DoobieDaLil “Let Em Know” / “CopOut”

I’ve been listening to DoobieDaLil’s “Let ‘Em Know” on a perpetual loop since discovering it and it’s never left rotation. Unexpected production for a Chicago-based artist formally rooted in drill. The hypnotic loop is a great canvas for an artist whose approach seems to ebb and flow in energy, a gentle build in intensity over waves of piano. Unlike many artists in this vein he seems less interested in rough edges than craft and precision, in a calculated lyrical style.

“Let Em Know” is all armor, anchored only by opening lines about dead friends & self-aware asides (We don’t know what feelings are) that suggest a reflective artistic mind. Other records hint at further dimension, like “CopOut,” recorded after video of Laquan McDonald’s murder by Chicago Police was released.

I am less interested in this for the fact that it is *coughs, embarrassed* woke than the terms on which it is so, and the breadth of his perspective. The intensity of emotion honed into the focused precision of his delivery. His active rejection of the black-on-black crime cop-out; the way his first-person experience peppered throughout shifts the narration from the abstract to the here-and-now, giving this indictment real-world weight, from the gun pushed in his mouth to the friend forced to do 40 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

Fauxribbean Flavors: Controllawave ranked from worst to best

Justin Bieber’s awful new song with Major Lazer says what we were all thinking: tropical house is So 2014-2015, its European-based practitioners mainly repeating the same four cliches (how about a lil’ saxophone?) and showing an increasingly frigid understanding of ‘tropical.’ “I Took A Pill in Ibiza” almost sounds like a farewell anthem. At least we’ll always have the Bieber triumvirate, “Lean On,” and a score of underrated Matoma remixes.

Tropical Urban Format (lol) is the new wave, sparked by the success of dancehall-influenced “Work” (certainly a contender for song of the year) and democratized for your pleasure by Drake on “Controlla.” (“One Dance,” with its complex diasporic DNA, is inimitable—whatever its other faults.) Drake even felt obligated to address these imitators at a concert, or so says a headline that passed by on the timeline without a click.

As trends go, Controllawave is a fresh splash of musical texture at a time when sounds tend to bounce between dour faceless R&B, 808 mafia churn, and novelty/meme one-offs. Yet not all records are created equal, so here are our post-“Work” ranking of the fauxribbean pastiche singles of 2016 thus far, from worst to best:

  1. Tory Lanez – Luv

Shy Glizzy twin Tory Lanez has beef with Drake, or so I’ve gleaned despite not trying to know anything about it. Thanks social media! He’s from Toronto and his career thus far seems incoherent. After trying to break out as a rapper, he had a massive R&B hit thanks to Pop & Oak’s pretty brilliant ’90s sample courtesy Brownstone. He followed it up with what sounded like a Miguel record. And now he’s got ’90s reggae remake, which only coincidentally happens to resemble “Controlla.” It’s almost a note-for-note remake of Tanto Metro and Devonte’s “Everybody Falls In Love Sometimes,” to the extent that half the YouTube commenters are writing things like “this riddim brings back so many memories.”

Regardless, it is a hit, so if you were cheering for Tory Lanez, congratulations. I find it difficult to find much of value here that didn’t exist in the original. It should also be noted that Tory Lanez has also covered “Controlla” already.

Grade: 🌴

  1. Tyga – One of One

The guilty pleasure epitomized. Anyone whose family was obligated to shop at JC Penny in their pre-teen years—say, because their single mother had store credit—will understand the simultaneous embarrassment/enjoyment which comes from Tyga’s “One of One.” The most blatant knockoff of Drake’s original “Controlla,” it’s been kicked around via memes in social media (and by Drake himself) as blatant unoriginal wave-riding. It’s “Controlla” for those dealing with conflicting feelings: poverty-induced shame coupled with the empowering awareness that you’ve intuited the trend of the moment. It’s not your fault you can’t have the real deal, but at least you’re socially adapted enough to recognize its evident appeal. The class-conscious among us will ultimately take a perverse pride in our knockoff apparel, seeing it as a uniform of solidarity rather than an aspirational symbol. At least until we’re mocked at school, or the material falls apart from poor stitching.

