clipping. – Splendor & Misery

clipping
Title: Splendor & Misery

Artist: clipping.

Label: Sub Pop

Formats: CD, LP, Cassette, MP3

Release date: September 9, 2016

 

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.

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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.”

Reviewed by N. A. Cordova

De La Soul – and the Anonymous Nobody…

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Title: and the Anonymous Nobody…

Artist: De La Soul

Label: AOI Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: August 26, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Tarica June – Stream of Consciousness Vol. 1.5

tarica-june
Title: Stream of Consciousness Vol. 1.5

Artist: Tarica June

Label: Bandcamp

Format: MP3

Release Date: March 1, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

Talib Kweli – Fuck the Money

talib kweli

Title: Fuck the Money

Artist: Talib Kweli

Label: Javotti Media

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: December 11, 2015 (CD)

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Adolf Alzuphar

Black Milk & Nat Turner – The Rebellion Sessions

Black Milk and Nat Turner_The Rebellion Sessions

Title: The Rebellion Sessions

Artist: Black Milk & Nat Turner

Label: Computer Ugly

Format: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 20, 2016

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives

stretch and bobbito doc

Title: Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives

Artist: Various

Label: Fat Beats Distribution

Format: DVD

Release Date: April 22, 2016

 

 

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.

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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.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

(For those interested in the history of Black radio, check out the AAAMC’s exhibit on Google Cultural Institute: https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/u/0/collection/archives-of-african-american-music-and-culture?projectId=black-history-and-culture)

Anderson .Paak – Malibu

anderson paak malibu

Title: Malibu

Artist: Anderson .Paak

Label: Steel Wool / Obe

Formats: CD, LP, digital

Release date: January 15, 2016

 

 

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:

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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.

Reviewed by Dorothy Berry

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

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Title: The Life of Pablo

Artist: Kanye West

Label: GOOD Music

Format: Digital

Release date: February 14, 2016

 

 

Kanye West’s The 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.

Reviewed by Joseph Olivieri

Beneficence – Basement Chemistry

beneficence_basement chemistry

Title: Basement Chemistry

Artist: Beneficence

Label: Ill Adrenaline

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: January 29, 2016

 

 

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:

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Two more impressive features are The Legion and Dres (of Black Sheep) on “Make It Hot (Jingle Jangle 2.0),” which samples “Never Can Say Goodbye” by the Jackson 5 and “When the Sun Comes,” with Masta Ace.  Other guest artists on the album include MC Eiht, El Da Sensei, Chubb Rock, MindsOne, and Nack of Tragic Allies.

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Lecrae – Church Clothes 3

CC3

Title: Church Clothes 3

Artist: Lecrae

Formats: CD, MP3

Label: Reach Records

Release date: January 15, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Saul Williams – MartyrLoserKing

saul williams martyrloserking

Title: MartyrLoserKing

Artist: Saul Williams

Label: Fader

Release Date: January 29, 2015

Format: CD, LP, MP3

 

 

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.

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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.

 

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Jessica Care Moore – Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James

Black Tea
Title: Black Tea – The Legend of Jessi James

Artist: Jessica Care Moore

Label: Javotti Media/dist. Fat Beats

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 2, 2015

 

 

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 GhettoGod 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.

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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.

Listen on Spotify here

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

A Tribe Called Quest – People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (25th Anniversary Edition)

ATCQ peoples instinctive travels 25th anniversary edition

Title: People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm-25th Anniversary Edition

Artist: A Tribe Called Quest

Label: Legacy

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 13, 2015

 

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’s People’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.

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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.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Paris – Pistol Politics

paris pistol politics

Title: Pistol Politics

Artist: Paris

Label: Guerrilla Funk Recordings

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: September 11, 2015

 

 

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 Newsroom on “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.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Gangstagrass – American Music

Gangstagrass

Title: American Music

Artist: Gangstagrass

Label: Rench Audio

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 9, 2015

 

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:

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Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Fernando Orejuela – Rap and Hip Hop Culture

Orejuela

Title: Rap and Hip Hop Culture

Author: Fernando Orejuela

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Format: Paperback (272 p.)

Release date: August 2014

 

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.

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

Mega Ran & Storyville – Soul Veggies

SoulVeggies

Title: Soul Veggies

Artist: Mega Ran & Storyville

Label: Brick Records

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: February 17, 2015

 

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:

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

The Redland – An Enlightened Contagion

TheRedland

Title: An Enlightened Contagion

Artist: The Redland

Label: Redland Entertainment

Formats: CD (deluxe edition), MP3

Release date: April 28, 2015

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:

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

KB – Tomorrow We Live

KB

Title: Tomorrow We Live

Artist: KB

Label: Reach Records

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: April 21, 2015

 

Reach Records has been churning out music nonstop this past year, from Lecrae’s chart breaking Anomaly to 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:

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Sadat X – Never Left

SadatX

Title: Never Left

Artist: Sadat X

Label: Loyalty Digital Corp

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: January 20, 2015

 

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”:

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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:

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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.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Epic – #OPRAH: Ordinary People Recording American History

Epic

Title: #OPRAH: Ordinary People Recording American History

Artist: Epic

Label: Self-released

Format: MP3

Release date: November 6, 2014

 

 

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.”

