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.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Man Enough to Care

I recognized at an early age that the masculine roles being offered me were nothing I was interested in. As a boy I was allowed to be feel angry or horny but not much else. Sadness and empathy were for faggots. Showing the world you gave a shit about anyone or anything was verboten. My friends and I at school spent our time picking on each other and the weak. The roles the older generation had-stoic provider-seemed to leave them helpless when left alone and on a path to be dead by 65. By the time I was in Jr. high I was demanding that my mother teach me how to cook. When I was 17 I decided I needed to move to San Francisco. Though I wasn’t gay, I figured any city full of queers would have space for a wimpy dude who didn’t know the first thing about sports and was more interested in hanging out with girls than dudes. 

Most of my male role models growing up were punks who challenged traditional male roles while providing a trajectory for a redefined and more functional masculinity. Ian MacKaye, who was tough yet sensitive, criticizing the sexist macho thug culture while presenting an image of self-reliance and take-no-shit-ness. Joe Strummer whose lyrics showed an empathy for the underdog, and who managed to embody 50s cool without the sexist trappings of that image. The Subhumans, Crass, 7 Seconds, and Operation Ivy, who all wrote songs that challenged traditional male roles. Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Hole, X, even the Go-Gos and Blondie, who all modeled strong female figures. Even Jawbreaker and Green Day, who were sensitive but cool guys who managed to attract cute girls to their shows and show that punk didn’t have to be about macho aggression.

Last week I downloaded an old 7 Seconds song called "Man Enough to Care." It’s from their New Wind album, which is when they were moving away from melodic hardcore and trying to be U2. (Before you laugh, remember that this was when U2 were an alternative band, and one of the reasons Minor Threat broke up is because half the band wanted to be U2 as well - just listen to “Salad Days”). New Wind isn’t an amazing album, but it has some great songs including “Man Enough to Care.” It’s a little punk, a little Bob Dylan, and details the way in which boys are indoctrinated to not have feelings.

Daddy always told you, do it like a man
Never get too friendly,
Some won't understand
[…]
'Cause boys don't crave affection,
Boys ain't got no fear
But did they ever show you how to shut those feelings on then off again

The tear-jerker for me is the end of the song, where it talks about how this cycle continues:

Handshake show you're friendly, but don't get caught,
You gotta fight to prove you're not afraid
Fuck just to prove you're not,
And all your life you play this game and it goes on and on and on and on
Now you've grown into a man, proud as hell to be,
It's now your turn to raise a son, don't let him be one
And you can teach him all the things you were taught yourself

And now you gotta hide yourself, hide yourself away,
Show you care and you might show the world that you're only gay,
Crying is for babies, for boys is it a sin,
To be a caring, sharing, loving, human one”

That song is 30 years old, but it still rings true today. Even in the liberal Bay Area I hear parents tell their young sons not to cry, or that pink is for girls, or any number of things that reinforce the idea that they have to suppress emotion and focus on being physical. I hear it in the rap songs I listen to that call anyone that isn’t out making illegitimate children they aren’t going to support or killing other young men of color a faggot. And I saw it in the toxic and confused misogyny that led to the murder of seven people in Isla Vista this weekend. (I’m not reprinting that fuckers name. He’s got too much attention already. Fuck him.)

Another punk song that helped me define my conception of masculinity is Crass’s “Big M.A.N.” It’s a more caustic and polemic take on the traditional male role of violent, stupid, womanizing wife-beater. Maybe an overgeneralization, but I’ve always loved the lines:

“If you're a man, you'd better act like one,
Develop your muscles, use your prick like a gun.
Fuck anything that moves, but never pay the price,
Steal, fuck, slaughter, that's their advice.
Are you man enough? Ask the posters on the walls,
Have you got what it takes? Guts and balls?
Keep your myth of manhood, it's been going on too long,
A history of slaughter is the proof that it is wrong.”

