My Top Ten Albums of 2017

Alright here goes. This list took a long time to make and I’m still not sure whether it’s complete. Top 5 was too difficult so here are my ten favorite albums of 2017.

10. Amine – Good For You

There’s undoubtedly some filler on here, but a whole lot less than you’d expect. I went into this not knowing much about Amine, but generally curious about what the XXL Freshman class this year sounded like. I was surprised and delighted by the maturity, catchiness, and strong songwriting all over this album. There are infectious pop gems like “Wedding Crashers” and “Spice Girl,” alongside more laid back, introspective mediations like “Sunday” and “Turf.” At his best — on songs like ”Beach Boy” and “Hero” here — Amine sounds like a mix between Li’l Wayne and Frank Ocean. Definitely a step above most of his other classmates.

9. Kamaiyah – Before I Wake

I did say MOST of his other classmates; the only other freshman who impressed me this year impressed THE HELL out of me. Before I Wake was self-released, and came by surprise after Kamaiyah spent the whole year fighting with her label to release her debut project. I was afraid that she lost her window at success — A Good Night in the Ghetto was an amazing debut tape, but dropped almost two years ago at this point — but Before I Wake proved me wrong. It’s not just defiant and empowering, it’s effortlessly listenable. Check out “Side (Bet)” and “Me Against Myself” for throwback Cali rap that somehow still sounds brand new.

8. Alvvays – Antisocialites

This is an album I’ve been waiting for ever since I saw Molly Rankin and co. opening for Belle and Sebastian and fell in love with their heartfelt lo-fi sound. They amp up the dream pop on this project — a sound that has been everywhere in 2017 — but they don’t sound like they’re trend-jumping. On the contrary, it’s more like the rest of the indie pop scene has decided to adopt a sound Alvvays has already mastered. Rankin’s gorgeous, plainspoken voice has to fight through more distortion here than on the band’s debut, but that just adds to the album’s general feeling of aimlessness and heartbreak. Check out “Dreams Tonite” and “Forget About Life” for a blast of 21st century melancholy pop.

7. Smino & Monte Booker – Blkswn

I first heard Smino on “Shadowman,” the impossibly good last song on Noname’s 2016 mixtape Telefone. I was intrigued by his sing-songy flow and even more interested when I started to listen to his collaborations with Chicago Producer Monte Booker, one of the most forward-thinking beatmakers of the Midwestern hip-hop boom we’ve been seeing the last few years. Booker and Smino are a match made in heaven, and every song on here is bouncy and unpredictable. It’s a long project so some filler is unavoidable, but the highs are frequent and make up some of the year’s warmest, most melodic rap. Lead single “Anita” and sleeper hits like “Edgar Allen Poe’d Up” are smoky, soulful, and will stay in your head for the rest of the year.

6. Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

I’ve always enjoyed Open Mike Eagle’s peculiar take on hip-hop, but I had generally thought of it as comedy music — technically brilliant, but hard to take seriously. Brick Body Kids proves that Mike is just as capable of spinning charming, quiet coming of age stories and angry social justice rants as he is cracking a joke. On this record, Mike tries to give a voice to the weird kids like himself — “ghetto superheroes” growing up in America’s public housing projects, who refuse to “fit in your description.” The album is emotional, heartbreaking, and hilarious, at its core a tribute to the torn down Robert Taylor Homes where he spent much of his childhood. “Brick Body Complex” and “Daydreaming in the Projects” are highlights.

5. Jana Rush – Pariah

I spent a lot of time listening to a lot of good-as-hell dance music this year, but when it came time to pick one for this list Jana Rush kept coming back into my mind. The story of Rush’s personal journey towards this “debut” is incredible; she has been DJing since she was 11, took a lengthy hiatus to explore a career as an engineer and a firefighter, and has triumphantly returned to Chicago’s blooming footwork scene in the last few years. Jlin’s Black Origami may be the footwork album getting most of the critical attention this year, but Pariah is superior in every way. It is confident, masterful, and bursting with creativity on every track. The whole album is worth multiple listens, but check out “Beat Maze” and “Old Skool” for a hint of the wild gamut on display here.

4. Brockhampton – Saturation III

Imagine if the Wu-Tang Clan had been millennials, rapping about their feelings instead of murdering people who disrespected them — and sometimes doing both. I went back and forth about including this one just because of how recently it dropped. But after the fifth day in a row listening to the album the whole way through, I couldn’t deny the magic of America’s greatest boy band. The first two Saturations were Brockhampton showing they knew how to make rap fun again, but the third one shows how much they have all grown as artists and refined their sound. The production is relentlessly fun, going back and forth between anarchic noise and buttery smooth. The writing is razor sharp from all parties involved. My favorite member is Ameer Vann, but the whole band is so in sync with each other that witnessing them on a track together is far more satisfying than any solo effort could be. “BLEACH” and “ALASKA” are must-listens.

3. Jay-Z & No ID – 4:44

In a year when high profile hip-hop artists tried to push the genre to its limits, a couple of living legends showed us just how powerful the classic sound can still be. At this point in his career, Jay didn’t have to make an album this vulnerable, risky, and fearless. But he chose artistry over glitz, spitting rambling brilliance over 10 perfect tracks. No ID’s production takes familiar samples and treats them like members of an orchestra, resulting in some of the most tender and honest songs in either artists’ extensive catalogues. It’s a shame that so few get to hear this project because of Jay’s loyalty to Tidal, but fortunately it’s also streaming on Apple Music. If you can, check out his nostalgic waxings on “Marcy Me” and his defiant bravado on “Smile.” The third verse on the latter song is the finest of the year. “This was meant to be a haiku,” he says, “but my story’s too wide to fit inside a line or two.”

