Friday, August 15, 2014

I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got

I downloaded Sinead O'Connor's 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got last week. The CD I have of it, which I bought when it came out, has been played so much it doesn't work anymore. Listening to it again after almost twenty years I was reminded that it was one of my favorite albums, and that O'Connor was one of our generation's geniuses and missed opportunities.

Her first album, 1987's The Lion and the Cobra, got a lot of buzz and went gold. It's a good album, but her sophomore album I Do Not Want is a masterpiece. It balances folk, rock, traditional Irish music hip-hop and R&B, all centered around O'Connor's amazing voice and confessional lyrics.
It's saying something that the Prince song "Nothing Compares 2 U," the biggest hit on the album, is also one of its weaker tracks.

"Black Boys On Mopeds" is one of my favorite songs on the album. It's just an acoustic guitar and O'Connor's quiet voice as she criticizes England. "Margaret Thatcher on TV, struck by the deaths that took place in Beijing," she starts. "It seems strange she should be offended - the same orders are given by her." One of the most haunting lines is her description of a poor mother begging for food in London's Smithfield market. "In her arms she holds three cold babies/And the first words that they learned was 'Please.'" It's an amazingly cutting humanization of poverty.




I also love "I Am Stretched On Your Grave," which combines a traditional Irish fiddle with the Funky Drummer sample that backed countless hip-hop songs of the day. Then there is "The Las Day of Our Acquaintance," the ultimate fuck-you to an ex lover, that was sung with ferocity live:



O'Connor was young and outspoken and female and sensitive, and she suffered mightily for it. She wasn't shy about expressing her opinions about the Pope, religion, the IRA, etc., and she was punished for it. There is nothing people hate more than an uppity woman, and so she was mocked and booed of stages and basically made a pariah. Her response was to basically fall off the radar and disappear from public view. Which is a fucking shame because she was and continues to be a tremendous talent who deserved far more respect than she got.

I was happy to see that she came out with a new album recently, I'm Not Bossy I'm the Boss. I'm not sure I'm in love with it, or that I'll even end up buying it, but at least she's still making music and still speaking her mind.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Shabazz Palaces Review

Originally published in RapReviews

Shabazz Palaces, 
Lese Majesty
Sub Pop Records

It’s a cliche but it is true: hip-hop is a young man’s game. Rappers rarely age gracefully, and the most successful rappers either fade out of the game or fall off. It is the rare rapper who is able to maintain artistic relevance decades into their careers. Ishmael Butler is one of this rare breed. After being part of the successful New York jazz-rap crew Digable Planets in the 1990s, Butler released an album as Cherrywine in 2003, and then re-emerged in Seattle alongside Tendai Maraire in Shabazz Palaces. “Lese Majesty,” their second full-length, sees them continuing to develop their dense and psychedelic sound.

Butler has managed to stay relevant because he has not trying to compete with younger rappers. He’s not trying to get features from YG or 2 Chainz, he’s not teaming up with Zaytoven or DJ Mustard, and he is not trying to kick it old school over funk loops. He’s not even trying to make rap albums. He’s on some other level ish, getting cryptic, trippy, and interstellar. Shabazz Palaces’ music is heavy and weird, existing at the intersection between rap, jazz, funk, and electronic music. Butler’s lyrics are obtuse, equal parts metaphysical and revolutionary.

It’s not always easy to understand or decipher what Butler is rapping about on “Lese Majesty.” There are a lot of trippy lines that make you think that Butler and company have been on Mars in between albums. The effects his voice is often filtered through don’t make him any easier to understand.The album opens with Butler intoning, “The light hath names/Just like the heavens and the stars/Reclaim us to further along the spaceways.” They must have some good legal weed up there in Washington.

