Zion I – Libations EP

Zion1Libations

Title: Libations EP

Artist: Zion I

Label: Self-released

Format: MP3

Release date: April 22, 2014

 

Libation: perhaps your first thought upon hearing the word is a tasty, relaxing beverage.  Libation is a ceremonial practice of offering that dates back to the ancient Egyptians, and has been represented in modernity by the pouring of malt liquor “for the homies.”  Emcee Zumbi stated that Zion I’s Libations, the second installment in a trilogy of EPs, came from a place of reflection after the passing of a close friend.  When Gavin Grant sings “the rebirth, the light you seek is there to reach before you” over Featherload’s arpeggiated synths on “Past the Mind,” it is clear that this EP wants to be a libation in its own right.  “Lateef’s Song” is a fitting centerpiece and tribute to that friend.

The EP is not only about contemplation on death and the afterlife.  “Futurism” is an airy ode to love over jazzy synths with slick guitar accents.  Mr. Lif, Kev Choice, Deuce Eclipse, Opio, and Sadat X all drop 16 bars over a conga-laden Headnodic beat on the posse cut “Get Urs”:

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Not counting a reprise of “Past the Mind” with an alternate hook, Libations closes with another contemplative chorus from Gavin Grant on the bittersweet “Break the Fall.”  As with any good serial, this EP leaves the listener ready to hear what’s next from Zumbi and AmpLive.  “Unity“, their most recent single, addresses the Michael Brown shooting and police brutality against black men in America.  Perhaps they will conclude this trilogy by addressing issues of the present while looking to the future. (Read my review of the first installment, Masters of Ceremony, here).

Reviewed by Will Chase

Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty

shabazz

Title: Lese Majesty

Artist: Shabazz Palaces

Label: Sub Pop

Formats: CD, 2LP, MP3

Release date: July 29, 2014

 

Despite the forward-looking modernity implied by the term, Afrofuturism has one foot strongly rooted in the past.  Sun Ra is often cited as the prototypical Afrofuturist, taking the mysticism of ancient Egypt into the outer spaceways through pro-black ideology, imagery, dance, and most importantly, music.  Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces, emcee Ishmael Butler and producer Tendai Maraire, present what Afrofuturism means in modern hip hop with their second album for Sub Pop, Lese Majesty.

Their video for “#CAKE” illustrates this perfectly, and one must ask if this is a reflection on a self-indulgent hashtag, or is the song really called “pound cake”?

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Despite the space-age production and seemingly abstract lyrics, Lese Majesty reveals that it never really strays far from hip hop’s lineage through repeated listens.  Ishmael Butler was a member of the seminal trio Digable Planets, who explored Afrocentric themes and mixed samples with live instruments during their brief two album run (particularly on their swan song Blowout Comb) in the early 1990s.  These themes and production aesthetics stayed with Butler into the formation of Shabazz Palaces, particularly molding his vocals as a sonic texture just as much as an outlet for poetry.

Lese Majesty is arranged into 7 suites (although the double LP track listing implies an 8th untitled suite), each of which really showcase Maraire’s chops as a producer. The following tracks appear during the first suite, and perhaps harken most back to their debut LP Black Up:

“Forerunner Foray”

“They Come in Gold”

Each suite explores both new lyrical and production ideas that, upon careful listening, quickly become familiar.  Atmospheric synths have been part of rap since the days of Grandmaster Flash; Afrika Bambaataa was creating alien vocal sounds, and both of those were inspired by the likes of George Clinton and Sun Ra.  With Lese Majesty, Shabazz Palaces are carrying on tradition while challenging the sovereign state of rap.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Lecrae – Anomaly

lecrae

Title: Anomaly

Artist: Lecrae

Label: Reach Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 9, 2014

 

A true story of someone rising from the bottom to the top, Lecrae turned to violence, drugs, and alcohol in his youth until a conference changed his viewpoint and he converted to Christianity in 1999. Five years later, he teamed up with Ben Washer to co-found the label Reach Records and release his first album. Lecrae has been breaking records for a decade now, taking Christian rap to a new level both musically and within pop culture. In the span of six years, he released the first Christian hip-hop album to reach number one on the Billboard Gospel chart with 2008’s Rebel, won the 2013 Best Gospel Album Grammy for Gravity, and his most recent album Anomaly debuted at number one on the Billboard 200.

Lecrae’s lyrics and style have changed dramatically over the years, and Anomaly is no exception. Following the trend set since the 2012 release of Church Clothes, a mixtape produced with world-famous Don Cannon (who has produced tracks for artists such as 50 Cent and 2 Chainz), Anomaly is full of heavy bass, layered hip-hop beats, fast rapping, and catchy choruses. This is no normal gospel album, but a legitimate hip-hop album, with a sound comparable to many rappers of today while having deep lyrics that challenge stereotypes.

Lecrae never misses an opportunity during the album to explain what anomaly means (which he explains in this video). The opening track “Outsiders” talks about not fitting in, and the struggle he faces as he identifies with two genres, Christian and hip-hop, that often conflict in their messages and lyrical content. This is echoed in the album’s main single, “Nuthin,” which calls out hip-hop artists whose lyrics don’t have sustenance. The song is certainly an anomaly, with its heavy, strong beat, compelling hook, and conscious lyrics.

Though Lecrae is consistent with his Christian message in many songs, some tracks off Anomaly are entirely secular, such as “All I Need Is You.” This aligns with his goal to be a rapper who’s Christian rather than a Christian rapper, as he stated earlier this year. The song has a captivating chorus reminiscent of early 2000’s hip-hop love songs. It focuses entirely on his relationship with his wife and his dependence on her, and the music video even features snippets of their wedding video:

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Beyond love, Lecrae is not afraid to talk about controversial issues, and discusses everything from abortion to immigration in Anomaly. In “Welcome to America,” he raps from the point of view of three different people, investigating how they see the United States. On a more personal level, Lecrae talks about a college abortion and child molestation in “Good, Bad, Ugly,” which he told Hip-Hop Wired helps get his past off his chest. “Dirty Water” is reminiscent of Jay-Z’s “Oceans” in its imagery and symbolism, though Lecrae goes beyond the legacy of slavery to people’s self-generated stereotypes and hypocrisy, as he raps “Now we extreme, buying fancy things like gold chains / just pretty shackles, we still enslaved.”

Other standout tracks on the album include “Say I Won’t” and “Runners.” “Say I Won’t” features Andy Mineo and has a distinctive sound, as new Reach Records producer Gawvi partners a heavy, repetitive bass drop with playful sound effects, from the sound of scratching records to a xylophone-esque section that starts off the song and comes back in the chorus. This track also surreptitiously samples a number of famous African American songs, from “Funky President” by James Brown to “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot.

“Runners” talks about the issue of cheating in a relationship, but is most impressive because of its beat that matches the title perfectly, which makes you feel as if you are riding the treadmill mentioned at the beginning of the song. The song is also intermittent with speaking parts, often featuring multiple characters, which is found in a multitude of the songs on Anomaly, including “Welcome to America” and “Fear.” Voiceovers in between and during tracks is a trend in hip-hop that has recently been featured in the albums of artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Souls of Mischief.

“Anomaly” truly takes the influence of soul and funk genres to a whole new level. Unlike anything else on the album, it features a horn section, soulful female singing, and a voiceover that harkens back to the days of Isaac Hayes.

