You know, LMNO, there is such a thing as flooding the market.
For those of you who follow this series, you're probably aware that this is the fourth time I've covered LMNO in two years, a rough-edged California MC with a reputation for a relentlessly monotone delivery and yet bars complex and thought-provoking enough to redeem it. What he's also known for is his insane release schedule: in one year he dropped ten albums of material with various producers and collaborators, to the point where it got exhausting just to keep up with him. And yet I still do - mostly because his collaboration album with Evidence After The Fact was excellent and I'm still convinced he can deliver something of that quality.
Now one of the better received albums from that crazy year was called Banger Management, which paired him with Mr. Brady, an MC whose lower tone and softer delivery actually made LMNO's conspiratorial rasp sound energetic and lively. The two have collaborated plenty of times since, and this year they sought to put together a new project, the instrumentation handled by New York producer Asthetic. And for the most part, I was interested in this - yeah, I know, four projects in two years on this channel, but LMNO can bring up interesting material in his bars, and Mr. Brady would offer good contrast. So, how does 25/8 turn out?
Okay, fun experiment. Name a country band that is all women and more than just a duo. Then name one that might have some mainstream appeal... and that's not the Dixie Chicks. At this point, a few of you are probably wondering who could possibly fit that category, and in 2011, we got an answer: the Pistol Annies, a group formed of newcomer Angeleena Presley, A-list powerhouse Miranda Lambert, and underground country starlet Ashley Monroe. Together they cranked out the pretty damn excellent debut Hell On Heels in 2011 and the great followup Annie Up in 2013, but they're probably most well-known for collaborating with Blake Shelton and playing background vocals on 'Boys 'Round Here', easily one of the worst hit songs of that year. And I don't blame any of the Pistol Annies for that - they're a hell of a lot better than the minimal role they played in that song. Hell, Ashley Monroe proved that when she showed up on Blake Shelton's next album on the song 'Lonely Tonight', one of the few highlights of that record. And yet some of you are probably wondering why the hell I called her an underground starlet. Well, Ashley Monroe initially was positioned a decade ago as another entry in the wave of fire-spitting female country singers in the mid-to-late 2000s, but Sony outright refused to release her debut unless she had a charting hit, eventually only getting a fragmented release briefly in 2006 before finally getting on iTunes in 2009. A damn shame, because the album is great, a gem where only diehard fans and the country underground seemed to care. Fast forward to 2013, where the Pistol Annies were gaining swell and Ashley Monroe had signed to Warner Bros Nashville in order to release her follow-up record Like A Rose... and like her last release, it barely made the charts and the only people who seemed to care were those in the country underground - plus a lot of critics, because, again, the album is excellent. Not perfect - it's got its rougher, hokier moments, and the duet with Blake Shelton that ends the album is pointless - but it had a certain lived-in maturity that proved really charming, especially with songs like 'Weed Instead Of Roses' that were a bit goofy but still a lot of fun. So now that her career has stabilized - probably bigger than ever thanks to the Blake Shelton collaboration - I wasn't surprised when I heard her newest album is a slight pivot towards the mainstream, and I really wasn't all that worried. After all, she was still the primary songwriter, and it's always a good thing to have more women getting critical acclaim in country. Were my assumptions correct?
So as some of you know, I'm twenty-five years old. I've got a full-time job beyond this, I pay rent on my own apartment, I buy my own groceries and do my own laundry. And even by the nebulous way most people tend to view my generation, I can marginally be defined as an 'adult'. But even as I get older, pop music tends to stay the same age, which is now leading to the situation where I'm reviewing music that might speak to experiences almost a decade disconnected from my own. Now in theory, this isn't a problem: good music can surpass barriers of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and age isn't as much a barrier as you'd think.
But I'll admit feeling hesitant covering Bea Miller, mostly because warning flags began popping up all over the place. Coming in ninth on the second season of X-Factor, signing in the first ever joint venture between Simon Cowell's Syco Records and Hollywood Records, and all of it at the age of sixteen! On the one hand, there's a certain gut reaction of surprise, but thanks to YouTube and Vine and the ease of creating content skewing younger and younger, I'm not surprised. Hell, even though she wrote less than half of the songs on her debut album, she's probably got a firm hand on her pop career at this point. And besides, teen starlets have existed before, I shouldn't be fazed by this.
