Posts Tagged ‘Hip-Hop’

2016 Year End Picks

January 1, 2017

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A great place to get a pulse on what music critics, websites and blogs are thinking about at the end of the year is Metacritic, which compiles all those year end lists and gives an aggregate “best of” list based on the number of #1, #2 and other votes received by an album.  You can find it here and as of today, the top 10 are:

1 Blackstar by David Bowie
2 Lemonade by Beyoncé
3 Blonde by Frank Ocean
4 A Seat at the Table by Solange
5 A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead
6 Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper
7 The Life of Pablo by Kanye West
8 We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest
9 Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
10 My Woman by Angel Olsen

I wrote about a few of these albums this year (Bowie, Radiohead, ATCQ), and I’ve listened now to all 10.  Life of Pablo and Blonde have some really good moments, but overall as albums I don’t think either deserves to be in a top 10.  Lemonade deserves a spot in a top 10, as the trio of 6 Inch (with it’s great use of an Isaac Hayes sample), Freedom and Formation are some of the best pop R&B of the past few years.

Nick Cave’s album has an unfortunate story to go with his melancholy album, but I thought this album was rather boring.  As I mentioned in my post about the death of Leonard Cohen, I hadn’t really given his music the attention I probably should have.  I listened to his last album he put out months before his death and wow, it’s good.  Appropriately titled You Want It Darker, it’s somber, dark, but really good.  I definitely would put it above the Cave album.  It’s ranked 12 on the Metacritic aggregate list.

As you know from my review of ATCQ’s album, it’s the number 1 hip hop album of the year.  Coloring Book is nice, but ATCQ beats it.  Caveat, I haven’t listened to the new Run The Jewels yet, but I doubt I’ll like it more than the Tribe album.

I was really surprised by the new Angel Olson album.  It was more rock, less folk and there’s hints of some PJ Harvey in there that I really liked.  Check out the Song Exploder podcast where she breaks down the album’s best track (and one of my favorite songs of the year) Shut Up Kiss Me for some insights on where she was coming from in making this new album.

Here’s some other albums and songs I really liked in 2016, including a few you might have missed.

Rock

  1. Andrew Bird, Are You Serious. Normally a Bird album would go under the Folk heading, but here Bird does rock just enough for me to put this in the proper Rock category.  The title track is one of my favorite songs of the year and his duet with Fiona Apple immediately before that is really good too.
  2. Okkervil River, Away.  Another band that sometimes straddles the line between rock, folk and country.  Only 9 songs, but only one clocks in at less than 5 minutes and the 7+ minute opus, Frontman In Heaven, was another favorite of mine this year.
  3. Allah-Las, Calico Review.  Garage rock band from Los Angeles that has a laid back sound but just enough bite to keep you coming back for more.
  4. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, A Man Alive.  This one is in my top 5 for sure this year, can’t understand why it didn’t get love from the critics in year-end lists.  I wrote about it when it came out here.

Folk/Country

  1. Blind Pilot, And Then Like Lions.  A six piece from Portland Oregon, straddles the line between folk and pop.  While no really transcendent songs here, a quality set of songs that reminds me of a less bombastic Local Natives.
  2. Jim James, Eternally Even.  Love James’ voice and so he can usually do no wrong in my book.  A good group of songs that get a little funky in spots with some nice horn/key parts.
  3. El Perro De Mar, Kokoro.  Ever since hearing her cover God Only Knows, always on the lookout for new music by the Swedish singer.  She put out a new album this year, a pleasant series of happy tunes.  My favorite is Hard Soft Hard.
  4. Cass McCombs, Mangy Love.  Packs a lot of different styles into this album, from sweet balladry to blues rock stomp.  Like James, a great voice that I always enjoy.  Rancid Girl is a standout.
  5. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.  He followed up his excellent 2014 album with another great one.  He throws in elements of psychedelia, folk, rock, and country into his songs and he has a quintessential “country” voice in the mold of Waylon Jennings.  Covering Nirvana’s In Bloom could have been a travesty, but it works, particularly in the context of the songs around it.

R&B/Pop

  1. James Blake, The Colour In Anything.  Wrote about this earlier in the year here.  Surprised this fell out of the top 10 and even top 25 aggregate Metacritic list.  It’s a little long, but some really beautiful songs.
  2. Amber Arcades, Fading Lines.  Lovers of modern Swedish/Norwegian pop will like the vocal styling and melodies of Annelotte de Graaf as Amber Arcades.  This is her debut full length album.
  3. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound.  While I haven’t been as high on some of his previous albums, I liked this one a lot and more than the Frank Ocean album.  This clocked in at 20 on the MetaCritic aggregate list.
  4. Jessy Lanza, Oh No.  Saw her a few years ago at SXSW and enjoyed her brand of synth pop.  This is her second full length.  It’s been nominated for the Polaris prize so it’s getting attention overseas.  An enjoyable album that pairs well with the Junior Boys album I mention below.

