Thursday, May 28, 2015

Scattered Shots: Part One

Just some quick reviews of projects that dropped this year up to this date.

Don't listen to the hip hop-only critics about this album. I mean, if you don't personally mess with country music at all, then listen to them, but if you have an appreciation for it this album is most definitely worth your time. Yela mostly foregoes rapping on this album in favor of a country croon on songs like "American You" and "Best Friend" which also happens to feature a great verse from his mentor Eminem, while the overarching theme of the album drives home the message: love your loved ones while they're still here.
FINAL SCORE: 4.0/5.0
HIGHLIGHTS: American You, Devil In My Veins, Have a Great Flight

Wrekonize of ¡Mayday! links with Hippie Sabotage to produce this surprise EP which features more of what Wrekonize does best: drop thoughtful lyrics with effortlessly intricate flows and smooth hooks. Not a moment is wasted in these five songs, as Wrekonize tackles personal demons, brags about his bars, and lashes out at hating critics. This should not be overlooked and hey, it's free--no excuses.
FINAL SCORE: 4.5/5.0
HIGHLIGHT: Shadows In the Dark 2015 (Picture This)

Lupe Fiasco finally makes that return to form he's been promising for awhile with Tetsuo & Youth, the follow-up to the very disappointing Food & Liquor 2 and Lasers. Lupe more-or-less eschews his previous grabs for commercial appeal with the nearly 9-minute marathon rap "Mural" (not the last time on this label that a song runs near or past the 9-minute mark, either) and criticizes the police state on "Prisoner 1 & 2" which also features his poet sister, Ayesha Jaco. Production from the likes of S1 and DJ Dahi keep the music tight while Lupe drops some of the best rhymes he's penned in years.
FINAL SCORE: 4.0/5.0
HIGHLIGHTS: Mural, Prisoner 1 & 2 (feat. Ayesha Jaco), They.Resurrect.Over.New (feat. Ab-Soul and Troi)

Jarren Benton has arguably become Funk Volume's torch-bearer in the last few years, gaining cosigns from all corners of the rap industry, from R.A. the Rugged Man to 2 Chainz and back again. With this EP, he does a good job demonstrating how deserved the praise is with his sharp flows and sharper wit. However, even at only 8 songs, the momentum isn't sustained throughout, and it could've been trimmed of a few tracks. Most of the collaborations don't add much to the track either, notably excepting ¡Mayday! and Jon Connor's guest verses and the excellent hook Hopsin adds to "Killin' My Soul," easily the project's highlight.
FINAL SCORE: 3.5/5.0
HIGHLIGHTS: Atychiphobia (feat. ¡Mayday!), Killin' My Soul (feat. Hopsin and Jon Connor)

In the midst of a highly publicized feud with long-time label boss and surrogate father Birdman, Lil Wayne pours his heart and soul into an introspective album--nah, just kidding, this is thoroughly terrible. I listened all the way through, because even though Wayne has been rubbish for nearly a decade now, he still manages to sneak a gem or two onto each project, but not here. There is not one redeeming quality to this album, as Wayne's subject matter is staler than ever, and the few attempts he makes to get topical (police brutality, label politics, etc.) fall hopelessly flat. Over an hour of my life just gone to waste, and I didn't even get paid for it...and believe me, sitting through this entire project is enough of a chore to qualify as work. When you find yourself eagerly anticipating a Mack Maine verse, when Drake doing his tough guy act feels like finding an oasis in a musical desert, when 2 Chainz grandsons you on your own track, you know things are bleak. Even on the rare occasions when the lyrics aren't wack, the delivery is utterly atrocious, squeaky and unbearable. Don't listen to this. Ever.
FINAL SCORE: 0.0/5.0
HIGHLIGHTS: The times Lil Wayne lets someone else rap.

I'll be back for more soon. BTW: RIP Chinx.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Question One

I find it a bit ironic that the vote to repeal the SOGI ordinance in Springfield, Missouri, my most recent place of residence before I left America to travel, was called "Question One." To me, the choice of words brings to mind "Rule 1," or the Golden Rule: treat others as you would wish to be treated. Maybe a bit of a stretch, but that's where my mind goes. And yet, the repeal of the ordinance opens the door to allow businesses to legally discriminate against people in the LGBT community as long as one can do it under the cowardly auspice of "religious belief." For those that don't know, the SOGI ordinance extended civil rights protection to include not only religions and races, but sexual orientation and gender identity. It's actually kind of sad that the ordinance even had to exist, because people claiming they follow the teachings of Christ shouldn't need to be told not to be jackasses to people they don't agree with. But its existence was not only necessary in that backward Midwestern town, but crucial in this recent surge of Americans claiming that having to be CIVIL HUMAN BEINGS to such "sinners" infringes on their beliefs, a spotlight that is most famously on the entire state of Indiana at the moment for its own "religious freedom" laws.

And yet, here we are, in the 21st century, and these people have managed to force it to a vote, and thanks in large part to vocal activism from the town's local hate group right-wing political entity Westboro Baptist Church chapter multimillion dollar "religious" organization James River Assemblies of God Church, the ordinance has been repealed, and I'm told there was actual celebrating in the city. People literally took to the streets in jubilation at the newfound freedom they've been granted to openly oppress other human beings behind the cloak of religion. I wish I could say it's shocking, but it's about par for the course in 2015 America.

