Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in 3000: Four More Verses in the Life of Benjamin André

[We've reached the end of 2012, and sadly a new OutKast album seems less likely to happen now than it did this time last year. Still, it would be wrong not to consider the year in André 3000, even if his output was limited to roughly one verse per fiscal quarter. NB that our ratings are based on the quality of 3000's verse(s) alone, not on the quality of the song or the contributions of other collaborators.] 

Gorillaz, "DoYaThing" (Converse single)
AM: What begins as a routine Gorillaz song takes a turn when André arrives with his cartoony chorus and verse. That’s before he really goes off. By then, Murphy and Albarn have been transformed into André’s backing band, pumping out a retro-futuristic mix that sounds like the J.B.’s playing dissonant krautrock. André loses it, fuelling the frenzy by screaming “I’m the shit” in a dozen different permutations. Favorite one: “I’m the shit! Bear with me!” When the comedown arrives your head is still spinning. 4/5

NS: A collaboration between Andre 3000 and Damon Albarn already sounds cool on paper, but that still couldn't prepare anyone for the relentless dominance 3000 exerts over all 13 minutes of this high-BPM electropunk number (and you better believe the 13-minute head trip is the only way to listen). 3000's verses here arrive in three parts--the first, blisteringly fast free association, the second, punkish yelping, the third, scaled-back self-criticism. The effect is exhaustive, to say the least. 5/5

Frank Ocean, “Pink Matter” (Channel Orange)
AM: Even before Dré comes in, “Pink Matter” distinguishes itself as the prettiest song on
Channel Orange (the shout-growls in the background work, somehow). But when the bass drops at 2:24, and especially when 3000 starts rhyming at 2:40, “Pink Matter” flies off to zones unknown. André plays a little guitar on the song, and sings, bringing things deep into Love Below territory. But it’s 3000’s verse that’s jaw-dropping--so fluid, so full of regret, rapped with such poise and wit, almost whispered, with sympathy and style, self-reflection and realness, gray matter and grace. Sixteen of the best bars I’ve heard, not just in 2012, not just from André, but ever. 5/5

NS: Channel Orange veers into 'Kastian territory (peep the bassline especially) at 2:24 of "Pink Matter," which is already a highlight in a record full of them. André's verse style here is reminiscent of the work he did with Drake last year, but "Pink Matter" has a less specific POV. Here, his work recalls Frank Sinatra on albums like In the Wee Small Hours, putting up a lonely, disengaged front to belie his disappointment with love and human interaction in general. Also, props to 3 Stacks for continuing to showcase his guitar lessons. Still, I'm confused by his withholding Big Boi from the record. Why the embargo on new OutKast collaborations, André? 4.5/5

Rick Ross, "Sixteen” (God Forgives, I Don't)
AM: The lush buildup sounds like it was lifted from Kaputt, and when 3000 wails the hook Ross and the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League clinch their luxury rap pedigree. Whose brand is more coveted than the fashionable recluse from Kast? The whole conceit of the song is that sixteen bars constrain a rapper, so Ross gives Andre way, way more than that. 3000 delves into an extended reminiscence about being a kid, in a start-stop flow, leisurely making his way to the present. “Flipper didn’t hold his nose, so why should I hold my tongue?” he asks. After the megaverse, a double-tracked Dré gets freaky and Ross ad-libs, the latter giving little indication that he has any idea what André’s saying. When 3000’s extended guitar solo begins, you get the sense that the Bawse has lost control of his own song. 4/5

NS: Sometimes, sixteen bars is not enough to fully expound on complicated topics, such as one's life. This is the thesis of "Sixteen," and what's interesting about this song is how Rick Ross and André 3000 prove this in completely different ways. Rozay approaches his extended verse span as an opportunity to create a series of flashy, visual quick cuts, stylized filmmaking in the manner of the 70s masters he often references. Dré, on the other hand, is more concerned with wordplay, and the complexities and tangles of associations his varying rhythm choices generate in the listener's imagination. His verse is at turns personal, political, and purely syllabic, as he spins tales of childhood heartbreak and adult disappointment. And his guitar solo deserves more love than it got--I liken his scratchy, primitive style to David Bowie on Diamond Dogs. 5/5

