As I Come Back: The Essence of J. Rawls

As a music nerd, January is my favorite time of the year.  You can absorb all the new music you got for Christmas and you can catch up on catalogue joints from your collection without worrying about buying new releases on a Tuesday (hell, I still do that at least).

After spending 372 hours listening to Nico’s mixtape Dinner is Served Vol. 1 (release party next Sat. Jan 31st, worldwide release Mon. Feb 2!!!),  I wanted to ride out January with old shizz from my cavernous CD shelf.   Enter J. Rawls…

I bought J. Rawls’ debut The Essence Of… at this dope ass underground hip hop store on South Street called State of the Art (that is now a jerk chicken hut, or Korean nail parlor, or a Korean jerk chicken hut with Jamaican hair braiding) back in 2001 on the downside of my allegiance to all things indie hip hop.  J. Rawls is one half of Lone Catalysts, a solid late 90s duo from Columbus, Ohio.  Rawls did the beats, J. Sands was the MC, a guy who had one of the most underrated voices of all time.  I remember hearing Rawls’ “Check the Clock” featuring J. Sands and Grap Luva (Pete Rock’s kid brother) on some Landspeed compilation and thought it was incredible. 

Seeing The Essence Of… on the shelf at State of the Art, I grabbed it as an impulse buy.  Listening to this album 8 years later, it was what I thought it was (to paraphrase Dennis Green): solid with a few great songs.  J. Rawls’ sound at the time was more Pete Rock than anything.  He first broke out on Black Star’s “Brown Skin Lady” by flipping this ill Gil Scott Heron joint (forget the name of it).  And it didn’t hurt to get a Mos Def shoutout on “Definition”:  ‘J. Rawls yes he’s running HIP HOP!’

The Essence Of… follows a true school vibe–warm basslines, saxophone solo’s, playful rhymes. The guests are wide ranging, from my abstract weirdo hero Dose One to vinyl sultan Asheru.  J-Live stops by for “The Great Live Caper,” an excellent storytelling joint from probably the smartest writer in underground hip hop (has J-Live ever made a wack cameo?).    Some of the guests are bordering on ehhhh but I’ll leave that up to you to decide which ones fit that bill.   

On second listen, my favorite song is “Super Heroes” featuring Mass Influence.  The bass line on this is frickin devilish.  It reminds me of early GangStarr with a touch of Liquid Swords.  The distant horn stabs are pure Soul Brother #1 and a vocal sample from Prodigy can never be wack.  I will be ripping this off soon.

Rawls have gone on to do tons of out-there stuff with the Liquid Crystal Project with their 7” “Tribute to Dilla” getting lots of love.  He has this interesting career in that people are aware of him but rarely shout him out as an influence or hunt him down for beats on their album.  He’s not big on the URB scene like his partner Fat Jon of the group 3582, and he’s not getting checks from G-Unit like crosstown homie Hi-Tek of Cincinnati.  According to his wikipedia, Rawls started his own label POLAR Records in ’05 and has worked with some of my favorite hip hop/soul acts like Aloe Blacc, Dudley Perkins, Georgie Ann Muldrow, and Slum Village.  

I think I’ll be spending February getting up to speed with the rest of J. Rawls’ catalogue.  But for now, I’ll be getting my neck realigned after listening to “Super Heroes” for the umpteenth time this week.

As I Come Back: Stankonia

Just felt like posting Outkast’s “Humble Mumble” featuring Erykah Badu today.  Been in a Stankonia mood, looking for inspiration I guess.

Reading over the lyrics in the insert, it’s amazing how profound Andre and Big were on that album, which is now almost 9 years old (yikes!).  Such a different world we were in at the beginning of the Bush Administration and the excess dough left behind by Bill Clinton.  The rhymes reflected a time of cats ruthlessly flossing, upholding a fake thug stature, and existing instead of living.  Johnny Blaze, ain’t a damn thing changed.

I make no bones about Andre 3000 being in my top 3 MC’s of all time next to Ghostface and Aesop Rock.  The music on Stankonia was the genesis of Andre 3000 as we know him now–rambunctious, playful, wise, colorful, and daring.  Young “Dre” on Southernplayistic morphed into lost artist/experimental producer “Andre” on ATLiens and Aquemini.  But “Andre 3000” was built on the 808s from Middle Earth found throughout Stankonia, yet the messages and introspective rhymes from the previous three albums were still right there to hear, it’s just the medium was splashed in technicolor guitars from a Southern basement crowded by gospel choirs and Kraftwerk records.

