Thursday, September 01, 2016

Vic Mensa Review

Vic Mensa
There's A Lot Going On EP

Originally posted at RapReviews

There's a false binary in hip-hop where rappers are either supposed to be conscious or street, make protest rap or rap about women and money and liquor. Chicago rapper Vic Mensa shows just how false that binary is on his major label debut "There's Alot Going On." Over seven songs, he addresses serious issues like police brutality, mental illness, and the Flint, Michigan water crisis, as well as less serious issues like getting drunk in the club and chasing after pretty women. By doing so, he manages to make his own lane in hip-hop.

Mensa has been rapping since 2012, but he first came on the scene in 2013 mixtape "Innanetape," as well as performances with the Gorillaz, J. Cole, and Wale. He also contributed bars to Chance the Rapper's "Acid Rap," which is where I first heard of him. While Chance went in a more indie and gospel direction, first with his collaboration with Donnie Surf and the Social Experiment, and then with his latest album "Coloring Book," Mensa has stayed closer to mainstream hip-hop. Producer Papi Beatz keeps the snares snapping and hi-hats rolling throughout the album, and Mensa does his share of Auto-Tuned singing, which is a requirement for any rapper trying to break the Hot 100. What sets Mensa apart from his peers is that he hasn't diluted his message even as he's signed to Roc Nation.

There's a trend in hip-hop towards minimalist, almost gibberish rhymes, and Mensa completely ignores it. Instead, he crams as many syllables as possible into his bars, sometimes not even bothering to rhyme. He starts off with "Dynasty," giving some exposition-heavy bars to set the scene:
"The crazy man's keeping me up, I'm not sleeping
My fit too fresh to be doing the housekeeping
The maids cost too much, started cleaning my own closet
Living childhood fantasies, dealing with grown problems
Got a brand new bae, she keep me G.O.O.D like the music
If the Roc is here, throw up your diamonds and hood cubics
No I.D. said it's time to take these goofy ni***s out rap
Drop bombs over Baghdad on these SoundCloud outcasts
I stray away to say the way my days would be without rap
My mind drifts to back before the Chi was labelled Chiraq
Then Chief Keef dropped in 2012, now it's a drill
I was waiting in the wing like a bird on a windowsill
Now I'm the fresh prince, I think I know how my uncle feel"

Then he goes into "16 Shots," which addresses the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago Police officer. The song calls out the mayor and the police force for how they bungled the case and tried to cover it up, but it also promises retaliation, in no uncertain terms. "This ain't conscious rap, this shit's ignorant," he raps. "Ain't no fun when the rabbit got the gun/When I cock back, police better run." The song ends with the McDonald family's lawyer reading a description of how the 17-year-old died that October night. It's a harrowing description, and a harrowing song that is full of unrestrained anger

From there, Mensa goes in a more radio-friendly direction. "Danger" is a banger with an Auto-Tuned chorus of "You know me, I like the danger." "New Bae" is a melodic song about sex, followed by "Liquor Locker," a guitar-led R&B ballad. Lest you think Mensa is going soft or selling out, he drops some real truth on "Shades of Blue," rapping about the Flint Michigan water crisis:
"Now you've got toddlers drinking toxic waste
While the people responsible still ain't caught no case
I don't get it man, I just ain't wit it man
They got Damn Daniel distracting you on Instagram
Back again with the all-white media coverage
They do it over and over like remedial subjects
The people with the least always gotta pay the most
We the first to go when they deleting them budgets
Can a n***a get his basic human rights?
Is that too much to ask? Should I say it more polite?
And everybody broke so we in the same boat
But would they let that bitch sink if we was white?"

The EP ends with the somewhat rambling title track, which is basically Mensa listing all the crazy ish he's been up to these past three years. It's interesting that a rapper who just spent several songs celebrating partying and living dangerously would close with a song that soberly lays out the trouble he's gotten in through partying and living dangerously. He gives it warts and all, with self-awareness. He even raps about assaulting a woman who attacked him when he was high. He not only admits that he was in the wrong, he also understands how the breakup of his group and his drug use played into it. It's a long way from Eazy-E or Biggie bragging about beating women up in their rhymes.

