STRAIT TO THE POINT: UGK – Ridin’ Dirty (1996)

Review by: Michael Strait:

ugk1

Another masterwork, though a markedly different one.

I said before that Super Tight is the rare masterpiece unconcerned with being dark, deep or thought-provoking, and that was one of the reasons I loved it. It should stand to reason, then, that I’d be disappointed by Ridin’ Dirty. This is just the sort of rap album journalists love most: it’s a dark, dour and paranoid tour through the grimy, poorly-lit streets most Americans like to pretend don’t exist, with lots of poignant lyrics about mortality, futility and fear. Indeed, unlike the prior effort it’s primarily lyric-focused, with the production this time taking a backseat in order to give the duo room. It’s no wonder that it’s by far the most-rated UGK album on RYM, and part of me kinda wants to complain about that. But the fact of the matter is that this album really deserves all the praise it’s ever received. It’s one of the best albums ever made, and if I had to pick a UGK album to tout as their masterpiece this one would probably (just barely) edge out Super Tight. Nineties hip-hop was without question one of the greatest eras of the popular music age, and this right here is the best of the best.

If it has a flaw, it’s a fairly traditional one: it’s definitely a little frontloaded, and there’s a steady – if gradual and not perfectly consistent – trend downwards in quality from the first song to the last. The title track is the only song on the album that I consistently can’t recall much about without listening to it again, and the immediately preceding “Good Stuff” is definitely one of the album’s weakest cuts. The hook is still catchy and the rapping is still stellar, but on an album this good my expectations are higher than that. It’d be a highlight on most albums, but here? Well, let’s just look at some of the competition, shall we?

“One Day” is the opener (not counting that intro, of course), and it’s one of the best songs ever made. It owes a lot to the Isley Brothers’ original, but it’s a different sort of masterpiece, far simpler and heftier in its emotional impact. Ronnie Spencer transforms the wryly regretful remarks from the original into a soft wail of despair and quiet mortal terror, and 3-2’s opening couplet remains, for me, one of the most instantly memorable and desperately sad moments in rap history. “Mama put me out at only fourteen/ so I started selling crack cocaine and codeine,” he says, totally matter-of-fact and free from any embellishment. Bun B and Pimp C spend most of their verses waxing beautifully lyrical about the same horror, and Pimp C’s verse in particular is absolutely gorgeous – “AK loader as I get swallowed under city lights” might be some of my favourite rap imagery ever – but nothing they spit really matches the raw impact of that couplet. Bun B really does try, though: “I remember being eight deep off in Chucky crib/ Lettin’ us act bad, not givin’ a fuck what we did/ When we lost him, I knew the world was comin’ to the end/ And I had to quit lettin’ the Devil push me to a sin.”

Of course, he never does get round to quitting that; he’s pulled back into the same old brutality by the next song. I used to struggle with “One Day”‘s presence on this album, unable to reconcile its bleak regret with the proud evil that followed, but after a while I realized you couldn’t have the one without the other; the various evil deeds and brutal tales that follow draw their power from what “One Day” tells us about their inevitable conclusion. Musically it’s gorgeous, of course; the Isley Brothers were geniuses, and Pimp C’s deft little finishing touches – the barely-audible, possibly synthesised backing vocals mimicking the chord progression; the characteristically excellent drum patterns – are lovely. But the real meat of the song is in the pall of gloom it throws over all the accomplishments and victories the two of them detail over the rest of the album, and the air of crushing mortal inevitability it bestows upon all their most violent boasts. What goes around comes around; one who lives by the gun must die by the gun. There is no happy ending to this story.

The album as a whole is way more minor key and downbeat than the last one. Super Tight was exuberant and maximalist, but this is reserved and minimalist, and even the most whimsical stuff on here wouldn’t fit on the former album. “Fuck My Car” is the silliest song on the album and perhaps the only one free from any trace of existential dread, but the instrumental is positively dour and refined next to the great big brass bands of Super Tight. The bass riff is the only real motif here, and it’s not really drawing attention to itself; instead, it’s content to lounge about in the back, allowing a whole array of minimal production details to fill the song out. There’s the occasional piano stab, some brief slices of psychedelic guitar, and the occasional fog of synth strings hovering about at the edge; the whole thing is definitely funky and energetic, but it stops just short of being outright fun. Evidently Pimp wasn’t as comfortable with this production style as he was with his earlier maximalism, ‘cos more than half the tracks here (excluding the intro and outro) are produced by other people, and “Fuck My Car” is one.

So is “3 in the Mornin'”, which may just be my favourite instrumental work in UGK’s discography. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song more perfectly capture the essence of its title, actually – that slow, distant, booming bass, those bare textural guitars, that barely-noticeable piano note and that soft percussion all add up to a song that very much distills the essence of sitting in a tranquil daze deep in the night. The hook fits in perfectly, drifting ephemerally across the beat like a lazy fog, daring you to take notice of how faintly unsettled it sounds. This is just about the only cut on the album that’s really, definitively more about the music than the rapping, so much so that I didn’t even notice the guest feature on this track until about my fifth listen or so. The verses are great, I guess, but it’s difficult to pay attention when the instruments are painting such a vivid atmosphere.

“Murder”, meanwhile, is the opposite. The song is primarily built around a simple, metronomic keyboard riff, and while it’s backed up with Pimp C’s usual little production details (what sounds like some sort of distant vocal riot, a whistle sample, a deftly-placed record scratch) the song really exists as a showcase for what might be the best verses in either of their careers. The general consensus seems to be that Bun B’s verse is better, and it’s certainly some of the most impressive rhyming I’ve ever heard in my life. “Now I done ripped out my Barrelli/ Flyin’ through yo Pelle Pelle and/ Some smelly red jelly is drippin’ out of ya belly/ Servin’ ’em like a Deli, jumped on my cellular telli” is probably the best moment, but the whole verse is nothing but endlessly shifting multisyllabic rhymes, and it’s always faintly astonishing to listen to. But as great as it is, the UGK lines I see people quoting most often elsewhere are always from Pimp C’s verse here: “If I told ya cocaine numbers, you would think I was lyin’/ Young niggas 22, is talkin’ bout they retirin'”, or, of course, the immortal “I’m still Pimp C, bitch, so what the fuck is up?/ Puttin’ powder on the street, ‘cos I got big fuckin’ nuts!” That was always Pimp’s gift; he could never match Bun B for technical proficiency, but he had an innate talent for writing great and instantly memorable quotables, and this song is full of them. “South Texas, motherfucker, that’s where I stay/ Gettin’ money from yo bitches every goddamn day!”

