Saturday, July 30, 2016

DJ Khaled's direction, intended to get critical acclaim, works but to a limited extent on 'Major Key'

Major Key by DJ Khaled
In obvious damage-control mode, Miami producer and mogul DJ Khaled has quickly followed up his weak I Changed A Lot album from October 2015 with his latest issue of 2016, Major Key (July 29, We The Best/Epic Records). There are no doubt many good spots on the LP, and as a matter of fact, it is an improvement on his last project, though not a gigantic one. DJ Khaled and that epic major label known as Epic Records have gathered several of the most trending, marketable and quality hip-hop artists on the scene right now for Major Key and they've oversaw and directed some of their vocal behaviors, but surprisingly, they have also allowed some of them to do their own thing uninhibited.

Considering its bright spots, and its other mediocre ones, Major Key is once again a more or less typical though decent product from Khaled and its typical yet well versed players of the game, contributors that are very recognizable names in rap. Except for “For Free” by Drake, which doesn’t provide a lot besides some unsubstantiated sexual posturing and boasting, Major Key actually starts out very well. We get an unxpected collaboration between the new and old with Future and Jay-Z in “I Got The Keys,” a powerful promo plug by God’s Son Nas in “Nas Album Done,” and a roiling rollicking posse cut featuring Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean and Miami soul/r&b singer Betty Wright in “Holy Key.”

The very best verse in the first five songs however does not belong to Jay-Z, Nas or even Kendrick Lamar. It belongs to J. Cole, whose wonderously aware speech in “Jermaine’s Interlude” is bound to spark an enlightenment or two in listeners. This is very unexpected for a major label record, but by all means we’ll take it. In that interlude, Cole raps on the importance of staying independent as an artist, the mind control that TV companies attempt to have over the public and the terribleness of hood violence anywhere and everywhere. Even the rest of the rappers we hear later on (Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, etc.) are good too, but this beginning section is easily better than the midsection and the end because of the character and depth of its verses and artists combined.

Although tracks six through fourteen showcase some good solid rapping indeed, they tend to slip into trap sex, violence, drugs and a few romantic joints. The “Lovers & Friends”-sampling “Do You Mind” is cool, the production overall is respectable though pretty standard, and of all the many guest-emcees, Kent Jones, who raps a very clever verse in “Don’t Ever Play Yourself,” is the only little-known rapper on the disc so his appearance on Major Key is that much more important and valuable. In all certainty, this is the followup to I Changed A Lot that DJ Khaled and hip-hop sorely majorly needed, and it’s probably better that we’ve gotten a good followup sooner instead of a perfect classic followup much later. The timing was right because it had to arrive with as little delay as possible in light of I.C.A.L.’s glaring shortcomings. Khaled’s Major Key to success is in fact a success, but just barely, and mostly because of the fine vocalists he’s recruited.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Kembe X can 'Talk Back' and get away with it in impressive debut album

Talk Back by Kembe X
Chicago remains a blazing inferno of hip-hop talent now with Kembe X (Dikembe Jabari) being the latest hot ticket to drop an album, Talk Back (July 15, self-released), his debut.  The South Holland South Sider is hard and conscious and brings to his music dedication to creative clever wordplay (his influences include Nas, Common, the artists of Hypnotize Minds, and plenty more) and rebelliousness against our corrupt world.

Kembe starts Talk Back relatively downtempo and low-key but not without great presence and impact, as he shares his uneasy, hard-to-place feelings in the first couple songs.  Once things start to heat up, we can really feel Kembe's crushing power in his prominent vocals mid-disc.  He's got a progressive view on drugs, and his producers (The Antydote, Bentley Hazelwood, Hippie Sabotage, Crooklin, DJ FU) make brilliant new use of different samples and genres for a very fun, alternative sounding production set.

His guests include Roméo Testa, Zacari Pacaldo and fellow Village 777 group-mate Alex Wiley.  Talk Back is a great, insolent, biting beginning for the driven Kembe X, and he can do so much more with what he's built here.  He has risen above the hard situations in his childhood Chi stomping grounds, he has revved up his engines and he is just getting started in the rap race with T.B.

4 out of 5 stars

Z-Ro's development is arrested after 'Drankin' & Drivin''

Drankin' & Drivin' by Z-Ro
On Friday, July 15, Houston Screwed Up Click artist Z-Ro (Joseph McVey) released his nineteenth studio LP, Drankin' & Drivin' (1 Deep Entertainment), one year after his last, Melting The Crown (Feb 2015), but he would have been better off had he took a year off from releasing anything to gain some more perspective on life.

