Album Review: Brevner EP by Brevner

Brevner – EP by Brevner — “All We Know”

The opening track on Brevner, “Chico,” samples dialogue from Scarface. Tony Montana explains to his companion Chico what he wants: “The world, Chico, and everything in it.” Brevner’s sights are in keeping with Montana’s. After releasing four albums, Matt Brevner seeks international recognition for himself and for his city. Writing in a Facebook post about his EP’s release, he states “It’s about time that #Vancouver got some recognition on the world stage.”

“Chico” features fellow Vancouver artists Within Roots and Stevie Ross, with production credits shared between Brevner, Within Roots’ Nico De Torres, and others. The EP’s final track, “Last Call,” features vocals and production from Calgary-based Fembot. Both tracks deftly mix heavy beats and electronic backtracks with melodic vocals, sung hooks, and Brevner’s subdued raps. The production equally showcases the talents of Brevner and his contributors. Paired with other rappers, however, Brevner’s verses are an afterthought. His verses meld with the ambience on “BNE,” while Memphis rapper Project Pat commands the track. Droning sub-bass, low-key melody and heavy beats are used to a similar effect on “Give a F*CK,” with Atlanta-based Rome Fortune at the forefront of the track with his energetic verse. Though Brevner is at his most dynamic on “Jane Doe (A hoe like YOU),” the track isn’t stronger for Houston rapper Riff Raff’s stuttering repetition of “Heart feels like it’s been ate by a shark.” Given the prominent feature of Southern rappers, comparisons of Brevner’s sound to Dirty South hip-hop are justified. His production style comes through but his narrative perspective fades.

Brevner is at his best when he subtly brings his perspective to the forefront. “All We Know” is one of two tracks on which Brevner is the sole performer and producer. The track represents an artist and a city on the border. Facing barriers to entry — “Still gettin’ searched through customs” — is a reality for any artist travelling to America. More particularly, it is a reality for Brevner as a Canadian hip-hop artist seeking recognition beyond his country’s borders. The video for “All We Know” is set on Vancouver’s streets, often overlooked in favour of mountainous panoramas. He needn’t describe another locale when his city has its own culture and urban narratives.

Brevner doesn’t scream Vancouver; it represents the city perceptively. To acknowledge Brevner’s work, then, is to quietly acknowledge Vancouver in it.

This review was originally published in the April 2016 issue of Discorder Magazine.

What’s Up With Hip Hop Skits

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Recently, my father and mother were listening to their iTunes onshuffle and came across “Blame Game” by Kanye West. As they listened to the skit at the song’s end, called “The Best Birthday,” they couldn’t help but laugh. However, by the time the song reached its end, their laughter turned to confusion.

“What’s up with that part at the end of ‘Blame Game’?” my father asked me over the phone. “You know, with the lines –”

“‘Who the fuck got your pussy all reupholstered’?” (I can only imagine how surprised the couples sitting beside me at the park were when they heard me say ‘pussy reupholstered.’)

“Yeah, that’s the one. Am I missing the joke? Am I too old to get it?” he replied.

“Well, that’s Chris Rock in the skit, first off.” My father was relieved to hear this because it made the presence of the skit a little less incomprehensible. “Second, that’s a hip hop skit. There’s a long history of hip hop skits as sort of comic interludes in the middle of albums.” I did a reenactment of the “Where My Killer Tape At?” skit from the opening of the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber,” and explained that Kanye was known for being skit-happy prior to the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy but hadn’t made a skit since his 2010 album.

After the conversation with my father, I began to give a bit more thought to hip hop skits in general. Below is my hip hop skit Spotify playlist, sorted in the order that I discuss them.

Hip hop skits first appeared on De La Soul’s debut album 3 Feet High and Rising. The album opens with a game show style skit in which four participants introduce themselves – “I like Twizzlers and I like the Alligator Bob, and my favorite movie is Bloodsucking Freaks, just like your mama.” – and the host asks a series of unanswerable questions – “How many feathers are on a Perdue chicken?” The game show skits continue as interludes throughout the album. Their producer, Prince Paul says of the decision to add skits, “We sat around listening to the record and I realized that we needed something to link it together. My problem with a lot of hip hop albums back then was that most MCs didn’t know who they were. I started thinking about those old game show formats where the host would always introduce some guy, who would be like, ‘I’m George and I like water skiing.’ It was geeky, but it gave people an instant sense of identity.” In addition to offering unexpected moments of comedy, the skits were used to distinguish De La Soul from their hip hop peers by emphasizing their clever word play and obscure cultural references.

