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TBTS Reviews: Curren$y, Pilot Talk

October 19, 2010

Some of my favorite new rap in the last year or so has benefited from its willingness to confront and undermine the genre’s conventional approaches to the concepts of “hard” and “soft.” I don’t wish to delve into analyzing the anti-woman and anti-gay lyrics that are sometimes enmeshed in rappers’ representations of “hard” identities, wherein they praise their own abundant “hard” qualities and dismiss their “soft” rivals in terms of womanly and/or homosexual attributes. These harmful tendencies certainly exist (as do patterns of misogyny in discussing actual women, of course), and I find them repellent. However, I can’t, or choose not to, dismiss the musical and lyrical achievements of an entire genre because of this element. That’s the extent to which I can participate in that debate.

Spendin' his cheese, smokin' his broccoli

Lest I digress too much, I’ll return to why I raised the questions of “hard” and “soft” in the first place. Primarily because of the innovative and engaging ways it plays around with notions of “hard” and “soft,” I highly enjoy and recommend Curren$y’s album Pilot Talk, released in July 2010 on DD172/Def Jam.

Before I go further in discussing Pilot Talk itself, I’ll say, with great gratitude, that the album doesn’t rely on our particular pop moment’s usual tricks to introduce softer elements. Chiefly and thankfully, there are no yearning choruses sung by obsequiously earnest young white girls who “could really use a wish right now.” I could use a wish right now too, and it’s for an airplane to plummet out of the sky and land on her parents’ McMansion before her career ever started, thereby sparing us the most annoying earworm chorus of the last five years.

Also, and also thankfully, there are no confessional, soul-baring lyrics from the oddly entitled perspective of a young suitor who’d “better find” his object of adoration’s love and her heart. I’m not quite sure what he plans to do if he doesn’t find that love or that heart, but I’m hoping a sensitive, aching stint in a sealed-off, exhaust-filled garage is an option that’s at least on the table.

Leaving aside the facetious wishes for harm to today’s pop icons, B.o.B.’s “Airplane” and Drake’s “Find Your Love” are vaguely hip hop-inflected pop songs that also play with soft elements, but they do so with far less satisfying results than what Curren$y manages on Pilot Talk. The difference for me is that the softness on Pilot Talk comes from the production and the instrumentation, rather than from lazily tacking on an incongruous chorus and/or raiding a middle schooler’s crush journal for lyrics.

And what production and instrumentation we hear on Pilot Talk! I read in one place that highly reputable producer Ski Beatz used all live instrumentation and no third-party samples for Pilot Talk, though I can’t confirm it. At the very least, the album certainly sounds to these ears extremely warm and organic, and there are some exceedingly rare, unexpected instrumental choices. Witness the Caribbean steel drums in “Audio Dope,” the pretty Latin horns on “Breakfast,” and the odd, breathy synths (combined with a skeletal, barely-there beat) on “King Kong.” Especially compared to the easy-listening pap described above, “King Kong” is borderline avant-garde, and all the better for it.

Then there’s Pilot Talk’s smooth jazz. Lots and lots of smooth jazz. Like Weather Channel grooves. No need to elaborate—just check out the incredibly smooth 1-2 punch (more like 1-2 caress) of “Skybourne” and “The Hangover” in the middle of the album. Those grooves are downright gentle, and they sound fantastic.

Integrated with all this frankly lovely music are lyrics that pretty much exclusively have nothing to do with anything soft, gentle, or introspective. The soft music – hard lyrics juxtapositions are striking and quite possibly polarizing, but for me the whole package just works. This is just a hell of a fun album about being young, irresponsible, and really, really high all the damn time. Despite the occasional brush with some of the less than savory topics mentioned above (especially cavalier attitudes toward women and pointing to “womanly” attributes to smear one’s rivals), I find most of the lyrics quite appealing, primarily because of the obvious wit and linguistic acumen at work.

Examples include “Breakfast,” which follows a reference to a “Daniel-san crane kick” with a Biz Markie-esque mangling of the refrain from the Karate Kid’s cheese-rock anthem “You’re the Best.” Makes me laugh every time. Or how about the masterful guest turns by Snoop Dogg on “Seat Change” and Jay Electronica on “The Day.” The latter’s “My momma told me son, always call a spade a spade, be like Chuck D, never be like Flava Flav” intro to his verse points the way toward a full minute of virtuosity.

My favorite lyrical moment is in “Skybourne,” where another guest, current music blog favorite Big K.R.I.T., follows a reference to being a “Mississippi country bumpkin” with recurring mimicry of the demeaning inflections of prior generations’ Stepin Fetchit pop culture depictions of African Americans:

Mississippi country bumpkin with nothin’ to loo’

I B. B. a King, let me sing you da bloo’

And so on. And of course, Curren$y himself is an adept and consistently engaging lyricist and vocalist. Doubtful he’d have his own album that brought together all this guest star wattage if he weren’t.

Overall, I can’t recommend Pilot Talk enough, and I hope the day comes soon when Curren$y’s brand of well-executed softness, as seen in “Breakfast” and “Skybourne” and most of the rest of the album, rightfully knocks the horrible “Airplane” and “Find Your Love” and their ilk right the hell off the Top 40 airwaves. Oh, and “Billionaire” too. To hell with that song.

Final take: Give Curren$y and Ski Beatz a medal for proving that “softness” doesn’t inherently destroy rap’s ambition and capacity for innovation.

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