Archive for the ‘IsWhat?!’ Category

Review: ISWHAT?! “The Life We Chose”

March 19, 2007

ISWHAT?! – “The Life We Choose”
Hyena Records (2006)

They’re probably much better live.

ISWHAT?!‘s second LP, “The Life We Chose” provides ample evidence for this half-compliment. The album’s only two live tracks–“Kashmir” (yeah, that Kashmir) and “Pilgrimage”–really capture the energy and originality of their stage act. While I might ask for a better quality recording (it almost sounds like there was only one mic), these tracks really shine insofar they showcase emcee Napoleon Maddux’s jazz beatboxing skills and the avant garde jazz skills of saxophonist Jack Walker and bassist Matt Anderson.

But ISWHAT?! is also a hip-hop/jazz fusion act, so what of the other tracks? Well, for better and worse, they’re all over the place. Overall, emcee Napoleon spits the usual leftist, socially-conscious rapper screed: calling attention to the corporations and corrupt politicians conspiring to keep everyone poor, particularly minorities (the artists say that politics actually brought them together in the first place). But he also takes some time to call out hip-hop culture for its own foibles (discussed at length on this site all week). I’ve spent some time commending Napoleon for using this medium to talk about issues of consequence, so I do not pass judgment on these views. I’m just happy that he can offer a message of critical thought, political awareness, and social responsibility.

But let’s get into the music. After starting off with the Kashmir cover, the first studio track on the album is, “Casket”– a punchy, energetic song with Napoleon spitting what is mostly a braggadocio, uplifting, I’m-staying-positive-in-spite-of-the-hard-times kind of message. The keys and the sax make for a smooth melody, and the bass lines are aggressive (as they are consistently throughout the album). But ultimately “Casket” just sounds overproduced. To me, ISWHAT?! sounds best when they are stripped down to their core elements. Here however, you have some pretty generic scratches, the melodic but powdery keys, a moog-type rock organ that sounds like its from a Fatboy Slim track, and a repetitive beatboxing all crowding the song, trying to sound polished. Perhaps they thought this would be commercially viable, as I’ve suggested, but this is one of those places where you should just stick to what you do best.

Immediately following Casket is “Profiles”, a track that I love, and that I’ve discussed before. I’ll reiterate here that I believe that this where the ISWHAT?! experiment truly shines. It’s just drums, bass, sax, and some scratches accompanying Napoleon. It’s really stripped down, reminiscent of something from The Roots’ debut “Organix” and there definitely will be times when you do hear Black Thought in Napoleon’s delivery and flow. It’s additionally noteworthy that there’s no hook on this track–simply Jack Walker’s ode to Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Contrast this with the instances where ISWHAT?! tries to organize its song in a more traditional hip-hop formula, with a hook driven arrangement, and mostly lackluster results. (See: “K.N.O.C.K” and “Ill Biz”). The hooks are often just monotonous and not credible in a hip-hop sense.

When I say that the tracks are all over the place, it’s because of songs like “Front.” Here, Napoleon is rhyming over a polished trance beat that sounds like it could have came from Paul van Dyk. There is the occasional wawa-ed sax from Walker, but otherwise it just isn’t original sounding enough to persuade me to genre-hop so abruptly.

The title track “The Life We Chose” is well-done, and stands as an exception to the awful hooks found elsewhere on the album. The main melody is provided by another wawa-ed sax from Walker and it works really well, weaving in and out, from the background to the foreground (the same goes for a harmonized vocal element humming an eerie “oooooh, oooooooooh” kind of thing). The drums really knock too, and at times they sound like they are being punched in with a sampler. Overall, the entire beat is seemingly in a state of constant change, and it really keeps you interested.

