High on arrival: Curren$y, “Pilot Talk”

High on arrival

Curren$y strikes one up for traditionalism on Pilot Talk

If hip-hop is jazz, then Curren$y can be described as a traditionalist. His debut album, Pilot Talk, is pure braggadocio, with rhymes about fancy cars and free-flowing liquor and free-loving women. The music, loving produced and arranged by Ski Beatz, sounds like an update of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, all the way down to the New York session musicians recruited to crank out mellow grooves. It’s as if Curren$y reinterpreted the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers’ Delight” for the new millennium.

In the world of jazz, the traditionalists famously waged war against the free jazz nuts who wanted to strip the form of tonality, and then the fusionists who sought to infect it with slovenly rock and roll. With help from Dixieland revivalists and Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, they succeeded. In contrast, rap nerds have always viewed avant-garde experimentation with suspicion at best, and complete ignorance at worst.  The furthest we’ll go, it seems, is the high-tech funk of Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: Son of Chico Dusty; or Madlib’s Medicine Show of gutbucket blues and crusty soul-jazz loops.

If fitted with John Coltrane’s sheets of sound or Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, Pilot Talk would be a strangely awesome experience. As such, it’s soothing yet enlightening, like an animated chop session after smoking a joint or two with a friend. Curren$y clearly made it on blunted terms: the album artwork depicts a lone airplane flying over a landscape of lush green marijuana foliage.

So Pilot Talk is like weed talk, with several narratives hidden underneath the stoner blather. On “Example,” Curren$y claims “reimbursement for paid dues,” then claims, “I am an example of what can happen when you quit being afraid to gamble.” For “Seat Change,” he mocks girls who want to “ride with a G” but “somewhere along the line she fucked up and realized she lost her seat.” His lines are pimp slick but thankfully shorn of delusion. When he flips a bevy of yeyo metaphors for “Audio Dope,” he clearly does it in service of the concept, not to build a farcical image of himself as a drug kingpin. The image is of a neighborhood (or, more accurately, Internet) baller.

Curren$y’s persistence comes from years spent toiling for various rap crews, hip-hop’s version of the mailroom. As a young scrapper from New Orleans’ Uptown neighborhood, he rolled with C-Murder’s TRU family before C-Murder infamously caught a life bid for murder, then transferred to Master P’s No Limit label. Then he landed at Lil Wayne’s fledging Young Money Entertainment, dropping burner verses for Weezy’s The Carter II and Dedication mixtapes, before landing under the aegis of reformed hip-hop mandarin Damon Dash, which releases Pilot Talk last July. It’s ironic that since Curren$y’s departure, Weezy decided to transform Young Money into an over-publicized pop star boot camp for teen idols like Nicki Minaj and Drake. Then again, the fact that even Curren$y sounds alternative when posited against mainstream rap’s scions demonstrates how rigid the culture has truly become.

However, Curren$y also benefits from marketing, albeit one of a viral nature. Pilot Talk boasts the cream of the blog rap crop, including Mikey Rocks from the Cool Kids, Big K.R.I.T. and Jay Electronica (who sharply compares Flavor Flav’s signature bowtie to the Nation of Islam’s attire). Even much-beloved weed rapper Devin the Dude drops a verse for “Chilled Coughphee.” A writer friend of mine, Christopher Weingarten, remarked to me that when Devin the Dude jumps in with sly wit like “I can fuck a bum up quick/ But that’s some tenth grade shit,” it only underscores Curren$y’s relative lack of vocal presence.

Other critics have theorized that Pilot Talk’s artistic triumph is largely due to Ski Beatz’s memorable accompaniment. An NY vet whose catalog ranges from membership in early 90s woulda-beens Original Flavor to credits on Jay-Z’s classic Reasonable Doubt and Camp Lo’s “Luchini AKA (This Is It),” Ski Beatz initially produced Pilot Talk’s tracks himself, and then hired talented unknowns like bassist Brady Watt to transform them into instrumental gems. True, any rapper would sound incredible against the majestic sunshine funk of “Address.” But give Curren$y credit for lodging its hook into your brain – “Still nothing changed but the address.”

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This essay on Curren$y’s Pilot Talk was published September 29 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

I decided to add my comments as a postscript instead of the usual preface.

There were two minor problems with this piece. One is when I described Curren$y’s flow as “pimp slick.” Many people may find that phrase demeaning or condescending, even though it’s not intended to be. I wish I had been a little more careful with my language.

The second issue is also linguistic: I described Pilot Talk as “soothing yet enlightening.” Again, that had more to do with lack of imagination on my part, which sometimes happens when I write stories under deadline, than with the album’s actual qualities. Actually, Pilot Talk is one of my favorite albums this year. Curren$y sounds effortless and spontaneous, but he also delivers intricate lines that sometimes require repeat listening. Although he doesn’t say anything particularly topical or groundbreaking, he exhibits an understated intelligence that is apparent from the minute you hear him.

By re-reading my story more closely before I sent it to my editor, I probably would have caught and fixed those errors and conveyed the album’s positive qualities better.

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