You guys, I’ve got something I need to tell you: I’m a fraud.
Okay, that might be a little harsh, but it’s not altogether untrue. I’m out here writing pieces and making podcasts for Earhole, a music blog, which suggests that I am Someone Who Knows About Music. The validity of that, though, is suspect.
I know a lot about the music I listened to growing up (this tour represents like 85% of that) and the music I listen to now, sure. The only problem is that the music encompassed by those filters could certainly better align with what's happening in the contemporary music world. Over the last year, I’ve frequently found myself lagging the other Earhole staffers’ musical knowledge. It’s time for that to change, and I’ve got a plan to make it happen.
This is the first piece in what we hope to be a recurring series called Alphabet Soup, and it’s going to work like this: We, the Earhole staffers, are going to go through the alphabet a letter at a time and pick out artists who we don’t know well, but should. And we’re going to write about them. We’re going to share the songs and videos and stories we think will get each other - and you - in to each artist. We hope this will be a pathway for anyone who is craving a way to expand their musical horizons, like me, to do just that.
Come on the journey with us.
This week in Alphabet Soup: “A” Artists
Darren: Amy Winehouse
I engaged with Amy Winehouse at the minimum possible level for a human living in the 2000’s. Anyone of reasonable age with a pulse and functional sense of hearing heard “Rehab” at least a few dozen times, and many were partially aware of her life through its tragic end. That pretty much describes my involvement with her. This, I realize, is unacceptable. Time to get to know Amy.
Luckily, she doesn’t make it very hard. Her lyrics are packed with emotion while remaining straightforward. Amy tells you what she’s thinking, straight no chaser. You don’t need to look any further than the first lyric on her debut album Frank for evidence of this. “You should be stronger than me” she says, full of disappointment, to the song’s male character.
On “Fuck Me Pumps”, my favorite song on Frank, she adds a sick, slick sense of humor to her writing as she roasts the song’s overly promiscuous, aging protagonist. “Don’t be mad at me cuz you’re pushing 30 and your old tricks no longer work,” she prods as the song winds down. “You shoulda known from the jump that you always get dumped, so dust off your fuck me pumps.” That smirk she holds throughout the video is sinister.
The most obvious example of her no-nonsense lyricism, though, is the song that won her awards and brought her the fame that helped lead to her demise: “Rehab”, from her sophomore album Back To Black. I recently watched Amy, the documentary about her life, and learned that the song is, at least in parts, quite literally literal. She didn’t go to rehab because her dad said she didn’t need to. This isn’t unique, though. Her songs are often direct, honest snapshots from her life.
[Editor’s Note From Porter: With ten years of hindsight, “My daddy thinks I’m fine” may be one of the most unintentionally tragic lyrics ever. I watched Amy a few months back, and I found it incredibly frustrating for the simple fact that the people that Winehouse needed when she was going through her various drug addictions and eating disorders were either nowhere to be found or making the situation worse.]
The real draw for Amy is her voice. It’s incredible. It’s emotive, it’s unique, it’s out of it’s time and it’s timeless. She made the world go nuts over jazz in 2008. At her absolute best, her carefree personality combines with the natural beauty in her voice to produce something truly special. Look at this video of her singing “Valerie”. (It’s not the famous BBC live recording.)
She’s just chillin in her chair, checking out her nails as she casually sings along with a solo guitar. And yet, she gives me chills. Amy had a superpower, and her leaving us too soon is a great loss for music. She deserves a spot in your rotation now, and she’s going to be just as deserving in 30 years. Do yourself a favor and listen.
Squints: A$AP Mob
It’s not much of a secret – at least amongst the Earhole team – how much I love A$AP Rocky and A$AP Ferg. At.Long.Last.A$AP was one of my favorite records from 2015, and Trap Lord is one of my favorite records from, well, ever. That said, I’m not overly familiar with the rest of the A$AP Mob’s output – maybe because their debut album as a collective is still in the works (if not, like, fully scrapped) or maybe because I’m usually too busy listening to “Dump Dump” for the ten-thousandth time and turning way the fuck up.
Earlier this week – along with so much music that I think Porter is covering later – A$AP Rocky dropped the CDQ of Yamborghini High, a tribute to the posse’s visionary leader Twitter legend A$AP Yams, who sadly passed away last year. The song – in addition to Ferg Ferging as hard as Ferg has ever Ferged – features solid verses from A$AP Ant and A$AP Nast. With that in mind, I went back and listened to some of the singles the Mob has dropped that I missed the first time around.
