[Album Review] Views :: Drake

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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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Why Streaming Exclusivity Doesn’t Quite Make Sense To Me

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I haven’t been interested in new Drake material since 2009’s So Far Gone. For those that know my writing, it’s no surprise that I’m still not interested, but I don’t think I’ve ever shared that I once was. My little sister actually put me on to Drake’s Comeback Season mixtape back in ’07 and I liked it so much I told everyone I knew about it. This was back when he was making records with the likes of Dwele and Little Brother and not jacking the style of an entire region every other song. Nevertheless, I’m still a rap critic of sorts, so I find it necessary to listen to everything I can, especially since Drake is one of the most (I hate that I’m saying it and you’re gonna hate that I’m using the word) important rap artists of the decade. Granted, that isn’t saying much for rap’s current crop of fans, but I digress. Drake’s Views album dropped today, but is available exclusively on Apple Music and iTunes. While it’s unclear whether the album will remain restricted to just Apple availability, it’s difficult to understand from an artist’s standpoint why this new tactic makes any sense other than to appease the powers that be (Apple, Tidal).

I canceled Apple Music about a week ago. I had meant to do it months before, but just got around to it recently. The same thing happened with Google Music, though as an Android loyalist, I still buy music I can’t find on Spotify from the Play store as opposed to iTunes for convenience’s sake. I gave up on Apple Music due to the inability to embed playlists onto my blog, which was a deal-breaker for me. I was an early adopter of Spotify and have been using it to embed playlists and the occasional single song onto my blog for some time now. Other than that glaring omission and the lack of any real social aspect (because who doesn’t like to silently judge their friends for listening to Nickelback or the likes of Rae Sremmurd on Spotify), Apple Music was a beautiful service. I also tried Tidal during its debut month, but canceled within a week, quickly identifying it as utter rubbish in a shiny wrapper – I once wrote that it was the Emperor’s New Clothes of streaming services, a vanity project that only served to show how out of touch Jay-Z and friends truly are with the average music fan. It was clear very quickly, I’m sure, to the numbers folks at Tidal that:

  1. Nobody gave a fuck about what artists make per stream, and
  2. Nobody gave a fuck about the edge in sound quality Tidal was claiming to offer.

Third – the app is trash, fam. You’re charging people more than Spotify or Apple, yet lack a desktop client, the ability to upload your own music to listen to via the app, any social aspect, or really anything the other services don’t offer, aside from “exclusive concerts”, which I’m also sure nobody gave a flying fig about. So instead of heading back to the lab to come up with a better product, the bunglers at Tidal decide “hey, we’ll just hold some popular musicians’ music hostage and they’ll have no choice but to subscribe” (Tidal also offers no “free” tier of membership). This seemed to work at first when Kanye decided to drop The Life Of Pablo this year and Tidal was happy to report the number of people who had subscribed that week, but they conveniently failed to report the number who had unsubscribed once the free trial had ended or at the end of one or even two payment cycles. What was absolutely rich though was the staggering number of people who took to the torrents to download the album illegally. A mere two days after release, Torrent Freak reported a whopping 500,000 downloads from BitTorrent and was the most popular download on Pirate Bay.

All of you may not remember the struggle of pirating music from Napster, Kazaa, Limewire, or Frostwire, but we old-timers (allegedly) used to go through hell trying to get albums free and sometimes early and none of it was very convenient (though at the time, it was the best thing in the world for people who would have otherwise got stoned, went down music’s memory lane and woke up to a $60 iTunes receipt for purchasing random Stevie B or Blue Oyster Cult records). It was the Internets equivalent to walking five miles in the snow to get to the soda fountain or whatever the fuck your Paw Paw used to talk about. When streaming came about, ex-Limewire experts who had graduated to torrenting elsewhere were able to give out a collective sigh of relief because for a lousy ten bucks a month, one could have convenient access to damn near everything they wanted to hear – ever. No more having to unzip folders, check if they were legit, transfer to iTunes, then go through the epic hell of having to rename all of the songs therein to fit within your iTunes library or wherever you store your tunes. You’ll feel me if, like me, you feel like a clean music library is neck and neck with godliness.

For many of those same people to return to torrenting to get ahold of the Kanye album should show just how unappealing Tidal is to anyone with any modicum of savvy. Sure, you might snag subscriptions from the relentless Stans and/or people not particular about their music apps, but you’re missing out on an unidentifiable mass of casual fans and people who just want to use whatever app they’re most comfortable with to play music. And the thing is – they’re going to find a way to get your album in some fashion and you won’t even get the credit for the stream. Why? – because you wanted “control”.

