16 September 2020

"Superstition" by Stevie Wonder (1972)

If you "believe in things that you don’t understand" the consequences, in two simple words, is that "you suffer".  That is how Stevie Wonder sums up the main sentiment behind Superstition (1972).  And while I’ve heard this song frequently over a span of time, I realized that I never really took a close look at the lyrics and what the implications of them were, until now.


The cover art to Stevie Wonder's Superstition (1972).
Notice the broken-glass effect.

The track starts out with three distinct drum kicks.  Then enters the electric keyboard grooving along with the percussion.  Stevie opens his narrative as if he is observing someone, a person who is superstitious, right in his line of sight.  And this individual is not just superstitious, but very superstitious.  And afterwards is where it gets interesting, as Stevie says:

Then the rest of the song is a variation on these same types of lyrics, so I want to just focus on these few major superstitions Stevie is very-concerned about people believing in that are mentioned in the first verse.  Let’s try and break it down.


The number 13, to those who subscribe to the sort of superstition Stevie is referring to, is a very serious thing.  The superstitious are those who would refuse to live on the 13th floor, and some people would even refuse to set foot on a so-called 13th floor.  The seriousness with which this 13th floor is taken has had a profound effect on not just individuals but also the construction industry.  For instance a recent study by The Atlantic, based on New York City Housing data, found that out of 629 buildings in NYC with 13 floors or more, only 55 of these structures actually labelled the 13th floor as what it is - the 13th floor.  Rather what you would typically see is an 11-12-14 sequence on elevator buttons (as pictured above).  But 13?  Oh no.  

Further research on the number-13 superstition would suggest and most commonly points to a New Testament biblical reference.  For those who are superstitious, it is thought that the number 13 is 'bad luck' because it is a reminder of Judas Iscariot, who many consider the 13th apostle and the same indivdual who betrayed Jesus, leading to the latter's crucifixion.   That being said, it is my opinion that this is probably not the entire reason structural engineers build 13th-floorless skyscrapers in New York City.  But who’s really to say?

Next, Stevie states that the "13 month old baby broke the looking glass".  Ok, let’s stop and think.  How many times have we heard that breaking mirrors is 'bad luck'?  Mr. Wonder seems to make a passionate plea against believing these sort of things throughout the track.


Looking glasses, otherwise known as mirrors, are believed to be bad luck if broken or shattered.  This idea stems from belief systems dating back to at least Ancient Rome/Greece It was believed among those who have long spread what we now come to know as superstitions that mirrors were a reflection of the soul, and breaking a mirror somehow damages the spirit or whatever.  Basically, that is the most common explanation about that portion of Stevie Wonder's lyrics. 

The "seven years of bad luck" is a very-interesting part of the song to explore mainly because seven, as I came to learn, has a lot of different meanings and interpretations to a lot of different people, and not all of them are based on superstitions.  In fact a brief search on the number seven will render a wide variety of results.  The most common explanations regarding it once again point back to Ancient Rome, as it was commonly believed that it took seven years for one's soul to renew itself (after breaking a mirror).  There is also a lot of other information regarding the number seven having significance related to belief systems dating back to antiquity and beyond.  Seven is also notably a prime number, which basically means that it can only be divided by itself or the number one.


Stevie Wonder (center right) alongside his mom, Lula, Little Richard (far left),
Chuck Berry (second to right) and others after winning a 1974 Grammy Award
in the category of Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male for Superstition.  This was
actually the first of many Grammys he won throughout his career.


Stevie Wonder, in his Grammy-award winning, chart topping hit single Superstition, attempted to touch upon some very serious issues with lyrics that are relevant even now, some 50 years later.  The song offers advice to those who believe strongly in things such as walking under a ladder or throwing salt as being a harbinger of things to come.

