Kids… :: A Tribe Called Quest f. Andre 3000

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As I jam through this A Tribe Called Quest album, I can’t help but share this gem. I’m listening to it front to back like in the olden days, but I haven’t even made it past track 6. Q-Tip is a genius and Andre 3000 really needs to put a solo LP out and put the kibosh on any doubts that he’s a top tier MC.

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Not Sleeping :: Dutch ReBelle

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Boston’s Dutch ReBelle drops some new heat right on time to carry us through this post-election shock, despair, ambivalence – whatever you’re going through. I will keep it a hundred and warn that the intro build’s a little drawn out and grating on the ear, but it’s worth the wait for this ultimately solid, laid-back head-nod.

President Voldemort motivated me to share this with you…
“Eyes bloodshot while they sleepin still/No TLC in the streets so we creepin’ still” – Dutch ReBelle

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Flames & Figures [Album] :: The Seshen

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Straight out of the San Francisco Bay Area that I call home, The Seshen is a genre-bending band led by singer Lalin St. Juste and they’ve just released their latest album, Flames & Figures, which is definitely worth sitting down with for lovers of music. The Seshen is definitely one of those bands you want to be aware of before they appear on SNL, just so you can say you love their “earlier work”. Check out their album below and show them some support (they’re on tour)!

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Double Threat :: Nas & Noreaga

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If you’re a Queens rap junkie like myself, you already know of “Triple Threat”, a little-known Nas, Noreaga and Nature collaboration. DJ Absolut presents a new version for his Mixtape Mondays series that features Nas and Nore minus Nature, but with extra verses in place of his.

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Melanin [Mix] :: Maiya Norton

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All of the best eras in Black music seem centered around and/or have been influenced by periods of immense struggle and it’s both sad and fascinating to see that no matter how much things change, they seem to stay the same, as the old adage implies. With “Melanin”, Maiya Norton delivers a mix of memorable soul records that bring nostalgia to the senses while simultaneously making you think how crazy it is that the same issues Gil Scott Heron and Marvin Gaye were talking about back in the day are the same ones we’re talking about now. Judging from some recent releases, we’re getting back into another politically-charged Black musical renaissance and Maiya Norton chefs up a body of work here that is the perfect companion for what’s to come, taking you through various emotions, from hopelessness (“Home Is Where The Hatred Is”) to pride (“Young, Gifted And Brown”).

“This photo is of my grandmother, Robbie Cook, holding my dad. A few weeks back, emotions were high as I was thinking about the violence exhibited towards people of color. This photo represents that combination of emotions for me. Protective. Feeling the need to reaffirm our value and our lives. Holding tightly. Loving harder.

I play music every day, but I definitely took solace in certain songs, and decided to mix them up and add a few to the list. Some of them uplifted people during the Civil Rights era (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised). Others represent unity (People Everyday). The celebration and the struggle (Sinnerman) of being black in America, and the one thing that pigments our skin: melanin. Open your mind, listen, share, and enjoy.” – Maiya Norton

Tracklist:
1. Gil Scott Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
2. Gil Scott Heron – Home Is Where The Hatred Is
3. Marvin Gaye – What’s Happening Brother
4. The Stylistics – People Make The World Go Round
5. Joe Bataan – Young, Gifted and Brown
6. James Brown – Say It Loud
7. Curtis Mayfield – Move On Up
8. Arrested Development – People Everyday 
9. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled 03
10. Flying Lotus f/ Kendrick Lamar – Never Catch Me
11. Erykah Badu – Soldier
12. Black Star – Brown Skin Lady 
13. D’Angelo – Africa
14. Goodie Mob – Free
15. Gnarls Barkley – Who’s Gonna Save My Soul
16. OutKast – Liberation
17. Etta Jones – Good Morning Heartache
18. Nina Simone – Sinnerman

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Get Familiar :: Andre Damar

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Representng from Diamond Bar, California, Andre Damar is a rapper with a little more to say than a lot of the stars of his generation.  Regarding the single “No Hope”: “I tried to show a vision through my words about the everyday struggles a lot of young black men go through in America through my eyes…I talk about the grind we go through just to survive and I feel we all share the same grind of making it in America day to day. My grind is rapping and the next man grind is hustling and I just think the two worlds are very similar, especially for a black man in my city.”  Given his heartfelt delivery and good ear for beats, I’m definitely looking for what this guy has for us in the future.

