Muthafucka I’m Ill: Hip-hop as a medium for mental disorders

You all know how it’s been; Ever since Kanye “…so the world could feel his pain!” West blew up the rap scene in 2004 with his debut record The College Dropout, the conscious rap that the likes of Aceyalone, Common and Talib Kweli have been rapping over the last decade took on a whole new look, feel and level: now, not just conscious but self-conscious, much of popular rap has flipped its script and went introspective and retrospective. It’s gone from self-appraisal to self-abasement, from Diddy “Bad Boy for Life” to Drake “What Am I Doing?”.

Bar a few exceptions (e.g. Lil Wayne), even the most pompous of rappers now remember to keep their self-awareness in view – who would imagine Black Album-era Jay-Z, notwithstanding the Nirvana reference, calling himself “stupid and contagious”?

But where Kanye West has dealt with the god complex, newer off-radar rappers have taken the self-conscious rap ideology to a whole new different level, not just identifying but even embodying mental issues and disorders within their sound and image.

Driven by the near-inevitable rapper’s drug addiction, Danny Brown personifies his ailments into his music, flipping his voice from the deliriously high-pitched peak-outs to the painfully sober down-lows, as he raps between (in the former voice) literally shitting all over recording booths and (in the latter) trying to smoke his depression away. And as much as Childish Gambino may deny it, his Instagram letter antics, coupled with his Because the Internet album cover .gif, paint a picture of a comedian’s tragically ironic depression.

And they’re not even the best examples. The still-marginally-controversial Odd Future ring leader Tyler, the Creator, despite all his current wild successes and fame, started off as a spitefully maniacal teenager murderously angry at the world for… what, exactly? The answer is explicit in Tyler’s Wolf cut ‘Answer’ – his dad “not being there fire-started [Tyler’s] damn career”. Like Eminem before him, Tyler’s depression and frustration was cultivated by a troubled childhood. But much unlike Eminem, Tyler’s rage-fuelled stories delved into rape and (right after that) cannibalism.

Despite all the grotesque imagery (or because of it), misunderstood, antisocial teenagers from around the world found, perhaps, or hopefully, not relation, but understand where he’s coming from, and understand they could very well, harbouring at the deepest recesses of their fucked up minds, have such dark thoughts themselves.

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[spacer height=”10px”]Actually, psychologically, depression tends to lead to extreme tiredness, or not wanting do anything at all just about forever. Modern hipster-hop has got that covered too, in the 16-year-old white Swedish rapper Yung Lean, who, with producers Yung Sherman and Yung Gud, form Sad Boys. They try to pit a Main Attrakionz-esque flow with cloud / trill / trap beats and end up sounding like a not-so-wild-for-the-night A$AP Rocky.

In fact, even though they usually rap about getting bitches / doing drugs, Yung Lean’s not-even-trying delivery and the accompanying clouded beats come across as more passive-aggressively… sad. Yung Lean even says it himself on ‘Lightsaber // Saviour’: “I’m on the floor crying, crying / Why do I gotta be alive / I ain’t about that life / I ain’t about that life”.

That’s not to say they’re all lame – along with their vaporwave-influenced image, Sad Boys are at the forefront of what’s cool in the post-swag landscape, the next big are-you-serious thing in rap after Das Racist’s ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell’, where the medium is the message and not much else at all. And what’s the message? Beats me, but they’re definitely reflecting a group of fashionably depressed Tumblr-core hipsters who constantly nod back to their childhood with 90’s cartoon .gif’s and Windows 98 screen-savers.

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[spacer height=”10px”]The most extreme and prominent example however, would be the Sacramento hip-hop (?) act Death Grips. While some claim that their brand of industrial-influenced rap has already been done by experimental hip-hoppers dälek, they miss the vital difference that really defines Death Grips, which is their schizophrenia-induced (or -inducing!) sound, cultivated mainly through, among the dissonant production, MC Ride’s mad pseudo-rap screams, which at times recall an unkempt homeless man’s incessant word salads.

