Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Vacation In Hip-Hop Nation

We went to Colorado to visit the in-laws and ended up in Hip-Hop Nation. What happened was our rental car had Sirius XM so I started scrolling through the stations, looking for those mythical shows I always read about but have never heard. The first named station I came across was simply called Elvis - and that's exactly what you got. First we heard a good song then we heard Bossa Nova Baby, which would be more tolerable if it didn't bait you into thinking you were going to hear The King sing Jobim - a heavenly proposition - and then switch you to vaguely Latinate generic pop. After a brief discussion with my wife about how Leiber & Stoller could write a song at the height of the Bossa Nova boom, include those words in the title, and then completely ignore the genre, I scrolled on, soon arriving at Hip-Hop Nation.

The display told me Torae was the DJ and that the song was Kanye West's Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2, featuring Desiigner, which I've listened to many times on The Life Of Pablo. In context, it turned out to both fit the format and transcend it. The beats have plenty of the spacious, minimalist production of many of the songs we heard, although more artistically deployed, but nothing else anything as starkly emotional as Kanye's "I don't even want to talk about it" line. Hip-Hop Nation is completely uncensored, too, and there was something fascinating about Kanye injecting that model's "bleached asshole" into something resembling a national conversation, beamed across the satellites. He didn't invent it, after all - it's something that some people do these days - he just chose to include it in a song, as valid a choice as the one made by the first artist to paint a smoke-belching steam engine at the dawn of the Industrial Age. Quelle horreur

Even after all the times I've heard the track - and it came up at least twice a day until we left - Desiigner's verse remains fine but hardly memorable. Kanye's reign, however, was not limited to his own song, he was also ruling with his guest verse on THat Part by Schoolboy Q. I've heard Kanye phone in a feature before, but this time he brought his A-Game. Let's just say that "beggars can't be choosers, this ain't Chipotle," is definitely one of the lines of the year and there's even the illusion of studio camaraderie between the titan and his protegĂ©. Schoolboy Q more than holds his own with the legend and his Blank Face album, although a bit overstuffed, is well worth a listen. 

"If you can dream it, be it," they say, which is definitely the case with DJ Khaled, who shoehorned two tracks into Hip-Hop Nation's tight playlist. Both songs were ill-defined and disjointed, using their lazy beats to support a king's ransom of guest rappers who provided their only appeal. Khaled is like Woody Allen - it seems anyone will say yes to him. As to why a genius like Kendrick Lamar feels the need to do so, perhaps the fact that nothing from his extraordinary To Pimp A Butterfly (or its nearly as good companion, untitled unmastered) was played in all the time we listened has something to do with it. Maybe he knows the only way for him to stay in the commercial game is to jump on a track by a far lesser artist. 

I'm not going to say that Chance the Rapper plays the that game better than Kendrick Lamar, but his No Problem (feat. Li'l Wayne and 2 Chainz), fit the Hip-Hop Nation format brilliantly, with the addition of charm, which was lacking in much of the stuff we heard. It might be the only song from Coloring Book that does fit, but it's a canny commercial move that also happens to be a really good song.

One thing Hip-Hop Nation is good at, even in the confines of their narrowcasting, is giving new artists a spotlight. Most times we listened we heard someone up and coming, including Young M.A., whose song Ooouuu had a beat that was a cut above, foregrounding her distinctive flow and sense of humor. "This kid's going places," I told my wife the third time we heard it. Speaking of kids, I'm not sure who gave Raes Sremmurd the keys to the studio but most of their stuff sounded like cheap trap pandering and something even they won't want to listen to in six months. Give me Lil Yachty any day - he's more fun - although I did hear a better song by Raes Sremmurd in the back of a cab the other day so maybe Sirius isn't playing the best cuts. 

In general I can't stand Drake so I counted myself lucky that he wasn't getting that much play during our time in Hip-Hop Nation. This was surprising as his album Views has been sitting on the top of the charts for weeks now, despite being almost universally panned. Even more surprising is that Hype (Remix, feat. Li'l Wayne), the one Views-related track they did play, was actually good, with some welcome self-deprecation and good backing sounds - the hi-hat programming is especially brilliant - by producer Boi-1da. Maybe he had a better ghostwriter on that one...I'll just leave that there. 

I used to listen to Hot 97 and 105.9 a lot and loved those intermittent tracks announced as "Back in the dayyyyy," which would usually mean songs more than two years old. There was no such feature on Hip-Hop Nation when we were listening and thus no sense of the past. The oldest thing we heard all weekend was from 2005, when they played Hate It Or Love It and Westside Story, both songs by The Game featuring 50 Cent. These songs have both held up well and, with their rich soul samples, sounded as lush as Rachmaninov in the current attenuated context. But why two songs from the same decade-old album? The only guess I can hazard is that it has something to with the beef that started after the release of that album, which has only recently been resolved (at a strip club, no less), and this was Hip-Hop Nation's way of saying, "Glad everyone is friends again!" Don't call it a comeback, but maybe The Game and Fiddy should make a comeback as they were very complementary back in the dayyyy.

Besides the erasure of hip hop history from Hip-Hop Nation (which is about the hits, after all) there was also no social conscience. You're not going to hear any governmental takedowns from Run The Jewels or Killer Mike or any of Kendrick's thought-provoking rhymes here. The closest thing to political expression was the transgressive freedom to say whatever the fuck you want (see Kanye West, above), which was only amplified by hearing all this creative filth in whitebread Colorado. 

Hip-Hop Nation is essentially party nation and, for the most part, we enjoyed our time there. I'll plead the Fifth on whether the fact that we were visiting family and needed to blow off some steam when we were alone in the car had any effect on the pleasure we got from listening to hours of commercial hip hop. I can also neither confirm or deny that we wrote a trap anthem about taking the toll road, which is apparently something older people avoid like the plague, even when it can save 20 minutes of sitting in traffic. What happened in Colorado will stay in Colorado, but we'll always have our memories of the Rockies, the aspen trees, our beautiful nephew and his family, the pizza at Locale in Boulder and, thanks to our able tour guides Torae and DJ Suss One, Hip-Hop Nation. 

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