Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Play Off: Picking 2013's Best Song - Semi-Finals

Tournament Round 4

There's a nice symmetry to how these semi-finalists are paired. The Rise of The Ghostface Killah is practically wordless, and given its lyrics' nutritional value, Feel Like Movin' might as well be. The pleasure is all in the sounds. In the case of their competition, however, while the beats are attractive and evocative, it's the lyrics which are the real draw: Gustavo's sustained soliloquy, and Hood Party's polyglottal grab-the-mic rush. Words and music – that familiar theme again.

      
Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party
vs
The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin' 

Partly for the reasons outlined above, there's much more to grab hold of in Hood Party, at least at first glance. The song manages to cram three rappers with very distinct voices into four minutes: Fat Tony, setting the scene and putting gentrification firmly on the agenda, hostility and anger always bubbling just under the surface. Despot, who sounds like he's straining, right at the edge of running out of breath, the whole time, and who takes home this this year's Kanye West Award for Eye-watering Sexual Frankness with a couple of lines about fists, anal cavities, and washing his genitals with hand soap. Kool A.D., basically a grinning pop-culture trickster god shooting off lighter-than-air rhymes while a second head echoes each line in slurred agreement.

Feel Like Movin', meanwhile, is fairly minimalist in the way it lays out a small handful of ideas and sounds, and takes its time playing around with them.

That's something I love in dance music, and something I really enjoyed with Get Lucky – and when that finally started to fail me, under the weight of overexposure, it was Feel Like Movin' that picked up the slack. The arrangement feels a lot looser and more complex than Get Lucky, though, so that listening to the song is like getting lost in deep horror-movie fog, passing familiar landmarks again and again, a snatch of vocal or a spike of synthesised brass, until you realise the only explanation that the scenery is shifting around you.

The structure of Hood Party is a lot more rigid. The beat is a constant – the sound of a dozen stacked speakers being pushed way past their limit, an affront to neighbours and police – while each voice, neatly partitioned and contained, shines a different light on the central theme. The chorus' wider view, the song crash-zooms to the people at the party, chatting about politics, money and conservative Drake lyrics.

The problem is that Kool A.D.'s urgent charismatic ramble entirely steals the show. Concentrated in one place, it imbalances the whole song.

Feel Like Movin', though, maintains its woozy beauty throughout, perfectly simple until you stare hard enough and notice the complexity. A limited series of sounds, arranged in just the right order, that works on my body, brain and soul equally. It's a great reminder of how true the old 'music is magic' mantra is – which, conveniently, is pretty much what the song itself seems to be about.

Winner: The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin'

      
Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo 
vs
Ghostface Killah – The Rise of the Ghostface Killah (Instrumental)

All four of these have an excellent sense of atmosphere, but this pairing especially are just dripping with it.

Stick on a pair of decent headphones, and The Rise of The Ghostface Killah is a sumptuous treat, from the heavy percussive heartbeart that begins the song onward. There's a physicality to the production that lets you hear not just the instruments being played, fingers tapping wood, but the recording equipment, the room it's being played in – which makes it all the more remarkable when the music is cut up, folded around the few trademark  'Ghostface Killa-a-a-ahh' yells that are left intact.

The non-instrumental version is pretty great too, Ghostface's calligraphic rhymes maintaining the vibe (“Tommy guns are irrelevant, I'm bulletproof now/I could fly through the air and duck your chick-a-pow”), as is the crackling Brown Tape version. But the best thing I can say about Younge is that he renders Ghostface pretty much surplus to requirements.

On a similar note, for all I've talked about Gustavo's storytelling, it occurs to me now that I think I'd still love the song if it was in a foreign language. Not only that, I think I'd still get the gist of what was going on.

That's partly down to the texture of Kozelek's voice, the way he contracts certain words, draws others out into a sigh, syllables slurred or croaked or popped, and partly down to LaValle's expressive soundscapes, which stretch out to a distant horizon. Strings fall like steel raindrops, punctuated with obstruent clicks.

Scenery is the only way I can think of this music. It's background, yes, but think of There Will Be Blood, or a Coen Brothers film: We sit, studying in stark detail the cracked lines of the star's face, the world behind him blurred into impressionism, before the depth of field shifts, pulling the landscape into clear focus, and we realise they're the same damn thing.

But I worry I make Gustavo sound too serious and glum, and here's the thing: it's catchy too. I often find myself humming or singing snatches of the song and the album it's taken from. That's what elevates it. That's why I find myself opting, entirely against type, for its heightened realism over the pure fantasy of The Rise of the Ghostface Killah.

Winner: Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo 

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.