[Album Review] Views :: Drake

MJDrakeViews

MJDrakeViews

Drake Stans spent the better part of last year trying to convince the hip hop community that writing one’s own rhymes is unimportant in the wake of their mans’ beef with Meek Mill. In my opinion, Meek played himself by thinking that people who are fans of Drake’s would care about writing rhymes – not to mention the fact that Drake was no wizard in terms of penning rewindable bars in the first place, ghostwriter or not. This is the guy who makes music for guys who go through their girlfriends’ phones when they’re not looking and girls whose rap knowledge doesn’t go any farther back than 2010 or so. To be clear – rhymes matter, as does writing them, and Drake’s latest album is a perfect example of why.

I have a lot of fun cracking wise about Drake and his fans, but the truth is I’m always listening for a rapper to surprise me. Unfortunately, there aren’t many surprises on Drake’s latest LP, even for people who were looking forward to this thing with bated breath. Views dropped on the heels of me first hearing “Summer Sixteen” not long ago, a record I was surprised to find that I actually liked…probably due to the rapping being at the forefront. Unfortunately, this song doesn’t appear on the album.

“Hotline Bling” is an undeniable jam. It’s textbook in-my-feels Drake, but it isn’t directly derivative of anything else, which is refreshing for a Drake record. Plus, he isn’t really trying to sing on it, just rapping kind of melodically. I think it’s fortunate for Drake that his “era” is one known as the a la carte era of music consumption, where most music fans don’t even remember a time when they had to sit down and listen to most albums front to back and really spend time with them vs. putting their favorite jams on shuffle or just playing only what you want to hear at a given moment. Drake’s nasally, studio-doctored vocals on every single track can be insufferable at times, but I don’t think that’s as much of an issue now as it would have been at a time when really sitting with an album was the norm.

I particularly enjoyed the song “Grammys”, though for reasons that have nothing to do with Drake himself. I find it hilarious that guest Future manages to completely wash Drake on a song where your mans boldly declares “top five, no debating” followed by “topfivetopfivetopfive“, as if he’s trying to hypnotize the listener into agreeing with that ludicrous statement (top five Canadian rappers, I’ll give you…partially because I can’t think of five at the moment). Not even close, homeboy. But this is one record I can definitely see not tomahawk dunking into the recycle bin as soon as I’m done with this review. Infinite soul daps to whoever manages to chef me up a Future-only version (funny thing about this entire paragraph is that I’m not even a Future fan).

“U With Me?” jacks DMX’s “How’s It Goin’ Down” word for word in parts, which I’m not mad at. Tributes can work. What’s weird is when I consider that the majority of Drake’s fans would probably be traumatized for weeks if they actually listened to It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot, the album the original record was on. We don’t even need to mention the fact that last I checked, Dark Man X isn’t particularly fond of Drake. I bet he’s gonna spend whatever check he’s owed for the sample with a smile on his face, though. Hopefully he didn’t try to do DMX like he did Rappin’ 4Tay a while back.

I really wish people would stop trying to force posthumous Pimp C verses onto Drake records. Even though Bun B’s given Drake a permanent pass, those in the know also recall that it was Bun B who approved the UGK feature on Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin'”, while Pimp C dragged his feet purposely and finally ended up doing it, but only at Bun’s behest. If C thought “Big Pimpin'” was too pop-sounding, I can only imagine what he would have had to say about appearing anywhere on this album, let alone what he would have to say about Drake himself. This collaboration seems (and literally was) forced. This brings us to the patois-tinged “Controlla” where, for the umpteenth time, Drake adopts another region’s sound in an attempt to be all things to all people without ever giving us a feel for “the 6” as a foundation for his experimentation. As you may know, Views was originally titled Views From The 6, which is a reference to his hometown, Toronto. As Canada’s golden child, one might think Drake would take the chance at establishing a signature sound for his part of the world aside from the mopey robot sound adopted by cronies like The Weeknd and Partynextdoor. None of this homogeneous material gives me any feel whatsoever for the energy of the region, unless everyone up there sounds like drowning robots with hella personal issues to tell you about. No shots.

“Child’s Play” is easily the most childish record rap has heard since Smedium Sean’s “IDFWU”. Played-out, ignorant references to “actin’ lightskin” and trite Love & Hip-Hop fare really set the bar pretty low here. Due to the apropos title of the song, one can only hope Drake’s being tongue-in-cheek, but even in that case, the record could have remained on the cutting room floor. “Too Good” finds Drake alongside Rihanna, where even her bleating manages to outshine his tired vocals. The biggest flaw in Drake’s repertoire throughout the course of his career aside from absolutely vapid content is his insistence on singing. Call me crazy, but when I want singing, I listen to people who actually can, not rappers who play at it.

