Choosey & Exile – Black Beans

 

Title: Black Beans
Artist: Choosey & Exile
Label: Dirty Science
Release date: March 29, 2019
Formats: CD, LP, Digital

 

Four years after his debut album Left Field, LA rapper Choosey makes his long-awaited return with Black Beans, his collaboration with producer Exile. Delving into his lineage as both a San Diegoan and an Afro-Chicano, the tracks pay homage to both the successes and challenges of his particular positionality, capturing the beautiful struggle while navigating life’s potholes throughout sunny Southern California. Continue reading

Anu Sun – Sanguine Regum

 

Title: Sanguine Regum
Artist: Anu Sun
Label: Ropeadope
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: February 8, 2019

 

Music is in a constant state of evolution, enlightening our soundscapes with its ingenious performers who move themselves and their creations beyond the norm.  Producer, songwriter and engineer Anu Sun, affectionately known industry-wide as “Anu The Giant,” is one such artist. A staple in New York City’s live music scene, Sun’s recent credits include work on the Grammy Award winning motion picture soundtrack Miles Ahead, production partner Robert Glasper’s Grammy nominated Black Radio 2, his collaborations with jazz and R&B staples like Bilal, Ledisi, Laura Mvula and his credits with legends like Johnny Cash and Miles Davis. With the release of his own album, Sanguine Regum, Sun has positioned himself as a prominent, provocative renaissance musician alongside his peers in the business. But his music goes deeper than that. Continue reading

Yugen Blakrok – Anima Mysterium

 

Title: Anima Mysterium
Artist: Yugen Blakrok
Label: I.O.T.
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: February 1, 2019

 

South Africa’s Yugen Blakrok, with her smoky voice and mesmerizing lyricism, is a fresh force to be reckoned with in the hip hop stratosphere. With the release of her debut album she captured the attention of Top Dawg Entertainment, who succinctly wove her uniqueness into “Opps” on the Black Panther soundtrack alongside Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar. With her sophomore album Anima Mysterium, Blakrok continues to deliver mind-blowing rhymes infused with fortitude and finesse—a literal mix of sci-fi soundscapes and meditative melodies. Continue reading

Beldina – Black & Blond

 

Title: Black & Blond
Artist: Beldina
Label: Self-released
Formats: Digital
Release date: February 8, 2019

 

Born in Stockholm with ancestral ties to Kenya, Scandinavian R&B artist Beldina Malaika pays homage to her heritage through her autobiographical album title, Black & Blond. An aspiring artist from an early age, Beldina was accepted to one of Sweden’s most prestigious performing arts schools at age 10. Soon after, she was releasing her own music and performing with some of Sweden’s top acts in the country’s most iconic venues. Her work with artists such as Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams and Childish Gambino further enhanced her legendary status, and with the release of her newest EP, Beldina is emerging as a free, independent artist. Continue reading

Mykele Deville – Maintain

 

Title: Maintain
Artist: Mykele Deville
Label: No Trend
Formats: LP, Digital
Release date: February 22, 2019

 

Chicago is a hot bed for contemporary hip hop activism—Noname with her proactive lyrics, Chance the Rapper’s dedication to the area’s public school system. Alongside these two, poet, educator, actor and rapper Mykele Deville has entered the Chi-town scene. Dedicated to critiquing and fighting structures of oppression through self-reflection and self-critique, Deville’s new album, Maintain, is a motivational collection dedicated to the complexity of Black life. Straight out of the city’s West Side, Deville spent a year and a half writing seven songs he felt encapsulated not only the absurdity of the political moment we find ourselves in and the triumphs/failings of the Black American experiment, but also the resiliency it takes to exist and self-examine within those confines. Continue reading

Mr. Del – Black

 

Title: Black
Artist: Mr. Del
Label: Dedicated Music Group
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: December 28, 2018

 

Del Lawrence, aka “Mr. Del,” has come a long way in the hip hop world since his early days with Three 6 Mafia. His religious conversion in 2000 after his first album marked his turn towards Christian/gospel rap, and since that point Mr. Del has devoted his resources primarily to assisting others in need. He is the pastor of Memphis-based City of Refuge Church through which he has created a global podcast and lecture circuit outreach program in order to spread the word of God. Dedicated Music Group (DMG) is his self-founded label company, allowing Del to develop new talent and produce multiple hard-hitting albums each year. Continue reading

The Black Eyed Peas – Masters of the Sun Vol. 1

 

Title: Masters of the Sun Vol. 1
Artist: The Black Eyed Peas
Label: Interscope
Release Date: October 26, 2018
Formats: CD, Digital

 

