October 2016 saw a strong release by the eclectic hip hop duo Soul Science Lab, a rap group that proclaims itself as “Innovative.Afro.Futuristic.Griots” on the mbira-driven first track of Plan for Paradise. This appears to be an accurate description of the music that artist and musician Chen Lo and multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer Asante’ Amin create. The duo’s songs are compelling and innovative, indicative of the group’s sprawling vision and overall high artistic standards.
At first listen, the offbeat and hip sensibility of Plan for Paradise will likely remind listeners of work by De La Soul or A Tribe Called Quest. Like these earlier pioneers, Soul Science Lab’s soundscapes are heavily influenced by jazz and other musics of the African Diaspora. However, SSL’s music is not simply a throwback to the heyday of the Native Tongues collective. Stylistically, the music broadens out to a variety of other genres, such as the gospel shout on “Gimme That,” hard rock on “Built My City,” Spanish guitar on “Kingmaker,” and electro funk on “Spend Some Time.”
Lyrically, SSL addresses everything from their Afrofuturistic artistic vision to spiritual themes (“Supernatural”) to contemporary social issues (“I Can’t Breathe”), the latter with a rare poignancy in an age full of attempts at political music. The lyrics on Plan for Paradise, while appearing aspirational on many tracks, demonstrate a deeper understanding of the underlying themes. That is to say, the political songs aren’t political because it is fashionable to address current events—rather, they suggest the artists’ abiding concerns and nuanced understanding of the issues at hand.
Overall, Plan for Paradise is a great listen from a group whose members boast an impressive resume, both due to their collaborations with other artists and in their work with arts education (detailed on the group’s website). Listeners can hope that this is the first in a long line of innovative.Afrofuturistic albums.
Note: The album cover uses the Augmented Reality technology of Blippar to create an interactive experience, as demonstrated in this video.
Future is arguably the king of today’s trap music. Part of what has cemented such a status is the prolific nature of his releases. And, lucky for us, 2017 is apparently no different, as he released the self-titled Future on February 17 and Hndrxx, its counterpart, only seven days later. In addition to the sheer amount of music he produces, Future’s reign lies in his mastery of combining what I’ve discussed in previous reviews (of T.I. and Post Malone) as the twin modes of trap music: flex and disillusion, in which a song either narrates the trap star’s thrilling excesses or memorializes their emptiness. In each case, the value of the trap star is directly correlated to his possession of or rejection by women, putting this music squarely within the discourse I refer to as “f*ck boy consciousness.” Interestingly, Future’s most recent releases present somewhat of a bifurcation of these modes, where Future represents the flex, the excess, and Hndrxx its emotional underside. This separation makes the albums quite different from each other; Future is chock-full of quick flows and expressions of street dominance, while Future rap-sings catchy hooks and melodies on Hndrxx. However, without his signature singing juxtapozed against the hard, quick flows, the songs on Future seem to all melt together in a relatively uncompelling and somewhat boring collection. In contrast, there are more than enough rhythmic and melodic changes in the sounds of Hndrxx to keep our attention and give us a spaced-out soundtrack to show out to.
Hndrxx showcases all of what Future does best in his traditional form as a trap star “f*ck boy.” It includes the typical trap drum sequences in almost every song and sing-song autotune flows that anticipate the beat drops in his hype-up collaboration with The Weeknd on “Comin’ Out Strong” and the ‘90s-reminiscent “Damage.” Future presents a disillusioned tone to his usually slurred vocals in both the strip club-esque “Fresh Air” and the condescending “Hallucinating,” on which he asserts that his perception, even while on drugs, is the ultimate, only perception. Throughout the album, Future juxtaposes wealth and ‘hood signifiers, especially on “Lookin’ Exotic,” where women get lumped into the category of things. He buys the woman in question numerous wealth signifiers in exchange for her in turn becoming a signifier of his own masculine dominance and virility. Very much in line with contemporary trap styles, some of which he pioneered, Future excels at the stretching of word sounds which creates both a melodic structure and an effortless feeling on “Fresh Air” and “New Illuminati,” while on the latter, it brings an emotionality to his “catch no feelings” disposition in similar ways as Young Thug’s Jeffrey. In conjunction with the stretching of words sounds is Future’s signature style of muffled singing and quiet, yell-like utterances on songs like the catchy “Testify” and “Turn On Me.” In addition, on this album more than others, there is not the usual clear division between verse and chorus, and they blend together seamlessly into what feels like a single stream of f*ck boy consciousness, explicating his own feelings while always returning to a general theme mapped out by a refrain. Following is the official video for “Use Me” ((C) 2017 Epic Records):
Content-wise this album revolves centrally around issues and dynamics between the trap star and “his” women. This supposed ownership is made explicit from the outset of the album in which the first song details “[His] Collection” of women, saying, “even if I hit you once, you’re part of my collection.” On “Testify” Future renders iconic Bonnie and Clyde imagery and details the seductiveness of his lifestyle for a woman. However, he makes it clear that the labor of the relationship will be hers alone. He won’t change for her; she must assimilate to his norm, some of which, like wealth, is exciting for her, but other parts which are less so, particularly his understanding that it is he only who defines the limits of the relationship. In “Fresh Air” he feels confined in his relationship, yet when he “loses” her in “Neva Missa Lost,” the repetition of “I’m losing you and you know it… and you know it” makes it seem like it’s her who’s in denial that she’s losing him. This is an interesting turn because she’s the one leaving. In typical “f*ck boy” fashion, he thinks she’s losing out rather than he, exposing him as terribly self-centered, conceited and unaccountable. In the lackluster “I Thank U,” Future laments about a woman’s doubt of him, which he, by the moment of the song, has overcome and is on top reflecting on the unbelieving. This song positions the woman as the quintessential hater of the trap star who he must silence/put in her place. It’s not really an apology or a thanking of her; it’s a tongue-in-cheek flexing on her lack of faith.
Future takes it one step further in “Turn On Me,” in which he complains that his female counterpart will inevitably “turn” on him, without presenting any of her reasoning as to why. Because her perspective is lacking entirely, he is presented as completely unaccountable for what happens in his relationships, which allows us to relate to him without questioning his role in making her leave. In fact, part of “turning” on him is taking up relationships with others. He says: “After I give you this game, you should never let a lame hit it.” This brings to the fore the insecurity built into the persona of the trap star, as his possession of women or lack of women again is the key factor in defining himself and establishing and maintaining his status in the wider community. “Selfish” and “Sorry” might be attempts to redeem the trap star in his dealings with women, the former sounding much like a f*ckboy prayer for togetherness, even though literally every other song could be seen as an explanation for why he winds up in this position, alone. He seems not to understand this, which makes the narrator in this song come across as somewhat innocent and naive. In “Sorry” Future purports that he’s “sorry it had to be this way…sorry it looks this way,” as if he’s got no choice in his actions and they can all be chalked up to fame, saying “you see what I’ve been put up against, baby.” Considering all the previous songs, his apology feels like a weak afterthought that ultimately fails to redeem him.
All in all, the trope of the “f*ck boy” is currently all the rage in rap music style today. Whatever his faults, he seems to be endlessly compelling for this generation of rappers, as well as for their young listeners. Whether one disagrees on the basis of messed up gender politics or suspends one’s disbelief altogether, with Hndrxx, Future continues to elaborate on his formulation of the trope in incredibly seductive melodies and beautiful, though sometimes unintelligible, utterances. If the Future album falls flat, Hndrxx recuperates Future’s signature style, and its style is a testament to the humongous impact Future has had and continues to have on trap music.
Looking back, 2016 was undoubtedly a great year for black music. And one particularly interesting part was listening to the myriad ways that black musicians interpreted and performed black protest, as well as the protesters’ routine practice of taking up these songs during their protests, especially Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Likewise, Atlanta rapper T.I.’s December release, Us or Else: Letter to the System, signals a turn in the amount of explicit political content of his music, as well as a consistent effort from mainstream rappers and other black music icons to speak on issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement, including such heavyweights as Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Janelle Monáe, Killer Mike, and J. Cole. As far as the rappers go, Kendrick, Jay-Z, and J. Cole are devoted lyricists, though that is not all they do. But Killer Mike and now T.I. represent a new wave of southern trap rappers who use their music to explicitly respond to the issues and actions of the movement for black lives.
You could say T.I. entered this particular arena clearly with the August release of the single from the album, “We Will Not.” The song has a sinister melody and an anthem’s bigness and is an aggressive refusal of the race and class oppression he narrates in what is essentially a list of grievances addressed to a wide variety of unjust systems in the United States. This content is surrounded sonically by an articulation of the strength and badness—in the black usage of baad as positive—of contemporary black political activists, many of whom, I might add, are the same groups of teenagers innovating in trap music and black culture today. The album certainly demonstrates T.I.’s commitment to using his music to protest with and on behalf of the larger black community; even the long list of featured artists get completely on board with the mission, mobilizing countless Civil Rights Movement signifiers and centering their discussion primarily around police violence and mass incarceration.
In line with contemporary trap music, the sounds of the album include a steady stream of ad-libs, beat drops, autotune, excessive use of hi hats, gun sounds, filters, and especially current black “‘hood” vernacular and vocal performance. In terms of the vernacular and vocal performance, the song “Pain” works as a kind of guide to the pain of contemporary black life, the performance showing us how to feel good in its midst. This T.I. accomplishes through a type of showiness and effortlessness created through slurred vocals, the repetition of sound-phrases, and the way his flow rides the beat. The language is a compelling mix of this black vernacular and hot social justice language, and T.I. takes an introspective and encouraging, though still righteously enraged, position on today’s issues. In the song “Black Man,” the chorus sings celebratorily, “black man…drop top… there go the cops,” bringing two ideas together which have traditionally been thought of as mutually exclusive; and this is the cause of the confrontation with police in the song. This is just one example of how T.I.’s claims against white society are often represented by the “law” in the form of a white police officer—a longstanding tradition in black American culture because of the ways in which the legal system has been used by white society post-emancipation to maintain white supremacy and black exploitation and subordination.
In response to today’s attacks from the “law,” T.I. puts forth an album about race pride and action, embodied in the song “40 Acres”—a celebration of black under class values, centering the ‘hood in the conversation without being disparaging or condescending. If it’s a revolution, it’s a people’s revolution with T.I. embracing the role of race man.