Here’s some choice lines from “Gangsta Shit” from Andre3K that I just picked up on today.  It doesn’t get much better than this:

“Outkast with a K, yeah them niggas are hard
Harder than a nigga trying to impress God
We’ll pull your whole deck, fuck pulling your card
And still take my guitar and take a walk in the park
And play the sweetest melody the street has ever heard
Now bitches sucking on my nouns and I’m eating their verbs…
If it’s for the wealth, I’ll stop–put it like this
It’s like me selling some dope because my girlfriend wants to shop, wrong reason

Even reading the lyrics to “B.O.B.”, a song you can still hear at football games, was incredible.  The words on paper are hard to separate from the lively, energetic delivery 3000 kicks on the song, but stripped of the thumping chaotic drums, the man is dropping jewels:

“Better be a household name
Weatherman telling us it’s gon rain
So now we sitting in droptop soaking wet
In a silk suit trying not to sweat
Hittin somersaults without the net
But this’ll be the year that we won’t forget
1-9-9-9 Ano Domini anything goes
Be what you wanna be long as you know
Consequences are given for living
The fence is too high to jump in jail
Too low to dig I might just touch hell, HOT!
Get a life now they on sale
Then I might case you a spell
Look at what came in the mail
A scale and some Arm and Hammer
Soul gold grill and a baby mamma
Black Cadillac and a stack of Pampers
Stack of questions with no answers”

It’s amazing how commercially successful this album was off the strength of “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh, So Clean” when everything else was challenging and bizarre, save for a few Southern stapless here and there like “Snappin’  & Trappin'” and “We Luve Deeze Hoes” (which I hated as teenager but enjoy as an adult).  I also love that fact that they threw “Spaghetti Junction” on this album as it was clearly recorded between ATLiens and Aquemini.  For an album full of new territory, “Spaghetti Junction” harkened back to their past releases without sounding out of place. 

Also, there’s no real scene-stealing guest apperances.  All of the outside collaborators fill their spots quaintly and keep it moving.  The Dungeon Family, Killer Mike, B-Real of Cypress Hill, and Erykah Badu never pull the shine away from Big Boi and Andre, something very rare on a commercial rap record. 

Sure, there’s too many skits, ballooning the tracklisting to twenty-four cuts.  And Gangsta Boo’s apperance on “I’ll Call Before I Come” reminds me of hitting the mute button on Rap City everytime her videos would pop up; she still has one of the most unpleasant and abrasive voices in hip hop history.  But songs like “Slum Beautiful” and “Red Velvet” more than make up for the occassional misstep by Hypnotize Minds artists.

Anyway, the weather in Philly is awful but throw on an Outkast album today or tonight or tomorrow–it’ll make the bristling wind and frigid air creeping threw the windows more tolerable.  And stank!

As I Come Back: No Way Out

Look how small Styles P is and how tall Black Rob is.  Wierd.

The biggest rapper and producer in 1997 was Sean “Puffy Puff Daddy P Diddy” Combs, a man who never wrote a bar nor touched a drum pad a day in his life.  Puffy really is the American dream: work your ass off to become established, as he did in his early days as an intern at Uptown Records taking a 2 hour train ride everyday to NY from DC, then promptly deflect everyone’s shine back to yourself.  There’s some deep metaphysics to those shiny suits after all.

I’m not here to bash Puffy or anything–he’s made some GREAT music.   Unfortunately istening to No Way Out 11 years later, there’s not enough of it on this LP. 

I have to confess: until I bought a copy of this CD on Half.com 3 weeks ago for $1.99 (you can pick up a copy right now for 75 cents HERE), I had never listened to the full album.  I had a dubbed cassette version from my homie in high school that manged to pack the great moments from this album onto Side A of a 60 minute Maxell.  After getting through the 17 tracks on the CD, that 30 minutes Maxell version is a better representation of what No Way Out COULD HAVE been.  It’s like in “Be Kind Rewind”: in retrospect, a 20 minute version of “Rush Hour 2” shot by two guys in Passaic, NJ is much more memorable than the 80 minute Brett Ratner snooze fest.  Less is more sometimes, especially in hip hop.

