Sunday, November 30, 2014

Review wrap-up

I've still been managing a review a week at RapReviews. I thought I'd stop this year, but I'm managing so I'll keep going for now. I have three new reviews up;

I reviewed Jack Jetson's "Further Adventures of Johnny Strange" last week.

I also reviewed Ruane Maurice's self-titled.

And the Sleaford Mods "Divide and Exit," posted below.

Sleaford Mods are not from Sleaford, not mods, and not a hip-hop group. They are generally classified as punk; I came across "Divide and Exit" after I heard several people call it the punk album of the year. All I could think of when I heard them, however, was that they were a rap group. Singer Jason Williamson speaks rhythmically over producer Andrew Fearn's beats. Sure, Williamson's heavily accented rants are more similar to Crass's Steve Ignorant than Lil Wayne, and Fearn's beats often feature guitar, bass, and drums. But they are beats, and Williamson's rants are not singing. They may not be classified as a hip-hop group, but it sounds a lot like rap music to me. In fact, it is one of the best pairings of punk and hip-hop since P.O.S.'s "Never Better."

Semantics aside, "Divide and Exit" is a brutal but funny album. Williamson takes a cynical and caustic view of contemporary living. Every punk band since the Ramones has criticized the boring squares, but the fact that Williamson is in his forties gives his rants extra bite. It's one thing to skewer the middle-aged middle class when you are twenty years old and living under your parents' roof, but it is another thing altogether when a peer is doing it. On "You're Brave" he calls out a wealthy weekend warrior whose money hasn't managed to buy him taste or respect. On this song, as with most of the album, Williamson (or his character) is right there, doing drugs with the guy and sneering at him the whole time:

"Sat around the bloke's house
He liked me because I made some informed comment
About the early history of his fucking country
Big mirror
Lumps of drugs
His own private lift
Shit pieces of art
Matter-of-fact statements about how he is picking his kids up
In two hours
As if
You're brave"

A lot of the songs have a stream-of-consciousness feel to them. That, along with the incessant swearing and frequent drug and scatological references, make "Divide and Exit" feel like an Irvine Welsh book come to life. There's a bit of "Trainspotting" in "Tied Up in Nottz," for example:

"The smell of piss is so strong
It smells like decent bacon
Kevin's getting footloose on the overspill
Under the piss-station
Two pints destroyer on the cobbled floors
No amount of whatever is gonna chirp the chip up
It's the final countdown
My fucking Journey
I woke up with shit in my sock outside the Polish off-license
'They don't mind' said the asshole to the legs
You got to be cruel to be kind, shit man
Save it up like Norman Colon
Release the stench of shit grub like a giant toilet kraken
The lonely life that is touring
I got an armful of decent tunes, mate
But it's all so fucking boring"

Williamson had been kicking around his ranting style for a while, but it is when he met Fearn that Sleaford Mods really became a group. Fearn's mix of punk rock with hip-hop beats provide a sonic backbone that perfectly supports Williamson's spoken word/singing/rapping/whatever. Williamson may be the core of Sleaford Mods, but without Fearn's beats it would just be a guy ranting for forty minutes. Fearn's beats give dynamics and variety to the album and to the band.
The resulting album is an intense, visceral experience. It manages to combine the aggression of both punk and hip-hop. However you want to classify it, "Divide and Exit" is a great album.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


As I write this, another night of protesting the grand jury's decision in the murder of Michael Brown is ending. I spent too much time arguing with people online yesterday about the case and reaction to it. So let me share my thoughts about it, for what it's worth.

"You all kicked me in my motherfucking ass. You all got me fucked up. Because I got a twenty year old son, I got a twelve year old son, and I'm scared to death for them." Killer Mike, on Monday night.

