Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ariana Grande Review

My review of Ariana Grande's latest is up at RapReviews. Why am I reviewing a pop/R&B album? Partially because me and my kid sort of like "Bang Bang" and "Problem." Partially because I feel like I should review more high-profile stuff. And partially because Ariana Grande doesn't totally make sense to me. So there you have it. Originally posted at RapReviews.

At 21, Grande is already eight years deep into a career that has spanned singing on cruise ships to singing in a Broadway musical to staring in a Nickelodeon show to releasing a debut album and touring with Justin Bieber in 2013. "My Everything" is her second album. Grande's main attribute is her voice, which is somewhere between Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey. (The fact that she is good-looking doesn't hurt either - there aren't any plain female pop stars, after all.)
I get the sense from the music and marketing for Ariana Grande's "My Everything" that she and her handlers don't quite know what to do with her. Is she a teen pop idol or a dance diva or an R&B singer? Is she the squeaky clean Nickelodeon star or is she a sexy sexy grown up? Does she let the focus be on her singing chops, or does she hide her range with layers of Auto-Tune and EDM? ÊThe approach seems to be to try and maintain multiple conflicting images at once, even when they are contradictory. It seems to be working for her, but it's confusing.

To start off with, Grande is old enough to drink but doesn't look old enough to vote. Her barely-legal looks give a creepy sheen to her sexed up image. She's posing in lingerie and heels on the album cover and she's wearing a miniskirt and high-heeled boots in most of her marketing material and videos. Yes, Grande is a grown-ass woman and can dress however she wants to dress and get as sexy as she wants to get, and no, she's not nearly as trashy as Miley Cyrus or "Dirrty"-era Christina Aguilera. However, while it seemed like Miley and Xtina's hyper-sexualized image was driven by the artists themselves, with Grande it just feels like a management-imposed marketing strategy. They are trying to get her to land somewhere between girl next door and high class call girl. Sexy enough to differentiate her from her Nick days, but not sexy enough to scare any of those fans (or their parents) off. Her sly, coquettish looks to the camera in "Problem" are stiff. Her hip-grinding is desultory and phoned in. It all feels as scripted and test-marketed as a Hollywood blockbuster starring an actress who is fulfilling a contractual obligation. Her visual presentation doesn't seems to be connected with who she actually is.


Grande's voice is ostensibly why she is famous, and to their credit the producers give her room to show off her impressive chops. She gets to do some full-on belting on ballads like "Just A Little Bit of Your Heart" and "Why Try." They don't trust her enough to actually let her voice carry the songs though; the metallic fingerprint of Auto-Tune is all over "My Everything," even the vocal trills that start off the album. I understand correcting the pitch of an artist who isn't a strong singer, but why mess with the vocals of someone who can actually sing?

Speaking of producers, "My Everything" assemble a huge international crew. All the songs but the intro have more than one producer, and "One Last Time" has five. No song has less than three songwriters listed, and "Break Your Heart Right Back" has six. That's a whole lot of chefs to craft a three minute pop song. The benefit of having so many people involved is that the end product is well-position to acquire maximum market share across multiple platforms with significant cross-promotional potential. A song like the A$AP Ferg track "Hands On Me" has the snaps and whistles of club rap with some big EDM synths to smooth it out and prevent it from appealing only to the Urban market. "Love Me Harder" has the indie R&B/chillwave thing going courtesy of the Weeknd, but given a pop makeover so that it isn't too weird for the Walmart crowd (who get exclusive bonus tracks when they buy the album from the mega-retailer). This song-by-committee approach pays off, to a certain extent. As much as I might dis "My Everything" for its lack of sincerity, it's not a bad album. In fact, I kind of like some of it. "Problem" is a perfect combination of hip-hop sass and Mariah Carey worship, "One Last Time" and "Break Free" are big dumb dance songs done with style and class, "Bang Bang," which is available on some deluxe versions of the album, is a great song, although Jessie J. and Nikki Minaj are the ones responsible for its greatness. Ariana Grande's music may not be my cup of tea, but it doesn't suck.

The same can't be said for the rappers who accompany Grande on the mic. Iggy Azalea, Childish Gambino, A$AP Ferg and Big Sean all share verses with Grande, and they all fall on their faces. They fail in a few different ways. Azalea's verse would almost be good if it wasn't her rapping them. I've always admired how Australian rappers adapted the music to their own idiom and slang, so it's a shame to see that the most well-known Australian rapper sounds like she's doing an impression of someone from Brooklyn. Big Sean's verses on "Best You Ever Had" aren't bad, but he's having to deliver them as ballad rap which makes them clumsy. Childish Gambino and A$AP Ferg both sound neutered by having to give PG-rated raps. Listening to them is like watching an episode of the Brady Bunch directed by Quentin Tarantino. They are playing far outside their strengths and most of their standard vocabulary and subject matter are off-limits. You can tell Ferg would really, really like to clearly state where he wants Ariana's hands on him, and if the song was just aimed at hip-hop radio he would.