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Brian Coleman – Check the Technique, Volume 2

CheckTheTechnique

Title: Check the Technique, Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies

Author: Brian Coleman

Publisher: Good Road

Format: Softcover book, 544 pages

Release date: October 14, 2014

 

 

The third volume of acclaimed music journalist Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique / Rakim Told Me series 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):

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Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Nas: Time Is Illmatic

Nas

Title: Nas: Time Is Illmatic

Directors: One9 and Erik Parker

Publisher: Kino Lorber

Formats: DVD, digital

Release date: February 3, 2015 (DVD edition)

 

 

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.

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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.

Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

The Game – Blood Moon: Year of the Wolf

The Game

 

Title: Blood Moon: Year of the Wolf

Artist: The Game

Label: Blood Money Entertainment/eOne Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 14, 2014

 

 

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”).

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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.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2

Run the Jewels
Title: Run the Jewels 2

Artist: Run the Jewels (Killer Mike & El-P)

Label: Mass Appeal

Formats: 2LP, CD, MP3

Release date: October 27, 2014

 

 

When I first saw Killer Mike and El-P perform, they had just released R.A.P. Music and Cancer for Cure, respectively.  It was the summer of 2012, and Killer Mike was still turning up the crowd with his verse from Bone Crusher’s “Never Scared.”  El-P headlined, bringing Mike back on stage to perform “Tougher Colder Killer,” and I wondered why they didn’t share the stage more.  I didn’t know I would be seeing them perform together again a year later to a new legion of fans as Run the Jewels, but it was clear that these guys brought out the best in each other.

Run the Jewels 2 builds on the fury released on its predecessor, and it’s hard to believe it was made by two veterans pushing 40.  Killer Mike’s pre-roll exclamations from the booth at the beginning of “Jeopardy” are like a thesis statement for the exuberance that follows for the 40 minute duration of Run the Jewels 2.  To be clear, Run the Jewels do not make music for the faint of heart; Jaime and Mike are not spitting sunshine and rainbows, rather they joyously up the ante of cartoonish violence, raunch, politics, and braggadocio from last year’s debut exemplified on the video for “Blockbuster Night Part 1”:

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Once again, El-P’s productions match the unrelenting deluge of lyrical menace by employing his usual arsenal of cloudy synths and thundering drum patterns topped off with some guitar leads, demented smooth jazz sax solos, and percussion.  The guest appearances are inseparable from their respective songs; the beat to “Close Your Eyes” would be incomplete without the vocal loop from Zack de la Rocha, and it would be hard to fully appreciate “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” without hearing Gangsta Boo’s perspective.  You don’t have to read any interviews with Jaime and Mike to understand how much they enjoy working together; their chemistry permeates Run the Jewels 2, and it’s the most fun you’ll have listening to any rap album from 2014.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Maya Angelou – Caged Bird Songs

mayaangelou

Title: Caged Bird Songs

Artist: Maya Angelou

Label: Smooch Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2014

 

The late Dr. Maya Angelou, renowned writer, poet, actress, singer, and dancer, is an icon in African American culture. Caged Bird Songs, one of the last projects Angelou worked on before her death this past May, combines her poetic spoken words with modern hip-hop production. The album was produced by RoccStarr (who has worked with Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Hudson, and CeeLo Green) and Shawn Rivera (the lead singer of Az Yet, the R&B vocal pop group formerly on La Face/Arista Records).

In an interview, Angelou said, “This project is important. It’s woven into the tapestry of our lives, and we’re being serious and giving and kind about it.” Though at times Angelou’s spoken words and the music are a bit disconnected, they are strong on their own terms, and each track wisely features modern themes that comment on black culture, identity, and family.

Still I Rise” is the standout track on the album, fulfilling the potential of Caged Bird Songs and showcasing Angelou’s beautiful, uplifting poetry. Most of the vocals on this track are sung by Az Yet, with bits of Angelou’s own voice intertwining, leading up to a call and response between the two on the chorus. Full of soul and hope, the gospel style of the song fits the lyrical content, as Az Yet sings, “I rise up from a past that’s rooted in pain.”

One of the opening tracks, “Human Family,” has a very catchy beat, with hip-hop and rock influences. It remains constant as Angelou speaks over the music with a powerful message about the commonality of all people. The ways her vocals are cut off and compiled over the constant beat, however, makes the song feel choppy and a little disconnected instead of blended.  “Sepia Fashion Show” also has this problem, but the music excels due to it’s dynamic and changing mature, instead of a straight electronic rhythm with Angelou’s vocals overlaid. This track features a distinctly hip-hop vibe, as well as a distinct chorus and verse format.

