Showing posts with label dancehall. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dancehall. Show all posts

Sunday, November 17, 2013

video review: 'matangi' by m.i.a.

You wanted it, you got it.

Next up is probably The Flower Kings, then I want to cover Gavin Degraw before Kellie Pickler, Danielle Bradbury, and (sigh) One Direction. Stay tuned!

album review: 'matangi' by m.i.a.

A couple of months ago, I did a retrospective review of Shaking The Habitual by The Knife, a critically acclaimed album that I didn't quite like as much as all of the critics did. And there's a reason for that: that album, despite some very solid ambient pieces I found quite stirring, the lyrics and delivery had the subtlety of a brick through a window. But more importantly, The Knife were trying to be very political on that album, and they were using their anti-commercialism in instrumentation to emphasize how difficult it would be for the average listener to accept the paradigm changes - but at the same time, it proved to be a fatal flaw, because by doing so, they killed any populist appeal they might be able to drum up. In the heavy-handed message-mongering of the album, The Knife utilized their instrumentation to hammer home their point... a point that ultimately turned out to be bog-standard left-wing criticisms of family values, environmentalism, and offered nothing new to the cultural discourse. And by killing any broader appeal, they only embodied the worst straits of snobbish artists with a message and proved more than a little insufferable for me, even though I agreed with their message.

See, here's the thing about political music: while politics offer a whole load of fascinating and captivating topics, it's hard to make political music well. It's a balancing act between the intellectual nuance that needs to be brought to be taken seriously and the populist appeal to speak to a broader audience. And believe me, it's hard to maintain that balance and it's why I maintain one of the best political bands was the anarcho-punk collective Chumbawamba (most commonly known for their one hit 'Tubthumping'), mostly because they balanced hard-edged and smartly articulated political messages with simple melodies, a lot of wit, great hooks, and a fundamental spirit of 'we're all in this together'. Even if you disagreed with the politics - which at points I did - I don't think you can argue that the delivery of their message was ingenious.

And yet, I had to admit I was more than a little skeptical when I heard about MIA and her new album Matangi. She had made no secret of the fact that she was a political artist with a message and that she had solid pop sensibilities. I mean, the critics sure seemed to think so, given the rave reviews her albums have tended to receive - and yet, until I reviewed this album, I had no interest whatsoever in MIA. I had heard 'Paper Planes' and 'Boyz' and thought, 'Nope, I don't need any of that, those songs are vapid and incredibly obnoxious'. But I figured, hey, I was probably being unfair and there isn't much coming out in the end of this month anyways, so I decided to go through MIA's discography and give her a fair chance. And...

Eh, maybe it's not for me. Look, I mostly respect what MIA is trying to do and I can't deny she's got a gift for genre-hopping sound collages that will be unlike anything you'll ever hear, but it's not clicking for me and I know exactly why. Part of it is her voice - it's not my thing, I can accept that - part of it is her delivery - it never feels raw enough or emotionally drawn enough to really get to me - and part of it is the fact the lyrics just don't work nearly as well as they should. Yes, they're descriptive, yes, they fit the tone of the instrumentation and production - but there's no nuance here and little populism. It's unbridled and incredibly straightforward and yet lacks the energy to justify the simplicity of the approach - almost to the point of propagandizing the far-left attitudes she sings about. And while the emotional response can be compelling (when it's even there), to me it feels shallow, a stark painting that might put forward an interesting image, but lacking in dimension.

And maybe that's enough - her first album Arular was very much in this vein, and while it wasn't bad, its lack of cohesiveness did show (then again, that did seem like the point). Her second album Kala was a bit better, with 'Jimmy' being the standout track for actually having a melody worth remembering, but with the inclusion of more electronica to create a more cohesive sound, it felt like some of the texture and rawness that characterized Arular was jettisoned, which wasn't a good sign. But then again, the loss of texture should have been the last thing I was concerned about with MAYA, which seemed to be M.I.A.'s attempt to fuse internet-inspired industrial music with her usual schtick, and all it ended up doing was giving me a massive migraine. Not only did the lyrics prove M.I.A. had nothing interesting or all that insightful to say about the Internet, the instrumentation lost any hint of cohesion and only amplified the klaxon-esque howling that has always been the worst part of M.I.A.'s instrumentation. I could imagine industrial musicians like Trent Reznor coming to this album and muttering, 'Who the hell is responsible for this messy, incoherent, poorly mixed and painfully shallow nonsense?' To be fair, it was probably the first album that came remotely close to backing M.I.A.'s continued assertions she was inspired by hardcore punk, and songs like 'Meds and Feds' were easily the best on the record, but that's not saying much. And really, after MAYA, I was a little optimistic - I mean, it can't get worse than that, can it?

Monday, June 17, 2013

album review: 'yeezus' by kanye west

I think it's necessary to discuss my original plan for how I was going to write this review, both so you can get a glimpse of my process and so I can add a bit of context to this whole thing.