No, my flags were more tied to the presence of Simon Cowell and Syco Music, a label that does not have a good reputation with me in bringing out quality, mostly thanks to bland, regurgitated production that is the definition of formulaic. At best, you get acts like Ella Henderson who can rise above it, but at worst, you get Cher Lloyd or Fifth Harmony, the former of whom only started improving when she tore away from Cowell's clutches. And that was my big concern for Bea Miller's debut titled Not An Apology - was I proven wrong?
Well so much for the summer lull. Even as the album release schedule has slowed a bit, it was a reasonably busy week on the charts, thanks to even more change-ups in country, a slice of album tracks from Future, and one of the biggest leaps to the Top 10 I've seen in a while.
You're not going to find many underground rappers as controversial these days as Hopsin - and not for the reasons you might think.
See, I remember reviewing Knock Madness nearly two years ago and liking it, but upon repeated relistens, outside of a few tracks it's not exactly a record that's held up all that well. As much as I like Hopsin's flow and bars and his penchant for descriptive imagery and his desire to hit more serious subject matter, his material has its fair share of problems. For one, he's a better rapper than producer, and while he rides his beats well, they don't nearly have the texture to really hold up if there isn't more melody. But the larger issue comes in the dichotomy of his content and persona - like his main influence Eminem he uses the alternate Hopsin persona when he wants to get visceral or violent and the 'Marcus' persona when he wants to get more serious. The problem is that the line can blur and not only can it make some of his conscious material feel preachy, but it can also feel pretty hypocritical, especially when he talks about women. At its best - sort of like his singing and his hooks - it's corny and I can tolerate a fair amount of it, but at its worst it's more than a little insufferable, especially considering Knock Madness was nearly full throttle all the time and could have used some room to slow down and breathe.
And I'm not sure exactly when it was, but the critical conversation about Hopsin polarized in a big way with this shift in his subject matter, especially considering how much he was dicking with his fanbase, saying he was going to retire to Australia and then pull a Dumb And Dumber To joke to unretire and drop another album he produced himself. And look, I was going to cover this album: for the most part I like Hopsin, and you can't deny he can spit and even if Pound Syndrome sucked, it would at least be interesting, right?
Yeah, forgot to post this last night. Sort of a last minute bit of craziness, things were wild. Next up... well, not sure yet. I know Hopsin and Ashley Monroe are on the list, but who else... stay tuned!
I've said in the past that for me, electronic music has been a discovery process in learning to explore and appreciate it - and this year more than ever, I've found more electronic music that I've really loved. But there's always been one big exception to that exploration, one electronic group I've known for years and have really loved, one genre-bending group that's been active since the 90s and has produced more than their fair share of critically acclaimed, absolutely killer records. And no, I'm not talking about Daft Punk. Nope, I'm talking about The Chemical Brothers, the British electronic duo partially responsible for popularizing the 'big-beat' era in late-90s electronic music and one of the few groups to survive its collapse. Known for their bombast, aggressive sampling, killer grooves, and an uncanny ability to get weird and not implode or disappear up their own asses, The Chemical Brothers' first three albums are damn close to untouchable snapshots of their era, and while the quality got shakier throughout the 2000s as electronic music retreated back into the underground, they still produced quality, especially on the striking return to form Further in 2010. But let's face it, electronic music is a much different place in 2015 than it even was five years ago. EDM smashed into the mainstream before fragmenting, the festival circuit is increasingly overstuffed, and the Internet is flooded with would-be samplers hoping that their off-beat brand of sampling gathers attention. And to some extent pure aggression isn't going to cut in the same way - while Further holds up a solid five years later with some killer grooves and great crescendos and progressions, it's always interesting to see if the old titans can still crush the David Guettas and Calvin Harrises of the world into the corners where they belong. Did Born In The Echoes pull this off?