Over the next few years, the MCs and hip hop groups De La Soul sought to differentiate themselves from made use of hip hop skits on their own albums. Gangsta rappers employed skits as comic interludes between songs about drugs, sex and violence. Even Dr. Dre, whose work with N.W.A. and his own solo efforts are squarely within the gangsta rap subgenre made use of comic skits on his 1992 duet solo album The Chronic. “The $20 Sack Pyramid” is a parody of the Seventies game show The $20,000 Pyramid, as well as of the game show skits from 3 Feet High and Rising. The game show is set in Compton and revolves around the themes of drugs, sex and ghetto lifestyles that are central to The Chronic rather than the obscure cultural references De La Soul built their comedy upon. Instead of a prize of $20000, the participants win a sack of indo and a $35 gift card to the Compton swap meet. In the skit that introduces Snoop Dogg’s “Tha Shiznit” from his 1993 album Doggystyle, he makes use of lewd humour with a series of balls jokes before he returns to his mellow gangsta rap. Ludacris’ “T Baggin’ Skit” from his 2003 album Chicken-N-Beer continues in the same tradition as “Tha Shiznit.” Ludacris includes an automated message in which the caller can press a number to request money, weed, alcohol, hoes or advice in the event that the caller has been t bagged. The skit is both in keeping with Ludacris’ pimp persona – the skit indirectly involves money, drugs and hoes, after all – and a subversion of it. Rather than being in a position of superiority, he wakes up with another man’s hairy balls in his face.

While comic skits continued to appear on albums, with the rise of gangsta rap as a popular genre skits often served as dramatic representations of the gangsta lifestyle, with tales of drive-by shooting and drug deals punctuated with gun shots. Just over a year after De La Soul released 3 Fee High and Rising, Ice Cube released his debut studio album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Ice Cube’s skit “The Drive-By” dramatizes the street violence he raps about, complete with an overabundance of gunshots and a subtle commentary about how those who were not directly affected by the gang violence did not care about it. Worth noting: the assailants listen to “Bust a Move” by Young MC as they prepare for their drive-by. “Protest – Interlude” from N.W.A.’s 1991 album Efil4zaggin (aka Niggaz4life) uses gunshots for a similarly percussive effect but rather than offer a commentary about violence, the gun shots reinforce N.W.A.’s self-imposed title as ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Group.’ “G.O.D. Pt. III” from Mobb Deep’s 1996 album Hell On Earth is a particularly sinister representation of gangsta violence. Havoc and Prodigy discuss a man they intend to kill, and then look out the window to find him standing outside. The theme from The Twilight Zone plays as they decide to shoot at him through the window, and they open fire to a sample of “Tony’s Theme” from Scarface. The Twilight Zone theme represents a departure from justice and virtue and an entry point into a dimension of evil, while the Scarface theme emphasizes the superfluity of the violence.

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Wu-Tang Clan’s skits stand between comedy and drama. Through their mixture of gangsta imagery and black humour on their 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang created some of the best skits in hip hop. The “Where My Killer Tape At?” skit from “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber” is my all time favourite hip hop skit. The skit turns real violence to farce through Ghostface Killah’s storytelling – “The nigga laying there like a fucking newborn fucking baby” – Method Man’s earnestly asked question – “Is he dead?” – and the increasingly absurd references to Raekwon’s missing VHS of kung-fu film The Killer. Similarly, Meth and Rae’s descriptions of torture at the start of “Method Man” are gratuitous to the point of ludicrousness. Rather than discuss acts of gang violence, they discuss sewn up assholes and force feeding before Meth launches into his solo track in which he makes in clear exactly who he is. Like the Wu-Tang’s skits that turn social issues to comedy, “Woodrow the Base Head” from Ghostface Killah’s 2000 album Supreme Clientele alludes to the problem of crack addiction in black communities while turning addict Woodrow into a source of humour. In a play on Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.,” Woodrow says, “I know y’all motherfuckers say cash rules everything around you, but crack rules everything around me, motherfucker!” The skit ends with a dramatic depiction of the reality of crack economics, in which one man’s hit is another man’s profit.

In a more pointed use of dark humour, Black Sheep’s skit “U Mean I’m Not” from the duo’s 1991 album A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing is a parody of gangsta rap’s excessively violent representations of black culture. Dres raps with aggressive flow about how he gets ready for school while he’s living the gangsta life. Minor conflicts with his family result in a murder spree, which Dres ends by killing the mailman and “Waitin’ for the motherfuckin’ school bus!” The skit comes to an end with Mista Lawnge wakes Dres; Dres tells Mista Lawnge, “I dreamt that I was hard.” Big Pun’s “Pakinamac Pt. 1” is a violent skit that befits the title of his 1999 album, Capital Punishment and his alias. An aggressive confrontation turns violent and Pun fires shots. After, he asks the man if he will live, to which he responds, “I’ll be aight, I’ll be aight.” While there is true comedy in Pun shooting the man again and calling him a dick, what makes the skit more than simply a gangsta rap shoot out is the skit’s follow up. In “Pakinamac Pt. 2,” Pun calls on Cuban Link to tell him that there was an attempt on his life but he took care of it. He tells Cuba, “I was packin’ a mac in the back of the Ac’.” “You was packin’ a mac in the back of the Ac’?” Cuba asks, before the duo start reciting the rhyme to the tune of “William Tell Overture.” Not only does their song turn the previous skit to farce, it undercuts the gangsta persona Pun crafted, which is especially remarkable in a musical genre better known for hard reputations than for self-deprecating humour.

