Who Killed Auto-Tune?

Jay-Z knows what’s on your mind. And on mine too, come to think of it. What is with you Rappas Ternt Wannabe-Sangas?” Why you gotta drown your songs with a sorry excuse for a voice that’s so annoying that the only reason people aren’t bleeding out of their ears at the club is because they’re too wasted to notice the (T-)pain their ears are in? Hova’s new single, “Death of Auto-tune,” is stirring up almost as much controversy in the hip-hop world as Chris-Brown’s-fist-versus-Rihanna’s-face. I know, I know; it’s a stretch, but you know what I mean. Jay-Z knows how to get attention when he wants it. Just in time to sell some Blueprint 3 records too.

Make no mistake; auto-tune’s made its rounds since way before hip-hop’s less vocally gifted jumped on the bandwagon. Remember Cher? Ever since T-Pain came onto the scene with Rappa Ternt Sanga, he brought with him that wonderful little program called Auto-tune, and detonated it all over the face of hip-hop. To give T-Pain credit though, he does know to write a catchy hook. That’s why “Buy U a Drank” was on every radio DJ’s database, “Blame It (on the goose, gotchu feelin’ loose)” was hot at the clubs, and “Freeze” was spewing out of every kid’s iPod ear buds. The guy knows what he’s doing.

But when you start having Lil Wayne and Snoop “singing” about erupting lollipops, we’ve got a problem. For the fans who love the electric atmosphere of a good hip-hop concert, no matter how good those songs sound now, they’ll never be performed live. Well, they might, but it won’t sound anything like the album version – I promise. Kanye West would know. His entire 808s & Heartbreak album was auto-tuned to pitch-perfection, and it did phenomenally on the charts when it first came out and everyone was oohing and aahing over the utter craziness that is an album fully saturated with voice distortion. While I have the utmost respect for Kanye as an artist, ego or no ego, “Heartless” and “Amazing” didn’t last long in my playlist after the novelty and catchiness wore off. I have an Auto-tune Quota, and “Love Lockdown” unfortunately filled most of it.

Back to Jay-Z’s declaration of war on auto-tune: he’s careful to not name names, but really, you know who you are (i.e. any rapper who’s tried to actually sing one of his auto-tuned songs live and have it turn out like a half-rapped, half-shouted mess). Ironically enough, Kanye is producing most of Blueprint 3, though he promises to keep the auto-tune far, far away (is that why Jay-Z didn’t call him out?). Whenever you pour on the hate though, you always get some back, especially if dissing you means instant publicity. Jay-Z’s gotten his share of criticism for “D.O.A.” already from younger rappers who think he’s getting too old for the game, but I have to give Jay the last word: “Get back to rap, you T-Pain’n too much.”


BLACKsummers’night – Maxwell

In an era where “R&B” is starting to sound more like an offshoot of pop or dance, you’ll be lucky if you can find new music that reflects the classic nineties slow jam vibe. Even if you can, it’s probably sitting at the bottom of the charts while some auto-tune crap is blasting out of the speakers on the streets – R&B artist Ginuwine’s new album, A Man’s Thoughts, saw this fate. Surprisingly enough, Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night is doing very well for an R&B album from an artist who debuted in ’96 to great success, but has completely disappeared from the scene since 2001. Eight years later, Maxwell is back with the first of three albums that will be released in the next few years.

BLACKsummers’night is a pretty short album, with only nine songs, but every one exudes sensual class, a defining quality of what R&B used to be. The leading track, “Bad Habits,” brings out the full band and makes it clear that those R&B-dance/pop crossovers that dominate the radio today have got no place on this LP. “Cold” is possibly the jazziest cut out of the nine, with trumpets, handclaps, while just oozing old-school funk. Melting into the light and sexy first single “Pretty Wings,” where Maxwell showcases his trademark falsetto in full force, the mood suddenly flips 180 on “Help Somebody,” stepping away from love and dealing with death.

The break from the sultry slow-jam vibe is short-lived though, as “Stop the World” brings some Prince, and “Love You” brings the piano on a more frantic beat, and simply radiates the desperation of true love. It might not be a good thing that Maxwell’s keeping it short, because the quality of the music on BLACKsummers’night is surprisingly high, even near the end. “Fistful of Tears” is one of my favourites, with Maxwell’s silky voice flowing over a subtle throbbing beat. The last song on the album with actual singing on it is the melodiously sad “Playing Possum,” which is exactly what Maxwell does with the listener, as he ends the album far earlier than he should, and leaves the listener wanting more. The final cut, “Phoenix Rise,” is as close to contemporary R&B as you’ll get on BLACKsummers’night, and it ends this first part of Maxwell’s trilogy with some light synths and celebrates the rebirth of the phoenix. Welcome back, Maxwell.


Top 5 Hip-Hop Producers in the Game Today

Singers and rappers may get all the love on-stage, but having a good producer on your hip-hop track or slow jam can jack up your chances of a gold single better than any front-page sob story… unless you’re Rihanna. The evolution of the way songs are made and marketed is earning the people behind the beats some well-deserved attention. With services that’ll set you back upwards of a hundred grand per song, there’s a good reason these five producers are still in business.

Bryan-Michael Cox

Getting his big break thanks to earlier connections with Jermaine Dupri and Beyoncé, B. Cox is one of those producers who regularly see their songs catch fire. Having cemented himself firmly in the hip-hop industry based on wildly successful partnerships with artists like Usher (“U Got It Bad,” “Burn,” “Confessions Pt I & II”) and Mary J. Blige (“Be Without You”), there is no shortage of work for this Miami-born, Houston-bred producer. He’s won Grammys for both producing and songwriting, and with new R&B artists such as Sterling Simms and Johnta Austin scrambling to get a piece of him (along with a shot at that hit single), Bryan-Michael Cox might just take over the spot of lead money-maker for So So Def.

The Neptunes

The Neptunes, aka. Pharrell and Chad Hugo, aka. two-thirds of N.E.R.D., is one heavyweight duo. Their productions are shoved tentatively under the hip-hop genre, but it’s definitely a different kind of hip-hop; there’s a little eccentric flavour that most other producers don’t embrace as fully and satisfyingly as the Neptunes. It might be the synths, it might be their funk, or it might be Pharrell’s falsetto, but really, who cares? The Neptunes pretty much made Justin Timberlake when he broke off from NSync, and their reputation for offering something more than your typical gangsta rap has earned them love from Jay-Z, Common, and even Madonna. The coolest Star Trek geeks around? Oh yeah.


Possibly the biggest production duo outside of North America, Stargate hails from Norway, and has been churning out hits in Europe since way before Ne-Yo. Originally working almost exclusively within the pop genre, Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Erik Hermansen made massive headway into the States’s R&B market after “So Sick.” While they’ve received some criticism for allegedly reusing material, it doesn’t seem to be a problem, as a Stargate track seems to be a guaranteed hit either way. Just ask Rihanna, Beyoncé, Ne-Yo, and Lionel Richie (who got his first number one in ten years thanks to Stargate). It would be interesting to see if this team decides to break into hip-hop, a genre that might be more resistant to their Euro-pop sound, but seeing as how they’ve already worked with rappers like Flo Rida and Nas and have a joint record label with Jay-Z, they might just have a chance at taking over all of urban music.

Kanye West

Who knew? The Louis Vuitton Don may talk annoyingly big sometimes (okay, all the time), but thankfully, he has shown that he can back it up. Using samples that span an impressive range of genres and time periods in the history of music, Kanye’s flair for the eclectic is almost comparable to the Neptunes, except Pharrell and Co.’s sound is much more defined and recognizable. His favourite collaborators include Talib Kweli, Nas, Jay-Z (he’s producing almost all of the soon-to-be-released Blueprint 3), and of course, himself. Ego problems aside though, Kanye West has a knack for knowing not only what people like to hear, but more importantly (judging from his timely collab with Jay-Z, “Death of Autotune”), when they get tired of it.


Undisputed hip-hop royalty, Timothy Mosley, or as you know him, Timbaland, rose through the ranks of hip-hop together with Missy Elliott, Ginuwine, and the late Aaliyah in the nineties. It’s safe to say that everyone who’s anyone – or wants to be anyone – has worked with Timbo; his efficiency with the beats and willingness to experiment with new sounds has not only helped hip-hop evolve, but also completely changed the pop genre, luring it effortlessly into the R&B/hip-hop sound. He’s ventured into uncharted territory with M.I.A., Duran Duran, and Bjork, but has always returned home to hip-hop, where his roots are firmly established. Apart from artists who are “heavyweights” in their own right (like Jay-Z, Missy, Beyoncé, and Luda), you’re more likely to hear the DJ introduce a Mosley Music collaboration as a “Timbaland track” rather than an <insert artist name here> track. While it is slightly disappointing that Timbaland is expanding his list of references all the way out to bubblegum-pop land (the Jonas Brothers? really?), there is no doubt that his touch is literally gold.