It’s one of many boasts that hangs under the shadow of “One Day”, sounding more paranoid and insecure than it otherwise would. “Diamonds & Wood” is full of those, too. It’s one of the smoothest grooves in the group’s discography, with lovely guitar licks and a bassline lifted from another classic funk masterpiece, and at first Pimp’s lyrics seem like the usual set of bellicose gloating one would expect over such luxury. Pay closer attention, however, and one notices that the posture is much more defensive than usual. “I flip down the Ave., you know I’m looking tight/ These jealous niggas looking at me and my car so shife/ Wanna take my life, and wanna jack, but I see all through that/ Never let these bitch niggas take what’s mine, nigga, never do that.” The usual narratives about jealousy and success are undercut with a paranoid sense of constant vulnerability, and suddenly Pimp’s triumphal posturing doesn’t seem quite as fun as it used to. His final verse dips into the sort of self-medicating depression that wouldn’t become normal in street rap for another twenty years or so: “I see the jealousy and hating, and the wicked ways/ We all lost children, praisin’ paper, smoking our life away/ Got to the point where I could not decipher day from night/ She say she love me, but all we do now is fuck and fight.” He calls it “The other side of selling dope, and out there running the streets”, but one starts to wonder whether he really believes it’s worth it. After all, what’s the point of all these material gains if they come with enough paranoia and guilt to keep you from enjoying them?

That paranoia runs through and taints almost everything here. Even “Pinky Ring”, with its silly (if very catchy) chorus about “fly women and fancy thangs”, trades in paranoia and mistrust of the mostly misogynistic kind, although Bun B brings in some traditional drug-dealer paranoia (“Mashin’ from the scene, almost crashin’, flashin’/ Cop lights keep a playa dashin'”) to flesh the scene out a little. “That’s Why I Carry” is, of course, far more explicit, with its squealing whistle-synth, worried piano chords, otherworldly synths and ghostly vocal samples underlying some real viciousness. Bun B is the villain of the narrative here, but he’s very well aware of how quickly the tables could turn. “Jackers in the dark alley waited on/ The fool comin’ out the gamblin’ shack/ Pistol to his back, took 4 ounces of crack, and a fat doja sack”, he says, almost perfectly mirroring the deed he described himself doing earlier in the same verse.

That’s nothing, though, compared to the brutalities and monstrosities described in “Touched”. There’s a great bassline and lovely, minimally-applied organs, but the meat of the song is in Bun B and Pimp C descending to the lowest levels of villainy they have yet traversed. “Bitch, your old man talkin’ to me like I’m in school/ He don’t know I hang with killers, we’ll erase that fool/ Wouldn’t give a fuck about him, but he came to my son/ If you think that I’m that nigga, then you picked the wrong one”, says Pimp, reminding me of a particularly tragic scene in The Wire. This is the one time it’s impossible to find Pimp’s villainy fun or entertaining; he’s just being a real, total asshole, having abandoned any respect for his elders and any moral centre he may once have had, fully embracing the most sordid end of human nature and wallowing angrily in it. The song is most famous for Bun B’s opening lines (oft-quoted, including by Jay-Z), but it’s Pimp C’s raging maliciousness that always gets me about this song. “Nigga I’m hangin’ out the truck, b-buck buck/ Hit your nigga in the leg, hit your bitch in the gut”, he sneers, having already killed the man to whom he’s referring and now killing his loved ones for what appears to be no reason. It’s a rather sobering reminder that, for lots of people on the streets, this sort of villainy isn’t the fun diversion it is for us listeners; there are people who must daily navigate the environments in which these predators roam, and it’s not a joke to them.

It’s an unusually low moment for either of them, and it seems that they aren’t completely free from any wounds on their conscience. Pimp C spends most of “Hi Life” ruminating on what a dismal mistake it was to get himself stuck in this world. “What ya want me to do?”, he asks at one point, apropos of nothing; “It’s like somebody cut my throat.” It’s not clear exactly what he’s referring to, but considering the general horror, terror, paranoia and mortality he’s been telling us about all across the album, I think I can guess the general gist. “Hi Life” is a great song in general, with its wonderful backing vocals, restrained guitars and sadly ironic hook, but I do think it could probably have been placed better in the album. It tracks closely enough with “One Day”‘s themes that it’d make a great penultimate track, closing the album out on a sort of emotional bookend. As it stands, the album effectively ends with the aforementioned title track before fading out with a lovely nine-minute instrumental jam by Pimp’s band, drowning the album’s horrors in a sea of relaxed, smoky barroom vibes as Pimp lays back and gives some recognition to his fellow Southern rappers. UGK were never very good at album closers, but in the absence of a proper one this will certainly do. Besides, it gives one space to think about the implications of the record one just listened to.

There is, after all, a lot to think about here. That’s why the journalists love this album so much, see, and alas, it’s why I love it too. I’m generally opposed to outright conscious hip-hop, but albums like this are more my speed. UGK never condescend to me on this record, and they certainly never preach; they just tell stories about the places they came from, boast about their successes and happily relay tales of murdering and brutalizing their enemies, and they let the listener come to their own conclusions about what it all means. That, to me, will always be the point of the best gangsta rap: it tells the story of the streets from the perspective of the villains, making it clear that there are no heroes in the picture and inviting you to picture yourself as one of the innocent civilians victimized in the lyrics. If Super Tight was an album about having a great time being a very bad human being, then this is an album about having a downright terrible time being a monster, yet finding oneself trapped and being unable to extricate oneself from steadily worsening moral degradation. That’s far from UGK’s usual style, so it’s almost a shame that this ended up being their most acclaimed album, but what can I say? A masterpiece is a masterpiece, and UGK brought this fate upon themselves by making one of the best albums in hip-hop history.

This is, in fact, the second time in a row they’ve done that, which is pretty much astonishing. Hip-hop isn’t a genre that tends to value consistency, but UGK beat the odds and made two effortless masterpieces in a row. This, sadly, is the end of their peak; there aren’t any more best-album-ever contenders in their discography from here on out, though there’s still a lot of good music to cover and I’ll enjoy doing it over the next few weeks. In the meantime, do yourself a favour and listen to this album repeatedly. It belongs in anyone’s library.

Advertisements

STRAIT TO THE POINT: UGK – Too Hard To Swallow (1992)

I wish I was in dixie, hooray, hooray…

Review by: Michael Strait:

ugk2

I wish I was in dixie, hooray, hooray…

In general, great rappers and rap groups follow a different trajectory to great rock bands. The latter – before the turn of the millennium, at least – usually began with a few promising EPs, got started in earnest with an endearingly amateurish debut album, spiralled off in all sorts of lovely artistic directions for ten-to-twenty years and then finally spent the last ten-to-infinite years of their careers churning out utter garbage to pay the bills. The rappers, meanwhile, usually start their career with a mindblowing, undeniably brilliant debut album, occasionally manage one or two good-to-great followups, and usually spend the rest of their careers spiralling downwards into an infinitely dark pit of artistic debasement and (if they’re lucky) celebrity drama.

