Monday, June 15, 2009

Notorious B.I.G. and Arnold Schoenberg?

What makes some rap good, some not so good? Well I don't pretend to have the last answer about that. But a couple of things occurred to me as I listened to the soundtrack to the flick about Notorious B.I.G., Notorious (Bad Boy/Fox Searchlight). I haven't seen the movie yet, but the soundtrack CD has nice moments, with some prime B.I.G., some obscurities, like his first demos, and some notable guest appearances.

But as I listened to the CD, I started thinking about Arnold Schoenberg's modern concert classic Pierrot Lunaire, written in 1914, scandalizing those who had a different vision of what was acceptable. Schoenberg's piece featured a vocal style that became known as sprechstimme, literally "speech song." The singer was guided by pitch as well as speech inflections, it was singing-speaking. The lyrics were shocking for the time, announcing the death of romanticism.

Notorious B.I.G., and rap in general, has something similar going on in its own way. Rapping of course is a speech-like creative act. Really, though, B.I.G. hits varied and well-paced speech-pitch parameters in his raps. And although the result is very different from Pierrot Lunaire, the roots are different, nevertheless a set of areas to look at and evaluate his performances holds good like it does with the Schoenberg piece.

First of all, the speech-pitches. Do they vary in interesting ways? Or are we talking monotone? B.I.G. comes through. His speech-song performances are not some sort of casual thing. He uses the tone of his voice to emphasize the meaning and the meter of the rap. He is superior to many of those folks who have big successes today and maybe aren't as good.

Second, the rhythm. Does his rap "hit it" rhythm-wise, or are we talking about the same patterns over and over? No, he's great at kicking it, too.

Third, the words. Is he saying something about life, his life, the hood? And does he do that with some kind of poetic lucidity? Well I guess the fact that he got the ear of so many people before his tragic death would indicate that he was telling the world about what was going on, right? And, yes, was/is it shocking to some people? I think so. And he rapped with a flair. It has rhyme and a hip choice of words, in the right places.

And that's funny, but those parameters apply to Pierrot Lunaire just as much. There couldn't be two more different musical worlds on the surface. But it's all music. Rap and sprechstimme are human-music things, part of the significant doings of the human animal and that's why it matters. I guess that's why I listen to either and get equal pleasure and reward. Anyway the Notorious soundtrack gives you plenty of great Biggie. Spin it and dig it if you are inclined.

No comments:

Post a Comment