Though most tracks are original in both music and lyrics, some tracks sound very similar to artists tobyMac and Kirk Franklin. “Broken” and “Messengers,” though including some typical Lecrae-style rap, have choruses that sound like mainstream contemporary Christian music. However, this just goes to show that Lecrae reaches multiple genres and Anomaly truly has something for everyone. It proves that this album lives up to its name: Lecrae is truly challenging stereotypes in both the Christian and hip-hop musical genres and cultures. He shows the complexity of one’s identity, and the extent to which music can be used as a medium to define and express oneself outside the confines of society.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Zion I – Masters of Ceremony

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Title: Masters of Ceremony

Artist: Zion I

Label: Self-released

Format: Digital

Release Date: January 14, 2014

 

Masters of Ceremony is the first of a trio of EPs from Bay Area duo Zion I (the second installment, Libations, was released on April 22, 2014).  The stated purpose of these records is to “fortify the cultural aspects of Hip Hop.”  The MC serves to “energize, invigorate, and guide the listener to a higher state of mind, whether that be reflection, relaxation or enlightenment.”  Over five songs, MC Zumbi and producer AmpLive flip some typical thematic tropes such as the club song in the title track:

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Similarly, Zumbi also continues to make multiple drug trade references while reinforcing his position as a positive lyricist: “spit that dope without no kilo” on “Masters of Ceremony” and more blatantly, “This year I’m coming dope boy fresh, but I am not a dopeboy,” on “Fresh.”  Fourteen years into their career, Zion I continue to make music relatable to those looking for conscious lyrics and diverse beats.  In a short 15 minutes, Amp Live coherently serves up slabs of boom bap, dubstep wobble, and Neptunes-style minimalism.  Look out for the next installments of this trilogy soon.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Busdriver – Perfect Hair

Bus Driver
Title: Perfect Hair

Artist: Busdriver

Label: Big Dada

Formats: 2-LP, CD, MP3

Release date: September 9, 2014

 

Listening to a Busdriver album in a post-Kendrick Lamar, post-Young Thug world suddenly makes the notoriously difficult emcee much more digestible.  Not that we haven’t had time to get used to him: he’s been rapping since 1987.  While he has built his machine gun style from his Project Blowed, and pushed his leaping, Eric Dolphyesque sing-song flows into to the realm of art-punkers Dog Faced Hermans or Frank Zappa, he’s been admirably capable of reigning this technical prowess into compelling music.  Perfect Hair is his 8th solo album, and a more focused effort to convey his otherwise hard-to-stomach interpretations of hip-hop (and occasionally R&B).

That doesn’t mean that ‘driver is any less interesting.  Those who have developed a taste for Regan Farqhuar’s convoluted word labyrinths will still find plenty to sift through, especially with guests Aesop Rock and Danny Brown on board for “Ego Death”:

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In the meantime, the prominence of fellow Los Angeles creative forces like Brainfeeder has been undeniable in the development of the overall sound of Perfect Hair.  Picking up where his previous LP Beaus$Eros left off, the soundscapes ‘driver, Jeremiah Jay, Great Dane, Mono/Poly, and other producers conjure up are full of lush synth pads, worlds away from the dusty jazz breaks or classical motifs found throughout his discography.  Although Busdriver seems like less of an anomaly in today’s ever-expanding rap landscape, Perfect Hair will still prove difficult for the casual listener.

Reviewed by Will Chase

 

Souls of Mischief – There Is Only Now

Souls of Mischief

Title: There Is Only Now

Artist: Souls of Mischief

Label: Linear Labs

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: August 19, 2014

 

Souls of Mischief are a legend in the hip-hop world, consisting of emcees A-Plus, Opio, Phesto, and Tajai. Six years since their last full-length album was released, There Is Only Now stays true to their ‘90s Oakland roots while weaving an intricate story occurring in the present day. They are joined by an all-star cast, including producer Adrian Younge, narrator Ali Shaheed Muhammad (best known as a member of A Tribe Called Quest), and guests such as Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg. “Cast” is definitely the right word for this album, which requires undivided attention in order to understand the story of a near-fatal shooting and the spiral of events that follow the accident.

The storytelling nature of Souls of Mischief is reminiscent of old school DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and modern day Childish Gambino or Kendrick Lamar. Though a few melodies are interwoven, the focus remains on the rapping rather than any catchy choruses. This emphasizes the narrative, which brings up tough topics ranging from mindless violence to drug abuse. Like any good story, there is pain and loss, villains and romance, and a thought-provoking ending.

The title track, “There Is Only Now,” features Snoop Dogg and is the romantic core of the story, speaking of a young couple overcoming adversity and being so focused on each other that they only see the present. Though lyrics such as “It takes for something that no one can sever/and I’ll do anything to see that we always together” may come off as cheesy, in an album full of trials and pain, such as in “Time Stopped” and “Panic Struck,” this song is refreshingly positive and sincere:

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Though 19 tracks, each is fairly short, and there are often spoken interludes which make the album flow nicely. If you’re looking for a catchy song or two, this album isn’t for you. The story is complex, and taken out of context the tracks don’t have the same meaning or coherence. That being said, listening all the way through displays the genius of Souls of Mischief and Adrian Younge. The detailed lyrics create a fascinating tale that you won’t want to stop listening to, more akin to long-form poetry, with reoccurring motifs such as the black truck. There Is Only Now is a refreshing album heralding back to the style of 1990’s storytelling hip-hop, though as the title suggests, it doesn’t aim to glorify the past but looks forward to a new future.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Amp Live – Headphone Concerto

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Title: Headphone Concerto

Artist: Amp Live

Label: Plug Research

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: August 5, 2014

 

DJ Amp Live has once again come out with a mind-blowing album. Headphone Concerto takes the listener on a journey through classical, hip-hop, electronic mixes, and an array of featured artists including Saint Timbre, Planet Asia, Ill Esha, and Dirty Cello—truly making this 14 track compilation a masterful, three-part experience that will “unlock your sense” and cause you to “adjust your thought frequencies accordingly.”

A modern twist on a classical concerto, the album consists of three distinct movements, showcasing Amp’s facility on custom made music machines, including his one of a kind MPC guitar.  On the intro, “No. 1 in D Minor, Op.1: Amore,” he puts the listener into a free state of mind by throwing all kinds of sounds into the mix like a soft child-like piano paired with electronic static and strings, hinting at how diverse the rest of the album will be.

Some of the more unique tracks include “Flight in G Minor (ft. Dirty Cello),” a mainly instrumental tune that highlights the sounds of breaking glass, perhaps symbolizing that orchestra and dub-step barriers are being shattered. With few words, the listener can truly appreciate the creative collaboration of cello and DJ sound effects, piano and dropped beats. Likewise, “Remembrance” gives way to a heavy build up with a drop that is headlined by beautiful violins, an unexpected but audibly intriguing lead into the song. A fast paced beat coinciding with steady strings makes “Remembrance” a song to remember. “Penny Nickel Dime (ft. Anya and Prof)” is a track that perfects what telling a story through music is. Opening with an underground jazz sound, artist Anya sings about how people see and value money, “the dollar sign.” Prof flows in after the chorus, in turn delivering his lyrics. Between the two artists and an almost theatrical, stage sound, one can almost imagine that they are watching a show rather than listening to streaming music through their headphones. Here’s the official video:

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DJ Amp Live is a master of making his listeners feel all kinds of ways and in these next few songs, he succeeds in inspiring and soothing. Strong horns, angelic cooing, and powerful lyrics such as “L-O-V-E/that’s the key to it all/big, small, one answer/we will yell this anthem/bring what it draws and kills all cancers,” are at the heart of “Last Wall (ft. The Grouch & Eligh).” This song rivets the listener and instills a feeling of triumph, action, and the need to rise up, which is even more apparent on “IHeartHipHop (ft. Planet Asia, Opio, Mike G, and Gif).” Featuring a hard beat with hard messages such as “I’m drawn to the flame/like a rebel to the revolution,” and multiple audio clips being mashed together and warped to create a back and forth sound in the listener’s headphones, this song is ideal for rebellious inspiration. Towards the middle of the 7:33 track, Amp Live introduces soulful hip-hop that can be compared to early Bronx styles, but continuing to keep a celestial sound from both computer and strings in the background, choosing to end the track with strings on solo and static.

Perhaps staying true to some mainstream influence, tracks “Are We Dancing (ft. Ill Esha)” and “100,000 Watts” represent quality clubbing music with a house feel. Not as striking as some of the other songs, but nonetheless a nice change up from the overwhelming new sounds.

For more soothing sounds from this album, “Signs (ft. Eric Rachmany)” and “Run Back (ft. Saint Timbre)” are the go-to’s. Rachmany’s light voice flowing with the sultry strings and spins on the board make for a very catchy track. “Run Back” is even more hypnotizing. A metronomic pulse lulls the listener into a tranquil state with the help of the angelic voice of Saint Timbre. It ends with a conversation about “1993” sound, a perfect transition into the final song of the first set.

Overall, Amp Live’s Headphone Concerto is a dynamic entry in the 2014 music scene. To better the musical experience, listen to the songs in order and don’t forget to “unlock your senses.”

Reviewed by Briana Stewart

Ensemble Mik Nawooj – A Hip-Hop Orchestra

Hip-Hop Orchestra

Title: A Hip-Hop Orchestra

Artist: Ensemble Mik Nawooj

Label:  Golden Fetus

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 26, 2014

 

Korean born, Oakland-based musician JooWan Kim is the latest composer to attempt a fusion of classical compositional techniques with hip-hop. Holding degrees from the Berklee College of Music and San Francisco Conservatory of Music (MM in composition), Kim’s goal is to employ “hybridization” to create an innovative musical language, noting that similar juxtapositions have shaped radical changes in music history since Debussy. Though classically trained, he doesn’t consider himself a classical musician, citing J. Dilla and Dr. Dre as “major, major influences, especially Dre’s older stuff — The Chronic, N.W.A., even The Chronic 2001 — there were a lot of things going on in there; you could just feel the vibe of it.”

