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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Future is arguably the king of today’s trap music. Part of what has cemented such a status is the prolific nature of his releases. And, lucky for us, 2017 is apparently no different, as he released the self-titled Future on February 17 and Hndrxx, its counterpart, only seven days later. In addition to the sheer amount of music he produces, Future’s reign lies in his mastery of combining what I’ve discussed in previous reviews (of T.I. and Post Malone) as the twin modes of trap music: flex and disillusion, in which a song either narrates the trap star’s thrilling excesses or memorializes their emptiness. In each case, the value of the trap star is directly correlated to his possession of or rejection by women, putting this music squarely within the discourse I refer to as “f*ck boy consciousness.” Interestingly, Future’s most recent releases present somewhat of a bifurcation of these modes, where Future represents the flex, the excess, and Hndrxx its emotional underside. This separation makes the albums quite different from each other; Future is chock-full of quick flows and expressions of street dominance, while Future rap-sings catchy hooks and melodies on Hndrxx. However, without his signature singing juxtapozed against the hard, quick flows, the songs on Future seem to all melt together in a relatively uncompelling and somewhat boring collection. In contrast, there are more than enough rhythmic and melodic changes in the sounds of Hndrxx to keep our attention and give us a spaced-out soundtrack to show out to.
Hndrxx showcases all of what Future does best in his traditional form as a trap star “f*ck boy.” It includes the typical trap drum sequences in almost every song and sing-song autotune flows that anticipate the beat drops in his hype-up collaboration with The Weeknd on “Comin’ Out Strong” and the ‘90s-reminiscent “Damage.” Future presents a disillusioned tone to his usually slurred vocals in both the strip club-esque “Fresh Air” and the condescending “Hallucinating,” on which he asserts that his perception, even while on drugs, is the ultimate, only perception. Throughout the album, Future juxtaposes wealth and ‘hood signifiers, especially on “Lookin’ Exotic,” where women get lumped into the category of things. He buys the woman in question numerous wealth signifiers in exchange for her in turn becoming a signifier of his own masculine dominance and virility. Very much in line with contemporary trap styles, some of which he pioneered, Future excels at the stretching of word sounds which creates both a melodic structure and an effortless feeling on “Fresh Air” and “New Illuminati,” while on the latter, it brings an emotionality to his “catch no feelings” disposition in similar ways as Young Thug’s Jeffrey. In conjunction with the stretching of words sounds is Future’s signature style of muffled singing and quiet, yell-like utterances on songs like the catchy “Testify” and “Turn On Me.” In addition, on this album more than others, there is not the usual clear division between verse and chorus, and they blend together seamlessly into what feels like a single stream of f*ck boy consciousness, explicating his own feelings while always returning to a general theme mapped out by a refrain. Following is the official video for “Use Me” ((C) 2017 Epic Records):
Content-wise this album revolves centrally around issues and dynamics between the trap star and “his” women. This supposed ownership is made explicit from the outset of the album in which the first song details “[His] Collection” of women, saying, “even if I hit you once, you’re part of my collection.” On “Testify” Future renders iconic Bonnie and Clyde imagery and details the seductiveness of his lifestyle for a woman. However, he makes it clear that the labor of the relationship will be hers alone. He won’t change for her; she must assimilate to his norm, some of which, like wealth, is exciting for her, but other parts which are less so, particularly his understanding that it is he only who defines the limits of the relationship. In “Fresh Air” he feels confined in his relationship, yet when he “loses” her in “Neva Missa Lost,” the repetition of “I’m losing you and you know it… and you know it” makes it seem like it’s her who’s in denial that she’s losing him. This is an interesting turn because she’s the one leaving. In typical “f*ck boy” fashion, he thinks she’s losing out rather than he, exposing him as terribly self-centered, conceited and unaccountable. In the lackluster “I Thank U,” Future laments about a woman’s doubt of him, which he, by the moment of the song, has overcome and is on top reflecting on the unbelieving. This song positions the woman as the quintessential hater of the trap star who he must silence/put in her place. It’s not really an apology or a thanking of her; it’s a tongue-in-cheek flexing on her lack of faith.
Future takes it one step further in “Turn On Me,” in which he complains that his female counterpart will inevitably “turn” on him, without presenting any of her reasoning as to why. Because her perspective is lacking entirely, he is presented as completely unaccountable for what happens in his relationships, which allows us to relate to him without questioning his role in making her leave. In fact, part of “turning” on him is taking up relationships with others. He says: “After I give you this game, you should never let a lame hit it.” This brings to the fore the insecurity built into the persona of the trap star, as his possession of women or lack of women again is the key factor in defining himself and establishing and maintaining his status in the wider community. “Selfish” and “Sorry” might be attempts to redeem the trap star in his dealings with women, the former sounding much like a f*ckboy prayer for togetherness, even though literally every other song could be seen as an explanation for why he winds up in this position, alone. He seems not to understand this, which makes the narrator in this song come across as somewhat innocent and naive. In “Sorry” Future purports that he’s “sorry it had to be this way…sorry it looks this way,” as if he’s got no choice in his actions and they can all be chalked up to fame, saying “you see what I’ve been put up against, baby.” Considering all the previous songs, his apology feels like a weak afterthought that ultimately fails to redeem him.
All in all, the trope of the “f*ck boy” is currently all the rage in rap music style today. Whatever his faults, he seems to be endlessly compelling for this generation of rappers, as well as for their young listeners. Whether one disagrees on the basis of messed up gender politics or suspends one’s disbelief altogether, with Hndrxx, Future continues to elaborate on his formulation of the trope in incredibly seductive melodies and beautiful, though sometimes unintelligible, utterances. If the Future album falls flat, Hndrxx recuperates Future’s signature style, and its style is a testament to the humongous impact Future has had and continues to have on trap music.