2. Jon Bap – Yesterday’s Homily

There’s some trap on here. There’s some funk on here. There’s jazz, soul, and even a few moments that, if you squint, could be lumped with contemporary R&B (think more D’Angelo than R. Kelly, though.) What there is no shortage of is the often baffling, always brilliant vision of Jon Bap. Tracks start and stop on a dime, bombarding listeners with noises and drum patterns that seem designed more to perplex than to entertain, and before you know it the whole thing is over. But after two or three listens — okay, maybe six or seven — a picture starts to emerge that is so unique, so ingenious, that you can’t look away. Start out with “Queen Chimera, Part 1” for the closest this album comes to an access point, and then just lose yourself in the most progressive album of 2017. We’ll still be scratching our heads in thirty years, I can guarantee it.

1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN

To be perfectly honest, enough has been said about this fucking album on enough lists like this. But that’s the thing about Kendrick: no matter how pervasive the hype, all I have to do is look over the tracklist to this album to remember how deserved it is. If To Pimp a Butterfly was a question mark, DAMN is a defiant exclamation from the greatest rapper alive. It contains not only his best bangers (“HUMBLE,” “ELEMENT,” and “DNA”) and his smoothest crossovers (“LOVE” and “LOYALTY”) but also just some of his best writing period — I can’t think of many rap songs better than “FEAR” in the last five years. It feels pointless to list highlights, because everything on this album is a classic. Do yourself a favor. Listen to it again.

August Hip-Hop Explosion

Hello all, sorry I’ve been quiet for the last month. It’s certainly not for a lack of listening, believe me; after a slow start to the year, this summer has been defined by release after exciting release. Dance, Hip-Hop, and R&B artists, both brand new and well-established, have been keeping my ears busy and my sonic takes forming faster than I can write them down.

All of this culminated in an almost comically exaggerated apex with last Friday, at which point Action Bronson, Brockhampton, Xxxtentacion, Lil Uzi Vert, and A$AP Mob among others all released major projects. I’ve personally been straying a little more towards electronic/R&B lately at the expense of hip-hop, so this avalanche of releases is perhaps exactly what I needed. Rap in 2017 is fresh and fun and exciting again, and I’m ready to jump back into it headfirst.

That said, here are some thoughts on one of the projects released last Friday; I haven’t had time to explore all of them fully yet, but am hoping to soon. I’d love to spend more time with both Saturation projects by Brockhampton, for example, and do a double review — if I get the time that is. For now, enjoy my thoughts on…

Action Bronson – “Blue Chips 7000.”

Now here’s something I wasn’t expecting: an Action Bronson mixtape where he actually sounds like himself again. Bronson (AKA Bam-Bam, AKA Bronsonlini, AKA Young AB) first came to my attention (and I think a lot of people’s) after his verse in A$AP Rocky’s 2013 posse cut “1 Train.” Bam-Bam’s stream-of-consciousness, stoner-meets-gourmand lyrics, plus his whiney Ghostface-esque flow seemed like fun at the time, and as I made my way through his catalog I was consistently impressed. His work with producers like The Alchemist and Harry Fraud matched inventively humorous lyricism with funky, throwback beats. I was never going to call the man one of my favorite rappers, but he was fun and easy to listen to and he always made me laugh.

He raised the bar and started to really make a name for himself as a musician with his two collaborations with production duo Party Supplies (whose 2013 debut record, Tough Love, is a blast of fun, synthy dance-pop. Check out “Love Song” and “Back to New York.”) These were, of course, the first two installments in the Blue Chips series, and in my mind they brought out Bronson’s most interesting artistic impulses. The beats were composed of bizarre samples (including Peter Gabriel and Elton John, along with random YouTube videos) tossed in a blender, coming out the other side as choppy, surprisingly engaging scraps of postmodern internet-rap. Bronson, too, seemed to flout the rules of what rapping should be. Verses were abandoned and restarted halfway through. Tangents about fine dining, 80s sports movies, and obscure New York pop-historical figures became the main focus of songs that seemed to start and stop on a whim. Throughout both tapes, I got the sense that I was sitting on the couch with Action, smoking a bowl, getting a glimpse into his scattered — but often ingenious — artistic mind. There’s never been another mixtape that sounds so loose, so assured, so simultaneously clownish and masterful.

…Which is why I couldn’t help but be disappointed when his major label debut, 2015’s Mr. Wonderful, sounded far more conventional and pandering. There were excellent tracks on the record, no doubt; “Terry” and “Actin’ Crazy” are fun and catchy, “Baby Blue” features one of Chance the Rapper’s most deceptively brilliant verses, and “Easy Rider” is a personal favorite, arguably the most sublime song Bronson has ever recorded. But beyond those tracks — which, importantly, were all singles — the album falls apart. The hooks are forgettable (and, in the case of album low point “Only In America,” atrocious,) the rapping is a far cry from his most creative (sometimes it’s even boring, something I would never think to say about earlier Bronson,) and throughout he struggles to find a consistent aesthetic. Bronson works the best when he’s collaborating with a producer — like Alchemist or Party Supplies — who can craft a continuous suite of beats for him to glide over. On Mr. Wonderful it seems like he’s trying to capture the highlights from all of his previous tapes, while also leaning towards a more palatable, radio-friendly sound. Some rappers can capture the magic of their rawer early sound and also make the transition to the mainstream, but  Bronson just ends up sounding constrained and watered down. The result was an album that was especially disappointing to those of us who knew the bizarre heights he was capable of.