One of the things I appreciate so much about the A$AP ethos is its ability to take elements from Southern hip-hop and combine it with New York swagger to make something uniquely A$AP. Look at how Rocky’s made Houston-style, chopped and screwed vocals a part of his sound, or how indebted Ferg is to Bones Thugs n Harmony. “Trillmatic,” however, is 110% New York. Over a boom-bap beat that would fit into a Mobb Deep record, A$AP Nast goes toe-to-toe with NYC legend Method Man. Nast’s flow is more unhinged than Rocky’s smooth polysyllables, and more guttural than Ferg’s melodies. The way he digs into two-syllable rhymes – “fools get rowdy, ain't nothin' dumb, my guns from Saudi, high off the Maui” – almost reminds me of Big L. This is a song that falls squarely into the city’s musical heritage, and it’s awesome.
If the rest of the Mob’s output screams New York, this song is A$AP Twelvyy trying on the West Coast for size. Over a subdued, guitar-laced beat you could easily imagine Snoop going in on in the 90s, Twelvyy adopts a relaxed, confident flow like a higher-pitched Tupac. This is definitely more easy-listening type rap than other A$AP material than I’m used to – which is most certainly not a bad thing, as sheer sonic diversity is the collective’s best trait.
“Bath Salts” features Rocky and A$AP Ant trading verses with fellow New Yorkers Flatbush Zombies – who hopefully have a debut studio album dropping soon.
In another example of the Mob being rap game chameleons, the track adopts the Zombies’ sound – somewhere halfway between psychedelic drug rap and horrorcore. This is something Flatbush Zombies do extremely well – listen to their tape Better Off Dead and tell me with a straight-face Meechy Darko isn’t the most underrated rapper – but something A$AP Ant does, well, very poorly. His verse is cringe-worthy, with lines like “raping Mona Lisas” and “razor blades dipped in bleach” falling flat on their pretending-to-be-more-fucked-up-than-they-probably-are faces. It reminds me of the time The Game tried to be Tyler, The Creator.
If you can get through that verse, though, the rest of the song is pretty good – Rocky doesn’t even pretend to be anything other than himself, and it works really well.
First, would it be a hyperbole to say that the beat might have the second best use of gunshot samples ever? (First is obviously “Paper Planes.”) That said, this song is dominated by Ferg – “open your chest like Janet Jackson” is a classic bars – and Rocky, with Nast relegated to the hook and Twelvyy dropping a measly 8 bars. This is definitely a song to turn up to, but I would have loved to hear more of Nast and Twelvyy – two very clearly talented rappers.
Overall, I’m very excited about the trajectory A$AP is on, due almost entirely to Yams’ influence. They’re a crew that’s not afraid to experiment with adopting any and all sounds from rap history, and to do so in a way that synergizes in a way that’s so classic that it sounds immediately fresh. I’m worried, though, that Ferg and Rocky are strong enough personalities to drown out the other members. But if they’re drowning out Ant, I’m okay with that.
Porter: ”Will You Smile Again For Me?” - …And You Will Know Us From The Trail Of Dead
Yes, that's a band name.
I found this song in the opening sequence of War, my favorite ski movie, way back in middle school. From the opening guitar riff in the seldom-used 5/4 time signature, to the chugging staccato midsection to the free-for-all ending, the song’s instrumentation keeps the listener on a seven-minute adrenaline rush. As a result, “Will You Smile Again” landed was on every jock jams mixtape of mine in high school. Apologies for the outdated musical technology reference.
The song is about a composer or writer falling into insanity and using his pen to to pull himself out. The verse “And just how long did it take for you to understand/Where your feelings stopped and writing began/Convince yourself to take control/Play to the hilt this unlikely role” creates the image losing oneself in work. The song is most likely written about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, whose genius and mental illness are highly documented (and perfectly captured by Paul Dano in Love & Mercy). They even threw “Smile”, which is also considered one of Wilson’s best albums and legitimized his comeback, into the song title. It’s an abstract premise, but if it’s too daunting, the listener is just as well off with the beautiful noise this song makes.
Sidenote: Ski movies are so dope. The footage they capture and the lengths these skiers go to get good footage is uncanny. They also have incredible music taste. Examples: M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” two years before it got big and Geto Boys’ “G Code” and Grits’ “Ooh Ahh” just as it blew up. That being said, fuck skiing. The last time I went skiing I hit a tree and fell face-first halfway down a trail and thus happily ended my career.
We hope you enjoyed the first iteration of Alpahbet Soup. Let us know what you think in the comments, on Twitter on Facebook, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Any suggestions for some "B" artists we should know??