Friday, December 23, 2016

J-Live's heart will go on 'At the Date of this Writing' and forevermore

At The Date Of This Writing (Vol. 1) by J-Live
An educator for eternity, J-Live may not be a teacher in the classroom anymore, but as long as he keeps rapping, he’ll always be a teacher on tape so to speak. For years prior but especially at the dawn of the new millennium all the way to the present, the Brooklyn emcee and producer has been one of hip-hop’s strongest truth-speakers, rapping about the true nature of life over vibrantly pulsing beats of the most authentic East Coast persuasion. Over the last three years, he’s been much more active in the music than some might’ve caught wind of through typical news sources, with caring albums like Around The SunHis Own Self and How Much is Water? To help close out what has been an amazing year for hip-hop, J-Live reemerges this month with the self-released At The Date of This Writing Vol. 1 (Dec 12).
J begins his no-nonsense album by filling the intro “One Two One Two” with mic checks, tight rhymes and of course, heavenly boom-bap, that burst forth through the speakers and pierce the soul. This is not one of those projects that portions all its good parts to one section at the end or anything like that. Everything is irresistible and the first half features arguably the EP’s most profound moments, and the proof is in tracks two and three. In “Eleven Nine,” J-Live describes the cold world in the first world in an age of “moral decay” and “fear and ignorance” where “America been steady losing its f*cking mind.” J-Live accurately states, “you watch the idiot box the livelong day, getting railroaded, ram-rodded, f*cked, hoodwinked and run amuck / led astray so false media can make a buck / pedaling false idols made by false prophets / your real money pads pockets as they send profits everywhere but where the dollars need to circulate.” Honesty just doesn’t get any more brutal than that.
In “Running Scared,” J-Live extends more power to the people with charismatically enlightening passages like “for years we’ve been putting it on wax / my people been sick and that’s facts / the woke know who made the virus, while they steady telling us to relax / the vaccine is here on these tracks / but we gotta do better than just slack / the reward is way more than just racks / with understanding we bring the love back.” In “The Poor Part,” which is impressively one long verse with no breaks, J provides extensive commentary on being a so-called starving artist but also remarks on keeping at it because it’s something positive and constructive for the world-community. For him it’s about owning his masters and “mastering ownership.”
J just keeps coming with great substance, adages and observations in “Old Man Game” where he speaks on generational wealth and growing more seasoned with the music over time, starlit as well in the chorus, where J quotes Nas’s famous dance-move shoutout from “Made You Look.” We then come to “So Close,” where natural beauty is truly found. J-Live revels in the absolute joy and sheer bliss of a real attraction and a real love that is not forced or awkward in the least bit. In “I Tell Myself (Keep Paddling),” because this album has fine executive-direction overall, the focus is on persistence and perseverance, very appropriate for a final track. The door has just been left wide open for volume number two. At The Date of This Writingis proof that you don’t need a big studio budget, flashy sounds, mainstream themes or even guests to make great hip-hop music and J-Live is a mirror image of the quality artist he’s been since the beginning. The general skeleton of ADW1 may not be cutting edge, but J-Live makes the basics sound beautiful once again here.
4 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 16, 2016

Little Simz remains an independent artist, defies expectations in 'Stillness in Wonderland'

Stillness in Wonderland by Little Simz
This year has been a great landmark one for the wonderful women of hip-hop. We continue to be treated by the fabulous offerings from 3D Na’Tee, Lady Paradox, Sammus and Kate Tempest and now, emcee Little Simz from London adds her piece to the mosaic with Stillness in Wonderland, her second LP following A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons (2015). Like her last, this quality, out-of-the-blue album comes via Simz’ Age 101 label, and the growth shown by her and her team herein is commendable, from the more varied, more enchanting score than Simbi’s previous tracks to her improved all-around emceeing.
One significant way in which Stillness in Wonderland resembles the Alice fairytale is by way of the “Cheshire Interludes” moving Simz and her guests along. After the first, she sets the table with wisdom straight out the gate in “Doorways + Trust Issues” admitting, “everybody’s gotta talk ‘stead of showing love, they take something real small then they blow it up, [I] can’t take the fake sh*t these days, everybody wanna fake sh*t these days, while you’re being wasteful in a time of need I be out here trying to save sh*t these days.”
Slow easygoing rock moves us to “Shotgun” (with Syd from The Internet) where Simbi shows us how firm of a rock she is. She is aspiring in life so she has no time for nor is she looking for so-so flings. This is where Simz gets tough. She’s woeful of the ongoing battles of everyday living over enlivened strings and jazzy, kazoo-y oboe bursts in “Picture Perfect,” lamenting that “you can only eat if you’re hunting or you’re willing to kill, mercy is never shown and damnit it’s all I’ve known, remember to pay your debts, this sh*t is some game of thrones.” The hard-shelled tendencies persist into “King of Hearts” featuring grounded spitters Chip and Ghetts, and of course “Bad to the Bone” (ft. Bibi Bourelly) is somewhat hardcore too.
The rest is tenderized but still plenty to chew on nevertheless. Simz, Tilla, Josh ArcĂ© and Chuck20 wander through and explore their vast perspectives like the lands they’ve seen and/or imagined in “Zone 3” to quiet tambourines, crying guitar and sweet flutes. “Poison Ivy”’s relationship-reflections have Simz saying “don’t push me now, don’t let me down” next to Tilla softly crying out “show me love, show me now” all to squelching electric guitar and rhythmic clomping steps. She’s not vague but some of Simz’ lines can be interpreted multiple ways, like this one from “Low Tides”: “women are trying to get the diamond ring from a man, there’s a bigger plan, so figure it out while you can.” Is this a knock on materialism, or on the institution of marriage, both, or something else? Other ones are more straightforward, like “though the truth hurts I’ll be okay, being ruthless that ain’t no way.”
Many times, like in the outro “No More Wonderland,” Simbi is simply down but not out, pulled in different directions but committed to finding the right one for her. She can always be counted on to offer appealing, thought-provoking messages however. We’re truly witnessing a nice step up for the young but rapidly developing emcee since last year with this sophomore.
Progressive and evolved in her rapping methods for sure, Little Simz doesn’t always stick to the rigid sixteen bar structure of classic rap, but her verses always have the most fundamental qualities of good authentic hip-hop lyricism, and the music beats this time around are more textured than those on Curious TaleStillness is missing some in-depth storytelling and issues and current event subjects but still, Simz has successfully delivered a lessons-hearty project that no doubt matches the best rap albums of the month so far. Are we experiencing the beginnings of hip-hop’s own British invasion at the moment? Maybe, but Simz is not about to play up to any such speculations or expectations. She’s perfectly content going at her own rate on her own terms. (Stream Stillness in Wonderland on BandcampSpotify and Youtube.)
4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, November 24, 2016

