Category: Hip-Hop

Black Up

Outside of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, one isn’t often given the opportunity to describe a hip-hop album as “trippy” or “psychedelic.” That’s not an insult to the genre; hard-hitting beats and rapid-fire lyricism have been the cornerstones of the medium for the last three decades, and the psychedelic drugs that produced the acid culture were never as prevalent in African-American communities as the more harmful and debilitating narcotics like crack or heroin. Hip-hop also doesn’t lend itself easily to the notion of outfits that are nearly completely without precedent. Even the most ambitious hip-hop artists like Kanye West or Madvillain all operate within a certain pre-defined network and draw outside influences from mainstream indie rock or electronica into their works to create a wonderful fusion. It always makes it easier to critique hip-hop when you have a convenient frame of reference. When an artist draws on jazz heavily, he’s similar to A Tribe Called Quest. Kanye and Jay-Z perfected the grandiose soul sampling that defined hip-hop for a decade. Dre and his progeny delivered us the thumping beats and easy riding rhythms of West Coast hip-hop. So, when I say that Black Up, the 2011 debut LP by Seattle hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces, is nearly without precedent, that really means something. While after several listens, I still haven’t been able to discern just what in the hell this album was all about or even scratched the surface of the songs’ many subtleties and hidden secrets, I do know that this is one of the most remarkably original and fresh-faced hip-hop albums in years, and while it may not match the blissful pop/hip-hop/rock fusion of MBDTF, it more than exceeds it in creativity and bravado.

To say that Shabazz Palaces make Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti look mildly eccentric would only be putting it lightly. The only comparison that readily springs to mind is the dubstep album Untrue by reclusive artist Burial, not because it utilizes the signature thumping bass beats of dub but for the way it incorporates dark and moody ambience into the hip-hop realm. Using heavily distorted vocals (except when he chooses to simply rap and more on how excellent his mic skills are shortly), Shabazz Palaces transforms Palaceer Lazarro (Ishmael Butler formerly of Digable Planets) into a terrifying monster of urban storytelling and interlaces looped vocal samples during musical interludes to add to the overall disorienting effect of the album. Utilizing the jangling and vibrating synth lines I associate with space rock to xylophones to a recurring noise that can only be described as sounding like the warped and mutated scream of a child, Shabazz Palaces throws the whole sonic book at you and then writes some pages of their own for good measure. Palaceer will sound as if his voice is being transmitted down a well and then on a dime switch to sounding as if he is coming from everywhere at once. Gorgeous soul samples of female vocals will be layered over “Treefingers”-esque interludes of “down the rabbit hole” experimentation.

Ishmael Butler’s rap style is as avant-garde as the group’s musical arrangements, and once again, he defies easy categorization. At nearly all moments, he is laying down rhymes with such lightning quick verbal agility that those who think Bone-Thugz-N-Harmony are hard to understand should keep the lyric sheet handy cause you might get lost. Fast rapping isn’t his unique skill though. It’s the ever-shifting verse structure that consistently refuses to give you any sort of simple verse-chorus-verse format or even a rhyming scheme that is especially consistent. He will go from laying down mile-a-minue word associations where nearly every word rhymes reminiscent of certain members of the Wu-Tang Clan to a more deliberate and sustained verse structure. He wraps all of this in a remarkably literate style that shows why Digable Planets were a Grammy-winning outfit when they were still together. There is such darkness and gloominess to the storytelling here, but it’s presented with such precision and skill that even when the album can be depressing or (and this is most often the case) completely terrifying, you’re bowled over by the fact that this is a debut LP and not the work of a veteran outfit (even if Ishmael Butler is a veteran performer).

If you think there’s a chance this band might be overly pretentious by my description of their sound or even through their outrageously long song titles like  “A Treatease Dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)”, then maybe this isn’t for you. This is challenging material. It will take many listens to grasp the totality of this piece, and even then I wonder if complete understanding is possible or desirable. I know how I complained in my last review about the lack of any clear-cut singles from Circuital, and there are even less likely singles from this album, but that’s ok this time because this album is meant to be desired as a whole. When your best tracks scare the living daylights out of this reviewer and sound exactly like what I imagine a bad acid trip would feel like (I’m specifically referring to “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum”), then you’re not going to be rising up the iTunes single chart. Hip-hop groups that can successfully channel the looping nirvana of Panda Bear do not generally produce a big hit like “Runaway” or “All of the Lights.” On “The Kings New Clothes Were Made by His Own Hands” though, you might not have a star single but you have just another example of a wildly ambitious hip-hop duo exploring the sonic possibilities of their genre further than anyone has ever gone before.