In Death Grips’ lyrics (made accessible through the band’s uploading of accompanying lyrics in their YouTube video descriptions), we see lines like “Cobra spit over apocalyptic cult killer cauldron smoke”, or “World of dogs gone mad / Above the law in your ass / Fire trash meltdown I’m not here / I’m world of dogs infrared”.

Of course it could all be an act, and of course all those word mishmashes could provide some insight, but that doesn’t discount the image that Death Grips give off. It’s clearly disturbed music and a clear-cut case of mental disorders being channelled through the highly-malleable, highly-personalised medium of hip-hop.

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[spacer height=”10px”]Rap has always been the message of the masses, reflecting the social attitudes of the people themselves. So when personal issues become bigger, more worldly relatable problems than the political conflicts of Public Enemy or the oppressed rage of N.W.A., what more mental issues and debilitating sensations could we see becoming more prominent in the field? ADHD? Nausea? Insomnia? Or even, allegedly, Asperger’s syndrome?

Whatever way it is, these examples are evidence that hip-hop continues to evolve, even more so than other genres, into not just different sounds, but different psychological states of mind. That’s probably what makes hip-hop what it is today – relatable on all fronts, or, in Yung Lean’s words: “so real you can call me reality” – or perhaps, has it always been that way and not just today? Check out this list of rappers with mental disorders. Or this Wikipedia article on how mental disorders can lead to creativity. Even Lil Wayne insists, “Muthafucka I’m ill”. And in spite of the connotations of their lingo, maybe they all are indeed.

By BJ Lim

It’s hip to be square: Music as it is now

Recently, as I trawled through the Internet alleyways of music, popular or otherwise, I chanced upon a forum post that detailed one user’s own experience with music as he was growing up. Having started out listening to the likes of experimental electronic musician Aphex Twin and eventually growing to dig pop star Britney Spears the same way, he did what seems to be the very opposite of the evolution of musical taste: go from hip to square.

The user goes on to list six stages to detail this rather strange phenomenon:

Stage 1: No real exposure / radio / your parent’s music / your friends’ music
Stage 2: Your first exposure to music / genre of choice / extreme elitism
Stage 3: Branching out, still elitist, but growing
Stage 4: Omni-genre-al. You’re listening to ‘everything’ and you’re in love with sound in all its forms… so long as it’s not on the radio / [insert your most hated genre]
Stage 5: Post-Elitism / Over-compensation. Whether it’s Britney Spears or Boris, it’s all good with you. Whatever genres you’ve been avoiding (typically POP), you are now playing catch-up to, to the point that you hardly even could be considered a fan of music, by most music fans. Be prepared to get called out on your love of pop / [insert uncool genre], despite a rich history of various genres and styles.
Stage 6: Nirvana — balancing out your prior love of in-depth music with your new-found appreciation of pop music / most-hated genre

While it doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody who invests heavily in music appreciation went through the same journey that this user had, the six stages appear to suggest a certain superiority in appreciating pop music like Britney and LMFAO over appreciating, say, the genre-jumping sludgy drone rockers Boris.

But where do we see these six stages applicable to reality beyond this singular opinion? It seems to be rather prevalent. In particular, some renown tastemakers like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork seem to fit the six stages rather well, with Rolling Stone infamously “revising” previous reviews, and Pitchfork recently labelling the K-pop boy band Big Bang “enormously popular and quite good” — using “quite” as if they wanted to prove (or disprove) a point.

And, hey, it’s not just the critics; Boris, themselves, took a turn for the dancefloor with their quite good 2011 effort, New Album, which near-completely eschews their amplifier-driven screams for drum machines and pure pop catchiness. It’d be hard to believe that, despite Boris releasing dozens upon dozens of experimental metal records (some even with the king of dissonance Merzbow), the trio were closet pop-lovers who always wanted to do a Good Morning Revival.

Let’s bring things back down to you and me in sunny Singapore. With hipsterism becoming the norm, I’m sure we experience a certain sort of cringe whenever we see people donning Vampire Weekend, xx or [breaks down in a flurry of vomit] Odd Future gear. I’m not denying the goodness of these acts (they’re great), and neither am I claiming that they sold out in any way; it’s just that their expanded fan base has sort of… made them lame. It’s basically the same cultural cringe we’ve faced from the masses of young folk who (we assume) don’t know nothing about Nirvana, The Beatles, or Metallica, and wear Nirvana, The Beatles, or Metallica clothing, only at an accelerating rate that is characteristic of the Internet age.

