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Cyndi Lauper's 'She's So Unusual': An everlasting, once in a lifetime album

On the new deluxe 30th anniversary edition of Cyndi Lauper’s debut, the everlastingly saucy supersmash She’s So Unusual, you can hear the “Work in Progress Rough Mix” of “Time After Time,” in which Lauper sings the song the way people have now for years, across the globe: by mumble-humming nonsense syllables until hitting the chorus. Of course, she probably hadn’t finalized (or memorized) the lyrics yet. We just can’t resist picking up that hard-wired melody, even when we need words scrolling across a karaoke screen to nail them.

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West Coast rap rises again: YG, Sage the Gemini, Schoolboy Q, and more

Twenty years ago this spring, Warren G released Regulate…G Funk Era, a triple-platinum album that helped enshrine the louche, laid-back sound of West Coast  hip-hop—“funked out with a gangsta twist,” as his homey Nate Dogg put it. But that era soon fizzled, and after Tupac was killed in ’96, the California scene met with a different funk: years-long commercial doldrums. Only the Game, a  Dr. Dre protégé whose three No. 1 albums are thick with early-to-mid-’90s nostalgia, broke through in the meantime. But the gin-and-juice hangover finally seems to be lifting, as gritty California rappers sidestep or reinvent G-funk and barge back into the mainstream.

Earlier this month, South Central L.A. rapper Schoolboy Q went to No. 1 with his shadowy, ferocious third album, Oxymoron. As the resident gangsta in the Black Hippy collective led by Kendrick Lamar—last year’s most obsessed-over rapper—Q brings a sharp new ambivalence to Tupac’s idea of the thug life. He raps not only about dealing Oxycontin  but also about becoming addicted to Xanax, Percocet, and Valium. On the harrowing “Prescription/Oxymoron,” he even splices in a recording of his young daughter trying to wake him from a drug stupor.

If the dazzling shape-shifter Kendrick is on L.A.’s frontier, the gruff, brutally honest Schoolboy Q represents the West Coast’s uncompromising core. “Real Crippy since I hopped off the swing” is how he sums up his early gang links on “The Purge,” which deliberately teams him with ’90s California notable Kurupt and Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator (whose crew remains more underground, breakout R&B star Frank Ocean aside). Still, Q doesn’t take himself too seriously: On “Studio,” Oxymoron’s wry love song, he skips the sex “metaphors” and explicitly mimics what else he can do with his tongue.

When YG (pictured)—a Compton upstart with a rugged major-label debut, My Krazy Life, and a long simmering top 20 single, “My Hitta”—reveals his romantic side, he’s no less blunt or amusing. “Do It to Ya” borrows its pillow talk from the playground, and its convivial groove from “Let’s Play House” by Tha Dogg Pound. YG’s less evolved than Schoolboy Q, who guests on Krazy along with Kendrick and big names including Drake and Jeezy, his mentor. But he’s a vivid, unflappable MC, bolstered by key L.A. producer DJ Mustard, the buoyant minimalist who also worked up Tyga’s 2011 smash “Rack City.” If there’s a Compton sound right now, this is it.

The Bay Area’s just as crucial to West Coast hip-hop, of course. 100s, a permed pimp-rap revivalist from Berkeley, pays tribute to Too $hort on the silky, slightly ridiculous mixtape Ivry. But the region’s latest star is the 21-year-old rapper-producer Sage the Gemini. Remember Me, his club-tailored major-label bow, shores up his two radio smashes, the stripped-down twerk anthems “Red Nose” and “Gas Pedal,” with a stream of pulsing beats and drowsy vocals. “I’m trying to keep this here alive,” he raps, calling himself “the Bay’s respirator” on the (actually pretty great) Justin Bieber remix of “Gas Pedal.” But  this isn’t thug life support. The California rap contingent has birthed a whole new era.

Mock stars: The era of anonymous bands, from Foster the People to Imagine Dragons

Who wears the leather pants in music these days? Men still turn out smash songs by singing over guitars. But not since Mumford & Sons strapped on their suspenders have any rock hitmakers broken out as true stars, famous for anything other than scaling the charts. What do you know about the guys in Bastille or OneRepublic, the two bands currently sitting pretty in the Hot 100 top 10? Maybe you can name their singles (“Pompeii” and “Counting Stars,” respectively). But they don’t give off even a glimmer of the cherished emblems of the classic Rock Star: turbulent souls, incendiary lyrics, boa-draped fashion statements, dangerous good looks.

Instead, we’re saddled with mock stars: guys with paltry backstories, little apparent fire under their asses, and indifferent bedhead. And dudes these recent chart-cloggers be. In addition to Bastille and OneRepublic, there’s Imagine Dragons, Capital Cities, AWOLNATION, and Foster the People—all entirely male. They are not entirely terrible. Their modern rock does sound approachably modern, folding in synths and drum machines, with hooks that resonate rather than kick you directly in the acorns. These songs live in the rock fan’s friend zone: ever present, not unpleasant, but deeply unsexy.

L.A. trio Foster the People (pictured) were responsible for one of the biggest and most compelling mock-star smashes to date: “Pumped Up Kicks,” from their debut Torches, has sold more than 5 million copies since the song’s release in 2010. The deceptively sunny track, which frontman Mark Foster made as a demo and never rerecorded, takes the perspective of an unhinged, gun-toting kid; it’s like “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam’s schoolboy-psycho song, minus the anguish and that poor recess lady.

