March 2, 2012
Ursula Rucker, Supa Sista (2001)
On the Roots’ last three full-length albums, Ursula Rucker read kitchen-sink tales that delved into first-person accounts of gang-bang rapes, drug dealing, and doomed inner-city lives, illustrating the slippery balance between survival and immorality. But Supa Sista finds her on higher ground, labeling the Internet as “The computerized wet dream/Soaking/Sucking/Our creativity/Our sensitivity” on “Digitech” and levying several criticisms at her Black community’s treatment of women (“Womansong”). On most of the twelve tracks, the words are insistent, yet Rucker’s voice remains mellifluous, so whispery it could be a fluttering curtain beating against a window pane, rather than a harangue against your consciousness. Sometimes it’s difficult to reconcile the two, especially when Rucker renders lines like “recipients of pale-faced pawing and pillage” (“Brown Boy”) with such grace and love that it’s obvious she’s taking pleasure in reciting them even as she uses them to indict her targets. Producers include Robert Yancey III, 4 Hero, Jonah Sharp, and King Britt. !K7 Records.
March 2, 2012
Lovage, Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By (2001)
Lovage: Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By is the latest sonic adventure from Dan “the Automator” Nakamura, the audio director behind Dr. Octagon’s Octagonecologist, Deltron 3030, and Gorillaz. Joining the San Francisco producer, who uses his “Nathaniel Merriweather” alias first developed on Handsome Boy Modeling School’s So, How’s Your Girl, are Jennifer Charles and Mike Patton, as well as turntablist and partner-in-crime Kid Koala. Patton reins in his elastic vocals, usually unleashed on projects such as Mr. Bungle and Fantomas, to a growling, sexed-up baritone and a throaty wail recognizable from time spent as front man for Faith No More. Meanwhile, Charles’ own work as lead singer for moody rock outfit Elysian Fields mirrors Lovage’s formula for atmospherically romantic downtempo grooves. Regardless of their strengths, the two musicians, along with a gallery of guests (Afrika Bambaataa, Damon Albarn) are mere actors in an Automator production. Superficially, Lovage is a continuation of the Handsome Boy Modeling School aesthetic that collides hip-hop, rock, and electronic sounds into an ironically charged hipster epic. It’s the musical equivalent of a Coen Brothers film. The Automator’s concepts, well thought out and executed, take on a life of their own. At times, Lovage really does sound like a cheesy 70s soft rock epic. There are a few dark instrumental interludes that sound like retreads from his mid-90s EP A Better Tomorrow, and the handful of skits, particularly Bambaataa’s bizarre double entendres on “Herbs, Good Hygiene and Socks,” are refreshingly weird. Released on the Automator’s 75 Ark label, with distribution by Tommy Boy Records.
February 28, 2012
Ghostface Killah, Bulletproof Wallets (November 13, 2001)
Bulletproof Wallets, the third album by Wu-Tang member and verbal portraitist Ghostface Killah, sounds like a sequel to last year’s Supreme Clientele. The irrepressible Iron Man has carbon-copied a successful formula, in this case one of last year’s best rap albums, a rare compromise between underground linguistics and mainstream ethos. But where Supreme Clientele flowed with bizarre non-sequiturs and Ghost’s fractured slanguage, Bulletproof Wallets bumbles along with an uneven collection of street epics and would-be party anthems. “Ghost Showers” mimics his breakthrough single from last year, “Cherchez La Ghost,” all the way down to the classic disco loop and signifying female. R&B singer Carl Thomas croons urban pop for him on “Never Be the Same Again.” Ghost wants to be president of the hip-hop nation; he’s sick of motherfuckers biting Wu-Tang Clan’s myriad styles and innovations. “Niggas don’t understand we started all that Cristal, all that Wallabee shit,” he vents on the intro. Absent throughout is Supreme Clientele’s sheer irrationality. Perhaps stung by criticism that his ravioli-sized rhymes were too rich for consumption, Ghost has jettisoned the made-up words and preposterous imagery. Lunkhead braggadocio and criminal histrionics are all that remain. “My Rolls be Liberace/And my bedroom is off the hook all day/Designed by Versace,” he boasts on “Ghost Showers.” It’s all quite fabulous, especially for a man who reveals on “Forest” that his wonderland consists of Daffy Duck, Kermit, and other cartoon characters fornicating, doing drugs, and killing each other. But those for who marveled at Supreme Clientele’s abstractions, Bulletproof Wallets might sound disappointingly mundane. In interviews, Ghostface Killah complained that his label, Epic Records, botched the release by omitting several songs due to sample clearance issues. Those missing tracks, including”The Sun,” “The Watch,” and others, are widely available on file-sharing networks.