Many people seem unaware of how far-flung this is. This isn't something as simple as refusing to decorate a cake for a gay wedding (the scenario I've seen brought up the most frequently, and something I actually think individuals SHOULD be permitted to opt out of--more on that later). This goes as far as refusing to check out a person's groceries, serve them a meal, give them a ride in a cab, fix their flat tire, rent a home to them, or PROVIDE THEM MEDICAL ATTENTION THAT COULD SAVE THEIR LIFE. This allows any given individual to refuse to provide any service to another human being on the ground that they BELIEVE (they don't even have to know for a fact) that that individual could be gay or gender-nonconforming. This is atrocious, and I don't think it goes too far to say it's akin to segregation and Jim Crow. Think that's a bit extreme? A lot of people balk at comparing this current climate of prejudice to pre-Civil Rights Act America. But consider that a transgender person has a one in twelve chance of being murdered on any given day, or that this sort of thing could actually necessitate the need for "gays only" bathrooms, restaurants, etc. if this nonsense continues. Consider that now, a person working a ballot box could legally refuse to assist a person with voting if they believe them to be gay. The parallels don't seem so far-fetched, do they?

I believe that an individual should be allowed to opt out of actively participating in a situation that offends their religious beliefs. A Muslim shouldn't be forced to prepare a ham sandwich for you in a restaurant he owns. A Buddhist, or member of any other pacifistic religion, shouldn't be forced to serve in the military. A Jehovah's Witness shouldn't be forced to take a blood transfusion. And I believe that means a Christian who doesn't believe in gay marriage shouldn't have to decorate a cake for a gay wedding if it truly violates their principles. Consider the flipside of this: a cake decorator in Colorado is facing a potential lawsuit for refusing to decorate a cake with a filthy slur directed at homosexuals, requested of her by a "Christian" patron. So you can see how problematic things become when someone else is being forced to commit to something that offends their deeply-held beliefs; to defend this cake decorator in Colorado but to condemn a Christian one elsewhere is a dangerous double standard. But any other ordinary service which would be performed for any other person should not be permissibly withheld on such flimsy grounds.

I'm not going to be one of those that gets swept into the fruitless efforts to convince Christians of this ilk that they are wrong by using their own texts. The Bible is useless, like it or not, in political discourse where people do not all subscribe to the same belief system or even interpret the same text in the same way. So I won't quote scripture, or discuss the philosophies behind varying Christian schools of thought, or argue about whether the book was translated incorrectly. The only argument that can be made, no, the only argument there is, period, is that the law of our country states that all men are created equal. And you aren't above this law because of some perceived moral high ground.

Springfield should be ashamed of itself. I know I am.

Monday, March 30, 2015

REVIEW: Ludaversal x Ludacris

There was a time when Ludacris was one of my favorite rappers. His brash and cocky attitude, boisterous beats and unapologetically Southern demeanor, coupled with his undeniable skill, made listening to a Ludacris album a reliably enjoyable endeavor. Plus, anybody that knows me knows flow goes a long way with me, and not many rappers have a more consistently effortless flow than Luda. This winning combination kept him in pretty constant rotation for me for the better part of 8 years. Even when it started to become pretty obvious, around the time of Release Therapy, that he was trying a bit too hard for "serious" respect, his natural talent helped to overshadow the blatant pandering to audiences that had complained about his lack of depth on previous releases.

So I'm not exactly sure at what point it all went off the rails. With Theater of the Mind, he seemed to hit that balance of seriousness and fun that he missed on Release Therapy. But then came Battle of the Sexes, a shallow and rather annoying album that seemed designed only for club play and really had little to offer to fans of good hip hop, and lazy guest verses for the likes of Justin Bieber, R. Kelly, Chris Brown, My Darkest Days, and even Jason Aldean--the songs all being as terrible as the hosting artists' reputations would betray. Luda began prepping Ludaversal, his next studio album, as early as 2011, but it was delayed repeatedly and with the subpar material Luda had been a part of, a lot of people just stopped caring. There was a mixtape here and there over the last few years, but overall it seemed that Ludacris had faded away.

Then, what seemed like suddenly to me, since I had all but forgotten about it, Ludaversal had a release date, album artwork, a few very high quality singles, and a leak, each hitting the scene faster than I could catch up with the one before it. Suddenly, here I was, anticipating this album I thought would never see the light of day; his last good album was 8 (!) years ago and yet he seemed poised for a comeback.

And let me tell you, it was worth the wait. The album starts off with a bang on the David Banner-produced "Ludaversal (Intro)" which features Ludacris revisiting the double- and triple-time flow he injected into the raucous "Southern Fried Intro" from Chicken n Beer, and I can't remember a time his delivery has sounded crisper and more focused. The first half of the album is Ludacris flexing his mic skills solo, with no guest appearances on the first 8 tracks. He talks a bit about where he's been the last few years on "Grass Is Always Greener," calls out wack MCs on "Call Ya Bluff" through "Beast Mode" and gets drunk and high on "Get Lit." The album takes an introspective turn here, and instead of the light-and-fluffy social consciousness he had attempted on the likes of "Runaway Love" in the past, we get Ludacris opening up about his own life, something he had shied away from in the past. He laments a strained romance on "Good Lovin'," an interesting topic since we mostly know Ludacris for "Pimpin' All Over the World," and it's surprising to hear him speak so frankly about heartbreak, longing, and love for his children. He discusses how he lost his way in music and also in life, for so many years, in "Not Long," which is also notable for being a truly soulful beat from David Guetta, a producer I've only ever known for microwaved dance-pop; and covers shady label execs in "Charge It To The Rap Game." But the most poignant moment is the touching tribute to his late father in "Ocean Skies," where he mourns the loss of his father and admits to inheriting Dad's issues with alcohol and letting himself get carried away with it after his death.

