February 27, 2012
Little Brother, The Minstrel Show (September 13, 2005)
The Minstrel Show — Phonte , Big Pooh, and Ninth Wonder’s second album as Little Brother and first for Atlantic Records—is a potentially career-derailing parody of the rap industry, BET, and even their own record label. Perhaps as a consequence, Atlantic has hardly promoted it, while Rap City didn’t even bother to air its lead video “I’m Lovin’ It.” Take note, young musicians: it’s not wise to bite the hands that feed you. As a big bamboozle, The Minstrel Show is half-smart, less dedicated to exposing rap industry peccadilloes than to tossing off clever joke tracks such as “Cheatin’,” where Phonte’s alter ego Percy Miracles plays R. Kelly in the wake of Ronald Isley’s Mister Biggs. Mostly, however, Phonte and Big Pooh lash out at their enemies real and perceived. “Today’s rap fan is tomorrow’s rap critic,” Phonte gripes on “Still Lives Through.” Elsewhere, two wiggas, “Spencer” and “Tucker” dismiss Big Pooh. “He’s the weakest link … I heard that nigga got dropped from Soundclick,” “Tucker” laughs (then subsequently tells “Spencer,” “I’m sorry I missed your bar mitzvah”). Big Pooh’s subsequent flurry on “Sincerely Yours”—”I walk with the swag of a letterman/No amateur here, but a veteran”—is convincing enough, if somewhat ponderous. But why does he waste his time addressing a gaggle of indie rap gossips when millions of potential fans haven’t even heard of him? The Minstrel Show is something of a sophomore slump for those who championed The Listening, Little Brother’s 2003 debut on Oakland indie ABB Records, and buzzed over Ninth Wonder’s throwback samples and Phonte’s everyman meditations on fatherhood and coffeehouse snobs. It’s aiight, but the rhymes aren’t as compelling, the beats aren’t as fresh, and the songs aren’t as tight. Even “I’m Lovin’ It,” Ninth Wonder’s lusciously scratchy interpolation of the Stylistics’ “One Night Affair” and the closest thing to a standout cut, is marred by crew member Joe Scudda’s dumbass declaration, “I wake up in the morning holdin’ my dick/Goin’ through life like I know I’m the shit.” Nevertheless, it’s tough to watch Little Brother get jerked by their record label. A worrying tension runs throughout The Minstrel Show; the embattled trio would even make for good martyrs if they weren’t so thin-skinned.
February 27, 2012
Dizzee Rascal, Maths + English (June 24, 2007)
Over six months after Dizzee Rascal’s nominal label, XL Recordings, unceremoniously earmarked Maths + English as a digital download in the U.S. (while giving it a proper CD release in his native UK), Definitive Jux has stepped in to give it the proper physical release it deserves. This new edition, supplemented by three additional tracks (including Def Jux fountainhead El-P’s remix of Dizzee and UGK’s “Where’s Da G’s”), burns with cranky aggression. “My hat is low, my trousers, too…But I don’t care, ‘cause I’m the shit,” he sing-raps on “Suk My Dick.” Even dirty rap club tracks like “Flex” sound tougher than the typical Spank Rock stupidity; he wittily twists his come-ons with sharp observations, like the way sweat drips from pretty girls’ eyebrows, that makes his songs dangerously alert. Dizzee Rascal pops a lot of shit on Maths + English, but he’s no London thug. In between chain-tugging street rhymes such as “Bubbles” and “Suk My Dick,” he grapples with his neuroses on “Excuse Me Please” and “Paranoid.” “Laying in my bed, I’m a nervous wreck/And I wind myself up until I’m vexed/I keep telling myself that they’re out to get me,” he raps on the latter. Four years after his Mercury Prize-winning debut Boy in Da Corner, Dizzee Rascal may be a big dog spitting grown man shit, but he’s still meditating nervously on the world around him. This U.S. version was released on April 29, 2008, but it hardly helped his American prospects. His next album, 2009′s Tongue ‘N Cheek, has not been released in the States.
February 27, 2012
Bumps, Bumps (September 18, 2007)
Bumps is John McEntire, John Herndon and Dan Bitney, three Chicago musicians best known for their membership in the instrumental rock band Tortoise. Their self-titled side project is being released on the eminently progressive label Stones Throw, which should attract fans that normally wouldn’t buy an all-percussion album filled with dozens of short, snappy drum breaks. There are 23 drum arrangements spanning 31 minutes, with the three musicians creating different types of rhythms throughout. “Craven” is a funk lick underpinned by bass drums, while “Deal Tree” is all rims and tight skins. “Swingland Hit” evokes early 80s disco-funk like Tackhead, and “Can You See?” conjures a massive big beat perfect for dub. Extraneous effects and instruments occasionally creep in: with its thick drum machine punch, “Sniper Growl” could be the background for an Egyptian Lover single. Thanks to the names attached to Bumps, some people may attach more importance to it than it’s worth. At best, Bumps is a lark. At worst, it sounds a little repetitive and boring like … a drum record.
