Rappers Mac Miller, Shad reflect on, try to explain a huge year for hip hop | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Rappers Mac Miller, Shad reflect on, try to explain a huge year for hip hop

Rapper Shad is shown in an interview with The Canadian Press in Toronto on October 17, 2013. When Shad says that Kanye West's blunt and scattered interviews have stood as hip hop's highpoint for the year, he's making no minor statement. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
December 23, 2013 - 2:00 AM

TORONTO - Recently returned from a long tour, Canadian rapper Shad kicked back and posted an innocuous message to his Facebook page linking to three recent "amazing" Kanye West interviews.

Then he sat back and watched as the vitriolic comments poured in, a dynamic range of rage targeting the provocative Chicago hip-hop hero. Shad responded personally, tossing off hundreds and hundreds of words in defence of West — at the expense of rest.

"I made a mistake, yes. I posted a Kanye interview so now I'm just in a million conversations on Facebook — I can't get any of my groceries done," the personable Vancouver-based rapper related recently in a telephone interview.

"I think his interviews the last couple months have been probably the best thing in hip hop this whole year — just super candid, messy conversations about things much bigger than music.... What I've been confronting on my Facebook timeline for the past few hours, it really is disappointing to me. Would you rather just see an endless parade of people promoting rom-coms?"

So West remains a divisive figure for fans. Not for critics, however.

The serrated, stripped-raw "Yeezus" stood as perhaps the year's most agreed-upon artistic triumph, and as 2013 wraps to a close is rightfully being treated to podium finishes in nearly every music publication, with Time, Spin and Entertainment Weekly among the magazines to hail West's prickly puzzle as the year's best record.

But when Shad — last name Kabongo — says that West's blunt and scattered interviews have stood as hip hop's highpoint for the year, he's making no minor statement. Because 2013 was a special year for the rap genre, with "Yeezus" standing only as the lofty lightning conductor in a rap landscape increasingly dotted with skyscrapers.

Scan any of those aforementioned best-of lists and you're likely to see a cluster of the same rap records appearing again and again from such names as Chance the Rapper, Toronto's Drake, Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt and Pusha T.

Can what feels like a collective creative renaissance be attributed to mere coincidence, or are other motivating factors lifting the genre to unfamiliar heights?

Theories range, but few would deny that something extraordinary is going on.

"Artists right now are making some of my favourite music in hip hop that's ever been made," said Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller, who released the well-received "Watching Movies With the Sound Off" in June.

"I think that in many years this year will be looked back on as a very special time and there hasn't been anything that as a movement has been as big as this since the quote-unquote Golden Age."

That loosely defined era is generally considered to have spanned the late '80s — kicked off by the lyrically deft likes of Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, KRS-One and Chuck D — to the early '90s, when a barrage of classic records were issued by artists including Snoop Doggy Dogg, Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest.

Without making comparisons to those giants, the past year has been uncommonly fruitful.

Last October, Kendrick Lamar issued his nearly 70-minute opus "good kid, m.A.A.d city," a guided tour through the pothole-pocked pavement that defined and threatened to derail the Compton, Calif., rapper during his precarious upbringing. Hailed for a lyrical Swiss-watch precision and virtuoso flow, Lamar was an instant critical heavyweight who slowly slugged his way to platinum sales and a richly deserved Grammy nomination for album of the year. Many consider the album an instant classic.

That seemed to stoke the competition even moreso than the combative, widely misunderstood verse Lamar issued the next summer on Big Sean's "Control," in which he name-dropped nearly a dozen of the peers he considered competition.

From there, expertly executed rap records arrived with regularity. Chance the Rapper steered a smoky VW bus down the rabbit hole on the prismatic "Acid Rap," Earl Sweatshirt triple-knotted his tongue on the muck-encrusted "Doris," Pusha T tossed poison-tipped sneers on the skeletal "My Name is My Name" and Brown offered a hallucinogenic jaunt through his haunted psyche on "Old."

Highlights abounded elsewhere too, from Drake's daring victory-lap "Nothing Was the Same," A$AP Rocky's syrup-sticky "Long.Live.A$AP," Shad's boundlessly cerebral "Flying Colours," El-P and Killer Mike's knife-swapping "Run the Jewels" and A$AP Ferg's stayed-at-the-bottom "Trap Lord."

What stands out above all else is the ambition. And Shad says that can again be traced back to West, whose go-for-baroque 2010 masterpiece "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" proved the expansive potential of hip hop.

"That opened up artists' imaginations in hip hop, to be perfectly honest. I think it ushered in a creative period," Shad said. "People are spread out across the landscape as far as what rap music can sound like, from Childish Gambino and people on that end of the spectrum to Rick Ross and Meek Mill and that whole thing.

"Like (Macklemore's) 'Same Love' was a hit song and 'Thrift Shop' was a hit song and (Drake's) 'Hold On, We're Going Home' and 'Worst Behaviour' (were) hit songs, both off the same album. People are all over the place. ... I do think it's kind of a golden age in terms of creativity and people seem pretty free."

And they're pushing each other.

