Thursday, March 23, 2006

Triple-A Rap

Cory Gunz, Jae Millz, Maino, Papoose, Saigon, Tru Life: the cause of, the product of, or the cure for New York's declining relevance in rap music?

When a baseball team goes through a slump, the manager will usually shake things up, in hopes that a different lineup or positioning can provide the answer to all that ails the team. A new leadoff hitter may emerge, someone off the bench might find a starting job, or a strong left-hander could be moved in from the bullpen. You keep you perennial players in the spotlight, relying on them to add veteran leadership, and you send up the youth from the farm system to see what kind of spark they bring.

Suffering a multi-year slump themselves, the state of New York Hip-Hop has been on a steady decline. Jay-Z still is everyone's favorite, and 50 Cent can move records better than a fleet of U-Haul trucks, so those vets stay where they are, but the gods of NYC rap, these managers of mutli's, have been trying their best to produce a lineup capable of reclaiming the throne besieged by the likes of Houston and Atlanta. One of the measures taken has been calling up the kids from the farm system, the mixtape and battle circuit, and testing their swing. Each of those aforementioned rappers (Cory Gunz . . .Tru Life) has been heralded, in some sense, as the answer, the key to putting New York back on top. But how real is it really?

Championed as The Second Coming, Illmatic was part of a series of answers thrown by New York back at a G Thang West Coast. With Wu-Tang as a crew, Biggie as a mythic Puffy-led charge, and dudes like Buckshot, Jeru, and OC chiming in on the sides, Nas stood out. Now he didn't exactly blaze the market out the gate, but in recent years, when people have looked to match this new breed of New York up-and-comer with someone from the past, Nas, the 5-Mic, blunted, solo, street poet, who flipped the script in a nine-song set, has been the go-to comparison. They're looking for someone to put out a debut that comes from the dungeons of rap, someone to stand tall and atop the city blocks and bring the crown back. However, try as they might to recreate the same taste that took up a whole coast, Cory Gunz, Jae Millz, Maino, Papoose, Saigon, and Tru Life are working off the wrong recipe.

All of these rappers have their promise based on a background of mixtapes and straight-to-the-corner videos. They are the bastard children of Big L's style and 50 Cent's hustle. Kay Slay, Green Lantern, Smack DVD, these are their vehicles for exposure, their figurative booster chairs to grab a seat at the big kid's table. However, due to a deluge of mixtapes helmed by these rappers, a near flooding of the market, the mystery of and subsequent interest in the up-and-coming NY MC has been struck a blow. They are supposed to be the answer to the home team's slump, but, instead, because of the ubiquity of these mixtapes, especially before any proper album release, any response they represent has been saturated to the point of non-interest.

This notion of mystery is key. Mystery at least implies a personality to arouse curiosity. That curiosity spurs interest, which produces buzz for a rapper or their project, something tangible to grab a hold of. However, if MC Smack DVD has been on DJ 15 Minute's bi-monthly mixes, jumping over every new beat like Busta Rhymes on speed and desert sand, redundancy replaces mystery, and who cares? They've shown all their cards already. (This is not to suggest that there aren't exceptions of a rapper, say a Lupe Fiasco, putting out 2.5 mixtapes before a release date is ever announced and still maintaining a pulse, but Lupe's different in that he has a definable and multidimensional personality, he's something to watch. Jae Millz, Cory Gunz, these guys, they're gray suit rappers, stale in a sea of one-dimension. They grow tired quick.)

Nas' recipe was that mystery, he had buzz. This is what Papoose and Saigon, representing the rather dubious best of the lot of them, don't have. They may own some hype, but in the years they've been building it up, they've also jeopardized what could be a bit of their charm. MC Serch has spoken about Nas' left-field Jesus-snuffin' and how, afterwards, the QB upshot basically disappeared back into the jungle, only to be tracked down just in time for Back To The Grill. Still, in the three years between the release of the Main Source LP and Illmatic, you got only these two guest spots and a soundtrack feature. What you didn't have was a half dozen of-the-moment remixes or see a line of DVDs or a catalog of TV appearances.