First of all, let's get this out of the way. The racists and haters and conservatives naysayers aren't wrong: black men in America are much more likely to be killed by their own than by a police officer, or even a white man. Black men are also statistically disproportionately involved in criminal activities, compared to whites. Let me lift from the NAACP:

Racial Disparities in Incarceration
  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
  • According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today's prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
  • One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
  • 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
  • Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).
Drug Sentencing Disparities
  • About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug
  • 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
  • African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). (Sentencing Project)
Contributing Factors
  • Inner city crime prompted by social and economic isolation
  • Crime/drug arrest rates: African Americans represent 12% of monthly drug users, but comprise 32% of persons arrested for drug possession
  • "Get tough on crime" and "war on drugs" policies
  • Mandatory minimum sentencing, especially disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine possession
  • In 2002, blacks constituted more than 80% of the people sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws and served substantially more time in prison for drug offenses than did whites, despite that fact that more than 2/3 of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic
  • "Three Strikes"/habitual offender policies
  • Zero Tolerance policies as a result of perceived problems of school violence; adverse affect on black children.
  • 35% of black children grades 7-12 have been suspended or expelled at some point in their school careers compared to 20% of Hispanics and 15% of whites

If blacks are disproportionately involved in crime, they are also disproportionately arrested for it, and treated more harshly than whites by the system. In shorts, blacks, and particularly young black men, are seen as defacto criminals and treated thusly by the system.

People like Ted Nugent who point out levels of black criminality to justify/explain the killing of Michael Brown are proving the point: because some of the group are involved in crime, the entire group is treated like criminals, and it is perfectly legal and acceptable to murder them. Never mind that law enforcement should be held to a higher standard than a 16-year-old gangbanger. Never mind that being treated as guilty until proven innocent is unconstitutional. Never mind that basic management skills teach you that treating people with disrespect and suspicion is not a good way to get them to be on your side. 

There was a sign among the protesters in Ferguson that read something to the effect of "We aren't mad because the system failed, we are mad because the system worked." That sums up a lot of how I feel about Ferguson. I can say for sure if Wilson genuinely felt his life was in danger. His injuries don't seem to indicate a brutal attack by a "demon," but I'm not a doctor and I'm judging from a photo. I do think that cops should be able to apprehend robbery suspects without killing them, and that anytime an officer of the law shoots and unarmed person, it should be a Big Fucking Deal. I also think that the police in communities like Ferguson need to work doubly hard to work with the communities they serve, and take care that they aren't being perceived as an invading force who are there to keep the animals in line. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Kate Tempest Review

Kate Tempest
Everybody Down
Big Dada, 2014
Originally posted on RapReviews

While all rap music could be considered poetry based on its form, not all rap music is poetry in the Merriam Webster definition of "writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm." Even good rappers only offer occasional "poetic" moments in their songs. The majority of their time is spent on less literary pursuits. Hip-hop is party music, after all, and it is hard to rock a party and comment on the human condition at the same time.

British rapper turned poet turned rapper Kate Tempest attacks rapping with a poet's ear for language. Her poetry is informed by her love of hip-hop, and her rapping is informed by her love of poetry. She's also a playwright and has performed Shakespeare. There's certainly a theatrical element to her debut album, "Everybody Down." Not only is it poetry by way of hip-hop, it's also a story divided into 12 songs. Let it never be said that Tempest takes the easy way out. Given that rock operas and concept albums have a history of being overlong, self-indulgent, and convoluted, the listener can be excused if they approach the idea of a hip-hop opera with trepidation. While "Everybody Down" falls into some of the common traps that plague rock operas, it mostly succeeds.

The most important part of any concept album is to focus on the music. Kate Tempest gets that part right by bringing in producer Dan Carey, who has worked with Bat for Lashes and M.I.A. His EDM-inspired beats are based in fuzzy synthesizers and throbbing bass, with elements of dub and electro pop sprinkled in for good measure. They have bite to them, but there are also soft edges and melodies.

