Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Top 5: Covers of R&B and Rap Songs

It's definitely not at all noteworthy for someone to say they love music. It's like saying you love to laugh or enjoy fun activities -- it's remarkable if you say you don't like it. But whatever, because that's pretty much what I'm getting at in this post. My love for music often manifests itself in making strange, unnecessary playlists -- they go beyond the run-of-the-mill tracks for showering, running errands or working out, and cover a range from the uncomfortably specific to selections eliciting certain moods (I don't just have a 'sad songs' playlist, I have multiple that relate to several gradations on sadness). I don't know, maybe everyone does this and I am not as precious or special as I'd like to believe. BUT what I'm getting at is that I love making mixes. I make mixes for pretty much everyone I know (if you would like one, drop me a line!) -- if you express even the vaguest of interest in an artist that I like, you can bet I will be making a best-of compilation for you. I've done music playlists in the past (like this one for V-Day 2013), but I want to do them with more frequency so that I can indulge my inherent need to make mix CDs. Which leads me to this post! (Ace transition, if I do say so myself.)
I have a deep affection for covers (which I have been told is weird considering how passionately angry I can get about film remakes, but I suppose that is an entirely different beast) -- particularly versions of songs done by artists with a markedly different sound than the original musician. There's a grand tradition of cross-genre covers: from the Beatles' love for the Shirelles in their early days to Johnny Cash's heartbreaking version of "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails (no lie, I first saw the music video in the student center at my university and I WEPT OPENLY... in front of a lot of people ... for like a really long time). 
One of the reasons that I love the particular trend of translating rap and R&B songs into other musical styles is that there is an additional difficulty of it -- you can't just change the pace of it and have it remain intact. There is a particular rhythm to the songs in these genres that, if neglected, can cause the track to just fall apart. This process requires real innovation. Here are my favorite tracks that really get it right: 

Crazy in Love (Beyoncé) by Seyoncé

It's tough enough to do justice to a track by Queen B -- and when it's a song like "Crazy in Love," with cover versions by everyone from David Byrne to Emeli Sandé, the pressure is on a whole other level. But let me tell you, Seyoncé masters the track with aplomb. (WITH APLOMB, I SAY!) I was introduced to this video by my friend Hannah (of the amazing band The Dirty Boys -- check them out!!) and, let me tell you, it is glorious. The low voice, the moody sound and the fantastically odd and quite genius video, it's a profound obsession of mine. And the name. THE NAME. It's all perfection. I have been assured that there will be future releases from Seyoncé, so we can all rest easy. Honor your soul and watch this video.

Whatever You Like (T.I.) by Anya Marina

If there is one thing I love more than a cover of a rap song, it is a cover of a rap song done by a singer with breathy, delicate vocals. It's called intertextuality, and yeah it's very important. From Nina Gordon's acoustic take on "Straight Outta Compton" to Kanye's "Heartless" becoming an emotional ballad through the piano-charged stylings of Dia Frampton, there's something about the unexpectedness of the pairing that can create some real magic. I really dig Anya Marina's version of this song. So much so that I don't even care too much about admitting that I found it via Gossip Girl (2009 was a dark time for me).

Bitches Ain't Shit (Dr. Dre) by Ben Folds

This is one of the defining tracks of the admittedly niche genre of rap/R&B covers. There's not too much else I can say about it other than if you haven't heard it by now, you're doing yourself a disservice. The piano, the choral accompaniment, the whole vibe works so wonderfully that it is no surprise that countless other artists were inspired to have a go at translating their favorite R&B or rap song into a rock or alternative format after hearing this tune.

99 Problems (Jay-Z) by Hugo

This song is wildly good. Listen to it and you can't believe it works so well. Hugo is signed to Jay-Z's Roc National label, where he is described as "gangsta-rock" -- his bluegrass version of Hova's "99 Problems" solidified his position.

No Diggity (Blackstreet) by Chet Faker

The original track by Blackstreet also featured fellow list-maker Dr. Dre and a collaboration from Queen Pen, and is not only one of the defining songs of the 1990s, but is one of the BEST SONGS OF ALL TIME. (This is not at all a biased opinion. It is a truth universally acknowledged that "No Diggity" is the best.) Klaxons also have a stellar cover of this song, but I love this version of the song for it's almost ambient sound and lounge-y quality. There's a very chilled out atmosphere to this song, due in part to the sound and Chet's particular vocal style (which manages to capture a degree of the intimacy and unpolished texture of the name he pays homage to with his name: Chet Baker). In his hands, "No Diggity" becomes something entirely different.

Are there any rap/R&B covers that you love that you think should make the list? Let me know in the comments!