The album closes with a victory lap in the Just Blaze-produced "This Has Been My World," which also features a poem from the illustrious Big Rube. The album also features several excellent mid-tempo bonus tracks with guest appearances from Rick Ross, Cee-Lo Green, John Legend, and even Aldean.

With Ludaversal, Ludacris has really hit his creative stride, for arguably the first time in his career sounding just as comfortable pouring his heart out on wax as he does calling out wack rappers. This is possibly his most balanced album and without a doubt his most mature, and a serious contender for best album of this year so far. If you were like me and believed Luda was done for, I can't recommend checking this out enough. Don't call it a comeback!

FINAL SCORE: 4.5/5.0
Highlights: Grass Is Always Greener, Ocean Skies (feat. Monica), Not Long (feat. Usher)

Oh hey, bonus content.

Two other anticipated albums came out this week, and I couldn't miss a chance to drop some feedback on those too.

Action Bronson is back with his major-label debut, bringing more of his quirky personality, hilarious braggadocio, and excellent ear for beats to Mr. Wonderful, which features production from long-time Bronson cohorts like Statik Selektah, Alchemist, and Party Supplies, among others. Bronson experiments a bit on this album, even singing on occasion, and the results hit more than they miss.
FINAL SCORE: 4.0/5.0
Highlights: Terry, Falconry (feat. Meyhem Lauren), C. Baby Blue (feat. Chance the Rapper)

The Odd Future rapper drops his sophomore album, although notably without his OFWGKTA brethren backing him up (the Left Brain-produced "Off Top" being the only contribution from anyone else in the crew). Earl's rhymes are every bit as dense and dexterous as ever on this outing, but he's also maintained his tendency towards a sleepy delivery, and with it now being almost totally self-produced, the beats match the rapping. Don't come here looking for energy, but if you're a fan of what Earl does, you won't be disappointed.
FINAL SCORE: 3.0/5.0
Highlights: Wool (feat. Vince Staples)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Songs From The Crypt - Week of 3/25/15

As a new weekly installment I'll be posting some random throwback tracks. Might be a year old, might be 30 years old. Here's this week's selection:

911 - Boo Yaa Tribe featuring B-Real and Eminem
Samoan-American brothers Boo Yaa Tribe released this track from their 2003 album, West Koasta Nostra, which became their most successful album in over a decade spurred by this single.

Automatic - Brad Strut featuring Sean Price
Melbourne, Australia's Brad Strut grabs a hard-hitting assist from Boot Camp Clik's Sean Price on this track from his 2007 album, Legend: Official.

When the Chips Are Down - Lloyd Banks featuring Game
Over a dark backdrop and sinister keys provided by Black Jeruz, Banks and Game trade verses on this deep cut from The Hunger For More (2006).

U Don't Want Dat - Petey Pablo featuring Lil Jon
Oft-overlooked, this raucous anthem from Petey Pablo's sophomore album Still Writing In My Diary: 2nd Entry is an excellent backdrop for the most violent of brawls. (2004)

Ore-Ore-O - Ali
Continuing the St. Lunatics' established tradition of extremely catchy but streetwise tracks, Ali crafted a sure club-banger for his forgotten debut album, 2002's Heavy Starch.

That's it for today. I'll be making a concerted effort to get reviews of Action Bronson's Mr. Wonderful and Earl Sweatshirt's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside up by the end of the week. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

To Pimp A Butterfly x Kendrick Lamar: REVIEW

It doesn't seem like this is only (sort of) Kendrick Lamar's sophomore album. He's been a ubiquitous presence in hip hop for the last few years, despite having released no new material since 2012 and only a handful of guest verses, albeit high profile ones. Even as far back as 2010, he actually had a critically acclaimed independent album, Section 80, which for some reason most don't count as his debut. Kendrick's presence in the rap game feels well-worn at this stage, due in no small part to the monumental nature of his major-label debut, Good Kid, Maad City. I'm not going to dwell at length on my thoughts on that album; I pronounced it the album of the year at that time, because it would have been intellectually dishonest not to, being the year's most critically acclaimed hip hop album and its second biggest-selling, but it never made it to constant replay for me. With that being said, its impact was undeniable and made Kendrick one of hip hop's biggest names, and earned him comparisons to the likes of rap-Rushmore candidates 2Pac and Nas.

The big question would now be how Kendrick followed it up. The pressure on Kendrick Lamar was enormous at this point, as he would not only have to follow up a debut that has been pronounced a classic by most critics, but would have to deal with the added scrutiny of being crowned the savior of West Coast hip hop and hip hop on the whole. Add to that the pressure of the dreaded "sophomore slump" and you have nearly insurmountable expectations for the Compton native to meet.

"I remember you was conflicted..."

For what it's worth, I never found the 2Pac or Nas comparisons accurate at all, at least from a musical standpoint. Both played the role of griots, especially in the early stages of their careers, streetwise poets who were equally at home wearing the khufi or slapping it off you. Their music was known, criticized and beloved alike, for representing human duality: they were capable of provoking deep thought, but the same thought they inspired could reveal the hypocrisy they sometimes demonstrated. Nas was famously called out by Jay-Z for making songs like "Black Girl Lost" while putting out singles like "You Owe Me", but it was this capacity for contradiction that made him relatable to many.

