Musical genres can be defined by their boundaries, the edges that represent the theoretical end of the map. Err too far in one direction or another and you may find yourself falling off the flat landscape of accepted levels of experimentation and drowning in the helpless nexus of “creative missteps.”
Being a person who, at the core, is fascinated by failure, oddities and anti-masterpieces, I obviously devote a fair amount of my time to consuming questionable art, bodies of work that are divisive, ahead of their time, or out and out despised. Often this is coupled with the excessive consumption of alcohol. Of late, I’ve been heavily revisiting three albums that, upon release, were jagged left turns for their respective artists.
Misunderstood classics? Offensive wastes of time? Curious explorations of the human soul? I don’t do guilty pleasures, but let’s just say none of the following albums are things I would play at a party. Unless of course, it was my party. Then, we’d play these, old Justice remixes and Bieber acoustic tracks.
Let’s dig in.
I kiss the sky feeling high off the stuff that I wrote
First up is an album that I once considered a pretty big joke, but after several pensive spins, I find to be pretty unimpeachable. I got into Common because of Be and a reasonable extrapolation of my Kanye West stannery, but worked my way backwards through his catalogue. Electric Circus was up my alley. I was young, recently into Jimi Hendrix and The Roots and an unabashed fan of colorful sonics. Literally every conscious artist I’d discovered through long afternoons spent binging VH1 Soul featured on the LP, and it was ethereal, funky, jazzy and full of an irrepressible desire for free form expression. It felt legitimately like an album crafted by someone who wanted to create, not meet or exceed label or critical expectations.
Despite some truly moving music, everything about the album seemed like cannon fodder for Common’s critics. People joked that he had followed in Andre 3000’s weirdo footsteps because of his relationship with Erykah Badu. Making strange music was one thing, but going Full Kufi turned the Chicago legend into a walking, crochet pant wearing punchline. The stark and humorous transformation he went through is what has stuck with me through the years. So much so that I had forgotten how powerful some of the songs were.
“Jimi Was A Rock Star” is an epic ballad, a hugely reverent duet with Badu about Hendrix. It’s cavernous sound and spacey rising action are at once cinematic and story book. “Between Me, You and Liberation” is a beautifully haunting song of lament that touches on homosexuality and terminal illness in a muted, affected fashion. Every subsequent track feels like an exciting variation on any of Common’s given obsessions. The whole affair burns a few too many incense for my current tastes, and his rhyming is less prominent and visceral than on superior outings, but the utterly human sense of yearning driving the album is undeniable and applause worthy. Or snaps. Or whatever people do at spoken word events.
“Electric Wire Hustle Flower” is the song you hear in your head while someone explains the concept of Electric Circus to you, and is exactly the reason some people still scoff at it to this day. The dude from P.O.D. who looks like Matt Hardy guests.
“Come Close” is the most conventionally pop record on the LP, produced by The Neptunes and featuring shy, cooing back up vocals from Pharrell and Mary J. Blige, it’s sweet without being too mawkish and the closest thing to a hit Electric Circus produced. Plus, it’s got that video where Common plays Lloyd Dobler outside this girl’s house with a bunch of illustrated signs only to reveal that his paramour is deaf. It’s cute, except for when he says “The pimp in me may have to die with you” and then tears a picture of a hat in half. I mean, it’s definitely a pimp hat, but that seems pretty vague. Does she think he’s forsaking headwear for their love?
Who was your number one?
Who had niggas at the altar wearing fuchsia gators and cummerbunds?
Last Train To Paris is an album I distinctly recall downloading on a whim, strictly because the idea of Diddy, aka Puff Daddy, aka Highfather Ciroc, releasing an “electro hip-hop soul funk” album appealed to me ironically. This special project he created in tandem with former Danity Kane member Dawn Richards and Kalenna Harper is pretty singular. Diddy eschews his usual awkward swagger rap ghostwritten by a litany of stylistically diverse emcees in favor of dancey, noir club jams about loneliness, longing and ass shaking. He briefly and for seemingly no reason at all was The Weeknd before The Weeknd. What the album lacks in lyrical prowess and substantive subject matter it more than makes up for with catchy hooks, science fiction production and a consistent sense of place and theme. The whole thing seems kind of like Nic Refn and Hype Williams making a movie together.
Producers like Danja, Rodney Jerkins and 7 Aurelius sternly indulge every post 808s & Heartbreak whim their Pro Tools set ups led them on, with Diddy’s ear for crucial sonic tweaking keeping everything in line. Richard and Harper are joined on vocals by a wide range of collaborators, including Lil Wayne, Chris Brown (singing a song co-written by future rival Drake) and Grace Jones (!) weaving a broad tapestry of experimental R&B. Trey Songz brings his hypersexualized brand of Tequila Blowjob Balladry to “Your Love.” Rick Ross duels with the ghost of Christopher Wallace on the rain soaked “Angels.” Usher shows up and basically acts like a bored version of himself on “Looking For Love.” Each of these vignettes elevated in a weird way by a liberal application of auto-tuned Diddy falsetto. It shouldn’t work but for whatever reason it really sticks the landing. How can you not love an album where Weezy says “Love is the party. My heart is such a disco ball?”
Unequivocally “Coming Home” with Skylar Grey. Schmaltzy, pandering and shallow, it’s easily the worst thing on the album. You’ve heard this song before when it was B.O.B.’s “Airplanes,” Lupe Fiasco’s “Words I Never Said” and Dr. Dre’s “I Need A Doctor.” Producer Alex Da Kid really pulled one over mainstream radio that year.
Standout Track: Does anyone have three spare hours sitting around to talk about “Shades” with me and how it’s maybe the single best song of the 21st century?
I cannot say enough good things about this song. It’s got the following delectable ingredients: Lil Wayne rap-singing like he took a lot of cough syrup for an actual cold and not a good buzz, Bilal and James Fauntleroy trying to out sexualize one another in a Steel Cage Falsetto Match, Diddy asking the prospective listener if they ever had sex on (in?) marmalade, and Justin Timberlake purposefully mimicking Drake’s hashtag rap flow by referencing both Professor X AND Magneto while seducing the listener. What the fuck are you waiting for? Listen to this for the rest of the month.
I know a girl named Crystal, her last name Ball
I look into her eyes, and I can see it all
Oh, man. Spoiler warning: this album is Not Very Good. It is fascinating as all hell and more than worth several gin saturated listens if you ever want to gaze into an endless abyss. If you’re familiar with the work of Val Kilmer, Werner Herzog, and Lou Reed, or other Advanced artists, this may be of particular interest. Before he started wearing zebra print jeggings and falling off of skateboards in a herculean bid to burn through as much goodwill earned from his ’09 mixtape run as possible, Wayne, feeling at the top of the world, decided to release a rock album. The closest possible comparison I have for this abomination is Steven Bochco’s short lived cop show musical, Cop Rock. It’s an idea any number of responsible, consenting adults should have shot down, but for whatever reason, chose not to.
Dig if you will, the picture. Rap megastar and self proclaimed Best Rapper Alive decides that, since he considers himself a rock star, he should make rock music. In and of itself, not the worst thing in the world. One might assume maybe Weezy is really into Hendrix or GNR. Maybe he’ll enlist one of Lenny Kravitz’ session players, or The Roots, or Cody ChesnuTT. Nope. Wayne doesn’t actually get rock music. His frame of reference for this strange, alternate history, wishful thinking version of self mythologizing exists in a self destructive negative zone. You know how sometimes middle class white artists tap into hip hop but don’t really grasp the art form? Imagine an anti matter universe take on the Wigger Conundrum, but instead of a white boy pretending he’s a gangster, we have an acclaimed rapper who we know for a fact has been publicly recording music since his teen years imagining a life as a misunderstood, suburban nerd, based solely on repeated spins of Green Day’s American Idiot and a fundamental misreading of Purple Rain.
No band. No actual help from real musicians. Just Young Money record producers playfully dressing up loops and samples as feedback and reverb orgies of fuzzy, scuzzy nihilism dressed up in lovable underdog rags. “Prom Queen” finds Wayne lamenting a popular girl who never paid attention to him in high school, presumably in between concerts and shooting the video for “Bling Bling?” “Ground Zero” is like a Nirvana song from Hell. Its a nonstop parade of teen movie iconography regurgitated by someone who very realistically might not be able to tell John Hughes from John Holmes. Some of it is actually fun, despite all reason and accountability. The Nicki Minaj feature on “Knockout” sounds like it could have made the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack, in a good way. “Drop The World” from ur-superproducer Hit-Boy has Wayne teaming up with Eminem whose very presence seems to ground Weezy in a mood that the entire album could have easily (and effectively) existed in. “American Star” would have made a great statement of intent intro track for an album that didn’t take the whole rock star thing so literally and “Hot Revolver” a bonus track, is secretly one of my favorite songs of the last ten years. It sounds like Wayne covering Tonic, and if you get that reference, I’ve got a Seven Mary Three cover band in need of a bass player.
“One Way Trip” because Kevin Rudolf is on it, forever reminding us that Kevin Rudolf existed and wasn’t retconned by Superboy Prime punching the firmament of reality.
The Giorgio Moroder sampling “On Fire” is probably the best song on the album, but largely because it’s such a drastic departure. It just sounds as if Wayne Purple Rose of Cairo‘d himself into Scarface, which, in retrospect, is kind of the logical endpoint of a certain quadrant of rap music.
What have we learned?
Experimentation is good for art. Pushing the limits of what a genre is capable of can expand that genre for future artists in a healthy, productive way. The key is to present stories and emotions and ideas that are genuine. Push yourself to express yourself more freely and honestly. That road leads to success, even if it takes years to garner. Don’t experiment by deluding yourself and replacing your strengths with laughable weaknesses.
What’s your favorite left field hip hop album? Sound off in the comments.