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Eminem's 'Marshall Mathers LP2,' streaming now -- Is this a new, self-aware Slim Shady?

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Eminem wouldn’t be Eminem—or Slim Shady, or Marshall Mathers—if he didn’t allot some of his whizbang rhymes to homophobic slurs and misogynistic fantasies. “Rap God,” a single from his eighth album in which he belittles unnamed rivals as “fags” and “gay,” kicked up the latest in a long line of debates about his compulsion to attack women and gay men.

But on The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (which is streaming now on iTunes, ahead of its Nov. 5 sale date), the 41-year-old works his me-or-my-demons shell game more furiously than ever. On the seven-minute-plus opener “Bad Guy,” he imagines his own commeuppance, as the brother of his old stalker character “Stan” kidnaps Em to avenge his late sibling. Facing death, Marshall hears his “lack of a conscience”: “I’m the bullies you hate, that you became/With every faggot you slaughtered/Coming back on ya, every woman you insult/That, with the double standard you had when it comes to your daughters.”

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Down with '00s nostalgia! Up with the Dismemberment Plan!

It’s a columnist’s cliche to say so, but when it comes to unpleasant inevitabilities, nostalgia’s right up there with death and taxes: We know it lies in wait, poised to deny the whatever’s good right about life right now—age and maturity, cool new shit, the Present. But lately it feeds another perspective-sapping distraction: Microtargeted online lists meant to light up little networks of people who share largely meaningless past experiences, like what massive university they attended or chain store they shopped at in high school. That’s what really grinds my gears. Surely there exists a list of Signs You Listened to Emo. And surely we’re fine as a culture having moved on from emo’s heyday, whatever you might think of Fall Out Boy’s punky new album or that song Haley Williams made with Zedd (or the current output of Dischord Records, for that matter). And I say this as an unreconstructed emo boy. READ FULL STORY

Pusha T, the Last Great Gangsta Rapper

How gangsta is Pusha T? So gangsta that on his first official solo album, the killer My Name Is My Name, the marvelously menacing Virginia rapper includes a soaring inspirational anthem, “Hold On”—and invites the profoundly unsentimental Rick Ross to join him on it. (Though “[you] couldn’t fathom my wealth/Build a school in Ethiopia/should enroll there myself” may be Ross’s most civic-minded statement yet.) He’s so gangsta that he calls a song that features Chris Brown “Sweet Serenade.” He’s so gangsta that he has Jeezy, a relic of the peak-thug era, rap on “No Regrets.”

Pusha—one half of the sadly dormant coke rap duo Clipse, prolific mixtape and guest rapper and member of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music—sums himself up this way on “No Regrets”: “Nowadays I sell hope/what, you rather I sell dope?/What I sell is a lifestyle/naked bitches on sailboats.” That’s “hope” the way Rick Ross can understand it. Pusha remains a deadpan, do-it-to-death thug whose self-awareness never undermines his drug-dealer fairy tales.

Which makes him an exception among the great rappers with recent albums. Danny Brown, who just released the terrific Old, uses meanness as just another one of his masks. Drake surrenders to complexity—he’s tougher on Nothing Was the Same, but still like a boyfriend who’s needy at home and aloof around your friends. On Doris, Earl Sweatshirt is utterly—and engrossingly—cerebral. And then there are the A$APs: image jockey Rocky and the inspiringly weird Ferg. Pusha may be the last gangsta standing—not an anachronistic monolith, but a living, snarling monument to hardcore hip hop.

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The introspective rock dude: Deer Tick and Bill Callahan revive the (much-needed) archetype

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What happened to the introspective rock dude? It seems strange that there should be a shortage of them. Maybe it’s even stranger to complain about it. After all, hasn’t this type long dominated the indie scene? And aren’t Drake and Kanye West ruminating enough for everybody right now? And yet it’s disappointing how little soul searching man bands are up for these days. The Arctic Monkeys, first heralded in large part for their thoughtful lyrics, just broke into the top 10 with a new album more focused on macho riffage. Vampire Weekend, who hit number one (again) earlier this year, were never ones to brood. And Justin Vernon of Bon Iver is now serving heaping scoops of doggerel (like “sexing all your parliament”) with Volcano Choir.

John Mayer’s one of the few guys rooting around in his feelings as a project, but what he turns up on his recent album reveals an acute case of “nice guy” syndrome. Paradise Valley is gentle, inviting, even poetic—until it becomes petulant and entitled, as on “Dear Marie,” where a former teen flame is informed, with exquisitely sensitive condescension, “I got my dream—but you got family.”

The real white knights have only just arrived, and no, you shouldn’t actually think of them that way. Last week Bill Callahan (formerly known as Smog)  released Dream River, the fourth album under his own name. This week Deer Tick delivered their fifth one, Negativity. Callahan and Deer Tick’s singer John McCauley have a few things in common: A love—or at least a fondness for evoking—Americana; a precision-tuned sense of self-awareness; and a profound lack of concern for what other people might think of as cheesy—like unleashing flute and saxophone solos, or lines like “all I want to do is make love to you” and “a baby cries, and an old man dies.”

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