Ultimately, this is an okay album on the surface, but once you get to the lyrics, you’re bound to be disappointed…that’s if you’re an oddball like me and expect rappers to actually be good at rapping and even singers to be good at singing (imagine that). This is where the more irrational Drake fans must stand apart from fans of the craft itself. Views would be an amazing instrumental album, but the vocals and raps tend to drag it all down, like pearls before swine. Drake consistently manages to slap together some absolutely abysmal Carter 4-level metaphors and punchlines (“toying with it like Happy Meal” or the infamous “Chain-ing Tatum” line) throughout the album, giving credence to the idea that fans need to stop trying to shoehorn the rapper into discussions about top-tier MCs. He simply isn’t one. Hitmaker? Sure, but that’s a separate conversation and depends solely on what you think that title is worth in the long run, especially in a time where the lowest common denominator rap records tend to reign supreme. I see Drake as an entertainer – not a particularly compelling one, to me – but a successful one, nonetheless, for what that’s worth. People are entertained for the moment and I guess that’s what’s important in music for the time being, but I doubt if anyone will still be discussing this record next year or in the years to come. Either way, Views will bang throughout the summer or at least half of it for party-goers and anyone with a sound system to show off. At the end of the day, though, who knows? Maybe fans will start to reconsider their belief that rhymes don’t matter anymore and start demanding better quality from their idols. A critic can dream.

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[Album Review] Always Strive And Prosper :: A$AP Ferg

ASAP-Ferg

ASAP-Ferg

I slept soundly on A$AP Ferg until some time last year when I heard the “Work” remix, featuring French Montana, Trinidad James, Schoolboy Q and fellow A$AP cohort Rocky. The energy on that record alone inspired me to pick up 2013’s Trap Lord out of curiosity (and by pick up, I mean “save” on Spotify) and I was pleasantly surprised. I slept on Ferg before this point mostly because of the disdain I have for the music of A$AP Rocky, front-runner of the A$AP crew. Something about this guy in little-sister braids calling himself “pretty” on songs that I couldn’t quite rock to. Nevertheless, Ferg brought something different to the table on Trap Lord and later records like the hilarious “Doe-Active”, which indicated an ambition beyond what his friend was offering musically.

I was fully onboard when I stumbled upon the Complex City Cypher where Ferg appeared alongside RATKING’s Wiki and one of my favorite current rappers, Your Old Droog, with jazz musician Christian Scott and band providing the musical backdrop. Ferg’s compelling verse from the cypher eventually ended up on “Beautiful People” on Always Strive And Prosper, which was much to my disappointment, one of few bright spots on the album.

“Strive” is easily the worst song on the album by far and (because I don’t usually lend my ear to things I think will be horrible) probably the worst thing I’ve heard all year. While I didn’t have high hopes for a Missy Elliott feature, her input ended up being the only salvageable part of the song for me. Ferg’s hook sounds like a rather dry imitation of dance-pop music one would expect to hear from someone not quite old enough to recall when dance and house and hip-hop used to get equal burn on the same urban radio stations. This sounded like Barbie Girl 2016. I’ll be looking forward to a remix at some point of “Swipe Life”, which unfortunately squanders a Rick Ross feature on a song with a weak concept and chorus, but a hard-hitting beat and decent input from Rozay.

The very busy “Uzi Gang” was my first introduction to the recently popular Lil Uzi Vert and I’m not surprised to be saying I won’t be looking for further material from him (the Internets tend to suck at recommending rappers). Big Sean appears on “World Is Mine”, yet again dropping the same middle-school-notebook bars that young rap fans seem inexplicably impressed with since his debut. Needless to say, that song was also a dud. I wanted to enjoy “New Level”, but Future’s guest appearance seemed like a throwaway, as if Ferg could have easily saved his imprint some cash and just paid Future’s vocal stunt double, Desiigner, instead. Oh, and “I Love You” featuring Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign was a dose of guy-with-nosering music I didn’t need in my life.

On the bright side, “Let It Bang”, an ode to wild but troubled uncles, is a song I can’t get enough of and really should have been the standard the rest of the album was held to throughout its production, seeing as how this song was released as a single relatively early on. This was a topic I can relate to personally due to losing two uncles over the past couple of years. Schoolboy Q manages to redeem himself for me after what I felt was an underwhelming last album (Oxymoron) and other recent records like “Groovy Tony” indicate he’s on an improvement streak. “Psycho” worked perfectly as an intro of sorts to “Let It Bang”, discussing the life of Ferg’s Uncle Psycho in an honest but endearing way, while Uncle Psycho himself has some dialogue that bleeds over onto the next track. The dreamy production serves well as a precursor to the energy on “Bang”.

Ferg has displayed the Drunken Master musicality and off-kilter melodic tendencies of an ODB before, but lacks the unbridled creativity to pull off the same chaos here. Ferg at times has the ferocity of a young Busta Rhymes, but seems to shy away from showing and proving that beneath all that energy he can also rhyme well, as Busta often did. Always Strive And Prosper is, to me, a botched attempt at trying to reign in some of the wildness that made Trap Lord so interesting. Even the random, seemingly freestyled loosie he dropped days before the album’s release would have been better than some of the finished records he chose for this album. Ultimately, due to the rather simple palates of many new rap fans, Ferg definitely stands to prosper from the blatantly commercial leanings of this album, but I don’t see where he’s striving to be recognized as an improving MC or one who stands out from his decidedly less creative contemporaries who don’t have the same potential I witnessed on Trap Lord.