Well, that was easier than expected. And shorter, too - probably one of the shortest reviews I've put together since my early days, but there just wasn't much to say. Next up, Chemical Brothers, stay tuned!
Those of you who have been following me for a while know I'm a fan of Alan Jackson. Hell, when he dropped The Bluegrass Album back in 2013, it even landed on my list of my top albums of that year. And in that review, I struggled to articulate why Alan Jackson worked so damn well for me as one of my all-time favourite country singers. And since I grew up in the 90s listening to country radio, I doubt I'm all that unique there. But about a year and a half later, I think I've managed to come to more of a conclusion in this particular category: consistency. With rare exceptions - his two gospel albums, the Allison Krauss-produced record he made in the mid-2000s, and of course The Bluegrass Album - Alan Jackson's material is oddly timeless to me, especially when it comes to the impressive line of classics he wrote himself. Since he started cranking out critically acclaimed records in the 90s all the way to now, he's had an impressive stream of quality for nearly twenty-five years - to the point where there'll be critics who find it hard to criticize him beyond, 'Well, he's in his comfort zone, he's done that before'. And to some extent, they're not wrong - produced by Keith Stegall, neotraditional country that doesn't shy away from rough subject matter that's always written with a deft touch and presented with boundless charisma and heart, it's definitely not cool music, but it doesn't need to be. And sure, he drifts away on occasion to the same lightweight beach material you'll see in a Kenny Chesney or Zac Brown Band album, but Jackson tends to infuse it with enough charm or humour that it doesn't just become mellow beach fodder, which is always a plus. But recent years have shown a bit of a shift for Alan Jackson, a restlessness that led to him to part with his longtime label Arista Nashville and set up his own imprint at EMI. It led to his tightest collection of songs in 2012 with Thirty Miles West, the majority of which Jackson wrote himself. Then came The BluegrassAlbum, the album he'd been threatening he'd make for years and proved that his threats should been followed through more often. But now we have a new slice of country from Alan Jackson, and you can bet I'm covering it - how did it turn out?
I was expecting to be a lot harsher on this album, but it had its moments that did save it from awfulness. Not enough to make me hope for the future, but eh. Next up, Chemical Brothers or Alan Jackson, stay tuned!
See, most people who follow me know my opinion on Future, a below-average rapper with a bad taste for autotune, a complete lack of interesting content, and an unfortunate knack for picking generic forgettable nonsense for his beats - or at least that was the case for Honest, his 2014 album that I reviewed and panned pretty harshly. And when I did that review, I wondered if I'd ever manage to get Future's appeal, because as an ignorant MC slamming out party bangers, his material has either underwhelmed or annoyed the hell out of me.
But even though Future has been bigger and more influential than ever as an MC, his past year hasn't exactly been good. After R&B singer Ciara called off their engagement and dumped him for cheating on her, Future has been cutting a furious swath of curdled anger across his mixtapes, none of which has made him look good as he embraces his drug-addled hedonism... which could have been interesting or presented a compelling moral if Future's bars and messages weren't so shallow and betrayed an ugly pettiness and that he was still stinging hard from the breakup. None of it had the class and grace of songs like Ciara's excellent 'I Bet', instead preferring to wallow in his own debauchery.
But to his credit, Future was slowly becoming a better rapper, at least in terms of his flow and structuring his bars, and I had heard his newest album, dropped with little-to-no promotion, was planned as a sequel to his breakout mixtape with some of the best beats of his career... well, I'll be honest, I didn't expect it to be good. But hey, I'm not against hedonism if he can at least make it fun, so does Dirty Sprite 2 defy the odds?
So we've now settled into the doldrums of summer, the time of year where everything seems to slow down and nothing all that interesting happens on the charts. The Top 10 was mostly static, not many movers and shakers, and even our list of returning and new arrivals is smaller than ever...