With the exception of 2013, the constantly working Z-Ro has released an album every year since 2000, and as of late it seems like it might have been a detriment more than a help.  While he's continued his special style of rapping with a melodic tongue ad infinitum, he has essentially been doing the same thing every year for all this time when he ought to take a break to smell the roses of world affairs, take a foray into different subject matter and rap about the outside world external to his small network of connections, for a temporary change at very least.

One of hip-hop's most unique vocalists, Z-Ro still has a interesting song-structured technique when he spits, but over too familiar beats in Drankin' & Drivin', he has once again voluntarily pigeonholed himself to the topics of hater-hating (a big one for him), self-adulation, and dough over art.  Concerning the last, Z-Ro makes the disturbing confession in "New Shit" that if we don't like the music he's making now, we can just "go back to his old shit" and that he doesn't make music to make good history in the culture but rather to make good money in the business.

Anyone can understand what he means by that, but after all the retail projects he's put out in the past, one would hope that he'd have some savings from them socked away to reasonably make at the bare minimum one investment in wise conscious issues meant to spark positive enlightenment in listeners, rather than more superficial rap.  Z-Ro has given away no clues that he is about do any such thing in the future.

Following the less than savory outcomes of The Crown (2014) and then Melting The CrownDrankin' & Drivin' has gotten Z-Ro in an even more destructive accident this time around.  By sticking to the same boring formula of negative victimized grievances that he's applied to his music his whole career, he hasn't grown or evolved as an artist or person at all here.  Z-Ro no doubt has nice talent and skill, but for optimal results in the game, he needs to find some more sanity, strive to live comfortably instead of opulently comfortably, connect the dots in life, understand the underlying economic causes of his problems and then most importantly, rap on much smarter speaking points than those we get in this offering.

1 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Lil Debbie has a lot to learn about rap and rapping after ‘Debbie’ debut

Debbie by Lil Debbie
Though Lil Debbie (Jordan Capozzi from Albany, CA) was axed, by her own account of the backstory, from former trio White Girl Mob (Kreayshawn, V-Nasty, Lil Debbie), she’s shared more albums than each of her group mates, on the order of around seven over the last four years. The ornery, fun-seeking Bay resident though is in artistic stylistic torpor on her latest effort, Debbie (July 15, Lil Debbie Records), using some of the most basic of rhyme schemes for the whole thing and sounding off like a sassy street girl with nothing better on her mind to say than proclamations of her unproven greatness and superiority (to “b*tches” mostly). It’s absolutely mind-blowing and a wonder why the twenty-six year old Capozzi hasn’t inserted any good bits of wisdom or level headed sense into her raps here nor any unexpected shocking statements. Standard buzzy synth beats slapped with a serious dose of trappy sobriety make up the production and besides Deb, amateur emcee Starrah and Njomza show but with that guest arrangement it’s like who cares. Unhappily, Debbie lacks all the things that make the best hip-hop albums great – interesting stories, brilliant messages and revelations, creative advanced wordplay, inventive beat construction, and invited friends that actually bring a good deal of something substantial to the table. Many were hoping that Lil Debbie would come through and represent well for her demographic in hip-hop with the Debbie album, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.
1 out of 5 stars

Friday, July 15, 2016

Sadat X's 'Agua' is a cool refreshing glass of rap, as nourishing as clean clear water

Agua by Sadat X
Sadat X (one third of Brand Nubian) has changed tones slightly since his 2015 Never Left album where his experience and years came out as well something close to mild cheesiness, but this time, on his new Agua LP (July 15, Tommy Boy Ent.), he’s cut down a little on the cheese, kept his seniority plus some and added an ounce or two of his usual New York grit. 
Of an earlier style but fit for a king, Agua is evidence that Sadat is still a stable solid rock in the game carrying on tradition finely. He takes turns on the album informing, dreaming, having some fun and taking care of business, as confident as ever in his roles as the dad of a soon-to-be college freshman, a school volunteer and neighborhood watchman. 
His wisdom and sagacity are shown in “The City Never Sleeps” featuring eMC’s Wordsworth as the two rap on common corruption in the world, and songs like “Cut And Dry” (ft. Lord Jamar) and “The Bass Player” display Sadat X the lover, the warrior and regular guy. 
In “Maybe It’s Me,” he admits to being from a different, arguably better era (later, in “Tommy Is My Boy,” he’s anti-pills and anti-lean), and as his final positive acts, he turns off the Agua (and doesn’t leave it running) with “We Strive” (ft. Dres of Black Sheep) and the seize-this-life anthem “Nobody.” 
Sadat X is no less than a smart seasoned veteran now, and this regular musical-visit he pays to us has a larger, greater sound and impact than his last. The producers have laid out a good modest buffet of beats, and although it’s not very revolutionary, Agua is there to help wash away our blues.
3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Blu and Nottz make a standard sequel to their first EP with 'Titans In The Flesh'

