we’ve got a lot of renting left to do before we go.

Two totally unrelated things: Neko Case is an animal, De La Soul are guilty bystanders.

Neko Case is an animal. Perhaps that’s a bit obvious, but to describe her any further muddles things, and to leave it at that is more revealing than you’d think. Case is a writer, but has not published any books, stories, articles, poems, or, as far as I know, a single word outside of her lyrics sheets. She is a singer as well, singing country music which sounds nothing like country music. But describing her voice beyond saying that she’s singing, not speaking or coughing, gets tough in itself. Mostly, she does not belt out the lines of her songs. She is not coy in her delivery; not angry nor thrilled, but also not disaffected. It is easier to leave it as Neko Case as an animal, because that allows and in fact encourages the same mystery of Great Blue Whale or Arctic Terns.

There is something you will not grasp about Case’s songs. It’s something you’ll grasp at as lyrics slip out of your cupped hands, and music stretches out farther than your eye can see. Neko Case is an animal and she tells you as much on her song “I’m An Animal,” from her extraordinary new album Middle Cyclone. But that’s one of the few discernible facts you’ll get from the song. The only concrete image of the brief song is one of Heaven as a place with that sickening smell of a midnight airport, sweat and scuff covered with antiseptic powerscrubbing. The image is just one of a brief list of things Case is sure of, the other things on the list being “I love you this hour. this hour today,” and “I’m an animal. You’re an animal too.”

The song ends too soon; Miss Case could’ve made it six minutes long and it wouldn’t have gotten sour, boring, or redundant, but I think that’s part of the package. Listening to Neko Case is like having a conversation with someone on top of a mountain, where every third sentence gets lost to the wind. You could either get frustrated about what’s being lost, or you can appreciate every single word you catch.

Star Witness” is from Neko Case’s 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.

This Tornado Loves You” and “I’m An Animal” are from Neko Case’s 2009 album Middle Cyclone.

Neko Case plays the Beacon Theater tomorrow night with John and Joey from Calexico. If you’re not working a job that pays as poorly as mine, you have no excuse not to be there.

One of the things that kinda fell outta hip hop pretty early on was the narrative. With the exception of torchbearers like Jay-Z, Kanye West (who seems exempt from most hip hop rules), or out-there groups like Subtle, it seems like no one in hip hop wants to tell us a story. Back in the day (Read: when I was five and still listening to Beatles 45s in nap time in kindergarten), Rap music was a storyteller’s paradise. And perhaps one of the most unsettling and successful examples of a story told comes from De La Soul’s furious, reactionary, brilliant second album, De La Soul Is Dead. The album was a pendulum swing back from the upbeat, witty, positive hip hop of the band’s debut 3 Feet High and Rising, and its centerpiece is a song called “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa.”

The plot is fairly simple: an abused daughter takes revenge on her molester-father, but it’s the way Posdnous and Dave position themselves in the story that given the song its tragedy. The Two MCs clearly take sides in the story: According to them, Dillon is a social worker who volunteers as Santa Clause at Macy’s, and Millie, his daughter, is a teenager, reactionary and a little bit crazy. Pos and Dave work with Dillon, and he taken them to his house to watch sports and shoot the shit. He’s a good guy, popular, funny, and caring. He’s got an hot daughter who starts to say that her father is touching her.

In small ways that the guilt of the storytellers manifests itself throughout the song. There are breaks in the chronology that hint at the Pos and Dave’s desire to change the way they acted, to revise the history as they recount it. In the songs second verse, Pos raps “Yo Dillon man, Millie’s been out of school for a week, man, what’s the deal?/I guess he was givin’ Millie’s bruises time to heal/Of course he told us she was sick and we believed him.” The lines show regret of the the blind eye they turned towards Milly. Looking back, of course they should’ve done something. This song happened because they didn’t.

Pos’s last verse, where Millie’s revenge is enacted and the title of the song comes into play reveals more of those feelings of remorse on the part of Pos and Dave. Pos is waiting at Macy’s and Millie walks in. The way he describes it, that she “floats in like a zombie,” hints at an understanding of the trauma that she’s coping with, and the way Pos recounts Dillon’s last words, that “he didn’t mean to/do all the things that her mind could do nothing but cling to.” further the impact of what has occured. Even though the story is (probably) fictional, there’s some serious projection going on here. Noone would be that articulate or that emotionally acute with a gun to their head. The lines are just as much about Pos and Dave wishing they had done something as they are about Dillion wishing he hadn’t.

The surreal situation we’re given, someone trying to kill a department store santa, is cut open by the seriousness of these lines. It’s an terribly sad, terribly good song.

Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” is from De La Soul’s album De La Soul is Dead.