T.I., “Sorry” (Trouble Man: Heavy Is The Head)
AM: T.I. sounds like he raps with his teeth clenched the entire time. But never mind what the blogs say, you know? Tip brings along an angry beat that Jazzie Pha tosses some reflective piano on. André 3000 sounds amazing, spitting in double time, easing up, and warbling. He gets seriously contemplative, apologizing to his Mom and Big Boi, thinking back on his life, wondering if it’s been worth it and why he acted so strangely. Compelling, wise stuff--André probing his psyche like Big does on “Descending.” André also complains about internet music critics. “Boring, really?” Seriously, who could find this boring? 5/5

NS: Poor T.I. was destined for second place before he even started, as even he acknowledged in interviews about "Sorry". Backed by an odd, piano-based beat, André 3000 begins his verse with a bounce in his lyrical step, unleashing words at such a fast clip that it seems unbelievable how much he pauses. Content-wise, "Sorry" finds 3000 feeling even more forlorn and pessimistic than usual. Admitting, "I used to be a way better rapper and writer when I used to want to rap," Dré apologizes to his mother and his "rap partner" in turn, admitting his retreat into hermitry was born of music writers like ourselves paying such close attention to his verses. Is he fair to us? If anything, he pulls his punches. "Boring, really?" he asks. The incredulous reaction is mutual, André. 5/5 

[See here for last year's Rockaliser 3000 Beatdown, and here for our opinions on the latest Big Boi.]

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Beyond "Maggot Brain": Eddie Hazel's Other Greatest Solos

December 23, 2012 marks 20 years since the death of legendary Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel. Many years ago, I wrote this about the still-incendiary "Maggot Brain," an extended guitar solo off Funkadelic's third album that ranks among the best solos ever recorded:

For the ten minutes and eighteen seconds that constitute this track, Eddie Hazel attacks, commands, and distorts one's emotions in a way only few artists can claim to do. Throughout the rest of his recording career, going through his solo album Games, Dames, & Guitar Things (which I recommend if you can get a copy from Rhino), he would contribute uniformly excellent guitar leads, alternately dazzling in their technical ability and emotionally taxing, yet in the end it all comes down to "Maggot Brain." Few artists have been so defined by one book, or one painting, or one movie, let alone one ten-minute electric guitar solo. It is his ultimate triumph and, considering his later output, his tragedy.

While Hazel is still defined mostly as the instrumental powerhouse behind "Maggot Brain" (and to a lesser extent, as a primary songwriter in the early days of Parliament and Funkadelic), this has unfortunately led fans of Hazel, including myself, to ignore his many other accomplishments as a guitarist and recording artist. Hazel is a clear factor on Funkadelic's first three albums Funkadelic, Free Your Mind... and Maggot Brain, and along with his solo work and collaborations with other artists in the P-Funk aegis, he has recorded a body of work that is at least as large as, say, Hendrix's. With this in mind, I wanted to provide any curious Hazel fans with a list of what to check out next, after "Maggot Brain." Here are five of my choices.

Eddie Hazel, "Lampoc Boogie," Jams From the Heart EP
This extended instrumental guitar boogie, originally available on Hazel's 1994 EP Jams From the Heart, clocks in at even longer than "Maggot Brain" (11:55) but the tone of these two solos could not be more different. Though they both pay tribute in different ways to Hendrix, a bottomless well of guitar inspiration for so many, "Lampoc Boogie"  is limber and boisterous where "Maggot Brain" was portentous and elegiacal. Hazel's guitar melodies, played with such dexterity and breathtaking imagination, rumble and roar along to a simple bass-drum gallop that is just as astonishing for its simple, steady nature. In the grand tradition of other Hazel guitar jams, there's a fake fadeout, too.

Axiom Funk, "Pray My Soul," Funkcronomicon
This track, which comes from a compilation of various P-Funk contributions curated by Bill Laswell called Funkcronomicon, shows Hazel at his most reverent and austere. Once again taking his cue over a crisp four-chord rhythm guitar progression ("Maggot Brain" was also four chords), Hazel makes the most of the song's five minutes--he swoops and circles around simple blues chord patterns, bending the strings on his guitar like they represented a gateway to higher expression. "Pray My Soul" is a song that shows Hazel as the type of artist who values emotion and ingenuity over proficiency and skill, always.

