Category Archives: 2007

Killer Mike, I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind II

Killer Mike, I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind II (July 8, 2008)

Best known for raining hardcore rhymes on OutKast’s otherwise-cheery hit “The Whole World,” the bellicose Atlanta MC unveils a violent worldview on I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II. He and Ice Cube put the “Pressure” on “black pigs who killed Sean Bell” and “dirty niggas working for a fuckin’ Clinton”; then he portrays a dope dealer gunning down a rival “dyke bitch” cocaine overlord clearly modeled after Cocaine Cowboys supervillain Griselda Marcos on “Good-Bye (City of Dope).” Killer Mike’s bellicose, bullying rap style powers Allegiance, but he nearly drowns under his gangsta fantasies and muddled politics. The music, a series of predictable keyboard-heavy beats, hardly illuminates his colorful and maddening contradictions. The producers include Malay (“City of Dope”; he’d later co-produce Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE) and Cutmaster Swiff (“Big Money, Big Cars”). SMC Recordings.

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.

Sa-Ra, The Hollywood Recordings

Sa-Ra, The Hollywood Recordings (April 24, 2007)

Two years ago, Sa-Ra Creative Partners was the shit. A trio of studio musicians – Taz Arnold, Om’Mas Keith and Shafiq Husayn – who made credited (Jurassic 5’s Power in Numbers, Pharoahe Monch’s “Agent Orange” single) and uncredited contributions to several high-profile projects, many called Sa-Ra the future of soul. Dr. Dre sang their praises. Kanye West signed them to his fledgling G.O.O.D. Music imprint. Okayplayer forum members obsessively traded their material. The Hollywood Recordings arrives well after that era of initial discovery. Many of its 19 tracks have already been released, either legitimately (2005’s Second Time Around EP, 2004’s “Glorious” 12-inch) or illegitimately via official and unofficial mix CDs and bootlegs. The album itself arrives after a year of delays as a result of G.O.O.D. Music’s deteriorating relationship with Sony Music. Babygrande should be commended for stepping in and issuing this long-anticipated project. (The Hollywood Recordings refers to one of the group’s most popular songs, “Hollywood,” but for unexplained reasons that track doesn’t appear here.) Sa-Ra has a quixotic image. The trio mixes street pimp theology with lush soul, resulting in horny, freakazoid undulations. “I don’t want to wife you/But can you be my bitch?” they sing on “Bitch.” Some tracks are undercut with dark, operatic tones reminiscent of Parliament; others, particularly “Tracy” (with Rozzi Daime), mimic the sex rap of Spank Rock and Amanda Blank. As one of the Sa-Ra crew puts it on “White! On the Dance Floor,” “I’ll fuck ‘em, white or black, man.” From a musical perspective, The Hollywood Recordings is generally on point, save for a few tracks, particularly the murky “Bitch” and “Sweet Sour You” (featuring Bilal on the vocals). As a self-contained unit that plays everything from samplers  to analog instruments (pianos, synthesizers, drums, electric guitar), they can make music that combines the sensuous warmth of the Roots with the crisp, hard-hitting tweets of the late J Dilla (who appears on “Thrilla”). But from a conceptual standpoint, The Hollywood Recordings has a few problems. It sounds like a collection of tracks instead of a full-fledged suite that carries you through a story. Many of the cuts feel like jam sessions instead of tightly constructed songs, and while that may enhance their appeal, it gives the disc a rough, unfinished quality.

J Dilla, Ruff Draft

J Dilla, Ruff Draft (March 20, 2007)

Ruff Draft is the first of what will undoubtedly be several reissues, retrospectives and compendiums of posthumous material by the illustrious late producer James “J Dilla” Yancey. The EP quietly dropped on J Dilla’s Mummy Records in 2003, with worldwide distribution by Groove Attack, and arrived at a time when many heads considered him past his prime. A Stones Throw Records press release asserts, “In retrospect, Ruff Draft proved to mark a turning point in Dilla’s career.” This is true: shortly afterwards, J Dilla would team with Madlib for the Jaylib album, a project unfortunately marred by Internet bootlegging. (In response, the two recorded new tracks that didn’t compare to the leaked ones.) Nevertheless, J Dilla would continue to reinvent his sound, and triumphantly produced the Donuts and The Shining discs shortly before his death. But first, there is Ruff Draft. Key tracks such as “Let’s Take It Back” and “Reckless Driving” feature rapturous synthesizer playing, a direct nod to Dilla’s Detroit as the ancestral home of techno and electro music. The distorted, otherworldly guitars on “Nothing Like This,” in fact, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Drexciya record. Alternately, “Wild,” one of four new tracks that weren’t on the original EP, find him speeding up a sample from Neil Innes & Son’s “Cum On Feel The Noize” into a chirpy Sesame Street-like voice. The second CD, a collection of instrumentals, is strictly for Serato jocks.