The theme for “The Life We Chose” also interests me, because it seems to belie the politics discussed elsewhere on the album. This sort of message of self-responsibility–that we “choose” the path that our life ultimately takes–seems to suggest that life’s struggles are of our own creation. It seems to me the message is intended to promote empowerment (if we choose it, we can change it), but that may contradict the marxist-type arguments that appear elsewhere, suggesting that higher powers (corporations, government) are in control and responsible for our social ills. Perhaps he’s just talking about the hip-hop game. I’m confused, so take a look at the lyrics on the hook and decide for yourself:

so you a boxer with a broken nose
hands up, this is the life we chose
hot fashion model with the itchiest clothes
dress up, this is the life we chose
a farmer on the turf where the worst weeds grow
dig up, this is the life we chose
grab tissue, face issues and fight your foe
cause you know this is the life we chose

Other solid tracks to check for include “Mooch” (Pete discusses it here), “Pilgrimage” (I discuss it here), “The Voice Within”, and “Writer’s Block” (I discuss it here).

But what do all of these tracks have in common? Napoleon doesn’t rhyme on them. Ditto for “Kashmir” as was discussed above. And I don’t necessarily think he’s a poor emcee, it’s just that this album doesn’t showcase his rhyming talent well enough. I will say however, that sometimes he sounds like he’s going too fast and his delivery suffers (lines don’t get the proper emphasis, others sound rushed, that kind of thing). But dude can rhyme, and he has this super unique, half Dougie Fresh/half scat-singing beatbox style going for him. It’s just that I don’t come away from this album saying, damn get this guy a solo album.

Overall, I think “The Life We Chose” is a good effort, and an interesting composition, but it is ultimately a flawed album. The song styles can be all over the place and the attempts at traditional hip-hop sounding tracks are sub-par. The band shines on the stripped down tracks that either a) are live, or b) sound like they could have been live. That is to say, I think IsWhat?! has good thing going, but their attempt to put together a studio album falls short here.

I give the album 3.0 out of 5.0 Tapes.


Little Brother On Point…

March 18, 2007

Another line from that AP story discussed below really jumped out at me.

…Last summer, as the “Chicken Noodle Soup” song and accompanying dance became a sensation, Baltimore Sun pop critic Rashod D. Ollison mused that the dance — demonstrated in the video by young people stomping wildly from side to side — was part of the growing minstrelization of rap music.

“The music, dances and images in the video are clearly reminiscent of the era when pop culture reduced blacks to caricatures: lazy ‘coons,’ grinning ‘pickaninnies,’ sexually super-charged ‘bucks,’ ” he wrote.

Isn’t this exactly the statement that Little Brother was making with “The Minstrel Show”? Those are some smart brothers, and they deserve props–even if they kicked out 9th Wondra (kidding). But I’ll be damned if this isn’t the most scathing sort of criticism to lob at the hip-hop industry right now. It really hits on the underlying, messy issues of race at work here, and it comes from a voice within the hip-hop community. Hip-hop will never die with guys like this around.


Hip-Hip going underground?

March 18, 2007

I think that was an interesting article, particularly in the context of some of the thoughts Kyle & I have traded over the previous week; plus it includes some great quotes, e.g. ‘”I’m not removed from it, but I can’t really tell the difference between Young Jeezy and Yung Joc. It’s the same dumb stuff to me,’ says Duncan-Smith, 33.” Hilarious.

Some thoughts I have for hip-hops future:

  1. It’s not dead or dying. Instead, (and in light of some the statistics Kyle highlighted), we may see a retreat to the underground. As “popular” as some hip-hop is, there may be (and I’m speculating) a population of artists that strengthens as the public image of hip-hop seemingly continues to worsen; mainly artist whom share similar sentiments that Napolean presents on The Life We Chose.
  2. In line with a string of underground releases (Ohmega Watts, Lushlife, Kero One, Jneiro Jarel, etc.), there seems to be a movement back to the sound and style of the “Golden Era” of hip-hop. There have been some traces of this in commercial releases, but I guess only time will tell if this movement will reach the popular level of aboveground acknowledgment.
  3. As Kyle said, hip-hop has been written off in the past; similarly, its identifiable sound has gone through changes. Historically, we may simply be at a point where a shift is occurring – whether or not that is spurred by the negative public image is debatable.
  4. KRS-One says: Lesson 3 for how to be an emcee “might be contradictory or funny, but emcees should have other ways of gettin’ money, that’s to say learn other things besides music, make money elsewhere, so hip-hop, you won’t abuse it.” – “Health, Wealth, & Self” from KRS-One

Has Rap Music Hit a Wall?