Finally there is Operation Ivy’s “Here We Go Again,” which was the most direct call to action in terms of redefining masculinity:

Analyzed the world I was born into
But I could never understand
Knew I never wanted to grow up if that meant being a "man"
Dominating strict competition is the meaning of our lives
Stomping on the weak keeps us the winner of the battle in our minds
Tensions in our lives that are destroying our minds
Unite themselves together to make our consciousness blind
Conditioned to self-interest with emotions locked away
If that's what they call normal I'd rather be insane
Relax yourself from giving what you want to do with your life
Ease up from giving up things like control of your own mind
If you never ask any question
Then you're never gonna get no answer
Always be wondering what do you want
While you keep getting older faster
Here we go again
Another test of manhood just when you thought you'd won
The more we keep competing
The more the battle has just begun

Of all the things that music, and especially punk music, gave me, one of the most important was the knowledge that there could be another definition of what it meant to be a man that didn't fit in with the stereotype. Fathers, don't raise your babies to grow up to be assholes. Let them know that real men aren't violent. Real men don't intimidate. Real men have feelings. Real men don't rape. Real men treat their mothers, sisters, coworkers, girlfriends, wives, and the women they are trying to pick up with respect. Which means like human beings. It's not actually that hard.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Survival Knife


I've been really enjoying the Unwound reissues, and I was intrigued to see that Unwound singer/guitarist Justin Troper had a new band, Survival Knife. I was even more intrigued to see that they rocked. There is the angularity you'd expect from the guy from Unwound, but Survival Knife's music is rooted in hard rock and metal as much as post-punk.  There is a little Fucking Champs, a little Loose Nut-era Black Flag, and a whole lot of chunky riffs. Who says you have to mellow with age?




And for comparison....
:

Jessica Lee Mayfield



Jessica Lee Mayfield's 2011 album Tell Me remains one of my favorite albums of the past decade, so I was excited to hear her follow up, Make My Head Sing. Unfortunately, she's ditched producer Dan Auerbach, opting to self-produce this one. The difference shows. There was a warmth and complexity to the production on Tell Me, which added weight to Mayfield's airy vocals and nicely balanced her rock, country, and folk influences.

Make My Head Sing has strong songs, but too often they get lost in the production. Songs like "Oblivious" "Pure Stuff," and "Anything You Want" work the best. They are grounded in chunky, grungy guitars, and sound like she's being backed by the surviving members of Nirvana. It's the quieter songs that suffer the most from Auerbach's absence. As a result, Make My Head Sing is not a bad album, but it's also not as amazing as Tell Me.

Atmosphere Review

Originally posted at RapReviews.com

Atmosphere
Southsiders
Rhymsayers, 2014


Atmosphere have mellowed since the days that Slug used to rap about his romantic troubles, sexual escapades, and tendencies towards over-consumption of booze, cigarettes, and drugs. This mellowing has happened over time. After a 2003 incident in which a young woman was raped and killed by a janitor at an Atmosphere show in New Mexico, Slug’s lyrics got more serious and less sexually irresponsible. A series of copyright lawsuits convinced Ant to stop digging crates for beats and start working with live musicians. Turning 40, getting married, and having kids was the final nail in the coffin of Atmosphere’s younger, smart-ass persona. There’s nothing worse than an aging hipster and you don’t want to be the 40 year old who still parties like he lives in a fraternity. 

Atmosphere have put aside childish things as they’ve matured, and their sound reflects that. 2008’s “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold” was their first foray into Grown Man Rap. It was a collection of downtempo, muted explorations of poverty, abuse, and other studies of imperfect characters. 2011’s “The Family Sign” kept the somber tone and focused on families, including good relationships, abusive relationships, and bad daddies. 
They continue on the same trajectory with their seventh album, “Southsiders.” Those hoping that the duo would return to the more uptempo feel of “Bam” or “We Love the Things That Hate Us” are in for disappointment. Most of “Southsiders” is as grey and depressing as the neighborhood it is named after (at least if liner photos are accurate). 

“Bitter,” the first single from “Southsiders,”. “Bitter” is also the album’s weakest track. Slug’s sing/rapping sounds like Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, another group who have mellowed with age. The chorus is terrible, the lyrics aren’t great, and it sounds like an outtake from “Lemons” or “The Family Sign.” On hearing it I had to wonder if Atmosphere destined to keep writing the same ballad over and over again like the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been doing since “Under the Bridge?” Second single “Kanye West,” is better, but not great. It also points to the two biggest weaknesses of “Southsiders” as a whole.