In “Picture Me Mobbin,” mobbin’—moving or goin’ in with one’s squad—becomes an expression of unity, not threat. Here trap language and style gets mobilized to encourage activism, to make political action the modus operandi of the “real n*gga.” In the same breadth, T.I. lays claim to a kind of respectability of the “dope boy” in “Writer,” which is a reference to 2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az a Ridah,” but also a play on the southern accent to signify another meaning, that rap is in fact a legitimate form of literary production.
“Here We Go / Don’t Fall For That” is one of several reflection moments in the album, which T.I. uses to create a pep song for the poor, black kid in the ‘hood—acknowledging, unlike corporate media, that our communities are under siege, and trying to work against that. The advice from the trap star is “don’t get trapped,” and, ultimately, choose another way that can build you and your community up. That’s what it means to be black, strong, and baad in the world T.I. renders for us in Us or Else.
In a final moment of reflection and humbling, the album ends with T.I. calling on Jesus to “Take Da Wheel,” reinforcing the overall feeling that this is bigger than any of us individually and the belief that, in Dr. King’s words, the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” even if that may only be in another world.
As a body, Us Or Else: Letter To The System is robust and full of opposition and counter-narratives, encouragement in the fight for racial justice, and an insistence on accountability from white society and systems of governance and policing. T.I. emphasizes the importance of members of the black community being responsible to each other, showing us how to feel good in the midst of the terror of today’s world. His letter to the system still brings us swag and flex in traditional Atlanta fashion. This album is a move towards devotion and commitment in bold pursuit of justice for the black underclass, asserting the “bigness” of the oppressed in terms of rage, resiliency, and joy. A tremendous effort from T.I. in an urgent time, Us Or Else goes down as one of those hugely empowering moments when black music, black radical thought, and black action intersect.
So by now most folks have heard, heard about, or read about the “new” Tribe album. The zeitgeist that was its arrival has come and gone. So, the question becomes, why write about it now? Hell, its 2017. Everyone has already moved on. Well, I wanted to sit with this one for a bit, to really let the album marinate. To see if in a world where music has become even more disposable, an album could really make me feel like I used to when I took shrink wrap off the tapes in my bedroom. I’ll get to the answer to that in a bit. Assuming you have already heard the album by now, this is my own track by track reflection on We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (interspersed with musings about all things Tribe).
First off, I was late to even hear about Tribe releasing a new record—I was still kinda numb from the passing of Phife months earlier. (Side note: Phife on Midnight Marauders >>>>> Phife on any other Tribe Record.) Initially, I was not wholly excited about the news of a new album. I texted my main man, (former Black Grooves rap reviewer) Langston Wilkins (@StreetFolkLCW), to confirm it was actually true, and we immediately began talking about “what might be” with this new Tribe record. “Is Phife even gonna be on it?” “Would they just try to cash in?” “Will they try to ‘update’ their sound to keep up with the young folks?” “Will anybody other than us even care that Tribe is putting a record out?” Or more importantly, “Is this another one of those things people will pretend to care about then forget about immediately?” (Black Messiah, I’m looking in your direction). So I think it is fair to say I approached this record with a fair amount of trepidation. I braced myself for “what might be.”
“The Space Program.” For me this track is all about the triumphant return of Jarobi White…Yeah, I know folks will be like “he never left,” but c’mon yo. The point is he returns on the first track of the album with a fierceness that I do not recall from the last time we really heard him spit. The other major piece of this song that makes it fantastic is its core concept: “There ain’t no space program for niggas, nah you stuck here nigga.” . . . I mean, how crazy is that metaphor? The idea that everyone else would “move on to the staaaarrrsss” while black and poor will be left behind. Direct yet opaque word play is so very Tribe, but again, this track is still one for the books. Between the production, Jarobi’s verse, the hook, and song’s metaphoric depth, with one fell swoop my concerns about the album were quelled. I literally went from “cautiously optimistic” to “thank you for this wonderful gift, Tribe!”
“We The People.” This track takes the space program/Afro-futurism metaphor and pulls back the drapes completely. Tip speaks bluntly in his verse but is even more straightforward on the hook, “All you black folks, you must go / all you Mexicans, you must go / all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways.” Again, damn. Even the slight tongue in cheek nature of the hook doesn’t soften the blow, especially coming so soon after the election of Donald Trump.
“Whateva Will Be.” So this is kind of a dip for me, but is super notable during the last seconds of the song when Tribe’s “Fifth Beatle”—Consequence—shows up. I can honestly say I’ve never been so excited to hear a Consequence verse. I was so glad he was here.
“Solid Wall of Sound.” Another one of the things Langston I spent a decent amount of time discussing about the album was the apparent guest list for the record. Kendrick Lamar, Elton John, Andre 3000, Jack White and Busta Rhymes were all announced before its release. While I actually absolutely LOVE all of these artists in their own right (no seriously EJ is my dude), I couldn’t help but feel like only one of them actually belonged on what I considered a “Tribe record.” Narrow minded much? About Tribe records…Absolutely.
So “Solid Wall of Sound” is the first track with one of these high profile guests. The sample flips Elton John’s “Bennie & The Jets” and I figured it was one of those “cheat guest spots” like Ray Charles on Kanye’s “Gold Digger.” In between Tip, Phife and Busta trade hyper verses, the latter two in a patois that sounds great together, Tip really kills it too. Then out of blue (sort of?) for the last 30 seconds Elton John shows up to sing with our man Tip. So is it a “cheat guest spot”? I’m not sure, but it somehow works.
“Dis Generation.” Really love this track, which sounds like Beats, Rhymes & Life era Tribe (no, that’s not a diss), and really is cool to see “the unit B” (as an impassioned Q-Tip might put it) all in the same hut trading verses like the good ole days. Tip shouts out Joey Bada$$, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole as “gatekeepers of flow/extensions of instinctual soul” which is extremely cool to me in a “real recognize real” sort of way. The kicker on this track, though, is Busta Rhymes—who vocally sounds like the LONS Busta Rhymes—which is kinda mind blowing to me. I literally did not realize Busta could still make his voice sound like this (I was actually waiting for Charlie, Dinco or Milo to take the mic next).
“Kids.” Okay, let’s get this out of the way. I’m a huge fan of Andre 3000. Huge (I’m an even bigger fan of Outkast proper, but I’ll save that for another review). However, what I am NOT a fan of is how we have taught ourselves to absolutely lose our minds over every nonsensical, non-linear, throwaway bar Andre throws on so and so’s remix over past 10 years. I’m not saying they are all like that, but seriously folks, we really have a problem when we are all slobbering like Pavlovian dogs at the mere mention of a 3 Stacks bar, let alone a verse. So going into the track on the Tribe album that featured Codename: Benjamin, I was cautious at best. Thankfully this track does not fall prey to any of those issues. It has a pretty solid concept and Dre and Tip trade verses that are worthy of both their overarching legacies. “Kids” would fit well on a Tribe or Outkast record, which is kind of an amazing feat in and of itself. I couldn’t help but wonder how dope the track would have been with a Big Boi verse as well…
“Melatonin.” So I haven’t really spoke on it much thus far, but the production on this record is a real highlight and cannot be understated. Q-Tip shows why, in a lot of ways, he’s a ridiculously underrated producer. I’m sure recognizing that has something to do with why the production credits on this album are credited to “Q-Tip” as opposed to “the Unit B,” like on previous Tribe records. And you know what? I’m extremely pleased about that. Particularly in the wake of the rise of the “Dilla Changed My Life” outlook on what constitutes great rap production in popular culture, I feel like Q-Tip is criminally overlooked in lieu of my man Jay Dee. (Don’t get it twisted, Dilla is one of the best ever—just making a point about how popular culture works sometimes. Rant over.)
“Melatonin” has some of my favorite production, not just in terms of the beat, but also in the way Tip utilizes the voices of guest vocalists Marsha Ambrosius and Abbey Smith to create an almost dreamlike feel during the verses. The song concept also lends itself to the “under the influence” feel, as Tip ruminates on the pluses and minuses of self-medication.
“Enough.” So in the tradition of Tribe joints like “Electric Relaxation,” “Find a Way,” and of course “Bonita Applebum, this track serves as the album’s ladies jam in the way only Tribe can deliver. Jarobi really shines here as the “spirit” or “soul” or “whatever” of A Tribe Called Quest, as he absolutely goes in on his verse to point that someone in the studio (I assume Tip) can’t contain themselves when the verse sets off. Is there another person who stepped off the mic ala Jarobi and came back like 20 years later twice as fierce? Surely there’s someone, but anyway props to “Jedi” on this one. (Side note, Tip’s production wins again, digging up the Rotary Connection sample he flipped on “Bonita” and flipping it on this song as well.)
“Mobius.” Consequence and Busta absolutely murder this track. I guess for cons, there is really some absence makes the heart grow fonder stuff at play here. I mean, I’m not sure if I ever enjoyed my man this much on the Beats, Rhymes and Life record, but he seriously came to play. He sets it off ripping over a pretty basic beat for the 45 secs or so, and then the beat switches and turns into a much more menacing and bass heavy loop that I absolutely love. As if that were not enough, the track is then mule kicked into the stratosphere by none other than ’95-era Busta Rhymes (who is seriously putting some miles on his DeLorean for this album), coming through dungeon dragon style (I know thats mixing Busta-eras, but roll with me here) and spazzes out for like a hot 24—and then just like that *Verbal Kent sound effect* he’s gone. And like a mobius strip (Tip is so clever) we are back where we started. Again, Consequence and Busta absolutely murder this track.
“Black Spasmodic.” Tracks like this really, really make Q-Tip’s point from the Beats, Rhymes and Life documentary—that recording all together in the same “hut” makes for better Tribe music. From the outset this track has the feel of the early Tribe offerings, where the love was really there for everyone. I love hearing Phife go ham on this as only he can. When in full Dynomutt mode (see the aforementioned Midnight Marauders for reference), Phife is entertaining as hell to hear spit. However, Tip’s verse on this track might be my favorite on the entire album. The verse begins with Tip explaining how Phife “be speaking to him,” then Tip moves into full on channelling as he continues. Hear me…Tip spits AS PHIFE, TO HIMSELF in a verse that not only sounds like stuff Phife would (maybe did?) actually say, but also phrased in the way PHIFE would phrase it! The craziness of that cannot be understated in my opinion. On a verse where Tip says that Phife speaks to him from beyond the grave, Tip actually stops sounding like Tip and starts sounding like Phife. As a Tribe fan, that’s seriously just kinda insane.