Soul/Funk

  1. Charles Bradley, Changes.  Another very good album from soul revivalist Charles Bradley and a rotation of backing bands. Ain’t It A Sin in the middle of the album is one of my favorite songs of the year and he does his best to keep his title of “closest thing living to James Brown” with Good To Be Back Home.
  2. Dam Funk, DJ Kicks.  If you are a fan of Dam Funk’s new style funk, this is a good way to figure out where he’s coming from and who he is trying to emulate.  A solid collection of funk tracks.
  3. Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate.  The stone heart and black background are a good visual representation of this album’s sound.  Kiwanuka’s soulful voice is used to melancholy effect here and Place I Belong is one of my favorite songs of the year.  This album was tied for #24 on Metacritic’s list.

Hip Hop

  1. Aesop Rock, The Impossible Kid.  Veteran MC put out his seventh album.  Still brings his dense lyricism and a good collection of dark beats.  Doesn’t hit the highs of something like Life of Pablo, but a much more consistent album.
  2. BadBadNotGood, IV.  Not a proper hip hop album, but the Canadian jazz group does have several singers and rappers provide vocals over their loping, modern jazz.  The collab here with Colin Stetson, Confessions Part II, is a stand-out.

Electronic

  1. The Orb, Alpine.  A three song EP of takes on alpine morning, evening and dawn, it’s a relaxing but engaging record with definite Eastern influences.  A nice soundtrack for you hikers out there as you drive out to your next trailhead in the early morning.
  2. Junior Boys, Big Black Coat.  Wrote about this one earlier in the year here.  Add track 8, And It’s Forever, to my favorites from this album of house-based dance music.
  3. Aphex Twin, Cheetah EP.  Usually enjoy anything new that Richard James puts out and this EP should have kept his fans happy.  Reminiscent of 2014’s Syro if not a little more straightforward.  CIRKLON 3 is a fun track with a little bit of a funk breakdown thrown in.
  4. DJ Shadow, The Mountain Will Fall.  Surprised this one didn’t get much love either in end of year lists.  No, it’s not Endtroducing, but it’s on par with Private Press and the Run The Jewels collaboration Nobody Speak is everything you’d want out of those three getting together.

Quick Hit or Miss – ATCQ’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

November 16, 2016

we_got_it_from_here_thank_you_for_your_serviceI’ll admit I was skeptical when I heard the rave reviews of Tribe’s new album.  When a legendary group puts something out after such a long absence, critics usually take one of two paths:  savaging the new material as not living up to the old stuff or a triumphant return to form.  I became less skeptical when I saw no drop off in the comments from friends.  Now having listened to the album a few times, I’m going to join in and proclaim this one a Hit.

The album starts off on fire with several tracks that could work their way into a top 10-15 ATCQ track list for me and I think this album might possibly move ahead of their debut in my personal rankings of their albums.

I was trying to pinpoint how to describe the difference between the sound of “classic” Tribe and this album.   It boils down to this: the “classic” albums, particularly Low End, have a laser-focused consistency that was comforting. You knew you were getting a fat boom-bap beat coupled with sweet jazz samples.  And all was good.

The new album certainly retains most of the boom-bap anchor and there’s still some jazz style, but it spreads into other areas not really explored before in the classics. Electric guitars (We The People and several Jack White shreds on the latter third of the album ),more collage-style samples (opener Space Program), and  some R&B (Enough!!) to name a few. This could be a disaster, but I think it mostly works and is a more interesting listen than if they just tried to recreate Low End.

Obviously the other element here are the raps. Both Q-Tip and Phife (R.I.P.) still bring it. And to come back after 18 years (which in hip hop years is like 50 I think if my math is right) with the same mix of dexterous wordplay, humor and braggadocio is special. Never one to shy from confrontation with social issues, and they realized in 2015-16 stakes is high, they come right out the gate with some of their most political songs ever.

They bring along more guests than on the classics, though nothing hits Scenario heights. Speaking of, Busta Rhymes is all over this and I have nothing bad to say about that; he can still hype up a track with the best of them. Andre 3000 makes a few appearances and he remains a national treasure when it comes to guest verses. And nodding to the new generation, Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar, fit right in.