JerrySeinfeld

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Not A Picasso Or A Neruda: A Review Of Kanye West’s ‘The Life Of Pablo’

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It appears that Tidal is becoming the new bastion of exclusivity for out-of-touch musicians who don’t understand the needs and habits of today’s social-media-savvy music consumers. To date, The Life Of Pablo has been pirated over 500,000 times. The online feeding frenzy that occurred over the course of the album’s release weekend makes one consider what would have happened had Twitter been around for the Napster or Limewire eras. And to think the piracy would have probably been halved at minimum had West simply released the album for access on Spotify and Apple Music/iTunes. While the app rose to number one on the app store, probably in response to West’s behest of his fans to download it for exclusive access, I’d be interested to see how many people stick around for the laughable subscription fee for the problematic app, which has never held a candle to its competitors in the way of functionality from day one, yet lauds exclusivity as its main draw.

I’ve got to say I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid that made “UltraLight Beam” bearable to most early reviewers of the album. West’s affected vocals on the song just made me think of how much better this trick works for singers like Sampha or James Blake who have actual chops to back up the digital tampering. Unfortunately, actual singers The Dream and Kelly Price still don’t add much to the song. I’m not a huge fan of Chance The Rapper, but his spoken word contribution was really the only thing worth revisiting to me on this record. I’m not sure what Young Thug contributed specifically to “Highlights” given the mess of auto-tuned vocals, but Kanye’s raps on the record, a cheaply-constructed slaw of TMZ-heavy non-content, make what would normally be a mildly decent, mindless jig into a super-petty vent session for the Kanye Kardashian-Jenner persona we’d all been hoping would never rear its ugly head. It’s non-content like this that was bound to occur once we became aware of the likes of Kylie Jenner being allowed to hang in the studio (“Kylie Was Here”). It’s just hard to believe that any hip-hop classics are being made with Jenners in the studio and “Highlights” is the perfect example of that conflict of interest.

“Famous”, a high point on the album, is textbook Kanye in that he mars what could be an amazing song with typical Kanye ugliness, taking a jab at the fact that he, in his own way, made Taylor Swift famous. This may be true, but that bit of pettiness is unnecessary, as the arrangement of the record itself says more for Kanye the artist than he ever could. The Sister Nancy “Bam Bam” sample is expertly included and the new and improved Rihanna, fresh off of the game-changing ANTI (she’s never sounded better), shows up to lend an assist on the hook. “FML” featuring The Weeknd has moments of greatness blemished by moments of “Kanye, for fuck’s sake, let the singer do the singing”. However, on “Waves”, I was wishing for sweet death the moment Chris Brown’s breathy intrusion surfaced on the record, sounding like Express For Men store soundtrack fodder. TheLifeOfPablo

I think enough time has passed where some of us can openly admit that Yeezus wasn’t so much of a pushing of boundaries as it was a Kanye West vanity project. The only people really blown away by that effort were Stans, hypebeasts, and people who had never heard of Hudson Mohawke or Daft Punk before. The anti-establishment rantings weren’t really believable coming from ensconced within the Kardashian-Jenner publicity machine, just like the claim of “greatest artist ever” is starting to come off more hollow the more West leans on this claim as opposed to actually putting out the high art he dares you to say he’s not putting out. Thankfully, TLOP is light years beyond Yeezus production-wise. It’s the rhymes and other glaring blemishes that make the album lukewarm.

In terms of guest appearances, West seemed to have gone the route of the upstart rapper with the dream debut album budget. Though some might argue that he’s taking the time capsule approach to album curation or, as Nina Simone would say, reflecting the times, I think the approach speaks more to West’s well-documented hubris than anything else. He’d rather be a god among freshmen than to risk mediocrity among his fellow varsity. It’s disappointing in a sense that an artist with the influence and resources to rekindle some of what the culture has lost over the years chooses to stoop to the level of pandering to new rap fans instead of building a bridge between the old and new by taking some risks of inclusion. However, it’s obvious that Kanye West is also the kind of artist at this point in time who would rather take a new, younger artist under the wing than be forced to bow his head to a rap legend of his caliber or greater.

I don’t want the old Kanye, although this will be the retort at the tip of every Stan’s tongue throughout reading this review. I don’t want the old Kanye so much as I want the current Kanye to be an improved, evolved version of the old Kanye as opposed to an uber-pretentious, fever-dream version of him. All change or weirdness is not evolution. In a climate where veteran rappers are encouraged to pander to the kids or fall completely off the map, Kanye has managed to become more childish with each incarnation, eschewing the idea of maturing in his music or public persona with each album. This works for the current era of loyalty to whatever’s hot for the moment, but doesn’t do much for the breadth of Kanye’s legacy as an artist.

The Life Of Pablo isn’t an excellent album, but it certainly has its bright spots. However, it seems like critics have lowered the standard for great to include albums with weak points that they are even willing to point out themselves. TLOP is a hodge-podge of different ideas that don’t ultimately come together to form the masterpiece people have come to expect from Kanye, but I think Stan culture will continue to encourage disjointed projects like this to ooze out of Kanye’s attention factory for a long time. West has announced a subsequent summer release for this year, the results of which may provide the other solid joints we didn’t get on TLOP and just drive home the fact that quantity over quality is the order of the day. In a nutshell, The Life Of Pablo would have made an excellent instrumental album, but we all know Kanye isn’t the kind to let his work speak for itself. He’s gonna run his mouth too…which I think gets in the way of the all-time great entertainment he’s constantly telling us he’s capable of.