March 18, 2007

That’s the question posed by a recent AP feature story, and the same question we touched on here. This article was too good to pass up mentioning it in a post.

The answer I think is all in how one defines the wall. If the “wall” is defined as the ongoing mainstream commercial viability of hip-hop, then I think it’s possible that the wall has been “hit.” But if the wall is end of the genre, or the utter lack of creativity or vibrancy within this culture, then I think you are dead wrong, and acts like ISWHAT?! are proof of that.

Some of the empirical evidence cited by the author was interesting.

Though music sales are down overall, rap sales slid a whopping 21 percent from 2005 to 2006, and for the first time in 12 years no rap album was among the top 10 sellers of the year.

A recent study by the Black Youth Project showed a majority of youth think rap has too many violent images. In a poll of black Americans by The Associated Press and AOL-Black Voices last year, 50 percent of respondents said hip-hop was a negative force in American society.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll bracket off the race issue (because that’s even more interesting). But like any market, there must be a point where the pop music market becomes saturated with thug rap. But are we seeing that right now, at this particular juncture? I can’t say that for sure (and I don’t necessarily think so), but the prospect is an interesting one to ponder as it is coming, at some point.

But you know what? Even if we are witnessing the end of the commercial viability of hip-hop, I’m not worried. I actually think hip-hop music is as strong right now as it’s ever been. The mere utterance of names like J Dilla, Ta’Raach, Black Milk, Platinum Pied Pipers, (Detroit is in house right now), Madlib, et al. is enough to rebut any suggestion that the genre is dead. And we should throw ISWHAT?! in there as well. People might write off hip-hop, but it’s been written off before–so that doesn’t worry me. Should the hip-hop “bubble” burst, the worst that could happen, in my view, is that Young Jeezy has to pinch a few pennies to make that Def Jam money stretch a little bit further… boo hoo.

viva la hip y la hop…

Heads Up

March 18, 2007

My final thoughts on “The Life We Choose” are coalescing, and should be posted tomorrow sometime, followed by the release of the next tape; and it’s a banga’…

It’s been really difficult to develop a final opinion on this LP because I’ve been going back and forth all week–even with individual tracks. But I’ve been trying to force myself to come to some sort of definitive stance by tomorrow. Heads up.

RE: RE: RE: Hot

March 17, 2007

“For me, the question always remains, how much art and I willing to sacrifice for social responsibility, or vice versa. I don’t pretend to know, nor do I think I’ll ever figure it out. Like other forms of art, a lot depends on feeling, something immeasurable, and situational. I’m satisfied knowing that for every gimmick, there’s an artist with integrity, artistic and/or social.” -Me.

In the end, we agree. I suppose that it is simply a mater of personal preference as to where each of us draws that line.

RE: RE: Hot

March 16, 2007

“For me, the question always remains, how much art and I willing to sacrifice for social responsibility, or vice versa. I don’t pretend to know, nor do I think I’ll ever figure it out. Like other forms of art, a lot depends on feeling, something immeasurable, and situational. I’m satisfied knowing that for every gimmick, there’s an artist with integrity, artistic and/or social.”Me


March 16, 2007

I don’t think you can possibly say that Run-DMC would sell records now (for that matter, neither could the Beatles). But make no mistake, they were getting paid out the ass. They were all over MTV. We’re talking about Russell Simmons and Def Jam, son. Need I say more? They were major label before anyone else was.

Rather, I cited Run-DMC only for the proposition that emcees who will say-anything-that-sounds-hot-over-the-beat have a long and well-respected history in hip-hop, and many artists from the south do, in fact, fit right into that tradition.

ADDENDUM: And about innovativeness not paying off in today’s game, I hear people spit that all of the time, I don’t think it stands up to the facts. Some of the most successful artists in the game today are what I’d call innovators: Kanye, Pharell, Timbo, Dre, Missy, Outkast. It’s just that, because the market for hip-hop has expanded, for every Kanye there are now two other crappy rappers making money. But as long as Kanye or Pharrell still exist, the genre still moves forward, and our beloved hip-hop is not at risk of dying.

