Monday, October 20, 2014

album review: 'under pressure' by logic

Let's talk briefly about hip-hop magazines - I say briefly, because at this point, many of them are teetering on the point of irrelevance, especially in print. But the odd thing is that it didn't use to be like that at all - I can remember within the past ten to fifteen years when ratings from publications like XXL and The Source held influence and power and used to be the go-to for people to get hip-hop exclusive news. Hell, I remember Eminem's beef with former co-owner of The Source Benzino, where he wrote some of his most infamous diss tracks like 'Nail In The Coffin'.

But now? The Internet has blown the hip-hop conversation wide open, between established music criticism sites, blogs, and - of course - channels like yours truly. And what this means is that the 'old guard' has needed to do something to maintain a vestige of relevance and hip-hop 'cred' - and this takes us to XXL's Freshman List. Now if you're a hardcore hip-hop fan or if you have your ear to the ground, you likely consider the list a complete joke, a flailing attempt by XXL to get a handle on what new acts in hip-hop could break out and become mainstream success stories, to be the guys that called it first. But let's be honest here: I'm not really part of the readership of XXL, and for less-invested hip-hop fans, I can see a certain degree of value in the list, and it's almost always a solid signal boost for the artists in question. And while artists like A$AP Rocky have turned them down, I'm not too proud to admit that I've found MCs I might have otherwise missed that have managed to surprise me from this list.

So on that note, let's talk about one of them: Logic. He started releasing mixtapes in 2010 and built some pretty strong buzz, but he was one of those artists I've always had a bit of a hard time getting a grip on. Yes, he definitely has a solid flow and he's got good bars, but I had a hard time getting a grip on him on a unique rapper. His first Young Sinatra tape did a fair bit to show a lot of sides to his personality and some of his personal idiosyncrasies, but on following tapes he aimed to diversify his sound and draw more of a mainstream hip-hop audience and it didn't always feel as cohesive as an album whole with the more lyrical oldschool tracks. And while I didn't dislike his mixtapes, I always found them a little uneven in terms of content - although that was more of an issue with Undeniable than Welcome To Forever, which I did think was better better. But I figured, 'Hey, when he works to create a fully cohesive album', it'd probably have more cohesion or a more defined style', so I was very interested in his major label debut from Def Jam titled Under Pressure, especially considering the fact there was no credited features on the standard edition of the album - so how did it go?

Well, here's the thing: this album took a fair few listens to really grip me, especially considering I didn't love the opening tracks. And even though I do think this album does take a while to really get going, it's exactly the sort of album I wanted to see from Logic and especially on its back half contains some fantastic tracks. Are there flaws and elements that I didn't like as much? Well, definitely, but for what this album is setting out to do, it toes the line very well between commercially accessible, very 'immediate' hip-hop and the more introspective elements that reveal some real depth, and paired with some very solid production, Logic proves himself as a real force to be reckoned with, an MC more concerned with his art over anything else. 

So let's start with Logic himself, and the biggest criticism that'll be made of him and this album: namely, that there are definitely tracks where he either sounds like Drake or like Kendrick Lamar, especially the latter in some of his flow. What I feel helps Logic stand out here is that he's more methodical and - for lack of better words - well-adjusted in his delivery. He idolizes Frank Sinatra, and I can see why - Sinatra had a cool, classy, 'don't-screw-with-me' attitude that was slick and polished, and Logic is working to fall into a similar mold. It's probably one of the biggest reasons he can alternate his flow and style to fit so many varieties of songs, from heavier party bangers to more introspective tracks. I will say when he chooses to sing, he's not quite as expressive as Drake, but once again, it makes sense given Logic's persona. But I will say this - while I didn't mind the similarities in flow, I will say that Logic is at his best when he sticks with his own style - fast-paced, assertive without having a need to be incredibly aggressive, and a perfect balance against his beats. And what I found surprisingly gripping was the fact that even despite his methodical delivery, there was a real sincerity behind his words, a feel of gratitude to his audience and a sense of wonder to having finally made it that felt grounded and did a lot to make me empathize with the guy.