The first is the beat. “Kanye West,” like “Bitter,” like almost all of the songs on their last three albums, is downtempo and dour. It is the opposite of a banger. It is not the song you put on when you want to get pumped up or feel like you can conquer the world. It is not meant for the club. It will not start a street dance craze. Of the fifteen songs on the proper album, only two of them (the title track and “The World Might End Tonight”) could be said to be uptempo. Everything else is either mid- or downtempo, which gives the album a subdued feel. That’s not to say they are bad (more on that later),  but they aren’t exactly energetic.

The second issue with “Southsiders” that is evident in “Kanye West” is that Slug is struggling lyrically. Too often on the album he relies on irony (saying “put your hands up if you DO give a fuck” on “Kanye West,” rather than the more common “put your hands in the air if you just don’t care”), cliche, or making no sense. “Star Shaped Heart” has a line “The handprints are bloody/Because the puppy outran the bunny” which almost ruins what is otherwise a good song. Even “Flicker,” a powerful song about the rapper Eyedea, who committed suicide in 2010, has some seriously dubious lines like “When I hear your smile it’s outlined in sadness/You poked holes in the magic.” There are many adjectives I’d use to describe Slug’s lyrics - self-punishing, insightful, sincere, nakedly honest, cynical, poetic - but cheesy is not one I’d normally use. Yet there are several moments on “Southsiders” where Slug is downright cheesy.

Those criticism aside, “Southsiders” is still an Atmosphere record, which means it ultimately redeems itself. Slug always manages to kick you in the guts with his rhymes. Even when he’s depressing, Ant still maintains an old-school feel in his beats even when he’s working with guitars and synthesizers. He might build a track entirely around reverbing guitar, but you better believe it is going to have banging drums. His beats hit hard even when they are mellow. The  bluesy wail and handclaps of “Arthur’s Song” might not work well for dancing on a pole, but they hit you where it counts. The piano and synthesizers of “Fortunate” manage to convey a sense of hope and promise that matches Slug’s lyrics. By sampling live instruments, Ant manages to capture both the homey feel of analog instruments and the percussive repetition that comes from flipping breaks. “Southsiders” may not be the most exciting album, but it sounds good.

And then there is Slug. Slug is a consistently interesting rapper, and one of the few MCs who are willing and able to tackle such personal subject matter. His domestic bliss may have dulled his edge, but he still manages to offer biting insights into the human condition with serious microphone skills. He can be neurotic: on “Fortunate” he raps, “I highly doubt y’all think about sex anywhere near as often as I think about death.” He spends a lot of the album analyzing friendship, what it means to get older, romantic relationships, and how to keep moving forward when the whole world seems like it is going to shit. When he’s flossing, he’s dropping knowledge with his daggers. “Southsiders” is a takedown/love letter to the neighborhood he came up in, and Slug sounds like an OG calling out all the young kids:

“Whole Southside been up in your guts
Don’t even know how to describe how much you suck
And it’s not just you but everyone of your plus
Follow each other around like a bunch of ducks
Just turn the music up and get dumb
Stretch your skin around the biggest drum
Born from a neighborhood of click and run
And already gave away my last stick of gum”

I pre-ordered a physical copy of “Southsiders” even after I had spent a week streaming it for free. I rarely buy CDs anymore, but I knew I needed a hard copy of this album. For one thing, Rhymesayers always puts a lot of care into their physical product, making it worth the purchase price. For another thing, while Atmosphere may stumble at times, they get it right enough to make anything they do worth listening to and worth paying attention to.  While the line in “Flicker” about poking holes in the magic is a misstep, Slug closes strong:

And now I’m trying to write a song for a dead songwriter
That wrote they own songs about life and death
And every breath is full of self-awareness
Don't ever be afraid to be embarrassed
So I wrote these words to describe what I cry about
But I’m certain if you were here right now you’d ridicule these lyrics
You’d hate this chorus
You’d probably tell me that the concept is too straight forward”

It’s lines like that that keep me coming back to Atmosphere’s music, and make “Southsiders” another solid entry into the Atmosphere catalogue, warts and all.




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