Before their mega-hit, “Where is the Love,” before Fergie, before holding both the number 1 and number 2 Billboard Hot 100 spots with their 2009 singles, “I Gotta Feeling” and “Boom Boom Pow,” The Black Eyed Peas established themselves as conscious rappers with their 1998 Interscope debut album, Behind the Front.  Twenty years later, the group is returning to their roots with their newest release, Masters of the Sun Vol 1. Loosely based on the 2017 graphic novel bearing the same name, The BEP circles back to hip hop’s conscious scene, providing us with their most politically-charged collection to date. Continue reading

Anderson .Paak – Oxnard

 

Title: Oxnard
Artist: Anderson .Paak
Label: Aftermath/Universal
Release date: November 16, 2018
Formats: CD, Vinyl, Digital

 

Since the 2016 release of his sophomore album Malibu, Anderson .Paak continues to shine. Not only did that album result in his Grammy nomination that same year for Best Urban Contemporary Artist, but he has since been featured on tracks for both established and up-and-coming artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, Chance the Rapper, Dr. Dre and Rapsody. His latest creation may well follow that same trajectory. Continue reading

Masta Ace and Marco Polo – A Breukelen Story

 

Title: A Breukelen Story
Artist: Masta Ace and Marco Polo
Label: Fat Beats
Release Date: November 9, 2018
Formats: CD, LP, Digital

 

Brooklyn, hip hop’s locus, has nurtured some of the most legendary artists in the game. Many tributes have highlighted the borough’s significance, both to the genre and as a vital part of New York City. A Breukelen Story, Masta Ace and Marco Polo’s first official collaboration, manages to do just that and so much more. Continue reading

America’s Child – Shemekia Copeland

shemTitle: America’s Child

Artist: Shemekia Copeland

Label: Alligator

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: August 3, 2018

 

Since her Outskirts of Love release, “Queen of the Blues” Shemekia Copeland has been striving for a deeper representation of Americana blues. With her newest offering, she has done just that. Combining elements of rock, soul and country, America’s Child is Copeland’s most diverse and compelling work yet. Continue reading

The Suffers – Everything Here

suffers

 

Title: Everything Here

Artist: The Suffers

Label: Shanachie

Format: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: July 13, 2018

 

The Suffers are a multi-faceted, musically diverse group hailing from the Gulf Coast, and just in case there’s any doubt, the first track, “Intro (A Headnod to Houston)” sets us on the right path. Their musical style, however, is less straight-forward. Soul? Jazz? Neo-blues? Retro R&B? The group, comprised of eight highly-talented individuals from multiple artistic backgrounds, can be classed as all of these and more. As lead vocalist Kam Franklin states, “We make music for all people.” Houston marks the album in more ways than one, as area rappers Paul Wall and Bun B. cameo on more than one track, and many songs express love for the city and its inhabitants. The Suffers exploded onto the scene in 2015 and 2016 with their EP Make Some Room and their self-titled debut album, and their newest offering, Everything Here, is a fitting follow-up.

The short album introduction leads into the first full-length track, “I Think I Love You.” The song has a rocking rhythm that quickly captures your mind, encouraging you to sit back, relax and let the music take control. The melody line is simple and repetitive, and exactly what you didn’t know you needed, with the beautiful lullabying of Franklin’s crooning settling your soul. Bun B’s cameo in “Bernard’s Interlude (feat. Bun B.) has a mellow, Barry White-esque tone, furthering the mood of relaxation and contemplation. Further down the list, “You Only Call” shines a spotlight on the sporadic moments every relationship—familial, personal or otherwise—can suffer in its quest to work out. “Sure to Remain” completes relational upsides as well, dealing us another round of sweet melody nestled down in a funky, electro-piano and percussion feather bed.

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In keeping with their inclusive promise, the group also offers up-tempo melodies. The title-track, “Everything Here,” is a sweet-spot mixture of all the group has to give, including Franklin’s disclosure that “Everything here, everything here/ reminds me of you.” The track “All I Want To Do” showcases Franklin’s expert songwriting abilities in the band’s jazz instrumentals and her own melodic virtuosity. “Do Whatever” cements the Suffers as message deliverers of rounded choice and acceptance, while the closing track, “Won’t Be Here Tomorrow,” urges us to appreciate the now, as things can change at the blink of an eye and the drop of an instrument.

Everything Here’s bold statements about life, love and home in tandem with their interdisciplinary musical style do indeed uphold the album’s declaration. The Suffers have everything in our musical world to offer to all in their artistic world willing to listen.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Nsimbi – Nsimbi

Nsimbi
Title: Nsimbi

Artist: Nsimbi

Label: Imara

Format: CD, Digital

Release Date: June 22, 2018

 

 

American-Ugandan power duo Nsimbi offer their debut onto the world stage with their self-titled album, Nsimbi. Hip-hop MC Zamba and American song-writer Miriam Tamar comprise this duo they describe as originating from ancient African insight in the form of Swahili proverbs. As Zamba explains, every song is based on a thread of those adages connected through the theme of human oneness and sociality. These networks, Tamar details, are then woven sonically via instruments from kalimba to kora into tight grooves that convey the message of hope and humanity.

