My Year in Lists: Volume II
"You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge."-Dr. Dre, "Straight Outta Compton"
"The best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."-Steve Earle, on Townes Van Zandt
I have been pretty straightforward about the fact that, when I walked into this feature, it was not without a vague sense of dread. I purposely designed My Year in Lists: Volume II to force me out of my comfort zone, to make me try things I hadn't before and didn't really want to, and I did this because I firmly believe there is value in the best that each and every genre and subgenre has to offer, and that anything at its best is likely to be pretty damn good. What better way to test this theory, my reasoning went, than to throw myself into the deep end of some genres I generally dismissed and even disliked?
When I began conceiving of this feature, I truly feared one thing about each of the genres here, that one of their stereotypes would prove true. For jazz (the genre I was most actively excited to immerse myself in, and thus a sort of outlier here as it has been in the culture at large since its emergence), I feared long, boring, incomprehensible pieces of discordant sound would be confronting me for the full year. For country, I feared I would find overblown religious zealotry and a red-neck-narrow view of the world with the twang dialed up to 11 (a fear I have confronted once already when we looked at
The Louvin Brothers). For hip hop, I feared gangster rap, or, more specifically, I feared I would be faced with a lot of music that was blatantly misogynistic, homophobic, and glorifying of violence, both carnal and societal.
All of these fears have or will come up throughout the year, and this feature is nothing if not a conversation with myself about my preconceived notions, how they stand up, and whether it was ok to have them in the first place. The obvious answer to those questions is a resounding no, but that's also letting myself off to easily. Intellectually, I have always known each of these genres was more complex and more satisfying than my stereotyped view of them; and yet, I have stayed away.
All of this is prologue to a consideration of N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, a hip hop opus of massive influence, credited with bringing gangsta rap to the forefront of the genre, with shifting the focus of hip hop toward a focus on the gangster lifestyle, and with shifting the balance of power in the hip hop world from the East Coast, which had dominated the scene virtually since its inception, to the West Coast, which was stepping up its game.
The easiest analogue to gangster rap, in my mind, is punk rock. Both are born out of serious disaffection with society, both are filled with (often) righteous anger, and both have a "burn it all down" mentality. But where punk rock was born out of a musical disaffection that seems to have spread to encompass all of society, it seems to me that gangster rap was born out of political dissatisfaction that is more elemental. Punk rock thought the world was unfair; for pioneers of gangster rap, the world was unfair. When Sex Pistols advocate "Anarchy in the U.K." it is at least a little bit theatrical and disingenuous; at least from my perspective, its more likely that Johnny Rotten screamed "I am an antichrist" for reasons closer to why David Bowie affected an asexual persona or The Replacements played shows in dresses than to the reasons why N.W.A. yell "Fuck Tha Police."
There is a level at which controversy is the point of Straight Outta Compton, but I think that's the case for more complicated reasons than it was for much of punk (though its getting a bit of a bad rap here, rest assured I am an avowed punk fan). From the first, N.W.A. was nakedly confrontational, daring audiences to hate them and dismiss them, just as its members clearly felt hated and dismissed by their society. In the opening moments of "I Ain't Tha One," Ice Cube speaks out, as if to clarify the raison d'etre of the group, saying, "'Cause that's what we try to do in our music. We try to make music to piss you off. That's why we say "˜bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch,' and "˜nigga nigga nigga nigga nigga nigga nigga.' And fuck you if you don't like it." From a punk fan's sensibility, I get this. But as someone who takes misogyny very seriously, there are times throughout the album that I fell more in line with gangsta rap's detractors than with its supporters.