Funkadelic, "Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts," Standing On the Verge of Getting It On
By the time George Clinton and co. started recording Standing On the Verge of Getting It On, Hazel's influence on Funkadelic began to lessen. This would continue to be the case later into the 70s, especially as additional P-Funk guitarists Garry Shider and Michael Hampton began to pick up some of the slack for an increasingly-absent Hazel. And yet I ultimately think of this album as ultimately Hazel's, as much as that classic first three LP punch. Part of the reason for this is the album's final track "Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts," a nine-minute slow burner that acts as the ultimate elegy to Funkadelic's early, most brilliant stage. Even with extremely talented instrumentalists like Shider and Hampton demonstrating their ample chops on future records, there was still something about Eddie's playing that could not be improved upon, or duplicated.

Funkadelic, "Miss Lucifer's Love," America Eats Its Young
This song, a tribute to the Beatles' harmonies at their most psychedelic, showcases Hazel's bizarre, unpredictable side, especially beginning at 2:43. Hazel lays down a thick, wah-heavy riff, spitting out bits of amazingly sculpted mini-melodies that distinguish themselves even over backing vocals that take much higher prominence in the mix. Drugs took their toll on Hazel's creativity and health, but it is hard to deny that, when he was on, few could match his escapes into the deepest recesses of guitar psychedelia, and he may not have reached those initial creative heights without drugs to provide the gateway. This is possibly another reason why his talent marked him for tragedy from a young age.

Parliament, "I Call My Baby Pussycat," Osmium
Hazel definitely had less of an influence on the Parliament sound than he would on Funkadelic, but he was definitely at his best on Parliament's forgotten 1970 debut, Osmium. Over one of Clinton's least subtle innuendos ever, Hazel taps on his fretboard like he's playing morse code, churning out a short but memorable solo in between the process of laying out a more standard wah groove. "I Call My Baby Pussycat" also showcases Eddie Hazel's best rhythm guitar playing, a mode for which he was always unappreciated. As he was in so many ways, and probably will continue to be, for a long time to come.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Vicious Lies Beatdown

On Tuesday, OutKast's Big Boi released his second solo album, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. (We both loved his first) To mark the occasion, Rockaliser's writers went through the album track-by-track, sorting the vicious lies from the dangerous rumors:

1. Ascending
AM: "If ya'll don't know me by now, ya'll ain't gon never know me," Big Boi intones on the moody intro, whose shimmering acoustic guitar we'll hear again. It's an interesting opening statement for an album of left turns. 3.5/5

NS: Big Boi's latest kicks off with some rich acoustic picking, pretty swirling background vocals, and a few drags of the snare. It's not unpleasant, but it's hardly a "Feel Me (Intro)." This production will return later in the record, to better effect. 2/5

2. The Thickets feat. Sleepy Brown
AM: A solid Organized Noise beat twinkles and pulses, thick with bass and trapped-out drums. Big extolls his own greatness throughout. Not one of his 10 greatest verses or anything, but as he spits about being "truly one of the the baddest motherfuckers to ever do it" he's proving his point as he makes it. Not sure where these thickets are, but I'd chill there. 4/5

NS: A Big Boi album without a single Organized Noize production would be a very sad thing. Luckily, Sleepy Brown is on deck to croon his way through the cracks of this slow, deep bass rumbler. Big's verses showcase the rapper at his jumpiest and most unpredictable. After more than 20 years, ON's production style is still so thick and concrete, you can glide over the eddies of smooth grooves. 4/5

3. Apple Of My Eye 
AM: Longtime collaborator David "Mr. DJ" Sheats is on the boards here, building things around a guitar that sounds like it was transported to Stankonia from a Peter, Bjorn & John song. Jake Troth, an uncredited songwritery guy, provides the hook--a little jarring at first, but it works. Give it a couple listens--Big is lithe on the mic, and Mr. DJ sprinkles his magic throughout, especially in the last minute. 4.5/5

NS: OutKast's third member Mr. DJ takes the production reins here, turning up the speed slightly yet reining back the tension on VLADR's first immediate masterpiece. "Apple" begins with Morricone-esque harmonics between keyboard and wooze guitar, and snaps to attention with a behind-the-beat guitar shuffle not too removed from Big's previous "Tambourine." The horns at the end seal the deal. 5/5