The one thing I hated most about the Jiggy Rap Era was the overuse of two instruments: the triangle and the windchime.  This isn’t Jethro Tull we’re talking about here: this is guys like Puffy and Jermaine Dupri hlating every hit single, featuring men talking about guns, drugs, and women, from hitting the manufacturing plant before they sprinkled their most IMPORTANT ingredient, the sounds that transform a rap song from “gritty, raw, and unpolished” to “delectable, bouncy, and mild mannered”–a motherfucking triangle. 

And a windchime.

In visual terms, the Jiggy Rap Era, still featuring some of the most disturbing inuendo’s and blatant death threats of all time, contained this on a regular basis:

 

And this:

As a producer, I’ve been scarred from using either instrument when I’m making a beat because it gives me flashbacks to Jermaine Dupri’s “Money Ain’t a Thing” or “Been Around the World.”  Listen to No Way Out and take a shot of whiskey everytime you hear a triangle or wind chime introduced: you will be setting fire to your cardigans, eating raw cabbage, and puking on the landlady by track 7, “Do You Know?” 

I will give Puffy credit for continuing the big, cinematic feel he used on Life After Death for his debut album.  It instantly separates itself from almost every other rap album of that era by how BIG and IMPORTANT things sound.  He pulled off the same trick on Jay-Z’s American Gangster last year.  “Victory” is one of the greatest album openers in history.  “All About the Benjamins” could be most succesful mainstream posse cut since “Scenario,” and the beat change-up for Big’s verse still gives me goosebumps.  Even the intro for “Been Around the World” makes you await glory before David Bowie and Lisa Stansfield make uncomfortable love to each other on the beat.   

She too has been player hated.

The problem though is that No Way Out came out during the Clinton years of excess.  This album personifies the dominance of late 90s wealth, sensationalism, and monopoly of the CD retail chain store.  I remember everyone having a copy of this CD or tape but only liking the singles plus “Young Gs,” “I Love You Baby,” and “Senorita.”  That leaves us with 10 tracks that are mostly forgettable mainly because Biggie, Ma$e, and the Lox weren’t be featured on EVERY song (though they sure can ghostwrite ’em!).

Listening to Puffy “flow” and “rap” by himself for 4 minutes has historically been painful–and this album is probably his best performance as a rapper.  He has no confidence, his inflections are bad derivatives of whomever writes his bars, his delivery lacks charm/swagger/light heartedness, his threats have no credibility, etc.  He DOES sound great bragging about money and women (“Benjamins, “Seniorita”, “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”).  He DOES sound horrible overacting as the “pained and introspective young man who is left carrying the superstar weight now that his superstar artist has died” on “No Way Out Intro,” “What You Gonna Do?”, “Pain,” and “Is This the End?”  It’s like Birdman trying to sing “Tears of a Clown.”

No Way Out though is a great iPod album/overproduced EP.  Take the five singles, sprinkle in a few strong album cuts, and you’re on your way to one of the best hip hop albums ever made.  It’s fun to listen to Ma$e before Fabolous and Loon sodomized his steez and he quit rap to open a church only to close the church to fetch cherry Slurpees for 50 and co.  It’s amazing to think that Biggie quietly dominated hip hop from ’94-’97: outside of his 2 solo albums, his disappearing ink is all over Junior Mafia’s Conspiracy, Lil’ Kim Hardcore and Puffy’s debut.  All the memorable singles and hooks feature him, and most of the themes of all three albums contain his DNA.

It’s also a treat to hear the Lox before they became “The Lox.”  Jadakiss was a more polished Nastradamus, combining street shit with impressive sounding namebrands.  Sheek Louch was the male version of Lil Kim with his harsh yet lighthearted delivery and penchant for rhyming words like “Sosa,” “chocha,” “Minnesota,” “Chevy Novas,” and “Alona.”  And Styles still enjoyed offering some murder and punishment every 2 bars.

The Mockneck, the Red Glasses, and the Baldie: I Love the 90s!