Okay, time for a confession: as much as I can look back on my year-end lists with a certain amount of pride - the amount of work that's demanded for them is huge, and I always love the reception - they're never perfect. Like it or not, I'm only human and I doubt I could listen to or review every bit of music that's released throughout the course of the year, especially considering I still have a full-time job and other projects and the modicum of a social life here. As such, it's inevitable I'll miss something. And given I've often advertised myself as the 'only country critic on YouTube' - which I can see is starting to slowly change a bit, much to my great satisfaction - the lack of a review for Jason Isbell's critically lauded Southeastern in 2013 stands out like a sore thumb for me. Formerly a member of the Drive-By Truckers before going solo, he teamed up with Dave Cobb for a quiet, understated, incredibly well-written and powerful album that had a level of detail and poignancy that's rarely matched - and if there's an album that would have had a shot at overtaking one of the spots on my year-end list for 2013, Southeastern would have been it. It's not perfect - as much as I think 'Live Oak' and 'Elephant' and 'Yvette' are fantastic, they have to counterbalance the tonal whiplash of 'Super 8', and that's a tough balance - but it would have been close. And though Jason Isbell has been lauded in the country scene for over a decade now as a fantastic songwriter, Southeastern won him more attention than ever. There were even reports that The Voice had tried to recruit him as a contestant, which he wisely declined, instead working on a new solo project Something More Than Free. So while of course I'm going to cover it now, part of it almost feels like penance for shortchanging Isbell in 2013 by missing Southeastern - penance I'm more than happy to do, especially if this album is as good. So, is it?
So here's one of the frustrating things about being a music critic who still has a massive backlog - as much as I try, I can't cover everything within the course of a year, and you occasionally miss things or listen to albums out of chronological order. And on the one hand this can be rewarding as you can go back and listen to the classics and hear the musical elements that eventually became influential. But on the other hand, it also shows how some of said elements were further expanded or explored by other groups and you don't end up with the same appreciation of the 'original' article.
Want an example? I originally heard of Tame Impala back in 2012 when they showed up on the collaboration album The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, and of the many, many acts that showed up on that album, their contribution wasn't exactly one that stood out all that much and I consequently never really bothered to delve deeper into the group. So when I started getting requests to cover them this year, it was really my first time exploring them in-depth, and I was definitely excited to see what this critically beloved band could deliver...
And man, I was underwhelmed. I'm not saying Tame Impala or either of their first two albums are bad - as a fan of psychedelic rock, they're very listenable - but the hype behind the group baffled me. The instrumentation was sprawling and languid but rarely brought enough driving groove in the percussion, instead smearing over so many of the melodies and vocal lines with egregious electronic effects that often felt like they muffled some real texture. Yes, Lonerism was definitely an improvement, but not being in love with Kevin Parker's vocals or his lyrics, which could definitely tread into exasperating territory, even if it is intentional, I found it hard to really appreciate them as much as I wanted. And it didn't help that the more I listened through Lonerism, the more I just wanted to go back and listen to Sun Structures by Temples, which brought a much more groove-driven, memorable brand of psychedelia to the table.
But seemingly like every indie band these days, Kevin Parker decided to focus more on a synthpop, even disco-inspired approach for his newest release, shifting from more guitars to synthesizers. Which to me was a little concerning, as the noisier guitar elements were the piece I liked the most off of Tame Impala's first two releases. But hey, maybe it'll mean they'll focus more on giving the melodies more presence, so I checked out Currents - what did we get?
I honestly expected this review would have more to it, given how long it took going through Ghostface's discography, but eh, it happens. Next up... actually, not quite sure. Fair few number of projects have accumulated, between Jason Isbell, Alan Jackson, LMNO & Mr. Brady, Chemical Brothers, Tame Impala... yeah, I got my hands full. Stay tuned!
