Curren$y / MondreM.A.N / Big Sean

Weekend at Burnie's / Dope Since '91 / Finally Famous

(Jet Life/Warner Bros. / Green Ova Underground / G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam; 2011)

By Clayton Purdom | 25 July 2011

Weed rap, like weed itself, is sorta what you make of it. By which I mean: weed is fine, even great, in the right hands, and maybe with the right company; but I also mean that for someone predisposed to being a shithead, well, weed will exacerbate this, and he or she will tell you at length about this one time in Toronto where his buddy Skyler, etc. Weed rap is no different. Within this miasmic milieu there exist cloud-like (yo) clusters of music, from the sure-footed pop craftsmanship of Wiz Khalifa to the cloying horsefuckery of Lil’ B. The name itself is strange and reductive, and the reasons why “weed rap” can stand as a viable, time-honored way to describe a certain strain of aesthetic expression are probably too sticky (yo) to wade into here. Alas, rap lends itself to such caricatures. Shout out to Ghostface.

The mitochondrial Eve of what we currently call weed rap might, I think, be “Juicy.” With smooth jazz getting his guard down, Biggy didn’t spend time weaving mythic boasts or playing thug Hamlet, conveying instead something much more subtle and difficult: contentedness. This is not a prerequisite for weed rap, but it is a hallmark of the style, eschewing thuggery and its inverse, shine, for a love of the finer things—particularly if that finer thing is weed. It is, as Snoop Dogg has proven, an immensely marketable niche, but one need not slip into buffoonery as he has. Smoke DZA, with his affable growl and attention to warm sonic embellishments, is a consummate example of contemporary weed rap: a joint on the back porch, a boombox playing your favorite old records. Freddie Gibbs is, too, his dazzling linguistic pyrotechnics something like shotgunning blunts in someone else’s car.

Of this young breed, Wiz Khalifa, foremost, is talking motherfucking millions, sales-wise. Kids love the shit, as is their wont, but on weed rap’s outer edges it fades into utter abstraction. Oakland’s Green Ova Underground prowl these perimeters, crafting blissed-out, sun-faded boom bap, Californian as fuck. At their best, they mine a rich vein of heady abstraction, with slurred, half-sung raps barely audible above the Madlib-via-Gucci beats. At their worst, they drop ear-piercing attempts at club bangers, or flip too far the other way and sample the Flaming Lips. They’re in an exceedingly precarious place right now: as interesting as they’ve been this past year (eight records since February!) their aesthetic could be crumbling as quickly as it dazzlingly came together.

Good thing, then, that the exquisitely named Dope Since ’91 managed to cohere; it could be this movement’s EA Sportscenter, an underheard masterpiece of an aesthetic come and gone too quickly. Dope Since ’91 is the solo debut of Mondre, sometimes billed as MondreM.A.N, who is one half of duo Main Attrakionz, which is ostensibly the figurehead for the Green Ova Underground scene (there will not be a test on this), and it (the record) is pretty much great. It is also immensely listenable from front to back, a quality which distinguishes it from every other Green Ova release. The cohesive production, mostly from Nem270, puts a premium on drums—check the forthright snap of the snare on “Convo” or the almost pneumatic pulse of “Movie”—but glazed over with a cannabis blear. The result is a blurred-out corollary to the hyper-crisp, motivational pop that Block Beattaz and G-Side produce.

Mondre, for his part, holds court admirably, employing the crew’s bleary, croon-heavy mic style to surprisingly emotive effect. “What U Need” is the year’s best sex rap, all Boi 1da ambience and utterly intoxicated verses, with Mondre admitting things like “Do you think about me? / ‘Cause I think about you” alongside more naked assertions like “The days I can’t be there to kiss and hug you / I’ma make that all up double-time when we fuck.” Better still is the late-record banger “New Orleans,” on which Mondre takes Giorgio Mo Murda’s woozy blanket of pianos and twirling sax samples as an excuse to lay out an increasingly delirious sequence of hooks. It’s like Pete Rock doing snap music, and it fucking works.

