Thursday, January 12, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 10: The Coup, a True Revolution


What revolutions share with apocalypses.

There was a time not so long ago – right around 2012, I believe – when Pitchfork’s website made downloadable mp3’s available on a semi-regular basis. 2012 was also the year that The Coup put out their last album, Sorry to Bother You, and I’m guessing that’s how I found them.

Turns out they started way back in 1991 with an EP appropriately titled, The EP (and that choice suits The Coup, based on my still limited experience), and that puts 22 years between their debut and the time I caught wind of ‘em. And I literally heard Sorry to Bother You for the first time, uh, today. Somehow, out of all the stuff they put out, and after downloading a track by them from Pitchfork (since lost in the mists of time; honestly, couldn’t tell you what it was; you can waterboard me, but you’ll get nothing), I somehow wound up owning just one album by The Coup, and that came out 11 years prior to the first time I heard them. That would be Party Time.

I’m linking to their discography here, and I’d encourage absolutely anyone to dive in. By browsing The Coup’s Wikipedia page, I learned that someone somewhere (Dusted magazine, as it happens; Top 5 is a little dated, but I see a 2017 reference in there) thought enough of their work to dub their Steal This Album the best bit of hip-hop artistry from the 90s. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, so I’ll say one thing and leave it there: The Coup can carry that weight many, many miles. And that’s with Steal This Album being one of two from the oeuvre that I skipped during my (basically crash) education. Dammit. (I’ll get to it; life-long learner.)

With an eye to toning down the essential masochism of this project, I’m stepping back from even considering hearing every single song by the artists I’m reviewing. A goal will always guide me, even if it’s a loose one, but this time, with Party Time sort nestled in the middle of The Coup’s body of work, I took the tack of comparing their earliest work (Kill My Landlord and Genocide & Juice) against their most recent stuff (again, Sorry to Bother You). I’ll get to that, but I want to start with the album I know best, Party Time.

If you’re looking for an entrée into The Coup’s style and sensibility, I’d go with “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO”: the title has res ipsa loquitur written all over it but, for me, it’s a little light on the funk vibe that either defines The Coup, or that I like most in what they do. I guess that suggests that I most associate The Coup with their radical (or, better, honest) politics. And, now, to step out of Party Time, I’d pair “Not Yet Free” and “The Coup” from Kill My Landlord (and, possibly, The EP) as stand-out examples of The Coup’s politics and, better still, their sound when they just…fucking nail it, for me. “The Coup,” especially, is beautiful rippling thing. They have a couple songs that read closer to “straight hip hop” to me – “The Name Game” and “The Gods ofScience” come to mind (from Genocide & Juice and Sorry to Bother You, respectively) – but The Coup’s musicality (that word again) is what hits me with them. And, whoops, I was supposed to be talking Party Time. Party Time, Party Time, Party Time…

I can’t say why I choose “5 Million Ways,” over “Ghetto Manifesto” as the best way into Party Time and/or The Coup, but it probably has to do with the former tracking closer to their style than “Ghetto Manifesto.” Still, I rate the latter at least two steps higher. The more I dug into them, though, the more I find myself drawn to the songs one or two (or three) steps removed from politics. The stand-outs there, and my favorites on Party Time, are “Wear Clean Draws,” “Nowalaters” (close to an actual favorite of everything; it’s tough), plus “Heaven Tonite,” the kind of smooth, sweet delicate numbers that pop up here and there in The Coup’s corpus.

To give a late example, “Violet,” a track from Sorry to Bother You, feels like the prettiest, brittlest of the bunch. Part of me wants to put that down to Sorry leaning more into rock than funk, and therefore being a different album, but, if I’m honest, I don’t know The Coup well enough to declare that cold. “My Murder, My Love” leans harder into rock, in my mind, and “StrangeArithmetic” reminded me of N.E.R.D. (another weird sort of cross-over act). What happened on their last work (to date, please), probably touches on why Party Time feels like a middle ground, but that probably has more to do with my ignorance than their output. With about three days’ study under my belt, I’d just say that The Coup went in more for funk in their earlier work and leaned rock (or punk rock, per Wikipedia’s page) in their later work.

Fuck it. If I learned one thing over the past couple, few days, it’s that The Coup is one fucking great act. Not a lot of bands sound like them, particularly in hip hop, and the range of sounds they hit so very capably only makes that more of a feat. In short, Party Time is/was just the tip of a big, ol’ iceberg.

One last personal thought: have you ever listened to an album and basically dismissed it, only to find that, with just one more listen, you’ve fallen in love? If you asked me at the end of Research Day 1, I would have dragged Kill My Landlord to the proverbial desert island without a thought; by the end of Research Day 2, I would have fought every last person sharing the island with me to the death just to keep Genocide & Juice around (no, not really; still). “Hip 2 da Skeme” hit right away (made both cuts under my weird, semi-secret system (as in, if you ask me, I’ll explain it, but don’t wanna now), but, today, a trio of songs – “Hard Concrete,” “Santa Rita Weekend” (this one has “metal-esque” tempo changes, and all of ‘em hold up; seriously, follow through on this one if you go in), and “Repo Man” (holy shit, “Repo Man”; you’ve got competition “Nowalaters”) – shot right past ‘em.

Back to Kill My Landlord, the ivory-tickling genius of “The Coup” might have got lost in the coupling a few paragraphs above, but that’s one damn accomplished track (and, yes, still a whore for piano samples). “Fo Da’ Money” gets mellow in a way I didn’t hear again till “Violet,” but “I Ain’t the Nigga” feels like the stand-out track on the album…I mean, what’s not to love about the phrase, “if I’m a slave, I’m a slave to the rhythm”?

I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that The Coup never put a foot wrong. In fact, Party Time has most of the songs I consider their weakest (e.g. “Ride the Fence” and “Pork and Beef,” even if a good piece of phrasing holds the latter together). As I’m compiling this and pulling the links, though, I’d put the over/under on The Coup’s good/bad output at least 70% good, and, in anything but school, a 70% is a damn good score. That goes double with creative work, because, hard (that said, “Your Parents’ Cocaine,” playing now…meh). And who knows what’ll happen when I finally pick through Steal This Album? I mean, holy shit, the best could totally be yet to come!

I guess the tale here is an old one, but a new one at the same time. By that I mean, the single has been the gateway to the album for as long as pop music has existed. In the modern Spotify/Apple Tunes area, however, the single becomes the gateway to…everything. The Coup put out six albums in 22 years; what’s more, they have an outstanding ratio of kick-ass songs on Sorry to Bother You to what they had on (fuck it, going all on) my favorite work by them (to date) Genocide & Juice. So, yeah, big recommend on these guys. Acts like The Coup are the kinds of acts that move American pop forward. And that’s good. I mean, what if we lose interest? Beyond that being a crime.

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