Nsimbi has diverse origins but the tracks share a sonic integrity, a sunny acoustic sound and a rhythmic intensity. In music video for the first track, “Dunia Ni Matembezi,” we journey through the wondrous eyes of a schoolboy as he embarks on a trip through the desert after reading his favorite afro-future comic book, “Dunia.” He’s joined by a merry band of pranksters and vagabonds, who teach him about discovering the world through the five senses, a universal language that we all share. As the boy comes into contact with exotic landscapes and develops his perception of sight and sound, he finds connection and community with those around him. In this retro-future video, time is at a standstill, forever present, and travel is a state of mind.

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All of the contributor’s various styles glimmer throughout the album. Tamar’s singer-songwriter instincts lay the groundwork for “Gonna Be Alright,” Zamba’s hip hop roots offer age-old griot wisdom on “Flower of the Heart,” US-based Ugandan multi-instrumentalist Kinobe offers his expressive kora on the refugee-themed “Forsaken,” and Congolese-born soukous guitarist and singer Jaja Bashengenzi imprints his own style on multiple tracks overall.

The day used to end the same way around the world. After the work was done, families and communities would gather around a fire, where they would sing, dance, tell stories, and distill learning into proverbs. Thanks to Nsimbi, we are able to capture that magic of long-ago and instill it into our modern existence. With Nsimbi, the fire that brought us all together burns eternally.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

Jonestown – Winston Jarrett and The Righteous Flames

Jonestown

Title: Jonestown

Artist: Winston Jarrett and The Righteous Flames

Label: Omnivore

Format: CD, Digital

Release Date: August 3, 2018

 

Classic Reggae can never truly fall under into “out of sight, out of mind” category, but just in case we need a refresher, Omnivore Records has reissued one of the best offerings, Jonestown. Originally released by Nighthawk Records, Jonestown is the work of prolific reggae artists Winston Jarrett and Eggar Gordon (Baby Gee). Obtaining their start in 1965 from locally famous Kingston vocalist Alton Ellis, Winston and Gordon released multiple recordings, were featured on Coxsone Studio One’s many artistic endeavors, and recorded for other producers such as Duke Reid, Lee Perry and Joe Gibbs.

Jarrett’s transition to Nighthawk Records began in 1983 upon meeting the label’s producer Leroy Jody Pierson, who was working on a mix of Justin Hinds’ Travel With Love album. Together with Gordon, who was still performing in the area, Jarrett recorded Jonestown. After nearly 30 years, the album is being reissued along with new liner notes from Pierson and featuring previously unseen photos. Each song is a testament to the combined talents emanating from Jarrett and Gordon, with songs such as the smooth “Hold On To This Feeling” and the regional shout-out “Jonestown” testifying to the unique collaborative relationship dedicated to their quality art.

True legends never disappear, but rather they remain imbedded in our hearts forever. With its lyrical methodology and its definitive rhythmic soundscape, Jonestown lovingly reignites our passion for the reggae genre while simultaneously redistributing the sunshine and peace Jarrett and Gordon’s artistic oneness originally bestowed upon us.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

Love Unlimited Orchestra – 20th Century Singles (1973-1979)

Love Unlimited Orchestra
Title: 20th Century Singles (1973- 1979)

Artist: Love Unlimited Orchestra

Label: Mercury/20th Century

Formats: CD, LP

Release Date: June 15, 2018

 

 

There’s something about luscious string instruments that bring out the best that music has to offer. Know thy history. When the Drifters shifted from Clyde McPhatter to Ben E. King, they ushered in a new sound with string instruments. The Sound of Philadelphia was also string heavy with the help of the Salsoul Orchestra. When Barry White made his debut, some thought, “Who is this Isaac Hayes sound alike?” Ah, not so fast to judge.  Radio jocks used to refer to White as ‘the maestro.’ What’s a maestro? A master in art. A composer, conductor or music teacher.

Barry White was indeed all that and beyond. After he unveiled his female trio, Love Unlimited, he was the brains behind a forty piece orchestra called, what else, the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Besides backing up White and his trio, other famous artists got their breaks from LUO including Kenny G, Lee Ritenour, Wah Wah Watson, and Ray Parker Jr.

Now, 20th Century Records has just released a two disc “best of” compilation from LUO, spanning the years 1973 to 1979.

