Monthly Archives: April 2012

Curren$y, Pilot Talk

Curren$y, Pilot Talk (July 13, 2010)

Curren$y’s debut album, Pilot Talk, is pure braggadocio, with rhymes about fancy cars and free-flowing liquor and free-loving women. The music, loving produced and arranged by Ski Beatz, sounds like an update of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, all the way down to the New York session musicians recruited to crank out mellow grooves. Curren$y clearly made it on blunted terms: the album artwork depicts a lone airplane flying over a landscape of lush green marijuana foliage. So Pilot Talk is like weed talk, with several narratives hidden underneath the stoner blather. On “Example,” Curren$y claims “reimbursement for paid dues,” then claims, “I am an example of what can happen when you quit being afraid to gamble.” For “Seat Change,” he mocks girls who want to “ride with a G” but “somewhere along the line she fucked up and realized she lost her seat.” His lines are pimp slick but thankfully shorn of delusion. When he flips a bevy of yeyo metaphors for “Audio Dope,” he clearly does it in service of the concept, not to build a farcical image of himself as a drug kingpin. The image is of a neighborhood (or, more accurately, Internet) baller. Pilot Talk boasts the cream of the blog rap crop, including Mikey Rocks from the Cool Kids, Big K.R.I.T. and Jay Electronica (who sharply compares Flavor Flav’s signature bowtie to the Nation of Islam’s attire). Even much-beloved weed rapper Devin the Dude drops a verse for “Chilled Coughphee.” A writer friend of mine, Christopher Weingarten, remarked to me that when Devin the Dude jumps in with sly wit like “I can fuck a bum up quick/ But that’s some tenth grade shit,” it only underscores Curren$y’s relative lack of vocal presence. Other critics have theorized that Pilot Talk’s artistic triumph is largely due to Ski Beatz’s memorable accompaniment. An NY vet whose catalog ranges from membership in early 90s woulda-beens Original Flavor to credits on Jay-Z’s classic Reasonable Doubt and Camp Lo’s “Luchini AKA (This Is It),” Ski Beatz initially produced Pilot Talk’s tracks himself, and then hired talented unknowns like bassist Brady Watt to transform them into instrumental gems. True, any rapper would sound incredible against the majestic sunshine funk of “Address.” But give Curren$y credit for lodging its hook into your brain – “Still nothing changed but the address.” Released via Dame Dash’s DD172 imprint, with distribution from Universal Music Group.

Madlib, Madlib Medicine Show No. 1: Before the Verdict

Madlib, Madlib Medicine Show No. 1: Before the Verdict (January 2010)

Late last year, Stones Throw Records announced that it would release a full-length album of tunes by its veritable resident producer, Madlib, in 2010 … every month. Dubbed Madlib Medicine Show, the 12-part series sounds like a rap nerd fantasy. The first installment, No. 1: Before the Verdict, is particularly pointed in its message of commerce as a soul-destroying, mind-blowing shit-stem. The cover depicts a charred one-dollar bill (with a weed leaf embedded in a corner), an industrial plant spewing toxic waste, and the World Trade Center being bombed by an airplane. The interior features photos of strangely voodoo-fied Africans — one has a hand protruding from her mouth — and the cryptic message: “There were only three witnesses. Two are dead. The other isn’t talking.” Before the Verdict’s 17 tracks consist of remixes of Guilty Simpson’s 2007 album Ode to the Ghetto, and a few previews of a forthcoming collaboration tentatively titled OJ Simpson. Guilty is a decent if ornery thug rapper, but he’s clearly no match for Madlib’s symphony of 70s soul “rapps,” funky howls, vinyl hiss, DJ cuts, burps and farts, pungent jokes culled from 60s comedy albums (Redd Foxx and Millie Jackson!) and police scanner snippets. The Detroit rapper’s litanies about “Gettin’ Bitches” and “Robbery” are vocal anchors drowned by the Madlib Invazion’s furiously funky creativity. Remember when that Quasimoto album intoned at the very beginning, “Welcome to violence”? These days, Madlib doesn’t just promise it. In rave terms, he has entered his hardcore phase. No longer positive and consciousness-expanding, the blessed weed smoke is fuel for a crank personality. The transformation is compelling, hilarious and frightening. As the rap world’s version of “reality” narrows into a handful of masculine fantasies, Madlib has become the era’s pamphleteer, printing out screaming headlines like a crazed prophet of doom. Madlib Invazion, with distribution by Stones Throw Records.