K-Rino – “The Big Seven” (Album Review)

One of the best, most consciously progressive hip-hop lyricists of all time, Houston’s South Park Coalition founder K-Rino (pronounced Kay Reno) has accomplished, in less than a year, the huge world-record feat of writing and recording seven new studio albums, which he dropped on iTunes on November 15. K began the monumental effort in December of 2015, writing up until September of this year and recording from then until the end of October. Needless to say, his studio associates worked above and beyond with him, and despite the large amount of work there is in these projects, there is no lack of quality or useful content in store. Active in hip-hop music since the 1980s, in the album-making business since the early ’90s, K-Rino broke out on the scene strong with Stories From The Black Book (1993), his debut, and remained on external labels until 2004, when he issued The Hitt List and the vastly different Fear No Evil off his own Black Book International outfit. The cleverness, awareness and enlightment of Fear No Evil made for a great liberating change for the Southern artist and fortunately, he never looked back. The legacy K has built since is comparable to few. Of all his thirty some wonderful albums, Fear No Evil as mentioned before but also Worst Rapper AliveTime TravelerBook Number 7 and 80 Minute Eternity are arguably his best, but now we have seven more to join the list. K-Rino saw the changing rap landscape and put his best foot forward to represent and support real hip-hop.
Universal Curriculum (album one):
In the first of The Big Seven, K-Rino just gets warmed up but makes a solid kickoff nevertheless with his Universal Curriculum. K’s ripping, tearing rhyme-bars take a brief breather in this one (save for “Extreme Malice” and “Raising The Bars”) so he can speak more casually, but with poetic heft still, on the start and growth of his SPC clique, things you can only witness in the hood, love, depression, dysfunctional families versus good family-oriented folks in the hood but also working hard to get to a better place and live healthier. In contrast and possibly in response to his prior albums’ beats, which were a focus of concern for some fans, for their seemingly and consistently basic nature, the productions we hear in U.C. are nicely varied, compatible with the lyrical themes, and finely mastered, setting the tone well for those on the remaining six LPs.
Conception of Concept (album two):
With fiercer, stronger lyricism than album one, Conception of Concept definitely brings more fire and more turbulent subject matter but still much love and heart. K raps on sensitivity, hurt egos and feelings, economic inequality and oppression in America, skills and loyalty to the craft of emceeing, shaping up lazy slipshod slackers, what some groupies really want (he describes a platonic encounter with one in “One Nite Stand”) and wack rapper mockery at the very end when K brings back his T-Rash, aka Trash, character in the ending song of the same name. Also, the son of K-Rino’s wicked Sorcerer character arrives to stage an attack on him in this set, and the story continues in later chapters of The Seven. Before going any further, a sneak preview from the very eye-opening “Listen Up” is in order. K-Rino raps, “systemic poverty, economics holding us hostage, the rich controlling and watching while they choke us for profit” in the first verse, asks “how can you wake up when you don’t even know that ya asleep?” and then adds “let’s make America great again, a coded phrase by racist hateful men who blame the poor citizens for the state it’s in.” This is with very little doubt the best album of the series.
Enter The Iron Trap (album three):
The deeper we get into this powerful package, the stronger the topics become. K-Rino gradually introduces us to the revolution, and this ease is appreciated. Just make sure you’re seated tightly for K’s treatment of police brutality, black on black violence, top emcees, how they’re ranked and all the variables that determine how they’re received by people, plus hate vs. heart, more of America’s signature problems, Elijah Muhammad’s life and legacy, and the special yet specious privileges given to monkey rappers by big time record execs in the industry. Proceed to the fourth entry for more of these awesome, bluntly honest, sociopolitical talking-points.
Wizard’s Ransom (album four):
In Wizard’s Ransom, the child who “saved” K-Rino from the Sorcerer’s son in album two reveals that he is not really who he pretended to be initially, but before that he “prepares” K and the rest of the squad to fight the dark forces looming. The tale takes a break from there and K brings out more great constructive lessons, teachings and truths. Though childless, K imparts how he would raise a child if he had one, and he remarks on priority-setting later in. On the shocking side, K lets us in on the USA’s wars on the poor, blacks, other nations and its part in creating ISIS. Wholesomely, K shows concern for our daughter’s values, etiquette and sense of worth in “Game For Your Daughter.” “Best Friend” also looks out for the ladies (and guys) because K’s bestie is one, they help each other out and there’s a healthy exchange of ideas and thoughts in their relationship. It’s obvious by now that these Seven are so deep that there is no going back.
American Heroes (album five):
K-Rino comes with hardness and reasoning again in album five, American Heroes. In the ongoing dispute between the police and the public, K doesn’t take sides and he does so by explaining that there are both good and bad cops out on the beat. To elaborate on the title, he exposes the fact that many of America’s propagated role models from history actually had very shady sides and are often not exactly the type of people we are taught they are. Within the mix he expresses ghetto woe but also shows hood-solidarity and hood-unity, and then he confronts the shady ones in society who abuse and take advantage of people. Right before the finale, K shares what it takes to make a better world and to close it up, he translates several common, biased media codewords and other lines along those lines in “Translation.”
Welcome To Life (album six):
K-Rino further builds in a forward, upward direction in Welcome To Life. Decimating sexism, K has something to say about the foul habits and philosophy of both men and women, criticizing domineering self-centered females and ignorant foolhardy males. He understands all the problems of life but he continues to set the bar high and remains strong when it’s at its hardest. His next major bullet-point here is the boring repetitiveness of mainstream street hop, and he even questions the freshness of his own music-making methods. This investigation is important because it encourages innovation and non-complacency in the rap-field. Then K-Rino’s focus goes to heaven and hell, or in other words, constructs of the human mind that are really just conditions of life here on earth. And again, without necessarily taking sides, K-Rino goes semi-conservative on abortion in “Abortion Song,” emphasizing its trickiness and dark side, and digressing, he embraces positivity and shuts down negativity and hypocrisy to close the final chapter of this particular album-book.
Intervention (album seven):
For the last of The Seven, K-Rino continues the Wizard’s journey but also puts a conclusion on it that will satisfy everyone. After “The Final Battle,” the next major achievement of this disc has to be “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.” The section devotes itself to examining how a man who is being cheated on feels and thinks, though it works pretty much just as well as a woman’s perspective too, but not exactly of course because obviously K-Rino is a guy, not a lady. K then discusses the problem with going out just for self and not for people in general, and in between and all around are standup raps on striving, inspiration, motivation, love, relationship struggles and immortality (“The Man Who Lived Forever”). The raw “Firing Squad” mega posse-cut is a lot of great SPC tradition as the fam ritualistically rip verses one by one by the outro.
All seven of these brilliant vibrant albums have the mark of a master on them from K-Rino’s excellent, legendary writing, delivery and storytelling, his wise mature mindset, and his freeness of thought. His metaphors and wordplay are amazingly clever as usual and his mid-tempo flow is clean, neat and flawless, whether he’s rapping on viciousness, the supernatural or human nature. For those not familiar with K-Rino or hard work for that matter, it will seem unbelievable that the highly thought-provoking emcee and his producers could do what they’ve done in less than twelve months, but believe it, because it’s real. K-Rino is and always has been super-ambitious and driven, and he knows hip-hop (which helps people) needs lots of help always, and it can’t wait. Show your support for K-Rino by purchasing The Big Seven on iTunes or email him at for information on how to get physical copies. You won’t regret the investment.
5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Bishop Lamont's 'Reformation' LP is a game changer for hip-hop and the world

