17 February 2011

2010: David Banner, Eminem

David Banner
Death of a Pop Star
Released December 21, 2010 (b.i.G.f.a.c.e/eOne)

Short Notes: Add one part gruff southern rap legend to equal portion backpacker producer, stir to combine. Results will vary.

Brandon: B-

This was a late addition to the list, and when Lin proposed we try to fit it in, I was thrilled. I’m a fan of David Banner, whose 2003 Mississippi: The Album is one of the most interesting rap records of the decade--a rough, banging mix of the gangster cliches and deep politics that’s an obvious touchstone for another of my favorite working rappers, Atlanta’s absolutely crucial Killer Mike. The addition of 9th Wonder, a throwback, golden age-style producer who regularly works with the likes of Murs, seemed like a recipe for success, and most importantly, a departure from Banner’s more recent pop friendly material.

But despite coming in at a taut 31 minutes, this is a loose, sloppy record. Banner is one of the most immediately engaging rappers in the business, but his gravelly menace is blunted here by both the smooth soul-pop production and his relative lack of lyrical bite. There’s a lot of female-sung hooks (by the likes, mind you, of Erkyah Badu) here, with 9th Wonder’s bass-heavy but trap-light production making this sound like a Blu & Exile record. Banner’s raps are sometimes great, but are generally a poor match for the music. Worse, his politics, which are usually spot-on, are marred by a singularly bizarre interlude at the end of “Something is Wrong” which may or may not be repulsively homophobic. There are still some interesting songs here (“The Light,” especially, sounds like a more familiar conscious club banger with slightly avant-garde production), but this record was mostly disappointing for me.

Lin: B-

Banner's 2003 track "Cadillac on 22's" is one of my favorite rap songs ever -- though, admittedly, it's more for the beat than any of his skills as a rapper. More or less Death of a Pop Star reinforces my preconceived beliefs based on that one track, mainly that Banner is not a bad rapper -- at worst, he's competent -- but that he's not as engaging or consistent as the major southern rappers. I'm happy this clocks in at a tight 30+ minutes, avoiding the classic overlong rap album problem, but it feels unformed and incomplete. There's some decent stuff here, but "The Light" is the only thing worth singling out as pretty good. It's quality enough that I may still go out and get his other albums, but only if they're cheap.

Released June 18, 2010 (Aftermath/Interscope)

Short Notes: "Album of the Year" nomination aside, Eminem returns with either his best album in years or another collection of nearly irredeemable raps.

Lin: B+

I'm not telling you anything new here, but Eminem is a hard artist to approach critically. His skills as a rapper are obvious and haven't been in question since (at least) The Marshall Mathers LP . I mostly hated and still hate that album outside of the singles. A song like "Kill You" exemplifies the problem: great writing, great rapping, great beat...but it is, at best, morally 'questionable' mitigated (maybe? somewhat?) by the final "I'm just playin', ladies" paper tiger. As far as I'm concerned, this song is a perfect microcosm of the Eminem thing during his cultural zeitgeist years. The second problem is that Eminem was the dominant force in not only rap but popular music during my first half decade of music geekdom. While I didn't like the first or second albums when they came out -- I was a latecomer to the genre -- it shaped both the music I loved and have come to love. However, the deeper issue is that, regardless of whether or not I liked or like the early music, it evokes nostalgia. And given Eminem's distinctive voice and style, some of that carries over into the new stuff.

The best part of Recovery is probably the first half of "No Love" -- Lil Wayne's portion. It's a stark contrast when Em comes in and it offers a revealing comparison between the former and (more or less) current champs. Eminem does not come out looking good. But here's the thing: I like this Eminem more than previous Eminiem or Slim Shady or Marshall Mathers. Yeah, he's claiming he's number one, and the conviction is there, but it's obviously not true. I don't want to imply any pity or schadenfreude -- it's more tragic than anything. Eminem is DeNiro's "I'm the boss" shadowboxing from the last scene of Recovery's "Raging Bull," all sound and impotent fury.

This context raises up some of the more mediocre tracks, providing (admittedly) some extramusical help. "Love The Way You Lie" and "Won't Back Down" are the highlights, but you already know that. "Going Through Changes" and "Not Afraid" are pretty good despite suffering from uninspired sample choices. Recovery does suffer from Overlong Rap Album Syndrome (77 Minutes?!) -- this album would be at least an A- with a half hour cut out. (My suggestion? "W.T.P" and pretty much everything between "Seduction" through "So Bad.")

Brandon: C-

Unlike Lin, I’ve never actually heard an Eminem record all the way through before. I’d guess this isn’t the place to start. As such, I don’t really have any baggage here--I’ve heard his singles, but his first record came out when I was a senior in high school. By that time, I was pretty much on to other sorts of things, musically, and no one I knew really listened to this sort of thing (except for my freshman roommate, who also loved Limp Bizkit, and whom I almost never spoke to). So listening to the album tracks here, my initial impressions are strongly reinforced: Eminem is a virtuoso rapper who is entirely and irredeemably self-absorbed, and as such boring to me. His pain and raw emotionality, which is apparently his most attractive attribute for many of his fans, is one-dimensional to my ears, and my ability to relate and sympathize with him--to enter into his pathos--is continuously undermined by the gross misogyny and homophobia he laces nearly all of his songs with. Now, like every rap fan I know, I tolerate too much of this sort of thing from artists I like (Kanye, Weezy, The Clipse) for reasons I’m not entirely able to justify. But here, it’s just so omnipresent, so overwhelming, that it’s distracting.

Frankly, I wanted to give this a lower score based on how little I enjoyed listening to it. But he is an undeniably amazing technical rapper, and I have to give him his due. His rhymes are complex, and his flow, which is where his true brilliance lies, is front and center here--he can rap at hyperspeed, then slow it down on a dime, and he handles complex phrases as well as any rapper in the game. In that sense, this sounds like those late-era Rakim records without Eric B--sonically, they bear no resemblance (as Em still has access to top-notch beatmakers and collaborators), but in terns of their ultimate vibe, both artists are trying to remind you why you liked them with technical virtuosity that’s sadly free of interesting content. This is the hip-hop equivalent of a Chick Corea album--an incredible talent seeking only to satisfy itself, with predictably unpleasant results.

1 comment:

man with no name said...

A funny thing, living in your first year away from home in a single room with a person you barely speak to, isn't it.