"I remember you was conflicted..."

I said when Good Kid, Maad City came out that Kendrick's true kindred spirit was the more eccentric Andre 3000. Despite the fact that he was marketed as a young Nas, a young 2Pac, I just never saw it. It wasn't so much that Kendrick lacked that griot-with-a-touch-of-thug persona that Nas displayed, or that he lacked 2Pac's charisma and fiery temper, although both of these statements were true. It was more that, sonically, he clearly borrowed liberally from Three Stacks, right down to the space alien voices and esoteric flows, and this is even more true on To Pimp a Butterfly. The funk flows throughout this album, starting with "Wesley's Theory" which features the prime minister of funk himself, George Clinton. The song could have fit neatly into the tracklist of Aquemini, before abruptly shifting gears into a rapid-fire onslaught of slam poetry-style rhyming on the humorous "For Free? (Interlude)." From here, the album sounds remarkably like Andre 3000's flamboyant The Love Below from a sonic standpoint. Erratic flows, rhyming that feels free-association at times, and jazzy horns and keys give the songs that follow a very laid-back, smooth sound that would be perfectly at home in a jazz joint. But there is an underlying theme tying it all together that stands in marked contrast to the free-love vibe of The Love Below.

"I remember you was conflicted..."

"King Kunta." "Institutionalized." "These Walls." The album is already being described as Afrocentric, but there's a subtle militancy behind the hippie vibe that goes beyond mere Afrocentrism. The topic of racial and social injustice is a cauldron boiling just below the surface, and you can hear it in Kendrick's rhymes. He's not concerned with calling rappers' names or being the self-proclaimed "King of New York" here, as on his celebrated "Control" verse. This is a protest album.

"I remember you was conflicted..."

These words are repeated between songs, the refrain of a poem that links the songs on the album in theme. The angst grows with this repeated stanza, as the songs' lyrics become more pointed. "From Compton to Congress, set tripping all around/ain't nothing but a new flow of DemoCrips and ReBloodicans," he spits on "Hood Politics." "How Much a Dollar Cost" is one of the album's standout tracks, and the human hypocrisy is on full display:

"He begged and pleaded,
Asked me to feed him twice, I didn't believe it
Told him, 'Beat it'
Contributing money just for his pipe, I couldn't see it
He said, 'My son, temptation is one thing that I've defeated
Listen to me, I want a single bill from you
Nothing less, nothing more,'
I told him I ain't have it and closed my door
Tell me how much a dollar cost..."

I won't reveal the song's ending, but the messages of social injustice and the price of selfishness are poignant and powerful. "Complexion (A Zulu Love)" continues with the pro-black themes and features the lone guest rap on the album, from the slept-on Rapsody, sending a message against the skin-tone prejudices still present in the black community.

The cauldron suddenly and abruptly boils over on the ferocious "The Blacker the Berry," the album's most powerful track. "So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/when gangbanging make me kill a n---- blacker than me? Hypocrite!" Kendrick snarls, and the idea of contradiction and human duality comes full circle. From here, "I" and "Mortal Man" embrace the ideas of loving oneself as the album comes to a close on a more serene note, with Kendrick finishing his poem in an "interview" with 2Pac and explaining the metaphor in the album's title.

While not without a few minor blemishes (the vocally awful "U" in particular), this album stands as proof that Kendrick could do the things I hadn't been totally convinced he could. He's a griot, a thinker, a sinner, a commentator, and while the album's overall soundscape is reminiscent of The Love Below, the message runs much deeper, and suddenly those Nas and 2Pac comparisons don't seem so farfetched. It might sound a bit too laid-back at times, especially on first listen, but the juxtaposition of its smooth demeanor against its potent message, along with its gradual build into the explosive "The Blacker the Berry," is a big part of why it works.

I remember you was conflicted...and it made for an excellent album.

FINAL SCORE: 4.5/5.0
Highlights: How Much a Dollar Cost, The Blacker the Berry, Mortal Man

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

After Hours - Otherwise Known Review

In light of my return from hiatus, I'm getting back into form with a review of Canadian hip hop duo Otherwise Known's new album, After Hours. I'm somewhat familiar with Otherwise Known, having reviewed a solo mixtape from one-half of the duo, Nova, titled Whatever It Takes awhile back. (Every time I read that title I get the DeGrassi theme song stuck in my head, I'm sorry for embracing Canadian stereotypes :-( ). You can find that review here. Speaking of that review, the homie SYpher tag-teams this review of After Hours as well. Let's get into it. (Note: Click the track names for a YouTube link, or click here to stream the full album.)

