Urbanity has helped mold the creativity of hip hop artists in some form or the other, and thus forms the foundation of this genre. Open Mike Eagle is no exception, and his most current album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, demonstrates just that. The collection is a tribute to Chicago’s former South Side housing project, Robert Taylor Homes, where the young Eagle resided with family members during much of his formative years. Through his concept art, OME humanizes the forgotten ones of this former space, lending credence to their dreams of a better world for all.
“Legendary Iron Hood,” the opening track, is a smoothly-spun tale of optimism in the face of adversity. OME’s laid-back delivery and beat reminds one of a lazy walk with one eye in the clouds and one on the road ahead. An obvious downtempo influence dominates the second tune, “(How could anybody) Feel at Home,” and its lyrics of “We live in a space that should have never existed, we’re used to the taste of a human in space…It smells like if you imagined you boiled a rose and the oven is on and the coil’s exposed” deposits you right into an imagined project via sight, taste and smell. Nerdcore rapper Sammus displays her lyrical skills on “Hymnal,” and Has-Lo clips in on a later track, “95 Radios.” The apex of the collection, undisputedly, is “Brick Body Complex,” in which OME bares his narrative and his soul without pretention. But it’s the last offering, “My Auntie’s Building,” that forces attention by way of poignant activist lines such as: “They say America fights fair, but they won’t demolish your timeshare; blew up my Auntie’s building, put out her great-grandchildren.”
Lyrical and mystical, pensive yet precise. OME tears it down to the ground with his remembrance of lives lost under the rubble and dust of project demolition. As the title succinctly states, brick body kids still daydream. It’s up to us to make sure we give them something positive to dream about.
If there are artists worthy enough for a Captain Beefheart tribute collaboration, it is the artistic duo of Nona Hendryx and Gary Lucas. The pair first beefed it up in 2013 with The Metropole Orchestra at Amsterdam’s Paradiso during an event produced by Dutch journalist and radio presenter Co de Kloet. Four years and multiple hours of creativity later, The World of Captain Beefheart makes its way towards a triplicate fan base for all three musicians—Don Van Vliet, Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx.
Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, first grabbed the public’s attention with his cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” capitulating his gritty blues style to an interview on American Bandstand in 1966 and an appearance on ABC’s “Where the Action Is”. Soon after, Captain Beefheart and the “Magic Band”—whose members differed throughout the years but most notably of musicians Gary Lucas, Jeff Cotton, Bruce Fowler and Victor Hayden—released their first album, Safe as Milk, in 1967.
While many envisioned him as the next blues frontman, Van Vliet had other ideas. His strong interest in experimental, avant-garde sounds—fostered alongside his longtime friend Frank Zappa—would lead him to worldwide notoriety as one of the most singular voices and uncompromising composers in popular music, a trail-blazing maverick who single-handedly changed the face of popular music as we know it. His music combined Delta blues, free-jazz, and proto-punk rock with surrealist imagery, ecological obsession, and ironic humor.
Gary Lucas first made his mark as a visionary guitar player on the final last two Beefheart albums, Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow (1982). A world-renowned instrumentalist and Grammy-nominated songwriter and composer, Lucas has released over 30 acclaimed albums in a variety of genres. Gary also collaborated most significantly with the late Jeff Buckley, co-writing “Grace” and “Mojo Pin”, the first two songs on Jeff’s 2-million selling “Grace” album.
Nona Hendryx is a longtime fierce admirer of Don Van Vliet’s music, and possesses the huge voice and the commanding stage presence necessary to do full justice to repertoire that originally featured Beefheart’s unforgettable multi-octave voice. Although she’s best known as a funk/soul great thanks to her long tenure with international hitmakers Labelle (as well as the group’s antecedent, Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles) in addition to her own excellent R&B solo outings, she is no stranger to experimental rock territory, having been featured as guest vocalist with cutting-edge ensembles including the Talking Heads, Bill Laswell’s Material, and Jerry Harrison’s Casual Gods.
The World of Captain Beefheart is an album that truly speaks for itself. “Sun Zoom Spark” opens the tribute, proving that in the Beefheart world, Hendryx has vocals worthy of the Captain’s raspy legacy. Other classics such as “When It Blows Its Stacks” and a moving rendition of “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains” cement the pair’s project worthiness. Ably supporting Lucas and Hendryx are expert practitioners of Beefheartian music: bass player Jesse Krakow and drummer Richard Dworkin. Both are veterans of Fast ‘N Bulbous, Lucas’ free-jazz instrumental outfit that specializes in repertoire from the Van Vliet canon. Completing the lineup is keyboardist Jordan Shapiro, who has played with Lucas in his long-running avant-rock crew, Gods and Monsters.
A visionary and lyricist with unrelenting perseverance, artist Don Van Vliet is deserving of every expertly offered chordal riff Lucas and Hendryx have to give us. Through their dedication and respect to his craft, Captain Beefheart will live on in the hearts and souls of his fans forever, both long-standing and contemporary alike.
Turning 100 calls for a celebration regardless of who you are, and in the case of musician John Lee Hooker, only a “Go Big or Go Home” mentality will suffice. In honor of this boogie master’s centennial, Craft Recordings has released a career spanning, retrospective 5 CD box set honoring this guitar-driven, legendary artist. King of the Boogie features not only Hooker’s iconic hits, but also rarities, live recordings and several previously unreleased tracks. Housed within a 56-page hardcover book, the collection includes a wide selection of photos, taken throughout the musician’s life, plus new liner notes by writer and John Lee Hooker historian Jas Obrecht, as well as by the artist’s longtime manager and friend, Mike Kappus.
The collection is part of a year-long celebration and commemoration to Hooker and as a complement to his musical recordings, the GRAMMY Museum® in conjunction with the John Lee Hooker estate is exhibiting Hooker’s performance outfits, guitars, photos, and awards in his home state of Cleveland, Mississippi through February 2018. At that point the exhibit travels west to the GRAMMY Museum® at L.A. LIVE.
John Lee Hooker (1917-2001) was born 100 years ago, near Clarksdale, Mississippi to a sharecropping family. Throughout the years, there has been some academic debate about his original birth year. However, The Hooker family maintains 1917 as the de facto date. Says daughter Zakiya Hooker, “As we all know there was no great push for accuracy back then in that portion of the community. But we just stick to what my father told us, which was what he was told by his mother.”
As a young man, Hooker worked his way up north to Detroit to pursue his passion of music. By 1948, the artist had a hit on his hands with one of his earliest recordings, “Boogie Chillun‘.” From there, Hooker would record over 100 albums throughout the course of his six-decade-long career, building a diverse collection of fans along the way—from folk musicians and beatniks, to the stars of the British Invasion. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana are among those who cite Hooker as a major influence.
Mike Kappus recalls in his liner notes, “Everyone who knew John Lee Hooker loved him and felt privileged to be in his presence. While he influenced generations of musicians with his incomparable style, that impact on musicians stepped up to yet another level once they got to know and, universally, love him.” In his later years, as Hooker found himself in one of the busiest, most productive eras of his career, the bluesman was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Blues Hall of Fame and Memphis Music Hall of Fame; was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and took home four GRAMMY® Awards, plus a coveted Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.
The album is organized chronologically, showcasing Hooker’s influential recording career from start to finish. Disc one begins with his first release, “Boogie Chillen.” The remainder of the disc provides Hooker’s classics the way he was first known—as sole commandeer of pulsing rhythms on the electric guitar. Disc two and three offer stunning recordings of previously unreleased sessions—“Unfriendly Woman” and “Meat Shakes on her Bones”—as well as the more widely-known “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” and “Homework.”
Disc four is a completely live tribute section, featuring Hooker’s performances at various Newport Folk Festivals, the American Blues Festival in Hamburg, Germany, Café Au Go-Go in New York and California’s Soledad Prison. The final disc of the collection features Hooker’s collaborations with other musicians such as “Little” Eddie Kirkland, The Groundhogs, Canned Heat, Santana, George Thorogood, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Joe Cocker, Robert Gray, Warren Haynes, Jimmie Vaughn, Los Lobos, Eric Clapton and B.B. King.
Timeless and classic, cutting-edge and influential—all describe John Lee Hooker’s storied life and career as the undisputed boogie ruler. Whether solo and unplugged or accompanied and wired up, Hooker’s guitar and vocals prove that in the world of the Delta and blues, no one else but Hooker can wear the Crown.
Mavis Staples ushers in her eighth decade of singing truth with the call-to-compassion album If All I Was Was Black, her third collaborative project with songwriter, producer, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Their first partnership in 2010, You Are Not Alone, won a Grammy Award for Best Americana album. Their second effort together, One True Vine, was a Grammy nominee. But If All I Was Was Black marks the first time Tweedy has composed an entire album of original songs for Mavis’ legendary voice and a nation she’s uniquely poised to address. As a witness to both past and ongoing American civil rights issues, Staples feels that, in many respects, “nothing has changed…we’re not loving one another the way we should.”
The album’s first track, “Little Bit,” firmly establishes this work as a conscious ode to the déjà vu mood gripping the nation of late. A driving guitar hook sets the tone immediately at the open, with Staples’ vocals rasping out an early downbeat of “This life surrounds you, guns are loaded. This kind of tension, hard not to notice.” Throughout the song, Mavis leads listeners through call-and-response vocals in a soundscape that recalls Sly & the Family Stone’s mix of joy and social criticism unfolding over a funk-edged rhythm section. Following is the title track, an upbeat, joyous groove that continues the album’s humanistic theme of understanding and acceptance. Directly addressing those who respond to someone’s race without seeing their shared humanity, Staples expertly croons, “If all I was was Black, don’t you want to know me more than that?”
Current events appear on the record obliquely, reflecting a commitment to a universal approach that shines a comparative light on the past by suggestively addressing today’s events. As Mavis explains, “We didn’t make the songs point to a specific person. If you follow the lyrics, it’s about yesterday and today.” “We Go High” borrows its chorus from Michelle Obama’s speech on the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and the track “Build a Bridge” parses exactly which lives matter and how we can begin to talk about it.
Staples’ darker tone can be glimpsed in both “Who Told You That?” and “Try Harder.” Alluding to the frustration and realism of today, her telling line “There’s evil in the world, and there’s evil in me” signals harsh undercurrents of danger. Despite these elements, the mood ring on Mavis’ 2017 call-to-action is set to love, running through and over the occasional fury and pragmatism. The songs move like an ocean tide, ebbing and flowing, with Mavis countering the anger with an eye toward the work that is required to bring change. In the end, the answer lies in lifting each other up, Staples style. She’s not embracing the anxious hesitation of respectability politics but rather the possibilities of love.
Try Harder. Two small words, containing the biggest potential imaginable. To Mavis Staples, this phrase is key to substantial change if society will take her lead and lovingly follow through.
Is it the current political atmosphere or possibly just time for the genre to once again acknowledge its roots? Whatever the reason, there is a conscious stream of artists dominating mainstream rap right now, and Talib Kweli is leading the way. Kweli is no stranger to the scene—his first collaborative group, Black Star, was formed with Mos Def in 1997—and to date, he has worked with artists Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Just Blaze, the Beastie Boys and Kendrick Lamar. Kweli is featured on Dave Chappell’s Block Party, both as an actor and a soundtrack artist. In 2011 he founded his own label, Javotti Media, billed as “a platform for independent thinkers and doers.”* With an eye on social issues both past and present, Kweli offers us his take on 2017 with his latest, Radio Silence.
The album unlocks with “The Magic Hour,” a song that introduces the album’s concepts and purpose through magical lyricism. Opening with the ethereal sounds of strings and a choir, the tune carves its own place in the world of rap solely on these feature alone. Kweli’s opening line, “Last one to fall asleep, first one to wake up. No Doubt. It’s the Magic Hour,” layered on top of an upbeat piano riff sets the standard for the remainder of this Brooklyn phenom’s offerings. The song’s final chords fade away under Kweli’s assurance that “hip hop will flourish with nourishment and the proper care,” a parental line from one who has been there, done that, and knows how to make it last.
The philosophy continues to pour out of this rap statesman rhyme after rhyme. The second track, “Traveling Light,” thumps the pulpit of Kweli’s truth through musings about his own genesis towards the rap dimension. Unquestionably possessing a magical talent for deep lyricism, he brings Anderson .Paak’s smooth vocals into the track to compliment his message. “All of Us” unfastens the mood even further with its break-out sampling of a rally for justice. Jay Electronica of Roc Nation and powerhouse Yummy Bingham spin their consciousness right along Kweli, adding a multi-layered resonance reverberating past the very last strain of violin fade-out. The lead single, “Radio Silence,” is a blend of Kweli and Myka 9’s exceptional cypher savvy interspersed with Amber Coffman’s haunting refrains. Never one to ignore the heart strings for long, Kweli and BJ The Chicago Kid’s “The One I Love” reminds us that regardless of what’s going on, that one special person makes it all worthwhile.
Of all the offerings not explicated here—“Chips,” “Knockturnal,” “Let It Roll,” “Write at Home”—by far, the standout is “Heads Up Eyes Open.” Dedicated to late rap promoter Kenneth “Headqcouterz” Walker, this part testimonial/part inspirational melody features not only mind-bending truthfulness on topics such as police brutality and protest rights, but also functions as a call for honesty and faithfulness because “the picture is so much bigger than what we could even imagine.” Indeed. Talib Kweli’s vision is so much larger than what we typically conceptualize. This portfolio of political discourse keeps challenging and teaching long after the voices, piano riffs and handclaps fade away.
Radio Silence, through its proverbial introspections and uplifting retrospection, seamlessly moves its message through the airwaves of our minds. In Talib Kweli’s world, silence truly does speak louder than words.
“The Gospel According to Bette” is the most apt refrain one can give to Bette Smith’s debut album, Jetlagger. Showcasing a gritty, booming voice well fit for her pulpit of southern soul preachin’, Smith follows in the likeness of icons such as Etta James and Tina Turner, churning out message after emotional message in her razor-edged style.
A native of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Smith began her love of music at an early age, singing in her church choir at the tender age of 5. Her path to secular composition took her through music therapy classes as part of her curriculum within Colombia University School of Social Work, and into the 9-5 grind as she wrestled with her longing for musical performance outside of the clerical sphere. Her older brother Jimmy, who succumbed to kidney complications in 2013, gave his approval, offering final words of encouragement that resonated with Smith long after his passing. She formed her band slowly, but once complete she wouldn’t turn down any gig—“I’d play a senior center one day, a street fair the next.” Her perseverance paid off, and as a token to her brother’s memory, she proudly wears the color yellow on stage and in her music videos.
Smith begins her offering of soul-searching, lyrical melodies with “I Will Feed You,” which starts out with a choir of background voices slowly giving way to Smith’s musings of unrequited love. The next track, “Jetlagger,” not only allows Smith to growl her way into her listener’s hearts but also to prove her standing in the vintage soul-inspired world. “Durty Hustlin’” and “Shackle & Chain” are as diverse as their titles suggest. “Do Your Thing” makes use of strong horns, a driving bass and a winding tempo that allows Smith to do her own thing, in her own unique way. But it is her psalm “Manchild” that preaches to Smith’s audience most fervently, warning from its opening chords she “don’t want nobody tellin’ me what to do,” she “just want a manchild, I can teach my lovin’ to.”
Modern soul is Bette Smith’s gospel truth, proving when it comes to down-home, soul-searching tunes, nothing beats a classic sermon like Jetlagger.
A lyricist is the ultimate giver in rap, handing out his words in the form of sweets to be collected and savored one at a time for the treats they are. Semantics of Mr. Porter proves that poetics are still in play well after the golden era thanks to the stylings of Denzil Porter. Porter, a native of North Bronx, offers his personal take on his method, which he describes as occurring “when I get a feeling, or in a mood, or something that happened at that moment… a song is something that stamps that moment for me, and also stamps the moment for the listener who relates.”
Semantics of Mr. Porter definitely owns up to its thought-provoking name. The first track, “Et Tu Brute,” is a direct reference to Caesar’s last words, “And you, Bruce?” In listening to the song, one can’t help but make the connection between the two worlds—ancient and modern—in which the way of life might have altered but the way life is hasn’t changed much at all. Porter wraps his meaning into a plethora of rhymes purposely structured around the determination one feels while chasing a dream tied to the frustration one faces in obtaining that reality. “Time Soon Come” operates semantically in much the same way, but opens the bag up further by providing a stringed instrumental background that sugars the message. As the album moves forward, Porter’s drops offer more diversity of sound in tracks such as “Right Now,” which utilizes a funk bass line as its foundation under the layered poetics of Chris Rivers, and “”What It Takes,” in which a less heavy ear-catching piano riff compliments Oswin Benjamin’s “Do you know what it takes?” call-and-response lines.
But the most riveting instances on the album happen in the form of narrative vignettes Porter mixes into his bowl of conscious thoughts. These six cut-ins provide a first-person story of a robbery, from the planning stage to the end result, and demonstrate Porter’s commitment to describing real-life choices that mark a person in ways one can’t fully comprehend until it’s too late. From his tongue-twisting rhymes and his mind-twisting thoughts, Denzil Porter is definitely a force to be reckoned with. He may not be your typical rapper, but in his own style Porter aims to inspire his listeners; to uplift them and others around them.
When you open the door to Semantics of Mr. Porter, you might get more than you bargained for, but your bag of conscious candy will provide you with unexpected surprises long after the last echoes of Porter’s voice fades into the darkness.
The Mothership has returned to feed “funk-starved” earthlings, bringing as its main course second-generation P-funker Garret Shider, aka Starchild, Jr. Garret, son of former Parliament-Funkadalic’s “Diaper Man” Garry Shider, serves up his own recipe of the much-needed groove, proving with this debut album that he has come into his own as an adult artist. First and second generation Clintons show up to the meal as members of Shider’s team, with George, son Tracey “Trey Lewd” Lewis and grandson Tracey “Tra’zae” Clinton providing a healthy dose of those bass/rock/horn booms indicative of the unique P-funk sound.
The set begins with “Sugar Rush,” a not-so-subtle sultry ode to all the sweetness that special person holds in our life. Shider then gets cooking with the next offering, “Bop Gun 17,” a song holding strong echoes of classic P-funk backdropped against Shider’s funky old-school falsetto. Starchild Jr.’s dose of political consciousness spills out in the form of “Hard Pill,” as Shider intonates, “When the doctor prescribes his pill it’s the side effects that’s gonna keep you ill, so go ahead and get your glass of water.” The courses just keep on coming from the center section of the funk banquet, as “Jamnastics” to “Stuck in the Middle” reinforce the concept that Shider and his bandmates have plenty of simmering soulfulness.
But it’s the final dish in the form of the title track that fully encapsulates the servings of both Shider’s. “Hand Me Down Diapers” acts as Garret’s personal tribute to his father, tracing the Shider legacy from its beginnings to current day. The song ends with a poignant guitar solo by Jr. as background to an interview conducted with the late Garry Shider, in which he explains the point of his diaper and references an upcoming album.
Showcasing P-funk’s multiple generations at their best, Hand Me Down Diapers is both a testament to Garry Shider’s legacy and a presentation of Garrett Shider’s own artistic individuality, all while holding true to the main ingredients of 1970s funk.
Minneapolis-based band Nooky Jones have been lighting up their local jazz scene for over three years with a distinctive fusion of soul, jazz and hip hop, but the recent release of their self-titled album allows for dissemination of their unique musical styling to all. Helping to bridge the gap between these diverse vibes is lead singer Cameron Kinghorn, a former Mormonite-turned-student from the University of Minnesota. It was during his schooling, Kinghorn claims, that his eyes were opened to an entirely different world; one where he met and befriended a diverse mix of people from varied ethnic and religious backgrounds. These formative years led to his subsequent dealings with drummer Reid Kennedy and trumpet player Adam Meckler, both U of M alums. Freshly penned songs in hand, the trio quickly teamed with bassist Andrew Foreman, keyboardist Kevin Gastonguay and trombonist Ryan Christianson to begin recording.
Produced over a course of 15 months at RiverRock Studios and The Hideaway in Northeast Minneapolis, Nooky Jones relies on each musician’s unique style as a critical part of the overall sound. Atop airtight yet comfortably loose drum and bass grooves often reminiscent of ‘90s R&B and hip hop, layers of harmonically complex piano, organ, and Fender Rhodes create a lushness associated with jazz that rarely integrates so tastefully into pop music. Each track is a delight to the ears, as the merging of each musician’s talents hits the ultimate apex when combined with Kinghorn’s sultry vocals. “After One” opens the album softly with steady beats and chords, gradually simmering in vocals and brass to a slow boil, while the later “Sweet Wine” gently punches with an immediate release of Kinghorn’s talents. A heartfelt message intermixed with wholehearted instrumentals dominates “The Way I See You,” while “Someone Who” features a silky smooth falsetto on par with the best soul crooners in the business.
Hands down, Nooky Jones delivers, reminding us all exactly what we are looking for in life and in jazz—someone who passionately and steadily offers the very best of all they have to give.
Big Boi, best known as part of the duo Outkast, is proving he is an exploding star in the rap universe with his third release, Boomiverse. This 12 track offering from one of Atlanta’s established legends is possibly his finest yet, and judging from the heavy hitters featured, hip hop’s finest seem to agree. Blending funk sounds, pop influences and distinctive southern hip hop, Big shows how his progressive edge with diverse stylings has morphed into what he self-describes as his symbolistic “graduation record.”
“Kill Jill” features Big along fellow Atlantians Killer Mike and Jeezy weaving their distinctively unique methods into a friendly rap battle for rhythm and rhyme bragging rights. A nostalgic reference to Andre 3000’s 1995 Source Award speech—“The South’s got something to say”—can be found within Big’s drop, reminding all of Outkast’s declaration for things to come. With the next track, “Mic Jack,” the mood changes to upbeat, dance-floor catchy that screams club vibe. But just when you get used to Levine’s smooth vocals posed against Big’s clean, deep verses, the tone returns to its slab roots with “In the South.
Having proved his multiplicity in just three songs, the remainder of Boomiverse functions as a collection of Big’s favorite goodtime rap. Snoop weighs in with classic Dogg style on “Get Wit It,” and electro-inspired Jake Troth produces the album’s deep house vibe, “Chocolate.” Boomiverse delivers exactly what one would expect from this innovative, Southern rap legend, proving once again that the South still has plenty to say about the miscellany of hip hop for years to come.
For fans of a certain 80s/90s movie series, the mere mention of a DeLorean speeds up the pulse. But for all its album cover throw-back and the artist’s well-known connection to Big Pun, Delorean proves that Chris River’s music is anything but a backward glance. Well-known in hip hop’s inner circle, Rivers has toured the country with world-renowned Def Jam artist Jadakiss, headlined a European tour, and opened up for Cypress Hill, Immortal Technique, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane. From the beginning of his career in 2012, Rivers made it obvious he was out to slay all mikes with a take-no-prisoners mentality that earned him the title of Cypher King. His career accolades and successes include performing in the 2015 NBA All Star Sprite Cypher, winning the Best Freestyle of 2016 by Team Backpack, and participating in the 2016 BET Hip Hop Awards Cypher, which was later featured as a Jam of the Week on BET JAMS.
The album features a 21-track set of River’s lyrical spinnings that challenge the listener through detailed alliteration, assonance and allegory. The title track, “Delorean,” features Bronx artist Whispers, up-and-coming in the hip hop world himself. This song sets the tone for the album, as listeners are in for a ride as they experience life through the lens of deep musings and futuristic measuring. Infused between Rivers’ offerings are three unique “Time Zones”—quick bursts of thought from Rivers, Whispers and Oswin Benjamin that smell of impromptu slams and smoky stages. “Fear of my Crown” speaks to the past and hopes for the future in ways relatable to everyone, and the last track, “Brightness”, serves as a conscious reminder to value the self, not the trappings of Self. A lyrical dragon who breathes fire with his vocal artillery and technically efficient vernacular, Chris Rivers demonstrates that in the world of hip hop, he is truly on track to be King.
Riding on the success of the 2016 European 2-disc compilation, Here You Are: The Best of Billy Ocean, Legacy Recordings has just issued a stateside version of Billy Ocean’s self-reflective collection, Here You Are: The Music of My Life. Featuring 10 new performances and 5 long-standing favorites, Ocean provides an audio window through which listeners can view his musical inspirations during his 45+ years as a Grammy award winning R&B artist. Ocean’s current 15-track release coincides with his first set of US tour dates in over 20 years—as one of the featured headliners on the 2017 Replay America Festival.
The title track of the album, “Here You Are,” written by Billy Ocean and Barry Eastmond, is a testament to the various musical influences that have stirred Ocean’s creativity over the decades. The song is captivating—a steady, rhythmical rocking ballad back-dropped against the classic sound of Ocean’s signature croon—and is sure to become a strong staple for his fans. True to the album’s subtitle, Ocean provides covers of the music that has most affected his development as an artist followed by five of his biggest chart-toppers. The iconic “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke and Mike Pinder’s “A Simple Game” resonate with, as Ocean states, “everyone waiting for a change…every generation transcending the barriers of colour,” such as himself, who have “lost the concept of life as a spiritual thing, like who we are, what we are, and what we were meant to be.” Bob Marley’s influence is noted as well, through covers of his single “Judge Not” and the well-known “No Woman, No Cry” recorded by Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Ocean’s rendition of “It Was a Very Good Year,” written by Ervin Drake, is easily the most resonant song on the album. As he lulls, “But now the days are short, I’m in the autumn of my years, and I think of my life like vintage wine,” one can’t help but toast Ocean’s own impact upon the music industry through his mega-hits that conclude the disc: “Caribbean Queen 9 (No More Love on the Run),” “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car,” “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going,” “ Suddenly,” and “There Will be Sad Songs (to Make You Cry).”
It was—and is—a very good career for Billy Ocean. Here You Are: The Music of my Life bestows proof of just that.
When RZA, leader of the iconic east coast group Wu-Tang Clan, endorses an upcoming album, rap fans from all directions are bound to take notice. On May 24, SZA found herself in the driver’s seat of anticipation alley when her album announcement date dropped in the form of a voiceover message overlaid onto SZA visuals via Top Dawg #TDE’s Twitter. Fans of the New Jersey singer responded to Ctrl with unbridled respect, resulting in a #3 spot on Billboard 200 Chart a mere 10 days after its June 9th release. Signed to Top Dawg Entertainment in 2013, Ctrl is SZA’s debut studio album featuring fellow Top Dawg artists Kendrick Lamaar and Isaiah Rashad in addition to The Y’s James Fauntleroy. Classed as an R&B and Neo Soul artist, SZA continues to dominate, garnering to date over 49 million album streams and more than 24 thousand CD purchases.
Bringing her own style of bluesy vocals to the table, SZA both croons and rasps out her heart-felt regret of long-gone-wrong in almost every song on the album. The collection’s opening track, “Supermodel,” models to the letter the back-and-forth emotions of a recent breakup, alternatively threatening revenge—“I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy”—while pleadingly begging for another chance—“I could be your supermodel if you believe, if you see it in me.”
Travis Scott picks up the story with his opening lines on “Love Galore,” seducing with his mellow “I need, I need” that almost has us believing things will work out as SZA answers with “Long as we got, Love, Love, Love.” But as the track unfolds, the relationship portrayed unravels to a thin, forgotten thread. “Doves in the Wind” showcases SZA’s vocal expertise as she melodically jumps from note to note to effortless ease, finding her own voice of self-empowerment and determination within the “sorry about your luck” lyricism.
While the rest of the album features many moments where SZA’s dreamy voice soothes regardless of the song pockets of regret, two solo tracks—“Drew Barrymore” and “20 Something” —provide a deep, introspective look into the mind of someone who’s not only wondering what went wrong, but also what can still go right. The tempos are winding, the poetics are heart-rending, and the reminiscence lingers long after SZA’s voice drifts off with the final notes.
Ctrl does exactly what RZA promises—drama is cut loose and karma is claimed—resulting in the utmost respect for SZA’s control of what promises to be a long career to come.
Michigan-based rapper Steven Malcolm released his self-titled debut album, Steven Malcolm, and as the much-publicized first release states, Malcolm is truly this moment’s “Hot Boy.” Rapzilla.com had the foresight to nominate him as their 2015’s Best New Artist, and the day after its release, his album shot into the top 15 of the ITunes/Hip Hop Chart. Soon after, ESPN signed the Hot Boy’s debut single for use in future NBA game coverage. None of this comes as a surprise to fans of other rappers such as Grammy winner Lecrae, KB and Andy Mineo, as Malcolm has been on the Christian hip hop/rap radar for years now. It’s obvious he has the potential to chart onto mainstream hip hop/rap as well, as his entire album’s lyrical and musical content speaks to the current generation through empowering references of God and self alike.
The 13-album set is a mix of both slow, melodic satire and upbeat, feel-good beats that showcase hip hop as its best—pounding downbeats and lyrical composition calling to both its listeners’ activist side while entertaining with a club-like, social vibe. Each song opens with its own unique riff, straight-up announcing mood and tone in a no-holds-barred fashion. “Hot Boy”’s 4-chord keyboard intro in minor key is overlaid with a vintage LP crackle, showcasing the track’s ultra-confident presence of its lead role on the album. A second 4-chord riff juxtaposed against “Fire”’s abrupt, digitized chord and subsequent echoes provide a throw-out to Malcolm’s Jamaican roots, as a distinctive reggae style dominates the entire composition.