Disc one opens up with “Love’s Theme.” Why not! It was their biggest hit and put them on the map. Barry White’s fingers are all over just about every single. “Rhapsody in White” starts off like “Love’s Theme” but then fools you—it’s way more upbeat. “Barry’s Theme,” named after guess who, is LUO paying homage to the maestro. White appears vocally on “Baby Blues,” giving us that often imitated delivery.

Disc two gets into disco. “Brazilian Love Song” makes one want to do the hustle. Speaking of Isaac Hayes, LUO also covers the “Theme from Shaft,” but their version is a little more up tempo, and Barry White has no cameo like Hayes on the original.

Love Unlimited Orchestra’s 20th Century Singles (1973 -1979) is for the lover. It’s close your eyes and relax music. However you choose to listen, it’s great to see LUO’s work get more attention.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

 

Bettye Lavette – Things Have Changed

Bette Lavette
Title: Things Have Changed

Artist: Bettye Lavette

Label: Verve

Formats: CD, Digital, Vinyl

Release date: March 30, 2018

 

 

The Times, They are a ’Changin’. This phrase, with all its historic relevancy, has once again become the most accurate description of contemporary times all over the globe. Therefore, it stands as no surprise a 60’s soul legend such as Bette Lavette would release a cover album focusing on ironic political artist Bob Dylan. Things Have Changed is a fitting tribute to some of Dylan’s most prolific movement songs in addition to showcasing other soul rock classics, with Lavette weaving in her own gritty stylings and adding a contemporary layer to the timeless classics.

The title track, Things Have Changed, serves as a warning for those who feel overwhelmed and anxious about their world: “Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose/People are crazy and times are strange/I’m locked in tight/I’m out of range/I used to care, but things have changed. “Political World”, with its echoing of past conflicts and shouts of current trajectories, features Keith Richards, who layers his talents behind Lavette.

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Additional tracks pay homage to some of Dylan’s more introspective musings, with selections such as “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Mama, You’ve been on My Mind.” But it’s on “Emotionally Yours” that Lavette’s ability to tug at the heartstrings becomes most evident. Through a combination of Dylan’s lyrics and her own amazingly soulful abilities, Lavette gives her listeners a thought-provoking look into the mind of a tortured soul yearning for that one last chance: “Come baby, find me, come baby, remind me of where I once begun/Come baby, show me, show me you know me, tell me you’re the one/I could be learning, you could be yearning to see behind closed door/But I will always be emotionally yours.”

Things Have Changed offers us the best of both worlds—Bob Dylan’s ageless classics and Bettye Lavette’s endless soul stylings—proving to us that even though time marches on, some things remain eternal and relevant, no matter what.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Shuggie Otis – Inter-Fusion

Shuggie Otis
Title: Inter-Fusion

Artist: Shuggie Otis

Label: Cleopatra

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: April 20, 2018

 

 

Known best for his soulful songwriting and tender serenades as heard on hits such as “Strawberry Letter 23” and “Inspiration Information,” Shuggie Otis, “heir to Hendrix,” has long been held as one of the most innovative guitarists to ever pick up the 6-strings. A prodigy from early age, Otis regularly performed on stage and in the studio alongside his legendary father, bluesman Johnny Otis. Shuggie’s latest project, an adventurous new fusion rock project called Inter-fusion, showcases just how mind-blowing he is on the pearly frets of his gorgeous maroon Gibson SG.

The album consists of mostly instrumental tracks that groove and weave, taking unexpected turns in surprising directions, but all anchored by one of the finest rhythm sections imaginable. Drummer Carmine Appice (of Vanilla Fudge/Beck, Bogert & Appice) and bass player Tony Franklin (of The Firm/Roy Harper) both layer their expertise beyond Otis. In addition, keyboardist Kyle Hamood (of L.A. rockers Them Guns) steps in as both a musician and producer, delivering outright superlative performances from each artist involved.

The opening track, “Aphelion,” is a sweetly smooth shot of melancholy that goes down without a hitch. “Woman,” an uptempo beat complete with intricate melodies and layered percussion, begs to be played over and again, and “Clear Power” is a clean, crisp polyrhythmic groove that satisfies the aural need for virtuosity.

Uniting some of the best rock fusion artists on one recording, Inter-fusion reminds us that when it comes to Shuggie Otis, some of the most eclectic, quality art and artists have been right beside us all along.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Royce da 5’9″ – Book of Ryan

royce

 

Title: Book of Ryan

Artist: Royce da 5’9”

Label: Heaven Studios/eOne

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: May 4, 2018

 

Royce da 5’9”, while best known for his collaborations with artists such as Eminem in addition to his extensive recording career, is still an enigmatic figure to many of his fans. While other artists have freely woven their personal issues into their rhymes, until this point Royce has relied on his lyricism skills to build his reputation and fan base. With Book of Ryan, however, he switches up his game plan and allows us a glimpse into his personal world. Functioning as a part-retrospective/part-progressive look at the Royce-That-Was and the Royce-That-Has-Yet-To-Be, Book of Ryan unflinchingly spins a narrative of past drug use, current insecurities and future self-expectations.