World history is full of virtuoso artists that never got paid a dime for their work, yet they were not dissuaded from producing masterpieces, and we were all eventually better off for it; tis the tragic nature of art. I see hip-hop the same way. Just because ISWHAT?! or Little Brother will never sell a million records doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s some cancer in hip-hop. It’s unfortunate in some moral sense, but it’s hardly the crisis that everyone tries to make it (usually the broke rappers).


March 16, 2007

I was going to make a post about that track; I’m a big fan. I’m also really feeling “Mooch.” It reminds me of a sound check, or some lazy hour before closing time, with each element improvised; love the trumpet. In my head, there are flappers everywhere…and one at the door checking for the fuzz.

RE Run-DMC – They are so hip hop (as you and I may conceptualize it), but I think the rules now are entirely different from when they were doing their thing. Hip hop wasn’t the cash cow it is now and nobody wants to allow too much wriggle room within a system that has become so popular and lucrative. I’m not sure their innovativeness (as it was back then) would pay off now. What do you think?

RE: Hot

March 16, 2007

But if your problem is with the overabundance of misogynistic and/or materialistic lyrics, why don’t you have a problem with Dilla or Pharell? Aren’t they part of the same problem? Dilla was always talking about hitting up strip clubs, drinking, objectifying women, whips, watches, etc… We both agree that Dilla was a virtuoso producer/emcee, but the question I posed is whether our respect for those amazing skills permits us to overlook the anti-social content of his lyrics.

It’s a tough call, and that’s why I’m so reticent to start calling out any emcee whose lyrics contain negative themes–I would effectively be cutting myself off from the music I love, and Dilla would be included–genius producer or not.

New Track

March 16, 2007

After a couple weeks of listening, my general feeling about ISWHAT?! is that they’re probably better live. With that being said, the two live tracks on “The Life We Choose” are solid, with my favorite being “Pilgrimage.”

ISWHAT?! – “Pligrimige” (iTunes)

Napoleon really rips it up with the beat box here, and the scratches are on point (contrast this with the rather generic scratches and beatboxing on “Casket”). Really, everybody comes with it on this energetic track, and it’s just evidence that these guys must be an interesting act to catch live.

Napoleon notes at the outset that this track is an interpretation of Andrew Lamb’s “Pilgrimage.” Once you go back to the original, it’s obvious that the beatboxing on this track is mimicking the brash rhythms on the Andrew Lamb track. And he does one heck of a job with a difficult task.

This has been one of my favorites so far, and I highly recommend it.



March 16, 2007

I tried to make that point in opening and closing my previous post: there is a spectrum and I do welcome representatives across the different styles. I acknowledge the lyrics of songs like Dilla’s “Crushin’.” I enjoy songs like that. Not every artist has to be on some avant-garde tip; each style of hip hop has its claim to the genre and setting, e.g. the jeeps, the clubs, a lounge, the opera house etc. My beef is with the flooding of “popular” hip hop that is overly materialistic, and misogynistic; the most accessible in my opinion. There seems to be a factory line that has been established that uses money, and elevation of status (possibly seated in some deeper need achievement) to perpetuate a specific theme/model. I think you referred to it correctly as “cookie cutter.” My main problem is not that there are some lesser talented/versed/virtuoso artists getting record deals…My fundamental issue is that this is the predominant music that young children are exposed to. This issue is obviously larger than the artists themselves.

As Jeru said, “This bullshit is so bullshit, I never wanna hear this bullshit on the radios, or in my children’s ears, cause it’s bullshit…”

By the way, I think the game show idea is golden.

If It’s Hot, It’s Hot. No?

March 16, 2007

I don’t want to go off too far on this tangent, but my question to Pete would be: at what point does an artist’s level of musical talent supersede any of their other social foibles? If you accept this as possible, do you feel comfortable making that tradeoff of principles? That is, artists like Pharrell or Dilla quite often spout misogynistic, socially-irresponsible lyrics, so why does their artistic talent give them a free pass on the social stuff? Or does it?