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[Album Review] Darkest Before Dawn :: Pusha T

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pusha-t-KingPush

I’ve never sympathized with the critics of Pusha T who seem to yearn for him to write about something other than the drug trade.  I suppose that’s because I’ve never been fond of the approach some rappers take where you can sense the blueprint of every song on an album (“this one’s for the ladies”, “this one’s for the radio”).  We’ve also got more emo rappers running around than one can shake a stick at, so I don’t mind the contrast in the present day.  That being said, King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, the surprise precursor to the anticipated King Push finds Pusha Ton in a slightly more reflective space, setting the pistol and the Pyrex aside for a few bars to give us some political views and other more thoughtful fare.  Don’t get me wrong, though – the bravado we appreciate from Pusha T is still there.

Lyrically, though I don’t think G.O.O.D. Music will ever give us the hard-hitting, street-sweeping bars we used to get from Re-Up Gang-era Pusha T, the prowess is still unquestionable.  The best thing about Pusha T is that he’s never felt the need to dumb his skill level down to assuage the pop leanings of today’s younger rap audiences.  Unfortunately, it’s the underlying production where I find the album’s most tragic flaws.  While there aren’t any outright bad songs on DBD, there’s a sleekness to the album as a whole that left me wanting more – a slipperiness that kept some songs from truly sticking to the ribs.

Beanie Sigel is in top form with the gritty drug talk on “Keep Dealing”: “C.O.D., niggas never had to front me jawns / I’m weighing bricks on the scale they put the lunchmeat on”.   Unfortunately, some of the other guests on the album don’t contribute much.  Re-Up Gang cohort and personal favorite Ab Liva pops up on “Got ‘Em Covered”, a quirky, busy Timbaland creation which grows tiresome before you can even get to Liva’s verse, which seemed too short.  Timbaland does infinitely better on the moody “Untouchable”, where a vocal loop from Biggie adds weight to one of the better performances on the album.

The-Dream unnecessarily appears on two songs, sounding oddly like the artists his style of R&B paved the way for (namely, Future, who I would have actually preferred if we’re comparing evils).  While The-Dream obviously has greater vocal chops than Future, who can tell when said vocals are covered in layers of artificial assistance?  It tends to sap the soul right out of a song.  Similarly, the latest product of the “sing like a depressed robot” trend of R&B, Kehlani, appears on “Retribution” sounding as generic as ever.  I’ll be glad when this vocal trend is over, but it’s too bad that otherwise good songs on this particular album had to fall victim to it.  Hey, at least Chris Brown was kind enough to sit this one out as a guest.  Luckily, Push wisely tapped Jill Scott to channel Nina Simone for “Sunshine”, where Pusha compares the funds being spent on metal detectors for inner city schools vs. the same funds being spent on laptops for “the county kids”.  This song is where the album truly shines, where the sung vocals actually add to the song as opposed to just serving as a break between verses.  Also, it’s where Pusha proves there’s a conscience and a consciousness beneath all of the drug lingo.

Ultimately, the quality is there both in production and mic skills to set this album atop the list of better projects of 2015, even though this year was rather lackluster to me in terms of rap music.  The lack of competition, however, takes nothing away from Pusha T’s latest effort.  While Kanye’s fascination with electronic music is all too prevalent on this album for my taste, Pusha manages to keep it hip-hop in terms of his attention to hard-hitting punchlines and effortless wordplay while his contemporaries dabble in singing and therapist-couch raps.  While I could have used a lot more boom-bap to speak to my inner African drum circle, I can say that Darkest Before Dawn is a very “now” album without me having to totally ignore vapid, uninspired lyrics just to have something to drive around to.  Hopefully, King Push provides a little something more for the culture in terms of sound, but this project was billed as a prelude, so I’m hoping that it’s only a fraction of what’s to come as opposed to more of the same.

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The Mr. Wonderful Review

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ca-m-actionbronson

One of the most selfish things we music fans do in an age of selfish music consumption is look on disapprovingly as an act we discovered at its inception gains more mainstream attention and inevitably changes to accommodate that attention. I admit to being one of those critics who will praise a band’s first album and then complain about how later efforts became “over-produced” and lack the grit and hunger of the debut. Admittedly, I’ve held a fear in my heart for the moment Action Bronson would “go mainstream” for some time now. Starting with his heavy output in 2011 (The Program EP, Dr. Lecter, Well Done, and Bon Appetit…Bitch), Bronson has brought a flavor to the game that had not been seen before, despite casual listeners feeling inclined to compare him vocally to Ghostface Killah. Despite some questionable creative decisions, I’m happy to say that Mr. Wonderful manages to appropriately represent the artist as he’s grown musically without compromising much for the approval of mainstream listeners.