The spaciness is all well and good, but it is when Butler gets more down to earth that “Lese Majesty” really takes off. A lot of the album seems to be about Butler contemplating hip-hop and Black Americans’ history and future.”We was escaping the bleak, pursuing a feeling,” he raps on “...Down 155th in the MCM Snorkel.” “Pressure pushed them towards the instinct of brilliance/Capture then scraping the breaks off to build songs.” On “Forerunner’s Foray,” he raps:

“Crack baker super real just like '88 was
'92 and '92, in '92 we grinded thru
I was there, you're a square
These do not compare”

“Motion Sickness” seems to be about a minor-league hustler recently released from prison:

“Crime related
Activated
Trap located
Strap to spray it
If you face the case
You faded
Player you’d have never made it
And although the state delayed it
And been equated
Sent you back up on the pavement
This one here is dedicated
The mistakes you’ve made
Is seasons grown
Castles raided
Fortunes blown”

Like “Black Up,” “Lese Majesty” is meant to be listened to as one piece, rather than a collections of songs. The tracks bleed into one another, and half of the 18 tracks are interludes that last less than two minutes, offering ideas of songs that fade in and out. There is a hazy, dreamy vibe to the album, all waves of sound and croaked lyrics. Occasionally it shows bursts of energy, like on “#CAKE,” but mostly it is dank and foggy. Album centerpiece “Ishmael,” for example, starts with Butler’s reverberated voice saying “mimicking gods” before he starts whisper-rapping about sinister minds and sinister motives over pulsating keyboards. It’s like the kind of dream you might have when under anesthesia, peaceful but also a little sinister. That describes the entire album.

A lot of “Lese Majesty” is funky ambient weirdness that is comforting despite being pretty strange. The album gets more dissonant in its last third. “MindGlitch Keytar ™ Theme” has a driving beat with squalls of synth noise. “New Black Wave” has an off-key, off-tempo theme running through it that makes the whole song feel off and unsettling. It ends with the interstellar “Sonic MythMap for the Trip Back,” which sounds as weird as its title suggests. These dissonant sonic elements make “Lese Majesty” a somewhat challenging listen because they mess with the peaceful vibe of the album. I played “Lese Majesty” late at night several times and found that it freaked me out. It’s like a drug trip that is starting to go south on you.

“Lese Majesty” doesn’t sound like any other hip-hop albums out there, but it does have some precedents. For one thing, Shabazz Palace’s previous work has had a similar spacey feel. The album can also be seen as the spiritual successor to the Digable Planets great “Blowout Comb,” which also went for blunted-out textures rather than radio singles. D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” also came to mind while I listened to “Lese Majesty,” especially in the heavy production and sense of something worrying lurking underneath all the pretty melodies.

As a rap album, “Lese Majesty” isn’t that successful. There are no hooks or singles, and half the time you can’t understand what the hell Butler is rapping about. As a capital-A Album, however, it’s pretty great. It’s accessible enough to be listenable, challenging enough to be interesting, and has many layers for the listener to unfold and decipher. It’s an album made by people steeped in music and music history who are trying to push themselves and their listeners. It also sounds really good, which makes it an album to seek out and spend some time with.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Iamsu! Review

Iamsu!
Sincerely Yours

First posted at  RapReviews.

 There has been a quiet revolution going on within hip-hop over the past few years: good kid rap. Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Sage the Gemini and Iamsu! are part of a new breed of rapper who may have grown up surrounded by gang bangers and drug dealers but didn't participate in the lifestyle. They don't celebrate self-destruction in their raps, but they also aren't as explicitly conscious as Talib Kweli or Common were back in the proverbial day. They aren't as nihilistic as the rappers coming out of Chicago's drill scene or the Odd Future gang (although Earl Sweatshirt could be called a good kid rapper), and they don't celebrate ridiculous excess like the Migos or Rick Ross or Jay Z or most mainstream rappers. These are kids rapping about what kids care about: friends, girls, and trying to make sense of the world.

Sudan Ameer Williams, better known as Iamsu! embodies this new breed of rapper that's not gangsta, backpack, macho, or overly materialistic. He was born and raised in Richmond, California, a city of 100,000 wedged between the aging hippies and university students in Berkeley and a Chevron oil refinery. Richmond has a reputation in the San Francisco Bay Area as a dangerous place, a reputation which isn't totally unearned, since it was once the 12th most dangerous city in America. (When I moved to nearby El Cerrito, two different burglar alarm salesman showed up on my door, and El Cerrito's proximity to Richmond was the basis of both their sales pitches.) Despite coming from a city best known by outsiders for its murder rate, Iamsu!'s music is dreamy and mellow. If you only knew about Richmond from "Sincerely Yours," you'd get the feeling it was some idyllic town where the only problem young men faced was having too many girls to choose from and too much money. On "No Secret" he raps:

"I see the Forbes List like this where I need to be
I was a youngun on his grind, mind on money
With his side kick thirsty trying to aim young honeys
Now I aim is to the top, never change, never stop
I was a good kid, never had to hang on the block
But the hood still cheering for him, burb still cheering for him
Made it out the Bay, overcame let's hear it for him
But never forgetting where I came from"


"Sincerely Yours" is a low-key album. Iamsu! sings most of his rhymes over a series of melodic, dreamy beats. It's what I ended up liking most about the album, but it was also what made me sleep on this album and his mixtapes. He doesn't make the most banging music in the world. It doesn't have the flash of a lot of stuff on the radio, even songs that feature him. Half the songs are slow. Things don't really take off until the last third of the album when the familiar pulsing hyphy beat kicks in and people like Too $hort and Two Chainz show up.

Ironically, those more uptempo, club-worthy tracks are also the least interesting songs on the album. They tread the same musical and lyrical territory as a hundred other songs on the radio. "Back On Your Mind," "What You ÔBout" and "T.W.D.Y." are all basically different versions of the same song, which also happens to be the same song DJ Mustard has been constantly rewriting for the past twenty-four months. It's a good sound, but every other song on hip-hop radio has that same minimalist beat, the same chanting "yeahs," the same farting bass. The prettier, more contemplative beats by The Bizness ("No Secret," "Girls," "Stop Signs") are far more interesting, and see Iamsu! rapping about less played out subject matter.

Iamsu!'s music has something lacking from a lot of recent hip-hop: Fun, and not the fun of being in the VIP section of a club none of the listeners could afford to be in even if their outfits made it past the dress code. Iamsu! is all about meeting cute girls at swap meets, hanging out with friends, getting high, and basically living like most late teens and early twenty-somethings live. While "Sincerely Yours" offers some decent club hits, it excels when Iamsu! is being sincere. Maybe good guys do win sometimes.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Punk Singer

I watched The Punk Singer last night, the documentary about Bikini Kill/Le Tigre singer and riot grrrl co-founder Kathleen Hannah. I wasn't in love with it - it reminded me of the Minuteman doc We Jam Econo in its overly-laudatory tone and slightly amateurish style. It would have been a better film if it hadn't been so hyperbolic in its praise of its subject. Not that Kathleen Hannah and Bikini Kill don't deserve praise, but when you have lines like 'They weren't just the best girl band, they were the best band PERIOD," it's a little much. It painted her as a hero/martyr, especially when discussing her struggles with Lyme disease.

There was a particularly tone-deaf moment when someone was saying how feminism was equality for all races and classes and for the disabled, and then it went into how Hannah had gotten so sick she's been unable to work for the past nine years. Not that her illness hasn't been debilitating, but to somehow compare her struggle with the disease with the struggle for the poor and women of color was a bad look. There's a point in the film where Hannah discusses her father, and says she calls him sexually inappropriate rather than sexually abusive because she knows people who have been sexually abused and her story isn't anywhere near as horrific. That's what framing her illness with the struggles of other marginalized people made me think of - terrible and traumatic and worthy of sympathy and exploration, but maybe not as horrific as the stories of people experiencing institutionalized racism or generational poverty. Given the frequent accusations by feminists of color that white feminists ignore issues of race and their own privilege, it struck me as a particularly unskillful way to introduce her illness.

There was also very little mention of the criticism Hannah received in the 90s from the feminist and punk communities. They mention the awful media attention they got, and the hateful letters they got from guys threatening to kill or rape them, but there wasn't much in way of feminist criticisms of Hannah or riot grrrl. I knew a Latina woman who was involved in riot grrrl and ended up being very disillusioned by how much of it came from a position of white privilege, and how it's format (punk rock and zines) almost by design excluded people of color, who were less likely to be into that culture.