The Reformation: G.D.N.I.A.F.T by Bishop Lamont
For over a decade now, rap-giant Bishop Lamont (Philip Martin from Carson, California) planned and deliberated in the wings of the game and the shadows of the underground, from experiencing a falling-in and then a falling-out with Dr. Dre label Aftermath Entertainment to sharing several powerful mixtapes with his fans and all the while generating a vast buzz with his craft. As time passed, hardcore hip-hop heads kept clamoring for more. In a year that has thus far seen many tremendous hip-hop projects, mostly independent and/or self-released, Bishop Lamont brings us another brilliant one, The Reformation: G.D.N.I.A.F.T (August 19), which some are claiming to be his official debut studio album, and despite his previous releases, it certainly feels and sounds like it is that AND the ultimate project of the man and emcee’s life at this point. And what better time than now to release it? The good bishop must have intentionally timed it out to drop the soberingly conscious gem in this particular global climate of economic turmoil and sociopolitical upheaval and malaise, and without a doubt, The Reformation does address the issues that trouble us plus the reforms we desperately need.
With nineteen tracks of enlightening hit after hit spanning one hour and twenty minutes, The Reformation is every bit the kind giant that Bishop Lamont himself is, but with a guest, sometimes several, in each song, it’s also a gathering, featuring a stunning group of lovely singers and strong emcees. On the bars-end, we’ve got seasoned spitters like the legend Lord Finesse, Xzibit, RBX, Warren G, Rapper Big Pooh, Ryu and Apathy doing their thing for a reason and to supply the sensuous melodics we have traditional song-vocalists like Empress Selassie, Sinead White and Shaun Morgan from post-grunge/alternative metal band Seether. Everyone is down for the cause, and they all connect and blend as they should. Of course the feature presentation is collectively all the good sociopolitical messages that Bishop Lamont doses out across the disc, not all at once or all the time but spread out to keep our attention. In the process, he builds a healthy comprehensive manifesto from top to bottom.
Bishop Lamont’s intro is in the form of an anti-texting-slash-calling while driving skit in which he is an actor and subsequently gets tangled up in the ensuing accident. It segues into the previewing “Then You Die.” Persistent and contemplative, Lamont has every reason to fight on. One of his first big drops comes in “The Heretic” when he says, “look at every motherf*cker in the world that’s rich, most of them got it off some cutthroat shit.” He and Ras Kass explain the backwards ways of the rap music industry these days in “The Realest Sh*t,” and in short, they’re basically telling us that too many people who claim to be real are actually really fake, and it’s true unfortunately, in every walk of life even. “Shoot Em Up” and “Crazy” do get tied up in some gangsterism, but it’s only relegated to those songs, and in them some other themes are touched upon too, namely self-defense and the occasional necessity to use force in order to combat force.
“Life or Death” comes to terms with, you guessed it, life and death but also heaven and hell on earth, generally saying you reap what you sow throughout, and in “Lord in Heaven,” Bishop Lamont uses several hood analogies to say that if you live dirty and don’t change, you’re going to meet a dirty end. The latter song is very karmic and it showcases some of Lamont’s good storytelling skills. “Razor Blade” provides some time to cool out and spark one, with veterans Warren G and Kokane. “Here We Go Again” is likewise another one of The Reformation’s more low-key, but still great, parts (peep the Pac homage), but “Are You Ready” is not. It’s amped with love and a great sense of community. The whole song is quotable, but you can hear it for yourself.
Bishop covers other general though still very useful topics further in, and his spirituality shows without him proselytizing thankfully. He handles feelings of disillusionment, faith, holding on, and killing the devil in all its forms. Aside from that, the proceeding final section is loaded with many gorgeous must-hear passages. Take this line by Lamont from “Dream Big”: “I can’t hate nations I’ve never been to… we’ve never met so how’m I gon’ beef with you… I can’t judge, I don’t know what you’ve been through, it might be different, could be the same, but all I know we got in common every human got pain.” Later, in “Speak to Me,” the theme is how the wrong direction taken by the game is negatively influencing the impressionable as in “men and women of the cloth not all ’em true, condemning you but they be secretly sinnin’ too, stop giving millions to these hypocrites, while they all ballin’ but the hood ain’t rich, yeah I know it’s business, you gotta get ya dough, but don’t forget to handle business and save some souls.” “Phoenix” however contains statements that are still more profound and prophetic: “Can the world withstand the ignorance of man, can the world withstand the greediness of man, can our world withstand the self-destructiveness of man?… too many conflicted predictions of political oppositions that are always on a mission, for selfish acquisition, for money, for power, more land, the water, what’s yours, what’s ours, the ground where you stand so much blood was spilt on, prisons need our freedom, that’s what the systems built on.”
Still, there might be nothing more rattling for you than the penultimate “Un-American,” where Bishop Lamont, Apathy (Demigodz, Army of the Pharaohs) and Ryu (Styles of Beyond) lambaste the for-profit, anti-humanity United States of America. What’s most grabbing in the song and probably why it’s near the end is their clarification that if you’re not speaking out about America’s gross problems then you’re really not a patriotic American after all. The outro is just as clever. The fate of the two car accident victims from the beginning skit hints at a nightmare awaiting them at the hospital… the hospital of all places. Still like Western healthcare now? In all, another beautiful, classic package of exquisite rhyme schemes, powerful messages, varied beats and diverse guests has been delivered to us early this holiday season. Bishop Lamont finally has that grand masterpiece he’s been working toward since the start and we can all learn a lot from it. When you’re as literate, courageous and politically feisty on the mic as Bishop Lamont is, of course the mainstream is not going to embrace you, but in Bishop’s case, he fought like a mother to get where he is now and wow did it pay off! (stream on Spotify here or purchase at iTunes here or at Google Play here)
5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kxng Crooked capital-punishes capitalists in 'Good vs. Evil'