Grade: 🌴 🌴

  1. Drake – Controlla

This song deserves some credit, for embodying the zeitgeist and setting off a wave of imitators. I don’t really buy the criticism that his flag-planting over a pastiche is ironic, despite the song’s musical debts: this sound is a creative lodestar of some kind. That said, I couldn’t share Justin Davis’ totalizing enthusiasm (although I admire it; game recognize game). It’s a hot tub of a song, inviting and comfortable, but not one in which I feel capable of investing my full energy. It’s difficult to find your footing, to brace yourself against it. There’s something wispy and temporal about it, as if turning sideways would cause it to vanish from view. I’ve found Drake’s star can carry records which would not succeed without him; I have trouble imagining “Headlines” as a hit in anyone else’s hands. There are exceptions—”Started From the Bottom,” “I’m On One,” and “Hotline Bling” are so large as if to make Drake visible from space. But “Controlla” is not one.

Grade: 🌴 🌴 🌴

  1. Alicia Keys – In Common

A stretch for inclusion in this list? Perhaps. Despite the presence of Drake collaborator Illangelo, “In Common” shares few obvious characteristics with “Controlla” aside from the meta-narrative of tropical pastiche. (Wikipedia’s amusing entry for this song points to a few different reference points: “a departure from her R&B sound, having a tropical music and dancehall sound, with Latin beat, Afrobeat instrumental, collage of electronic beats, tropicalia-infused [sic] rhythms and icy drum patterns as its main instrumentation.” Oh.) That said, it’s a great record: that more intricate rhythm, rather than copying dancehall, suggests the West African production styles of Afropop/Afrobeats. If Controllawave is a trendlet, “In Common” is the song that suggests it might be expanding into something greater. If this song has a drawback, it’s that it reminds me of a trendier version of an unfairly-ignored classic: Sevyn Streeter’s “Consistent”.

Grade: 🌴 🌴 🌴 🌴

  1. Kid Ink feat. Jeremih and Spice – Nasty

An argument on behalf of industry plants everywhere, Kid Ink’s “Nasty” is deceptively sweet, a refined, seductive future smash. It incorporates celebrated dancehall artist Spice—the song’s only shortcoming is that she doesn’t have more of a presence. And Jeremih is at his best here, semi-anonymous, boosting other artists by taking care of the heavy lifting: the catchy melody, the prettiness of his vocals, its clean, smooth, no-aftertaste spritz-of-lime effervescence.

The difficulty of making a song memorable and replayable is that catching in the brain quickly becomes onerous—some of the world’s biggest songs burn their goodwill fast, becoming that hit that hangs around like an unwanted friend. “Nasty” never insists upon itself; it’s undemanding, resting in your mind as a memory, offering the possibility of escape at any time. The song’s sentiment—unlike “Controlla”—is near-universal, relatable, quickly on the tip of your tongue. It demands nothing. It understands that escapism should be easy, that vacations can be more work than they’re worth, and pleasure comes from a good undersell.

 

Grade: 🌴 🌴 🌴 🌴 🌴

 

Some don’t like “Shabba”

The first WizKid record to get a push in the States looks all right up close; beat is cool, anyway. Viewed from afar it washes into gray. Much as on “One Dance,” WizKid barely appears on the song. Even before French’s deflating “HAHNNN” adlib sends you to the skip button like Pavlov’s dog, the lineup on the box suggests an effort to bury the main artist. And there are too many singers—WizKid+Chris Brown AND Trey Songz? Of course, a great song would make this all irrelevant, but its not even an original concept. Here’s hoping it’s a strategic play for fanbase exposure, because the sound WizKid has been working with is much more exciting than this. And it’s not a sound that needs watering down; it’s capital-p Pop music on its own.

