Saturday, July 08, 2017

Half Time

Let's be honest: The world, or at least the U.S., is kind of a shitshow right about now. Politically, we are living the worst-case scenario of 10 years ago, and my new worst-case scenario is so fucking grim I don't even want to write it down. Suffice to say dystopian fiction is not appealing to me right now.

One thing that keeps me keeping on is music. There is so much amazing music coming out lately that I almost can't handle it. I definitely can't digest all of it. So here are some of my favorites (so far) of 2017:

Ison, Sevdaliza

Horizonless, Loss

Grey, Kweku Collins

Big Fish Theory, Vince Staples

Damn., Kendrick Lamar

Syd, Syd.

Ancestors, Volur

The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind, Lando Chill

Obsidian Arc, Pillorian

Nightmare Logic, Power Trip

Monday, February 20, 2017

Czarface Review

A Fistful of Peril
Silver Age Records
(Originally posted at RapReviews)

Comic books and hip-hop have a long history together. The Wu-Tang Clan melded kung fu and comic books with hardcore gangster rap, with several of their MCs taking on comic book alter egos. DOOM borrowed his persona from the Marvel villain Doctor Doom, and created a series of other characters inspired by comic books. More recently, Wu-Tang member Inspectah Deck teamed up with 7L and Esoteric to create Czarface. The supergroup continues the Wu’s tradition of combining gritty street rap with comic book themes. “A Fistful of Peril” is their third effort, coming on the heels with a collaboration with Marvel Comics.

Czarface’s mission statement seems to echo what Run the Jewel’s was about on their first album: make trash-talking raps over heavy beats, and have a good time doing it. There isn’t much political on this album, and lyrically it never gets much beyond battle rhymes. It’s all Esoteric and Deck and friends going off over 7L’s boom-bap beats. It is a proudly old school approach, with no acknowledgment that hip-hop has changed all all in the last 20 years. No singing, no hooks, no message beyond “I am a better rapper than you.”

And damn if they don’t have a point. After an instrumental, they start things off with a bang on “Two in the Chest,” slaying sucker MCs with their rhymes. Or, as Esoteric puts it:

“The price of death never been cheaper

And you ain’t gotta notify your next of kin neither

You can't sleep 'cause the inn keeper is the Grim Reaper

I'm a sin eater, Czarface the ringleader

Bust a nine millimeter rhyme at your two-seater

Crush your spine with a lethal line, you're an easy bleeder”

Inspectah Deck never got the fame that some of his fellow Wu members got, but he was always a consistently strong MC, if not a particularly showy one. It’s nice to hear him drop bars without having to compete for airtime with Ghostface and Method Man. His rhymes are sharp, with no sign that he is content to rest on his laurels, even if he does quote old Method Man lyrics on “Revenge on Lizard City.”

“I came to bring the pain, hardcore from the brain
And damage your mind like bad cocaine
The flamethrower started the game, it's game over
I Holly Holm's rappers while signing your face poster
I'm way colder, you need gloves tryna touch the kid
The Terminator with the flow, let nothing live
Voice shining, you could hardly steer
Like a judge, been handing out bars for years
Yeah, the team make cream while you daydream
Futuristic, our names up in laser beams
I make a scene on Broadway in broad day
24/7 365, man, I'm all day
Get it right, sir, I global mogul
Flex superpower like I changed in a phone booth”

The biggest criticism I can make of the album is that sometimes it feels samey and one-note, being that it is basically 11 different versions of the same musical idea. But while there are a couple points on the 35-minute album where it starts to feel plodding, on a whole the album delivers. “A Fistful of Peril” is two skilled MCs rapping over hard-hitting beats, and definitely worth the price of admission.

Tristate x Oh No Review

Tristate x Oh No,
3 Dimensional Prescriptions
Oh No has been producing quality hip-hop albums for albums for going on 13 years. He dropped his first album in 2004, and his first beat album, “Dr. No’s Oxperiment,” in 2007. Since then he’s gone on to produce or co-produce numerous releases, both under his own name and as with the Alchemist as Gangrene, with whom he scored Grand Theft Auto V. “3 Dimensional Prescriptions” is his latest release, with Gold Chain Music’s Tristate.

Oh No is Madlib’s little brother, and his production style has always contained elements of Madlib’s esoteric crate-digging. There’s no genre too obscure or out there for Oh No. Whether it is Ethiopian jazz, Turkish funk, or rare R&B, Oh No is a master at mining odd snippets of music for loops and breaks. Oh No differs from his older brother in that his beats are more grounded in hip-hop rather than in outer space. An Oh No beat always hits hard, and he always keeps one foot firmly planted on earth. That tradition continues on “3 Dimensional Prescriptons,” which is  14 tracks of solid hip-hop.

Tristate has a gruff voice and an even, measured flow. It’s the kind of voice that would usually be used to deliver grimy, tough-guy rhymes, and while Tristate is no wimp, his lyrics are more intricate than his flow suggests. He’s rapping about hooking people on his rhymes on “Latest Drugs,” reminiscing about an ex on “Tears on My Nautica,” comparing his rhymes to a spaceship on “Spaceship,” and dropping artistic references on “Exit Thru the Gift Shop.” It’s a nice combination of grittiness and lyricism.

