Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Music Review: Yone Lay’s “Gangster Life”

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Hip-hop that should be stopped

Myanmar boasts a vibrant hip-hop scene spearheaded by a number of talented rappers. Unfortunately, Yone Lay is not one of them.

The first time I listened to the song “Last Chance” on Yone Lay’s album Gangster Life, I thought something was seriously amiss with my stereo system.

The song starts out agreeably enough, with well-known singer Chan Chan’s pleasant voice lilting over a softly strummed guitar. After about half a minute, however, things go terribly awry.

This is the point at which Yone Lay takes the microphone and starts rapping in a way that is shockingly at odds with the rhythm of the song. Chan Chan is singing pop, while Yone Lay delivers lethargic rhymes to an off-kilter beat that apparently only he can hear.

It’s like being caught between two radios tuned to different stations – I wanted to turn off the hip-hop radio and let Chan Chan finish her song without the interference. This is unfortunate because 99 times out of 100, I would pick hip-hop over saccharine pop vocals.

Except that some people just weren’t cut out for rapping. There’s more to the art form than simply spewing rhymes into a microphone and aping the “gangsta” trope, which, like “punk”, has been rendered virtually meaningless through years of misappropriation by glee clubbers.

Hip-hop requires timing, flow, versatility and a few other hard-to-define attributes that might best be collectively described as “soul”. The most talented rappers make it seem easy, but when it’s done poorly, it inspires a greater appreciation for those who have mastered the essential skills.

This point is aptly illustrated in “Underground Life”, which is by far the most likeable song on Gangster Life. The six-minute track features a collection of eminent guest rappers, including Jauk Jack, Kyaw Htut Swe, Satan, Player-K and Mi Sandy.

Despite the song’s chintzy electro-orchestral backing music, the guest rappers spend the first five minutes demonstrating how Myanmar hip-hop is meant to be performed: It’s flowy, powerful and playful. Were the bass track to be deleted, you would still be able to sense the beat pounding through the rhythmic vocal delivery.

Then, with a minute to go, Yone Lay takes over with his cotton-mouthed, beat-deaf style, and the song instantly tanks. The listener can discern a crucial lack of conviction, and the effect is like dumping cold water on a merry campfire: sizzle, hiss, lights out.

Yone Lay does acquit himself reasonably well on songs like “Just Two of Us Like Before”, in which he sings pop music accompanied by an acoustic guitar. But in the midst of what is ostensibly a hip-hip album, such tracks seem rather dull and out of place.

You might not know it from listening to Gangster Life, but Yone Lay is quite accomplished as a composer of songs for numerous Myanmar pop stars. This is where he first gained fame and where his true talents lie.

I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Yone Lay give up recording his own music. He’s free to exercise his creativity in any way he chooses – just as I’m free to delete the Gangster Life mp3 files from my iPod as soon as I’m done writing this review.

Written by latefornowhere

January 9, 2014 at 3:29 am

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