Let's talk a little bit about sequels. Specifically, the sequels to concept albums, because especially in hip-hop, the album 'sequel' is nothing all that special, and rarely has anything to do with the actual original piece. Now concept albums are rare enough in hip-hop, but sequels to them are even rarer - and for the most part, not exactly an idea of which I'm all that fond. After all, isn't the point behind a great concept album is that it's self-contained, managed to tell the entire story within the confines of the record? Don't you undercut some of the story's original punch with unnecessary sequels? And in this case, it makes a little less sense than usual. When Ghostface Killah set out to make his exploitation homage record Twelve Reasons To Die with Adrian Younge handling all of the production, I was initially really intrigued, being a long-time fan of 70s exploitation flicks and of Ghostface Killah, a rapper who has dropped more than his fair share of outright classic hip-hop records both with Wu-Tang Clan and on his own. Seriously, go back and relisten to Supreme Clientele and Fishscale, the man is seriously talented as a wordsmith and rapper, with the sort of versatility and intensity you love to see in great rappers. But more than that, Ghostface was a storyteller, and he had a knack for the hyper-stylized tales of crime and debauchery that'd add a lot of colour to this sort of gangsta parable, where Ghostface is betrayed and killed as a crime boss before rising to slay his adversaries in increasingly gruesome fashion. And yet I wouldn't say Twelve Reasons To Die is in the upper tier of Ghostface records. For one, Adrian Younge production captured a lot of the eerie vibe but always felt a little too slick and lacking in texture to really nail the grimy, blaxploitation vibe. If I'm being honest, I might like Apollo Brown's soul-sample remix a little more, because even though it doesn't have the same operatic theatricality, it feels more authentic to the era or at least to Ghostface's flow. But the larger problem is that there really wasn't room for a sequel - it's a quick, gruesome, self-contained tale that doesn't really have the overloaded plot you would expect out of most exploitation films of the time. So it begged the question what additional stories Ghostface Killah could tell - or maybe he was just hunting for quick name recognition as he continues to flood the market with project after project. But hey, Ghostface is nothing but imaginative, and I was curious where he'd take this - does Twelve Reasons To Die II hold up to the original?
Well, this happened. Honestly hoping this record had been better, but it happens. Next up... honestly, not sure. Probably Jason Isbell, but it'll depend what I feel like in the morning, might cover LMNO & Mr. Brady instead. Stay tuned!
So it's a tagline on Billboard BREAKDOWN that the 'Canadian charts are always better' - and while I'll be discussing that peculiarity a little later, I wouldn't say it's always completely true. As much as I'm a proud Canadian, I'd be lying if I said that a significant chunk of songs that are bigger hits up here are simply due to early crossover from the UK, where they tend to debut first. So why isn't the phrase 'the UK charts are always better'? Well, quite simply, the UK Official Charts are goddamn weird. Putting aside the fact they don't have a recurring rule which can mean songs can return to the charts without warning, the smaller population means that weird oddities can surge from out of nowhere to huge success. Sometimes these oddities are awesome, most of the time they're unbelievably annoying, and there are points where I'm baffled who in their right mind thought letting this into the mainstream public was a good idea, but the wild disparity of quality means I tend to be a little wary of hits crossing from the UK. All of that being said, the initial buzz coming for the newest album from UK synthpop/electronica trio Years & Years was extremely positive, even in a year overloaded with synthpop. The group formed in 2010, and began releasing singles in 2012, but it wasn't until 'King' went to #1 in the UK that I started taking serious notice of them and figured I might as well check out their debut album Communion, which is an amalgamation of several EPs - how is it?
Man, this one actually turned out pretty well - with the exception of whatever the hell is up with my hair. God, that swoop on the right looks terrible... Anyway, Years & Years, Jason Isbell, and Ghostface Killah coming up, so stay tuned!