The album’s earlier tracks are more the Bronson one might expect, from “Brand New Car” (which borrows excellently from Billy Joel’s “Zanzibar”) to “The Rising”, which features the ever-present Big Body Bes, who has the unique ability to crush your ego and build it up to unreasonable levels simultaneously with his eccentric rants. “Falconry” has Bronson and cohort Meyhem Lauren in rare form, with Bronson stating that “your ideas lack adobo” before Lauren declares he’s “New York before it turned into a bike lane”, no doubt commenting on the gentrification of New York City and its transformation into hipster central.

“Terry” is easily a standout on this album, along with the other singles like “Actin’ Crazy” and “Easy Rider”, which all seem to highlight the two qualities that make Bronson a top MC: his ability to paint an abstract picture and his ear for great production. It’s this that allows one to not only excuse songs like “A Light In The Addict” and “The Passage (Live From Prague)”, but even appreciate Bronson’s conviction about including them on the album. While it all may come off like a hodgepodge at first, the common thread here seems to me to be musicality. Bronson appreciates music to the point he doesn’t mind it obscuring or completely replacing his rapping at times. Songs like “Only In America” solidify my theory that Mr. Wonderful is the kind of album that will appeal to rap fans who also like Whitesnake and Phil Collins. The robust electric guitar on this record takes you right back to the 1980s, an era Bronson seems quite fond of if you recall he and Party Supplies’ concoction “Contemporary Man”.

The flaws on this album, however, sit in the middle of the album like a malignant tumor, just waiting for an excision from your otherwise palatable tracklist. Starting with “Thug Love Story 2017 The Musical”, which is an interlude, Bronson allots two minutes and twenty seconds to allowing what appears to be some random person on the street to sing (badly) which leads into Bronson himself singing badly on the next song. “City Boy Blues”. While musically solid, “City Boy Blues” has Bronson overdoing his faux-crooning (which, to date, is mildly amusing everywhere except here), leaving the listener hoping for a sixteen bars that never comes. It’s the kind of song that probably sounded great in Bronson’s head but has the avid listener wishing the track had been replaced by something better, like the recent “Big League Chew” with Alchemist. The other stinker is “Baby Blue”, an obvious Mark Ronson product by the plodding piano and old-time vibe. Given the artists we’ve seen Bronson collaborate with, Chance the Rapper is also an odd choice for a guest feature, leaving one to think his addition was something the label was probably excited about, hoping for some attention from fans that wouldn’t normally pick up the album. Needless to say, it wasn’t an interesting collaborative effort and again, the money could have been better used on the guest artist and the slot could have been filled by a better record. These forays into subject matter and romance pale in comparison to earlier concept tracks like the stellar “Hookers At The Point”.

Mr. Wonderful is a bizarre album, to say the least. To me, it resonates as an experiment in sound, mixing very new-sounding, “out there” backdrops with a very comfortable 90’s-era flow. While I appreciate the boom-bap Action floats effortlessly over on older records like “Get Off The PP” or “Imported Goods”, he’s also got an impeccable ear for off-the-beaten-path tunes provided to him by the likes of Alchemist, Party Supplies, Statik Selektah, and Mark Ronson. Where else in rap are you going to hear an arbitrary Chuck Knoblauch reference on top of a track that sounds like a tranquil gondola ride (“Terry”)? This album isn’t for everyone and by no means is it without its fumbles, but this is the kind of evolution artists should be looking at musically because artists should be making music that’s true to them and not so much what will appeal to everyone. Action Bronson continues to be in his own lane in rap and that’s to be applauded within a music industry that’s focused on taking minimal risks.

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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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 abt

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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[Album Review] Oxymoron :: Schoolboy Q

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It took me some time to figure out that, though I wanted to appreciate Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, I really prefer Lamar as a featured guest on other rapper’s projects.  I was on the fence about labelmate Schoolboy Q until I received a copy of his latest project, Oxymoron.  While each track features quality production in terms of achieving what they were going for, as a whole this album is all over the place and a little too trendy for its own good.  There’s a studied lackadaisical element to Schoolboy’s flow that just comes off as lazy in parts and potentially genius in others.  Hopefully, him finding more consistency comes in time.

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Intoxication seems to be a running theme and therein lies the problem.  However, while one could enjoy anything in Cypress Hill’s catalog without ever touching weed, it seems like Schoolboy’s music requires some heavier drugs to actually tolerate for more than two consecutive tracks.  The unimaginative and excruciatingly repetitive hooks and Q’s tendency to ramble on and yelp in the background incessantly made small doses of this album the only viable option for replay value.  The EDM/trap influence also made tracks like “Hell Of A Night”, “Los Awesome” and “Prescription/Oxymoron” difficult to tolerate and will also make sure that this album remains right in the here and now due to trendiness.  It’s far from a timeless effort and just doesn’t succeed as one cohesive vision like good kid, m.A.A.d city did, though dedicated fans of Q’s will have a good time with it.