Evidence, The Weatherman LP

Evidence, The Weatherman LP (2007)

The Weatherman is a pleasant surprise. It features the usual ABB suspects on the boards — Joey Chavez, Bravo, Jake One, DJ Babu and Khalil. But Evidence and Alchemist executive produced the disc, giving it a stylistic consistency considering so many cooks were in the kitchen. “Let Yourself Go,” a burn session with the Alchemist and Phonte Coleman, is a genuine masher. “Chase the Clouds Away” is a dreamy homage to Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day.” Three “Weather Reports” tie the 21 cuts together, and the beats are filled with little blips and random scratches, making them more flavorful than average loops. Guests like Defari, Dilated’s Iriscience, Slug, and Res keep things lively. Vocally, Evidence deliberately emphasizes his cadence, and his monotone delivery remains a love-hate proposition. But a close listen reveals some lyrical sophistication. On “All Said & Done,” he raps, “Forever been catching a flight/Emergency row, coach, sitting up through the night/Can’t stand, you carried in/Ain’t earned, you married in/You ain’t a hustler like Larry Flynt.” The Weatherman isn’t next-level shit, but it’s good meat-and-potatoes rap that stick to your bones. ABB Records.

Lifesavas, Gutterfly: The Original Soundtrack

Lifesavas, Gutterfly: The Original Soundtrack (April 24, 2007)

Northwest group Lifesavas traffic in proletarian styles: sampled beats and backpacker rhymes, old-school funk and soul, and spiritual and social awareness. When hearing their music, you don’t get the sense of creative exploration as much as affirmation of long-held beliefs. The premise for Gutterfly is a soundtrack for a nonexistent Blaxploitation film narrated by Ike Willis that warns people of the dangers of the player lifestyle. The group’s devotion to Christian ideals remains visible, if not problematic like Spirit in Stone (when they memorably spoke out against abortion). Religious imagery crops up in the titles “A Serpent’s Love” and “Superburn.” “Before this bubble’s burst and the mystery’s revealed/Let’s commence the jam session while accepting God’s will,” raps Vursatyl on “Take Me Away.” On “Dead Ones,” Lifesavas team with Fishbone for a sermon disguised as a New Orleans funeral dirge, and they rhyme and sing over a slow swing rhythm. Other outstanding tracks include “Double Up,” which is built around Oh No’s sample of Quasimoto’s “Players of the Game,” “Gutterfly” (featuring an animated appearance from Camp Lo) and the rousing finale “Celebrate.” Guests include Ishmael Butler, Smif-N-Wessun, Choklate, Vernon Reid, George Clinton, and dead prez. Lifesavas’ Jumbo the Garbageman produce most of the tracks, but Chief Xcel, Vitamin D, and Jake One also contribute beats. Quannum Projects.

Awol One & Factor, Only Death Can Kill You

Awol One & Factor, Only Death Can Kill You (April 24, 2007)

Only Death Can Kill You, a pairing between Awol One and Canadian producer Factor, carries a depressive tone, and is marked by bleak and bitter numbers such as “Old Babies” and “Sunday Mourning.” “Sunday I’m a sleep away the pain/And Monday I’m a face it again/Standing alone on the road/Just like the crossroad fork,” says Awol One on the latter. But he cuts through the darkness with his irrepressible humor. Bizarrely (and hilariously), he even begins to moan like a sad old dog. Awol One is part of a crew of Los Angeles MCs whose talents are only outmatched by their prolificacy. Only Death Can Kill You isn’t his best work, due to Factor’s uneven production. For every “Sunrise Sandwich” or “Alpha Omegatron,” the latter a yearning percussive groove reminiscent of DJ Shadow, there’s “Sunday Mourning,” a plain, repetitive backing track. The best thing that can be said of Only Death Can Kill You is that it feels smoked-out and casual, like a bunch of cats sitting around the living room, blowing reefer and tossing out non sequiturs. Cornerstone R.A.S.