Good vs. Evil by Kxng Crooked
It must have been the rest he received from his low-key 2015 that gave him such a charge this year because advanced emcee Dominick “Kxng Crooked” Wickliffe is absolutely on fire and therefore on a roll and well he should be. We just don’t want him to put out the fire. Statik Kxngfrom February was of course a juggernaut, and eight months later, we got the tasty sample that is the Valley of the Kxngs EP, which represented lyrically what he’s been cooking up on his own since the dawn of 2016. Even the most well informed, most updated fan however, likely couldn’t see the politically motivated attack he’s hatched on this month’s Good vs. Evil LP (Nov. 11, RBC Records), his third studio album as a solo artist.
The out-of-control alternate reality/dystopian future concept of the album is on a double dose of ‘roids here. Crooked I is pumped full of frustration and anger at the modern day world’s racism, class separation, the disappearance of the middle class, the growing number of those living in poverty and the military police state to the point where he envisions struggling citizens picking up arms and fighting back violently. No one wants to see it sure, but his prediction might not be far off considering the current decrepit conditions and despair of the poor. Crooked I is not shy and doesn’t lie when he blames the wealthiest one percent, the “Puppet Master[s],” whose puppets are the police (robots in his futuristic imagining/foretelling) that brutally “keep order” at the demand of these super rich masters.
Crooked I has every right to be outraged at the extremely corrupt system, and his retaliatory ideas are more than enough to get anyone out of their seat, but even after many many first strikes, violent retribution against the enemy (no matter how sensually gratifying it may seem at the time) will only deliver short term satisfaction at best. Love, morals, values, teaching, learning and a phasing out of both toxic ideologies and destructive institutional thinking are absent from Kxng Crooked’s agenda, which simply makes him just another ruthless ruler in Good vs. Evil. Extremely rebellious and very revolutionary, the album kicks off the war between the rich and poor but also continues the cycle of hate and physical aggression, if only in the mind and on wax. Good vs. Evil is great for going after the establishers of both the media’s propaganda model and the twisted political economy but not in how it does so.
3 out of 5 stars

Friday, November 11, 2016

For ATCQ, 'We Got It From Here' is a proper homecoming slash last-hurrah

We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest
After eighteen years of LP-drought, two reunions and award after award, the super legendary golden age pioneers of alternative hip-hop, A Tribe Called Quest (Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White), have returned with their sixth studio album, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, possible because of the renewed fan-excitement for the crew plus the group’s newfound cohesion and unified mission, which both found incredible steam one year ago. Sadly but not unexpectedly, the great MC Phife Dawg, who had been battling diabetes for many years, died in March in the thick of the recording process, but his contributions are still major in We Got It. Named after a testament that sounds like it could be either a stroke of braggadocio on the group’s part or something the new guard of rap would say to the guys of Tribe ironically, We Got It From Here is a kaleidoscopic melange of fine experimental production thrills from Q-Tip and Ali, some classic vocal interplay between Q-Tip and Phife, a variety of concepts and subjects and rock-solid yet emotionally powerful guest spots from Busta Rhymes, Elton John, AndrĂ© 3000, Consequence, Talib Kweli, Kanye West, Jack White, Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar.
The Tribe use their “Space Program” as a way to get above and ahead of those things that hold people back, and choose to rebel in quick fleeting bursts and also in some random effective ways, as they remark on bigotry, radio station PDs, elitists, kids these days, the experience of being dark skinned and fun love-making, all in the first half. Quite a few of these topics make their appearances short with one of the most extended examples being the “We The People”-line which states, “Vh1 has a show you can waste your time with.” If they had been any longer or testier, Epic Records might have had a conniption with the collective. Other spots are simply fine dynamics that showcase the great verbal exchange, smooth baton-passing and focal continuity across verses, most notably when Busta and Consequence pick up after Q or Phife for instance.
The second half continues in that same conscious manner. Current rappers are held to a higher standard in “Black Spasmodic,” the slaughter-obsessed culture of the law is grieved and calmly protested in “The Killing Season,” and lost loved ones are immortalized in “Lost Somebody.” The ender “The Donald” is a tricky one to make out. Although the title flashes the name of the new US commander in chief, it’s more a tribute to Phife, whose name is punched in repeatedly throughout the track. It leaves a little more to be desired of a finale-song from a group of such high status and caliber as these men have; however, looking back on the whole thing, though the newly artistic productions speak louder than the vocals in pockets, and although the album in general tends to give a bigger stage to the guests than the original members themselves, the memory-making parts are vast and undeniable and the spirit of the multitudes that went into crafting the album is powerful and tremendous. The group said this will be their last official album and in fact they said the same for The Love Movement back in 1998, but it’s easier to believe the statement now because of the big time gap between that and this, and most especially because We Got It From Here is a grander, more proper sendoff for the famous foursome.
4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Combo Review, Week Ending Nov. 4, 2016

Five albums to tell you folks about this week. None are debut projects (except for one by a new pairing, Blu with Union Analogtronics), but all are catalog builders for and from established artists like Common, La Coka Nostra, Sims, Czarface and the aforementioned Blu. Let’s see how they stack up to each other.

