Philadelphia emcee Scholito, who has collaborated with fellow Philly friend Freeway, steps out on his own with composure in his new album, Black Lives Matter, named after the popular movement of course. In addition to having some big irresistible sounds thanks to its soul-inspired choruses and rocking beats, this Black Lives Matter disc is especially remarkable for Scholito’s crafted conscious lyrics. It’s one of only a few healthy new projects to drop in the last days of September ’16.
After an intro emphasizing that all lives, not just black lives, matter, Scholito dispenses critical, impassioned rapping on the inexcusable problem of police suppression of people in poor communities in the titular second track. He hits the nail on the head at the beginning of the song when he says, “publicly oppressed lives in communities economically disadvantaged” are the true receivers of ill treatment. “State of the Union” and “4 Letter Word” have more great street testaments and truth-telling, and “L-O-V-E” simply tells us what we need more of.
“Pawn” is a skit but with a lesson, and “Black Man” addresses the black-on-black violence that is all too prevalent in the USA and world. Dramatically but also studiously, “Bleached Whites” looks to examine Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, and “Mandela” keeps the spirited fight for sanctuary and justice alive. Black Lives Matter is a relatively short stack, nine tracks at EP-length, but with nice production from S. Frank and important words and quality wordplay from Scholito, it is both time-sensitive and timeless. Good projects like this deserve to be expanded into LP-size, but as it is, it’s a solid attack on hate and good momentum for Scholito.
The Brooklyn golden age style rhyme-sayer with the Jay-Z flow known as Skyzoo has nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide after closing up some of the options available to him at the onset of creating The Easy Truth with Mello Detroit producer Apollo Brown. Still knowing who they are and that they haven’t ever collaborated on a project before as extensively as here, the coming together of these two men remains a predictable happening. They’re a lot alike hip-hop wise and their artistic track records are very consistent, almost painfully so, so it’s not a stretch to expect The Easy Truth (Sept 30, Mello Music) to sound like the works they’ve made before. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what it does. The Easy Truth is a strong enough hip-hop project, but it doesn’t come out of left field for these two particular artists.
You’ll most likely make it through the first five songs of this fifteen track set with few or no qualms. Although Skyzoo fashions the typical East Coast rapper traits in his typically nostalgic style, materialistic though they may be (“Jordans and a Gold Chain,” “A Couple Dollars”), we do get some sound guest contributions from Patty Crash, Joell Ortiz, Conway and Westside Gunn plus an interesting violin sample by Brown in “A Couple Dollars.” Mostly however, we begin to hear Skyzoo’s branded tales of woe and triumph from the streets in these starting cuts.
“The Vibes” and the Stretch and Bob Show freestyle both pass without making any astonishing impressions, as do “Spoils to the Victor” (sounds a little like a war theme, eh?) and “Visionary Riches” (really? riches? again?), plus “They Parked a Bentley on the Corner” just gives away by its title that it’s going to have some lame form of car-idolization in it. Moving on, the beginning speech by an unnamed man in “The Flyest Essence” about not chasing and keeping demons and whatnot is inconsistent with Skyzoo’s vehicle fetish and romanticism of dealings past.
In “Innocent Ambition,” his presumed coolness for being a self described all-seeing drug game vet (like Jay-Z) arrives late in the evolution of hip-hop at this point, and in general and as per reputation he’s vague, subtle, indirect, even subliminal about the nature of the events and situations he’s supposedly learned from, but no amount of beating around the bush will hide the storied and reformed ghetto-puritan/ex-slanger character he’s putting behind his bars. “Care Packages” is a fairly obvious one – Skyzoo is taking care of some of his jail babies by sending them some special mail, and via filler-esque methodology, “Payout” (again with the money, LOL) and “Nodding Off” make little or no impact besides showcasing Ohio Maybacher Stalley in the former.
The fact that the first thing we hear off the album is a speech from some guy about how most people take the easy way in life is shady and confusing precisely because Apollo Brown and Skyzoo themselves have taken a more or less easy, standard (for them) route in making The Easy Truth, which is by doing just what they’ve been doing for years now. Unfortunately, this LP sounds like all of Skyzoo’s previous albums and the same goes for Apollo as well. God love him for how good he is at what he does, but all his beats sound pretty much the same here. This nonthreatening harmless and risk-less album stops well short of telling it like it is so it should be well embraced by the masters of the marketplace universe. In reality right now, the truth is NOT easy like how the makers of the album have conducted their business here (and how they named the final thing too). If Skyzoo and Apollo Brown really want the truth, they just got it.