“The Killing Season.” Kweli comes through for his guest spot, probably to make up for his glaring absence on “Rock Rock Yall” from The Love Movement 18 years back, and sets off another political track for this record. This song serves as Tribe’s take on the violence against Black and Brown folks. Did I mention that Jarobi White did not come to play with yall on this album? Cause he clearly did not. I really love the production here and beat switch makes it even better. As an added bonus, Kanye apparently sings the hook.
“Lost Somebody.” Yo, let me be clear—this is a good song. However, Tip’s verse on “Black Spasmodic” is such a fitting tribute to Phife Dawg that the impact of this track hit me a little less hard. Jarobi and Tip spit heartfelt verses and Tip, in particular, addresses some of the friction that we saw between Phife and himself during the BR&L documentary.
“Moving Backwards.” Love both the production on this as well as guest vocalist Anderson.Paak’s contribution. Paak does his thing here. “How I’m ‘pposed to know how home feels/I ain’t even on my home field.” I mean, damn. I feel that. Also, “Oops I’m bout to get kicked outta here/Tell Mama Imma slide through” never ceases to get a chuckle out of me.
“Conrad Tokyo.” Unfortunately, this one doesn’t hit as hard some of the other tracks on the record. Even Kendrick’s verse doesn’t hit like I wanted it, by no fault of his own, as he clearly does his thing. Maybe this just went over my head a bit, but love the synth.
“Ego.” This track is kind of in the style of “What?” from Low End Theory. The Abstract goes in on the various ways in which our own egos affect every aspect of our lives. He’s also brought along Jack White, who works surprisingly well. Songs like this show why, when he’s in the zone, Tip is a great conceptual rhymer.
“The Donald.” Let me start by saying, based off tracks like “The Space Program,” “We the People,” and the title of this track, I was absolutely “The Donald” was going to be a response to the phenomenon that is Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. I was more than ready to hear what the Tribe might have to say about our president elect. So I was sorely disappointed, which is weird because who complains about the new Tribe album NOT having a song about Trump? That’s ludicrous.
Turns out it’s actually a dedication to Phife Dawg aka Don Juice (I have to humbly admit that I did not realize this is one of his aliases until now), which is pretty dope in its own right. Phife and Tip spit verses and Busta provides the hook. Again, tracks like this show why Phife’s presence is and will be truly missed. I love the breakdown Tip puts here, where he and Katia Cadet sing “Don Juuuuuiiiicccee” and go back and forth with Busta for the finale.
Couple of parting notes. First, I mentioned how the guest appearances seemed kinda all over the place. They all worked out in the end, but damn if it doesn’t seem like a HUGE missed opportunity to not have some of the Native Tongues appear on this record. I mean, I know I’m fanboying a bit to say it, but where the hell is everybody? De La? JBs? Black Sheep? Latifah? Even extended fam like the Beatnuts? Vinia Mojica? It’s all good because the album is great, but I will spend the rest of my life wondering what could have been.
That said, I am so incredibly thankful for this record y’all. It wasn’t like ripping off the shrink wrap of tapes like I did way back when; it was different, but great. I had literally no idea what A Tribe Called Quest album might sound like in 2016. I am very happy so say, it sounds exactly like what ATCQ should sound like in 2016!
Maybe there is hope for the Outkast reunion album I’ve been desperately wanting. We shall see . . .
Post Malone made waves in the hip-hop world in 2015 with his single “White Iverson,” a smooth, spaced-out, melodic, flexing anthem very much operating within and even expanding upon modes of contemporary trap music. Malone was quickly signed by Republic Records only months following the song’s release, and the December 9th release of Stoney is his debut album. One of Malone’s strengths on “White Iverson” is his elaboration on musical tropes being pioneered by artists like Young Thug, Future, and Rich Homie Quan, whose work could be said to explore a depressive, emotional underside of trap music. This happens mostly melodically, while the lyrical content remains constructed around “the lifestyle” of a trap star. In fact, all three of these artists’ work represents a move away from lyrical content all together, toward sounds that go where words can’t.
With Stoney, Post Malone offers his contribution to the conversation, an album of songs that work as vignettes of moments of reflection on “the lifestyle” of the trap star, frozen in time and beautifully dramatized. What Malone most excels at is rendering in sound these elaborate, decadent blocks of time in which the listener can pause the club or party scene, explore, scrutinize, and romanticize each detail of the fray. The freeze frame, slow motion feeling is created through heavy reverb, silencing percussion at certain moments, stretching word sounds (often to the point of incomprehensibility), intimate, cascading sounds and melodies, and Malone’s slow, syrupy flow, delivered in what feels like gusts. These all contribute to an overall feeling of being out of time and floating, perhaps in line with the album’s title. Stoney is a set of scenes from the party, a hyper close sonic exploration of moments in the ascent and disillusionment in the emotional life of the trap star. The feeling of the music moves back and forth between flex and disillusion; “Big Lie,” “No Option,” “White Iverson,” and “Money Made Me Do It” are good examples of former, while “Broken Whiskey Glass,” “Cold,” and “I Fall Apart” represent the latter. Both these themes often manifest in the metaphor of a woman’s rejection/fakeness or availability, placing Stoney smack in the middle of the current musical trends articulating the sounds of “f**k boy” consciousness.
However, while several of the songs take “White Iverson’s” emotional, melodic, hip-hop daze as precedent and remain mostly within a trap realm in terms of sounds, Malone goes in a different, more folk/pop direction on others. These include “Broken Whiskey Glass,” “Go Flex,” “Leave,” and “Feeling Whitney,” on which the acoustic guitars and strumming make the songs sound more campy and indie folk. What connects these songs to the others is the pause in time, the critical reflection moment, and, perhaps ironically, perhaps not, Malone’s rendering of black vernacular speech and performance practices. Present throughout the songs is an exploration along the lines of cockiness and confidence, a slow, elaborate dive into “f**k boy” insecurities and an attempt to reckon them with the glorified status “the lifestyle” affords. In this struggle, flex becomes mode and praxis, the sound and sound-practice of caring for oneself, and reigns supreme musically manifest in the swagger of the deliveries, the drops, and the changing flows. Part of the flex is a “no f**ks given” attitude, straddling the modes of flex and disillusion in its signification of both privilege and disillusion. Malone uses typical rap signifiers—jewelry, money, haters, women—to go to an emotional and even tender place for the trope within which he’s working. This is one of many signals of a trend of emotional reflection rap-singing in which the trap star’s depressive yet colossal inner life is revealed via a detached moment of reflection.
With features from Justin Bieber, Kehlani, Quavo, and 2 Chainz, Stoney joins the conversation, its unique contribution being Post Malone’s particular flair for romanticizing the twin modes of flex and disillusion and making it all poppy enough to keep us hooked.
Rapper/actor/activist Common returns with his 11th full length album, Black America Again, a strong political and social document about race in 21st century America. He has always had something serious to say, but Common digs even deeper on this record, citing his sources and bringing penetrating social commentary to a musical soundscape as powerful as his political messages.
Social issues have always figured prominently in the Grammy and Oscar-winning musician’s work. Race takes center stage on the title track, a cut that reveals the triumphs and tragedies of African American history but suggests that the issue of interpretation is central to how this history is applied to present struggles. The track features sermonettes between verses, and a hook that features the great Stevie Wonder singing “We are rewriting the Black American story.” Common continues these themes on “Letter to the Free,” a song that addresses the long and brutal history of violence and discrimination against Black people in the United States. “Letter to the Free” presents the argument advanced in Michelle Alexander’s seminal text The New Jim Crow that mass incarceration is the latest incarnation of systemic racism in America.
Common isn’t just spitballing, either. He knows the facts about these issues, asserting the academic and cultural fabric that makes up his critical perspective on “The Day That Women Took Over,” featuring BJ the Chicago Kid. The rapper proclaims that “Michelle Alexander wrote the new Constitution / Beyonce made the music for the revolution.” The song is an ode to Black womanhood, released prior to the presidential election. While the cultural points he makes about the game-changing contributions of Black women cannot be ignored, this song now feels more aspirational than it did prior to November 8. One could easily imagine a situation in which this track could serve as the soundtrack for a victory lap by the first female US president. Rather, it now seems more a reminder that the political fight for equality still rages, despite the fact that the cultural one may appear to be over.
In addition to getting political, social, and historical, Common gets very personal on Black America Again, with “Little Chicago Boy,” a song that narrates the life of his late father, the professional basketball player Lonnie Lynn. Gospel singer Tasha Cobbs is featured on this track, singing a stanza of the hymn “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee.”
Most of this album is harder-edged than the jazz and soul-inflected rap that Common is known for, with sparser tracks, more contemporary textures and aggressive sampling (especially of spoken word) than fans of the rapper’s earlier work may expect. The standout feature is the presence of the Black church on this record, something that listeners who have heard 2016’s other seminal rap releases—Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book—will recognize as a crucial part of the hip hop landscape. What differentiates Common’s treatment from these others is that gospel music is less an integral part of the music—he employs sacred song and sermon to drive home his broader points on specific songs, rather than building his sound around these genres.
There are some gestures to the pop music market on this otherwise brainy artistic and social statement. Foremost among these is the duet track with longtime collaborator John Legend, a ballad with an ear to the pop market that Legend cornered with his piano-driven style. This song, “Rain,” will inevitably be a radio hit: it is vague enough to be about a number of things, but melodic enough to catch the ears of listeners who aren’t hardcore rap fans. In fact, it feels more like a John Legend song than a Common one. Accompanied only by Legend’s piano, Common gets just one verse, a formula far more resonant with the singer-feat. rapper model than rapper-feat. singer one. There are other songs that aren’t explicitly political. “Love Song” and “Red Wine” fall more into the club slow-jam category than something one may expect on a political mixtape, but even the latter reads as a celebration of Black American royalty and the rapper’s status within it.
Hopefully, Black America Again will usher in an era of similarly specific and poignant social and political commentary from both Common and other rappers in his vein. Election years are normally brimming with political releases, and this is by far one of the strongest of the bunch. Common’s politics are clear, certain, and compelling—his musical orchestrations of them uncompromising. Conscious listeners will need more releases like this in the years to come, and it seems like Common is primed to deliver them.
