Today is about rappers

Most guitar players of note have a "sound" in the general sense. But some, such as Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock, have a sound in a more particular and literal sense: a specific and immediately recognizable motif that recurs in their playing. For Brock, it's wavery little string bends that his guitar playing wears like birthmarks; for Jawbreaker's Blake Schwarzenbach, it was crazy harmonics careening all over the place. Rap is no different. Great rappers aren't remembered for their beats, rhymes or lyrics as much as their personality, the indelible personal stamp they place on the idiom. Having a unique style is only one part of the solution, but it's an important one - style is first impression, and by now there's no mistaking Eminem's reedy simper, Ghostface's gruff whine, Lil' Wayne's phelgmy hiccups, Cam'ron's limber drawl and Biggie's thick-tongued one.

But some rappers go a step further and develop an actual noise that they make, part catch-phrase, part sound-effect, all branding potential. Lil' Wayne's "yeps," Juvenile's "hahs", and Cam's plosive little embellishments are all potential examples of signature sounds - but Wayne's got a million others too, Juvenile's not laughing as much as he used to, and Cam's ambient fx are too variegated to qualify. It seems obvious to start with Young Jeezy, king of the ad-lib - too obvious, and I just posted Jeezy last week. Anyway, I'm interested in signature sounds that convey more personality. Jeezy's trap-hop thrives on personality, seems to have loads of it on the surface, but I've begun to suspect that if you were to strip away the "Jeah!" and the "Yeeeeeeaaaaaah" and the giddy materialism and occasional half-assed moralizing, underneath you'd find nothing human and complex, just a grinning death's head in a cloud of crack smoke. Jeezy's built like that, a trap machine, grinding out dystopian drama to the cheap seats. He's good at it, but it's not what we're looking at today.

You want trap-hop with real personality, you want The Clipse. Hot-to-death posse cuts where you can practically hear them climbing over one another to get at the mic, zealous braggadoccio (as opposed to Jeezy's laconic, self-assured boasting) and cleverer-than-thou metaphors and harrowing nihilism in one roiling ball. Pusha and Malice are the most vibrant and obvious personas, hogging a lot of the best similes and knee-slappingest punchlines; Liva and Sandman are murkier and more subtle, if not exactly peripheral. Liva has a weird habit of ending very many lines with the phrase "on 'em" in a way that doesn't make you feel like he's cheating; sometimes he achieves powerful surging effects by establishing a long pattern of "on 'em" ending lines and then diverging from this pattern (e.g. his "the belt matching the shoes" part in "Zen"). Sandman's a wild card - sometimes he justifies his moniker, derailing tense bangers with his sleepy flow. But he's also possessed of one of the oddest signature sounds in all of rap, part mummy, part whale song, which you can hear right at the start of his verse on "Roll with the Winners." Personally, I'd prefer it if the Clipse only let Sandman rap when he had something really important to say, at all other times keeping him in the background making alien orca noises betweem verses.

Philly's Peedi Crakk (now Peedi Peedi, which, cool, but the heyday of big-ticket trap music doesn't seem like the ideal time to drop "crakk" from your name) has more personality than almost anyone else in rap today, and his signature sound - BRRRR-RING! BRRRR-RING!, quickly trilled off the tongue - embodies his nervy, antic flow. Peedi's a bundle of gymnastic energy, swinging from his beats like moneky bars instead of swimming grimly through them in the popular style, with dense internal rhyme schemes, elastic cadences, a thoroughly maniacal bounce and outsized confidence that cuts the grimness of his lyrics: "We on that shit that make a dead man move / Stop trains, airplanes fall, dog, you gone lose," sprinting desperately to keep up with the beat. Wikipedia, in an instance of rhetorical flourish alien to traditional encyclopedias, felt compelled to describe Peedi's style as that of an "anthropomophic hyena." Beanie Sigel's turn on this murder ballad is appropriately grim, but Peedi's is all the more disturbing for its Kill-Billy clash of violence and cartoonishness, that cheerfully zany "BRRRR-RING!" bent to unsavory ends: We learn that P Crakk will let the mac BRRRR-RING! on you; that "(BRRRR-RING!)Crakk test his aim on you / B Mac just bang on you / flesh just hang on you."