GM: Alright say go and I'll press play.
SY: Let's dooooo it. 
INTROSY: Nice moody piano to set off the intro.
GM: Got a little back and forth to go with it. I love tracks like this with the dark sound.
SY: Hehehehe
MG: Cut that off in a hurry though.
SY: I liked the moody piano and back-and-forth bars, but I love the bait-and-switch approach even more. Just when you thought this was another sob story about how hip hop is dead, these guys flipped the script in a hilarious way.
iCANDY (feat. Danitto Kruz and Sass D)SY: And we're going straight to the club. That was a funny way to start it off.
GM: I like this one alright so far. I remember the commercial tracks on their last tape were weak points to me but this one works.
SY: I'm not sure if I can get into this hook, but I like the back and forth in the verses.GM: Right. the hook isn't it's strong point but it's not horrible.
SUPER FIENDSY: Okay now I'm at that skit at the start of Super Fiend. Actually Super Fiend itself is kind of a skit, these guys are rolling the car, drankin' and driving.
FUCK THE FIVE-O (feat. Ill Qaeda)
SY: So they just got pulled over by the cops in the skit, and now this is the "fuck the police" type of song.
GM: Who's rapping at the start of this?
SY: This is Danny Knight. I remember you liked his deep voice on the mixtape.
GM: I remember liking him a lot on the last tape. Hasn't changed. This dude rapping now has bars though.
SY: These two guys are a group called Ill Qaeda, I'm not sure what their individual names are.
GM: They're actually both pretty damn nice.
SY: Nova's verse is dope, I like the back and forth with Clockwork (note: a producer playing the cop character) and the chant at the end.
GM: Yeah everyone ripped that track. Very dope.

SY: Another skit where the guys struggle to light their weed up. This is straight comedy, haha.
GM: This is a lot of skits for a 12-track tape. They're short though, which is good.

SY: So they found their lighter, now they lighting up.
GM: Yeah this is very clearly the smoke-out song.
SY: I like the flow Danny got going here.
GM: This is way too laid back for me, but I understand why it's that way. Just a little too chill for me. I do like the beat on its own.
SY: It's a good balance, Danny had the melodic thing going and Nova has the more speedy type of flow.
GM: Yeah on this track I prefer the Nova verse.
SY: And now there's another short skit here at the end of the track.

SY: So some of the crew went back to school, Nova's off on his own doing some other shit on this next track. Awww sheeeit he poppin' molly?
GM: I like this already.
SY: Dope beat, dope flow, I like the change in vocals too. This reminds me of some old school Eminem.
GM: Yep a combination of Eminem subject matter and Hopsin-like vocal changes. The first song or two Danny stuck out the way he did on the last tape we checked, but the further we go into it the more Nova is shining.

SY: So when I talked to these guys, they said Danny's character dies in his verse, and then the next skit will be a "resurrection" before the album takes a more serious tone.
GM: Ah, gotcha. So he basically OD'ed.
SY: Yep.

SY: This right here is already much more serious than anything we've heard so far. Digging the Nas sample in the hook. Nice and simple.
GM: Yep. The production is nice on this tape.
SY: Yea, just as you mention that they let this beat breathe a bit before moving to the next track. Sounds like they're taking their second chance to cut out the reckless behavior from the previous songs and rapping about grinding, trying to make ends meet.

GM: This beat is the right kind of chill. I can vibe to this without having to be high, haha. Any idea who produced this track?
SY: I think both of them worked on it, Danny and Nova, and also probably some work from Clockwork.
GM: The whole tape has a bit of a dark vibe. I'm liking this track. Rapid-fire back-and-forth always appeals to me. Hook doesn't really appeal to me as much.
SY: Yea, and I think they do a better job harmonizing on this track, compared to their other songs.
THE CRYSTAL FIST PT. 1SY: Oh I haven't heard this track when I got the preview last week. What the hell is this skit? Haha
GM: This makes me think of the "Bad Dreams" skit from Genesis by Busta Rhymes. The rapping there made think of Twiztid. Kind of on a dark, horrorcore type thing.
SY: So this took almost 3 mins before it got to the music. That's a strange way to arrange it, with a 3-min skit then a little rap, then more skit then more rap. I'll have to play it again to really follow the story.
GM: Yeah that was pretty unique. I dug the rapping parts.
SY: The song gets better the more you immerse yourself in the story, as Danny and Nova go back-and-forth again, rapping in a tone as if they're telling a scary story around a campfire.

SY: But for now we're on "After Ours", the final track.
GM: I'm liking this a bit more than Whatever It Takes. Less commercial-sounding and has more of a clear direction.
SY: Yea and it has a bit of a continuous narrative throughout the album. Just like the mixtape, my favourite hook comes at the end. The sound of rain returns from the intro, and we get that vibe they teased from the intro back.

GM: On Whatever It Takes I was really drawn to Danny Knight's rapping, and that happened on "iCandy" and "After Hours" again. But the rest of it, I feel like Nova shines. I think that Ill Qaeda group stole their track they were on. Overall, it's a much more cohesive listen than Whatever It Takes was, I dig the darker sound a lot. Only skip track for me (skits aside) would be "Light Up", just a bit too smoked out and relaxed for me to enjoy sober. Production is a step up on this one too.
SY: Nova gave us a taste last year with his solo mixtape, but Otherwise Known is able to step things up and make an even better, more cohesive project.  Their original production is dope all around, in every different vibe they touch on.  The album is real diverse to start, teasing the serious tone we later get at the end of the album but completely flipping the script and leading with a club track.  Even if you’re not into the clubbing or the drug-related tracks, their sense of humour on the skits and raw spitting on “Fuck The Five-O” should keep you drawn in until the more serious second half of the album. My only real issue is “The Crystal Fist Pt. 1” sounding out of place on the album. I thought it might have been a better fit as a bonus track, but it was still dope nonetheless. I also wasn’t really vibing with “iCandy”, but I understand they’re trying to show versatility by including at least one club song. Other than that, this is a solid listen that’s almost perfectly compacted into 35 minutes of diverse Hip-Hop.
A worthwhile outing from some talented up-and-comers. A bit too packed with skits, but cohesive and sticks to a tight narrative. The MCs provide great rhymes and flows with competent production provided by Otherwise Known themselves and Clockwork. My previous exposure to them was Nova's solo outing Whatever It Takes, and the distinction between mixtape and album is clear between the two projects, as After Hours is much more conceptual and solidly produced. Definitely a strong introduction to Otherwise Known if this is your first time hearing them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Pardon Our Progress

