August 14, 2015KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsRemembrances

Rap Athenas: From Juvenile’s “Ha” to A$AP Rocky’s “Peso”

There are two hip hop videos that remind me of the birth of Athena. The goddess leaped out, full-grown and armor-clad, from Zeus’s skull. It is an unexpected ending to a strange story: Zeus pursues Metis, taking many shapes until she gives in; she conceives, then he swallows her to prevent the possible birth of a son that could overthrow him; he then experiences an unbearable headache, shouting so loud he is heard throughout the world. Hephaestus does Zeus a favor and splits his head open with an axe. Out comes Athena.

The first time I saw the videos for Juvenile’s “Ha” (1998) and A$AP Rocky’s “Peso” (2011), I felt I was witnessing the birth of something full-grown, wrapped in tattoos, front teeth full of jewels, wrought in an aesthetic emerging organically out of a world and a worldview both foreign and familiar. In “Ha,” I now see the aesthetic precedent for the “Pe$o,” the ground-shifting debut track of A$AP Rocky, and by extension, the entire A$AP Mob. Both videos are high-quality productions, and both give you the sense that there is a strange world that is much more exciting, dangerous, and alluring than the one you are in, and that that world has existed for a while, long enough to develop its own style of dress, slang, and customized narcotic combinations to accompany, inspire, and enhance its sounds. They both give you the sense that, prior to you seeing this video, you had no idea that this very complete and mysterious world even existed. It is well-known that without Southern bounce music there would be no A$AP Mob, as this was one of the central preoccupations of the Mob’s architect, or “spirit guide” as they called him, A$AP Yams. Only now is it apparent to me precisely how these two worlds collide and connect, and how he could have seen that combination as being so seamless when no one else saw it.

That is not to say that there weren’t previous connections between New York and N’awlins. What is also apparent as I re-listen to “Ha” is how and why the song attracted Jay-Z, and intrigued him enough that he recorded a remix of the track. Jay-Z is the undisputed king of talk rhyme (see “Friend of Foe” for a paradigmatic example) but no one had ever talk rhymed the way Juvenile did, that thoroughly N’awlins project slang and delivery, the Southern equivalent of Big L’s Harlem slick talk, which Lord Finesse defines a battle rap form constrained by a lack of punchlines. What sets Juvenile apart from his New York cohorts is the melodic sensibility. It was only after falling in love with Louis Armstrong’s music several years ago that I began to hear the musicality in so much of the N’awlins rap styles, which I couldn’t appreciate for most of the Bling Era. I first heard this musicality in Lil Wayne, possibly due to the vocal texture (i.e. destroyed, albeit because of different drugs) he and Armstrong have in common. In any case, I began to hear how Southern bounce grew out of Southern swing.

And again, there is a circle of time and space and sound connecting the two cities, for Louis Armstrong was the one who brought an inimitable and oft-imitated swing to New York in the first place (at least in Ken Burns’ telling, which has, to say the least, a number of strenuous detractors). What A$AP Rocky did was to expand the sound to include other influences as well, and embark upon territory not tread by Juvenile or Jay-Z or anyone of that generation. In “Demons,” he channels Cleveland legends Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in a transregional rhyme that simultaneously places him squarely within the New York tradition, with his shout-outs to his namesake Rakim, and signals a departure or regrounding of that tradition: “I smoked away my brain/ I think I’m goin dumb/ Cocaine up on my gums/ I think I’m goin numb/ I’m havin stomach pains/ Now I’m throwin up/ Cuz I’m a microphone fiend/ Gimme the bass/ Gimme the beat, now let me lean.” The deceptively simple rhymes smoothly and seductively mask what is a rather complex aesthetic framework. In Eric B. and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend,” drug use is strictly a metaphor for Rakim’s compulsive need to control the mic, and his ginsu-sharp barbs and impeccably timed flow make it clear that no drugs have dulled his mind—he is the purest of purists. Rocky flips the script, his outwardly lazy rhyming suggesting prodigious drug use, so that the “bass” he demands might also be (free) base. By the end of the section he is leaning off-balance like a jazz great shooting heroin, but “lean” is also an obvious play on the slang term for codeine-laced promethazine, today’s performance-enhancing drug of choice for a number of rappers, most notably Lil Wayne.

Further, what is new about Rocky, even as his aesthetic is a bricolage of midwestern, New York, and down South styles, is the international flavor he adds to the mix, in this case through the impeccable production of Clams Casino. “Demons” is a perfect beat, with its understated drums, and a sample beautifully chopped into unrecognizability, sourced from U.K. virtuoso Imogen Heap’s “Just for Now.” The sound gives us a preview of the other aesthetic innovations of the Mob, particularly in the world of fashion. Embedded in the music are signals that they were always looking to London and Paris and Milan, and in so doing, broke through the provinciality of the regional styles they borrowed and crafted a more cosmopolitan sound.

The drug references in the music sound a bit different now that A$AP Yams is deceased (from an accidental drug-overdose), perhaps even more haunting, sad, and reckless than they did upon my first listen. That the architect of this aesthetic died by the chemicals that helped fuel the dream is unfortunate, and this is perhaps the most surprising aspect of these new worlds introduced through songs like “Ha” and “Peso.” As fantasy-laden as these worlds are, they are somehow still real, seemingly more real than the one in which you watch gold fronts flash across a TV screen, a shirtless man doing pull-ups from a crosswalk sign, a boy feeding a slice of ham to a Pit Bull puppy. But they are not more real; they are simply realist representations of life and death in their fullness, which for some reason, humans often have an easier time processing than life and death themselves. Perhaps life and death are just too enormous as they are, so we need to box them in somehow, like European tourists in the 19th century who would bring an easel and picture frame with them on a hike, so they could set it up and gaze through it at the bounded enormity of the Alps.

These artists, at the end of the day, are not profound primarily because they mixed styles (even Juvenile brings Jamaican dancehall influences to bear on his flow, and, I would argue, his visual self-presentation), but because they achieved, yet again, that very old mission of literature—to touch the universal through the particular. On “Ha,” Juvenile’s chorus is the moral heart of his entire second-person address: “You a paper chase(r)/ You gotcha block on fire/ Remaining a G until the moment you expire.” There is no way to transcribe the way he cuts off the word “chaser” to end it with a “z” sound that creates consonance with “is” and “biz” in the other lines of the chorus. The exception to this pattern is the second line, where he stretches out the “ire” of “expire” across two pitches and evokes the dirge, the crying in the song sung for the dead. Everyone dies, of course, but what makes the song universal is its exegesis of project life as a text, without resorting to dull jargon. Juvenile is telling us how and why and where people are born onto the knife edge of life, how they can come to crave that deadly blade, how they succumb to a fatalism and lust for even the smallest, most provincial glory, and how that cycle repeats. For in the song there is not only the addressee that “robbed the boy out his shoes last night, ha?” but by implication there is the now barefoot boy, who must figure out how to walk in that place of broken vials.

Of course, the universal, like the human, is always culturally constructed to some degree. Perhaps the universal, in the age of the cloud, now has more to do with creating art that never would have been created without the technology we now have, the kind of music Mannie Fresh and Clams Casino make. Perhaps the universal, today, is not about broadcasted connections but pinpointed aesthetic achievement at the conjuncture of several streams of creativity or various regional styles. Perhaps the universal has never been so particular as it is now.