UGK were a rare thing: they were a great rap group that behaved rather more like a great rock group. After a couple of portentously brilliant (and HIGHLY juvenile) EPs, the underbudgeted, underpromoted and underappreciated debut album came along right on schedule. Armed with almost nothing but a few drum machines, a whole lot of charisma and a few no-name sound engineers, the best duo in rap history embarked on a quest that would end up casting a sonic shadow the South still dances under to this day. The idea of the South as a distinct force within the rigid geographic genre system of hip-hop existed only spottily, and certainly far below the mainstream, before this album; these days, the omnipresent South has handily conquered the entire East Coast and Midwest, bending them backwards into the sonic paradigm you can ultimately trace right back here, to Pimp C.

Pimp C, man! I fucking love Pimp C. One of the most talented men ever to inhabit the world of hip-hop, for real. Rappers pretend that they live and die by the words they spit, but what really makes or breaks a rapper is charisma, and on that front nobody will ever best Pimp C. Even here, not yet twenty years old, he’s brimming with a magnetic bravado that is absolutely delightful and completely impossible to ignore. “Cocaine in the Back of the Ride” isn’t one of the best songs on the album (which is saying a lot, really, ‘cos it’d be a highlight on many albums), but it’s made mesmerizing by the unstoppable force of his sheer self-belief, and the tangible delight he projects whenever he’s on the mic always brings the biggest grin to my face. The lines “Got more dope than a pharmacy, ho/ Got a job for the city, bitch, I’m shoveling snow” don’t look particularly special on paper, but he delivers them as if they are irresistible proof of his own utter supremacy over everyone else in the human race, and I’m having so much fun that I feel like agreeing. Bun B gets some funny lines on the song, too – “Little kids on the corner, steady grabbin they nuts/ Sayin, ‘I wish I was Bun when I grow the fuck up!'” – but on the whole, the song belongs to Pimp C, and it’s mostly the same story with the record as a whole.

But I’m getting sidetracked. Pimp C’s rapping on this album is absolutely wonderful, but it wasn’t what I was talking about earlier. The influence of Pimp C’s delivery-over-lyrics rapping style on later generations of Southern rappers can’t be overstated, but his production style is what really made the South what it has been ever since. His drum programming, for one, was already head-and-shoulders above what most producers from the other two regions were doing at the time, and presaged the way Southern producers would mess around with all sorts of intricate drum patterns in later years. His drums on “Short Texas” wash and willow around the sampled Funkadelic beat like they’re made of some sort of liquid, more texture than percussion, melting away for much of the song only to reappear when most impactful. The drums on “Use Me Up” are mostly just a recreation of the original, but the sounds he’s found are deeply satisfying, and the little dots of synthetic vibraslap are a lovely addition. Both these songs are generally really great – the former in particular has this awesome siren sample that pushes it to real great heights – but the real standout on the first half is the eternal classic “Pocket Full of Stones”.

“Pocket Full of Stones” is, for real, one of the best straight hip-hop songs ever made, and it’d make this an essential album even if the rest was mediocre (which it isn’t). That laid-back, subtly intricate drum pattern is one of the best on the album, and the sample usage is some of the best in the world. Just listen to the downbeat peal of the saxophone in the chorus; it’s gorgeous, and all the more impressive considering that it used to be the triumphal opening to a whimsical LL Cool J song. The minimal bass & keyboard samples give the whole thing an underlying atmosphere of reserved cool, but there’s just a hint of distant paranoia in there, too. That’s an excellent context for the story the two of them are so vividly telling on top of it, which is as full of memorable, funny lines – “fuck black Caesar, niggas call me black Trump!” – as it is of substance. The first two verses are, of course, absolutely iconic, but the pair keep my attention through the whole thing, encapsulating the appeal of gangsta rap so perfectly that they just about render the rest of it redundant. The six minutes never feels too long; if anything, it sometimes doesn’t feel long enough. That effortlessly cool, atmospheric groove is something I could get lost in forever, especially if Bun B and Pimp C are providing narration.

The other big highlight on this record is “Feel Like I’m The One Who’s Doin’ Dope”, on which Bun B isn’t present at all. One might, therefore, expect it to be a whimsical pile of charismatic jokes and hilarious one-liners, like the immediately following “I’m So Bad” (which is mostly about autofellatio, although it’s probably metaphorical). One would, however, be very wrong: this is one of the most harrowing hip-hop narratives ever rapped, and the fact that it’s all eventually revealed to be a dream somehow doesn’t do much to dampen the impact. Pimp C spends a lot of time in his lyrics portraying himself as a remorseless killer, but it’s rare that he examines the consequences of the life he lives in as much detail as he does here. He inches over into horrorcore territory on the second verse – ejaculating upon the corpse of the woman you’ve just raped and murdered is some real Lord Infamous shit – but its placement in the escalating tragic-villainous narrative makes it more impactful than even the darkest rap that ever wafted out from the dungeons of Memphis. The squelchy bass keys – played by Pimp himself – are a nicely filthy finishing touch.

There ain’t a bad song on here, actually. Bun B wasn’t at his best yet, so his solo tracks are perhaps the least memorable of the bunch, but they’re still immaculately produced – particularly “976-Bun B”, which has the best bassline on the album and one of those gorgeous sampled female wails of the kind you usually find in UK Garage. “Cramping My Style” is of a piece with Ice Cube’s “It’s a Man’s World”, featuring a female rapper trading combative verses with Bun B; it’s not a career highlight, but it’s amusing and pleasant while it lasts, and the soul sample is lovely. “It’s Too Hard To Swallow” is just a great slice of classic gangsta rap boasting over a perfectly laid-back, chill instrumental section that sounds like it was borrowed right out of a 70s soul track, even though – according to the liner notes – there aren’t actually any samples on this track at all. And then there’s the opener, which features what TVtropes might call Pimp C’s Establishing Character Moment: “I didn’t do ya girl but your sister was alright/ Took her to my homeboy’s caddy last night/ […] Now everybody in the world/ Know that your sister is a nasty little girl!”. His mocking goblin grin is audible, and the bassline that falls in behind him as he delivers it pushes it to a level of amusing catharsis that really shouldn’t be possible with such a juvenile sex boast. The remix of it that ends the album is a bit of an anticlimactic way to close out, but it’s a good remix; it’s all druggy and psychedelic, and it just sounds so trill, like it’s made from some sort of otherworldly gold.

Of course, UGK would only get more trill from here on out, but this album is nonetheless excellent on its own terms. No hip-hop collection is complete without it, I’d say, especially if you – like me – accept the obvious supremacy of Southern hip-hop over all other forms. We’re dealing with a top-tier group here, folks, and even their shaky, amateurish debut is head-and-shoulders above most of the music in the world.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: UGK – Super Tight… (1994)

Review by: Michael Strait

UGK

Simple, homemade goodness. An unassuming masterwork.

Wikipedia tells me Too Hard To Swallow has sold a total of 370,000 copies since release. I’ve no way of knowing when all those sales took place or how much money the duo made from each one, but it’s clear something had changed by the time they released Super Tight. Whatever money they made from their debut wasn’t wasted; the production is clearer and brighter, the live band fuller and more skilled, and the samples rarer this time around. Pimp C finally had the means to match his talent, and he promptly set about creating the sorts of lush, rich and detailed arrangements that would make his soul and funk idols proud. The end result is an album that feels rather like bathing in a room made mostly of gold, perhaps adorned with diamonds, while sipping some expensive liquor; it’s luxurious, and profoundly fun to listen to.