Hello and welcome back to my blog, everybody. This is just a bit of a check-in to let anyone that's still reading know that I am back. I've been searching for inspiration for awhile, dealing with some life stuff, moving, working, and otherwise coming up with excuses for why I haven't been writing. Lately I've been getting the itch again, and I've also been heavily inspired by my dude Shaun and his successful run with CulturedVultures and Ambrosia For Heads of late (shout out to Shaun). After nearly two years without so much as a paragraph on here, I dusted off the Blogger password only to be encouraged further by the stats that show I'm still averaging ten hits a day on this here site after two years of radio silence. So with all that in mind, I'm planning to come back a little more focused starting very soon. I'll also be changing the name of the blog, but those details are to be announced. Keep an eye on this space please, and thanks for sticking with me.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Few Quick Joints

I've been dealing with technology issues related to a broken laptop for the last several weeks and as such several blog posts I had in mind to write have fallen by the wayside. So, to tide y'all over I've decided to periodically post about new heat to come across my desk every chance I get to get on a computer. Here's a few recent joints I've been really feeling.

Over a chaotic, neck-snapping beat, the Kansas City rhyme spitters trade vicious bars that prove why they're the next big thing to come out of Strange Music.

Drake is batting a surprising 1.000 on the first two singles from his upcoming third album. Showing uncharacteristic aggression that might be justified from the flak he's caught the last few years, Drake seems to be trying to display a different side of himself than the sensitive rap crooner we've come to know.

Ghost brings more of his New God Flow to the first single from his collaborative LP with producer Adrian Younge, Twelve Reasons To Die. Tony Starks never disappoints.

Bloody Kutty and Tecca Nina trade bars like a Midwest Red and Meth on this banger from Kutt's just-released fourth LP, Black Gold.

DB drops some blistering bars related to the predictably bogus Hottest MCs list from MTV.

Enjoy these five new bangers. I'll be back later this week with a little more.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Clock Strikes 13: Ces Cru Concert Review

I'm only like, two weeks late on posting this review but I had a lot going on and had to knock out that year-end series. Strange Music's newest group, the insane lyrical duo Ces Cru, came to my city, Springfield, Missouri, two weeks ago to play a small club show with opening acts from local production crew Win Entertainment. I'm here to give you the breakdown on what the local talent has to offer and how Ces Cru's stage show stacks up next to the near-legendary status of their bossman Tech N9ne's, which is especially relevant since they are about to hit the road for their first national tour alongside labelmates Tech, Krizz Kaliko, Kutt Calhoun, Brotha Lynch Hung, and Rittz. First, let's check out Springfield's own Win Entertainment.

J Rod
J Rod is a 14-year-old rapper who looks 9. It's a somewhat comical sight to see him on stage bouncing around because he just looks so small and young commanding a whole stage by himself. Now, I'm not going to hate on a kid so young. He shows potential with a competent flow and a heaping helping of charisma. His vocal presence leaves a little to be desired, but he really enjoys himself up there and you can't knock that. In a few years, we'll see where he's at. I looked for his music on YouTube, but his name is too generic, couldn't find anything.

Will Abele
Will Abele (pronounced like "able") is someone I had seen back in the summer, playing hypeman to P. Win (who we'll discuss later) as Win opened for Tech N9ne, and later on I saw them both again opening for Stevie Stone. Something has definitely changed since then, because I was completely unimpressed both times. Now, this venue (a small club called the Outland Ballroom) had a better sound system than the Stone show did, and I paid more attention than I did at the Tech show, which may have something to do with it, but it even seemed to be more musically sound than before. His whole steez seems to be "white Flo-Rida" with some of the beats he raps over being complete Europop, so it's very trendy and rather unoriginal, but I'm not mad at the actual performance aspect of it. He has a very sound flow, a good stage presence, and his lyrics are above average. He even performed a slower, more introspective song with Nelly-esque sing-song flow that I actually rather liked. He's definitely improved significantly over the past few months and it was a solid showing for him. Again, no luck finding his music on the 'Tube.

DJ Mr. Kristopher
This kid is just a dubstep/house DJ. He doesn't rap or anything, but he had a good mix of some club tracks mixed with hip hop that had the crowd moving, and was enjoyable to watch. The music itself borderline hurt my ears (not a fan of all this house/Europop stuff) but his music was well-done and it was a good show. Nothing much else to say.

Yung Bar/Newgoon
Ces Cru came into the club to bring out gear to their merchandise booth and sign autographs, so sorry kids, I didn't watch either of your acts.

