On Rich Boy and the Voice as an Instrument, Part 1

The arrival of this piece was prophesied long ago, in the bygone days of November 2009. Enjoy Part I of the Rich Boy Manifesto.

If you’ve spent any time reading YML over the last few months, it should be evident that I love Rich Boy and I love Yelawolf.

So imagine my delight when two of Alabama’s finest jumped on a Jim Jonsin beat together. Here’s “Go Crazy” by Rich Boy ft. Yelawolf.

I have wanted to assemble a long form piece on Rich Boy for a while (and a shorter piece about Yela’s Trunk Muzik is coming), so I’m using “Go Crazy” as an excuse (for the record: it is not the jaw-dropping collaboration I had hoped for, but it’s definitely a serviceable slice of the two rappers’ styles, I want to hear the two of them on a beat like “Boy Looka Here”).

I realize a randomly released song coincidentally featuring two of my current favorite artists is a bit too flimsy to necessitate the tome you’re about to read (or not read, as the case may be). So, instead, let me say that this essay was inspired by a recent rediscovery of Mystikal (fortuitously occurring right before he returned from prison and a slice of the listening public remembered that Mystikal was dope) and downloading of Rich Boy’s Bigger Than the Mayor mixtape which raised a series of interesting question in my mind: how are we supposed to enjoy our rappers? How are we meant to judge them? Is it right that every time the “best rapper” is discussed, an all too familiar set of criteria and artists gets trotted out? Is this hindering our ability as listeners to get past titles and simply enjoy music? Answers in due time.

When I first heard Rich Boy on “Throw Some D’s” almost four years ago, I immediately dismissed him as merely a mush-mouthed Southern rapper with little to offer in terms of listening pleasure or stylistic study.

Wrong.

After listening to his self-titled debut and hearing his bomb-shelter shattering single “Drop” earlier this year, I am of the mind that Rich Boy’s flow is a dynamic rhythmic weapon, a snarling delivery system for unorthodox sounds and syllables to bounce over beats. To drum up an old adage for lack of better words: it’s not what he says, it’s very much how he says it.

One couplet in particular from “Drop” stands out:

“God made me super rich the devil made you stupid bitch/ you could be just like me if you quit with all that stupid shit”

(listen to “Drop” above)

Fairly simple. No intricate rhyme patterns, no extended metaphors, hardly an image in the bunch. Rich Boy’s delivery turns the words into a sort of rhythmic accompaniment. Riding the pocket of the beat, he bounces along on a series of hand claps, mimicking the rhythm and sliding one syllable into the next as if they interlocked. Many rappers, like drummers, ride the pocket rhythm, but Rich Boy seems to be buoyed by the beat, riffing off it not unlike a scat singer might riff off of band mates (I realize comparing Rich Boy to a scat singer isn’t exactly the most precise or accurate analogy, but the principle is the same).

It is difficult to objectively explain the character of a rapper’s voice, so I leave room for argument. To my ear, this segment is delivered with a certain disdain and mockery for the proverbial “you” Rich Boy addresses. This combination of slippery rhythm and expressive vocalization give the lines a quality of uniqueness, a singularity that is equals parts theater and poetry (when done correctly). Too vague? Think of it this way: those lines could be delivered in any number of tones, meters, etc, but Rich Boy felt the beat and delivered them in a manner that fits his backing track perfectly. It is impossible to say whether another flow might have matched it better (and even more difficult when considering the bias that occurs in comparing other rappers on a beat originally associated with a singular personality, a la “A Milli”). It seems, however, that Rich Boy takes to beats like a soloist, finding the intricacies of the rhythmic backing and allowing his flow to play off them, creating a unity between production and rapping that is often sorely lacking in the mixtape generation. He doesn’t just ride the beat, he reads it and becomes a part of it. The beat necessitates the rapping and the rapping mirrors the beat (or, in cases like “Drop,” provides a counterpoint).

Once you’ve come for the Rich Boy show and you’ve sampled enough courses, you may come to recognize what I have: Rich Boy’s voice and delivery are music in themselves. There is a certain rhythm, flow, and drawl that pervades all his songs that is an aesthetic achievement in and of itself, and thus something that can be enjoyed on its own, with little to know consideration of lyrics. As you may have noticed, I have left out any significant mention of lyrics or content thus far. Simply put, if you’re coming to a Rich Boy song for the richness and complexity of his poetry, you are, perhaps, mistaken. In the case of Rich Boy, delivery trumps content and, as such, his delivery has been polished to perfection (or, at least, perfection within its individual sphere of existence). A fine counter balance to the example of Rich Boy is Talib Kweli, an artist who has consistently placed the importance of content above style. I’d like to quote Andrew Noz on this subject, as he has previously made this point on Kweli:

“I recently read post on the Okayplayer message board where Gucci was compared to Talib Kweli. I think the poster was joking, but when you think about it Gucci and Kweli share their biggest flaws as writers: poor construction. Despite his expansive vocabulary (oh yes, Gordon) Gucci is often less concerned with structure and this is really apparent when he needs to tell a story. He squeezes too many words into bars, he rounds out empty bars with emptier and clunky filler: ‘got with a… little.. crew,’ ‘he mad, man, he REALLY mad,’ and so on. Kweli made similar sacrifices of cadence because his message and agenda took precedence to rap writing.” (original post here, in reference to a Gucci Mane song off the Great Brrritain Mixtape)

I’d like to think you can train your senses and, as such, can train yourself to enjoy certain things. As I said, I was not a fan of Rich Boy when I first heard him, but I was judging him against the rappers who accounted for the majority of my listening at the time: Pharoahe Monch, One Be Lo, GZA, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Andre 3000. While I’m still a fan of these rappers, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s unfair to try and compare them to artists like Rich Boy. Monch and Rich Boy are both rappers, but they’re doing different things and can (I won’t say should, but it’s how I feel) be appreciated on different levels. New criticism–meet the art on its terms.

That might be a tall order to ask of the listener, but it seems that too often the average Hip Hop fan is quick to say so and so is worse than so and so. So and so is the best rapper. So and so is better than so and so. While we cannot deny our tastes, we can learn how to voice them with information and criticism. This might not make for the easiest project, but it seems the only solution for a generation that decries the quality of the product it’s given but will not invest the time nor money in making this product better. We’re quick to criticize but we often cannot substantiate our opinions. It’s all of our faults that Hip Hop is “dead.” We can resurrect it by becoming better listeners, appreciating different rappers for doing different things and remembering that rap is a skill not merely a god given ability. People can get better. Like Rich Boy and any number of great rappers–and yes, I will defend the claim that Rich Boy is a great rapper–the ability to correctly read a beat and match it with the perfect flow is talent that can be honed over years of practice. Look at Lil Wayne’s progression from his days in the Hot Boys to his reign as the “Best Rapper Alive.” Regardless of your opinion, it is impossible not to notice the evolution of his flow over the years. Reps. Malcolm Gladwell. 10,000 hours. All that. It’s a skill, it’s like playing violin. You do it long enough and you get better.

We don’t all need to be Robert Christgau (archaic reference? Does anyone still read the Village Voice other than my mother? Does she even read it anymore?), but it would be nice if listeners could invest more time in understanding the product put before them. The only way to make music better is to understand it better, train our senses and our tastes. Appreciation of aesthetics, art as a tool to better society, Sergei Eisenstein, and now I’ve lost you.

So I’ll close this edition with a quotation from a review of Juvenile’s most recent LP, Cocky and Confident, posted on The Smoking Section, which paraphrases the adage I invoked earlier:

“As always with Juvenile, you’ll enjoy yourself more if you focus on how he sounds and less on what he’s saying.”

In the case of the review, this is meant somewhat derogatorily, to suggest perhaps that there is a greater pleasure in rappers who are saying something of substance rather than merely saying something, anything at all. I think we as listeners must begin (if we have not already) to rethink this paradigm of polished form “devoid” of content as somehow less inherently valuable than the content-rich raps of the almighty “conscious” rapper. Rappers like Juvenile and Rich Boy are no less valuable or enjoyable than their more lyrically inclined contemporaries. It’s all a matter of perspective and conditioning. And here now I feel as if I’ve made a preposterously obvious point and so I’ll close by saying this: many of the so called “finer things”–wine, jazz, art–require some training of the senses in order to enable enjoyment. Such sensory education may be too demanding for the average listener, but Hip Hop is now old and rich (and, maybe more importantly, stagnant) enough to warrant such a refinement.

In Part II we will examine Mystikal as an example of a happy (and perhaps ideal) medium between form and content.

Download: “Go Crazy” by Rich Boy ft. Yelawolf (prod. Jim Jonsin)

“Go Crazy” spotted at 2dopeboyz.

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