How do I love Mike Powell? Let me count the ways… He’s been churning out some of the most honest and thoughtful commentary on music that I’ve read in years, all with a refreshing candor and without a trace of heavy-handedness. I mentioned his work before in my Poptimism article, but his writing is very much worth seeking out at Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, or Spin for any fan of music or music writing. Not only is he a great music writer in the traditional sense, but Powell also exhibits a uniquely confessional and personal style of writing (especially in his Second Hands column at Pitchfork) that is rarely seen in the arena of music criticism. In a field somewhat stereotyped by pretension or an ostentatious display of knowledge, Powell has a knack of disarming preconceived notions held by the reader by presenting his relationship with music in vulnerable or personal ways through stories and anecdotes from his life. In a way, it is music writing as storytelling and we, as the reader, endearingly experience the music with him.
Powell’s most recent piece for his Second Hands column at Pitchfork addresses the idea of the lack of comedy in modern music. From Powell’s point of view, modern music seems to be going through a “deeply unfunny phase”. The whole article is well worth your time but for our purposes, I think he hones in on something uniquely profound currently going on in modern mainstream rap in the following story:
“The other afternoon I stopped into a bar and had a beer alone. When I asked about the soundtrack, the bartender told me they were going for “a strip-club vibe.” (The bar does not host strippers.) Juicy J’s “Bandz a Make Her Dance” came on. It is a heavy, miserable song, with a hole in the middle where someone seems to have scooped out its heart. Bored and joyless, Juicy throws his dollars at strippers with the wearied hand of a factory machinist…
…As the song’s emptiness filled the room, I realized that never before have we as a culture been subjected to so much unhappiness perpetrated in the name of luxury and status. The rich not only get richer but manage to make being rich seem less enviable all the time. (That, of course, is its own type of gag. Drake could become a goat farmer in Hawaii tomorrow and live in splendor for the rest of his life.)
I like “Bandz”, but only because I think it says something important about our time. It is the sound of the palace at night, abandoned. “It does seem like a song I should be hearing while day drinking alone,” I told the bartender. He nodded.”
Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance” was released in 2012 when he was 37 years old. A cold, misogynistic rap song, “Bandz” became a major rap hit and was an unlikely comeback many years after his seminal work in Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia (it also landed him surprising features on Ke$ha and Katy Perry songs). In Three 6 Mafia, Juicy J pioneered a militaristic flow detailing dark nihilistic street tales over menacing beats that sampled horror soundtracks. In the 90’s, groups like Wu-Tang Clan, The Geto Boys, and Three 6 Mafia all channeled this dark underbelly of street life—the paranoia, anxiety, depravity, etc.—with striking profundity. On “Bandz”, Juicy J simply sounds fatigued.
But I don’t think this is unique to Juicy J. More so than any other time in the history of the genre, mainstream rap sounds like “the sound of the palace at night, abandoned.” There’s a desperate nihilism to rap right now that portrays a deep and joyless boredom in the midst of worldly extravagance and riches. It’s a boredom stemming from an unforeseen loneliness—a deep sense of want when surrounded by everything you should want. It’s the many scenes we’ve been treated to of Don Draper drinking alone or the fruit of wanting to earn enough money to get away from everyone. And we all know how that one ends.
In April, Atlanta rapper Future released his anticipated and much delayed second album titled Honest. Self-described as an album with more “ballads”, Future raps/sings/croaks in his trademark alien auto-tune warble about his many indulgences (which includes of course being “Covered N Money”) and the struggle he’s had to get to where he is today (“Blood, Sweat, and Tears”). Contrary to much of the album’s surface level street content though, is a distinct sadness coursing through many of the songs on the album. On one of the more striking moments, Drake shows up to deadpan the chorus to “Never Satisfied” in which he confesses: “Time after time after time/Money’s all I get and there’s still money on my mind/But I ain’t never satisfied/Yeah, I ain’t never satisfied”. Drake is no stranger to recording songs about his dissatisfaction with fame and the rap star life but never before has he sounded so desperate while doing it. Future tries to salvage the rest of the song by singing about his triumphant rise to fame, and when Drake shows up again on the second chorus, he’s quickly faded out and the song ends abruptly.
The precedent for this modern style of popular rap seems to be Gucci Mane’s “Ain’t Nothing Else To Do” from 2009. An outlier towards the end of his The Movie Part 2 mixtape, in the song Gucci details acquiring all the material things he set out to, but he couldn’t sound more bored or complacent doing it. He’s bought a mansion in Miami and Atlanta and a condo in Manhattan. While still unsatisfied, he resolves hesitantly “Ain’t nothing else to do but buy another coup.” It’s a strange desperate type of alienation that asks “Well, now what?” while still continuing to purport excess with “the wearied hand of a factory machinist.”
Mainstream rap has been in a foreign place for the past 5 or so years, reaching points of popularity only dreamed of in previous decades. The dark and bleakly honest style pioneered by such acts as Three 6 Mafia that bubbled just below radio’s radar in the 90’s is now commonplace on the top 100. Rap’s stars have finally reached the palace, driven each Maserati, bought a condo on each coast, and eaten lobster every night. Modern rap’s prodigal sons probably won’t reach the end of the “fun-bucket” and desperately peer up from their pig slop anytime soon. The number of material comforts the modern world readily offers could potentially keep them pleasured for a while. In their bored hedonism though, they might just desperately peer up when it seems there “Ain’t Nothing Else To Do”.