Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: firstname.lastname@example.org
When rap music and other aspects of Hip-Hop culture originated in the 1970s, they were wrongly seen by many as a passing fad that wouldn’t last long. Now that Hip-Hop has infiltrated all of popular culture and become perhaps the most important musical and cultural movement since rock and roll, it is fitting that it has moved into its postmodern stage, and no one epitomizes this idea better than the New York duo (or trio, if you count their hype man, Dapwell) known as Das Racist. Emcees Heems and Kool A.D. named their crew after a brief but memorable moment in the brilliant sketch comedy series Wonder Showzen, just one of the staggering multitude of pop culture references that fill their lyrics. As Heems explains it, “I think being minorities at a liberal arts college and that type of environment had an impact on both the way we view race and our sense of humor, which people often use as a tool to deal with race. I always felt like Wonder Showzen was a television show that captured that type of thing perfectly.”
This balance between humor and genuine anger at racism and other social ills fills DR’s music as well, competing with jokes, allusions and references for space in their absurdly dense lyrics over club beats that allow the casual listener to just bob their heads and dance, in case they’re not inclined to decipher what DR means when they describe someone as “hard to read like Finnegan’s Wake” (in an insanely catchy song called “Coochie Dip City,” no less). The irreverence of their wordplay and the fact that they first gained notice for the almost sublimely ridiculous single, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” has led some to dismiss DR as joke rap, but this is an unfair label because they are actually extremely skilled emcees with an obviously deep knowledge and love of Hip-Hop. Heems sums their approach up quite well on “Don Dada,” from their first mixtape, Shut Up, Dude: “Is it parody, comedy, novelty or scholarly? A little bit of column A, a little bit of column B.”
With their follow-up mixtape, Sit Down, Man, Das Racist continued to gain respect as true lyricists, moving further away from both the “joke rap” label and the often equally irksome “conscious” one. However, this is not to say they don’t clearly embrace the power of humor, without sliding down the slippery slope of making actual novelty music. As Heems says in one of the most brilliant and hilarious interviews of all time, “All I wanted to do was make some jokes – mostly about race, though not necessarily consciously – over dance music that would serve to undermine it so Talib Kweli fans wouldn’t like it.” With their two mixtapes and the full-length debut album, Relax, Das Racist is proving to be no joke, even if their live show is a little bit like House Party 2.
Since beginning with the smash hit Come Away With Me in 2002, Norah Jones’ recording career has been a study in slow, carefully measured decline. Clearly not willing to pigeonhole herself as a crooner of piano ballads, Jones has tugged away from the dulcet tones of her debut – but because she has label bosses to answer to (or maybe just because she’s smart enough to stay the course), she hasn’t totally broken with the sound that made her famous, and the result has been a string of lukewarm records that hint at the artist Jones wishes she could be, if only the stakes weren’t so high.
The shame of it all is that Jones’ kitten’s purr of a voice, while perfect for selling lattes, sounds just as fine – if not finer – out of its established context. Over the years, Jones has built a reputation for herself as a terrific guest vocalist with a wonderful sense of humor, popping up on recordings by everyone from Outkast to Ray Charles, and singing about everything from Chex Mix (on the Lonely Island song “Dreamgirl”) to motherfuckers (Peeping Tom’s “Sucker”). Sadly, neither of those songs made the cut for this collection, but you get the idea: …Featuring Norah Jones might bear the unmistakable stink of a contract-fulfillment release, but by bundling up 18 noteworthy collaborations, it does an arguably better job of highlighting her strengths than anything since Come Away With Me.
