Monday, February 17, 2014

Sadistik and the State of Contemporary Hip-Hop

When I first saw there was an MC named Sadistik who did a song with Cage I thought, alright, I know what this guy's about. But that set of expectatioms is not who he is at all. He's actually more in the vein of Slug. In fact, a lot like Slug. His voice, flow, writing style... all Slug lite. But instrumentally, his music isn't anything like ANT makes for Atmosphere, and that's where this album works. I mean, not that Atmosphere's music sucks... okay, sometimes it is their weakest element. But on their best songs, it can be great. But the difference here is good, because it keeps this album from just feeling like a cheap knock-off.

The album I'm talking about is called Flowers For My Father, and it's Sadistik's latest on Fake Four Inc, available both on CD and a nice double LP. How is it, exactly? Well, it's certainly interesting. I googled around a bit for other reviews, which I don't normally do, because I know what works for me and what doesn't pretty instantaneously. But I was curious what kind of reaction this album was getting from the hip-hop community*, and it seems to be all positive. Unanimously, praising glowingly, 9.5 out of 10 positive. And, uh, I kinda think that says more about the state of hip-hop and its fanbase than the album itself.

Yeah, there's a lot to talk about here. Where to begin? Well, I think this album is okay. Sadistik certainly has a fine idea of what a really good, compelling hip-hop should be like in 2013. And his collaborators are more than able to get him there. Guys like Blue Sky Black Death (I have one of their albums... good shit), Kid Called Computer and Raised By Wolves (whoever they are) provide a really vibrant, at times ethereal soundtrack. There are a bunch of sung hooks, which is often a misstep, but here work really well, including one girl who sounds like she's channeling Bjork; and even some live drums and violin on a track or two. This is where the album manages to reach deeper than your typical Atmosphere album, and where it excels. You could just sit back and sink into these instrumentals.

But the critical praise for Sadistik also carries over into his lyricism, and this is where we kind of part ways. Look, this album is ambitious. He writes about interesting topics and is definitely striving to be more than the typical. And I'm all for that, really I am. But I think we're all a little too desperate to hoist someone onto our shoulders for simply not rapping about bling, drug dealing, hoes and whatever other stereotypical topics we can spout off. But first of all, rappers have been rapping about infinitely more than that since before The Sugarhill Gang... since before rapping was done on records. I know the major label music industry is supplying us with a massive load of brainless garbage, but that doesn't make everyone who can make a banal literary reference the next Poet Laureate of our generation. If we're going to take the genre seriously, we have to raise our bar for ticker tape parade throwing higher than just "not as dumb as the worst shit on vevo."

But that's my commentary on the critical response, not Sadistik. As far as he goes, well, like I said, I think he understands what a good album should be. I'm just not sure he has the writing talent to achieve his own vision. The concepts all have potential; but he just never brings them home with any powerful lines; it all just feels generic. It bugs me when someone talks about about a really strong song writer, like Josh Martinez, who pours a lot of thought and substance into his songs, and talks about them like they're the same as Drake or somebody "because they both rap about the same kind of things." The details matter. Two songs can be about "a breakup," but when one song is full of insight and originality and the other is just a bunch of hackneyed Hallmark Card cliches, that distinction is key.

And no, I wouldn't describe Sadistik as Hallmark Card cliche. That would be too harsh. But he's also not saying anything that makes you think, "damn, I wish I wrote that," or better yet, "boy, he's really inside my head." It's all just surface level going through the motions, albeit with some added effort put into clever wordplay, which sometimes pays off and sometimes backfires. :Let's look at his opening verse:

"they talk about their neighborhoods intersects and boroughs/but I love instead in my head William S. Burroughs in my hands/I burrow with my hands on a burrow in the sand
'til it's purple and collapsed from the digging/searching for a path to the virtue that I had/surfaces will crack from the circles that I've ran in the city
City of the Living Dead wishing they could live again/rip me into little shreds I'm filthy/admitting all my differences drifting into bitterness"

...By the way, I've copy & pasted the above from his digital booklet (when you get the album, it comes with a link to download a pdf booklet of lyrics and song credits... pretty neat).  But I think there are errors here.  Listening to the song, I'm convinced he says, "but I live instead in my head" in the second line there. It not only makes more sense, but he's really pronouncing a soft i sound rather than a hard o. So I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest he's getting his own lyrics wrong here; but we can work with it.

Now, I didn't pick this section because it's the worst; it's actually one of his stronger sections. But okay.  William S. Burroughs; it didn't take long to get to our first banal literary reference. I get what he's saying... his mind is complicated and troubled like Burroughs' was, as depicted in his works like Naked Lunch. And that's all Burroughs has to do with anything, besides the rhyme/pun. It's the same, stupid and transparent ploy in contemporary hip-hop writing to attempt to get credit for simply knowing who Burroughs is. And read the reviews, it works! I tell you what, though, Melle Mel wouldn't stoop to that silliness (at least not in his prime). And City of the Living Dead? I get it. I own the blu-ray, too. But come on, if this shit was in a book of poetry, it would be some flat-out bad poetry.

I do appreciate that he's bringing back MC Marvelous's "double words/ words double" style. I really do - I'm not being facetious; that's my favorite part of the above quotation. "boroughs/ Burroughs/ burrow /burrow?" That's smart and it works poetically. I'm not just trying to totally trash the guy here.

Honestly, he's probably smarter, or at least trying harder, than a ton of old school MCs whose work I tout on this blog. But this is where a lot of contemporary artists get into serious trouble. If you're just writing a simple, old school song with lines like "I put the oogie in your boogie," that's easy to pull off. That's why Big Bank Hank could go from a rhyme-biting poser to making successful records. Because it doesn't take a special brilliance to write that stuff. I'm not saying anybody could; but certainly a lot of people could. ...And the same goes for any of the old standards: generic battle rhymes, gangster rap-isms, bragging about money... all you have to do is add tiny little twists to what everybody's already said on a million previous songs. That's why people like Kreayshawn can write successful raps. That's why Rick Ross just keeps on rapping about pushing weight over and over again. They don't need to reinvent the wheel to make songs people like.

And so when underground MCs decide to set themselves apart by elevating and taking it to "the next level," they take a much bigger risk. Sadistik is really ambitious here. And instrumentally he pulls it off. When I first heard Sadistik cite City Of the Living Dead (a delightful but schlocky Italian zombie movie from the early 80s) in his supposedly heavy, emotionally devastating song about the loss of his father, I just thought, "ugh, lame." I don't have that "ugh, lame" reaction to most, oh I don't know... MOP songs, because they don't put themselves out their in the position to trip over themselves lyrically. They're not reaching for anything, and therefore never failing to grasp anything. Sadistik is over-reaching like crazy.

And that's my issue with this album. How can I recommend - or continue to re-listen to - an album that keeps hitting me with the "ugh, lame"s? Not just the pop culture references - I just chose those to highlight. There are cutesy puns, stilted deliveries, cliches... You can't enjoy an album that keeps making you wince. I can give him some props for trying (though I'd argue he's received more than enough already), I appreciate the sentiment; but if you want to write music in the upper echelons, you've got to be a writer in the upper echelon, and most of these up and comers can never be that. Maybe Sadistik will mature into it... his guests, like Cage and Astronautalis demonstrate how not to stumble in these kinds of songs (other credited guests, like Ceschi and somebody named Child Actor, just provide hooks). Slug doesn't stumble. But a lot of today's MCs like Drake, Kanye and yes, Sadistik, should work on mastering the simple songs before they try to tackle the advanced material. And a perfectly written simple song can be a masterpiece in its own right anyway. The pretensions of this album wind up boxing it in.

And the worst part? Sadistik can't make me give a damn about his sincere issues at the core of this album. Instrumentally, it does. Again, that's doing an amazing job; it's a roller coaster of feelings. But I defy you to listen to the acapellas of this album (in the unlikely event that they're available anywhere) and wrench up any interest in his girlfriend's drug abuse, clinical depression, friend who died, or any of the rest. "Teeth marks on the skin. The greatest trick the devil ever played was to take away my friend. I got your face engraved into my flesh so I can try to make amends with that day." It's like anti-emotion. And yes, I get that he's opening by quoting "Burn Fetish," but that doesn't make this song any more moving. It's just an added bit of arbitrary trivia that winds up pulling you out of it.

So I've probably wound up coming down on this album a lot harder than it deserves. Sadistik's heart is in the right place, unlike a lot of people coming out with rap albums these days. But this is my honest reaction. And I can't see myself changing my mind about this album down the road. In fact, I think it's all the people rating this 9.5 who are going to drop this over time, once they get past the production and grow out of the awkward writing. At least, I hope we all grow out of this stage.

*I also found a couple hip-hop reviewing websites I never knew about in the process, though; so it proved worthwhile.


  1. "...the same, stupid and transparent ploy in contemporary hip-hop writing to attempt to get credit for simply knowing who Burroughs is. And read the reviews, it works!"
    Good stuff right there. That stupid and transparent ploy drives me crazy, too! I just never thought about why. The annoying thing about it is that it works. Great post, Werner von Wallenrod.

  2. I've listened to this album a few times a week for years and it gets better with each listen. I am really lost because anyone I've introduced Sadistik to was blown away. The guy pours his heart into these albums and its strange to see you try to detract from that. I think his writing is extremely sharp and continues to get better with each album. Go listen to Ultraviolet and tell me there isn't an immense amount of growth between FFMF and that album. The best thing about Sadistik is watching him evolve as an artist and continue to grow. Altars was another step in that growth and an amazing album that i admittedly didn't like much at first but has become my favorite Sadistik album which is saying ALOT. I've never seen someone trash an artist so much while saying repeatedly that they aren't trashing the artist haha