Titans in the Flesh EP by Blu & Nottz
This is hard, although not in the way the music sounds but in having to say that Los Angeles emcee Blu and Norfolk Soul Council producer Nottz's second collaboration EP Titans in the Flesh is not simply good and that's it.  One loquacious lyricist (Blu) joining forces with a craft-conscious beat miner (Nottz) will almost always produce at least decent results, but there seems to be no urgent point to this EP except for these two guys to get together again with some features tossed in.  They might as well have just each saved their efforts for their own full length LPs.  Nottz hasn't made a grand compilation-style one with several folks since 2010's You Need This Music, and Blu has no earth-quaking pronouncements to share in this set so why rush to generate buzz for only a small teaser of more bars with beats that won't push any wigs back (in the mentally edifying sense).  If you're going to make something like this that's also as short as it is, you should at least record a good number of alarming, ultra-rebellious, under-reported truths that will have people going crazy.  There's virtually none of that here.  Guests Bishop Lamont, Torae, Skyzoo, Definite Mass, Tri-State, Mickey Factz and others also bring the tough raps but also without any of that good hip-hop "controversy" (controversy as it's called by civilians and non-truth livers).  Blu gets on a carpe diem bent in "Heaven on Earth" and gratefulness in "Atlantis," but that's about as lush as this T.I.T. Flesh gets.  Overall and sad to say, the EP, while solid enough, is not necessarily worth the time to hunt down and put on much replay, despite what the first Blu/Nottz joint EP Gods In The Spirit did and because it already happened.

2 out of 5 stars

(Titans In The Flesh drops July 15 via Coalmine Records)

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Bernz gets by with a little help from his friends in 'See You On The Other Side'

See You On The Other Side by Bernz
Strange Music fusion group Mayday has become exquisitely popular in hip-hop circles in the last several years due in no small part to its four man panel of highly creative musicians but also due to the two emcees in the band, Wrekonize and Bernz.  Of both men, Wrekonize started his single-man career first, releasing one LP in 2010 and then another in 2013, but now it's Bernz' turn to shine solo.  See You On The Other Side, Bernz' official debut studio album (July 8, Strange Music Inc), is a less than ecstatic hip-hop goodie made by experts and professionals of their craft, but before anyone goes into the project, they should know that while it is structurally hip-hop to the core with plenty of bluesy cool productions and toe-tappable beats with solid vocals of course (including some from other Strange Music artists), it drips with melancholy, poignant pensiveness and heavy feelings of helplessness from its big filled-to-the-brim cup of coping elixir, metaphorically speaking.  It's for the mopers.  Be warned.  It lacks a good measure of positivity, powerful charging resolve and resoluteness, but if you take with a grain of salt all the gloomy despondency found nearly everywhere on S.Y.O.T.O.S., you'll be just fine.

"Came To Say Goodbye" offers disillusionment before possibly the album's best cut overall, "Outta My Brain."  Atlanta lyrical wizard Jarren Benton joins Bernz to deal with life frustrations over fast catchy guitar strums.  It's a real banger for the summer or anytime, venting and letting all its burdens hang out, with swagger and great showmanship.  "Smoke N' F**k" is dedicated to Bernz' dream girl, "Dancing With The Devil" to living on the edge, and "Chasing Shadows" to general malaise where the philosophical nihilism is directed at dissing the everyday capitalistic grind and bloggers among other things.  The sadness continues in "When It's Gone," this time because of no faith or confidence in a relationship, and then MURS, who is great, makes a few remarks in "Bed Of Nails" to the effect that critics build artists up waiting for them to fall, which in virtually every genuine case couldn't be further from the truth.  MURS just released a masterful LP in 2015 called Have A Nice Life so how could anyone wish hard times on the man for it?  It was a great sincere gift; however, part of the whole staged attitude of the song feels a little scripted to service its theme.  His dislike for critics might be exaggerated to an extent for the track.