The 21-set album begins with an introduction in which Royce lays out his intentions for his music in narrative-style, and quickly gets right down to business in his second cut, “Woke.” The minimalistic, polyrhythmic percussion is appealing in its own right, but the lyrics calling out those in self-denial of their behavior and environment is spot-on conscious mode. “My Parallel,” the first of three self-explanatory ‘skits,’ further explores Royce’s purpose for the remainder of the album, disclosing that his dark childhood and subsequent drug use drove many of his self-destructive decisions.

While Royce doesn’t dwell in his past for the entire time, the main focus of his album is to let us into his inner world and former experiences. His choice of featured artists lets his fan base know who is important in his life—Eminem, T-Pain, and Pusha T, to name a few. “Amazing,” featuring Melanie Rutherford, is a multi-functional finger-point towards the grocer in Royce’s childhood who took away his coveted basketball, while also introducing fans to his past self through a self-affirmational journey through his old neighborhood.

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Royce continues his backward glance with “Boblo Boat,” an offering best experienced through video (above) due to its nostalgic youthful feeling and amusement park scenes. But it’s his skit, “Who are You,” that offers the best proof of why Ryan has released this deeply introspective album. This narrative features Royce describing a dream in which he is able to ask his late father hard-hitting questions he never got the chance to ask, followed by Royce’s son asking if he can interview him for a school project he has decided to do about his father called “The Book of Ryan.”

The Book of Ryan is a well-crafted piece of audible prose. Looking inward and outward at both society and himself, Royce da 5’9” gives us a page-turning look at all the forces that molded and shaped him into the artist he is now and the individual he aspires to be.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Deva Mahal – Run Deep

mahal

 

Title: Run Deep

Artist: Deva Mahal

Label: Motéma Music 

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: March 23, 2018

 

Robust talent runs generationally, especially when you’re the offspring of blues icon Taj Mahal and dancer/artist Inshirah Mahal, as proven with Deva Mahal’s debut album, Run Deep. Forging her own sound as part blues, part indie-rock and all soul, Mahal gives her listeners one of the edgiest, most emotionally drawn voices in the industry today.

The first track, “Can’t Call it Love,” opens with a riveting guitar riff and empowering lyrics: I’m feeling new like an old-school instrumental / I’m getting in the mood / And feeling sentimental, which can be taken as both commentary on one’s new found infatuation and Mahal’s coming into her own. The entire album features innovative instrumentality and Mahal’s varied vocalization styles. For example, the closing track, “Take a Giant Step,” showcases her sultry pop sound as she reinterprets this standard by Carole King and Gerry Goffin (a song her father has also recorded).

The focal track of the album, both vocally and visually, is the offering “Snakes.” Mahal’s vocals jump right off the album from the first moment she begins singing, but the visualizations of the video are pure genius—black and white coloring, shadow dancing and the animation of a swamp monster, said to have been inspired by her favorite childhood “girl power” book, Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer.

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Mahal has definitely come out from under her parent’s shadow with this artistic debut. From the first note to the last few strains, this artist’s soulful and funky melodies will have you running deep into the magical world of Deva Mahal, breathlessly awaiting her next move.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Starchild & the New Romantic – Language

starchild

 

Title: Language

Artist: Starchild & the New Romantic

Label: Motor Mouth Media

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: February 23, 2018

 

After years of providing artists such as Solange and Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) with quality choreography and guitar riffs, Bryndon Cook has stepped out on his own under the moniker Starchild & the New Romantic with his debut album, Language. This 14-track offering takes its listeners on a ‘90s-inspired groove cruise, guided by what he calls is his self-made motto, “my sensitivity is my strength.”

Hailing from Maryland, Cook has always been a student of black music’s rich lineages that intersect with pop. Challenging binaries of old/new, religious/secular, and black/white, his music is both bold and mercurial, defining perspective and identity while calling for action. The title track weaves out of the speakers and around the mind with Cook crooning the language of lost chances and second glances. The short and tender single, “Hangin’ On,” echoes early-80s Prince in both instrumental sound and its resulting mood:  Fell asleep last night / Thinking about you. Saw you in my sleep, chased you till morning came. My mama said “follow your dreams” / Well I guess you were my warning / Now I’ve let myself go / Hope you’re still holdin’ on.