February 27, 2012
Public Enemy featuring Paris, Rebirth of a Nation (March 7, 2006)
This is something of a chop session led by Paris, the outspoken Oakland radical. Many of the songs don’t really feature PE, just a quick verse from Chuck D.; and the deep, rippling bass grooves are a hallmark of Paris’s sound, making it as much his album as theirs. With Immortal Technique, the Conscious Daughters (remember “Funky Expedition?”), dead prez, MC Ren, and many others joining in, the discourse on Rebirth of a Nation is half conspiracy theories, half strident media analysis, all delivered with vitriol. “Providing the antidote to dope, Interscope, and fake gangsta quotes,” raps Chuck D. on “Rise.” The targets include President George W. Bush (“U.S. government tellin’ hella lies/It’s evident when you look in this president’s devil eyes,” raps Paris on “Can’t Hold Us Back”) and U.S. soldiers (“These house niggas go fight in Iraq/Crying to they momma now they wanna come back/Shouldn’t of took your black ass in the service,” says Ren on “Hard Truth Soldiers”). There aren’t any standout tracks, but Paris’ production is slick and consistent enough to keep your ears stuck to the speaker, waiting for the next verbal outrage. Guerilla Funk.
February 27, 2012
Panacea, The Scenic Route (2007)
The music of Washington, D.C. hip-hop duo Panacea is almost achingly soft—quiet storm, yacht-rock soft. Producer K-Murdock’s tracks on The Scenic Route, the group’s second full-length album, seem to float in the air instead of bump out of the speakers. Other producers have crafted recordings that sound like the hip-hop equivalent of notorious 80s ambient-jazz imprint Windham Hill. K-Murdock deserves special mention, however, for not only making incredibly smooth music, but heightening its angelic, otherworldly quality with eerie fade-outs and strange, treble effects. But K-Murdock’s beats tend to overshadow Raw Poetic’s lyrical performance. While not a bad rapper, Raw Poetic lacks a distinct voice, and his cool, even tones tend to get lost amidst the lushness of K-Murdock’s work. Most of his rhymes seem to focus on personal journey and discovery: on “Bubble,” he dreams of drifting underwater and floating in a bubble. “Please splash to the crew y’all/Flashback to backpacks and schoolyards,” he raps. These gauzy songs blend into one another, the sonic equivalent of a listless Sunday afternoon drive. Glow-In-The-Dark Records.
February 27, 2012
Danger Doom, The Mouse and the Mask (October 11, 2005)
Danger Doom’s The Mouse and the Mask pays homage to Adult Swim, the late-night block of programming shown on US cable channel Cartoon Network that is nominally geared towards adults. The most popular shows on Adult Swim – Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a comedy about anthropomorphic fast-food novelties (a hamburger, a milkshake cup and a bag of fries); and Space Ghost Coast to Coast, a bizarre talk show hosted by Sixties cartoon hero Space Ghost – deal in irreverence, spewing jokes about sex, drugs, random “cartoon violence,” and toilet humor. Sometimes, the shows are hilarious; other times, they’re just obnoxious. It’s perfect material for MF Doom, the hardest-working man in hip-hop, and producer Danger Mouse, who recently led a successful revival of another elaborate cartoon project, Gorillaz. Impressively, Doom really seems to get into the spirit of the thing. “Dude, leave your girl around this man whore and she’s too screwed/Just in case she’s in a what you want to do mood/Bring your plate to the metal face and get your food chewed,” he raps improbably on “No Names (Black Debbie).” On other albums (particularly the Viktor Vaughn albums), Doom has burnished a reputation for dark narratives that lead down unexpected paths, but The Mouse and the Mask finds him at his most discombobulated, filleting images that change every four bars, and oftentimes less. As the musical composer for Doom’s verbal illustrations, Danger Mouse virtually copies Madlib’s template from last year’s Doom-Madlib affair Madvillainy. It’s not entirely original, but it’s functional. He achieves some highlights, from a wah-wah guitar lick shifting from mono to stereo on “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” to the heroic theme ballast of “The Mask” with guest Ghostface Killah. Tailing Danger Doom are Space Ghost (George Lowe), Harvey Birdman (Gary Cole), and, most frequently, Aqua Force Hunger Team’s Master Shake (Dana Snyder), Frylock (Carey Means), and Meatwad (Dave Willis) from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Their manic interpolations turn The Mouse and the Mask into a frenetic comedy that honors its frat-boy origins. Other guests include Talib Kweli on “Old School” and Cee-Lo on “Benzie Box.” The latter track cemented Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo’s friendship, and the duo went on to form the best-selling pop-soul group Gnarls Barkley. Epitaph.