With everyone and their mothers listening to Tyler, the Creator and top publishers beginning to laud K-pop, perhaps it is now “hip” to bust out Lady Gaga as loud as you can on your phone loudspeakers, or tell innocent bystanders that It’s Your Party You Can Do What You Want. But before we start chanting “shots” ad nauseam, we still need to acknowledge that there’s good pop (Miley Cyrus — my opinion) and there’s bad pop (LMFAO — everyone’s opinion).

The problem is that we don’t seem to cover quite enough of it, and critically compare it to other, uh… “more reviewable” genres. It’s as if the overtly commercial radio pop music isn’t music at all, and the critical opinion seems to ignore them at times. Like Michael Bay of the film industry or Mitch Albom (i.e. “non-literature” literature) of the book industry, these things seem merely to generate massive profits and nothing much more in terms of artistic merit, and therefore are unworthy of critical analysis.

But that’s a little too immediately dismissive. I believe critics exist to not discriminate genres and associations but instead discriminate between what’s good and what’s bad. Pop music is music, after all, full of the drum beats and riffs and bleeps and bloops that we also hear on Aphex Twin. So why can’t we afford a closer look into the pop world of Swedish House Mafia, SNSD or the Wanted?

Following the model previously supposed, I do think that a lot of us (including myself) are currently situated in Stage 5, and do require an education in the genres we’ve avoided all our lives (typically POP). While documentation of this does exist (see McRoth’s Residence for a pretty comprehensive list of K-pop reviews in English up until its recent retirement, and PopMatters for a great slew of articles about popular culture), we don’t seem to get the kind of critical coverage of most of music journalism, major or minor.

And if you think there really isn’t much to talk about, think again. Can we see a super-solid, totally objective head-to-head comparison of the musical styles and sounds of The Wanted and One Direction? Can we see Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz getting the recognition it so deserves on more publications that also review Deafheaven’s Sunbather? And can we finally get a proper article on the phenomenon that is Yasutaka Nakata, the young J-pop producer who has near-single-handedly developed the highly successful musical careers of chart-topping acts Perfume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Capsule, and Meg?

Therefore, this writer, with his bright-eyed optimism for the future, hopes to see more critical articles and reviews on straight-up pop, and will himself do so (watch out for it!). Let’s not forget: The mass raving over One Direction isn’t too dissimilar to the kind we saw from The Beatles, and, as ludicrous as it sounds, we may one day see scholarly articles written on What Makes You Beautiful the way they were done for Yesterday, the prospect of which would itself have sounded ludicrous back in 1965.

By BJ Lim

Tyler, The Creator – Wolf

Apparently, Tyler, the Creator has had this Wolf album planned even before he started working on his previous record Goblin. The beats he’s using on this one go a long way back — all the way back to when he was just fifteen (he’s only 22 now though). This got a bunch of people concerned, because he’s been losing that novelty value ever since ‘Yonkers’ hit MTV. Nobody wants to hear another rehash of his old stuff.

So that’s why it’s a pleasant surprise to see the leaps and bounds Tyler has made on his third studio album, Wolf. No longer rapping about the usual suspects of murder or rape, Tyler stretches his lyrical content to the self-conscious realm of dealing with fame, his lost father, and girl issues. That’s not the only factor that’s made Wolf such an interesting record, though. Most notably, Tyler’s production has taken a turn for the better. It’s way more polished and professional than it has ever been, and now with an emphasis on melodic progression. This first hits you hardest at the sixth track, ‘Answer’, which shows a very confused Tyler wondering about his father and his dead grandmother, accompanied by a fantastically bittersweet beat with delicate guitar flourishes and yearning organ chords. It’s at these explorations of Tyler’s own identity where Wolf shines the brightest. Those tracks that don’t look into it don’t really matter (‘Domo23’, ‘Trashwang’).