N.W.A. (which, to clarify, is an abbreviation standing for "Niggaz With Attitude") arrives fully formed on the title track, which opens the album. From the start, the boys are aggressively confrontational, quick to violence, and sonically incredibly accomplished. Produced by Dr. Dre, the album has an astonishingly clean, polished sound from the start, uses samples inventively, and generally sounds like its being produced by a much more experienced group. As a rule, I am anti-sampling (readers of the first volume of My Year in Lists have heard this rant before), but it is used so well here it always adds and never detracts. Hip Hop as a genre has always been about self-mythologizing and braggadocio, and N.W.A. has that in spades"”the biggest difference here is that while earlier hip hop artists mostly bragged about their skill as rappers, N.W.A. brags about their propensity for violence. Many of the titans of early hip hop thought of themselves as legends for their rhymes; N.W.A. considered themselves as legends more for their purported criminal exploits.
This isn't to say, though, that their lyrics aren't great. There is a level of wit, verve, and ability to all of N.W.A.'s songs that is nearly without parallel so far in my hip hop experience. These guys are poets, to be sure, and for most of the title track, I can get lost in the brilliance of their lyrics and the confident skill with which they deliver them. But then there's the moment where Easy-E asks and answers, "so what about the bitch who got shot?, fuck her, you think I give a damn about a bitch, I ain't a sucker." This heralds the biggest problem that will plague the entire album for me. Rap all you'd like about killing cops, N.W.A. (and we'll get there in a minute), but completely deny the agency and even humanity of women, and we're going to have a problem.
Look, to be fair to N.W.A., its important to point out that when the album came out, these were teenagers. Ice Cube and MC Ren were 19 when the album was released, and while youth doesn't excuse ignorance, these would hardly be the first teenage boys to be mystified, terrified, and thus enraged by teenage girls. The N.W.A. problem with women is never better exemplified than during the afore-mentioned "I Ain't Tha 1," in which Ice Cube, right after laying out the very persuasive reasoning behind the group's music I quoted above, proceeds to fundamentally deny the agency and even humanity of women, reducing sex and romance to a simplistic game in which men want sex and women want money, and arguing that it's the job of every man to get the sex he desires without giving up any of the money his suitors are trying to get.
This isn't just unfair and cruel to women (though it is both of those things); it simplifies gender roles and sexual politics to the detriment of all involved parties. And that's a real shame because at their best, N.W.A. seems capable of more complex, nuanced understanding. Maybe they aren't, though, not really, and I say this without intending to take away from the album's power or innovation. But this is an album obsessed with instant gratification. Throughout, N.W.A. get exactly what they want exactly when they want it, and Straight Outta Compton can persuasively be read as an exercise in adolescent wish-fulfillment. Maybe all of gangsta rap can, on a certain level, though we'll get to that s we delve further into the subgenre later this year.
This obsession with getting what they want when they want it lends the album a strong sense of urgency, though, and creates with it a sound that is impressive and exciting, a dense sonic landscape of tires screeching, horns blaring, samples popping up but never overstaying their welcome, and, of course, the furious rhymes of the group's various rappers.
The album's near-undisputed masterpiece is "Fuck Tha Police," a brilliantly crafted protest song about police racism and brutality that is intensely clever and has a ring of honesty that's deeply discomfiting. When these guys say "Fuck Tha Police," its hard not to think they've got a point; they were living in L.A. less than four years before the Rodney King Riots, so it's fairly likely they had some experience with police brutality and racial profiling (though if the song was released today, it wouldn't be much less likely). N.W.A. are at their best when they're expressing well-earned rage and arguing against a culture built to keep them down, but they spend most of Straight Outta Compton assaulting any and everyone else just for the hell of it. In the land of this album, N.W.A. are kings, and they live out sociopathic fantasies and violent tirades in their lyrics that befit the title.
The third in the album's opening "holy trinity of gangsta rap" is "Gangsta Gangsta," which establishes the sound, tropes, and intensity of the subgenre in less than six minutes. The song is catchy, built around Ohio Players' "Funky Worm," but it bothers me more than "Straight Outta Compton" or "Fuck Tha Police," largely for its bevvy of misogynistic verses and turns of phrase. The guys can talk about shooting whoever they want and burning down the system, but when they undercut another person's humanity, it reeks of not just ignorance but hypocrisy. Much of the group's anger is derived from the fact that they are discriminated against and kept down for being black, but they seem to see no problem with subjugating, degrading, and discarding women.
The rest of Straigh Outta Compton is a strange mix of styles and influences. Considering the album's reputation as the moment gangsta rap emerged as a subgenre, the album has a surprising number of songs more dedicated to remixing (like "Dopeman" and "8-ball") or creating good dance tracks (the aptly named closer "Something 2 Dance 2") that seem to come from a different world than the urban apocalypse from which the opening tracks hail.
Though Straight Outta Compton didn't invent gangsta rap, it might as well have. It perfected and popularized the sound, created many of the tropes that the genre would run into the ground, and created a seismic shift in music and pop culture as a whole. N.W.A. would only remain an ongoing concern for a scant four years, but in this, they are also kindred spirits of Sex Pistols (not to mention The Velvet Underground and various other short-lived groundswells in music). They didn't last long, but by the time the group disintegrated, they had changed pop culture profoundly and permanently.
In a lot of ways, Townes Van Zandt lived the life of a typical country legend. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder early in his life, he suffered long-term memory loss throughout his life due to insulin shock therapy, struggled with heroin and alcohol addiction throughout, and died too early (though he made it to 52, years longer than he should've considering his habit of consuming a pint of vodka a day and the fact that his longest period of sobriety, despite over a dozen stints in rehab, was roughly one year). Van Zandt also never gained any commercial success and spent most of his life touring dive bars and living in cheap motels or sleeping on friends' couches. All of this tragedy makes the subtle beauty of his self titled third album, released in 1969, even more special.
Van Zandt's songs are sparsely arranged and can be described as folk as easily as they are characterized as country. The album's opening track, "For the Sake of the Song," was actually previously recorded as the title track of his debut album, but Van Zandt, unhappy with the sound of the original, decided he wanted a redo. The song is a quietly beautiful ode to the power of music, as catharsis and, failing that, as a pain killer. Van Zandt developed a reputation among singers of almost legendary status (when Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and mother fucking Bob Dylan are covering you, you're doing ok), and in these opening moments, its completely obvious why. There's a stark power to Van Zandt's voice and instrumentation, but his lyrics really catapult his work into the stratosphere.
"Waiting "˜Round to Die" is a classic story-song, chronicling the life of a drifter who is abused by his father, abandoned by his mother, grifted by lovers, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and eventually goes to prison. The song bears more than a passing resemblance to Van Zandt's own life, and its admittedly tragic, but there's a hard-earned optimism to it, a cynical refusal to let life beat him, that's impressive and even moving. The song is uplifting only in the bleakest possible sense, but it's a well-written tragedy with a hardscrabble attitude its impossible not to admire.
"Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel," is likely my favorite song on the album. From its beautiful opening lyrics, "Well, the drunken clown's still hangin' "˜round, but it's plain the laughter's all died down, the tears he tried so hard to hide are flowin'" to its catchy, tragic chorus, "won't you come and get me when you're sure that you don't need me then, I'll stand outside your window and I'll proudly call your name," the song is moving and singable in ways that beguile and delight. The album ends with "None But the Rain," a near-perfect closer to an album that has won my heart.
For those of you keeping score at home, I would call Townes Van Zandt my first full-on country conversion. I appreciated Marty Robbins from a camp perspective, enjoyed the way Ray Charles and
The Byrds incorporated country into their own personas and styles, and have never felt anything less than pure love for Johnny Cash, but Townes Van Zandt is the first pure-country artist to win me over so completely I plan to track down and collect the rest of his work. He's a brilliant lyricist with a beautiful voice and a keen sense of just when to deploy an instrument for maximum effect, a man with a tragic story and an unappreciated genius. If Townes Van Zandt is emblematic of what I can expect going forward, I may leave this feature as a die-hard defender of country music.