“The Purge” featuring Tyler The Creator and Kurupt was a standout for me, if only because I appreciated hearing a Kurupt verse.  The hook’s repetition of the words “yeah, nigga” seemed like lazy filler between verses.  Another guest, Raekwon, outshines Schoolboy on “Blind Threats”, another standout on the album with top notch production reminiscent of classic Wu with a modern touch.  “What They Want” featuring 2 Chainz was predictably garbage while I marveled about the great things that could have been done by better artists on “Studio”, which featured BJ the Chicago Kid in a typical “I sing but look, I curse and talk about vagina like I’m a rapper, how cool!” fashion.

Maybe I’m just too old.  I came up in an era where dudes pushed the pills to rave-goers, but you were a weirdo if you were taking them…and now it’s all certain guys rap about.  But I also realize when something isn’t personally for me but is well done and this isn’t that.  While Schoolboy’s Molly-addled fans will probably eat this up, I don’t see this as the kind of album people will be talking about in a year.  But in the age of a la carte music purchases, nobody gives a shit about long-players or about making cohesive albums intended to be listened to all the way through.  In reading some of the other reviews for this album, I sometimes get the feeling that reviewers are finding new ways to say the same things about the “hot” album.  One can’t help but think that some of these music sites act in the interest of staying on the good side of whoever’s “on” at the moment.  That isn’t to say that Oxymoron is undeserving of positive opinions, but some of the praise seems to be over the top, which I’m sure is fueled by the significant anticipation that’s been building for it since last year.  This is a very now record, whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad one, but I’m of the mind-set that even things that come off as current should still show some sign of being playable a year out from their release and I unfortunately don’t see that for Oxymoron.  Here’s to wanting better for Ab-Soul’s expected 2014 release…hopefully with a more palatable feature from Schoolboy on it.

 

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Front-Free’s Best Music Of 2013

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YearEnd

I can’t tell you what was “hot” in 2013 or why people considered it “hot” aside from me wanting to set some of these so-called top notch albums on fire.  If you notice, a lot of the music blogs and websites that do “Best of 2013” lists exclude mixtapes and only list LPs you can buy off iTunes like upstanding American citizens.  You may think this is because mixtapes “don’t count” when discussing albums, but some of the most complete projects (at least in hip-hop) to drop in the last few years have been mixtapes and they’re more than fit for the challenge of standing next to LPs.  So the reason they aren’t included isn’t because they don’t compare, but because they’re free.  If no money exchanges hands, then how can one hand wash the other between the for-purchase bloggers/site owners and the major labels?  Music blogs are the next evolution of the payola system.  People realize urban radio is no longer a taste-maker for the discerning listener, so this role has shifted to bloggers, but the blog game is looking more like urban radio every day…

Anyway, I don’t listen to music for the purpose of saying this album’s better than that one, so this list will not be in any particular order, but I do think it’s important to let my readers know what I thought was dope in 2013 in case they missed something I raved about or in case I forgot to mention something I was feeling until now.  Hopefully, you’re able to check out something you slept on this year and if you thought there was something dope I missed that I didn’t already deride at some point, post it in the comments section.  Let’s discuss.