Moving on, we get some cynicism in "Vicious" with an uncredited feature from Thirstin Howl III and then some feelings of disapproval in "It Don't Go."  "Call Me In The Morning" drinks and smokes when the troubles stack up (hopefully not to destruction) and the next and last three songs though still kind of down and out tend to chill and mellow a bit so things don't feel so nasty once the finale "Sunday Sin" comes through pumping and pounding in the music so we can all clap our hands and nod our heads.  Bernz is a good rapper and emcee for his class here bar none, not out of this world, but very much respectable, yet to some people, his all-original rhymes might seem to be at too intermediate a level, in the casual delivery he often uses.  The themes, topics, tropes and subject matter could benefit from getting out of the house, but then again they are a reflection, analogy and address of these days' very hard times and concomitant disenfranchisement.  SYOTOS' greatest life lines are its solid music and guests though.  It's definitely a rap album one hundred percent but maybe not a technically mind-blowing or jaw-dropping one from a lyrical standpoint, plus it's incredibly depressive which hurts somewhat.  Overall, and as far as hip-hop albums are concerned, the final verdict for Bernz in See You On The Other Side is - good.

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Chris Webby shoots to the top, valuing quality and dignity over fame and fortune in 'Webster's Laboratory 2'

Webster's Laboratory 2 (mixtape) by Chris Webby
The state of Connecticut is in a state of undersupply when it comes to claiming famous rappers born or living within its borders, yet the ones it does have, like Apathy and Fake Four's Ceschi, are definitely worth their weight in gold. A bit younger but no less gifted, maybe more so if time will tell, Norwalk native Chris Webby (Christian Webster), who has been paving a lane for himself since the start of the decade with sharp complex lyrics on typically fun light subject matter, is quickly and brilliantly proving everyone who doubted him a few years back wrong, thanks to his commitment to the craft of rapping and the spark that set afire his newfound interest in social issues, norms and public policy.  His latest 2016 offering, Webster’s Laboratory 2 (released June 1st by Homegrown Music), a mixtape of high album-like quality, features the spry East Coast flame-hurler in his most mature mind state to date rapping so creatively and so personally on issues affecting people the world over, to incredible beats made all the more unique by their handpicked samples from Webby and his producers’ playlist of favorite songs from their youth, time-honoring their early influences but especially Webby’s special character and personality.  Once again, Webby shows here that he is a plowing steamroller of a emcee to be reckoned with in the industry and a true rapper by the strictest, most original definition of the word (something that's getting harder and harder to come by these days), handling subject matter relevant to all, not just some people.  

At a time when superficial trap rappers and money obsessed copy-cat artists flood the hip-hop music scene, Webby adds intelligence, insight and messages severely lacking in the genre.  Even his fun-oriented songs are infused with modern day social commentary and a fresh spin on how their pastimes should be approached.  “Knocked Down,” taking from the Chumbawamba smash hit single is very creative for being essentially a drinking song made without sacrificing good lyrics, and “Ignition” featuring Dave East is mindful of that not-too-far-off R. Kelly catchword/metaphor in its title and draws influence and inspiration from Hot Boy Juvenile by way of Webby’s delivery and technique for part of the song.  “Sativa” featuring Demrick, B-Real and Zacari and “High By The Beach” both have the courage to not be ashamed of enjoying some weed.  All the other songs display Chris Webby’s rapidly progressing growth as an artist, man and adult.  Each serves a noble purpose with heavy meaning and usefulness for any and all listeners.

“Webby’s Lab 2,” the intro, features a charged energetic Chris Webby flaunting entertainingly stacked backpacker’s lyrics.  He is anti-stuff and anti-things and admits he could no doubt use that good hip-hop dough but recognizes that his lack of proper paper does help to fuel his immense creativity and artistry.  Similarly, in “Dat Piff (Freeverse),” a fantastic traditional freestyle, he is anti-materialism and will not pipe down until he’s made it clear that he’s been working tremendously hard in the game for quite some time now.  “On My Way” is brightened by its motivational aspect and its advancement of reaching for far-off goals, and “Full Steam Ahead,” assisted by Tempe, Arizona-based rapper Futuristic, likewise champions the pursuit of goals and achievements.  “Can’t Complain” (ft. Anoyd) and “Jurassic Park” (complete with sound edits from the movie) proceed in a comparable vein.  In the first, Webby is grateful in life for what he has and where he is, and in the latter, he is confident in his vocal communicative abilities and aware of his greatness since too few seem to acknowledge it at the adequate level and degree.  