There's a couple of well-worn paths ahead of Grande. Since we love to tear down artists, and especially female artists, a backlash is inevitable. At some point she is going to have to shed her teeny bop image for once and for all. I don't think she could pull of Taylor Swift's whole "every girl's best friend" thing, which even Taylor is having trouble maintaining. She could go full slut like Christina and Miley and Brittany, start dry humping things, make out with Madonna, maybe date a woman for a minute, but that doesn't seem like Grande's style either. She could have a public meltdown like her idol Mariah, then try and make a comeback, maybe in an unflattering acting role. Personally, I see her having a hit with a big anthem from a Disney movie and then going back to Broadway, which is where her voice seems most suited.

I was at a wedding recently where a twelve-year-old girl jumped up onstage when "Bang Bang" came on. She danced and lip-synched to the entire song, putting her hand on her ear when Grande's part came on, like a singer checking her monitor. I may not love Grande's music, and I am definitely not her target audience, but seeing a young girl connect with it was a heartwarming experience. Grande's music and image may make no sense to me, but it's connecting with millions of people to whom the lines between R&B, hip-hop and dance aren't as rigid. That is no small feat.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Live Like You're Dead Review

Castle and Has-Lo
Live Like You're Dead
“Live Like You’re Dead” is a collaboration between South Carolina MC/producer Castle and Philly MC/producer Has-Lo. Their previous collaboration, “Return of the Gasface,” was Has-Lo remixing Castle’s music. “Live Like You’re Dead” has both MCs on the mic. It is in the vein of “Run the Jewels,” only with more loops and less cartoon violence and drug use. You may remember Castle from his solid 2013 album “Gasface,” which walked the line between being goofy and serious. Has-Lo’s “In Case I Don’t Make It” is a heavy album full of suicidal thoughts and rumination on life, loss, and God. Has-Lo and Castle aren’t the most likely collaboration, but “Live Like You’re Dying” is an excellent album.

The album has a looseness, like the two went into the studio and knocked this out in a few days. You can hear them having fun with their rhymes, but also pushing each other to go harder. In my review of Gasface, I described Castle as “Redman if Redman had gone to college instead of doing hallucinogens.” After listening to this album, I’m revising that statement to say he’s like if Redman combined with Aesop Rock. He’s got some of the just-don’t-give-a-fuck sense of humor as Red, but some of the tangled lyricism of Aesop. His verse on “Good Feelings” illustrates what I’m talking about:

“Question: Can you call it morning wood when you wake up post meridian?
Afternoon wood doesn't have a ring to it
Dumb questions that are posed ad infinitum
It's the mary jane iron and the wrankles in my brainum”

Has-Lo can be too subdued as an MC at times. Castle livens him up, and he sounds energized on this album. Whether he is rapping about big booties in general on “The Big Ole Ass” or big booties in yoga pants on “Yoga Pants,” Has-Lo shows a sense of humor that I didn’t catch on “In Case I Don’t Make It.” 

That isn’t to accuse “Live Like You’re Dead” of being frivolous. Sure, there is some lusting and shit-talking, but the title of the album comes from a Malcom X quote that starts off the album. Much like Open Mike Eagle’s “Dark Comedy,” “Live Like You’re Dying” is all about laughing to keep from crying. On “My Uncle,” Castle raps about losing faith and advice he’d give his younger self:

“Check, lost my faith on the path to enlightenment
That was feeling confused and feeling vexed
I hear that socially awkward's the new sexy
Goddamn, I was born in the wrong decade
My high school years might have been less of a headache
Ill, but I try not to let that shit perplex me
If I could travel time I would cheat the system
Leave my young self lotto numbers and some wisdom”

Has-Lo combines manages to work through his issues while bragging on “Stubborn Vice”:

“I don't work how I should, work like I ought to
They say to be a novelist you should read a lot of authors
I really don't
 I kinda think I know it all
I'm cold
I'd much rather never be involved
I'm not selfish, I don't aim to hurt a person”

Production is handled by Has-Lo and Castle. The one guest is Arcka, who riffs off of “Bring Tha Pain” for “D.L.S., “ one of the album’s stand-out tracks. The beats are mostly built around sample loops, although “The Big Ole Ass” has some dirty synths as well. It’s a little Madlib, a little Dilla, a little A Tribe Calle Quest. Those are pretty solid influences to have, and the album has a soulful, low-key feel. 
Much like Run the Jewels, there aren’t a lot of stakes with “Live Like You’re Dead.” It feels like the product of two friends who got together to make some music. Like Killer Mike and El-P, Has-Lo and Castle’s rap and production styles compliment one another. Has-Lo brings gravitas and introspection, and Castle brings the humor and head-nodders. The resulting album showcases the best of what both artists have to offer, which makes it well worth listening to.