February 28, 2012
De La Soul, AOI: Bionix (December 4, 2001)
Much of Bionix’s material responds to criticism that De La Soul’s last album, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, was a concession to the mainstream rap marketplace. “Unlike these underground MCs who rock for heads/We include the throat, chest, arms, and legs,” brags Posdnous on the title track. Metaphors abound: the “Rev. Do Good” series of skits lampoon their former image as hip-hop ascetics, “Peer Pressure” finds Posdnous and Dave smoking weed (cash?) under the tutelage of Cypress Hill’s B-Real. “See me on the cover of your XXL/Taking a holiday at the hotel,” Dave raps on “Simply,” which inexplicably uses Wings’ “Wonderful Christmas Time” as a musical backdrop. De La’s embrace of commercial values is admirable, but on Bionix there’s no cavalcade of guest stars to shield them from conventionality as Mosaic Thump almost did. At best, “Simply Havin’,” “Watch Out” and a handful of others find them crafting consciously middlebrow pop tunes. At worst, they hack out oafish sex romps like “Pawn Star,” unable (or unwilling) to admit how they have become pawns, rather than innovators, in the hip-pop game. Producers include Supa Dave West, Kev Brown, and J Dilla. Tommy Boy Records.
February 26, 2012
DJ Krush, Zen (August 7, 2001)
On the surface, Zen, the eighth full-length offering from Japanese producer DJ Krush, is probably the least Zen-like album in his career. Nearly all of the tracks feature collaborators; only the lush opening track, “Song One,” fully dedicates itself to the poetically abstract vibes and basslines that are Krush’s trademark. Minutes later, “Zen Approach” breaks the spell as Black Thought from the Roots exults Krush’s sonic abilities: “Hot shit/The audience fiend for this fix/And Krush come with the guillotine for this mix.” Throughout his career, Krush has excelled when, whether solo (Strictly Turntablized) or surrounded by guests (Milight), he has stripped down his compositions to its bare essentials. Zen finds him tinkering with that formula and stretching the boundaries of his production for the first time in years with some success. “Duck Chase” pits phonosycographDisk turntable drum patterns against Krush’s understated rhythm track, while the Roots drummer Questlove jams on “Endless Railway.” Other guests include Company Flow (“Vision of Art”), Zap Mama (“Danger of Love”), and N’Dea Davenport (“With Grace”). The collaborations never sound forced, since Krush silently imparts each with a moody, jazz-like sensibility characteristic of a Charles Mingus acolyte. Still, many might find Sunja Lee’s spoken-word piece “Paradise Bird Theory” somewhat pretentious, or Kukoo da Baga Bonez’s “Whut’z Da Solution” unnecessary. Red Ink.
February 26, 2012
Kurupt, Space Boogie: Smoke Oddessey (July 17, 2001)
The Long Beach resident raps as hard as ever, spitting vitriol like “Fuck a bitch and fuck you too/What a punk motherfucker like you gonna do” in his twangy Philadelphian accent, but his vocal tone lacks the malice and anger that made his last album, Tha Streets iz a Mutha, so exciting. A pleasantly poppy G-ride, Space Boogie ambles along at 70 and 80 beats per minute, churning out “Space Boogie” for “Da World.” Fredwreck, who handles most of the production, ladles winsome guitars and light synthesizer melodies onto these candy-coated hits, occasionally calling on Fred Durst and DJ Lethal from Limp Bizkit (“Lay It On Back”) and R&B singer Jon B. (“Sunshine”) for added commercial appeal. Surprisingly, Space Boogie’s nadir isn’t during these sweet, good-natured tracks, but when Xzibit unconvincingly huffs at the end of “Can’t Go Wrong” that he’s “a motherfucking killer” as if he were auditioning for a walk-on part on Oz. Antra/Artemis Records.
February 26, 2012
Pete Rock, Petestrumentals (May 1, 2001)
Hip-hop music is rarely imagined as a voiceless narrative, a breakbeat science as entrancing as house, as involving as ambient techno. With noisy, all-star compilations all the rage, the art of creating a seamless blend of instrumental music highlighted by bass, drums, and an well-placed sample seems lost to an all-too-brief moment in the mid-90s when an album by a hip-hop producer meant a sublime, melancholy masterpiece like Peanut Butter Wolf’s Peanut Butter Breaks, an instrumental version of the Beatnuts’ self-titled debut, or DJ Shadow’s textured What Does Your Soul Look Like? EP. Vaunted beat conductor Pete Rock’s Petestrumentals, his first album since the uneven Soul Survivor, is something of a throwback to that era, spotlighting his ability to create involving background music for a bedroom MC to spit over, or a blissed-out accompaniment to a quiet night spent at home. It’s less DJ Clue than Bob James, an elegant suite of rhythms bearing self-explanatory titles like “Pete’s Jazz” and “Smooth Sailing.” The former is a lounge track full of vibes and warm bass; the latter reaches its apex with a trumpet blaring out the chorus with a succession of high notes. Still, after a while, Petestrumentals’ basic, unadorned butter beats congeals into a mass of indistinguishable wallpaper. When a sudden tempo change finally hits in the form of new jack MCs the UN (Rock Marciano, Divine, Godfree, Laku) on “Walk On By” and “Cake,” it’s as if a entrancing, yet tiring spell has been broken, only to leave the same shouting MC’s promising “hollow point rhymes” one hoped to escape from in the first place. Pete Rock’s Petestrumentals illustrates a dilemma usually avoided by peers like Hi-Tek (Hiteknology) and J. Rawls (The Essence Of) in favor of an all-star rap blowout. But if the beats are hip-hop music’s most attractive asset, then why not dole them out in their purest form, or add enough texture, like DJs Krush and Shadow, to author new sonic adventures? For all of Petestrumentals’ strengths, a cloud of missed opportunities inexorably hangs over it. This was released as part of BBE’s “The Beat Generation” series. In 2002, the album was re-released as an “Updated Edition” and included three new vocal songs: Pete Rock’s reunion with CL Smooth, the glorious throwback and underground hit “Back On The Block,” “To My Advantage” with Nature, and “Mind Frame” with Freddie Foxxx. The instrumental “Hip Hopcrisy” was not included in this second edition. In 2011, an “10th anniversary expanded and limited edition” compiled all the tracks from both versions.
February 25, 2012
Aesop Rock, Labor Days (September 18, 2001)
Call it kismet or bad luck when Labor Days introduces you to a young man enervated by his own words. On his second full-length, Aesop Rock raps listlessly and tirelessly with an affected and world-weary vocal tone, dropping images like “planet made of porcelain” that pile upon each other like raindrops. Oftentimes he’ll lisp “Kill ‘em all,” wipe his mind clean, then thrust into a song again. Meanwhile, his perspective shifts from nasty MC devourer (“Save Yourself”) to morose interior decorator (“One Brick”) to whimsical storyteller (“No Regrets”), often within the same track (“Battery”). “I flow ridiculous, indigenous to now,” he brags on “Coma.” Indeed, the whole damn thing demands an inordinate amount of attention, from Aesop Rock’s lyrical torrent, filtered through a mushy East Coast accent, to the charmingly loping beats that slither along at a snake’s pace. Only the creepy charm of “Save Yourself” and “Daylight” leap out of the speakers. The rest just bleeds. Blockhead produced most of the tracks, with occasional contributions from Aesop Rock and Omega One. “Daylight” is a classic of the era, highlighted by Aesop’s lines, ““Life’s not a bitch/Life is a beautiful woman/You only call her a bitch because she wouldn’t let you get that pussy/Maybe she didn’t feel y’all shared any similar interests/Or maybe you’re just an asshole who couldn’t sweet-talk the princess!” Definitive Jux.