Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, The Finale: Jay-Z And Kanye West Fiddle While The Underground Gets Wasted


This concludes Sound of the City’s year-end roundtable, a conversation about pop music in 2011 between Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph.

Thanks for the handoff, Nick, and thanks to Katherine, Tom and especially Maura for the great conversation over the past few days. I’ll try and wrap this thing up with the rigor and candor you all have displayed so far. Quickly, to Tom’s question about Skrillex: he is a big deal, and we should be talking more about him. I was just having a conversation about the fact that, yet again, hi-NRG dance music is making important inroads into American dance culture—for the first time since the “electronica” moment of the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy, then the Big Beat microsecond of Fatboy Slim and Moby, which we quickly learned worked best on this side of the Atlantic in car commercials and movie trailers.

Skrillex’s (and Canadian contemporary Deadmau5) most immediate predecessor—in terms of function, not form—is clearly Girl Talk, who taught American college and high school kids that it’s okay to wild the fuck out now and again. Yet whereas Greg Gillis seems like an accidental hero who started making music off Limewire downloads after getting home from work, Skrillex strikes me as much more of a musician’s musician—an ex-emo kid who saw an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. As some of my smart esteemed colleagues (including Tom—hi Tom!) were discussing on Twitter yesterday, critics need to pay attention to this new wave of party-starters. It’s very likely to be a passing fad holding us over until Rock Comes To Reclaim The Fist-Pumping Throne, but maybe—just maybe—it’ll trigger the rise of an entirely guitar-free musical culture for the next decade.

Speaking of things that have to do with raves, let’s talk about drugs for a minute. Nick mentioned “High for This” at the start of his last post, and while Abel Tesfaye knows more than many how to properly tune a dank, sleazy party with the correct intoxicants, musical and otherwise, he’s got nothing on the crop of compelling new under-and overground rappers from 2011 when it comes to getting (dangerously) fucked up. Some of the year’s best rap from what Spin called the New Underground has brought back blunts and booze with a venegeance not seen since the early 1990s. The way these dudes rap so seriously—so lovingly—about getting fucked up is most certainly irresponsible, but at least it means I don’t have to talk about straightedge fashion entrepreneur and enfant terrible Tyler, the Creator. He only inhales for his asthma, you see, and his roaches are, like, real roaches.

In 1943, Fats Waller introduced “The Reefer Song” by shouting out Harlem, before going on for a few minutes about how much he loved getting really, really high on weed. Nearly 70 years later, on his debut LIVELOVEA$AP, Harlem-bred A$AP Rocky brings Houston ride music uptown, and for a bit less than an hour extols the pleasures of weed, fucking, drinking Colt 45, weed, and of course, that screw juice. While most critics focused on the great early single “Peso” this year, my mind continually goes back to the equally trippy “Kissin’ Pink” (slang for drinking codeine mixed with Sprite, which will fucking kill you if you’re not really careful, so don’t do it, kids!). Rocky ends his first verse by dreamily affirming the pleasures of something as simple as “styrofoam cups with Jolly Ranchers at the bottom,” as the track giddily spirals heavenward. It’s the best pure bit of dippy psychedelia I heard this year.

A$AP directed Danny Brown’s “Blunt After Blunt” video, in which the hipster-coiffed ex-Detroit crack dealer and cunnilingus aficianado (who with Kendrick Lamar has the most raw talent of the 2011 upstarts) defends smoking suitcases full of purple weed like frat dudes do shitty beer. Then there are what feel like the weed-rap veterans: Pittsburgh exhaler and football-jingle writer Wiz Khalifa sold upwards of 600,000 copies of this year’s Rolling Papers, and Curren$y—my favorite of them all—who topped last year’s stellar Pilot Talk diptych with the quietly remarkable and wonderfully pun-tastic Weekend at Burnies. The year’s best single ode to ridiculous irresponsibility with intoxicants is easily Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s “Huzzah (Remix),” however. The “drunk drivin’ on a Wednesday” chorus, the introduction of Georgi vodka to a generation of Stereogum readers, and particularly great verses by Brown and especially El-P (which, read along!).

It’s slightly tempting to make a larger socio-economic connection about the concomitant rise of a new subsistence-level rap underground and the huge resurgence of drug-related rap. But I’ll spare you. Instead, I’d like to talk for just a second about an album we’ve not yet discussed here—Watch the Throne. It’s the best rap album of the year by some stretch, with two wily, rich rap veterans rapping about how great it is to be wily, rich rap veterans over the best tracks that their endless stacks of money can buy. Jay and ‘Ye’s overtly conspicuous consumption in the midst of a historic recession chafed a few (myself included) upon first listen—and it didn’t help that Jay himself actually just went and boldly, unapologetically did what everyone thought he was doing in the first place—but WTT isn’t just an album about being rich and famous. These guys are too smart for that.

Yet when they’re doing rich-dude rap, they do it better than anyone else (in part because they’re richer than anyone else). On the wonderful “Otis,” they brandish an IDM’ed “Try a Little Tenderness” flip with the casual flair of the expensive-as-hell-looking, Jasper Johns-inspired single artwork, and the Spike Jonze-directed video is an Oceans 2-style money burning glorious bro-down where they take a cutting torch to a Maybach, and drive it around, and love being friends with each other while being really rich (maybe this was the Year of the Bro afterall…) Later, by way of segueing into the coda of “Niggas in Paris,” Kanye gives a bit of station identification—”you are now watching the throne”—and indeed, the song feels indeed like a Livestream of the pair in a huge hotel room somewhere, where the ceilings are 20 feet high, there’s a mic with a sheer black cloth pop-filter set up between the bed and the minibar, and a Blades of Glory Blu-Ray plays ambiently on the 60″ wall-mount, its freshly cracked case lying on the floor next to the remote.

But it’s on “Murder to Excellence” where the duo truly reveal themselves not as hustlers or bon vivants or party-crashers or even Rockefellers, but as diplomats. The flip side of the hotel room livestream is their field reporting—Jay mentioning the tragic death of Danroy Henry, Kanye noting that “314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago”—and their broadcasts from the highest echelons of power. When Jay admits that he “only spot(s) a few blacks the higher I go,” he’s echoing the travails of an important African-American predecessor who made something of a comeback this year, and whose name seldom gets mentioned in his company: Eddie Murphy. In an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year—appropirately, conducted in Murphy’s somewhat isolated and ridiculously opulent residence—he remembers life as one of the privileged few black celebrities in the 1980s: “There’s this little box that African-American actors have to work in, in the first place, and I was able to rise above that box…You have to remember, there was no hip-hop back then, or hip-hop was still novelty music, and for years I’m the whipping boy. Anybody that wanted to vent, I was the one.”

Things have changed quite a bit since then for sure—you don’t see Jay and Kanye being called the crazy racist stuff that Nick Nolte was allowed to call Murphy’s Reggie Hammond in 48 Hours—but I loved that these two still realize that with this legion of undergrounders nipping at their heels and “post-racism” a laughable fiction, they still had a lot to prove.

And with that I’ll bid the four of you a fond adieu for now. Sorry I couldn’t address more of the rest of the year in music, Nick, but duty calls. Have a great holiday and new year everyone, and remember: after you down that Georgi, no drunk drivin’ on a Saturday.