SXSW Day 3: On Rap's "Little Emperor" Phase and Showing and Proving

Maybe we ought to blame Kanye--even though this trend started well before him, and will likely persist long after he retires to pursue French anime interior spaceship design. Like it or not, 'Ye's massive success re-removed a lot of barriers into the major label rap game. No longer did you need street cred, or an ice-grilled veneer, no longer did you need to kick raps about the bodies under your belt, the weight you push, or the clips you hold (though--of course--doing so didn't hurt).

The game had ossified and theoretically, lifting arbitrary notions on what it means to be a "real rapper," should've been the the best thing to happen since Biggie and 2Pac got shot and hip-hop turned mausoleum--yet all it did was create a new set of problems. Namely, that a new generation emerged with "Can't Tell Me Nothing," as their mantra. Thing is, it's not that "kids today" are inferior to their forebears, but rather that they need editors, or at least a legitimate set of checks and balances.

This was readily apparent at the Nah Right and Smoking Section party yesterday in Austin, and before I get into the break-down, Eskay and Gotty deserve a lot of credit for putting this showcase on. If there's a major gripe I have with SXSW, it's the de facto segregation that transpires when the majority of rap shows occur on the west half of 6th, far removed from the main strip. Ultimately, this creates an unspoken but tangible dividing line between white and black music, both unsettling for its racial and practical implications. Meaning that it's nearly impossible to see Camp Lo at 1:00 a.m, after getting out of an 11:45 Akron/Family set. So being able to see rap's young guns show-and-prove at a well-curated, on-time showcase, was a veritable godsend. Plus, I had the fortune of meeting both Eskay and Gotty yesterday, and can safely testify that they're both stand-up dudes, who deserve their spots at the top of the hip-hop media firmament.

But enough about my glad-handing. This is about hip-hop and the thoughts spinning through my mind when between sets, Peter Rosenberg of New York's spun vintage 90s classics: everything from O.C., to Das Efx, to "Doggy Dogg World," and "G'Z and Hustlaz." Our Old Testament, as evinced by the entire crowd reciting the lyrics from memory. I couldn't help but wonder how many of the MC's in the crowd today, would ever produce anything that could seep into our collective consciousness. Sure, there's bullshit like "Lollipop," or whatever 80s goth ephemera FloRida's sampling today--but I'm talking about great songs capable of transcending boundaries between hip-hop heads and dilettantes. And yes, if you bring up, "A Milli," you also lose.

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Contrasted with the talented but diffuse artists that performed yesterday, Rosenberg's greatest hits set elucidated the woebegone state of modern artist development. Take a record like Doggysyle--without Dre providing a guiding hand and insane beats, Snoop could've never dropped a perfect record, and to prove it, he never did after parting ways with the Doc. Take Das Efx, who needed Parish Smith and the Hit Squad to galvanize them. Being a great artist has never been a prerequisite to make a great album. No one ever checked for a CL Smooth solo joint, but his work with Pete Rock is indelible. Malachi the Nutcracker can barely string three sentences together, yet Livin' Proof is a classic, or at least close enough.

Moreover, with rappers epitomizing the worst excesses of American capitalism and the Generation Y mentality, they've adopted a coddled, me-first, approach. Who needs a partner when you can go solo? Who needs a mentor or judicious editing, when Lil Wayne can release 3,342 songs in a year, and go from a largely Southern/blog-rap phenomenon into the world's biggest pop star. But Weezy and 'Ye are anomalies, not role models. Compounding this with the implosion of the major label system--A&R's without hope of restitution, artists dropped after one album, the fact that LMFAO exists, to say nothing of Theophilus London. Times is rough and tough like leather.

Not to say that hip-hop is entirely lacking. Guys like Jay Electronica and Wale understand the power of paring fresh ideas and concepts to quality content. The Cool Kids and The Knux are aware that Phife and Tip (and really, even Big Boi and Andre) never amounted to much solo, but combined they produced some of the best rap music ever made. There's a lot more I'm leaving out, but it's enough with the mumbo-jumbo--it's fucking past noon again and I still haven't gotten into the showcase. If anyone needs an editor, it's me.

Blu @ Nah Right/Smoking Section Party (5:00 p.m.)

Skinny Slim of the world-class DJ crew, Philadelphyinz, and I were talking during Blu's set and he mentioned that he couldn't really figure out why he liked Blu as much as he does. My theory is that Blu doesn't do anything incredibly, but that he does everything really really well. Recently, a lot of people have criticized Blu for a perceived dullness, and I'll admit, the first half-dozen times I heard Below the Heavens, I was convinced the now-Warner Bros-signed rapper was another overrated Okayplayer hype job. I was wrong.

Blu isn't dull, he's calm. Lyrics that initially seem like recycled backpack bromides are always flipped in quirky fashion. Songs like "Blue Collar Worker," that should pass for second-rate Rhymefest, are riven with a sincerity, earnestness and three-dimensionality. While there may be nothing original in his delivery or even his beat selection (C.R.A.A.C Knuckles aside), there's a singularity to his artistry. Sometimes, uniqueness can stem from concepts, switching up your flow, or even your swagger--sometimes, it can comes from being a poignant writer and observer.

Blu falls into the latter category. At one point, I stood next to him while Tanya Morgan finished up their set, and it was hard to believe that the dude was even breathing. An unflappable resorvoir of cool, Blu wasn't trying to get wrecked, he wasn't trying to network or scheme on girls, he was just watching--like all good writers, simultaneously an insider/outsider.