4. Objectum Sexuality feat. Phantogram
AM: One of three Phantogram collaborations on VLADR, which might have you wondering: did Sir Lucious Left Foot lose a bet with Phantogram's manager? Sarah Barthel's voice is a ghostly presence in Big Boi's world, but her hooks are a good fit for the darker, slower productions. The beat, Phantogram's, is pretty cool, like what an Earthtone III production might sound like if you sent it through fiber optic cables on the ocean floor. 4/5

NS: The first of what will be several bleak, slower songs, "Objectum" has a bizarre, stop-start structure and even weirder sound effects, but Big Boi finds a lyrical way through the electro clatter and weird violin samples. I'm not necessarily sold on Phantogram's chorus, but I dig the way it builds after the bridge. 4/5

5. In The A feat. T.I. & Ludacris 
AM: Twisting a line from Sir Lucious Left Foot's "Shutterbugg" into its hook, this slow-motion banger with its martial horn is a sort-of sequel to that album's "Patton." I'm pleasantly surprised by Ludacris' verse, but Tip's presence--he's OK, not at his best--brings to mind this year's "Sorry" (featuring André 3000, dearly missed here) and "Big Beast," both better songs than this. Not that "A" won't sound great blaring from your car speakers. 4/5

NS: The sample is a prominent swipe from "Shutterbugg," but the strutting, triumphalist monster beat is closer etymologically to Sir Lucious' "General Patton." All three Atlanta emcees prove themselves up to the challenge of honoring the tone of this gnarly head nodder, and demonstrate sickening amounts of hubris in the process, but it is Ludacris' swerving, dive-bombing style that is most ideally and hilariously suited to the track's killer rhythms. 5/5

6. She Hates Me feat. KiD CuDi
AM: The spacious, mid-tempo beat doesn't give Daddy Fat Sacks a lot to chew on, though he's got a lot on his mind, and he yawns this one out. One of the limpest beats to ever feature Big Boi. It doesn't help that the subject matter skirts close to "Ms. Jackson" territory, without that joint's electric charge. I could have done without Kid Cudi. 2.5/5

NS: In another proud OutKast tradition, "She Hates Me" is VLADR's first emotionally overwhelming number. Kid Cudi deserves credit for the hook, a romantic lament that turns hostile halfway through. Big Boi's skills here are as impressive here as ever--he's more controlled than usual, but the way he lags slightly behind the beat and enunciates the end of each phrase is fantastic. 5/5

7. CPU feat. Phantogram
AM: I'm not a big fan of that last joint, but the sequencing in the middle of the album is pretty great--the song with the hook "it's you that's on my computer screen/cuz it's you that's on my mind" follows the relationship problems one. That might sound porn-y, but that's not what "CPU" aims for. Not that Big doesn't get lurid on this album--he does, plenty, before and after this--but Phantogram program the chilly "CPU." Love the guitar at the end. 4/5

NS: Phantogram returns, just in time for the album to dip into full tilt "sad dance music." At first this nu-technology anthem doesn't seem best suited for Big Boi's talents, and indeed as far as those things go, I prefer Andre 3000's verse on 1998's "Synthesizer." But when the beat picks up, there's no denying its spacey yet subterranean propulsiveness. 3.5/5

8. Thom Pettie feat. Little Dragon & Killer Mike
AM: A wobbly, almost dubby street cut. Big takes the first verse, switching up his flow several times. Little Dragon have the middle third, and send the song deep into blunt-rolling territory. Batting third, Killer Mike is amazing, his verse as good as anything he spit on this year's R.A.P. Music. Maybe the best verse on the entire album. 4.5/5

NS: The first of two songs that mention the youngest Wilbury, "Thom Pettie"'s highlight is Killer Mike's killer verse, which delves into sexual particulars in a manner that R.A.P. Music never really got to. This is another song with a weird start-stop structure, but Yukimi Nagano's voice and cleanly distorted guitar solos ably fill in some of the blanks. 4/5

9. Mama Told Me feat. Kelly Rowland
AM: The Flush--they of Big's "Royal Flush" and "Be Still" by Janelle Monae (where is she?)--run a funky, vocoder-laden Sir Lucious beat through a translucent purple Gameboy Color. Which is fine, really good actually--the drums sound like Prince programmed them--though I wish it hit a little harder. 4/5