There’s not a bad song in the bunch, I think the last track on Disc 1, Enough!!, is probably the weakest and I won’t begrudge them for the obvious Phife tribute Lost Somebody, but I think the album’s last track, The Donald, is a more fitting tribute to him.  He (and Q-Tip) drop their final verse as A Tribe Called Quest and Phife goes down swinging, ready to take on all comers: “No doubt, I’mma set it, dudes best be ready/off top on the spot, no reading from your Blackberry/Leave the iPhones home, skill sets must be shown/i’mma show the real meaning of the danger zone.”

Leave you with a link to a guy who gets it, jamming to album highlight We The People…

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RIP Phife Dawg

March 27, 2016

It’s been a busy week, but wanted to put down a few words in memory of Malik Taylor, better known to fans of A Tribe Called Quest as Phife Dawg.  Or the Five Foot Assassin. Or spitter of rhymes like “i never half step, cuz I’m not a half stepper/drink a lotta soda so they call me Dr. Pepper” and “Hey yo Bo know this and Bo knows that / But Bo don’t know Jack / cause Bo can’t rap.”

ATCQ, probably more than any other hip hop group, drew me full bore into hip hop as a teenager.  As a “rock n roll” kid, my exposure to hip hop was quite limited and I was drawn to the more rock beats of Beastie Boys and some Run DMC.  The debut from De La Soul was too foreign for me at the time.  I missed ATCQ’s debut in 1990, but for reasons I can’t remember now I bought their second album The Low End Theory.  CDs were new to me as my family had only recently gotten a CD player, and I had only a handful.  So, by default the discs I had got a lot of airplay.

But this disc got the most airplay (even more than Nirvana’s Nevermind).  The beats, influenced by jazz, were amazing.  But, more than anything, it was the rhymes.  There was a youthful exuberance, wit, and humor (even when tackling serious subjects) that just speaks to a young person.  And Phife Dawg’s verses were all of those things.  For a nice list of some of his verses, look at this piece.  And a lot of those I can just hear him rapping them as soon as I saw them on the written page.

The wave of pieces and tributes that have come out in the past week is testament to Phife’s place in the canon of hip hop greats.  And for me personally, the fact that he, as an integral part of ATCQ, made me, and no doubt many others, love hip hop is a great legacy for any artist.  RIP.

You Call That A Shuffle?

January 8, 2016

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To try and make this blog a little more regular in 2016, I hope this will be at least a weekly post.  The idea is to fire up iTunes, hit shuffle, see what comes up in the first three songs and share it here.  I’ll write a little bit about each song and give my rating I’ve given the song on iTunes.  Here’s my ranking rationale:

1 star = Why haven’t I deleted this song from my library?  The answer, in many cases, is because they are skits on hip hop albums.

2 star = Skippable.

3 star = Background music.

4 star = This will perk my ears up; crank the volume.

5 star = Stop what you’re doing and give your undivided attention to this song.

Without further ado…

  1. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Flavor Part 2 (Beck/Mike Diamond/Mario Caldato Jr. Remix) from Experimental Remixes.  4 Stars.  Look at the names associated with this remix and you have a good idea what this is going to sound like.  Taking the unadorned bluesy punk of JSBX and adding several  layers, this easily could have been a cut that didn’t quite make it onto Mellow Gold, with the slightly echoed vocals, electronic flourishes, straightforward drum beat, and the hip hop vocal sample.  A funky baseline gets added in during the last minute of the song.
  2. Madlib, Dark Alley Incidental Music, from Beat Konducta Vol. 3-4 Beat Conduct in India.  Madlib likes to take on themes with his Beat Konducta series and here, it’s Indian culture.  4 stars. This song starts with thirty seconds of dialogue from an Indian movie (TV show?) and then takes what seems to be a clipped sample of James Brown yelping to introduce a beat buoyed by bass drum and rattling tambourine.  Add in a tingling sitar line that Madlib lifted from a Bollywood movie and you have a very good hip hop beat.  I’d love to hear Missy Elliott rhyme over this.
  3. Massive Attack, Risingson, from Mezzanine.  4 Stars. If Massive Attack tried to do space rock, this is what I’d expect to be the output.  Echoing beats and vocals that swirl among atmospheric sighs (exhortations to “dream on” meld into those sighs) and skittering cymbal hits.  Brings both menace and soaring euphoria.

2015 Year End Picks

December 28, 2015

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Haven’t posted in awhile, but still been listening to a bunch of albums this year.  Here’s some of my favorites from this year.  Quite a few have been on best of lists I’ve looked at, but there’s a few that I liked that I haven’t noticed on these lists so I focused on those.  I’ll split it up by genre.

