As 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.
Adrian Younge isn’t the first musician to create sounds so faithful to early 70s psychedelic soul. But he may be the quirkiest. Each project finds him using a variety of instruments, from the familiar (drums and guitar) to the exotic (sitar and glockenspiel) and wholly unique (a Selene, a keyboard sampler he built himself). Performing alongside a shifting series of of collaborators that includes backing vocalists Loren Oden and Saudia Mills, and well-traveled trumpeter Todd Simon (of Breakestra, Antibalas and many others), he creates a sound that seemingly creaks and pops like scratchy old vinyl. And when he performs with one of his bands, Venice Dawn, they appear on stage with phantom of the opera masks and funereal black suits as they strum instrumental breaks, often to the bewilderment of their audience.
After several years spent toiling anonymously in the L.A. underground, the crate-digger magazine and record label Wax Poetics recruited Younge for Black Dynamite, a parody of black action films. If you haven’t seen the movie, which premiered to positive reviews in 2009 and spawned an Adult Swim cartoon spinoff, it’s much better and funnier than you’d expect. After that auspicious debut, Younge codified his aesthetic on subsequent projects. It’s a cross-section of black power dreams, B-movie soundtracks like Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Ennio Morricone’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and workmanlike funk curios like the Whatnauts and Sir Charles Hughes (whose “Dynomite” was used on the Black Dynamite soundtrack). In fact, each Younge album seems to be a soundtrack for an imaginary film, whether it’s the voiceless illustrations of Venice Dawn’s Something About April, or Twelve Reasons to Die, where Ghostface Killah and other rappers lay out the plot machinations in rich detail.
Thanks to a rising profile, Younge formed the record label and recording studio Linear Labs in 2014, and made it a home for his retro fantasia. This year has already brought the compilation Los Angeles, Bilal’s In Another Life, and Twelve Reasons to Die II. Coming soon is The Midnight Hour, a collaboration with Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, and Something About April II, which will feature Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab.
Last Sunday night, Kendrick Lamar briefly crashed the Internet by issuing To Pimp a Butterfly a week early on iTunes and multiple streaming services. His Top Dawg Entertainment management protested loudly at Interscope “fucking up” the release. But since the well-timed leak merrily coincided with a Rolling Stone cover story, one can safely assume that the world heard Kendrick’s third album (fourth if you count his Overly Dedicated mixtape) as planned.
Days later, it’s clear that Kendrick’s newest Great American Hip-Hop Novel resists quick absorption. To Pimp a Butterfly has been celebrated as a meditation on blackness as pigmentation and mind state (see Clover Hope’s Jezebel.com essay “The Overwhelming Blackness of Kendrick Lamar’s Butterfly”), and noted as a parable of celebrity sin and spiritual renewal (a la Joe Coscarelli’s New York Times profile “Kendrick Lamar on His New Album and the Weight of Clarity”). It has been dissected into helpful track-by-track guides, and sample guides, virtual Cliff Notes for an album in which Kendrick’s performance is as crucial as the themes he conveys.
Eminem should have picked a different title for The Marshall Mathers LP2. On its 2000 predecessor, he plumbed the ugly depths of the male ID with anguished ferocity, giving voice to blasphemous dreams of criminality and murder. He created a fictional character, “Stan,” that so vividly captured how we the audience – and hip-hop fans in particular – mistake complex rap lyrics for pure autobiography that it has become shorthand for a kind of perverse idolatry. Eminem tried to repeat that performance for many years afterward, or at least live up to it, by wearing us down with increasingly hammy shock tactics. It wasn’t until he repositioned himself as a man who employs self-help jargon to prove his decency in 2010’s Recovery that he found a credible follow-up.
On You’re Dead!, Steven “Flying Lotus” Ellison revisits the mysteries of the afterlife. His 2008 album Los Angeles concluded with “Auntie’s Harp” and “Auntie’s Lock/Infinitum,” tributes to his late great-aunt, the spiritual jazz harpist Alice Coltrane. A second version of “Auntie’s Lock” was included on 2010’s Cosmogramma. 2012’s Until the Quiet Comes explored the human capacity to alter consciousness through dream-like journeys, with the title holding a double-meaning: the moment when REM sleep settles into a deep slumber, and when the body is fully at eternal rest.
When Warner Bros. announced that Kanye West would executive-produce Theophilus London’s Vibes, it brought much-needed promotion to this Brooklyn sensualist who sings more than he raps, and who spends his off-days lounging at Cannes and taking in runway shows at Paris Fashion Week. He brings uncommonly varied cultural references to his pop raps – his 2009 collaboration with Machinedrum, This Charming Mixtape, featured cover art homage to Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, and his 2011 major-label debut, Timez Are Weird These Days, included cameos from Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara and Holly Miranda. That range of sensibilities may attract a fellow dandy like West, but it may also explain why London has only had moderate success in the States. It’s hard to know what he really stands for other than good taste.