13 September 2020

Road to the Riches b Kool G Rap & DJ Polo (1989)

The late 1980s was perhaps the most-pivotal point in the history of rap music, even though it's often overlooked for more-exciting eras in the genre's history.  This was when rap was, generally speaking, transitioning from its original subject matter (social consciousness and dance) to what it has become today (money and gangsta).  And many of the popular artists from those years straddled between these lines.  In other words they often presented themselves as being in tune with the 'hood or perhaps even criminals, but they didn't tend to go as far as to actually brag about committing crimes or shooting people.

One of the rappers who defined this era was Kool G Rap.  Kool G Rap is someone whom I would say if he were born like 10 years later (after rap music really blew up), he would have been a multi-millionaire.  He is extremely-talented and was one of the last great rappers from the days when New York was basically the only place on Earth where rap music was coming from.

The cover to the Road to the Riches single.

And he was even more influential than I presumed before starting this research.  For instance I'm now reading the Wikipedia page of the Road to the Riches album, and it's saying, shockingly to me at least, that this project "is often cited as the beginning of the mafiaso rap genre".  Mafiaso rap was basically the East Coast version of gangsta rap.  Indeed the article goes on to list rappers "such as... Nas, Jay-Z [and] The Notorious B.I.G." as artists who were directly influenced by this project.  Meanwhile, the only reason I really decided to write about this song is because it's been playing in my head lately.

The cover to the Road to the Riches album.

Yes, this article is about the track, not the overall album.  For the second single released from the aforementioned project was itself entitled Road to the Riches.  Readers who are actually familiar with Kool G Rap should instantly recognize this song as one of his many classics.  And again, since we're talking the 1980s, this doesn't mean that it sold a bunch of records or achieved massive chart success.  Rather, as mentioned prior, Kool G's tracks were mad-influential.  However this is not to imply that Road to the Riches was completely overlooked, as it did manage to peak at number 16 on Billboard's Hot Rap Tracks listing.

As has already been alluded to, in the 1980s even popular rappers didn't tend to be mega-rich.  Also, this was a time before it became standard for rap artists to front like they have dough which they don't or were compelled to portray themselves as millionaires in order to be accepted.  Indeed the hip-hop acts that were really selling records back then were the likes of De La Soul, PM Dawn and the Beastie Boys.  And you know, nowadays if someone dropped a track called "Road to the Riches", dude would be talking about banging 1000 strippers in a gold-plated airplane.  But Kool G, in keeping it real, was rather rapping his about ambitions to make it big and more to the point the lessons he learned along the way.

Now Kool G. Rap's shtick, if you will, wasn't as much his street persona as it was the fact that he was, even to this day honestly, an extremely-talented lyricist.  In fact back in the late 1980s, the only individual rapper who could hang with him style-wise was perhaps Big Daddy Kane.  When people use the term spittin' to refer to rap that's what Kool G. Rap does - he spits.  He was one of the most-notable examples that rap music had become way more sophisticated than it was during its original days of the late 1970s, just a decade before Road to the Riches came out. 


My definition of a good rap - not a poem but a rap - is that with rap even if the person reading it on paper is not a rapper or even familiar with the particular song, he or she will find himself rapping.  Take this stanza from the first verse of Road to the Riches for instance:

But enough of me sweatin' Kool G Rap.  The first verse of this song focuses on the frustration the rapper faced as a result of being broke.  He found himself bustin' his ass at a conventional job but only bringing home an inadequate minimum wage in the process.  Moreover, he suffered from the type of humiliation that comes with girls not wanting to holla at you because of your meager cashflow.

But he didn't just accept things as they were.  Rather he realized that his ambition "to be a billionaire" would take "hard work for years".   And even more specifically he conceptualized, i.e. fantasized, that he could make such dough via the rap game.  And verily by the end of the verse, he is celebrating the day that he landed his first record deal.


The rapper begins the second verse by putting forth that prior to becoming a professional musician he instead chased money by selling crack "on the block".  Furthermore, he lets it be known that he was in fact a successful drug dealer.  You may recognize this tale as being the most dead-horse-beaten origin story in rap music history.  And yes, rappers who have come off as such, on the East Coast at least, have more or less copied G Rap's style in that regard.  And don't take my word for it, as this is an assertion that has been made by people a lot deeper into the study of rap music than myself.