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  • Blue Chips 2 x Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Any follower of Front-Free knows I’m a big supporter of Action Bronson.  Part of his appeal is that he does great work with a number of different producers and each time, the chemistry is different.  With Party Supplies, you’re probably getting Bronson at his most experimental, gettin’ busy on tracks that are at times clearly unorthodox for a rap project and sound more like the score for a 1970s Blaxploitation flick (see “I Adore You”).  Those still calling Bronson a Ghostface knock-off are at this point just not listening because the man has clearly put himself in a lane occupied only by himself.  Download Blue Chips 2 for free here.marci_b_cover
  • Marci Beaucoup x Roc Marciano – Roc Marciano has been on a hot streak for those looking for an alternative to the paper-thin quality of mainstream hip-pop.  Though subdued in the energy he gives off, Roc is no slouch when it comes to clever wordplay and imagery.  Marci Beaucoup is one of his finer recent projects.  On the appropriately soulful “Soul Music”, Roc brings along A.G., best known as one part of D.I.T.C., which to me speaks to Roc’s appreciation for hip-hop and ear for an authentic sound.  Cop it on iTunes.Haim-5
  • Days Are Gone x HAIM – It’s not pretentious.  It’s not angsty.  It is, however, fun and refreshingly light and, dare I say, girly in the vein of Pat Benatar.  I can’t carry this particular energy with me on a daily basis, but I have a great respect for the authenticity I hear in their work and was impressed with the production value.  My wife put me onto this band a long time ago and I fronted for a couple months before giving it a spin, but I’m never one to not give props where they are due.  Cop it on iTunes.
  • Orange Starburst Baboon x Oscar O’Malley – I love EPs.  This particular one is almost disappointingly short, but given the density of O’Malley’s rhymes, it isn’t impossible to listen to the five tracks over and over again and find something new each time.  The ODB-sampling “Ol’ Dirty Snorlax” breathes fresh life into “Brooklyn Zoo” a Wu classic that would under any other circumstance be nearly untouchable.  Download it here for free. sza-650
  • S EP x SZA – I slept on SZA until very recently when I caught her feature on Isaiah Rashad’s “Ronnie Drake“.  While her most alluring work to date, to me, remains the unattached “Teen Spirit”, the S EP dropped this year and is evidence of how unique this artist is.  Throughout S, SZA comes across with an almost uncomfortable vulnerability.  Quite the refreshing project.  Download it here for free.earl-sweatshirt
  • Doris x Earl Sweatshirt – When all the hypebeasts were sniffing after Odd Future, I was checking it from a distance and hoping these guys would eventually grow out of their shock-rap phase.  Earl, easily the most critically acclaimed of the bunch, has clearly matured a little, relying more on actual skills than saying the most offensive thing possible.  Sweatshirt even acknowledged the progression saying “I hope I lose you as a fan if you only fuck with me because I rapped about raping girls when I was 15”.  He also was hopeful of gaining new ones based on the growth and I’m excited to say he accomplished that goal, as I’m eager to see what he’s got in the works for 2014.  Cop it on iTunes. jayz-6.21.201311
  • Magna Carta Holy Grail x Jay-Z – I’m old enough to think fondly of Reasonable Doubt and must admit that when I heard Timbaland and Pharrell, etc. would be producing MCHG I was disappointed.  However, if anyone has mastered growing up as an MC, it’s Jay-Z.  Maybe being married with a kid makes me appreciate Jay’s situation a little more, but life isn’t the same now as it was for Jay when RD dropped, nor should he rap like it is.  Cop it on iTunesstatik-selektah-extended-play
  • Extended Play x Statik Selektah – This album made me remember what it was like to unwrap a new DJ Clue mixtape back in the early 2000s.  Statik called in a rack of favors on this one, making unlikely pairings like Mac Miller and Sean Price (“21 & Over”) actually work.  Prodigy puts down the solo banger “Pinky Ring” while on “Camouflage Dons”, the veterans Smif-N-Wessun join the newcomers Flatbush Zombies.  There’s a lot going on here and that’s basically what mixtapes used to be when DJ Clue, Funk Flex, and Kay Slay were putting out regular compilations as opposed to arguing over Nicki Minaj singles on-air.Willie_The_Kid_Aquamarine-front-large
  • Aquamarine x Willie The Kid – Hands down, the dopest artwork on anything released within the past couple of years as far as I know.  Willie the Kid is an easy MC to ignore because of his mundane name choice and unassuming image, but he’s a rapper’s rapper with an impeccable flow and a great ear who I’d ignored for too long before AquamarineDownload it for free here.

  • SHE x Alice Smith – If this were released yesteryear and I had SHE on cassette, repeated plays of Smith’s CeeLo cover “Fool For You” alone would have made this tape pop in the player.  In what was otherwise a boring year for R&B, Alice Smith came out of left field with a deeply soulful album that is a throwback to when people worried less about glamour and more about getting some hurt or joy off of their chest and onto a record.  Cop it on iTunes.Prodigy++Alchemist
  • Albert Einstein x Prodigy & Alchemist – I have mixed feelings about Prodigy as a solo artist, considering his nasal, at-times-monotonous flow, but Alchemist is a capable enough producer for his production to compliment P’s flow almost like an actual rhyme partner.  The dense soundscape becomes its own multi-layered contribution and comparison to P’s plainly-delivered, murder-laced narratives and braggadocio.  On “Bible Paper”, Alchemist himself reminds you he can rhyme, too and also shows off on the boards.  Cop it on iTunes.retch-psg
  • Polo Sporting Goods x Retch – This is one reason I waited so late to drop this list.  In the last few days of 2013, Retch dropped his own mixtape produced entirely by Thelonious Martin.  Martin himself is the silent star here, producing a seriously dope set of tracks that showcase newcomer Retch’s style perfectly.  Download/stream it for free here.Beyonce-Album-2013-750x400
  • Beyonce x Beyonce – Some critics get so jaded to the pop machine that they can’t even recognize pop music that’s been done well.  There was a time when pop was actually respected because artists put in actual work to make it as opposed to following a formula composed of what will sell for sure.  While Beyonce could literally sneeze on a track and it would sell, it’s clear she has no plans of getting lazy any time soon.  While it isn’t something I got a whole lot of play out of (I’m far from its target audience), I found it enjoyable and I’m glad this was done to set a benchmark for what pop and R&B artists should be striving for.  While a little silly and trite at times, the music wasn’t disposable and the astute listener can tell there was a vision to this album that was achieved without having to watch all of the accompanying videos (I didn’t).  Cop it on iTunes.131007-boldy-james
  • My 1st Chemistry Set x Boldy James – I’ve never understood the problem people seem to have with MCs who tend to rap almost exclusively about one topic.  Usually, this complaint is directed at “drug rap”, which Boldy James is well versed in.  I’d much rather hear a talented rapper like Boldy rhyme about the life he seems to know well than rap about romance just to please critics and fail or abandon his criminal roots.  While it’s difficult to say these days how authentic a rapper is, Boldy James sells you nothing but authenticity, kicking his lingo with such skill and versatility that you forget he’s still rapping about crack.  Alchemist gets busy here as well, making this an unquestionably hard album including well-placed guest spots from Action Bronson, Earl Sweatshirt, and others.  Cop it on iTunes.JT2020
  • The 20/20 Experience x Justin Timberlake – If you couldn’t at least get loose to “Let The Groove Get In”, then you’re probably too cool for this album.  I just had to get over myself.  While I was of the minority who loathed the peppy “Suit & Tie”, the ethereal cool of “Blue Ocean Floor” was enough to get multiple spins from me.  Like Beyonce, JT showed the music biz how pop was done this year by letting the work ethic speak for itself and then adding some panache to take it over the top.  Cop it on iTunes. quadron-avalanche1
  • Avalanche x Quadron – The fact that this album was considered a commercial failure is a testament to the fact that the majority of people don’t know good music.  This Danish duo comes off like a European Groove Theory, with more soul than one would expect from the songstress and amazing production on each track.  Hopefully, people get hip to this album so that Quadron gets their due props.  Cop it on iTunes.

