My return to rap — best of 2008

10Feb09

(Kenny writing)

Haven’t posted here forever because I/we have been rethinking the blog.  That’s why this is so late.  But I’ve got to get going again, so here it is. 

T.I.’s Paper Trail is not my favorite record of 2008, but it’s the one that took me longest to think through, for the simple reason that it’s the first pop rap album since Stankonia that I’ve wanted to spend my time thinking through. 

The sequence of songs from (3) Ready For Whatever to 8 My Life Your Entertainment is as remarkable as the best sequences on The Dusty Foot Philosopher (my #1) or Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (my #2).  It’s peak in my view is Live Your Life, which of is in part because of Rhianna, singer of the year’s most indelible pop (“Take A Bow” just as much as “Disturbia”), but is just as much because it gives an unusually substantive perspective on why to hate playa hatas.  From the best piece of sociology about prison since the Goodie Mob to the depth of explanation of the real reason to brag about money (actually a boast that he cleared up his homeboyz credit ratings!) to the fundamentally descriptive, neither really a complaint nor a boast, but a coming to grips exploration of both possibilities, “My Life Your Entertainment,” the sequence as popwise as the more widely praised Lil Wayne, and a shitload smarter. 

The rest of the album is nowhere near on the same level, though there is a surprisingly decent comeback on the last three tracks, which also have the most naturalistic musical sound on the album.  In fact, the main problem with the rest of the tracks (aside from the one left there to make sure I was offended at some point, “Every Chance I Get”) isn’t the inferior words, though they of course aren’t as great, but the orchestral constructions, the same things that drive me crazy intermittently on Arcade Fire and consistently with dozens of other “indie” bands these days.  And to be honest, OutKast bears some responsibility here.   

In the end I made Paper Trail my #9, highest A- of the year, dropping Wayne to 11 in a 8-12 hip hop sequence that goes Feed the Animals-Paper Trail-Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip-The Carter III-Rising Down.  With K’naan’s rather unique point of view at #1, this was altogether the best year for hip hop for probably a decade, and owing no assistance to Kanye West, whose presence on Paper Trail is a bore — the only thing the least bit interesting about “Swagga Like Us” is M.I.A., whose album I can listen to when I want to hear that particular hook.

(For what it’s worth I chose “Paper Planes” as my song of 2007, over even my favorites by Wussy, long before it showed up in a movie I haven’t seen or was the P&J #1.  Maybe I’m not as unhip as I think.)

Some small other notes before the final list:

The current enthusiasm around Taylor Swift is the result of combining the sensibility of Miley Cyrus with the introversion (and sheer wordiness) of the teenage Ani diFranco, and who I am to complain?  I do in fact like “Love Story” and “Fifteen” plenty, “The Way I Loved You” even more, and the album well enough.  I’ve come to understand that there are worse role models for my daughter.

I’ve processed Menya, Honeyhoney (First Rodeo) and Chromeo insufficiently to include on this list, and since I’m not redoing the list after today, the just missed my deadline, through obviously no fault of their own.  But one listen each, I’d say that Honeyhoney has fully justified my moderate enthusiasm about the EP — the idea these jazzy white chicks haven’t isn’t a bad one, but none of them have the songs, and the only one that has a stand out concept — Amy Winehouse — has an annoying stand out concept.  Menya sounded great on one listen, with the identical caveats I’ve previously had about “Loose Boots” — not enough songs to decide whether it’s just a good sound or a real set of ideas.  Which brings me to Chromeo.  On one listen, I guess I like everything about it that I like about Hall & Oates — and find that their ideas are as self-loving as Hall & Oates’ too, which makes it especially alienating to discover that Christgau’s dismissal of Hall & Oates doesn’t somehow apply to these guys.  Of course as you know this is not the highest praise coming from me either, so I can’t see where it will sustain an interest in a whole album.

Here, finally, is the whole list:

1.  K’naan, “The Dusty Foot Philosopher” (A+).  And let me say I do understand the complaints about the limitations of the repetitions of the “I had it tougher then you” lyrics — even from someone who grew up in Mogadishu, there are only so many times you can find that interesting, so I sure hope the new album has something else to say.  But the album doesn’t only depend on the fact that he grew up in Mogadishu — it is musically even more consistent then lyrically.  I may not have wanted to listen to it 15 times (as I did Left For Dead, last year), but I can say that the seven or eight I did I didn’t want to turn it off or lose concetration in the middle.  When an album retains over an hour of concentration, that’s good enough for me.

2.  Drive-by Truckers, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” (A).  Most consistent songwriting of the year.

3.  TV On the Radio, “Dear Science”.  Best soundscape.

4.  Conor Oberst, “Conor Oberst”.  Last time my favorite song was “I Must Belong Somewhere,” a song about how whatever is must be.  This time it’s “Moab”, with the refrain the road will take your troubles away.  Both of these ideas are dead wrong. So if I keep believing him when he sings these sentiments, which I oppose at so many other levels, he must actually be a fine poet.

5.  Les Amazones de Guinee, “Wamato.”  I know my African music geography is fucked up, but it sounds to me like some of the best vocal ensemble work since Mahathalini.

6.  Orchestra Baobab, “Made In Dakar.”  Along with Youssou N’Dour, OB has emerged as my very favorite African musicians, but the weakness — my weakness not their’s — is that when I don’t have a particular CD of theirs on, I’m not sure which album it’s coming from.  It’s one of those things that happens when the musucians are over 50 by the time you learn anything about the genre . . . it all just sounds like the genre. 

7.  Santogold.  The powerpop strain that stretches from Cyndi Lauper through Elastica, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and this is a totally underworked one.  I don’t know if I’d admire this record as much if I had as much quality powerpop in my life as a crave. But it fills a niche honorably.

8.  Girl Talk “Feed the Animals.”  Pure fun, and if there’s any content, really, someone else will have to fill me in.

9.  T.I., “Paper Trail” (A-)

10.  Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip

11.  Lil Wayne, “The Carter III”

12.  Roots, “Rising Down”

13.  Al Green, “Lay It Down”

14.  Jean Grae, “Jeanius”

15.  Love Is All, “A Hundred Things To Keep Me Up At Night”

16.  Black Kids, “Partie Traumatic”

17.  R.E.M., “Accellerate”

18.  Raphael Saadiq, “The Way I See It”.  As you know, I agree with you that these songs are fine, but don’t establish their necessity.  So after all this time, I finally figured out what differentiates it conceptually from Marshall Crenshaw in 1983:  Marshall although almost 30 at the time, does a convincing job being a teenager, which is in part because these really were his earliest recorded songs.  I know — indeed, I like — that soul supports older adulthood better then rockabilly does, and that Saadiq is not trying to pretend he’s a teenager.  But that’s much of why his Tony Toni Tone songs are better — they are more wide eyed.  The best one on this album, Falling In Love, is the best because it’s the opposite of wide-eyed; it’s world weary.  If you’re doing retro, either you’ve got to get wide eyed right, as Crenshaw did, or you have to do maturity as the concept itself.  This album does neither.

19.  Ponytail, “Ice Cream Spiritual.”  Aretha Franklin for the end of the apocalypse.  If things really were that bad, I’m sure this would be higher then #19 on my list. 

20. Honehoney, “Loose Boots.”  I grant you that the songs are this good.

21.  Taylor Swift, “Fearless”.

22.  Eryhak Badu, “New Amerykah, Part 1:  New World Order”

23.  Asylum Street Spankers, “What?  And Give Up Show Biz?” — and I do genuinely wish they were as funny as they mean to be, because when the song is right, as with “Breath,” I love them to death.

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