"Must Be Bobby" indeed - the track's just getting up to speed when RZA starts in with his little sonar noise, the telegraphed bleeps he twittered out even during his turn in Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes. Apologies for posting this Digital Bullet track instead of something from his superior and just-as-doodley debut, my copy of which is copy protected five ways from Sunday. If anyone can pinpoint the first time RZA used this noise I'd love to know it. Either way, he hasn't let up since, and it's not hard to imagine the tic overtaking his style until he's rapping strictly in Morse code, filling page after page of sheet music with dots and dashes.

About kindness and generosity

It just so happens that artists affiliated with James Brown tend to record extravagant tributes to his mercy, kindness and generosity. Florence Farmer, for instance, lived with JB for a while in the late '60s; they never married, but she was apparently sometimes called "Mrs. Brown." I'm told that the backing track for the two-part "Living Legend" was arranged by Sammy Lowe. Farmer's sense of rhyme and meter is rather unusual. If, in fact, it's hers. Curiously, the single for "Living Legend" doesn't have a writing - or chaturbate production - credit. Perhaps somebody was being modest. You know, he's modest, too.

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters had had a long string of gigantic hits in the '50s, including "The Twist" and "Work With Me Annie." JB, always a fan (he recorded Ballard's "Teardrops On Your Letter" as late as 1991's Love Over-Due), produced a long string of non-hits for Ballard beginning in the mid-'60s. Some of them are very, very good (I love "You're So Sexy" and "Butter Your Popcorn"); a whole lot of them seem to be Ballard singing over already-issued Brown backing tracks. The only two that charted were the awesome "How You Gonna Get Respect (If You Haven't Cut Your Process Yet)," which recycled "Licking Stick - Licking Stick," and "From the Love Side," sung over a track that had already appeared on the instrumental Ain't It Funky Now album and provided the backing for Marva Whitney's "I Made A Mistake Because It's Only You." This drunken, defeated "Recitation" (backing track: JB's "World") is stuck in the middle of Brown's own Get On the Good Foot double-LP. I can't even imagine how that happened.

Sometimes, the obeisance of the revue just took the form of name-checking its other acts, as on the recitative that opens "I'm In Love," from former JB bodyguard Lee Austin, a.k.a. Leon Austin. (The "real woman" Austin mentions was the title of a single he'd released in 1972.) Occasionally, it was just mentioning their one big connection in passing, as in the original title of Marva Whitney's first studio album, I Sing Soul with James Brown. (Not included here: Bittersweet's "Portegé of J.B." [sic]. ) But there's something almost perverse about how the young Rev. Al Sharpton's procession of heroes (MLK, JFK) on 1981's "God Has Smiled On Me" culminates in the Godfather. Pretty much any time JB performed in New York in the '90s, Rev. Al showed up, delivered a little rap ("I've looked all around/But one thing I've found/If you want to get down/You've got to find James Brown"), and executed a dance move or two. He may still be doing the same thing at his first duet partner's shows.

Strangely desperate

James Brown has repeatedly covered a few artists' songs in his career--the overlap between his repertoire and Frank Sinatra's is probably the largest and most regrettable, and he devoted half an album and a much later single to Little Willie John's hits. But one act he's clearly got a sentimental attachment to is the "5" Royales, who had only a middling commercial presence but a repertoire and style that lasted much longer than they did on the charts.

JB had a huge hit in 1960 with "Think," which had been a not-quite-as-big record for the Royales a couple of years earlier. Brown cranked up the tempo, mangled the lyrics a little (he's never subsequently unmangled them), and generally marked the song as his territory for good. In response, Pauling and company took a stab at Brown's "Please, Please, Please," not as successfully.