Looked at from reverse, it’s hard to find a “knowledge and respect” for music in Run-DMC’s work, they were just straight spittin some hot shit, but they’re icons and some of the best emcees ever. The same is true of many artists from that era.

My point is, isn’t there a space in the pantheons of hip-hop respectability for artists that are just having fun, spitting that hot shit, and whatever sounds cool? I enjoy artists like Madlib or Dilla who are virtuosos and crate diggers, but isn’t there a place for just clownin’ shit, where we don’t ask the artist to take some pop-quiz on 1970’s soul record labels, or how many whiskers were on Curtis Mayfield’s goatee? (answer: 439).

So when Polow Da Don freaks Switch’s “I Call Your Name” on “Throw Some D’s” does he also have to show that he knows the lyrics to every other song they’ve recorded? If it’s hot it’s hot, no?

I really don’t mean to come off as confrontational, I’m purposely trying to be provocative here. Let me know what you think.


March 16, 2007

I love hip hop as well, and I like its diversity (allowing me to pick & choose). My taste goes in cycles. At times, my scope is narrow; other times, I consciously try to be more open to things that I may not ordinarily listen to. Right now, I’m in a state more aligned with the former. I usually make judgments (perhaps quickly at times) as to whether I like something based on the artist’s background. I love emcees and beatmakers who demonstrate a clear knowledge and respect for music (playing an instrument is a bonus but not a requirement). J Dilla – crazy beats; clearly knew music, innately it would seem. This quick litmus test is the reason I love guys like Madlib, Common, Pharrell, and Aloe Blacc. I listen to their music, and I can hear somebody who is an artist, lyrically or otherwise.

Often times, perhaps to a fault, I write guys off who I don’t think know jack about or respect music; guys who rely heavily on an image or gimmick to make a quick buck. Often, these gimmicks are built on perpetuating some stereotypical image, or some cheap topic, e.g. “how delightful it is to receive sexual gratification from this select bevy of women.” Like Kyle mentioned, I’ve too have become more sensitive to this as I read about real issues, for example, family dynamics in urban areas. It seems to me, while I claim to be no advertising expert, that a significant amount of this music is targeted at impoverished areas. Songs that make light of “beat[ing] the p*$sy up” are heard by children (despite the stickered warning). This, I find, is problematic for children who are internalizing these messages. Research has demonstrated that misogynistic lyrics have a similar effect as pornography on male listeners. Note that the subjects in most research has been college males (due to some ethical obligation not to expose young children to pornographic material, seen, heard, or otherwise) – think of the impact on an 8-year old who is still formulating his or her gender roles and identity. This doctor (Dr. Michael Rich), drawn at random (i.e. not hired by me) suggests in an interview with that:

“The connection to misogynistic music and behavior may be evident in other areas of young people’s lives, too, says Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Media Matters campaign.

“The music portrays this kind of dating violence and coercion around sexual activity as normal relationships,” said Rich.

“I see an acceptance among teenagers – both girls and boys, of the kind of sexual objectification celebrated in this kind of music. There is this notion that it’s okay to be used for sex and that there is not any emotional commitment necessary.”

That being said, it’s often difficult to draw the line to what I like or dislike; when do I use my musical judgment? When do I use my social judgment? Which brings me to Kyle’s post on positive rappers. I try to always give props to emcees who present lyrics that sound thoughtful…or even attempt to push a prosocial message. For example, Common’s “Love is” from Be. (Dilla, Dilla, Dilla). On it, Com explores the travels & travails of love in the ghetto. Also, The Procussion’s “Water’s Edge,” where they preach respect and love for others in a way that is still hip hop. The end soliloquy is one of my favorites , right up there with Common’s Pop’s monologues. (By the way, keep an ear open for Blu)

For me, the question always remains, how much art and I willing to sacrifice for social responsibility, or vice versa. I don’t pretend to know, nor do I think I’ll ever figure it out. Like other forms of art, a lot depends on feeling, something immeasurable, and situational. I’m satisfied knowing that for every gimmick, there’s an artist with integrity, artistic and/or social.

All I know is, “if I don’t like it, I don’t like it, it don’t mean that I’m hatin,” Com.


