Monday, 31 August 2009

"should have stayed on the farm"

The artwork for rap artist Ghostface's forthcoming album, The Wizard of Poetry, takes as its inspiration L. Frank Baum's 1900 children's fable, The Wizard of Oz, in which a young American girl, displaced from her rural home, must travel to the Emerald City to obtain assistance from a kind-hearted wizard. The girl acquires a small band of companions, whom she helps to overcome various personal failings while traveling to the city. However, at journey's end, Dorothy comes to understand the simplicity and goodness of the moral values associated with her agrarian upbringing, and wishes only for a return to the homestead.

The use of the Wizard of Oz has its antecedents in popular culture. Elton John, whose association with hip hop stems from an unlikely collaboration with public homophobe Eminem at the 2001 Grammy Awards show, and from 'Ghetto Gospel', a 2004 duet with the late 2pac Shakur, which reached the number one spot in the UK, Ireland and Australia, used Oz's central motif - the Yellow Brick Road along which Dorothy journeys - as a framing device for an album about the voyage from innocence to experience [Ed's update: the title track of which is sampled on the final track of Raekwon's Only Built For Cuban Linx II, an album which, suspiciously, hit the internets just hours after this GMS investigative post]. The album's mawkish lead single, 'Candle In The Wind', was revised in 1997 as a tribute to Diana, a 'fairytale princess' whose ability to articulate a 'down-to-earth' morality endeared her to the public as much as it provoked friction with the British royal family.

'Candle In The Wind' was released in the same year as Puff Daddy's 'I'll Be Missing You', a similarly sentimental tribute to a recently deceased celebrity, which also appropriated a middlebrow hit single by a wealthy Englishman - in this case Sting, with his post-punk band the Police - as a strategy to lend the tribute a sense of gravitas and permanence. Just as 'I'll Be Missing You' featured R'n'B singer Faith Evans, one-time paramour of the dead subject, as a counterpoint to the rapping of Sean 'Puffy' Combs, so The Wizard Of Poetry promises a suite of 'RnB collabos', finding their artistic drive in the interplay between female singers and Ghostface - who, like Elton John and 2Pac, used modern technology to collaborate with his dead contemporary and sometime rival, the Notorious BIG, on the 2006 track 'Three Bricks'.

The Wizard of Oz has been descirbed as 'the first American fairy tale', and while it draws on several European folk traditions, and on the work of Northern European compilers such as the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen, its themes speak directly to first and second generation immigrants, adjusting to the mixture of hardship and promise provided by the plains of the midwest. Nevertheless, the tale lends itself to reconfiguration, as is underscored by the 1978 musical adaptation The Wiz, which presented Oz as a tale relevant to a black, urban audience.

Employing the idiom of the blaxploitation movies which are a recurrent theme in Ghostface's studio albums, the Wiz starred another recent celebrity casualty, Michael Jackson, whose music Ghostface has sampled on several occasions. Jackson claimed an affinity with Diana, and P. Diddy, who performed his tribute to the Notorious BIG at the 1997 'Concert for Diana', also contributed a verse to 'Better on the Other Side', a hastily-assembled tribute to Jackson, helmed by the Game, sometime labelmate of Ghostface's frequent collaborator, Chef Raekwon.
Jackson's co-star in the Wiz, Nipsey Russell, has also been the recipient of a hip hop tribute in the form of Nipsey Hussle, an upcoming West Coast rapper who has also worked with the Game. Russell, a comedian and regular on Hollywood Squares, was known as 'the Poet Laureate of TV'.

Unlike his fellow member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Method Man, Ghostface is not known for his TV work, but his album title makes his concern with poetic form clear. Likewise, the centrality of the
Emerald city in the artwork signals associations with Irish culture, which esteems poets and the poetic tradition. Dexys Midnight Runners, a second-generation Irish group who named their string section 'The Emerald Express' on their Celtic-themed sophomore album, Too-Rye-Aye, share with Ghostface a reverence for classic soul, forthright seduction techniques, amphetamines and dungarees.