Black America Again by Common (Def Jam Records/ARTium Recordings)
The dreamer and believer Common is in an auspicious place in mainstream hip-hop currently. Seated on the Def Jam roster with a co-endorsement from No ID’s ARTium Recordings, the Chicago emcee and Hollywood actor seems to be at ease with the commercial backing, and fortunately, his labels have given him considerable leeway in regards to what he’s been able to say on his eleventh studio album, Black America Again. Produced by Detroit jazz musician Karriem Riggins and aided by Common’s soulful, spiritual stirrings on love, music, the arts, personal growth and obviously the plight of Black Americans, BAA reminds us how fragile the spirit of the land is in these times. At select points, Common puts emphasis on cultural integrity, morals and understanding, and casts out extravagant wealth, vanity and hate with lines like “fuck big brother, god is watching you” (“Joy and Peace”), “let no one margin [the music] and make it all about paper and first week sales” (“Home”) and “you should rhyme wherever the spirit goes” (“Pyramid”). He does good in his title track and in “Letter to the Free” where he states the issues affecting African Americans like the militant prison/police state, but some can’t help but wish that he would remark on how the very economic design of the world needs changing, since it is that which requires an impoverished class in order to keep going. Overall though, Common offers love, kindness and a path toward healing in this cynical world of ours.
4 out of 5 stars
To Thine Own Self Be True by La Coka Nostra (Fat Beats Records)
The La Coka Nostra crew, made up of House of Pain veterans DJ Lethal and Danny Boy with emcees Slaine of Boston, Ill Bill and formerly Everlast, arise with their third LP release and their first project in four years, To Thine Own Self Be True. Besides supplying the complex brutal raps from the underground, the fellas also appropriately touch on society, politics and the economy on a few tracks. They “Stay True” by remaining good in a world of bad, determine who the real criminals in the drug trade are in “Blind” and show great disappointment in the harsh realities of U.S. law enforcement in “America” (with a Noam Chomsky intro sound bite from his new documentary Requiem for the American Dream in that last track). Outside of its conscious records, To Thine Own Self Be True is pretty typical for the group and their rock-em-sock-em subgenre, but it’s quite solid nevertheless.
3 out of 5 stars
More Than Ever by Sims (Doomtree Records)
Minneapolis Doomtree founder Sims’ third LP, More Than Ever, comes five years after his last, Bad Time Zoo, and it’s a little surprising how different this one is from his first two album masterpieces. It has a more evident mainstream pop finish than its LP-antecedents, and Sims expresses himself in less specific means and terms with fewer anecdotes and more metaphorical (sometimes vague) subtleties and nuances. His renegade bite is noticeably looser this time around, which unfortunately makes for a tamer experience for fans of rebel rap, but there are enough treats in store. For all its bouncy poppy sensibilities, “One Hundred” has several conscious, anthemic earworm-lines as do “What They Don’t Know” (“don’t shoot, they cannot put their hands higher”) and “Badlands” (“no energy for enemies, that’s how I do it”). “Shaking In My Sheets” enters into a relationship, something a little under-traversed for Sims, and “Voltaire” seems to be a tribute to the victims of the November 2015 Paris attacks that left 137 dead and hundreds more injured. If you recall, the name of Sims’ debut album from 2005 is Lights Out Paris. Is there a connection? It’s very likely. Sims’ usual brand of counterculture mixed with enlightenment and edification is needed more than ever in this day and age, but in this album, it is at least a little watered down.
3 out of 5 stars
A Fistful of Peril by Czarface (Silver Age Music)
The trio of producer 7L and emcees Esoteric and Inspectah Deck release the third part of their Czarface collaboration-series with almost nothing new to offer fans old or new. Like the previous two installments (Czarface and Every Hero Needs A Villain), the new one, A Fistful of Peril, doesn’t bother with creating a story for its comic cover-art. Instead, it hustles more hard-boy backpack raps with no mission. Think bars of bronze instead of bars of gold. There is mention of police killing blacks in “Steranko,” but that’s as political as Peril gets. Psycho Les, Blacastan, Meyhem Lauren and Rast Rfc give decent turns, but they don’t and can’t save the project. It would have been very fun and skilled on the part of the makers to have a plot or purpose to these raps that are meant to shock but don’t. Fans will have to wait for this group or another group to actually develop characters for the Czarface universe and move them along, but of course even that may never happen. For their efforts and for what it is, A Fistful of Peril is ok, but it could have been much more.
2 out of 5 stars
Cheetah in the City by Blu & Union Analogtronics (Fat Beats Records)
This year has been a very busy one for LA rapper/producer Blu, who has already released a handful of collaboration projects prior to this new Cheetah in the City joint-album with Paris beat-duo Union Analogtronics (OJ & Gold). Crenshaw JezebelOpen Your Optics To Optimism (his best of the year so far) and Titans in the Flesh all had their forms of substance in their own rights, but for Cheetah in the City, despite some interesting new avant garde electro-sounds, it’s very typical lyrically and in a street sense, as it follows old common rap stereotypes (rarely good now and mostly deleterious) never questioning or moving away from them. Blu raps on dough, hoes, how to bait the second using the first, and other gutter-oriented themes, and he is careful not to sound too obnoxious with it so he can get away with the tomfoolery, but smart ones will see through the blinds. The only worthwhile song is “Factory” because of its message that “we gotta get our minds on something ‘cause it ain’t all about stuntin’ and frontin’” but the rest is unfortunately just a wild beast animalistically doing a number on civilized society.
2 out of 5 stars
If your favorite artist of the week doesn’t appear in the rundown, think about checking out these popping acts, or if your fave didn’t score well on this list, maybe it’s time to shift focus. At any rate, there are still plenty of new releases to come before the year is up so check back soon.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Mac Lethal is lethal and real in 'Congratulations'

Congratulations by Mac Lethal
Kansas City native Mac Lethal (David McCleary Sheldon) is a lot more than a tight rapper of quality and substance. He is a former artist of Rhymesayers Entertainment and a cofounder of his current label Black Clover Records but most importantly he is an emcee who is committed to staying independent (not on a major label). His debut LP 11:11 arrived in 2007 followed by Irish Goodbye in 2011 and this year, on September 13, he unhinged his door-kicking third full length studio album Congratulations. It’s a wise opus of dream word-offerings with a Tech Nina feature and fun music accompaniments. 

