Thursday, 27 June 2013

Black Rob - Life Story (2000)

As I see it, the problem with rap and hip-hop is that for a genre which stacks so much currency on keeping it real, it's often a struggle to get at the music through all those layers of hype and bullshit, although that's probably not so much to do with those involved as a consequence of it being the only music anyone was still buying for a few years back there, roughly speaking. Hype and bullshit can be harmless or even amusing with some genres - long haired men in leather jackets pulling scary faces and claiming to have once helped install a new filtration pump at Satan's very own pool - but with rap, it's frankly embarrassing. At one extreme you had Tim Westwood's monthly top ten of guzzling street thumpaz (or some such drivel) in HHC magazine as was, the one that stood out for me being his verdict on Fiesta by R.Kelly and Jadakiss: A street hustler with an R&B thug, Timothy opined helpfully, now that's gangsta! Well, if  anyone knows what's gangsta!, I guess it would be the Reverend Timothy seeing as how he was raised in the mean streets of Harlem and forced to slang weight at an early age, as opposed to being bummed flat in some English private school paid for by wealthy ecclesiastic parents who never seemed to get shout outs on his crappy show for some strange reason; too busy keeping it real I suppose.

At the other end of the scale are the spiritual Guradian readers insisting that real hip-hop sounds like something recorded by DJ Premier in 1992, and that it hangs out in vegan coffee shops and refrains from use of disrespectful sexist language because as homeopathic science has recently verified, each time a fake rapper uses the word bitch, a portion of the Amazonian rain forest is turned into McDonalds - fake rappers being those who, lacking the requisite fanbase of white middle-class recycling enthusiasts, are reduced to selling their CDs to black people and dispossessed urban crackers.

Chuck D once made some observation about rap being the black CNN, which is sort of true, and so just as picking and choosing the news that happens to support one's own political bias makes no difference to all the other stuff that's going on, people telling you what hip-hop is are more often than not full of record-breaking quotas of shit.

Black Rob would probably be automatically disqualified in certain quarters by virtue of the Puffy association. Whilst it may be true that Puffy - or Puff Daddy, or Diddy, or Do Wah Puff Diddy Daddy, or whatever the hell he's calling himself this week - is not a man of easily quantified talents, it's unfair to suggest that his one skill lies in an ability to deposit royalty checks in a bank account. Furthermore, to suggest that the success of those artists he's fostered only serves to cement their crapness isn't any more useful or meaningful than the converse notion of record sales equating to quality. He's a decent enough producer, but his skill is probably more to do with being able to spot a winner, or at least a potential winner.

Black Rob failed to set the world on fire or to repeat the success of Notorious B.I.G, but Life Story is nevertheless a great album, and one that defies the received wisdom of its producer tending to churn out formulaic jewel-encrusted landfill. The music exemplifies hip-hop during its golden age, or probably silver age, or aluminium or something - well, whatever, the 1990s seemed to be when the form really expanded beyond the limited terms defined by worthy dullards telling you what hip-hop is, blossoming into a thousand weird and wonderful variations put together just for the sheer pleasure of making tracks resembling nothing anyone had heard before. I'm still not sure if this possibly rosy view is informed by the 1990s being when I first began listening to rap, or if that's when rap first caught my attention because it had finally moved beyond all that goofy cowbell crap asking people to stick their hands in the air, and then wave them as though the action gave them very little occasion for concern. Anyway, Life Story runs the gamut - whatever a gamut may be - from tracks sounding like a sampler breaking down, to the grime-encrusted New Yorky DJ Premier influenced stuff, to Puffy's signature machine gun Liberace mash-ups, let down only by borrowings from Slick Rick's Children's Story - which I always found tremendously irritating - and some pseudo-Latino tedium that was probably a hit for Madonna during those two decades when I wasn't looking; and of course it would be nothing without Black Rob himself, a distinctive gravel voice, a compelling story teller, and a man absolutely incapable of bullshit. As with much rap, calling it gangsta is missing the point regardless of supposedly agricultural language and occasional references to firearms, or the conspicuous absence of sermonising so beloved of wholefood fans. It may seem trite - although if it does, then screw you too - but Black Rob really is just a regular guy telling stories, never pretending to be anything other than that, and telling them well without losing his sense of humour. Life Story falls short of being the greatest rap album ever recorded, but it's nevertheless pretty damn strong, and constitutes a good square meal in lyrical terms.

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