More firmly within the Irish tradition, poetry is often deployed as a response to the socially corrosive effects of violence, and as a way to reformulate identities fragmented by colonisation, mass emigration, and the diaspora. Just as Yeats spoke of 'a terrible beauty', so rap has often been upheld as a cultural space in which those denied social or economic power can make sense of their experiences, and can build a sense of pride, purpose, and a community not of letters, but of words - a 'slang democracy', in the words of Raekwon. Hence the 'street' becomes the Yellow Brick Road, New York 'the Emerald City', as seen across the river from the impoverished housing projects of Ghostface's native Staten Island, with Central Park foregrounded on the album cover, a leisure-space of sexual opportunity where the trappings of status and class are in one moment leveled on the picnic rug.

This opulent and optimistic visual language is out of step with Ghostface's conventional artistic choices. Unusually for a rapper, two of his solo albums locate him in a live music environment, while four picture engaged in professional work: for his debut, Ironman, he is employed in a colourful shoe factory; his third album, Bulletproof Wallets, sees him in the role of a chef, while two later albums, Fishscale and More Fish, pivture him as a fishmonger, once a profitable and respectable working class profession in the port city of New York. Ironically, of course, Irish immigrants formed the backbone of the incipient New York Police Department - a recurrent bugbear of Ghostface's street-level narratives. Their descendants are often themselves policemen, not just in New York, but in the immigrant towns of the Eastern seabord and the northern United States - as was recently emphasised by the Wire, a series which drew parallels between white and black working class communities in urban America, and which featuring Method Man as a mid-level Baltimore criminal.

HBO, the channel which commissioned the Wire, also played host to a long-running prison drama entitled Oz, which feaured a high-security prison known to the inmates as the Emerald City. Oz offered journeys of personal discovery and occasional redemption for its characters, but generally without the female companionship that Ghostace's vision suggests. Nevertheless, it has found appreciation in the hip hop community: fellow New York rhymer and former Def Jam labelmate NORE identified himself as "Adebisi", a powerful black rapist from the series, in his 2002 single 'Nuthin'.

Ghostface's most recent album, the Big Doe Rehab, signalled a move towards more aspirational and less masculine concerns, featuring Ghostface attended by a buxom nurse and surrounded by medicine and piles of money. Nevertheless, The Wizard of Poetry marks a new departure in being the first Ghostface solo album not to feature the visage of the once-masked rapper. A similar facelessness was a tactic of the prog rock band Pink Floyd, whose Dark Side of the Moon - released just months before Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - is popularly rumoured to have been composed as a soundtrack to the Wizard of Oz. Certainly, the album's cover, which illustrates a monochrome light beam broken into a rainbow by a prism, echoes the film's most popular song, 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow', while also paying tribute to MGM's innovative use of technicolour.

An appreciation of colour distinguishes Ghostface from many rappers, particularly of the 90s generation. In a skit on Raekwon's debut album, Only Built For Cuban Linx, Ghostface details his technique for dying shoes, his favourite combination being "blue and cream". A similar do-it-yourself aesthetic informed the album covers designed by Pen-n-Pixel studios, which combined colours, visual effects and luxury items beyond the budgets of regional rap performers with computer trickery, and towards which the fantasia scenery of The Wizard of Poetry knowingly nods.

Just as Pen-n-Pixel juxtaposed poor, disenfranhised black artists with diamonds, bejewelled goblets, neo-Georgian mansions, luxury motor vehicles and exploding helicopters, so the Wizard of Poetry emerges at a time of economic strife, which has affected not only the poorer neighbourhoods that Ghostface often 'represents' in his raps, but also the more affluent sections of his audience - consumers on whom popular musicians depend, and who play as much a key role in shaping the contemporary cultural landscape and the artists themselves.

The choice of the Wizard is apposite, casting as it does a link not only to the agricultural depressions of the 1880s and 1890s - the first to affect the global economy - but also the Great Depression of the 1930s, from which MGM's colourful musical version offered both a respite, and a note of hope that personal courage and traditional morality would overcome the 'whirlwind' of economic collapse.

Many critics have seen in The Wizard of Oz a political allegory - a fear that economic strife may lead to political injustice and misrule. It has been suggested the 'Oz' itself is a reference to the ounce, signalling a support for the charismatic Populist leader William Jennings Bryan, who advocated bi-metallism as a response to the economic crisis, inflating the currency and thereby relieving small farmers encumbranced by debt and unable to borrow on future earnings. Bryan's famed 'Cross of Gold' speech was dense in its biblical imagery, as is much of the most successful American rhetoric, black rights leader Martin Luther King's speeches being a case in point.