You see, the second I heard that Kanye West was going to title his next album Yeezus, I got the immediate idea that it might be kind of fun to frame the review like a letter to Kanye West, to discuss his ego exploding out of control in a way that can only lead to cataclysmic disaster at some point down the road (bear in mind I still suspect this'll happen at some point - hell, I've been predicting it since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). You know, frame it like an intervention, a bit like the way I wrote my little letter to Taylor Swift that doubled as an a review of her album Red.

And make no mistake, I would have had plenty of material for this letter, because Kanye West's career has been one of the most intriguing adventures to watch for the past several years. He burst onto the scene as a hit producer and made three reasonably solid rap albums that I like a fair amount to this day. Granted, I didn't think they were anything all that special - Kanye's gift for sampling and production always made his instrumentation a treat, but his weaker flow and clumsy lyricism never really impressed me all that much. In that, I was content to slot him into the list of acts I considered good, but not great.

And then something happened to Kanye West. His mother passed away, his relationship ended badly, and the resulting crises of faith and loneliness drove Kanye to make one of the most influential hip-hop albums of the past five years, 808s & Heartbreak. A choice to dive straight into introspective, autotune-layered electropop split his fanbase violently and was hastily predicted by most to be a flop, but the subsequent critical acclaim and surprisingly strong sales proved them wrong - mostly because the album is incredibly good. Kanye's choice to use autotune as more than just pitch correction and instead use it to emphasize his loneliness and the isolating feelings of grief do wonders for the atmosphere of this album. And in contrast to the majority of fans and critics, I found 'Robocop' (which had a bizarre yet compelling tonal juxtaposition between lyrics and instrumentation) to be my favourite song on the album. There was grief there, but there was also light at the end of the tunnel, as it felt Kanye was finally gaining some context and moving towards something brighter.

That didn't happen, after an infamous incident with Taylor Swift, Kanye descended deeper into the nightmarish rabbit hole and made My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which achieved incredible critical acclaim, with many critics declaring it his magnum opus. It took the mad genius of Kanye's production and married it to eclectic samples, a host of guest stars, and lyrics that didn't just expose Kanye's insanity, but brandished it proudly before the masses. 

Now I've had a, well, let's call it complicated relationship with this album. When I originally reviewed it on Facebook, I pissed off a lot of people by saying it's really not all that great, and certainly not the perfection that so many critics had claimed it was. And while I tend to revisit the album about once a year - sometimes you need unfiltered insanity and darkness - I'm increasingly convinced that while the album contains some of the greatest highs of Kanye's career (seriously, 'All of the Lights', 'Hell of a Life', 'Power', even 'Dark Fantasy' and 'Blame Game' are mindblowing), but ultimately doesn't work as a whole. Yes, the instrumentation and production are top-notch, but I've always had issues with Kanye's flow and there are enough awkward lines to knock too many of the songs off their pedestals. And this isn't even factoring in the extremely hit-and-miss guest star inclusions, none of which I feel really add much to the album.

And that isn't even touching album themes and the twisted pathology lurking inside this album. I will definitely admit that as a slice of the insanity inside Kanye's head, it's something entirely unique, but whenever it tries to build towards a theme or a coherent driving mechanism, it feels unfocused, indulgent, and oddly sloppy at points. Kanye tries to come across as an alpha-male douchebag or seductive predator on this album (and I can't help but admit there are moments here that the asshole I was throughout 2010 and early 2011 fucking adores), but it's undercut at every turn because there's no perspective and Kanye is too honest as a performer to embrace something remotely untrue. Instead of a coherent and focused work, we get Kanye attempting to explore his darkest neuroses and eventually finding them hollow and token. It reminds me strongly on a thematic level of Nick Cave's darker material, but while Kanye only found sadness and emptiness at the base levels of his psyche, Nick Cave actually found something darker, creepier, and genuinely gripping when he looked, a real horror - and his masterful skill was making all of us realize that we had that darkness too. But with Kanye, we don't get that connection in the same way, and I left feeling oddly distant from the album at the end of it. And considering how damn hard Kanye was trying to put it all out there and create that connection to curb his loneliness (seriously, go back through his material in recent years, it's a definite undercurrent that Kanye feels he has no true peers - although I'm conflicted whether or not his choice to expose his inner demons was the best way to win people over, which might have been part of the point, loneliness being his punishment), I can't help but feel it doesn't quite work for me.

So after two albums of material (a collaboration with Jay-Z in Watch The Throne, which was solid enough but didn't really stick, and Cruel Summer, a label launchpad collaboration that just did nothing for me whatsoever), Kanye was finally back with a new album titled Yeezus. Frankly, when I heard the title, I was just expecting a continuation of the shallower themes in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, just blown up to eleven. And given his material throughout 2012 and especially on Cruel Summer, I wasn't expecting much other than Kanye to wallow in his own ego. Hence, the 'intervention-review'.

I didn't get what I was expecting.

Monday, April 22, 2013

album review: 'reincarnated' by snoop lion

Let me tell you a story.

When I was sixteen, after getting my beginner’s permit, I began learning how to drive with a close friend and an instructor. On one chill evening, the instructor asked if he could put some music on while I was driving, and he asked me what genre I’d prefer. At that time, I was on something of an Eminem kick (like every other teenage boy growing up in the mid-2000s), so I said hip-hop and rap would be fine. He asked me which rappers I listened to, and I said Eminem and Dr. Dre and a few other acts in that vein.

His eyes lit up. ‘Kid,’ he said, ‘you haven’t heard nothing yet’, and he slid a newly burnt CD into the car’s stereo. Immediately a smooth, rollicking tone filled the car, music that I had occasionally heard in passing on the radio but had never really been exposed to in any significant way. I was immediately intrigued, and for the next several weeks, whenever we would go out for a drive, we’d put on that music and the ride would go smoothly and easily.

That music was g-funk, courtesy of 213, a group consisting of Nate Dogg (RIP), Warren G, and the legendary Snoop Dogg. It was my first real exposure to hip-hop outside of Eminem’s enclave, and while I had heard Snoop Dogg’s verse on ‘Bitch Please: Part II’ on The Marshall Mathers LP, I gravitated more to Nate Dogg’s authoritative and powerful baritone that carried the majority of those tracks. To me at that time, Snoop Dogg just seemed like another gangsta rapper, and everything I heard from him that got popular in the waning years of the decade reinforced that. It didn’t quite help matters that on his mainstream hits, he always sounded way too laid back and chill to take seriously, and compared to the assertive flow and intricate wordplay of OutKast, I didn’t quite see the appeal of Snoop Dogg.

In fact, it wasn’t until last year that I finally began to understand why Snoop Dogg worked as a performer, his appeal finally crystalizing on his collaboration with Wiz Khalifa and Bruno Mars: he was cool. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how many rappers and singers on the scene really weren’t cool in the slightest. I mean, Jay-Z wasn’t really so much cool as coldly dignified and professional, very much owning the label of ‘the new Sinatra’. Kanye and R. Kelly weren’t really cool either – most of the time they were too wrapped in their own egos/insanity to seem all that cool, falling more in line with eccentricity. For a while, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, and T.I. seemed cool, but the workmanlike nature of their music gradually seemed to make some of that coolness slip away (plus, Lil Wayne released Rebirth and that kind of destroyed his ‘coolness’ in one fell swoop). And too many of the gangsta rappers were bound up in their own egos and being ‘hard’ to really come across as cool (hell, most of the time I don’t even think they were having fun).

But Snoop Dogg was cool, and the effortless swagger that seemed to pervade his image was a big breath of fresh air. Now, granted, a lot of my issues with him remained – it was tough to tell when Snoop Dogg was trying or not, and more often than not I got the feeling he wasn’t – but I understood the appeal. People like cool, they respond to cool, they gravitate towards cool. And frankly, I was fully expecting Snoop Dogg to coast on that coolness for the rest of his career.

And then in 2011, Nate Dogg passed away - only days before the release of Snoop Dogg’s newest album. From this point forward, I can only speculate, but I do know that Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg weren’t just bandmates, but close friends, and if the outpouring of grief from Snoop Dogg over Twitter was any indication, Snoop Dogg wasn’t taking it well. Much like Eminem losing his best friend Proof, the loss of a close, personal friend sent ripples through Snoop Dogg’s life and after he finished touring, he took a trip to Jamaica that would change his life.

In 2012, Snoop Dogg announced that he had converted to Rastafarianism and he was leaving rap to become the reggae act Snoop Lion, which he described as a ‘reincarnation’. And while it was very tempting to join the mockery of this ‘evolution’ like everyone else on the Internet, I have to say I was intrigued. For an artist decades into his career, this was precisely the right way to reinvigorate a fanbase and attract newcomers to his discography. And reggae (along with its cousin funk) was a genre that I’ve always liked, but have had a lot of trouble understanding, mostly due to some unfortunate cultural myopia on one hand and my difficulty deciphering Jamaican accents on the other. So if Snoop Dogg – forgive me, Snoop Lion - was taking steps towards reggae with a full album, it might provide a new entry point for me into a genre I’ve had difficulty understanding. And really, if there was an artist on mainstream radio to approach the laid-back reggae rhythms and deft social commentary, Snoop Dogg would have probably been my first suggestion.

And on a slightly broader note, I also wondered whether or not the introduction of a modernized form of reggae might be good for the pop charts. Keep in mind that in 2012 we were coming off of the hangover of the club boom, and the slightly more organic mainstream indie trend was only beginning to take root. So on that note, I considered the possibility that a reggae/funk revival might add a certain flavor to the charts – and really, while it did get a little overblown throughout the early-to-mid 70s and throughout the mid-90s with the ska revival, I wasn’t going to deny the fact that scrag rhythms and greater diversity of instrumentation couldn’t hurt pop music. After all, a little cultural diversity never hurt anyone, particularly in an era where k-pop was starting to notch mainstream chart hits (by the way, PSY’s new single ‘Gentlemen’ sucks). And besides, in a time where Ke$ha is working to revive the psychedelia and punk energy of the 70s, why shouldn’t some of the other elements of that decade make a revival?

So I was definitely interested in Snoop Lion’s new album Reincarnated, and now that I’ve had a chance to take a look, what do I think?