Funny story: In freshman year of college I made a mix of Christmas music for a few close friends and put the De La Soul song on there. A few weeks later I saw one of the friends I had given a copy to at a party, and he came up to me and said, “That was the most fucking depressing Christmas mix I’ve ever heard. Makes sense though: you’re Jewish.”

This is a good week for shows in New York: Neko Case, The Reigning Sound, and Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson all grace our rainy trashpile of a population center with their presences.

10 comments

  1. Neil Cake

    ““That was the most fucking depressing Christmas mix I’ve ever heard. Makes sense though: you’re Jewish.””

    That’s pretty funny. I guess it goes to show that just because a tune has a connection to Christmas, doesn’t mean it is suitable for a Christmas mix!

  2. Brandon

    “One of the things that kinda fell outta hip hop pretty early on was the narrative.”

    I take umbrage with this. Perhaps this blanket claim is worth reconsidering.

    • songssavelives

      OK, maybe I’ll also concede anyone associated with Wu Tang, but I was mainly talking about maistream hip hop, and who knows if Wu Tang even fall under that label any more (Hot 97 would say no, fyi).

      But Brandon, even better than that, how about this: prove me wrong.

      • Brandon

        The “no Wu Tang” is a bizarre handicap to give me. But, really, I think we’ve got to parse what is meant by “narrative.” But even in the strictest sense of the word, I think hip-hop tends more towards narrative than most genres.

        I think Lil Wayne has a strong sense of narrative (he’s “mainstream” enough, right?). Carter III has an overarching plot of reviving hip-hop. And though the plot may not be chronological and may go from non-sequitur to non-sequitur, there are certainly prevailing themes that Wayne harps on. And, of course, it’s a tale told through the principal character of Mr. Carter.

        Then there’s Lupe Fiasco… but I’m sure you’d claim that he is exempt for being “non-mainstream.” And Raekwon’s “Cuban Linx II” has a pretty strong narrative… but of course he violates your “no Wu” stipulation.

        Anyway… to stick to pop stuff. That “Independent Woman” song is pretty clear and direct in its narrative. You’ve got your main characters, an idea, and the narrator grounds his expression and opinion on the matter. That “Lonely Stoner” has a narrative as well. It’s just that these narratives aren’t necessarily good or interesting. But that’s a larger conversation about pop music in general… There’s no need to ghettoize the hip-hop genre from the rest of the mainstream trends.

        See what I did there?

  3. songssavelives

    Fair enough.

    I hadn’t thought about Lupe, or, for that matter, Wale, a more recent example of the underground turned mainstream star, both of whom experiment with and successfully incorporate plot into their songs and albums.

    And I’ll also concede that I totally neglected to mention Weezy.

    The reason I gave the Wu stipulation is because I think they exist, in many ways, in a different axis than most hip hop, producing music that neither influences a lot of other hip hop, nor is influenced by a lot of other hip hop. You could argue that point, but my larger point is, allowing Wu Tang into a conversation about mainstream hip hop is like allowing Spike Jonze into a conversation about mainstream film trends. Both artists are recognized, popular, and clearly good at what they’re doing, but neither are representative of what most people working in the medium are up to.

    As per songwriting in the larger spectrum of current pop music, I think you’re right about it existing but being uninteresting (that one Fray song, and that other Taylor Smith song come to mind), and maybe that is my larger gripe, is that it seems a waste to tell a story that everyone already knows the characters, plot twists and ending to, especially if you’re not going to do a good job telling it.

  4. Brandon

    We’re so close to complete agreement! Except I’m still a bit boggled by your view on Wu-Tang. I mean, I don’t think you can talk about contemporary hip-hop without at least noting the presence of the Wu-Tang. They aren’t on their own axis so much as they’re a pillar. I think most of the east coasters in the early 90s were at least listening to Wu-Tang. And with a genre that responds and quotes one another to the extent hip-hop does, it’s easy to see crossovers and influences.

    Which isn’t to say the Wu-Tang don’t have a unique style. I think they do. But I think you can say that about a lot of notable MCs. Dr. Octagon, Notorious B.I.G., Digital Underground, Jay-Z… they all have their own particular style (which is sometimes off the beaten path) but I wouldn’t claim they exist on their own axes.

    And sure, we could sit here and come up with MCs who have rather typical or banal styles (Master P, anyone?), but I’d consider that picking and choosing your data. AKA specious reasoning.

    Also, the Wu-Tang are MASSIVE. I think confining them to a single axis of their own fails to do justice to their versatility. Method Man is way different with the Wu-Tang as compared to when he’s with Redman. But maybe you’re not trying to say otherwise anyways. But Wu-Tang is a collective–not a single entity. That’s why I think your Spike Jonze comparison is a little bunk.