Off the hook conceptually, Congratulations is in order with Mac’s sharp vocalism including some of his famous double-time rapping, loads of new advanced rhymes and lots of direct social commentary on the economy, self-employment, health, parenthood and marriage. Before he raps on society at large, he goes into his rocky youth, but once he gets into his explicitly harsh critique on corporations and capitalism, things really start to get interesting. He calls out the love of money and things and explains the problems and pitfalls of menial corporate employment, cubicle pencil-pushing, paper-shuffling and such. He makes clear that this type of wage-slavery is really just building up someone else’s fortune at the expense of the builder.  

Later, Mac hits on the importance of living healthy by eating well, exercising and consuming “Weed & Coffee” (optional yet pleasant). Towards the end, he starts in on the family-man topics, i.e. the hard but true realities of being married with children, how it’s very much both bitter and sweet. He reads these notes with a splash of humor but also gallons of sincerity. He’s going through it. Through it all though, Mac’s delivery is clearly spot-on, serving our ears streams of well written lyrics of beautiful wordplay. Congratulations, Mac. This is easily one of the best albums of the year.   

5 out of 5 stars

Hoodie Allen is clever, confessional and genuine as a real-life 'Happy Camper'

Happy Camper by Hoodie Allen
At the time of this review, independent marketing-minded emcee Hoodie Allen (Steven Markowitz) from Long Island, New York (Plainview to be specific) is already pretty deep in his music career. He released his All American EP in 2012 (famous for “No Faith in Brooklyn”) and his first studio LP, People Keep Talking, in 2014 and yes, people did keep talking very well of the rapper because of it. His new album, Happy Camper, came out on January 22 and is close to EP length but is more like a long-play in breadth. The University of Pennsylvania graduate and former Google employee (sounds a lot like the path Lil Dicky took before music, college education followed by white collar job) has filled this !llmind-executive produced project with both melodies and witty rhymes in equal parts, many times running simultaneously as a matter of fact. Above all that though, Hoodie is simply himself, says what he wants and is able to connect with us with common values, sense, humor and good fun.

As a young man entering the real world, Hoodie talks a lot about what troubles him, whether it’s girl problems or the demands put on by society, but he’s also decided to be bright about where he is in life and what he has to hold on to. “Intro To Anxiety” is Hoodie’s outpouring of concerns, worries and feelings on nervousness, stress and insecurity in a nice joyful-sounding song ironically. It doesn’t feel hectic at all which is nice. “Are U Having Any Fun?” has a bunch of light dating wiles, and the honest “Remind Me Of” has Hoodie reminiscing but also some of that optimism mentioned before (one line that rings true: “we got sh*tty jobs and bills to pay”). In “So Close To Happiness,” he reminds himself of that intermediate stage of life he’s in with the very millennial-esque chorus line “big house, don’t really need that.” The next four songs in line go along with Hoodie’s thoughts on romantic love, as we'll soon see.

In “Too Invested,” he’s completely committed to the right relationship (“put the money in the bank, girl, I ain’t never too invested”), and in the hotly intimate, super lurid “Surprise Party,” he spends a special night in with his shorty and raps “that’s just me being a little cocky, we can do it on the stairs like Rocky.” His mixed feelings about love then surface in “Make You Feel” and “Champagne And Pools.” All of a sudden he sees the relationship divisions caused by his hard-work, and in the latter song, he wishes for something other than superficial, immature, fun-obsessed girls. For the end, Hoodie has decided to put aside the chick issues for stirrings on fame and family. He weathers the storm of work and comes out on the other side to celebrate in “25th Hour,” and in "King To Me," he speaks to his father with love in his words and voice and in general just talks about the power of family connection, to beautifully cozy piano and his own gorgeous singing.

Happy Camper is the product of no meddling label-intervention (remember, it’s self-released), quality features (Blackbear, Meghan Tonjes, Ricky Smith, SuperDuperKyle), excellent rapping (extra credit for Hoodie’s neat, impressive quicker flows), original innovative production and true proper personality. Hoodie Allen is comfortable being who he is and puts on no showy, pretentious personas, aided mainly by his producers’ help, his own skills and the fire in his belly from his ambitious Jewish roots and upbringing. He spits on relevant topics and unloads tons of awesome, memorable and highly quotable lines, some more being “I got the people divided, I call that Gaza flow” and “take out the gat and ‘Eric-Clapped’ them.” It's not very rebellious or politically testy, and it's perhaps too comfy in its safe suburban spirit, but Happy Camper is excellent feel-good rap that is ok to feel good with.

4 out of 5 stars

(Review by Alex originally appeared on on January 30, 2016.)

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Sammus has created more beautiful rap music for 'Pieces in Space'