Armstrong, E. (2001). Gangsta misogyny: A content analysis of the portrayals of
violence against women in rap music, 1987-1993. Journal of Criminal Justice and
Popular Culture, 8
(2), 96-126.

Barongan, C., & Hall, C. N. (1995). The influence of misogynous rap music on sexual
aggression against women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 19, 195-207.

P.S. The above are just some example studies that explore the misogynistic influence of “rap” music. Kyle & I are trying to run a clean ship here so I did not link to the original studies, although I think you would have needed a password to access them even if I had. There is plenty of similar research out there, as well as the specific damage done to young boys. For a great read, check out Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson.

Positive Rappers

March 16, 2007

I’m writing now just to give due props. Napoleon Maddux is an intelligent, insightful, and positive emcee, and accordingly, he deserves our praise for that. This might sound like a fairly uncontroversial proposition, but it’s honestly an issue that I struggle with, and here’s why:

On one hand, when I’m just clowning around or on my commute, I’ll bump tracks like Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” , U.G.K.’s “The Game Belongs to Me” or something from T.I., and I really enjoy them. I write them off as “hot tracks” that get your head bobbing, and I’m not bothered by the lack of substance and/or promotion of immorality because I don’t ultimately endorse any of it–I’m just there for the beat and the style, I’m not listening to ponder the world’s dilemmas.

I find some support for this care-free approach to hip-hop from its early days. Old school emcees weren’t really rapping about third world debt relief or warrantless wiretaps, they were just popping shit, saying anything to get your ass moving. So does Rich Boy. Ditto for Lil’ Jon.

Moreover, there is an unconditional facet to my love for hip-hop. I’ve never endorsed the “Hip-Hop Is Dead” argument. When Pimp C remarked that hip-hop needs Laffy Taffy as much as it needs Nasty Nas, I agreed to a certain extent (though choosing Laffy Taffy is probably a poor example). To me, it’s always evolving, and because I love hip-hop so much, I want to absorb every permutation of the artform and enjoy it like a parent enjoys whatever it is that their offspring choose to pursue as a career. Like any parent would attest, this isn’t totally unconditional, but it’s pretty open-minded nonetheless. So when the Whisper song dropped, I listened and bumped for a while. When Lil’ Jon blew up, I bumped, and I still keep an ear open for his unique sound. The message is utterly ignorant and morally reprehensible, but it’s all still hip-hop to me–and at the end of the day, it’s just a song to get asses moving, so who’s really harmed?

But on the other hand, it’s hard to look at the sorry state of urban America today and say that the criminal, gangster culture that these artists promote is utterly innocuous. The fact is that it’s not, and for someone like myself who considers urban renewal–particularly urban education reform–the civil rights issue of our time, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the kids, who lack better role models, end up admiring these rags to riches dirtbags.

I’m also moved by the criticisms of black intellectuals. Torrance Stevens, a contributor at, writes here about what he calls “The New Knights of the KKK”

“It really is the best dream of the Knights of the KKK – I mean have people they despise and deplore do their dirt for them. To make it simple, they continue to encourage the stereotypes and promote self destruction to the extent that it has reached pandemic proportions. I hear songs that proclaim the manliness of killing and shooting another. I hear songs that encourage women to be unfaithful to their commitment to their men. I hear songs that give confidence to the ill importance of school. There even seems to an inordinate amount of songs that target “baby mommas” and how delightful it is to receive sexual gratification from this select bevy of women. And last but not least, songs that proclaim the material riches that you accrue are more important than anything else – in particular if they are displayed on one’s car.”

Stevens adds:

“Please folk, especially my men in the entertainment industry, lets try and check ourselves and decide what type of legacy you desire to leave for your kids and others, one of self-enhancement, or one of self-destruction by a new invisible empire.”

But it’s also heartening to know that I’m not alone in this state of tension. Paul Butler, also of, writes about his inner-conflict over Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s”:

“Any black person who practices the politics of respectability would say [“Throw Some D’s”] sets Negroes back ten years… So every time this song comes on the radio I crank up the volume. When the chorus comes around I shout out at the top of my lungs “throw some d’s on that b.” (they bleep out “bitch” on the radio). Yes, I hate myself afterwards. But the flow is frigging irresistible.” (emphasis added).