Rock

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color.  Brittany Howard has got one of the best voices in rock today and her and the band cover a lot of ground in this album, with no missteps across the 12 tracks.  My two favorite tracks are Gimme All Your Love, a screaming stomp of a song, and Miss You, an almost folk-y ballad.

Budos Band – Burnt Offering.  While the Budos Band has produced several great soul instrumental albums, this year they decided to take a chance and make a “rock” record.  It’s not as far a stretch as you’d think.  A groove is a groove, whether it’s R&B or metal and Budos Band can groove.  The Sticks is my favorite song and the whole album is decidedly rocking.

Built to Spill – Untethered Moon.  One of those bands I’d always heard and read about, but just never spent the time to focus on, I happened onto their new release and decided to give it a spin.   I immediately went from this record to their earlier recordings, which I think is a testament to this record, which was their first in 6 years.  Living Zoo is a good representative of the album and the band’s sound in general, lots of guitars and Doug Bartsch’s off-beat, nasally lyrics.

Chastity Belt – Time To Go Home.  The all-female band from Seattle put out the rock album I listened to the most this year.  I think it reminded me of another band I loved in 2014, Parquet Courts.  They don’t quite get the same pace as Parquet Courts, but they bring a ton of attitude, great guitar work and clever lyrics.  Standouts are opener Drone, Why Not (which actually is a fast tempo number) and Joke.

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager.  Lewis has a golden voice and I’m not sure I could dislike an album by her.  This year’s release was another fun, rollicking album with Lewis belting out numbers like the title track and my favorite from the album, Just One of The Guys.

Moon Duo – Shadow of the Sun. I’d call this brooding psychedelia.  With its chugging riffs that sprawl over the entire record, their third full length seems like it would be the perfect record to soundtrack a nighttime desert drive down the freeway.  The trippily-titled Free The Skull is my favorite.

Thee Oh Sees – Mutilator Defeated At Last.  Another band that sometimes gets the psychedelia label, a lot of reverb, garage rock riffs, and John Dwyer’s yips and yowls.  While they usually have songs that are tight and concise, my two favorite tunes from this album are the two longest tracks, Web and Sticky Hulks.

It was a good year for rock.  There were a lot of other good rock releases that are all over the year end lists that are definitely worth a listen: Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit; La Luz, Weirdo Shrine; My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall; Sleater Kinney, No Cities For Love; Spoon, They Want My Soul; Tame Impala, Currents.

Folk and Country

Calexico – Edge of the Sun. Another band that I’ve dabbled in a few songs here and there, but with this year’s album, I went straight to their back catalog after listening to this album. Toeing the line between folk and rock, I’m a big fan of singer Joey Burns’ voice and they flex in some new directions with the great Cumbia de Donde, which follows the other standout track Tapping on the Line, which has an assist from Neko Case.

Joanna Newsom – Divers. Just listened to this after getting it on vinyl as a present for my wife. Beautiful arrangements and Newsom’s voice, which can be a love-it or hate-it proposition, works well with these arrangements.  Kudos too for a well-presented vinyl package, with individual posters of beautiful nature scenes and lyrics for each song.

Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material.  A polished country album that still reminds me more of “classic” country-pop than today’s versions.  Musgrave’s is the country version of Courtney Barnett with her sly, witty, conversational lyrics.  The title track, Biscuits, and Family is Family are all really good tracks.

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell.  Abandoning the bleeps and bloops of Age of Adz, Sufjan returns to his folk roots with lean guitar providing the backdrop for some of his most beautiful and personal songs.  I saw him perform twice this year, and he beefed up the songs for the road with long, guitar-distorted extensions of those spare arrangements that worked surprisingly well.  He comes on strong out of the gate with tracks 2-4 all delivering a strong emotional punch.

Widowspeak – All Yours. An entirely different album than I was expecting, the fiery guitar band that I saw at SXSW two years ago is replaced with a softer, gentler version.  The guitars are more subdued and the lyrics more at the forefront.  Singer Molly Hamilton’s lush voice works well with that softer approach and it reminded me of Mazzy Star’s 90s output.  Stoned and Coke Bottle Green were my favorites.

Electronic

Dan Deacon – Gliss Riffer.  Reining a little of the chirpy vocals of some of his earlier releases, but keeping his ability to create madcap beats, this album bounces and bobs its way through 8 tracks.  A master of the slow build, Sheathed Wings and When I Was Done Dying, will certainly have you dancing.  And if you have a chance to see him live, do it.