“Harlem Hopscotch” combines surf rock with electronic music to create another musically inspiring track, featuring shouts in a different language and congas. All these different elements come together with Angelou’s words to paint a vivid picture in the listener’s mind.

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With its use of auto-tune, “Ain’t That Bad” sounds both lyrically and musically like a pop song. Far surpassing the previous track with auto-tune effects, it shows how applicable Angelou’s poetry is today, as well as the undeniable connection between hip-hop and poetry.

While Maya Angelou is by far a better written talent than a rapper, this album is creative and showcases her legendary work in a whole new way. The lyrics fit the hip-hop style and the music is innovative and often catchy. Caged Bird Songs has the potential to bring Angelou’s words to a new generation.

Review by Anna Polovick

Trip Lee – Rise

TripLee

Title: Rise

Artist: Trip Lee

Label: Reach Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 27, 2014

The latest venture from Reach Records, Trip Lee’s Rise proves that the ever-growing Christian hip-hop label is bringing gospel rap to a whole new level. Twenty-six year old Trip Lee announced that he was taking a break away from his music in 2012 to focus on his family and health, so when he announced in August that he was releasing a new album in two months, many were surprised. Well worth the suspense, Rise reached number one on the gospel music charts and contains Trip Lee’s best work yet, with complex beats and intricate lyrics.

In one of the most successful singles from the album, “Shweet,” Trip raps about wishing people would brag about their purpose and faith instead of clothes and material items. Trip also raps about who he is, mentioning his birthplace of Texas, his favorite band as a kid, Switch, and working in Atlanta. The music video below features the producer of Rise, Gawvi, who also helped produce Lecrae’s recent record-breaking album Anomaly:

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“All Rise Up” also includes many autobiographical elements, as Trip raps about rising from the bottom to where he is now. The intro to the track describes his 2004 introduction to Reach Records and the Unashamed Tour he did with Lecrae and Tedsashii. Trip makes sure that the listener does not only hear about his success, mentioning his struggles, such as his chronic fatigue syndrome. The song gradually builds layers over melodious piano music, which makes it a catchy cross between pop and hip-hop.

The two tracks that feature successful Reach Records artists Lecrae and Andy Mineo have unique sampling, complex beats and memorable hooks. “Manolo,” which can be a Spanish translation of “Emmanuel,” features Lecrae and uses a metaphor of weapons to describe the Bible without using religious language once. The aggression of the weapon metaphor is reflected in the music, which is heavy and hits beats like bullets. “Insomniac,” featuring Andy Mineo, has a great saxophone part that weaves in and out of the track, changing in dynamic and making the song standout musically on the album.

Other impressive tracks include “Lazarus,” in which Trip tells the classic biblical story through hip-hop, and a follow-up to his 2012 track “Beautiful Mind.” “Beautiful Mind 2 (Mine)” is a love letter to Trip’s daughter, in which he tells her she is beautiful and extols the joys of having her in his life.

On Rise, Trip Lee masterfully raps about faith without feeling preach-y (though he is a real life preacher in Washington, D.C.), and even creates a track or two that could crossover to a secular audience. With the help of Gawvi, Rise is yet another album from Reach Records that shows the level of complexity and mainstream success possible from holy hip-hop.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Freeway & The Jacka – Highway Robbery

Freeway&Jacka

Title: Highway Robbery

Artist: Freeway & The Jacka

Label: Team Early/The Artist

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 16, 2014

 

The cleverly titled Highway Robbery is a bicoastal collaboration between Philadelphia native Freeway, best known for his prior association with Roc-A-Fella, and Bay Area veteran The Jacka.  Although this is their first official release, Freeway and The Jacka have been making music together for the last six years; 2013’s Write My Wrongs mixtape documented that work while serving as a prequel to their proper debut.

It’s been seven years since Freeway released Free at Last, his final album for Roc-A-Fella.  He has toned down his signature fiery yelp, providing a more subtle contrast to The Jacka’s melodic old-head wisdom.  Freeway has discussed the contrasts between working with a major label and independently; when he spits “Got with Jacka ’cause he pray like I pray” on “Dunya,” his voice makes it clear that this collaboration was a necessary part of fully establishing himself as an independent artist.

Freeway and The Jacka are both Muslims, and references to their faith are present throughout the album.  Taken at face value, proclamations of faith seem at odds with secular narratives of drug selling and consumption, gun violence, and other indulgences of the flesh (“Shuckin’ and Jivin’,” “Get Your Shine”).  But Islam drives their collective conscience and will to survive.  “On My Toes” illustrates this dynamic, whether it’s the consequences of losing a drug connect or staying safe when you might get robbed for rent money at the first of the month.