Big Freedia Review

Big Freedia
Just Be Free
Originally reviewed on RapReviews

I found out about Big Freedia the way most white people found out about her: through her connection to the LGBTQ community. A few years ago I typed in "is there any gay hip-hop" in a search engine and the first hit was a 2010 article in the New York Times about gay bounce artists in New Orleans with Freedia and transgender artist Katey Red at the core. The fact that Freedia and Katey Red were not only queers in hip-hop, but gender-bending AND making women-friendly ass-shaking music made a lot of people outside of New Orleans take notice. In just a few short years Freedia's gone from playing grimy clubs with all-black audiences in sketchy parts of town to festivals teeming with white hipsters. She has toured with indie pop acts Matt and Kim and the Postal Service, she's played at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and she's played the late-night talk show circuit. She's been written about the Times and Vanity Fair. She has a reality show on Fuse. She's writing a memoir. And she's finally released her first proper album, "Just Be Free." The album is a reminder that what makes Freedia worthy of attention is not her sexual orientation or her gender identity, but the fact that she can make asses move.

For those not familiar with bounce, it's a New Orleans take on hip-hop that is frenetic, bass-heavy, and usually centered around the Triggerman beat and raunchy call-and-response lyrics. The music got a little mainstream love fifteen years ago when Cash Money was blowing up, but for the most part has been an underground, regional phenomenon. Then Freddie "Big Freedia" Ross, the 6'2" self-proclaimed "Queen of Bounce" set out to bring it to the world. (According to her Wikipedia page, Freedia isn't transgender, and considers herself a gay male who answers to he or she. I've only seen her referred to as a she, so I'm sticking with that.)

It may seem a little unexpected that the person to make bounce music mainstream would be a queer artist, given that there are very few queer mainstream artists, but it makes a kind of sense. Freedia makes the sexual aggression and raunchiness of bounce safe for women. Her shows provide women with a safe place to get freaky and shake their asses without feeling like they are going to be groped or judged. The music becomes more celebratory than predatory or demeaning. There isn't the edge of misogyny or loaded heterosexual politics in her shows or her lyrics. It's more like "We're all ladies here, now bend over and start shaking that ass." I'm not saying that lots of women don't love music with an edge of misogyny and loaded sexual politics (just watch a dance floor blow up to "Blurred Lines" or "Low" or "Ain't No Fun"). But there is also an audience out there that is hungry for music that is sexy and raunchy without all the bullshit. That's where Freedia comes in.

"Just Be Free" also improves on the sound of bounce, or at least what I've heard coming out of the scene Freedia was part of. If you listen to the mixtapes by Katey Red or Freedia, you'll hear a lot of enthusiasm but not a lot of technological know-how. A lot of it sounds kind of janky, and most of it works with sampled beats, and I don't see the Jackson estate okaying "ABC" being used in Katey Red's "Punk Under Pressure." Freedia worked with her longtime producer BlaqNmilD as well as a guy who had worked with Madonna to craft beats that would avoid sample issues, and also evolved Freedia's dabbling in house and EDM.

The beats hit hard, there is none of the tinniness that often accompanies the genre, and she expands on the sound. To a point. The songs are still built around hyper beats and chanted, repetitive lyrics. If you want lyricism or depth, look elsewhere. This is party music, pure and simple. Freedia also tones down the subject matter, keeping things relatively profanity-free and avoiding sexually explicit references. I mean, sure there is a song titled "Mo Azz," and "Explode" could be read to have a sexual meaning, but there are no lyrics along the line of "jump on that dick and ride it like a bicycle." Also, if you are looking for gay anthems, you are going to be disappointed. With the exception of "Where My Queens At," there aren't many references to Freedia's sexuality or gender identity. She's not here to make message music, she's here to have a good time.

The album is ten songs and a little over thirty minutes, and that is enough. There are only so many relentless booty-shakers with barked lyrics that a person needs. "Just Be Free" never drags and doesn't wear out its welcome. Freedia gets in, goes hard, and leaves you wanting more.
Whenever women/gays/trans/disabled/non-white people demand a bigger voice in culture, the old white males complain that including those voices will be the death of sci-fi/video games/hip-hop/etc. I'm here to tell you: relax. Big Freedia is not going to kill hip-hop. Having a big gay dude with a purse making rap music is not going to ruin rap music. People making shitty rap music will kill rap music, and Freedia does not make shitty music. "Just Be Free" is not hipster music, and it's not gay music. It's music for a good time, no matter what gender your partner is or what pronoun you use.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Death to Hipster Metal

I've been listening to a lot of metal lately. Maybe it's because I just realized I live a mile from Metallica's old house in El Cerrito, or maybe it is to balance out all the kid's folk music I've been listening to with my daughter.