While I am perhaps more favorable towards Saigon, though mainly for the Just Blaze association, Papoose is the perfect example of what I'm trying to explain. With some obscene double digit number of mixtapes and all the screaming of a Drama King on his side, Papoose has yet to even officially announce a label home for his debut album. Because of this, one must ask if a rapper like Papoose truly necessitates multiple mixtapes, let alone a dozen. If his most recent collection, A Threat and a Promise, is any indication, that answer might not be so kind. By stringing along and up his listeners with a box full of these recorded odds and ends, not only is any mystery absent, but, in its place, no catching personality has emerged.

Papoose is bland, bereft of style, trapped by his own voice, the mouthpiece of a soldier and not a general. In between senseless posturing (beating up a cab drive is what's hood?) and cliché similes ("New Era like a fitted cap"), while admittedly some good lines and the occasionally clever subject do manage to creep in, Papoose is inevitably sabotaged by his own voice. The voice, the means to translate and articulate whatever's down on paper, is that unteachable talent that can make the mediocre get over, at least, or the promising perish. So despite sticking close to the creative concept behind Law Library, Pap's voice, flanked by a flat line flow, paints the proceedings with a palette of plain, unconvincing and uninspiring. And don't even ask about hooks, because in those moments which often require the utmost of charisma, he just doesn't have it (How Many Shots). Ultimately, Papoose is merely going through the motions of a tough guy, sounding indistinguishable from any other rapper with a low-brim bill and a reported arrest record. There's too much front and not enough swagger. There is no sense of entitlement. And even on a sad type song, for example, Flashback, because his voice is so stilted and stiff, it comes off rather unremarkable, and borderline contrived.

However, Papoose has fans, and I won't try to argue that they're strictly lunching on some Kool-Aid. Those times when he can prove better are when the beats are lively enough to mask some of his vocal shortcomings, and he's able to just ride the Curtis Mayfield horns on home, for example. With a sample from The Other Side of Town and ushered along by Nas, Across the Tracks manages to fare better than the norm. Nas himself actually doesn't come off too well. More a stanza than a full verse, while he still manages to provide some image-strong descriptions ("silver lady with the wings, she pop up, pretty wood interior"), Nas' rich voice helps get over whatever lyrical inadequacies are present. On the other hand, Papoose would seem to have the better rap, but because he chooses to manipulate his voice by simply raising it a register, it's just a louder shade of monotonous. His verse reads better than it sounds.

Not coincidentally, this is the same dilemma Papoose meets with on the recent Touch It remix, where his five finger / five borough breakdown is an on-paper success but a pronounced disappointment. I hate to keep harking on this one point, but if a rapper's voice is graced with no real style or character besides high and low, then it stands a failing means of transporting the music. Hip-Hop is based on the how more so than the what. It's not about what records you have, but how you freak the sample. It's not always about what you say, but how you say it. (And the best MCs can satisfy both the how and the what.) In the end, lacking any real depth, flair, or overall alluring quality, while Papoose isn't an utter failure by any stretch, I can't foresee a future where he plays a part in New York getting its stride back, getting its voice back.
Ferrari floors are clean
Drawers are clean, what?
Verses, all my bars are mean
Papoose f/ Nas: Across the Tracks
BONUS: Papoose: Alphabetical Slaughter
BONUS: Curtis Mayfield: The Other Side of Town


Blogger Fletch said...

Couple footnotes

Hype = Saigon, Papoose
Buzz = Nas pre-94

"Hype" reminds me of a lot of noise, screaming, and all sorts of dramatic movements

"Buzz" is steady, silent climbing anticipation, something you feel, more than you get yelled out about.

To further differentiate between the two molds, think back to school days. There was the kid who sat in the back of the class and seldom said a word. But when he did speak, he talked about putting automatic guns to nuns, and everyone turned their heads instantly, as if to say, "where the hell did that come from?!" There was intrigue in that mystery. Conversely, recall the kid that always felt like he had to get an edge in word-wise. He was the guy that didn't stop talking, and maybe when he talked, it was just snide side remarks, hollow punch lines. He did this so often, over and over and over, to the point where you'd shoot back, "shut up, gather a complete thought, and work towards a point." That's Nas pre-94 vs. Papoose, Saigon, whoever. "Shut up, gather a complete thought, and work towards an album."