Afrofuturism is an engagement with and an intervention into the tropes science fiction, denying the assumption of the whiteness of speculative worlds and claiming a place in space for people of African descent and Black culture. In literature, authors such as Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney have imagined future Earths or space adventures populated with the characters and themes important to the historical and contemporary Black Diaspora and the transnational cultures of the Black Atlantic.
In music, bands and musicians such as Parliament, Sun Ra, Drexciya, Kool Keith and Deltron 3030 have created personas and albums using the tropes of Afrofuturism. Clipping.’s new album, Splendor & Misery, engages with this musical aesthetic, drawing on experimental electronic music, hip hop and gangsta rap to create a thrilling and emotionally affective sonic space opera.
Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes’ debut, CLPPNG (Subpop, 2014), was a rap album performed and recorded in an experimental manner. The group deployed the themes and language of gansta rap through rhymes spit over analogue synthesizers and experimental beats, delivering the poetic and profane narratives over blasts of electronic noise. Even though it was not a concept album or a rap opera, because of its execution, it could be interpreted as a series of interconnected stories.
Splendor & Misery shares the flow and the experimental production of CLPPNG, but it is radically different in tone. This time, Diggs (the star of Hamilton), Hutson (a.k.a. Rale) and Snipes (also of Captain Ahab) set out to create an intentional concept album about a slave named Cargo 2331 who survives a slave revolt on an intergalactic transport where all human inhabitants except him have been terminated with gas. This leaves him alone with the ship’s computer, who we learn falls in love with 2331 on “All Black Everything.” This and other songs are told from the perspective of the ship’s computer, while others such as “Air Em Out” tell of Cargo 2331’s experience on the ship and his background growing up. The rap songs are intercut with spiritual-style acapella songs like “Story 5,” breaking up the flow of the rhymes and beats with both mourning and hope, and grounding the science fiction themes into a musical genre that evokes the Black Atlantic narrative.
The melding of rap and experimental noise music on clipping.’s first album was an aural shock that some rap and hip hop critics disliked, accusing the group of not being “real” hip hop (see Wondering Sound interview). In my opinion the white noise, clanks and saw tooth waves evoked an industrial violence that tangled together nicely with the pulp crime aesthetics of the album’s gangsta rap lyrics. It was jarring, but the discordance of the noise and flow in a song like “Dominoes” worked together, evoking the life of a gangsta who survived the game, in an exciting way.
The blips and fm noise on Splendor & Misery fit more logically into a story of a protagonist on a ship floating in space; for many listeners these sounds signify science fiction space and because of this, the beats and flows sound more incorporated. On this album, it is the spirituals that are jarring to the listener. Nodding our head to a tuff banger one minute then being immersed in the longing and sadness of a spiritual the next is a different, potentially more difficult kind of dissidence. Rocking out to the catchy rhymes of “Air Em Out,” then switching gears to a song like “Story 5” that tells the story of Grace—a community leader who taught self-defense in a dystopian world but who was randomly struck down—could be off-putting to some listeners. But as an album, clipping. makes it work.
Bouncing around between themes of anger, defensive posturing, inspiration, alienation and spirituality, narrating how the character survives violence and determines his own future, clipping. weaves both musical styles and the various themes together into songs like “True Believer” or the uplifting album closer “A Better Place.” Sometimes music groups who deliver exceptional debut albums struggle with their sophomore album, delivering a pale imitation of the first, or an unfocused muddle that does not become clarified until subsequent albums. clipping. avoided both those scenarios by gathering up everything they worked out on CLPPNG, heeding the call of the Mothership and blasting their game out into space chanting “All Black Everything.”
While De La Soul’s heyday was arguably in the 1990s, the group remains a strong presence in hip hop, despite the fact that the last time it released new music was in 2004. This is largely because De La’s jazz-influenced sound set the template for Kendrick Lamar and others who borrow samples and approaches from jazz music and in part because their classic records age like fine wine, still sounding fresh some 20 years later. The group’s most recent release prior to this August was 2014’s Smell the D.A.I.S.Y., a digital download full of re-recordings of classic tracks (along with a complimentary download of the entire back catalog for email subscribers!), a gesture that now feels like a primer for this year’s new release. and the Anonymous Nobody… is a kickstarter-funded, genre-bending record that may leave old fans scratching their heads—the album seems to be both a victory lap and a comeback record. Following is the group’s short documentary about the making of the album:
De La Soul probably didn’t need to release a new record in 2016—or any year for that matter—and the foremost question in many readers’ minds may be whether there is anything really new here, or whether and the Anonymous Nobody… is just a rehash of the group’s ‘90s sound that has a few more gray hairs. While there are certainly elements of the group’s signature sound (as on the jazz-influenced “Royalty Capes”), the album seems primarily to revolve around the group’s rotating cast of guest stars, a roster that includes Jill Scott, Snoop Dogg, David Byrne, Usher, 2 Chainz, and Damon Albarn. What the supporting personnel have in common with De La is that many listeners may wax nostalgic about their music—this is the “I remember when…” crowd. While this is not necessarily a liability, it sets the stage for a wash of sounds and approaches that, ultimately, we’ve heard before. For instance, the track featuring David Byrne, “Snoopies,” draws heavily from Byrne’s bag of electro-pop sensibilities. Similarly, “Greyhounds,” a somewhat antiquated girl-corrupted-by-the-big-city story, leans stylistically on Usher’s well-established R&B fusion. At other moments, this record just gets weird—De La Soul was always on the eccentric end of the hip hop spectrum, but when Justin Hawkins of the Darkness leads a Queen-esque overdubbed vocal and guitar orchestra, it may get lost on the listener that this is an album by the legendary rap group. In short, the guest stars often overshadow the core group.
While working with a live band proves an asset, meandering effortlessly from rock to neo-soul, ultimately the intensity of the record, both lyrically and musically, lags at times. And the Anonymous Nobody… plays like many records with a large cast of extras do—providing a great first listen with diminishing returns. This is both a testament to De La Soul’s versatility and an indication that the group of vets is open to trying something new, with experimentation sometimes leading to mixed results.
Tarica June’s latest EP, Stream of Consciousness Volume 1.5, takes on a wide range of topics, from gentrification to life as a millennial. This is the third release from the lawyer and rapper, preceded by Moonlight (2010) and Stream of Consciousness Volume 1 (2014). Born and raised in Washington D.C., June is carving out her place in a hip-hop community that includes a diverse array of artists, such as Wale, Fat Trel, Shy Glizzy, and of course a host of go-go musicians as well.
Over the course of the EP’s five songs, June displays versatility and leans toward introspection, focusing on her craft, her grind, and her potential to make it as an independent artist. Like other popular rappers today, namely Chance the Rapper, she rejects the necessity of a label, instead releasing her music online. Her flow is similar to New York rapper Nitty Scott, MC and Chicago’s Noname. There are also hints of influence from an older generation of rappers, such as Queen Latifah.
The most popular track on the album by far is “But Anyway,” which is an assessment of a rapidly gentrifying DC. As a third generation resident, she reminisces on the days of “Chocolate City,” referencing Marion Barry’s summer youth employment program, DC’s Metro system, as well as heavier topics such as mass incarceration and the displacement that gentrification is causing. The video, which features June strolling around key sites in DC, went viral in March. Currently working on her first full-length album, the city is excited to see what comes next from Tarica June.
According to the French art theorist Nicolas Bourriad, many of our modernities are defined by moving towards an explosion, or a release of energy. Hip hop, more than most other musical genres, seems to express this quest for explosion, time and again. Despite its recent widespread lyrical decrepitude, millions listen to hip hop because it expresses this explosion. Rapper Talib Kweli, known for his political rap, released the digital version of his latest album, Fuck the Money, for free. He seems to want to explode the capitalism that defines the individual realities that we lead and provide us with a rhythmic, unburdening, existence. It’s a commendable effort that could have been that much better if it was the product of serious thought, and not a fascination with tough slogans and hip hop’s ability to speak to pathos.
The album itself sounds like the electronic production that we are used to associating with expensive beats—it’s charged yet simple, as though there was not quite enough money to purchase even better beats. “Money Good” is the album’s best song, featuring a mix of acoustic and electronic instrumentation that melds perfectly with Kweli’s delivery. “Nice Things” is a great and loud listen, featuring the fast paced, conscious rap that Kweli is well known for. He throws punchlines that are brilliantly woven together into a moral statement, but it’s the song’s agenda that resonates the most. “Echoes” features great rhythm and ambient, dream-like production. The album gets smoother as it progresses, and Kweli is actually much better at being smooth than he is at being loud. “Baby Girl” is an example of this, with Kweli sounding very similar to young J. Cole. On “The Venetian,” featuring Niko Is & Ab-Soul, they rap about their progression from corner stores to luxury hotels.
Though it might be tempting to sit amazed by the A-list of producers featured on the album’s 11 tracks, I would not recommend listening to the album that way. Look at the name of the producer only after listening to the song, and judge the song on its own merits rather than by its credentials. Then, the songs’ limitations and strengths will become apparent.
Has the album led to a Bourriadian explosion? Have I now proclaimed, “fuck the money”? I, personally, have not. Though this album is a commendable effort with the spectacular song “Money Good,” it falls short of fully erupting.
Perhaps the best word to describe The Rebellion Sessions, the new collaboration from Detroit producer/rapper Black Milk and D.C. area band Nat Turner, is “vibey.” Like much of J Dilla’s solo output, the 10 brief instrumental tracks on The Rebellion Sessions create a sonic space for listeners to immerse themselves in. While there isn’t much to make any one of these tracks especially memorable in the way of melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic development, the grooves on this record provide a solid and nondescript soundtrack. This music ultimately will become what an individual listener makes of it, and is ripe and ready for sampling. It’s hard to say what to call the sounds on this release—perhaps jazz, hip hop, or something in between—but it is the stuff that breakbeats are made of.
Ultimately, what will draw most listeners to this music is the quality production, spearheaded by Black Milk. Featuring strong grooves, detailed textures, and tasteful sampling and electronic effects, The Rebellion Sessions provides chill vibes for days.
