“Rap Isn’t Music,” and Other Nonsense

Ben Shapiro says Rap isn’t music. I firmly disagree.

Twitter exploded yesterday as clip made the rounds which featured conservative commentator Ben Shapiro taking aim at one of his favorite punching bags, rap music. During an episode of his new “Sunday Special,” Shapiro said the following: “In my view, and in the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody and there is rhythm. Rap only fulfills one of these, the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, effectively, it is basically spoken rhythm. It’s not actually a form of music. It’s a form of rhythmic speaking. Thus, beyond the objectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is that rap is not music.” Twitter did what Twitter does, memeing the statement to death and launching Ben to the top of the trending page, but was he right? No. No he wasn’t.

First of all, the claim that rap lacks melody and harmony is plainly false. Rapping is not purely speaking, as every single artist in the history of the genre has added some form of melody, though often rudimentary, to their vocal. But far more importantly, Shapiro is making the false implication that “melody,” and “harmony,” must come from the lead vocal, which is plainly false. Rap music often features some of the most intricate and creative instrumentals in the entire music industry, from the magnificent jazz influence on a record like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly to the luscious beats of the 90’s West Coast scene.

That being said, if this was simply a story about Ben Shapiro’s failure to appreciate hip-hop instrumentals, it wouldn’t be worth writing about. I’m far more irritated by his rather dry definition of music itself. In fairness, what he’s referring to is an over simplified form of what many hardline music theorists and philosophers of music may claim as a definition of music itself, but one must distinguish between a purely intellectual definition of music and the colloquial form which Ben is attempting to appeal to. The intellectualized definition is essentially useful in narrowing one’s scope to that of Western classical music in order to study its form and style. On the other hand, the colloquial definition of what is and isn’t “music,” has far more to do with cultural influence and a seat at the table in the ongoing conversation that is modern music.

In this more useful definition, rap music is not only “music,” but perhaps the most lively and important genre in all of modern music. In contrast to a genre like country music, which has its own form of royalty in the form of long running musical families and grandiose events, rap is far more anarchic.

Rap has, from its earliest days, been an outlet for social and political statements, and because of its relatively small production cost compared to genres with full bands, nearly anyone could be a part of this conversation. Because of this, icons of the genre like Tupac Shakur and N.W.A. were able to rise to prominence with bold and often offensive statements from the very beginning of their careers. Thanks to this lower cost and the open minds of rap fans, artists like these and newer artists like Kendrick Lamar and Killer Mike are able to boldly speak their minds without censorship from their label or fear of losing their income.

Most importantly, rap music has long been the most culturally recognized outlet for the conversations and opinions of an oppressed minority in America. Unlike the more personal focus of rock or pop music, rap has always been largely political and socially conscious, and it has provided a massively lucrative outlet for African Americans to assert their place in society and shine a light on their struggles. To hear this incredibly important social conversation play out over the airwaves is not only fascinating, but one of the brilliant examples imaginable of music’s power and prescience in modern society.

Still don’t believe me? I’d suggest anyone who is still skeptical about rap music and it’s magnificent cultural impact simple take a listen to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 LP To Pimp a Butterfly. The album is a daring commentary on race in America with instrumentals which runs the gamut of traditionally black genres like jazz and soul, and lyrics that provide an unflinching picture of fame, discrimination, class, and family. It’s a brilliant work of art and it’s exactly the kind of album which could only be accomplished within the rap genre.

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The Five Worst Album of the Year Snubs in Grammy History

If 1992 doesn’t make you angry, I don’t know who you are!

1959

Should’ve Won: Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely – Frank Sinatra

Winner: The Music From Peter Gunn – Henry Mancini

The very first album of the year award was given in 1959, which means that Sinatra’s true masterpiece, 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours, was never eligible. Luckily, his 1959 classic was at least nominated, but sadly lost the award to Henry Mancini. While Mancini’s record was a better than average soundtrack that included an iconic main theme, it simply doesn’t compare to Sinatra’s emotional classic.

For Only the Lonely is a strong contender for the second best entry into Sinatra’s legendary catalog, sporting a multitude of excellent tracks and great performances from ‘Ole Blue Eyes across the run time. “Angel Eyes,” is one of the best tracks in his career and throughout the entire record, Frank is at his absolute best. Above all this, while Mancini is no slouch in music history, hindsight has shown that the pedigree of Frank Sinatra would’ve been the perfect starting point for music’s most prestigious annual award.

1970

Should’ve Won: Abby Road – The Beatles

Winner: Blood, Sweat, & Tears – Blood, Sweat, & Tears

If ever one needed proof of the Grammys’ fallibility, it can be found in 1970’s award for Best Album. This wasn’t the first Grammys snub that the Fab Four had suffered as their 1967 classic, Revolver was beat out by a lesser release from Frank Sinatra, but this is quite different. Where The Beatles were only just getting started in ’67, no hindsight was needed to understand the importance of Abbey Road which came at the end of the most celebrated and influential careers in music history that had kickstarted the British Invasion and forged rock music into existence.

You could be forgiven, on the other hand, for not knowing the album that won 1970’s award. Blood, Sweat, & Tears was the sophomore album for the jazz rock band of the same name. It went quadruple platinum and was exceptionally well received upon release, but it hasn’t aged all that well, and today just sounds like a fairly well performed jazz rock record. It isn’t the worst choice for album of the year, but with the rock and roll movement in full swing, there’s simply no excuse for the Grammys to miss such an important record.

1974

Should’ve Won: The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd

Winner: Innervisions – Stevie Wonder

Unlike the majority of this list, 1974’s winner is somewhat understandable. This was Stevie Wonder’s first Best Album win, and though he’d go on to win twice more with arguably better projects, Innervisions is no slouch. The instrumentation on this record is excellent and Wonder’s ear for melody and songwriting abilities certainly comes through loud and clear. This would be a perfectly good choice if it weren’t for the album it beat out.

The Dark Side of the Moon is on nearly every list of all time great albums and tops quite a few. While I’ve written extensively about the album from a sonic standpoint, it’s worth noting just how important it is. Often sighted as the moment when Pink Floyd found their footing, Dark Side was the beginning of a run of internationally massive and creatively groundbreaking records that would see Floyd climb to heights that are very rarely reached by musicians. It took an underground psych-rock outfit to the absolute peak of rock superstardom, engraining them in American culture forever. It went on to sell 45 million copies worldwide, putting it in the top five  best selling albums of all time. Worse still, it wasn’t even nominated.

1992

Should’ve Won: Nevermind – Nirvana

Winner: Unforgettable… With Love – Natalie Cole

1991 was one of the most exciting years in music, and especially rock history. Here are just a few high profile releases: Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Use Your Illusion I and II from Gunz n’ Roses, U2’s Achtung Baby, and Metallica’s Black Album. In rap music, we had releases from Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube, and Public Enemy. In fact, on the exact same day as the release of my choice for this year’s Grammy, Red Hot Chili Peppers released their seminole classic, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The kicker is, not only were all of these albums beat out by Natalie Cole, not a single record I just listed was nominated for best album at 1992’s awards.

Any of those records are absolutely excellent choices for album of the year, but if the Grammys are ostensibly concerned with awarding not only artistic excellence but cultural importance, they missed a big one in September of ’91. Nirvana’s Nevermind, though arguably not their best project, is on the shortlist for the most game changing albums of all time. Coming out of nowhere and released with reasonably low expectations from DGC Records, the album exploded thanks to an incredible reception of the lead single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” While the Grammys could be slightly forgiven had the record been still in the early days of it’s meteoric rise, this was clearly not the case as it had just, a month before the awards, toppled Michael Jackson’s Dangerous to top the Billboard charts. Sadly, the Grammys never did catch up on the Grunge movement as only one grunge album, Pearl Jam’s Vitology in ’96, was ever even nominated and none won the award.

2015 

Should’ve Won: To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

Winner: 1989 – Taylor Swift

This is the most recent word from the Grammys and it is yet another case of a massively impressive field of choices from which the committee seemed to do their best to make the worst possible choice. While 1989 was successful, it was far from Taylor Swift’s best effort, even at the time as she was coming off of the far superior Red just two years prior. Swift seemed destined for Grammy gold in the years, like it or not, but there was simply no excuse for this snub.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly can only be described as a masterpiece in every since of the word. The storytelling and political commentary is some of the best in music history, the gorgeous instrumentation of Kamasi Washington and his orchestra is breathtaking, the production is the best since Radiohead’s OK Computer, and the scope and shear ambition of the project is simply unmatched in the modern music landscape. I would confidently place the record among the greatest of all time, but there is, of course, another element to this. Only two hip-hop albums have ever won the award, Lauren Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauren Hill and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and the category’s history of representing African American artists is nearly as abysmal. Considering the massive amount of TPaB that is devoted to discussion of African Americans in modern culture, it couldn’t have been a better choice for the win. Unfortunately, Kendrick seems cursed to be perpetually nominated without a win, despite being one of the best artists of our time.

Thoughts on J. Cole’s Claim to the Rap Throne

Jermaine Cole is, undoubtedly, one of the best artists of the day. However, his work is still ahead of him when it comes to carving his niche amongst names like Biggie, 2Pac, Jay Z, Eminem, Andre 3000, and more.

Yesterday, J. Cole set twitter and the music world ablaze with the release of his first single of 2019, “Middle Child.” Over a bass-heavy beat and between catchy hooks, Cole unloaded on a few topics, focusing mainly on his position in today’s hip-hop scene. While the entire track was extremely well written, the following verse in particular seems to have set off an all too familiar conversation across the hip-hop community:

“To the OGs, I’m thankin’ you now, was watchin’ you when you was pavin’ the ground. I copied your cadence, I mirrored your style. I studied the greats, I’m the greatest right now.” The question we’re left to ponder, of course, is simple. Is he right? Is J. Cole the top talent in the industry in 2019? He’s certainly attempted to lay claim to the title more than a few times over the years, but having just put his fifth platinum album under his belt with 2018’s KOD, the question seems increasingly persistent.

Firstly, it’s worth looking at Cole’s case. As I mentioned, 2018 saw the release of his fifth consecutive platinum album, which is no small feat. Only 10 artists in rap history have more than five platinum albums in a row and, of the ten, only Kanye West could still be considered at his peak. Additionally, though it’s become something of a meme in recent years, J. Cole’s last three albums have accomplished their certifications without a single feature.

On top of sales, he’s shown a remarkable amount of talent over his main run. Each of his verses is well crafted and his flow is slowly becoming iconic. Not only have his albums been impressive, but his non-album singles have been even better. “High for Hours,” is one of the best hip-hop tracks of the decade, “Everybody Dies,” was a perfect response to the rise of the soundcloud/mumble rap in recent years, and “False Prophets,” was a measured and thoughtful response to the outrages actions of Kanye West. It’s in these responses and commentary where we find him at his best. While his albums can often fall short, J. Cole drops better singles than anyone in the game.

He definitely has a strong case and it just keeps getting stronger with tracks like “Middle Child,” but on the other hand, the rap game is in an impressive place right now. When it comes to lyrical ability, artists like Aesop Rock and Open Mike Eagle are doing fantastic work, and of course, legends like MF Doom, Jay Z, and Killer Mike are still creating some of their best music, but Cole still stands unique among these artists in many respects certainly above them in notoriety. Unfortunately for Jermaine, there is still one artist who exceeds him in nearly every aspect, and that man is Kendrick Lamar.

Kendrick’s major label run at Top Dawg covers Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, one of the best breakout albums of all time, To Pimp A Butterfly, arguably one of, if not the best album in hip-hop history, and DAMN. which was one of the best albums of 2017. Of course the question is subjective, but for my money, Kendrick Lamar has long surpassed any artist in today’s scene and begun jockeying for position among the all-time greats.

Where Cole writes excellent verses and singles, Kendrick puts together full albums of breathtaking scale and sound, each wildly different than the one before. Where Cole’s flow is recognizable and strong, Kendrick plays multiple characters, each with unique flows, tones, and lyrical tendencies, characters which develop across his discography to act as metaphorical stand ins for a multitude of larger ideas. Where Jermaine is beginning to settle into his sonic identity, Kendrick’s instrumentals vary wildly in each record from a masterclass in West Coast boom-bap to a jazz epic helmed by Kamasi Washington to some of the best trap beats in the genre.

Coming into 2019, we’re all enjoying a fantastic era of rap music which will continue to draw comparisons to the golden age of the 1990’s and Jermaine Cole is, undoubtedly, one of the best artists of the day. However, his work is still ahead of him when it comes to carving his niche amongst names like Biggie, 2Pac, Jay Z, Eminem, Andre 3000, and more. On the other hand, Kendrick Lamar continues to be one of the best artists in the entire modern music industry with one album after another telling remarkable stories with unparalleled lyricism and he is, without a doubt, the best rapper in the game today.

HEAR MIDDLE CHILD: https://open.spotify.com/album/3XzSOIE6zGLliuqsVGLmUc

Five Albums That Would Get a 10/10

I always want to talk about these great records, and I just can’t find enough excuses! So here’s Five Albums That Would Get a 10/10!

IDLESJoy as an Act of Resistance (2018)

Putting the list in chronological order means that our first pick is my choice for 2018’s album of the year, IDLES’ Joy as an Act of Resistance. I’ve said quite a lot about this album, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. Drawing from perhaps the most embattled, controversial, and often violent sub-genres in music history, this punk record uses the traditional staples of thrashing guitars, rolling bass, and high energy to craft music that stands up to any one of the punk greats of the 70’s and 80’s. This sets a baseline for Joe Talbot’s lyricism, music on masculinity and all it’s impacts on the modern world. It’s prescient, it’s powerful, it’s hopeful, and above all, it’s perfect.

Kendrick LamarTo Pimp A Butterfly (2015)

It’s hard to believe that we’re fast approaching the fourth anniversary of Kendrick Lamar’s seminal, jazz-rap masterpiece, but here we are. TPAB achieved levels of storytelling which haven’t been matched in rap music before or since and it did that by selling every ounce of the record to the story. The instrumentation is helmed by Kamasi Washington who would go on to release his own debut album two months later. Throughout, each beat incorporates elements of funk, jazz, Africana, soul, boom-bap, rock, and much more. It’s a musical tour-de-force through the history of African American popular music which is only outshined by K-dot’s lyricism.

Telling the story of a young rapper breaking down on tour and returning home to the streets that made him, Lamar dances between the metaphor and the literal, the jarring and the thoughtful, love and hate, all with an eye for the larger picture while not making a single bad track out of the 16. The story ultimately serves as a contemplation on the plight of the African American community in modern America. Is it honorable to thrive while your community suffers? Can an African American ever thrive without selling out struggles they endured? Will the community ever rise above their oppression and how? These questions and more Kendrick asks with remarkable clarity and don’t even get me started on the production. TPAB feels like a living, breathing conversation, and in that sense, it’s perfect.

Jason IsbellSoutheastern (2013)

When Jason Isbell, the resident bad boy of The Drive-By Truckers, was released from the band in 2007 and entered rehab in 2012, he seemed to be an extremely tragic case of one of the greatest young songwriters of a generation who just couldn’t hold it all together. Instead, he emerged a new, sober man, married then-girlfriend Amanda Shires, and released 2013’s Southeastern, adorned with a very simplistic picture of himself staring forward. Southeastern was Isbell’s contemplation on getting sober, growing up, and most of all, on change. It is one of the most moving and honest albums ever written.

With its opener, “Cover Me Up,” a love song written to Shires to assure her that he would get sober for her, the album immediately presented a new version of Jason. One which fully recognized his potential as a lyricist and artist. Throughout Southeastern, every single track is nothing short of pure poetry over chords. He speaks on the difficulties of leaving an old life behind, his fear of losing his love, and his excitement for the new life ahead of him. More so than any other album on this list, Southeastern lands here because it is simply a masterclass in lyricism from one of the greatest writers that’s ever lived.

RadioheadOK Computer (1997)

One of the most divisive groups in history, you’ll be hard pressed to find a music fan without an appreciation for this album. Coming near the turn of the century, OK Computer feels like the cold air creeping back into a room, no longer staved off by the burning fire that was the early 90’s and the grunge movement. The album aims to capture the apathy and bleak hopelessness of a generation, and Radiohead succeeds in every way. The instrumental pallet is remarkably broad, the production is almost robotic, and Thom Yorke’s vocals are whispish and often haunting.

It’s hard to describe what a cold and distant project this is. With mixes that bury and push odd instruments and arrangements keep listeners guessing by melding organic and electronic sounds seamlessly, Radiohead is able to throw a listener off of their center of gravity, so to speak, and inspire a viscerally lonely experience throughout. Lyrics about the modern condition toe the line so tightly between story and metaphor that what anger and vitriol is drummed up will be immediately stifled by distance. As waves of largely unfamiliar sound wash over you, OK Computer lulls listeners into a bleak apathy like only Radiohead can.

Pink FloydThe Wall (1979)

A very strong argument, and one that I would likely agree with, can be made that Pink Floyd has anywhere from two to five “perfect” albums under their belt and it’s true that few bands ever have had a run like Floyd in the 1970’s, but since this list isn’t called “Top Five Pink Floyd Albums,” I’ve chosen to stick with The Wall. This is, among other things, the defining prog-rock concept album, introducing the idea selling out every aspect of an album toward the concept as very little of The Wall, save “Comfortably Numb,” sounds a whole lot like Pink Floyd. It was also, quite famously, made amid horrific turmoil within the group which likely led to their disbandment.

Nevertheless, the four of them crafted a massive work of art that strikes the heart like few works in any medium. Where Dark Side of the Moon focuses on life and Wish You Were Here deals with fame, The Wall is, above all, about isolation, both the factors that create it and the effects it has on the human psyche. Not content with the simple “love each other,” message of the previous decade, The Wall aims to explored every facet of loneliness and desolation, giving serious credence to the pains which make it seem necessary while honestly addressing it’s detrimental effects. Ultimately, when the masterpiece closer, “The Trial,” ends with the wall finally coming down, the relief is palpable, and any serious listener has learned something about themselves in the process.

Highlights of My Vinyl Collection

I’ve been collecting vinyl for awhile now. A few years and a few hundred albums later, here’s five highlights from my collection!

5. Richard Edwards – Pity Party LP

R-11145459-1519071279-3636.jpeg     On first glance, this may not seem like much. It’s been kept in relatively great condition, the cover is minimalistic and interesting, and the lightning blue vinyl is striking. What makes it special, however, is it’s status. The record only sold about 500 copies, and hasn’t been reprinted since. It was produced as a collectors edition, and as a place holder between Edwards’ excellent solo debut, Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, and his even better follow up, Verdugo.

   The album itself is a combination of tracks from the two aforementioned projects, each performed solo on an acoustic guitar with minimal production. Edwards has such a gorgeous voice and talent for commanding attention to stripped back performances. In most cases, the less barrier between him and the listener, the better. In the end, this is one of his best projects to date, and I only wish it was in full circulation for those who weren’t able to procure it on it’s first and only print.

4. Tool – Lateralus LP

tumblr_n55pmsbyt01rgojw1o1_500_600x   Turning from one of my favorite folk artists to may absolute favorite hard rock group of all time, my second choice has got to be my Lateralus by Tool. The design on the case is gorgeous enough, sporting the colorful spirals associated with the record’s theme, but the picture discs on the inside are even more impressive. They show the upper half of a human body, removing one layer for each side of the two discs. It’s a purely Tool design, and it sets the mood before the record has even played.

   Musically, what is there to say? It’s a Tool album. It’s fantastic. Lateralus is the band’s most technical work, mixing in complex mathematical elements and executing polyrhythms with a rare precision. Instrumentally, this album is a peak, especially for Justin Chancellor’s bass work, as he begins to find his footing with the group in a major way. Maynard’s vocals and lyrics are, of course, incredible, and overall, the album is just a pure master work.

3. Pink Floyd – Collection

  From progressive metal to pure progressive rock, we’ll turn to my personal choice for the greatest band of all time, Pink Floyd. My collection is missing only a few entries, namely Wish You Were Here and A Momentary Lapse of Reason, but the bulk of their massive discography sits comfortably near the front of my record box. The designs are breathtaking in their simplicity, one of my favorite qualities of Floyd’s album covers. Dark Side of the Moon and Atom Heart Mother in particular create so much meaning with basic covers.

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   When it comes to content, as I said, I consider Pink Floyd the greatest rock band of all time. Listening to their discography in order, you’ll hear them grow and breathe as a group with very few stumbles along the way. Their prime period, from Dark Side of the Moon in ’73 to The Wall in ’79, is nothing short of perfect. However, their earlier, more experimental work is fun and exciting and their later work is expansive and powerful. They’re simply the best to ever do it.

2. Kendrick Lamar – Autographed Damn. LP

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 8.42.39 AM.png   Though rap music doesn’t have nearly the tradition in the vinyl world that other genre’s do, I just can’t resist including this gem. The blood red vinyl references one of the best tracks on the album and Kendrick’s enigmatic face peaks out irresistibly as one flips through their stacks of records. Above all, however, the autograph elevates this LP above the rest of my Kendrick collection.

   Musically, DAMN. certainly isn’t my favorite album from Lamar’s discography. That being said, it’s still one of the best records of 2017 by a mile. The heavy trap influences and simple aesthetic is a notable difference from To Pimp a Butterfly’s jazzy, maximalist style. Kendrick’s flow is blistering, and his lyricism is second to none in modern hip-hop. He’s one of the greats, and it is a pleasure to be alive during his run.

1. Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s – Broadripple is Burning/Holy Cow SINGLE

R-745551-1518276605-9152.jpeg   This was my white wale, and last year, I finally caught it. The debut single for one of my favorite bands is the reason I started collecting vinyl in the first place and it was brutally hard to get my hands on. I eventually got my hands on it for less than $100, a score as far as I’m concerned, and it now sit’s proudly atop my collection. The cover is simple and hand-drawn, the disc is a basic black, and the packaging is fairly worn, but it still stands as my crown jewel.

   The lead track is beautiful, as one would expect from a band fronted by Richard Edwards. His voice is youthful and the instrumentation is full in a way that it wouldn’t be on later releases. Lyrically, it’s one of my favorite tracks of all time, as evidenced by the line from it’s second verse which rests permanently on my arm. The B-side, “Holy Cow,” is fun as well, sounding much more like the band’s later work, but nothing tops “Broadripple is Burning.” I’ve collected nearly 200 records at this point, but none of them have given me the feeling of excitement I got from this single.