I’m not going to say that all hip-hop fans should pick this up. If you wondered what in the hell was going on during the vocoder solo of “Runaway” or think that Lil Wayne is the high point of hip-hop, you’re going to be more lost than the main character of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. However, this is a must listen for all followers of experimental and ambitious music. A quick read of my reviews for albums from 2011 will see me making a Who’s Who list of various bands’ influences or the group’s the simply blatantly ripped off. To find a group that stands completely on its own with little in the way of discernible ancestry is a music lover’s dream come true. This album can be about as inaccessible as it gets, and this should in no way be your introduction to more experimental hip-hop (just listen to The Low End Theory and then Kanye’s discography in order and some Radiohead and some Animal Collective), but for those of us ready to take the dive, it couldn’t be more rewarding. I’ve listened to it several times now and each time I grasped some new nugget of detail or texture from the album, and I know I’ll be back for more.

Final Score: A-

Watch the Throne

I firmly believe that, as multifaceted as his enormous talents are, there’s a very strong possibility that Kanye West is the greatest of all time in the realm of hip hop. He’s responsible for three of the greatest rap albums of the last 10 years, ( The College Droppout, Late Registration, and his magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), and he’s contributed his bombastic production style to countless other artists as well. Jay-Z may not be the king of hip-hop that he once was but there’s no denying The Blueprint‘s place in the rap pantheon. Most of Yeezy and Jigga’s collaborations in the past have led to instant classics like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” or “Monster”, so when I heard that they were working together to create a full-lengthed album, I was understandably incredibly excited. Kanye’s the heir apparent to experimental and artistically ambitious hip-hop, and once upon a time, Jay-Z was the master of laying down hard hitting beats and rhymes. Unfortunately, the final product, the recently released Watch the Throne doesn’t quite live up to its high expectations and is a generally uneven production that showcases ‘Ye’s unparalleled production skills but also reminds us that Jay-Z’s best days are far behind him.

Whereas My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was an unprecedented fusion of hard-core hip hop, Michael Jackson-esque pop sensibilities, indie rock, and electronica that currently represents the artistic high-water mark of hip-hop since The Low End Theory, Watch the Throne is a far more conventional and unambitious undertaking. While you still get flashes of ‘Ye’s unrestrained sense of production, splitting main creative control between him and Jay-Z leads to an unreconciled conflict between their quite difference styles. Jay-Z hasn’t changed as an artist since they first worked together on The Blueprint whereas The College Dropout couldn’t be more different than MBDTF. For the most part, Jigga is content to dish out rhyming one-liners to whatever beats that Kanye and his team of co-producers were willing to lay down while Yeezy is still out there with his storytelling/introspective approach to hip-hop lyricism. The bridge between the ambitions and talents of Kanye and Jay-Z is so insurmountable (in ‘Ye’s favor) that it just makes Jay-Z’s parts seem so weak in comparison.And, as I’ll get to in a second, while there are several great tracks on this album (and one instant classic), the album never fully becomes a cohesive product and the quality is generally all over the place.

First and foremost, “Otis” is the best thing Jigga’s done since “99 Problems” and it ranks pretty high in ‘Ye’s singles list. It sounds like something that happened to be left off of The Blueprint for some dumb reason and then they remembered how awesome it sounded. It took so much chutzpah to center an entire song around “Try a Little Tenderness”. It’s one of the greatest songs of all time and the ego that ‘Ye and Jay-Z had to use it is unmatched but also awesome. The other big single is “H*A*M” which is arguably the catchiest track on the album but its main choruses are fairly weak. Although once again, the production value is simply through the roof. “Lift Off” which features Beyonce is this album’s “All of the Lights”. It has pitch-perfect pop sensibilities and the use of synthesizers is well done. I hated “That’s My Bitch.” It’s very offensive and misogynistic. Although, I’m also torn because it’s one of the better produced songs on the album. If you don’t think Kanye is the best rapper-producer out there, you’re crazy. “Who Gon Stop Me” is another song that instantly takes me back to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with its heavily electronic feel and “Runaway”-esque use of vocoder. “Ni**as in Paris” was Yeezy at his worst kind of excessive materialism. Normally, his inherent hedonism is beautifully set-off by his scathing introspection, but here’s he’s just boasting of his success and wealth and both he and Jigga fail to effect me.

I hardly found myself enjoying Jay-Z’s rhymes on this album. While there were moments, like on “Otis” or “Murder to Excellence” where he made a return to form, I felt his performance was fairly phoned in. Just to be sure, I went back and re-listened to The Blueprint where nearly every track is a classic and he rocks every second he’s on the mic, and it only confirmed my opinion of a weak performance here for Jigga. ‘Ye is still great, but he suffers from his biggest flaw that with the exception of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he has trouble making consistently great albums. He’ll have moments of pure brilliance on every album, but then drag those albums down with bloated productions with songs that needed cut. It’s the same problem on Watch the Throne. While his ability to lay down sonic and simultaneously soulful background beats is unmatched, he doesn’t quite know where to cut the fat. I would have probably enjoyed this all a lot more sans Jay-Z, but that’s part of the deal here. If you’re a fan of either, you should definitely listen to the album, just set your expectations at a reasonable level.

Final Score: B


Tha Carter II

My relationship with hip-hop music can only be described as complicated. My tastes generally tend towards rock and roll, particularly folk and other softer sounds, although even lately, my tastes have become more post-rock even. I come from rural WV and by rural, I mean, I didn’t have neighbors for a mile in either direction. My school’s minority population was practically non-existent. However, growing up, my family took care of a family of African-American teenagers through foster care. Every night before we went to bed, my brother Darryl would play his Bone Thugz, 2 Pac, and other hip albums. And so despite, disliking a very large amount of the music that is produced under the label of hip-hop, I have always had a healthy respect for rappers and producers who can really transcend the genre. I don’t think Lil Wayne’s album Tha Carter II really breaks any new ground in hip-hop, but I’d also be a liar if I didn’t say that I really enjoyed the album.

The album doesn’t take any huge risks in terms of composition or fusion of genres. Instead it succeeds on the strength of Weezy’s mic skills alone. He’s got a really unique voice and an idiosyncratic way of flinging his rhymes together. The title track starts (about half way through the album) starts out with some of the best lines of the whole album and never lets up with the intensity and lyricism. I’ve become very used to East Coast rap like Jay-Z and Kanye West that this hard-core Southern Rap took a little bit of getting used to. The beats are heavier. There’s less of an emphasis on soul samples, and it’s generally just a heavier experience. Yet, even with all of that, Lil Wayne manages to pack several catchy dance club tracks onto the album like “Receipt” or “Shooter”. Another stand out track for me was “Fireman” which had me bouncing my head the whole time. Honestly, I found myself dancing along a lot of the time whilst listening to this album.

This isn’t one of the best rap albums ever made. It lacks the social commentary of Public Enemy or Kanye West. It lacks the pop excess of Jay-Z or Kanye West. It’s lacks the genre fusion of A Tribe Called Quest or Kanye West (Kanye’s just the best there is). It makes up for it though with just being a fun record that’s really enjoyable and carried out of mediocrity on the strength of Weezy’s MC skills. If he weren’t constantly spitting crazy awesome rhymes like they were going out of style, this would be another over-rated bit of hip hop hedonism. But he carries it by being a walking dictionary/thesaurus.

Final Score: B

Some artists like Radiohead like to create albums that are essentially genre-less. Other artists like Daft Punk or The White Stripes like to make music that is the pinnacle of their respective genres. And every now and then, an artist like Kanye West comes along who throws together so many different styles and genres and mediums and creates a glowing production that stands head and shoulders above what could be accomplished by sticking to any given one genre. While he had shown signs through out his entire career that he was a force to be reckoned with, from his work on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint to his masterful debut The College Dropout, nothing could have possibly prepared me for the massive jump in quality that represents perhaps the greatest hip-hop album ever made (the only album that I even put in it’s league is 1991′s The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest).

It’s hard to figure out where to begin in describing this album. Perhaps the biggest achievement is the way Yeezy masterfully fuses hard-core hip-hop with some of his best rhymes ever on “Monster” with the magnificent dance pop of “All of the Lights” with it’s 11 guest vocalists including ELTON FREAKING JOHN or the masterful use of vocoder with the 2nd best track of 2010 on the song “Runaway”. You could talk about the incredible crew he has backing him up on the mic from Jay-Z o Nicki Minaj (who provides the best female rap lines ever each time she picks up the mic. She shows up everyone else on “Monster”) to RZA (who is absolutely “fucking ridickluss”) to Cudi to John Legend. It’s just an excessive pop bombast from beginning to end, yet Kanye never manages to sell out his hip-hop culture and background which is unbelievably stunning. He samples Aphex Twin and Black Sabbath and Bon Iver. And yet he still comes off sounding like the best rapper/producer of the last twenty years. Even songs like “Hell of a Life” which is about marrying a porn star and should come off as indulgent represent Kanye’s deep knowledge of the flaws and problems of the hedonistic life style of modern hip hop. It’s ridiculous how easily he fits his messages into songs in ways that should probably go over most people’s heads. Hell, even the final track “Who Will Survive in America” which is nothing more than Gil Scott-Heron ranting and raving about racism in ways that don’t entirely make sense seems like just the perfect coda to this album that represents Kanye’s full embrace of his image as the tortured genius with no self control but the skills to make you forget what an asshole he can be.

If you have even the slightest interest in hip-hop, this album is a must listen. Hell, if you have ears and aren’t so entirely prejudiced against the rap genre or ‘Ye’s personality that you can’t even listen to him without getting angry, you owe it to yourself to check this album out. It’s not only the best rap album of the last twenty years but it’s also easily one of the greatest albums of the last ten years period. Kanye elevates himself above the pack with extravagant production values, intelligent lyricism, and an ability to lay down a catchy track like no other.

Final Score: A+