Oh, I bet there's a whole slew of you that are surprised I'm covering this. See, I'll admit that I don't cover a ton of metal outside of a few specific genres, most notably towards the progressive or symphonic side. So my choice to talk about a group that has crossed plenty of genres but probably falls closest to technical death metal probably raises a few eyebrows. Well, funny story: I got into Between The Buried And Me in university, basically on a couple suggestions that I should check out Alaska and Colors because they were genre-bending masterpieces. But unlike an act like Cynic or Devin Townsend where I immediately found a lot to like, Between The Buried And Me took a fair bit longer to really gel with me - mostly because they're a complicated band known for dramatic switch-ups midsong in tone, tempo, or even genre that could be jarring as hell. I could appreciate the killer musicianship and some underrated and clever songwriting, but finding cohesive songs was a little trickier, especially on their first two releases. But once they had a stable line-up, solidified their sound, and worked out a more cohesive flow, they had the one-two punch of Alaska and Colors. And while I liked Alaska, I goddamn loved Colors - a phenomenally cohesive, strikingly memorable, and powerfully evocative record that grows on me with every listen. But after those two... well, I did like The Great Misdirect, but I was also getting the impression that the genre-crossing was starting to come at the steep price of cohesion, especially when the writing couldn't always bridge the gap. The album had only six songs, but several went over ten minutes and had enough ideas for a good four tracks apiece. There was a little more focus on the The Parallax records, an EP and full-length released in 2011 and 2012, but the more I listened through them, the more I saw the cohesion just not there as much as it was at their best, and the integration of more keyboards and more electronic segments in their production oddly didn't help. But hey, they were on a new label at this point, maybe their newest album, another concept record, might be able to recapture that old magic. So I checked out Coma Ecliptic: did it pay off?
I have no idea why I didn't cover this in 2014. Well, okay, I have some idea. This record dropped in late January of last year, and I'll admit I was still very much on the learning curve of album reviews at that time, especially when it came to underground hip-hop. And part of it was a cheap justification on my part - I rarely if ever cover EPs, and Isaiah Rashad had said Cilvia Demo was an EP, even despite being longer than some full hip-hop albums. But upon reflection, it's one of those records I probably should have covered regardless. Critics following hip-hop are always wise to keep a keen eye on Top Dawg Entertainment, and Isaiah Rashad was one of their first recruits beyond the original four rappers of Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, two who dropped solid albums in 2014, one who dropped a near-classic this year, and one who has been keeping us waiting an exasperatingly long time for new material. A southern MC that had a knack for balancing more conscious bars with slightly more hedonistic material, at first glimpse it's almost a little surprising Isaiah Rashad didn't get a hell of a lot bigger in the mainstream, given his style. And while fellow new arrival SZA generally underwhelmed me with her debut Z, I had some hope going into Cilvia Demo. The reception had been generally positive across the board, earning its fair share of critical accolades and probably only slipping off some lists due to being releasing in January and being forgotten, which can happen if you have a record with more of a subdued vibe. So I definitely took the time to dig deep into Cilvia Demo - was it worth all of your requests?
Hmm, that episode turned out bizarrely well. Just going to roll with it, hope it continues, especially after how unbelievably shitty yesterday was. Next up, my album for my two year anniversary! Stay tuned!
...ever have those days when everything you expected just goes wrong in spectacular fashion? You'd think that I'd have more of those days, considering that I have this show and attempting to predict the evolving tastes of the American public - or at least what the music industry thinks the American public wants - is an exercise in guesswork at best. But I thought after thirty weeks doing this show, I thought I had a reasonably firm grasp on it - and boy, did this week prove me wrong. And that would have been fine - I generally like surprises - except it went wrong in the worst possible way.
Man, this was a disappointment. Adam Young, you can do so much better than this. Next up... well, I originally thought I wouldn't have to do Billboard BREAKDOWN tomorrow thanks to the chart switchup, but turns out I was wrong, it's the week after. So, Billboard BREAKDOWN and then Between The Buried And Me. Oh, and plus a special surprise for my two year anniversary - stay tuned!
