Spotlight On: Wale

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It’s not a coincidence that Wale’s new album is inspired by his most critically-acclaimed project to date, 2008’s The Mixtape About Nothing. With The Album About Nothing, he wants to regain some of that praise. “This is my fourth album. I want some respect,” he recently told Billboard.com.

In some ways, Wale can only blame himself. After the failure of his messily assembled but intermittently inspiring 2009 debut Attention Deficit led to a break with Mark Ronson’s Allido imprint, Wale aligned himself with Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group and took on the louche trappings of mainstream rap. His tonal shift was marked by a cameo appearance on Waka Flocka Flame’s “No Hands.” “I’m with Roscoe [Dash], I’m with Waka, I think I deserve a chance,” he rapped. “I’m a bad mu’fucka.”

Wale’s 2011 comeback album, Ambition, had much better production than Attention Deficit, and a pair of hits in “That Way” and “Lotus Flower Bomb.” But it sounded anonymous, as if Ross and Co. had cooked up a batch of urban pop bangers for maximum commercial impact. Ambition remains his biggest seller to date, yet it had the effect of perplexing his audience. Now, we don’t know what to expect from him.

In most cases, that’s a good thing. Wale is an unusual vocalist, and he rhymes as if he’s skittering across the track, rushing to get all of the words out of his mouth, and adding odd time signatures to the beat. When he’s matched with a compelling topic, like “Diary’s” end of a love affair, or “LoveHate Thing’s” conflictions about being famous, he engages in ways unlike any other rapper. But his stylistic quirks sometimes leave him sounding disengaged, as if he’s trying to find the center of a song that often doesn’t warrant his effort.

2013’s The Gifted amplified the confusion. Does he consider himself a proud inheritor of D.C.’s vaunted go-go funk tradition, as displayed on “88”? Is he an introspective vocalist akin to J Cole? Or is he a shamelessly pop rapper who isn’t afraid to make dumb radio hits like “Clappers” and its “Da Butt”-inspired chorus. Perhaps that’s why his work tends to draw sharply divided reviews. In his zeal to encompass post-millennial hip-hop, he often splits us into gratified and enthusiastic supporters, nonplussed critics, and pure haters.

If early reviews are an indication, The Album About Nothing won’t change that dynamic. Jerry Seinfeld may appear as advertised, but it’s largely in the form of interludes. For example, Seinfeld notes how someone stops him mid-walk on the street and says, “You’ve got really white shoes”; Wale turns that into a dense commentary about the price of materialism. Contrary to the famed Seinfeld observational comedy “about nothing,” The Album About Nothing is packed with weighty societal issues. And some of the music Wale employs isn’t memorable. Much like Lupe Fiasco, Nas, and too many other superior lyricists, he’s not as adept at picking strong backgrounds as he is at laying out a subject.

Give Wale credit: He raps with audible passion on this one. “I can’t move with too many rap dudes,” he rhymes on “The Middle Finger.” “In the booth, truth the only tool I trust.” He proves he’s not an opportunist, and that he cares about his art. While it may be years before the rap world decides what Wale’s legacy will be, he’s not going to wait around for us to figure him out.

(Rhapsody – April 1, 2015)

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Spotlight On: Miguel

miguel-matt-carrillo

Throughout his impressive third album Wildheart, Miguel Jontel Pimentel’s ideas are dynamic and ever-present. He offers us two songs about death as Eros in “A Beautiful Exit” and “…Goingtohell.” He muses on growing up biracial, the son of a Mexican-American father and a black mother, as he sings on “What’s Normal Anyway.” He presents sex as a thug’s imperative on “NWA,” and love as “Flesh” and burning lust. He doesn’t lapse into the kind of anonymous lovemaking that typified his earlier work, particularly his retail debut All I Want Is You. Although the cover artwork for Wildheart depicts Miguel as a libertine dream, a naked woman kneeling submissively to him, he reveals himself as a man of flesh and blood.

It’s a necessary growth for an artist who shined brilliantly on 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream, but still seemed like an enigmatic personality, despite his evolution from an LA singer for underground hip-hoppers like Blu & Exile to a rising mainstream star. It’s a common plight for R&B men who operate in an urban environment of masculine cool and customary hardness, and are subsequently penalized for their sensitivity with pernicious rumors about their sexuality. As Miguel discovered, it didn’t matter how many hot and freaky pictorials he shot with his model girlfriend Nazanin Mandi. The same idiotic gossip vultures hovered around him, too.