"She came out the room swinging, hit me in the jaw
I was really trying to fend her off
But I ended up in the closet with my hands around her neck
I was tripping, dawg
Too proud to apologize or empathize, I blamed it all on her
Saying that she hit me first, even though she was the one hurt
I was really just reflecting all the hurt that I was feeling from the band's rejection
When Kids These Days split, that shit felt like a c-section
And my infidelity and jealousy with Natalie on top of the amphetamines
And the ecstasy had me trying drown face down in the Chesapeake"

Mensa's honest lyrics and skills on the mic work well with his club-ready beats. He manages to represent the different facets of his life and his experience and makes it sounds convincing and not calculating. Just when you think he's being too ignorant or hedonistic, he'll drop some serious knowledge, and just when you think he's being too personal, he'll drop some bars about sex and drinking. None of us are just one thing, or an either/or proposition, and Mensa represents this complexity to the fullest. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, Vic Mensa is large and contains multitudes. He's also released one of this year's better EPs.

YG Review

I reviewed YG's Still Brazy this week at RapReviews. Here it is:

Rap music offers a depressing number of examples about recidivism and how difficult it is to escape cycles of trauma, violence, and poverty. Many rappers who grew up surrounded by crime and violence find that it follows them into adulthood and prosperity. How many hip-hop concerts, recording sessions, and video shoots have been disrupted by gunfire? How many rappers have suffered violent deaths? How many rappers are in prison for parole violations for doing things that middle class whites get away with every day? From T.I. to Jazy Z, from Biggie and 2Pac to Big L, from Lil Wayne to Lil Boosie, the impact of violence and the criminal justice system on African-Americans is clearly illustrated in hip-hop.

YG (Keenon Daequan Ray Jackson) is the latest rapper to go from hood to riches and find that the hood has a nasty habit of following you. YG went from breaking into houses to making hit singles, but his transition from criminal to rap star hasn't been smooth. He was shot at while filming a video in 2012, and was shot while recording in 2015. Much of "Still Brazy," his second album after 2014's breakthrough "My Krazy Life," deals with the aftermath of his success, and what it means to be a gangbanger who is now a famous rapper. To put it in Compton album terms, this is YG's "Chronic"; he has one foot in the life of celebrity, and one foot in his old life.

He starts off with warning people "Don't Come to L.A." "Y'all playing. "Y'all playing with the set [...] but I'm really from the set, so y'all don't come round here." "Who Shot Me" is YG contemplating who could have fired shots at him, and arriving at the same lesson Biggie did twenty years ago, that it's often those closest to you that betray you:

"Staring out the window
Smoking on this indo
'Cause I don't know who did it
But I know this
Bullets don't just go where the wind blows
So I'm looking under my nose
Hate always comes from up close
But they can't stand me though"

Even the certified party track is about gang life. "Twist My Fingaz" is a club song, but it's a club song about throwing gang signs when fake gangsters try to mess with him at the club. "I just do my dance/Cuff my pants/Twist my fingaz with my hands," he raps, over a slapping G-funk beat.
That beat marks a departure for YG. Where his previous work had been mostly produced by DJ Mustard, YG is working with other producers here. While P-Lo and DJ Swish's tracks all have a similar sound to Mustard's now ubiquitous chanting 808s, there's also a notable G funk influence. When I first heard "Twist My Fingaz" I thought it was an obscure 90s song, and several other tracks have a similar old school feel.

While most of the album is concerned with asserting that YG is still a G despite his fame, it closes with a trio of protest songs. First up is "FDT," about presidential hopeful Donald Trump. The LAPD shut down a video shoot for the song, and the Secret Service allegedly threatened YG's label over it. Maybe they didn't like the implied violence against Trump; YG implies at several points that if elected Trump is likely to have shots fired at him. It's ironic that the authorities caught feelings over YG's songs, and yet Trump made similar insinuations against his opponent and got a pass.:

"Look, Reagan sold coke, Obama sold hope
Donald Trump spent his trust fund money on the vote
I'm from a place where you probably can't go
Speaking for some people that you probably ain't know
It's pressure built up and it's probably going to blow
And if we say go then they're probably going to go
You vote Trump then you're probably on dope
And if you like me then you probably ain't know
And if you been to jail you can probably still vote
We let this nigga win, we going to probably feel broke
You built walls? We going to probably dig holes
And if your ass do win, you going to probably get smoked"

"FDT" lacks the elegance and poetry of Kendrick, Ice Cube, Chuck D, or other more notable protest rappers. However, what YG lacks in lyrical grace he more than makes up for in honesty. His song reflects the frustrations that a lot of black and Latino feel about the Trump campaign.
"Blacks and browns" compares the experiences of a black and Latino Angelenos. YG raps about the issues of black on black violence and calls for unity:

"We killing ourselves, they killing us too
They distract us with entertainment while they get they loot
They never gave us what they owed us, put liquor stores on every corner
Welcome to Lost Skanless, California"

Meanwhile, Sadboy raps about being a second-class citizen:

"They made the border for the browns cause we're not allowed
Gotta get the green card for me and my child
Those assholes payment under the table that don't last a while
Those jobs getting passed around, they dog our people
Why we gotta look for work at Home Depot?
It was us before the natives, why we ain't equal?"

