Monday, November 16, 2015

album review: 'the incredible true story' by logic

So here's a quandary: you're an up-and-coming rapper who is riding a ton of buzz and you've just dropped your debut album. And while you're getting critical acclaim from some outlets, there are some critics who have come down hard about your flow's resemblance to another more acclaimed MC. And even despite the fact that your production is accessible, even mainstream friendly and your album is selling well, you're not getting radio with any recognizable hits. What do you do next?

Well, there's no easy answer to that question, and for as much as I liked Under Pressure when I reviewed it last year, I was definitely worried about this. I still think the album holds up even despite the easy Kendrick Lamar comparison in his flow, mostly because Logic's brand of smoothness and internally focused introspection does lead to a distinctive personality that I find appealing. But outside of a few songs like 'Nikki' and the criminally underrated 'Metropolis', it's not an album I've found the time to revisit, and I found myself concerned that the 'style-over-substance' criticisms that had been levelled at Logic might have some validity if it wasn't gripping me longer.

So when it came to a sophomore record, when I started hearing the buzz that it would a be a sci-fi narrative-driven concept record... well, if he was looking for a way to stand out and away from Kendrick, this would be the way to do it! Hell, this could be new territory for hip-hop as a genre - I did some research and the closest we'd get here is Deltron 3030, and even with that it hit deeply diminishing returns with the long-awaited sequel Event 2 in 2013. Sure, Big K.R.I.T. took stabs at it with Cadillactica, but not to this narrative level. But at the same time, considering that Logic was going to be handling most of the production himself, this had the feel of an overreach, the sort of ambitious project that could be make or break for a guy like Logic. But hey, I'm a sci-fi nerd and a fan of Logic, so I prayed for the best - did The Incredible True Story deliver?

Okay, here's the thing: I'm convinced this is the record that Logic had to make at some point, to try and define his own lane... and yet the more I listened through The Incredible True Story, I'm not convinced that Logic pulled this off. I'm not going to call this a sophomore slump, because this isn't a bad album - but it's not as good as Under Pressure and in a year of great hip-hop and some high expectations, I'm not sure The Incredible True Story lives up to them.

So let's start with that conceptual framework of this album - it's a while in the future, humanity is all living on a space station called 'Babel' after we destroyed Earth, and our intrepid explorers played by Steve Blum and Kevin Randolph are venturing out on a space ship to find the planet called 'Paradise' - all kind of on-the-nose, but okay, I'll roll with it. And this is one of the rare stories where the journey is not the story at all - it's about finding that destination, that 'Paradise', a quest that has consumed the remainder of humanity, and a quest that they both question, whether humanity will just ruin it all over again or whether it's what they truly want. What I found interesting is the assertion that no other art was created since humanity left Earth, and that by finding Paradise it'll give them the freedom to create again. So, just like Under Pressure, Logic's primary muse is focused on the creative process itself - the problem is that 'paradise' as a metaphor feels really confused, not helped by the final track where they actually land on 'Paradise' and experience 'life' for the first time. The closest interpretation is that Paradise means different things to different people - where to the people of Babel it's a obsessive search for more resources to consume and spend, for Steve's character is a chance to create something authentic and new. But this drives the assertion that 'paradise' is finite as a whole for everyone, and while it might be true for the resources of a planet, it's different when it comes to creativity and pursuing one's passions, because the ending sample on the title track of this album rejects that scarcity. And it's telling that when given infinite possibilities to render any famous human as a simulation, Kevin Randolph's character chooses Big Sean - I mean, you can't go better than that? Sure, when given infinite possibilities we can get stumped - too much knowledge never makes for easy decisions and we default to familiarity - but what then does Paradise really represent for these characters? Authentic life and potential that we as humanity can simply consume anew - doesn't that undercut your entire dramatic reveal of infinite new possibilities?

