Travis $cott – Guidance

Look.

My feelings on Travis $cott have been very up and down. I am legit aggravated by the way he basically bit a bunch of people who were hot when he was coming up, and slapped the pieces together in a very obvious way.

With that said, the guy has made some wild shit.

He’s also kind of known for getting two-stepped on by his features, but those songs are usually pretty good. So maybe he just knows who to stand next to, and doesn’t mind getting cooked on his own shit? Is that a skill?? I don’t even know, don’t make me think about this.

Anyway, I like his new album “Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight”, and I am not ashamed. As a 28 year old millennial who dresses like TJ Detweiler, I dig some of the songs on a deeper level. Going to create a “get your old ass out of this party, Robert” playlist and this album will certainly be present.

“Guidance” is that song. IT’S THAT SONG. It makes me wanna slap a dent into a furnace in a sweaty ass basement party, causing someone’s Trini grandma to run down the steps with the big wooden spoon, because she’s tired of my shit. There are really a ton of songs that are basically “Controlla: Remixed” (or Controllawave, word to my man David Drake), and I like most of them. This might have inched into my top 5, or even top 3.

Guidance is frenetic. Pure energy. I’m hype every time I hit play, and I haven’t felt that way in a long time. The song is very clearly about dancing with a girl at a party, or catching a “dub” as we New Yorkers say (or a twerk as Virginians say, or maybe even a juke as they say in Chicago). This brings back great memories and feelings, as younger Robby was a wild thundercat. I hear this song and I immediately see some girl with a huge butt, making me splash my cup of Henny onto my very much unbuttoned RnB thug shirt via her ass placement game. I love it.

With that said, I found out RIGHT before deciding to write this, that it’s a remix, that might be on par with the Travis version (or even better, due to more K Forest and because the dude on the end probably snapped). I’m just going to close my eyes and pretend I don’t know.

Why is so much writing about Young Thug terrible?

There are short and obvious answers to this (“white people” “most music writing sucks” etc.) but rather than being glib I would like to focus on the underlying rationale behind this form of Bad Writing. After all, it’s about much more than Young Thug. And it’s about more than music writing, because narratives like this are never limited to “writers.” They represent much broader attitudes. And these attitudes have real consequences for artists and culture: see Chicago’s effort to tax small venues around the Flashdance-like notion that hip-hop and DJing don’t qualify as “fine arts.”

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From day one Young Thug has received “compliments” that serve to undermine him and hip-hop as a whole. The above quote—about how he’s “evolving language”—isn’t just an oddly anthropological turn of phrase. It’s also an implicit criticism of hip-hop as a genre.

For large swaths of culture writers and in the broader white popular imagination, it’s assumed that hip-hop is, at its core, disposable. Every time an artist in the genre Matters, his or her existence has to be defined in *contrast* to the very genre and traditions that made him (or her). The “evolution of language” argument contends that most rap is remedial, but this one guy is breaking with that obvious truism. He isn’t evolving rap, which isn’t redeemable at its core; he’s evolving language, “transcending” his host genre & becoming important to the rest of us.

In any art form, most art is remedial. But exceptional artists in most other arts are seen as great exemplars of their medium. Great artists in rap are celebrated for being everything their art is not. So writers talk about how Thug is great because he’s “post-verbal” or that he’s evolving language or…some other thesis about how the work he’s doing matters to people who otherwise ignore rap. As a result, artists like Thug become elevated beyond all reason: being great rap artists isn’t enough. To get white America on board, he needs to matter outside of hip-hop.

The problem, then, is that rap as a whole is being ignored, diminished in contrast to its some of its best stars. All good rappers are “evolving language” by definition…because rap as a whole is “evolving language,” it’s an art form shaped by the conversations of *many* voices interacting and pushing & pulling against each other. The press can only sell rappers who they can weave some kind of narrative-of-progress from, one which exists external to the genre. So rap is only good (their thinking goes) if it can further some narrative external to rap itself.

In other words, it’s time that people embraced hip-hop as a genre with a multitude of artists pushing its narrative boundaries; that we can elevate Young Thug without diminishing the genre he came from, the many innovative and creatively powerful artists who GQ has yet to profile. Young Thug is great because he’s a great rap artist, which is all he needs to be.

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.