It helps that both of them were, by this point, exceptional rappers. I think I still prefer Pimp C – his charisma is still just irresistible – but Bun B’s early clunkiness is mostly gone by now, and his technical skills are really starting to take off. “I Left It Wet for You” is excellent in just about every regard – the smugly rising bassline; the mocking, whispered chorus; the refined, tasteful percussion – but the exuberance of Bun B’s rhyming in the final verse is probably the highlight. It’s the sound of a man who is utterly, shamelessly aware of his superiority, showing it off not because he’s insecure but because he just finds it fun to do so. He’s not yet at his peak – that’d come next album – but he is nonetheless great all across the album. Though I gotta say, man – “suckin’ dick while I’m takin’ shits”? Really, dude? That’s disgusting.

I’m not actually entirely sure which song I’d nominate as the best on here, because they’re all almost equally excellent. “It’s Supposed to Bubble” – one of the few wholly sample-based songs on the record, though you wouldn’t be able to tell at first blush – might be it; it’s probably one of my favourite hip-hop songs ever made, and definitely one of the happiest, most pleasant songs in my library. It’s just the sort of warm, sunlit, pleasantly happy hip-hop I could never imagine coming from anywhere else in the country in the 90s, even if Pimp C’s declaration that he “don’t fuck around no more with that gahd damn drank” is a little sad in hindsight. The lead-in to the chorus is perfect, and Bun B’s contentedly meaningless repetition of “it just be like that sometimes” is just the sort of thing that sticks in one’s head forever. One could, maybe, pick hairs about the morality of creating such a pleasantly summery song about the benefits of getting rich off of violent drug deals, but hey – at least they aren’t rapping about “fuckin’ a bitch while her baby’s suckin’ dick” anymore, right?

“Pocket Full of Stones, Pt. 2” is also on the shortlist for favourites. If the original was a reserved, slightly paranoid tour through the urban Texas streets, this one is an exuberant romp right across them, with bouncy funk organs and impeccable basslines providing the foundation for Pimp and Bun’s celebratory braggadocio. Pimp, in particular, is absolutely undeniable right from the beginning; he is so clearly and so obviously having so much fun dealing drugs that it becomes kinda funny to listen to him insist that he “don’t wanna do it, but a nigga gotta eat”. His attention to detail as a producer is similarly excellent – the wordless, possibly sampled (or perhaps simply synthesised) male background vocals that repeat regularly throughout the track are difficult to notice at first, but they serve the essential purpose of filling the song out just that little bit more, pushing it from merely luxurious to gloriously decadent. Speaking of which: those horns that come in on the chorus, heralding Pimp C’s pocket full of stones as if they made him emperor of the universe… oh man, I love this song.

Man, I keep wondering which song I should talk about next – they’re all so good. How about “Pussy Got Me Dizzy”? It takes a shitton of charisma to rap the words “I got some high school pussy, and you know it’s the lick/ ‘Cos every day, after school, she be ridin’ my dick” and make me like it, but Pimp C can pull it off. He is endlessly capable of making the worst, most reprehensible sort of villainy sound incredibly fun, and the big squelchy bass synths running under his verse certainly help. The horns in the chorus do, indeed, sound properly dizzy, as does the the little whiny whistle-synth that spirals tauntingly around them. Bun B’s verse is, as usual when he raps about sex, absolutely hilarious and completely disgusting, so I won’t quote any of it here, although I will say that I very much hope it wasn’t based on too many real life experiences. The final guest verse seems a tad forgettable after the duo’s verses, but you really shouldn’t hold that against it – it’s not 3-2’s fault his friends happen to be two of the most memorable rappers of all time.

Then there’s “Stoned Junkee”, the longest song on the album and for sure one of the best. A bassline that climbs for the sun, clawing its way out of the muck, as the organs collapse atop it; a pounding, lazy drumbeat, echoey and huge; a distant guitar, soloing away into space like some Funkadelic odyssey; and, above all, Bun B and Pimp C, painstakingly painting their sordid pictures of life under the needle. And then there’s “Protect & Serve”, one of the best anti-police polemics in rap’s long and storied history of them, eclipsing the NWA song it samples in both raw rage and musical mastery. The conflicting piano & synth riffs complement each other perfectly in their contrast, and the bass synths are as satisfying as usual. How about “Feds In Town”, with its glittery, glowing synths and perfect bassline – and those perfect little samples, one of some distant car horns and one of a fuzzy record scratch, that make the whole thing feel so much more complete? Or how about “Underground”, which has one of the catchiest and most iconic hooks the duo ever made, not to mention one of Pimp C’s most irresistible grooves?

Like I said – it’s all brilliant. The intro, “Return”, is among my favourite opening tracks in hip-hop history, making the duo’s philosophy clear right away and containing one of Bun B’s most entertaining verses. “Niggas steady catchin lead to the head, I never aim for the chest/ Muthafuckas sportin bulletproof vests!” he exclaims, with an air of something resembling grievance at the sheer audacity of these motherfuckers to dare take precautions against being killed by vengeful rappers. It’s great, as is “Front, Back and Side to Side”, which I occasionally misremember as boring because it’s ever-so-slightly weaker than its immediately surrounding tracks. But it’s the absolute opposite of boring, with that lovely textural ostinato popping through the verses and that immaculately smooth instrumental arrangement. If I have a complaint with this record, it’s that the closer, while great, isn’t one of the absolute best tracks on the album, and is perhaps a kind of anticlimactic way to close out such a stupendously good record. Still, the sample is great, the descending piano riff is possibly greater, and Bun B’s threats to rip out my spine are just priceless.

I’m always very happy to discover a masterpiece that’s neither a tour through the mind of a depressed, mentally unstable genius nor a great big artistic statement designed to be fawned over by the music press. This is an album about having a damn good time being a very bad human being, and it just so happens that it’s one of the best albums ever made. This level of consistent quality is a seriously rare thing, and the fact that it’s not the last time UGK would pull it off is what makes them one of the best groups that have ever put music to wax. If anything, I’m almost dreading reviewing their next album, ‘cos it’s just as good as this one and I’m just gonna feel straight-up weird having nothing bad to say about an album two weeks in a row. First world problems, right?

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Subcultural Explorations Vol 1, Part 2: RondoNumbaNine- Rondo Lane (2012)

Review by: Michael Strait

5196812

Aww, yeah – this is some proper subcultural realness right here! Dreadful, muddy mastering? Check! Album art that looks to have been designed on a budget of maybe six dollars? Check! Incomplete and/or misspelled tracklisting? Check! Ratings on RateYourMusic? Six! The closest this guy ever came to a brush with fame was a terrible guest verse on a terrible song by the terrible Lupe Fiasco, and that only came out after he was sentenced to thirty-nine years in prison for first degree murder. Psht – and people like The Game have the balls to call themselves gangsters?