Also, Hannah's voice. She speaks in a valley girl accent, full of "likes," and "you knows." It makes her sound so trivial and dumb, and she's not. The film addresses this, the contradiction between the way she talks and the ideas she's expressing, but Hannah's expiation is that she adopted the accent in jr. high to sound rich. That was 30 years ago - why has she kept it? As someone who is plagued with a surfer accent of my own, I especially sensitive to it. I think it is one of the biggest issues of my generation and the ones younger than me: we, like, you know, sound like fucking dumbasses or whatever.

Still, it was an inspiring film in many ways. It was great to relive the early days of riot grrrl and be reminded of what a powerful movement it was. They had input by people from Tribe 8, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, and Sonic Youth, although why none of those bands were really profiled is a mystery. They also could have spent more time discussing other female punk bands that came before Bikini Kill - the women that inspired them. I would also love to hear what Hannah thinks about feminism in the 21st century, but maybe I should just find some interviews she's done.

So see it if you want to, but I would take the many positive reviews it has gotten with a grain of salt.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Nomeansno



I had some extra credits this month, so I downloaded a few Nomeansno songs from Emusic. I loved the Canadian band in the late 80s when I used to listen to The Day Everything Became Isolated and Destroyed and Wrong over and over.  I first heard of them when the local college radio station played "Dad."


It's a three chord punk song about an abusive father with a sick sense of humor (the last line is "I'm seriously considering leaving home"). What I liked about Nomeansno was that their songs were more intelligent and interesting than your average hardcore band. They have serious musical chops, and would swing between jazz, blues, punk, and prog, sometimes in the same song. There is something nerdy about them as well - they are in the same camp as Primus and Rush, in a way. Virtuoso musicians whose music is probably better appreciated if you know some music theory and/or are high. Neither of those descriptions fit me, but I still like Nomeansno.




Open Mike Eagle Review

Open Mike Eagle
Dark Comedy
Mello Music Group, 2014

Originally posted on RapReviews.com

L.A. transplant Open Mike Eagle is often called a smart rapper. While it is an accurate description of his brainy rhymes, it's also a backhanded compliment to both Mike and other rappers. Calling Mike a smart rapper implies that his intellect is the most interesting aspect of his music. It also implies that other rappers are dumb, or that Mike is the only person in hip-hop with a college degree. It's hard to be stupid and make a living spitting complex rhymes, and most rappers have more going on upstairs than their songs about sex, drugs, and violence let on.

As to the label "smart rapper," while Open Mike Eagle's literate rhymes and obscure references may be his most obvious trait, the "rapper" part is more important. Being smart only matters if you can rap, and Mike's biggest gift is his ability to translate his intellect into compelling rhymes. He's been working on his craft for the better part of a decade. "Dark Comedy," his fourth solo album, is his best work to date.

As on his previous albums, he works with electronica-influenced beats, avoiding boom-bap or club rap. There are eleven different producers on "Dark Comedy," unlike his last album, where Awkward produced all the beats. Most of the tracks are melodic and pretty, with the exception of Jeremiah Jae's abrasive beat on "A History of Modern Dance," and Alpha MC's menacing beat on "Doug Stamper." Mike adds to the melodicism by singing most of his rhymes. He experimented with singing rhymes on "4NML HSPTL," but he perfects it here. The sung vocals add emotion to the songs and offset Mike's sometimes monotone delivery.

There is a definite nerdy vibe to Open Mike Eagle. He quotes nerd icons They Might Be Giants, raps about role playing games, and uses ten dollar words like "synesthesia" (which is where you perceive sounds as colors). The combination of high-brow lyrics, muted vibe and indie pop sensibilities on "Dark Comedy" also mean that it will probably appeal to many of the college-educated, left-leaning intellectual types that tune in to "This American Life" on a weekly basis (a description which includes myself). However, it would be unfairly reductive and inaccurate to label Mike's music "NPR rap" or "Nerdcore." As brainy and nerdy as he gets at points, there is bite to his songs. He's said in interviews that each of his song is based on something that bothers him, and he tackles a host of problems on "Dark Comedy." Things like racism, sexism, depression, addiction, and trying to make it as an artist in a genre where people use $1,500 laptops and $800 phones to illegally download an $8 album. "And nobody ever has to pay for anything," he raps on "Golden Age Raps," "Which is pretty cool 'cause everybody's unemployed." "My friends are superheroes," he raps on "Very Much Money (Ice King Raps)," "None of us have very much money though." He takes on his detractors and freeloaders on at the chorus. "That shit's not valuable/Come say it to my face/It's all disposable/Come say it to my face." On "Qualifiers," Mike twists rap braggadocio on its head, claiming "We're the best, mostly/Sometimes the freshest rhymers/We the tightest kinda/Respect my qualifiers."