No Hope :: Andre Damar

Top Drawer :: Andre Damar f. A.T.

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Front-Free’s 2014 Year In Music

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Respect the Holiday Rap Squat, Beloved.

Happy New Year to readers new and old.  This was a good year for music on the low.  For folks with taste, it looked horrible on the mainstream side of things, but if you’re to any degree proactive about finding good music on your own, you know some dope projects dropped this year that you won’t catch on the Grammy nominee list or on the radio.  Here’s to hoping you find something here you didn’t get a chance to check out and are able to hop on iTunes or Spotify and show some love.

This isn’t a list that appears in any particular order or that says what everyone should have been listening to.  It’s a list that describes, out of what I heard this year, what moved me specifically.

Lord Steppington :: Step Brothers

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I’m an Alchemist fan and will listen to almost any MC he sits down with.  However, with Step Brothers, Alc steps up as both a producer and an MC in his own right, matching wits with the very formidable likes of Evidence.  While Evidence clearly is the more seasoned of the two, Alc manages to not be completely eclipsed, injecting enough humor to make you forgive his stilted delivery.  The beats here are what boom-bap should sound like in 2014…true to the culture and original sound without coming off as dated.  Rare, obscure samples abound.  This is definitely a record that doesn’t sound like anything else that’s out.

Black Messiah :: D’Angelo & The Vanguard

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This is one album that made me glad I waited to put this very list out there.  I’m definitely not a person who thinks calling something classic on day one of its release is acceptable, but I’m also a person old enough to recall hearing classics for the first time and remembering how they made me feel.  Black Messiah is very much alive.  That’s major when you’re talking about current R&B, a genre that barely contains what D’Angelo has done here.  This album is organic and flies against the ultra-sleek, soulless alternative-R&B that’s been taking over the genre of late.  This is an album that reminds us of the standard we’re supposed to be expecting from soul music.  While it may not be accessible as his debut, or Voodoo for that matter, one must keep in mind that D’Angelo made those albums as a relatively new artist and wasn’t the elusive, near-mythical figure he is today in rhythm & blues.  Here, D’Angelo shows he has grown significantly since he was the guy who made “Sh★t, Damn, Motherf★cker” back in 1995 (which was a great song but obviously represents a much younger incarnation of the artist).  Messiah simply delivers.

Voices :: Phantogram

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Phantogram is the kind of act whose music could very well get lost in the sauce, considering the fact that their music is well-suited for climactic teen drama backdrops or copping over-priced coffee at your local indie cafe where almost everyone has earphones on listening to their own stuff anyway.  However, if you are fortunate enough to take a more dedicated listen, the duo known as Phantogram takes a painstaking approach to crafting what they call “street beat”, a decidedly edgy brand of atmospheric pop.  Don’t get too caught up in genre-labeling, though, as Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter come together to show that they’re a group who are students of music, with the sounds on Voices ranging from alternative to R&B but never being easy to pin down.  Songs are grandiose without feeling over-produced or cold.  Phantogram doesn’t come off as girly as, say, Haim, because the production has more of a backbone to it, which is Carter’s influence on the sound refusing to be drowned out by Barthel’s commanding vocals.

36 Seasons :: Ghostface Killah

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This album was the only thing that could have made up for the disappointment of the latest Wu-Tang Clan album.  The tracklist alone made any rap fan old enough to have facial hair damn near blow up, with guest features from the likes of Kool G Rap and AZ.  There’s something to be said about a major veteran MC deciding to reach out to fellow vets to get on tracks as opposed to getting a bunch of flash-in-the-pan upstarts who might get more attention for the project.  Invest in this.

Your Old Droog :: Your Old Droog

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It’s safe to say that Coney Island’s Your Old Droog shocked the hip-hop world this year when he revealed himself to be a young Ukrainian-American MC and not Nas, as some believed him to be.  The Nas comparisons were lost on me, however, as Nas’ music hasn’t excited me the way that Droog’s EP and subsequent full-length did in many, many years.  I also didn’t hear anything but a vague similarity between Droog’s voice and Nas’s.  The unique thing about Droog is that he seems to revel in the strange, as evidenced by his odd moniker (“Droog” being a Russian term for friend) and creative references.