Phat Kat, Carte Blanche

Phat Kat, Carte Blanche (April 3, 2007)

Phat Kat is a raw spitter. He attacks every track with gusto, lacing beats with verbiage meant to humiliate his quarry. When he hits his mark, which is often, the results can be exciting, the apotheosis of hardcore street-hop. But he doesn’t do much beyond that, like a B-baller who can dunk and drive on your ass with impunity but can’t hit a fade-away jump shot or defend the court. Phat Kat’s unvarying performance ensures that Carte Blanche rises and falls on the quality of the beats. The album is top loaded with the best cuts — “Cold Steel,” “Get It Started,” “Nasty Ain’t It” — but it falters during its second half. Some of the weaker tracks include Black Milk’s “Cash ‘Em Out” and J Dilla’s “Game Time.” (Black Milk makes up for it with “Hard Enuff,” a crazy cut on which he double-tracks Phat Kat’s voice to devastating effect.) Phat Kat’s association with the late Jay Dee/J Dilla goes back decades — the two formed a group, First Down that was briefly signed to Payday Records in the mid 90s. While J Dilla, one of the better producers in hip-hop history, has long eclipsed his onetime partner, Phat Kat brings out qualities in his beats that others can’t. This is proven from the gate with “Nasty Ain’t It,” when Phat Kat rocks hard over a J Dilla joint that seems to vibrate with menacing funk. Carte Blanche ends with “Don’t Nobody Care About Us,” an older track from the late 90s that, through its mix of melancholy and purpose, is one of J Dilla’s most underrated numbers. No matter how good or bad the beat, Phat Kat rides roughshod during the whole hour, rarely giving anything but pure intensity. Even the requisite song for the ladies, “Lovely,” comes off angry and brittle, a thug love piece with more hardcore sex than cuddling or romance. The only track with any real pathos is “True Story Pt. 2,” a track that’s part dedication to J Dilla, part memories about the Detroit rap scene. In Phat Kat’s milieu, subtlety, emotional complexity, and topical variety are a plus. You don’t expect them in Carte Blanche, and he doesn’t give them to you. At least he knows where he stands in the hip-hop universe: “Fuck being a mainstream clown, I’m eating good in the underground.” Look Records.

Madlib, Beat Konducta Vol 3-4: India

Madlib, Beat Konducta Vol 3-4: India (August 28, 2007)

On volumes 3 and 4 of his ongoing “Beat Konducta” instrumental album series, Madlib applies his familiar looping techniques to the world of Bollywood soundtracks. The problem isn’t necessarily with the source material, a wellspring of ideas ever since Mike Ladd and Dan the Automator began sampling it in the late 90s. But Madlib’s techniques seem less sure than usual. Many of the instrumentals, bite-size cuts that often last between 1-3 minutes, roll along aimlessly in loops. They don’t sound as tightly composed as his best material. This is a compilation of two vinyl-only records. Stones Throw Records.

Baby Elephant, Turn My Teeth Up

Baby Elephant, Turn My Teeth Up (September 2007)

Baby Elephant, a collaboration between Prince Paul, Don Newkirk and Bernie Worrell, sounds like a relic from the 80s. Several veterans of New York’s Downtown funk scene, from David Byrne and Nona Hendryx to George Clinton, make cryptic and random appearances. Scotty Hard, a key member of the late, lamented Wordsound camp, toils behind the scenes as an engineer. And Newkirk, a cult figure from the golden era of hip-hop, serves as a co-producer on Turn My Teeth Up! (Remember his game show host on De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising?) With such an eclectic roster, Turn My Teeth Up is bound to be a deeply eccentric album. If only its cast had made more dynamic music. Most of these tracks, while pleasing, bear the same shuffling keyboard funk that spreads like a broken glass of soda. Ostensibly part homage to Worrell, the keyboardist behind the P-Funk machine — one skit, “Master,” finds Prince Paul and Newkirk traveling “from a distant land” to learn from him — it stomps along at a heavy, sluggish pace like … a baby elephant. One notable exception is “Fred Berry,” a bubbly funk jumper that takes its cues from the 60s and the Junior Walker All-Stars. Other highlights include “How Does the Brain Wave,” which is wrapped in Byrne’s gauzy New Wave vocals, and “Crack Addicts in Love.” On the latter, Hendryx sings, “The moon, the sun is shaped like guns/Atoms exploding in the mind/Above the sound/The sound of a death cry.” Turn My Teeth Up may be a little boring, but you can’t say that it lacks imagination. Godforsaken Music.

The Go! Team, Proof of Youth

The Go! Team, Proof of Youth (September 11, 2007)

First championed and flowered with hosannas by bloggerati two years ago, the Go! Team defines the word mashup. The British group speckles its upbeat anthems with references to Northern Soul, breakbeats similar to the Freestylers and Chemical Brothers, golden age hip-hop, and European twee pop a la the Concretes and Belle & Sebastien. Its best songs cull from those elements all at once, leading to songs that continually reveal new sounds like a cacophonous urban environment. If the UK has been obsessed with sampling since the days of Trevor Horn and Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock, then the Go! Team takes that obsession to the extreme. The release of their album Thunder, Lightning, Strike! was delayed several months in the U.S. because of sample clearance issues; by the time it came out, most of its fans had either bought it on import or downloaded it from the Internet. Chastened by the experience, they rely more heavily on a backing band for Proof of Youth, and carefully add a few samples to the assault. The difference is noticeable. Without the quick-fire edits and jump cuts that made their 2005 debut sound like the best 70s action movie you’ve never seen, the Go! Team’s repertoire doesn’t snap and crackle like it used to. Many of the tracks feature cheerleader-like vocals and old-school raps, styles currently popular amidst the club rap set, from group rappers Chi Fukami Taylor & Kaori Tsuchida as well as the Frederick Douglas All Star Cheer Team and the Rapper’s Delight Club. The result sounds like a happily riotous high school football pep rally. Yet The Go! Team seem surprisingly homogenous considering all of the sonic influences they use. Their tracks, save for the aforementioned “My World,” pop along at the same bubbly pace. The vocals are nearly buried within the noise; the main point is the overall sound, not the individual songs and performances. Guests include Solex, Chuck D, Sha Rock from the Funky Four +1 More, Lisa Lee from Cosmic Force, and Marina from Bonde do Rolê. Sub Pop Records.

Common, Finding Forever

Common, Finding Forever (July 31, 2007)

True to his namesake, Common churns out albums that quietly impress without dazzling you with their virtuosity. He essentially returns to the career-saving formula on 2005’s Be: a few rhymes that reflect on social ills, a handful of battle raps, some love joints, and that’s it. Kanye West returns as executive producer, and G.O.O.D. Music fam like Devo Springsteen help out on the boards. Class analysis and a keen awareness of how easily one can tumble from the sidewalk to the gutter lies at the heart of Common’s lyrics. “I watched Crash and realized that we’re all survivors/No religion or race could ever describe us,” he rhymes on “Forever Begins” over a military beat and the stomping drums of a spiritual army. Why does the underclass, specifically the gangsters, drug dealers, and little girls lost, figure in his vision so prominently when he clearly lives on a higher financial strata? “When I see them strugglin’ I think how I’m touchin’ them,” he rhymes on “The People.” Finding Forever is thematically predictable, and it doesn’t have the surprising turns and sonic adventurousness that define a classic album. Remember how M.O.P. came out of nowhere on West’s The College Dropout? Common tries a similar tactic by adding Lily Allen’s light, fragile voice to “Drivin’ Me Wild,” a poppy cautionary tale about loose women. But the effect isn’t the same. Give Common credit, though: Many artists try to mimic the glossy, heavily orchestrated feel of West’s productions. (See Lupe Fiasco, Rhymefest, et cetera.) But Common truly knows how to rock his beats, vocally spicing up the aspirational melodies that float above them and lyrically slamming against the earthy hip-hop drums that gird them. On “Southside,” the two trade rhymes with abandon, and Common brags, “Back in 94 they called me Chitown’s Nas/Now them niggas know I’m one of Chitown’s gods.” Also worth checking out is the poignant “U Black, Maybe,” a snapshot of talented African-Americans felled by jealous neighbors, and “So Far to Go,” where Common adds new lyrics to a J Dilla love jawn first heard on the latter’s The Shining. Geffen.