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.
So by now most folks have heard, heard about, or read about the “new” Tribe album. The zeitgeist that was its arrival has come and gone. So, the question becomes, why write about it now? Hell, its 2017. Everyone has already moved on. Well, I wanted to sit with this one for a bit, to really let the album marinate. To see if in a world where music has become even more disposable, an album could really make me feel like I used to when I took shrink wrap off the tapes in my bedroom. I’ll get to the answer to that in a bit. Assuming you have already heard the album by now, this is my own track by track reflection on We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (interspersed with musings about all things Tribe).
First off, I was late to even hear about Tribe releasing a new record—I was still kinda numb from the passing of Phife months earlier. (Side note: Phife on Midnight Marauders >>>>> Phife on any other Tribe Record.) Initially, I was not wholly excited about the news of a new album. I texted my main man, (former Black Grooves rap reviewer) Langston Wilkins (@StreetFolkLCW), to confirm it was actually true, and we immediately began talking about “what might be” with this new Tribe record. “Is Phife even gonna be on it?” “Would they just try to cash in?” “Will they try to ‘update’ their sound to keep up with the young folks?” “Will anybody other than us even care that Tribe is putting a record out?” Or more importantly, “Is this another one of those things people will pretend to care about then forget about immediately?” (Black Messiah, I’m looking in your direction). So I think it is fair to say I approached this record with a fair amount of trepidation. I braced myself for “what might be.”
“The Space Program.” For me this track is all about the triumphant return of Jarobi White…Yeah, I know folks will be like “he never left,” but c’mon yo. The point is he returns on the first track of the album with a fierceness that I do not recall from the last time we really heard him spit. The other major piece of this song that makes it fantastic is its core concept: “There ain’t no space program for niggas, nah you stuck here nigga.” . . . I mean, how crazy is that metaphor? The idea that everyone else would “move on to the staaaarrrsss” while black and poor will be left behind. Direct yet opaque word play is so very Tribe, but again, this track is still one for the books. Between the production, Jarobi’s verse, the hook, and song’s metaphoric depth, with one fell swoop my concerns about the album were quelled. I literally went from “cautiously optimistic” to “thank you for this wonderful gift, Tribe!”
“We The People.” This track takes the space program/Afro-futurism metaphor and pulls back the drapes completely. Tip speaks bluntly in his verse but is even more straightforward on the hook, “All you black folks, you must go / all you Mexicans, you must go / all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways.” Again, damn. Even the slight tongue in cheek nature of the hook doesn’t soften the blow, especially coming so soon after the election of Donald Trump.
“Whateva Will Be.” So this is kind of a dip for me, but is super notable during the last seconds of the song when Tribe’s “Fifth Beatle”—Consequence—shows up. I can honestly say I’ve never been so excited to hear a Consequence verse. I was so glad he was here.
“Solid Wall of Sound.” Another one of the things Langston I spent a decent amount of time discussing about the album was the apparent guest list for the record. Kendrick Lamar, Elton John, Andre 3000, Jack White and Busta Rhymes were all announced before its release. While I actually absolutely LOVE all of these artists in their own right (no seriously EJ is my dude), I couldn’t help but feel like only one of them actually belonged on what I considered a “Tribe record.” Narrow minded much? About Tribe records…Absolutely.
So “Solid Wall of Sound” is the first track with one of these high profile guests. The sample flips Elton John’s “Bennie & The Jets” and I figured it was one of those “cheat guest spots” like Ray Charles on Kanye’s “Gold Digger.” In between Tip, Phife and Busta trade hyper verses, the latter two in a patois that sounds great together, Tip really kills it too. Then out of blue (sort of?) for the last 30 seconds Elton John shows up to sing with our man Tip. So is it a “cheat guest spot”? I’m not sure, but it somehow works.
“Dis Generation.” Really love this track, which sounds like Beats, Rhymes & Life era Tribe (no, that’s not a diss), and really is cool to see “the unit B” (as an impassioned Q-Tip might put it) all in the same hut trading verses like the good ole days. Tip shouts out Joey Bada$$, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole as “gatekeepers of flow/extensions of instinctual soul” which is extremely cool to me in a “real recognize real” sort of way. The kicker on this track, though, is Busta Rhymes—who vocally sounds like the LONS Busta Rhymes—which is kinda mind blowing to me. I literally did not realize Busta could still make his voice sound like this (I was actually waiting for Charlie, Dinco or Milo to take the mic next).
“Kids.” Okay, let’s get this out of the way. I’m a huge fan of Andre 3000. Huge (I’m an even bigger fan of Outkast proper, but I’ll save that for another review). However, what I am NOT a fan of is how we have taught ourselves to absolutely lose our minds over every nonsensical, non-linear, throwaway bar Andre throws on so and so’s remix over past 10 years. I’m not saying they are all like that, but seriously folks, we really have a problem when we are all slobbering like Pavlovian dogs at the mere mention of a 3 Stacks bar, let alone a verse. So going into the track on the Tribe album that featured Codename: Benjamin, I was cautious at best. Thankfully this track does not fall prey to any of those issues. It has a pretty solid concept and Dre and Tip trade verses that are worthy of both their overarching legacies. “Kids” would fit well on a Tribe or Outkast record, which is kind of an amazing feat in and of itself. I couldn’t help but wonder how dope the track would have been with a Big Boi verse as well…
“Melatonin.” So I haven’t really spoke on it much thus far, but the production on this record is a real highlight and cannot be understated. Q-Tip shows why, in a lot of ways, he’s a ridiculously underrated producer. I’m sure recognizing that has something to do with why the production credits on this album are credited to “Q-Tip” as opposed to “the Unit B,” like on previous Tribe records. And you know what? I’m extremely pleased about that. Particularly in the wake of the rise of the “Dilla Changed My Life” outlook on what constitutes great rap production in popular culture, I feel like Q-Tip is criminally overlooked in lieu of my man Jay Dee. (Don’t get it twisted, Dilla is one of the best ever—just making a point about how popular culture works sometimes. Rant over.)