I like Owl City. And that's not a statement many music critics will make, especially considering when Adam Young adopted the moniker and smashed into the mainstream with 'Fireflies', he was described as the overly twee rip-off of The Postal Service. And yeah, going back to it, the similarities are pretty blatant on the surface, but Owl City quickly distinguished himself with distinctive melodies, a knack for quirky synths that stuck in the brain, and the sort of overwritten, detail-infused lyrics that walked the line between honest and poignant and hopelessly kitschy and ridiculous. It didn't help matters that Owl City made no secret of infusing religious iconography into soaring anthems that could ride the line of tolerability with me - not quite evangelizing, but getting dangerously close to the scrubbed-clean, drama-less purity that makes up the most inoffensive and boring of Christian music. That was his earlier material, but as the years passed, Owl City's material seemed to be getting more and more bland with every passing year, culminating in his 2012 release The Midsummer Station - and sure, there are songs I liked on that album, but it seemed like the unique blend of overly earnest poet, melodic mastermind, and anxious hypochondriac was staying closer to the mainstream and losing the personality that made him special along the way. And sure, I love 'Good Time' with Carly Rae Jepsen for being a damn solid pop song, but it's not on the same plane of originality as his best work, and in an increasingly oversaturated synthpop scene, I had no idea what Owl City's new album would deliver. And it didn't help matters when I saw the feature list: I like Aloe Blacc, but when I think of his features, I think more of Dilated Peoples and Fashawn than Owl City, and Hanson's been doing their own indie pop thing for years now, the team-up only made sense in terms of relative innocence. Probably also the reason Christian pop artist Britt Nicole is here... and then there's Jake Owen, likely angling for a pop country smash that'd bring in his own lightweight sensibilities. And considering I knew fans of Owl City who had really turned aggressively on this album, I prepared myself for the worst: how did it turn out?
Man, I was conflicted on this one. Not especially bad, but it should have been a whole lot better. Next up... you know, I could continue on this whole hip-hop thing and tackle Meek Mill, but I dunno if I really care enough... eh, we'll see. Stay tuned!
It's hard to talk in today's hip-hop scene about Lil Wayne. His fans think he's the greatest rapper alive, a pioneer of creative rapping techniques and wordplay that managed to accrue mainstream hits through pure explosive technique, disgustingly catchy hooks, and unquestioned bravado. Others see Lil Wayne as a charismatic rapper but lacking in technical skill and prone to bad fits of hyperbole and the occasional atrocious line that is impossible to ignore. Still others see him as a toxic presence who brought lean, Autotune, rapping words with themselves, hashtag rap, and the absolute abortions that are Rebirth and I Am Not A Human Being II to the table and little else, massively overrated by an obsessive fanbase and responsible for enabling the laziness of him and large chunks of his Young Money crew. And all three groups will inevitably argue with each other in the comments of this video and will take issue with what I say regardless of whether it's positive or negative. See, here's the thing: they're all right to some extent, at least at specific stages of his career. When Lil Wayne started making some critical impact with Tha Carter, he was a hungry MC who had a solid flow, a ton of swagger, and a lot of creative and mainstream-accessible wordplay. And that continued into both Tha Carter II and Tha Carter III, which were both genuinely great album that I really dug. And then Rebirth happened and while the record was a commercial failure and critically savaged - for good reason - it didn't immediately ruin Lil Wayne's reputation - he was still pumping out mixtapes at a frankly ridiculous pace. But then I Am Not A Human Being was underwhelming and Tha Carter IV didn't live up to its name and I Am Not A Human Being II was absolute shit, and popular buzz was that if Lil Wayne hadn't fallen off completely into a pit of his own reckless hedonism soaked in laziness, lean and increasingly asinine sexual references, he was nowhere near his best anymore. So I will admit to being surprised when the feud between Lil Wayne and Birdman erupted near the end of 2014, with Wayne accusing his former mentor of blocking releases - which baffled me, considering Lil Wayne has long had enough free rope to hang himself multiple times over. The ultimate result was a well-publicized split with Cash Money and Lil Wayne signing with Jay-Z's TIDAL - which to me felt like a bad idea, especially considering a Wayne endorsement might not be enough to save TIDAL from being the money-pit disaster that it is. But on a bigger level, Jay-Z also does not deal well with stupid or incompetence, and unless Wayne can stay sober and producing quality - which given his track record is still up in the air - I see this backfiring. But putting all that aside, we now have Free Weezy Album - how does the newly liberated Lil Wayne sound?