Last year’s documentary Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives is now available on DVD and just premiered on Showtime May 18th. The film chronicles the contributions of Stretch Armstrong (Adrian Bartos) and Bobbito Garcia, two deejays who begun a hip hop radio program on the night shift of Columbia University’s radio station in 1990. The Stretch and Bobbito show is widely heralded as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) hip hop radio shows of all time, due to both its staying power and the artists that the deejay duo broke to listeners in New York City.
The documentary charts the program’s story largely by chronicling the artists featured on it, including interviews with many of the rappers Stretch and Bobbito introduced to radio listeners, including Fat Joe, members of the Wu Tang Clan, Jay-Z, and Nas—the film reads as a veritable Who’s Who of 90s hip hop. Many of these artists get to listen to tapes of the show, either via airchecks or programs taped by listeners, hearing their own rare written performances and freestyles. This is one of the great assets of the film—it is likely that most viewers have never heard the verses on these recordings, and it is fascinating to hear artists like Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the Notorious B.I.G. rapping over Stretch Armstrong’s beats prior to achieving their legendary status.
The deejays’ story follows that of many of the artists, moving from red eye college radio to the duo’s debut on New York’s largest radio station, Hot 97, before disbanding the show. Stretch and Bobbito are back together in the film, discussing their motivations for starting the program, its remarkable heyday, and shifts in the music and broadcasting industries as a result of hip hop’s historical trajectory during the 1990s.
Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives documents an essential slice of the New York hip hop scene, showcasing one of the most important launchpads for artists who would emerge as quintessential figures in hip hop. This film is essential viewing for heads and emphasizes the important role that radio programmers had in the pre-internet age of underground hip hop, giving unknown artists a platform to launch into the mainstream.
If you aren’t already familiar with Anderson .Paak, prepare to get comfortable seeing and hearing him everywhere. Those words might sound like cliché “next big thing” filler, but with .Paak’s recent association with Dr. Dre, appearing on 6 tracks of Dre’s Compton release and his recent signing to Aftermath Records, it’s clear that this up-and-comer has up-and-came. What’s also clear is that .Paak is entirely deserving of this and future success not because of his tragically difficult background, but because of his resplendently smooth and positive neo-soul sound.
There is something completely and intentionally California about .Paak’s music. His first two full length albums, Venice (2015) and Malibu (2016) put his home state right in their titles, and beautifully reflect the combination of abject poverty and natural beauty that draws people in and can sometimes keep them down. “The City,” the third track on Venice introduces that conflict with a sample of someone making reference to Venice, CA’s derogatory nickname—“The Slum by the Sea.”
That juxtaposition—beauty and poverty, oppression and optimism—is what makes .Paak so compelling. His music doesn’t shy away from straight talk about life’s hustle, but it never allows itself to be pulled down into deep negativity.
A prime example comes from “The Dreamer,” one of Malibu’s most successful tracks to date:
Credited as featuring “The Timan Family Choir” (four of Paak’s nieces who love to sing), “The Dreamer” bursts out with a jubilant chorus:
This one’s for all the little dreamers / And the ones who never gave a fuck
I’m a product of the tube and the free lunch / Living room, watching old reruns
And who cares your daddy couldn’t be here? / Mama always kept the cable on
I’m a product of the tube and the free lunch / Living room, watching old reruns
In other hands these lyrics could be depressing, but .Paak arranges the smooth guitar, delicate piano, children’s voice and soulful beat into a jam that celebrates survival and provides the sort of affirmational truth that encourages listeners to keep dreaming.
If anyone would have the right to write depressing music, it would be .Paak. Born Brandon Anderson Paak to a South Korean mother and a father who abused his mother and would later go to jail for drugs, he spent years living on the streets and way below the poverty level. In spite of, or perhaps because of his struggles, .Paak brings the soul to neo-soul. His music doesn’t just practice retro aesthetics but expertly melded decades of African American music into something that feels entirely comfortable while sounding entirely new. A consummate musician, .Paak sings like he’s in church, raps like he’s on the street corner, and drums like he’s in a jazz band.
.Paak has been compared to Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar, but the similarities lie more in ethos than sound. .Paak, Ocean, and Lamar represent a new wave of Black musicians who are willing and able to make emotionally resonant music that speaks to the politics of today’s society, while remaining danceable and ready to be bumped from a car on a summer afternoon.
Kanye West’sThe Life of Pablo is a disconnected, spontaneous, yet ultimately passionate body of work that seems to parallel his current public persona. The album, given only to fans via the Tidal streaming service, was released earlier this year on February 14 and is Kanye’s seventh studio album. The deluxe version of the album contains 18 tracks, and includes a variety of topics such as his turbulent relationship with Taylor Swift, his desire to become a better friend, and a plea to his wife for them to stop attending parties in Los Angeles. There are definitely a few hits on the album, but it does lack a cohesive, story-telling or cinematic experience, a talent he showed off on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Kanye’s spastic personality has ensured that his music is always placed under a microscope, being dissected, scrutinized, and criticized more than most of today’s best artists. The album as a whole relies heavily on gritty, analog drum kits complete with Dilla-like swing, sounding similar to his College Dropout days but with added maturity. It’s also notably less influenced by electronic music than Yeezus was; however, he still seamlessly blends his trademarked (not literally) soulful samples with cutting edge digital instrumentation. A great example of this is on “Father, Stretch My Hands Part I,” where the intro gospel sample from Pastor T.L. Barrett transitions into a hard-hitting trap style drop with 1/64 hi-hats and snappy 808 snare rolls. The gospel theme can also be heard at other points throughout the album, linking together tracks like “Ultralight Beam” and the monologue “Low Lights” through expressive, soulful group-singing and chords.
Another track that deserves special attention is “Real Friends.” Quite possibly the most introspective song from Kanye on the entire album, it begins with a somber, airy piano pad. The grainy, distant melody provides a gloomy tone to be used throughout the whole song. Once the beat drops, rumbling kicks and a subtly filtered yet heavily reverbed snare settle in and drive the rhythm. Ty Dolla $ign provides auto-tuned background vocals, and even at times creates a head-nodding call and response flow. The hook is a simple repetition of the line: “Real friends, how many of us, there’s not many of us, real friends,” with the verses highlighting his displeasure of only being contacted when friends need a favor, as well as his unstable relationships with extended family. “Real Friends,” along with “Ultralight Beam” (featuring Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin), “Famous,” “Waves,” and “No More Parties in LA” (featuring Kendrick Lamar) are the home runs of the album due to the depth of their lyrics and production quality. These tracks could easily make their way to the mainstream media in the near future.
Although sonically ahead of the game, as most of Kanye’s albums are, The Life of Pablo makes a convincing argument that it was recorded with no real plan or direction in mind. There are roughly 6-8 extremely meaningful, well-crafted songs on the album, while the rest of the tracks and intermissions sound like older material added for quantity, rather than quality.
Newark, New Jersey rapper Beneficence released his sixth album, Basement Chemistry, in January on Ill Adrenaline, the record label he co-founded in 2010. The mission of Beneficence and his label is to “keep that raw and authentic boom-bap rap music alive.” The veteran rapper certainly does that on Basement Chemistry, with 19 tracks of diverse beats, clever flows, and a slew of notable guest rappers.
“Digital Warfare” features Inspectah Deck of Wu-Tang Clan and a brassy sample with a traditional boom-bap beat (thanks to cuts by DJ Rob Swift). Both rappers have unique but tight flows that make the song incredibly catchy and cohesive:
Beneficence first started rapping in the 1990s, and his style stays true to the East coast origins of hip hop through heavy sampling, such as the R&B in “Intro” and soul in “Wranglers & Asics,” use of scratching in “Vibrate the Streets,” and narrative storytelling in “Maui Vacation.”
Coming up only a few years after they started, the music of Beneficence is very aesthetically similar to The Roots, and of rappers still in the game, he sounds most like Black Thought. Similar to The Roots, the music of Basement Chemistry is full of soul – not just in the 1960’s and 70’s samples, but in the passion and dedication behind every bar Beneficence raps.
Lecrae has never been one to shy away from controversy, from criticizing rappers who glorify violence on his Grammy-winning Gravity to his personal story about abortion on his last album Anomaly. His latest project, Church Clothes 3 (often abbreviated CC3) is no different. He dropped the ten-track album without warning on January 15, and it fully embraces racial politics in a new way for Lecrae while retaining his characteristic Christian messages.
The first two Church Clothes mixtapes were produced by Don Cannon (50 Cent, Ludacris), and CC3 was produced by S1 (Kanye West, Jay-Z). All three have excellent production with beats that sound typical of what one hears from mainstream hip hop. CC3 reached the number one slot on Billboard’s Rap/Hip-Hop Album charts within a week of being released, showcasing Lecrae’s tendency to cross genre boundaries despite being known as a gospel rapper.
Central to the album and its political messages is the short film that was released simultaneously, featuring the songs “It Is What It Is,” “Gangland,” “Déjà Vu,” and “Misconceptions 3.” The video follows a young gang member who gets shot:
The opening track, “Freedom,” frames the concept through two lenses: freedom as spiritual salvation and freedom from racial injustice. The hook, sung by Dallas vocalist N’dambi, is smooth soul and claims freedom as a mindset. The song samples a gospel chorus in the background, which is chopped up in the verses, creating holy syncopation. There are clear influences of Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed To Pimp A Butterfly throughout the entitle album and video, but this song includes a direct reference to the Lamar’s “King Kunta.”
“Gangland,” featuring Propaganda, is the most overtly political song on CC3. Referencing the New Jim Crow and the government’s role in allowing drugs to permeate African American communities, the track includes spoken narration in between verses that criticize the criminal justice system and explain the origins of gangs in the United States. Maybe most controversial to Lecrae’s white, Christian fan base may be the lyrics in Propaganda’s verse: “When American churches scuff they Toms on our brother’s dead bodies / As they march to stop gay marriage / We had issues with Planned Parenthood too / We just cared about black lives outside the womb just as much as in.”
The song “Can’t Do You,” featuring the rapper E-40, brushes off haters, encouraging the listener to “do you.” It’s backed by a standard hand-clapping beat and a R&B chorus sung by Drew Allen. Another standout track is “Misconceptions 3,” featuring John Givez, JGivens & Jackie Hill Perry. As the title indicates, it is the third in a series of tracks about misconceptions that appear on the first two Church Clothes albums. The beat is fast and hard, and indiscriminate chanting in the background helps moves the song forward. Lecrae lets these rappers shine on the track, with fast flows and witty lyrics such as “They shocked to see us like Donald Trump up in a taqueria.”
