Sunday, July 27, 2008

Adventures In Rap #6: "Friends"

Years ago, back when I wasn't sure how much I really wanted to get into rap, I remember reading AMG's review of Whodini's Greatest Hits, in which Alex Henderson wrote:

When funksters and soulsters who reached adulthood in the 1960s and '70s criticize rap, their number one complaint is usually that too much of it isn't melodic enough. But they seldom make that complaint about Whodini, which in the mid-'80s enjoyed a lot more support from R&B fans than the more forceful and abrasive sounds of Run-D.M.C. or LL Cool J.

Hmm, I thought. Maybe this would be closer to my kind of rap. Even though I was actually 19 years old, in a way I was one of those "funksters and soulsters" who enjoyed Baby Boomer music much more than the rap I'd occasionally heard in passing. So I thought, "Well, I better listen to some Whodini then."

Years later, I have finally listened to some Whodini, and to be honest, I don't think they sound any different from early Run-D.M.C. or LL Cool J. Maybe their choruses are slightly more melodic, but to say they have any sort of serious R&B twist is absurd. Sure, maybe compared with Run-D.M.C., but hell, Public Enemy had more genuine R&B in their music than Whodini. How long did it take before rappers realized their songs could basically be normal pop songs with hooks and choruses and all that fancy business, except they could just rap instead of sing? And how long did it take before rappers realized that their lyrics better be really amazing, or else they'd just sound silly? And that they'd better rap really fast? Not even the Sugarhill Gang took as much time between words as Whodini did.

So I've realized that, when it comes to old school rap, AMG doesn't know what the hell they're talking about. But there is one Whodini song I really like: "Friends." While no "U Can't Touch This" in the hook department, "Friends" sports a beguilingly eerie keyboard line, some tasteful synthesizer embellishment, and a drum machine borrowed straight from Men Without Hats' "The Safety Dance."

As for the lyrics, initially they appear to be the usual Fresh Prince-style "PG ode" to buddies:

How many of us have them?
Ones we can depend on
How many of us have them?
Before we go any further, let's be

Sounds pretty lame, right? But as the song goes on, the group's attitude toward "friends" becomes noticeably ambivalent:

"Friends" is a word we use everyday
Most the time we use it in the wrong way
Now you can look the word up, again and again
But the dictionary doesn't know the meaning of friends

And if you ask me, you know, I couldn't be much help
Because a friend is somebody you judge for yourself
Some are OK, and they treat you real cool
But some mistake kindness for being a fool

We like to be with some, because they're funny
Others come around when they need some money
Some you grew up with, around the way
And you're still real close to this very day

Homeboys through the summer, winter, spring and fall
And then there's some we wish we never knew at all
And this list goes on, again and again
But these are the people that we call friends

So the rhymes aren't terribly dextrous (funny/money; cool/fool) but this depiction of friendship is getting kind of complicated for a supposedly frivolous song. The second verse takes a surprising turn into romantic territory:

When we first went out together, we barely knew each other
We had no intentions on becoming lovers
But in no time at all, you became my girl
Me and you, one on one, against the world
Talkin' on the telephone for hours at a time
Or else I was at your house, or you was at mine
And then came the arguments and all kinds of problems
Besides making love, we had nothing in common
It could've lasted longer because it started out strong
But I guess we went about the whole thing wrong
Cause out of nowhere it just came to an end
Because we became lovers before we were friends

How many rap songs suggest that lovers ought to be friends as well? I'm guessing not too many. Finally, the third verse descends into a paranoia more in line with early '70s soul songs such as The Undisputed Truth's "Smiling Faces Sometimes" and the O'Jay's "Backstabbers" than with DJ Jazzy Jeff:

You say you and your girlfriend were so tight
You took her out with you and your guy one night
She even had a set of keys to your home
And you shared mostly everything you owned

But as she shook your hand, she stole your man
And it was done so sweet, it had to be a plan
Couldn't trust her with cheese, let alone your keys
With friends like that you don't need enemies

You wonder how long it was all going on
And you're still not sure if you're glad he's gone
You say, well if she took him he was never mine
But deep inside you know that's just another lie

And now you're kinda cold toward people you meet
Cause of something that was done to you by some creep
But nevertheless, I'll say it again
That these are the people that we call friends

Damn. Friends can be pretty crappy, now that you think about it. They'll destroy your entire faith in humanity, if you really want to get down to it. You can't even trust 'em with cheese, for God's sake. Anyway, that's Whodini.


Peter Matthew Reed said...

Uh, cheese. I think that's the best example of a forced rhyme in this song. It's not that it's overtly awful, it's just that it pongs. Sorry.

"Friends" sounds really straight-up 80's pop to me, full of synth stabs and a hollow drum machine. The only good thing the Whodini songs I've heard give me is a sense of a more innocent era of rap. Low density orchestration with high-in-the-mix drum machines. Not so different from the best Salt'n'Peppa, just less lyrically dextrous.

Thanks to Songbird I have been able to sample all the rap artists you've mentioned in your reviews in about 20 minutes, with -1 difficulty.

Little Earl said...

I've tried to include links to YouTube clips of each song, but if Songbird does the trick, then who am I to stop you? Or, if you play your cards right, you could be the lucky recipient of Little Earl's "History of Rap, Vol. 1" CD!

Also, what does something do when it "pongs"?

Peter Matthew Reed said...

Yeah , I have noticed those links, a totally excellent idea - except in new improved Vista 9 out of 10 times YouTube videos just don't play! Now you can't tell me that's not progress.

I'd love the CD, I'll even provide a blank CD-R.

To pong is to smell bad. By metaphor, any general badness.