So I occasionally get asked by non-fans of hip-hop how I can excuse the lyrical content, which can focus on crass materialism, unbridled hedonism, rampant drug abuse, and violence. And normally after I roll my eyes - seriously, what genre beyond the most sterile of bubblegum pop or any art hasn't touched on all of these subjects in some form - I often inform them that there's different varieties of hip-hop and how seriously you can take them. Now some of the more political material like on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly I take very seriously - and even with that and a far less violent message compared to the incendiary material from Run The Jewels, you're still going to get cretins on FOX News misinterpreting it and trying to ram down a message of promoting violence. Seriously, the only time FOX remotely gets close to discussing hip-hop or the black community with any sort of credence is - ironically - when Killer Mike is a guest star. But there's always been a competitive element to hip-hop and that tends to mean confrontational language is used, often with violent imagery, and when you start treading towards horrorcore or gangsta rap, things get a little trickier, especially when you acknowledge while it might be entertainment for the consumer or the critic, it might be very real for the artist creating it who grew up in that environment, and consideration and empathy should be shown. Of course, there's another way: make the violence so hyperbolic and exaggerated that it almost becomes like a cartoon. It doesn't mean the message is any less potent, but it's conveyed in a different way - analogous to the way Tarantino smuggles his 'message' movies through the guise of b-movie exploitation. Run The Jewels can walk this line, and so can Action Bronson. And this is where we run into Czarface, half the underground hip-hop duo 7L and Esoteric, and half the Wu-Tang Clan member Inspectah Deck. I'll admit not always being the biggest Wu-Tang fan - part of it is that I just haven't had the time to fully unpack and decode all of their albums across their storied history with several solo members having full discographies of their own. But Czarface interested me, if only because the lyrics overloaded with references to comic books, pulp sci-fi, and pro wrestling merged with sample-heavy old-school production reminded me a lot of MF Doom in a good way. I guess if I were nitpicking, I wasn't the biggest fan of their debut, which was solid but occasionally lacked killer standouts and did drag a little by the end, but with a stronger feature list than ever, I figured I'd give the sophomore record a listen - was it worth it?
Man, this one took a lot to get out of my system. Next up... Well, I'm not sure what my next review should be. I want to cover Czarface, but there's a fair few other albums that are on my list. Stay tuned!
So I've gotten a few requests to cover The XXL Freshman list for 2015 over the past few weeks, and I have even less of a reason to do it than most years. I mean, seriously, Mick Jenkins drops The Water[s] and you instead find room for Kidd Kidd? At this point, if we needed any more evidence that XXL is struggling for relevance in the Internet age, it's here, and at this point it's just sad.
There is one choice they made correctly, though, and it's the one that everyone and their mother expected they would: Vince Staples. California MC, most famous for his collaborations with Odd Future especially Earl Sweatshirt, and hot off of a great 2014 where nearly all of his verses stood out on their respective albums, especially on Common's record Nobody's Smiling. It helped that Vince Staples had a way with bluntly effective lyricism that didn't shy away from tough truths, most of which reflected his time as a crip, which fit the tone in a year where rap music was forced to confront some harsh political realities. Coupled with the fact he worked with great producers like No ID and Evidence, there was a lot of hype behind him when he dropped the damn solid EP Hell Can Wait last year. As such, I was definitely curious to see where his debut album Summertime '06 would fall, especially considering it was a double album that still ran under an hour and was executive produced by No ID - how did it go?
...so remember when I said last week I had a sense of foreboding that something bad was coming, that I couldn't quite feel it and it hadn't quite happened yet, but it was on its way? Yeah, I'm starting to wish these bad feelings didn't come up so much, because sure enough...
Almost forgot to put this video up. This was a ton of fun, really did love making this - always nice to talk about music that's actually all sorts of awesome. So next up is Billboard BREAKDOWN, and then finally I might have time for this new Vince Staples... stay tuned!
Last year when I put together this list, I was debating its very relevance. I mean, would it give away what would turn out to be my top albums of the year overall, or would it find an audience at all? This year, the debate was different: I knew I had to do a midyear review for 2015 because there was so much quality that came out in the front half of the year that I'm honestly a little concerned I'm not going to get a chance to highlight it all. Between comebacks that delivered in spades, debuts that blew my mind, and records that seemed to have an abundance of creativity more than I would have ever expected, the first six months of 2015 have been overwhelming strong, to the point where keeping my list of albums to twelve was insanely difficult. It'll be incredible if the rest of the year keeps up this momentum, but for now, here is my top albums of 2015, thus far: