Trouble in The Streets – Electro Tribe

trouble in the streets
Title: Electro Tribe

Artist: Trouble in The Streets

Label: Orb Recording

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 6, 2017

 

 

Austin, Texas based Trouble in The Streets’ debut album is like nothing you’ve heard before; in fact, they feel that their music is so unique that they’ve given it its own name—Electro Tribe. This signature sound is a mixture of electronic music, hip-hop, rock, and R&B with an international twist. The band pulls inspiration for their unique sound from acts like Rage Against the Machine, Beats Antique, and Hiatus Kaiyote as well as their own diverse musical backgrounds.

Though it may sound complicated, Trouble in The Streets is able to blend all of these sounds and styles into four cohesive and high-energy tracks on their EP, Electro Tribe. The first track, “Pyramid Scheme,” featuring Grammy Award winning guitarist Beto Martinez, includes retro-synth chord progressions, hard-hitting bass and drum arrangements, and Nnedi Agbaroji’s mesmerizing vocals.

From the passionate “Never Doubt the Worm” to the hopeful and emotional “Sop Me Up Like a Biscuit,” each track on the album is distinct yet still retains the band’s signature electro sound that will leave you wanting more from this up-and-coming trio.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

 

Wyclef Jean – Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee

The Rise and Fall of Carnival III
Title: Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee

Artist: Wyclef Jean

Label: Legacy

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

Wyclef Jean released his Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, highlighting the 20th anniversary of his album The Carnival, and the 10th anniversary of Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant. Like the other albums in the Carnival series, the third installment incorporates music from different parts of the world, offering an outstanding conglomerate of music for the listener. According to Jean, this multi-cultural “genre-bending album is outside the box . . . It’s a celebration of what I love about music: discovery, diversity and artistry for art’s sake.

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The first thing that stands out is Jean’s inspirational words, reminding us that “we shall overcome our struggles someday.” His motivational lyrics and usage of biblical references (e.g. Zion, Golden Gates, and Psalm 23) resonate with the listener as symbols of hope, while inspiring them to pursue their goals. Another aspect of this album is Jean’s blending of polyrhythms (“Fela Kuti”), reggae (“Turn Me Good”), Afro-Cuban (“Trapicabana”), hip hop and popular music, creating a multi-cultural experience. Finally, the skillfulness and musicality displayed by each guest artist (including Jazzy Amra, T-Baby, STIX, and Emeli Sandé) adds another layer to the brilliance of this album.

Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee sustains the legacy of Wyclef Jean’s first Carnival album, spreading the message of community, hope, and love while showing the diversity of the world stage through the art within a music compilation.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

Semantics of Mr. Porter – Denzil Porter

Semantics of Mr. Porter

Title: Semantics of Mr. Porter

Artist: Denzil Porter

Label: That’s Hip Hop

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 22, 2017

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Ghostpoet – Dark Days + Canapés

Ghostpoet

Title: Dark Days + Canapés

Artist: Ghostpoet

Label: Play It Again Sam

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release date: August 18, 2017

 

 

Ghostpoet (aka Obaro Ejimiwe) is a British vocalist and musician known for his beat-driven arrangements and meaningful lyrics, and his newest album lives up to this reputation. Dark Days + Canapés features a more alt-rock, guitar-driven sound that accompanies the artist’s most noteworthy songwriting to date.

Ghostpoet is not one to shy away from exploring tough subjects. The opening track, “Immigrant Boogie,” is a first-person account of the struggles of immigration, an all-too pertinent subject in 2017. Ghostpoet himself said that while this song is “partly intended to ask those who have questioned the arrival of refugees in recent times what they would do in the same situation,” it also aims to show that no human is truly in control of their future. The dystopian-themed video is the perfect companion to the thought-provoking content of this track:

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In addition to his head-on confrontation of important social and cultural issues, the serendipitous approach Ghostpoet took to arranging the music on this album is also noteworthy. For “Freakshow,” the laughter of a gospel choir brought in to sing on a different track was used to add to the manic nature of the song. On another track, “Blind as a Bat…,” string players were encouraged to improvise so the resulting song would be less structured, much like the protagonist’s mind.