When the awful news broke that Prince had died, fans like myself were stuck at work without access to their favorite Prince videos or songs to binge-enjoy. Within a few hours, though, the Internets were silently buzzing with Dropbox folders a-flying. With semi-obvious names like “Purple Doves”, people who weren’t willing to subscribe to Tidal were sharing music the old way, albeit the illegal one, like it or not. While I understand that people want to respect Prince’s wishes about access to his music, Prince was also notoriously Internet-shy and I doubt he had a real grasp on how the average web-savvy music head operates or how the plugged-in youth consume music. Despite their infinite access to almost everything in music history, many just don’t care about anything that’s older than five years and if they do, they’re not bending over backwards (clicking a YouTube link) to go find out about it. The sad thing about the latter group of music fans is that making music inaccessible to them will only ensure that that music dies along with the older generations that popularized it and who remember it fondly. It’s a shame in Prince’s case, considering how well Purple Rain stands to this day as a perfect album, one that could come out today and still be called a flawless record, even by smart music fans who weren’t born until over a decade after its release.

The competition between streaming services shouldn’t be about who can get what artist. The competition needs to be who can build the better, more intuitive apps. The way things are set up currently, the end user loses. The slow-witted uber-dedicated will pay for more than one app just to have access to one or two artists, some will find ways to access the music they want and get it on the app they like, and others will just ignore albums they don’t have access to altogether (this is what I did with the most recent Adele album, since “Hello” was available on Spotify – I’ll just assume there’s nothing good on the album because I refuse to seek it out to transfer to Spotify). People listen to music in different ways. As a music writer, I want to be able to both hear music without having to pay for every single record and also share it with my network and readers conveniently. Some people just want to stream whatever an app is willing to spoon-feed them. The streaming services should be building out their services to fit the most needs possible instead of trying to hold their artists’ releases hostage.

 

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The Prelude :: Benjamin Starr

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Every now and then, you hear a free album or mixtape that makes you actually want to pay the artist for the content. “The Prelude” lets you know off top you’re about to hear some music with nutritional value to it, while the production takes you to a whole other place. Nothing but style, substance and craftsmanship.

Check out the whole album for free below and show this man some support, Internets.

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

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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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Clipped On :: Blood Orange f. Despot

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Because I do what I want, I’m posting this Blood Orange track from 2013 like it’s brand new…because to me, it is. I’m also posting it because I’m a huge fan of Queens rapper Despot, who’s released only a handful of verses in the several years he’s been around. It sucks being a fan of someone so reclusive, since no one ever knows who you’re talking about and none of his stuff can be easily located on Spotify. Either way, this feature on Blood Orange’s Cupid Deluxe album is quite the treat, pairing Despot’s intricate but rapid-fire flow with Devonté Hynes’ bizarre vocals and mellow groove.

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Just Nice :: Sauce Money

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I stumbled across this record while looking for another Sauce Money song from the 1990s and while this one dropped two years ago, the bars on this thing are absolutely vicious. There’s nothing more frustrating than a rapper who’s nice enough to sit back and collect residuals from ghostwriting gigs but who’s still hungry enough to drop an excellent record every couple of years. Give us an album, Sauce Muthafuckin’!

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Rest In Power, Prince

 

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Today, I got the news that the legendary Prince passed away and it was like my soul had been ripped straight through my chest. This is one artist who was on my bucket list of people I had to see play live and I didn’t get to because he died early. Let’s give our legends their flowers while we can still smell them. I don’t feel any kind of way about saying that Prince was a beautiful man for what he gave us to remember him by. One can only hope as a musician to leave a legacy that’s even a fraction of what this man gave the world.

“Kiss” By Prince

Prince Performs “Do Me Baby” in 1982 at the Capitol Theatre.

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[CRATES] Against The Grain :: Sauce Money

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Sauce Money has always been one of my favorite MCs who refuse to put out a consistent body of work, but whose classic appearances on Jay-Z and others’ records, not to mention his prolific ghost-writing career, make him hard not to mention as one of the nicest to ever do it. Sleep if you want to. “Against The Grain” was a DJ Premier-produced cut from the slept-on Soul In The Hole soundtrack.

In case you thought the veteran was retired, check out this loosie from a year ago, flooded with gems just to remind you how nice an MC Sauce still is after all these years. Sauce…please give us an EP or something.

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FLEM [Video] :: A$AP Ferg

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While we wait for Always Strive And Prosper to drop on April 22nd, Ferg dishes out a quick teaser, produced by Pro Era’s own Kirk Knight. The singles from the album so far have been hit (“Let It Bang” featuring Schoolboy Q) or miss (“Strive” featuring Missy, that Big Sean record…ugh) to me, but the hits really hit, so I’m looking forward to reviewing the completed work.

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