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There are certain bars, tracks, albums, moments that make me fall in love with Hip Hop all over again. I'll catalogue them here.

Ready to Die 

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OR

Life After Death

Biggie's impact on the culture is in many ways to me under-appreciated. Sometimes I feel like because his life ended from beef and his storytelling was so vivid that people really feel like B.I.G. was Chris Wallace. But to me they are not the same, obviously they influenced each other. I'm sure once Chris started rapping and gettin love his swagger probably changed a bit but nonetheless the artist was a fiction. Something dope about rapping that has always been important to me is that when you create that rapper persona, you create an alternative space to speak from. Every thing about that perspective borrows from so many places and constructs itself almost in a vacuum that allows it speak to, from, and in so many different experiences and places. It's kind of a dangerous responsibility. Regardless Big was in some way aware of this responsibility and used it to tell you stories. He told them better than 99% of the people on this Earth. We are close to 20 years removed from his first album dropping and I still can't get over how good his music was. And for all the spins that Juicy and Hypnotize get its the darker tracks that make Big stand out. As Bun B always says, if you don't talk about the struggle then we know you're fake. Big's discussion and confrontation of all things struggle was nothing short of brilliant. From Suicidal Thoughts to Somebody's Gotta Die, there is never a wasted breathe or image. I think that it is Big's flirtation with death as a character that always lived in his raps that is both mistaken and under valued. Because of his historical and personal proximity to Tupac, I always felt that there was some kind of conflation with self-fulfilling prophecies of an early exit. And maybe because his album titles had some variation of death in the name, it's easy to make that claim. And I'm sure at some level Big did think about it but probably no more than any one who had lived a similar life in Bed-stuy pushing weight on the block. But as he said on Things done Changed, "Back in the days, our parents used to take care of us. Look at them now, they even fucking scared of us." Damn shit did change, so Ready to Die wasn't a prophecy but a reality, part of that mundane shit that in middle class white america looks like married at 25 with 2.5 and a mortgage. 

This why I feel so strongly about this alternative space a rapper creates...Big knew that and created this character that was Ready to Die and did at the end of the first album. What was Big killing? I'm not really interested in figuring that out but I find comfort in his ability to open a story and close it. The album opened with a birth and ended with a death. I don't even ask why cause honestly I'm preoccupied with the beauty in his rhymes 

"When I die

Fuck it

I want to go to hell, cause I'm a piece of shit it ain't hard to fuckin tell

It don't make sense going to heaven with the goody-goodies,

Dressed in white?

I like black Timbs and black hoodies

God will probably have me on some real strict shit..."

Beyond that it just sounds dope, Big had a point, it really don't make sense going to heaven with the goody-goodies. He was making his own heaven situated in his own experience. To me this just feels like Big reminding me that the American Dream just don't make sense. I don't want 2.5 and a mortgage. I want a low-rider, good drinks, and loud beats. I'm not trying to live according to the white-supremacist ideal and for some reason when Big killed that character in Ready to Die, to me he was so much more free on Life After Death. I understand the level of corny in that last sentence but creatively Big seemed more free if not a different character. He just felt more in charge of the art. And if you took one thing from this convo at Microphone Check, it's that Big's brilliance in music was beyond rap or music, it was as an artist. 

 

 

"The ironies are, At all costs better avoid these bars"

I have been fairly obsessed with this album since I first heard it. Every time I run it back I find myself fixated at the same points. Back when I first heard it in 2012 I dedicated a whole chapter of my thesis to Ignorant Shit. I would argue this record is Jay's best on the merit that his control is the best it has ever been. He uses metaphors and double-entendres like most of us use noun and verbs. More importantly he is free from just telling Sean Carter's story, instead he's more of an omnipresent voice with the ethos of a veterano who sees you as a deer in the headlights but you can't trust because after all you are the competition. Still Jay seems to have made his exit and now speaks from the outside looking back. The reflection is perfect, Jay leans in with sincerity, then warns you, then sends you on your way having told you everything you needed to know with complete honesty but you've already set off on this nihilistic course but you don't see it...

Aside from Ignorant Shit, American Dreamin' always makes me stop and press repeat. 

You're now in a game where only time can tell

Survive the droughts I wish you well -- Hold up

Survive the drought? I wish you well?

All that work to get to this point. Everything ahead of you is on a clock. Regardless of how successful you might be it is only temporary if the droughts don't get you, probably the one right behind you will. And yet knowing that you are headed for failure, Jay wishes you well and well in a drought, as if this lifeline is for your own good. 

