Debuting his new column, Out Of Time (OOT), in which he blithely ignores consumer dictates and release schedules, Gary Steel explains why modern hip-hop sucks, and finds an unlikely album to endorse.
RAP MUSIC LOST me in about 1992. I really dug Public Enemy: the powerful lyrics, the persuasive grooves and the almost avant-garde cut-ups and repetitions of samples made for a compelling experience, especially in a car fitted out with a decent kicking system. Even though this strident, politically infused music clearly wasn’t made for some suburban white lad from the antipodes, it moved me. But even without the lyrics, the sound and the fury was enough to make it a personal hit. The sound of those voices gave the whole thing genuine authority, and the diction was clear enough that any decoding was a fairly simple job. The same was true of Ice T and NWA: they had something to say, and it was clear enough to make sense of.
But rap (or hip-hop) lost just about everything that made it great during that one decade. First, lawyers started suing record companies for the use of samples, so those samples became less numerous, and the production less creative. Second, the patois became so specific to certain ghettos that this old fart (me) could no longer get what the fuck they were talking about. Thirdly, when I could decode the lyrics, I found that instead of talking about empowerment for the oppressed and changing the “shitstem”, they were spouting garbage about “hoes” and “bitches” and glamorising gang mentality. (Just why they were discussing gardening implements in their lyrics, I’ll probably never know). It was as if the rappers had all taken stoopid pills and devolved into hominids who were only interested in guns, pussy and giving their bitches the bash. Violence, sex and violence against their sex object. The music got really boring, too.
In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, there were a few star producers who made some clever and groovesome backdrops for the hip-hop stars of the day, but it was window dressing covering up a sad lack of substance. And that’s where we’re at today. It seems to me that what happened to rap/hip-hop is pretty much what happened to the socially and politically conscious funk fusions and jazz fusions of the early ‘70s when they got seduced by corporate America, and everything suddenly conformed to the bright, spandex mentality and metronomic beats of disco.
I’ve listened to and reviewed many hip-hop albums over the years, and even rated a few quite highly, but few have made it to my regular playlist. Why? Because even those producers who clearly have talent are squandering it on rappers who think that we want to hear them jack off verbally for an hour at a time, and even those who do have something to so usually go and ruin it all with some startlingly offensive bullshit just to prove that they’re god’s gift to womankind, and the hood.
Which brings me to Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino. I don’t know anything about Glover’s acting career, which gives me an advantage because to me, he gets a clean slate, and Because The Internet (actually his second album) is the first thing of his that I’ve heard.
No, I’m not going to make an idiotic bid for this album being the salvation of contemporary hip-hop. In fact, it’s only half a good album, but that’s half a good album better than most. What I do like about this album is that I like it. I know, that’s a stupid sentence, but what it’s indicative of is the fact that Gambino and his cast of collaborators have put together a collection of raps, singing, musical textures, and grooves that’s pleasing to the ear, and importantly, consists of enough variety to keep the listener entertained.
What I like about Because The Internet is one of the things I like about music: at heart, this album has a pop sensibility, but it’s prepared to incorporate a load of elements that are beyond the expectation of pop fans. This makes it a kind of avant-pop/hip-hop album, one that is neither rammed full of the usual boring hip-hop or pop tropes, or the conceits of an “experimental” record.
Think about it: The Beatles made “experimental” pop, although we never think of The Beatles as an experimental band. But if The Beatles released a “White Album” today, under a different guise of course, they would be branded “Alternative”, or “Indie”. That’s how conservative we’ve gone and gotten in the last 40 years. So, for all its flaws (and it has many), Because The Internet is a gently forward-looking record, and it’s probably doomed because of it, because these days, even something as dire as Kanye West’s Yeezus can be lauded for its experimental production, when what that really means is “a deeply unlistenable mess”. It seems several generations have missed the point: that the best pop music is by its very nature experimental, and that’s what makes it fresh. The last Janet Jackson album was like that. Discipline (2008) combined that smooth “Jacksons” vocal flavour with a detailed sonic canvas that took it far beyond expectations, and yet it sunk like a stone (expect to pay almost nothing for even the luxury version of this album at your local record emporium).
Because The Internet is just as “experimental” as Yeezus, but unlike that album, it actually sounds good, and unlike that album, after a couple of listens, the multiple layers start to make sense, and what seems like a lot of unnecessary, disparate junk becomes increasingly cogent.
So. Glover’s wordplay is snappy, and there are decent couplets, and most importantly, he knows when the fuck to shut up. The music is full of sonic detritus: entertaining snippets of “found” vocals, background conversation, random stuff: it’s creative and entertaining.
There’s often lots going on, but he knows when to pull back and go for the less is more approach, too. ‘Worldstar’, for instance, there are several different sequences interposed with lazy baritone sax skronking and a downtempo groove that ticks and grinds away, while ‘Shadows’ is crammed with glitches, and even features an overdriven symphonic rock section that’s over so quickly that it doesn’t get a chance to indulge itself.
Its 19 tracks are divided up into sections, and the temptation is to mark the whole thing as a kind of rap opera, a kind of Broadway hip-hop show for the ears, something that’s anything but “authentic”, and all the better for it. (The subtext is that it’s a kind of screenplay for a project about social media, but forget that, I’m yawning already). Quite a few of those tracks are brief interludes, and they’re some of the best things here: the echoing piano and background, half-heard conversation of ‘Playing Around Before The Party Starts’ is quite gorgeous, as is the gently plucked acoustic guitar and location sounds and sly orchestral additions to ‘Flight Of The Navigator’.
Yes, some of the lyrics feature the expected braggadocio and meaningless clichés, but Because The Internet has enough going on in the music department for this stereo nerd to get off on. And besides, Gambino sings better than he raps. I don’t care if Pitchfork only gives it a 5 out of 10 rating. My favourite rag, The Wire, put Yeezus in its top 50 list for 2013, and I felt like burning it in some kind of ceremony to get rid of the stink of awfulness, so as you can see, I’m hardly in accord with the consensus of critical thinking.
Many of my music friends tell me that my problem with hip-hop is my problem. That there’s lots of good stuff out there, and maybe they’re right. All anyone can talk about is what they think is true, at that time. Maybe I’ll change my mind tomorrow, and acclaim Yeezus as the best thing since the invention of the croissant, and retract this fairly positive review of Because The Internet when I see the error of my ways.
Thing is, I’d rather listen to an album like this, regardless of whether the artist is considered to have any hip credibility, than any of the critically revered hip-hop artists. I don’t care if Donald Glover is some third rate TV star trying to find his way into a career in music. There may be no artistic vision here at all. Perhaps it’s all put together by a creative think tank and, like most pop music up until the late ‘60s, perhaps he’s just the name on the dust jacket. Or perhaps the album’s overarching concept will jar with many, but who cares? I can enjoy this. GARY STEEL
Childish Gambino – Because The Internet (Glassnote/Liberator)
Sound = 4/5
Music = 3.5/5