The promise that Black Rob showed on “I Love You Baby” had me extremely excited for his debut Life Story, a very solid and overlooked debut album for Bad Boy when they were transitioning from Biggest Label in the Land to Playing Catch-Up to Roc-a-Fella and Ruff Ryders.   His voice was the perfect contrast to the soap opera strings and piano, and his storytelling skills showed lots of promise.  It’s a shame he and G-Dep never got their props, both gritty NYC storytellers with dope voices.

******

As much as this write-up sounds like an Anti-Sean Combs piece, it’s more of a realistic review of one of the most important figures in hip hop history and his best solo work to date.  There’s no question that No Way Out is a classic hip hop album, but like most hip hop albums of the CD Age, it’s 20-30 minutes too long.  However, the great moments are indelible–every single word on “Victory,” Jay’s verse on “Young G’s,” every apperance by Biggie, the Matthew Wilder hook on “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.”

Verdict:  Sift Through and Do You

As I Come Back: Old School

I swiped this idea from Stylus (RIP) Magazine’s On Second Thought segment where they reviewed albums that had been released not too long ago.  However, my incarnation, As I Come Back, will cover just about anything semi-old that is NOT music related.  First up is the 2003 comedy Old School.

After watching this movie on TNT over the weekend while down the shore on vacay, it’s astonishing to notice three things:

1.  Will Ferrell was incredibly funny as the third guy.  “Frank the Tank” was his breakout role, and along with Elf, he was able to solidify himself as one of Hollywood’s best comedy draws.  I saw Step Brothers last night* and it’s amazing how much funnier Will Ferrell is in short bursts via Old School rather than playing some retarded fill in the blank (Nascar driver, ABA hoopster, male figure skater, foosball enthusiast, gizz mopper) for 90 minutes.  His cameos in Starsky and Hutch (“What are you wearing?  Be honest.”) and Wedding Crashers (“Mom!  Meatloaf!  Fuck!”) are legendary.  He’s the Inspectah Deck of comedy–absolutely deadly at spitting 16’s but mostly mediocre when asked to carry the load.  Anchorman is still the funniest movie of this decade though.

Ferrell takes his Shed Guy character from SNL (“GET OFF THE SHED!”) and morphes him into a streaking party monster with a soft side for frozen yogurt, Sisqo CDs, and guys named Blue.  He’s naive, sweet, and immature.  He re-gifts a bread maker to an 8 year old (“Check it out Max: three speeds!”).  And he outwits James Carville in a political debate.  Great work.

*Quick review of Step Brothers: take all the physical threats offered in Anchorman/Ricky Bobby/Semi-Pro, add a helping John C. Reilly and Mary Steenburgen, let bake for 70 minutes on 50% power, and voila!  Two Stallone Claps out of 4.

2.  The cast of Old School is jampacked with great comic actors: pre-Ari Gold Jeremy Piven, pre-Jennifer Aniston Vince Vaughn, Matt Walsh of the excellent yet deceased Comedy Central show Dog Bites Man,  Andy Dick as Barry the Oral Sex Teacher, Dan Finnerty of The Dan Band as the Wedding Singer (“I fucking need you now tonight!”), and of course the Bishop Don Magic Juan as Himself.  

3.  Craig Kilborn really, really sucks as an actor.  It pains me to say that because I grew up idolizing him on Sports Center before ESPN bought 48% of all the breathing air in America.  His catch phrases (“Do a little dance, make a little glove”) weren’t as stiffly forced or as corporate “hip” as folks like Stuart Scott, Rece Davis, or Stephen A. Smith.  He kept The Daily Show warm before Jon Stewart made it the preeminent fake news show that it is today.  His Late Late Show on CBS was kinda decent–the theme song was kinda badass on some spy movie theme song type ish.  His 5 Questions segment was always fun.  But the Craig Kilborn Persona he developed on the Late Late Show, egotistical, smug and aloof, comes off as pedestrian in Old School.  Every scene he’s in feels like you’re watching Craig Kilborn try hard to not be Craig Kilborn while letting you know it’s Craig Kilborn running around on his girlfriend, getting a new house, and intimidating Luke Wilson.  It’s the opposite of a Rodney Dangerfield movie.  I’m sure there’s some metaphysical term for what Craig Kilborn did in Old School splitting his “self” three ways, but morons like me just say, “Wow, he’s not very good at acting.”

Final rating:

Still hittin’