Perhaps he’s learned that the best way to combat the haters is to make his art more distinct, add more depth, and to hell with the consequences. To be sure, there’s nothing on Wildheart as strong as Kaleidoscope Dream’s “Adorn,” and it remains to be seen if R&B traditionalists will embrace the new album’s “Hollywood Dreams” flashy pop and funk rock as much as the critics have praised it. For the former, there’s “Coffee,” as sumptuous a babymaker call as there has been this year. For the rest of us, there’s Miguel the innovator, pushing forward.

(Rhapsody – June 30, 2015)

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Gangrene, ‘You Disgust Me’

Gangrene - You Disgust Me

When you hear an Alchemist beat, you know it. He’s refined his style over 15 years and hundreds of productions, from Prodigy’s thug-rap high-water mark Return of the Mac to brilliant loosies for Dilated Peoples (“Worst Comes to Worst”), Nas (“Book of Rhymes”) and Raekwon (“Surgical Gloves”). His sound moves between two poles. There are the loops woven out of all manner of sample fodder, like the superior Israeli Salad instrumental suite he released earlier this year that excavates records purchased during a trip to Israel. Then there’s his coldly synthesized gangster music, best displayed on Mobb Deep’s mid-’00s hit “Got It Twisted”, and seemingly inspired by New Wave pop and ’80s crime soundtracks like Giorgio Moroder’s Scarface and Tangerine Dream’s Thief. Both types of Alchemist beats are clipped and chopped like vintage DJ Premier, yet they also rumble at a leisurely West Coast tempo.

Alchemist does consistently entertaining work, but it’s become predictable after over a decade and too much music—so far this year, he’s dropped Israeli Salad and Retarded Alligator Beats joints, and now comes Gangrene’s You Disgust Me. Yet Al’s Gangrene project with Oh No gives both a chance to subvert their well-worn templates into something more dynamic. The two complement each other: Oh No likes to flip vinyl from exotic sources, too, whether it’s Dr. No’s Ethiopium or Exodus into Unheard Rhythms, the latter built around Galt MacDermot’s catalog.He tends to be underrated—it’s unlikely that most people who heard Dr. Dre’s Compton and its “Issues” track know that Oh No also sampled Turkish folk singer Selda’s “Ince Ince” with his 2007 track “Heavy”, which Mos Def used for his 2009 single “Supermagic.” And while his dependence on traditionalist sample loops runs deeper than Alchemist, he uses rhythm more dynamically.

Both Alchemist and Oh No approach Gangrene’s You Disgust Me as an excursion into weed-hazed hip-hop psychedelia: Snippets of whacked-out voices, culled from some late night VHS videodrome, and dudes talking greasy over digger’s delights. (RIP Sean Price, who drops a jewel on “Sheet Music” alongside Mobb Deep’s Havoc.) It’s a formula that Gangrene established over its two albums, Gutter Water and Vodka & Ayahuasca, light themes that bracket the usual backpack thuggery. The thirteen tracks add up to just under 40 minutes, and often seem to blend in with one another. Peaks like “Noon Chuckas,” and how its ominous big band buildup smooths out into a female voice’s hypnotic glissando, sound indistinguishable from knuckleheaded errata like “Driving Gloves,” and Action Bronson’s brain fart about needing “a bitch with a pussy like like a Little League glove.”

As rappers, the words Alchemist and Oh No say are less interesting than the sound of their slangy, chippy voices riffing over the blappers. Their peak You Disgust Me moment arrives on “The Man with the Horn”, which draws equal inspiration from Miles Davis-styled melancholy, and New York noir vis-à-vis Travis Bickle audio. Al visualizes himself as a loner wandering the streets, “stumble out the bar, vision blurry/ Humphrey Bogart, face underneath the rim of my derby.” Oh No adds, “It’s looking like a scene out of Vegas/ It’s nighttime, and the jazz jukebox is playing.” It offers a glimpse of what Gangrene could be if it was more than just headnod music stuffed with weed jokes. Both are more than capable of crafting memorable hip-hop music, even if they’re too focused on cranking out bangers at an industrial rate to notice whether anything they’ve made stands out.

(August 11, 2015 – Pitchfork)

L’Orange & Kool Keith, ‘Time? Astonishing!’

Time AstonishingAs a rising producer from North Carolina, L’Orange has built a sound signature rooted in the past yet wholly his own. You can trace a line between his MPC rips of black-and-white TV shows back to Madlib’s zonked-out tapestries on Madvillainy, and Daedelus’ surrealist lounge music for The Weather. But over the past few years, and especially in 2015 through projects like After the Flowers and The Night Took Us In Like Family (the latter made with L.A. rapper Jeremiah Jae), the man who bears the same name as Gilbert Bécaud’s 1964 French chanson has cobbled something wholly unique. On his best work, he stacks his vocal snatches into something approaching a narrative, and adds bebop and exotica tones, while creating enough rhythmic thrust to avoid slumping into a downtempo-like torpor.

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