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Other tracks, such as “Black Diamond,” “Doubts” and “Boys Choir” speak to the root of the record itself—a mystical contemplation of the boyhood community to which Cook finally feels he is ready to bare his soul. Lyrical and emotional, poignant with just a smidge of regret, Language writes on the heart all that Cook was, is and will always be—a star in his own right, romanticizing his way into the minds of all who pause to listen.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Murs – A Strange Journey Into the Unimaginable

murs

 

Title: A Strange Journey Into the Unimaginable

Artist: Murs

Label: Strange Music

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: March 16, 2018

 

There’s something to be said for raw, introspective honesty. It not only provides relief to the one sharing, but it also lets others know they aren’t the only ones adjusting to difficult life issues. On his latest album, A Strange Journey Into the Unimaginable, underground rapper Murs bares his soul with some of his most candid, direct lyrics yet. Murs, a native of south central Los Angeles, has released nearly two dozen albums, but none of them belt out the trials and tribulations more poignantly than this one. Yet, he still manages to weave some lighter-hearted rhymes in-between his retrospections, showing fans that regardless of the darkness faced, one can still find reasons to smile beyond the pain.

In his first track, “The Unimaginable,” Murs strips himself down to the bone, providing a glimpse into his previously unimaginable life journey dealing with a painful divorce, a 12-month separation from his son, and the loss of his stillborn second son and a personal friend: I cried a whole lot when I filed for divorce, and when a homie got shot /…when I was separated from my son, I cried for almost a year /..a baby boy…he was born without a heartbeat. The next offering, “Melancholy,” is a more upbeat tune that, while continuing its focus on struggle, admits that Murs’ overwhelming grief has morphed into a lingering pensiveness: Hi everyone. My name is Murs, and uh…yeah. I’ve had a rough couple of years…I’m at this point now where I’m not too high and not too low. I’m just here.

“Same Way” is a fun, tongue-in-cheek diss to friends and family of Murs’ girlfriend who don’t like him, as he simply states, “Tell them I feel the same way.” On “Superhero Pool Party, Murs’ son asks for a bedtime story and is treated to a comical what-would-happen narrative involving characters such as Batman, She-Hulk and Professor X. Providing touching tributes to love and commitment on “So Close So Far” and “Vows,” Murs shows his softer and more hopeful side, and he closes out his album with the somewhat dark but still completely candid “God is the Greatest,”

While his experiences so far were something he most likely couldn’t have imagined, Murs has turned his tragedies into therapeutic rhymes. Spinning his tales so that everyone knows they aren’t alone, Murs has managed to turn the unimaginable into a tale of perseverance, giving all of his listeners hope for their own journey through life.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Sy Smith – Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete

sy

Title: Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete

Artist: Sy Smith

Label: Psyko

Formats: CD (via Bandcamp), Digital

Release date: February 16, 2018

 

 

Long hailed as the hardest working artist in underground soul, Sy Smith’s fifth album, Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete, proves once again she is a force to be reckoned with in both the underground and outer-ground music scene. This release is the first album completely written and produced by this multitalented musician, featuring her slick synth bass playing and lithe piano keying along with her incomparable soprano voice and signature vocal arrangements.

Smith’s voice shines through on this album, as she employs various techniques that she is known for and some she seems to honor straight out of 1990s R&B. The title song, “Sometimes a Rose will Grow in Concrete,” teases us with a small sample of her amazing whistle register, bringing it out at the end of the song as a parting gift. Lyrically, this song speaks to the current time, as its inclusion of lyrics such as “Sometimes we get no answers but still the questions will remain…sometimes a rose will grow in concrete, sometimes a caged bird will sing” reflects an activist tone regarding American society. Carrying a strong pen, Smith reveals victories won and battles still being fought as she provides a powerful, if haunting, ode to people who come through the harshest of trials and still bloom as beautifully as roses.

Smith’s continuing penchant for go-go is present in this album with the song, “Now and Later.” The funk-inspired beat interspersed with a cool rhythm-and-blues sound reflects back to Smith’s genesis in DC with her former go-go band “In Tyme.”  “Camelot,” one of the smoothest contemporary R&B ballads, reinvigorates that 1990s Janet Jackson-esque sound, complete with multiple background vocals, string instrumentals and long-winded notes held and released over and again in differing registers.

Providing us with never-ending, smooth stylings that both echo yesterday’s R&B and set the standards for contemporary soul, Sy Smith’s Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete proves that Smith herself is that enduring rose whose presence grows sweeter and stronger with each new release.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down

Rev Shawn Amos
Title: The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down

Artist: The Reverend Shawn Amos

Label: Put Together

Format: CD, Digital

Release date: February 16, 2018

 

 

The Reverend Shawn Amos is back at it again, preaching his brand of blues on his latest, The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down. His sophomore album, The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, showed us that the Rev had our best interests at heart, and this trend of his continues on his latest offering. Son of Wally Amos, the first African American talent agent for William Morris in addition to being the creator of Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies, Reverend Shawn Amos has been an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church, an A&R Executive at Rhino Entertainment and vice president of A&R at Shout! Factory.  He discovered blues while attending NYU film school, spending his summers tracing down the southern places in Peter Guralnick’s Feel Like Going Home trilogy from which Amos drew his initial blues inspiration.

