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

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
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.

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