By Steve McLinden
Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II (8 September 2009, EMI/Icewater)
Remember when everyone said hip-hop was dead? Remember when the only time you heard the Clan was on some scene kid’s Sidekick ringtone or a Girl Talk mix? The Clan had already kind of fallen out of relevance by the time Ol’ Dirty Bastard died, and Ghostface’s Fishscale is probably the only recent member album I listen to again and again. Let us not forget what 36 Chambers did to the world, let us not forget that the very first Only Built 4 Cuban Linx paved the way for all successful Mafioso rap to follow (yes, I’m talking Reasonable Doubt).
But it’s been a long time. The Clan’s most recent collaborative release sans ODB, 8 Diagrams was, I’m sorry, absolute garbage. RZA was a great producer in the 1990s, but why did he have to do all of 8 Diagrams? Considering his disputes over respect and payment with Ghostface and others (U-God even aired out that dirty laundry on Youtube), it’s like RZA became the Paul McCartney of the Clan. And George Clinton? Was he necessary? And please don’t be crying about Russell the whole time. We know, he died. On with the music.
OB4CL2: “Coming Soon!” has been a pipe dream that Raekwon has been shouting out for several years now. Many Wu fans forgot about it, or wrote it off as rap’s Duke Nukem Forever, or like me, expected the languishing tracks to sound stale by the time the album actually hit stores.
But its release, its actual retail release this month shocked me, and Raekwon proved all of my dismissive talk wrong. This is not stale, this is almost as timeless as its namesake (I’m not sure that I’m willing to call it a sequel). It ranks up there with Supreme Clientele, Heavy Mental, and Liquid Swords in the category of Wu-branded albums that have not one skippable track from start to finish.
The J Dilla tracks have one of the most under-recognized producers living on posthumously, the first of these being “House of the Flying Daggers” on which Deck, Ghost, Meth, and GZA all go hard, but the hook’s a little lame. Ghostface says something quasi-sensical about dressing up in a train conductor’s hat and overalls; maybe he was one of those Thomas The Tank Engine kids, but it’s probably just a reference to trafficking cocaine. Meth compares cracking your head open to the process of preparing blunts for marijuana use. It’s like I’m in 1996, but don’t worry, it feels fresh.
“Pyrex Vision,” a 55-second mind-blowing verse with a chill beat produced by hip-hop founding father Marley Marl, will have you fiending for more lyrical crack like you were a consumer of the crack that Rae the Chef was cooking up in the lyrics.
On “Cold Outside” Ghostface goes from complaining about the inflation on a pack of diapers to withdrawal from Iraq, and you want to ask him, “wait what?” but you just let it flow through your ears. But enough Ghost talk, he’s on 6 more tracks. Rae and Deck kill it on “Black Mozart,” lyrically inscribing vivid pictures of the organized crimes taking place in their Staten Island projects. If some website only lets you preview one track before you buy the album, make it “Surgical Gloves.” The Alchemist has to be one of the illest producers in hip-hop today, with a barely recognizable sample of a Styx song (yes, ‘80s prog-rock Styx, and no, it’s a deep track, not “Come Sail Away”) filled out by steady knocking beats and overlaid with the recipes of the Chef.
Jadakiss & Styles P. appear on “Broken Safety,” and it doesn’t matter if Jada is going solo, on a D-Block track, or a friend like Raekwon, he goes hard. “Fuck hip-hop, we bringin’ the streets back,” is just begging me to quote it right here. Rae also lovingly assigns Wu-Gambino nicknames to all of his new guests (except for Ricky D, who needs no other title than Slick Rick), making me a little sad that Nas Escobar was unable to make a return. Rick, Raekwon, and GZA all call out the hook to “We Will Rob You” as an obvious reference to the Queen song, but the beat is no lazy sample of that, it’s a banger not unlike GZA’s old 4th Chamber. Oh, and of course, GZA, Rick, and Raekwon are probably in the top five storytellers of all time, so they bring that to this track. Busta Rhymes ain’t goofin’ around on “About Me,” to a decent beat by Dr. Dre. Yeah, star-studded doesn’t begin to describe what this album brings to the current state of hip-hop. And on the closing track, slept-on producer Scram Jones brings a chipmunked-up sample of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” that is the perfect conclusion, like a crime-movie equivalent to the metaphysical closer of Liquid Swords.
So if you grew up on that substantial hip-hop (not to be confused with “conscious rap” nor any other marketing term) and you wore out your Gang Starr cassettes. On some days in recent years, I’d say that rap as an art had reached its end-run, it’d all been done. But I stand corrected. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II is as serious shit as the original. And yes, it’s way better than Blueprint 3, so if you need another instant classic these days, go with Raekwon.
HEALTH – Get Color (10 September 2009, Lovepump United)
Before I start with the music on this one, let me tell you how super-disappointed that I am that I did not win a Colored Ticket. Of course, that was a play on Willy Wonka’s five golden tickets. The band inserted 66 colored tickets for 66 unique prizes into 66 of the album’s first-run CD pressing of 5,000 copies. I mean, my odds were pretty good, right? I pre-ordered and everything and I got a nice poster, and I open up my CD and there, there was no colored ticket. I was crestfallen. Just HEALTH’s lovely aesthetics, with the over-contrasted stylized red and white image of cells under microscopes that they seem to be using a theme for this album. They use lots of grapefruit-red and a mint-green that rest perfectly between “neon” and “sherbet” along with other such complimentary colors. They write everything in all caps Arial font, all the time. So that’s what you find inside, thank yous and a notice to play the album at a minimum of 90dB. Thanks for no fucking colored ticket!
The list of prizes, available in the press release, are nothing short of spectacular. The standards – an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles to chill with the bros for a long weekend and trip to Six Flags, free tickets to a show in your area, being a guest of the band at these shows, they were all at the top of the list. And from there on, the list gets weirder. Signed vinyls, of just any record they own. A HEALTH t-shirt, of course, with the option of it being worn by one of the dudes for a day before you get it. Win a lock of hair, or an astrological consultation from one of their moms, or some origami containing salvia (is mailing that a federal crime yet?). For the more unique experiences, you have the opportunity to get drunk on webcam with the band, make a milk-carton bird-feeder, and mail your creations to each other. To me, the most exciting were some of the magenta tickets: a historical-themed phone call from the band, and prank-calling a “prominent indie musician” together. Oh my goodness, who could it be!? Well, probably someone in the southern California scene. I bet Stephen Malkmus don’t take no shit. I wonder if you could drive Wavves to another breakdown. I’d feel bad if I did.
So yeah, the music. Last spring, the single “Die Slow” hit the Internet. This was not the HEALTH that made it cool to listen to noise! “Who leaked this mislabeled track to a blogger?” I demanded of the Internet. There was no response, just a Pictureplane remix later to appear on the Die Slow single. The prominent bassline reels like some kind of industrial song. The guitarists and their pedals still hit the signature on-off-on effects, and the spaced-out vocals still sound the same. But the cheesy synths become towering in the hook, if you can call it that, it’s like industrial disco-noise.
Of course, this didn’t come out of nowhere, following the release of their debut noisy and sometimes random self-titled album, a bundle of remixes by friends of the band was compiled as HEALTH//DISCO, the ultimate hipster post-dance party soundtrack of last summer. This of course included “Crimewave” (Crystal Castles vs. HEALTH), a mixed blessing bringing popularity to both bands… but I digress.
The band seems to be taking influence from Abe Vigoda, among others of their compatriots in the Los Angeles noise-rock scene based out of the downtown venue The Smell. “In Heat” is still heavy on the tribal drumming and some kind of twisted-circus sounding synths. “Severin” is as close to punk as they get, with fun little riffs interspersed between roaring and badass drumming. There’s lots of industrial sounds going on in the sense of metal-on-metal noises, but I’m not sure that it would appeal to fans of industrial music as such. “We Are Water” has these soft-screeching cavernous guitar feedbacks without comparison. “In Violet” is a nice closer. There’s probably a lot of drugs going into HEALTH’s work, and if I was more experienced in the usage of drugs, maybe I could tell you what the sound feels like. If I’m inaccurate in saying that Get Color is like heavy consumption of laughing gas and a bad batch of ecstacy and the only thing to drink is milk but you don’t care because you’re partying and you’re trying to concentrate on every little sound effect, then maybe someone who has actually tried that could name an album closer to it, but I couldn’t.
As an aside, HEALTH is one of those bands that people will tell you, “their recorded stuff’s okay, but I like them live.” HEALTH’s live stuff can still, even in the Get Color era be classified as noise (fortunately, in my opinion). They just get up there and fucking pound out the drums and claw at their guitars and stomp on their pedals and if anyone says that noise is not real music, I would contend that an artist needs such a deep sense of musicality to achieve what is probably the hardest feat in all of music – to make noise sound good.
I saw them about a year ago, and they staged the simplest but most effective act of rebellion against the crowd since The Rolling Stones started playing with their backs to the crowd: they spent most of the show laying down, banging on drum pads, and flipping their guitar pedals on and off. The crowd went wild just to see what was going on. This summer, when I saw them open a star-crossed outdoor show on Brooklyn’s side of the East River I expected them to debut some more heroin-industrial-noise or something. Instead, they pounded those tribal drums, they struck those guitars once in a while and let the pedals do all the talking, and the soft, eerie vocals even came through in what had to be the loudest outdoor concert I’d ever witnessed.
Anyway, I hope you buy this album even if noise-rock-disco isn’t something you’ll ever listen to. If you do and you win a colored ticket like maybe a phone call, can you at least let me listen in? HEALTH is playing with Pictureplane (their buddies who remixed Die Slow) at Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan on Thursday, September 24.