Mask & Glove
At some point during either the Yung Bar or Newgoon set (I don't know who was who so I don't know who performed second) Ces Cru left the room again, and I approached the stage to check out Mask & Glove. First of all, I found out they were unaffiliated with Win Entertainment and second of all, WOW. Everything about this was dope as HELL. Excellent rapping, commanding microphone and stage presence, no lip-syncing at all (you could see the veins popping out on their necks and their faces turning red as they spit every bar without any sign of vocal weakness, and this was LYRICAL music). It was traditional hip hop, even with an actual DJ doing cuts and scratches, not just playing Mr. Replay. His name was DJ Nick Fury, and while I'm uncertain due to information I've found on them since if he is their full-time DJ, he was VERY good. (They also kept repeatedly pointing out that "this is a real DJ" to the point I almost wondered if they were taking shots at Mr. Kristopher or the other DJs there who didn't even use turntables during their sets.) Anyway, this was EXTREMELY impressive. I don't know where to find their group music, but one of the two MCs, Loogey, has a mixtape you can download here, and here is a track featuring both MCs on Brief's SoundCloud. And I have a YouTube clip:

P Win
As I said with Will Abele, I'd seen him twice prior to this show, once as the opener for Tech N9ne and once as the opener for Stevie Stone. Neither time was I impressed. But, since Will Abele managed to show out and change my opinion of him a little, I had every expectation that P Win, as the most-hyped artist associated with Win Entertainment, might do the same. Well, to make a long story short, he didn't. This is now the second time Win has gotten to be the closing act for Win Entertainment and been shown up by someone that had to go up before him (last time was Springfield's own Playmakers at the Stevie Stone show, also Win Entertainment artists who were in St. Louis opening for Method Man on this night--having beaten out P Win himself for the chance at a local "battle of the bands" event). The thing about P Win is that he's a small, young white boy who is CLEARLY a Stevie Stone fan, as he attempts to incorporate Stevie's flow, stage moves, and Midwestern drawl, and none of this suits his voice or look. For those that don't know, Stevie Stone sounds like this and there are very few that can pull that sound off. Win is not one of them. But, he's a young guy, he enjoys himself on stage, and he's achieving some success so I can't hate, but he does definitely need to find his own sound as a performer if he wants his success to take him to a higher level. He's been invited to tour with St. Louis rapper Spaide Ripper this year (some of you might recognize that name from Scarface's My Homies compilation album), so I guess he's doing alright for himself, but I'm not on the bandwagon. Here's a video of him trying too hard.

Ces Cru
And now for the main event, and they even brought along Tech N9ne's own intro guy Scenario to do his patented "official shit-talker of Strange Music" bit. Any time Scenario is around, you're going to be entertained, the dude is hilarious and an excellent emcee/hypeman and even occasional DJ. Ces were joined by Stevie Stone's DJ P-Caso, and they immediately launched into their patented multisyllabic rhymes, performing nearly every selection from their Strange Music debut EP 13 as well as some older selections from their respective solo mixtapes and their previous full-length The Playground. Again, there were no tricks here, as the Cru spit every syllable without even a hint of a vocal track playing in the background, and although they don't engage too much in the on-stage theatrics and choreography of their label boss, they command the stage in their own way, simply with their tongue-twisting rhyme schemes and incredible flows. Ubiquitous and Godemis each took a solo turn, with Ubi performing his solo track "Swing Set" from Playground and Godi performing a selection from his The Deevil mixtape (unfortunately I can't now remember which one). They had some simple choreography incorporated for 13's "Colosseum", and stunned the crowd with their flows on the tongue-twisting "It's Over" and "Ion Dat". I have to say, these guys may not do the triple-time thing, but there is a lot of double-time rapping and complicated rhymes, and they did not flub so much as a word, and it was impressive as hell to see. Finally, for the closer they performed crowd favorite "4 Nothin'", which is rap performed as a round, something I've never heard anywhere else. This song has the potential to be the equivalent of Tech N9ne's "Stamina" as a crowd-pleaser and attention-getter, and once again there was not so much as a hint of mistake in the performance. Ubiquitous is more of a natural showman than Godemis, but throughout, they both impress constantly with their crowd-moving abilities, and I have every reason to believe they'll bring even more of this to the Independent Powerhouse Tour this spring. Check out the tour schedule here and see if they'll be in your city, this is a must-see.
I leave you with the only song that they didn't perform of those I was hoping to see.

P.S. Download Godemis's solo mixtape, The Deevil and Ubiquitous's solo Matter Don't Money for free to get a feel for what they do. Neither tape is as good as their group material, but they're packed with bars and give more of an insight into their individual personalities than the group work does.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Year-End Series, the Final Chapter: The Best Albums of the Year

As I've said before, I really don't like doing lists. Every time I try it almost sucks the fun out of just enjoying music for me. I don't really do this to feel all smart. I'm not here to be a critic, I'm here to expose anyone reading it to music I think is great; I'm here to shine a spotlight on music I think everyone should hear. And occasionally yeah, I'm here to hate on something and get a few laughs at the expense of something wack, but that's a secondary goal, just something that keeps it fun. So, instead of a structured list of the best albums of 2012, I'm picking one album in each of a handful of categories that I think represents its category best. Here. We. GO!