Tempest has a thick South London accent, and you can definitely hear the spoken-word influence in her delivery. The most obvious comparison is Mike Skinner of The Streets, who has a similar accent, storytelling style, and outsider perspective. However, as amiable as Skinner is, his music often felt frivolous and inconsequential, at least to me. The same cannot be said of Kate Tempest. Her lyrics are serious as a heart attack, and she is intent on making art that Means Something. At a time when hip-hop is the template for a lot of meaningless pop music, it's nice to see someone treating it like art. Also, she can rap. She cites Roots Manuva as an influence, and you can hear some of his smooth, reggae-lilted flow in Tempest's delivery.

As a poet, Tempest has a gift for words. "Everybody Down" is full of moments in which she captures what it is like to be young and broke and confused in just a few short sentences. "Everywhere is monsters...shouting and screaming just to prove they exist" she starts out on opener "Marshall Law." She sums up the shallow crowd at a video after-party in just a few cutting words. "Everybody here has a hyphenated second name/Blowing more breeze/Than the wind at the weather vane." "The world is the world but it is all how you see it" she raps at the chorus. "One man's flash of lightening ripping through the air is another's passing glare, hardly there."

The story follows the exploits of a young woman named Becky who works as a waitress and masseuse and spends too much time and money drinking and doing drugs. Tempest describes her as having "Eyes full of mornings/Spent without sleeping/Grew up in a city where it's hard to be heard and nothing really has much meaning." Becky meets local drug dealer Harry at a party, then meets and falls in love with his younger brother Pete. Harry is trying to save up money to open his own club. Pete is just trying to make an honest living in post-recession London. Pete and Becky fall in love, but learn the hard way that love fades. "If I love you like I say," thinks Pete in "The Stink," I would not treat you this way."

As is the case with almost all rock operas, the storyline is hard to follow. Tempest tries to tackle a lot in the confines of an hour long album. Each track seems to introduce two or three new characters, and it is hard to track all of them. Essentially what happens is that Pete is jealous of Becky's side gig as a masseuse, Becky is pressured to blur the line between masseuse and sex worker, and Harry and his friend murder and steal drugs from a supplier. Pete ends up convincing his mother's boyfriend's son Dale to book a massage with Becky to see what happens, and Dale recounts how the massage went when he sees Becky and Pete at a surprise party on "Happy End." Pete and Dale get in a fight, and Becky runs off with Harry and his friend Leon, because they are both in trouble with Becky's uncle.
"Happy End" is indicative of what is right and wrong with "Everybody Down." There are so many characters that it is impossible to keep track of what's going on. Take this passage, for example:

"Dale and Pete
Were in a pile of trainers and feet
Clenched fists and black eyes and chipped teeth
Their dads had tried
To get in-between them
It was like they couldn't wait to get involved
Graham was beating David's skull with his elbows
David was kneeing Graham's nether regions
And Miriam was at the bar weeping
Ron was pleased as punch
With the outcome of the evening
While Becky, Harry and Leon headed for the beyond"

That's nine people mentioned in one verse. Even if it were a play, story, or movie there are too many characters. The fact that this is happening in song form makes it even more of an issue. Tempest is much more effective when she focuses on the little moments and doesn't try to bite off so much at once. The next verse in "Happy End" describes Harry, Leon, and Becky's getaway, and it packs a bigger emotional punch:

"Off to Dover for the ferry
And from there, wherever
Harry looked at Becky
'Let's feel this way forever?'"

Of course, that's the same thing she said to Pete earlier in the album, and you know that they are probably going to get caught by the mob, and even if they do escape Harry and Becky are probably doomed. The aggressive beat hammers in just how hopeless their situation is. Still, in just a few words, Tempest manages to capture the fleeting feel of young love.

What ultimately makes "Everybody Down" successful (and most concept albums for that matter) is the way in which it allows the listener to connect with the story. We care about what is going on with Becky and Harry and Pete because they reflect our own experiences. I can't relate to being a young sex worker or drug dealer, but I have definitely blown it with a cute girl by saying too much, and I've had to work a crap job that was beneath my degree, and I've been cruel to someone I was in love with, and I've experienced love fading, and my dreams fading, and felt like my life was losing its meaning. Tempest manages to bring those experiences to life in her songs in ways that seem real and true.

