Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2014

There were several points this year where I had a crisis of faith about this whole hip-hop thing. I’ll be forty in a week, which is Too Damn Old to be listening to a 19-year-old brag about having sex and getting high. There were many times this year that I felt like the old guy at a club full of people half my age. Metaphorically speaking, of course; I’m Too Damn Old to actually go out to a club. I get up when those kids are coming home.  But each time I felt like telling hip-hop to get off my lawn, I’d hear something that would remind me why I love this music and why I shouldn’t give up on it.

I made a point of challenging myself to listen to music outside my comfort zone, and as a result I got into a lot of stuff that otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered listening to. The Cali swagger of DJ Mustard, the gay bounce of Big Freedia, two rap concept albums, even some R&B. The best thing about 2014 was that some of the best and most thoughtful rappers of the year were either young kids (Vince Staples, Wara) or old-ass men like myself (RTJ, Open Mike Eagle). There’s room for everybody in hip-hop, so long as you’ve got skills.

15. Shabazz Palaces, “Lese Majesty”

14. DJ Mustard, “10 Summers”

13. Tink, “Winter’s Diary 2”

12. Big Freedia, “Be Free”

11. Flying Lotus, “You’re Dead!”

10. Azealia Banks, “Broke With Expensive Taste”

9. “D’Angleo, “Black Messiah” (The only reason why this isn’t higher on the list is because it came out last week and I haven’t had much time to listen to it.)

8. Kate Tempest, “Everybody Down”

7. Wara from the NBHD, “Kidnapped”

6. Ghostface Killah, “36 Seasons”

5. Andy Stott, “Faith in Strangers”

4. Madlib and Freddie Gibbs, “Pinata”

3. Vince Staples, “Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2”

2. Open Mike Eagle, “Dark Comedy”

1. Run the Jewels, “Run the Jewels 2”  Let me say that I did not want this to be my number one. I’m the kind of idiot that hates to like what everyone else likes. I actively wanted to dislike the second RTJ album just so I could be different, but dammit if it isn’t almost perfect. The beats hit hard, and El-P and Killer Mike have added more gravitas and thought to their shit-talking rhymes. As a bonus, both are hip-hop lifers who are overdue to be appreciated by a wider audience than just hip-hop nerds like myself.

Best non-rap albums of 2014

Here are my favorite non-rap albums of 2014, in orderish.

Total Control, “Typical System” This Australian band veers between new wave, post punk, and punk on an album that could’ve come out in 1980 but doesn’t sound like it is trying too hard to be retro.

Angel Olsen, “Burn Your Fire for No Witness” Like a punk Patsy Cline, kind of.

Fucked Up, “Glass Boys” I didn’t love this as much as their last album, but it still is another solid entry in their discography

Aphex Twin, “Syro” He’s back, and it’s like he never left.

Andy Stott, “Faith In Strangers” Beautiful, disorienting, and with chest-shattering bass.

Bleeding Rainbow, “Interrupt” A brilliant 90s shoegaze album, only by kids who were born in the 90s.

Against Me! “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” A rocking punk album about dealing with being transgender.

Panopticon, “Roads of the North” Black bluegrass metal that was powerful and beautiful at the same time.

Ex Hex, “Rips” Old punks deciding to write pop songs telling boys off.

Tombs, “Savage Gold” Heavy, loud, melodic, and perfectly balancing black metal, stoner metal, and hardcore. This album got me listening to metal again.

Friday, December 26, 2014

More Metal

I've been on a metal kick as of late, especially black metal. Partially because I've discovered that it is good music for commuting on BART in that it allows me to drown out the other passengers and still be able to read, and partially because I've gotten into the way the music can do interesting things with guitar textures. I've always been a sucker for the My Bloody Valentine wall of guitar, and there are a lot of metal bands that do this well. Also, metal tends to be a little goofier and less "real" than punk and post-punk. I love Unwound and Fucked Up, but their music sometimes hits a little too close to home. Listening to someone I have nothing in common with growl about Satan or whatever is like reading scifi: it's removed from my day to day life and thus a form of escape. In fact, the key to appreciating both sci-fi/fantasy and metal, at least from my perspective, is embracing the genres' goofiness. The first time I read "Game of Thrones," I was put off by how silly the made up names and made up places were. Then I learned to embrace it, and now I'm an avid fantasy fan. The first time I listened to Deafheaven, I thought the screeching vocals were the silliest things in the world, but you get used to it.

 Tombs' "Savage Gold" is one of my favorite albums of the year, so I've been investigating their back catalog. As in , downloading all of it. When I was in Houston in November, I bought CDs by Deathspell Omega, a French doom/black metal band who are an influence of Tombs, Blut Aus Nord, and Lair of the Minotaur. I've also downloaded albums by NYC black metal band Krallice, as well as seminal Norwegian black metal albums by Mayhem, Emperor and Darkthrone.

Let's talk about the Norwegian stuff first. I have some serious issues with Norwegian black metal, both musically and philosophically. Philosophically, some of it is rooted in nationalism, racism, homophobia, severe anti-social behavior, and Satanism. I deeply dislike all of those things. Listening to the early Norwegian black metal is like listening to Compton's Most Wanted or Lil' Boosie, gangsta rap records made by people with actual criminal records who were rapping about and doing terrible things. It's hard to do with a clean conscience. Sonically, the Norwegian black metal albums (with the exception of Darkthrone) don't usually have the same punk/crust influence that many American black metal acts have. As a result I find it less to my taste. They also have same guttural screeching vocals that Deafheaven share, which I find pretty annoying after ten minutes. I enjoy Darkthrone the most out of the three I've listened to, mostly because it basically has the sound and production values of a crusty punk record.

"Transylvania Hunger" is a an example of what the music can do. It has a melodic quality that you don't find in most extreme music, and yet the growled vocals keep it firmly extreme. The lyrics are still Satanic and possibly latently racist (having been written by Vlag Varkeness of Burzum), but they are almost all in Norwegian so it is hard to say.

I also got Mayhem's "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas," another seminal black metal album that while good, is so friggin creepy that I have a hard time listening to it. I also downloaded Emperor's "In the Nightside Eclipse," which has a more epic scope than Darkthrone or Mayhem. Emperor were one of the seminal and notorious black metal bands, since the singer was a church-burner and their drummer killed a man who came on to him. So, you know, kind of assholes. They incorporate synthesizers and have a more "metal" feel than Mayhem or Darkthrone. It's interesting, but feels a little like a D&D aficionado who is way too into collecting swords.

I'm more into the American stuff, especially what I guess would be disparagingly referenced as hipster black metal. Deafheaven and Liturgy are the most obvious examples, but I've also gotten into a New York band called Krallice, who do a highly technical version of black metal. Listening to "Dimensional Bleedthrough," you understand that there is a droning quality to the music that isn't totally unlike electronic music. The songs are almost always long, often stretching past the 10 minute mark, and there is an element of composition to them that you don't get in most pop music. A 10 minute black metal song isn't that different from a 10 minute Burial or Andy Stott song, only they are using different sounds and going for a different emotion. The contemplative, repetitive nature of the music is similar, though.

I'm especially into Panopticon's new album, "The Roads to the North." Panopticon are a one-man band who mixe bluegrass with black metal, leading to something powerful and very different. It's sort of like the Pogues if they were from the Bluegrass State, and were into black metal and not punk. In other words, nothing like the Pogues.

Panopticon and Krallice, like Deafheaven and Liturgy, don't share Scandanavian black metal's love of Satan or whatever. Panopticon is allegedly leftist, but I can't understand a word he says so I'm not sure.

Finally, there is French band Blut Aus Nord. I checked them out after Pitchfork compared them to Aphex Twin. They've been around for years, and are basically a one man band with a backing band. Their latest album Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry, is more melodic than other stuff I've heard from them (which at times veered towards industrial). I'm into it.

I've struggled to try to understand why music nerds are so into black metal as opposed to other forms of extreme music. Why doesn't Pitchfork review hardcore bands or crusty punk bands? I think the answer is that there is more room for experimentation in black metal. It's music built around textures rather than chords and choruses, so there is more room to get weird. The music inspires artists to do these grand, ambitious projects. Blut Aus Nord did a three-album "Memoria Vetusta" series, and in between that released three albums in the "777" trilogy. Fellow French black metallers Deathspell Omega similarly did a trilogy of music about Satan or whatever. Panopticon have done several concept albums, including one about coal miners.

I don't know that black metal is destined to be my favorite music, but it's interesting and I've enjoyed getting back into louder music. What does it say about me though that I am forty and listening to this?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Favorite Songs of the Year

In alphabetical order, here are my 15 favorite songs of the year.

Against Me!, "Transgender Dysphoria Blues"

Andy Stott, "Violence"

Angel Olsen, "Forgiven/Forgotten"

Atmosphere, "Southsiders"

Bleeding Rainbow, "So You Know"

D'Angelo, "Sugah Daddy"

Ex Hex, "How You Got That Girl"

Flying Lotus, "Never Catch Me ft Kendrick Lamar"

Fucked Up, "Paper the House"

Ghostface Killah, "Love Don't Live Here No More"

Kate Tempest, "Lonely Daze"

Mirel Wagner, "The Dirt"

Panopticon, "Echoes of A Disharmonic Evensong"

Run the Jewels, "Oh My Darling (Don't Cry)"

Tombs, "Ashes"

Total Control, "Flesh War"

Vince Staples, "Nate"

Wara from the NBHD, "Beige"

Monday, December 15, 2014

Megabusive Review

I reviewed Megabusive and Awkward's "Hell On Hell." last week on RapReviews. I liked it.

I also downloaded Angel Olsen's "Burn Your Fire For No Witness," which sounds a lot like Patsy Cline at times. I like it. I love this song:

Thoughts on the Brown/Garner Verdicts

Originally posted on RapReviews.
The non-indictment of police officers involved in the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island have led to protests all over the country in support of the murdered men. The narrative of the protesters and those supporting them is that the police unfairly target African-American men, treat them more harshly than whites for similar infractions (which is a documented fact), and that the police are not punished when they murder unarmed black men.

"And fuck the popo because that 39% tax I pay
Don't get me nuthin' but a choke hold and some pepper spray"

- E-40, "It's All Bad"

The argument in support of the police officers, which has been taken up by the more conservative elements in this country, has been that both Garner and Brown were crooks who were aggressive with police, that police interact more with African-Americans because they commit more crimes, and that blacks should really be more concerned with black-on-black homicides, since a young black man is far more likely to be murdered by another young black man than by a police officer.

The conservative reaction is interesting and infuriating on a few levels. For one thing, it's interesting that a group that positions itself as being against government oppression would be in support of the government literally getting away with murder. At the very least, as a citizen it should concern you when law enforcement is able to kill an unarmed man in unclear circumstances (or in the case of Mr. Garner, all too clear), and get away without so much as an indictment. The only reason why Michael Brown's murder was even investigated by a grand jury is because citizens made a stink about it. If it hadn't become a national issue, nothing would have happened at all beyond the Browns having to go on with life without their son.

"Fucking with me 'cause I'm a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin my car, lookin for the product
Thinking every nigga is sellin narcotics"

- N.W.A., "Fuck Tha Police"

There's also this idea that the problem in both cases is that the suspects did not cooperate with police. In the video of Eric Garner it's not clear to me that he was aggressively resisting, and the reaction to what resistance he did offer would have been overboard even if it hadn't killed him. Michael Brown's alleged reaction does sound unfortunate and not the best call. Giving lip to a police officer is never a good idea, much less getting physical with one. But even if we concede that both men's reaction to the police were overly aggressive and out of line (which I'm not saying is true), the outcome should not have been death. You don't get the death penalty for assaulting a police officer, shoplifting, or selling contraband cigarettes. Telling black men in the wake of this that the lesson they should learn is to be nice to cops is like telling a rape victim not to wear such revealing clothes or accept drinks from strangers next time she's goes out. It's focusing on the victim's behavior, as if the resulting act is inevitable and excusable. I can accept that if you pull a weapon on an officer of the law (or anyone for that matter), you should expect that they might react with lethal force. But getting mouthy with a cop should in no way be a death sentence, and we as a society cannot accept as much.

"Now tell me who protects me from you?"
- Jay Dilla "Fuck the Police"

Now let's talk about the elephant in the room: black criminality. Conservative rocker Ted Nugent had a Facebook post in the wake of the Ferguson decision in which he said, among other things, "When a cop tells you to get out of the middle of the street, obey him & don't attack him as brainwashed by the gangsta a**holes you hang with & look up to….And don't claim that "black lives matter" when you ignore the millions you abort & slaughter each & every day by other blacks. Those of us with a soul do indeed believe black lives matter, as all lives matter. So quit killin each other you f**kin idiots."

I normally wouldn't take anything Nugent says seriously since, like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, his whole schtick is more or less  troll baiting liberals (or in this case, anyone with half a shred of decency). But since 517,000 people liked that post, I think it is worth addressing.

Nugent is right on one count: blacks are much more likely to be killed by another black than by a police officer. (Whites are also more likely to be killed by other whites, for that matter.) Blacks are also more likely to be killed by heart disease than by a police officer. We don't have to solve every other problem African-Americans have in order to address police violence. And all 44 million African-Americans in this country don't have to be perfect before they can complain. More importantly, there is a difference between crimes committed by criminals and crimes committed and condoned by the system. I keep seeing people post things on social media asking why blacks aren't marching to protest (white) people killed by (black) muggers. The answer is simple: because the mugging victim's death wasn't caused and condoned by members of the system. I saw a sign at one of the Ferguson protests that summed this up perfectly. It said "We aren't mad because the system failed, we are mad because the system worked."

"This fucking city
Overrun by pigs
They're taking the rights away
From all us kids
Understand, we're fighting a war we can't win
They hate us, we hate them
We can't win"

- Black Flag, "Police Story"

High rates of black criminality does something to explain the disproportionate amount of contact African-Americans have with police, in regards to other ethnicities. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the majority of high-crime areas are largely African-American. They are also the poorest areas, but class is an issue we don't talk about in the U.S., unless it is to label the poor "takers."  Unfortunately, it seems that in the eyes of some police departments, the fact that some young black men are involved in crime has led to treating all of them as criminals.

Nugent's phrase "don't claim that 'black lives matter' when you ignore the millions you abort & slaughter each & every day by other blacks" is instructive in its use of "you." He doesn't realize it, but Nugent is proving one of the main points of a lot of the protesters. He's condensing 44 million African-Americans into one person, one "you," and making them all responsible for one another's actions. He's saying in my eyes, you are all the same, and I don't differentiate between a vicious criminal, a young kid, a petty thief, a blue-collar father, a security guard, a white collar worker, a CEO, or the President of the United States of America.

There's a Twitter hashtag #alivewhileblack that collects stories by African-Americans of uncomfortable interactions they've had with the police where they were treated like criminals whether or not they were doing anything wrong. Those stories echo what I've heard from my friends and colleagues of color.  African-Americans are treated as suspects from the minute they enter the system. They are suspended from school at higher rates than their white classmates. They are stopped more frequently, arrested more frequently, and get longer jail terms than whites. From the cradle to the grave they are treated as defacto violent criminals.

What's frustrating to me about this focus on black criminality is how the fact that Michael Brown and Eric Garner may have been involved in something criminal means, to many Americans, that they deserve what they got. Even if you think that both men were being aggressive, shouldn't the fact that they were killed during a routine police interaction raise some serious questions about how law enforcement are interacting with African-Americans in those communities? At the very least, from a management perspective, the police force in Ferguson and New York City should be questioning why the public they are serving has so much distrust and hostility towards them that questioning someone for a shoplifting or selling illegal cigarettes ends in an officer killing someone. Having someone's son, husband, or father lying dead shouldn't just be chalked up as the price we pay to be "safe."  

Even as a white guy who can't relate to the feelings these two verdicts have raised personally, I still felt deeply saddened by both of them. Because I can only imagine what it is like. Because Killer Mike was crying on stage about how scared he was for his two sons' lives. And because I know how deeply embedded the fear of black people, and especially black men, is in our culture. Fear of black men is what sells car alarms, security systems, and a lot of the firearms that are sold today. It is why parents in cities send their children to private schools. It is why we choose the neighborhoods we live in and the neighborhoods we don't visit.

The weekly murders of young men of color in cities like Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco are barely make the local news unless it is a young child or a so-called "good kid," one who did well in school, played football, and thought about going to college. Otherwise we, as a society, assume that they have it coming, that is something that doesn't involve the rest of us, that their lives don't matter. We write them off as thugs, gangsters, or crooks. If there is any good to come out of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Kendrec McDade, Patrick Dorismond, Tamir Rice, and the many other unarmed men who have been killed by law enforcement, it is to bring to question how the police use force, the unequal treatment of African-Americans by police, and remind people that these men's lives mattered.

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