“Melatonin” has some of my favorite production, not just in terms of the beat, but also in the way Tip utilizes the voices of guest vocalists Marsha Ambrosius and Abbey Smith to create an almost dreamlike feel during the verses. The song concept also lends itself to the “under the influence” feel, as Tip ruminates on the pluses and minuses of self-medication.
“Enough.” So in the tradition of Tribe joints like “Electric Relaxation,” “Find a Way,” and of course “Bonita Applebum, this track serves as the album’s ladies jam in the way only Tribe can deliver. Jarobi really shines here as the “spirit” or “soul” or “whatever” of A Tribe Called Quest, as he absolutely goes in on his verse to point that someone in the studio (I assume Tip) can’t contain themselves when the verse sets off. Is there another person who stepped off the mic ala Jarobi and came back like 20 years later twice as fierce? Surely there’s someone, but anyway props to “Jedi” on this one. (Side note, Tip’s production wins again, digging up the Rotary Connection sample he flipped on “Bonita” and flipping it on this song as well.)
“Mobius.” Consequence and Busta absolutely murder this track. I guess for cons, there is really some absence makes the heart grow fonder stuff at play here. I mean, I’m not sure if I ever enjoyed my man this much on the Beats, Rhymes and Life record, but he seriously came to play. He sets it off ripping over a pretty basic beat for the 45 secs or so, and then the beat switches and turns into a much more menacing and bass heavy loop that I absolutely love. As if that were not enough, the track is then mule kicked into the stratosphere by none other than ’95-era Busta Rhymes (who is seriously putting some miles on his DeLorean for this album), coming through dungeon dragon style (I know thats mixing Busta-eras, but roll with me here) and spazzes out for like a hot 24—and then just like that *Verbal Kent sound effect* he’s gone. And like a mobius strip (Tip is so clever) we are back where we started. Again, Consequence and Busta absolutely murder this track.
“Black Spasmodic.” Tracks like this really, really make Q-Tip’s point from the Beats, Rhymes and Life documentary—that recording all together in the same “hut” makes for better Tribe music. From the outset this track has the feel of the early Tribe offerings, where the love was really there for everyone. I love hearing Phife go ham on this as only he can. When in full Dynomutt mode (see the aforementioned Midnight Marauders for reference), Phife is entertaining as hell to hear spit. However, Tip’s verse on this track might be my favorite on the entire album. The verse begins with Tip explaining how Phife “be speaking to him,” then Tip moves into full on channelling as he continues. Hear me…Tip spits AS PHIFE, TO HIMSELF in a verse that not only sounds like stuff Phife would (maybe did?) actually say, but also phrased in the way PHIFE would phrase it! The craziness of that cannot be understated in my opinion. On a verse where Tip says that Phife speaks to him from beyond the grave, Tip actually stops sounding like Tip and starts sounding like Phife. As a Tribe fan, that’s seriously just kinda insane.
“The Killing Season.” Kweli comes through for his guest spot, probably to make up for his glaring absence on “Rock Rock Yall” from The Love Movement 18 years back, and sets off another political track for this record. This song serves as Tribe’s take on the violence against Black and Brown folks. Did I mention that Jarobi White did not come to play with yall on this album? Cause he clearly did not. I really love the production here and beat switch makes it even better. As an added bonus, Kanye apparently sings the hook.
“Lost Somebody.” Yo, let me be clear—this is a good song. However, Tip’s verse on “Black Spasmodic” is such a fitting tribute to Phife Dawg that the impact of this track hit me a little less hard. Jarobi and Tip spit heartfelt verses and Tip, in particular, addresses some of the friction that we saw between Phife and himself during the BR&L documentary.
“Moving Backwards.” Love both the production on this as well as guest vocalist Anderson.Paak’s contribution. Paak does his thing here. “How I’m ‘pposed to know how home feels/I ain’t even on my home field.” I mean, damn. I feel that. Also, “Oops I’m bout to get kicked outta here/Tell Mama Imma slide through” never ceases to get a chuckle out of me.
“Conrad Tokyo.” Unfortunately, this one doesn’t hit as hard some of the other tracks on the record. Even Kendrick’s verse doesn’t hit like I wanted it, by no fault of his own, as he clearly does his thing. Maybe this just went over my head a bit, but love the synth.
“Ego.” This track is kind of in the style of “What?” from Low End Theory. The Abstract goes in on the various ways in which our own egos affect every aspect of our lives. He’s also brought along Jack White, who works surprisingly well. Songs like this show why, when he’s in the zone, Tip is a great conceptual rhymer.
“The Donald.” Let me start by saying, based off tracks like “The Space Program,” “We the People,” and the title of this track, I was absolutely “The Donald” was going to be a response to the phenomenon that is Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. I was more than ready to hear what the Tribe might have to say about our president elect. So I was sorely disappointed, which is weird because who complains about the new Tribe album NOT having a song about Trump? That’s ludicrous.
Turns out it’s actually a dedication to Phife Dawg aka Don Juice (I have to humbly admit that I did not realize this is one of his aliases until now), which is pretty dope in its own right. Phife and Tip spit verses and Busta provides the hook. Again, tracks like this show why Phife’s presence is and will be truly missed. I love the breakdown Tip puts here, where he and Katia Cadet sing “Don Juuuuuiiiicccee” and go back and forth with Busta for the finale.
Couple of parting notes. First, I mentioned how the guest appearances seemed kinda all over the place. They all worked out in the end, but damn if it doesn’t seem like a HUGE missed opportunity to not have some of the Native Tongues appear on this record. I mean, I know I’m fanboying a bit to say it, but where the hell is everybody? De La? JBs? Black Sheep? Latifah? Even extended fam like the Beatnuts? Vinia Mojica? It’s all good because the album is great, but I will spend the rest of my life wondering what could have been.
That said, I am so incredibly thankful for this record y’all. It wasn’t like ripping off the shrink wrap of tapes like I did way back when; it was different, but great. I had literally no idea what A Tribe Called Quest album might sound like in 2016. I am very happy so say, it sounds exactly like what ATCQ should sound like in 2016!
Maybe there is hope for the Outkast reunion album I’ve been desperately wanting. We shall see . . .
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.
Afrofuturism is an engagement with and an intervention into the tropes science fiction, denying the assumption of the whiteness of speculative worlds and claiming a place in space for people of African descent and Black culture. In literature, authors such as Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney have imagined future Earths or space adventures populated with the characters and themes important to the historical and contemporary Black Diaspora and the transnational cultures of the Black Atlantic.
In music, bands and musicians such as Parliament, Sun Ra, Drexciya, Kool Keith and Deltron 3030 have created personas and albums using the tropes of Afrofuturism. Clipping.’s new album, Splendor & Misery, engages with this musical aesthetic, drawing on experimental electronic music, hip hop and gangsta rap to create a thrilling and emotionally affective sonic space opera.
Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes’ debut, CLPPNG (Subpop, 2014), was a rap album performed and recorded in an experimental manner. The group deployed the themes and language of gansta rap through rhymes spit over analogue synthesizers and experimental beats, delivering the poetic and profane narratives over blasts of electronic noise. Even though it was not a concept album or a rap opera, because of its execution, it could be interpreted as a series of interconnected stories.
Splendor & Misery shares the flow and the experimental production of CLPPNG, but it is radically different in tone. This time, Diggs (the star of Hamilton), Hutson (a.k.a. Rale) and Snipes (also of Captain Ahab) set out to create an intentional concept album about a slave named Cargo 2331 who survives a slave revolt on an intergalactic transport where all human inhabitants except him have been terminated with gas. This leaves him alone with the ship’s computer, who we learn falls in love with 2331 on “All Black Everything.” This and other songs are told from the perspective of the ship’s computer, while others such as “Air Em Out” tell of Cargo 2331’s experience on the ship and his background growing up. The rap songs are intercut with spiritual-style acapella songs like “Story 5,” breaking up the flow of the rhymes and beats with both mourning and hope, and grounding the science fiction themes into a musical genre that evokes the Black Atlantic narrative.
The melding of rap and experimental noise music on clipping.’s first album was an aural shock that some rap and hip hop critics disliked, accusing the group of not being “real” hip hop (see Wondering Sound interview). In my opinion the white noise, clanks and saw tooth waves evoked an industrial violence that tangled together nicely with the pulp crime aesthetics of the album’s gangsta rap lyrics. It was jarring, but the discordance of the noise and flow in a song like “Dominoes” worked together, evoking the life of a gangsta who survived the game, in an exciting way.
The blips and fm noise on Splendor & Misery fit more logically into a story of a protagonist on a ship floating in space; for many listeners these sounds signify science fiction space and because of this, the beats and flows sound more incorporated. On this album, it is the spirituals that are jarring to the listener. Nodding our head to a tuff banger one minute then being immersed in the longing and sadness of a spiritual the next is a different, potentially more difficult kind of dissidence. Rocking out to the catchy rhymes of “Air Em Out,” then switching gears to a song like “Story 5” that tells the story of Grace—a community leader who taught self-defense in a dystopian world but who was randomly struck down—could be off-putting to some listeners. But as an album, clipping. makes it work.
Bouncing around between themes of anger, defensive posturing, inspiration, alienation and spirituality, narrating how the character survives violence and determines his own future, clipping. weaves both musical styles and the various themes together into songs like “True Believer” or the uplifting album closer “A Better Place.” Sometimes music groups who deliver exceptional debut albums struggle with their sophomore album, delivering a pale imitation of the first, or an unfocused muddle that does not become clarified until subsequent albums. clipping. avoided both those scenarios by gathering up everything they worked out on CLPPNG, heeding the call of the Mothership and blasting their game out into space chanting “All Black Everything.”
While De La Soul’s heyday was arguably in the 1990s, the group remains a strong presence in hip hop, despite the fact that the last time it released new music was in 2004. This is largely because De La’s jazz-influenced sound set the template for Kendrick Lamar and others who borrow samples and approaches from jazz music and in part because their classic records age like fine wine, still sounding fresh some 20 years later. The group’s most recent release prior to this August was 2014’s Smell the D.A.I.S.Y., a digital download full of re-recordings of classic tracks (along with a complimentary download of the entire back catalog for email subscribers!), a gesture that now feels like a primer for this year’s new release. and the Anonymous Nobody… is a kickstarter-funded, genre-bending record that may leave old fans scratching their heads—the album seems to be both a victory lap and a comeback record. Following is the group’s short documentary about the making of the album:
De La Soul probably didn’t need to release a new record in 2016—or any year for that matter—and the foremost question in many readers’ minds may be whether there is anything really new here, or whether and the Anonymous Nobody… is just a rehash of the group’s ‘90s sound that has a few more gray hairs. While there are certainly elements of the group’s signature sound (as on the jazz-influenced “Royalty Capes”), the album seems primarily to revolve around the group’s rotating cast of guest stars, a roster that includes Jill Scott, Snoop Dogg, David Byrne, Usher, 2 Chainz, and Damon Albarn. What the supporting personnel have in common with De La is that many listeners may wax nostalgic about their music—this is the “I remember when…” crowd. While this is not necessarily a liability, it sets the stage for a wash of sounds and approaches that, ultimately, we’ve heard before. For instance, the track featuring David Byrne, “Snoopies,” draws heavily from Byrne’s bag of electro-pop sensibilities. Similarly, “Greyhounds,” a somewhat antiquated girl-corrupted-by-the-big-city story, leans stylistically on Usher’s well-established R&B fusion. At other moments, this record just gets weird—De La Soul was always on the eccentric end of the hip hop spectrum, but when Justin Hawkins of the Darkness leads a Queen-esque overdubbed vocal and guitar orchestra, it may get lost on the listener that this is an album by the legendary rap group. In short, the guest stars often overshadow the core group.
While working with a live band proves an asset, meandering effortlessly from rock to neo-soul, ultimately the intensity of the record, both lyrically and musically, lags at times. And the Anonymous Nobody… plays like many records with a large cast of extras do—providing a great first listen with diminishing returns. This is both a testament to De La Soul’s versatility and an indication that the group of vets is open to trying something new, with experimentation sometimes leading to mixed results.
Tarica June’s latest EP, Stream of Consciousness Volume 1.5, takes on a wide range of topics, from gentrification to life as a millennial. This is the third release from the lawyer and rapper, preceded by Moonlight (2010) and Stream of Consciousness Volume 1 (2014). Born and raised in Washington D.C., June is carving out her place in a hip-hop community that includes a diverse array of artists, such as Wale, Fat Trel, Shy Glizzy, and of course a host of go-go musicians as well.
Over the course of the EP’s five songs, June displays versatility and leans toward introspection, focusing on her craft, her grind, and her potential to make it as an independent artist. Like other popular rappers today, namely Chance the Rapper, she rejects the necessity of a label, instead releasing her music online. Her flow is similar to New York rapper Nitty Scott, MC and Chicago’s Noname. There are also hints of influence from an older generation of rappers, such as Queen Latifah.
The most popular track on the album by far is “But Anyway,” which is an assessment of a rapidly gentrifying DC. As a third generation resident, she reminisces on the days of “Chocolate City,” referencing Marion Barry’s summer youth employment program, DC’s Metro system, as well as heavier topics such as mass incarceration and the displacement that gentrification is causing. The video, which features June strolling around key sites in DC, went viral in March. Currently working on her first full-length album, the city is excited to see what comes next from Tarica June.
According to the French art theorist Nicolas Bourriad, many of our modernities are defined by moving towards an explosion, or a release of energy. Hip hop, more than most other musical genres, seems to express this quest for explosion, time and again. Despite its recent widespread lyrical decrepitude, millions listen to hip hop because it expresses this explosion. Rapper Talib Kweli, known for his political rap, released the digital version of his latest album, Fuck the Money, for free. He seems to want to explode the capitalism that defines the individual realities that we lead and provide us with a rhythmic, unburdening, existence. It’s a commendable effort that could have been that much better if it was the product of serious thought, and not a fascination with tough slogans and hip hop’s ability to speak to pathos.
The album itself sounds like the electronic production that we are used to associating with expensive beats—it’s charged yet simple, as though there was not quite enough money to purchase even better beats. “Money Good” is the album’s best song, featuring a mix of acoustic and electronic instrumentation that melds perfectly with Kweli’s delivery. “Nice Things” is a great and loud listen, featuring the fast paced, conscious rap that Kweli is well known for. He throws punchlines that are brilliantly woven together into a moral statement, but it’s the song’s agenda that resonates the most. “Echoes” features great rhythm and ambient, dream-like production. The album gets smoother as it progresses, and Kweli is actually much better at being smooth than he is at being loud. “Baby Girl” is an example of this, with Kweli sounding very similar to young J. Cole. On “The Venetian,” featuring Niko Is & Ab-Soul, they rap about their progression from corner stores to luxury hotels.
Though it might be tempting to sit amazed by the A-list of producers featured on the album’s 11 tracks, I would not recommend listening to the album that way. Look at the name of the producer only after listening to the song, and judge the song on its own merits rather than by its credentials. Then, the songs’ limitations and strengths will become apparent.
Has the album led to a Bourriadian explosion? Have I now proclaimed, “fuck the money”? I, personally, have not. Though this album is a commendable effort with the spectacular song “Money Good,” it falls short of fully erupting.