He supposedly had an album worth of songs ready to go a while back, but realized they were all downers and so decided to make a less depressing album. Hence "Dark Comedy," with Mike "on that to keep from crying tip." There is a sadness to the album that comes through in the rhymes and in the subdued beats. In that sense it is a good companion to Atmosphere's recent "Southsiders," another album of somber, contemplative rap. Also like "Southsiders," "Dark Comedy" takes a while to truly appreciate. When you are dealing with four-minute songs with whispered rapping and a beat that isn't much more than a piano ("Idaho"), you can't just put it on in the car and hope to immediately get it. It's only after a few listens that you realize it is a song that is either about driving late at night drunk and high, or a metaphor about feeling out of control in life.
"Damn near fucking blind, don't know why you trust me to drive
I guess cause everytime you trust, we survive, but it's time
Is a motherfucking gamble
Eventually lady luck will call and say she cancels
You betting on my confidence when I was extra high, now I'm extra high
We'll pull over just to rest my eyes
And the only thing, fueling me is that I'm scared to die
And I'm scared for you cause you could die and never said goodbye
Why you trust me so? Why'd you let me lead
When I don't know where I'm going and I speed?
And this vehicle's the jankiest
Feel this coffee ruining my stomach and my pancreas
Sounds make me the angriest
So foggy the words, seem to be turning in different languages"


There are a lot of rappers who complain about the state of rap music: how it is full of sex and violence, how there is a lack of lyricism, how it is full of crass pop crossovers. Open Mike Eagle does one better and shows a path forward for hip-hop. His music isn't stuck in golden age worship, it isn't trying to be street, and it is more concerned with being good than with calling out other rappers for being bad. Sure he's a smart rapper, but he's a good rapper who infuses his music with melodies and meaning. "Dark Comedy" may not be the most banging album of the year, but it is one of the better ones.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Death Grips Review

Originally posted on RapReviews.com

Death Grips
Niggas On the Moon 
Self-Released (http://thirdworlds.net)


Niggas On the Moon is the fourth album in three years by Sacramento group Death Grips. Their early work sampled Pink Floyd and Black Flag, and their later work has gone in different but equally loud direction. After last year’s cacophonous “Government Plates,” I was ready to write the trio of MC Ride and producers Zach Hill and Andy Morin off. I figured they had taken the group’s template as far as it could go, and I had heard all I need of Ride screaming about sex and drugs over clattering industrial beats. Their latest album, which is supposed to be the first half of a double album, proves me wrong. It’s more interesting and more listenable than “Government Plates,” and sees Ride maturing as an MC. (I realize it’s unfair to review a double album based on only half the album, but it’s the length of the album and was released first, so it seems like fair game).

All of the songs on “Niggas On the Moon” are built around samples of Icelandic avant-garde pop star Bjork. Death Grips did some remixes for Bjork, and she returned the favor by appearing on this album. That doesn’t mean that she is singing hooks, or that Death Grips are sampling “Big Time Sexuality” or “Oh So Quiet.” Instead, they take a snippet of her voice and give it the Death Grips treatment: filtering it almost beyond recognition and repeating it at 120 BPM. It’s a similar thing that they did with synthesizers and sirens and drums on “Government Plates.” The big difference is that Bjork’s voice filtered and worked over still maintains its soothing, ethereal quality. The result is beats that have an almost ambient feel even as they hammer and hiccup and stutter. 

This kindler, gentler backdrop gives Ride room to do something besides scream. His vocals are sometimes quiet and calm, which gives a nice contrast to his explosions of aggression. 
On earlier releases Ride came off as a crazed, drugged-out lunatic who seemed minutes away from an overdose or serious bodily harm. The incarnation of Ride on “Niggas On the Moon” is more sustainable, with less focus on drugs and being aggro and an overall more psychedelic feel. 

He still raps about sex and drugs, but the real focus is on trippy stream-of-consciousness, like “Xerox man dressed in gauze spiders silk in menopause.”  Take the lyrics to “Voila;” they seem to indicate that the title has more to do with getting really out there than anything NASA is up to:

“Voila
Maybe I belong to you
I'm sure you want me to
My shadow's onto you
Voila, voila
I can't make you like voila
I'll make you love voila
Make you make love to voila
Hole
Make you place your faith with voila
Hotel
Enough with what your temple knew
Help

I don't talk to the help
Help
Whose voila suits you too well?
Don't talk to the help
Help”

As on “Government Plates,” Rides vocals are not always front and center in the songs. Death Grips seems to be moving away from the rapper/producer mold and moving towards something different. There are a couple almost instrumental songs where Ride is barely present. Even on the songs where he’s featured, he’s just another element in the mix rather than the star of the show. And also like “Government Plates,” “Niggas On the Moon” is eschewing traditional song structures. “Viola” is the most vivid example, whiplashing between minimalism and complete insanity in an instant. There’s not a lot of  verse-chorus-verse going on here. 

“Niggas On the Moon” is a return to form for Death Grips, but it isn’t perfect. For one thing, the songs feel more like eight variations on the same concept than eight distinct tracks. That’s neither surprising nor unforgivable given the experimental bent of the band, but you can’t help but notice the sameness when you listen to the album. The album also doesn’t solve the quintessential Death Grips dilemma, which is the fact that their music is kind of annoying. If you aren’t in the mood for noise, then this is not the record for you. What it has going for it is that it doesn’t sound like anything else anyone has going right now, and it shows artistic growth. Plus, it’s available for free, so you’ll only be out time and hard drive space. If you are in the mood for hip-hop that pushes the envelope, or music that manages to be soothing and aggro at the same time, “Niggas On the Moon” has you covered.






Saturday, June 07, 2014

Halftime

The year is almost half over, so I thought I'd make a list of my favorite records of the year so far. They are:

Bleeding Rainbow, Interrupt for its use of textures and its nice blend of shoegaze guitars, melodies, and male/female vocals.

The Solids, Blame Confusion for its chunky, melodic riffs that sound straight out of 1994

Atmosphere, Southsiders for the handful of great songs on the album that combine soulful, hard-hitting beats with introspective rhymes

Unwound, Rat Conspiracy, for collecting two of the best records of the 1990s plus some good b-sides.

One thing that's not really on this list is much hip-hop. That's because I haven't been listening to much hip-hop lately. I listen to the stuff I review, but that's about it. I'm turned off by the vulgarity and misogyny of mainstream and street rap, and there hasn't been much underground stuff that's moved me. If I listen to rap it is mostly old De La Soul records with my kid. At home with my kid I listen to kid's music, old jazz and old reggae. On my own, I listen to Grouper and Unwound. Almost exclusively. It's a little disturbing to me that I've been so into Unwound, given that I am 39. What I realized is that in some ways I'm at a similar point in my life as I was when I was into Unwound in my early twenties. Not really sure who I am supposed to be or what I am supposed to be doing, not totally satisfied with work, and feeling a little lost. That's a selfish way to be given that I have an amazing family and an amazing job and am incredibly lucky, but the transition to being a parent has given me a bit of an identity crisis, and working a mid-level job can be just as confusing and dissatisfying as working an entry-level job. What am I supposed to be doing, is this the career I want, have I overstayed my welcome, etc. etc. It's a similar sense of ennui and angst that the thrashings and wailings of Unwound help to soothe. Of course, when I was 19, I had a lot of freedom but no means to take advantage of it. Now I am more comfortable materially, but I have a lot more responsibilities. I worry all the time. What if I lose my job? What if I can't pay my mortgage? What if my wife or kid gets sick? The scenarios are constantly playing in my head. At 19 my girl problems were trying to get a girlfriend or get over a broken heart. Now my girl problems are hoping that my ladies stay healthy and I continue to be able to provide for them. Responsibility, man, it's a total buzzkill.


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