On A Hip-Hop Orchestra, Kim strives to make genre-blurring music that has universal appeal with his Ensemble Mik Nawooj (his name spelled backwards). The ten-piece chamber orchestra combines flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (played by Kim) with deep funk drums, a heavy contrabass, a lyric soprano, and two notable MCs—Do D.A.T. and Sandman.

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From the opening track it’s evident that Kim’s approach yields complex yet accessible results, truly integrating the two genres. “First Song” intersperses rapid fire lyrics with a rather minimalistic orchestration that employs extended piano interludes. On the hard hitting “We Will Conquer” the MCs take center stage, resulting in an orchestrated hip hop track that’s quite cinematic in scope.  “Hope Springs Eternal” pits eternal optimism against impossible situations in yin-yang fashion—ethereal chamber music alternating with furious tempos, the lyricists performing at break neck speed. One of the best tracks is “Morning Light,” an intricate yet occasionally bombastic composition referencing a multitude of styles, with soprano Lauren Woody given prominence in the instrumental sections. The album closes with a cover of the Wu-Tang Clan’s C.R.E.A.M., which is given an orchestral treatment that’s extremely effective.

We’ll definitely be hearing more of Kim’s music. He’s been commissioned by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to re-imagine six classic hip-hop tracks, three from the Wu Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers and three from Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle.  With any luck, he’ll also find time to focus on original compositions, not just high profile covers.  In either case, I look forward to his future endeavors.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib – Piñata

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Title: Piñata

Artist: Freddie Gibbs and Madlib

Label: Madlib Invazion

Formats: CD, 2-LP, Cassette, MP3

Release date: March 18, 2014

 

 

Madlib and MF Doom (aka Madvillain) released their now-classic Madvillainy almost exactly ten years prior to Piñata‘s release date.  It is tempting to examine this collaborative effort between Madlib and his new cohort—Gary, Indiana native Freddie Gibbs—through this lens, and it is easy to draw up a few comparisons.  Whereas Madvillain relished in comic book villain menace, Gibbs drives the album’s narrative with his street-wise, Tupac-inspired thug poetry.

Piñata is the latest development in Gibbs’ lyrical M.O. as gangsta-turned-rapper, spinning street tales of broken family life, drug dealing and betrayal, how he overcame those obstacles (or didn’t), as well as the lighter side of life (“High,” “Harold’s,” “Shame”).  Vocally, Gibbs is incredibly hard-hitting, and despite Madlib’s soulful productions, the emcee’s incessant attacks on the beats usurp their laidback aesthetic making Madlib’s signature interludes quite welcome throughout the album.  The skits are tailored to fit the Gangsta Gibbs persona: instead of the sci-fi B movie clips found on Madvillainy, Pinata‘s segues are comprised of drug dealer oriented dialogue from blaxploitation flicks, or rambling trash talk from Gibbs (“Robes”) and Big Time Watts (“Watts”).

Like Tupac, it’s Freddie Gibbs’ introspection and awareness that make him stand out as a lyricist.  With lines like “Maybe you’s a stank ho, maybe that’s a bit mean/maybe you grew up and I’m still livin’ like I’m sixteen,” “Deeper” exemplifies the dual realities Gibbs has experienced throughout his life: his girlfriend leaves him when he was in prison, but seeks his support now that he’s moved on as a successful musician:

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The album was recorded over a period of 3 years, allowing Gibbs to reflect on the many aspects of his life like his favorite fried chicken spot (“Harold’s”), family life (“Broken”), relocation to L.A. (“Lakers”), and falling out with Young Jeezy (“Real”).  As always, Madlib’s eclectic, dust-covered samples are total earworms, and provide the perfect canvas for developing a concept for each song.  And while the guest list is long and star-studded, Freddie Gibbs is never outshined, standing ground alongside legends like Scarface and Raekwon as well as acclaimed contemporaries Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, and Ab-Soul, among others.  In short, this is probably the closest thing we’ll see to a Madvillainy 2: what we get with Piñata is a cohesive, no-frills rap record by two independently minded visionaries.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Pigeon John – Encino Man

encino manTitle: Encino Man

Artist: Pigeon John

Label: MRI

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: April 29, 2014

 

 

Over the course of sixteen years and six albums, Pigeon John has not only cemented himself within the SoCal underground hip hop scene, but has emerged as one of its leading artists. Addressing subjects spanning personal struggles as well as larger issues, PJ has been able to balance serious topics with enough humor to stay fresh and entertaining. Encino Man, his newest release (remember the comedy film by that name?), is an example of an artist adopting a more pop-centric approach while still recognizing and celebrating their roots.

Starting with the hit single “The Bomb” off of 2010’s Dragon Slayer, Pigeon John has enjoyed increased notoriety through songs featured in TV shows and commercials. Encino Man builds upon this popularity rather than taking advantage of it. Reminiscent of early hip hop updated with new flavors and energy, PJ provides a quantity of dorky lines and humor that prevent the rapper-singer from taking himself too seriously. Encino Man may be Pigeon John’s most accessible album yet, and easily one of the best.

Following is the official video for “Champagne on My Shoes”:

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Reviewed by Ian Hallagan

Nas – Illmatic XX

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Title: Illmatic XX

Artist: Nas

Label: Legacy

Formats: 2CD set, 1 LP, MP3

Release date: April 15, 2014

 

 

First released in April 1994, Nasir “Nas” Jones’s seminal debut album Illmatic rocked the hip hop world.  Widely recognized as one of the most influential hip hop recordings of all time, the album presented the twenty-year-old Queensbridge rapper as a supremely talented lyricist—a street prophet whose poetry aimed to convey “what the streets felt like, smelled like, tasted like.” Nas’s talent attracted a squad of all-star producers—Pete Rock, DJ Premier, L.E.S., Q-Tip, and Large Professor—adding to the legendary status of the album.

Now, two decades later, Legacy has released a special 20th Anniversary Edition of Illmatic. Disc one includes a remastered version of the original album, while disc two includes “Demos, Remixes & Live Radio.”  Unfortunately, the second disc is primarily remixes, none of which can be termed essential. Only the first two tracks—“I’m a Villain” with its funk samples and a 1993 aircheck of “The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show” from WKCR—are compelling additions to the Nas catalog. The remastering has also been criticized by some for compressing the dynamic range, so be forewarned if you’re expecting “improved” audio fidelity. The single disc vinyl edition only contains the original album but comes with a digital download of the bonus material.

If you’re a Nas fan you’ve probably been following the Illmatic 20th anniversary celebrations around the world. In April the National Symphony Orchestra Pops featured the artist in a special concert at the Kennedy Center to kick off their festival “One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide!” Shortly thereafter, Nas made history performing Illmatic in its entirety with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra in South Africa, and most recently he performed Illmatic with orchestra at Radio City Music Hall as part of a Dave Chappelle show. In October, Time Is Illmatic—a feature length documentary that examines the album—will hit theaters nationwide:

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In short, at least one version of this album belongs in every collection.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Talib Kweli – Gravitas

Gravitas
Title: Gravitas

Artist: Talib Kweli

Label: Javotti Media

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 18, 2014

 

Having been in the business for close to twenty years, the veteran Brooklyn-based rapper, Talib Kweli, has by now firmly established himself as one of today’s more meaningful conscious rappers, with profound lyrics to match his equally solid rhythms. Undeniably a musician of substance, Talib Kweli stands as one of the few contemporary artists with the rare ability to convey socially-conscious messages in a non-abrasive, aesthetically-inducive manner. With his sixth and latest solo release, Gravitas, Kweli follows in the same vein, addressing relevant social issues ranging anywhere from the current unsavory state of mainstream hip-hop to the politicization of women’s bodies. Indeed, even the album’s distribution contains a statement in that Gravitas stands as a project made independent of any major label, thereby cutting out the middleman entirely and allowing for the creation of music solely under the artist’s own terms. The end result finds Talib Kweli pushing the envelope conceptually, rewarding listeners with one of his most compelling albums to date.