Andy Mineo and former American Idol contestant Hollyn weigh in on one of the album’s party-rap vibe, “Party in the Hills,” while Blanca adds her own style to Malcolm’s other R&B/rap mix, “Never Let You Go.” “What Was You Thinking” makes light use of error sounds for its dominant chordal strain, similar to methodology J. Dilla used in his album Doughnuts, and the satirical poetics of “Cereal” pertain to not only breakfast choices, but also the positive end game results from choices that take one from “Growing up, I could only have some in the morning” to a “But now it’s whenever” lifestyle.
The diverse musical stylings and driving lyricism make for an exciting rap collection debut, and if this album is any indication, Steven Malcolm will continue to represent as one of the genre’s Hot Boys for many fiery moments to come.
All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is the sophomore release from American rapper Joey Badass. The album’s title gives a taste of what Badass offers his fans this time around—political consciousness and controversy—throwbacks to the days of Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, but with a smooth, regulated flow reminiscent of the Golden Era of hip hop. All twelve tracks deal directly with poignant issues of racial discrimination and frustration, yet each does so in its own unique time and style that work to bring together an album that both refuses to remain silent but also courts the silence of social reflection.
The opening track, “Good Morning Amerikkka,” features Badass in a literal morning voice—raspy, edgy and choppy—superimposed over a vocal backgrounding of the refrain “Wake up.” The song functions as an introduction to the rest of the album, challenging its listeners through its hook phrase, “What’s freedom to you? Take a minute, think it through.” The ending showcases the song’s flowing style with a fade-out into the second track, “For My People.” This song is smooth-sounding as well, with a lyrical pleading for superpowers, peace, and modern-day heroes. Like many of the songs on this album, Badass showcases his percussion instruments, putting them front and center and fostering a polished contrast between melodious jazz sounds and jarring political wording. The rap break in the middle of the song may seem hard to interpret, but the complexity adds to its overall design and depth. Following is the official video for the powerful fourth track, “Land of the Free”:
“Devastated”—the album’s fifth offering—clearly draws from techo dance roots and combines them with catchy, repetitive lyrics that result in a smooth, rich feeling lasting long after the final tone fades. Cameos are the name of the game on at least five songs, with artists such as J. Cole, Chronixx, Styles P., School Boy Q, Pro Era members Nyck Caution and Kirk Knight, and Meechy Darko (Flatbush ZOMBiES) lending their presence. But by far, the most haunting melody is the track “Temptation,” with its intro and exit dominated by a small child expressing his frustration and desperation regarding racial discrimination and violence.
Badass delivers on his promise to address the tense atmosphere of socio-political issues, and while some might feel his message seems too weighty due to each tune’s complete devotion to current controversies, all can agree on one thing—Joey Badass’s All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is a hip hop album whose lyrics stay with you long after the last track is spun.
The iceberg meme, “You May Know Me, but You Don’t Know Who I am,” is a worthy companion to Oddisee’s newest offering, The Iceberg. Following up his 2016 release, The Odd Tape, D.C.’s own conscious rapper now offers an album challenging the public to dig deeper into their own soul and the soul of the nation in a quest to comprehend the current political atmosphere of not only the Beltway, but the entire country as a whole. His first song of the album, “Digging Deep”, does just that—a catchy refrain “Let’s Get Into It” echoes activist voices who are making their presence known. The 12 tracks are a combination of conscious rap selections interspersed with lighter yet-still-just-as-poignant relationship analyses, such as “This Girl I Know” and “You Grew Up.” With each song, Oddisee takes us deeper into the hidden corners of the world as he knows it.
Musically, The Iceberg stays primarily true to Oddisee’s standard sound—offbeat syncopation and dominate percussive elements layered over a backdrop of jazz instrumentals that deepen and strengthen the tone. However, a few songs off the album do break novel ground, at least in Oddisee terms. The intro on “Like Really” throws the listener into a smooth, relaxed mood with soft chordal sounds and feel-good vibes not easily found in any Oddisee collection to date. On the other hand, the last track “Rights & Wrongs” has both the opposite mood effect and audio quality, with its funky, synthesized tone and dance-beat styling. Oliver St. Louis, an R&B artist born in DC and currently based in Berlin, Germany, cameos on this offering, and his style adds a fresh sound.
As the title indicates, The Iceberg both freezes Oddisee’s standardized sound with similar tried-but-true political themes while concurrently breaking new tonal ground and giving his listeners a brief glimpse into the personal life of a rapper continuing to deliver, timelessly.