For one thing, I have been revisiting Liturgy's 2011 album Aesthethica. I've listened to the album but not really given it my full attention. It's pretty amazing. It's mostly built around lightening fast riffs, executed with math rock precision. Look at the drummer playing live - shit's crazy. Also, the lead singer is kind of dreamy. Do black metal dudes get chicks? 



I've also been listening to Tombs, who are a New York hardcore/metal band that remind me of Doom but with better production values and darker. Their new album Savage Gold is awesome in a super heavy way. Their lyrics can get a little goofy because they are all about DARKNESS and DEATH but they have the right combination of melody, brutality, and heaviness.

Vince Staples Review

Originally Posted at RapReviews.com

Vince Staples
Shyne Coldchain Vol 2.

Public Enemy's Chuck D. once said that hip-hop was Black America's CNN. That may have been true 20 years ago, but it doesn't hold up as well today. For one thing, rappers aren't writing songs with endless speculation about missing airplanes, which is what CNN seems to have been reduced to in 2014. For another thing, if hip-hop is Black America's CNN, then evidently the 1% is made up entirely of African-Americans, and the biggest issue facing them is which brand of alcohol to drink, which club to go to, and which woman to sleep with. Hip-hop has gone mainstream, and it has to cater to mainstream subject matter, namely partying. Then again, hip-hop started as party music so maybe we've come full circle.

Just when I start lamenting how shallow and nihilistic so much of hip-hop seems to be, along comes Vince Staples to remind me why I started listening to this music in the first place. Although affiliated with the Odd Future crew, Staples is more street than his fellow Wolfpack. That comes with growing up surrounded by gangs in Long Beach and Compton and having a father who dealt drugs, which he describes in heart-wrenching detail on "Nate":

"As a kid all I wanted was to kill a man
Be like my daddy's friends hopping out that minivan
Chrom 38s spinning like a ceiling fan
Crying on my momma's phone swearing he's a different man
Talkint to me monotone hardly ever coming home
Knew he was the villain never been a fan of Superman
[...]
My daddy was the man that would be suicide
Picked me up from visitation in the newest ride
Always told me that he loved me, fuck his foolish pride
As a kid all I wanted was to kill a man
Cuz my daddy did it
Eyes bloodshot
[...]
Black bandana on his arm
Needle in his hand
Momma trying to wake him up
Young so I ain't understand"


There's your story on the cycle of crime and poverty, and how growing up in a dysfunctional home screws with kids. Do you want to know why the murder rate for young black men is so high? He explains that on "45":

"What do you believe in? Die to have respect
I believe that the world got black neglect
Living broke, liquor stores where we cashing checks
Flipping dope, pimping hoes just to make ends meet
County blues, counting days till you get set free
Broke the rules so they shoot now we R.I.P.
Live and learn what you earn when you cross them streets
Caught a case cause he wouldn't catch a fade
Living pedal to the metal cause he couldn't catch a break
Couldn't see the stakes, couldn't see the trouble come his way
I'm still waiting for the day that we black and we proud
Till then we'll be shooting niggas down to the ground"


Staples is 21, but he sounds mature beyond his years. Throughout "Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2," he manages to both speak as a young gangbanger and as someone outside of the life criticizing it. He knows why his friends have been attracted to the lifestyle and the price you pay to be involved in it. It doesn't come off as preachy or as irresponsible glamorizing. It just sounds as real and harsh and accurate as the noose made out of bandanas on the cover.

Production is provided by No ID, Evidence from Dialated Peoples, Scoop DeVille, and Childish Major. The beats have an old school feel to them, full of hard-hitting drums and sample loops. It's a modern take on boom-bap which pairs nicely with his vocals and sets his music apart from the electronica and synth-based production that is predominant today. Staples keeps things lean; the mixtape clock in at 10 tracks with zero filler. The only features are singers James Fauntleroy and Jhene Aiko. There are no skits, no freesyles, no interludes, no intros. He ends things with "Earth Science," a song about high school love that is a little more intense than your typcal teen love song:

"As for you I always think about our kids that you killed
Understanding at the time you didn't think we was real
But as a man I felt I let you down
We was on our second child
That you seen as a mistake before I got to reconcile"


"Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2" is an impressive album that shows a young man caring about his craft and growing as an artist. It reminded me a lot of the music of Public Enemy and Ice Cube that got me excited about hip-hop in the first place, but it doesn't sound retro or nostalgic. There aren't that many artists out there telling it like it is and reporting on life as they see it. Vince Staples is one of them.

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.

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