Hot Chip – Why Make Sense.  Remarkably consistent, Hot Chip put out another album this year full of pleasant, slightly funky, and always dance-y songs.  Opener Huarache Lights and the electro-funk of Easy to Get are representative of what this album has to offer.

Jamie XX – In Colour.  Taking a break from his more relaxed work with XX, this solo album showcases a more upbeat side of Jamie Smith.  Like Disclosure’s album last year, this is a great electronic album from beginning to end, a cohesive work that is meant to be listened to as a whole.  Obvs, the back-to-back duo of Hold Tight and Loud Places, and back ender The Rest is Noise are all great tracks.

Jazz, R&B, and Hip Hop

Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf.  A surprising free release earlier in the year, this is probably the album I played the  most this year.  I think the reasons are: 1) the variety of musical styles on display from jazz, hip hop, and R&B and 2) it’s just a fun album.  Great to throw on in the car or when friends are over. The fact that my two favorite tracks land in the second half of the album, Familiar and Something Came to Me, is testament to the strength of the whole album.

Kamasi Washington – The Epic.  No album all year had a more spot-on title.  This ambitious jazz album, from the saxophonist who was also responsible for a lot of arrangements on the next album I’ll talk about, sprawls over three sides with 8 songs clocking in at over 10 minutes long.  It’s an immersive album that didn’t lose my interest even on those longer songs.  Several of the songs have lyrics and Malcolm’s Theme includes an excerpt from Malcolm X speech that is probably more topical than Kamasi imagined given recent events.

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly.  Ranked at or near the top of most year end lists, hip hop’s reigning king followed up his critically acclaimed Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City with a angrier and more determined album.  King Kunta and The Blacker the Berry are raw, confident political statements with Lamar not mincing any words.  Throw in a super-strong opener, Wesley’s Theory, and the 12 minute long closer Mortal Man, and you have a new entry into the canon of classic hip hop albums.

Leon Bridges – Coming Home. Bridges is a 50s/60s soul and R&B throwback and his debut album sounds like it comes from a different time.  Songs like Brown Skin Girl could have been done by Otis Redding and the album-ending ballad The River is a beautiful number.  Hope that he can continue in the same vein as other similar throwback acts like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley.

Miguel – Wildheart.  My personal favorite album of the year.  Miguel is the heir-apparent to Prince as the man who exudes sex in his music.  Start with the cover and move to songs like The Valley and FLESH and you’ll see what I mean.  The man can also belt out a ballad, see Coffee for an example.  Great beats abound as well, I can’t get enough of Hollywood Dreams.  And he even throws in an outsider anthem in What’s Normal Anyway for good measure.

Shamir – Ratchet. Released earlier in the year, I think people slept on this one a little in the year-end lists.  After the slow build of opener Vegas, Shamir hits three homers in a row with Make A Scene, On the Regular and Call It Off.  His unique delivery, reminiscent of Missy Elliott’s ability to latch onto a beat, is suited to the disco and house beats that recall electronic acts like YACHT, Basement Jaxx, and Hot Chip.  Closer Head In the Clouds is a positive anthem that appropriately soars up and out to the end of the album.

By the Numbers: Fear of A Black Planet by Public Enemy

May 21, 2015

Fear_of_a_Black_PlanetI’ve been meaning to write about one of several songs from one of hip hop’s seminal albums and a big part of my introduction to rap that wasn’t on Top 40 radio.  I recently read a nice piece at Consequence of Sound that ranked all 20 songs on the album from “worst” to best.  You can see their ranking here, which also has links to each song.  I figured I’d do the same since I like to rank all the songs I’ve got in my iTunes library.  Using the one to five scale on iTunes and weighting based on song length, here’s my ranking.

20.  Track 19, Final Count of the Collision Between Us and Them (3 stars).  The shortest track on the album, this instrumental doesn’t pack the punch of some of the other instrumentals on the album.  A simple beat repeated for around 40 seconds winds down into a lone, receding snare.  A little of a laid back vibe to calm you down before you get to one of PE’s most political, fiery and tight songs.

19.  Track 15, Reggie Jax (3 stars).  CoS mentioned this as an homage to reggae.  I’d say more dub if you don’t put the reverb on the drums.  The slowness of the track, and Chuck D’s  matching delivery, is just out of place next to most of the other songs.  The shout out to Ice-T and Geto Boys at the end is also a bit strange given the type of laid back track this is.