Yeah, this is for the enthusiast only, and even for us weirdos it can be kind of a slog sometimes. That stretch from “Savage Up” to “Ridin Dirty” is so littered with horrible guest spots and forgettable beats that it really takes a bite out of the energy, and that’s kind of a mortal blow ‘cos the energy is really all this thing has. Lines like “Choppa spittin’ like a water gun, I’ll spray a nigga like a water gun” really test the limits of my affection and/or tolerance for simplistic drill lyrics, and I’m pretty sure Rondo himself isn’t even on a couple of these tracks. And of course, as with most drill, I really have to be in the mood for it or else the ceaseless, senseless repetition really does drag me down and leave me feeling kinda depressed. Still, it’s only about forty minutes long, and when I am in the mood there are some real gems in those forty minutes.

Rondo’s a nihilist, but unlike Keef he at least he usually comes off as an actual human being rather than a degraded puddle of primordial sludge. Mind you, I’m not entirely convinced he’s all human, ‘cos he displays a level of raw, unfiltered aggression more commonly found in velociraptors, angry male bears, and hardcore punk vocalists. He’s got a gravelly, harsh voice, usually made harsher by the gloriously inexact doubling effect applied to his vocals on most tracks, and he’s also got an ear for rhythmically catchy hooks. “My Team Winning” doesn’t really sound like it should be catchy or memorable, but it is nonetheless, and it’s been stuck in my head for days, as has “Ridin Dirty” (though, to be fair, I can’t actually be totally sure he’s the one rapping there). His adlibs are also hilariously appropriate – behind every main vocal track is a bunch of animalistic “rrrrAHR!”s and “grAWWH!”s, and on “No Question” they’re so loudly mastered that they occasionally overwhelm the rest of the track and drag the whole thing into hilarious cacophony. It should sound awful, but somehow it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Is it amoral to be so charmed by the music of a proud murderer? I mean, it’s not my fault it’s so endearing!

It’s not all unintentional comedy, though. All the horrendous mastering and nonexistent mixing in the world can’t get in the way of just how ridiculously hard this stuff goes, and I found myself properly headbanging – not just bopping, but seriously banging – to it at multiple points. If Back From The Dead was no wave, then this is proper DC hardcore, and it packs as much abrasive, raw energy as that suggests. There’s not much use describing most of the tracks, because the majority of them are exactly the same – there’ll be a brief, ominously sweeping intro until the harsh, drilling hi-hats and filthy synths come in, with Rondo snarling out a bunch of aggressive boasts and territorial postures until some guest rapper comes in and does much the same. It’s proper trunk banging music, but it’s also way too harsh, lo-fi and abrasive to fit into any Atlanta party trap playlist. Sometimes those big, booming basslines are barely even audible, and the synth chords are way too macho and powerful to work in any strip club. Nah, this isn’t music for parties – this is music for killers, and not the calculating kind. After all, killing tends not to be a very intellectual business; mostly what you need (so I’m told) is a lot of raw rage and testosterone, and this has those in abundance.

There are definitely a few notably great tracks, though. “Money, Power, Respect” has a surprisingly delicate keyboard riff coexisting with all the bass & drum cacophony, and the way it interlocks with the main synth melody in the hook might actually be described as intricate. “Face Down”, meanwhile, has this sassy little plinky-plonky piano riff that lends the track a stylish swagger, but there’s still a wailing whistle synth soaring above it and some harsh, distorted keyboard notes thunking underneath it in case you forgot where you are. “We Savage”, meanwhile, sounds like it could almost fit on a God of War OST, with those huge, choral synth chords presiding over that thunderous, percussive riff that rolls under the whole thing. Rondo’s really great on that track, too – he inflects his rage with just a touch of spicy contempt, and it really goes that extra mile in pushing the track from yer average nihilistic drill banger to something more memorable and fun. “We in that field, we totin’ drill/ we’a whack a nigga for nothin‘!”, he proclaims, unfiltered disgust twisting the last word like a knife. It’s brutal, uncompromising, and fucking awesome. Drill can be mind-numbing, soul-crushing stuff sometimes, but at its best this tape energises me like little else in the musical world. Great stuff.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Subcultural Explorations Vol 1, Part 1: Chief Keef – Back From the Dead (2012)

Review by: Michael Strait

4119330

Exploring self-contained musical subcultures has long been a passion of mine. I find something deeply fascinating about them; they’re usually completely divorced from the trends of the mainstream, but if they stick around for long enough they usually end up influencing the mainstream in at least some small way. Exploring a musical subculture is like delving into a separate world, but it’s also a way to see the world through new eyes; subcultures have their own rules, their own conventions and their own ideas of the way music should be, and they tend to reflect a thoroughly non-mainstream way of thinking. As such, I’m now starting a series called Subcultural Explorations in which I shall delve into various different musical subcultures and try to get to the bottom of what makes them tick. It’s not gonna be organised and I’m not gonna keep to any sort of regular schedule, but I’ll try to update frequently.

So, without further ado, here’s the inaugural post!

THE INAUGURAL POST

So – drill music. Nihilistic muck flowing from the streets of Chicago like blood. This mixtape holds the dual distinctions of being both the scene’s breakout moment and a definitive summary of its general philosophy and aesthetic, so I feel it’s as good a place to start as any.

Make no mistake: Chief Keef really is as utterly, all-encompassingly nihilistic as the harshest noise artist. He’s a rapper, technically, but he doesn’t really come across as one; it’s more like he’s leading a series of baying, primal chants, slowly forcing out each syllable as if they’re getting caught behind his teeth. He packs each word with such contemptuous, vindictive force that after a while he starts to sound demented, like a dumb war-beast on some rage-enhancing drug, gutturally barking out the word “Bang!” through a layer of hot spittle while mindlessly brandishing his firearm. At no point in this mixtape does Keef express anything resembling a complex sentiment, and very rarely does he use a word that goes significantly over the two-syllable mark. He’s a soulless, barbarous brute, and he operates entirely on instinctual lower functions. It’s a damn good thing this mixtape is only forty-two minutes long, ‘cos any longer and all the bludgeoning would start to become genuinely numbing.

I don’t buy the idea that it takes no talent to rap like this, though. Soulja Boy and some guy called Yale Lucciani deliver their guest verses like they’re trying to cop Keef’s style without fully understanding what makes it tick, and in both cases the end result is dismal. SD and Lil Reese do better – Lil Reese’s “You not with the shits, you could die tonight” might be the most quietly frightening moment on the whole tape – but they’re still not as effortlessly captivating on the mic as Keef himself. I don’t know exactly what talent Keef possesses that makes him such a fascinating presence, but he’s definitely got something; the guy really does manage to sound like he’s been dredged out from the base neanderthal sludge at the bottom of human nature. It’s a very one-dimensional aesthetic, but it’s very convincing.