The thought put into each track on Dark Days + Canapés shines through, and this gripping album is definitely worthy of a listen, especially in the current social and political climate.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

Garrett Shider – Hand Me Down Diapers

Garrett Shider
Title: Hand Me Down Diapers

Artist: Garrett Shider

Label: Everland Music Group

Formats: CD, MP3, Vinyl

Release date: July 10, 2017

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

Nooky Jones – Nooky Jones

Nooky Jones

 

Title: Nooky Jones

Artist: Nooky Jones

Label: Young and Foolish

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: July 28, 2017

 

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.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

Big Boi – Boomiverse

Boomiverse
Title: Boomiverse

Artist: Big Boi

Label: Epic

Formats: CD, MP3, Vinyl

Release date: June 16, 2017

 

 

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.”

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“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.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

Ronald Bruner, Jr. – Triumph

Ronald Bruner Jr Triumph
Title: Triumph

Artist: Ronald Bruner, Jr.

Label: World Galaxy / Alpha Pup Records

Formats: LP, MP3

Release date: March 3, 2017

 

 

Drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr. is a musician who readers may have heard, but haven’t necessarily “heard of.”  A member of L.A.’s groundbreaking cohort of jazz fusion musicians, the West Coast Get Down, he is the brother of bassist Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) and former keyboardist for The Internet, Jameel Bruner, both of whom worked with Ronald on his new release. While his brothers may be more well-known, Ronald’s playing is a staple of Thundercat’s groundbreaking recordings, and his debut album, Triumph, indicates that his solo output will be strong in its own right.

As one would expect from the commercial success of members of the West Coast Get Down, the music on Ronald Bruner, Jr.’s new album is simultaneously pop-oriented and musically virtuosic.  This is perhaps jazz-fusion in its truest sense, drawing elements from R&B, hip hop and contemporary jazz into a musically interesting setting that is still heavy on radio-friendly grooves.

Recorded during the sessions that spawned fellow West Coast Get Down member Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, Triumph is an album that showcases two kinds of musicianship, often on  the same track. One of these kinds of musicianship finds its expression in pop-oriented R&B and the second allows the stellar musicians in Bruner’s band to showcase their chops.  Songs like “True Story” and “She’ll Never Change” are straight-ahead neo-soul tracks, and aside from the drum break that opens the former and the more active than usual playing on the latter, they could easily be mistaken for new cuts from mainstream R&B artists. Other numbers, like “Geome Deome” and “Open the Gate,” continue in the jazz fusion idiom outlined by virtuosic jazzers. These cuts (the former features the late, great George Duke on keys) hearken to the Al Di Meola Return to Forever days, with distorted guitar wailing over a bed of electric piano and start-and-stop drum grooves that are half Questlove, half Lenny White (who gets a shoutout on the album’s final song).

A stylistic chameleon, Bruner moves between styles within songs, morphing from locking in on the club jam “To You” to putting the trap set in the trap beat “For You” on the same track.  This is followed by the album closer “Chick’s Web,” a virtuosic jazz fusion track with a title that alludes to the great big band leader while blazing new trails for fusion drumming. This cut ends with a collection of shoutouts to everyone from family members to West Coast Get Down musicians (in some cases these are one in the same) to heavy-hitter jazz musicians that Bruner has been influenced by and worked with, including Stanley Clarke and Kenny Garrett.

Drummers need to hear this record because Bruner excels at pretty much any idiom a jazz fusion, funk, or R&B drummer might want to play. Bruner’s strength is in his diversity—Triumph is a jazz album that a pop fan can enjoy and an R&B record that has enough musical interest to keep a jazz head coming back for more. However, Triumph doesn’t fall into the “too diverse to be cohesive” trap that many similarly chameleonic albums do. This is a testament to how much Ronald Bruner, Jr. has to say as a musician and how well-refined his style is. This aptly titled LP is indeed a victory for Bruner and his band.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

 

Delorean – Chris Rivers

Delorean Chris Rivers
Album: Delorean

Artist:  Chris Rivers

Label: That’s Hip Hop Music

Release Date: July 14, 2017

Format: CD, MP3

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Summer of ’96 – Splendid Things Gone Awry

Splendid Things
Title: Splendid Things Gone Awry

Artist: Summer of ’96

Label: Unsociable Music/RED

Format: MP3

Release date: July 21, 2017

 

 

In case you’re still searching for the perfect summer soundtrack, look no further than this new project from Atlanta based singer/songwriter Lonnee Stevens (aka Alonzo Stevenson) and Philadelphia-based composer/producer Antman Wonder, collectively performing as the Summer of ’96. Their group name references the watershed year for hip hop that produced landmark albums by Nas, The Fugees, OutKast, The Roots, 2Pac, and A Tribe Called Quest, among others.

Hearkening back to the golden era of hip hop, the duo use live instrumentation to weave a seductive blend of jazz, soul and rap to create a contemporary soundscape. Stressing that no samples were used in the making of this album, Antman created the original compositions which were then revised and expanded upon by Stevens. Standout tracks include the provocative “Not a Rich Man” featuring Royce 5’9, the harmonically complex “Mahogony Blue” featuring vocals by Lonnee and Teedra Moses, the multi-layered “All That Jazz,” and the cinematic “Wondersong” that’s awash with flute and strings.

Bowing out with the title track featuring Bill Kahler on sax, Antman and Stevens provide a satisfying conclusion to Splendid Things Gone Awry by showcasing their multitude of musical influences.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

 

Jay-Z – 4:44

Jay Z
Title: 4:44

Artist: Jay-Z

Label: ROC Nation

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 30, 2017

 

 

 

A few weeks back, prior to the announcement of a new record, I had a convo with the homie Langston Wilkins (@StreetfolkLCW) and the topic of Jay-Z came up. I must admit I was wondering essentially “What more does Jay-Z have to say at this point? Unless he was going to focus on, say, a skills-based album, it would almost be a lost cause.” My question was answered in spades with the release of 4:44.

As you may have seen from my review of Tribe’s We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service, I struggle with the whole “Rap music is a young man’s game” motif.  To be honest, I largely believe that to be the case. I cannot tell you how annoyed I get hearing folks from my generation or prior hounding young people about how “horrible” their music is.  I don’t quite get how people from my generation don’t recognize the cycle at this point. It’s my belief that Migos’ music is simply not made for my generation of rap fans, much the same as it was for rap fans of the generation before me.  Do you really feel like hardcore Whodini fans were really feeling Bone Thugs-N-Harmony like that?  My guess is no, and that’s okay.

Jay-Z’s new album comes into the conversation on a platform of an artist who has achieved “God” status in the game, but hasn’t made “relevant” music in a bit.  While Magna Carta Holy Grail, was definitely better than Kingdom Come, it still did not have the impact of The Black Album. But this is typical of the rap game, as up to this point we have not seen many rappers age and remain relevant on the level of Jay-Z fame. Married to the one of the biggest pop stars of his generation and regularly appearing on the entertainer’s Forbes list, Jay-Z is in a different category as a celebrity. In his case, it almost seems like a risk to put out material that might be seen as lukewarm and/or “safe” in terms of legacy. Luckily for us and Jay-Z, nothing about 4:44 seems “safe” and it thankfully yields impressive results.

4:44 is set off excellently with “Kill Jay-Z,” a track that according to the artist himself was meant to kill his own ego in order to be open on the record: “Cry Jay-Z/we know the pain is real/but you can’t heal/what you never reveal.” This is an artist that recognizes the role he plays as a leader among hip hop fans and does not plan on wasting the platform. This track is followed by “The Story of OJ,” which has garnered a lot of attention due to its  music video containing images of animated black caricatures comparable to those made infamous in pre-1960s America.  Using a Nina Simone sample as a backdrop, the track details how Jay-Z’s thoughts on wealth have changed over the years. In particular, he takes a minute to detail a real estate deal he wishes he’d taken years ago.  These moments illustrate a major focus on the album—Jay-Z is grappling with how to teach the black community at large the lessons he’s learned. You also hear elements of this in the album’s closing track, “Legacy,” which begins with his daughter Blue Ivy asking “Daddy what’s a will?” and Jay-Z discussing what he truly wants his legacy to entail for his children.

A large amount of buzz surrounding the album has centered on the title track “4:44.” The track is Jay-Z’s response to the implication of his affair revealed on Beyoncé’s magnum opus, Lemonade. Jay-Z confirms the suspicions and apologizes for his indiscretions: “I apologize/often womanized/took for my child to be born/to see through a woman’s eyes.” Producer NoID laces Jay properly here with an excellently flipped sample of Hannah Williams & The Affirmations “Late Nights and Heartbreak,” a track dealing with the difficulties of relationships. I’m not sure if there has been a tit for tat on the perspective of active artists detailing their relationship on this level since Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham during  Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors period.

My favorite track of the album has to be “Smile.” On the production side, it is my favorite beat on the record.  It excellently flips a sample of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today” to amazing effect, accenting Stevie’s clavinet and choir vocals with 808 snares and bass drum hits. This creates a moody setting in which Jigga lets loose on a variety of topics. Speaking to his feelings about his mother’s struggle with her own choices, Jay-Z closes the track with a guest appearance from her that is about as real as it gets. He also addresses his own struggles with public acceptance: “Oh y’all thought I was washed/I’m at the cleaners/laundering dirty money/like the teamsters.” This line felt like a direct response to doubters like myself and trust me, it was heard.

4:44 finds Jay-Z at his most vulnerable on wax in years, yet still with a swagger that is becoming of an elder statesman. The production duties on the album were handled with aplomb by NoID, who after this release will hopefully receive some of the recognition he’s deserved for years.

For all of my “young man’s game” rambling, this is an example of what a “grown man” can do with the artform. Jay-Z’s status allows him to speak and be heard. In return, he uses the platform to not only make great art, but also pass down lessons on the importance of wealth and support of other black people and businesses. 4:44 puts to rest any of my concerns about what over-40 rap artists are capable of.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Steven Malcolm Self-Titled Debut

Steven Malcolm

Title: Steven Malcolm

Artist: Steven Malcolm

Label: Word Entertainment/4 Against 5

Format: Digital, CD, MP3

Release Date: February 17, 2017

 

 

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.

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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.    

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Joey Badass – All-Amerikkkan Bada$$

Badass

Title: All-Amerikkkan Bada$$

Artist: Joey Badass

Label: Pro Era/Cinematic Music Group

Release Date: April 7, 2017

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

Oddisee – The Iceberg

Oddisee

Title: The Iceberg

Artist: Oddisee

Label: Mellow Music Group

Format: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 24, 2017

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

K’Valentine – Here For a Reason

K'Valentine
Title: Here For a Reason

Artist: K’Valentine

Label: Javotti Media

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: April 7, 2017

 

K’Valentine is one of the newest young rappers to come out of Chicago, whose music scene is currently on the map due to the efforts of rappers like Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Noname, and BJ The Chicago Kid. Her debut album, Here for a Reason, is the result of putting the work in on her previous mixtape projects, which drew the attention of Talib Kweli. She first met Kweli backstage at a concert in Chicago, and he later produced her 2014 mixtape Million Dollar Baby. Continuing that collaboration, Kweli is one of many artists featured on the album, including BJ The Chicago Kid, Tweet, Kendra Ross, and Scotty ATL. These collaborations offer a lot, but Valentine still holds her own throughout the rest of the album.

K’Valentine’s background is in poetry, which definitely shows throughout her verses. Her career as both a poet and a rapper was informed by a chance backstage meeting with the late great Maya Angelou, who encouraged her to continue to write. At times, the album can seem minimalistic, but never simplistic. If anything, the stripped down production, particularly on “King,” help Valentine’s message to shine through.

With this debut album, Valentine joins a long line of hard hitting female MC’s that can also hold their own with the men. Her flow is versatile, her verses personal, and she moves easily between conscious and club rap.  There’s something old school about her rhymes, and she shows an ability to be a rapper that can also create R&B jams. Here For a Reason provides a consistent sound, and gives the listener a good glimpse into the kind of MC K’Valentine is going to grow into.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

Pete Rock & Smoke DZA – Don’t Smoke Rock

Smoke DZA
Title: Don’t Smoke Rock

Artist: Pete Rock & Smoke DZA

Label: Baby Grande

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: December 2, 2016

 

Pete Rock to me, represents a great deal of things. So where exactly do I begin? For starters, he just happens to be related to the late Heavy D and they all hail from Mt. Vernon, NY. In the 90’s, Pete Rock made up one half the duo with CL Smooth, and together they collaborated on some of the best hip hop of that era. If you were around, who can forget the classic line, “Pete Rock hit me, nuff respect do.” As a collector & DJ, Rock takes a back seat to no one.