18.  Track 4, Incident at 66.6 FM (3 stars).  PE’s version of the hip hop staple, filler “skit” tracks, is high art compared to most hip hop skit tracks and you know exactly where Ice Cube got the idea for some of his tracks on The Predator.  Taking pieces of a Chuck D interview with Alan Colmes, including callers both praising and lambasting the group.  The most ridiculous is a caller (presumably white) who saw them open for the Beastie Boys and complained about their stage show which included two men in uniform with uzis.  This is an odd criticism given the raunchy nature of the Beastie’s stage show at the time.  No song on the album, even the filler tracks (which is saying something), gets less than 3 stars from me.

17. Track 18, War at 33 1/3 (3 stars).  A testament more to the strength of most of the album’s other tracks than the quality of this one. A good beat with a synth (or is it a horn) sample that sounds like it’s being stretched like a rubber band and the usual staccato, brash raps of Chuck D, is not bad.  But it kind of loses a bit of steam in the breakdown and the song’s too short for that to happen.

16. Track 7, Pollywanacraka (3 stars).  Chuck D takes a look at interracial preferences from both the female and male perspectives doing a spoken word take that appears to be a strange homage to Gil Scott Heron.  Strange because the way he elongates syllables that has a lecherous effect.  Like Reggie Jax, the slowness of the track is a bit jarring and for some reason the sing-song “pollywanna” chorus gets on my nerves.

15. Track 17, B Side Wins Again (3 stars).  A guitar riff turns into a solid beat with an old school “clap your hands to the beat” call and some corresponding old school staple rhymes interspersed in Chuck D’s lyrics as well as plenty of Flavor Flav hyping.

14.  Track 12, Fear of A Black Planet (3 stars). “What’s wrong with some color in your family tree” is another song that looks at racial mixing and the concept of racial “purity” that does it better than Pollywanacraka.  Shows off vintage collage soundmaking of The Bomb Squad.

13. Track 6, Meet the G That Killed Me (4 stars).  At only 45 seconds, it’s a bit of a throwaway and the rather outdated view of homosexuality expressed in Chuck D’s first line is regrettable.  The clanging beat and funky bassline make up for it.

12. Track 1, Contract on the World Love Jam (4 stars). Whereas their first album started with the roar of a crowd and an airhorn, the first track on Fear starts off with something rare on a PE album, silence.  And then a solitary guitar that sounds like something that might start off a Pink Floyd album.  Then, you’re in a PE jam.  Bumping beat, screeching sound effects, and sound snippets.  A solid opening track.

11. Track 16, Leave This Off Your Fuckin’ Charts (4 stars).  Give the DJ some.  Terminator X gets a chance to show off his scratchin’ skills tied around several samples including the perfect lyric for a DJ “who needs a band when the beat just goes/shows”.

10.  Track 14, Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man (4 stars).  The Bomb Squad shows off its versatility with basically a house track with a little funk thrown into it that seems to work perfectly with Flava Flav’s less political leaning rhymes and they abide by Flava’s exhortations to “rock that shit homey”.  A great mid-song breakdown as well.

9. Track 8, Anti-Nigger Machine (4 stars).  This track shows off the confidence PE had.  I don’t know of many hip hop tracks that do a solid instrumental track for about 2 minutes and then drop a mad Chuck D verse on you that throws in sirens, a reggae sample and the introduction to the next song in the next minute and a half.

8. Track 3, 911 Is a Joke (4 stars).  Other than Fight The Power, the most recognizable song from the album  and I’ll admit it’s got a classic video.  But we’re just judging songs here and for some reason this song never resonated for me as much as some others on the album.  Like his other track, the beat Flava Flav gets has a party vibe, but the subject matter here is deadly serious.  An indictment of NYC’s 911 service, from the perspective of his community, with some witty takedowns of the EMS (“i call em bodysnatchers/cause they come to fetch ya/with an autopsy ambulance just to dissect ya”).  But for some reason the chorus falls flat for me, which is why it’s probably lower than most people would rate this song.

7. Track 10, Power To the  People (4 stars).  A classical piano flourish and then Chuck D yells “and you thought the beat slowed down” and well, it certainly doesn’t.  One of the fastest tracks on the album and Chuck D’s chant of “power to the people” and “turn it up, turn it loose” are exhortations for revolution.  And kind of like Track 8 in reverse, the last minute is a instrumental breakdown with clipped Flava Flav vocal samples.

6. Track 13, Revolutionary Generation (4 stars).  There’s so much going on in this beat and the fact that it can’t crack the top 5 is truly a testament to the sonic tapestries woven in this album.  So, just a few of the samples in this song: Parliament, Run DMC, Musical Youth, Diana Ross, and Double Dee and Steinski.  A call to “soul sisters” to join the fight and calling out the disrespect experienced by them.