Dizzy Gillespie is, without a doubt, among the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time. A virtuoso and capable improviser, Gillespie is perhaps best recognized for adding layer upon layer of harmonic complexity to his music. This may make him sound intimidating, but on 1957's Dizzy Gillespie at Newport he is anything but"”he's a playful presence, filling gaps with stage banter, quieting the audience with a jovially dignified "silence," and generally creating the atmosphere of a party dedicated to what he calls, on "Doodlin,'" "our native art form: jaaaaaaaaaaaaazzzzzzzz." The way he makes that word drip with potential and cool says pretty much all you need to know about Gillespie.
The album opens with "Dizzy's Blues," a nearly twelve minute tour de force that is a single-handed argument for the vitality and importance of jazz music. Dashing from one solo to the next in a crescendo of improvisations and interminglings, the song is imminently listenable in spite of its run time. "Doodlin'" opens with an excellent bit of stage banter in which Gillespie promises to feature the "star" of the band before politely indicating to several members of the band he isn't talking about them and then drawing out the introduction to absurd lengths before introducing baritone saxophonist PeeWee Moore, who makes the song ooze with sultry cool and smooth confidence.
"Manteca," one of Gillespie's rare original compositions, opens with the chant "I'll never go back to Georgia," a reference to the discrimination the group faced while performing their on their 1945 tour (apologies for the partial clip below. The whole composition is not available on Youtube, nor is a version with the chant intact). One of the earliest examples of Afro-Cuban jazz to be adopted as a standard, the song is gorgeous, fun, and flat-out inspired. Its complex without ever being dense, propulsive without feeling rushed, and builds its theme well without ever wearing itself out. The album closes with another Gillespie original, "Night in Tunisia." The tune exemplifies Gillespie's writing style, beginning with a short written introduction and a brief interlude to guide the piece between solos. If you can listen to these two Gillespie originals and walk away as anything less than a fan, the man and his inimitable style probably aren't for you.
Gillespie is incredible for the way he crafts solos to ensure they always surprise and delight. For many, jazz solos are a free-form mess (as my Grandmother once put it, "I can't stand that jazz"”they all go off in their own direction and I can never tell what's going on"), but under Gillespie's masterful guidance, each is concerned at base with maintaining the swing of the melody even as he alters its speed, pitch, and angle (he famously used a trumpet bent upward at a 45 degree angle) in unpredictable and fascinating ways. He balanced his complex harmonies and rhythms with a wit that suffuses not just his banter, but his whole style"”his mind is always working, throwing out new ideas, twists, and turns at a breakneck pace. As Wynton Marsalis (who we'll get to later this year) once put it, "Nobody had ever considered playing the trumpet that way, let alone actually tried." Dizzy Gillespie is wonderfully, blessedly unique"”a master of his form that transformed the genre with the power of his mind and the force of his ideas.
At this point in the feature, I have faced down all of my greatest fears at least once, and made my peace with them, even if I have yet to accept them completely. Townes Van Zandt made a compelling argument that I can learn to ignore The Louvin Brothers and their loony ilk in favor of a genre that can create something as starkly beautiful and moving as Townes Van Zandt is throughout. Dizzy Gillespie gave me, in Dizzy Gillespie at Newport an album full of long, intricate pieces (four songs on the version I have are over ten minutes, while only two are under five) that I couldn't help but adore for its braininess, its uniqueness, and yes, its complexity. And N.W.A. proved in Straight Outta Compton that, despite my reservations, gangsta rap may not be a creative wasteland populated with hatred. I may not have resolved my problems with gangsta rap (or, really, with any of these genres) yet, but the album proved there is much to appreciate there, even if there is still some to revile. Not bad for this early in the year, I'd say.
Next week on My Year in Lists: Volume II:
John Coltrane rides a Blue Train, The Flying Burrito Brothers take us to The Gilded Palace of Sin, and Public Enemy warns It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Read more My Year in Lists here