Wednesday, May 10, 2017

album review: 'everybody' by logic

So before we begin in earnest, let's talk about race in mainstream hip-hop.

Actually, let's not, mostly because the comments on this are already going to be a small minefield anyway and more importantly because it's a more complicated question than I think I'm equipped to answer. Suffice to say that with hip-hop being a primarily black artform with a predication towards social commentary that still sells a lot of records to white audiences, it comes up - and then it faces a backlash from often predominantly white fans who just want to hear bars instead of content that speaks to the culture, but that's a bigger issue. But given that hip-hop often sits at a major intersection point of popular culture - especially for younger audiences - inevitably you're going to find rappers who are bi- or multiracial, which can present its own set of questions surrounding where they fall on the racial divide should they choose to engage with the conversation. And there's more of them than you might think - Drake, J. Cole, Slug from Atmosphere, Kid Cudi, I could go on - but when it comes to the artist who was aiming to target this directly in his music or at least reference it a fair bit more, you need to talk about Logic. Now I've reviewed him twice before - Under Pressure being a damn great major label debut, his followup a year later with The Incredible True Story aiming to pull off a sci-fi narrative that couldn't quite back up its ambitions but was still quite solid - but I had heard some odd things going into Everybody this year. For one, it was reportedly going to be another concept album following off of The Incredible True Story, and for another, one of the major underlying plot ideas was going to be a utopian post-racial society looking back upon modern Earth - and given that at one point Logic was going to title the album AfricAryaN didn't help matters. And considering his guest list included heavyweights in conscious hip-hop like Killer Mike, Chuck D, and Black Thought opposite tracks with Juicy J, Khalid, Alessia Cara and Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the record was also running about seventy minutes... well, it was going to be something, I knew that, even if the singles seemed to indicate similar issues with conceptual consistency and narrative that plagued The Incredible True Story. But again, Logic is a really good rapper and I do respect this kind of ambition, so does he have something for Everybody?

This record frustrated me to no end - again, not because it's bad, this is a salvageable project, but because for as imaginative and ambitious as Logic can be, it's getting increasingly exasperating how he's not really paying off the big ideas on display on this project, or sticking the landing in his execution. Because just like on his last project, Logic is bringing a painful amount of earnestness to the narratives he's trying to weave and he's aiming more broadly than ever before with fast-paced flows and swells of orchestration that are trying to be more effervescent than ever... and yet I'm liking it less and less.

And decoding what the real issue is will take some explaining, so before we get to the concept, let's discuss the actual rapping and production on this record. Now I've noted the similarities between Logic's flow and that of his contemporaries many, many times before, but maybe it's just a factor of Kendrick evolving his own flow into more intricate and complicated territory, or J. Cole and Drake steadily becoming less interesting in their bars, but Logic does seem to be coming into his own a little more here. It's still drives me nuts how often he chops off the end of his bars with repeated words instead of an actual punchline, or how so many of his rhymes feel starved for greater detail, but I'm still a sucker for a fast flow and Logic's got those in spades, even if on a song like 'Everybody' you could probably remix it with Kendrick Lamar's 'Alright' and it wouldn't even be difficult. Now it's that Logic isn't capable of this detail - both 'Anziety' and 'Take It Back' end with lengthy spoken word monologues that touch into Logic's anxiety attack and the family history for which he's already touched on plenty of times, but with a fresh twist this time around of which has already become a minor meme among music critics - again, we'll get to it - so you have to wonder why he has so many filler bars across the rest of his verses.

And here's the thing: I really do like a lot of Logic's production here. Sure, with all the pianos and strings it can feel a tad too polished - which is why I dig when thicker horns or a real bass guitar can supplement the beats. And there are potent instrumentals here - the faster tempo of the beat playing off the guitar touches on the opener 'Hallelujah', the huge gospel swell touches around the textured groove of 'Confess', the vocal sample that anchors the bassy grind of the synth that plays against the more distorted vocals and percussion on 'America', the touches of horns and strings that swell through 'AfricAryan'... even if 'Killing Spree' feels like it could support your standard trap banger, that blubbery bass had impact against the richer synth tone. I do think some of the weedier guitar tones could use a little more on 'Take It Back' and 'Mos Definitely', but really, the production has the rich opulence to at least support Logic's big ideas, and he brings in enough decent singers to support him that I can get behind a lot of these hooks.