5. Track 9, Burn Hollywood Burn (5 stars).  Two hot guest verses from rap luminaries that keep up with Chuck D, a hook that I irrationally love, and a seething anger palpable even for PE.  Even the outro’s comedy hits home when it’s announced the film the four rappers have in store at the theater is “Driving Miss Daisy”.  There is some irony in Ice Cube’s parting “fuck Hollywood” given some of his roles in mainstream Hollywood, but I have no doubt at the time it was genuine.

4. Track 11, Who Stole The Soul? (5 stars).  A good bit of soul samples (Sly and The Family Stone, James Brown) is apt given the title and the beat drops a few elements to let Chuck D’s lyrics take center stage and then when the chorus comes back it builds back up.  The Bomb Squad sneaks in a Beatles sample (intentional for sure given the subject matter of the song) and even sample themselves (Bring The Noise).  Flava Flav hits his hype notes just right and Chuck D has some great lines like “Like I want to know who/Picked Wilson’s pocket” and “Over here they’ll go after ya to steal your soul/like over there they stole our gold.”

3. Track 5, Welcome To the Terrordome (5 stars). The top 3 songs in this album are the pillars on which the rest of the album hangs and on any given day I might flip flop on my rankings of these tracks. A sample stating “this is a journey…” is a good description of this song; there’s so much to unpack both musically and lyrically. Similar to Fight the Power, the beat pulsates like a living organism with the chorus adding vocal snippets and various guitar stabs and other noises fitting lockstep with the groove. Chuck effortlessly spits lines like “I rope-a-dope the evil/with righteous bobbing and weaving/and let the good get even/c’mon down/but welcome to the terror dome”. And another example of not following convention, the break between Chuck’s second and third verse is almost instantaneous, and not nearly as musically diverse as the bridge between verses 1 and 2. Maybe Chuck said, I’ve got more to say and I’m not waiting for another bridge.

2. Track 20, Fight the Power (5 stars). No argument from me that this isn’t the most culturally important song from the album, and probably in all PE’s catalog, with its iconic video and placement in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Out of the top 3 tracks, it’s the simplest beat. Like I mentioned above, the beat pulsates out of your stereo like a bell ringing and echoing into the atmosphere. You know the chorus and you know the takedowns of Elvis and John Wayne too. Flava Flav is on his A-game, throwing in exclamation points to Chuck’s already pointed rhymes. And then the Bomb Squad take you out on some funky stuff, punctuated with a question about the future of Public Enemy, which is left unanswered in a cut-off quote from Chuck D.

1. Track 2, Brothers Gonna Work It Out (5 stars). It’s the hardest beat on the album, that guitar squabble in the background of the beat works so well and the chorus is even stronger than Fight The Power, in my opinion. That’s why I give this the slightest edge as the best song on this iconic album. It encapsulates everything that PE did so well and it doesn’t let up until it suddenly ends and the next track starts.  Don’t think I need to say any more, here’s the video:

Quick Hit or Miss – Heems, Eat, Pray, Thug

May 2, 2015

A solo album from former Das Racist member, I went in with trepidation as I never particularly got into Heems’ former group. The first song, Sometimes, won me over in a big way. The beat is pretty minimal but still brings the boom and Heems’ wordplay is fantastic. Generally the rest of the album follows that same formula, though there’s definitely parts that drag (Damn, Girl and Suicide by Cop) and the party atmosphere of the opener isn’t there on other songs that focus on serious subjects like his experiences as a brown man in post 9/11 NYC. I’d liken the experience of this album to a less dense (production wise) El-P album. So, I’d recommend this unless 90’s/early 00’s NYC hip hop isn’t your speed.

Here’s opener Sometimes:

America Rediscovers Missy Elliott

February 3, 2015

Gossip Folks – Missy Elliott (featuring Ludacris) from Under Construction

Besides the Patriots and fans of morbid advertisements, the big winner from the Super Bowl was Missy Elliott. She performed a medley of three of her biggest hits and they sounded as good now as they did back in the early 2000s. Apparently the kids (and everyone else) liked it and sales of those three songs are getting a healthy bump.

There’s plenty of good stuff beyond those hits, and I’d recommend starting with another track from 2002’s Under Construction. Gossip Folks was the second single off the album after the medley-included Work It. It didn’t go quite as high on the charts (#8 versus a lengthy stay at #2), but it’s a damn good song. I think it exemplifies all the best that Missy brought to the table in her prime.