In terms of social content, particularly notable tracks include the album opener, “Inner Monologue,” both a lament over the increasingly materialistic nature of hip-hop today as well as a call for artistic freedom; “Wormhole,” an energetic diatribe against the cultural obsession surrounding Illuminati conspiracy theories in relation to hip-hop; and finally, “State of Grace,” an exploration of the disillusionment felt by female fans of rap when confronted with the genre’s prominent misogynistic themes.

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Unique to this album, as opposed to his earlier releases, Kweli also speaks on a more personal, introspective level. In this regard, the most revealing tracks consist of “Demonology” and “Rare Portraits“—the first of which resembles a survey of Kweli’s own struggles as an artist, all set to an intriguing, fast-paced rock beat and astounding guitar riffs, whereas the latter presents Kweli reminiscing about his career’s early history while backed by luscious instrumentation in the form of flowing pianos and soaring strings. Along with Kweli’s distinct talent for writing thoughtful narratives, “Gravitas” also features a formidable line-up of collaborators, including Abby Dobson, Big K.R.I.T., Raekwon, The UnderAchievers, RES, Black Thought, Rah Digga, and Mike Posner. These contributions, coupled with Talib Kweli’s signature lyricism and effortless flow, mark Gravitas as a refreshing offering to today’s hip-hop landscape.

Reviewed by Catherine Fonseca

ScHoolboy Q – Oxymoron

oxymoron

Title: Oxymoron

Artist: ScHoolboy Q

Label: Top Dawg Entertainment/ Interscope Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 25, 2014

 

 

“Hello? Hello? Fuck Rap…MY Daddy a Gangsta!”

Spoken by his four-year-old daughter Joy, ScHoolboy Q commences his third studio album, aptly titled Oxymoron, in a foreshadowing way on the heels of labelmate and fellow Black Hippy member, Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. This is the Top Dawg Entertainment emcee’s his first studio album on the Interscope label, released with high expectations [“Kendrick [Lamar] left me no choice but to drop a classic”] and West Coast and Gangsta rap motifs in mind.

A concept album based on ScHoolboy Q’s life experiences being in the “Real LA,” raw and uncensored, Oxymoron centers both on the juxtaposition of his responsibilities as a father, and his hustle as an Oxycontin drug dealer, along with his past as a member of the Los Angeles Crips street gang (both of which are reflected in the dual covers). In multiple interviews he’s stated his opinion that there aren’t any “gangsta rappers” in the music industry today, the majority of rappers instead focusing on the growing trend of trap music. Being a self-proclaimed gangsta rapper, he reflects this theme both in his lyrics and most notably in his production. Producers Nez & Rio (“Gangsta,” “Man of the Year”) and Sounwave of Digi+phonics (“Hoover Street,” “Prescription/Oxymoron,” “Blind Threats”) handle the majority of the production on Oxymoron, while Pharrell Williams (“Los Awesome”), Mike Will Made It (“What They Want”), The Alchemist (“Break the Bank”), and Boi-1da (“Yay Yay”) also contribute additional production.

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Guest appearances by TDE-cohorts Jay Rock (“Los Awesome”), Kendrick Lamar (“Collard Greens”), and lone female R&B songstress SZA (“His & Her Friend” on the Deluxe ed.) top off the debut, along with West Coast artist Suga Free accompanying the pimp-influenced track “Grooveline Pt. 2” (Deluxe ed.), while Kurupt and Tyler, the Creator feature on the latter-helmed production of “The Purge.”  ScHoolboy Q also brings aboard Southern rapper 2 Chainz on the laidback trap-laced “What They Want,” lyricist BJ the Chicago Kid on the fourth single, “Studio,” as well as Wu-Tang’s own Raekwon on the LordQuest and Sounwave-produced “Blind Threats.”

The strengths of the album are undoubtedly its true to form authenticity both to the West Coast G-Funk style popularized by Dr. Dre’s The Chronic,  Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (which ScHoolboy Q calls a primary influence on the record), and labelmate Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City which was held as the bar to surpass. He also delves deep into his own personal narrative by reflecting on his past drug use, his dope dealing antics, his experiences growing up in Los Angeles, and  his gangbanging past. His daughter Joy can also be heard on many of the records, most notably “Prescription/Oxymoron” where she tries to wake him out of a drug-induced coma.

The weaknesses apply more to the deluxe version, which runs a bit long, plus the extra tracks kill the complex simplicity of the standard album. Also, the constant comparisons to Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City put a harsh light on the lack of common denominators between the tracks on the album, whereas Lamar’s album tells a cohesive story track-by-track. Despite these issues, Oxymoron stands alone in its prowess as one of the few albums that have successfully highlighted a sect of Gangsta rap culture that has been long since forgotten.

I would recommend Oxymoron to those who are fans of gangsta rap music and rap enthusiasts, as well as those who are die-hard fans of Top Dawg Entertainment’s roster of artists. The album is not kid-friendly by any means, but what ScHoolboy Q does successfully with this record is shed an unapologetic lens on the West Coast gangsta lifestyle, both from within the space and outside of it, while demonstrating self-accountability for his actions.

Reviewed by Floyd D. Hobson III
Doctoral student, African American and African Diaspora Studies, Indiana University

Clear Soul Forces – Gold PP7s

Clear Soul
Title: Gold PP7s

Artist: Clear Soul Forces

Label: Fatbeats

Formats: CD, 2-LP, MP3

Release date: September 17, 2013

 

Detroit has never been known as an environment to foster optimism.  As Clear Soul Forces emcee/producer Ilajide puts it during a an episode of Red Bull Music’s Sound and Vision, “even the green has a shade of gray to it.”  But the way this Motor City quartet raps, it is clear they have found refuge and inspiration in their music.  Gold PP7s is their third full-length project, and first release on the Fatbeats label.

The Gold PP7 was the secret one-shot kill weapon on the James Bond Nintendo 64 blockbuster Goldeneye.  It is also the modus operandi of E-Fav, Ilajide, Noveliss, and L.A.Z. for attacking each track with every rapid-fire bar they can muster.  Album opener “Continue” flexes lyrical prowess through a series of video game-inspired metaphors:

Throwing the mic like a boomerang, you can’t hang, you just dust in the cartridge
Blowing you the cartilage carnage with the Symbian artist shit

Arcade themes continue throughout the LP referencing Street Fighter, cheat codes, Mortal Kombat, Zelda, expansion packs, Halo, and of course, Goldeneye.  The effect is a lessened ability to relate at a personal level that’s present in their previous work, but instead they accomplish a greater sense of grandeur and Wu-Tang Clan-like mysticism, allowing for exploration of broader philosophical themes and cunning braggadocio.

Clear Soul Forces are neither in-depth storytellers nor simple punchline rappers, but through every sixteen traded among these four we get glimpses into struggles of life in Detroit, imaginative critiques on pop culture and society, and wordplay for the sake of poetry.  Hooks are understated, and keeping up with four dudes who love to rap as much as they do can be exhausting, but careful, repeat listens are greatly rewarded.  E-Fav, Ilajide, Noveliss, and L.A.Z. trade bars with such ease that it takes a bit of orientation to figure out whose voice belongs to whom.   Gold PP7s‘ second single, “Ain’t Playin,” offers a solid introduction to each member’s distinctive voice:

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Production-wise, Ilajide falls in line with the fine Detroit lineage injecting 11 of the 15 tracks with the loose bounce of the late J Dilla and more than some of Black Milk’s synth futurism.  Perhaps the most socially aware song, “War Drum,” militantly underlines warnings against ignorance perpetuated by the mass media, corrupt religious leaders, and crooked politicians with loops from Fela Kuti’s “Water No Get Enemy.”  L.A.Z.’s killer concluding verse is almost usurped by an epilogue skit featuring a bottle-popping Arnold Scharzenegger that is significant in that it aptly encapsulates their world view on hip hop.

Gold PP7s is an admirable label-backed debut from these Detroit natives.  It is clear the city is not about to crush their spirits any time soon, and if they can keep each other this inspired, we can expect more great things to come.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Rock It… Don’t Stop It! Rappin’ to the Boogie Beat from Brooklyn, Boston and Beyond 1979

Rock It Don't Stop It

Title: Rock It Don’t Stop It

Artist: Various

Label: BBE

Formats: CD, 2-LP, MP3, WAV

Release date: April 1, 2014

 

 

The early days of hip-hop have been documented on anthologies highlighting different scenes, styles, and labels, but it seems we have still just scraped the surface of what’s out there.  London-based DJ Sean P dusts off ten 12″ singles from his expansive collection for Rock It… Don’t Stop It!  Rappin’ to the Boogie Beat from Brooklyn, Boston and Beyond 1979 – 1983.  These selections, overshadowed by the success of “Rapper’s Delight” at the time of their release, and subsequently long unavailable, exhibit the influence and appropriation of disco in early hip-hop.