WizKid’s “Like This,” though, is something special. The swirling, high-thread-count production feels extravagant. American pop—extraordinarily stripped down in contrast, even miserly—would never risk the bottom line with something so ornamental. Give us a 140-character hook and keep it simple, stupid. Not to chase “complexity” off the cliff of fetishization—please, no Intelligent Afropop Music—but something about the lavish texture suggests a generosity of spirit alien to these shores ca. 2016. Maybe he’s born with it; maybe it’s Nigeria’s oil wealth. Either way, this is where Afropop’s magic is: not where WizKid reaches us, but where we reach to him.

Litty

Minor slang innovation: “litty” slowly replacing the moribund “lit”and here we have its first theme song. Though I’m agnostic at best on Lil Yachty—his faux-naif ironic childhood fixation is no more interesting to me than it was when tapped by twee indie rock or BuzzFeed—he acquits himself well here over a nice slab of Zaytoven-core. I have difficulty imagining what a Good Lil Yachty project sounds like—my inclination is that it would shake the Bad Irony of Rugrats samples & similar, although I fear that for his fans it would require doubling down on it. But his actual bar-for-bar rapping works narratively on occasion (here, and on Chance the Rapper’s “Mixtape,” for example). I’m very curious how his vision will cohere: even if I am bearish on potential results, he has my attention.

Poncho and Lil Yachty – Litty (2016)

Same Ol Yellow Tape

Plug – Body Bounce (2016)

Much like Young Thug, Plug is a great rap moniker. Plug is from Chicago and has co-written and produced for King Louie, notably on his Play It Again EP—see the great “Sippin”—or on Plug’s own record  “All This Money.” (The latter may remind Gucci stans—Plug is one as well—of a slowed version of GuWop’s “Going In.”)

“Body Bounce” is Plug’s best single to date, though. A flip of Tame Impala’s “Same Ol Mistakes”—Plug recorded this song before Rihanna released her cover, or Childish Gambino used it to promote his new TV show—the sample works great for a counterintuitive drill record about dropping bodies. There’s def a disturbing Mozzy-esque aspect to its uber-violent content. But Plug has a bit of that sly straight-faced humor (“trap awards got Plug name in the envelope”) a la Louie or Gucci to dab it with a bit of humanity. Generally, his wordplay is quite enjoyable, subtly funny but without hammering home punchlines or undercutting its seriousness for the purposes of humor.

Fantasy remix lineups accepted here: Gucci would obviously kill it and should jump on board ASAP, if his team knows what they’re doing.

Hmm maybe CupcakKe is going to sign to OVO

cupcakkedrake

Irony is great in music except when it isn’t.

Good Irony tends to be deployed strategically, to a pointed purpose: “Girlfriend in a Coma” by the Smiths; many lyrics in the collected works of Gucci’s Mane, cf the coy affect of “Crush On You”; CupcakKe’s social media output, ie an Instagram of her standing in front of Lake Michigan captioned “my pussy smells like the sea behind me.”

Bad Irony is mean spirited, but vacuous. Like irony generally, it draws a line between those who get it and those who don’t. But Bad Irony is imprecise; it cultivates a generalized Knowing sensation, its purpose diffused in a cloud of vague implication. It is unearned; rather than a byproduct of creativity or cleverness, it is generated cheaply. Say, through heavy-handed juxtaposition—don’t you see, Spooky Black is wearing a du rag…but he’s WHITE—or aesthetic half-steps, to avoid anything so risky as having fully embodied an idea or emotion.

It smothers with ubiquitous smugness. Like too much cilantro, it drowns out other flavors. It’s also difficult to criticize, slippery by nature—it’s an anti-stance. I don’t think you “get it,” bro. It relies on our fear of being out of the loop—of not having intuited that which is obvious to everyone else, or at least anyone who “matters.” Anyone who “matters,” of course, has power; Bad Irony pulls the drawbridge up on those who don’t.