The nine-song set includes five original songs, two inspired covers, and a three track “Freedom Suite” that rolls out like a Sunday Passion play. Amos was obviously inspired by the tremendous turmoil and social unrest around the world today in his songwriting, yet digging deeper into the lyrics reveals clues of admitted recent hardships in his home life. The result is an album that strikes a delicate balance between capturing personal challenges while capitalizing on the zeitgeist of this critical time in history.

 

The album opens with the early morning confessional “Moved,” followed by the first of his new freedom songs, “2017.”  This classic soul groove in the style of Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis. Amos is joined by Al Green’s backing band, the HI Rhythm Section, along with a string arrangement from Chris Anderson and vocals from the Masqueraders. The cornerstone lyric is a simple mandate: “hate and fear ain’t no vaccine, we’ve got to think about what our children’s eyes have seen in the year 2017.” The next song, “Hold Hands” is an Amos-led congregational plea for peace that features Hammond B3 from Peter Adams.

The Freedom Suite officially begins with track 5, which is an a cappella reading of Uncle Tom’s prayer. This pays homage to the Freedom Singers founder Cordell Hull Reagon, who first recorded the powerful civil rights song in the early 1960s. Amos then offers another side of his pulpit in “Does My Life Matter,” an expansion on Booker T. Washington’s words and intent. The fiery funk of “(We’ve Got To) Come Together” functions as an energetic admonishment, and the closing track, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” serves as a final alter call for the album and its audience.

The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down, as an album of timely songs, not only furthers Amos’ mission statement, but also stands as a landmark artistic achievement for his career as a bluesman of purpose.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

AJ Ghent – The Neo Blues Project

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Title: The Neo Blues Project

Artist: AJ Ghent [J-Ent]

Label: Ropeadope

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 16, 2018

 

 

AJ Ghent, hailing from Fort Pierce, Florida, has music literally running through his veins. His great uncle, Willie Eason, is the creator of the “sacred steel” tradition—a style of pedal-steel guitar playing that’s unique to certain African American Pentecostal churches—and his grandfather, Henry Nelson, is the founder of the “sacred steel” rhythmic guitar style. With role models like these, it’s no wonder Ghent wore out his father’s sacred steel CDs by the age of twelve. After high school, he and his wife, singer MarLa, packed up and moved to Atlanta, Georgia where soon after Ghent began a mentorship under the legendary Colonel Bruce Hampton, one of the original founders of Atlanta’s Hampton Grease Band. Gaining experience with Hampton’s band set the stage for Ghent’s subsequent career moves, including being “true to himself” as Hampton advised.

Ghent’s newest release, The Neo Blues Project, is a study in just that. The entire album is something different altogether—a musical fusion of blues, steel guitar, and rock that takes art and skill to master. But that’s something that Ghent has spent his whole life perfecting, along with his custom built 8-string lap steel hybrids. The offering weighs in at just six tracks, but don’t let its size fool you. This album packs a solid punch right where it’s necessary to keep the music in your head long after the last chord fades.

On his rock anthem “Power,” Ghent offers a track to fuel a revolution: “I’m gonna wait it out, ‘til my change comes / and I’m gonna pray, it won’t be long / ‘cause I’ve been tempted and I’ve been tried / and I’m a soldier ‘til I die / so you can bring it on, all your pain / you know why? ‘cause it’s a revolution comin’”

Combining his own style with elements of rock guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz, Ghent part-wails and part-steels his way through each song. “Long List Friend,” co-written with his wife, is a blues ballad all of us can relate to in our search for “The One.”

But if you are celebrating the letting go of a former love, check out the final track, “Gonna Rock.” Its meaning and intent are completely celebratory, to say the least. “Wash Ya Hair” is a fun, catchy tune that really brings all of Ghent’s diverse talents of vocalization and guitar-playing to the forefront: “Shake ‘em off, wash your hair, let it shine, Everywhere.”

Ghent’s compact project completes its mission. The Neo Blues Project entertains the senses, introduces us to the full range of Ghent’s talents, and gives us a foot-tapping, air-slamming trip into the world of blues rock in legendary style. If this is Ghent being true to himself, I personally can’t wait for anything this talented artist has to offer us.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Mud Morganfield – They Call Me Mud

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Title: They Call Me Mud

Artist: Mud Morganfield

Label: Severn Records

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 9, 2018

 

 

They Call Me Mud, the newest release from Mud Morganfield, is one of those albums on which a musician seems to truly come into his own. While the legacy of his father, Muddy Waters, shouldn’t—and very possibly can’t—be extracted from Morganfield’s blues MO, this album showcases his own unique style. Morganfield, after all, came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when music had already evolved from his father’s era of jazz and blues into a world where R&B, soul and Motown ruled. Combine his bass experience with Chicago bands of those eras to his already existing blues foundation and you have Morganfield’s own style at work.

