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. 

Blog Archive