Voice-stretching Detroit boy Danny Brown did the natural thing since dropping his 2013 masterwork, Old. He took enough time to craft a worthy followup, and while the timing is correct, what we’ve been given – his experimentally produced, lyrically safe fourth studio album Atrocity Exhibition – is solid but also somewhat of an expectable product for Brown’s standard at this particular juncture. The LP, which comes out Friday Sept 30 via Warp Records now available to stream early on Spotify and Apple Music, might be the victim of a little commercial overhype, not to the level of something like a new Drake or Kendrick album, but enough mainstream attention to wear down the glossy idea of the album a little for underground fans. The bottom line though is once you get some of this A.E. in your ears, you won’t easily regret listening, as long as you like hip-hop.
Like it or not, this A.E. Danny Brown is the same old Danny as before. We step into typical rockstar scenes of sex and drugs in the opener, “Downward Spiral,” with music of an unusually warped twangy door-shuttering type. The beats on the album, which deserve some high remarks, are sounds that don’t usually go with each other tossed together in the same receptacle, unfamiliar off guard catching instruments like the pushing horns of “Ain’t It Funny” and the easy-on sample in “Get Hi.” Back to the topics – a few cuts deliver words of meaning and message, but most of Atrocity Exhibition is dedicated to nurturing Danny’s crazy (rarely violent) side, once again. The mind-murked party times and quick spending of “Golddust” and “Pneumonia” and the hoe-complaints of “White Lines” (think about that title for a second) obviously won’t deliver something else as far as rap goes. A few of these songs seem to almost speak for themselves simply based on their names, and in general, it feels like the darkness we’re met with is a result of and combatted with more darkness or darkness to begin with.
When Danny decides to let some light show in, his offerings can be pretty thought-provoking though. “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” discusses various circumstances of the disadvantaged lifestyle with Dan giving particular instances and examples from his own beginnings of course, and similarly, “Today” has Danny warning of gun-toters and the general warzone-like conditions of the slums. “Hell For It,” which has the media-termed Iggy “diss” (more like a harmless jab), includes a fairly good deal of deep thinking by Dan, and it turns into an iron-willed promise to us that he’ll keep on, which we’ll need considering some of the album’s evident shortcomings.
Danny Brown should be complimented for the level of awareness he’s reached here but he should also be critiqued for not going far enough with it and coming close to falling on his face so to speak in terms of his staple goofball-ism. There is not a plethora of growth here by him, and if he is trying to be seen as a far-out rebel, he’ll only be able to convince mainstream audiences. Plus, it may be time for him to tone down his wild-man persona somewhat. It’s naive to think the reckless party animal in him would survive this long without more detraction and more pressure to improve. It was his signature wonder in years past but perhaps not now. On the other hand, the production by Black Milk, Paul White and others is so different and out there that it deserves some special praise. The biggest issue is that Brown in Atrocity Exhibition spends much time repeating the same talking points and tones that appeared on his previous projects. He frolics to conventional haunts instead of making many bold new renegade statements, but what we’re served here at the end of the day is definitely not an irreparable mess-up.
Hydrated rapper and mellow muse Mick Jenkins from Chicago has released his debut studio album, The Healing Component (Sept 23, Free Nation/Cinematic Music), and if you were hoping it would stack up to or outdo his critically acclaimed 2014 mixtape, The Water[s], think again. T.H.C. is a solid LP but not much different from the wavy one’s usual currents. It’s essentially an extension of the type of work he’s been doing the past couple years at least, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. His mind is in the right place here as he fights to prevent slipping in life and disciplines himself to be self-aware and to love himself before trying to counsel others on love. He grapples with this over the entire project, and the soft gentle touch in the beats and his words make it tolerable if not enjoyable or exciting. The healing may not be complete by the end, but it’s definitely underway.
Mick toys with the traditional three verses per song structure of typical rap here as he sometimes delivers only one solid stanza per track. The rest of the time he rhythmically croons in an almost drowsy r&b fashion, but whatever his mode may be, the general feel is strictly languid and listless, with too much similarity and consistency in the music production across all songs, despite the fact that it’s manned by a band of different producers including THEMpeople, Kaytranada, Rascal, BadBadNotGood, Sango, etc. In other words, don’t look for variety of attitude and emotion. Mick and his guests (theMIND, Noname, and more) are either confident in the power of love or a bit lost, sorting through mixed troubled thoughts. Sometimes Mick deals out true philosophy (thoughts saying “all that gold is overrated” and “what do you do with your coin?” pervade “Spread Love”), and other times he shows the conflict and contradiction in his ways: “I can see the bullshit in all of the retail, still I copped the Yeezys though, I bought them hoes resale” (“Love, Robert Horry”).
Mick Jenkins spends so much time being deep and intelligent or trying to be that we’re never thrown a curveball. There are literally no surprises in store. The Healing Component can boast of maturity and introspection, but it chugs along in one casually cool way at one peristaltic speed, that you can’t help but get a little bored by it. For all its faults though, T.H.C. is an achievement in cloud rap with its sleepy communiqués on intriguing philosophy where Mick’s ubiquitous water theme occasionally presents itself and where the fight for trying to get to a healthy enough place to justify speaking on how everyone else should live is a constant never-ending battle. The Healing Component is simply a stable foundation and launch pad for Mick Jenkins to further mobilize future works.
Don’t confuse Audio Push’s debut album, 90951, with Jay Rock’s second LP (90059) because while they both look the same, they both provide two different treats for the ears. Jay Rock’s sophomore feels a bit more embedded in the grit of the L.A. street scene whereas the long awaited 90951 album from the Inland Empire dynamic duo covers the greater diaspora of their Southern California brethren and community. Most importantly, now is the time for Audio Push, not their contemporary, to shine the most. Oktane and Price of the celebrated unit, though products of their hip-hop influences and environment, join their young progressive peers already making strides in the game with this mellow meditation that challenges the intense industry of modern society.
Before loosening up at the end, A.P. ponder what made them and how they want to help shape the world for future generations. Single mother-managed households are cleansed with “Ghetto Fabulous Filtered Water” in the opener before the regionally anthemic “Leftside” provides the time and place for the guys to dodge attempts by the powers that be to puppet-string them in the cool breezy “Control Us.” In fact, that is generally what the whole album is, cool. It’s too laid-back to be an overt protest LP, but the cool wisdom definitely goes some ways. Who knows how much more vanguard 90951 could have been in its ideologies had it not tried so hard just to be so stylish.
Audio Push have more or less saved themselves and their chances in this debut, and yes it is a lot of what we’ve already received from other new age artists, but it’s good and solid for what it stands for. The two emcees have started to enact a worldly change from within themselves, mentally, just as they should, even if they’re still holding on to one or two problematic tenets of the establishment (car love, the force of habit to keep pumping dollars into the system, etc). 90951 doesn’t shout revolution but tosses it around, more accurately, in a chill underground circle that includes Musiq Soulchild, BJ the Chicago Kid and Kent Jamz among a few others. This is a disc that transfers you into the spirits of Audio Push. Just beware that the lifestyle might feel a little borrowed.
Because we’ve seen so many musical tributes paid to the ladies over the years, some probably hoped that Mac Miller’s new fourth LP, The Divine Feminine (Sept 16, Warner Bros/REMember), would drastically change course from criticizing women in rap to praising them (while helping to beat back the media-expanded gender wars and battle of the sexes), and while it does praise women in one particular aspect, it doesn’t in others. Thank heavens it doesn’t lampoon them. Except for a small snippet at the end, the album approaches women just as lovers and relationship/sex partners. With such a loaded title, shouldn’t this be about all the roles they play in this world including but not limited to mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, nieces, workers and home-keepers?
Almost immediately, you can tell that Mac won’t stray from his subtle, gentle one-track mindedness on the “dirty deed” and the feelings of being coupled. He and his invited producer friends like DJ Dahi, Vinylz, Frank Dukes and longtime collaborator ID Labs have assembled a variety of soft tracks to loosen the chicks up and get them in the mood. Lovey strings atop lead to danceable grooves in “Dang!” which open for Donnie-like trumpets in “Stay,” where Mac does his best Chance The Rapper impression. Considering that all of Mac Miller’s LPs up to this point have been composed by a mixed bag of beat-makers, isn’t it about time for the guy to make an official studio album produced entirely by himself, Larry Fisherman?