NS: When this video with Little Dragon first came out, I wondered if "Mama Told Me" was destined to be the next "Hey Ya"-level superhit. Guess not, but this song feels like such a single, if that makes any sense. Deviating from previous rap odes to mothers ("Dear Mama," "Hey Mama"), which were basically apologies, Big exults in the pride of fulfilling his mama's long-held expectations, as bubbly synths chirp in, as if in affirmation. 5/5

10. Lines feat. A$AP Rocky & Phantogram
AM: A cool Organized Noise beat--it sounds like they took the album's street single, and sliced up the keys and vocal lines into tiny little strips. Never thought I'd see A$AP Rocky on a Big Boi album, but he does himself proud. Big appears for less than a minute on his own 3:30 cut. He sounds pretty good, doesn't give himself nearly enough time to get going. 4/5

NS: Harlem rapper (and personal favorite) A$AP Rocky slots effortlessly into the VLADR aesthetic, throwing in a few vocal southernisms while retaining his distinctly New York identity via blisteringly quirky versage. Phantogram's chorus (them again!) is a slight momentum killer--this is yet another stop-start arrangement--but Rocky and Big complement each other so naturally, the rest is acceptable noise. 4.5/5

11. Shoes For Running feat. B.o.B. & Wavves
AM: Confusing collaborations with rock musicians are a part of hip-hop's very fabric. Big has more than a few on this album, which the material mostly justifies. But this is where I draw the line. B.o.B. prattles on about nothing, Wavves whines out a mall-punk hook, and then and a chorus of children imitate Wavves (really). It's a shame, because Big's first verse is great. 2/5

NS: I have no idea what Wavves' chorus is about--running away from death?--and B.o.B.'s verse doesn't do much besides pass time. But the kids chorus turns out to be a genius effect, and the song's chugging guitar and whistled vocals combine to overcome the sum of parts elsewhere. Ultimately, the evolving groove and Big's verse are what makes this track work. 3.5/5

12. Raspberries feat. Mouche & Scar
AM: Easily the weirdest thing here, the drone-soul of "Raspberries" is built around a two-chord keyboard oscillation that wouldn't sound out of place on a Sterolab album. Mouche, Scar and Big weave their voices together, and we're treated to Antwan Patton's loverman warble. Pshyched out, and cooler than a polar bear's toenail. 4.5/5

NS: VLADR's pace slows considerably on this track, and stays at a similar level for the rest of the record. On "Raspberries," Big Boi sings more than he raps, in a call-and-response arrangement with either Mouche or Scar (I have no idea which). The song is again about sexual conquest, but the tone is dire and downbeat, as if Big is losing interest in repeating such stories. 3/5

13. Tremendous Damage feat. Bosko
AM: The penultimate track's a reflective ballad, a bit like SLLF:TSOCD's "The Train, Pt. 2." I like the verses, but this could use the Southern flourishes of "Train." Bosko's chorus borders on dull, and the beat doesn't get exciting until the last minute. Like so many of these songs, what it needs is more Big Boi, and a little more funk. 3/5

NS: The piano melody is amateur stuff, and it never really develops, and yet somehow the song affects. Part of it is the ruminative nature of Big's words, especially in the section where he discusses his deceased father, the first "Dusty Chico" who served in Vietnam. Even when the song is gentle, there's a hard-edged tinge to Big's subject matter--it's a song about growing up and gaining perspective, and it takes a lot of musical chances to make some interesting points. 4/5

14. Descending feat. Little Dragon
AM: "Tremendous Damage" morphs into "Descending" smoothly, and all of a sudden we're back to the guitar waves of the intro. Yukimi Nagano's wail and Big Boi's warble float in the song's ether, getting heavy. Here's a weird, regretful, almost new agey cut that keeps both feet planted in OutKast's universe. No small feat. 4.5/5

NS: As promised, the creamy acoustic arpeggios of "Ascending" have returned, adorned with ghostly spiritual soundscapes courtesy of Little Dragon. Big Boi once again returns to the subject of his father, even going so far as to croon desperately "My daddy's gone," in what is likely the album's darkest moment. "Descending" is an austere track, but it builds into something refined and stately, a radical inversion of the casual boast song. It would only work as an ender on an album of this caliber. 4.5/5

Nathan's average score was 4.1, Aaron's was 3.8. Expect another OutKast-related Beatdown in this space in the near future. If you're feeling nostalgic, check out our Beatdown of Big Boi's first solo album.