Hood Billionaire :: Rick Ross

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A lot of people are probably surprised that this album made my list, but I’ve been a fan of Ross’ music since his first album…he just stopped moving me some time ago.  With Hood Billionaire, although there are some fumbles (all of them collaborations: Snoop Dogg, R. Kelly and K. Michelle, respectively), Ross manages to sell the caricature he’s made himself into with pure zeal and gusto.  Rick Ross thrives in the box he’s supposed to fit in, which is deliciously irresponsible declarations that grate on the nerves when you want something deeper, but are just right when you just want to wild out for the night.  Ross’ music makes you feel ten feet tall and, when we’re looking at appreciation of music, isn’t making you feel something what we should be looking for?

Barrel Brothers :: Skyzoo & Torae

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This is by far one of my favorite projects that dropped this year.  You can read my full review on Kevin Nottingham, but in a nutshell, this was a top shelf offering and shame on you for sleeping on this if you did.

Clear Lake Forest :: The Black Angels

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The Black Angels make the kind of music you expect to hear during a 1970’s period drama during a drug-use montage.  The drowsy vocals and plodding percussion on many of the songs seem to come from another time…in a good way.  This EP is nowhere near as good as their debut album, Directions To See A Ghost, but such is the case I find for rock bands that I enjoy.

Dominican Diner :: Timeless Truth

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It doesn’t take long listening to Timeless Truth for any fan of Queens rap to recognize the influences these two Corona/Flushing MCs take from The Beatnuts.  As a Beatnuts fan, I appreciate the fresh energy brought to the sound by two newer MCs, joining the likes of Meyhem Lauren and Action Bronson in ushering in a new era of Queens boom-bap.  Buy it here.

NehruvianDOOM :: MF Doom & Bishop Nehru

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DOOM doesn’t fail at what he does.  As king of his own novelty sub-genre, it seems like an unlikely pairing for him to reach out to a teenage wunderkind like Bishop Nehru for an entire project.  However, the youngster shines on his own, managing to impress without coming off as an over-reaching amateur over DOOM’s lavish productions.  While it’s clear that Nehru’s wet behind the ears, his fresh voice juxtaposed with DOOM’s at times weary, grizzled-vet delivery makes for some seamless chemistry.


Tough Love :: Jessie Ware

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From the moment I saw the video for “Running”, I was transfixed on Jessie Ware as an artist.   It seemed like I was getting a concoction of Lisa Stansfield, Annie Lennox, and Sade all wrapped up within the potential of one artist.  Once I heard her use a particularly menacing Big Pun vocal looped on the song “100%” (“..carving my initials on your forehead”), I was an instant fan.  Following behind the acclaimed debut Devotion, Ware shows the same top shelf musicality on this sophomore effort.  Ware reminds us that it’s okay to expect more out of pop music, adding a level of sophistication that’s mature without aging the sound.  This album feels…expensive.

Silk Pyramids :: Meyhem Lauren & Buckwild

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Artists like Meyhem Lauren are the punch in the face that rap needs in the era of hip-hop-themed reality dramas and Twitter beefs.  While his flow doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Lauren flourishes when it comes to being outlandish when it comes to describing his lifestyle or inserting gruff ad-libs here and there.

Furtive Movements :: Armand Hammer

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While it’s very dense, I’m the kind of person who enjoys that every now and then from a rap album.  Every rap song doesn’t need to be fully understandable from listen one.  Adding some complexity over some solid production is, to me, guaranteed replay value.

If There’s A Hell Below :: Black Milk

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I have to admit I’m almost ashamed I didn’t really check for Black Milk before this year.  I’m a stickler for names and his seemed to put a bad taste in my mouth, literally.  Quirks aside, I forced myself to check out some of his features and ultimately stumbled upon his latest album, If There’s A Hell Below.

The Living Daylights :: Willie The Kid & Bronze Nazareth

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Last but definitely not least, Willie The Kid’s project with producer Bronze Nazareth was a work of art, similar to last year’s Aquamarine.  This was slept on for no good reason.

The Sweet Spot Vol. 3: Higher :: Maiya Norton

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While it isn’t a mixtape, album, or EP, the third installment to DJ and music aficionado (and also fellow Howard Bison) Maiya Norton’s mix series deserves some recognition as one of the most moving projects I heard this year.  A self-described “old soul”, Maiya presents an amalgamation of 1970s funk, soul, and psychedelic jams that together create a soothing landscape that a person could get lost in.

Honorable Mentions

The following are albums I appreciated, but not as much as the ones above, for a number of reasons.  Nevertheless, they’re worth checking out and they all contributed something authentic to the year in music, hip-hop and otherwise.