The pièce de résistance, “Questionnaire,” is just a wonderful crystal clear rap song in which Chris Webby holds a candle to the status quo with his mind boggled about how people allow greed, deviance, destruction and evil to shape world affairs, revealing his awareness of all the injustice and wrongdoing going on right in front of us.  With help from Jaye Michelle, “Imperfect” discusses mental problems like insecurity and anxiety and how substances simply do not cure them.  Webby does have an adult point of view on the matter of recreational drugs however, testifying in “Inebriated” that some types under the right conditions and in the right amounts are simply not as bad as they’re talked up to be, but from experience, he also knows just what drugs will get people in trouble.  In the last track “Chemical Romance,” he raps about breaking up as it were with Molly (MDMA), Lindsay (cocaine) and Sandra (Xanax), in perfect analogical form so he’s surely no outsider looking in.  He’s dabbled in these things, and he knows just what to avoid and what is safe.  Very quickly, two other noteworthy gems are “Outside The Box” with another Arizonan, Sincerely Collins, and “Cali Dreamin’” showcasing guest Jitta on the Track.  The first exudes optimism with the message being to think critically, independently and for yourself, and the second expresses Webby’s joy of making it big out West where dreams are born to a rerecorded sample of The Mamas & The Papas’ original “California Dreamin’” (1965).

Chris Webby and his guests and producers have positively worked their butts off overtime in the lab to bring us this very deserving, very worthy sequel to Webby’s 2011 Webster’s Laboratory mixtape.  The extent to which Webby forwards the art and integrity of emceeing is beyond measure here.  He’s very serious about taking hip-hop to greater peaks and heights, plus he’s gone from being seen as a fly-by-night sensation in rap to a down-for-the-cause, in-it-for-the-long-haul practitioner of moving, musically driven rhyme-poetics with both a hard edge and likable sensibilities.  He’s grown-up, lyrically amazing, and majestic side by side with his productions and so much more than a party boy here, something that some folks thought he might be confined to since his 2014 debut LP Chemically Imbalanced.  That project had glimmers of hope, but it wasn’t until now that they’ve come to full fruition via Webster’s Laboratory 2, an intensely pleasurable, insanely creative and respectful mixtape of grand album-proportions.  Give it up for the genius mad scientist of rhyme himself, Chris Webby!

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 4, 2016

Dizzy Wright decompresses, cools out and gets a few things off his chest in 'The 702 EP'

The 702 EP by Dizzy Wright
Las Vegas emcee Dizzy Wright is still in a "good place" with his music, and being on his second solid EP of the year so far, he's definitely doing more for his career and fanbase in the long run than he may think now.  On Saturday, July 2, Wright independently (nice) released The 702 EP, a homecoming set of records for him, a time to relax, take a vacation (if only in verse) and air out some grievances, relieving himself of a lot of built-up tension in the process.  The production team handling the music duties includes most of the folks who worked on Wright's February '16 Wisdom And Good Vibes EP adding Louie Haze and LarryMakingAllTheHits with good guest work supplied by Easy Redd, Reezy and Sk8 Maloley.  It's a concise eight-track update from perhaps Nevada's best active rapper at the moment and a good steppingstone between LPs for the young lyricist.

There is never any shortage of energy in Dizzy Wright's vibrant line-spitting here.  Any search he might have considered going on for the most clever original rhymes in the making of this album was evidently sidetracked, since his main focus is on going for a specific feel, mission and message - in this case, take a load off, shout out LV, have some fun, stay motivated, get a little political, identify toxic relationships and maintain defenses.  There are moments in the first four cuts where Dizzy Wright sounds like a typical mainstream rapper more so than in his last two projects, but he doesn't embarrass himself or make himself look a fool.  Again, that is his hangout, me-time section of 702, and he's careful not to commit any form of lyrical suicide or faux pas common among some other rap personas or embellish about his life beyond belief.  He's not an angel, but he's far from being a devil as well.  702 is about Dizzy Wright the real person, not a character called Dizzy Wright.

The whole procession has a general gentle sway, hardly ever banging thunderously production-wise.  It perfectly captures the mellow hazy feel of Wright's western home stopover before the Golden State.  The EP is in fact good despite starting a little disappointing in content, but it ends with a very good, purposeful second half.  It appears that Dizzy Wright is just about past or on the road to getting completely over the problems with and memories he had of his prior, now defunct, label home Funk Volume, not to mention his mixed feelings about the fans' reaction to the disbandment.  He exits 702 focused, directed, on-guard and more experienced and wise than before.  Hopefully he sees now that to make his next LP totally next-level, he'll need to move on from the past and rap on even newer trends, happenings, social movements, current events in his life and so forth, while preserving his moving, motivated delivery and loyal-to-hip-hop rhyme schemes.  702 is Dizzy Wright taking a break from the chaos and madness of life, and there's nothing wrong with that, as long as his peaceful respite to retool goes undisturbed.

3 out of 5 stars