dope as dark

In lieu of a 2011 review, I just want to say a little bit about how amazing hip-hop and R&B have been this year. Mixtape with some of tracks mentioned throughout is below.

These genres have always been musically promiscuous, hustling beats, samples and hooks from anywhere their producers can find them, but 2011 marks a year in which the boundaries truly exploded, where much of this music found itself drawing from the fringes and ending up in some bizarre and thrilling limbo between commercial boom-bap and truly outré esoterica, both and neither at the same time. This isn't the willed abstraction of a Shabazz Palaces or Antipop Consortium, hip-hop for thinking men, but neither is it outright chart-chasing rinse. Instead, this is music dripped in a thick haze of experimentation and sonic adventurousness that always keeps one eye on a listenable, rappable beat and structure. The result is something both immediately accessible - laced with gripping hooks and beats - and continually beguiling, ever deeper. At the core of this music is the way in which raps just melt into the lush, hazy productions in a way that's about ambience and atmosphere as much as the traditional concerns of beat and rhyme.

There are a number of directions this thing has gone, and here I'm thinking about the more languid stuff that some have labelled 'cloud rap' - basically hip-hop's night bus or chillwave - which shares the same trashy, lo-fi aesthetic of Dipset trance but dials down the mood and pace, dripping plastic. That's why, unfortunately, I don't really have room in this piece for Araabmuzik - a dude whose MPC detournements of commercial trance music I've written about previously - despite the fact that he perhaps epitomises the paradox of epic roughness that I'm trying to get at here, where constant reminders that 'You are now listening to Araabmuzik' would leave you thinking you were listening to a hastily cut demo CD if every song on Electronic Dream didn't also sound like stars exploding. Nevermind, though, because the final word on Araabmuzik comes from the man himself: all you need to read are the choice quotes collected on his last.fm bio, nam sayin'.

Anyway, the woozy aura of the hip-hop and R&B I'm thinking about centres around two poles. First, there's the 'based' sounds of Clams Casino, who typifies the duality of this stuff in that he produced beats for Soulja Boy whilst also releasing an EP on witch-house/drag label Tri Angle this year. He also did hazed-out work with dollar-sign rapper A$AP Rocky for the ground-shattering opening tracks of his LiveLoveA$AP and later track 'Leaf', which also features associates Main Attrakionz (released also on their 808s & Dark Grapes as 'Take 1'), the prime members of the prolific Green Ova Underground crew, whose swamped out, psychedelic indie-rap is another major touchstone here. Clams' Instrumental Mixtape collects various base(d) tracks he has made for Lil B, Soulja Boy, etc. and given their own room to breathe, the spectral aesthetic of his work emerges fully-formed as a singular, atmospheric take on electronic production.

Then you've got the Canadian contingent, the OVOXO - Drake, The Weeknd and all the implausibly and consistently amazing Toronto knob twiddlers in their crew: McKinney, Illangelo, Zodiac, Boy-1Da and Noah '40' Shebib. Whilst the styles are distinct here, much of this stuff revolves around a less swampy, more immaculate down-tempo, ambient vibe marked by sexy synth and keys. This late-night slow-jam style is switched up with the occassional epic like 'Headlines' or 'Lonely Star'.

Both these poles emphasise different elements of the new vibe - call it the cannabis-cocaine continuum - but there's two things that, at the risk of sounding glib, they both have in common: drugs and computers. Whether it's the psychotropic cloud of Clams and co. or the uppers, downers and coke-addled cornucopia of The Weeknd, this music seems to almost literally attempt to transubstantiate the experience of getting high, tripping, etc. into musical form. Rap has always done this, sure, but there's more of a willingness now to musically and lyrically explore the darker parts of these vices, the weird places they take you to and the bizarre sounds they can produce. The Weeknd epitomises this - whether it's all a ploy or not is up for debate, but a track like 'Initiation', with its chopped-and-screwed vocals, is basically designed to sound out the experience of taking a pharmacy aisle's worth of drugs which, not coincidentally, Abel Tesfaye is singing about - the warped up and down pace of the vocal pretty much perfectly approximates the shift from the dissociative drowse of lean to the hyped-up gloss of coke. Elsewhere, in a beautiful turn of phrase, Colin McGowan says the music of the Green Ova crew "sounds like an anthropomorphic freezer bag full of narcotics eating itself—one moment commingling with the clouds, the next neck-deep in a swamp thick as glue".