March 23, 2006 11:23 PM  
Anonymous Colin said...

Papoose has completely oversaturated himself and streched what he had over way more space than it could cover. His good tracks have been some mice lyrical concepts with little replay value ("Alphabetical Slaughter") whereas Saigon has made music with more to it with a real meaning ("The Color Purple.") And he still did Papoose's thing better than Pap ("Letter P"). If any new NY MC can bring back NY right now it's Sai-giddy. Followed by Tru-Life on the strength of "New New York".

As for the actual song, it's a very nice track, but like you said Papoose reads better. I don't really check for him anymore because of that voice. Same reason I can't do UK rappers. The voice just annoys me.

March 24, 2006 1:03 AM  
Blogger Hummingbyrd said...


I disagree. Papoose is going to be extra. While there are some benefits and drawbacks to working w/ Kay Slay, at the end of the day, Nigg@s are hungry and gotta eat.
It would be in his best interest to start his own label, owning his own masters, w/ a 50/50 distribution deal.
Not having control over his contract will do more harm than his relationship w/ Kay Slay.

March 24, 2006 5:04 PM  
Blogger Fletch said...

I'm not saying I think Papoose should be left penniless and find some occupation other than rap. What I am however saying is that after hearing one mixtape, two mixtapes, or a dozen mixtapes from dude, I don't hear anything drawing me to listen to him anymore. I understand his appeal in a very small demographic set, but there's nothing but a peculiar name to distinguish him from any other MC with a gratuitous number of street compilations to claim.

Is he going to be extra special skills-wise? I don't know, how much progress has he made from 98 to the present? He seems to be at a point now where he's notable mainly for the sheer number of releases and because NY so desperate for a comeback. I mean, I'll buy my copy or not, so overall sales don't matter much to me--Illmatic took 7 years to hit platinum--but with a rather mundane personality, versus a Saigon who's in a similar place but more charismatic and more the showman (in a non-Puffy sense), and a tiring voice, I can't see him getting over to anybody who's not already a fan at this point.

But Kay Slay reminds me of the bully from Billy Madison, "O'Doyle Rules." I Doubt Mr. Drama King is gonna be the deciding factor in Pap's general success, unless he can manage a nice contract for the kid, but, at least to me, he's become a rather off-putting staple of a stale New York rap scene: guilt/association, a lot of hollow threats and vague boasting without much to back it up.

I respect Papoose's hustle and all, he's hungry as you mention, but he's not exactly satisfying my particular appetite. And instead of getting shot nine times, is twelve mixtapes gonna be the new commercial gimmick?

March 24, 2006 6:12 PM  
Blogger the prisoner's wife said...

i would have to agree to an extent. i heard so much hype about Papoose before i heard him that i was so eager to hear what the hype was about. upon hearing him i was left saying to myself...that's it? his voice is a bit underwhelming, but you can't knock his hustle. as MM said...dude gotta eat.

BTW: thank you MM for suggesting this blog. i love mr. jones to the fullest. i will definitely be coming back.

March 24, 2006 8:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is by far the best hip-hop blog i've read. great post, keep it up.

March 24, 2006 10:59 PM  
Blogger neo said...

I'd like to give an opinion also on what NY rappers may need? But I think you've pretty much covered it top to bottom..

March 25, 2006 5:42 PM  
Blogger Hummingbyrd said...

I see you tpw, glad you stopped through. We have fun over here :~

"but there's nothing but a peculiar name to distinguish him from any other MC with a gratuitous number of street compilations to claim."
Who said a flower by any other name is......?

March 26, 2006 10:03 AM  
Blogger Fletch said...

Right, if Papoose is called MC 2 Fresh the name changes but he's still a boring mixtape rapper. (Yes, I'm hating but who really likes to play the middle nowadays anyway.)

And Shakespeare really didn't have to come up against an American buying public that's gonna think that Papoose is some medical condition that effects elderly woman. That named shoulda got the Ellis Island treatment at the door.

March 26, 2006 11:53 AM  

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