Sad Boy offers the best features on an album loaded with features from everyone from Lil Wayne and Drake to Nipsey Hustle Slim 400.

The album ends with "Police Get Away Wit Murder," a song that address police violence. YG raps about the same overreach of powers and poor treatment that N.W.A. rapped about almost 30 years ago, with a chorus of "We don't give a f***/Police get away with murder!" "Still Brazy" may be unrepentant gangsta rap, but YG is well aware of the cost of the life he raps about, and the forces that drive people to it.

Monday, August 01, 2016

You’re Breaking My Heart: “Nate”

You’re Breaking My Heart highlights songs that make me want to cry.

My parents were alcoholics growing up. Every night, they’d polish off at least a six-pack of beer each, ending up somewhere between merely drunk and wasted. As far as parental issues to have, it isn’t even on the top 5 (sexually abusive, physically abusive, psychologically abusive, absent, drug addicted, homeless, dying being higher on the list, among others). Still it sucked. I spent a lot of my youth very aware that there was no one around to take care of me, and having to be the adult in the situation. Well, my older sister had to be the adult. I just kind of shut down/drowned my feelings out with loud music.

“As a kid all I wanted was to kill a man/Be like my daddy’s friends hopping out a minivan.”

That’s how Vince Staples starts off “Nate,” a song about his abusive, drug-addicted father. It’s a song about what happens when your father, your hero, is the villain in the story, and what that does to a kid. It’s about how the trauma kids are exposed to affects them. It’s about all the stuff that kids see that parents don’t realize they see.

Knew he was the villain never been a fan of Superman
Beaten on my momma in the kitchen screaming:
"Bitch you better listen when I speak my mind!"
Used to think he was unbreakable he did fed time
But made sure a nigga plate was full and I shined
Was walking in the first day of school new J's, and all of that
Football was cornerback, never made a game I played for Compton High
But 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

There’s a sense of love and pride in Staples’ raps about his father. It’s not whining about what a terrible dad he was. At times he almost seems like he’s bragging about his father, but you get the underlying sense of sadness beneath it all.

As a kid all I wanted was a hundred grand
Uncle counting money while my daddy cut him grams
Made me promise that this shit would never touch my hands
And it never did said it'd make me be a better man
Smoking in the crib, hiding dip inside of soda cans
Black bandana on his arm, needle in his hand
Momma trying to wake him up, young so I ain't understand
Why she wouldn't let my daddy sleep, used to see him stand
Out in the alley through my window

This song, more than any other, highlights Staples’ genius as a writer. In just a few words he completes a full picture of exactly what he was seeing, little vignettes of the life of a hustler and addict.

Drinking Hen' with his homies blowing cig' smoke
Lights flashing now he running from the Winslows
Hear him screaming from my momma at the backdoor
Sometimes she wouldn't open it, sitting on the couch
Face emotionless, I don't think they ever noticed that I noticed it
As a kid all I wanted a hundred grand

“I don’t think they ever noticed that I noticed it.” I think about that sometimes as my wife and I are having a heated discussion and I can see our daughter playing nearby, acting absorbed in her Duplos or paints but clearly listening to us. I think about all the times I did the same thing while my parents were drunk or arguing or both. How I pretended not to notice, and how it still affected me.

One of the most powerful aspects of Black Lives Matter, for me, has the very vocal affirmation that these lives do matter. As a white person, I see how black murders get written off as “gang-related.” How black people killed by the police or by other black people are written off as thugs. It’s a way to dehumanize people, to say that they are not like us, do not feel pain like we do. “Nate” is a reminder of pain and sadness in communities afflicted with drugs and violence. It’s a reminder that the young thug may have seen more shit in his 17 years than you are likely to see in a lifetime. It’s a reminder that the guy you are locking up has children, had a father, has a past, has a history.

I cry pretty much every time I hear this song.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Rap music for people who don't listen to much rap music

After my grumpy post the other day, I thought I'd highlight some of the rap artists people who don't listen to rap music might like.

Do you like hip hop but are put off by the lyrics about partying and sex? Check out Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples, who are the pinnacle (to me, at least) of what hip-hop can be. But maybe that's not your thing because they use a lot of curse words and talk about killing police and Staples does a lot of rappity rapping with no hooks.

If you want rap music with more of a melody, there's Anderson Paak, who sings and raps and whose music has a very musical quality. (Musical being my way of describing rap music that isn't just beats and rapping.) Or Chance the Rapper.

Or you could try Open Mike Eagle, who also sings some, and raps about REAL ISSUES but also raps about mundane life in a low-key but skillful way. Swears, but sparingly.

Or Oddissee, who is similar to Open Mike Eagle in some ways (and also on the same label) but a little more old school, a little less indie rock.

You could also check out Blackalicious, who are musical and positive. In that vein you have Lyrics Born, who is also from the Bay Area.

Lizzo and Ivy Sole are two female rappers making excellent positive hip-hop. Azealia Banks is a little raunchier but also very talented.

If you like your music weird, Shabazz Palaces make a nice blend of hip-hop, EDM, and Martian.
And if you are an aging punk, POS, Death Grips, and Run the Jewels all add some punk aggression to their rhymes.

There you go. Have at it. And the only white guy in that mix is El-P.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The problem with hip-hop in '16

It was in reference to an article she had come across that was almost all white rappers. I posted a little rant in the comments, which I'm posting below. As you can see, I caught some feelings.
This is a sore subject to me, because I find rap music on the whole to be problematic, and acting like it is racist to think it is problematic is bullshit. Anyways, my rant is below:

I’m white and I listen to a lot of rap music. While rap music isn’t all about bitches and the grind, a lot of it is, and most mainstream rap is. Mainstream rap has become what hair metal was in the 80s-cookie-cutter songs about sex, drugs, and partying, a lifestyle that none of its listeners enjoy but all would like to have. Even if it isn’t about sex, money and drugs, it’s full of profanity in a way that no other music is. Every fourth word out of Kendrick’s mouth is either the N word or the B word, and he is one of the best rappers around today. I love vince staples, but I can’t listen to that around my wife or kid because it is all curse words.

I have a friend who was trying to listen to more hip-hop, so she checked out kendrick’s good kid album. She said she wanted to like it, but it was like getting hit in the face over and over again with how much he said bitch. And she doesn’t want to hear racial slurs. She stopped trying after that.
I listen to the local hip-hop station, and every song is about sex, cars, and drugs. Every fucking one, only with the swears blocked out so that it is like watching a porn movie with a black bar over the genitals.

The alt-rappers everyone got excited about four years ago were odd future, who rapped about raping women and called everyone a faggot.

Even Anderson Paak, the fucking Bruno Mars of hip-hop, has lyrics full of bitches and n-bombs. I was rocking Malibu with my kid the other day and alla sudden some lady is saying she wants him to fuck the shit out of her. There’s another one off rotation.

I struggle to find rap albums I can listen to with my kid that are not rife with profanity or sexism. Even the Native Tongue’s stuff isn’t safe. I can get away with Blackalicious, early Tribe, early De La (but not “De La Orgy!), Digible Planets. That’s about it, I mean that I wanna listen to. I’ve been going with jazz or R&B. Yes, there are rappers who don’t swear, but there aren’t many rappers with more than 1,000 plays on Spotify who don’t swear.

Rap has chosen to embrace raw language as some sort of brand of realness. Twenty-five years ago it was shocking to hear the n-word in a rap song and you had to seek out those records. Nowadays they get played on mainstream radio, with the swears blurred out. If hammer was starting out today his song would be “Can’t Touch This, Bitch.”

I know I sound like a pearl clutching old white lady, but it’s something that bums me out. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

What I've Been Listening To

Half time

I really don't keep this up so good, do I?

So it's the half-year mark and time to reflect on what i've listened to so far this year.

This is going to be super incomplete, but here are some of the records I'm really excited about this year, in the order I remembered they existed.

1. Beyonce, Lemonade. I didn't listen to Beyonce at all prior to this. I mean, I liked her hits fine, but I don't fuck with pop music and she makes pop music. And then this comes. Granted, I don't love all of it, but "Hold Up," "Sorry," "Sandcastles," hell, even "All Night" are brilliant songs.