This is one of those things for which I have no answer, so I write only to capture my thoughts at this particular moment in time; and to offer Napoleon and the rest of ISWHAT?! my unqualified appreciation for their effort to strive for the best of both worlds: fun music that is also socially conscious. Being from the ‘Natti, they know as well as anybody that the hood needs it right now. Props.


New Track

March 15, 2007

Moving on, one of my favorites tracks so far has been “Profiles” and I thought I’d discuss it here.

ISWHAT?! – “Profiles” (iTunes)

Here is where I think Napoleon, Jack Walker, and Matt Anderson are at their best. Napoleon spits a verse that is the verbal equivalent of weekend people-watching in Washington Square Park. His flow is emphatic and works really well here. The drums knock (we’re spared the beatboxing) and the upright bass is excellent yet again (there’s something about rhyming over an upright bass arrangement that is so hip-hop–no songs are coming to mind, but I know there’s a ton from the golden era). Overall, there’s a cohesiveness to this track that is lacking on some others. It brings the unorthodox and improvisational elements of jazz, and does it without sounding impromptu and slap-dash. It’s polished, but not formulaic. That’s what good hip-hop/jazz fusion should strive for, in my opinion.

And I finally figured out where that sax melody came from, though it didn’t take much digging: Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Somewhat coincidentally, I come to the ISWHAT?! album on the heels of a relatively lengthy jazz phase in which I took the time to really dive into Coltrane’s catalog. In some ways, I suspect that this album has been a bridge for me, carrying me back into a steady hip-hop diet over the last few weeks.

John Coltrane – “Giant Steps” (iTunes)


The Scream Track

March 15, 2007

I agree with Kyle that the wailing is incongruous. A bit drawn out? Yeah. I think its placement within “Circus” is appropriate but I think it could have conveyed its message in about a quarter of the time. Surprisingly, I’ve yet to skip it; but being as it’s at the end of the track, it will be easy to do so when the time comes…

I think whatever point Napolean was trying to make, he lyrically does an excellent job of doing so…recall the disturbing imagery of the mighty lion’s roar being stifled by the “tamin’ & train’.” It reminds me of the grotesque imagery Hesse uses in Steppenwolf when his reverses the roles, and has the rabbit (similarly) taming the wolf.

Lyrically, “Circus” is one of my favorite tracks. I love the basslines too, add to the mood…as for the wailing woman, I think the album is still new enough to me that it still holds some intrigue factor. The wailing may be permissible on a track like this, which isn’t necessarily made for radio play, or to be bumped in the jeep; and while it may deviate from the overall sound of the album, in a way, it makes sense among some of the instrumental arrangements (or perceived lack thereof) on the album.


The Scream

March 14, 2007

In his last post, Pete hinted as to our discussions about the lengthy scream session on “Circus.” I feel compelled to add that this wailing just bothers me, and may ruin what is otherwise one of the most original and enjoyable tracks on the album.

While I did listen to the entire 2:10 scream session on my first couple go-rounds, I just skip it every time now. The closer I listen via headphones, the more it comes across as poor acting (irregardless of this woman’s amazing set of lungs). That might be a fine tooth judgment call, and maybe that’s just me.

However, more interesting for the purposes of discussion might be another criticism of mine, which is that this incessant wailing is in poor taste. On one hand, I understand that art is supposed to stir emotion and make us uncomfortable–particularly activist art. But on the other hand, this is music we’re talking about here and at some point, such a tragic audio vignette crosses a line from musical expression into something different, and does it in a way that disrupts the aesthetics of the album.

After all, the challenge for any conscious rapper is to blend his commentary into the contours of the music–no small feat. If he just wanted to record his recitation of an essay on ghetto violence, he could do that–but it would probably cease to be hip-hop at that point. Somewhere in between those extremes lies the scream session from “Circus.” Admittedly, I’m somewhat on the fence about this, but for now I’m inclined to think it just doesn’t work and in the aggregate, it takes away from the album.

