JUMP OFF THE ROOF;
SOME WORDS ARE BETTER THAN OTHERS.
Really Doe is a menacing posse cut, a form originally intended as a way for a rapper to give his lesser-known friends exposure that has developed into a maximalist competition between artists in their prime. The beat is spare – a lone flat dusty kick drum – but relentless and near-paranoiac; it’s the barest scaffold possible, the minimum required to suspend the verses and drive them forward. Brown samples Fragments of Crystal by Giovanni Cristiani, an ’85 ambient percussion song so obscure that it has 9000 views and twenty comments on YouTube, all of the latter caps-lock Really Doe quotations. Its rolling waves of glockenspiel grow unfeasibly sinister in a kind of girl-from-the-ring, boy-from-the-shining, boy-from-the-babadook way: is it the misappropriation of an instrument that recalls the innocence of childhood? Is it the discord of what accretes beneath these limpid peals: Ab’s yelped ‘Soul!’s, irregular bass bumps, records scratch-scribbled, and Brown’s unsettlingly choked barks and squawks?
It’s a rare example of a song on which Kendrick’s guest verse isn’t the strongest – that honour goes to Earl Sweatshirt, who drawls through a slick rhyme scheme with offhand assurance and a flow like molasses, before abruptly killing the track with the braggadocio of: ‘I’m at your house like, “Why you got your couch on my Chucks?” Motherfucker.’ However, in an interview with Zane Lowe, Brown revealed:
Really I didn’t do it, Kendrick did it. The song was in the studio and it was just an unfinished song, and you know, I was just trying to figure out what I was gonna do with it – he just went to the studio and heard it and just took it. Then he came back and he had a hook on it, a bridge, a 24, and then I reached out to Earl and Ab, you know what I’m saying, we threw their verses on there. So it’s really his song!’
…which should assuage any unease about Kendrick not dominating a track he features on. All four rappers deliver fantastic verses, and arguably represent the strongest lyricists currently on the scene; Brown admits that Ab, Earl and K-Dot are ‘the three guys that I was like, “Damn, I think they might rap better than me.”’ And so let’s look at a snippet of Kenny’s verse:
We’re not overly familiar with swaggering chest-beating Kendrick, although we’ve seen glimpses in some of his guest spots, and of course he did recently dress up as the Pope to deliver the ‘If I Quit This Season I Still Be The Greatest’ homily. Here K-Dot proclaims his status and that of his TDE label mates, emphasising their authenticity and power, before claiming that the music he cooks up is as addictive as crack (something we’ve heard him do before – ‘I don’t smoke crack motherfucker I sell it!’). The rhyme scheme begins simply with ‘zoo’ rhymes opening each line and ‘stages’ closing them, but evolves complexly: ‘stages’ et al. shift to the top of the line and new rhymes slip briefly in to pack a few clauses before slinking away just as abruptly. The ‘ooh’ (or ‘u’ if we’re being technical) rhymes are used aggressively, gutturally hurled from the back of the throat like artillery shells: ‘zoo’, ‘crew’, and ‘chewed’ are intrinsically threatening words, and build an onomatopoeic sense of ‘confrontation’. These sounds fade out, replaced by harsh pops of consonance, so that when they unexpectedly reappear one last time we’re struck by the sheer sonic force of ‘roof’: it’s an engine roaring, a round loosed from a turret gun, a mastiff snarl.
Kendrick has played with the sound and meaning of ‘roof’ before. His sophomore album good kid, m.A.A.d city revolves around tension: between Crips and Bloods, Compton locals and the police force, love and lust, aspirations of realness and the temptation to ball out. Kendrick has often made reference to his zodiac sign to explain the muddy waters that roil at a rolling boil within him: ‘your horoscope is a Gemini, two sides’, ‘a Gemini, duality personalities always conflict in me’. Good kid is the first half of this album’s dichotomy, and Kenny uses the track to describe the surprising similarities between gang culture and police brutality. For a good kid with inner city blues, these opposing forces are equally destructive, as shown in the mirrored structure of the first two verses: red and blue alternately represent gang colours and police lights; both organisations want to ‘step on [Kendrick’s] neck’; neither will ever ‘respect the good kid [trapped in a] mad city’. The first verse sees Kendrick so torn up by animosity that he feels it’s as ‘big as a building – me jumping off the roof is me just playing it safe’. Recent research revealed that American ‘youths living in inner cities show a higher prevalence of PTSD than soldiers’ – Kendrick’s hoarse and desperate ‘roof’ communicates this vividly. Later in the song, we find our narrator being harassed by cops:
Aside from being a solid pun, the repetition of ‘roof’ links thematically to the previous verse, recalls feelings of entrapment, emphasises the threat armed police officers represent for America’s black youth.
Earlier this year (I won’t say the year cos Extra P told me, ‘Don’t say the year.‘) Twitter was set ablaze by Kanye’s Late Registration – well over a decade after the album’s release. It all started when Complex, spurred by the approach of The Life of Pablo’s one year anniversary, wrangled some staff writers to review every Yeezy album and rank them from worst to best. Clearly the media website was hoping to stir up some controversy, create some buzz, funnel clicks their way. What Complex perhaps hadn’t anticipated was that a bleary-eyed immer-behatted Chance the Rapper, hunched over his laptop in bed late one night, would take issue with this list. There is probably no bigger Ye fanboy than Chance, who has been described as the ‘spiritual heir to backpack-and-a-Benz Kanye’, and he was less than enthused about the ranking of Late Registration:
Chance then posted his own ranking which bumped Late Registration up to first; I can get behind this list more than the first, but really it’s hard to see the point of debates like this given the acutely subjective nature of enjoying music. De gustibus non est disputandum, said a dead Roman probably.
It’s difficult to dispel the faintly nauseating image of a Complex Exec rubbing his greasy little palms together at the momentum the article accumulated, but it’s worth examining the section that reviews Late Registration. Curiously the reviewer – Foster Kamer, Senior Editor for the website – spends most of his time singing the praises of Kanye’s second album: it’s a ‘lush, beautiful hip-hop chamber pop album, chock full of brilliant hooks and train-stopping lines’ and ‘crucial in terms of Kanye’s career development’. Kamer’s argument hinges flimsily on assertions that the album is too long, too conventional, and has ‘a trifecta of clunker beats and clunker guest verses’ in its midsection (this final claim is so ‘insane’ that the article’s editor felt compelled to note that these are in fact three of Kanye’s best ever songs). The critique concludes with ‘a key reason why we love Late Registration: because you don’t know how to.’ What does that mean? Is it an affirmation of the infuriating hipster’s habit of ironically pretending to enjoy crummy culture? The music snob’s, ‘Ugh, you like that mainstream Kanye album?’ Plenty of superior Late Registration reviews affirm its superlative quality.
However, Kamer’s review does devote a paragraph to the album’s final track Gone, the significance of which we seem to agree on. Fader call it ‘a thick slab of buoyant bullshittery at its very, very best’, but I think there’s more going on here than that. It’s on this song that Jon Brion’s production becomes fully realised: what sets out as an apple-cheeked mix of yearning Otis, stacatto piano chords, and an uncomplicated beat comes home rugged and wiser. Brion – traditionally more of a pop/rock/classical producer – carefully drops orchestral instruments in as the song progresses, tentatively but then with more assertion so that by the end of Consequence’s verse a full string section has formed unnoticed. The inclusion of Brion as co-producer is vital, according to Pitchfork, as it ‘inflates and infuses West’s ideas with even more life’ and gives him ‘room to think even bigger’. One could argue that this collaboration was an important step towards Kanye as Executive Super Producer, an auteur who brings together disparate artists and areas of expertise to create something wildly different on each project.
I want to highlight a fragment of Cam’ron’s guest verse on Gone – it’s a remarkable, mercurial thing, burbling forth like water glugging from a bottle – it’s so much fun:
E. B. White wrote that ‘humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.’ With that being said, let’s cut this baby up!
The premise of a rapper opening his verse with a knock knock joke – an ancient, hackneyed, derided form – is absurd.
The idea that Cam’ron is knocking on a stranger’s door, announcing himself as ‘Killa Cam’, and the first question the homeowner can think to ask, the only part of the thuggish title they take issue with, the one detail they want cleared up before they’ll open the door, is not ‘Killa?!’ but ‘Killa… who?’.
Cam’ron’s gambit to get the stranger to open their door is answering this question with a list of his shady occupations:
– Go on…
– Hold on, I’ll just take the door off the chain!
And finally, perhaps most ridiculous is the notion of someone listening to a hip hop album in 2005 who doesn’t know who Killa Cam is (although this oddly insecure version of Cam’ron pops up again later in his verse when he whines, ‘Brought weed to the Chi, and that even a lie, please believe me’).
Cam’ron manages some virtuoso linguistic contortions here – four different meanings for ‘deal’ in one sentence! – but it’s the layered voices shuffling in and out that make this verse so special. Snatches of rhyme are repeated, slightly out of time, to underline an idea or provide a punchline. Case in point: ‘No concealing, no ceiling I don’t need a roof (roof) / Act up, get out, I don’t need you, poof (poof)’. Taken without the repeated words, Cam’ron is simply saying that he lives without limits and doesn’t take any clap backs. But the repeats neatly link these two statements: repetition turns ‘roof’ from ceiling synonym to dog bark (or bitch ‘acting up’), and ‘poof’ into an insouciant disappearing act. The u sounds Cam chooses to emphasise swirl together like a brook’s babbling.
Vince Staples seems like a pretty sharp guy. Noisey dub him ‘almost without fail the wittiest, most charismatic person in the room’ with a unique proficiency for ‘cutting through all bullshit’. He wants ‘to be the most creative and create something that’s never been done before.’ He’s almost as appreciated for his acerbic social media presence as for the sinuous knots his raps trace: who else could boast, ‘I write the James Joyce / Don’t need the Rolls Royce’, rattle off a few hundred tweets promoting Sprite in a droll parodic deadpan (it’s unclear if Staples even has an official endorsement deal with the company), and then remain inexplicably compelling while reviewing emojis for GQ?
Vince rejects the affected tropes of hip hop culture as ‘corny’. A recent Fader profile follows the rapper from a car dealership to the studio via his apartment and an espresso parlour, but struggles to pin him down, admitting at the end of the piece that no matter ‘how carefully you listen, it’s difficult to fully understand Vince Staples’. He ‘hates spending money’ and isn’t motivated by material gain: ‘I know that money come and go so money not my motive no more / I made enough to know I’ll never make enough for my soul.’ He refuses to engage in the beef/diss tradition because all of it – Cube vs NWA, Jay vs Nas, Drake vs Meek Mill – is ‘corny as fuck.’ Most of all, Staples is tired of fake gangsta rappers (Sick of these rappers not selling no drugs / Sick of this industry playing these games), not because of the posturing but because they package the horror of gang life as glitzy danger: ‘It’s not fun when it’s real. People die bro.’ He worries about the consequences of music that glorifies the gangsta lifestyle: ‘You do need to have responsibility for what you say. When you make violent music and it comes off a certain way, it is going to make people do violent things. Kids will go buy a specific gun because they heard about it in a song.’ A$AP Rocky once told Staples that ‘birds of a feather flock together; you be by yourself B. You ain’t like those other niggas.’
A good example of the considered nuance that characterises Staples’ thinking is the controversy stirred up by his track Norf Norf. The song was hysterically denounced by a concerned Middle America mother on YouTube, resulting in the requisite Angry Christian Lady Remix (which is actually pretty funny) and widespread derision. Vince had a free pass to criticise this woman for her breathtaking ignorance of the grim reality that many American children are forced to face daily, for her naïvety in harking back to the good old days when Top 40 radio was pure, or for the bizarre hypocrisy of reciting the objectionable lyrics while her children frolic in the background. But – Staples surprised everyone by defending her:
‘What she said, “This is what our children are being exposed to?” She’s right. That’s what the song is about: what our children are being exposed to. My question is, why can we listen to that and pass it off like it’s not a problem? When you see a film and you see a murder scene or a rape scene or something that’s displaying an element of trauma, we don’t look at it and go, “This movie’s fucking great, I’m having a great time, are you?” We feel for that. Know what I’m saying? But it doesn’t necessarily happen in that sense when we’re speaking about music. So I didn’t make that song for it to make people happy. So I don’t have a problem with what she said. You got a reaction — isn’t that the point, essentially?
‘It’s pathetic to attack someone for having an opinion or feeling some type of way, for wanting her children to not be exposed to something. ‘Cause I’m 100 percent sure my mother would have loved for her children to not be exposed to gang life. The difference is it wasn’t on the radio — it was in our house, and it was outside, and it was at our schools, and it was at our churches, it was everywhere that we were. So it was kind of a little bit harder. If I have children one day I would hope that they will never be exposed to that.
‘But when you have people who are able to, you know, just write people off as if they don’t have an opinion or feelings or motives behind the things they say, that’s the corny part. You’re worse than her because she shared her opinion. She never said one negative thing about me. At all. Her statement was that she doesn’t understand how this is getting to major airwaves — which is debatable, it’s fair for her to feel that way. And most of [all], she kind of felt bad about the fact that it was possible that these things could really happen. Shouldn’t we be, you know, happy that someone actually is considering the fact that this really happens, rather than passing it off as fable or just ignoring it?’
Staples has drawn comparisons with fellow LA rapper Kendrick Lamar, but he emphatically refuses to take the compliment:
‘Yeah, it’s funny, I had an interview, and dude’s like, “If I had to reference your work, it’s very Kendrick Lamar-esque.” I was like, “Why, because it was good?” Yeah, but it’s not very him. Because I could never do what he did, and he probably could never do what I did, because we’re two different people.’
There is something here though: Staples’ first studio album Summertime ‘06 has a similar conceit to Lamar’s good kid, crafting the story of his thirteenth summer when he was inducted to the Crips and his ‘youth was stolen’, and trying to understand the ‘importance of [his] path and where [he] came from.’ Both artists have a knack of creating deeply affecting music videos, Staples’ short movie for his EP Prima Donna – which evokes the nightmarishly unreal hotels of Barton Fink or The Shining – being the only recent release to challenge the rich imagery of Kendrick’s Alright. Both artists have struggled with anxiety, grief, despair: the similarities between Kenny’s u and Vince’s Loco are particularly striking, as they find their narrators trapped in hotel rooms and suicidal spirals.
However, where Kendrick finds hope and salvation, a course out of gloom through his faith, Vince ‘is not seeking grace’. Pitchfork describe Staples as a man for whom ‘all optimism has been burned away’, and his latest EP is replete with symbols of hopelessness and violent images of suicide that support this assertion. Throughout the release fuzzy recordings break up the tracks, cataloguing Vince’s darkest thoughts as on Smile: ‘Sometimes I feel like giving up / Don’t say you feel my pain cause I don’t even feel myself / Blood rushing through my brain, sometimes I wanna kill myself’. The second verse of Loco contains some of the most inspired wordplay ever crammed into eight bars:
Kaboom™ lets you See the Clean! These sections aren’t played for sympathy – it’s the lack of emotion, the bleak rasp of the speaker that conveys the horrors that can take hold of a mind.
Jump Off the Roof vividly depicts the chewed up rind that remains after a lifetime trapped in the ghetto. A frenetic cowbell sets a relentless tempo, won’t give you a second to breathe. Over the screams sampled from Polish rock balladeer Czesław Niemen (how do producers find these songs?!) Staples furiously raps the chorus:
The repeated final line is delivered with anger rather than sorrow or despair – we find Vince defiant in his hopelessness. This is the Vince Staples who doubts that ‘God can look me in my eyes before he send me down to Hell cos imma ask a nigga “Why?”’ The man who doesn’t want to make ‘the easy choice [but]… the appropriate one’, for whom jumping off the roof can be ‘a leap of faith.’
A roof evokes at once limits and the limitless, safety and peril, grandiosity and the banal. A roof offers a wider scope, allows us to take in the awesome vista arrayed below and reflect on the big picture: but does this spur self satisfaction or a suicidal leap? A roof is more than its definition – it’s an innately affecting sound, the physical force of an animal cry, a mechanical roar, the air sucked out of a room. Roof: the tip of the tongue tensed tentatively beneath the palate, rearing away from the mouth’s moue into the exhaled basso boom.