Where’s the Beef?

January 19, 2009

Mid 90’s hip-hop has seen more media play in the last two weeks than it has in the last ten years thanks to the release of Notorious, a biopic about the life of Notorious B.I.G.  Biggie’s short life spells an incomparable script: a stratospheric rise from crack dealer to rap hero, and an instant collapse from glory when he was slain on the streets of Los Angeles.

Notorious was killed in March 1997, six months after Tupac Shakur was killed in Las Vegas.  The two waged an acrimonious war of lyrics and, it stands to reason, bullets as their East and West Coast stables fought for rap supremacy, each killing the other to achieve the most Pyrrhic victory.

It could be the day that changed hip-hop forever.

Three months after Biggie was shot, Puff Daddy released “I’ll Be Missing You” and the rap world was forever viewed through a more saccharine lens.  Gone were Pac’s lines like “Lil’ Ceaser, go ask ya homie how I leave ya / cut your young ass up, leave you in pieces, now be deceased.”

Instead, Sting performed live on a #1 rap single.  Sting.

The late 90’s were filled with broke-ass rappers like Ja Rule and DMX, and in the early 2000’s, Ludacris and Nelly entertained across race, age and gender, but didn’t really gall anyone.  Nobody’s going to shoot someone over “I’ve got hoes / in different area codes” and Nelly’s hit about how hot it is in the club won’t offend those blokes across the coast.

Then a few years later, everything changed.  Rap evolved, almost as the internet did.  It became open-source and collaborative.

In contrast to the mid-90’s, when rap’s two biggest stars, Biggie and Tupac, wouldn’t whisper a positive word about the other, during the past two years, the five titans of hip-hop have done nothing but work together, brag about one another, boost each other’s bankroll and hustle to push hip-hop back to the mainstream after a decade off.

Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z, T.I. and Young Jeezy.  Each has put out a chart-topping record in the last two or three years and worked with another on a hit or three.  Four of them even teamed up to release one (admittedly fucking terrible) song recently.

Moreover, each is developing an independent character.  Lil’ Wayne is the playboy, Kanye the emotive poet, Jay-Z the mogul, Jeezy the social philosopher and T.I. the felon.  The music is renowned.  Lil Wayne’s The Carter III is nominated for Best Album at the Grammy’s, next to … Radiohead and Robert Plant.

There’s still a little hardass here though; T.I. is going to jail for a year come March, for possession of unlicensed machine guns.  That’s pretty bad.  But it’s just screaming for the album of the decade to drop when he gets out.

But there are no more Congressional hearings about hip-hop.  In 1993, hip-hop’s most recognizable businessman was Suge Knight, the Jeff Skilling of hip-hop.  Now, it is Jay-Z, who owns the New Jersey Nets and until the market collapsed, had plans to redesign an entire neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Kanye West designs his own Louis Vuitton sneakers, and is generally seen as the best-dressed man in entertainment.

In 1993, rap’s two stars decided to kill each other.

P.S. Juicy J. and DJ Paul won an Oscar.

New York City

January 14, 2009

I added Gothamist to my Google Reader feed and wish I’d done it sooner.  The subscription is especially great because they regularly share great photography.  Below, a few examples.

Abandoned Harlem Unveiled

First Look at New Yankee Stadium

New Standard Hotel Now Open (Sort Of)

Scenes from Soho

January 13, 2009

That is it

January 8, 2009

After their debut in 2001, it became as trendy to lavish praise upon The Strokes as it was to color them awful.  The hype machine dubbed Is This It? the best album of the ’00’s.  The skinny tie re-entered well-edited menswear.  And that graphic t-shirt you wore in 2003 before college?  See left — The Strokes, 2001.

I always describe The Strokes as harmless.  Their rise to stardom seemed genuine, and a re-affirmation that, yes, a grunge-ish band, or a group of guys that maybe shower twice a week but produce great music can still come out of New York City.  They don’t curse much in their albums, they don’t address anything serious or likely to offend, and musically, they don’t take many challenges.  They are more Paul Simon than Pete Doherty.  It’s best summed up by a Pitchfork writer, Stephen Troussé (yes, that is the Pitchfork writer’s name.  Awe.), who writes

LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy once told me he could imagine in 15 years’ time, he might be having a barbecue, and someone would dig out the Strokes’ debut from a pile of old CDs and, as the half-forgotten power-pop drifted across the summer lawns, he would realize, “You know what? That was a great little record! A perfect barbecue record!”

Neater still, The Strokes were the germ from which a few cheery saplings grew.  Albert Hammond, Jr., guitarist, has released fantastic solo work.  It clearly sounds like Strokes progeny (which I like) but it takes a slightly lonelier approach.  And a former colleague pointed me to Fab Moretti, the drummer, who released a self-titled album with his band, Little Joy.  Moretti met his singer, Rodrigo Amarante, at a festival and the two made a record.  It’s best described by that smooth-sounding Pitchfork writer:

Soon enough they [Moretti and Amarante] catch up again, jamming at Devendra Banhart’s pad up in Topanga … and decide to get a place down in Echo Park, work on some songs and see what happens. By now Fab has hooked up with this broad Binki Shapiro– crazy cute, with a voice like summer wine. The three of them spend their afternoons hanging out a down-at-heel neighborhood bar (it’s called Little Joy), mixing their own cocktails, strumming on ukuleles, and singing along to a jukebox stuffed with Brazilian bossa nova, Portuguese fado, Julie London ballads, some early Mazzy Star, one of those Spanish Jonathan Richman albums, and the Velvet Underground’s Loaded. And that’s it… and it’s pretty great.

That’s a really accurate description.  Little Joy should have been released in April or May of next year, because it would have been 2009’s Vampire Weekend — summer’s album.  Rodrigo Amarante sounds like a Rodrigo Amarante, with a voice of molé, and this Bikini Shapiro lass inherits the Nico role in The Velvet Underground & Nico as the first welcome female singer on a rock album in decades.

It’s simple, really.  Doesn’t have to be complex.

Gaming and Google

January 6, 2009

The ad industry is a fun one.  We think creatively, dress casually, have inventive office spaces and our companies throw pretty good parties.  Like a lot of professions, we have our own gossip blog (AgencySpy).  I find that its writers are good at more than just industry smut (and lately, there has been some skin) but that they nicely summarize interesting articles that I often click through to.  Most of the time, I just skip links on a blog.  A good one today.

Nielsen Report Shows Gaming Trends of 2008

Despite having over 20% higher household penetration, the Wii has lower usage numbers as a percentage of time spent gaming (13.4%) than the Xbox 360 (17.2%).  This should come as no surprise: the Wii is built with groups in mind, and its games are collaborative and interactive.  They are also played in bursts — Wii Sports is meant to be played in ten to twenty minute sessions.  The Xbox is arguably the superior single-player game console and its sales are driven from games like Halo and Call of Duty.  All meant to be played alone or if with other people, online.  These are immersive, creative experiences.  I don’t play video games save for Dr. Mario on my Game Boy, but I understand why enthusiasts are so loyal to their Xbox.

And it was straying from these enthusiasts and taking a risky business leap that brought Nintendo back to the head of the gaming class after arguably losing the last two console wars.  I’ve recently begun to think of companies like Nintendo and Apple and Google not as software companies, but as engineering firms.  This is where the world’s smartest minds head — our brightest programmers and innovators, and the latter two will be known in decades as we grew to know GE and IBM.

In particular, I think Google has potential to redefine a number of categories that have seen little innovation of late.  Perhaps a gloater’s disclosure, but I have been considering investing in Google.  Like many, I’ve been considering investing while the market is as down as it is now and making some long-term commitments.  Google has a monopoly on information.  It has replaced dictionaries, encyclopedias, maps, satellites and libraries.

Would it be any surprise if Google, in five years, created five private schools?  Or if, in ten, it developed the nation’s first new, remarkable university?  With its reign over the information marketplace, Google could change the world, and do it for the better.

A late snowflake

January 2, 2009

Funny how quickly we want to rid ourselves of all things Christmas. I started to cringe at a Sigur Ros song last night because it heavily featured bells, and after a month of chimes and a wintry mix of weather, I’d had enough Christmas. So here’s a pic snapped from the atrium of the Time Warner Center to give 2008 its final signoff.