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)
In 2013, I compiled a package for Rhapsody on Prince’s 80s oeuvre. Unfortunately, that material is difficult to access online now — not least because he removed his catalog from all streaming services except for TIDAL, so my reviews attached to those albums disappeared as well — so I’m reposting it here in honor of the late funk genius.
This spotlight only covers Prince’s 1980s recordings because, well, it’s nearly all we have. Longtime Rhapsody listeners will be grateful – until around 2011, all we had was his 1993 greatest-hits collection The Hits/The B-Sides. Sadly, most of his output in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as side projects like Vanity 6’s 1982 debut, remain unavailable on streaming services.
Despite those omissions, our tight focus works out well because Prince’s reputation as a musical genius largely rests on his 1980s output. From 1980 to 1982, he wrote, performed and produced three albums by himself – including the double-album 1999 — each more successful than the last. Then he created a concept piece, Purple Rain, that not only made him the biggest pop star in the world, but generated one of the highest-grossing music films of all time. A resulting frenzy of activity yielded both platinum, critically-hailed work like Sign O’ The Times; and dozens of unreleased songs that made him the most widely-bootlegged artist since the days of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. His 1987 funk excursion The Black Album, has been called the most bootlegged-album of all time. Throughout this period, Prince wrote hits for himself, like “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss”; and for others, including Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” and Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back.”
With an evocative sense of fashion that often involves high-heel boots, masks and frilly shirts unbuttoned to reveal his hairy, muscular chest, Prince remains a magnificent sex symbol. Even at the age of 54, his brief appearance at the 2013 Grammy Awards as a presenter for Record of the Year was enough to send Gotye, the award’s winner, into an effusive speech of praise while Kimbra trembled visibly, trying hard to keep herself from squealing with delight.
Prince is one of the greatest pop idols of the past three decades, but his music would function as pure nostalgia the way we might cue up, say, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” if not for his frequently tortured bouts with the meaning of sex and religious faith. These issues continue to resonate with us. We might not have the same drive as the self-described “Horny Toad,” but we’re all sexual beings. In his best work, he wrestled with his essential humanity, and often seemed torn between making love for the sport of it or as a holy endeavor. Perhaps that’s why his music seems so taboo – and yes, making songs about incest (“Sister”) and masturbation (“Darling Nikki”) don’t help. Ditties about fucking are a dime a dozen on the radio, but few artists explicitly draw the connection between sex and God.
Big Sean’s motto is “Finally Famous.” It was the title of his first three mixtapes and his debut album, and he repeats the phrase a few times on his just-released Dark Sky Paradise. But what does it mean to be “famous,” anyway? Is it a way to purchase more things? Attract partners with wealth and power? Assemble a wide audience for his art?
For much of his career, Big Sean didn’t really bother to answer those questions. But on Dark Sky Paradise, he appears to realize that rappers aren’t awarded greatness unless they have some kind of substance, whether it’s evoking their community, inventing a new twist to the form, or simply expressing their inner thoughts. He rhymes about growing up in Detroit, and sounds anguished at how his old friends view him now. On “Win Some Lose Some,” he admits it took a few years to afford his mother a new car. “People thinking I’m rich, and I wish they knew that/ I’ve been signed for four years, and I’m just now able to do that,” he raps. It’s a telling moment that contradicts the instant money narrative he often promotes.
Dark Sky Paradise has a bunch of party raps, too – see “Blessed” with Drake – and that’s fine. Unlike his sometimes-overwrought mentor Kanye West, Big Sean is mostly a lighthearted guy. It’s what we’ve liked about him so far, whether it’s the “Hammertime” silliness of “Dance A$$,” the chipmunk bounce of his “My Homies Still” duet with Lil Wayne, or the urban pop airiness of “My Last.” The new album isn’t a masterpiece by any measure, but perhaps it marks a turning point when Big Sean balances the pop-rap instincts that keep him “famous” with the gravitas that earns the kind of industry respect he hungers for.
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.