2. Jessy Lanza, Oh No. A pop album, but a pop album on Burial's label, so it maintains a nice edge.

3. Anderson Paak, Malibu. Soulful hip-hop that has kept me going this year.

4. Ivy Sole, Eden. A nice heartfelt rap album by a female MC.

5. J-Zone, Fish-N-Grits. Funky beats and funny rhymes calling out rap nostalgia.

6. Andy Stott, Too Many Voices.

7. Schoolboy Q, Blank Face

8. Mary Lattimore, After the Dam

9. Juliana Barwick, Will

10. Nothing, Tired of Tomorrow

11. Kvelertak, Nattesferd

12. PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project

Monday, June 27, 2016

Shabazz Palaces Review

Shabazz Palaces
Live At Third Man Records
Third Man Records, 2016
Originally Posted on

I’ve always found live hip-hop to be an iffy proposition. I’ve been to some amazing shows, but too often it is a guy shouting into a microphone over a backing track. There’s not much room for improvisation or spontaneity, which are two key components of a good live show. A recent Travis Scott performance on the Jimmy Kimmel show illustrates the worst-case scenario ( He is shouting along to a recording of the song, not even bothering to pretend he’s rapping. Maybe I need to see Shabazz Palaces live to change my mind. Their “Live At Third Man Records” is definitely a strong argument in favor of live hip-hop.

One thing that sets Shabazz off from many hip-hop acts (the Roots excluded) is that it isn’t just a rapper and a guy on his laptop. Tendai Maraire plays congos and drums and provides  backing vocal while Ishmael Butler raps between twiddling knobs and playing a drum pad. This allows them more room to improvise and go off script than a DJ only armed with the backing track. Also, their music isn’t built around samples or hooks, which means Butler isn’t having to rap along to a recording of someone else singing. It also doesn’t hurt that their music is nebulous, spacey, and more focused on sustaining a vibe than on pumping up a crowd or playing hits.

The tracks are mostly drawn from the Palaces’ two studio albums, especially 2014’s “Lese Majesty.”  The duo isn’t afraid to build out the intros of the songs, to change up the lyrics and to take song in new directions. At best, the songs here have a warmth and energy that isn’t always present on their studio albums. “Forerunner Foray,” for example, has a sense of urgency that I don’t get from the version on “Lese Majesty.”  Ditto the version of “Free Press and Curl” here. It abandons the intimacy and delicacy of the studio version, turning it into a party song.

There are also times when things get muddy and messy. Shabazz Palaces’ music is dense, and that denseness can come off as chaotic in the live setting. There are times where it feels like Butler is struggling to juggle rapping and programming. You can hear him lose his breath or lose his line as he fights with his laptop or drum machine. That is one downside to having a performer also doing programming - drum machines and laptops lack the elegance of a guitar or drum, and don’t work as well as live instruments.

As with all live albums, “Live At Third Man Records” loses something in its translation from live performance to digital document. It is still a worthy entry into the small collection of good live hip-hop albums. It may not be as great an experience as seeing Shabazz Palaces live, but it is a worthy substitute.

Detroit's Son Review

Guilty Simpson
Detroit's Son
Stones Throw, 2015
Originally Posted on

Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson is like the Arnold Schwarzenegger of rap. He is incredibly effective at being a badass, but not the most versatile or emotive of performers. He doesn’t sing and he doesn’t do features with R&B divas. That might sound limiting, but in the hands of the right producer, Simpson can drop fire. He’s responsible for at least two of my favorite rap songs of all time (“Coroner’s Music” and “Pigs.”) He’s found the right partner on “Detroit’s Son” in Aussie producer Katalyst, who is part of the Quakers crew. In fact, “Detroit’s Son” may well be his strongest release to date.

“Detroit’s Son” has a similar feel to Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s 2014 album “PiƱata.” It’s tough as nails rhymes over warped funk samples, with the rapper and the producer actually collaborating. Simpson spent time in Australia with Katalyst, and the face time they spent together pays off. They have the kind of chemistry that is hard to obtain if you are just Skyping and exchanging files in the cloud.

Much of “Detroit’s Son” is Simpson giving tough guy raps over menacing beats. He starts off on “R.I.P.,” rapping “The bigger the yap, the bigger the slap” while Katalyst lays down a beat that sounds like a race car warming up. Katalyst manages to make funk guitars sound threatening on “Blunts In the Air” one of several tracks dedicated to the sweet leaf. “The D” is as cold and unfriendly as the city it is about. 

“Rhyme 101” might be the best example of Guilty in grimey mode. The beat is funky but punishing, and Guilty spews venomous bars:

“Call this style pub crawl
Cuz you can get shot from bars
Hot shit pop from cars
Drive by
I’m an animal I I 
Swear to get my share I enjoy the air up here”

Guilty is so good at being a villain that it is easy to forget that from day one that has only been a part of his rap persona. One of his earlier tracks was the Dilla-produced “Man’s World” ( about the tortured relationship he had with his father. (“I’m sorry about the bruise on your face, you understand? I still love you, I’m still you’re old man.”) One of Guilty’s talents is the way he can rap about the harsh realities of life without it coming off as maudlin or pandering. “Ghetto” is a great example of this. It starts out your standard cautionary tale about life in the ghetto, but what Guilty is really rapping about is how our own behaviors and thinking can trap us.

“Fam had a gun and he died with it
Barrel still cold
Thirty years old with his brains shot over what he owed
Some say over what he told
Some say over what he sold
Still left the pros cold like the winter weather
Still shows in the hood we don’t stick together
Killers mask up like ‘we’ll stick whoever’
Wish I could say they do it to live better
But really
They rob you with the clippers
Then turn and give it to a stripper”

The title track, “Smoking,” and “Say What?” all offer more cheerful beats and rhymes, which adds variety and makes the harder songs hit that much harder. There are a couple moments on the album where Guilty’s blunt flow doesn’t totally connect, but those are few and far between. When I first heard Simpson ten years ago, he seemed like the antidote to mediocre backpack rappers. Nowadays, he sounds like a soldier doing his part to preserve a type of hip-hop that feels almost like an endangered species. “Detroit’s Son” is proof that Guilty Simpson is far from done, and that you don’t need to be able to sing hooks in order to be a compelling rapper.

EV Zepplin Review

EV Zepplin 
Reviewed by Patrick Taylor

EV Zepplin are Chuck Inglish of Cool Kids fame and Blended Babies. Blended Babies are a production duo who have done work for Freddie Gibbs, Anderson Paak, Chance the Rapper, and Ab-Soul, among others. They are also incredibly prolific. If my count is correct, this album is the second album they’ve put out in April, and comes after six EPs released in the past 11 months. That doesn’t even count the tracks they’ve produced for other artists, or Blended Babies member Jonathan Keller’s solo project.

Blended Babies’ take a musical approach to hip-hop, combining elements of rock, R&B, and electronica. Two of their recent projects have been with singers (an EP with Anderson Paak and an album with indie/R&B artist Jake Barker). They are more songwriters than beat makers, and the songs on “EV Zepplin” all feature as much singing as rapping. 

Not that the rapping gets short shrift. Besides Inglish, Alex Wiley, Caleb James, Boldy James, Asher Roth, A$ton Mathews, and Drew Smith all provide bars. The surprise for me was Asher Roth, a rapper I had written off after the frat rap of “I Love College” seven years ago. He reinvented himself as a more psychedelic rapper on 2014’s “RetroHash,” and he continues on that tip here, rapping about tripping on “Hang Up,” and offering some blunted menace on “Gun.” 

The album is at its best when it is riding a blunted groove. Songs like “Scenic Route,” “Hang Ups,” the reggae-inflected “What I Want,” and “Over Much.” are highlights, offering up a hazy combination of piano, guitar, and banging drums. Sometimes Blended Babies’ bombast misfires. Opener “We On” combines buttrock guitars with lame sex lyrics, and the result is best avoided. 

Lyrically, Ev Zepplin sticks to getting high and bragging. Things get romantic on “Re-Creating” and “What I Want,” although both tracks are more about how the woman can please the man rather than vice-versa. The lyrics may lack depth, but they are delivered with skill, and you can tell that the MCs were having a good time recording this. “I’m rhyming like I’m Gryffindor, you rhyming like you Hufflepuff,” raps Asher Roth on “Gun,” which gives you a sense of where the rappers are at. 

Ev Zepplin may have nothing to do with the classic rock band that inspires their name, but it is a well-executed dose of psychedelic rap. Inglish has found worthy collaborators both in the Blended Babies and the MCs and singers that round this album out. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016


Like most human beings with functioning souls, I was sad to hear that Prince died. More because he was too young to die and seemed to be having a bit of a renaissance, putting out albums, touring, and writing a memoir. His current output may not have set the world on fire, but he had such an amazing run in the 80s-mid 90s that he could have never released anything else and it would have been enough.

I loved 1999 and Purple Rain, and I owned both cassettes. Well, I owned 1999 and my sister owned Purple Rain. I have yet to go to a wedding where "Kiss" isn't played. He was incredible. More than that, he challenged a lot of stereotypes. He was a black man who rocked out AND got funky. He had gay women in his band, and he championed female artists. He was hyper sexual and yet wore heels and frills and sang in a falsetto. He was a powerful role model to have in the conservative, homophobic, and racist 80s. He showed a lot of kids a different view of masculinity. And like the Beatles, EVERYONE likes at least one Prince song.

New Music by Old People

I've been listening to two recent albums by musicians who have been around a while.