On the other end of the weed-rap spectrum, and infinitely less interesting, is Big Sean’s G.O.O.D. Music debut. It is his fourth record to be titled Finally Famous, which is preposterous for a lot of reasons, the largest of which being that he is still not famous. Sean’s a gifted, engaging emcee with no fucking idea what he wants to be (besides famous), and so here he tries on a number of outfits in a cynical grab at teenagers’ money. He pulls in a roster of eyebrow-raising guests, samples MC Hammer, and all but guarantees his own eventual ouster, alongside Cyhi da Prince, from the G.O.O.D. crew. (They can commiserate with Consequence, who knows something about non-starting careers.) Wiz Khalifa’s one of the only people simultaneously charismatic and technically skilled enough to enliven such cartoonish material, and when he shows up on the tellingly titled “High” (yo) he does so with an 8-bar immediacy that almost makes you forgive him for his fuck-terrible new hair-do. Almost.

Could Sean ever pull his head out of his ass? Could this unflinching douche craft a (gulp) classic record? That, after all, is sort of what Curren$y has now done, three times over. Also blessed with a fully formed flow in his early career, Curren$y spent an ill-fated tenure attempting to shine behind Lil’ Wayne—truly, a fool’s errand—before going into a remarkably unflashy dark period, pumping out mixtapes and honing his strengths. When he emerged he had realized two things: an image, and a masterful executive producer’s instinct.

The image is one of deceptive simplicity. His mic skill appears more and more god-given: pure charisma, pure flow. When he switches to a double-time flow, you can almost hear him pulling up his trousers, affably catching up, and afterward, he invariably slouches back into his rocking chair to talk more shit about sneakers and food. And yet, despite or perhaps because of this all-consuming nonchalance, he is utterly magnetic. He is not the best rapper on the planet (that’d be Weezy), nor the coolest (Hova), nor the nicest (Q-Tip?), but he might be the most fun to hang out with. At one point on each of his three proper releases, including the supremely likable new Weekend at Burnie’s, he brags about taking a nap, implying somehow that we (or, at one point, he) couldn’t afford to do so. Like, now that he is rich, he can just sleep whenever he wants! If, when the remarkable hot streak that began with How Fly (2009) ends, this stands as his dominant artistic message, it will be a deserving one: Fuck yes, I fell asleep in the parking lot.

What makes all of this deceptive is the disjunct between the shit-talking couch-growth Curren$y portrays himself as and the savvy producer that actually collates these diamond-tight records, with sterling attention paid to beat selection, track flow, and guest spots. At some point in that outrageous lifestyle that flips between videogames and spitting stoned, stupid raps, he makes hard, smart decisions about what to lend his voice to and how that should be packaged. In these decisions he is unerringly correct. Burnie’s lacks the first Pilot Talk‘s star power, but one need only listen to Young Roddy’s surgical calm on “On G’s” to know Spitta’s still bringing out the best in his crew. The production, here largely from the pretty-much in-house Monsta Beatz, telescopes further still on the emcee’s soft jazz sweet spot, and the Michael Mann-ish neo-noir of Havoc’s “She Don’t Want a Man” proves the miles of territory still apparently left to explore within the style.

And, yes, throughout it all: good God, clouds upon clouds upon clouds of dope, billowing through the start of each new track and twirling softly as each verse stretches leanly into its next bar. It occurs to me that weed rappers, like the various potheads with whom I’ve found myself standing in alleys or back-rooms, have their own habits and traditions, each falling into a lineage of some variety. Mondre, so sweet and spacy, is that rare hippy whose airy proclivities coalesce into a discernible raison d’etre. He is utterly and beautifully lost within his own head. Big Sean’s an okay-enough acquaintance, ripping bongs before walking into a bar; his friends, probably non-smokers, will guffaw at his red eyes, and he will nervously attempt to play it off. Curren$y is something else entirely, though. He reminds me of a good friend for whom an interest in marijuana led to a sort of self-actualization over time. The relationship was life-giving. For Curren$y, marijuana is both the muse that inspires him to create and the fuel that allows him to do it, like Scorcese’s Catholicism, Crumb’s sexual frustration, Elliott Smith’s loneliness. It’s not so simple as a good or a bad thing; it’s just Curren$y’s thing, the one that worked, and thank God for it. Because at some point—not quite yet—a hot streak stops being a hot streak, and we critics have to change our terminology. At some point we will have to start calling this skeezy pothead an auteur.