Lupe Fiasco, The Cool

Lupe Fiasco, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool (December 18, 2007)
Atlantic Records

Lupe Fiasco isn’t above recycling ideas. If Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor had a tone reminiscent of Kanye West’s Late Registration, then Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool opens with “Go-Go Gadget Flow,” a bounce rap with a title similar to Gnarls Barkley’s “Go-Go Gadget Gospel.” The cover art looks like Thrice’s artwork for The Alchemy Index Vols. I & II, which was released over a month before The Cool. For all of his brazen originality, which he demonstrates on The Cool in spades, Lupe often has trouble thinking outside of the box, and lacks spontaneity in the process.

It is possible to enjoy The Cool without having to pick apart its central concept, a moralistic tragedy about a fledging MC selling his soul to the devil for success. It takes a close listen reveal that these songs aren’t necessarily coming from Lupe himself, but a third character he has created: Michael Young History, a.k.a. the Cool. On “The Coolest” he makes clear the Cool’s descent into a deal with the Streets. “She said she’d give me greatness/Status/Placement over the others/My face would grace covers of the magazines of the hustlers/Paper the likes of which that I had never seen/Her eyes glow green with the logo of our dreams,” he raps. Subsequent cuts such as “Superstar,” a somewhat pretentious arena rap that oddly grows more appealing with repeated plays, subtly twist Lupe’s themes on fame to reflect the Cool’s increasingly distorted perspective. As the Cool collapses in a hail of bullets (“The Die”), loses his soul to the Streets’ master the Game (“Put You on Game”), and turns into a zombie (“Fighters”), Lupe walks a thin line between full-blown conceptualism and accessible, personal songwriting with remarkable skill.

The music, mostly produced Soundtrakk, reflects Lupe’s ambitions to make hip-hop that rocks on a scale similar to Coldplay and Radiohead. (On “Hello/Goodbye,” a breakbeat track produced by UNKLE, Lupe sing-raps in a flat, nasally vocal similar to Tool’s Maynard Patrick Keenan.) The keyboard notes are watery and amorphous; “Paris, Tokyo” approaches the softness of contemporary jazz. That Soundtrakk would take cues from Coldplay’s piano cheese testifies to the cross-cultural appeal of the latter’s soothing, comforting sounds. Still, a funky guitar lick or some kind of dissonance would be nice. However, when compared with his overwrought, string-laden miasmas on Food & Liquor, Soundtrakk actually shows some restraint. Despite its sickly sweet grooves, “Paris, Tokyo” is a nice breezy song about love and international travel. “Intruder Alert” could have been made during the early 90s, the era of kitchen-sink dramas such as 2Pac’s gangsta rap ballad “Brenda’s Got a Baby, as Lupe rhymes about a woman recovering from rape.

The Cool is a bravely ambitious album, but it often threatens to tumble from the weight of its bombast. “Little Weapon,” a song Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy produces with a heavy emphasis on pounding percussion and glittery xylophone effects, brings surprising life to The Cool’s lumbering prog hip-hop. For the most part, that noisy contrast is sorely lacking here, even if The Cool’s overwhelming portentousness yields some small rewards such as “Superstar” and “Gotta Eat,” the latter an effective ode to the code of the streets.

Above all, The Cool reflects the danger of being a deliberate strategist who sacrifices little to raw naturalism. (See the proclamatory “Dumb It Down” for proof.) To be fair, hip-hop stars tend to be too aware of their supposed superiority, and all too ready to assert that whatever they do is a masterpiece or a classic. Contrary to most of his peers, Lupe is truly a vivid and fascinating MC and, sometimes, an innovative theorist. The only thing holding him back is self-consciousness.

TOKiMONSTA, Creature Dreams

TOKiMONSTA, Creature Dreams (May 26, 2011)

With Creature Dreams, TOKiMONSTA makes a few tweaks to her neo-trip-hop adventures. Most impressively, she adds loud drums to “Day Job’s” guitar loop, and then closing out the track with an unexpected blast of noisy feedback. A disorienting synthesizer intro is included on “Moving Forward”; but the intro to “Stigmatizing Sex” sounds like “Bready Soul” from 2010’s Midnight Menu. TOKiMONSTA’s stock-and-trade remains buttery instrumental hip-hop that hearkens to the golden era of DJ Shadow and the Ninja Tune label’s beats and pieces, and she delivers on that count with Creature Dreams in spite of its creeping familiarity. Brainfeeder, with distribution by Alpha Pup Records.