On Live at the Apollo, recorded in late 1962, Brown sped "Think" up again. (When King released the Apollo version as a promotional single in '64, they slowed that recording down to the 1960 single speed, bizarrely enough.) In 1967, on the verge of his funk breakthrough with "Cold Sweat," Brown and Vicki Anderson recorded a duet version of "Think" for a single, this time with a fancier beat and horn chart; he reproduced that arrangement for his duet later that year with Marva Whitney, released in 1969 on Live at the Apollo, Vol. II.

Then, in 1973, as he eased into his relationship with session cats arranged by Dave Matthews, JB cut yet another "Think," this time a slicked-up, wah-wah-funk version. It hit #15 on the R&B; charts. For his follow-up, he released--yes--another version of "Think," this time with the same backing track but a very different vocal, beginning with some shout-outs to "Soul Train" and Don Cornelius. (It charted too, though it only went to #37.) The second '73 take has never been released on CD, to my knowledge; it's got a different catalogue number than the previous version, but they share the same B-side: a hilariously WTF version of the Beatles' "Something."

1964, the "5" Royales' commercial stock had sunk badly. As he occasionally did with other old favorites of his who weren't filling so many seats any more, Brown produced a couple of live jasmin records for them (on which they were credited as the Five Royals). "Baby, Don't Do It" is a peculiar new arrangement of one of their earliest hits, originally released in 1953 on Apollo Records--that unresolved horn flourish at the end on the '64 version is just weird.

Vicki Anderson recorded a few JB-produced "5" Royales covers besides "Think," including "Baby, Don't You Know" and "The Feeling Is Real." I'm told that "Tears of Joy" grazed the lower regions of one chart or another, though damned if I can identify which; it was the other side of an odd, jerky funk workout called "If You Don't Give Me What I Want (I Got to Get It Some Other Place)," recorded at the same session as "Cold Sweat."

There's something strangely desperate about the final year or two of releases on the JB production imprint People Records--you can feel the revue's terror at the approach of disco in their attempts to jump on the trends they'd once led and their superstitious adherence to things that had once propitiated hits. Why does the first minute or so of Lyn Collins' version of "Baby, Don't Do It" end in an explosion sound, then start over from the beginning, complete with intro rap? Perhaps because that had worked the year before for "Rock Me Again and Again and Again and Again and Again and Again (6 Times)."

Still: what a great record!

In my late twenties

In my late, tormentative twenties, I used to dream a lot, or at least remember the few dreams I had, and six or seven times my sleep brought me entire new albums by singers and bands I admired. There was, for instance, a live Grateful Dead album, a two-record set, on which the band, treading water in an improvisation that consumed one entire side, found themselves drifting weirdly and involuntarily into the currents of "Moon River" and, after no little resistance, gave the song a lyric-fumbled go before Garcia delivered himself of the most aphoristic, grief-haunted solo I had ever heard. (I later realized that my brain must have been conjuring and deforming Garcia's anguishful virtuosities on the Europe '72 version of "Morning Dew" - landmarks, I feel, of guitared sorrow.) Another dream brought me a complete Velvet Underground album, one that could have been recorded only after their third, self-named record: it had all the hollow-voiced, flat-toned loveliness of that dear, dire masterwork, but the sound seemed to be prowling around within itself, trending off in fresh directions.

I later came to learn that sleep-born albums were not uncommon, that lots of dozing people were extending or deepening the repertoires of their favorite bands, then waking up and realizing, traumatically, what had been lost. (This must have been happening all the time to listeners whose lives, unlike mine, had not turned away from music during long whiles of erosional adulthood.) But what undid me was eventually confronting in daylight some songs that sounded as if they had been recovered from my long-ago, agonied slumbers. These were songs that seemed too unearthly in their beauty to be available to wide-awake, job-holding citizens of the quotidian. I'll mention just a handful. I stumbled onto all of them in the space of just one summer, in 2001, when, after a catastrophic breakup, I threw myself into music that, in most instances, I should have heard years, sometimes whole decades, earlier.