Lecrae, who marched with #BlackLivesMatter protestors in Atlanta last year, recently said on CNN that he wants to “educate and help” people who don’t see the reality of racism in the United States. Church Clothes 3 certainly makes a bold step in that direction, as Lecrae explains the complexities of racism, unashamedly continuing to change the way people view the world.
On January 29, poet and performer Saul Williams released what will likely be one of the most challenging records of 2016. Williams is as much a literary figure as a musical one, and MartyrLoserKing is as novelistic as it is musical, following the inner life of a hacker living in Burundi, who’s screenname “MartyrLoserKing” is the source of the album’s title.
Unlike many “socially conscious” musicians that end up doing what is essentially the musical equivalent of “slacktivism,” Williams uses this album as a place to paint a complex and ambivalent picture of the current state of the world. He addresses the prevalence of uninformed fear on “Down For Some Ignorance,” the potential for internet-spread misinformation on the song’s musical and thematic sibling “Roach Eggs,” while expanding to more explicitly political issues including police brutality and systemic racism. Williams, an American expat, writes about the world as a terrifying postmodern dystopia, perhaps nowhere more evocatively than on “All Coltrane Solos at Once.”
The musical soundscapes match this lyrical bleakness, with drum machines that sound far away and collages of electronic bleeps and samples that are alternately disorienting and threatening. All of this leads to the tremendous effect of MartyrLoserKing, which suggests that any remedy to the myriad problems facing humanity must necessarily start with people developing their individual, social and political consciousness.
Detroit’s Jessica Care Moore—a reknown poet, playwright, performance artist and producer—has achieved success through a wide variety of ventures: as a five time winner of “It’s Showtime at the Apollo” competition; as the author of poetry collections including The Alphabet Verses The Ghetto, God is Not an American, and Sunlight Through Bullet Holes; as a performance artist in The Missing Project: Pieces of the D and Black Statue of Liberty; as a returning star of Russell Simmons’ HBO series “Def Poetry Jam;” as CEO of Moore Black Press; and as host, writer and co-executive producer of the poetry-driven television show “Spoken” on The Black Family Channel. But throughout her career, Moore has also indulged her passion for music. Her poetry was featured on Nas’s Nastradamus album and Talib Kweli’s Attack the Block mixtape, and she’s led the Black WOMEN Rock! concert series since 2004. So it should be no surprise to learn that Moore has long been yearning to record her own album.
Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James, Moore’s official solo debut on wax, features notable jazz, soul, techno and hip hop musicians and producers who bring Moore’s vision to life. That vision is more reminiscent of the lilting “jazz poetry” of Langston Hughes than the Black Power era recordings of The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and Imamu Amiri Baraka, or the half-sung, half-rapped sprechstimme of her contemporary, Saul Williams. Moore emphasizes the purity and strength of the spoken word with poems that recognize the central role of music to the Black experience, but she relies solely on the band and backup singers to weave in the musical accompaniment. A number of featured guests contribute to this effort, including Imani Uzuri, Roy Ayers (vibes), Talib Kweli, Jose James, One Belo, Ideeyah, Ursula Rucker, Alicia Renee, and Paris Toon. The band is led by pianist Jon Dixon (Underground Resistance), with Nate Winn on drums, Ben Luttermoser on bass, De’Sean Jones on sax, and Nadir Onowale (Distorted Soul) on the mixing boards.
Black Tea opens with a spoken introduction—the legend of Moore’s alter-ego, Jessi James: “she is his reflection, a city-country girl, a gold horse kissing his black . . . she was waiting for him to call her name – Jessi James of Detroit, of Brooklyn, of Southern blues, of Harlem, of Colorado mountains . . . Detroit jazz, poet outlaw – sometimes the tea is spiked.”
Following are several jazz-based tracks, including “Walking Up 150th Street” featuring Chris Johnson on trumpet, “Pieces” featuring Detroit rock-soul singer Ideeyah, “Deep Breath” featuring alt-rapper One Belo, and “You Want Poems” with Roy Ayers and Jose James. On “It Ain’t Like We Didn’t,” the music shifts from jazz to an acoustic Delta blues style, with Moore riffing on the importance of the genre: “We die for the blues ‘cause we’re born with it . . stone rolling blues runs deep in these veins . . . know your place brown girl . . .”
An acoustic Spanish guitar opens “I Catch the Rain,” with ethereal background vocals provided by Imani Uzuri and Ursula Rucker, while Moore speaks of “this earth keeps pulling back to this place where I buried my wounded heart, countless times, this land of broken promises, this nation of liars, I will not give birth surrounded by all this fear . . .”
Ideeyah returns on “Wild Irish Rose,” singing the chorus “stay away from women with stems extending far beyond their flowers” between verses of Moore’s poem: “If I leave a seed on every corner maybe my people won’t forget me / I know God sent me, or the wind might have dreamt me / So many spirits sitting on top of Motor City, but I got to do something with the power my ancestors leant me . . . Another garden gone, won’t be long before Black girl doesn’t get to sing her song, ‘cause Daddy and the greenhouse disappeared at dawn.
Another highlight is “Catch Me if You Can,” a tour de force alternating between Moore’s reverb soaked verse and Talib Kweli’s rapid fire delivery, backed by acoustic guitar and trumpet.
Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James is Moore’s lush and provocative HERstory, a shape shifting fable rooted in the cultural experiences and music of the 21st century Motor City. This album is especially recommended for those who enjoy contemporary poetry, and for libraries collecting sound recordings of poetry set to music.
This month sees the reissue of what is perhaps one of the greatest rap albums of all time, the first release to earn a perfect 5 mic rating from The Source. A Tribe Called Quest’sPeople’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is a landmark work in terms of style and aesthetics, and is the album on which the group pioneered their signature alternative sound. The jazz samples, cerebral lyricism, and sense of humor that would become the group’s trademarks are all in full force on this record and remind Tribe fans that the members of the group knew who they were and what they wanted to do from the start. Even though this reviewer was two years old when the album came out in 1990, I have to imagine that this album sounded as fresh then as this special edition does now. (Full disclosure, the first rap album I purchased was the group’s jazz-rap masterpiece The Low End Theory.)
This remastered version is crisp, clean, and makes a compelling case for listeners to use actual speakers or high end headphones rather than playing the album through a computer or earbuds (and to download in FLAC format if not purchasing a CD copy). The album’s key tracks have never sounded better—the famous Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, and Chambers Brothers samples sound glorious; and Tip, Phife, and Jarobi’s voices are mixed to a perfect crispness that ensures their smart storytelling is right where it needs to be, slightly to the front of the mix. While heads may miss the sound of scratchy vinyl, this remastered version of the album allows the group’s playful rhymes and crate-digging production to be heard in all of their offbeat glory.
The bonus goodies included in this package are as brilliantly minimalistic as the album itself, including a metallic cover and booklet with a contextual essay by hip hop activist and media assassin Harry Allen. Also featured are three bonus tracks, remixes of cuts from the album by alternative hip hop artists who followed in Tribe’s artistic footprints (pun intended) and were able to find mainstream success. CeeLo Green’s remix of “Footprints” thickens the original track’s soundscape in the neo-soul lounge idiom that Green has perfected. As one may expect, Pharrell Williams’s remix of “Bonita Applebaum” departs fairly radically from the original, replacing Tribe’s laid back soul groove with the low-key percussion-based approach that Williams has successfully exploited on tracks such as Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” J. Cole’s remix of “Can I Kick It?” is perhaps the most unusual approach to the remix, with Cole dropping the track’s iconic “Walk on the Wild Side” sample for something a bit more Quiet Storm and shaving over a minute off of the original song’s length. Each of these reinterpretations shows that A Tribe Called Quest’s genius flows and tracks are transferrable to new stylistic idioms, further illustrating the timelessness of the group’s bohemian approach.
Unlike many albums from its day (here’s lookin’ at you, Mama Said Knock You Out), People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm may truly be timeless—it still sounds as funky and fresh as ever. Reconsidering this album on its 25th anniversary serves as a reminder of the group’s incredible influence on the alt rap-turned mainstream sounds of artists like Green, Williams, and Cole that have become a staple of modern hip hop. A Tribe Called Quest’s style and influence on mainstream rap have perhaps never been more apparent and deserve to be celebrated.
Pistol Politics, the newest release from Paris, continues the San Francisco Bay rapper’s socially-conscious stance that often borders on provocative. Even though the album’s soundscape pulls strongly from the classic G-Funk era, Paris uses this sprawling 27-song double album to update his treatment of some of the perennial themes in his work—gun violence, police brutality, and systemic issues that lead to the difficulties of black urban life—in order to speak to the political climate of the United States in 2015.
While many black artists have released efforts that express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement this year, Paris takes his political expression one step further than others who obliquely reference the movement do, choosing instead to provide an insightful examination of some of the root causes and systemic issues that have become a persistent part of political discourse in the United States. “Night of the Long Knives” takes the highly publicized killings of black citizens by police officers as a point of departure for Paris’s continued critique of the system, featuring a video that—in the rapper’s provocative style—contains images of fantasy street shootouts between armed black citizens and police. These sequences appear to propose a militant solution (couched in the rhetoric of self-defense) to a problem that, in Paris’s estimation, is not being solved due to his contention that “The only language America speaks is violence.”
Paris continues these themes on “Buck, Buck, Pass,” a song that charts a gun’s life from the assembly line through its inevitable use as an instrument of death and destruction. In this song, he highlights elements of the failed system–a mix of racism, profiteering, and political posturing–that enables these weapons to be used so freely. He illustrates this point my name-checking NRA chairman Wayne LaPierre from the gun’s perspective, declaring “You better hope we don’t come for ya,” in a delicious bit of poetic irony. He also offers a forceful critique of the Obama administration’s policies on “Change We Can Believe In” from the perspective of a member of the disaffected black community who voted for the current president, noting that “They hate him ‘cause he’s black; we hate him ‘cause he’s wrong.” A “Redux” version of Paris’s 2009 “Martial Law” is included as well, featuring dead prez and Kam. He pulls other themes from the zeitgeist as a means to illustrate his political vision, quoting Jeff Daniel’s now famous monologue from HBO’s The Newsroomon “The Greatest,” and referencing classic soul music with a sample of Marvin Gaye’s socially-conscious “What’s Going On” on “Pop’s Groove.”