Then there's the internet. As I said, rap has always feasted on the fruits of sounds it has cherry-picked far and wide, but there has never been as much exposure to 'outside' as much as there is today, in a way that has made hip-hop and R&B the premiere exponent of the 'miscegenation' that Sasha Frere-Jone's so longed for a few years back when he surveyed the white-washed world of indie rock. Only the funny thing now is that 'black' music is borrowing liberally from genres and subcultures traditionally seen as white - from Danny Brown's hipster-thin jeans to Main Attrakionz sample of ethereal pop outfit Glasser on 'Bossalinis and Fooliyones Pt. 2'. There's a parallel story here about white producers and black rappers - peep Clams Casino and his clientele - but the fact these artists are coming together signals just the kind of utopian 'smelting pot' someone like Emerson held out hope for and, what's more, for once it's white people in the background.

One thing driving this explosion of sounds and influences is the networked digital, in two ways - the first is that these producers are have grown up punching out beats on a laptop in their bedrooms and flinging them out through the ether via self-maintained Tumblrs or even just Mediafire links - the concept of physical releases and actual studios is largely alien to them. All that's needed is a cheap computer and some $250 Fruity Loops software, and with that an openness to different production and distribution styles, and these producers have found ways of not just approaching but eclipsing the 'digital maximalism' of recent electronica that Simon Reynolds has recently passed ambivalent comment on:
The combination of computer (infinite flexibility) and internet (infinite resources of raw material and "inspiration") seems far more likely to cause complete artistic paralysis: the impulse of fusion collapsing into con-fusion, the musical equivalent of a gone-too-far collage.
Reynold's fears about all these options prove unfounded in the hands of someone like Lex Luger, who has crafted a distinct and streamlined but indeed maximalist aesthetic from the very tools that Reynolds daunts, as Alex Pappademas writes about in his excellent article on the young producer:
A few years ago, before anyone knew his name, before rap artists from all over the country started hitting him up for music, the rap producer Lex Luger, born Lexus Lewis, now age 20, sat down in his dad’s kitchen in Suffolk, Va., opened a sound-mixing program called Fruity Loops on his laptop and created a new track. It had a thunderous canned-orchestra melody, like an endless loop of some bombastic moment from Wagner or Danny Elfman; a sternum-rattling bass line; and skittering electronic percussion that brought to mind artillery fire. When the track was finished, he e-mailed it to a rapper named Waka Flocka Flame.
The beat Pappademas is talking about here, the one Luger flipped off one afternoon in his dad's kitchen, is 'Hard In Da Paint', the beat du jour of the exploding trap rap phenom, which is somewhat tangential to the vibe of the hazy hip-hop that came to fruition this year, but ultimately linked to it in a deeper sense by the DIY ethos of the young, autonomous producers pumping out hits with consumer-grade audio software on along all points of the rap spectrum. The other thing we find out in the Pappademas article, also alluded to in the Reynolds quote above, is that Luger "has what seems like a million sounds loaded into this laptop" - and that's the other side of the coin of the agency digital production has leant these producers and artists: the excess of digital consumption. These young producers are ones who have grown up in the MP3 era, when any conceivable music is just a couple of clicks away - I know this is a terrible cliché, but it's also true. Scope the influences and samples used by producers like Luger and the Main Attrakionz kids and you get a sense of how huge, and liberating, these musical options have been. With the increase in inputs, hip-hop and R&B's outputs have only become more interesting. What we're seeing this year are the strange fruits of the digital apex of the hustling, do-it-yourself ethos that has always attended hip-hop, which taken to its limit and exploded beyond the genre's own bounds has opened up a whole new, darker cosmos. Just peep how Clams Casino finds his samples - not through obscurantist crate digging but digital serendipity:
To find things to sample, I used to just type a random word-- like 'blue' or 'cold'-- into LimeWire or BearShare and download the first 10 results. I had no idea who the artists were or anything.
If there's a third factor in this music, it's perhaps the most unlikely of them all - emotion. Hip-hop and R&B in 2011 is a post-808s & Heartbreak paradigm, drenched in affect. Half the time its the anger, regret and despair stirred up by drugs and the status of the scene itself that we're dealing with - from ASAP Rocky being 'sick' of hipsters and 'tired' of backpack rappers to The Weeknd's incessant, resigned reflections on coming-down - there's just as much here about genuine shit, and perhaps no one more than Drake embodies all these conflicting tendencies, as post-fame anxieties are mixed in with reflections on love, loss and nostalgia. A brilliant Fader article on producer Noah '40' Shebib and Drake's fascinatingly intimate relationship sheds light on the conditions necessary for this - not only Shebib working "to force-feed R&B to rap music" to "make rap more musical" (a key push that has a wider resonance in the trends I'm describing) but also the 'comfort zone' he has created for Drake in their late-night sessions, which allows the rapper to bring his guard down, as Drake recalls in the article when he recorded 'The Calm' for 2009's So Far Gone mixtape:
I would be [at Shebib's] every night and I hated going home. I was deep in debt with my family. We were fighting every night. I had spent a lot of money at trying to succeed at music with these poppy songs like ‘Replacement Girl.’ Trying to be famous and trying to do it with a hit. I remember I had this vicious fight with my uncle on 40’s balcony. I had never said such cruel things to anybody; I had never had such cruel things said to me, especially by a family member. 40 could tell I just needed to say something about it. He made me this beat. I wrote the first verse in his bedroom, which is where we used to work. He gave me an opportunity to vent about my serious family situations. That was a definitive moment in my career. That was the first time I had ever said anything like that.
Drake has continued the same sort of raw, confessional tenor with this year's Take Care, an album whose title is lifted from one of Gil-Scott Heron's final songs, 'I'll Take Care of You', which itself was remixed by Jamie xx. The remix version also provides the bed for the standout title track of Drake's album, a collaboration with Rihanna about forgiveness and the bonds of love. The convoluted, colourful background to this track and its downbeat, ghostly take on Chicago house might epitomise all the things about openness, exploding influences and strange, stirred sounds that I've loved in hip-hop and R&B this year, but ultimately it also holds the promise that this music might also be "an open letter, about family and struggle and it taking forever".

Dope as Dark 2011: A Mixtape
[right-click pic for download; tracklist below]

01 - (00.00) - Take 1 - Main Attrakionz feat. A$AP Rocky (prod. by Clams Casino)
02 - (04.47) - Wassup - A$AP Rocky (prod. by Clams Casino)
03 - (07.25) - Genesis - The Jealous Guys (prod. by Jeremy 'Zodiac' Rose)
04 - (10.25) - What You Doin' [Lil B] - Clams Casino
05 - (14.32) - We Can't Stop - jj feat. Ne-Yo
06 - (19.42) - Make It Happen - Araabmuzik
07 - (21.48) - Chuch - Main Attrakionz (prod. by Friendzone)
08 - (25.12) - Marvin's Room / Buried Alive (Interlude) - Drake feat. Kendrick Lamar (prod. by 40, Supa Dups)
09 - (33.27) - Initiation - The Weeknd (prod. by Doc McKinney & Illangelo)
10 - (37.47) - Thinking About You - Frank Ocean
11 - (41.04) - Take Care - Drake feat. Rihanna (prod. Jamie xx & 40)

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