Besides, he’s got Young Chop behind him to keep things interesting. That guy’s beats surround Keef like dense fog, packed so full of rich sounds and conflicting little motifs that he sometimes almost disappears behind them. On “True Religion Fein”, he has to spit his epithets through a dense collection of hi-hats and snares that take up so much space they threaten to drown him out entirely; on “Sosa”, he’s accompanied by a synth ostinato that sonically metamorphoses into something different for every segment, sounding like a piercing digital siren one moment and a distant mechanical whine the next. There’s some soft little pianesque synths on “Designer” that somehow still manage to sound kinda foggy and dirty, and some reverent tones emanating from a church organ on “Trust None” as he wields his mace and destroys the pews. Then, of course, there’s “I Don’t Like”, with that little synth metronome chiming ceaselessly away like it’s part of the fabric of the universe while percussive bass notes erupt from underground, surrounding and subsuming Keef like a pyroclastic flow as he spits and bays. It’s all very grandiose, sweeping and ominous, but the strength and density of that rhythm section keeps it grounded. I mean, listen to the hi-hats on “Everyday” – they’re so fast they’ve all blurred into one continuous tone!

Of course, even judged on its own merits it’s not perfect. A good number of Keef’s lyrics dip below his usual nihilistically mindless level and end up outright cringeworthy; “Realnigga.com, bitch nigga log in” is a proper facepalm moment, and Yale Lucciani’s “You don’t have a chance/ Bitch I shop in France” is no better. The autotune that creeps in on a couple of tracks towards the end is very amateurish, and sounds deeply unpleasant in a way that doesn’t really add to the aesthetic. “Save That Shit” is pretty much an entirely pointless throwaway, and King Louie just sounds weird and out of place on “Winnin'” – he’s always been the most Atlanta-esque of all the Chicago drill rappers, and his feelgood materialism doesn’t quite gel with Keef’s pure destructive nihilism. And on a broader level, you can’t listen to this too many times in a row or you really do start to feel yourself degrading to a primordial state; after finishing this review I think I’m gonna blast some 80s synthpop or maybe 70s funk & soul, ‘cos I’ll need it to purge all the soul-blackening muck Chief Keef poured down my brainstem while I was writing it. But that’s drill, and that’s why I find it so fascinating. The blackest depths of Michael Gira’s output in the 80s don’t match the sheer, mind-numbing intensity of the nihilism you can find in this kind of music, and I find myself irresistibly drawn to it. Expect more on it soon, for sure.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: HANK WILLIAMS – Lovesick Blues (1949)

Review by: Michael Strait

(Quick intro disclaimer: if you’re listening to 40 Greatest Hits on Spotify, what you’re hearing in place of Lovesick Blues is, for some reason, Cross Road Blues by Robert Johnson. Which is also an incredible song, but it’s not Lovesick Blues, so go swap it out in your playlist for the real thing.

Anyway.)

I’ve got a process for reviewing great songs. I sit at my computer, listen, and splurge out an unfiltered stream-of-consciousness paragraph containing my reactions to the song as it goes. I then take this raw material, mine it, and refine it into the reviews y’all know and ignore, arranging all the more insightful things that sprang forth from my subconscious into a coherent paragraph or two.

I tried that here, but halfway through I had to stop. I just couldn’t type fast enough; there is so much here that I just couldn’t possibly get it all down in one listen. I ended up having to do three separate listens in order to get all my thoughts down, and I’m still not sure I’ve managed it. This song is astonishing.

It’s almost indescribable, actually, but I’ll try as best I can. I gotta start with his voice, ‘cos it’s this song that made me realise that Hank Williams is one of the greatest singers that has ever lived. The guy’s yodel is so perfectly refined and so utterly seamless that it doesn’t sound like he’s yodelling so much as just breathing out his creased, holey soul, helplessly exhaling the very fabric of his being and baring it all before you. He’s so consistently loud and piercing on this track that one could conceivably describe him as having no indoor voice, but at no point does he ever come off as even slightly obnoxious. Naw, this guy is in total, perfect control of his limitations, and he knows exactly how to apply himself. This is a cover, but he sounds so totally, utterly sincere that it’s hard to imagine he didn’t find something to relate to in the lyrics. Man, trust Hank to take a song written as a lightweight showtune and turn it into a soul-splitting heartbreak ballad!

Of course, his singing talent goes beyond the yodeling. He’s also an absolute master at the all-important, oft-overlooked art of phrasing, and it’s his unique phrasings that push so many of these lyrics into the realms of genuinely affecting profundity. The way he strategically dips into falsetto at the beginning of the word “c-hryyy“, drawing out the second syllable (‘cos it has two syllables when he sings it, of course) into this drifting, fading peal of misery; the way he warbles on “lonesome”, the way he accents “me” in the second verse, the way he just ever-so-briefly dips after the “s” in “seems” before stretching out the rest of the word into this rising wail of despair… man, it’s just incredible. Other singer/songwriters could paint worlds with their words; Hank could paint worlds with a word.

And by God almighty, but the melody he’s singing here! The way it just rises into the distance at the end of each line, and the way it turns into something so beautifully, regretfully wistful in the third line, and the way it resolves in the final part of the verse before seamlessly stretching into the chorus; the words “That last long day she said goodbye”, and the way the tune rises towards “daaay” and then Hank expertly draws it out into this desperate, lingering peak, only for it to helplessly, inevitably drop in disappointment on “she said” and then fall further down for “good” before it it forlornly, mockingly rises again on “byyyye”, with Hank drawing it out like a train disappearing into the distance… fuck. And then, as if that weren’t enough, you get the second verse (or is it a refrain, or some sort of weird post-chorus? I dunno, man – the song is structured so gloriously weirdly!), which key-shifts and then dips in a way that conjures more emotional devastation than every other heartbreak ballad ever written put together. If there’s ever been a popular song with better melodies than this one, I’ve not found it. This song is melodic nirvana.

With all these vast oceans of raw, unfiltered musical beauty and perfection erupting from Hank himself, it’s easy to forget the arrangements here, and they’re quiet enough that I’m willing to believe that was the intent. Thing is, though, there’s actually quite a lot going on, and the fact that it’s all so quiet only makes it more rewarding. Keep your ears open just after that forlorn electric guitar intro, for example, and you’ll hear the tiniest little mouse of a Spanish-style acoustic guitar plucking away around the edges, just adding a hint of a texture that makes it all feel so much more fulsome. There are also some deft little electric guitar chimes casting a touch of warm light from behind Hank’s vocals in the chorus, and the occasional distant fiddles fleshing the whole thing out. And then, of course, there are those gorgeous little slide guitars that bloom up in the chorus every time there’s a break in Hank’s singing, which, like the best flower arrangements, take up but a fraction of all available space and yet add such a tremendous injection of beauty that their value cannot really be calculated. It’s like the instruments are whispering words of comfort in Hank’s ear as he cries, but it’s no use; he’s desperate, tired, and overwhelmingly, utterly lonesome. No amount of music will salve these blues.