Pieces in Space by Sammus
Right now, what hip-hop needs more of than continued participation from strong black male emcees (still enormously important) is continued participation in the art from strong female black emcees. It is true that the cultural philosophy of real hip-hop is all inclusive when it comes to bringing different types of people into the fray, but it is extremely urgent and very necessary that hip-hop keep giving a voice and stage to good respectable women of African descent since the mainstream media obviously, deliberately and harmfully favor ladies of lighter skin tones most of the time. Enter Sammus (Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo) – Ithaca, New York native, teacher, PhD student, producer and conscious complex rhymer with nerdcore tendencies (mind her stage name that pays homage to Metroid heroine Samus Aran) and a keen unquenchable interest on sharing her wonderful thoughts and ideas with the world.
The product of a robust youth, a healthy education and a complicated professional work life, Sammus learned much from the upright upbringing she received from her immigrant parents who were professors in academia before her. Though even with an Ivy League bachelors degree from Cornell University and a handsome lot in life made out for her, the undying spirit in Sammus yearned for more. Expressive, impressive and genuine in past works, albums like M’Other Brain (2012) and Prime (2013), she has regularly felt at odds with the machine of modern day society and the typical nature of relationships but she finds release in grasping onto her passions for rapping and beatmaking. She’s put it all on wax before and she continues to do so. All her feelings of being frustrated and fragmented by life but also her hopes, dreams and triumphs come out in new form on her latest LP, the emotively exceptional Pieces in Space, out now courtesy of Don Giovanni Records/NuBlack Music Group.
Pieces is written, performed and executive produced by Sammus herself, with help from studio handyman Alejandro Tello Jr., a trio of side instrumentalists and her invites of course: cognition-sparker Latasha “LA” Alcindor, Alex Attard, Queens’ own Homeboy Sandman, Izzy True, genius Jean Grae, a very open Open Mike Eagle and Arch Thompson. Sammus is an incredible emcee, but her productions deserve special mention too. She’s been crafting and assembling sounds on tracks in addition to rapping for several years now so her in-touch familiarity with the current state of beats has brought much instrumental freshness to Pieces. You’ll get hooked by the majestic keys, soft sampling and frequent drops of “100 Percent,” you’ll lose yourself in a dreamy escape of sax, synthy horns and rapidly successive snares in “Cubicle,” and smile from the steady rocky pop of “Nighttime,” to pull just a few. These beats are firm, cool, dynamic and layered, just like Sammus.
Her conceptual variety and multidimensional character are most striking however. Each piece of Pieces is dedicated and committed to a unique goal and pursuit. With exemplary wordplay, Sammus holds rappers to a particularly high standard in “100 Percent,” and she can because she’s such a phenomenal word miracle worker, and she smashes pathetic trolls and slow roasts them to a crisp in “Comments Disabled.” Then she gets lighter in her next two cuts by reminiscing on being a kid with again, amazing lyricism, in “Childhood” and by dreaming big, reaching high and working at it endlessly in “Cubicle.” Along comes “Perfect, Dark” where Sammus reiterates the need for strong black female role models in popular culture refraining, “black girls wanna have a hero too, all kids tryna get that mirror view, cartoons gotta represent my hue, they got our doctors sick, they want the Theraflu.” Her pushing pressing tone crescendos toward the end to a liberating revelation. She says, “had to wait until I saw that I’m a work of art, I love the game but I’m the realest kind of perfect art.”
Sammus’s “Song About Sex,” another one of Pieces’ most powerful gems, teaches the ladies that good sex doesn’t mean anything if their guy is a loser. Pay attention there to her challengingly clustered chorus that she pulls off and executes with seasoned skill and talented delivery. Along with the goodwill in her messages, Sammus is tough as well. “Genius” brainstorms and reigns with further muscular musings. Sammus raps, “it’s a pattern that I noticed from haters of lots of rappers, some rather see us going the way of velociraptors, disturbed to see us turning that turner on all our captors, determined to mass-murdering words up on every rap verse.” Other times, she courageously and comfortably embraces her quirks and how she differs with the norm (“Weirdo”), admits to her struggles and conflicts of conscience concerning school, work, fashion, etc. (“1080p”) and fears turning off her partner by baring her soul and exposing herself (“Qualified”).
Sammus is a balanced act. She has actual worries and vulnerabilities like all of us, but she isn’t afraid to discuss them. With Pieces in Space, she gives us another superb collection of excellent rap songs for everyone. It’s distinguished from her first two studio albums, and it’s signature Sammus through and through, appealable to every age, race, class and gender under the sun, a one stop shop too if you don’t mind the comparison. Her rise is so exciting and so cool because she uses good natured force, understanding and energy as propellants. Plus, she’s not timid or flakey about showing off the pro rap techniques of her extraordinary artistic station. It has been said before about other artists, but the same is true here – Sammus is a complete package of a hip-hopper and further proof and evidence that the best music of the trade is found underground and from independent sources.
5 out of 5 stars

Friday, October 28, 2016

Jeezy chooses between bad and really bad in 'Trap or Die 3'

Trap or Die 3 by Jeezy
A cruel winter has arrived early for the snowman of Atlanta Jeezy, who returns to the album scene once again with his ninth LP, Trap or Die 3, the second sequel of the mixtape series he started in 2005. This fall release comes during an appropriate season because the one CTE frontman and gangster rap hanger-on has fallen off miserably with the project. TD3 sees the once attention-commanding rapper drop very hard from his past influential heights in hip-hop due to its brainless superficiality and glorified criminality. Thank Def Jam Records but also Jeezy’s newly branded YJ Music, which might lead fans to ask, why didn’t he stick with Corporate Thugz Entertainment this time around? Jeez!
Jeezy has absolutely nothing important to rap about here besides his usual lobotomized goon-speak in chanted, anthemic form. He remains dedicated to his love for foreigns in his intro (“In The Air”), shouting out coups, Bentleys, Murcielagos, Lambos and Cutlasses and doesn’t forget to throw his pistol in the glovebox. As you could assume, Trap or Die 3 is trapped out to the max, so much so that there is literally no room for any material of substance. It’s littered with hoots and hollers, devoid of any well-made lyricism, on money, jewelry, cloths, sex and plenty of bitter and resentful remarks of vitriol aimed at Jeezy haters that remain nameless here and will forever more because they’re all in his head. People hate the propaganda lines he promotes and the reckless lifestyle he encourages, not necessarily him.
Trap or Die 3 is simply an awful offering from Jeezy and his producers D. Rich, Shawty Redd and the rest. Musically, he has hit rock bottom in what might be the lowest point in his career if time will tell, and he has just about offed himself with this piddle. Guests Yo Gotti, Bankroll Fresh, French Montana, Plies, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown likewise bring next to nothing to the table. It’s a complete waste of time and extremely hard to endure if you have any sense whatsoever. Don’t believe the major lie Jeezy tells in his outro “Never Settle” that he doesn’t mess with industry types because they suck up and such. He does work with them, he is one of them and unless hell freezes over or something as drastic and unlikely occurs going forward, he won’t change his ways. That you can believe.
1 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 24, 2016

MC Sole & DJ Pain 1 tell us everything wrong with the first world in 'Nihilismo'

