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Battle of the Vocoder jams: Big Boi vs. Kendrick Lamar & Dr. Dre

October 02, 2012|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times pop music critic
  • Big Boi, left, and Kendrick Lamar.
Big Boi, left, and Kendrick Lamar. (Rick Diamond; Kendrick…)

Put on your helmet and grab a bottle of Gatorade, because apparently we're headed into the future -- at least if new Vocoder-heavy tracks by both Big Boi and Kendrick Lamar are any indication.

In a sort of bicoastal conversation connected by the synthesized robotic voice of the Vocoder -- an AutoTune precursor best known for its use in funk classics by Roger Troutman and Zapp (and Snoop's "Sensual Seduction") -- the Atlanta-based Big Boi released "Mama Told Me" on Tuesday morning. It arrived half a day after Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, in collaboration with producer/headphone magnate Dr. Dre, honored their neighborhood with a new song called, simply, "Compton."

Big Boi is best known as half of the rap team Outkast with Andre 3000, and the duo was behind some of the catchiest hip-hop hits of the last 15 years, including "Ms. Jackson," "The Way You Move" and "Rosa Parks." On Nov. 13, the rapper will release the follow-up to his remarkable 2010 solo album, "Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty," called "Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors." The new album will feature "Mama Told Me," and the song's release certainly ratchets up the anticipation. 

As catchy as a classic Outkast collaboration, "Mama Told Me" features a Kelly Rowland hook that weaves through a wobbly, melodic rhythm. Big Boi illustrates why he's one of the most mellifluous rappers in hip-hop by offering floating verses that move through the measures like sing-along bouncing balls. He name-checks Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Free Falling," Jordache jeans and Nike Air Jordans, among others around the pop culture spectrum, and when Rowland arrives her instantly humable hook locks the track in place.

And the Vocoder? It taps its mechanical toes in the background, entering into the song from time to time with a synthesized burst of scat singing.

The machine's been busy lately. On Lamar and Dre's "Compton," its sound sneaks through a synthetic wormhole created by a keyboard solo toward the end of the song. The voice enters to affirm Lamar and Dre's boast about the town of their hearts, humming out the words, "Ain't no city quite like mine," seemingly unaware or unconcerned that he (or she) is a piece of machinery and therefore born in a factory.

"Compton, Compton, ain't no city quite like mine," adds a human voice in the hook, repeating a refrain that's likely to become an autumn anthem throughout South Central L.A. Name-checking Tupac, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and N.W.A (of course), Lamar's new track is harder, and a little more "street" than Big Boi's post-bounce single, but both work.

And regardless of whether the simultaneous appearance of the Vocoder is a coincidence (or maybe the machine recently hired a new agent?), the two tracks bode well for an interesting fall season.

Because the two songs feature salty language, Pop & Hiss can't embed them in this post, but here are links to "Compton" and "Mama Told Me."


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Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit



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