Since then, Bronson has been pretty quiet musically. This makes sense considering his growing fame as a stoner-TV icon — his show “Fuck That’s Delicious” is genuinely entertaining, while his other show (where he just gets high with his friends and watches “Ancient Aliens”) is a strange trip that is almost dumb enough to be funny but misses the mark and is just pretty unwatchable. He’s gradually become more and more of a caricature of himself, and I wouldn’t blame him if he just continued to jetset around the world, eating delicious street food and smoking obscene amounts with his buddies from Queens.

The other main reason that Bronson has been in the news since Mr. Wonderful is far less fun, but pretty important to talk about. He was banned from performing at more than one college campus back in 2015-2016 after multiple students and faculty organizations called him out for misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic lyrics (including a song he wrote, but never released, called “Consensual Rape.”) Bronson did not react defensively to the claims, but apologized, assured critics that as an artist not all of his lyrics were meant to be taken literally, and said that he was making a conscious effort to be a better and more politically correct performer. There is no doubt that a lot of Bronson’s early lyrics can be questionable at best, and unforgivable at worst. Hip-Hop has a lot of problems with homophobia and misogyny, and there are no excuses for it. Since the accusations, it seems that he has been trying to clean up his act, but I completely understand anyone who chooses not to listen to Bronson because of this past lyrical content.

All said, I wasn’t losing a lot of sleep anticipating a great new Bronson project. I was intrigued by the idea of a return to the Blue Chips series, but when I heard that the new tape wasn’t going to be an exclusive collaboration with Party Supplies again, I lost interest. The singles came and went without me paying much attention to them, as did a lot of drama about the studio apparently delaying Bronson’s release of the project and him lashing out against them on social media. When the tape dropped last Friday I downloaded it partially out of loyalty, partially out of muted curiosity. What would a new Action Bronson mixtape sound like in 2017?

Well, it turns out it sounds exactly like what Mr. Wonderful should have been: if this had been his major label debut, as well as his follow up to Blue Chips 1 and 2, Bronson could have attained considerable more momentum and acclaim at least from his already-established fan base. Whereas Wonderful felt polished to a point of compromise, on this tape the rough edges that define Bronson’s early mixtape days are just barely smoothed out to create a more cohesive, easy-flowing listen.

The production draws from the familiar stable of collaborators to a much more compelling result: Harry Fraud, Alchemist, Knxwledge, and (on a few tracks) Party Supplies work seamlessly together to create a smooth bluesy/funk sound that is heavy on soft keys and bass, woozy electric guitars, and hard-hitting piano lines (the riff on “TANK” actually makes me wonder if Action would  sound at home on Mike Will Made It’s “Humble” instrumental.) The samples are here as well, though they are much more produced and not as outrageous as the previous entries in the series (not surprising: clearing a song like “Tequila” is a nightmare for a major label that has to worry about actually selling albums.) Songs float between a chill, dream-like tempo and more fast-paced, boom-bap beats, but most (excluding the dance-ready radio-friendly “Let Me Breathe,” out of place but not unappreciated) stick to a similar aesthetic: the don’t-give-a-fuck attitude of the first two Blue Chips tapes tweaked slightly into more traditional song structures without losing any of its charm.

The features are few but well-placed. Family has always been very important to Bronson, and he continues to feature his “brothers” Big Body Bes and Meyhem Lauren to great effect. Lauren has always been incredibly talented on the mic, with an intense, booming delivery and a gift for dense rhyme schemes that allow him to renegade the (sadly few) tracks he’s featured on. His verse on “Hot Pepper” from this album is full of quotables: “Suicidal doors, bipolar necklaces/ Army suit matchin’ this coupe ’cause we perfectionists…” “Take a look at my life, ’cause I’m historical/You the type to compliment a Rolly at the urinal/I’m the type to look up continents and then explore a few.” Big Body Bes is on more tracks than Lauren on this thing, but as anyone who’s familiar with him knows they’re not really verses in the strictest sense of the word. I’m not quite sure what exactly Body does for a living, but he’s a blast to listen to when he just monologues at the end of a song; he may be the only person alive who’s more Action Bronson than Action Bronson himself. “I’m down to die!” he shouts on “TANK,” “You’re scared to live.” He’s even given a hook on the last track, “Durag vs. Headband,” in which he characteristically bellows: “When I die, make sure you spread my blood on a BMW.”

Other than these two there’s a fun, apparently off-the-cuff chorus from Jamaican singer Jah Tiger on “Hot Pepper,” which has nothing to do with the track (although it’d be a stretch to say that any of these songs have a thematic core) but holds together the verses by Bronson and Lauren pretty well. The one surprising star appearance is a Rick Ross verse on “9-24-7000,” the third in a series of similarly titled, downtempo freestyles which appeared on the last two Blue Chips tapes. Ross really hits this one out of the park: he brings out that knack for lyrical dexterity and intricate rhyme schemes that he showed off in “Devil in a New Dress” and Pusha T’s “Hold On.” It’s easy to forget that, when he wants to, Rick Ross can rap his ass off.

Which brings us to Bronson himself, who is, in my opinion, operating in peak form on this project. The attempts at thematic cohesion which held back parts of Mr. Wonderful have been abandoned here, as Bronson seems to have realized that he sounds his best when he’s not really saying anything at all. It’s a definitive improvement; nobody listens to Action Bronson hoping for the social commentary of Kendrick Lamar (or even of J. Cole) or the gritty diary-entries of Danny Brown; we just want to hear him rap about food and getting high and sound damn good while doing it. It’s not an example of style over substance, but rather that “substance” for Bronson really doesn’t have a lot of stakes attached to it. And it doesn’t need to; rap will always have room for hammy, talented clowns like Bronson. (Think Biz Markee, or perhaps an old-school ODB.)