  5. hip hop vs. rap

    you seem to use hip-hop and rap interchangeably when they are in fact very different. you say “with the exception of torchbearers like Jay-Z, Kanye West (who seems exempt from most hip hop rules)…it seems like no one in hip hop wants to tell us a story…rap music was a storyteller’s paradise”. this can’t be true. rap is the oral expression. hip-hop is the culture. i would point to jazzmatazz aka the guru’s piece “hip hop as a way of life” or danny hoch’s poem (performed on def poetry) “p.s.a”. first, hip-hop will always have a story for the aforementioned reason. second, jay-z and kanye are not torchbearers and in fact give homage to their predecessors. third, i wholeheartedly agree with brandon. and it seems that because you cannot relate to their (the ones who have “no narrative”) message, it means that rappers have no message/story. whether or not it is a”good job” to tell a story is subjective and certainly does not mean that there isn’t one.

    • songssavelives

      Your point about hip hop vs. rap is well taken. I did use the words interchangeably, when, among true fans, they’re quite distinct.

      As I said to my friend Brandon, when De La Soul were popular (early-mid 90s), I do think there were more straightforward narratives in hip hop (see also: most of the songs A Tribe Called Quest wrote), but as I also admitted to Brandon, I don’t listen to as much hip hop as I should these days so my statement that there isn’t as much of it as there should be is admittedly of a very, very limited scope. Other than that, though, I think you’re agreeing with what I’m saying, citing Guru from Gang Starr (a group who haven’t had a commercially successful record since 1998) and a poem from Def Poetry Jam which was at its peak popularity in the early 90s. Again, I’ll admit I’m no authority on the subject, but the point I was trying to make is back when De La were telling stories in the way that they were, it was stuff a whole lot of people were listening to. That’s not to say there’ aren’t stories being told in mainstream hip hop, they’re just not as interesting or complex to me, and the two examples you give are pretty far outside of the the mainstream, I think.

      Still, I appreciate the comment, and always love to be challenged on the claims I make; god knows I make a lot of them that I can’t always back up. I hope you listened to the De La song; it’s certainly worth your time.

  6. it seems

    first, the poem i cited is not even close to being from the early 90’s and second, the jazzmatazz’s song is completely outside of gang starr. that in itself shows your lack of knowledge on the subject. finally, it seems you didn’t understand my comment. there are still stories in rap music that a lot of people are listening to. just not you. and as i said in my previous post telling a story is subjective and certainly does not mean that there isn’t one. perhaps the real problem is that you can’t understand the story or the broader message.

  7. Kendall

    There are a lot of things in this entry and its comments that I agree with. But instead of creating another debate, I’ll just give my opinion. It’s true that hip-hop is not synonymous with rap. For me, hip-hop has always been cultural. The musical genre came from the culture, which Gabe is referring to. But neither the culture or genre are meant to have a narraitve. Hip-hop cannt be read like a book, with plots, pro/antogonists, etc. I will admit that some MCs (and later rappers) choose to write SOME songs that way. But overall, hip-hop came out of a party atmosphere. The DJ, b-boy, MC etc. met at parties and made music. Of course hip-hop has evolved into many many other forms, but it’s not fair to say that it began by telling a story. If it had, freestyling wouldn’t exist. So because it has evolved, it encompasses a lot more than it used to. MCs/rappers started writing lyrics about socio-economic conditions, women, sex, drugs, parties…and this is presently the case. So I think rap music does tell a story, but it will never be able to fit into one mold or box. And I would argue that because it can’t easily be defined or fit one meaning, that is what makes hip-hop what it is. So as I told Gabe, I made a playlist of rap songs that I think have some sort of “narrative” (outside of Kanye and Jay-Z)and hope you like it:

    1. Upgrade U (remix)- Lil Wayne
    2. Hollywood Divorce- Outkast f/ Lil Wayne
    3. Can’t Believe It- T-Pain
    4. Juicy- B.I.G.
    5. A Milli (remix)- Asher Roth
    6. Whatever You Like- T.I.
    7. Independent- Webbie
    8. Every Girl- Young Money
    9. Morris Brown- Outkast
    10. Lost Ones- Lauryn Hill
    11. One Minute Man- Missy Elliott f/ Ludacris & Trina
    12. Love is Blind- Eve
    13. My Neck, My Back- Khia
    14. Superman- Eminem
    15. Wipe Me Down (remix)- Foxx, Lil Boosie & Webbie
    16. Make Her Say- Kid Cudi, Kanye West & Common
    17. Disco Inferno- 50 Cent
    18. Ride With Me- Nelly
    19. It’s So Hard- Big Pun
    20. Coffee Shop- Yung Joc

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