though.
Leah: Best track this week, but I guess that’s not saying much. A-Trak builds this beat perfectly. Drum snares, handclaps, and wood tone snaps give “H Town” a chassis like a slow-moving Caddy, and the electro sounds pair Dizzee’s aggressive delivery and Bun’s flow like cookies and ice cream. I’m glad Dizzee’s moved back into hip hop from the electronic stuff that hasn’t been doing him much justice lately. I’m looking forward to the album, and crossing my fingers for a Danny Brown feature. Also, Texas forever.
Phil: Swollen Texas pride aside, I’m in agreement with everything Leah said. This track is wonderfully efficient. Its three-and-a-half minutes zip by before you know it. At a time when Houston’s legacy is experiencing another resurgence, to the point where even Beyonce is suddenly a born-again H-Town girl who’s “bout that life”, I also appreciate that Dizzee doesn’t overreach here. He’s not trying to appropriate Houston’s culture so much as reiterate a simple appreciation for it. Ultimately, this song is an auditory postcard: “Hanging with Bun B in Houston. He took me to the coolest club! You wish you were here. Xoxo, Dizzee.”
Marcus: I interviewed Bun B once, and the most intriguing point he made in the interview was about how strongly he felt about preserving and protecting the traditions of Houston’s contributions to hip-hop culture. The fact that one of his biggest motivations in staying in the game is to always be THE go-to guy for anything “trill” was really impressive. On this record, a British rapper and a Canadian DJ who arguably owe their entire career to the culture of hip-hop come full circle with two trill OGs. And they do it right, with A-Trak doing his best Pimp C on the boards and Dizzee just having fun being able to be at the party. I dig this. Really professional work from all parties involved.
Phil: Was A-Trak Canadian this whole time? Why did no one tell me?
Shelly: This is a beat you can bounce to anywhere! Bounce hard to this in the car! Bounce harder while performing random simple duties like sweeping the floor! Then bounce thrice as hard at your mama’s house the day after you’ve swept the floor. It doesn’t matter! A-Trak rocks everywhere! I’m from the south and was so caught up in the bounce that I didn’t notice the rhyme until Bun B started spitting. This does not speak to the talent of anyone else on the track. It totally speaks to my affinity for Bun B and down south music. In some strange way, I wanted Field Mob to pop up and spit a verse. It was a random, inexpiable nostalgic feeling.
Brooklyn-based producer Harry Fraud sits in a spot comfortably between mainstream and underground rap. On one hand, his beats have been home to verses from big shots like Rick Ross, Nicki Manaj, and Pusha T, but, on the other, he’s practically in-house for the click of New York up-and-comers that features Heems, Action Bronson, and Meyhem Lauren. Just two months after his debut mixtape Adrift, Fraud released High Tide via bizarro patron of the arts, Scion A/V. The EP features Action Bronson, French Montana, and Smoke DZA, but it’s “Yacht Lash”, which brings together the ascendant Earl Sweatshirt and the universe trolling Riff Raff, that is bound to get the most attention.
Aaron: I’m guilty of a little Earl-worship. He is the chosen one golden child. Riff Raff doesn’t deserve to be here. I wish he would just put on his Salisbury Steak Sweater, get in the Versace Helicopter, and just go away. Real talk: During SXSW, I was crossing the street at a light going to Vice party. Escalade tore through the light with Riff Raff hanging only his head out the back passenger window, like a dog with a gold grill.
Damion: This had me so hype for the first few minutes, partly because I was anticipating greatness from Earl. And, through his part, I was reasonably satisfied. The beat hit and everything. Then Riff Raff spit one of the west verses I’ve ever heard. “That make your nieces eat Reese’s Pieces”? The worst part was that Fraud even made the beat hotter for him. Couldn’t Young ng or Lil’ [insert name] bring more than that.