Pinata :: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

Cilvia Demo :: Isaiah Rashad

Pre Magnum Opus :: Tragedy Khadafi

Is This Art? :: Michael Christmas

RAP :: SHIRT

Mega Philosophy :: Cormega

Cadillactica :: Big K.R.I.T.

Directors Of Photography :: Dilated Peoples

Run The Jewels 2 :: Run The Jewels

As usual, many thanks to the readers who keep supporting the site, to everyone who bought merchandise and repped Front-Free in public, and to my friends and family.  Shout out to Ebony.com and Kevin Nottingham for published pieces I wrote this year outside of Front-Free and a special shout to UCLA’s Hip-Hop Congress for allowing me to sit on a panel based on one of those articles, discussing the effects of drugs on hip-hop culture with UCLA’s best and brightest.  It’s been a dope year for me personally and I have nothing but great expectations for 2015.  Let’s get it.

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[Review] A Better Tomorrow :: Wu-Tang Clan

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I wanted to like this album.  I wanted to love this album.  I wanted it to be the most important record of 2014.  Needless to say, judging by the intro to this review you just read, none of these things happened.  It was clear from the early turmoil that fans were made aware of, with Raekwon and RZA sparring in the press about creative differences.  Even judging from the singles that have dropped, it’s clear that RZA is more interested in giving Wu-Tang fans what he thinks they want as opposed to what we need, which is vintage Wu.  We live in a time where the rap game is positioned squarely in the lobby of a W hotel and what we need to see again is rap living in the pissy stairwell depicted in ODB’s “Brooklyn Zoo” visual.  That darkness and edge is missing for most of A Better Tomorrow, with zen master RZA presiding over the boards.

Surprisingly, it’s Cappadonna who, to me, comes with some of the most consistent verses, displaying the same kind of energy he did on his first few appearances with the Clan.  Similarly, Method Man, GFK and a noticeably absent Raekwon put in decent work. Even U-God holds his own alongside Deck and GZA, but it isn’t the rhymes that are a problem here, aside from having to endure hearing Method Man mention being “turnt up“, which made me nauseous.  The problem is the realization that RZA’s vision for the album got in the way of what could have been a solid album.  What Raekwon described as RZA wanting to do “a more humble album” led to Tomorrow being an album where tastemakers concede to trends set by upstarts, following a pattern designed to attract the young whippersnappers instead of making some authentic hip-hop and letting it feed whoever was willing to partake.

Unfortunately, more than half of the album has little to no replay value, even as a Wu fan.  The better portion of the album are mostly tracks that aren’t even produced by RZA (Adrian Younge’s “Crushed Egos” and 4th Disciple’s “Necklace”).  Other tracks are plagued with failed attempts at nuance.  While awkwardly sung vocals are a Wu staple, the choruses they tried to shoehorn onto Tomorrow are amazingly bad, making me wonder where the hell Tekitha, Blue Raspberry or even Popa Wu were for the recording of this album. For example, the vocals on “Miracle” seem like a joke.  It’s even worse on “Ron O’Neal”: “No matter what the weather, we be gettin’ that cheddar, so…”  SERIOUSLY?!?!  These rap vets really just gave us a hook rhyming weather and cheddar?!?  I don’t know if I can also explain how awful the singer is in words, so I’ll just say that if it was a smell, it would closely mimic that of used earring backs.

It’s hard to admit that we may not ever see another Wu-Tang Forever, but it’s true; at this point, there’s just too much of a disconnect between the artists involved to expect a beneficial chemistry to occur.  Despite the pre-release marketing ploys and the big talk, A Better Tomorrow is a forgettable album. Unfortunately, Wu-Tang may not be forever (but judging by 36 Seasons, Ghostface Killah is).

Album Reaction:

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Sleepers (Prod. By Larry Fisherman + Hoodie Weather (f. Prodigy) :: Your Old Droog

Old Droog

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I don’t get it when people say Your Old Droog is biting off of Nas.  There are vocal similarities, but Droog to me is another MC entirely and one I’d like to hear more from, personally.  Droog is that energy we need right now, in terms of being a rather mysterious entity (his first appearance since his debut in June was Sept. 3rd) who isn’t giving too much of himself other than the music via social media.  He’s also hungry, b.  This reminds me of when people were calling Action Bronson a Ghostface rip-off and all I could hear was a similar accent with more obvious influences from Pun and Kool G Rap than Ghost himself.  Let this man cook.

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