February 27, 2012
k-the-i???, Broken Love Letter (2006)
Cambridge, Massachusetts’ k-the-i is a rapper and producer best known for his work on Bigg Juss and Orko Eloheem’s Imperial Letters of Protection. His declamatory technique is reminiscent of spoken-word poetry. He doesn’t bother to rhyme on beat, instead attacking the track with his verses. The style mostly fits within the dystopic world of lust and recrimination he creates (save for “Liza Minnelli,” where the music and his vocals sound incompatible). On some of the tracks DJ Shortrock slashes through the miasma with turntable cuts; for “Go Go Girls” he saws the phrase “b-b-b-bitch!” Broken Love Letter isn’t necessarily misogynistic. Through words and sounds, k-the-i taps into the feelings of rejection, loneliness, alienation and frustration that every man encounters in heterosexual relationships with women. “You’re not that beautiful,” he says at one point. “But I’m lying to myself.” It’s meant to be profound, but can also be upsetting and annoying. Broken from head to toe, Broken Love Letter is full of bad vibes. Mush.
February 27, 2012
Of Mexican Descent, Exitos y mas Exitos: Edición De Lujo (2006)
The history Of Mexican Descent, and its two members 2Mex and Xololanxinxo, consists of CD-Rs and tapes pressed in small quantities, ambitious full-lengths on long-since-disappeared record labels, and innumerable tracks and guest spots on hastily-assembled compilations. The reissue of their 1998 album together, Exitos y mas Exitos, is an excellent example. Reissued on LA rapper Busdriver’s Temporary Whatever imprint (with help from Mush Records), this edición de lujo combines the original 8-song cassette album with 9 rare and unreleased tracks. Exitos y mas Exitos is ostensibly about la raza and Mexican pride, but most of the tracks exude identity through metaphor and confidence instead of dialect and dogma. “This cage exists for me/I sit inside of it thinking of people that don’t even know I exist/I’m an absence of breath; I’m a missing colony,” rhymes Xololanxinxo on “All Turn Native.” “In your eyes lies reflection of the original resident/Stop calling me immigrant and I won’t mind sharing my continent.” Normally known for a bewildering and grinding vocal style, 2Mex rhymes in a straight-up cadence here, albeit with dexterity and precision. “My words are my shield/Ultimately my power source/And nothing can ever stop me or my Trojan horse,” raps 2Mex on “Lady of the Lake.” In contrast, Xololanxinxo’s appearances are more experimental – he affects a booming, top of the mountain bellow on “Money is Meaningless.” But for the most part, Exitos y mas Exitos captures the LA veterans before the speed-rap styles they later became known for.
February 27, 2012
Masta Killa, Made in Brooklyn (August 8, 2006)
Made in Brooklyn sounds unmoored. Masta Killa, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, sometimes doesn’t bother to complete a verse. Instead, he just stops mid-sentence, allowing the beat to grind on like a rudderless dinghy. When he raps, his rhymes are often slapdash, like a rambling freestyle. Many of his songs don’t have choruses; the ones that do, like “Brooklyn King,” offer hooks that seem unintentional, as if someone misspoke. “Y’all cats know how I do my thing/Brooklyn cat that’ll snatch your bling/Yeah, motherfucker, the swing, you know his thing/Ding ding ding ding ding ding ding.” The beats, produced by an assembly of underground hip-hop producers such as PF Cuttin, Pete Rock, Bronze Nazareth, and MF Doom, are grainy snapshots of old soul records, adding to the disc’s sloppily casual sound. Nature Sounds.
February 27, 2012
J Dilla, The Shining (August 22, 2006)
The Shining is James “J-Dilla” Yancey’s first posthumous release following his tragic death from lupus complications last February. Prior to his tragic demise, the noted hip-hop producer groomed the disc as an exclamation point marking his return to big-league productions for Common, Busta Rhymes and Ghostface Killah. But the most astonishing thing about The Shining is its modesty. Much of J-Dilla’s prior work, particularly his 2001 solo debut Welcome 2 Detroit, was fierce and brass-hard, marked by brittle hi-hat drums and pulverizing, guttural bass. On The Shining he emphasizes rapturous and futuristic soul. (For those who miss his hardcore stylings, there’s “Jungle Love,” a throwdown with MED and Guilty Simpson.) On “So Far to Go,” he works quietly behind the scenes as Common drops a characteristic rhyme about making love (with D’Angelo lending support on the chorus). He opens by chopping up and blending samples of several lush musical notes, then drops a light, jazzy piano solo over the beats and inserts a little studio chatter. The net effect is blissful. Dilla’s infamously swaggering and staccato raps are rarely heard, leaving room for guest vocals by Pharoahe Monch, Black Thought, Madlib and others. The final track, “Won’t Do,” is the only one to feature a complete lyric from J-Dilla. “I need space for all of my womens/And these days, the arguing’s limited/I replace the broad if she trippin’/It’s big game and all in the pimpin’,” he raps. Always the unrepentant player, J-Dilla’s voice is welcome after nearly an album of silence. Unlike 2Pac’s interminable string of post-mortem products, The Shining doesn’t make a spectacle of J-Dilla’s passing. After “Won’t Do,” it just ends; only its liner notes reveal that the album is much a tribute as an coda. The Shining was unfinished when Dilla passed in February 2006; executive producer Karriem Riggins oversaw its completion. An alternate version of “So Far to Go” later appeared on Common’s 2007 album Finding Forever. Though many post-mortem Dilla projects have hit the market since, The Shining is easily the best of the lot. BBE Music.