And on that note, let's talk instrumentation and production. No I.D.'s hand as the executive producer of this album definitely shows in the construction of classier, jazz-inspired melodic hooks that have enough grimy beats to lend them texture, and his supporting producers are a natural fit for this album and for Logic's flow. The strings production is gorgeous, the piano lines are laid-back but effective, the beats are textured and have a lot of variety and texture, and all of it draws a lot of easy parallels to Chicago-based MCs like Kanye and Common, which, hell, I can't complain. And there's a fair number of great instrumental moments: the strings and transition on 'Soul Food' that's punctuated with a subtle guitar lick; the beautiful backing vocals of Jhene Aiko on 'I'm Gone'; the kick into a surprisingly punchy beat on 'Buried Alive'; the explosive banging power of 'Bounce' that actually manages to maintain a pretty solid melody against the crunk-and-trap inspired feel, especially when Logic drops into his aggressive double-time; the eerie feel of panic on 'Growing Pains III', the incredibly jazzy 'Metropolis' complete with saxophone; the melancholy melody of 'Nikki', and especially the surprisingly gradual transition of the title track from what could have been your standard grimy luxury rap into something a lot better with richer strings and guitars. If I were to find one thing I didn't really like about the production, it'd be in Logic's reliance on chopped up vocal samples and pitch-shifting to compose his beats - while they might fit the grimier moments of this album, they don't always land a lot of impact. Especially the pitch-shifting which seems to be used to add more grime, darkness, and 'mainstream appeal' to beats that are often better without it. 

But that's always been the thing, Logic walking the line between mainstream and underground, which takes us to lyrics and themes. What's interesting is that on first glimpse, this album doesn't really seem to have a theme beyond your typical 'finally famous' brand of rap music, albeit with Logic's superb flow and gift for riding beats in double and even triple time. You get your songs about newfound success, assertions of power, the 'more money, more problems' issues, and of course the promises that there won't be that sellout. But from the beginning of this album, even despite the solid lyricism and the occasional well-positioned jabs at mainstream music subject matter, it's a little difficult to ignore that at least initially, Logic doesn't seem to be doing much different from his peers, especially when the lyrics simplify a little to fit with the more straightforward subject matter.

But the differences are in the details and the larger theme of this album, and this comes back to Logic's focus on his rapping craft above all else - because it's the entire 'plot' and theme of this album. There are some pretty potent 'gangsta' songs like 'Gang Related', which is narrated from both Logic and his older brother's perspective as it tries to cut to the reasons why people commit crimes to humanize the both of them, or the excellent song 'Growing Pains III', which takes place after a drive-by shooting and Logic's struggle to clear his head. But outside of those and club bangers like 'Never Enough' and 'Bounce', this album is much more focused on Logic's profession to stay true to his craft and his fans, which give him a more intoxicating high than any drug. And yet at the same time, even despite the benefits he pulls from it, it's also a choice that isolates him from other rappers and even his family like on the title track, where Logic features verses from the perspectives from his family drawing him back into that complicated drama. It's a great grounding influence for the entire album if only for the sheer detail and emotional colour that song brings. But the two songs that stood out the most for me were 'Nikki' and 'Metropolis', the former being a picture of cigarette addiction through a comparison to a relationship that's one of the most fully realized metaphors I've seen on a song this year. And 'Metropolis' might seem at first glimpse to be your standard 'more money, more problems' song, until you realize that his bragging is tempered with a sense of wonder that he did make it and he can now travel the world and he did it on his own without a crew. And yet that focus on his craft he has brings another side that comes through on my favourite moment on the album, a skit where he's talking with a girl about Tarantino films. He's passionate about these films and you can tell he's overjoyed to have found someone to match that passion - and yet she can't and yet still wants to continue the conversation. It's a sobering moment that drives home two points, the first being how lonely it can be when hunting for people with equal passion, finding real peers who aren't just trying to use and exploit you, and the second being that everyone else will be drawn to that sort of passion if it comes from a real place.

And through the course of this album, Logic is driven by that passion to rap and not compromise, even though that's a difficult road to follow - and it comes through with the sort of skill and focus that makes this album a hell of listen that I really did enjoy. For a debut rap album, Logic displays a ton of raw skill and enthusiasm I really dug, and the technical wordplay and solid production to back it up. I do think he needs to more firmly define his lane as a rapper and work a little more on developing his unique voice and cadence, but he's definitely going there fast. For me, this record is a solid 8/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of mainstream friendly rap music that has raw lyricism. If I had my way, this is what I'd want rap on the radio to sound like - and if we're lucky, Logic's going to get there in record time.

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