(A common source of Bad Irony may be a thin emulation of the in-group/outward facing double-consciousness of, say, Black America’s relationship to White America. Not that Bad Irony is solely the domain of whites. But consider the need of Post Malone to cultivate an “ironic” shield for his audience in order to sell his version of Chief Keef’s melodic rap style. Keef’s hooks aimed universal, while his mumbled verses were opaque, dense with references to local gang life. Seductive and forbidding, many listeners felt themselves excluded and magnetized at once. Post Malone follows a parallel, if less convincing, in-group/outward dynamic—universal hooks and winks to those in the audience who “get it”—in this case, “get” the irony of his cultural costume.)

Ultimately, Bad Irony contradicts its intentions. In an effort to convey savviness, it telegraphs insecurity, letting the fear of looking foolish cripple aesthetic possibility.

This is not a problem for CupcakKe. Her new tape S.T.D.: Shelters to Deltas uses it confidently, prudently. (One might compare it with the one-note Ramriddlz tape from last year or whenever, which had a similar sexual fixation but winked so much you’d think he had a split contact lens or twitch.) There’s a good balance: her outward image, hidden behind sunglasses and grinning nonstop, promises a silly lightheartedness which is immediately contradicted by her bold, unfiltered vocals, technical abilities, lyrical creativity, and autobiographical depth. And this is in turn balanced by her carnal obsessions, at turns cartoonish and realistic and humorous and ironic.

Her debut Cum Cake may be better—it had more breadth, with better choruses, was more well-rounded. S.T.D. also has some strange mixing issues. But highlight “Doggy Style” is one of her best songs to date, something like a tropical house version of LL Cool J’s “Doin It” (which, full circle, sounds quite a bit like the Grace Jones original) with a chorus in which she barks like a dog. And despite the ridiculous conceit, it’s executed with total conviction, the kind of thing no Bad Ironist would ever allow—what if you look foolish? If Bad Irony is about fear and insecurity, safely fencing in its audience, CupcakKe’s boldness is a signal of profound self-belief. Rather than excluding outsiders, she dares them to come along; she leads.

Good rap knows no play counts.

Chris Crack’s Troll Til They Fold is a great project, though not substantially better than other recent efforts. I can’t tell if my ear has gradually adjusted to his rap style or if each tape improves upon the previous. Probably both. There is a sense of incremental refinement over time in both his rapping and songwriting. He’s a craft-driven rapper, one whose art evolves in plain view. The songs are shaped by the bars rather than vice versa; these are not pop records maximized for radio, although as time has passed it has become obvious his work contains the germs of real hits. For what that’s worth.

(Strangely for an artist whose sound is so shaped by late ’90s lyrical battle rap in a Lyricist Lounge vein, it also suggests the influence of Max B, songwriter—check the sing-song chorus of funky highlight “Pine Cones.” And the high-pitched acerbic style has roots in the Pimp C/Eazy E lineage, to my ears, more than the boring Nas-derived canon accorded automatic respect by rap reactionaries, which may explain his failure to make inroads among Your Old Droog fans.)

His success may require a pendulum swing back to the oppositional approach of the late ’90s, where critics and fans cheerlead artists without the expectation that they scale to infinity. In this new streaming hegemony, viral songs don’t need our support. If we can relax, stop pretending to feel equally passionate about every single hip-hop hit that takes off—not that the impulse to populism is bad, but the enthusiasm often feels paper-thin and indiscriminate. I have no problem with folks digging Dae Dae’s Nitti-produced “Wat U Mean” (it’s dope Nitti has hits in the bag) but it basically sounds like the ninth best song on a 2009 Gucci mixtape and it’s tough to believe everyone feels that excited about it, all things being equal.

Of course songs dont need to perform an auteur dance to be worth celebrating. But rap auteurs who don’t readily fit the tropes of political righteousness face an uphill battle if The People aren’t behind them. Chris Crack is not an exceedingly popular rapper but he is a good one and I hope people make space for such a distinct stylist in an era of paint-by-number MCs with chart ambitions.

The best record on Troll Til They Fold is “Menace to Sobriety,” which has a great verse-chorus in a “Ha”/”Choices” style. It’s two and a half minutes long, because Chris Crack makes hit records that won’t be hits. I hope it gets a remix.