Moreover, it diminishes what is really an excellent track to showcase the potential of ISWHAT?! Napoleon is so on point with his cryptic but overtly critical lyrics. And his flow over the frantic bass line and improvisational sax play is stellar. This is not to mention the creative arrangement of the song with its several unexpected changes.

This is all a really long way of saying that I thought the scream session was either a) much too long, or b) should have been made into a separate interlude track.


The Line

March 14, 2007

First, just to touch upon the question Kyle about where ISWHAT?! lies (“Said differently, does hip-hop/jazz fusion get its own wing in the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame or the Jazz Hall of Fame?”) The fact the question has been raised as to whether something is hip hop (or jazz in this case) suggests, to me at least, that hip hop has extended beyond its once, clearly defined territory. Hip hop is no longer separate; some insoluble sound sitting at the bottom of the musical world (as some may have wanted it to stay). It has been absorbed into the worlds of jazz, rock & roll, pop, alternative, etc. While it once may have been considered by some a phase that would pass (whoops), hip hop has grown from the fruit at the top of the musical tree, and now has it’s own branches stretching from it.

Kyle will tell you that I often make quick judgments when I hear something, particularly when that something is displeasing. But I love hip hop and this blurring of boundaries is a positive sign for the music. I think this is especially true in cases like ISWHAT?! I interpret it as contemporary hip hop looking down its own ancestral tree and respecting the history; realizing that where it came from what a pretty damn dope place. And who can argue when you hear a modern beat built around a sample from a trumpeter in 1955? It’s interesting that on The Life We Chose, Napolean dedicates a lot of his effort around poking holes in hip hop, specifically the cookie-cutting that Kyle mentioned. It’s paradoxical – here you have an emcee bringing light to the circus (more on that in a minute) that is hip hop, yet at the same time, proving that hip hop is strong, artistic, individualistic…despite the “tamin’ & trainin'” that goes on. ISWHAT?!’s embrace of hip hop’s past, jazz (even, as Napolean explains, signing to the same label that Thelonious Monk was on), reminds me that hip hop is legit.

At any rate, that brings me to “Circus.” Kyle and I have exchanged a few remarks on the track, particularly the hysterical woman (presumably a mother who has lost her son) that dominates nearly the entire second half of the track. Upon first listen, I couldn’t help focusing on the her crying. My initial reaction was, “ugh, studio acting…” Simultaneously, I was disturbed. It was awful listening to this woman wail about the loss of her son.

ISWHAT?! – “Circus” (iTunes)

I interpret two messages of “Circus.” First, similar to “Writer’s Block,” it works as a commentary on hip hop, likening it to a circus (of course):

“We full of popcorn and pop videos trainin’/
Cotton candy radio to keep the wack maintainin’”

However, Napolean attempts to reach further than hip hop, and infiltrate communities:

“How the hood is self-hatin’ with blatant disrespect/
The world turns and the planet laughs/
And the grown man slips on a banana that’s been left in his path”

Napolean elevates the imagery beyond that of hip hop simply being a circus.

But the most profound imagery is yet to come:

“At a loss for words, no, I’m at edge/
Emotionally disturbed, cause I’m seein’ the lion
Bein’ teased while I’m takin’ a seat on the curb
He roars but it won’t stop the tamin’ and trainin’”

Is he still talking about hip hop? Is he talking about something more sociological in scope?

And then wham…a gun shot, and a woman wailing. I’m rethinking her loss. You?

Musically, the soundscape of “Circus” aligns well with the message(s). I think the bass is most dominant. It sounds foreboding at one moment, and the next, it sounds as if it’s counting down to some unforeseen tragedy…perhaps the “banana in the path”?


Possible Single?

March 13, 2007

This track sounds like it could be positioned as their single. I haven’t looked around to see if they released one yet, but let me know what you think. I’m feeling it though…

ISWHAT?! – “Casket” (iTunes)

UPDATE: I take that back about feeling that track… I was confusing it was the track that follows it. This song tries to be upbeat and fun but just sounds hollow and unoriginal to me. It sounds like Doug E. Fresh meets Fat Boy Slim and J5. No thanks.