"Everybody Down" may try to tackle too much in its 48-minute run time, but even if the story isn't always coherent, the emotions of the characters shine through. Kate Tempests paints a world of young people who are searching for themselves and meaning in a world that seems to offer only disappointment. In doing so, Tempest reminds us that rap music can be art, and that the poetry of rap can indeed be poetic.

Black Milk Review

Black Milk
If There's a Hell Below
Computer Ugly, 2014
Originally posted on RapReviews

Detroit rapper and producer Curtis Cross, better known as Black Milk, has been pushing the classic hip-hop sound forward since his 2005 debut. He's in the lineage of DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip and Dilla, but constantly evolves so that his beats never sound stale. He's worked with electronic sounds and live bands, managing to stay true to his old school roots without being restricted by it. His beats are always grounded in hard-hitting drums, a nod to his boom-bap heritage. Those drums are all over his sixth album, "If There's a Hell Below," which contains some of his best production work to date.
The title is a reference to the Curtis Mayfield song "If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go." Milk's interpretation of that song is that that even though the inner city can resemble hell, there is also joy in it. Along with using the Curtis Mayfield song as a lyrical inspiration, he uses it as a musical inspiration as well. "If There's a Hell Below" is a soulful record. You can hear the influence of "Curtis!" and "Superfly" on "Everyday Was," "Hell Below," "Gold Piece," and "Up & Out." Those tracks have a dusty, nostalgic sound that makes you think of childhood and old records. They have the same beauty and power that Curtis Mayfield's music had. Black Milk gets compared to Dilla all the time, but Milk has moved beyond Dilla's innovative sample flipping. Milk is using a combination of samples, programming, and live instruments to create music that has an organic feel to it. His beats feel like songs.

Lyrically, much of the album deals with looking at where Black Milk has come from and where he's at today. There's a lot of references to hip-hop history, whether through clips of a eighties rap battle, an early news program about rap music, or snippets of Ghostface and Dilla that pop up. The theme of seeing the joy in difficult situations recurs throughout the album. On "Leave the Bones," Black Milk describes his childhood:

"Where the blood is spilled
City bruhs get killed
Little kids dodging bullets on their big wheels
Ignored all my teachers
Bored by my preachers
Instead I went home and played 'Liquid Swords' out my speakers
Start writing something about the time my cousin Pookie got locked up"

On "What it's Worth," he explores his career:
"Hear too many questions about
Why you not working with the latest
Never been one to go to another one to be validated
Let it breathe
Heaven knows
Me and my niggas had dreams
Cashing checks with seven Os"

The theme of the album is especially clear on album closer "Up & Out," in which he describes the drama and the joy of where he grew up:
"You seen hell before
My niggas already lived it
If There's a Hell below
Then we're already in it
Tell your white friends though
Come and pay us a visit
Our neighborhoods don't look like theirs
Don't be scared
When you see teddy bears on light poles everywhere
You see
Streets watching everywhere you be"

"If There's a Hell Below" is built around strong beats and a strong concept. Unfortunately, Black Milk's rapping isn't as strong. He's not a bad rapper, just an average one. There is a forgettable quality to his rhymes and delivery, at least to me. It's what has prevented me from getting more excited about him as an artist; I recently got rid of my copy of his 2010 "Album of the Year" when I realized I had only listened to it four times in as many years. There's a reason why his collaborations with other rappers always feature him on the boards and not on the mic. His mic skills can't compare to his beatmaking skills. Milk gets assists from Bun B, Blu, Mel, Ab and his Random Axe cohorts, who help elevate the album.

Even with Black Milk's limits as a rapper, "If There's a Hell Below" is a solid album. Black Milk nails the line between being retro and forward-thinking, between street and backpack, between nostalgia and honesty. Detroit's dominance over hip-hop shows no signs of slowing down.

Blog Archive