Is this the greatest song of all time? I dunno, man, but it’s way up there. I’ve listened to this song more times than I can count while writing this review, and it hasn’t lost a fraction of its power. I could listen to this forever. Two minutes and forty-three seconds of everything popular music could ever aspire to be; art of the highest order. For this record alone, Hank Williams deserves all the acclaim and hyperbole he has ever received.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Michael’s Bitesize Reviews: Vol. 3

Written by: Michael Strait

More singles! Once again, no theme here at all – just stuff I am interested in and felt inspired to write about. I should mention that if any of y’all have any singles you want me to review, feel free to suggest ‘em and I’ll try and include ‘em in the next list.

On with the show!

Lana Del Rey – Video Games (2011)

As far as I’m concerned, this is the only Lana Del Rey song. The first time I heard it, I was skeptical, and I still think the songwriting is underdeveloped. The verse melody is very basic, after all, and the whole thing feels a bit disjointed – there’s no prechorus and no bridge, and the end result is that each song segment kinda feels like it’s floating on an island by itself, lacking that seamless connection that makes the best pop songs so sublime. 

But by god, guys, the production on this thing. Those little flowering harp strokes; the strings, played with enough poise and patient reserve to keep them from seeming corny or melodramatic like strings in pop songs so often do; that quiet, deep bass drum, rolling in like some distant beast’s sleeping heartbeat. And I gotta admit that Lana herself is utterly captivating here, too; the way she delicately drops the last line in the chorus is legitimately goosebump-inducing, and she manages to sound fragile and vulnerable without coming off like some pathetic simp. Her lyrics aren’t particularly great, but I get the impression she means every one of them, and it’s that firm emotional grounding that keeps the production from sounding excessively airy or fantastical. To be honest, in my weaker moments this song leaves me feeling kinda depressed, ‘cos I’ve never experienced anything close to the life-affirming, soul-enriching love this song conjures and I don’t know if I ever will. If the world really does feel this gorgeous when you’re in love, then I’m missing out; all I can do is let this song wash over me and experience its glory secondhand. Beautiful song.

Also: very possibly the best music video of the decade. That’s exactly how ya do an aesthetic without making it overbearing; pity I can’t say the same of her other videos.

SahBabii – Pull up Wit Ah Stick (2016)

God, how weird is it that the streets are listening to this stuff? It’s a light, soft r&b ballad sung in a tender, feathery vocal tone through a thin layer of autotune, with some clean synths brightening up the background and a pleasantly wholesome set of lyrics about murder and armed robbery. This isn’t even weird for the trap scene anymore, that’s what gets me – it’s entirely normal these days to find hard street gangbangers bumping this sorta melodic croony shit, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over how surreal that is. ‘Course, the melodicism here isn’t actually particularly good – it’s basically just one little tune repeated over and over again – but I kinda like the vaguely hazy, druggy feel, and I can’t deny that it’s been stuck in my head for days. Looking back on this kind of music in twenty years is gonna be even more surreal than living through it, but as of right now I quite like it, and I’m sure I’ll continue to like it when the inevitable Drake remix makes it inescapable.

Coldplay – Hypnotised (2017)

Other people seem to be enjoying this, but personally I find it impossible to take seriously. The chiming keyboards and slide guitars sound kinda nice, I guess, and it’s certainly a tremendous step up from Adventure Of A Lifetime or whatever bullshit from their previous, but the double-tracked vocals fall somewhere between ugly and mawkish, and I’m not convinced the acoustic guitars belong here. All those major chords mean the entire thing ends up sounding kinda like the sort of stuff you’d hear in the background to a YouTube slideshow of pretty nature photos, and appropriately enough that’s pretty much exactly what the lyrics video is. It’s so corny that it actually made me chuckle the first time I heard it – I heard the introductory piano notes and assumed it must be an advert before I realised it was the actual song. Mediocre, in other words, like most of the stuff they’ve done since the turn of the decade. Ignore this.

Lorde – Green Light (2017)

I’ve listened to this song countless times in the last couple of hours, and it really holds up under scrutiny. Her husky voice is as utterly gorgeous as it ever was, of course, but there’s a newfound vindictiveness to it – she sounds like she’s spitting the words out with fury, even when she’s singing those higher-pitched harmonies in the refrain. The sonics, too, are good – not remarkably good, and they don’t do anything to distract from the excellent songwriting, but nonetheless they absolutely do the trick, and I particularly like the way the instruments go all distorted towards the end, fuzzing out like lite noisepop guitars as the song retreats from its emotional climax. But the real draw here is sheer catharsis of the hook, which has that wonderful pre-chorus buildup that develops more and more energy until those dark synths finally swoop right up underneath her, letting her ride them higher and higher as she desperately yells and purges all the black muck that has built up in her soul. It’s all very intelligently tuneful, too, and each new melodic development feels like a perfectly natural and satisfying progression. Her lyrics aren’t quite as immediately, impressively excellent as they often are, but that might actually be a sign of maturity, signalling that she’s lost the desire to prove herself as a poet and is now content with writing just the sort of well-constructed, intelligently simple lyrics that pop music these days could really do with. “Did it frighten you/ How we kissed when we danced on the light up floor?” may not be as evocative as some of the stuff on, say, “Team”, but it efficiently places a very complete emotional & physical picture in my head, and I think that’s just as valid a success. 


Man, I am so glad she’s back. I can’t fuckin’ wait for the album.

Lady Gaga – Born This Way (2011)

I wanna be very clear about this: this song is only enjoyable by total accident, and on its own terms it is an absolute failure. The clean synths in the verses are cheap and corny, the lyrics are trite nonsense and the melody is just kind of a waste. The chorus is kinda catchy, I guess, but it’s a pop song – you don’t get a pat on the back for that! 

Nah, I like this song ‘cos it’s cacophonous. Honestly, I can scarcely fathom how this song became a hit while Skinny Puppy languish in obscurity, because that massive, discoloured wave of lurching synths in the chorus is as abrasive as anything they ever did. That roaring mechanical whirr, pulsing in rhythm with those bludgeoning kick drums; that little falling treble sound, cascading through the cracks; the grating, popping little textures bubbling up from underneath every time the big synths fade away… I mean, fuckin’ hell, does the average person seriously enjoy this? I thought I was alone in my appreciation of discordant, assaultive electronic noise, but now I’m thinking that maybe my friends will be open to harsh noise & industrial music after all! Next time I get invited to a dance party I’ll throw some Guilty Connector on the playlist. It’ll work like a charm, I’m sure!

Blur – Parklife (1994)

Alright, so this is literally just a novelty song where the novelty is that it’s British, but I think it’s quite funny! The chorus is indeed just another part of the pastiche (designed specifically to evoke the 60s pop style for which Britain will always be famous, of course) but it’s also legitimately catchy, and those cheeky horns push it fully over the edge into the realm of pure cartoonish silliness. I also like how the guitars still retain just a touch of that angular, hard edge inherited from punk rock, though of course not enough to dent its popularity in the slightest. I know many despise this song for being among the most ridiculous excesses of Britpop nationalism, but I’m sure the self-parodic nature is intentional and I love it. Plus, I catch myself randomly muttering the words “Park-life!” all the time – though thankfully I’ve yet to do it in earshot of anyone else. Good song.

Lil Reese – Us (2012)

I can’t decide if Lil Reese is the apex of Chicago drill nihilism or its nadir. I guess he’s both; a true nihilist, after all, has no values whatsoever, and Reese’s valueless cynicism runs so deep that he can’t even be bothered to turn in anything that might be said to even slightly resemble a good verse. The hook has an air of foreboding, paranoid menace about it, I guess, but even then I’m pretty sure it’d be nothing without that beat.

And make no mistake: that beat is the only reason I’m rating this thing as high as I am. ‘Cos that beat is easily, easily one of the best trap beats ever made, and as perfect a summary of drill music’s appeal as I can imagine. Those gold-plated, percussive notes in the verses, and the machinegun hi-hats burrowing through and around them; those filthy organ strokes rubbing themselves all over the edge, leaving nearly audible dirt marks; that squelching, groaning synth riff in the chorus, squirming around like a malfunctioning mouse droid as additional synths and drums crash in all around it, collapsing the gilded walls and burying it under misery… heaven help me, it’s insane. That perfect, seamless fusion of opulent grandiosity with abrasive grit is exactly what makes the best trap & drill music so fascinating, and I guess that’s because it feels like a perfect musical expression of the conflicting and contradictory themes that have defined rap music for so long. That contrast between violent, grimy poverty and vain, capitalistic excess has been an inescapable dichotomy in rap music since at least Ready To Die, and in trap music it finally found a fitting musical reflection. There are, of course, many rappers who can do far better justice to this music than Lil Reese, but there are few producers who can capture its essence quite as perfectly as Young Chop. As far as I’m concerned, this song should be attributed to him; sometimes I forget Reese is even on this thing.

 

Nicki Minaj & G Herbo – Chi-Raq (2014)

A million remixes later, and I still think my favourite verse that’s ever been delivered over this beat is G Herbo’s right here. Nicki’s verse is great, of course, but I gotta admit it loses some of its impact after Herbo; lyrics like “Smack bitches, no smack cam/ Closed fists, no back hands” kinda lose any power to intimidate next to stuff like “Run up on a nigga with the llamas flyin’/ leave his loved ones all traumatized”. Still, she tones down all her corniest impulses here, and it’s definitely one of the best verses she’s ever delivered – those first four lines (“Ain’t yellin’ cut when it’s shootin’ time/ Sign up, it’s recruitin’ time/ Big wigs with a suit and tie/ And them big things got two inside”) are just the sort of clever, memorable opening a great verse wants, and her reserved flow melds to that malevolent beat like they were born together. 

But man, Herbo is just exhilarating. That guy’s in serious contention for the title of best rapper going right now, and this verse is one of his very best. Reading the genius page for this song is really fascinating, actually, because the contrast between the two verses is so clear – you have Nicki’s, positively drowning in similes, puns and cultural references, and then you have Herbo’s dispassionate list of facts, statements and ultraviolent threats. His verse is built like a concrete housing estate – monochromatic, utterly utilitarian, knucklebreakingly hard and covered in grimy stains from countless ill-fated endeavours, ‘cept these ones are more likely to be blood than vomit. His flow is highly aggressive, but it’s not an aggression borne of passion or anger so much as of territorial defensiveness and survivalist posturing. And he really does understand how rapping works, too – just listen to the way he places emphasis in the middle of the verse; “I’m in Hollywood, came from Kingston Food/ Shorties standing in the streets with tools/ Where I’m from, we don’t play no games/ Ain’t no April fools, you will make the news” – skipping the rhyme on that penultimate line was such a subtly brilliant move, ‘cos when he finally, cruelly twists the word news out of his mouth it comes with an inescapable fatal emphasis, really ramming home the naked, plain brutality of what he’s saying. Unladen with metaphor, unadorned with exaggeration, unencumbered by any moral scruples – there’s nothing here in the streets of Chiraq but death, and Herbo is its angel. This verse is everything drill music has ever aspired to be in a minute and a half; it’s incredible, and it blows me away every time I hear it. Straight brilliance.

Aside: an entire beef was conducted in remixes of this song! Not one, not two, but three tracks were exchanged – all using this beat. All great, too! That’s gotta be a record, surely?

Tempa T – Next Hype (2009)

Man, is this thing even a song? It feels more like a force of nature, or perhaps a sonic manifestation of raw potential energy. There’s almost nothing here except a synth riff and the vocals, but the synth voice sounds like it’s made of raw pig-iron and the vocals are so full of primal, overwhelming force that listening to it feels rather like placing oneself in the path of an oncoming train. Usually, when I encounter a five-star single, I’ll be able to come up with a bunch of pseudo-profundities to spout about its importance or the deftness of its construction, but I really can’t do that here. This song could shatter bricks; listening to it feels like tapping into an arcane vein of universal energy. Sometimes, when I’m blasting this on headphones, I accidentally touch a wall and feel momentarily surprised that the energy transference didn’t blast a hole through it.

Mariah Carey – Fantasy (1995)

In which Mariah Carey and Dave Hall take a really great Tom Tom Club song and give it the stratospheric commercial success it always so richly deserved.


Actually, I’m being a little unfair – this song is even better than the original. The new age synth intro is pretty wack, sure, but it doesn’t last long enough for me to deduct any points, especially not when the rest is this gorgeous. Most perfect pop songs take at least a couple of listens for me to confirm their perfection, but I knew this song was perfect the moment I heard it, and it’s still perfect now. Part of that perfection certainly does come down to that incredible weirdo-disco groove the Tom Toms came up with, but on the original it just existed for its own sake; here it’s the foundation for what feels like a whole rich, luscious universe of angelic light and otherworldly beauty. At least, that’s what hear when I listen to that first verse, which has the most utterly divine, joyous, totally contented and profoundly happy melody I’ve ever heard in my life. Shit, maybe it’s just the way she sings it, but the good vibes that wash all over and through me when I hear that tune are nearly indescribable, and the effortless way it transitions into that fluttering, floating, brightly glowing chorus just straight-up takes me into another plane of existence. No problems exist in this world when I’m listening to this song; the entire concept of imperfection becomes foreign to me. That sassy little G-funk synth, descending in that sweet little whistle past all the singing angels; that bridge, where Mariah’s voice echoes in from the distance, bearing sleepy impressions of absolute joy and perfect, contented wonderment… sweet Jesus, is this even music or is it essence dripped from heaven itself? This is transcendent. The love I feel for this song is overwhelming; it is one of the best songs in pop history. Absolute perfection.