Bobby Ray, Drake, and the Prescience of Hip Hop

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The synthesis of rapping and singing surely has its prehistory in church, and found precursors in such acts as the Last Poets, while on record it goes back to the early days of hip hop, when The Fatback Band invited Tim Washington onto their 1979 record for “King Tim III (Personality Jock)”, which was shortly followed by the game changing “Rapper’s Delight”, on which an ad hoc assembly of non-rappers killed it over Chic’s “Good Times.” Since then, the genres have continuously converged, while the rapper-singer has been a staple since at least The Sequence, and boasts a long history written by such diverse acts as UTFO, Queen Latifah, Teddy Riley, Bell Biv Devoe, Boyz II Men, Domino, Warren G, Fugees, Mikah Nine, The Roots, OutKast, Mos Def, Cee-Lo Green, N.E.R.D., and Kanye West.

drake-thank-me-later-album-cover_t.jpgToday, multi-talented vocalists who shift effortlessly between rapping and singing fetch top dollar at record companies looking for the next hit. Right now, this is evidenced by two young (early 20s) rapper-singers topping the charts: the 23-year old Canadian Drake just dropped his debut album Thank Me Later on Wayne and Birdman’s Young Money Records, while the North Carolinian Bobby Ray aka. B.o.B. has recently released his first longplayer B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray on Grand Hustle/Atlantic. Their superficial similarities elicit a comparison, which reveals real differences in concept, skill sets and, ultimately, quality.

Thank Me Later is a polished, autotuned catalogue of timely pop formulae. On the first single, “Over”, Drake asks himself, “what am I doing?”, answering his own question, “Oh yeah, that’s right, I’m doing me”. He doesn’t seem sure though, and one can see why: he comes across more like a product than an artist.

Picks of the Week

The picks of the week from around the web.

  • RSA Animate: David Harvey breaks down in simple terms the financial crisis from his perspective, accompanied by some great instructional white-board cartooning (above).
  • Amoeblog: Billyjam interviews hip hop legend Krs-One in depth, on the occasion of the release of his new book The Gospel of Hip Hop. As usual the Teacha’s all over the place and highly idiosyncratic, but it remains lovely to hear him speak about hip hop.
  • London Review of Books. Rebecca Solnit writes on the repercussions of the Gulf oil spill. A little wobbly, but with some interesting reporting from the ground.
  • Vanity Fair: Survey among 52 world-renowned architects and specialists on the most significant works of architecture since 1980. Of course this is just a best-of list, but it’s compiled from the responses of people who know what they’re talking about and serves to highlight many of the remarkable buildings of the last 30 years, with a great overview provided in a slideshow. I’m suprised Santiago Calatrava didn’t make the final 21, but that’s the nature of these things…
  • Mail from David Mazzucchelli

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    I recently received the following correspondence from cartoonist David Mazzucchelli, re: my old article on his “Big Man” and its similarities with Bill DuBay and Alex Toth’s “Daddy and the Pie” (above):

    “Dear Matthias,

    I came across your essay, “The Child and the Giant,” several years ago, and would like to thank you for your flattering words (about me). Since I’ve noticed that it is still posted at your site (and rather prominently), I would also like to suggest one correction. Hard as it may be to believe, I had never seen “Daddy and the Pie” until about ten years AFTER I made “Big Man.” (Although Toth did have an influence on my work — especially at certain periods — it was based on a very limited acquaintance with his work.) Imagine my own surprise at seeing the similarities you discuss — down to certain panel compositions! Chalk it up to lack of originality on my part, I guess.

    Sorry if this pulls one of the legs out from under your argument.

    Best wishes,

    David Mazzucchelli”

    As I answered, to the contrary: I’m very happy to receive such a corrective. When I first saw “Daddy and the Pie”, it immediately struck me that it must have served as inspiration for “Big Man”, not the least because Mazzucchelli had channeled the older master so beautifully in Batman: Year One. I figured it couldn’t be a coincidence, but of course it could.

    Thanks, David!

    Roskilde 2010: A Look Back

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    Wow, it’s been three weeks. They just disappeared. But yeah, I did want to make a few points related to this year’s Roskilde Festival, before the subject gets way too old. It was a great time as usual, but rather poignantly for the year in which it celebrated its 40th anniversary, the festival seemed to be straining at the seams, trying to reconfigure itself to cope with globalisation and the digital age.

    There’s been a lot of criticism of the new restrictions imposed by the festival, most notably disallowing the carrying of even a single drink (even water) onto the festival grounds, as well as the profusion of new fees they levied on press and other people working there. This was irritating, sure, with the drinks issue seeming especially ungenerous (one wonders whether the money earned through increased drinks sales outweighs the problematic signal thus sent by what remains a non-profit festival, not to mention the antipathy it engendered in the festivalgoers). As for the media restrictions, many of the people who have populated the vanity fair that is the so-called media village over the years have been freeloading on the festival’s dime for long enough that these dispositions were understandable, even if they frustratingly affected people who’ve actually been putting in a lot of work in support of the festival for a long time. Ideally, the festival will be able to fine-tune these restrictions more fairly in the future, but I’m not holding my breath.