First is Bob Mould's newest album Patch the Sky. This is the third album he's made since his return to loud guitars, working with two-thirds of Superchunk. I didn't love the first two albums, but this one is resonating with me. My issue with Mould's music is that he can get kind of cheesy, but he's tampering that down here. A lot of this album has to do with his relationship ending and his father dying, and there are some great songs. My favorite so far is "The End of Things," about a break up with the great line "A graduation/Or a gradual decay." It's exciting to hear someone using their skills as a musician to tackle more grown up emotions.

I also got PJ Harvey's new album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, about a redevelopment project in Washington DC. The lyrics to some of the songs are a little clumsy (see all the "justs" in the opener), but I'm into it.


As an aside, when I was looking up videos of PJ Harvey, I came across this clip of her playing "Dress" live ten years ago. Just her looking amazing and rocking out with only a drummer.

The Replacements

I saw the documentary "Color Me Obsessed" this week, about the Minneapolis legends The Replacements. What was interesting about the doc was how much their mythology sort of capsized the band. The thing everyone remembers about the Replacements is what drunken fuck ups they were. They were frequently wasted on stage, often to the point of being unable to play. An aura of chaos followed the band, the kind of chaos you usually associate with hardcore junkie artists like Iggy Pop or G.G. Allin, although it seems like the 'Mats were mostly into caseloads of beer rather than drugs. The documentary mentioned that, but also mentioned how sad and frustrating it was to see a band with so much potential consistently squander it. Bob Stinson, the drunkenest, most fucked upenest member, was booted in '86 for being too much of a fuck up, and managed to drink and drug himself to death by 35.

The Replacements are also the ultimate cautionary tale for any punk band trying to grow up. Their genius lay in straddling the line between clever and stupid, and when they went for a grown-up sound on their later albums, they lost much of the smart-ass charm that had made them great in the first place. Not unlike Husker Du, they went from being a scrappy punk band to being another boring modern rock act.

 I was never into the Replacements during their existence from 1979-1991. They were a little too rock for my tastes as a younger listener, and their later modern rock incarnation didn't appeal to me either. It's only as I've gotten older than I've come to appreciate them, although I don't own any of their album. I briefly owned 1987's "Pleased to Meet Me," but have since sold it. However, I've been revisiting them a lot lately. They appeal much more to me now.

Their performance of "Bastards of Young" on SNL in 1985 shows a lot of their appeal, and a lot of their problem. It's great in part because it is a shambolic, drunken mess, but it is also a drunken, shambolic mess that got them banned from the show.

What a mess by mmr421

One of my favorite songs by them is "Can't Hardly Wait." , only not the neutered version that appears on "Pleased to Meet Me." It's much better live, or in the "Tim" outtake, which maintains a rawness that got lost in the studio recording. The lyrics are also different. In the official studio version, there are some key lines changed, and the song seems to be about the weariness of touring. The "Tim" version makes it seem like it is about suicide. My favorite line is "I'll be sad in heaven/If I can't find a hole in the gate/Stand on the top of this scummy water tower/Screaming I can't hardly wait/'Til it's over."

Friday, April 01, 2016

How to Ruin A Record Label

I just read Larry Livermore's How to Ru(i)n A Record Label, which details his experience starting, leaving, and watching the demise of Lookout Records.

I came to the Bay Area in 1993, and got into local punk that year. I saw Green Day at Slim's in San Francisco right after Dookie hit but before they blew up. I was an exciting time for music and the scene, even if I was a good three years too late. Lookout was the epicenter of it. They had Green Day, Operation Ivy, Tiger Trap, Crimpshrine, and a host of other local punk bands. Plus, their shabby aesthetic and low prices made it seem like a label run by and for the kids.

Both Green Day and Op Ivy became huge sellers for them. I think they were used to selling thousands of copies, and those bands were selling hundreds of thousands of copies. It infused the label with a lot of money, and they struggled to find a path forward. What struck me reading the book was how short-lived this all was. The label started in 1987, and was effectively done by 2005, although the writing was on the wall sooner, and they officially closed much later.

I've read Chris Applegren's description of how he ran the label into the ground after Larry Livermore bailed in the late 90s. Applegren basically thought that since Green Day went on to become bajillionaires with some serious promotion, any other band should be able to become bajillionaires with the same level of promotion. What they missed was that Green Day was lightning in a bottle, ie not the kind of thing that is likely to come along again. Also, most of the commercially successful punk bands sounded nothing like the shabby pop-punk Lookout! was putting out. The Epitaph sound was much more prevalent as the 90s closed - think Blink 182 or Sum 41.  The band used royalty payments to pay bills, thus stiffing bands, thus losing their catalogue as Green Day and Op Ivy took their records to other labels.

I felt a sense of loss when the label closed, but looking back it seems kind of inevitable. The Lookout! sound was very specific to a time and place. They put out East Bay pop punk records, or East Coast bands that sounded like East Bay pop punk. Their few excursions into weirder punk (Neurosis, Filth) were anomalies. Their attempts to branch out into bands like the Donnas and the Pattern weren't successful. By 1999 pop punk was done and so the label. I have a lot of respect and admiration for what they did, and I love some of those records, but I'm not surprised that it folded. I know Molly Neuman is still in the industry. I'm not sure what the rest of them are up to.

Friday, March 25, 2016

RIP Phife

Phife Dawg, aka Malik Taylor, died this week at 47.

Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory is one of my favorite albums of all time. It got me into hip-hop in a big way. It got me into jazz. I have listened to it regularly since I first purchased it in 1992ish. Midnight Marauders was another album I loved, if not as much. I haven't revisited the rest of their catalogue. Maybe now I should.

RIP to the funky diabetic.


I reviewed R&B singer Kelela's last EP on RapReviews last week. 

I've been digging a lot of the alt R&B that's out there - SZA, the Internet, etc. I have never been much into regular R&B, so I'm happy there are artists approaching the genre from a perspective I can appreciate. I don't know if I don't like regular R&B because it is too "black" or too pop-oriented, or if it is just that the musical/emotional notes it tries to hit don't resonate with me. Kelela's music is R&B from a dance perspective. It reminds me a little of how Bjork would team up with cool producers and make music.

I also loved Letta's Testimony, which I reviewed a while back.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


Another favorite album of 2016 (although it came out at the end of 2016) is the Dutch band Fluisteraars sophomore album Luwte. They are a melodic black metal band that are epic, intense, and sorrowful. Good music for bad times.

Anderson Paak

One of my favorite albums in recent months is Anderson Paak's Malibu. I had first heard him on Dre's Compton, where Paak was one of the highlights. He does a combination of soul, hip-hop, and rock that works really well. His lyrics are full of love and pain. "When I look at my tree I see leaves missing," He sings on "The Season/Carry Me." "Generations of harsh living and addiction."

It's an album that manages to capture the edge of hip-hop but smooth it out with soul without being cheesy. It's about pain and trauma but also hopeful. In short, the perfect record for 2016.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Music for the ages

I've been having dance parties with my 3-year-old daughter a lot recently. It's one of our favorite activities. A lot of my music curation now comes down to finding music that she might like that I might not hate. Her top jams are "For the First Time In Forever" and "Let It Go" from Frozen, although she loves the whole soundtrack (except the scary non-singing parts). We also introduced her to the Sound of Music and Annie, and "Shake It Off" has become a staple. Recently I dug through some Beatles songs on Spotify to find some that might be especially good for a toddler. I came up with "Good Day Sunshine," "Here Comes the Sun," and "Ticket to Ride."

The Beatles broke up over fifty years ago. I wonder how long their music will continue to resonate to people, and what that will be like. This idea of commercial recorded popular music is relatively new, and I am curious how it will go down in history. I mean, people still love classical music and songs from hundreds of years ago, but you don't hear The St. Petersburg Symphony's 1867 recording of "Waltz of the Sugarplum Fairies." Will the rock music my parents grew up with start to sound dated and run out of favor at some point? Will kids still be getting turned on to Zepplin and Pink Floyd and The Clash and Operation Ivy and Tribe Called Quest 50 years from now?

This has been deep thoughts from an old man.

Friday, February 05, 2016


I haven't written in a while, so here we go.

I have a love/hate relationship with black metal. On one end, it can be great, on another end it can be super annoying and politically reprehensible.

I can't speak to the politics of Swedish group Murg, but they make the kind of black metal that represents what the genre can do.

The tremelo-picking allows for a fuller sound. It splits the difference between punk distortion, metal precision, and shoegaze guitar washes. The rhythm of the song precedes in quarter notes (one, two, three, four), but all the guitars and drums are in sixteenths (one-ee-and-a-two-ee-and-a-three-e-and-a-four-ee-and-a, which gives it an intensity and sense of propulsion. They are doing four beats for every beat of the song.

It's harsh while still maintaining a sense of melody, and all that noise and blast beats means that the melody that does appear is slightly hidden amidst all the chaos. This gives it more power, paradoxically. The vocals also managed to not be too annoying - more growl-ey than screech-ey. (If I could sing, I'd love to take a stab at recording some of these extreme metal songs with sung vocals - I could see a more post punk vocal take working really well with a lot of this. The screeched vocals often seem to be deliberately alienating, and don't always work in service to the song.)

This is a great album, and one I can't stop listening to.

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