Musically, this album predominantly pulls from the G-Funk tradition, with fat bass lines and the sound of sirens pervading the album. However, the production seems beside the point at times, as Paris’s true calling seems to always have been his role as a socially-conscious militant, with his activist speech simply taking the form of rap music. The production is solid, but ultimately is less remarkable than the ideological work that the rapper does with his lyrics. Pistol Politics is a powerful radical left indictment of the American social and political system. This album begs to be carefully heard and slowly digested.
No one does unique quite like Gangstagrass does. The bluegrass hip-hop group grew out of lead singer Rench’s home in Southern California, where he would breakdance to Run-DMC at school, then come home and listen to Johnny Cash with his parents. Since their beginning, Gangstagrass has made a name for themselves with their distinctive brand of music that holds emcees and banjos at the same level. Their latest album, American Music, includes the Emmy-nominated “Long Hard Times to Come” featuring rapper T.O.N.E-z, which was the theme song on the 2010 FX show Justified. T.O.N.E-z is featured on many tracks, as are a slew of other guests such as Soul Khan, Smif N Wessun, and Megan Jean. As can be heard in the album trailer below, Gangstagrass makes two seemingly incompatible genres blend together quite well, creating a style that is fun and constantly surprising:
Dr. Fernando Orejuela, a senior lecturer in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, is an expert in rap and hip hop. His new textbook, Rap and Hip Hop Culture, stands as a condensed articulation of many years of teaching and research experience ranging from popular music and body art to youth cultures and subculture studies.
Orejuela’s book “traces the ideological, social, historical, and cultural influences on a musical genre that first came to prominence in the mid-1970s in one of New York’s toughest neighborhoods, the South Bronx.” Rap and Hip Hop Culture is therefore not just another book about contemporary youth musical art but one that throws light on “key performers, producers, and voices in the rap and hip hop movements, using their stories to illuminate the underlying issues of racism, poverty, prejudice, and artistic freedom that are part of rap and hip hop’s ongoing legacy.”
While there is often a tendency to dismiss rap and hip hop music because of its overt affirmation of or reference to violence, sexism, and racial stereotyping, Orejuela’s text is based on rigorous field research and delivers the important message that hip hop culture cannot just merely be ignored but demands a systematic and scientific investigation as a key to profound understanding of the attitudes and proclivities of modern youth. A companion website available via Oxford University Press offers additional resources for both students and instructors, including playlists and videos.
Random, now known as Mega Ran, and Storyville met as two young emcees in Philadelphia in 2004.They immediately hit it off, but they both moved to different cities and did not meet again until 2008, when they were both finalists at the Scribble Jam Rap Battle in Cincinnati. At the time, Ran was living in Phoenix and Storyville in New York City. Since that second meeting, Storyville has been involved in some way on nearly every Mega Ran record.
Mega Ran became popular as a “video game rapper,” pioneering what he calls “chip-hop.” He got his name from the Capcom video game character Mega Man, and was even licensed by Capcom. Though Storyville started out busting rhymes at rap battles, he found his major success at recording and mixing, and has even engineered for the legendary George Clinton.
After years of friendship and helping each other out in bits and pieces, Soul Veggies is the first album from the duo. Though Storyville produced many of the tracks, he also got back to his emceeing roots and both rappers share the stage throughout the album. While neither take themselves too seriously and the album is laced with funny quips and nerdy rhymes, their music is no joke.
Refreshingly, Storyville and Mega Ran don’t feel the need to have a catchy pop chorus in every song, but let their beats and clever lyrics speak for themselves. “Artillery” is a prime example of this, as Storyville and Mega Ran rap over an unchanging snare beat, soulful horns, and occasional piano. The simplicity and relaxed vibe of the beat lets their rapping shine. The music video displays their nerdy sides, as it inspired by old video games and even includes the DeLorean from Back to the Future:
Soul Veggies includes commentary on a number of topics, from the state of hip-hop to the NSA. “Rappin’ About Rappin’” is Mega Ran and Storyville’s parody of today’s popular rap songs. As Mega Ran says in the song, “They say ‘Ran you should start writing raps about nothing / My homies crew did it now them cats is all buzzin.” It is filled with cunning lines such as “I’m so SWAG it don’t make sense / hashtag SWAG twitter feed don’t make sense.” It even includes a fast rap section by Storyville akin to Busta Rhyme’s in “Look At Me Now.”
“Eye in the Sky” tackles the ethical dilemmas involved in government surveillance. Lyrics contrast the invasion of privacy in spying on citizens with the possibility of protection of the general public from terrorism attacks and violence. The chorus in the song, sung by Russel Tate, has a James Bond feel similar to Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” or Adele’s “Skyfall.” With references to Edward Snowden and Sandy Hook, the issue is examined from many sides and leaves the listener to make their own conclusions.
Mega Ran and Storyville explained the meaning of the album title as “like vegetables for your soul…with headphones.” They certainly included soul music, as can be seen in the songs “’Til Morning Comes” and “React.” “’Til Morning Comes” has a deeply soulful hook that is a sample of “Drive” by contemporary blues group Downtown Shimmy. It is one of the most melodic songs on Soul Veggies. “React” starts with a standup bass part that turns into the driving force (and beat) of the song.
Soul Veggies is a diverse album that showcases the endless possibilities that ensue when Mega Ran and Storyville join forces. They have a distinct style that comes through every song, which eminates from their unique approach to hip-hop: a defiant combination of comedy, pop culture commentary, and, of course, video game nerdiness.
With a mix of many different genres ranging from rap to R&B to pop rock, The Redland represent the versatility of many modern musicians who can’t be put into a box. Earvin Rodney and Robert Nkosi Evans, or Earv and Kose, met as students at Morehouse College, and eventually ended up leaving school early to pursue music as a hip-hop/R&B duo. They cite a variety of influences for their particular style of music, including Tupac, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan. While they hit success in 2011 with their single “So Far” in the video game NBA 2K11 and have released two EPs, An Enlightened Contagion is their first full album, released with the help of eOne.
Written entirely by Earv and Kose, with every track produced by Kose, the album draws from the language of their manifesto, which is full of passionate, poetic declarations about their goals and viewpoint: “We have been enlightened; enlightened by a new song, a new slang, a fresh beat, a dope groove, a killer riff, a fly tune and a good love.”
The single “Survive,” a soulful song about hope persevering through dark times, particularly in a relationship, includes both R&B and hip-hop elements, though the R&B chorus is what stands out. Kose’s voice is smooth and full of emotion, and the single rap verse has a sound reminiscent of the Roots, with a similar energy and cadence. The video was inspired by The Walking Dead and features the Redland dramatically fighting with zombies to reach one of their wives:
On “In the Rain,” the Redland get serious, talking about people’s reluctance to help others in tough situations, such as people affected by a hurricane or those in poverty. The lyrics call out people for “flipping the channel” and ignoring those who are different because of race or socioeconomic standing. The song’s chorus, “I’d love to see you in the rain,” asks what would happen if the situation was reversed.
Just because they strive to make music with a deeper meaning doesn’t mean the Redland shy away from party music. “Love Thief” is a pop rock hit, with a music video full of partying and social media stalking of exes. “No Sleep” is an electronic song with heavy beats and lyrics such as “Told her chill, she could have her fill / I could flip the bill / Her face looks like she’s from the states, her body like Brazil.” Aside from the remixes included on the deluxe version, it is the most EDM-oriented song on the album.
Many of the tracks, such as “On Me” and “All the Same,” sound like classic R&B songs about love and the struggles of relationships. An exception is “Step Into My Room,” in which the beat drops dramatically after an a capella intro and amps the song up a notch. The lyrics address honesty and the lies people tell each other, and it has a much grittier feel in both the music and the tone of the vocals.
The Redland’s debut album An Enlightened Contagion shows there’s a new rap force in Atlanta to be reckoned with. Their versatility doesn’t detract from the development of an individualized sound, which is hard to define in words but easily detected in their songs. An Enlightened Contagion is a solid hip-hop album, and I expect the Redland will only get better from here.
Reach Records has been churning out music nonstop this past year, from Lecrae’s chart breaking Anomalyto Trip Lee’s impressive album Rise. They seem determined to prove themselves more than just a Christian rap label, pushing the boundaries of holy hip-hop with strong beats and unashamed lyrics. The latest album from Reach, KB’s Tomorrow We Live, is no different. While simultaneously celebrating life and grappling with issues as dark as suicide, KB claims his place as another rapper to watch out for.
One of the most surprising treats from the album is KB’s singing, which has a smooth R&B tone. This is shown on the first track, “Rich Forever,” which KB said in a rundown of the album is about his realization that it’s “contentment, not excess, that makes a man happy.” The track is centered around a simple piano part that connects the melodic chorus and rapped verses, before cutting out to emphasize a few heavy bass drops. It is a strong start to the album, and showcases all of KB’s vocal talents, from his distinctive rapping to R&B and even some falsetto.
The first single from the album, “Sideways,” features Grammy-award winning artist Lecrae. Propelled by a heavy beat, it talks about turning people’s pre-conceived ideas upside down, or in this case, sideways. KB raps, “They don’t know what to do with us / Degree in theology raps for a livin’ / Black man in first class that is reading the scriptures.” KB and Lecrae are certainly not holding back, and even used a rotating set to create the video for the track:
KB takes another risk when he mixes African drums and a USA sports chant in “I Believe,” that actually works together quite well. Using the catchy cheer “I believe that we will win” with immaculately produced beats by Supe and Joseph Prielozny, the song is about hope despite physical and emotional injury. The African drums were inspired by a recent trip KB took to South Africa that resulted in a sound he refers to as “World Trap.”
The brief interlude “9 (AM)” shows KB’s comradery and his love for his family. Featuring a Lecrae song playing in the background while KB speaks to his wife and one-year-old son, the track morphs into “Fall In Love With You,” a song that KB said is dedicated to his son. Along with the following track “Always & Forever,” which is a tribute to his wife and their marriage, these two songs show the soft, intimate side of KB. They are also more upbeat, with a pop feel similar to Jason Mraz or tobyMac.
