OutKast, Idlewild (August 22, 2006)
LaFace/Zomba Recording Company
Back in 1985, less than a year after the Purple Rain film and soundtrack album, Prince issued Around the World in a Day. A carelessly psychedelic pop detour from Purple Rain’s muscular arena rock, Around the World in a Day earned notices ranging from cautiously respectful to outright dismissive. Some reports called it Prince’s fuck off album, an attempt to bite the fans that fed him.
Over two decades later, music critics are using Prince’s Around the World in a Day and 1986’s Parade to describe OutKast’s Idlewild soundtrack, which drifts from funk-influenced hip-hop to jazzy, swing-era beats with the same nonchalance. As usual, Andre 3000 and Big Boi demonstrate an ear for melodic talents and natty rhythms as strong as any found on its prior classics. The album’s tone is all over the place, floating from angry rebukes against the pressures of success to sincere attempts at whimsy. Unevenly sequenced, it isn’t as concise as its world-beating epic, 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
2Mex & Life Rexall are $martyr, Money Symbol Martyrs (April 11, 2006)
$martyr’s Money Symbol Martyrs is 2Mex’s most accessible recording in years, one that eschews his avant-garde reputation. “I shake a lot of hands, but I don’t have a lot of friends/I’ve only been the man because of these melodic trends,” he raps on “3 Day Eviction Notice.” “Sometimes I feel like my heart’s been robbed/’Cause girls look at me like a part-time job/I might as well go deaf if death is certain/Instead of hearing that you left or it’s not working/It’s okay, I’m not good at family/But I shouldn’t be this lonely if I don’t have to be/Used to hope for my life to be perfect/Now I just walk around, wondering if I’m worth it.” 2Mex’s discography features plenty of memorably candid lyrics like these (including “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” from his great 2001 solo album B-Boys in Occupied Mexico). This time around, however, they’re spoken plainly, without the perplexingly quick cadence he used in the past. Life Rexall holds his own on the mike, too, but his real contribution is behind the boards, where he doles out thirteen tracks of hazy, sun-dappled beats. “Green Grass,” with its haunting sampled chorus “Playing in the green grass ambling, shade trees,” would be a sweet slice of LA pop if not for the thick bass drums pounding underneath it. “Money Doesn’t Matter” cruises along with phoenix-like horns reminiscent of Earth, Wind and Fire. Even darker tracks like “Full Court Pressure” are wrapped in an appealing blur of fuzzy psychedelic guitar. Cornerstone R.A.S.
DJ Shadow, The Outsider (September 19, 2006)
The Outsider’s reliance on street rappers like Keak da Sneak, Turf Talk, Federation and E-40, is drawing harsh criticism from many of Shadow’s longtime fans. They accuse him of “selling out,” but they shouldn’t be worried here. Nestled between the breezy pop song “This Time (I’m Gonna Do It My Way)” and the instrumental blues “Broken Levee Blues,” the five rap tracks admirably continue Shadow’s role as a cultural notary. They range from Keak and Turf Talk’s wacky party track “3 Freaks” to Mississippi rapper David Banner’s “Seein’ Thangs,” a case of political paranoia that flows easily into the aforementioned “Broken Levee Blues.” Other rappers like Phonte Coleman of Little Brother (“Backstage Girl”) and Q-Tip and Lateef the Truth Speaker (“Enuff”) participate. But it’s with mediocre singers like Sergio Pizzorno of Kasabian (“The Tiger”), Chris James of Stateless (“Erase You”), and Christina Carter of Charalambides (“What Have I Done”) that Shadow stumbles, as his productions yield to bathos. Why would Shadow use these sleepy-voiced balladeers when his instrumental wanderings sing as profoundly as anyone? It’s a question that hangs unresolved over The Outsider, which struggles to maintain a consistently singular voice through several mouthpieces. He undoubtedly wanted to expand his repertoire ten years after Endtroducing, but the results of his aesthetic decision to use collaborators are mixed. Universal Motown.