Unlike the ubiquitous Sugar Hill Records, some of the labels featured here released few other discs than those featured on Rock It… Don’t Stop It!, and some of these singles are the only recordings made by the artists.  Thankfully Sean P’s copies are all in good condition, and his transfers and restorations of the material are about as transparent as one can hope for from vinyl.

The beats on Rock It… Don’t Stop It! were looped from party music classics from the likes Cheryl Lynn and Yazoo.  While there are plenty of prompts to get up and dance (“and you don’t stop!”), there are also some thoughtful insights on poverty (“The People’s Message,” “Sweat (The B Side)”) and the pitfalls of promiscuity (“Take it to the Max”) mixed in that really help to get a feel for where this music is coming from.  The Jackson Two, a pair of teenaged sisters no older than 16 according to the liner notes, show that the ladies were not about to let their male counterparts dominate rap during this time period:

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Sean P’s liner notes give a brief narrative of his vision for the compilation and short backgrounds on each single.  Because of its loose thematic cohesiveness, it is worth examining Rock It… Don’t Stop It! in context with more focused collections such as Soul Jazz Records’ Big Apple Rappin’ or Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip Hop 1979-1983 from the Stones Throw label for a more complete historical perspective.  Historical significance aside, it is just as easy to enjoy Rock It… Don’t Stop It! as a great snapshot of over-looked, body-moving old school rap.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Screwed Up Click – The Takeover

the take over

Title: The Takeover

Artist: Screwed Up Click

Label: Straight Profit Records

Formats: CD, MP33

Release date: March 25, 2014

 

 

The Takeover is the extremely long-awaited album from Houston’s legendary Screwed Up Click. Originally scheduled for release in 2005, the album was met with a series of delays. Finally released through local Straight Profit Records, The Takeover is the prolific Screwed Up Click’s first official studio album.

For those who are unfamiliar, The Screwed Up Click is the collective of rap artists and associates that formed around the late DJ Screw (1971-2000), the originator of the screwed and chopped DJ/production style. Since the early 1990s, the crew has released several small group and solo records along with appearing on the countless DJ Screw mixtapes. Members and fans, however, have long clamored for the crew to collaborate on a studio album of new material. The Takeover is just that.

Before its release, The Takeover had become Houston’s version of Detox. Promotions for the album began to surface in mid-2000s as the city’s rap scene was enjoying unprecedented national attention. A picture of a promo van featuring an image of the album cover along with the words “coming Summer 2005” circulated around the internet, furthering the buzz for the release. In the proceeding years, the idea of The Takeover was kept alive through interviews, message board chatter, and tweets. A series of unfulfilled release dates eventually tempered excitement as fans questioned whether the album would ever see the light of day. The official release of “Keeping it Gangsta,” the albums lead single, in late 2013 helped renew enthusiasm. Straight Profit Records, known for releasing several SUC related albums in 1990s and 2000s, finally dropped the album on March 25, 2014.

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While there are countless members of the Screwed Up Click, the album is centered around a core group: Big Pokey, Trae, Z-Ro, Mike D, Lil O, Mr. 3-2, Lil’ Keke, H.A.W.K., and Chris Ward. Members E.S.G., Clay Doe, Macc Grace, Lil Flip, and Botany Boyz’ Will Lean also provide verses. Houston soul artist Billy Cook and UGK’s Bun B make notable contributions as well.

The album finds the Screwed up Click at their vocal finest. The myriad of styles mesh perfectly, bringing the magic of the Screwtape to this studio recording. The highlights are too numerous to name. On “Keeping It Gangsta” Mr. 3-2, Mike D and a Guerilla Maab-ish Z-Ro and Trae eviscerate a mid-tempo beat. “I Don’t Feel Ya“ is probably the most polished song on the album and features Lil O, H.A.W.K. and Bun B spitting Texas-bred battle raps over Mr. Lee’s southern-fried beat. Mike D, E.S.G, Mr. 3-2, Lil O, and Z-Ro shine on the closing posse cut “The Takeover.”

H.A.W.K.’s “SUC Soldiers” is the most special moment of album. Prior to his untimely death in 2006, H.A.W.K., known as the 5 Star General of the Click, filled the void left by DJ Screw, becoming the glue that held the sometimes-splintered crew together. H.A.W.K pulls no punches as he cements membership and charges them with carrying the Screw legacy forward. “S.U.C. Soldiers” is a point of re-dedication, a reminder of the past, statement of the present, and suggestions for the future of the Screwed Up Click.

Because it was recorded nearly a decade ago, the album naturally sounds dated at times. This may be a turn-off for some listeners, but fans of the Screwed Up Click should see this as a plus. The Takeover is a snapshot of the Screwed Up Click post-DJ Screw and prior to the untimely deaths of original members H.A.W.K and Big Moe. We will never see this assemblage again. For this reason alone, The Takeover is a must buy for Screw-heads and those interested into Screw culture.

Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

Clear Soul Forces – Gold PP7s

clear-soul-forces-gold-pp7s

Title: Gold PP7s

Artist: Clear Soul Forces

Label: Fatbeats

Formats: CD, 2-LP, MP3

Release date: September 17, 2013

 

 

Detroit has never been known as an environment to foster optimism.  As Clear Soul Forces emcee/producer Ilajide puts it during a an episode of Red Bull Music’s Sound and Vision, “even the green has a shade of gray to it.”  But the way this Motor City quartet raps, it is clear they have found refuge and inspiration in their music.  Gold PP7s is their third full-length project, and first release on the Fatbeats label.

The Gold PP7 was the secret one-shot kill weapon on the James Bond Nintendo 64 blockbuster Goldeneye.  It is also the modus operandi of E-Fav, Ilajide, Noveliss, and L.A.Z. for attacking each track with every rapid-fire bar they can muster.  Album opener “Continue” flexes lyrical prowess through a series of video game-inspired metaphors:

Throwing the mic like a boomerang, you can’t hang, you just dust in the cartridge
Blowing you the cartilage carnage with the Symbian artist shit

Arcade themes continue throughout the LP referencing Street Fighter, cheat codes, Mortal Kombat, Zelda, expansion packs, Halo, and of course, Goldeneye.  The effect is a lessened ability to relate at a personal level that’s present in their previous work, but instead they accomplish a greater sense of grandeur and Wu-Tang Clan-like mysticism, allowing for exploration of broader philosophical themes and cunning braggadocio.

Clear Soul Forces are neither in-depth storytellers nor simple punchline rappers, but through every sixteen traded among these four we get glimpses into struggles of life in Detroit, imaginative critiques on pop culture and society, and wordplay for the sake of poetry.  Hooks are understated, and keeping up with four dudes who love to rap as much as they do can be exhausting, but careful, repeat listens are greatly rewarded.  E-Fav, Ilajide, Noveliss, and L.A.Z. trade bars with such ease that it takes a bit of orientation to figure out whose voice belongs to whom.   Gold PP7s‘ second single, “Ain’t Playin,” offers a solid introduction to each member’s distinctive voice:

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Production-wise, Ilajide falls in line with the fine Detroit lineage injecting 11 of the 15 tracks with the loose bounce of the late J Dilla and more than some of Black Milk’s synth futurism.  Perhaps the most socially aware song, “War Drum,” militantly underlines warnings against ignorance perpetuated by the mass media, corrupt religious leaders, and crooked politicians with loops from Fela Kuti’s “Water No Get Enemy.”  L.A.Z.’s killer concluding verse is almost usurped by an epilogue skit featuring a bottle-popping Arnold Scharzenegger that is significant in that it aptly encapsulates their world view on hip hop.