Bronson has accepted that identity, it seems. It also seems that he has broken free from the restraints of trying to launch himself into the mainstream and is back to just rapping the way he wants to rap. “Motherfucker, this is big business,” he says on the short-but-sweet “Bonzai,” “My product bangin’ like a baked biscuit/ Daddy back with his long white Cadillac/Now it’s time to take a nappy-nap/I’m so chill, it’s like I’m in a circle playing hacky-sack/Embroidered dragon on the satin jacket, bastard.” These lines paint a bizarre and colorful picture, showcasing Bronson’s Raekwon-level attention to details that anyone else would consider trivial but are Bronson’s secret weapons. All over the album he demonstrates his talent at rhyme scheme, a talent that occasionally verges on Biggie levels of naturalistic brilliance. The best example of this comes early: “I shot dope before I wrote this/Sniffed coke and did aerobics by the ocean,” he effortlessly unspools on the opening track, “Wolfpack”. And you know what, I believe that he did.

All in all, this feels like Action Bronson hitting the restart button after the lukewarm reception received by Mr. Wonderful. He has accepted and embraced his artistic identity and is allowing himself to have fun once again, and the result is a far more listenable and cohesive project. I’m not sure if this release means that he’s ready to throw himself back into music 100% (I’d love to see him on tour, I hear he performs at Bruce Springsteen levels of energy) but regardless it’s nice to have another solid addition to the Bronson canon.

Digital Roundup, July

Electronic is a bit of a complicated genre for me. While it probably makes up over 50% of what I currently listen to, I”m still new to it and, I hate to admit, a lot of it still sounds very similar to me. It’s not that I don’t enjoy all the music; I really do, and I’m constantly finding new sounds and ideas that intrigue and fascinate me. But because of the lack of lyrics in a lot of EDM/IDM, as well as the lack of conventional song structure, a lot of nuance and artistry can go over my head on the first couple of listens.

So I’m going to try something a little different in this post. There have been a ton of really terrific electronic releases that I’ve been listening to lately, and I’m gonna do quick reflections here on a few of them. I want to stick mostly to new releases, but I am also constantly exploring the genre’s history so I’m going to throw in one classic as well. Perhaps this is a feature that I’ll do once a month.

“Patterns of Consciousness” — Caterina Barbieri

Funny that I should call this feature “Digital Roundup” when the first album I’m going to discuss makes heavy use of analog synthesizers. This is the second full length from Barbieri, an Italian composer whose music, according to her website, “explores themes of machine intelligence and object oriented perception in sound through approaching music practice as an integrative cognitive feedback between humans and technology.”

That may sound a bit heady, and so is the music. Barbieri works with a Buchla but does not make the same otherworldy walls of sound that Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith blew me away with on last year’s EARS (an album I’m sure I will talk about more in the future.) Nor does she create danceable melodies that give the listener something to latch onto and find comfort in. Instead, Barbieri allows her synthesizer to explore the full range of its tones. She lingers on deceptively minimalistic patterns, using repetition and slight variation to squeeze every possibility out of a single phrase.

What I love the most about this project are all the different voices that Barbieri finds in her Buchla. It shimmers and crackles abruptly in album opener and immediate highlight “This Causes Consciousness to Fracture.” It alternates between trudging and soaring in disc 1 closer “Intcaeb.” And on “Gravity That Binds,” the album’s last song and its longest, it thumps like a drum set and drones like a distorted guitar, building to a climax that is simultaneously grungey and sweeping. What Barbieri essentially has in her Buchla — and I think the best modular synth composers understand this — is an entire orchestra in a box.

With titles like “This Causes Consciousness to Fracture” and “Information Needed to Create an Entire Body,” there’s a temptation to call Barbieri’s music pretentious. And the songs on this project are certainly not easy to digest. They are the definition of Intelligent Dance Music, I think: not tracks to get lost in on the dance floor, but rather to listen to actively and studiously. If you give them a chance, however, you’ll find her vision — while certainly not for everyone — is definitely not lacking in substance. For those listeners willing to approach an electronic album with patience, this may prove to be one of the year’s most rewarding releases so far.

“Pariah” — Jana Rush

Let’s switch gears up a little bit. Here’s a project that definitively puts the Dance in EDM, while still taking its chosen genre in interesting directions. Jana Rush got her start in Chicago in the late 90s, an incredibly exciting time and place to be working in dance music. She has spent a lot of time working and learning in this scene but has also had to put her musical career on hold for a long time due to the complications of life: from 2000 to 2013, her output was completely silent. Pariah is the first full-length release under her own name, and to me, it feels like the work of someone who has been waiting to show the world just how much is going on inside her head.

There are a variety of styles on this project. The immediate label to slap onto it is Footwork, particularly the more experimental style that Jlin showed us on Black Origami (an album I’ve discussed on here before.) But sheerly based on how long Rush has been on the scene it is inevitable that a patchwork of influences would appear on this album. Some songs are beat-driven, cheerful and danceable; some are slower, IDM-inspired pieces. Early standout “Beat Maze” contains elements of minimal techno, but also seems to feature every kind of percussive sound Rush could possibly make, from hollow, rapid-fire jungle drums to what sounds like someone pounding on a metal wall. “??? ??” and “Old Skool” both make heavy use of samples, with the former chopping up an eerie horn line and the latter resurrecting an old soul sample and drilling it into our ears like an early Kanye beat in its elemental form.

There are some songs that sound like a more traditional Chicago dance track, but at no point does Rush compromise on her vision. Her most interesting experimental impulses are never far off, but nor is her ability to create a fun four-on-the-floor beat. I compared this album to Black Origami a paragraph up, but there are I think some very important differences. Where Jlin’s (admittedly fascinating) debut feels occasionally cold and calculated, Rush manages to explore the same terrain through a more mature, and ultimately more effective, sound.