On his latest outing with rapper DZA titled Dont’ Smoke Rock, Pete Rock isn’t rapping, but he supplies the beats for DZA and a host of guest rappers. Now, just in case you aren’t cognizance of current hip hop promotion, to get ears to listen one may need to stack the deck by using collaborations. It can be a both positive and, yes, a negative. For me, the jury is still out on Dont’ Smoke Rock. DZA has a nice a nice flow and is better then what is currently on the airwaves, but when the guest rapper comes in, he takes over.

On the track “Black Superhero Car,” Rick Ross is a guest, alternating verses with DZA. Now DZA, who loves to call out wrestlers or ball players, namechecks former wrestler Larry Zybysko. Zybysko over Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair? Never a good look when rappers have to use the name game. Rick Ross is Rick Ross.

“Milestone,” featuring BJ the Chicago Kid, Jadakiss and Styles P is the track I was waiting for. Opening with piano keys, the Harlem rapper DZA comes through, but again goes to what he enjoys, mentioning sports figures. This time it’s Kentucky coach John Calapari. BJ’s on the catchy hook, “I ‘m Gonna Hold You Down.” Put this track in the 90’s and we are talking classic.

With all the guest rappers on Dont’ Smoke Rock, one might wonder, what if Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, Nas and J Hoova were on this CD? As the kids say now a days, it’d be lit.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Soul Science Lab – Plan for Paradise

Plan for Paradise
Title: Plan for Paradise

Artist: Soul Science Lab

Label: self-release

Formats: CD (Collector’s edition), Digital

Release date: October 28, 2016

 

 

October 2016 saw a strong release by the eclectic hip hop duo Soul Science Lab, a rap group that proclaims itself as “Innovative.Afro.Futuristic.Griots” on the mbira-driven first track of Plan for Paradise. This appears to be an accurate description of the music that artist and musician Chen Lo and multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer Asante’ Amin create.  The duo’s songs are compelling and innovative, indicative of the group’s sprawling vision and overall high artistic standards.

At first listen, the offbeat and hip sensibility of Plan for Paradise will likely remind listeners of work by De La Soul or A Tribe Called Quest.  Like these earlier pioneers, Soul Science Lab’s soundscapes are heavily influenced by jazz and other musics of the African Diaspora.  However, SSL’s music is not simply a throwback to the heyday of the Native Tongues collective.  Stylistically, the music broadens out to a variety of other genres, such as the gospel shout on “Gimme That,” hard rock on “Built My City,” Spanish guitar on “Kingmaker,” and electro funk on “Spend Some Time.”

Lyrically, SSL addresses everything from their Afrofuturistic artistic vision to spiritual themes (“Supernatural”) to contemporary social issues (“I Can’t Breathe”), the latter with a rare poignancy in an age full of attempts at political music. The lyrics on Plan for Paradise, while appearing aspirational on many tracks, demonstrate a deeper understanding of the underlying themes.  That is to say, the political songs aren’t political because it is fashionable to address current events—rather, they suggest the artists’ abiding concerns and nuanced understanding of the issues at hand.

Overall, Plan for Paradise is a great listen from a group whose members boast an impressive resume, both due to their collaborations with other artists and in their work with arts education (detailed on the group’s website).  Listeners can hope that this is the first in a long line of innovative.Afrofuturistic albums.

Note: The album cover uses the Augmented Reality technology of Blippar to create an interactive experience, as demonstrated in this video.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

T.I. – Us or Else: Letter to the System

T.I.
Title: Us or Else: Letter to the System

Artist: T.I.

Label: Grand Hustle / Roc Nation Records

Format: digital

Release date: December 16, 2016

 

Looking back, 2016 was undoubtedly a great year for black music. And one particularly interesting part was listening to the myriad ways that black musicians interpreted and performed black protest, as well as the protesters’ routine practice of taking up these songs during their protests, especially Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Likewise, Atlanta rapper T.I.’s December release, Us or Else: Letter to the System, signals a turn in the amount of explicit political content of his music, as well as a consistent effort from mainstream rappers and other black music icons to speak on issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement, including such heavyweights as Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Janelle Monáe, Killer Mike, and J. Cole. As far as the rappers go, Kendrick, Jay-Z, and J. Cole are devoted lyricists, though that is not all they do. But Killer Mike and now T.I. represent a new wave of southern trap rappers who use their music to explicitly respond to the issues and actions of the movement for black lives.

You could say T.I. entered this particular arena clearly with the August release of the single from the album, “We Will Not.” The song has a sinister melody and an anthem’s bigness and is an aggressive refusal of the race and class oppression he narrates in what is essentially a list of grievances addressed to a wide variety of unjust systems in the United States. This content is surrounded sonically by an articulation of the strength and badness—in the black usage of baad as positive—of contemporary black political activists, many of whom, I might add, are the same groups of teenagers innovating in trap music and black culture today. The album certainly demonstrates T.I.’s commitment to using his music to protest with and on behalf of the larger black community; even the long list of featured artists get completely on board with the mission, mobilizing countless Civil Rights Movement signifiers and centering their discussion primarily around police violence and mass incarceration.

In line with contemporary trap music, the sounds of the album include a steady stream of ad-libs, beat drops, autotune, excessive use of hi hats, gun sounds, filters, and especially current black “‘hood” vernacular and vocal performance. In terms of the vernacular and vocal performance, the song “Pain” works as a kind of guide to the pain of contemporary black life, the performance showing us how to feel good in its midst. This T.I. accomplishes through a type of showiness and effortlessness created through slurred vocals, the repetition of sound-phrases, and the way his flow rides the beat. The language is a compelling mix of this black vernacular and hot social justice language, and T.I. takes an introspective and encouraging, though still righteously enraged, position on today’s issues. In the song “Black Man,” the chorus sings celebratorily, “black man…drop top… there go the cops,” bringing two ideas together which have traditionally been thought of as mutually exclusive; and this is the cause of the confrontation with police in the song. This is just one example of how T.I.’s claims against white society are often represented by the “law” in the form of a white police officer—a longstanding tradition in black American culture because of the ways in which the legal system has been used by white society post-emancipation to maintain white supremacy and black exploitation and subordination.

In response to today’s attacks from the “law,” T.I. puts forth an album about race pride and action, embodied in the song “40 Acres”—a celebration of black under class values, centering the ‘hood in the conversation without being disparaging or condescending. If it’s a revolution, it’s a people’s revolution with T.I. embracing the role of race man.

In “Picture Me Mobbin,” mobbin’—moving or goin’ in with one’s squad—becomes an expression of unity, not threat. Here trap language and style gets mobilized to encourage activism, to make political action the modus operandi of the “real n*gga.” In the same breadth, T.I. lays claim to a kind of respectability of the “dope boy” in “Writer,” which is a reference to 2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az a Ridah,” but also a play on the southern accent to signify another meaning, that rap is in fact a legitimate form of literary production.

“Here We Go / Don’t Fall For That” is one of several reflection moments in the album, which T.I. uses to create a pep song for the poor, black kid in the ‘hood—acknowledging, unlike corporate media, that our communities are under siege, and trying to work against that. The advice from the trap star is “don’t get trapped,” and, ultimately, choose another way that can build you and your community up. That’s what it means to be black, strong, and baad in the world T.I. renders for us in Us or Else.

In a final moment of reflection and humbling, the album ends with T.I. calling on Jesus to “Take Da Wheel,” reinforcing the overall feeling that this is bigger than any of us individually and the belief that, in Dr. King’s words, the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” even if that may only be in another world.

As a body, Us Or Else: Letter To The System is robust and full of opposition and counter-narratives, encouragement in the fight for racial justice, and an insistence on accountability from white society and systems of governance and policing. T.I. emphasizes the importance of members of the black community being responsible to each other, showing us how to feel good in the midst of the terror of today’s world. His letter to the system still brings us swag and flex in traditional Atlanta fashion. This album is a move towards devotion and commitment in bold pursuit of justice for the black underclass, asserting the “bigness” of the oppressed in terms of rage, resiliency, and joy. A tremendous effort from T.I. in an urgent time, Us Or Else goes down as one of those hugely empowering moments when black music, black radical thought, and black action intersect.

Reviewed by Nandi Marumo

Nate Smith – KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere

Nate Smitjh
Title: KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere

Artist: Nate Smith

Label: Ropeadope Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 3, 2017

 

Nate Smith’s debut album, KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere, is an invigorating collection of both instrumental and lyrical music blending jazz, R&B, and hip-hop into an interpretive showcase of his Black American experience. Smith’s career spans from teaching music to performing and recording with accomplished musicians such as Dave Holland, Chris Potter, and Ravi Coltrane, among others. Both bandleader and drummer, Smith celebrates the collaborative art produced on this album with his “kindred spirits,” the featured KINFOLK musicians.

The album slowly eases in with “Intro: Wish You Were Here,” a 30-second whisper-like pause before he kicks off with the rhythmically syncopated tune, “Skip Step.” “Bounce: Parts I & II” follows, highlighting the tight horn section’s unison melody. At periodic interludes, Smith incorporates partial recordings of his mother and father speaking about their family migratory experiences across the United States. “Retold” is a comforting tune with a sweeping melody, both reminiscent and nostalgic, which Smith describes as sounding “like someone telling a love story from start to finish.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8hjco9bKFU

Smith is joined on this album principally by keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist Jeremy Most, alto and soprano saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, and electric bassist Fima Ephron. Singer and lyricist Amma Whatt and back-up singer Michael Mayo provide captivating vocals amid the dominating instrumental tunes, rendering the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement on “Disenchantment: The Weight” and “Morning and Allison.” Several recorded guests are also featured on KINFOLK including saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Dave Holland, guitarists Lionel Loueke and Adam Rogers, and vocalist Gretchen Parlato singing “Pages.” The final track, “Home Free,” is dedicated to the memory of his paternal grandfather. It opens with a somber yet bright string section as the band gently adds peaceful layers of sound forming a soothing conclusion.

KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere is a visual album, in the sense that Smith’s music evokes images of childhood, identity, nostalgia, and family, while each song creatively balances improvisation with steady melodic and rhythmic themes. With this debut, Smith and his collaborators have crafted an excellent work of art.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Common – Black America Again

common
Title: Black America Again

Artist: Common

Label: Def Jam

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

Rapper/actor/activist Common returns with his 11th full length album, Black America Again, a strong political and social document about race in 21st century America.  He has always had something serious to say, but Common digs even deeper on this record, citing his sources and bringing penetrating social commentary to a musical soundscape as powerful as his political messages.

Social issues have always figured prominently in the Grammy and Oscar-winning musician’s work. Race takes center stage on the title track, a cut that reveals the triumphs and tragedies of African American history but suggests that the issue of interpretation is central to how this history is applied to present struggles.  The track features sermonettes between verses, and a hook that features the great Stevie Wonder singing “We are rewriting the Black American story.”  Common continues these themes on “Letter to the Free,” a song that addresses the long and brutal history of violence and discrimination against Black people in the United States. “Letter to the Free” presents the argument advanced in Michelle Alexander’s seminal text The New Jim Crow that mass incarceration is the latest incarnation of systemic racism in America.

Common isn’t just spitballing, either. He knows the facts about these issues, asserting the academic and cultural fabric that makes up his critical perspective on “The Day That Women Took Over,” featuring BJ the Chicago Kid. The rapper proclaims that “Michelle Alexander wrote the new Constitution / Beyonce made the music for the revolution.” The song is an ode to Black womanhood, released prior to the presidential election. While the cultural points he makes about the game-changing contributions of Black women cannot be ignored, this song now feels more aspirational than it did prior to November 8. One could easily imagine a situation in which this track could serve as the soundtrack for a victory lap by the first female US president. Rather, it now seems more a reminder that the political fight for equality still rages, despite the fact that the cultural one may appear to be over.

In addition to getting political, social, and historical, Common gets very personal on Black America Again, with “Little Chicago Boy,” a song that narrates the life of his late father, the professional basketball player Lonnie Lynn. Gospel singer Tasha Cobbs is featured on this track, singing a stanza of the hymn “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee.”

Most of this album is harder-edged than the jazz and soul-inflected rap that Common is known for, with sparser tracks, more contemporary textures and aggressive sampling (especially of spoken word) than fans of the rapper’s earlier work may expect. The standout feature is the presence of the Black church on this record, something that listeners who have heard 2016’s other seminal rap releases—Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book—will recognize as a crucial part of the hip hop landscape.  What differentiates Common’s treatment from these others is that gospel music is less an integral part of the music—he employs sacred song and sermon to drive home his broader points on specific songs, rather than building his sound around these genres.

There are some gestures to the pop music market on this otherwise brainy artistic and social statement.  Foremost among these is the duet track with longtime collaborator John Legend, a ballad with an ear to the pop market that Legend cornered with his piano-driven style.  This song, “Rain,” will inevitably be a radio hit: it is vague enough to be about a number of things, but melodic enough to catch the ears of listeners who aren’t hardcore rap fans. In fact, it feels more like a John Legend song than a Common one. Accompanied only by Legend’s piano, Common gets just one verse, a formula far more resonant with the singer-feat. rapper model than rapper-feat. singer one. There are other songs that aren’t explicitly political. “Love Song” and “Red Wine” fall more into the club slow-jam category than something one may expect on a political mixtape, but even the latter reads as a celebration of Black American royalty and the rapper’s status within it.

Hopefully, Black America Again will usher in an era of similarly specific and poignant social and political commentary from both Common and other rappers in his vein.  Election years are normally brimming with political releases, and this is by far one of the strongest of the bunch. Common’s politics are clear, certain, and compelling—his musical orchestrations of them uncompromising.  Conscious listeners will need more releases like this in the years to come, and it seems like Common is primed to deliver them.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

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.

YouTube Preview Image

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…

de-la-soul
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

Black Dylan – Hey Stranger

black-dylan
Title: Hey Stranger

Artist: Black Dylan

Label: Black Dylan Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: August 26, 2016

 

Black Dylan is an up-and-coming duo from Denmark that blends soul, R&B, hip-hop, and pop into a thoroughly satisfying album perfect for the dance floor. Wafande’s gravely, though sweetened vocals take the front stage beside Nuplex’s skillful DJ instrumentation. Together the duo draws from its French roots and American soul influences to create the Black Dylan aesthetic.

The first song and title track, “Hey Stranger,” pursues the fantasy story we wonder if will ever come true—to fly away and travel the world with a person you just met. An excellent start leading into an invigorating morning anthem, “Get up Child,” with choir voices, grooving guitar wah wah pedal, horns, and piano. Black Dylan keeps the tempo up with “Don’t Wanna Be Alone,” integrating gospel chorus breakdowns. It is as if they dare you not to dance when you listen to this track.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5szwDFEQwo0

The album brings down the party vibe, but not the hopeful spirits with “You’re Getting Stronger,” a smooth R&B song with a memorable chorus. “The One” utilizes finger snaps and upright bass to give the listener a more intimate atmosphere to hear his promises of love and dedication. A guitar riff is played during instrumental breaks of this song, reminiscent of West African electric guitar styles. “She Said I Was a Failure” is a slow and dramatic tune, which pairs nicely with the heartbreak song, “Who Got My Back.” Reverberating organ chords, a steady beat, and a full bodied chorus of soulful voices sing in praise of love and companionship.

The final tracks of the album turn from lost love towards more edgy and personal themes. “Keep Your Eyes on the Road” uses semi-monotone vocals paired with repetitive horn and piano sections. Performing with LA singer Honey Larochelle, “Papa” deals with the pain of having to live with an addict father:

There’s no excuse, so much abuse, I can’t believe I used to want to be like you.

Papa, overdose after overdose, you’re killing me.

The final track, “Hummin’,” is a cool and quiet tune producing an emotional resolution that serves as an affirmation of his tough outer shell. Hey Stranger all in all is enjoyable – it will be interesting to keep an eye on Black Dylan’s sway of audiences in the United States.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

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