In the process of bragging about his illicit come-up the rapper goes on to compare himself to the likes of Al Pacino and Rudolph "Pretty Boy" Valentino and accordingly presents himself as a gangster, not a gangsta.  The difference is that even though Kool G is talking about 'shooting up stores' and 'letting the pistol smoke', there isn't that feeling that he actual does such things but is rather portraying a character.  This is not to say that he never actually ran the streets.  Rather, let's say that he isn't actually glamorizing this lifestyle but is more like recounting a period from his personal history.  In other words the first verse is based on him blowing up via music, while in the second, which represents the past, he is making dough by selling drugs.


Meanwhile the best way to comprehensively describe the third verse is as a street-based social commentary.  In other words G Rap is for the most part still portraying a drug dealer.  But he is recounting his experiences in a way that illustrates just how dangerous the streets can be.  And overall, you can say the passage reads sort of like a PSA.  For by its conclusion Kool G has decided to 'make a U-turn' in terms of his lifestyle in the name of not getting himself incarcerated.  For he knows that the "rules are different", i.e. very-violent, in prison, and people who are not really about that life are exposed:

Also the third verse features some of the track's other illest lyrics, such as:

So in putting all three verses together, Road to the Riches comes off like the tale of a young man with stars in his eyes deciding to pursue his material dreams by becoming a rapper as opposed to remaining a drug dealer.  For after he becomes personally knowledgeable of the latter, he perceives that path more like the road to the jailhouse rather than to a steady cashflow.  And this idea is further buttressed by the track's music video (which it contains its fair share of blingin' and guns anyway).


Back in the days ghostwriters were virtually unheard of.  As such this song was written exclusively by Kool G Rap.  And its producer, in addition to DJ Polo, was another of Kool G's partners from early in his career - the legendary Marley Marl.  In creating the instrumental they sampled a 1974 track by the Commodores called Assembly Line and a 1978 tune by Billy Joel entitled Stiletto.

A depiction of Marley Marl, who was amongst the
first celebrity producers
in rap music. He was also
perhaps the first to perform vocally alongside his artists.

This particular song came out on 14 March 1989 as part of the Road to the Riches album.  And the labels behind it are Warner Bros. and Cold Chillin' Records.  The latter was perhaps the most-popular label in the entirety of rap music during the late 1980s, with Marley Marl being their central artist.

Kool G Rap, circa 2014.


The way of the world is that pioneers rarely get to fully enjoy the fruits of their sacrifices.  For instance you have someone like Jackie Robinson who made about $3,000,000 (in today's money) throughout his entire career, whereas Black baseball stars nowadays (i.e. those who came after him) can earn up to 10 times as much in a single season.

But this is not to imply that Kool G Rap got cheated or anything like that (although his career did suffer in the name of the gangsta rap).  After all a bunch of rappers, including permanent A-listers such as Eminem and the aforementioned Jay-Z, have cited him "as a major influence" on their careers.  Instead it just bothers me sometime how like dudes today can be selling records, as well as fans bopping their heads, based on storylines that can be traced to an artist whom many of them may have never even heard of.

06 September 2020

"Apocalypse" by Wyclef Jean (1997)

A few week ago Lauryn Hill's name popped up while I was doing research on Cardi B.  More specifically, besides Cardi she is the only other female to have won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album.  But L Boogie did so as part of a group, that of course being the Fugees.  So when I came across that fact I was thinking to myself 'wow, it would be kinda cool to do research on a Fugees' song'.  After all, they are like my favorite rap group ever.  But I couldn't think of any particular one of their tracks that I felt like researching.  So then I started ruffling through their entire catalog and decided to write an article on Apocalypse (1997), which has long been one of my favorites, albeit a Wyclef solo track.

The cover to Wyclef Jean's first solo album The Carnival (1997),
which despite not being gangsta is one of the classic hip-hop albums
of the 1990s.