“Calling You” is by far the darkest and deepest song on Tomorrow We Live, recounting the story of visiting a friend who has recently returned from serving in the Middle East, only to find that the friend is getting ready to commit suicide. The track does not hold back on dramatics and dialogue, combining rapping and singing. These theatrical elements do not make the song feel phony, but rather increase the emotional impact. Based on a real life situation for KB (though names have been are changed), the song displays his attempts to deal with and understand those events. This marks a very clear shift in the album from praise and hope to what it feels like to be in the midst of a deep, personal struggle.
Though “Save Me” and “Drowning” continue to address dark problems people may have, the album turns back to its message of undying hope with “Lights Go Out” and “Crowns & Thorns.” “Lights Go Out” features a chorus sung by Justin Ebach and Blanca, whose vocals are reminiscent of Maroon 5. “Crowns & Thorns” samples the popular contemporary Christian song “Oceans” by Hillsong United in a creative remix that discusses sacrifice.
Tomorrow We Live is KB’s second studio album, and it certainly shows maturation of both his music and his personal life, through his recent transition to fatherhood. Featuring heavy hip-hop as well as tracks with a pop feel, the album is diverse and shows there are any number of possibilities as to where KB will go next.
Before diving into Sadat X‘s latest solo release, I had the pleasure of catching Brand Nubian perform at the Howard Theater in DC. Sadat X, Grand Puba, and Lord Jamar delivered enthusiasm and vigor seen among few artists 20-plus years into their careers. That enthusiasm for rapping is also readily apparent on Never Left.
Much of the album is an homage to New York, illustrated by recollections of crossing paths with NYC hip hop royalty (Biggies, Jay-Z, Nas), and rhyming “finagle” with “bagel” on the opening cut, “We In New York”:
The other central theme of Never Left, also illustrated by the aforementioned interludes, is the introspection born of a long career. “What Up Kid” repurposes the opening phrase from Nas’ “One Love” to impart words of wisdom to the youth, which comes across as more overbearing father than wise uncle. But any lyrical shortcomings can be forgiven by the kind of energy put forth on “On Fire,” featuring a verse from fellow NYC vet Cormega and Lanelle Tyler:
With the exception of “Put It On Me,” which experiments with a reggae beat, the production on Never Left is lush, modern boom bap right in Sadat’s comfort zone. And that’s what makes Never Left work: Sadat X has been around long enough to know what his fans want, and he delivers on that without compromising for the sake of novelty. But most importantly, it is clear he still loves what he does.
Hip-hop has been intertwined with politics and social movements from the beginning, with the most famous example being “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. From its roots in the projects of New York City in the 1970s, hip-hop quickly became a way for African Americans to express frustration as well as political and personal struggles.
Richard Wallace, better known as MC Epic, is bringing back political hip-hop with a vengeance. A Chicago native, Epic is also a member of the hip-hop group BBU, whose 2012 mixtape bell hooks was named the top Chicago indie album of the year. On his first solo album, #OPRAH: Ordinary People Recording American History, Epic has kept all the fire and political commentary of BBU while infusing powerful samples from both movies and music to tell his own personal story.
#OPRAH is “dedicated to the suffering,” and Epic himself calls his sound “Afro Human Emo Trap.” The lyrics tackle subjects from Tuskegee to the death of Epic’s father to the shootings of Treyvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner. To Epic, the title shows the importance of regular people recording history in this digital age, especially when information and events are kept out of mass media. He says in an interview with MusicVox that “These things ain’t gonna show up in mass media, they ain’t gonna show up in production. These things have to be told through each other.”
The first track, “Intro Classic,” samples “Exp” by Jimi Hendrix, followed by Epic proclaiming “It feels good to be Black.” Soulful vocals and organ play behind Epic’s powerful rap, which focuses on the largest theme of the album: racial injustice. The music is dramatic and bold, serving as a grand overture to the album, introducing the tracks as a whole story rather than a random collection of songs.
“Family Tree” is the standout track, with clever lyrics that reference dozens of leaders from the social-political historical struggles of African Americans, as well as various influential hip-hop artists. Epic intertwines these histories seamlessly. Fast-paced beats accompany the sample of “Eleanor Rigby” as Epic raps “I was an 80’s baby / everything was chopped and screwed. / Tupac was a prophet before they gave him juice. / A tree was a tree until they gave that shit a noose. / I guess it’s all strange fruit / that’s my sister Billie Holiday.”
Though it’s easy to focus on the conscious and clever lyrics, the production of #OPRAH is also impressive. Sound bites from The Color Purple are featured at the beginning or end of many of the songs, furthering the theme of racial injustice. For instance, “DoDatAt” ends with The Color Purple scene where the protagonist Sofia repeatedly says “Hell no” when her daughter is asked if she would like to work as a maid.
Though the lyrics are politically charged, they are not controversial for controversy’s sake. Instead, they are a manifestation of Epic’s processing and response to “the continued violence to Black Bodies by Police around the world.” While calling for a public response, Epic is also dealing with a personal question of his own: “How does something like that happen to another human being?”
In “Gadaffi,” Epic discusses these issues on a national and local level, rapping “I’ll die for Trayvon / enlist and play calm” before the chorus, which sings “It’s Chicago, the home of crooked cops, bus stops, and slave masters Daley.” The song “Oprah” has a similar theme and message, but its chorus is more hopeful, and repeats the acronym of the album: “Ordinary people recording American history, we makin’ symphonies.” Both tracks play with the ideas of personal and public, in the same way as the album title does, referring both to ordinary people, and Oprah, one of the most famous celebrities today.
The last song of the album, “Letter To My Father,” is the most personal. The heavy beat is accompanied by strings, which carry the song along and add depth. Over this, Epic raps about his father, who died a few years ago in jail after serving time for over 20 years. Epic uses what his father taught him to discuss systematic racial injustice and personal freedom. The lyrics are connected to a realization he had about his father’s attitude, which was that “a man literally behind prison walls was completely free. If he can be free back there, I refuse to live in bondage out here.”
This last track summarizes the message of the whole album, which is that in order to rid the world of racial injustice, ordinary people must step up and fight for equality. Epic’s father passed on the idea of both a personal and public fight for freedom to his son, and now Epic is passing it on to the world with #OPRAH, an album that goes beyond impressive hip-hop music to make sure everyone who listens considers the systematic injustices faced by African Americans, as well each person’s role in creating and recording that history.
The third volume of acclaimed music journalist Brian Coleman’sCheck the Technique / Rakim Told Meseries is yet another excellent collection of interviews, photographs, and in-depth analysis. The series takes an approach that Coleman refers to as “Invisible Liner Notes – retracing the story of an album step by step, in collaboration with the artists themselves.” Check the Technique, Volume 2 covers a wide variety of hip-hop albums, from as early as 1981 to 1997. Each of the 25 chapters discusses an album in length, using information from interviews with over 80 artists, DJs, producers, and industry insiders.
This volume includes “behind-the scenes histories” from albums such as DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper, Ice Cube’s AkeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, and Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s Are Black Star. Interviews come from a range of artists, including 3rd Bass, Mantronix, Raekwon, Dr. Octagon, The Coup, and Kool G Rap. Coleman goes beyond summarizing the album as a whole to discuss and dissect over 300 unique hip-hop songs.
One of the most impressive aspects of this volume are the images included. As well as album covers for each of the albums, there are photos of handwritten lyrics, cassette tapes, and floppy discs that were used in the process of creating the albums, and even some images of the artists recording in the studios.
As the title suggests, this is a book that any hip-hop junkie will want. Coleman brings to life and creates a concrete record of these legendary works that remain very important parts of hip-hop history. Educators will also find this book to be an extremely informative supplement for courses on hip hop, literature, popular music, and the music industry (as illustrated in the following lecture at USC featuring Coleman, Oliver Wang, Josh Kun, and other panelists):
Nas: Time Is Illmatic is the 2014 documentary that depicts the creation and impact of Illmatic, the widely heralded 1994 debut album by hip hop artist Nas. Illmatic is commonly considered one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time and radically altered the arts of emceeing and production as well as the way hip hop albums were conceptualized. Time Is Illmatic, written by Erik Parker, directed by One9, and narrated by Nas himself, takes us on a journey that begins with Nas’ life as a young boy growing up in New York’s notorious Queensbridge Projects and ends with him receiving a fellowship from Harvard University’s Hip Hop Archive. During this journey, we get to hear from the many individuals who helped shape both Illmatic and the rapper’s life—including his father, trumpeter Olu Dara, rapper-turned-executive MC Serch, and Jungle, Nas’ brother, who offers compelling accounts of the hectic Queensbridge world that Nas emerged from. Hip hop heads will be particularly interested in the segments on the album’s individual tracks which feature commentary from not only Nas, but Illmatic producers DJ Premier, Q-Tip, and Pete Rock.
Time Is Illmatic is an engaging, though sometimes dark look into the development of Illmatic, one of hip hop’s most treasured artifacts making it a must-see for hip hop heads, music fans, and those generally interested in the individual and collective creation of meaningful art.
Blood Moon: Year of the Wolf was initially slated to be a compilation showcasing The Game’s Blood Money Entertainment label; to The Game’s detriment, it was released as his tenth solo album. Given the glut of guest appearances and inconsistent production, it certainly sounds like a poorly-curated compilation. The Game doesn’t even show up on three of the album’s tracks, but by the time the album’s over, who’s going to complain?
“Bigger Than Me,” Blood Moon’s lead single, exemplifies The Game’s biggest problem as a rapper: he continues attempting to situate himself among hip hop’s royalty through name dropping rather than great lyricism, storytelling, or even personality. He comes across as desperate at this point, calling himself the “Black Marshall Mathers” while making homophobic references to Frank Ocean again (see “Freedom” on 2012’s Jesus Piece), and it’s clear The Game is trying to stay relevant by adopting 2014’s trends in flows and beats (as heard on “Really”).
All that said, Blood Moon: Year of the Wolf does have its strong points. “The Purge” is a powerful indictment on the plagues affecting black communities; “Trouble On My Mind” and “Food For My Stomach” are similarly reflective showcases for Blood Money Entertainment signee Dubb; and Freddie Gibbs and Bobby Shmurda (whose “Shmoney dance” is referenced throughout the album) show up on “Hit Em Hard” for some good-natured gun talk. Let’s hope The Game saved the goods for The Documentary 2, the sequel to his highly-regarded 2005 debut, slated for release on its 10th anniversary.