Saturday, August 30, 2008

Wrap-Up: Favorite Music I've Listened to in Summer '08, Pt. 1

Been doing a lot of running around the past several days, mainly seeing family and friends before I'm shipped away from home to begin the whole college thing again for a second year. I'm feeling mighty apprehensive about leaving New York, perhaps even more than I was last year. Not even so much for missing my friends and all of the amazing free events I've attended, but because you lose so much personal freedom once you're back at school, back in a routine, at least as far as time management goes. And I know time for music listening (outside of my radio show, which will be available for podcast in the near future!), is going to be the first casualty. This month off I've been able to go out and still find time to sit down and listen to 3 records in a day, but once shit starts up, I'll probably be lucky getting through 3 records in 2 weeks. So, I'll take some of the brief spare time I have remaining to briefly reflect on a few I've listened to that I thought was really good. This is an incomplete list, as I'll leave off most classic material (eg. 36 Chambers) and generally focus on things that I feel should've gotten more attention.

Invincible - Shapeshifters: I don't really have much to say that hasn't been covered in this fantastic review. The only thing really preventing me from declaring this the album of the year right now is its at-times relatively lackluster production (no beats here are outright bad), but everything else about it is remarkable. It's certainly the best thing out of Detroit that I've heard this year (and yes, I've listened to The Preface). Labeling Invincible a great lyricist is an understatement; in addition to dropping tongue twisting rhymes every other bar, she weaves a consistent and complex narrative of oppression as it manifests itself worldwide, from Ann Arbor to Detroit to Palestine, and makes a convincing case as to how music really is a "Sledgehammer" that can incite real grass-roots change. She even created a docu-music-video to "Locusts," having residents of her community in Detroit supplement the music by discussing how gentrification has affected them personally. I'm really disappointed that a record of such a high calibre has been so overlooked by the hip-hop media (AND blogosphere).

Nas - Untitled/Nigger: It's become fashionable for people to say The Nigger Tape is somehow vastly superior to Untitled, but I call bullshit on that. Granted, the beats knocked a little more, but aside from the stellar tracks "Esco Let's Go" and "Ghetto Remix" (which obviously couldn't have made the final cut), I don't think there's anything that I miss not having on the official record. And come on, you can make your own damn custom mix if you'd really like to. I still largely stand by my review, and believe that a lot of people failed to judge Nas' lyrics from a proper context. Nas is not trying to offer any concrete idea of what "success" for black America is/and should be, and he almost always DIRECTLY relates celebration of money to his life in Queensbridge, showing that the former is a product of the latter. When he talks about personal growth and having a broader worldview, he isn't being inconsistent, but is telling us that he's grown out of this mindset. Something else that's frustrated me with how this LP has been received is how Nas largely doesn't get credit for his still incredible rhyming talents. Often when this point is made, someone will retort "Well of course, it's Nas," as if that makes his achievement non-noteworthy. I'm not going to attempt to defend the production, though, as I've come to realize that enjoyment of beats is 99% a subjective thing.

Talking Heads - Remain in Light: I know I said I'd avoid obvious classics, but I'll briefly mention this because it is probably the favorite discovery I've made this summer. Few things in this world excite me as much as counterpoint and polyrhythms, and to find an album chock full of songs with MULTIPLE polyrythmic, funky grooves directly inspired by Afrobeat is almost too much to ask for. Also, where the fuck is my beautiful wife?

CYNE - Pretty Dark Things: So my original prediction was slightly off; I haven't seen ANY publication review this album, despite it definitely being one of the stronger LPs of the year. My enthusiasm for the production may have waned a little, and I would probably choose two different tracks to link to if I could do the review over, but I still stand by my basic point that album's content is more interesting than what you find your run-of-the-mill undie release (although not startling to those who read or think), and while not as thematically complex is in some ways far more accessible than Shapeshifters and other politically-oriented rap I've recently listened to.

Scientifik - Criminal: If it weren't for Dan Love's beat deconstruction of "Downlo Ho" and Max's review, I would've never heard of this great hidden gem of an album. Scientifik is a great rapper and kicks some great rhymes about how steals shit from dope dealers and disapproves of shady women, and practically every beat is perfect. The production almost always consists of hard, complex drum breaks (of the likes you don't hear these days) underneath subdued, jazzy bass and horn samples, giving the music a very consistent gloomy, wintry, yet melodic feel - essentially gritty boom-bap at its finest. Also, I nominate "As Long As You Know" as the most overlooked RZA cut in hip-hop history, as Scientifik and Edo G. just rip the track to shreds between the two of them. Sadly, Scientifik died about a year after the album was released. R.I.P.

Can't quite continue now, but I'll hopefully have time to finish this up within the next few days.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

New, Exciting Stereolab! - Chemical Chords

I go back to school in a week and a half. I'm not excited about this for a wide variety of reasons, not least of which being that my already modest writing output will probably decrease once I actually, y'know, have shit to do. As for this summer, my laziness surprisingly wasn't my main problem. I've just been more passionate about the old classics I've discovered than the new stuff I've heard. I mean, what is there left to be said about Remain in Light? Although on a personal note, it's simultaneously inspiring and disappointing to find out that one of the greatest bands ever masterfully accomplished 30 years ago what you're trying to do now while fucking around with your friend on a keyboard. But I digress.