St. Louis-based hip hop act illPHONiCS draws from a variety of musical influences, including rock, funk, and soul in its genre-bending blend of rap music with a live backing band. In the vein of fellow musical polymaths The Roots, it might be possible to describe the group’s effective musical fusion in the words of Fallout Morris, the group’s MC: “musicality bliss from beginning to finish.” In my opinion, live bands may provide some of the most fertile territory for the ever-diversifying future of rap music, as many top name acts such as Kendrick Lamar are blending a live approach with electronic sounds and sampling. illPHONiCS are certainly on the cutting edge of this movement.
illPHONiCS’s core group looks (and often sounds) more like a rock band than a rap group. Morris is joined by Keith Moore a.k.a. William Gray on keyboards, Kevin Koehler on guitar, Simon “Spank” Chervitz on bass, and Chaz “CB” Brew on drums, organ, and vocals. illPHONiCS is a group full of musical shapeshifters who play the funky “Liquid Spaceships” as convincingly as they play the ’90s alt-rock tinged (think Radiohead’s heavier moments) “Sweet Missouri (’miz(a)rē).”
The band’s music is propelled by Morris’s lyrics. The group’s MC eschews commercial rap cliches in favor of nuanced storytelling that smacks of rap’s poetic underground, as in “96 to 99,” a love letter to the classic rap groups that ruled the airwaves during that era. ilPHONiCS also jump on current events (a trend that has been popular with artists in 2015 and 2016) on “The Brown Frequency,” a cut about Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri that followed. Unlike many other artists who treat this subject from a distance, alluding to social unrest indirectly or expressing some kind of vague solidarity, illPHONiCS speak to the subject with a more authoritative voice. Not only is the group from the St. Louis area, but the lyrics to “The Brown Frequency” demonstrate specificity both of cause and of remedy that are unfortunately lacking from many other so-called “protest” records in 2016. The group takes a more introspective turn on “Gone with the Trends,” an anthem about personal authenticity. However, illPHONiCS aren’t above including more standard fare such as “Love’s Not Far,” a number about unrequited love, and the smooth-funk party anthem, “Everything (Jammin For You).”
The diversity on “Gone with the Trends” is matched only by the band’s tight musicianship and Fallout Morris’s silky-smooth rhymes. Alternative hip hop fans will definitely want to give this release a few spins.
If you aren’t already familiar with Anderson .Paak, prepare to get comfortable seeing and hearing him everywhere. Those words might sound like cliché “next big thing” filler, but with .Paak’s recent association with Dr. Dre, appearing on 6 tracks of Dre’s Compton release and his recent signing to Aftermath Records, it’s clear that this up-and-comer has up-and-came. What’s also clear is that .Paak is entirely deserving of this and future success not because of his tragically difficult background, but because of his resplendently smooth and positive neo-soul sound.
There is something completely and intentionally California about .Paak’s music. His first two full length albums, Venice (2015) and Malibu (2016) put his home state right in their titles, and beautifully reflect the combination of abject poverty and natural beauty that draws people in and can sometimes keep them down. “The City,” the third track on Venice introduces that conflict with a sample of someone making reference to Venice, CA’s derogatory nickname—“The Slum by the Sea.”
That juxtaposition—beauty and poverty, oppression and optimism—is what makes .Paak so compelling. His music doesn’t shy away from straight talk about life’s hustle, but it never allows itself to be pulled down into deep negativity.
A prime example comes from “The Dreamer,” one of Malibu’s most successful tracks to date:
Credited as featuring “The Timan Family Choir” (four of Paak’s nieces who love to sing), “The Dreamer” bursts out with a jubilant chorus:
This one’s for all the little dreamers / And the ones who never gave a fuck
I’m a product of the tube and the free lunch / Living room, watching old reruns
And who cares your daddy couldn’t be here? / Mama always kept the cable on
I’m a product of the tube and the free lunch / Living room, watching old reruns
In other hands these lyrics could be depressing, but .Paak arranges the smooth guitar, delicate piano, children’s voice and soulful beat into a jam that celebrates survival and provides the sort of affirmational truth that encourages listeners to keep dreaming.
If anyone would have the right to write depressing music, it would be .Paak. Born Brandon Anderson Paak to a South Korean mother and a father who abused his mother and would later go to jail for drugs, he spent years living on the streets and way below the poverty level. In spite of, or perhaps because of his struggles, .Paak brings the soul to neo-soul. His music doesn’t just practice retro aesthetics but expertly melded decades of African American music into something that feels entirely comfortable while sounding entirely new. A consummate musician, .Paak sings like he’s in church, raps like he’s on the street corner, and drums like he’s in a jazz band.
.Paak has been compared to Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar, but the similarities lie more in ethos than sound. .Paak, Ocean, and Lamar represent a new wave of Black musicians who are willing and able to make emotionally resonant music that speaks to the politics of today’s society, while remaining danceable and ready to be bumped from a car on a summer afternoon.
Kanye West’sThe Life of Pablo is a disconnected, spontaneous, yet ultimately passionate body of work that seems to parallel his current public persona. The album, given only to fans via the Tidal streaming service, was released earlier this year on February 14 and is Kanye’s seventh studio album. The deluxe version of the album contains 18 tracks, and includes a variety of topics such as his turbulent relationship with Taylor Swift, his desire to become a better friend, and a plea to his wife for them to stop attending parties in Los Angeles. There are definitely a few hits on the album, but it does lack a cohesive, story-telling or cinematic experience, a talent he showed off on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Kanye’s spastic personality has ensured that his music is always placed under a microscope, being dissected, scrutinized, and criticized more than most of today’s best artists. The album as a whole relies heavily on gritty, analog drum kits complete with Dilla-like swing, sounding similar to his College Dropout days but with added maturity. It’s also notably less influenced by electronic music than Yeezus was; however, he still seamlessly blends his trademarked (not literally) soulful samples with cutting edge digital instrumentation. A great example of this is on “Father, Stretch My Hands Part I,” where the intro gospel sample from Pastor T.L. Barrett transitions into a hard-hitting trap style drop with 1/64 hi-hats and snappy 808 snare rolls. The gospel theme can also be heard at other points throughout the album, linking together tracks like “Ultralight Beam” and the monologue “Low Lights” through expressive, soulful group-singing and chords.