Miller cruises through this project crooning in love ballads for seemingly more time than he spends hard-rapping. It feels like a soulful r&b album more than a hip-hop one in several spots, no question. It’s a blend of the two genres really. Still, we must go back and revisit Mac Miller’s tunnel vision on the bond of love itself. It’s ok if that’s the concept of the album, but why didn’t he add some all-encompassing appreciation for everything women are and do? The highly sentimental ending speech in “God Is Fair, Sexy Nasty” given by a nameless woman tries to build on what Mac Miller started but doesn’t pull it off, and it comes off feeling very formulaic and by the book. Like the majority of his guests here, maybe it all has to do with Mac’s young age at the moment. In “Soulmate,” he perhaps describes his current mindset best when he says, “my eyes closed, your body is all I see.”
Magnetic pimp and Mello Music Group feature-artist Kool Keith returns with his second album for the label, Feature Magnetic (Sept 16). The Bronx master of alter-egos and wacky rhymes has found renewed vigor in the game of recent, having released eight albums in the last five years. His hardwork is evident, and the fans have definitely been receiving his work kindly, as they should. Feature Magnetic surely brings the proven Keith thrills, and it closely resembles most if not all of Keith’s post-2010 projects, for the better or worse.
Craft-loyal guests from Keith’s own book of contacts play a major part, and besides the more frequently seen names, it’s more than nice to hear from artists Godfather Don, B.a.R.S Murre, Dirt Nasty, Psycho Les and Bumpy Knuckles (a.k.a. Freddie Foxxx). Kool Keith essentially combines all those things that make him who he is for Feature Magnetic – sex, flossing and idiosyncratic posturing, and he does it in his lyrically attention-keeping fashion as usual. It’s the typical game plan for him so the unexpected, by Keith’s standards, rarely presents itself.
When the unpredicted does show up, it is in the form of a few messages folded into two songs in particular. In “Tired,” Keith is somewhat personal and heartfelt in his frustrations as he goes through his history and his long intrepid career in rap. Edo G is likewise poignant and intriguing in that same song. In “Life” featuring Sadat X, he and Keith jam out on the topics of decisions, choices and which path to take in life. Keith’s conscientiousness for his fellow man has him advising that, “if you see a junkie, kneel and give him cold water and tell him little kids is looking, get up.”
On the whole, there are more of those run of the mill, fun and wild Kool Keith moments than shocking or politically conscious ones, but that’s not to say Feature Magnetic is bad, just that it’s settling into some repetition for its author, a cycle that Keith will have to break and innovate from more if he’s to advance. In fact, he should spend a little more time away from his characters and more on his wise ballsy adult side at this point. The good thing is you can sort of tell he wants to start doing that here. All things considered, Feature Magnetic has enough good rhymes and Kool Keith personality to steer clear of major trouble.
Scrublife rapper Wax (Michael Jones) just got in some end-of-summer grilling last week in his fourth studio album, The Cookout Chronicles (Sept. 2, Scrublife Music). The funny, relatable everyman-emcee has once again writ-and-spit plenty more super clever, super witty rhyme creations to non-flashy, non-poppy feel good beats, the kind that buzz, hum and click away in the back and against the wall like the cool dispositioned, simple natured Wax-man himself. He really knows how to bring the heat to the meat, or rather to a beat that is.
There definitely seems to be love in the air for Wax here, or at least at the end of the day, after he’s gone through bouts of breakup, confusion, longing and questioning. His “First Love” (and those that came after) have him postulating that his past girlfriends left because they couldn’t compete with and were maybe jealous of his favorite passion – rap, and with Queens, New York firecracker Awkwafina, he takes a ride on the wild side in “Love Will Make You Do Dumb Shit” to share stories on crazy irrational romantic flings. You can like it or not, but Wax eventually goes back to believing in that timeless, age-old amorous feel in “Never Thought I’d Be In Love Again.”
What remains are the fascinatingly truthful, frequently hilarious and titillatingly lyrical journeys and jaunts of the controlled goofball in Big Wax circa early to mid 2016. He’s poked fun at himself in the past about his relationships with drugs and alcohol, but this time he takes it to the next universe in “A.O.” describing a new bizarro world version of Alcoholics Anonymous that is both pathetic and laughable at the same time. Prepare to be blown away though for real because as per usual Wax brings more than enough of his wig-splitting writing and lyricism: “I remember people’s asses like a Tempur-Pedic mattress” (“Chunky”) and “I’m the most scholarly shopper on a shopping spree at the dollar tree” (“Reborn”) are just two juicy cuts to sample.