Gold PP7s is an admirable label-backed debut from these Detroit natives.  It is clear the city is not about to crush their spirits any time soon, and if they can keep each other this inspired, we can expect more great things to come.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Amiri – This is Part Time

amiri

Title: This is Part Time

Artist: Amiri

Label: Hipnott

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 25, 2014

 

 

Now that hip-hop is over 40 years old, it seems to be the genre with the most vocal retro-grouches lamenting on how the present state of the music fails to meet the standards that once were.  As with all genres of music, it is equally important to preserve tradition as it is to evolve from it, and South Carolina producer/emcee Amiri is firmly in the camp of sticking to hip-hop’s roots.  He seems to have maintained the approach he has had since he started making music in the mid-90s in collaboration with a smattering of underground acts, notably including A Tribe Called Quest.  “Still,” the lead cut from This Is Part Time, quickly sets the tone for the album:

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Today, plenty of emcees also infer rap is not their main hustle, as Amiri does with the title of his third solo LP.  It seems at this point, clocking a nine-to-five is taking its toll on him. He boasts plenty about the demand for his production skills, which don’t stray far from a single jazz-flavored break underneath programmed MPC beats.  Amiri approaches the mic with a desert-dry conversational flow that brings to mind the Gang Starr lyricist Guru, but with a more nasally timbre.  Amiri keeps the wordplay simple and literal, drawing some necessary attention to the violence and materialism that is all too readily accepted in some of today’s music.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to offer any appealing alternatives other than continuing to go unnoticed by a mainstream audience.  Instead, we get professions for a love for Starbucks, a word-for-word account of meeting the late J Dilla, and an artist continually bemoaning his lack of recognition in hip-hop.

Despite claims about maintaining positivity over a perceived bleak hip-hop landscape, it doesn’t seem like Amiri is actually having fun until the end of the album with “Understood.”  The sped up synth-saturated loops from The System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove” create an uplifting atmosphere for Amiri to flex a little bit without sounding too weighed down.  On the whole, the album succeeds in its pacing with cleverly titled instrumental breaks interspersing proper songs, and no cut lingers long enough to over stay its welcome.  This Is Part Time is an exercise in classicism that will find a divided audience between fans stuck on “Golden Age” forms of hip-hop and those with a broader view of what the genre has to offer.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Black Milk – No Poison No Paradise

black-milk-no-poison-cover

Title: No Poison No Paradise

Artist: Black Milk

Label: Fat Beats

Formats: CD, 2-LP (multiple editions), MP3

Release date: October 15, 2013

 

 

Few can pull off the dual role of producer-emcee, but those who do have made some incredibly rewarding music: Kanye West, Lord Finesse, MF Doom, and DJ Quik will come to mind for many.  With his fifth and best solo LP No Poison No Paradise, Detroit’s own Curtis Cross, better known as Black Milk, can count himself among this elite groupWhile it lacks the makings of a “classic” album per se, this release has allowed him to begin to find his own voice as a rapper through a conceptual character “Sonny,” whose upbringing parallels that of the author and weaves the narrative of the album together.

Thematically, the album deals largely with hardships of the African American ghetto experience.  “Ghetto DEMF,” “Monday’s Worst,” “Perfected on Puritan Ave.,” and “Dismal” specifically address the struggle and uncertainty of not knowing where the next meal is coming from, which friend will be lost next to violence, substance abuse, and going from rags to riches and back again.  He does this both through vivid storytelling and compositional effect in his production.  Take for example, “Perfected on Puritan Ave.,” which concludes with the lines:

What you expect from some young players?
That never seen and never had nothin’
But make money of making rap shit
And start living fast, put some cash stuntin’

Then the beat develops into some free jazz trumpet over frantic drum n’ bass style drum loops, illustrating the chaotic lifestyle that might come with having some money and a name.  Once things fizzle out to the fuzzy glockenspiel and guitar-driven sample that was the backbone of the song, “Dismal” segues with a bleak, minimal beat and the following response:

Hold up.
How you go from being on to havin’ no riches?
Hoes all in your phone to havin’ no bitches?
Used to be highroller, now look how you sittin’
Thinkin’ that your life is over, out here tryin’ to make a living

And it’s back to the struggle.

The standout single “Sunday’s Best/Monday’s Worst” also serves as the album’s centerpiece.

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The pair of tracks not only exemplifies the album’s excellent sequencing, but tells the all-too-often heard tale of a young boy brought up in the church who must face the reality of the six other days out of the week that force him into a life far removed from the morals taught on Sunday mornings.

No Poison No Paradise shares one man’s insights on life in the ghetto, tasting success, loss and making tough decisions.  It’s refreshing to hear Black Milk leave the trappings of petty lyrical boasts.  There are a few forgettable cuts towards the end, but Black Milk has a good enough ear to keep the beats knocking even when the songwriting is lacking.  The closer “Money Bags (Paradise)” sums up the project’s appeal both musically and lyrically, and serves as an explanation for the conflict discussed throughout the album’s 13 tracks.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Aceyalone – Leanin’ On Slick

aceyalone-leanin-on-slick

Title: Leanin’ On Slick

Artist: Aceyalone

Label: Decon

Formats: CD, 2-LP, MP3

Release date: May 28, 2013

 

 

With a back catalog of classic releases including 1995’s All Balls Don’t Bounce, two golden-era LPs with the Freestyle Fellowship, and more recent efforts such as 2003’s Love & Hate and Magnificent City (2006), Aceyalone is unabashedly showing his age on Leanin’ on Slick.  Album opener “30 and Up” makes it clear who he’s rapping for these days, and it’s certainly not anyone who is looking for any sort of forward-thinking hip hop.  Producer Bionik lays out a consistent backdrop which lends to a cohesive album, but the high-energy funk breaks begin to blur together a few songs into the album.

Following is the official video for title track:

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CeeLo Green makes an enjoyable, but rather unconvincing guest appearance on “Working Man’s Blues,” as it seems unlikely he actually ever held a nine-to-five for any length of time.  Authenticity aside, it’s still a standout cut in that it finally breaks up some of the monotony of the first nine tracks.  Those 30 and older will likely relate to the “clock in, clock out, on the weekends rock out” sentiment expressed about running the rat race.

It is clear Aceyalone is coasting at this point in his career, but these classic formulas—James Brown-esque breaks, circular rhyme schemes and flows falling square on the beat—worked for a reason, and thankfully for Leanin’ on Slick, Aceyalone is a master of them.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Dice Raw – Jimmy’s Back

jimmy's back

Title: Jimmy’s Back

Artist: Dice Raw

Label: Rawlife

Format: MP3

Release date: December 10, 2013

 

 

In her 2012 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, law professor and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander examines the sources behind and the wide ranging effects of the mass-incarceration of African-American men. This book, along with the work of many individuals and organizations, has helped make the plight of the criminalized Black male a part, albeit small, of our national conversation. It also serves as the inspiration for Philadelphia rapper Dice Raw’s Jimmy’s Back, a concept album about Black men locked in both psychological and physical prison.

Dice Raw should be a familiar name for hip hop heads. He became associated with Philly jazz-rap powerhouse turned Jimmy Fallon house band The Roots in the mid 1990s. After gaining fame through scene stealing performances on “Clones” and “Adrenaline,” Dice Raw released his own solo album Reclaiming the Dead on MCA in 1999.  Since then, he’s released a number of singles and made many notable appearances on The Roots albums. Jimmy’s Back is his first full-length release on his own Rawlife Records.

Jimmy’s Back is more than an album; it is an experience. For a moment, the listener is able to bare witness to that lonely, yet populated road of criminalized Black maleness. The album’s production, handled by Dice Raw along with up-and-coming producers like Khari Mateen and Antman Wonder, is cinematic and serves as the perfect backdrop to the emotionally and intellectually weighty lyrics. Vocally, Dice Raw is in pristine form. Joining him on the mic are artists like Kdot da Showstoppa, whose actual experiences in the prison industrial complex brings some ethnographic grounding to the work. Add to this the stellar narration by Wadud Ahmad and what you have is a carefully articulated and well-executed musical documentation of the (in)justice system’s attack on Black men.

Tracks such as “Run,” “Surprised To Be Alive,” and “Looking Glass” are definitely standouts. However, the album should be listened to from start to finish for full meaning. Dice Raw has taken his work to the stage, producing a travelling stage play called The Last Jimmy that deals with many of the themes present on the album. Furthermore, in 2013, he released an 18 minute documentary also titled Jimmy’s Back that uses the stories of the album collaborators to examine the “New Jim Crow” phenomenon. Check it out below:

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Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

Asheru – Sleepless in Soweto

asheru

Title: Sleepless in Soweto

Artist: Asheru

Label: Guerilla Arts

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: November 12, 2013

 

 

The release date for Asheru’s fourth studio LP, Sleepless In Soweto, is no surprise. Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Zulu Nation, it is clear the DC-native finds a comfortable home amidst hip-hop’s origins. Throughout his seventeen-year recording career, Asheru has followed the path of many early hip-hop pioneers in establishing a reputation as an educator as much as lyrically dexterous emcee. Recorded during travels between DC and South Africa, his newest effort on the Guerilla Arts label is thirteen tracks of accessible Pan-African hip-hop. With the overall goal of establishing a clear connection between American and African culture, Asheru successfully weaves together afrobeat melodies and dusty drum breaks while touting a multinational roster of featured artists.

Following is the kwaito-influenced track “Gauteng” (featuring Raheem Devaughn):

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The album has the hallmarks of an Asheru release: rhythmically complex delivery, erudite vocabulary, and carefully constructed instrumentals. However, unlike his work with the Unspoken Heard collective, here Asheru takes a bit of an artistic risk. He’s shown time and time again that he’s capable of checking all the boxes in showcasing the core principles of traditional hip-hop, but here we see a convergence of cultures—an attempt to bring international flavor to hip-hop purist sensibilities. On this album you’ll find the boom bap drums you’d expect from mid-Atlantic rap percolating behind jangly, afrobeat guitars—or a soulful R&B hook paired with thumping African house. When the mixture falls short, you still have a solid piece of work for the “backpackers” and B-Boys to enjoy. When it connects, what’s presented is a fresh take on hip-hop that demonstrates just how much black cultures worldwide can offer to the genre. Though a self-described “stone that the building refused,” with Sleepless In Soweto Asheru continues to fortify the foundations of rap music.

Reviewed by Aaron Frazer

El-P and Killer Mike – Run the Jewels

jewels
Title: Run the Jewels

Artist: Run the Jewels (El-P and Killer Mike)

Label: Fool’s Gold

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: June 26, 2013

 

 

Killer Mike and El-P got their name Run the Jewels from a line that originally appeared in LL Cool J’s 1990 cut “Cheesy Rat Blues.”  In the opening lines of the song, LL tells the crowd to put their hands in the air, leave ’em there, and “run the jewels.”  As in, “hand over your chain,” which is gruesomely illustrated on the Run the Jewels cover and title track.  For 33 minutes, the listener is brought into the rather insular world of Jamie and Mike, where no boast is too audacious, and careful listening is rewarded with insight into what really makes these two click.

This isn’t the first time the pair has worked together; 2012 saw two fruitful collaborative efforts in the form of Killer Mike’s El-P-produced solo album R.A.P. Music, and Mike’s guest verse on El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure.  As Run the Jewels, the two trade bars with a nod to the era from which they drew their name over El-P’s signature apocalyptic, often-unwelcoming synth-based productions.  These guys love to rap, and this record is a testament to that. Run the Jewels has a great sense of humor throughout, as each emcee tones down elements of his typical approach (sci-fi for El-P, politics for Killer Mike) in favor of one-upping each other’s braggadocio and comically violent threats to anyone who refuses to, perhaps metaphorically, “run the jewels.” Following is the official video for the track “36” Chain”:

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It is in this approach that much of Run the Jewels reveals itself as El-P and Killer Mike’s show.  It’s nearly impossible not to laugh with them at their inside jokes, no matter how repugnant or outlandish they might get.  That’s not to say this album relies on shock value; the wordplay and narratives are reflective of the pair’s successful longevity in hip-hop.  Guest appearances from Big Boi (“Banana Clipper“) and Prince Paul (“Twin Hype Back“) show that it is possible for others to exist in this world, and the listener can too—no relinquishment of jewelry necessary.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Pusha T – My Name Is My Name

pusha-t-mnimn-cover-1
Title: My Name is My Name

Artist: Pusha T

Label: Def Jam/GOOD Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: October 7, 2013

 

 

Pusha T hasn’t had an easy career as a rapper.  Despite a successful run with his brother No Malice as Clipse, record companies have frequently delayed or shelved Push’s work.  However, it is said good things come to those who wait, and Pusha T has used these delays to refine his product, please the critics, and maintain a loyal fanbase.  With the release of My Name is My Name, we find the promise of his previous solo mixtapes Fear of God and Kingston-influenced Wrath of Caine, alongside appearances on Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music releases fulfilled.  The bitterness Push holds towards the rap game is apparent in his sneering flow, yet he has finally embraced the fact that he is a full-time rapper, and not a dope dealer.

There’s something to be said for Pusha T as a lyricist, given that he’s consistently found creative ways to refer back to his past as a hustler for over ten years now.  While much of the sparse production on My Name is My Name compliments his style, the record as a whole suffers from uneven sequencing, and some rather forgettable tracks.  After being immersed in the swirling synths, chopped vocal samples and marching band snares of “King Push” and blown-out bass drone of “Numbers on the Boards,” the record slowly ceases to hold interest until “Nosetalgia” with Kendrick Lamar drops eight tracks later:

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My Name is My Name is the result of an artist making a statement after many years of work and minimal label support.  While the highlights soar, the rest of the album falls off largely due to poor sequencing and cumbersome guest appearances.  At the very least, we can be sure Pusha T will continue to work his pen hard, and perhaps in time he will reveal more of himself beyond what was shaped by his coke-dealing past.

Reviewed by Will Chase

A$AP Ferg – Trap Lord

ASAP
Title:  Trap Lord

Artist: A$AP Ferg

Formats: CD, 2-LP set, MP3

Label: Polo Grounds/RCA

Release Date: August 20, 2013

 

 

Unlike Gucci Mane’s water-whipping Trap God, A$AP Ferg defines a more positive role as a Trap Lord in his debut mixtape-turned-album.  Fergivicious defines the “Trap Lord” title as his relentless pursuit of perfection in whatever genre he is working in, whether it is fashion, painting, or music.

As such, Ferg espouses the value of putting in work, yet many of his lyrical ideas could still use some revisions and improvements in order to overcome the half-baked clichés that fill many of the bars of Trap Lord.  On the other hand, tracks like “Hood Pope” and “Cocaine Castle” show that Ferg has an expansive imagination, and is capable of relaying some compelling, at times surreal imagery.

Trap Lord also shines on the production side, which has become expected for an A$AP Mob project, and make tracks like “Shabba” and “Work” really stand out as singles.  Though significantly more subtle than A$AP Rocky’s Long.Live.ASAP, production choices encompass influences from Houston screw music, trap a la Lex Luger, and even early Bad Boy Records.  The guest appearances on Trap Lord reflect Ferg’s—and most certainly executive producer A$AP Yams’—interest and respect for hip-hop history.  Veterans Bone Thugs n Harmony, Onyx, and B-Real appear alongside contemporaries Waka Flocka Flame, French Montana, and A$AP Rocky.

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Trap Lord is far from perfect, but some of its shortcomings can be overlooked when taken as a whole: cavernous, post-modern production aesthetics paired with appearances from both Ferg’s idols and contemporaries complement his many flows employed throughout the album.  Ferg exudes enough confidence, sincerity, and imagination to make Trap Lord an enjoyable, often dark, listening experience.

Reviewed by Will Chase

Black Violin – Classically Trained

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Title: Classically Trained

Artist: Black Violin

Label: Di-Versatile Music Group

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 30, 2012

 

 

Grab your headphones—Black Violin’s creative vibes are coming through, where vibrant strings will undoubtedly electrify your senses.  With Kev Marcus carving up the violin and Wil B. jamming on the viola, the duo can’t help but captivate listeners with their ultramodern style.  Black Violin takes classical instruments and after a few tweaks and twists in the composition, an array of aural flavors including hip-hop, R&B, rock, bluegrass and jazz erupt from the strings.

Black Violin’s latest album, Classically Trained (2012), immediately bathes the listener in the sea of classical sounds found in “Overture” only to be broken by the intense hip hop rhythms in “Opus.”  The duo interrupts the barriers between genres, shooting pleasant varieties of sound through the speakers.  From the head bobbing vibe of “A-Flat” to the body knocking rhythm of “Rock Anthem,” they fearlessly tackle musical challenges that compel audiences to get on their feet.

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Black Violin’s music throws listeners from a world of closed doors into a universe of unbound opportunities.  As Kev and Wil intricately work their traditional instruments to give modern genres a lively new sound, their prolific style inspires the young audiences of today to pursue their passions regardless of the boundaries that encompass them.  Black Violin’s Classically Trained prescribes listeners with doses of creativity, confidence, liberty, and purpose in the form of vivacious tunes.

Reviewed by Cara M. Morgan Rogers

Public Enemy – The Evil Empire of Everything

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Title: The Evil Empire Of Everything

Artist: Public Enemy

Label: Eastlink / Enemy Records Earth

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: November 6, 2012

 

 

Following the summer 2012 debut of Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamp, immortal rap act Public Enemy released their 12th studio album entitled The Evil Empire of Everything. Self-dubbed by Chuck D as the fraternal twin brother to Most of My Heroes, the two albums would likely have wound up as a double-LP concept album back in the day, since each part represents a different side of the same coin.