Awol One, The War of Art (April 11, 2006)
The War of Art features “Casting Call,” one of Awol One’s funniest and most stylized songs to date, switching between multiple perspectives within a single verse: “It’s a casting call in a Hollywood cattle battle/From Southern Cali to Seattle/And back up to New York/She’s a model-slash-actress, don’t eat pork/slash-waitress-slash-addicted to coffee/Who’s the director/Back up off me/This production is costly/While I’m reading the script/You’re not the boss of me/Losing weight, shedding all the vanity pounds/Hollywood diet/Snort it, come on and try it/Casting call, the wild market of the bee stings.” He ends the song by repeating the phrase, “You gotta turn off the TV.” The album’s 13 tracks feature multiple producers – including Pigeon John, J-Zone, and Jizzm — most of who are unknown outside of underground circles. Its sound is evenly split between hazy electro reminiscent of Anti-Pop Consortium and El-P, and murky, moody beats more typical of Awol One’s recordings. Of the former, “Knowbody Cares” is the best, a track that skitters and lopes beside rhymes like Awol One’s “Nobody’s home/‘Cause nobody cares/I’ll just sit right here today and get drunk by the stairs.” Cornerstone R.A.S.
Dabrye, Two/Three (June 13, 2006)
Tadd Mullinix’s first Dabrye album, 2001’s One/Three, is wonderfully clipped micro-hop, full of light computer beats. But Two/Three is far more sophisticated. On “Piano,” he slides a sample of a cascading bass lick over panoply of keyboard notes, while a stream of ambient noise runs underneath it all. “Machines Pt. 1” takes it back to the early Eighties with synthesizer handclaps and hard synth punches; “Machines Pt. II” is the same beat, except half as fast. Dabrye follows his early formula on only a handful of Two/Three’s 20 tracks, particularly the lovely “Bloop.” He utilizes several rappers, from established heroes like MF Doom (who gets to rhyme over the haunted house theatrics of “Air”) and Beans to new and promising figures like Kadence. On “That’s What’s Up,” where Cannibal Ox-er Vast Aire brags about “freestyle pimpin’,” he crafts a Jaegermeister melody of tickled keys that invokes drunkenly good times. For “Get It Together,” a fast rap featuring Invincible and Finale, he drums out an old-school beat worthy of Marley Marl and the 45 King. As good as some of its rap cuts are, however, Two/Three’s primary weakness stems from a disjointed sound, the inevitable product of so many sous chefs in the kitchen. Its ebb and flow stemmed by sometimes-awkward leaps between instrumental and vocal tracks, Two/Three doesn’t peak with a remarkable climax, instead cutting off after the modest delights of “Game Over,” a minimalist electro cut featuring Phat Kat and patron saint Jay Dee. Despite its imperfections, however, Two/Three is an awesomely dusted record. Ghostly International.
Psalm One, The Death of Frequent Flyer (July 18, 2006)
One of the best songs on the 14-track disc is “Rapper Girls,” an attack on wack MCs that wraps around an R&B beat and Psalm One’s chorus, “This is for my rapper girls/Cut it out/Cut that shit out.” The other, “Macaroni and Cheese,” is more abstract as she rhymes “Call me erector set I set up shop/It’s time to wreck yes you best check your watch” over a funk-blues track. That leaves twelve more songs marked by Psalm One’s sharp punchlines, a liquid flow, and a frustrating tendency to slur her words. Whether those qualities sound inviting depend on your estimation of an underground hip-hop scene that tends to yield more shit-talkers than good songwriters. Rhymesayers.
Georgia Anne Muldrow, Olesi: Fragments of an Earth (August 22, 2006)
Olesi: Fragments of an Earth may be the most idiosyncratic soul album released this year. Completely produced and sung by Georgia Anne Muldrow, most of her songs last less than three minutes, living up to the title’s promise as “fragments” and random thoughts. She manipulates her voice, double-tracking it and adding echoing effects, resulting in jazzily constructed impressions supported by dense, crackling hip-hop beats. On “New Orleans” she bellows “There’s a history/In the water/That they don’t show us” with the force of Ella Fitzgerald as drum patterns furiously circulate around her; “Because” finds her blissfully singing a mantra in such a stylized manner that it’s difficult to make out the words. She even raps with considerable skill, offering “Every day I wake up every morning trying to dream in my free time/Trying to expedite the very moment that we shine” on “West Coast Recycler.” The sphinx-like Olesi: Fragments of an Earth is a rhapsody best heard on Muldrow’s own terms. Stones Throw Records.
P.O.S, Audition (January 31, 2006)
Stefon Leron “P.O.S” Alexander may be the most intriguing of all the artists that Rhymesayers has introduced in recent years. A black punk rocker from Minneapolis, P.O.S (which stands for “Product of Society,” “Pissed Off Stef,” et cetera) blends together hard rock and hip-hop in an organic, uncontrived fashion. Many people believe that he’s going to be an underground star, and the title of his second album, Audition, coyly feeds that perception, even as he tries to organize his ideas on progressive politics and capitalist society into digestible songs, with some success. The highlights include “Safety in Speed (Heavy Metal),” which features a spoken-word contribution from Craig Finn of the Hold Steady; “Yeah Right (Science Science),” a freestyle set over thrashing guitar; and “De La Souls,” a sing-song track where he fancifully mixes his hardcore and rap influences. Some of P.O.S’ lyrics are inspired by De La Soul’s “I Am I Be,” while his chorus, “No one will ever be/Like me,” is taken from Bouncing Souls’ “Argyle.”
Rhymefest, Blue Collar (July 11, 2006)
A cursory listen to Rhymefest’s Blue Collar reveals why it was delayed for nearly a year before finally seeing the light of day. Many of its songs feature unnecessary R&B singers trilling in the background, while Rhymefest spits lower-middle-class aspirations like “If King was alive, this is how he would sound.” He and executive producers No ID and Mark Ronson work hard to replicate the slick, overproduced qualities that made his onetime Chicago friend Kanye West a star. (Rhymefest wrote the lyrics for West’s “Jesus Walks,” and West returns the favor with the swinging lead single “Brand New.”) “Fever” is a near-miss; “More,” which features a pleasant keyboard beat from Cool & Dre (and Kanye on the hook), is somewhat better. Eventually, however, Rhymefest stops trying to make hits and settles into a number of topical, issue-based songs like “Sister,” a ballad about a crack-addicted woman, and “Bullet,” which sympathizes with young men ensnared by early death. Guests include Q-Tip, Mario, Citizen Cope and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The producers include Just Blaze and Emile. J Records.
Tha Alkaholiks, Firewater (January 24, 2006)
Firewater is billed as the fifth and final release by Tha Alkaholiks, a group that has, despite issuing several good albums, never achieved critical mass outside of its California fan base. You wouldn’t know this from the group’s music, however, since the trio – Tash, J-Ro, and producer E-Swift – rarely spend time reflecting on their careers together. For them, it’s all about fun, and self-explanatory titles such as “Party Ya Ass Off” and “Drink Wit Us.” “I know what it feels like to wake up broke/And face another day with your back against the ropes,” raps J-Ro on “Poverty’s Paradise,” a rare respite from drinking metaphors and metaphorical MC beatdowns. For the most part, though, Firewater is an upbeat West Coast party record, but it isn’t a memorable one, and you may have trouble remembering what happened after you’ve heard it. Released on Waxploitation, with distribution from Koch.
Prefuse 73, Security Screenings (February 6, 2006)
Scott Herren’s recent work has drawn criticism for sounding too similar to his early breakthrough recordings (particularly Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives). He tends to use the same melodies – a soft arpeggio of keys — on all of his recordings, and they frequently appear on Security Screenings, his latest effort as Prefuse 73, too. Herren is too good of a producer to make a truly bad album. The chopped loops of Prodigy’s infamous “space rap” diatribe from Mobb Deep’s The Infamous float through “Weight Watching,” and the quirky bounce beat jumping underneath “With Dirt and Two Texts: Later Version With Love,” are all proof of his superior technical abilities. But nearly all of Security Screenings tracks use that aforementioned melodic scheme, buffing away at any legitimate innovations. Only a few of the tracks – the noisy sound mashing of “No Origin” in particular – point toward fresh, previously unexplored directions. Warp Records.
Cut Chemist, The Audience’s Listening (July 11, 2006)
Cut Chemist’s The Audience’s Listening could be from a time capsule buried in 1998, when epic instrumental albums like Return of the DJ and Q-Bert’s Wave Twisters were all the rage. And that’s a good thing. Unfairly maligned in recent years as a province of bedroom geeks disconnected from mainstream rap culture, turntablism still holds creative potential, which the onetime Jurassic 5 member makes astonishingly clear. On “The Garden,” Cut Chemist opens with a deft pattern of jazz banjo before laying in an exotic female vocal over orchestral strings and deep, yearning melodies. With “Storm,” he draws guest MCs Edan and Mr. Lif into an electro stomper that distorts their voices like zapped antibodies. These primary numbers are surrounded by sample/scratch fancies like “Motivational Speaker” and “Spat” that hearken towards Kid Koala’s work, as well as Cut Chemist’s own classic “Lesson 6: The Lecture.” The Audience’s Listening is witty, lighthearted, and artfully constructed, and you can hear the depth in his machinations. Warner Bros. Records.