Oh No’s jazzy, funky beats are a nice pairing with Tristate’s more meat-and-potatoes rap style. Oh No keeps it grimy, but adds just enough weirdness to keep the record from falling into retro boom-bap worship. The nimbleness of the music brings out the nimbleness of the rappers, and as a result the album is full of lyricism without being boring or monotonous. Hus KingPin, Lyric Jones, Westside Gunn, Casual, Brotha J, Bro AA Rasheed, Xiomara, Planet Asia, Rogue Venom, Washeyi Choir, and evidence all offer their skills on the album, proving worthy sparring partners with Tristate.

Maybe I’ve just been listening to too many rappers who sing or too much cross-genre hip-hop, but “3 Dimensional Prescriptions” felt like a breath of fresh air. There’’s little singing, no one raps in odd voices, there’s no guest spots by indie rock musicians, no production assists by EDM DJs. Not that any of those are bad things, but sometimes you just want to hear some dudes rapping over flipped soul and jazz samples. “3 Dimensional Prescriptions” may not break new ground, but it’s unapologetically old school sound is well executed.

Friday, January 27, 2017


I didn't vote for Trump. I called fascist early in his campaign. I did graduate work on Italian Fascism, the Sonderweg, the lead-up to the Nazis, and the historiography of the Holocaust. I know a fucking fascist when I see one. I was a little shocked by how many people were ok with his shenanigans, but then again the groundwork had been laid by the Republican Party and rightwing media for decades.
I'm disappointed that the powers of be have done so little to directly address Trump and what a batshit crazy wannabe dictator he is, but then people will rarely stand up for the politically unpowerful when it means sacrificing their own power. Which is how you end up with things like the Catholic Church's child molestation scandals or Jerry Sandusky.

I've been more politically active in the past few months than ever before in my life. I still feel largely impotent. I called and emailed Paul Ryan to ask him to preserve the Affordable Care Act, but I dont' think he actually gives a shit. The people in his shitty district want him to repeal it, his funders want him to repeal it, so it will get repealed.

The reaction to Trump has been telling. The Dems have been using it to ask me for money (something they do three times a day anyways, to be fair). Every nonprofit I remotely support has been emailing me for money. Shops I like have been using protest as a way to sell hats or albums or natural fabrics. We are trying to spend our way out of this, turn it into an opportunity to drive up sales. I know it is for a good cause (and I was happy to give money to help lobby against Trump's appointees), but it is still a little gross. Like, THIS is our idea?

I've been vocally skeptical about protest marches for a while, but I was impressed by the Woman's March, and I think similar marches could do some actual good. I just hope they don't devolve into the same pool of far-left groups shutting down highways or smashing burger kings or camping out to like protest capitalism or whatever. I've been disappointed at how unfocused the Black Lives Matter movement has been. Instead of trying to seek actionable, achievable outcomes, it has become, in my opinion, too broad and too unrealistic. It's really hard to see a path from the movement to any sort of actual change. And don't get me started that they have an internationally focused charity as their fiscal sponsor because they want to end racism globally. I think they had a tough hill to climb from the get-go because they are a)black and b)going against the police, which is tough politically and tends to bring out the asshole anarchists, which isn't the image you want the American people to see. My experience with those protests, though, was that they were more expressions of anger without any policy follow through or realistic policy objectives. In oakland they were demanding the Oakland Police be disbanded, as if THAT was ever going to happen.

Again, focused, achievable, actionable. That's the key, I think. Stuff that people can actually do, like try to shut down Betsy Davos' nomination, or block Trump's crazier executive order, or win swing districts, or (longer term, bigger lift) support redistricting efforts. In the end, a lot of this is going to come down to voter outreach and registration and making it easier for young people and brown people to vote. Easy to say, hard to do. Especially when you are dealing with an uneducated populace (I'm speaking Americans generally) and really complicated, boring issues like environmental regulatory policy etc. that no one understands but that has a huge impact. We also can't afford to get cynical. Hardest of all, we somehow need to not throw people under the bus while at the same time tamping down the "but what about me!!!!!" impulse that is so destructively american. It's this weird thing I try to tell myself and teach my daughter - you are important and your needs matter, but you also one of seven billion people on this planet, so you are not the only person in the world who matters. It's not all about you, which is a frustrating thing to hear when you've been ignored your whole life, but yeah. It's not.

Also, this can't just be about Democrats taking back control of congress and the white house. This has to be about the Republican party moving to a more moderate/less batshit crazy place. They are doing incredibly well at the same time they are totally fucking crazy. So there's that.

Mostly, I just want to find a balance between fighting the good fight and not being consumed by the abuser in chief. I wake up at 2am freaking out about how shitty things are. That's not good.

This week has taught me that things you spent decades building can be destroyed in a moment, and that there are way more people opposed to the Trump presidency than for it.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside

So, it has been three months since I posted here. The main reason for the hiatus is boring and has to do with age - I've fucked up my arm and shoulder from being on the computer so much, and so I am trying to minimize how much time I spend on a computer when I am not at work.

Also, the last half of 2016 was so full of heavy shit that writing about music seemed like the least important thing I could be doing.

Maybe I'll keep this up, maybe not. I do want to write more in 2017, but I also want to spend more time with my daughter, exercise more, meditate more, and limit screen time so we'll see how that all pans out - many of those are mutually exclusive.

My final thought on 2016 and the year ahead is this: sometimes life kicks you in the fucking teeth. Everything is impermanent, change is the only constant, bad things happen, everything you love and hold dear to you will be taken away from you at some point, so enjoy the time you have with the people you love and when shit goes haywire, which it always will, try to be strong enough to get back up.

That's all.

Best Rap Albums of 2016

(originally posted at rapreviews)

2016 offered many reminders of how hard and unfair life can be, and how quickly things can fall apart. In a year when internet trolls took over national governments, overt racism and anti-semitism become politically acceptable, and civilians in Syria were publicly bombed to death while the rest of the world stood by, music helped me connect with the rest of the world in a powerful way. I’m disappointed and fearful of how the internet has divided and radicalized people instead of bringing them together, of how it has created echo-chambers that reflect back the reality we want to believe in rather than how things actually are. The one outlier in all this is music. Music has remained an honest voice in the wilderness, reflecting back people’s actual experiences rather than outrage porn, regurgitated talking points, and blatant misinformation. It is is especially true of hip-hop, which has long given voice to the disenfranchised and marginalized. Whether it was  the street poetry from a gifted craftsman like Ka, or YG trying to figure out how reconcile his gangsta persona with being a grown up, or Vic Mensa calling out police brutality, or Danny Brown wrestling with addiction and depression, 2016 offered many opportunities to listen to people who don’t normally get a voice in the world.

Here are ten albums I liked the best from this year, in order:

10. Kate Tempest, “Let Them Eat Chaos” An album about trying to connect in post-Brexit London and the things we do to distract ourselves.

9. Aesop Rock, “The Impossible Kid” Aesop’s most personal album yet, and one of his best.

8. ScHoolboy Q, “Blank Face” I can’t really defend this on an intellectual level, but this ish bangs.

7. Ka, “Honor Killed the Samurai” One of the most skilled and exacting MCs in the game makes another great album.

6. Danny Brown, “Atrocity Exhibition” A druggy party album about the downside of being a druggy party rapper.

5. Frank Ocean, “Blonde” “It’s hell on earth and the city’s on fire/In hell in hell there’s heaven.”

4. YG, “Still Brazy” An unapologetic gangsta rap album.

3. A Tribe Called Quest, “We got it from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service” I had no reason to hope that another Tribe album would be released, and even less hope that it would be this good. R.I.P. Phife Dawg.

2. Anderson.Paak, “Malibu” He’s a rapper! He’s a singer! He’s a drummer! He’s like a less annoying Bruno Mars!

1. Solange, “A Seat at the Table” This is a fierce, beautiful album, and the album I listened to the most this year.

Disappointments of the year:
De La Soul, “and the anonymous Nobody…” This isn’t a bad album, but as a lifelong De La Soul fan (and backer of their Kickstarter), it wasn’t the comeback album I wanted. I found it to be a little lifeless and I had a hard time with the casual misogyny. Why are a bunch of men in their 40s rapping about sexy bitches and trainwrecks?

Atmosphere, “Fishing Blues,” I love Atmosphere’s brand of confessional story rap, but they have become almost a self-parody at this point. Slug can still unleash when he wants to, but too much of “Fishing Blues” is territory that Atmosphere has tread to death.

Kanye West, “Life of Pablo” I sincerely hope Kanye gets the help he so clearly needs, and I do not want to pile on the circus that surrounds him, but I do not understand what people see in his work. At this point he could release an album of himself burping the alphabet and Pitchfork would give it a 9.4.

Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book.” I loved “Acid Rap,” but I couldn’t handle this album. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I lost my ability to put up with Chance mumbling in a baby voice. Maybe it’s because I live with a three-year-old.  

Favorite non rap albums of 2016

Angel Olsen, My Woman  - A beautiful, haunting album.

Darkthrone, Arctic Thunder - Sometimes, you just need to rock. This is like Motorhead mixed with a little Maiden and Priest with a dash of crusty punk.

Lotus Thief, Gramarye - A beautiful, haunting album.

P.J. Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project

Vektor, Terminal Redux - Insanely fast and ambitious scifi thrash.

Mary Lattimore, At the Dam

Against Me! Shape Shift with Me. I’m pretty ignorant about trans issues, and a lot of what I know comes from Against Me!

Inquisition, Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith - Satanism is right up there with fundamentalist Christianity or conservative Islam in terms of religious ideologies that I have huge issues with. And yet I put up with Inquisition’s cosmic satanism because they are so interesting musically. The singer croaks like a robot frog about jibber-jabber while creating walls of noise on his guitar while the drummer bangs away like a madman. The cover art doesn’t do this music justice.

Hammers of Misfortune, Dead Revolution - proggy metal about San Francisco being decimated by wealth.

Subrose, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages - Heavy doom from Salt Lake City.

Inter Arma, Paradise Gallows

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