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[Album Review] Magna Carta Holy Grail x Jay-Z

Not for nothin’…but Kanye West had me worried.  As a hip-hop fan and as a music fan, the disappointment of Yeezus had me tempering my anticipation of Magna Carta Holy Grail with preparing for the possibility of a hip-pop offering from big brother Jay-Z under the guise of a “boundary-breaking” LP.  Luckily, the major difference between Jay-Z and Kanye is that Jay-Z understands that in an attempt to make the next great hip-hop album, one must actually create a hip-hop album.  The comparisons to Yeezus will end here, though, as MCHG will surely knock that album off most discerning listeners’ playlists as the premier LP du jour.  It’s apparent from MCHG that Jay understands and accepts his role as one of few with the power to take hip-hop to that ever-elusive “next level” that rappers so fondly speak of without making the mistake of abandoning the genre entirely for the sake of pretense and shock value.

While I’m probably one of a cultish group of old school Roc-A-Fella-heads still yearning for Jay to pick up the phone and get Sauce Money or Jaz-O on a track or getting Primo or Ski on the boards, at a certain point you’ve got to begrudgingly accept that Jay has reached a point where he’s not returning to old territory and though it’s a missed era of rap for many of us, Jay pushes his current cohorts to new levels of creativity where, although a Timbaland record is easily identified, a Timbaland record made specifically for Jay-Z is a whole other animal entirely, and a vicious one at that.  Even Frank Ocean, who I’m usually underwhelmed by, brings a certain indispensable texture to the mournful horns of “Oceans”.  “Nickels and Dimes” employs an eerie Gonjasufi sample and is probably the best song on the album, representing both the top-shelf Jay-Z we know and the elegant, alternative-inspired production style we started seeing back when he gave us “Beach Chair” with Chris Martin. 

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While I initially cringed at the idea of a duet with wife Beyonce, “Part II (On The Run)” is easily a highlight of the album and the studious listener can determine why they’re such a pair musically and as a celebrity couple: they don’t inundate the public with their relationship, instead leaving the expression to their art.  This makes the potentially sappy concept of a couple’s duet more palatable…the talent level both exhibit can almost be considered a given.  “Jay-Z Blue” touches on issues of fatherhood and succeeds at popularizing traditional family values in a genre where absentee and partial-custody fatherhood is so often considered the norm, with so many rappers content to referencing their “baby’s mothers” and not their wives.  In the same vein, “Heaven” inspires independent thought about religion and spirituality in a genre where religion is only mentioned as a firm conviction, if at all.  On tracks like these, Jay shows the growth from the cool, collected customer we first encountered on Reasonable Doubt to the more vulnerable, more complete individual we now know as probably the most influential MC in rap history.

Sadly, “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” to me represents one of the album’s biggest flaws.  A lazy, uninspired Rick Ross collaboration, the song succeeds as a mindless track to drive around to, but not as a viable component to the album as a whole.  Though the production quality is there and Jay-Z himself supplies a good verse, the overall concept covers too much of the ground that’s been tread over a million times over the past few years by lesser artists, Ross (whose contribution strangely monopolizes nearly 75% of the song) included.  This is a trap Jay didn’t need to fall into at this point in his career.  Granted, the track isn’t, by any means, un-listenable, but could have easily been relegated to bonus material.

Criticism of a Jay album, though inevitable, must be put into perspective.  While critics have panned certain albums in his catalog, those same albums could still probably be placed miles ahead of recent albums by other artists that the same critics have labeled “good”.  As Jay is quick to remind you, he’s light years ahead of a lot of other artists both in skill level, reach and influence and his music reflects this.  With MCHG, Jay solidifies his lonely spot in the “grown-ass MC” category, a place for rappers who age gracefully and are not afraid to rap about their life as-is as opposed to trying to convince listeners that, at 40 plus, they’re still the same guy they were 20 years ago, which just doesn’t make sense.  MCHG is an album for slightly older hip-hop fans who have evolved to a wider appreciation for other genres, as some of the inspiration here may be lost on young or less-sophisticated palates.  Good music is ultimately good music, but the current soundscape may have some minds clouded as to what that sounds like, as the bar’s been set low.  Luckily, Jay-Z isn’t dumbing it down for the knuckleheads.  It just remains to be seen whether anyone will rise to meet the new standard.

Tracks Kept: 16 out of 16

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