If there’s a real quibble here, it’s that the really left-field stuff (like the Lonely Island and Peeping Tom songs) was left off, and while you do get to hear Jones doing stuff she can’t do as a solo artist (like playing hook girl for Q-Tip and Talib Kweli on “Life Is Better” and “Soon the New Day,” respectively), much of …Featuring‘s charms are more subtle, like hearing her slip inside Joni Mitchell’s “Court & Spark” alongside Herbie Hancock, or her lovely vocals for Charlie Hunter’s “More Than This” cover. Taken as a whole, it doesn’t reinvent Jones’ sound the way she often seems halfway inclined to do, but it’s a damn sight more interesting than, say, 2009’s The Fall. Here’s hoping she listens to this compilation often while composing her next full-length set. (Blue Note 2010)
RIYL: unexpected collaborations, the R&B Top 40, hitting “shuffle”
He’s more of an elder statesman than a hitmaker these days – his last album came out 15 years ago, and his influence has been on the wane since the ’80s – but the term “living legend” may as well have been coined to describe Quincy Jones, and he proves it all over again with the ridiculous number of superstar guests assembled for Q: Soul Bossa Nostra.
Like anyone who’s ever been successful in the music business, Jones isn’t shy about his own accomplishments, and Bossa Nostra functions essentially as an album-length tribute to himself, with modern hip-hop and R&B artists making cameo appearances on a rundown of Q-affiliated classics like “Strawberry Letter 23” (featuring Akon), “You Put a Move on My Heart” (a show-stopping Jennifer Hudson), the “Sanford and Son” theme (walking acronym factory T.I. and B.O.B.), and the title track (Ludacris). Generally speaking, it’s all a lot better than it has any right to be; for one thing, Jones has to have a marvelous sense of humor to invite, say, Talib Kweli to turn “Ironside” into a hip-hop showcase, or ask Snoop Dogg to add his verses to “Get the Funk Out of My Face.” More importantly, most of the artists sound like they have genuine affection for the material, and they produce some genuine highlights, including John Legend’s lovely “Tomorrow,” Mary J. Blige and Q-Tip’s “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me,” and the Wyclef-led “Many Rains Ago (Oluwa).”
Like most compilations, Bossa Nostra has the occasional bald spot; for instance, it’s easy to assume that Jones tucked Amy Winehouse’s disastrous take on “It’s My Party” late in the album because he listened to the tapes long enough to wonder why it sounds like Winehouse lost her teeth on the way to the studio, and not a few listeners will blanch at the notion of T-Pain lending his Auto-Tune croon to a new version of “P.Y.T.” But these are minor complaints, given the overall strength of the rest of the record – and how much quibbling is really necessary when you’re talking about an album that concludes with a rap-a-riffic version of the “Sanford and Son” theme song? It won’t light up the charts the way Quincy did with The Dude in 1981 – or even 1989’s Back on the Block – but it’s a helluva lot of fun, and proof that the living legend hasn’t lost his touch. (Interscope/Qwest 2010)
It’s been a decade since Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek released their first album as Reflection Eternal. Following that album, Train of Thought (a critical and commercial success), the former has maintained his position as a darling of the hip-hop underground, releasing several albums that cemented his status as a lyrical genius. The latter has branched out into more commercial waters, providing beats for the likes of 50 Cent and the Game. The two have worked together sporadically in the last decade, but they’ve finally returned for a full-album collaboration with Revolutions Per Minute.
On this long-awaited effort, the Brooklyn MC and the Cincinnati DJ pretty much keep it the same as it ever was, with solid rhymes over soulful production. Kweli remains an amazingly gifted and literate rhymer, whether the subject matter is political (“Ballad of the Black Gold” could not be more timely) sensual (“Long Hot Summer”), or just plain ol‘ hip-hop braggadocio, as evidenced by the all-star posse cut “Just Begun.” As on the first Reflection Eternal album, Hi-Tek’s production is solid but unspectacular. Kweli’s worked with better producers (how dope would a Kweli/Kanye collaboration album be?), but he and Hi-Tek have a chemistry that keeps Revolutions fairly enjoyable. While the forays into crossover territory (featuring the likes of R&B songstress Estelle and hipster-pop duo Chester French) should probably be avoided, fans who’ve waited patiently for this album to surface will be pretty satisfied (and totally not surprised) with what they hear. (Blacksmith/Warner Bros. Records 2010)