Another track that deserves special attention is “Real Friends.” Quite possibly the most introspective song from Kanye on the entire album, it begins with a somber, airy piano pad. The grainy, distant melody provides a gloomy tone to be used throughout the whole song. Once the beat drops, rumbling kicks and a subtly filtered yet heavily reverbed snare settle in and drive the rhythm. Ty Dolla $ign provides auto-tuned background vocals, and even at times creates a head-nodding call and response flow. The hook is a simple repetition of the line: “Real friends, how many of us, there’s not many of us, real friends,” with the verses highlighting his displeasure of only being contacted when friends need a favor, as well as his unstable relationships with extended family. “Real Friends,” along with “Ultralight Beam” (featuring Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin), “Famous,” “Waves,” and “No More Parties in LA” (featuring Kendrick Lamar) are the home runs of the album due to the depth of their lyrics and production quality. These tracks could easily make their way to the mainstream media in the near future.
Although sonically ahead of the game, as most of Kanye’s albums are, The Life of Pablo makes a convincing argument that it was recorded with no real plan or direction in mind. There are roughly 6-8 extremely meaningful, well-crafted songs on the album, while the rest of the tracks and intermissions sound like older material added for quantity, rather than quality.
Newark, New Jersey rapper Beneficence released his sixth album, Basement Chemistry, in January on Ill Adrenaline, the record label he co-founded in 2010. The mission of Beneficence and his label is to “keep that raw and authentic boom-bap rap music alive.” The veteran rapper certainly does that on Basement Chemistry, with 19 tracks of diverse beats, clever flows, and a slew of notable guest rappers.
“Digital Warfare” features Inspectah Deck of Wu-Tang Clan and a brassy sample with a traditional boom-bap beat (thanks to cuts by DJ Rob Swift). Both rappers have unique but tight flows that make the song incredibly catchy and cohesive:
Beneficence first started rapping in the 1990s, and his style stays true to the East coast origins of hip hop through heavy sampling, such as the R&B in “Intro” and soul in “Wranglers & Asics,” use of scratching in “Vibrate the Streets,” and narrative storytelling in “Maui Vacation.”
Coming up only a few years after they started, the music of Beneficence is very aesthetically similar to The Roots, and of rappers still in the game, he sounds most like Black Thought. Similar to The Roots, the music of Basement Chemistry is full of soul – not just in the 1960’s and 70’s samples, but in the passion and dedication behind every bar Beneficence raps.
Lecrae has never been one to shy away from controversy, from criticizing rappers who glorify violence on his Grammy-winning Gravity to his personal story about abortion on his last album Anomaly. His latest project, Church Clothes 3 (often abbreviated CC3) is no different. He dropped the ten-track album without warning on January 15, and it fully embraces racial politics in a new way for Lecrae while retaining his characteristic Christian messages.
The first two Church Clothes mixtapes were produced by Don Cannon (50 Cent, Ludacris), and CC3 was produced by S1 (Kanye West, Jay-Z). All three have excellent production with beats that sound typical of what one hears from mainstream hip hop. CC3 reached the number one slot on Billboard’s Rap/Hip-Hop Album charts within a week of being released, showcasing Lecrae’s tendency to cross genre boundaries despite being known as a gospel rapper.
Central to the album and its political messages is the short film that was released simultaneously, featuring the songs “It Is What It Is,” “Gangland,” “Déjà Vu,” and “Misconceptions 3.” The video follows a young gang member who gets shot:
The opening track, “Freedom,” frames the concept through two lenses: freedom as spiritual salvation and freedom from racial injustice. The hook, sung by Dallas vocalist N’dambi, is smooth soul and claims freedom as a mindset. The song samples a gospel chorus in the background, which is chopped up in the verses, creating holy syncopation. There are clear influences of Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed To Pimp A Butterfly throughout the entitle album and video, but this song includes a direct reference to the Lamar’s “King Kunta.”
“Gangland,” featuring Propaganda, is the most overtly political song on CC3. Referencing the New Jim Crow and the government’s role in allowing drugs to permeate African American communities, the track includes spoken narration in between verses that criticize the criminal justice system and explain the origins of gangs in the United States. Maybe most controversial to Lecrae’s white, Christian fan base may be the lyrics in Propaganda’s verse: “When American churches scuff they Toms on our brother’s dead bodies / As they march to stop gay marriage / We had issues with Planned Parenthood too / We just cared about black lives outside the womb just as much as in.”
The song “Can’t Do You,” featuring the rapper E-40, brushes off haters, encouraging the listener to “do you.” It’s backed by a standard hand-clapping beat and a R&B chorus sung by Drew Allen. Another standout track is “Misconceptions 3,” featuring John Givez, JGivens & Jackie Hill Perry. As the title indicates, it is the third in a series of tracks about misconceptions that appear on the first two Church Clothes albums. The beat is fast and hard, and indiscriminate chanting in the background helps moves the song forward. Lecrae lets these rappers shine on the track, with fast flows and witty lyrics such as “They shocked to see us like Donald Trump up in a taqueria.”