Rather than continuing the rolling boom-bap from Most of My Heroes, part two begins with a somber turn in the form of an epitaph to Trayvon Martin on the opening track “The Evil Empire Of…”, which remixes the initial report from George Zimmerman while Chuck D delivers a sermon-like homage to the young man. Right off the bat, it’s clear that Public Enemy stands firmly behind Martin and has dutifully spread their respect throughout the album to ensure his memory lives on.  While tastefully expressing their concerns with the racial implications behind the case, Chuck D and Flavor Flav are supported by an army of featured artists including NME Sun, Ziggy Marley, Tom Morello, Davy DMX, and Rampage.

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Don’t assume for one second that because of the delicate subject matter, this album doesn’t bring the same PE thump you’ve come to expect. Like all Public Enemy albums to date, the issues are preached in a lively call to arms by Chuck D, who ferociously brings the noise from start to finish. The beat makers behind The Evil Empire of Everything also seem to be heavily influenced by the tried-and-true beat formula of the original masterminds behind early Public Enemy, enabling a retro-inspired feel behind the instrumentals.

Some individual track highlights include “31 Flavors” where acclaimed hype-man Flavor Flav is given plenty of room to show the world he can still bring the house down as he injects pure energy in his still lightning-quick verses, giving the album an uplifting bump midway through. 2 (resPEct) also brings back the  scratching and high-caliber production you’ve been craving courtesy of Davy DMX in one of the album’s most banging tracks. On “Beyond Trayvon” NME Sun joins in to throw the facts of Travyon/Zimmerman back in your face in a smooth and rhetorically playful proclamation that race-based violence and prejudice cannot continue beyond Trayvon and that as human beings we need to stand together against injustice. But as long as this tragic injustice exists, Public Enemy is given more ammunition to fight for their causes. The Evil Empire of Everything does as such, and the powerful messages PE delivers here are definitely not lessons to miss.

Reviewed by Patrick Brown

Rusty Redenbacher – Lower

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Title: Lower

Artist: Rusty Redenbacher

Formats: CD, MP3

Label: Daddy Real Entertainment

Release date: December 12, 2012

 

 

Indianapolis’s Rusty Redenbacher has been making waves on the Midwest hip hop scene since the late 1990s with the rap-rock-reggae band The Mudkids.  And with this steady popularity comes Redenbacher’s ability to continually reinvent. Moving beyond a strictly hip hop-oriented sound on his latest solo effort Lower, he goes in new directions ranging from heavy electrification to a laidback form of R&B. From the outer space effects of “Falling to Earth” to the distorted electronics of “My Game, My Time,” Redenbacher is able to flow between genres and make them all seamlessly connect. This ability to expand beyond one genre while taking influences from others is Redenbacher’s main charm, along with his brilliant verbal delivery and dedication to the medium. Here’s his first single from the album, a cover of David Bowie’s “Golden Years”:

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For those wanting to check out one of Indy’s best artists, there is no better place to start than with the versatile Rusty Redenbacher and his various side projects.

Reviewed by Ian Hallagan

Quasimoto – Yessir Whatever

quasimoto-yessir-whatever-album-coverTitle: Yessir Whatever

Artist: Quasimoto

Label: Stones Throw

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 18, 2013

 

 

The newest release from producer Madlib’s high-pitched, alien alter-ego rapper is rather more of a reissue, compiling tracks off of past mixtapes and out-of-print vinyl that ultimately culminates into Yessir Whatever. While feeling disjointed at times, as well as suffering from a few less-than-stellar tracks, Yessir Whatever nonetheless provides solid material for Quasimoto fans and the alternative hip-hop scene in general.

Although brought together from different sources, the tracks, for the most part, flow into one another quite well. Yessir Whatever starts off with strong, dark beats that are coupled with a solid presentation by Quasimoto, as “Broad Factor” flows nicely into the equally grooving “Seasons Change.” The problem with the flow is mainly that of spacing between tracks—unfortunately, many cutoff much too early, leaving the songs to end abruptly and surprisingly. This not only creates a disjointed feeling between songs, but overall the album feels much shorter than it should be. Criticisms aside, however, most of the tracks are still done in Quasimoto’s signature style—odd beats, weird and humorous lyricism sprinkled here and there about the alien’s love of weed, and an overall steady flow. Along with the aforementioned tracks, “Catchin’ the Vibe” has a classic hip hop feel, while “Sparkdala” is the quintessential laidback weed track that’s the rule in every Quasimoto album.

While not as classic as previous albums, Yessir Whatever still has a lot to offer—further adventures of the weed-smoking alien Quasimoto, a strong collection of tracks, plenty of humor and the amazing beats of Madlib make for an album worth checking out. However, for those just getting into the funky alien, The Unseen (2000) is the first route to take. And for those avid listeners of Quasimoto and Madlib in general, Yessir Whatever has enough tracks to keep one entertained.

Reviewed by Ian Hallagan

Kanye West – Yeezus

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Title: Yeezus

Artist: Kanye West

Label: Def Jam

Format: CD, MP3

Released: June 18, 2013

 

 

The sixth studio album from hip-hop recording artist and producer Kanye West completely abandons the boom bap of traditional hip-hop to push us right out of the comfort zone into a fascinatingly dark world of abrasive minimalist beats, grinding low-fi synths, primal samples and an intense vocal delivery. Yeezus is West’s most intense album to date as he trades in the smooth melodic and soulful production found on his earlier records (a la The College Dropout) for a dizzying free-fall of sonic experimentation more reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails than any hip-hop album to date.  Working with an impressive array of contributing artists and producers including Daft Punk, Kid Cudi, legendary producer Rick Rubin, Frank Ocean, Odd Future, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and many more, making this album the evil antithesis of Cruel Summer, the compilation of Kanye’s GOOD Music artists released in fall of 2012.

Yeezus consists of 10 songs arranged as an entire avant-garde collection, moving quickly from track to track in an intentionally glitchy, enjoyably off-putting flow only made possible by the considerable amount of artistic input that went into its creation. It’s resulted in a savage original production, easily making Yeezus one of the best-produced albums this year.

Be wary, Yeezus lacks appeal to those easily offended, as West intentionally raises some brows by featuring God on the track “I Am God,” and boasting track names like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves.” Yet, West is able to surmise the feel of the entire album perfectly as he raps “Soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you” on “I Am God.”  West has always been embraced by the public by being as blunt as possible and this album is no exception—Yeezus is Kanye completely unfiltered in declaring his legend with his regular swagger.

Love or hate Kanye for the honest egoist he is, Yeezus is packed with highlights from West and his roster of artists and producers. “New Slaves” deals with the control of materialism over him and other modern hip-hop celebrities, and how consumerism has become a staple of our culture. West delivers a catchy vocal delivery atop a simple driving synth beat that hits like a figurative train until juxtaposed by the outro where Frank Ocean’s beautiful falsetto creates a fresh breath of relief over a groovy low-fi sample from Hungarian rock band Omega in a remarkably heartfelt ending.

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“I’m In It” is the overtly sexual club-banger track you’d be expecting, featuring an alien-like performance from Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) saturated with reverb to create an ethereal groove effect as Kanye slams quick one-liners in stark contrast, complete with a reggae-style trap breakdown and primal scream samples that seem to be meticulously placed for just the right horrifying effect. The same vocal manipulation shines on “Hold My Liquor” where the Auto-Tune from 808’s and Heartbreak is gnarled to the point of an intentional distortion in a masterfully artistic way to complement Chief Keef’s verses and Vernon’s stunning, fluid harmonizations over a very Ratatat influenced beat in haunting beauty.

Throughout the album, West delivers quick tragic humor as he tries to drunkenly talk himself out of the headspace of heartbreak by building his own ego back up. The album contains many of these moments of humility, where West breaks himself down to his most basic insecurities and the roots of his own self-destruction. At times on the album, he’s literally screaming out in desperate angst as he reveals perhaps some of his most explicit and personal subject matters.

If you enter Yeezus expecting any semblance to West’s past works, you’ll come away disappointed. Where Yeezus truly shines is in its approach to changing the traditional hip-hop formula over which West openly reveals the voice of his deepest vulnerabilities underneath his brash exterior in a bold record that is surely to turn heads.

Reviewed by Patrick Brown