I’m aware that comparing two artists with such different experience levels isn’t totally fair. Rush’s experience gives her a wider sonic palette to select from, which I think allows her to practice restraint. Nevertheless, dance is a big world and I think that there is space for both Jlin and Rush’s voices in my music library. I’m eager to hear what both of them do going forward. And who knows, maybe a collaboration is even in the cards.

“Endtroducing…..” — DJ Shadow

Alright, here’s where I get a little basic. This is a ridiculously important and celebrated album from one of the most influential producers of the 90s. This thing pretty much invented instrumental hip-hop, I’m given to understand. And yet I hadn’t heard it at all before a week ago. As far as I knew, DJ Shadow was just the guy who did that really dope Run The Jewels song with the United Nations video. When I found out that so much of the music I love kind of started with this album, I felt very ignorant but I also wasted no time in listening to the damn thing.

It may seem like I’m easily blown away — I have a habit of only talking about music that I enjoy here — but I haven’t heard an album that sounds like this in a long time. It’s both deeply familiar and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before; a perfect marriage of IDM and hip-hop. In fact, after listening to this album, a lot of the IDM and plunderphonics music that I’ve been digging lately (in particular Boards of Canada and The Avalanches) sounds, frankly, amateurish. DJ Shadow doesn’t just change the way we think about sampling on this album. He shows us an entirely new way of making music, while simultaneously elevating that style to its peak. In the same record he invents a genre (acknowledging, of course, that he owes everything to his progenitors in New York) and also perfects that genre. It’s like what Shaun of the Dead did for the zombie comedy, or what Ziggy Stardust did for glam rock.

There’s so much going on in this record. There’s jazzy, explosive bouts of drumming, dreamy instrumental and vocal riffs that seem to float in from space, stinging guitars straight out of a punk record… sometimes all on the same track! It’s tough to pick out favorites, but the longest song on the album, “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain” is a definite standout. It feels less like a single song and more like a scrapbook of every idea DJ Shadow has ever had, all thrown together without being overwhelming. All of the elements come together in a riotous, joyous climax, before clearing out and making space for the second half of the song to take us home with a rising storm of boom-bap, mutter guitar, and fairy-tale strings. This track, and most of the songs on this album, wouldn’t feel out of place in a concert hall.

Based on the fact that both are masterpieces from forward-thinking, industry-shaping producers in their prime, the most direct comparison I would make for this record would be J-Dilla’s Donuts. That’s an album I could write a whole other article on — it’s one of my all-time favorites. Both albums defy what hip-hop can be; there is no rapping on either project, and the voice of the producer comes through on them more so than on probably any other hip-hop album ever made sheerly through the strength of the samples. There are differences, of course, because these are different artists. Whereas Donuts is an album about ideas, Endtroducing is more about rhythm. Dilla will latch onto a sample, show us all the fun things he can do with it, and then drop it once we’ve gotten comfortable. DJ Shadow, on the other hand, is a little more patient. He nurtures his beats over time. He’s not afraid to repeat, to reward patient listeners by helping them really get to know a pattern. I’m not endorsing either pattern, but Donuts is a record I listen to when I want to get knocked off balance every two seconds. Endtroducing is one that I can play in the background, listening actively but also losing myself in its grooves.

Whew. This is probably the longest post I’ve made on here. I’ll try to keep future “Digital Roundups” a bit briefer, but as you can see I had a lot of thoughts on these albums, and writing about them like this is a good way to organize my thoughts a little. What have you been listening to lately (in the electronic genre) that you’d like to spend more time with? Any recommendations? Thanks for reading, and until next time, happy listening.

Some thoughts on the new Tyler, The Creator album.

I’ve been pretty blindsided the last month or so with the quality of music coming out. It was starting to feel to me that 2017, despite a few high profile releases (looking at you, Damn) was pretty underwhelming compared to last year’s remarkable output. June and July, however, have started off the second half of the year very strong. New albums from Jay-Z, Lorde, Thugger, 2 Chainz, Tyler The Creator and more have consistently blown me away. I am very optimistic for the rest of the year, but even if these months prove to be the year’s peak I wouldn’t be upset about that.

I want to talk a little bit about (Scum Fuck) Flower Boy, the new Tyler album. I didn’t get super into the singles released before this album came out, but once I saw the cover art for some reason I immediately started to form very specific expectations. I wanted an album that sounded like that art looked — summery and glittery and sincere — but filtered through Tyler’s chillingly comedic sensibilities. I’ve never fallen in love with a Tyler album before, but I’ve always been a big fan of what he stands for: encouraging people (and especially kids) to be themselves in all their weirdness. He is also a remarkably talented producer — I’ve always been a bigger fan of his instrumentals than his lyrics. So Friday at midnight, when I popped the album on, I had reasonably high expectations.

As strange as it seems, the album pretty much sounds exactly how I wanted it to. The production is sunshiney and melodic, (some critics are calling it Disney-ish) with some terrific earworms, especially in the hooks. “I rock, I roll, I bloom, I grow” he chants on “Where This Flower Blooms;” “20-20-20-20 vision” he croon/stutters on “See You Again.” Almost every song has something musically that stuck in my mind on the first listen. He also hasn’t said goodbye completely to the harsh, horror-core sounds that he used to excel at — “Who Dat Boy” and “I Ain’t Got Time!” are both as hard-hitting as anything being released today. The sound that prevails on the record, however, creates a sun-drenched, day-dreamy atmosphere that shows how talented a musician Tyler really is. The features he uses also display this perfectly, I think; not a one of them feels out of place, and a few (Frank Ocean obviously, Jaden fucking Smith) feel absolutely perfect

That’s the instrumentals, but it’s the lyrics on this album that are really catching critics’ attention right now. Obviously, a lot of people are focusing on the (possible) revelations about Tyler’s sexuality on the album; and while I can understand how encouraging it is for LGBT rap fans to finally be recognized by an artist of Tyler’s stature, I also think that this record doesn’t hold any clear answers. But it doesn’t have to. Regardless of whether he comes out on Flower Boy, Tyler is vulnerable on the album in a way that is brave and refreshing. Lines like “You don’t have to hide/I can smell it in your eyes” off of “Garden Shed” and “I’m the loneliest man alive/But I keep on dancing to throw ’em off/I’m gon’ run out of moves ’cause I can’t groove to the blues” from “911/Mr. Lonely”… In my mind, these lines show Tyler as insecure and depressed,  just barely learning how to address his fears and be honest with his emotions.

That’s something a lot of us can relate to, but not something that is easy to talk about — especially in a genre where misogyny, homophobia, and toxic masculinity are so often the norm. Now, this is obviously a bit of a complicated statement considering Tyler’s own lyrical history. Rape, homophobic slurs, and shockingly violent misogyny have always been a huge part of his oeuvre, and we shouldn’t ignore that. Flower Boy never feels like an apology for this rough history, but parts of it — in particular the lines “Everyone is a sheep, me, a lone wolf/Nobody gon’ make a peep ’cause everyone wants some wool/Since everyone is a sheep, not everyone here is cool/Man I’d rather drown in a pool by myself than fuck with their fleece” off of “Pothole” — do make me think that Tyler is starting to mature, and to look back on his angsty, edgy past with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

I can’t deny that I had a very intense emotional reaction to this record. The instrumentals, clever and emotional lyrics, and even some of the transitions (before “See You Again” and “Glitter” in particular) felt like a raw expression of love and heartbreak that I haven’t seen since “Channel Orange.” It feels like an apt comparison to make; Frank Ocean is all over this project, and this more than anything previously released makes me realize how much the Odd Future chemistry makes sense. From a first glance it seems like two artists like Tyler and Frank couldn’t be more different — the edgelord and the poet — but Flower Boy has shown me that, as both have grown as artists, they have arrived at similar places. They’re two of the most relentlessly creative artists working today, and I for one can not wait to see what they have next.

There Should Be a Documentary About The Soulquarians

They should totally do an HBO Miniseries, whether narrative or documentary, about the group of neo-soul/hip-hop artists working together from the late 90s to early 2000s who called themselves (kind of) The Soulquarians. I’m talking about Jay Dilla, Q-Tip, Bilal, D’Angelo, The Roots, Erykah Badu, Common… They weren’t exactly a true collective or a group, but they all worked together at Electric Lady, the “house that Jimi Hendrix built” and they all contributed to some of the most interesting, forward-thinking albums of the time. I was listening to them earlier myself, which got me thinking about this. (There is, I promise you, no better music for a lazy Sunday morning.)

The sound is distinctive and irresistible; a mix of mid-era Dilla (heavy focus on keyboards and hi-hat and chopped up samples), the live jam-R&B of D’Angelo, and the cerebral, soulful vocals of Common, Erykah, and Black Thought. Smooth is the most basic word I would use to describe it, but I don’t want to imply laziness: every song on these records (which include Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and D’Angelo’s Voodoo among other classics) was a labor of love and collaboration; a truly joint effort between a group of imaginative weirdoes who loved the culture and wanted to push it into the future. For me, the music these people made feels like the natural successor to Hendrix, to George Clinton, to Stevie Wonder. I was reading a terrific oral history of the collective earlier, and the kind of psychedelic, freeing environment created by all of them working together just sounds like a dream. I’ll put a link at the bottom.

Sadly, such an incredible collaborative group was destined not to last: pretty much all of those artists went their separate ways, all of them continuing to shape the culture in their own ways. I wonder what Common, Questlove, D’Angelo and Erykah think of the music coming out today? The late 90s neo-soul sound that they created and perfected has certainly not become mainstream, but it definitely survives. Just look at the fearless experimentation and jazz/funk/soul influences on To Pimp A Butterfly, or the boundary-pushing R&B of Frank Ocean. Reading them all talk about the collaborative environment also really makes me think of some of the artists working in Chicago the last few years. Not only are they geographically linked, but some of the interviews I’ve read (in particular a truly wonderful oral history of Noname’s Telefone, my all-time favorite new school Chicago project) also remind me of the collaborative ethos. It remains to be seen how big this Chicago scene is going to become, but I think it’s nice that there are still young artists pushing the culture in a similar way to The Soulquarians. Badu herself even graced Donnie Trumpet’s Surf with an amazing feature. Now there’s an album I could write a longer piece about. Maybe I will someday.

Soulquarians Oral History

Telefone Oral History

Rememory, the Surf track with Erykah Badu.

 

New Jay-Z Album, Aging in Hip-Hop

Even before I heard that 4:44 was coming (and we really didn’t get much advanced notice at all, did we) I sort of had this platonic ideal in my head of what a new Jay-Z album would sound like. Jay-Z is really the only figure from the 90s East Coast Renaissance (my favorite era of hip-hop, btw) to still enjoy superstar status, and a big part of that is (obviously) his music, but I also think a big part of it is his ability to think more about the bigger picture. Look at how he rode trends with Reasonable Doubt, and then bucked them and brought rap in a new direction with The Blueprint. Look at how he saw something in Kanye and managed to tie himself to the most important pop star in the world today. Look at how he turned a rap career into a lifestyle brand into an empire. The dude is a straight-up business genius is what I’m saying, and I sort of expected the album to reflect that.

Magna Carta Holy Grail came and went, and most people were pretty okay with it, but to me it didn’t feel like the kind of album Jay-Z should be making at this stage in his career. The dude won hip-hop; he’s a living legend, married to another living legend, best friends with a whole fucking crew of living legends. I wanted to see an album that’s a king surveying his domain. I’m talking towering, orchestral sounds that could fill a stadium. Massive synth horns that would put “Blood on the Leaves” to shame. A duet with Kanye where they just rap circles around the entire game. A reminder to us that he’s still the greatest alive, and that he may very well be one of the top four or five greatest ever. A modest expectation, I know.

Did I want features on the album? You know I wanted features on the album. I wanted Jay-Z to contact all of the greatest artists in the game today to make a fucking super-album. Production by Metro and Mike-Will alongside veterans like Kanye and Just Blaze… hooks sung by Frank Ocean, Anderson Paak, and Kehlani… a Chance The Rapper feature, a Migos feature… I wanted Jay-Z to show us what 2017 sounds like through his lens. And I was hyped as shit for that project, a project which will now only ever exist in my wildest dreams.

Because what we got was something different, something I didn’t expect but honestly might be even happier with. We got a raw, intensely personal record from an artist who’s been in the game so long he doesn’t have to make music for anyone but himself. We got vintage Jay-Z flows and vintage Jay-Z rhymes over sparse, sample-driven beats from Mr. Motherfucking No-ID himself. I’ve been really enjoying some of the producer/rapper collabs that have been happening the last few years (PRhyme, Savage Mode, etc.) but this one might blow them all out of the water. The reason I love the beats here is the same reason I love the album so much. It’s authentic, it’s unapologetic, it’s nothing more or less than one of the best people to ever dabble in this genre letting himself make the music he wants to make.

Thinkpieces and articles galore are being written about the lyrical content on this thing. How it’s a response to Lemonade, how it deals with themes like family and race and wealth inequality. Those are some weighty topics, and I certainly think about them a lot when I’m listening to this record, but I would need to spend a lot more time with it to say anything original. What I can say is that I haven’t heard Jay-Z sound this fresh, or rap this hard, in a long time. I had kind of formed the opinion that he’d fallen off — not that he’d gotten soft, per se, but more like he had become the grumpy old man of the rap world. And shit, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Songs like “Marcy Me,” “Bam,” and “Smile” are as catchy, lyrically impressive, and memorable as anything he’s ever released. He’ll make a joke about skipping Leg Day in one line, then reference his drug-dealing past in the next… He’ll make entire songs about his mother’s struggles hiding her homosexuality, about how shitty he feels about the mistakes he’s made, about the importance of investing in property in order to pass on wealth to his kids… Frankly, I’m speechless. I can tell that this is an album I will be able to spend a lot of time with in the next few weeks.

Having Jay shatter my expectations like that got met thinking, in a more general way, about aging in rap. Aging gracefully in any genre of music is tough, but it seems particularly tough in hip-hop. A big part of that is that the genre is a young man’s game; Danny Brown made a record at age 30 about how he already felt like an old timer. It seems pretty unfair to me (and maybe a little telling) that all these burned out white dad rock bands from the 70s can keep touring until they die on stage, but people like Lil Wayne and Big Boi have to constantly struggle to stay relevant or else risk being swallowed up and left behind. A big part of it is that so many new sounds are emerging all the time, and every time someone truly innovative breaks through a million imitators beat the sound to death.

There have been a few records that I think have really dealt with this aging question head-on in a very successful way. One is Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2, Raekwon’s sequel to his ’95 classic and (in my mind) a classic in its own right. It came out at a time when rap was kinda struggling to find an identity and decide how commercial it wanted to be, but Rae refused to follow any trends. He teamed up with some of the best producers alive (Pete Rock, The RZA of course, Dr. Dre, motherfucking J-Dilla) and wrote (along with Ghost and other members of his Wu brethren) some of the hardest bars of his career, but never sounded like he was trying to deny that he’d gotten older. Rae was hungry in the ’90s and he’s hungry today. That never changed, and he let us all know that. He was an artist above all. That shit smacked of integrity.

Another album that I think was just as — and probably more — successful at dealing with the question of aging in hip-hop was last year’s rap album of the year (for me,) Thank You 4 Your Service, We Got it From Here by the immortal, incredible Tribe Called Quest. That album had a lot going for it and a lot riding on it. It was the first Tribe album in 18 years. It was dropping in 2016, one of the best years for music in recent memory. And foremost on everyone’s minds, Phife Dawg (the best to rock 5 foot 3) had tragically and before his time passed away earlier in the year.

Nobody knew quite what to expect from a new Tribe record, especially considering how they had broken up on such rocky terms. Would it sound like vintage Tribe, or would they adapt their sound to modern sensibilities? Would it have features on it? Would it be any good?

The answer, of course, is that Thank You 4 Your Service blew every expectation straight out of the fucking water. The beats harkened back to the game-changing, Jazzy, abstract sound that Q-Tip and co. had blessed us with way back on The Low End Theory (the greatest alternative hip-hop album of all time, in my opinion) while still managing to sound like the future. Like Q-Tip was a funky, nerdy astronaut who parked his spaceship in our galaxy just for a few years to let us know what Mars sounds like. And the rhymes, shit the RHYMES. I won’t dwell on it too long because this is still technically a review of 4:44, but Q-Tips verse on “Black Spasmodic” is probably one of the ten or so greatest verses ever written.

The album dealt unflinchingly with aging. Phife’s death was all over the album, though it always sounded like a celebration and never a dirge. Q-Tip greeted the new guard of hip-hop with features from the likes of Kendrick and Anderson Paak, while also reminding us of how game-changing, exciting, and just plain great the old stuff was. There’s an interview that Q-Tip did with Noisey which I think makes all this very clear; it’s also one of the coolest interviews I’ve ever read, and really shows just how much of a genius Q-Tip is. I’ll put a link at the bottom.

There have been even more albums released this year that deal with the subject of aging. Both Gucci Mane and 2 Chainz have witnessed in the last several years their particular brand of southern rap become the mainstream; Pretty Girls Like Trap Music by 2 Chainz and, to a lesser extent, the two mixtapes that Gucci has dropped since he got out of prison, show how they plan to position themselves in the years to come: not as young men anymore, but as veterans of the game who can’t be touched when it comes to making hits. Snoop Dogg’s surprisingly great new album, Neva Left, shows him taking a similar role; the song “Mount Kushmore,” with Method Man, Red Man, and B-Real on it, is a ridiculously fun lineup of stoner rap royalty that refuses to grow up even as they settle comfortably into middle age.

I think we’re going to see a lot more records like that in the coming years, as rappers from the 90s and early 2000s grapple with a culture that moves too fast to stay on top. Some artists will struggle to find their place in the constantly shifting environment and may feel (perhaps rightfully) that fans are fickle and unfair. Others, like Jay-Z and Q-Tip, will continue to make fearless personal statements. They will let the art speak for itself and, hopefully, audiences will listen.

Q-Tip Interview: https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/z498wy/a-tribe-called-quests-generation-is-now-and-forever-a-conversation-with-q-tip

Mount Kushmore (just for laughs): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3d2Sb7BNhh4

 

An Apology/Shabazz Palaces

Hey, y’all. First, an apology: my review of the Clams Casino tape yesterday was pretty half-assed, seeing as I didn’t find out until after I finished the last song that I was only listening to a sampler of the full project. Right after posting I found the full project on DatPiff and downloaded it. I’ll put a link at the bottom.

I also have to apologize because, in my ignorance, I did not realize two things. 1) several of the tracks on the tape were actually instrumentals that had previously been used, with MCs rapping over them, and 2) Clams Casino is a super important producer who I really didn’t do justice to. I did some digging and it turns out he was really a pioneer in the “Cloud Rap” trend in the early 2010s, which was actually a very formative phase for me musically. So props to you, Clams, you are a defining figure of the culture and still making music.

In light of my ignorance, I decided to relisten to one of the beats I listened to yesterday that had previously been rapped over. “Worth It” actually featured Danny Brown in a previous Clams project. Upon relistening, that actually makes a lot of sense to me. The beat is hiccupy and tense and sinister… exactly Danny’s forte (I’ve always thought Danny Brown — one of the most unique rappers in modern music — was also an expert at picking instrumentals that pair perfectly with his deranged, pained persona.)

As I expected, Danny sounds right at home on this beat. He raps in his signature squawk (a little less reserved than he is on Old and parts of Atrocity Exhibition… more of “that old Danny Brown.”) The song was part of an Adult Swim singles series, which makes a lot of sense to me. Weird rappers/producers and psychedelic cartoons go well together. Damn, this hook is fantastic. “Is it really worth it?” he asks himself, referring I guess to his fame and depravity. That seems to be a very consistent theme of his work. Solid track.

Just a few other thoughts that ran through my head today. I was listening to some Shabazz Palaces earlier; they’re dropping TWO new albums soon, and since I had never really gotten into their work before (but absolutely love Digable Planets, a psychedelic 90s hip hop group where Ishmael Butler — frontman of Shabazz — got his start) I figured they would be worth checking out. I listened to their first full-length, Black Up, on my commute home.

Holy SHIT was that an undertaking. I know a project is going to stick with me a long time when there are parts of it that leave me scratching my head, but still eager to listen to more. The beats feel like something Sun Ra or Drexciya would have cooked up if they were friends with Q-Tip… real outer-space stuff, honestly the cutting edge of rap right now. It’s noisy and jazzy and meandering at times, but can also be very focused: hard-hitting drum and bass are never too far away.

And Butler’s rapping, which is pretty instantly recognizable if you’ve listened to even a little Digable Planets,  is just as interesting as the instrumentals. Part of it is his writing (just on the right side of abstract to be intriguing rather than pretentious) and part of it is his relentless, syrupy flow. In the context of a lesser project it could become repetitive. But here it works absolutely perfectly, never getting tiresome, revealing new layers the more you listen.

I was so engrossed with the music that I didn’t even absorb most of what Butler was saying, so I will definitely be returning to this project a lot in the next couple weeks. It’s a little early to highlight a standout track, so I just picked a random one to relisten to.

“Recollections of the Wraith” starts with a  hollow, glitchy drum providing the barest of beats for Butler to do some of his clearest, least distorted rapping on the album. The drum doesn’t get much more complicated but is joined by a twirling piano line and a female vocal sample on the chorus. (“Clear some space out/so we can space out.”) Butler’s rapping is mysterious but also playful and imaginative; at around 2:30 I’m pretty sure he’s describing himself floating through space/the sky, talking to birds. It’s probably one of the most straightforward songs on the project, but it still manages to sound like nothing else out there right now.

What I really love about this project, even though it’s a few years old, is how it sounds simultaneously forward-thinking and timeless. So many of the more cerebral rap fans these days tend to focus on lyricism above all else, but it’s the way that Butler pursues innovative song structures, and displays the courage to refuse to sound conventional, that really excites me. I am eagerly anticipating the new albums, which I think come out this month. Perhaps I’ll review them here.

The Clams Casino/Danny track

The Shabazz