Miller counts some of the world's best young rappers as his close friends, including Schoolboy Q, Jay Electronica, Action Bronson and Tyler, the Creator. He and Sweatshirt swapped cryptic verses on each other's albums and hang out regularly.

Yet they also want to best one another.

"Everyone's albums are incredible and I think it's because the bar gets raised and people just want to do something special," Miller said in a recent interview. "With me and Earl, we can joke around and be idiots all the time. But when it comes down to the actual album, we're very serious about it. ... You're trying to push things forward.

"No one wants to let anybody outdo them," he adds. "If I'm going to do a song with Schoolboy Q and we're sitting there writing verses, I'm not going to (BS) — I'm going to make sure I come with it. Same with anybody. I think we're all secretly competitive. We all want to come out and outdo each other, but not in a malicious way."

And in that race to innovate, hip hop is incorporating a wider palette of sounds than ever.

Toronto experimental jazz trio BadBadNotGood also contributed to Sweatshirt's "Doris." The classically trained group — all of whom are still in their early 20s — were hanging out at a ranch in Orangeville, Ont., when they captured a horse's errant "neigh" on their sampler. The pitch-shifted squeal wound up inspiring a quicksand beat built on ominous shoegaze guitar, erratic synths and an off-kilter drum thump.

The resultant track — "Hoarse," a sly nod to the track's origin as well as the deteriorated state of Sweatshirt's voice at the time of recording — finds the teenage rapper weaving an extra-tricky thicket of rhymes, culminating in the wordplay-wired final line "Bet it's 36 fish netted like the hook was inefficient."

For the members of BadBadNotGood — who aspire to do more hip-hop production — the song's a testament to the genre's ever-widening boundaries.

"There was that 'Yeezus' thing where Kanye said he was influenced by Suicide — that was sick," said keyboardist Matthew Tavares. "It just seems to be a really good time for hip hop because there's so much really original stuff out there, and a lot of amazing rappers that are becoming very popular."

One of the year's most diverse rap records was Brown's "Old." Dubbed the Hybrid, the 32-year-old roughly divides the record between two personas defined by two distinct voices — there's the nasally gremlin rapping maniacally over furious EDM beats about limitless drug indulgence, and there's the wearied, tragedy-damaged raconteur who raps lines like "I feel like a prisoner of war/Reacting sporadically to what the mind absorb" over wispy psychedelia.

Montreal-reared DJ A-Trak served as executive producer on the album and runs the label, Fool's Gold, that put it out. He signed Brown prior to the release of 2011's thrilling "XXX" after noticing the eccentric rapper in an interview with Fader, recalling: "He looked funny and we enjoyed listening to him talk. He didn't even have the crazy hair yet, he just had cornrows. (But he) definitely had the tooth situation."

Still, A-Trak didn't necessarily anticipate the range Brown possessed. And he said that a genre-twisting funhouse ride like "Old" is compelling evidence of hip-hop's blissfully busted boundaries.

"This album could only happen now," said the award-winning turntablist, whose real name is Alain Macklovitch. "When you have guys who make music that could only really exist at this point in time, that couldn't have existed five or 10 years ago ... it feels like you're helping write a page in history.

"Some of the (stuff) on his record sounds sort of somewhere between Cannibal Ox and something on Stones Throw and some Madlib stuff, but then he comes with crazy futuristic club beats that could only exist now. It's like, layers upon layers of richness."

And somehow, these restlessly original records are actually finding audiences.

Like Lamar, Drake's latest is platinum-certified and somehow spawned a massive hit in "Started From the Bottom," a slight rags-to-riches tale that insistently jack-hammered its way into the public consciousness. A$AP Rocky's cloud-bound "Long.Live.A$AP" topped the chart, West's actively anti-commercial "Yeezus" went gold and so did J. Cole's far-reaching "Born Sinner." Other less-acclaimed rap blockbusters arrived in the form of Jay Z's meticulously mediocre "Magna Carta Holy Grail," Eminem's disappointing "Marshall Mathers LP 2" and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's breakout "The Heist."

But the aforementioned, seemingly uncommercial records from Pusha T and Earl Sweatshirt also found success, both opening in the Top 5, while even Brown — who looks and sounds, at times, gleefully deranged — managed a spot in the chart's top 20.

"People are kind of aiming for that top spot," Shad said. "Creatively and in terms of professional ambitions ... they all want to have No. 1 records as well as being at the creative forefront. And a lot of them did."

"I would never have thought that 'Numbers on the Board' would be so popular," agreed BadBadNotGood's Tavares, referring to a snarling Pusha T cut with a barely there beat.

And if we are immersed in an age where even hip hop's most eccentric excursions are being rewarded with relatively robust commercial returns, it's reasonable enough to hope that this creatively prosperous era — golden or not — won't stop.

"I feel like every year you kind of think, oh, you know, it seems there's so much momentum and creative energy going on — it's gotta stop somewhere," Tavares said. "I thought last year was a pretty amazing year, and yet this year was even more amazing.

"So who knows what's going to come out next year?"

News from © The Canadian Press, 2013
The Canadian Press

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