As mentioned above, De La Soul’s skits function as much as assertions of their identity as they do comic interludes. Skits continued to be used as representations of identity, often functioning as an introduction to a new artist’s album. The introduction to the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 debut Ready to Die is as much an introduction to Christopher Wallace as it is an introduction to Biggie, with samples from Curtis Mayfield’s “Super Fly” to Snopp Dogg’s “Tha Shiznit” that function as entry points to eras. While “Intro” is an autobiographical entry point to Ready to Die, “Fuck Me – Interlude” is a fictionalized – I’ll get back to this – introduction to the Notorious B.I.G.’s sexual prowess. Undoubtedly, this is my least favourite skit I have discussed. The skit is self-indulgent and unduly self-congratulatory. While the skit is thought to be a dramatization of sex with Lil Kim playing the role of Biggie’s lover, the skit is even more uncomfortable because Lil Kim and Biggie were having an affair, which means the vocals could be real. In that case, I commend Biggie on the accuracy of his self-representation. In an absurd self-representation that could only be the product of a Wu-Tang side project, “360 Questions” from Gravediggaz’s 1994 album 6 Feet Deep asks seven questions of the group’s three members as a way of determining what it means to be a Gravedigga. With questions like, “Yo RZA, how many bites did it take you to chew your fucking arm off?” – a play on the Toostie Pop catch phrase and a reference to “Diary of a Madman” – and “Can any Jehovah Witnesses be down with the Gravediggaz?,” the skit is both indicative of Gravediggaz absurdist humour and their horrorcore sensibilities. The first track on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill introduces Lauryn Hill’s 1998 solo duet in which she explores her own emotions and experiences as a black woman. She responds to her absence from the opening classroom skit by offering a narrative of her own life, injecting a much needed female voice into the hip hop conversation at large. “Public Service Announcement” from Eminem’s 1999 debut The Slim Shady LP introduces his Slim Shady persona as well as the Eminem ethos and his ‘don’t give a fuck’ mentality, all of which he develops with each song and skit on the album. Even better than his “Don’t do drugs” message at the end of the original skits is the line at the end of “Public Service Announcement 2000” in the wake of a year’s worth of controversy: “Yeah, sue me.”

Hip hop skits have been the focus of much criticism over the years. Some argue that comic skits take away from the credibility of the genre. Evan Rytlewski writes, “No genre before rap had taken periodic comedy breaks on its albums.” Many artists resorted to skits as a way to add content to the album without writing additional music. More often than not, skits offer spectacle without substance. Nathan Rabin writes, “What is the hip-hop skit, if not an inside joke lost on 99 percent of the listening public?” “The Beast,” from the Fugees’1996 debut album The Score, is a serious track about police brutality against African-Americans that ends with a skit inexplicably set in a Chinese restaurant. The skit features a man with a bad Chinese accent and centres on a misunderstanding over the word beef. At best, the joke is unsuccessful. At worst, the joke is racist, ironically following a song about police racism. While the Chinese restaurant skit doesn’t necessarily take away from the dignity of the rest of the album, it certainly doesn’t enhance it.

In her 2007 book The Hip Hop Wars, Tricia Rose writes, “As we have seen, rappers’ credibility rests on convincing their fans that they are telling truth in their rhymes about having come from the toughest urban poor environments and thus knowing personally what it’s like to experience drug dealing, street crime, jail, and so on… The need to appear hard so as to prove one’s street credibility certainly encourages rappers to project these images.” Violent skits function as a way of reinforcing gangsta credibility by dramatizing the scenes of ghetto life the artist raps about. However, as Black Sheep’s “U Mean I’m Not” suggests, aggressive delivery and violent imagery do not a gangsta make. Given the popularity of gangsta rap in the 1990s and early 2000s, many artists created gangsta personas from themselves in order to satisfy audience demand. With the rise in the popularity of what Rose calls the gangsta-pimp-ho trinity in hip hop, skits were increasingly based upon clichés. While some artists parodied these clichés, eventually this too grew old. As Jeff Weiss writes, “What do you do when mocking the clichés has become a cliché?”