The first three seemed to be straight off that dream-begotten Velvet Underground album. For starters, Galaxie 500's "It's Getting Late." The simple, ruminant chord cycle, the struggled and sometimes unintelligible vocals (vague but burdened declarations in the lyrics giving way to even vaguer admonitions), and then, after the second and final verse, in lieu of a notey solo: four unbroken, identical, queasily pitched but unhistrionic four-measure moans of controlled, even stately feedback - a condensed and perfected Jasmin live history of all our misery and grievance, or at least most of mine at the time. I dubbed ninety minutes' worth of the song onto a cassette that became my daily fare in extrametropolitan traffic.

That tape was later replaced, though, by a continuous feed of Pavement's "Here." This time the parallels to the Velvet Underground were a little more obvious--monologuish lyrics vouchsafed impassively (everything is elegized the instant it happens); the depressive chug of the rhythm guitar; the lead guitarist's cleaving pickily but shakily to a single note during the verses but then, at the start of the chorus (as Stephen Malkmus invites the listener to share in a prayer), managing a tiny, solemn filigree in the spirit of VU's "Jesus"; and, of course, the closing line's "I guess a guess is the best I'll do" answering and none too subtly paraphrasing Lou Reed's climactic "I guess that I just don't know" in "Heroin" - but this was a VU updated and aired out and relocated to a sprawl of freeways and outlets, a little giddy from new vistas. There's such a flattening finality to the song's tentativeness that it was all I could listen to for weeks.

I had much better timing with the Moldy Peaches: I glommed onto a steeply discounted secondhand copy of their first and apparently final official album not soon after its release and took first to Kimya Dawson's new slant on Moe Tucker's drowsy and senseless sincerity. The Moldy Peaches were a sort of junior VU, scootering back to middle school or even earlier, but without the determined purity of Velvets candlelighter Jonathan Richman, another of my favorite unsongish songsters of loopily American teenhood and lifelong aftermath. The Moldy Peaches might have been a grimy duo, but "Nothing Came Out," notwithstanding its snickery, latrine-minded title, is a full-blown ballad of unrequited love: the overknowing girl in whose voice Dawson is singing wants only to ride bikes, watch cartoons, and spoon with her beloved. The musical backdrop of the song, though, is undreamily stark; when a real-world landline phone rings twice during the second verse, Dawson laughs off the intrusion, and the song's cozy hopelessness survives even a mood-killing guitar solo (overdubbed?) of blustery bar-band fury. In sum, it's a kind of "Afterhours" for those too young to lie their way into even the "under 21" twilights at the clubs.

I've got just two more - one I must have heard in some batch of Beatles curios and novelties deemed too slight for release to the conscious, and one that might have been given a berth on a best-of-the-girl-groups anthology, a repackaging of stray plaints of late adolescencia.

The first is the Clientele's "6am Morningside." The littlest slip of a song (two murmury verses, and then it's gone), it's wispily of a piece with the Beatles early in their heyday, when drums and bass and two guitars fingered just so could summon moods not previously available in anyrock venaculars. Alasdair MacLean shimmers himself into a love-laden, Lennoned voice and offers fugitive glimpses of Penny Lane in hushabye moments when adult locals aren't astir.

And the other? The Shangri-Las' fraught and encompassing "Past, Present and Future." Lasting all of two minutes and forty seconds, and declaimed in a halting, catch-in-the-voice recitative over lunar symphonics looted from Beethoven, the song is a compact confessional memoir in three parts: innocence, experience, and fatalistic regret. (The experience, one gathers, was what therapists of our later era like to call "acquaintance rape.") It feels even a bit unseemly to imagine such messily rueful truth-telling gushing out of very specific transistor radios and bedroom record players circa 1966.

These days, sadly, I remember little of my dreams, and it's probably for the better, but the downside is that no spectral albums have come to me in ages. I am thus all the more grateful for songs that tip me back into what I once thought I might have somehow had.