Following are additional albums released during March 2019—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves. Continue reading
Following are additional albums released during February 2019—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves. Continue reading
Title: Everythangs Corrupt
Artist: Ice Cube
Label: Lench Mob/Interscope
Format: CD, Digital
Release date: December 7, 2018
O’Shea Jackson, aka Ice Cube, has been around forever and that is not a figure of speech. Depending on your age and generation, you know the name from some form of entertainment. For many, Cube came to our attention with the group NWA. After he departed NWA, he went solo and released what some believe to be his best work, the album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. I will get back to that later. He also helped launch careers for Yo Yo and Da Lynch Mob. Cube then went Hollywood, where Boyz In The Hood and the classic Barbershop films introduced him to another audience. Cube has even ventured into sports with his 3-on-3 basketball league. With the release of the biopic Straight Outta Compton a few years ago and his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it appears all has come full circle for the man who once referred to himself as “the Nigga you love to hate.” Continue reading
Del Lawrence, aka “Mr. Del,” has come a long way in the hip hop world since his early days with Three 6 Mafia. His religious conversion in 2000 after his first album marked his turn towards Christian/gospel rap, and since that point Mr. Del has devoted his resources primarily to assisting others in need. He is the pastor of Memphis-based City of Refuge Church through which he has created a global podcast and lecture circuit outreach program in order to spread the word of God. Dedicated Music Group (DMG) is his self-founded label company, allowing Del to develop new talent and produce multiple hard-hitting albums each year. Continue reading
Following are additional albums released during January 2019—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves. Continue reading
Before their mega-hit, “Where is the Love,” before Fergie, before holding both the number 1 and number 2 Billboard Hot 100 spots with their 2009 singles, “I Gotta Feeling” and “Boom Boom Pow,” The Black Eyed Peas established themselves as conscious rappers with their 1998 Interscope debut album, Behind the Front. Twenty years later, the group is returning to their roots with their newest release, Masters of the Sun Vol 1. Loosely based on the 2017 graphic novel bearing the same name, The BEP circles back to hip hop’s conscious scene, providing us with their most politically-charged collection to date. Continue reading
Following are additional albums released during December 2018—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves. Continue reading
Title: Broken Politics
Artist: Neneh Cherry
Label: Smalltown Supersound
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release Date: October 19, 2018
It’s hard to believe it was thirty years ago that Neneh Cherry burst onto the scene with the international hit single “Buffalo Stance” from her debut album, Raw Like Sushi, (1988). Garnering lots of MTV and BET love, Cherry was perhaps on her way to becoming huge, but as the ‘90s rolled in, Cherry did an exit stage left. After releasing Homebrew (1992) and Man (1996), she went UG—as in underground. Cherry’s whereabouts became a topic of interest for her fans. It takes a great deal of confidence and know-thy-self to just up and walk away from the commercial trappings of the game. But Cherry comes across as one who was never impressed by that. Continue reading
Brooklyn, hip hop’s locus, has nurtured some of the most legendary artists in the game. Many tributes have highlighted the borough’s significance, both to the genre and as a vital part of New York City. A Breukelen Story, Masta Ace and Marco Polo’s first official collaboration, manages to do just that and so much more. Continue reading
Over the summer, the Philadelphia hip hop collective ILL DOOTS released their self-titled album, Ill Doots. The ensemble—a group of artists, educators, and activists based in Philadelphia—is inspired by Minneapolis funk, classic rock, hip hop, neo soul, and “everything in between.” Since their early formation in 2009 at a dorm room jam session, the collective has released several albums, toured the U.S., and become a fixture on the Philly concert scene. Apart from their musical endeavors, ILL DOOTS has a community outreach program called the I Love Learning initiative that provides free workshops in schools, after school programs, churches, and community venues in Philadelphia. Continue reading
Welcome to the July 2018 Summer Rocks issue of Black Grooves. This month we’re looking at the many permutations of Black rock, from the psychedelic riffs on Dug Pinnick’s Tribute To Jimi (Often Imitated But Never Duplicated); to the socially conscious songs of Fantastic Negrito on Please Don’t Be Dead and Bettye Lavette’s Bob Dylan tribute Things Have Changed; to the British blues rock collaboration on Buddy Guy’s The Blues Is Alive and Well; to the multi-faceted fusions of the Stanley Clarke Band’s The Message, Shuggie Otis’s Inter-Fusion, and Serpentwithfeet’s Soil; to the folk rock of AHI’s In Our Time and the countrified soul of Priscilla Renea’s Coloured; to the black metal of Zeal and Ardor’s Stranger Fruit; and last but not least, the foundational rock and roll on The Ballads of Fats Domino.
Seminal jazz releases this month include Kamasi Washington’s two-disc Heaven and Earth and Dr. Michael White’s Tricentennial Rag honoring New Orlean’s 300th birthday. Yet another tribute album is Lurrie Bell & the Bell Dynasty’s Tribute to Carey Bell, featuring the four accomplished sons of the legendary Chicago blues harpist.