Nihilismo by Sole & DJ Pain 1
May the revolution continue and shall all the under-appreciated saints reach more and more folks. Emcee Sole (Tim Holland) from Portland, Maine, active since the 1990s, a member of several groups and a veteran of numerous labels (including one he cofounded: Anticon), is seemingly restlessly productive, having released many great conscious-hip-hop albums over the years with Nihilismo (April 22, Black Box Tapes) being his latest. It is produced by Madison, Wisconsin's DJ Pain 1 (Pacal Bayley), who has worked with some of the mainstream's most recognizable artists, so it's a tiny shock that he's the second major credit on the underground Sole's newest project, yet the fresh agreement by both sides and the meshing of skills and talents at work here are truly amazing. Sole upheaves the retched establishment with conscious, spirited, directed lyrics and Pain 1 brings into the mix drum-heavy rock, sweetly flavored musical phrases, one dancehall-inspired track ("Walk The Plank") and another derived largely from trap sounds ("Our Words"). Above everything, the scorching indictment of the nonsensical, irresponsible modern day modes and ways for which Sole prosecutes the developed world is right on, a dutiful trial all should witness.

By the end, you'll see that deep down Sole knows exactly what's wrong with the world, and he's not afraid to voice his concerns. He exposes inherited wealth, Native American genocide, privatized education, slave-employment, vanishing democracy, fracking and more in "Generation F*cked," the intro. In "Too Small To Fail (DIY)," he spreads more awareness, this time about big brother taking over our time and lives, and "Capitalism (Is Tearing Us Apart)" is his pop-anthem decrying how neoliberalism and out-of-control free markets are crushing the world. Nature and people are visited in "Flood" with topics on chemically and genetically modified foodstuffs, women being pushed into the workforce away from their children and families, and white privilege versus black despair. In fact, his epiphanic observation there about how whites can freely run weed stores while blacks get jail if they sell the same product is extremely telling and embarrassing for America.

"Hostage Crisis" is concerned with the very usual practice of the US, NATO, OECD nations, really any of those entities, being at perennial war with third world countries and their seemingly endless, restricting imperialism overseas. Sole's got incredibly conscious knowledge, criticizing leadership when the shoe fits, describing the last days, extending end-of-the-world feelings, even polemicizing those people who are actually afraid to die ("Exodus"). DJ Pain 1 is likewise right there with Sole in essence, matching all the lyrics with fitting sound pieces note by note, tone for tone. It's all brought together at the end with Sole's intelligent accelerated lyrics saying people everywhere pretty much think the same and agree on many of the same values in "Our Words" with family struggles and the fortitude to work through them being the focal point of "Battle of Humans," the one spot where Sole gets really personal about his own life. Nihilismo is one of those rare wonderful moments in hip-hop when artists really focus on the painful conditions of real people all around the world, not catering to the agendas of corporate machines. It's a sign of the times, a cry to rally around the common cause for good and a sign of cohesion in hip-hop - in this case one proven undersurface rapper linking with a supremely gifted producer from aboveground. Nihilismo explains why nihilism is prevalent these days but makes it its goal to find a better lifestyle and philosophy.

5 out of 5 stars

(Review by Alex originally appeared on on April 24, 2016.)

Ugly Heroes craft another classic masterpiece with 'Everything in Between'

Everything in Between by Ugly Heroes
The Ugly Heroes trio of Mello Music Group (Red Pill, Apollo Brown and Verbal Kent) have been the next big thing in hip-hop for the past three years, ever since they released their amazing, self-titled debut LP in 2013. They're easily considered one of Mello's best groups to date and outside of the label, they are making phenomenal strides, combining Apollo Brown's beautiful soul with RP and VK's smart, philosophical, mature, wise and professionally advanced lyrics. Each man has a story. Red Pill from Detroit, the burgeoning enlightened Millennial backpacker is growing healthily within the creative ecology of MMG, Apollo Brown (also from Detroit) is a very accomplished producer with a uniquely identifiable style and a long list of credits, and Verbal Kent of Rogers Park, Chicago also has a lengthy discography and highly trained rap-chops. To the joy of everyone, they release today (June 24) their second album, Everything in Between, still on Mello Music and still on a heroically message-hearty binge. It makes for two back-to-back stellar engagements starting with the Ugly Heroes LP, and who knows? Maybe they'll someday make it a trifecta.

Everything in Between gives us a lot of what we all need more of, beautiful universal truth. Let's start at the top. In "Today Right Now," the refreshing lyrical duo of Red and Kent bring forth eye-opening revelations with the ultimate message being to not take life for granted, and they proceed with more fresh wisdom ("Daisies"), the advocation of good strong character ("Peace of Mind") and their own experiences with diversity, tolerance and community ("Place Called Home"). The most time-marked, most newsworthy song of the first half, "This World" lets Kent and Red Pill set things straight and rap sense about maladies across the globe - racism, Trump, brutal police, etcetera, and everything is presented in a very calm, serene and unobjectionable way, especially thanks to Apollo Brown. His gorgeous soul and easygoing jazz productions are to die for, commonly agreeable listening for all.

Down the line, the subject of "Can't Win For Losin'" is falling on hard times, and then Red Pill, who is the biggest star of "Roles," raps about being reluctant of bringing innocent children into a hateful world there. "Heart Attack" makes sure dreams, goals and high aspirations do not drop dead, and "Unforgiven" lays out two great rap stories. Red Pill confronts a detached resentful grandfather and Verbal Kent says accurately that a criminal set free by the justice system will forever be in mental prison. Lastly, they show their fangs in "Fair Weather" to help balance out any softness heard in the lead up sections. This timeless triumvirate are nothing short of magnificent in this perfect Everything in Between album. These Ugly Heroes could literally bring anyone onto their cause because one: they speak the truth and very eloquently at that, and two: they are backed by beat-prodigy Apollo Brown and his soothing jazz, blues and rock in a dynamic mixture. Furthermore, he reaffirms and strengthens his own style. Three heads are better than one here. Each man makes the other two tremendous people by giving them support and approval, and overall, they simply have an exceedingly splendid project on their hands and now it's in their fan's hands.

5 out of 5 stars 

(Review by Alex originally appeared on on June 24, 2016.)