With Kenny Dennis III, David “Serengeti” Cohn continues to develop one of the quirkiest fictions in hip-hop. The storyline emerged on 2006’s Dennehy as a weird Chicago in-joke, just a few songs like “[Brian] Dennehy” and “Ozzie Guillen” speckled amidst an array of sketches — check the creepy drug dealer on “Meth” — and navel-gazing backpacker rhymes like “Critters.” It is now a lyrical meta-verse, with each installment adding details to this 70s pornstache-wearing sports fanatic, O’Douls guzzler, washed up early 90s rapper who once battled Shaquille O’Neal as a member of Tha Grimm Teachaz, and current occupant of a garage.
“If I have one fan rate me highly, I could never feel underrated,” raps Black Milk in his slightly stilted Midwestern accent on “What It’s Worth.” It’s one of many albatrosses the Detroit musician – no, really, he plays live drums and keyboards – has carried throughout his career. Another well-worn claim is that he’s a far better producer than rapper, but even his late mentor J Dilla was better at turning a clever hook than delivering an actual rhyme. (“Still won’t let you live out from the shadow of your hero,” he rues on “All Mighty” as he tries to cast another critic monkey off his back.) Unfortunately, all this chatter has led to the kind of polite applause that prevents us from fully appreciating Black Milk’s gifts. His 2008 breakthrough Tronic deserves to be ranked as a minor classic, half-decent raps or not.
Nothing Was the Same marks a tide-is-high moment for Aubrey Drake Graham. As he surveys the world from the vista of his achievements, he sums up what he once called “The Ride,” and what he calls on opener “Tuscan Leather” as “my mission to shift the culture.”
But there are others nipping at his ability to define the contours of mainstream rap, chiefly Kendrick Lamar, and to a lesser extent Future, Macklemore and a few others. Perhaps it’s why Drake has no major guests on Nothing Was the Same, save for a growling Birdman adlib on “Language,” and a pair of imperious Jay-Z verses on “Pound Cake.” He wants vindication as a hip-hop god by his own merit.
Piñata, the full-length collaboration between 21st-century gangster rapper Freddie Gibbs and 31st-century producer Madlib, lulls breezily between pro forma thuggery and Swisha Sweet insights, mixing progressive beats (sampled, not synthesized) with grizzled street raps (real talk, not fake Bawse boasts). But though this is well-trod ground, from the blaxploitation allusions to the Odd Future and TDE cameos (sorry, no Kendrick), there is innovation and illumination here, too. There is “Thuggin’,” wherein Gibbs chops over frail guitar licks looped and sped up into an Americanized spaghetti-gangster soundtrack, thanks to Madlib’s excavation of an arcane British library record, Rubba’s “Way Star” (h/t WhoSampled.com). There is “Deeper,” wherein Gibbs unravels a deeply metaphorical flip on Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and bemoans the decline of gangsta rap culture, “All for a nigga that ain’t got nothing that I ain’t got / Only difference is, he’s tryin’ to be a fuckin’ astronaut.”
In this post-Internet age of cross-platform synergy as condo down-payment survival, the Roots have flourished. There is the band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, an incredible sight for anyone who remembers how the Fugees swacked them back in 1995. There is the annual Roots picnic; the Starbucks-friendly Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs with Elvis Costello; the festival appearances with guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas shredding up “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” And yes, there is Questlove, the genial Paul Shaffer to Jimmy Fallon’s twee Letterman, and one of the new millennium’s great bon vivants, tweeting and posting selfies on Instagram about his celebrity friends (lots of Prince shout-outs) and his epicurean adventures with impressive gregariousness. His best-selling book, Mo Meta Blues, displays the same kind of intellectual curiosity as he weaves anecdotes about meeting Kiss and making viral videos with Dirty Projectors into an entertaining autobiographical tale. If only he could extend that same generosity and love of pop in all its cheesy shamelessness and gewgaw wonder to his band’s recordings and, more importantly, to the hip-hop culture that he claims fealty to, instead of frequently taking it out to the woodshed, most recently via his damningly titled “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” lectures for Vulture.com.
On All 6’s and 7’s, Tech N9ne claims he’s a “Cult Leader,” with a following of suburban delinquents that mimic his facepaint designs and his violent, operatic dirges. Promising a similar fate for hip-hop’s mainstream, he adds, “I’m gonna show these non-believers what mass lab-producing means.”
But as hell-raising séances go, All 6’s and 7’s can’t compare to Tech’s 2001 debut, Anghellic, where he rapped alongside a firing machine gun. “I’m beyond the boobies and the champagne,” he claims on “Love Me Tomorrow,” pronouncing it “champain-ya.” Instead, the 39-year-old Midwestern rapper offers star power. Admitted Tech fan Lil Wayne and T-Pain discuss “animal magnetism and sado-masochism” on the bawdy “Fuck Food,” while E-40 and Snoop Dogg trade “Pornographic” tales and Yelawolf and Busta Rhymes join the nine-man speed-rapping race “Worldwide Choppers.”