Wednesday, May 27, 2015

album review: 'bronze age' by lmno & flavor caprice

So I've talked a little in the past about artists who put out an incredible amount of material in a very short time. Sometimes it's because the artist is a creative genius who is going to go in so many different directions that his or her material can be maintained on so many projects and maintain quality. Sometimes it's a method for artists to get out of label obligations. Sometimes it's a case of artists who just have a knack for flooding the market with filler - and if that so happens to get popular, all the better.

But in the case of hip-hop artists, it can be a little different. For one, there's the mixtape scene, where some artists continuously feed entire full-length projects to a hungry audience. Or there's the case where they do special collaboration projects with specific producers - it might barely be a full-length project, but at the same time, it might end up turning into something special along the way.

And then there's LMNO, who I think even pushes the limit for that sort of thing. I've talked about him a couple times on this show, and it was less than a year ago when I reviewed his textured and well-written, and yet slightly dreary and meandering Preparanoia. LMNO has a reputation of pumping out a lot of material, and while he tends to be a very strong MC in terms of putting together potent, incredibly well-structured rhymes, his dry monotone and taste for dustier production means that some of his projects can start to run together.

And yet believe it or not, I was actually a little excited about this upcoming project with emergent producer Flavor Caprice. This had been a project three years in the making, which seemed to imply that this was something in which LMNO had put more care and time. And I figured I might as well get a dose of solidly dense lyrical hip-hop before checking out A$AP Rocky, so how did Bronze Age turn out?

Well, like with Preparanoia, I did like Bronze Age, but I'm not sure it's LMNO's best effort. I think it'll ultimately have more replay value than last year's record, if only because of the production and more thought-provoking material that did land impact, but it feels more scattershot and just as meandering, more of a showcase for Flavor Caprice's production and sampling than LMNO's intricate bars. In other words, it's not better than After The Fact, but it does show more signs of where LMNO could take his material - perhaps more than even he realized.

I should explain, so let's get the easy positives out of the way first. By now I've talked about LMNO a few times before, his methodical hushed rasp that can ride across nearly any beat that at its best feels conspiratorial or ragged and at its worst feels a little monotone. I'm happy to say that for most of this record, LMNO does show off more dramatic range - his delivery is still dry but he does show more of an ease and some emotional range, thanks to injecting his presence with a little more energy. It probably helps a bit that collaborator Mr. Brady's deeper tone falls even more into this style, which gives LMNO the benefit of contrast. And I've always liked this guy's wordplay - multi-layered rhymes that flow extremely well from bar to bar, this guy is a natural poet and wordsmith, although I would argue by the end of this album, the bars feel a little more disconnected than they usually do, the punchlines not quite having the same impact.

To some extent, that 'disconnected' feel might tie somewhat into the production from Flavor Caprice, which might be the most off-kilter, sample-heavy, and varied production LMNO has gone over in a while. To make a parallel, Flavor Caprice seems to have the most in common with Madlib's brand of lo-fi, sample-heavy production, but the samples he chooses are less flashy that the soulful blaxploitation collection he brings - it puts me more in the mind of Bombay's work with Blu on Good To Be Home, albeit with better mix balance. I do wish, like that album, that the beats had been thickened to give this record a little more driving punch, but on some level it works, given the hazy, funky, almost pseudo-psychedelic vibe this album can cultivate. And this album really lands some great moments when the melody gets some prominence to back up the great bass lines, like on the harmonica-like progression of the title track, the fragmented guitar echoes of 'Rooftop', the wonky guitar against the horns and handclaps on 'Eye 2 Eye', the great funky hook on 'Fast & Slow', those eerie pianos against the swells of strings on 'Be Here Now', or the creeping, borderline Ariel Pink-esque production on 'Lingo'. I think my favourite moments, though, came on the breezy 'Cali Days' - even despite the pitch shifted sample and fairly lightweight subject matter, or the lo-fi bombast of 'Touchdown', the latter of which is anchored by a great football sample that drives the track home. That's one element I really do love about Flavor Caprice's production, his choice of samples, from the psychedelic poster reader sample on the title track to the anthropology lecture on 'Rooftop' to the interview on 'Fast & Slow' - his material seems pulled from the fading embers of 60s psychedelia, forgotten educational videos, and old telecasts, which does a lot to add a potent weathered feel to match the lo-fi presentation. That's not saying there aren't areas where things slip - the melodies on 'Ticker Tape' and 'Good & Bye' are barely audible, buried near the back of the mix, and the borderline chiptune progressions on 'Big Up' feel completely out of place in terms of production style and tone with the rest of the record, on top of being an odd choice for LMNO's flow. I do think that sort of sound could work for him in an Open Mike Eagle vein, but it'd need to be a little rougher and grittier.

But now we have to talk about lyrics and themes, and on first glimpse, it might seem like LMNO's material is more abstract and scattershot than ever. Coupled with the shorter track length, it can feel like we're getting nuggets of potential brilliance, but are held in such dense construction that it's hard to really explain. Eventually on around the seventh or eighth listen, this record did come together thematically - and on some level, it's a little frustrating, because it feels like we're touching on a lot of themes he already explored on Preparanoia, swapping out conspiracy theories for apocalyptic despondence. Like on previous records, he's got his fair share of shots against the lies of the music industry and how it eats up commercial artists - one of the running metaphors of this record is its embrace of psychedelic mind-expanding drugs over hard drugs that simply give a quick high, which has an easy parallel - and yet this time on tracks like 'Do The Dance' he does show some real empathy for the situations, and does a lot more to sell tough road of independence and show why it's worthwhile like on 'Fast & Slow'. And what I find fascinating about this album is that it's less confrontational - he acknowledges on tracks like 'Eye 2 Eye' that some successful rappers barely have the essential skills, but he pairs it with musings on the pointlessness of that struggle on tracks like 'Double Oh'. On some level, it really does feel pulled straight from the very late 60s and early 70s - the death of the hippie era and enlightenment unless you choose to follow a lonely path that might leave you out of step with time - much, to some extent, like LMNO himself. Now on some level, he gets that, and he's fine with it, with songs like 'Be Here Now' returning to a vegan food metaphor that he touched on with Preparanoia's 'Breakaways' but does so much more here - perhaps like the psychedelic poster reader, he's just ahead of his time. What he's also aware of is that the mainstream might come to this point, but it might require destruction to get there, the signal fire letting the tribe know the land is tapped out. And that's one of the reasons the sample of the football victory broken by news of John Lennon's death is such a powerful moment on this record. The reporter realizes for a second that the games are irrelevant - a complicated figure of hippie dreams and idealism had been killed, and for a second the enormity of it pierces through. 

And if the album had pushed deeper into these themes, we could be looking at one of my favourite hip-hop records of the year. Unfortunately, most of this record only brushes against it, as the back half of the album feels increasingly fragmented and disconnected from those themes. It doesn't help matters that most of these tracks feel a little underwritten and short, or left to fade into samples. It's not even that it lost energy or ideas, just that it doesn't have those moments or cohesion to really drive their points home. As such, for me I'm not quite as underwhelmed as I was with Preparanoia, but I do think Bronze Age is not quite LMNO's best. For me, I'm thinking a 7/10 and a recommendation, particularly if you're looking for some lyrical hip-hop to really decode juxtaposed with some fascinating production. There are definitely highlights - the title track, 'Be Here Now', and especially 'Touchdown' that really got to me - but I still am waiting for LMNO to match his work with Evidence on After The Fact. Although if this record told me anything, even after the many, many records LMNO has released, he's still got enough ideas to get there.

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