Ugly Duckling – Journey to Anywhere

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In later records, Ugly Duckling would often admit to feeling insecure and being nobodies. The sequel to this album opens with “Opening Act”, where they constantly talk about how anonymous they are and they kind of hope but don’t expect to be big. It’s the opposite of the typical subject matter. Instead of boasting how big they are, they’re cowering and begging for a little affection.

The irony is, “Opening Act” is a milestone in Hip-Hop. So rare are songs like it. Every line hits hard. It’s easy to follow, and you don’t need complex rhymes when you have such powerful lines. For all the expressions of lacking confidence, it destroys most Rap music. Before they made that song, though, they made Journey to Anywhere. It’s not offensively bland like most of its ilk, but we already have enough bland records like this.

At their best, Ugly Duckling make fun, loose Hip-Hop. The genre desperately needs such records. Too many rappers take their bragging seriously no matter how many Jazz horns they stick in the back. Wu-Tang Clan often sounds desperate for your approval, for critics to agree with how cool and badass they are. When the Duckling use horns, they’re cartoonish. “Smack” is the ideal song to put in a Powerpuff Girls episode. On Journey to Anywhere, they’re just kicking rhymes.

Now, if that was their purpose then fine. Dilated Peoples made a lot of good records using their formula, but they were focused. Their beats had good drums, funky basslines and DJ scratching all over their place. They aimed for a little aggression, too. Duckling don’t sound like they have any aim, so they fall back on dropping random words over beats that are just as indecisive. Sure, they sound nice and pleasant but I can get a similar vibe by listening to anything by Dilated Peoples or Jurassic 5. Why should I listen to this?

Some songs do have some concept. That’s before they found their wit and “A Little Samba” is the only thing that can stand next to “Turn It Up” or “Smack”. The hook is the primary reason, too. Laughing at tough guy bragging is fun, but they band doesn’t sound like they have fun. In their best songs, they emphasize the right lines. Here, they rap more smoothly and more hushed. They seek to blend in with the beat rather jump off from it. If the production was good enough to carry it, then fine. All it does is create pleasant sound. Just like the rappers, it’s too afraid to capture the attention.

What’s the point of songs like “Rock on Top” or “I Did It Like This”? They’re about nothing. Maybe if you listen hard enough you can find a catchy line, but the hook for “Rock on Top” is so lazy and desperate. I know Hip-Hop critics have a weird obsession with smooth rapping over Jazz beats, but that sound’s tired. Unless you have a personality, it’s worth nothing.

As fodder for a Hip-Hop party, it’s good. No track is going to wake the party. No track is going to help people get into the vibe. It’ll just continue it. There are a few keepers – the title-track has a beautiful beat, “A Little Samba” is cute and so is “Pick Up Lines”. Mostly, it’s a record without spirit. Old artists should make tired records like this. It would make more sense for the Duckling to release this later in their career when they exhausted all of their ideas. Thankfully they moved on to the brilliant Taste the Secret.

2 little sambas out of 5

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Big L – Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous

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The appeal of Boom Bap still mystifies me. I’m sure it gives the people who listen to it a comfortable feeling. They feel tough in how their beats are hard, but not too hard. The lyrics are about being a tough guy, but it’s never too vulgar. Boom Bap also makes you smart. It’s the Hip-Hop equivalent of boring Post-Punk. The main appeal of it is that it’s not accessible.

I know, I know. Talking about the fanbase takes us nowhere. Diving through the ‘wordplay’ and ‘metaphores’ of GZA or Ghostface never appealed to me because they never gave me a hook to latch on to. In fact, nearly every rapper that tries to sound hard over those type of beats comes off as pathetic. Smooth flows and jazz horns don’t sound tough, just restrained.

I was ready to dislike Big L. A Boom Bap album full of punchlines has nothing to offer me. Then I hear Big L talking about how if he has AIDS, then every other girl has it. The same songs include various threats of rape and murder and about how your family will be dressed in all black.

This is everything I wanted in street rap that’s about being tough. All those rap songs tell you how rough it is in the streets, yet they sound calm. Big L is angry. The punchlines aren’t just good on paper. I don’t want to hear anyone else say them but Big L. His performance is so energetic. It’s impossible to imagine him not rapping any clever lines. ‘Sounding hungry’ is dropped often in rap reviews, but there’s no better way to describe Big L. He’s immersed in the battle rap bullshit, sounding like he genuinely believes everything he says. Check his verse on “Da Graveyard” and how he loses rhythm because of how literally hungry he sounds. You can imagine him biting the microphone. Everyone else sounds utterly pathetic after him.

I always found ‘complex’ flows to be overrated. A lot of multi-syllabic and interior rhymes aren’t helpful if it’s just a string of rhythmless words. Expression is far more important. No one in Wu-Tang Clan can muster the same anger Big L does when he says he can’t afford the “O-R” in ‘poor’. Big L emphasizes catchy lines that stick in your head. His flow is clear and his to follow, rather than pile rhyme upon rhyme upon rhyme. After all, what’s the point of dissing sucka MC’s if the line doesn’t make sense?

Surprisingly, the beats keep up with Big L. It’s hard to imagine a Boom Bap beat fitting him (“Flamboyant” sounds better with Popeska’s bass growls) but they do. Although they never become true bangers, they at least don’t do the boring smooth crap. They’re skeletal, driven only by drums and basslines. There’s a roughness, often exeggerated to them. I can’t imagine Wu-Tang rapping over “Da Graveyard”. The drums are too loud. Even at their more atmospheric moments, they beat RZA at his own game.

Beats like “All Black” sounds detached from musical conventions. It’s deliberate. Like Big L’s demeanor and lines, it’s an expression of the personality. Besides punchlines, Big L has the street nihilist personality to give his raps context. Beats like “All Black” sounds like the producers couldn’t care about whether the beat is appealing or not. They lack the pretentiousness of RZA’s beats since they never try to be artistic using conventions. There are no sounds posturing as ‘weird’. The producers sound like they simply don’t give a fuck just like Big L.

The album as apparently ignored until Big L’s death. That’s weird, since the album doesn’t need a death connected to it. Sure, you can connect L’s nihilistic attitude but he doesn’t explore it like Biggie does. He simply does the Boom Bap thing much better than others. He has more passion, funnier and catchier lines, better beats and doesn’t obscure the songs behind ‘complexity’. It’s everything you wanted in a battle rap album. 36 Chambers is slightly better than this, but Big L almost tops it and he’s just one person. He’s that good.

3.5 families dressed in all black out of 5