Sunday, October 30, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 2: Willie Evans Jr. (Is Brilliant)

Beyond its late role as obligatory, super-expensive job training for the modern workforce, college also serves as sort of cultural/pop-cultural swap-meet. For as long as you're there, you’re surrounded by people who throw art, music, movies, TV, just everything at you every single day and for several years. That’s one hell of a side benefit, honestly.

Later, when you get old and isolated, that firehose of things to explore dries up. You can still find this stuff through ever-evolving music media (magazines online/off-line, blogs…which, it occurs to me for the first time are like the ‘zines of my youth (look, I’m slow)), but it’s both a lot harder and, often, more narrow; you lose the beneficial scatter-brain nature of inputs that comes with getting thrown together with a bunch of random people. Those people expose you to the names of artists, even entire genres, for you to check out and, when the stars align, fall in love with. Again, pretty damn amazing, but then once one’s four or five or six (me) years of college ends and it all goes away.

So, what do you do?

When my interest in music sort of reignited in my mid-30s, I had decent luck with picking albums by cover art. Even as it’s not as central to a musician’s art as his/her music, what he/she puts on his/her album cover speaks to a person's idiom. The artist makes his/her introduction through that album cover. This approach just worked out more often for me to going by a review of a band.*
That’s how I picked up Willie Evans Jr.’s Introducin’ (see above)When you’re picking through the “Rap,” “Hip Hop” bins and you come across that album cover, you guess you’re getting something different. There’s none of the generic hip hop signifiers – e.g. visual cues about stacking up the benjamins, having a dick that gets around, or hitting "da club" and what you and your crew will do there, how everyone will see you doing it and how they’ll be very, very impressed, etc. etc. etc. (OK, yes, all that’s a cheap (white) shot, but two of my personal biggest barriers to hip hop are the materialism and misogyny. I’d argue that that stuff shows up more in lazier, popular stuff, but even that can be done well…except the misogyny. That shit’s always gross. But, I’m losing the thread…picking it up again).

One thing I assumed that I’d do for each artist in this project was pick a couple favorite songs to frame my appreciation of his/her work. I am struggling, and mightily, to pick the best, or even a favorite song on Introducin’. It starts slow…by which I mean I only like tracks two through four (“Introducin’,” “Dumbtron” and “Take 2”), while I flat-out fucking love tracks five through eleven. Whether themes, structure, sampling, flow, or just the general creativity, I can find something to return to and sit with in every single song.

My thin knowledge of music sorta pisses me off here. To my uneducated ear, the sampling recalls jazz, producing a fluid, melodic sound that I don’t hear often enough in hip hop. Or, to rephrase, Willie Evans makes really pretty music, or at least more elegant than most. He declares his personal independence by way of rhymes that hit his own themes ("twenty-sided dice"?) and that does it really fucking smart. That thought makes me lean toward “Nerd English” as the emblematic song on Introducin’, a tune that 1) celebrates the stuff he likes, while 2) resisting (or, better, calling bullshit on) narrow definitions of how hip hop should look and sound, and what it should talk about. (Side note: the music in the video linked to above bleeds into what is, for me, the best Willie Evans song, “Moon Foot.”'s kinda shitty on that one; sorry.)

There’s this great couplet in Childish Gambino’s “Fire Fly” (unrelated, but I heard a slick little remix of that one that makes me weird about the original):
“These black kids want somethin' new, I swear it,

Somethin' they wanna say but couldn't cause they embarrassed”
That line tracks my love/fascination with Willie Evans. His sound and lyrics deliberately operate in an artistic space that's parallel to the normal mindset and presentation of hip hop.  There is no correct way to "hip hop" and the genre is better off for it. And that's only weird if you let yourself fall into the trap of generic thinking; it runs parallel to the way people dismiss the entire genre as too violent, too sexist, or too status-obsessed....I just strayed into that a little ways up the post. Hip hop is a big, broad genre: there's probably one different approach for every 10 hip hop artists out there, and there's a shit-ton of people in hip hop - and there have been for several decades now. 

Viva individuality, basically. And viva Willie Evans. He's just a good reminder of that. (BONUS: This review provides some background on Willie Evans and musical connections, y’know, for future exploration. Happy spelunking!)

* That I still have to suppress the habit of using the word “band” says a lot about my musical background.

UPDATE: I just revised re-wrote the bejesus out of this post – and re-wrote it outright where pride got the better of me (and it was bad) – but I’ve wandered a fair stretch into other hip hop since this went up, and would like to openly amend all the above as well.

With a deeper familiarity of a dozen or so more hip hop artists for context, Willie Evans Jr. doesn’t sound nearly as left-field novel as he once did. Still, I dig the driving-through-a-small-town density of his rapping (i.e., it’s easy to miss if you don’t pay attention), and still dig not just his musical choices, but also his idioms – from the skit-track that opens Introducin’ to the echoed vocals that play over “Mega.” That’s not at all rare in hip hop. Moreover, it has never been rare.

One last thing to note: I listened to Willie Evans Jr.’s later album yesterday, Clean Plate Club, Vol. 2. A title like that tells you he still makes music for a certain kind of person. That album’s also a little more…let’s go with “experimental” than Introducin’, more offbeat, more specific, etc.

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