A well-established case of Chicago area musicians add some downhome blues touches to Morganfield’s recording, including Billy Flynn on guitar, Studebaker John on harmonica and backing vocals, Sumito Ariyo Ariyoshi on piano, E.G. McDaniel on bass and Melvin “Pookie Stix” Carlisle on drums. Special guests include Billy Branch on harmonica, Mike Wheeler on guitar and Mud’s daughter Lashunda Williams as a vocalist. There’s a horn section featured on several tunes, and Mud himself plays bass on three tracks.

 

The signature song, “They Call Me Mud,” is one of those songs that really allow the musicians to show what they love to do best, and in Morganfield’s case, that is his vocalized growl which commands immediate attention throughout. “Who’s Fooling Who?” features Studebacker John on harp and Mike Wheeler on guitar going toe-to-toe. Morganfield also pays tribute to his father on the slide guitar blues “Howlin’ Wolf” and the shuffle “Can’t Get No Grindin’,” where all artists take a solo turn at the wheel. Morganfield and his daughter Lashunda provide a moving duet on “Who Loves You,” a song where Morganfield’s R&B inspiration grooves right in. The final selection, “Mud’s Groove,” is a jazzy instrumental enhanced by Bill Branch’s talents on harp, and is a perfect finale.

“I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done yet” proclaims Morganfield. “I feel that with the variety of material I have on here, people will get a chance to hear the other sides of my music.” The collection completely lives up to Morganfield’s claim. Regardless of whether you are an R&B, jazz, soul or blues fan, They Call Me Mud has something special and unforgettable for everyone.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Nina Simone – The Colpix Singles

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Title: The Colpix Singles

Artist: Nina Simone

Label: Rhino (U.S.)/Stateside (UK)

Formats: 2-CD set, LP (1 disc, 14 tracks), digital

Release date: February 23, 2018

 

In continuation of our focus on one of the industry’s greatest blues/jazz singers, Nina Simone’s The Colpix Singles showcases her pre-civil rights activist era releases. Simone’s professional career began in 1958 at a mere age of 25 with Bethlehem Records, but after the initial success of her hit “Porgy ( I Loves You Porgy), she moved on Columbia Picture’s recording company, Colpix Records. Simone’s forthcoming induction into the 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has now spurred Warner Music into releasing a collection of the 7” singles Simone cut for Colpix. Remastered in mono, seven of the tracks are available in their original edits for the first time since the 1960s.

In this 27 track, two-disc offering, one can easily hear how her previous musical experiences fostered both her voice and performance maturity, as the songs recorded with Colpix reflect smoother, more controlled renditions of a diversified pool of well-known ballads. The first single from Disc 1, “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow,” was written by Hecky Krasnow, who was best known for Columbia’s novelty scores of “Frosty the Snowman” and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Live recordings made at The Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan in September, 1959 include “The Other Woman” and “It Might as Well be Spring,” which originally appeared on her Colpix debut album, The Amazing Nina Simone.  The Archives of African American Music and Culture provided Warner Music with a rare copy of Simone’s “If Only For Tonight” and “Under The Lowest” (Colpix 156) for inclusion on this disc. Simone also showcases her blues prowess on the release “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and the B-side “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,” which would become one of her signature songs.

Disc 2 includes a hauntingly whimsical rendition of “Cotton Eyed Joe,” complete with Simone’s piano stylings running in the background. Soon after, she croons of lost respectability and newfound reliance on “You Can have Him.” From the opening strains, Simone’s powerful alto flows from the speakers, meandering its way into the ears and hearts of its listeners via its audial and lyrical flows.

Two more offerings, “Work Song” and “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” echo Simone’s early years in Atlantic City bars, pounding the ivories and belting out fast tempo blues. Her original tune, “Blackbird,” closes out the collection, showing her growing artistic maturity while revealing a glimpse of her future in social justice.

Simone would eventually compose and perform two of the most influential anthems of the Civil Rights Era, “Mississippi Goddam” and “Young, Gifted and Black.” That Simone participated in the Civil Rights Movement is an understatement. Nina Simone, from her formative years in Atlanta’s music scene to her eventual position as an outspoken social activist for Black rights, is one of the most influential activists and gifted artists of all time. Many thanks to The Colpix Singles compilers Nigel Reeve and Dean Rudland, and assistant Florence Joelle Halfon, for releasing this wonderfully remastered set. Simone’s listening audience will certainly reap the benefits.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi