24 December 2010

2010 Albums: Big Boi, Big K.R.I.T.

Big Boi
Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Dusty Chico
Released July 5, 2010 (Purple Ribbon/Def Jam)

Short Notes: Who would have thought the Speakerboxx follow-up would be the best record by an OutKast member in 5 years?

With the all of the changes to the music industry since Napster flipped everything, Hip-Hop has experienced perhaps the biggest change of all. As sales have dropped and “big stars” like Rock Ross barely go gold, there’s been a lot of new room for local hip hop idioms and artists to have national stylistic influence and commercial exposure. At the same time, it’s gotten harder, not easier, for casual hip hop fans like me to follow new developments in the genre. The internet--the blogs, the mixtapes, the whole thing--actually make it more difficult for someone like me to get a foothold on what’s happening, and the emphasis on singles and unofficial releases doesn’t fit in well with my more traditional album-based ways of getting and thinking about music. I’ve retreated somewhat in the last few years from hip hop--not out of the music, but into known artists and labels (Rhymesayes, eg). All of this makes a big album by a “known” quantity like Big Boi really appealing (even if the cheapness of the official videos, especially "Shine Blockas," which does a real half-ass job of dealing with Gucci's prison-related absence, reminds us this is a new, austere era in rap).

Thankfully, the album is more than good enough to deserve the hype. Some of these songs--”General Patton” and the killer Gucci Mane collaboration “Shine Blockas”--date to late 2009, but the new tracks, most notably “Shutterbugg” more than make up for the inclusion of some previously available stuff. And how’s the music? Big Boi, despite sometimes seeming overshadowed by Andre 3000’s antics, is a monstrous rapper and rock-solid lyricists, and the beats--put together by a range of producers--are up to date and, for the most part, banging. I’d be hard-pressed to imagine another record unseating this one for “Best Hip-Hop Album” of 2010 (although I haven’t really digested Kanye’s newest yet). Highly recommended.

I sometimes feel like I've lost -- or never even had -- the ability to adequately judge new music that meets a minimum level of competence. I find myself often resorting to variations of "it's fine, but doesn't appeal to me." Nowhere do I encounter this as much as with rap. A good beat is a good beat and relatively easy to spot: but because of this, the beat has become necessary but even less sufficient for a great track. I'm neither rapper nor poet, and I know I miss more of the wordplay than I catch, especially when I don't have the time or desire to get into it. So, more often than not, I've started listening to most new rap, and think it's fine, but not especially special.

Sir Lucious Left Foot is more or less the same. I want to like it more than I actually do. I can't point out too many reasons for my lukewarm feelings beyond the belief that the album is ~15 minutes too long and sporting a couple of slow sections. Most of the selections are solid, if not mind blowing (outside of "Shine Blockas," which is great, especially the remix). The additions of "General Patton," "Tangerine," and "The Train Part II" probably provide enough reason to come back a few more times, but isn't enough for regular rotation.

Big K.R.I.T.
Krit Wuz Here
Released July 13, 2010 (self-released)

Short Notes: Southern rock newcomer is all over the mixtape scene in ‘10.

It would be fair to say that it’s hard for me to evaluate a self-produced mixtape (even one as good as this one) on the same day as a Big Boi record. I love the bangers on this record--”Hometown Hero” and “No Wheaties” are big tracks, and totally live up to the hype that K.R.I.T (a new Def Jam signee) is pulling down. But unlike the Big Boi album, I find that this record drags as often as it succeeds--the 19 tracks here are dominated by that kind of mid-tempo, rhyme-heavy rap that everyone likes in theory, but that only works in practice when paired with the most transcendent of beats. I’d love to see a 12 song studio album, something more focused, true to the man’s vision, but with a little more variety.

As a side note (and in partial response to some thoughts spurred on by Lin’s reviews), I’m wondering about the difficulties of evaluating new hip-hop albums (in whatever format) in the context of expectations we’ve formulated about what an albums is. The current indie/rock/metal/americana scenes, for all their diversity and evolution since the early 2000s, are still mostly about producing collections of songs that suit well-established expectations about what an album is--in terms of length, sonic and artistic cohesion, packaging, and distribution. Rap albums, going back to De La (and further, obviously), with the skits, and the multi-producer records of the 1990s, have always been different beasts. Mixtape culture is even further from the idea of the “album” a guy like me brings to the table, and I know that the few hip-hop albums on our list will suffer in our evaluations from the lack of conciseness and cohesion they often exhibit relative to, say, the Beach House record. This issue comes to a head, I think, with Kanye’s new record, which, for all its diversity, sounds more like a conventional rock album to me in the way that the songs are linked thematically and sonically. Just something to consider as we proceed.

I'm glad this is running the same day as the Big Boi review, as much of the above applies here too, except that I enjoy K.R.I.T. Wuz Here more. Is it better? Probably not, overall: there's not a whole lot here that I can point to and say "I've never heard anything like this before." The highs are just as high, though -- see, for instance, "Hometown Hero," which stands a good chance of being one of my favorite tracks of the year, or "I Gotta Stay." Overall, though, there are too many tracks here that are merely 'okay,' making the album feel exactly as long (70 minutes) as it is.

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