Anyone who has talked to me about music this year knows how I feel about this album. I've touted it since about a month after it dropped as one of the best albums of the year (because that's how it works: you wait to see if an album has replay value before telling everyone it's the best thing since sliced bread. Shout-out to Life Is Good). Anyway, this is something of an alternative hip-hop album; a full band performing all their own self-produced instrumentals to fast-paced, witty rhymes from the band's MCs, Bernz and Wrekonize (read my interview with Wrek here). It's far from rap-rock or nu-metal, though; the instrumentals aren't heavy at all and are driven by rhythm guitar and percussion--think Red Hot Chili Peppers, not Linkin Park. It's not quite as funky as an RHCP record, but it's certainly closer to it in tone. There is superb MCing on here ("TNT"), humorous posturing ("Hardcore Bitches"), beautiful melody ("Devil On My Mind") and deep artistry (the two sides of the "Due In June"/"June" coin), and exciting, perfectly fitting guest appearances from the likes of Tech N9ne, Ace Hood, Dead Prez, Murs, and Krizz Kaliko to boot. Even these guest appearances don't steal the spotlight from the excellent piece of work ¡Mayday! has put together, as they conform to the ¡Mayday! sound rather than the other way around. Check this out ASAP.
My song: "Devil On My Mind" featuring Liz Suwandi

Okay, a little backstory on this choice. I've been familiar with Jokerr for a year or so--he popped up on my radar via a somewhat-corny-yet-still-very-impressive video he recorded for a contest through Hopsin's Funk Volume label. Yet, the more material I heard, the more it became apparent he was desperately reaching for attention via a plethora of diss tracks aimed at everyone from the similarly named Tha Joker to Hopsin and Swizzz to Tech N9ne and Strange Music to Psychopathic Records. He demonstrated multifaceted talent, from rapping to singing to producing to engineering on these tracks via his dexterous flow and densely layered vocals. However, the one-dimensional subject matter (the disses) grew tiresome and annoying extremely quickly, and when I checked out some of his actual songs they weren't much more compelling.
This brings me to last night. For no apparent reason I had checked out this guy's Twitter and had seen an older tweet promoting a video from his first all-singing album. On a lark, I clicked the link, and was seriously blown away, so much so that I listened to the whole album last night. We've all heard rappers do the singing bit, and it usually doesn't involve them straying far from hip-hop; they might have some funk, R&B, or even on rare occasions, jazz sensibilities, but the roots are still mostly in urban music (not that there's anything wrong with that). I said that to say this: you're not getting an urban or even remotely hip-hop album here. This album reminds me of a modern-day Broadway rock opera, and Jokerr flexes his very competent vocals impressively on here without overextending his reach. From softer pop-influenced tracks where he actually sounds like Owl City (in the best way possible, on "Where Are You Going") to sadder, rock-tinged power ballads ("Illusions For the King") to dark, twisted narratives of tragic love ("There With You") and even including a cover of "Amazing Grace", this is an extremely gripping listen, and possibly moreso if you're familiar with the Jokerr's rap career already, because this makes his tired disses seem even more elementary.
My song: "Illusions For the King"

This album dropped in late October, following a year of steadily increasing buzz for the Seattle MC and his producer partner. After receiving the coveted honor of being named to XXL Magazine's "Freshman Class" this year alongside the likes of MGK, Hopsin, Future, and Danny Brown, Macklemore capitalized on this by releasing highly popular music videos leading up to the the release of The Heist, and may have had the best 2012 release of the entire Freshman Class. Macklemore doesn't specialize in "yo rewind that!" lyricism, but he does paint vivid lyrical pictures with his skilled storytelling and competent flow, all showcased on songs like the anti-consumerism "Wings" and the comical ditty "Thrift Shop". Lewis also worked closely with musicians that provided the album with live instrumentation, giving it a much more organic, warm feel than the average hip hop album. Macklemore's subject matter could be accurately compared to the likes of Asher Roth, but where Roth had a tendency to be boring and plain at times with his delivery and lyricism, Macklemore is much more compelling, with a more expressive voice and visual lyrics and at times, an endearing sense of self-deprecating humor. A must-hear, for sure.
My song: "Wings"

Dropping just barely before 2012 came to a close, T.I. had people expecting a lot here, and it was something of a make-or-break project: following his repeated run-ins with the law and only one lackluster-at-best release since 2008, he really needed a win here. And he got it. It may not be the epic disc that was his 2006 magnum opus King, and it may not be a throwback to his rough and rugged trap days when his hunger was still plainly apparent, but what it did succeed at was being a very good comeback release. Production was less poppy than No Mercy but still contained plenty of the grandiose instrumentals heard on the likes of King and Paper Trail and plenty of T.I. spitting that T.I. tough talk we've come to know and love from the Atlanta rhymer. Definitely worth the listen. (Also a very dope album cover)
My song: "Sorry" featuring Andre 3000

And finally, the moment we've been waiting for...

Do me a solid and pretend to be surprised by this one, okay? The album of the year could be none other than the studio debut of Compton rhyme-slinger Kendrick Lamar. What can I say about this that hasn't already been said a million times? While it wasn't my personal favorite album of the year, there was no denying the impact with which it landed, nor the quality of the material, as Kendrick guided the listener on a detailed tour of his hometown, narrated with Kendrick's vividly detailed lyrics, dexterous flow, and even character acting through his highly varied voice inflections. He even tied it together with humorous skits provided in the form of voicemails left him by his parents. It was a throwback album in theory while still sounding modern in execution, and in the never-ending battle between Kendrick and his Black Hippy groupmates for the title of hottest MC in the crew, Jay Rock even provided possibly the verse of the year with his scene-stealing turn on "Money Trees" (ya bish). It's difficult to pick just one track as the standout here, as it all sounds even better when listened to as a complete unit; nonetheless, here's my pick for favorite song...
My song: "Maad City" featuring MC Eiht