This is the first actual song featured on Clef's debut-solo album, Wyclef Jean Presents The Carnival (1997).  The project itself was a notable hit, going double-platinum in the United States and platinum in Canada.  And it looks like the biggest single from it was the moody Gone Till November.  Indeed Apocalypse was never released as a single.  But it is, in my opinion, the most-memorable track on The Carnival, even perhaps moreso than another sleeper contained therein, the posse cut Street Jeopardy.

French singer Danielle Licari, whose voice Wyclef
throughout Apocalypse.


Taking nothing away from Clef's impressive lyrical display, the most-outstanding part of Apocalypse is actually its instrumental which, of course, was produced by Clef himself.  That is because said instrumental relies heavily on a sample of what I would call an opera song but is classified under the contemporary-classical genre on Wikipedia.  And said track is entitled Concerto Pour Une Voix (tr. "Concerto for One Voice", 1969) by an old-school French vocalist named Danielle Licari.  And her sample is used throughout, with Wyclef actually rapping over her voice.


Despite how many records he has sold, Wyclef's skills as a rapper have never been truly appreciated.  Fundamentally he raps about the same things other rappers do - violence, women and life on the streets.  But he isn't gangsta which is the main reason why, even back in the 1990s, you wouldn't necessarily find someone bumping Clef in the 'hood.

But that being said, Apocalypse is an outstanding lyrical outing for those who can appreciate it.  No, Clef may not be Slick Rick when it comes to storytelling.  But he is still able to relay a comprehensive and entertaining tale in this song.  Indeed The Carnival is somewhat of a concept album which, according to Genius, Apocalypse is intended to set the tone for.

The intro and chorus center on Wyclef setting an ominous mood, including warning the listener of "100 horsemen at your door".  That phrase fits into the narrative presented in the second verse in particular, whereas the rapper is being harassed by undercover police.  In the end he reveals that he was imagining the whole scenario, as it in being 'all in his mind'.  But yet and still, he concludes the passage by acknowledging that police brutality is in fact real.

The first verse is more along the lines of your standard Fugees' braggadocio rap.  In other words Clef is addressing his rivals and touting his proficiency as an opponent.  But instead of coming off like a murderous hoodlum, he uses more-creative metaphors and in the process drops a few Biblical references.  In fact he concludes the verse by prophesying some type of war, i.e. the Apocalypse.

And although, once again, he manages to tell an engaging story in the second verse, that's not necessarily the reason I am impressed with his rap.  Rather it is the uniform flow, seemingly without the utilization of punching (i.e. voice-track splicing), he is able to put together despite the fact that the lyrics, at certain points, are quite-complicated, on top of the verse being rather lengthy.  Also the Danielle Licari sample, which is pretty-outstanding itself, plays throughout.  In other words Clef is rapping on top of other vocals, which is another difficult thing to do.  So if nothing else, you have to give the man an A for effort.


The multi-talent Wyclef wrote and produced Apocalypse.  And his cousin Jerry Duplessis (aka Jerry Wonda) also contributed in the latter regard, though he is not credited as one of the main producers.

This song came out on 24 June 1997.  That is the same day that the album it is featured on was also released.  As aforementioned, this was actually Wyclef's first project as a soloist (although it features the Fugees throughout).  And this particular era was also around the peak of his career as not only did the Fugees drop a highly-successful album prior (1996's The Score), but shortly thereafter came what is arguably Clef's most-celebrated solo project, The Ecleftic (2000).

The label that put out Apocalypse was Columbia Records.


Back in the days some of my homeys who preferred hardcore rap wasn't feeling the Fugees at all.  Indeed even to this day when you talk about 1990s rap music, gangsta acts like Biggie, Tupac and NWA are the ones being celebrated.  Such is the state of American society.  However I appreciated what the Fugees did for hip-hop.  Even though they did deal with adult topics, as illustrated by Apocalypse, they didn't present themselves as killers, sex fiends, drug dealers or advocate violence.  But honestly speaking, the reason this track has remained one of my favorites even after all these years is due to its unique, opera-laced instrumental.