Friday, October 28, 2016

album review: 'yes lawd!' by nxworries (anderson .paak & knxwledge)

So I think I've gone on record a number of times by this point how 2016 has been a bit of a dud in terms of popular music, especially hip-hop, showcasing established MCs underperform and a whole load of talentlessness get recognized for no damn good reason. But I think what's made this all the more frustrating is that, well, it didn't have to be this way - it could have been more than just Chance The Rapper who has carried the torch from the underground with real quality, and the lack of recognition for mainstream-ready rappers and performers has been as frustrating if not more so.

And if you want the primary example of that, it's Anderson .Paak. Oh, the critics absolutely adored his early 2016 release Malibu - myself included, that record rules - but it was a summer album released in mid-January, and that probably prevented his music from crossing over more. Because make no mistake, if we can give Lil Yachty, Desiigner, Lil Uzi Vert, and Young Thug careers, Anderson .Paak's material was not so inaccessible that it couldn't do well, especially given how damn catchy and charismatic it was.

But despite making the XXL Freshman list and a few critically acclaimed guest appearances on other albums, it didn't really seem like he was interested playing the game. Instead, he went over to the independent label Stones Throw - most well-known for backing artists and producers like J.Dilla and Madlib - and set up a collaboration with Knxwledge, who is a prolific producer in and of his own right, but is probably most well-known for some production work he did for Kendrick on To Pimp A Butterfly. Together, they formed NxWorries, and while they had dropped a collaborative EP last December, this was a full-length record - not just a mixtape as I had originally thought. And hell, I like both of these guys, this could very well be a fun release, so how is Yes Lawd!?

Well, I'm of a few minds on this. On the one hand, given its somewhat slapdash assembly, short song length, freeflowing nature, and general lack of strong hooks, this album to me reads a lot like a side project beat tape, or a very typical collaboration where our performers relax and see what works for about fifty minutes. As such, when I say this is good but not great, it's based a little on lowered expectations - this isn't a Run The Jewels or Madvillain type of collaboration, it's loose and more flexible. But on the other hand, I've definitely heard both Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge make more interesting and cohesive material, or at least more fleshed out songs and ideas, which means that I kept going back through Yes Lawd! for more actual content and I had a hard time finding it.

Want evidence of that? Well, let's consider the fundamentals of this project, starting with Anderson .Paak himself. And look, I'm going to repeat what I said in my review of Malibu: he's a great presence behind the microphone. His free-flowing rasp is naturally expressive and soulful, he can dance across flows, he's got an assured confidence that isn't particularly hungry but doesn't need to be on a project like this. He's the sort of artist who is naturally charismatic that he can get away with a lot - especially over the course of an entire project and when it's paired with songs where he very much is on point. A ton of easy going, organic charm, it manages to elevate some otherwise pretty lightweight subject matter, although there's plenty of subtle flourishes in the writing that adds its own brand of nuance. Take the otherwise straightforward love song of 'Best One', where it's clear he's got his exit and that he could leave at the 'drop of a fedora', just a little flair where he could be a douchebag at any time, but it's clear he shouldn't be that stupid. And yet on the next song he'he's faced with every opportunity in the world to cheat and I like how her commentary sneaks in as the voice of reason: it really is only as difficult as he makes it. Or go later in the track listing to 'Starlite', where the first half is a long form reminiscence of why the relationship never worked - ie. he cheated on her - and it's thoughtful and mature and then it flips to their song as he tries to make one big play to win her back and in the hand of a lesser artist any attempt at romance would blow up... and yet he kind of makes it work! But that's the funny thing about this record - despite all of his earnest confessions of love it becomes very clear that Anderson .Paak should probably avoid monogamy at this point in his life if he wants to focus on his career, and the album is self-aware enough to end with 'Fkku' where amidst his crooning we get the sample of a girl rightly cussing him out - the lesson is less finding your one true love and more 'get your shit together', as a very aptly chosen Rick & Morty sample drives home on 'Can't Stop'. Hell, that's effectively the message of both 'Scared Money' and 'Get Bigger/Do U Luv', probably two of the best songs here.

But the writing can definitely be a double-edged sword, mostly because there is self-awareness and then there's just Anderson .Paak acting like a dick, or at the very least tactless. It's kind of analogous to similar problems that D.R.A.M. had on his debut, but Anderson .Paak's choice to avoid obvious comedy means it's a little less excusable. Sure, 'H.A.N.' is kind of hilarious with the Baptist blessing on the outro', but it's also very much a 'more money, more problems' song that doesn't nearly play as well as it could. 'Suede' is a similar case, with lines like 'If I call you a bitch / It's cause your my bitch / And as long as no one else call you a bitch / Then there won't be no problems' - yeah, but you're still calling her a bitch, man! That combined with the first verse where he's borderline condescending to the girls he's with... well, it's a bit of an awkward song, and probably the worst one here, he could have easily cut it along with the girlfriend-stealing of 'Link Up'. But that's the thing: both of these songs were off the collaborative EP Link Up & Suede last year, and neither added so much to this project that they were essential or should have been included. That's the other thing: while there are little lyrical flourishes peppered all over this record, it can definitely feel underwritten, or with points that feel redundant - hell, cut a third of this record and all of those tacked on snippets or fragments of songs, and then refine the remaining tracks into fully formed pieces and I'd probably like this a fair bit more.

And a very big part of that is the production. I wouldn't say Knxwledge has the hardest-hitting beats or most lush instrumentals here - in fact, there are quite a few points where the drums are very quiet and toned back - but again, given the sound and style of this project that makes a fair amount of sense. The basslines and keys tap into relaxed and rubbery g-funk tones, the guitars only seem roughly in tune on songs like on 'Best One' and 'Suede', the guitars, horns and arranged instrumentation carrying the melody often feels nestled into the mix with only sparse effects, and it all carries just enough blended warmth to connect its collage of samples into a cohesive whole. And combined with the cushion of interweaving backing vocals and samples, all of these songs do carry a pretty solid tune, albeit feeling a little uniform by the end, not helped by the slower tempo overall. Now that's not saying there aren't moments that stand out: the interweaving subtle bass touches against the strings and guitar embellishments of 'What More Can I Say', the oddly indiscernible tone playing off the bass with the arranged instrumentation on 'Get Bigger/Do U Luv', the soulful sampling of 'Starlite', and the gentle guitars playing off the patter of the drums on 'Sidepiece'. But my personal favourite is 'Scared Money', mostly because of those synth choices: it sounds like an infomercial that Ariel Pink would have remixed into a remarkably catchy tune, especially with the tinnier pianos, and I dig the hell out of it. Sadly, it's followed by 'Suede', which tries to fuse a Gil-Scott Heron sample into its unstable, wiry groove where it sounds like the cymbals were really sloppily mixed - again, there was no need to put this song on the album, and while 'Starlite' and 'Sidepiece' are both solid tunes, the final third of this record really doesn't hold up as well.

But in short, this was an enjoyable listen. I don't think it's better than Malibu, which had stronger hooks and more cohesive songs overall, but as the sort of side project that isn't trying to be much more than a lightweight lark, this is fine. I do wish that Anderson .Paak especially had opted for a little more effort in the writing - I think with a little more focus and tightness he and Knxlwledge could knock this out of the park - but as it is, this is a solid 7/10 and a recommendation. If you're a Anderson .Paak or Knxlwledge fan looking for a good holdover between projects, or if you're just looking for a chill slice of hip-hop and R&B, check this out - definitely won't regret it.

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