The album is completed by an overarching story which deals with three characters: Wolf, Sam and his girlfriend Salem. To Sam’s horror, Wolf has been seeing his girlfriend. ‘IFHY’, which comes in at about the middle of the album, is the climactic moment where Sam realises this. While it can be seen as the centrepiece, the problem of Wolf is that it doesn’t quite know how to formulate its own build-up. Some of these tracks feel out-of-place, and Tyler could have done a lot better to rearrange them better. But it’s no big issue, because the mishmash of music brings a little bit of variety to the album.

Even though Tyler’s already up there in hip-hop stardom, it’s interesting to hear him still pay homage to his heroes. ‘Pigs’ has its own little Eminem moment in its psychotic outbreak of a closer. He’s got his heroes to look up to, and that kind of means he’s yet to be his best. We’ll see where his ongoing musical talent takes him.

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By BJ Lim

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

There is a moment in Channel Orange, somewhere between ‘Start’ to ‘End’, where you actually forget that you are listening to a full-length record. With the overlapping layers of interludes and skits within and in between tracks, it is almost hypnotic as it is captivating. The musical styling and carefully chosen skits add to the intricacies of Ocean’s first full-length debut album, reading almost like a grandiose novel in loose soliloquy.  In fact, just as Ocean and his creative partner, Malay, set out questioning, its lyrics, interludes and skits begged close attention in search of an over-arching theme throughout the album. Well, there isn’t – and that is a mark of success for Ocean. Full-length albums typically have running themes making them easier to understand, but Channel Orange is an enigma as is its creator. If any, the dominant narrative would be a sense of detachment and isolation.

Proudly displaying that there is none as great of a story-teller as he is today, Frank Ocean makes us understand that detaching yourself from any form of addiction is the best road towards self-preservation. He does it even without saying it. There are a lot of relatable elements throughout Channel Orange, even though there is no true uniformity. A very evident one is the marred lines of an inner binary, that there is no clear division between what is good and what is bad. In ‘Bad Religion’, there is a vulnerability listening to it because it is so personal and heartfelt. It is as if you are allowed to witness this inner dialogue about fighting against the dichotomies of lust and religion, of infatuation and societal rules and of fleeting emotions and spirituality. ‘Bad Religion’ seems to be the body to a long, drawn-out romance as introduced in the year’s greatest love ballad  ‘Thinkin’ about you’ and ending in the unusually upbeat but quietly sombre ‘Forrest Gump’.  Ocean himself takes the role of a chameleon in a spectrum of non-dichotomous musical endeavours. Aligining himself with controversial hip hop collective, Odd Future, the glib-talking, foul-mouthed Ocean is freakishly different in the company of Odd Future members and on their mixtapes from when he is passionately crooning on his solo projects. Welcome to the Jekyll and Hyde show.

But that is the magic of Ocean, he is a master of illusion because as soon as you expect anything or think you know what’s next, you are proven wrong. His lyrics and melodies are unpredictable and the entire album continues with surprises. ‘Pyramids’ is a powerful 9-minute cadenza that takes you from  minimal ambience to an Earth, Wind and Fire funk to a Maxwell-esque slow-jam that ends in a majestic Radiohead and Pink Floyd–inspired solo. On ‘Super Rich Kids’, he masterfully samples Elton John’s ‘Benny and the Jets’ beat while waxing lyrical about silver-spoon kids while ‘Monks’ eschews a love adventure interrupted by pangs of guilty decadence and spiritual struggles against a Neptunes-like bass beat and chorus line atop a 70s style Stevie Wonder and Prince crooning.  You can also hear a throwback to 90s RnB in ‘Sweet Life’ as Ocean’s rhythmic groove is reminiscent of D’Angelo and Rahsaan Patterson.

Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is a big epilogue, shaped by a myriad of musical influences and the ‘grapheme-colour synesthesia’ he experienced when everything in the summer he fell in love in was coloured Orange. Whether he is a mysterious story-teller, an astute illusionist or an eclectic music lover, Frank Ocean is definitely a ‘one-man cult’. And if Channel Orange is a teaser for members to join this tour de force cult, then please, sign me right up.

Listen to: ‘Super Rich Kids’, ‘Pyramids’, ‘Bad Religion’

Super Rich Kids:
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By Alyson Lopez