Onstage, Blu instantly eviscerated any doubt that Warner Bros. had erred in signing him. Not only was his voice and poise peerless, with Exile in tow, Blu had the best DJ. This made for a performance, not a set--one emblematic of Blu's belief that rap today is too fast-food. While none of the artists who followed him (save for Brother Ali) have a single album to their name, Blu has three. Moreover, each record was done in collaboration (Exile, Ta'Raach, Mainframe) and each bear the salutary imprint of different set of eyes. Not only was Blu the highlight of the showcase, he testified to the enduring but rare ability to keep it real (whatever that means), in a sea of gimmickry and mixtape monotony.

Charles Hamilton @ Nah Right/Smoking Section Party (5:30-6:00)

If you're just tuning in now, the Harlem-raised 23-year old, Charles Hamilton, has spent the last year besieging the blogosphere with a glut of mixtapes, the color pink, and a Sonic the Hedgehog fixation. Contrary to popular belief, Charles Hamilton isn't bad. To get a deal with Interscope, and earn a spot at this sort of showcase, you can't completely suck. After all, the reason why Eskay and Gotty have emerged as two of the preminent tastemakers in the new media landscape is because they have good taste. On the other hand, Charles Hamilton isn't good.

Judging from seeing Hamilton, I assume the Sonic thing stems from the fact that he sort of looks like a video game character: diminutive, cartoony, pre-pubescent. Without Kanye paving the way, it's impossible to believe that the scrawny Hamilton wouldn't get laughed out of the Interscope boardroom. Beyond that, the kid possesses the same type of reedy whine that Kanye has overcome. Of course, Hamilton can rap. Watching him live, you can't deny it--his flow is nice, his energy level high, his passion unmistakable. Yet somehow it's just not enough. Minus the color-coded gimmickry, the cartoon re-appropriation, the quirky penchant for sampling shit like the Windows Media Player Theme, there just isn't much there.

Sure, "Brooklyn Girls," is a great song, but right now, it's the only one. Were Hamilton to find a talented collaborator, and expend his energy towards writing 11 more good ones, rather than spam-bombing blogs with daily mixtapes, he could have a shot at transcending to the next level. As it currently stands, I side with Skinny Slim: "this is everything I dislike about mixtape rappers, without any of the things I like." If he keeps it up, Hamilton might just spark his own genre: PG-13, cuddle-rap.

Mickey Factz @ Nah Right/Smoking Section Party (6:30-7:00 p.m.)

I was ready to laugh Mickey Factz out of the room. From the rap-Urkel appearance, to that horrible Honda commercial, to the witness reports I've heard from friends, everything I've seen prior to yesterday's show was inauspicious. But let it be unequivocally stated: Mickey Factz can rap his ass off. Think Freeway for the blog-rap set, wild tornado raps that seem incongruous to the dorky dude on-stage.

Unfortunately, perhaps more than any of his brethren, Factz suffers most severely from "Little Emperor" syndrome. Had Charles Hamilton and Factz formed like Voltron, rather than trying to make it own their own, they'd probably be one of the most promising duos out, their union allowing each other to make up for the other's shortcomings. Instead, both are competent, but ultimately disposable talents. For the lacerating power of his raps, Factz remains incapable of writing a "song." For all the buzz he's engendered, I'd wager that 97 percent of the readers of this blog couldn't name a single Mickey Factz tune.

Instead, he skips around, rhyming over everything from boom-bap retreads, to Jeezy's "Circulate," to electro poseur-rap beats that sound like rejects from a Justice album. Live, Factz embodies the rudderless direction of many of his peers--sans a manager, producer, mentor-figure to tell him, "yo, it might not be a good look to sell out before you've sold a record." For all his myriad flaws, to his credit, Asher Roth projects a consistent and clear image. Factz is an infinitely better MC, but all one gleans from his live show is that he's a hipster rapper (albeit a talented one), who probably has a copy of an Eiffel 65 CD stashed somewhere around his squalid apartment.

Bobby Ray (formerly B.o.B.) @ Nah Right/Smoking Section Party (7:00-7:30 p.m.)

I anticipated B.o.B's set more than any other at the Nah Right/SS party, and it was easily the most disappointing. Over the last year and change, the Atlanta rapper/T.I. protege has steadily proven himself as one of the most stylistically diverse and talented rappers of the new generation. His Hi, My Name is Bob mixtape was impressive, and his "Auto-Tune" parody showcased a sense of humor often lacking in contemporary hip-hop. On paper, it would seem that B.o.B. (now Bobby Ray) had all the tools one needs for greatness.

Which is why his set yesterday was that much more terrible. Backed by a four-piece rawk band, Ray seems to have swallowed the canard that to be a "serious artist" you can't be a rapper. This worked fine for Kanye, who never was much of a rapper to begin with, but all one needs to do is listen to "Prom Queen," to remember that the rap-rock stain that was Limp Bizkit. Instead, B.o.B. tried to front a rock band whose salient influences seemed to Durst & Co., Godsmack and Korn. Crunchy plumber-crack rock riffs that should've stayed buried in the bargain bin at a hair-metal specialty record shop.

When the dude deigned to actually rap, he was a beast, which made the ordeal that much more infuriating. I understand the impulse for artistic breadth. Hell, Serge Gainsbourg and Willie Nelson made reggae albums that I find a certain charm in. But at least when Andre 3000 decided to abandon rapping for facile Prince imitations, he'd already dropped three classics (and one near-classic). Shortly after the band lit into a flaccid cock-rock version of "Eleanor Rigby," with Bobby Ray screaming over the beat, I'd had enough. Maybe those shibboleths in DARE class were right after all. Maybe we all really d0 need someone to "just say no."


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