But like it or not those hooks have to support something, and this is where we get into that minor meme that might as well become the thematic underpinning of this record. Yes, the fact that Logic brings up that he's biracial so often can be easy to mock, especially given that he doesn't seem to have much self-awareness surrounding what that means outside of his own experience - we'll come back to this - but it really is at the root of the emotional arc of the record, most of which links back to how Logic grew up. Dismissed by his racist mother and adopted siblings as black, and yet coded by his schoolmates, most of his audience, and the majority of the music industry as white, he feels stuck between two worlds, and desperately wants to bring them together as one society that transcends race. And while there's a part of me that admires the idealism - to a point - the more this record continues the more I'm realizing that Logic is skimming the surface on ideas that really could have used more space in all of those filler bars or in some cases outright repeated verses, and it also becomes clear that for all the tough talk, he's not really engaging with the reality of taking a real political stance. Take 'America' - following Black Thought and Chuck D delivering solid verses, he delivers a verse where the first person he calls out is Kanye West, and even there he's still saying how much he loves his art. And yeah, he follows it with statements that they need to run against the GOP, but it's not a verse that reflects any sort of political reality right now, and there's little to follow through, when his song with Juicy J has him taking on a role of a materialistic trap rapper while not really believing it... but it's not like he's going to stop Juicy J from telling other people to kill themselves, which kind of puts a damper on your anti-suicide song a little further down the record! But that ties to another thing: for as often as Logic wants to speak for other perspectives - 'Black SpiderMan' is full of that - more often than not the perspective circles back on him and an increasingly shallow viewpoint of the world, which comes across especially wrong-headed on 'Mos Definitely' where I don't think any poor college-aged American right now would be saying 'fuck Medicaid'!

But that ties back to part of the framing device that runs through the album, which tells the story of a man named Atom - because of course he is - who after dying confronts God - played by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, because again, of course - in purgatory, only to realize that he's about to be reincarnated, as he has many, many times. In fact, in this universe, there is only one soul that has lived every life at every point, and that's Atom, so any good or evil you might do to others, you do to yourself. Okay, let's put aside how this does not make sense with any Judeo-Christian concept of the soul, does stupid things when you consider free will, and causes the majority of systems of ethics to fall apart - after all, to quote the Director from the best season of Red vs. Blue, 'there are no punishments for the terrors we inflict on ourselves' - in the larger picture it reflects the same damn self-aggrandizement from Logic that annoyed me so much about the last album! Think about it, the one soul that is Logic is in all of us and we just don't know it, and since he acknowledges that soul is imperfect, why don't we all come together under his unique imperfection, able to transcend boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality! And it's very telling that he can still assert that unification while asserting his continued "dominance" in hip-hop, that once racial barriers are down we won't just be the same but better... for as much as he dismisses white privilege on 'Everybody', I'm not seeing the self-awareness that when it comes to his career how he's benefited, especially in comparison to other conscious MCs who certainly haven't charted like he has, despite similar levels of hype and publicity! And that can make the lack of detail in his bars all the more galling, especially when he's putting on various perspectives on songs like 'Black Spiderman' or 'Mos Definitely' or even 'Ink Blot' - it's an easy way to co-opt the voices without taking real responsibility. And to be fair to Logic, I doubt he's considered any of these implications, as he's still trying to process his own internal issues of anxiety and racial identity - where J. Cole of all people on a lo-fi conclusion advises him to relax and find acceptance in himself and God - but there's a part of me that doesn't think Logic got the message, because there are thematic inconsistencies across the entire album, not helped by all the times Logic is 'playing a character' that has a voice distractingly similar to Logic, or Killer Mike's outro diatribe about belief in God that has just enough weight to distract from how it doesn't remotely fit with the divine reincarnation narrative, or how right before J. Cole's outro we get a snippet of the characters from The Incredible True Story which implies this is in continuity with that record and everything with it!

Ugh, look, the more I think about this record the less I'm all that impressed with it, even despite the fact that I really want to be. But for once J. Cole's reconciliation actually makes the most sense with this, and if you're looking for that sort of conflict it's not like it's unfamiliar territory - I just covered Hurray For The Riff Raff examining very similar territory and many of the Brother Ali albums I've been listening to in my backlog touch on this with much more maturity and consideration. Again, I appreciate Logic's ambition and I like his production and flows, but this was an over-extended thematic mess that tried to do too much - and I didn't even touch on how Logic views anxiety as a 'hero' to strengthen him, or how the suicide number song felt incredibly thin, or how his attempts at commentary on trap narratives have done better so many times and to a more cynical eye can feel like a flimsy grab at subversion to land radio time. Look, this is a strong 5/10 and most certainly not for Everybody - really just Logic fans at this point, at least from my point of view. Again, I respect the chances being taken, but Logic needs to give some serious thought into the ideas he's tackling going forward, or he's going to end up in real trouble.

No comments:

Post a Comment