How sick am I? I wish you health

I wish you wheels. I wish you wealth

I wish you insight so you could see for yourself

This verse is at the darkness of the American Dream. Except because Jay's example is the drug game we ignore that this could apply to anything else. Rewinding a bit the first two verses of this track, Jay tells the history, the mindset, the motivation, and the outcome in three lines  

Mama forgive me, should be thinking about Harvard

But that's too far away, n*ggas is starvin'

followed by

Now see The Life's right there, and it seems right there

There is more at stake here than just a warning or mentoring, Jay is telling the story of a generation. A history that is "the game that only time can tell" as if they had no agency. Survival is predicated on preparing for the droughts because they are coming. Sometimes more often then we can handle and the idea that there might be success at some point only means that the drought is coming. How can "I" even think about Harvard when it might as well be the moon or mars or simply thinking outside of just surviving. 

What has always struck about the writings of rappers like Jay who can tell these stories so well is the distillation of a moment so urgent. Writers of color have always had different stakes in writing. The ones that resonate realize the urgency that parallels the reality. Especially in rap where your efficiency in language is only an asset. Tell a whole story in 3 lines so you can tell me how it ends in 3 more. Make it quick and painless so I can forget and try to ignore it. But because each lines stings so much you can't forget them. They haunt you like someone wishing you well knowing that the well is only elevating the drought you'll feel later. The highs will only serve as reminders of how far the lows actually are because the lows don't promise that there will be highs...only the lows are promised.

 

We on a Ultralight Beam

 
 

As many have said, it is difficult to be a Kanye West fan. He fluctuates from brilliant artist to the one guy in all our grad classes who thinks he's really right but comes off problematic most of the time. Amid the rise in tweets that we've seen from Mr. West in that last few weeks I continue to rely on my Kanye plan of action...which is to take everything he says with a grain of salt and wait for the music. So far this tactic has kept me from engaging online with folks who have a lot to say when a snitch records Kanye backstage at SNL but zero to say about his music. It has really been hard to watch Ye talk out his neck about Amber Rose but I am glad to see that Amber ain't about to let him run his mouth. Amongst the things that hurts me the most is watching Kardashian's in the studio. It is the same pain and jealousy I have when I see Tyga or Bieber wearing Yeezy's. It's like we know you do not deserve it but here you are wearing the sneaker that jumped over the jumpman. Here you are in the studio witnessing greatness. 

In these dark moments, i turn to the music, something they can't ruin, at least we hope...

And then this happens...The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, a Choir, Fonzworth Bentley, Chance the Rapper, and Kanye West. SNL is simply a stage for Kanye at this point. I couldn't tell you how many times I have played this video. I can tell you that this is what Kanye does, he makes music for you. I get tired of "Kanye is egocentric" because, duh, but more importantly we act like we ain't the center of our worlds. Some of us may not know it because we have had our voices and identities sanitized and stolen from us and others may not know because they are privileged to live in a world where their voice has always been affirmed. But Kanye is here for us with this gospel. If you have a favorite Kanye track, it is probably the one where you sing along and put yourself in his Air Yeezys, pink polo, roc chain, or peacoat. 

You spit through some kind of wire, you can't wait till you get your money right, you threw it in at the end cause you were late for the intro, you thought about doing that weird mullet he was wearing during the 808s era...The heart of Kanye's music as he once said is that he makes music for you to insert yourself into. He makes music for you. I'm willing to bet if you deny this claim you probably haven't listened. 

But like anything in Hip Hop, the break always comes back around, with every new record you have a chance to listen. Ultralight Beams is brilliant. It's brilliant because it's bigger than Kanye. It's as big as choir. Big as Kelly Price's Voice is perfect. Big as Chance on national television telling you to never forget Chicago PD officer Jason Van Dyke murdered 17 year old Laquan McDonald and the city of Chicago covered it up. 

If you asked me, if you want to know who I think Kanye is...I would say watch him as he moves to the side of the stage. He is both a director and a fan. Proud of his art and his colleagues. Making a screw-face as Chance spits some of the best bars America will ever see. Watch him jump and join the chicago stepping when Chance brings in the choir. He's the person who invites his in-laws to the studio. He's the producer-rapper who changes his album title a bunch of times and then invites everyone to perform with him at SNL. 

WE on a Ultralight Beam