    More problematic was the elimination of the Astoria and (to a lesser extent) Lounge stages and the resultant cut from the programme of around fifty acts. Besides naturally affecting the festival’s musical diversity, this contributed to unusual and persistent congestion around the stages. Clearly a decision made to compensate for cash flow problems at a time when musical acts charge more for live performances than they used to because of falling revenue from record sales, it is a problem that won’t go away and needs serious thinking on the part of the festival organisers if they want to maintain Roskilde’s image as arguably the highest quality, most diverse and forward-thinking festival on the summer circuit.

    Distant Relatives — Nas & Damian Marley Interviewed

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    One of the most positive musical surprises this year for yours truly has been the recently released Distant Relatives, which sees reggae scion Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley and hip hop veteran Nas teaming up for an Afrocentric album on the theme of our common heritage.

    Far from an assured success, the collaboration and the thematic focus the two have selected make for a remarkable consistent album, containing moments of vocal fire as well of spiritual oomph. The maturation Marley exhibited with last year’s remarkable Welcome to Jamrock continues on this record—his vocals are more varied and self-assured than ever—while Nas has not been this consistent on a whole album for many years.

    Musically, the album could have been a little more adventurous, sounding perhaps a little too polished, but it is skillfully and melodically composed by Damian and his brother Stephen and carries the amazing vocal performances perfectly, with nary a weak track and only one or two instances of ill-advised sentimentalism.

    I caught up with the two of them on their tour stop in Copenhagen the week before last, a few hours before a fantastic, sold-out show at Store Vega and got the chance to ask them some questions for Rapspot.dk. I was joined by my buddy, DubCNN’s PTA. Since we were in his hotel room, we started talking to Marley, but Nas showed up about half-way through.

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    Matthias Wivel: How did the album come to be? What made you decide to work together?

    Damian Marley: The album came to be because we were respecting and being fans of each other’s music. I invited Nas to be on the Welcome to Jamrock album, on a track called “Road to Zion”, and he had invited me to do some work with him on the Hip Hop Is Dead album—unfortunately, the song that we did together didn’t make it onto that album—so we always had an interest to do more work together. And then our management teams came up with the idea to do an EP of four songs based upon Africa. And when we started working on that EP, it became an album, so that’s how it happened.

    Traces of Soul, Mind, and Body

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    In the second edition of his great collection of artists’ biographies, Le vite dei piu eccelenti pitturi, scultori ed architettori (1568), the Tuscan painter and architect Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) wrote the following about the significance of drawing:

    “Seeing that Design, the parent of our three arts, Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting, having its origin in the intellect, draws out from many single things a general judgement, it is like a form or idea of all the objects in nature, most marvellous in what it compasses, for not only in the bodies of men and of animals but also in plants, in buildings, in sculpture and in painting, design is cognizant of the proportion of the whole to the parts and of the parts to each other and to the whole. Seeing too that from this knowledge there arises a certain conception and judgement, so that there is formed in the mind that something, which afterwards, when expressed by the hands, is called design, we may conclude that design is not other than a visible expression and declaration of our inner conception and of that which others have imagined and given form to in their idea.”

    The Italian word for drawing is disegno, a broader and more complex term than the more straightforward English ‘drawing’ and ‘design’. Disegno transcends these to encompass the very idea that emerges as drawing. As is apparent from Vasari, it is an epistemological term that unites spirit and matter.

    ‘Don’t Try’: The People’s Laundry

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    The inimitable ‘Li Se’, in whose “extended network” I find myself, has finally opened the floodgates and is committing to writing the kind of intellectual effluvium that people in said network have come to appreciate in conversation over the years. Written on the principle, appropriated from Charles Bukowski, of ‘not trying’, it is blogging as laxative and the ongoing discharge is invariably original, inspiring and entertaining. Catch insights, amongst many other things, on contemporary China, the vagaries of contemporary theory, and eccentric music. Tune in before the trying starts.

    Picks of the Week

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    The picks of the week from around the web.

  • The Guardian: “The Unwanted”. Joe Sacco on African refugees in Malta in the first installment of a 48-page reportage that originally ran in the Virginia Quarterly Review.
  • Harvey Pekar. The death of the pioneering comics writer this week elicited some fine journalism around the web: Tom Spurgeon’s obituary, which features testimonies from a number of comics notabilities, is a great place to go if one wants an introduction to Pekar’s life and work; Gary Groth’s two excellent Comics Journal interviews, from 1984 and 1993, would be the next; Eric Reynolds’ personal reminiscence is an example of the writer’s important influence upon a generation of readers and cartoonists; and Vanessa Davis’ short comics tribute provides a touching note. UPDATE: David Hajdu provides a critical corrective.
  • Debate on R. Crumb’s Genesis: over at HU, Ng Suat Tong wrote an involved and thought-provoking critique of the great cartoonists recent, major book, which elicited a fine response by Ken Parille and a further post by Suat, as well as a lot of interesting discussion in the comments of the posts.