There is a reason why the majority of the skits I have written about up until now are from albums released prior to 2000. Most of the skits released after 2000 were superfluous. Even the most effective skits were reiterations of what had been done before. With more people listening to MP3 singles over full albums, skits were largely overlooks. Additionally, as the mainstream popularity of gangsta rap decreased, so too did the frequency with which violent skits were included on albums.

Skits feature prominently on both Kanye’s 2004 album College Dropout and his 2005 album Late Registration. While the skits on College Dropout reinforce the album’s themes, they take away from the thoughtfulness of tracks like “All Falls Down” or the wit of “The New Workout Plan” and “School Spirit.” Similarly, Late Registration isn’t stronger for the hyperbolic humour of the “(Kanye West/Late Registration Skits),” especially not when the bizarre joke in the third skit about the fraternity leader’s mother pretending to be the Christmas tree precedes Kanye’s earnest “Hey Mama.” The only skit Kanye has released since 2005 is “Blame Game.” There is humour in Chris Rock’s delivery and in Salma Kenas’ repeated deadpan response to Rock’s question of how she improved as a sexual partner, “Yeezy taught me.” However, the skit undercuts the emotion of “Blame Game,” which represents Kanye’s breaking point after he cheats on his partner. While “The Best Birthday” has its place in the album as the conversation Kanye overhears when his unfaithful lover’s phone calls him back, after two and a half minutes, it’s easy to forget how the song and skit connect.

Most of Eminem’s later skits go over the same territory he covered before without the shock value that characterized his early work. (For better or for worse, no track will ever be as jarringly violent as Eminem’s murder of his wife on “Kim,” which is a skit set to music more than it is a rap.) By the 2003 release of The Eminem Show, his skits added little to enhance the album’s narrative or to further the Eminem-Slim Shady personas. “Tonya – Skit” from his 2009 album Relapse is more uncomfortable than it is shocking. Eminem continues to make rape jokes and homophobic comments like he’s the only one who hasn’t realized they aren’t funny. At least he has the self-awareness to call the next track “Same Song & Dance.”

Critics and fans have declared hip hop skits dead for years. The purported death of skits owes as much to shifts in tastes of listeners as it does to shifts in tastes of artists. When it comes down to it, it has always been difficult for artists to make effective skits. It is even more difficult now that audiences don’t see them as inherently valuable. Rytlewski comments, “Whatever their strengths as rappers, J. Cole and Wale aren’t natural cutups, so it’s hard to imagine there are fans clamoring to hear them read lines with Katt Williams. Drake may have a better sense of humor, but Take Care probably would have lost some of its heart-crushing poignancy if, for instance, after bidding a tender “maybe in the future” to a great love on the title track, he had a zany run-in with an overzealous fan, or he got an earful from an opinionated drive-thru worker.” Rytlewski’s 2012 article “Phasing out the skit: How hip-hop outgrew one of its most frustrating traditions” essentially declares the skit dead and gone, yet they continue to appear on albums, albeit with decreasing frequency and varying success.

On his first three albums, Tyler, the Creator used skits almost as liberally as Eminem, which is fitting because he employs Eminem-esque shock tactics and dramatized introspection, and shares his sustained belief that homophobic jokes are funny. On his self-released 2009 mixtape Bastard, he introduces Dr. TC, a psychiatrist character who allows Tyler to share details about his past as a way of introducing himself and contextualizing his album. He continued to use Dr. TC on his 2011 album Goblin and his 2013 album Wolf. As a narrative technique, the skits achieve their desires effect. However, many argue that the skits – and Tyler’s discography as a whole – are largely unlistenable. (Admittedly, I have never made it all the way through a Tyler, the Creator album, in spite of my admiration of “Yonkers.”) It is worth noting that Tyler’s skits are always integrated with his songs rather than standalone tracks.

One of the most notable examples of skits in recent years is on Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album Good Kid m.A.A.d City. Like Tyler, his skits are always integrated with his songs. The skits are dialogues and monologues befitting an album Kendrick refers to as “A Short Film.” The skits necessarily contextualize his narrative, particularly as “Swimming Pools (Drank)” transitions to “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” While they are not technically skits, the development of Kendrick’s poem through his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly turns the album to a cohesive, conceptual whole.

Whether hip hop skits will continue to appear on albums or whether they will reach a point of extinction remains to be seen. One thing we know for sure is that the skits that remain carry with them a history almost as long and complex as the history of the genre itself. My opinion on it: skits aren’t dead, they are necessarily adapting. So long as artists are interested in creating concept albums, hip hop skits will continue to serve a narrative purpose.

Song of the Day: Runaway by Kanye West feat. Pusha T