Along with that new CYNE LP I just reviewed, this is probably the album I've been most eagerly anticipating this summer. I'll readily admit that I'm something of a Stereolab fanboy. When I first heard Dots and Loops this past spring, I couldn't bring myself to listen to anything else besides Stereolab for at least two weeks. I'm a sucker for "loungy" chord progressions and harmonies, and Stereolab manages to somewhat rely on them while making innovative and edgy music. Add Laetitia Sadier's and the late Mary Hansen's breezy vocal stylings to the mix, and you have magic.

A common complaint launched against Stereolab, and their post Emperor Tomato Ketchup catalogue in particular, is that all of their shit begins to sound the same after a while. While I would contend that the groop has evolved with each release, their "basic" (their stuff can be quite complex) formula of creating pretty, dreamy retro-leaning pop has pretty much remained unchanged since 1997, including Chemical Chords. Tim Gane has said that he was looking for a "Motown or girl group sound," specifically referring to the tightness of individual songs (I strongly recommend reading the interview, his method for creating this album is incredibly interesting and unorthodox).

And the songs on Chemical Chords are tight. At 16 songs, only one track extends beyond 5 minutes, which is a first for any Stereolab record. Chemical Chords also contains some of the most rhythmically complex work I've heard on any Stereolab release. "Daisy Click Clack" begins with an almost ragtime-y piano line, with the guitar soon coming in and playing a similarly syncopated part over shimmering synthesizers. The song is a great example of how Stereolab's music can be satisfying on multiple levels; although it makes for a very easy, pleasant listen, closer inspection reveals just how well arranged it is.

And because of its intricate rhythms and arrangements, Chemical Chords is easily one of the most upbeat, playful Stereolab LPs I've heard. If it had come out in June or July, it would've made a perfect soundtrack for the summer. Weaving between Sadier's vocals on "Three Women," there is a lot of light interplay between the horn, keyboard, and rhythm sections that I can only describe as uplifting. The same can be said all of the several other similarly packed moments on the album, as none of the sounds are ever layered to the point of becoming overbearing. Even on tracks with several harmonic and melodic changes such as "Fractal Dream of a Thing," every moment feels as if it logically progresses from the last.

I think this speaks to a criticism I've read that Chemical Chords, while a gorgeous album, fails to leave much of a lasting impression on its listener. There are many different recurring sections on a song that it takes multiple listens to fully absorb them, and with 16 tracks to listen through, it's difficult to instantly point to a particular moment as a favorite. I personally see this as the one of the album's strengths, as I'll be able to get more and more out of it a long time to come.

Stereolab's Myspace
Stereolab - "Fractal Dream of a Thing"

Friday, August 15, 2008

Oh, bring home your sweet lovin'

One of the best (and most slept on) releases of 2007

Blockhead's music always seems to bring me to a place of nostalgia that other most music just cannot, whether Aesop Rock is doing his thing over it or no. It may be that I began listening to him over the winter during a particularly emotionally rough time this year, but there's generally this dusty, dark quality to his stuff, even on this relatively upbeat record, that's hard to find elsewhere. Really, I'll just shut up and share this song that I cannot get over.

Blockhead - Trailer Love

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

August = Designated Month of Excess Cultural Consumption

Since I finished working last Friday, and since I don't go back to school until the 29th this month, I'll hopefully have lots of free time to catch up on old and new shit I've been sleeping on. Between driving lessons and jamming sessions, these next few weeks should make for a great end to an otherwise typical summer vacation.

I re-re-listened to Madlib and Mamao Conti's Sujinho. I was underwhelmed at first, but now I can't really understand why. I feel Madlib's skills as an arranger have improved tremendously since his early YNQ days, and Conti gave him some solid breaks to work with. It may sound a bit like muzak on surface inspection, but as always with Madlib, there's a lot going on underneath the pleasant sounds. I'm sure this is going to one of those records I'll spin regularly in my dorm that'll lure passerbys in and convince them of my superior taste.

I also managed to give AZ's new N.4.L "mixtape" a listen, and found it rushed and mediocre (even though it can be found at the Virgin Megastore, I guess AZ chose to label it a "mixtape" to denote its sloppiness). What is it with DJs feeling the need to rewind "nice" lines ad infinitum during the MIDDLE of a track? AZ still has the whole multi-syllable rhyming thing going for him, but it's AZ, it's what we've come to expect. Aside from that incredible banger "The Secret" (which is hampered by DJ Absolut's need to rewind and have Raekwon remind us that he has a feather in his cap 5 times), most of the other songs are forgettable. Aside from spitting some braggadocio mixed with 5% theology and speaking generally on "the system" and generally on black violence (although if you fuck with him he WILL get you), the closest he gets to the concept is "Runaway Slave," where he raps about being a runaway slave. And to be fair, it's actually well-executed, but c'mon, is that the best you can give us? This is what I was afraid Untitled was going to be.