Now if all of that sounded rambling and confused and pretentious, that's mostly because the tone and arc of this record is all over the place - Logic's playing things seriously in his bars, but the dialogue on the first half of this album is very self-referential and jokey, to say nothing of self-aggrandizing, citing the record as the one that 'changed everything'. I can appreciate healthy ego, but it seems to be artificially trying to prop up its own legacy, especially considering the dramatic arc seems rather thin with little real conflict. Hell, instead of checking out the abandoned ship, they fly right past it! And that's before we get to Logic's actual bars, which for the most part don't even refer to the story he's telling, or much of a story at all. It really does undercut the narrative how little of the actual rapping fits into the story of this record - which, sure, might make sense as something the characters are revisiting years later, until you realize there isn't much content that we haven't seen before from Logic. And it's less personal, too - Logic did an impressive job laying out his complicated issues with family on Under Pressure, and he seems to be struggling to go deeper with fresh ideas. You'd think he'd add more to the sci-fi story he constructed, but most of the songs fall into either typical bragging or vague reminiscences about his past. The most the topics tie in is that now that Logic has gotten to his point of transcendence, he wants us all to get there too by focusing on what we truly want instead of just doing it for the money. And while I love the idealism, it feels a little divorced from reality - as much as I'd love to write and work on YouTube full time, I still need to pay rent and eat. And I get the egalitarianism, but it can strike me as a little naive at points, especially when Logic tries to defend Drake's brag rap by saying 'Tupac did it too'... I don't think anyone would deny that, but Tupac also had social commentary and was an much more interesting and detailed MC - not a hill I'd go out defending here!

And maybe it wasn't the best idea to namecheck an artist to whom you can trace so many of your flows? Yeah, might as well get to this and I'll give Logic credit for on a technical level being a strong MC - his bars connect well, he's got great cadence, and even his singing has gotten better. But it's hard to ignore that I can hear Logic and then point directly to flows from Drake, Kanye West, and especially Kendrick Lamar. And hell, for the most part I don't even mind when he pulls from Drake, considering Logic is nowhere near as obnoxious, but it ties into an odd problem I noticed with his bars: detail. You'd think that on an album blending in sci-fi and anime influences there'd be more references with distinct lyrical flavour or hard-hitting punchlines... but they don't really materialize either. Hell, if you took out all the skits, this would fall into line as a pretty solid and spacey inspirational hip-hop album, no matter how much Logic would like to divorce himself from direct genre comparisons.

Because here's the one element that I genuinely love about this album and definitely saves it from being anything close to bad: the production and instrumentation. Fragmented symphonic vocals against liquid guitars, swells of strings, spacey synthesizers and flutes, and those horns calling back to smooth jazz, the vibes that this album creates are damn fantastic, to the point where the actual words can wash by. This album brings in some great melodic grooves too, like that bassline on 'Paradise' or the eerie brittle fuzz on 'Young Jesus' that kicks into some great momentum, or the smooth burbling rollick of 'Innermission'. Hell, even moments like the staccato synth of against the sparse guitar and great melodic interplay on 'Lord Willin' really do work, or the elements that feel strikingly reminiscent of Kanye like the percussion that opens 'Contact' that I could swear remind me of 'Amazing' from 808s & Heartbreak, or the rougher symphonic touch, choppy samples, bleak keys and strings, and vaguely synthetic vocal layering on 'City Of Stars'. The only two instrumentals I didn't really care for were the Grizzly Bears sample blended with the Muhammed Ali roars on 'I Am The Greatest' - didn't really fit with the rest of the album and the content definitely didn't help - or the chipmunk-backing vocals on 'Never Been'... and yet even still, the production has great smooth texture, solid beats, and really do capture that futuristic space sound stunningly well.

And that's the frustrating thing about The Incredible True Story by Logic, because it's far from a bad album. Hell, on a sonic level it's a great fusion of the old school smoothness that Logic loves with an optimistic futurism that's right up my alley. And considering how good the flows are against this production, this is an album I wanted to really love - but I can't help but feel in terms of lyrical detail, thematic execution, tone, and Logic not quite breaking away from his influences as much as he'd like, this record didn't hit me as hard as it should have. I still like it and will recommend it for originality and technique, which is why it's getting a strong 7/10 from me, but I'd recommend Under Pressure first. And while I like that Logic's sketching his own lane, he's still got a ways to go.

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