Also featured is gospel singer Javen’s latest album, Grace; the collaboration connecting Sengalese kora master Diali Cissokho and North Carolina band Kaira Ba on Routes; Lamont Dozier’s Reimagination of tracks previously written for other artists; and the Little Freddie King compilation Fried Rice & Chicken featuring his best tracks from the Orlean’s label. Wrapping up this issue is our list of June 2018 Releases of Note in all genres.
Title: Book of Ryan
Artist: Royce da 5’9”
Label: Heaven Studios/eOne
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release Date: May 4, 2018
Royce da 5’9”, while best known for his collaborations with artists such as Eminem in addition to his extensive recording career, is still an enigmatic figure to many of his fans. While other artists have freely woven their personal issues into their rhymes, until this point Royce has relied on his lyricism skills to build his reputation and fan base. With Book of Ryan, however, he switches up his game plan and allows us a glimpse into his personal world. Functioning as a part-retrospective/part-progressive look at the Royce-That-Was and the Royce-That-Has-Yet-To-Be, Book of Ryan unflinchingly spins a narrative of past drug use, current insecurities and future self-expectations.
The 21-set album begins with an introduction in which Royce lays out his intentions for his music in narrative-style, and quickly gets right down to business in his second cut, “Woke.” The minimalistic, polyrhythmic percussion is appealing in its own right, but the lyrics calling out those in self-denial of their behavior and environment is spot-on conscious mode. “My Parallel,” the first of three self-explanatory ‘skits,’ further explores Royce’s purpose for the remainder of the album, disclosing that his dark childhood and subsequent drug use drove many of his self-destructive decisions.
While Royce doesn’t dwell in his past for the entire time, the main focus of his album is to let us into his inner world and former experiences. His choice of featured artists lets his fan base know who is important in his life—Eminem, T-Pain, and Pusha T, to name a few. “Amazing,” featuring Melanie Rutherford, is a multi-functional finger-point towards the grocer in Royce’s childhood who took away his coveted basketball, while also introducing fans to his past self through a self-affirmational journey through his old neighborhood.
Royce continues his backward glance with “Boblo Boat,” an offering best experienced through video (above) due to its nostalgic youthful feeling and amusement park scenes. But it’s his skit, “Who are You,” that offers the best proof of why Ryan has released this deeply introspective album. This narrative features Royce describing a dream in which he is able to ask his late father hard-hitting questions he never got the chance to ask, followed by Royce’s son asking if he can interview him for a school project he has decided to do about his father called “The Book of Ryan.”
The Book of Ryan is a well-crafted piece of audible prose. Looking inward and outward at both society and himself, Royce da 5’9” gives us a page-turning look at all the forces that molded and shaped him into the artist he is now and the individual he aspires to be.
Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi
Label: Strange Music
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: March 16, 2018
There’s something to be said for raw, introspective honesty. It not only provides relief to the one sharing, but it also lets others know they aren’t the only ones adjusting to difficult life issues. On his latest album, A Strange Journey Into the Unimaginable, underground rapper Murs bares his soul with some of his most candid, direct lyrics yet. Murs, a native of south central Los Angeles, has released nearly two dozen albums, but none of them belt out the trials and tribulations more poignantly than this one. Yet, he still manages to weave some lighter-hearted rhymes in-between his retrospections, showing fans that regardless of the darkness faced, one can still find reasons to smile beyond the pain.
In his first track, “The Unimaginable,” Murs strips himself down to the bone, providing a glimpse into his previously unimaginable life journey dealing with a painful divorce, a 12-month separation from his son, and the loss of his stillborn second son and a personal friend: I cried a whole lot when I filed for divorce, and when a homie got shot /…when I was separated from my son, I cried for almost a year /..a baby boy…he was born without a heartbeat. The next offering, “Melancholy,” is a more upbeat tune that, while continuing its focus on struggle, admits that Murs’ overwhelming grief has morphed into a lingering pensiveness: Hi everyone. My name is Murs, and uh…yeah. I’ve had a rough couple of years…I’m at this point now where I’m not too high and not too low. I’m just here.
“Same Way” is a fun, tongue-in-cheek diss to friends and family of Murs’ girlfriend who don’t like him, as he simply states, “Tell them I feel the same way.” On “Superhero Pool Party, Murs’ son asks for a bedtime story and is treated to a comical what-would-happen narrative involving characters such as Batman, She-Hulk and Professor X. Providing touching tributes to love and commitment on “So Close So Far” and “Vows,” Murs shows his softer and more hopeful side, and he closes out his album with the somewhat dark but still completely candid “God is the Greatest,”
While his experiences so far were something he most likely couldn’t have imagined, Murs has turned his tragedies into therapeutic rhymes. Spinning his tales so that everyone knows they aren’t alone, Murs has managed to turn the unimaginable into a tale of perseverance, giving all of his listeners hope for their own journey through life.
Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi
Artist: Maceo Parker
Label: Minor Music
Format: 2-CD + DVD limited edition box set
Release date: February 14, 2018
“Gather round, space cadets and funkateers.” So begins the liner notes for Maceo Parker’s seminal 1992 live album and funk opus, Life on Planet Groove. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the album, Minor Music has released Life on Planet Groove Revisited, which also coincides with Parker’s 75th birthday. This limited edition set includes a new analog to digital transfer of the original album, a second bonus disc, and the DVD Maceo Blow Your Horn.