In any event, I finally listened to that "Motown 25" joint with Elzhi and Royce, and all I can say is what the fuck! Hand me a late pass.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Review: CYNE - Pretty Dark Things (2008)

Don't sleep!

If you haven't heard of CYNE before, you can educate yourself on why they're so ill by reading what I've written here. If you already believe me, then I'll just provide a brief bio here. CYNE is a group of two West African MCs, Cise Starr and Akin, and two producers, Speck and Enoch, based in Gainsville, FL. Pretty Dark Things is technically their fourth LP, although this year's earlier Starship Utopia was really more a collection of unreleased material than a proper album. As such, it can be considered their proper follow up to their critically-acclaimed Evolution Fight (and my pick for favorite album of 2005).

If you've been sleeping on CYNE until now, Pretty Dark Things would make as great an entry point as any, as this contains some of their most realized work. As you can gather from the title, the album is thematically centered on discussions of blackness, the meaning of artistry (particularly as it relates to hip-hop), and more general social commentary. Cise Starr and Akin don't really drop any groundbreaking knowledge with the content of the lyrics, but their earnestness and urgency really set them apart from most of their peers.

On the opening track "Just Say No," over two beautiful guitar lines, some form of African chanting, and sparse hi-hats, Akin briefly explains that he'll always stay true to his roots before breaking up his rhyme out of nowhere and yelling:

"Wake the fuck up! Wake the fuck up! That Nelly shit sucks, little girls don't buy it! Wake he fuck up! Wake the fuck up!, They're underground stagnant, too scared to move!"

These words might read as being overly didactic, but combined with the magic of the instrumental, you can't help but nod in agreement. In the second verse, Cise Starr expounds further on Akin's earlier words:

"Money now, but you still act a fool/
doing Dr. Seuss rhymes, in your label play school/
Fuck this shit, I'm a grown ass man/
Doing grown ass things as I god damn can/
While you cop chains, I'm gonna buy me some land/
While you sit on 24s, I'm a build with my fans/
Giving you the real shit, shit you can deal with/
Listen on the corner while the plane hit the buildin/
CYNE mixtapes for the women and the children/
One per person, play it in your churches."

These are far from the most impressive rhymes on the album, but they outline CYNE's basic philosophy. Yeah, it doesn't sound very different from typical "conscious" fare, but the album is so MUSICALLY interesting that you want to hear everything that the MCs have to say. The next three tracks are on the same level as the first, with "The Runaway" featuring an abstract story about a man running away from life's pressures over a pounding Afrobeat (!?!) track . "Calor" continues in a similar vein, with Speck and Enoch providing African drum patterns for Cise Starr to briefly wax poetic about the implications of global warming. The track for "Escape" is one of the most atmospherically complex on the album, involving a call and answer of sorts between a guitar and dreamy keyboard, incredibly layered drums, and a thumping bass line. Cise and Akin spit double-time flows about gas prices, how intelligent design is bullshit, and how human rights must be generally be fought for.

This really is one those hip-hop those albums where the lyrics and beats equal more than the sum of their parts when joined together. While most of the tracks are similarly well done, one of the lyrical highlights of the album is probably "The Dance." Cise Starr reflects about whether a human being's achievements are meaningful if nobody is present to recognize them, and by extension, is asking himself why CYNE should continue to make the kind of music that will be slept on by the masses. He ultimately concludes that achieving "inner peace" is more important than trying to appeal to some "absolute" standard of what's good.

Another standout is "Radiant Cool Boy," where Akin and Cise rail against listeners who only listen to hip-hop for its negative excesses and actively deride rappers who try to discuss substantive issues (in other words, the so maligned on OKP "hipster" fan). Cise warns those who "stand for nothing and criticize everything" that although "everything can be reduced to clever little stickers, you better watch it ever call me nigga." Come to Swarthmore next year, please!

But as I said earlier, the rhymes on their own would probably fail to spark the interest of most hip-hop fans. While interesting, they are more centered around abstract imagery than grounded storytelling or catchy punchlines, and this is made all the more frustrating because their delivery is not always clear. Thankfully, Speck and Enoch, provide a nearly impeccable soundtrack for CYNE's two MCs to spit over. I don't think it would be hyperbole to say that this may be the best produced album of the year thus far. In addition to delving into African music, Speck and Enoch seem to have mastered the ambient/soul-based/electronic tinged sound that they've been gravitating toward since Evolution Fight. Their beats have never sounded so warm and organic, and they really are arranged to complement Akin and Cise's flows.

Groups like CYNE make me wonder about the amount of dope hip-hop out there that is ignored for whatever reason. Aside from what I've written, there'll probably be one or two more reviews on some obscure hip-hop sites, and then Pretty Dark Things will be forgotten in the wake of the year's big 3rd and 4th quarter releases. It's a damn shame, but if you've read this, hopefully you'll be one of the few who hasn't slept.

CYNE on myspace
Listen to "Just Say No"
Listen to "The Runaway"