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Production-wise, Highway Robbery is an updated representation of what’s worked for them over the years, driven by The Jacka’s ear for a diverse range of beats. Familiar Bay Area names like Jeffro, Young L, and Traxmillion lay bluesy, lush arrangements incorporating everything from soft synth pads to Middle Eastern percussion to Daft Punk (“One More Time”).

Reflecting the longevity of each rapper’s career, the album’s guest list draws largely on established acts from a variety of regions.  New York legend Cormega helps set the tone on album opener “Write My Wrongs.”  Paul Wall and Trae tha Truth add some Houston flavor on “One” and “Just Remain,” respectively.  Gary, Indiana native Freddie Gibbs reflects on success in 12 bars on “Cherry Pie.”  Atlanta favorite Killer Mike shares the lighter side of being a Muslim on “Sunnah Boys,” while Bay Area compatriot Husalah closes out the album with a can’t-top-this verse on “Shuckin’ & Jivin’.”

Highway Robbery is a showing of force from two rappers who may not have much new to say, but offer needed perspectives only those who have lived through it can give.  What makes Highway Robbery enjoyable is the chemistry between two dedicated craftsmen.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Zion I – Libations EP

Zion1Libations

Title: Libations EP

Artist: Zion I

Label: Self-released

Format: MP3

Release date: April 22, 2014

 

Libation: perhaps your first thought upon hearing the word is a tasty, relaxing beverage.  Libation is a ceremonial practice of offering that dates back to the ancient Egyptians, and has been represented in modernity by the pouring of malt liquor “for the homies.”  Emcee Zumbi stated that Zion I’s Libations, the second installment in a trilogy of EPs, came from a place of reflection after the passing of a close friend.  When Gavin Grant sings “the rebirth, the light you seek is there to reach before you” over Featherload’s arpeggiated synths on “Past the Mind,” it is clear that this EP wants to be a libation in its own right.  “Lateef’s Song” is a fitting centerpiece and tribute to that friend.

The EP is not only about contemplation on death and the afterlife.  “Futurism” is an airy ode to love over jazzy synths with slick guitar accents.  Mr. Lif, Kev Choice, Deuce Eclipse, Opio, and Sadat X all drop 16 bars over a conga-laden Headnodic beat on the posse cut “Get Urs”:

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Not counting a reprise of “Past the Mind” with an alternate hook, Libations closes with another contemplative chorus from Gavin Grant on the bittersweet “Break the Fall.”  As with any good serial, this EP leaves the listener ready to hear what’s next from Zumbi and AmpLive.  “Unity“, their most recent single, addresses the Michael Brown shooting and police brutality against black men in America.  Perhaps they will conclude this trilogy by addressing issues of the present while looking to the future. (Read my review of the first installment, Masters of Ceremony, here).

Reviewed by Will Chase

Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty

shabazz

Title: Lese Majesty

Artist: Shabazz Palaces

Label: Sub Pop

Formats: CD, 2LP, MP3

Release date: July 29, 2014

 

Despite the forward-looking modernity implied by the term, Afrofuturism has one foot strongly rooted in the past.  Sun Ra is often cited as the prototypical Afrofuturist, taking the mysticism of ancient Egypt into the outer spaceways through pro-black ideology, imagery, dance, and most importantly, music.  Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces, emcee Ishmael Butler and producer Tendai Maraire, present what Afrofuturism means in modern hip hop with their second album for Sub Pop, Lese Majesty.

Their video for “#CAKE” illustrates this perfectly, and one must ask if this is a reflection on a self-indulgent hashtag, or is the song really called “pound cake”?

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Despite the space-age production and seemingly abstract lyrics, Lese Majesty reveals that it never really strays far from hip hop’s lineage through repeated listens.  Ishmael Butler was a member of the seminal trio Digable Planets, who explored Afrocentric themes and mixed samples with live instruments during their brief two album run (particularly on their swan song Blowout Comb) in the early 1990s.  These themes and production aesthetics stayed with Butler into the formation of Shabazz Palaces, particularly molding his vocals as a sonic texture just as much as an outlet for poetry.

Lese Majesty is arranged into 7 suites (although the double LP track listing implies an 8th untitled suite), each of which really showcase Maraire’s chops as a producer. The following tracks appear during the first suite, and perhaps harken most back to their debut LP Black Up:

“Forerunner Foray”

“They Come in Gold”

Each suite explores both new lyrical and production ideas that, upon careful listening, quickly become familiar.  Atmospheric synths have been part of rap since the days of Grandmaster Flash; Afrika Bambaataa was creating alien vocal sounds, and both of those were inspired by the likes of George Clinton and Sun Ra.  With Lese Majesty, Shabazz Palaces are carrying on tradition while challenging the sovereign state of rap.

Reviewed by Will Chase