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.
Sylvester Uzoma Onyejiaka II — the Austin, Texas-born arranger, multi-instrumentalist and producer who goes by the moniker Sly5thAve — returns with an orchestral tribute to the prolific DJ, producer, rapper, and mogul Dr. Dre. Culled from a live set compiled for a charity event titled “Cali-Love,” Sly5thAve’s arrangements, which were praised by Dr. Dre himself at the concert, pay tribute to Dre’s brilliance in the producer’s chair while presenting new and interesting ideas in a set of well-worn but still funky grooves.
On The Invisible Man, Sly5thAve uses Dre’s compositions as vehicles for his own interpretations and improvisations, treating gangsta rap as jazz arrangers of yesteryear treated Tin Pan Alley songs. Sly5thAve’s jazz-inflected approach to musical borrowing is heightened by Dr. Dre’s own extensive sampling of 70s P-Funk in his original music, creating layers of intertextuality for hip hop heads and jazz cats alike while retaining (at moments heightening) the cinematic qualities of the source material. Dre’s compositions have always told vivid and imaginative stories. The Invisible Man tells similar stories, with instrumental arrangements in place of most of these songs’ most memorable lyrics, to the effect of making the album feel like the really good remake of a slightly better original movie.
This album is loaded with riffs on Dre’s signature G-Funk style, with Sly5thAve and company developing tracks like “Let Me Ride,” “California Love,” and “Ain’t Nuthin’ But a G Thang” into compelling vehicles for improvisation and orchestration. Some of the album’s most interesting moments, however, come from the band’s interpretation of tracks less associated with Dre’s signature early 90s funk-based sound and more with the tracks he built for his later proteges, like the stellar readings of Dre-produced early Eminem tracks, including “Forgot about Dre,” “Guilty Conscience,” and “My Name Is.” While their lush string sections and intricate horn arrangements definitely sound different than the original versions of these numbers, these versions are so infectiously true to their musical spirit that listeners will be tempted to dust off their memory of the classic verses that appear on these songs to rap along, starting with “Y’all know me, still the same O.G.…”
Overall, Sly5thAve stays very close to both the spirit and letter of his source material, often giving his crack band opportunities to improvise over his dramatic orchestral readings of this catalog in the same way that Dre gave Snoop Doggy Dogg room to stretch out over the original versions of these songs on The Chronic. Sure, The Invisible Man is no replacement for the original cuts, but it’s a great way to get away with playing G-Funk at a dinner party.
When the holidays come around, one often thinks of James Brown. Why? He died on Christmas day in 2006, and across the world, JB fans celebrate his legacy and discography. JB will live forever and so will his cohorts, who had the honor of touring and playing next to “Soul Brother # 1.” Bobby Byrd , Marva Whitney, Lynn Collins all are in soul heaven, but Bootsy Collins is still going strong. Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley & Pee Wee Ellis still tour. Vicki Anderson is still with us, and Martha High likewise is still with us and touring. Martha who? Yes, even for some who are JB diehards, that name is not clicking like the other names mentioned. Trust me, the real ones know her name and if you don’t, read on.
Martha High was born Martha Harvin and grew up in Washington, DC. For thirty years, she performed backup vocals for JB. Then, in 2000, she left JB and hooked up with Maceo Parker. Her new album, Tribute To My Soul Sisters, backed by Japan’s premiere funk group, Osaka Monaurail, is just that and more.
On the opening track “Think (About It),” you hear perhaps two of the most famous lines in hip hop: “Use what ya got, to get what ya want” and “It takes two to make a thing go right.” Cool C’s “The Glamorous Life” and Rob Base’s “It Takes Two” sampled those lines respectively, but it was Lyn Collins who first shouted those lines in 1971. Martha High has chops and on her version of the song she pays homage to Collins.
“This Is My Story” was originally done by The Jewels, the group High joined in the ‘60s just before they were hired to tour with JB. High’s vocals come across as praise and possess a “what a time we had” kind of vibe. “I Cried,” a track originally done by Tammi Terrell, was a eyebrow raiser, but High pulls it off and makes you want to seek out the original. Marva Whitney and Vicki Anderson also get their due from High.
Martha High would have fit right in on the Academy Award documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Makes you wonder why she never became bigger in the game. The same can be said for all of the female vocalists who performed with JB.
Tribute To My Soul Sisters not only acknowledges former JB vocalists Lyn Collins, Marva, Vicki, and Tammi, but is a fine tribute to Martha High, who is still going strong and sounding great. Better late than never.
Though the state of Florida doesn’t immediately come to mind as a hotbed of soul music, journalist John Capouya attempts to correct this oversight with his new book Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band. Using his “antennae for passionate vocals and funky sounds with Florida origins,” he delves into the period from 1945-1980, when Florida produced “some of the most electric, emotive soul music this country has ever heard.” Capouya attributes this flourishing scene in part to the fact that Florida, along with Texas, was the “densest and richest segment of the chitlin’ circuit,” bringing all of the major African American artists through the state.
Each of the 20 chapters is dedicated to a particular artist or producer, some famous and others lesser known, but all contributing an interesting story: Ray Charles (“the catalyst of the entire soul explosion came from Greenville, FL”); Sam Moore (“from Miami’s Overtown neighborhood”); sax players Ernie Calhoun and Noble “Thin Man” Watts; Lavell Kamma and the 100 Hour Counts (“one of Florida’s longest-running soul groups”), the singing duo James & Bobby Purify (one chapter each); vocalists Helen Smith, Frankie Gearing, Jackie Moore, and Timmy Thomas (his 1972 anthem “Why Can’t We Live Together” is sampled in Drake’s “Hotline Bling); Latimore (who first recorded for Henry Stone), Wayne Cochran (“the white James Brown”); white soul singer Linda Lyndell; producer Papa Don Schroeder, and of course KC and the Sunshine Band. Other chapters are dedicated to the state’s most famous label owners—Henry Stone and T.K. Productions (which rightly receives two chapters) and Willie Clarke and Deep City Records—plus a chapter explaining how “The Twist Came from Tampa.” Along the way many other artists are mentioned, along with other Florida labels such as Jayville, Tener, Marlin, Leo, Alston, D & B, Glades, and Bound Sound.
Florida Soul is an engaging and informative read, placing an emphasis on the stories behind the singers and the songs gleaned from historical research as well as interviews with surviving musicians, singers, producers, deejays, and other industry personnel. The book is an important resource on a music scene that’s never been fully documented within a single volume, adding greatly to our understanding of American music and, in particular, the soul, R&B, disco and funk grooves emanating from the Sunshine State in waves the spread across the nation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.