Lecrae, who marched with #BlackLivesMatter protestors in Atlanta last year, recently said on CNN that he wants to “educate and help” people who don’t see the reality of racism in the United States. Church Clothes 3 certainly makes a bold step in that direction, as Lecrae explains the complexities of racism, unashamedly continuing to change the way people view the world.
Joke’s on us! Despite the looming “W” on the cover of this album, Wu-Tang Chamber Music, is not technically a Wu-Tang album. Masta Killa, Method Man, and the GZA are sadly absent, replaced by fellow ‘90s East Coast rappers like Masta Ace, Cormega, AZ, and Kool G. Rap. But with RZA as executive producer, the album retains a very strong Wu vibe, featuring terrific rap lyricism and original beats that fill the void 8 Diagrams disappointingly did not. Also produced by Fizzy Womack (Lil Fame of M.O.P.), Andrew Kelly, and Bob Perry, it’s difficult to know exactly who’s doing what on any given track, but the philosophical vociferations that sprinkle the album are clearly the work of ‘the universal Buddha,’ as RZA so names himself.
Here is a clip of RZA speaking about Wu Tang Chamber Music Vol. 1:
Though only 8 of its 17 tracks are actual songs, Chamber Music is impressively sincere, maintaining that loveable stubbornness that Wu-Tang fans adore. Ghostface is still rapping about ripping limbs and sexing women, the RZA is still being eerily strange, and Inspectah Deck is still lord of syncopation. Paired with live musical backing by Brooklyn soul-funk band The Revelations, the songs flow easily into one another in spite of the spoken word tracks.
“Ill Figures” is lyrically the best song on the album—the wordplay, slang, and OG style fit perfectly with the repetitive chorus-free beat, giving each rapper’s verse a unique pulse. “Harbor Masters” is also solid, but the weird echo on Ghostface’s verse distracts the listener from how great it is. On “Radiant Jewels,” non-Wu rappers Cormega and Sean Price rock the mic and, regardless of how overstated a line like “lyrical elevation causes mental stimulation” could be, Cormega switches it up by also referring to his lines as a “lyrical aquaduct,” making it OK. On “I Wish You Were Here,” Ghost delivers raw rap sex to every female, and to no female in particular, as Tre Williams provides perfect soulful accompaniment. Meanwhile, on “Sound the Horns,” U-God informs us that he’s “that superhero with the brand new costume.” Lastly, lest we Wu-Tang Clan fans forget, there is also a brief tribute to ODB in which the RZA talks about the importance of freedom.
All in all, the album was short and sweet with a simplicity that propelled the tracks forward and didn’t disappoint. It would have been great if there could have been more songs, but as this is the first thing any Wu-affiliations have put out in so long, allowances must be made. The live music was refreshing and effective, not in the least impairing the Wu-Tang groove. RZA claimed that, “The goal of this album is definitely paying homage to our early sound.” That it did; job well done.
Finally!—an authorized biography of Public Enemy, the hip-hop group that brought hope and intelligence to the ghetto, reinforced Black pride in a mainstream outlet, and said “F*** you” to the president. Public Enemy fan and all-around hip hop nerd, Russell Myrie, presents an in-depth study of the life and times of the group, relaying information about members from the days of young hoodrat mischief to those of professional musicality and political pertinence. This informative story, entitled Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’, provides a timeline of the group’s conception and progression. Importantly, it includes highly personal quotes from interviews with prominent members such as the controversial Professor Griff, Terminator X, the Shocklee brothers, Flava Flav, and of course the legendary Chuck D.
Myrie, a London cat born in 1978, wrote the book so that it reads like a hip hop textbook, a piece of scholarly research that manages to avoid the convoluted language so often associated with academia. The slang is easily recognizable to anyone who knows their hip-hop; Myrie says that, “It was really important to me to write it in a way hip hop heads across the world could understand. For us by us, right?” Absolutely. He also purposefully shapes the quotes into the dialect in which they were uttered, providing readers with the voice of these idols, not just their words. Easy to follow but sometimes confusing in the details, the book is complete with an index so you can look things up, or remind yourself what year an early album came out. Readers may also want to have Youtube at the ready, because the videos, songs, tours, etc. are almost always available in clips that really bring the text to life.
One qualm—is Myrie hard enough on Public Enemy? The combative rap personalities of the group seem to beg more antagonism than the author dishes out. I wanted to see Myrie yell at them and hear PE yell back. Though there were certainly years of highly questionable decisions and underground beefs within the band and their labels, it gets brushed off as being not so important. But Public Enemy made their reputation by going against convention, so why did they fall into the same traps as other performers? Perhaps it truly couldn’t be helped, but I would like to see Public Enemy mad again. The battle isn’t over.
So yes, it took a long time to finally create a biography and yes, it is by a British author and released by a Scottish press, and not written from a home-grown American perspective. Perhaps this is because of the controversy of members like Professor Griff and Chuck D’s market-loathing approach to mainstream media. Perhaps America got sick of the group too soon. Whatever the case, Public Enemy was certainly a globally, if not universally, loved, heard, and understood group. The politics of PE go beyond American borders, and Myrie does well in portraying this aspect of the group’s gravity and longevity.
Posted by Rachel Weidner
Editor’s note: Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1989) was one of the first hip hop albums added to the National Recording Registry, which includes the nation’s most culturally, historically or aesthetically important recordings selected to be maintained and preserved indefinitely as part of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000. To nominate additional recordings for this honor, forms can be found here.