Rap, too, draws on biblical and religious themes to highlight personal and social struggles. Although Ghostface has never recorded a religious song as direct as Kanye West's 'Jesus Walks' or as recondite as the works of Wu-affiliate Killah Priest, Ghostface has often deployed the language and lore of the 5% Nation of Islam in support of his musical perspectives. Perhaps more directly, Ghostface links the 'ounce' of Oz, and the 'brick' of the Yellow Brick Road (he revisves his own 'Three Bricks' theme with a guest appearance on Raekwon's Only Built For Cuban Linx II, entitled 'Ten Bricks'), to the hard-nosed rationalism of the drug trade where, indeed, "a kilo weighs a thousand grams".

Like Jennings Bryan, and indeed like many modern populist opponents of the complex world of high finance, Ghostface harbours a suspicion of the parried and fluid realities of stock dealing, which is implicit in his artwork: the journey provides the heft of the story, but it is the return to a fixed neighbourhood, where values are static and frequently reinforced, that provides the logic of the pilgrimage.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Men and their hats

Slaughterhouse is a boyband aimed at twenty- and thirty-something rap fans who spend a lot of time on the web, and who feel that things "used to be better". Their debut album--also named Slaughterhouse, to belabour the point--follows a series of unofficial mixtapes including, somewhat gloriously, one called The Leaked Shit. The key points being:
  • to 'step up' from the 'mixtape scene' with an album that is 'shorter' and 'more focused', full of unfamiliar tunes by cheap producers;
  • lots of boasting, some of it recorded after Michael Jackson died;
  • to sell some records to people who buy records;
  • the condition of being "on one's grind"; and
  • to not be the lousiest member of Slaughterhouse.
What with the emphasis on bombast and dense rhyme schemes, there isn't much to separate our four musketeers: the lack of variety in the pacing, flows and concepts is the reason this isn't too much fun after four or five tracks. All of this lot have free mixtapes on offer, mostly superior, though when this works, it's very good. But let's try to tease apart these rapping buddies:

Joe Budden
is an Atlas of self-regard, forever shouldering the weight of public indifference to his career in the entertainment industry. At one stage, he suggests something like "I had a fight with my shadow after he dissed me on Twitter", which, even in jest, suggests he lacks more perspective than a high-mediaeval cyclops. No Bushwick Bill. Playing with other kids helps Joe a bit here, encouraging him to 'come out of his shell' and 'pack it in for a bit', though his chums do indulge him with a couple of unlistenable moaning Tupac-style "aksk God why" tracks towards the end. On the front cover, Joe is pictured sporting a hat.

Joell Ortiz
has a deep-seated need for affection and approval, what with his 'class joker' schtick, his breathless reverence for everything old, and his funny beard. I do hope this potential weakness doesn't lead him to fall in with the wrong crowd, for Joell's principal poke-power is helpfulness: his ad-libs, hooks and serviceable raps hold the album together. Given more confidence, he could have made Slaughterhouse more than the sum of its parts. As it is, this has neither the sense of place to match his The Brick: Bodega Chronicles nor the versatility and fun that marked Covers the Classics. On the front cover, Joell is pictured sporting a hat.

Crooked I
has a simple job, which he fulfils creditably. Whereas New York is made of burning dustbins, hard knocks, jazz, and concrete stuff, Crooked's native Los Angles is a cartoon city, full of curvy women, sticky weed, funk, and colourful gang handkerchiefs. The album could have done with a few more tracks that played up these contrasts, and a few more beats favouring his behind-the-beat, half-whispered flow; at times, he is indistinguishable. On the front cover, Crooked I is pictured sporting a hat.

Royce da 5' 9"
is best suited to mixtapes, where he can say jaw-droppingly unpleasant things in exceptionally complex metres without interference from 'radio', 'A&R dudes' or 'Tipper Gore'. Not that Slughterhouse are going to be guesting on Graham Norton anytime soon, but albums seem to cramp Royce's style. Is he willing himself to fail? Would he like to share with the group? Again, the production doesn't flatter him: running barmy adenoidal rings around beats only succeeds as long as the beats can carry the song. On the front cover, Royce da 5' 9" is pictured sporting a hat.

Here's the most bangingest track: