Saturday, 15 March 2014
D CDs #480: Too Long A Chain
It's always seemed to me that there's something kind of arrogant in presenting a CD that runs for more than seventy minutes. I mean, really? There's honestly nothing there that can be cut? Just to reduce the run-time a little and make it less of a marathon? Just like pretty much every Quentin Tarantino movie since Pulp Fiction, even when nothing in the piece is obviously shit, it's damn hard to argue the whole couldn't be improved by a bit of judicious editing.
Of course, concerns of appearing arrogant do not seem to be commonly found in rap artists, especially from Wu-Tang members - Raekwon is both the black Donald Trump and Sun Tsu here, and that's just on one track ("Incarcerated Scarfaces"). Or at least, if arrogance is a problem, it's always someone else's vice. Which makes sense from where I'm sitting (in another country, as a middle class white guy); when so many people including your own damn government invested in silencing you and tearing you down, you probably don't want to spend too much time helping them along.
But to these ears, there are side-effects to this approach which work against the music. As always, my opinions on rap music are arbitrarily close to worthless, but since this is my blog and my review they need to be dragged into the light. For my money, rap songs work best when they are punchy and brief. They share this property with a lot of punk, and the basic rationale is pretty similar: both genres get a lot of mileage out of coming up with strong hooks (where the term "hook" means something very different in the two musical approaches, of course) that dominate a song with little in the way of variance. It's a damn effective trick, but it relies on brevity. Three minutes of the same beats is hypnotic. Six minutes is a chore.
Raekwon certainly has that worked out pretty clearly. His songs here are fast and clipped, and if the central driving force behind a rap track is finding the right two or three elements to repeat throughout, the man has a damn fine ear for them. The trick is to keep things simple and sparse without leaving the track enough muscle to stand up, and Raekwon manages this very well. It helps, I think, that he leans towards Asian influences and sinister undertones, both of which suit minimalism quite well. And if the lyrical content offers little in the way of an original or varied focus (mostly the tension between wanting to get rich by selling drugs in the most Mafia-like way possible and proving yourself a better man and a better Christian than the people around you trying to do the exact same thing), the words snap and flow pretty well, with the occasional unexpected reference to spice things up (I did not see a Dan Ackroyd name-check coming) and no obvious clunkers. There is a tension in vocal work in rap music - really the only thing that particularly interests me in lieu of a melody - between making the voice work as percussive force and in creating the kind of linguistic cleverness rap should aim for. It's genuinely hard to employ words as a poem and as a drumbeat simultaneously. The absolute top-tier rappers can manage both; Raekwon seems to lean on the second pole rather than the first, and I can't fault the results (some of his guests are a little more interesting in their lyrics, but then they also bring along hideous sexism and homophobia with them, so very much mixed results).
But I keep coming back to eighteen tracks and seventy-three minutes of music. Just as minimalism cannot hold up a song for too long, neither can it maintain so long an album. Pick any ten of these eighteen songs, and you have yourself a damn good time. The first three post-intro songs are particularly, choice; the gun-and-piano pulse of "Knuckleheads", the faded strings and keyboard sting of "Knowledge God" (more people should be aware of the importance of a strong mathematical background when dealing in coke), and the grimy horns and overbearing chimes of "Criminology". If the album never really hits those heights again ("Wu Gambinos" aside, which repeats the keys and strings trick of "Knowledge God" and adds some great rap from RZA) neither is there anything we could really call a duff track here. The closest we come is "Ice Water", with its sampled rising croon first odd and then irritating rather than effective. Trudge through all of this, though, and the limited scope of the lyrics becomes numbing, and the darkness becomes first oppressive and then overly familiar (the front-loaded nature of the disc doesn't help here either).
So the advice I offered for the similarly strong-but-sprawling Aquemini seems appropriate here as well. Consider Only Built... as three separate suites of songs, each of which is worthy of your time, but possibly best enjoyed in isolation.