As everyone likely knows, Maceo Parker was a key member of James Brown’s band in the 1960s, blasting out funky sax solos whenever JB shouted, “Maceo! Blow your horn!” Parker famously walked out on Brown in 1970 with other members of the band, who were replaced by a youthful Cincinnati led group by Bootsy and Catfish Collins. Like Bootsy, Maceo would later join up with George Clinton and contribute to various P-funk projects. Though Parker would return to Brown’s band for a few years, he struck out on his own in 1990. Soon thereafter, he wound up at a club called the Stadtgarten in Cologne, Germany, where Life on Planet Groove was recorded. His backing musicians for this performance included Fred Wesley (trombone, vocals), Pee Wee Ellis (tenor saxophone, flute, vocals), Rodney Jones (guitar), Larry Goldings (organ), and Kenwood Dennard (drums). Special guests included Vincent Henry (bass and occasional alto-sax), Prince protégé Candy Dulfer (alto), and Kym Mazelle (vocalist).
The bonus disc was drawn from the same set of dates at the Stadtgarten. The four tracks include extended versions of the Fred Wesley original “For the Elders,” Lionel Hampton’s “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie,” band member Pee Wee Ellis’s “Chicken,” a cover of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”
Also included is the DVD Maceo Blow Your Horn, featuring newly released footage filmed by Markus Gruber during recording sessions for Parker’s album Roots Revisited, which topped the jazz charts in 1990. Most of the footage was meant for promotional purposes only and is black and white, but the sound is decent. The camera follows band members as they jam in rehearsal and lay down tracks at studios in New York (November 1989) and Cologne (1990). These clips are interspersed with interviews where Parker discusses the creative process along with anecdotes about James Brown, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, Curtis Mayfield, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Ray Charles, among others. Along the way there’s some odd filler footage of airplane wings and cityscapes. Just to be clear, this is not a documentary in the manner of My First Name Is Maceo, but rather bits and pieces of footage strung together with title cards. Regardless, the film is certainly of historical interest and any fan of Maceo Parker and his band will be grateful for its inclusion.
Life on Planet Groove Revisited is a fine tribute to the great Maceo Parker on his 75th birthday.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
Artist: Open Mike Eagle
Label: Mellow Music Group
Formats: CD, MP3, Vinyl
Release date: September 15, 2017
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.
Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi
Label: Tru Thoughts
Release date: Nov 17, 2017
Formats: CD, Digital, LP
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.
Reviewed by Matthew Alley
Title: Radio Silence
Artist: Talib Kweli
Label: Javotti Media
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: November 17, 2017
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.
Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi
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
Title: Dark Days + Canapés
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:
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
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
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: June 9, 2017
When RZA, leader of the iconic east coast group Wu-Tang Clan, endorses an upcoming album, rap fans from all directions are bound to take notice. On May 24, SZA found herself in the driver’s seat of anticipation alley when her album announcement date dropped in the form of a voiceover message overlaid onto SZA visuals via Top Dawg #TDE’s Twitter. Fans of the New Jersey singer responded to Ctrl with unbridled respect, resulting in a #3 spot on Billboard 200 Chart a mere 10 days after its June 9th release. Signed to Top Dawg Entertainment in 2013, Ctrl is SZA’s debut studio album featuring fellow Top Dawg artists Kendrick Lamaar and Isaiah Rashad in addition to The Y’s James Fauntleroy. Classed as an R&B and Neo Soul artist, SZA continues to dominate, garnering to date over 49 million album streams and more than 24 thousand CD purchases.
Bringing her own style of bluesy vocals to the table, SZA both croons and rasps out her heart-felt regret of long-gone-wrong in almost every song on the album. The collection’s opening track, “Supermodel,” models to the letter the back-and-forth emotions of a recent breakup, alternatively threatening revenge—“I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy”—while pleadingly begging for another chance—“I could be your supermodel if you believe, if you see it in me.”
Travis Scott picks up the story with his opening lines on “Love Galore,” seducing with his mellow “I need, I need” that almost has us believing things will work out as SZA answers with “Long as we got, Love, Love, Love.” But as the track unfolds, the relationship portrayed unravels to a thin, forgotten thread. “Doves in the Wind” showcases SZA’s vocal expertise as she melodically jumps from note to note to effortless ease, finding her own voice of self-empowerment and determination within the “sorry about your luck” lyricism.
While the rest of the album features many moments where SZA’s dreamy voice soothes regardless of the song pockets of regret, two solo tracks—“Drew Barrymore” and “20 Something” —provide a deep, introspective look into the mind of someone who’s not only wondering what went wrong, but also what can still go right. The tempos are winding, the poetics are heart-rending, and the reminiscence lingers long after SZA’s voice drifts off with the final notes.
Ctrl does exactly what RZA promises—drama is cut loose and karma is claimed—resulting in the utmost respect for SZA’s control of what promises to be a long career to come.
Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi
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
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.
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
Title: The Iceberg
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
Title: Here For a Reason
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