One, great beats (but not sick beats, definitely not sick beats) by Timbaland. Unlike the grime of much East Coast rap in the mid-to-late 90s, his beats are clean, crisp and bouncy. His basic beat here is simple but effective: a double bass bump, a snare hit, and the star of the show, a horn stab that gives the beat a foreign. He layers in more elements in the chorus including a wacky sample from Frankie Smith’s Double Dutch Bus (check out about the halfway point of the song) that creates a nonsensical wordplay for a chorus that would be a headscratcher for most artists but with Missy it just works.

Two, Missy’s flow and sense of humor.  The premise of the song is that people had been talking about Missy (her weight, her sexual preferences, etc.) and the song starts with several people gossiping and ends with those same people wowed by Missy’s performance, but instead of forgiving them, Missy rips them a new one with some funny putdowns and then ends with a request that they buy her new album.  In between, she rides that Timbaland beat with such ease even though she opts for a throaty, raspy delivery and delivers funny and biting verses.  Ludacris joins in for a guest verse and the beat is right in his wheelhouse.

Here’s the video for the song:

Enjoy, hopefully we’ll be seeing some new music from Missy and Timbaland soon.

 

Wilderness Rap?

January 19, 2014

De La Soul – In The Woods from Buhloone Mindstate

Oliver Wang posted a great little history of De La’s third album that collects a bunch of material that got left out of a much shorter story he did for NPR. Fans should definitely give it a read.  On a very solid album, one track that I love is the quirky In The Woods. It’s a testament to the strength of any group when you are finding great tracks nestled in the last quarter of an album.

The song begins with what sure sounds like sleigh bells ( a nod to the song’s title?), organ, two solitary horn blares, followed by an echoed call to party over here and there.  Then, the boom boom bap of bass and snare drum, that’s so simple and yet so delicious, anchors the rest of the song with a Maceo Parker sample.

Riding that beat are some bouncy verses by Torgul, Pos and Shortie No Mas. Shortie appears throughout this album but this song features her heavily, not only contributing a verse but egging on both MCs by finishing their rhymes or providing exclamations to their verses.  She has a good flow with the other MCs; I think there’s a MC Lyte comparison to be made.

Other than the references to the title of the song in the chorus, there’s not much in Torgul or Pos’s verse that have to do with the outdoors.  Shortie has a clever line about forgetting her compass and getting lost in the woods and then finding her way out.

The other line that sticks out in the song is Pos’s line that “that native shit is dead”; after the tongue-in-cheek title of their second record (De La Soul is Dead), now De La is telling us the bigger Native Tongues family is also gone to the world.  In 1993 this was probably not as much a jokey throwaway line, there was probably a feeling the groups in Native Tongues were either winding down or going in their own directions. De La definitely was already on its way to finding a path to a long and interesting career with songs like this one.

Did You Hear? Kanye has a new album out.

June 18, 2013

If you’ve been to any music site, and even a lot of non-music sites, over the past few days everyone is talking about Kanye’s new record, Yeezus.  I’m putting off listening to the whole album, but I did listen to the one track a lot of people seem to be singling out as the “song” on the album, Blood On The Leaves.  The album as a whole has been getting some rapturous reviews, including a 9.5 from Pitchfork today and a mostly glowing review from Steven Hyden, who I think is one of the best music writers out there these days.

Taking a vocal sample from Nina Simone’s cover of Strange Fruit and a great horn sample from trap artist TNGHT, this has the makings of something that could have appeared on his last album.  That’s a good thing.  Kanye is autotuning himself again, that’s no surprise.  He adds in some piano around the edges and then he drops the TNGHT sample and a nice thundering bassline.  This is even better.

And then he just keeps adding stuff.  A tinny snare and highhat that distracts from the horn and bass.  The Simone sample apparently has been pitched up (Autotuned?) and gets annoying as the song continues (especially the “breeze” sample just grates on me).  Kanye, go ahead and autotune yourself as much as you want, but leave Nina Simone out of it.  I totally expect him to autotune his child’s first word at this point.  When he pushes all the fluff to the side, you have the makings of a great song.  But this is like 1/3 of a great song, 1/3 of a cluttered song, and 1/3 of a song that shouldn’t be part of the song (the last minute and a half).

Rick Rubin was brought in by Kayne to help streamline the album, as he’s been known to get a lot of sound out of spare arrangements.  I’m curious to know what he stripped out of this song because there sure seems like there’s a lot left.  It’s almost like he got Kayne to agree to cut the fat for parts of this song, but not the whole thing.

I’m probably being a little harsh, but when lots of people are clamoring after a few days of a release that this is the “BEST THING EVAR!” and coming from an artist like Kayne, I was expecting something better.  It’s a good song, but certainly not a great one, even in his own catalog.  Hopefully the rest of the album will be more consistent.