Phil: Earl and Riff Raff have more in common than a lot of people would probably like to admit – both essentially free associate rampantly – but, yeah, Riff Raff couldn’t even be bothered to work out a basic structure for his flow. You can practically hear his neurons short-circuiting each time he fumbles for his next line, which, honestly, is something that I find kind of endearing when he’s hearing a beat for the first time. But that sort of charm has limits. It doesn’t follow you into studio. Riff Raff can’t skate by on “effort” like this and expect to be considered more than a novelty, to what little degree that remains possible. Overall, though, “Yacht Lash” is a win, mostly because Earl sounds phenomenal on Harry Fraud’s beat. In a way, it’s slightly disconcerting. When we discussed “Whoa”, I said that my biggest issue with Earl is that he often fails to inhabit a track. That’s not the case here. He let’s the beat breathe – because he can, because it’s not queasy and claustrophobic – and he shows off an ability bob in and out of it, just like he did on “Between Friends” and “Super Rich Kids”. The common thread? Working outside the Odd Future production house, who I assume are handling most of Doris Some things don’t change: Free Earl.
Marcus: Fuck this song. Harry Fraud is one helluva producer, but one arguably very limited insofar as the type of emcees who sound great on his productions and the style of track he is producing. Fraud’s Scion A/V EP is pretty ehhhhh, save the work of one man: French Montana. Fraud’s great with weed dudes with muddled deliveries. The sonics of his tracks don’t overshadow their forceful yet hazy tonalities. But with my choice for the worst rapper of the last five years, he makes listenable MAGIC. French has nothing to say wrapped in the world’s most generic delivery, so you need something, anything, to distract you from the utter nonsense and bullshit he’s barely going to tell you. Thus, “Mean”, featuring Montana and the always entertaining Action Bronson – with its crunching hi-hat/snare pattern and syrupy soul melody – works well.
As far as “Yacht Lash” is concerned, I’m happy that Harry Fraud is trying to make TNGHT tracks, as Lunice and Hudson Mohawke are about to have all of the power. That being said, outside of trying to lure hipsters with click bait, why does this fucking thing exist? Free association rappers (even the appreciably terrible Riff Raff) are all about saying everything, and oftentimes (in Earl’s case) are worth a listen. So, why then are Earl and Riff Raff saddled with this electro bass meister sound wizardry horseshit that Fraud’s trying to pull. The lyrical work by Earl on this monstrous and instrumentally lush soundscape, is merely good, and feels like filler. I have a sense that Riff Raff will rap on cue to what his mind imagines the sound of an imaginary mouse urinating on a cotton swab for Youtube hits at this point, so, there’s that. This is just all-of-the-way boring.
Aaron: I don’t consider Earl a free association/stream-of-consciousness type rapper. I have convinced myself that I truly understand what he is saying, similar to the way I have lied to myself about MF DOOM or Aesop Rock over the years, and Earl is definitely in that upper echelon of lyrical skill. I could be delusional, but I think I’m on the verge of cracking his particular metaphor-slang code of buried messages and endless internal rhymes. I’ve got to figure it out before it destroys me like that dude in a “Beautiful Mind”.
Leah: I’m with Marcus on this one, but maybe not as vitriolically. The whole track just sounds like a lazy promotional throwaway. Earl’s almost always got a laid-back delivery, but on this, his lines are so loosely connected he might as well be asleep. Raff is the biggest hip hop troll of all time and at least he sounds like he’s having fun, which is more than I can say for Earl, or really anyone listening to this beat.
Steve: All parties involved were pushing rope this whole song.
Phil: The most interesting question with Fraud is whether a producer can really go places nowadays without a trademark sound. How many producers have taken off in the last five years without a style that doesn’t identify them within the first ten seconds of a song? How unnecessary are those “Mike Will made it” and “Young Chop on the beat” call signs? Fraud can make some distorted boom-bap that really shines, and I don’t want to knock his versatility, but sometimes it’s better to be great at one thing than pretty good at a lot of things.
Shelly: I agree, Phil. However, I don’t think these trademarks are unnecessary at all. In “A Whole New Mind”, Daniel Pink talks about how the evolution of technology brings about abundance. This sparks an era of choice. Choice that is not so much based on being educated about music, but solely based off of its ability to stick to your ear. Some people sing the trademark as if it’s a part of the song. I often question how far the evolution will go. It’s like apes evolving into men then evolving into ape-men, then evolving into ape-men with wings, then what! What will happen to red bull promo if ape-men really now have wings! What the hell is happening to the ability to produce great tracks?