Since the beginning, Wax has had a very unique way of characterizing himself in the game, which is as a carefree regular guy, a lovable loser sometimes even, and with amazing rhymes, it’s very difficult to pass up what he’s serving up here. He sure knows how to get a flame going and keep it lit at this hip-hop barbecue of sorts. If you’d like to get picky, the productions really can’t be called revolutionary or even very outstanding, but the words make up for them enormously. The Cookout Chronicles is not the most ambitious Wax project out there, but it definitely ties with Continue for being his most chuckle-inducing studio album so far.
The “rhythmatic eternal king supreme” himself Reks (Corey Isiah Christie) from Lawrence, Massachusetts, while not a direct product of one of the major East Coast metro zones like NYC, Philly or Boston, has also never been given flack for his style, which is just as hardcore and authentic as the most craft-conscious emcees that came before him. A true student and practitioner of hip-hop, Reks, who had breakdancing and B-boy starts in his youth, also developed his rap skills at an early age during the nascent years of the music, the 1980s. Since his career began up to this day, Reks, now in his late thirties (young enough to still have fire in his lungs and belly and old enough to guarantee super sharp maturity in his words), has never given in to media gimmicks or fads and has constantly eschewed the fake, relying staunchly on the trusted principles of his trade.
Friday, September 9 marked a very special day in his career, the release date of his tenth album, a discursive double disc entitled The Greatest X (The Greatest Unknown). An issue of Brick Records, Reks’ independent fallback label-home since his 2001 Along Came The Chosendebut, The Greatest X is without a doubt his most standout LP since he dropped Grey Hairs with Statik Selektah on ShowOff Records in 2008. He is as pointed as ever with his vocals and messages, it’s packed with tons of fantastic material (just over two hours worth!) and the guests are no lame industry role players but rather Rek’s own well versed rap friends.
First off, the discussion topics that Reks covers could never be handled by most of the sloshed clowns and poor excuses for rappers now in the industry, who are marketed and promoted on countless hit or miss platforms, so the rich extensiveness of this project is really a rarity. As listeners will see, Reks maintains an articulated, enunciated, rhyme-filled delivery all the way through, and it’s because of this delivery that he’s able to extend his ideas clearly. Reks’ foray into addressing politics, street crime and violence is the first especially notable trait, with plenty of pressing urgency in his tone to emphasize his points. He admits that Obama, the current head-of-state spokesperson for the American business class, and his administration really didn’t change anything in America over the past eight years, and he skewers the careless cult of corrupt politicians in the intro and expounds on the situation in “Hands Up”’s talk on unlawful knee-jerk police and the prison industrial system. Later on, he has some choice words to say about Trump, Hillary and even Bernie Sanders in “Impression, Sunrise.”
His roots run deep because he goes back to his childhood a few times at least, whether it be to mentally stir on the good (“H.I.P.H.O.P.”) or the bad (“1980”). As he should, he also notices a generational divide in society these days. Bringing up the loss of substance in hip-hop and how some values of the past are missing in the kids today plus commenting on the general move away from golden era boom bap and tradition (scary stuff in a certain light), Reks has cause for concern. He’s like a musical scientist the way he meditates on and analyzes hood problems like racial discrimination, gun violence and the formation of hate, conflict and aggravation in the economically oppressed.
Above all, The Greatest X would not be as great as it is if not for its bright, positive spots. Two in particular, “Good Women, Thot Bitches” and “The Promise,” are odes to the search for love, and almost as if Reks is deliberately not trying to look for romance for too long, he digresses to other more pleasant pleasantries. The conscious Reks, all about the mind, motivationally communicates to us his confidence in and respect for the demoralized, down-and-out youth in “Future Kings,” gives his take on how to handle stress in “Cigarettes 2” (hint: it doesn’t involve cigarettes), and claims “he is his own institution” who listens to his inner counselor and turns away from the poisons that others try to feed him in the “Intuition” denouement. Track thirty-five “Yesterday/Today/Tomorrow” is even more pure wisdom and divine bars in which Reks shares his memories of learning how to be comfortable in his own skin – pigment, style and all.
You have to respect Reks because his attitude, personality and “stilo” are all grown and smart to the max here. This is a gargantuan undertaking, and it’s outstanding from top to bottom, plus it has no filler, which is surprising because it’s huge. It is relentlessly traditional in a very good way and the exact way hip-hop should be: lyrically challenging, out on the edge and risky. If we look at the guests, it would be unfair to name only a handful of them and skip the rest. They’re all great, hard-knocking and esoteric. We’re talkin’ restless emcees from the basement, real cellar dwellers from the gritty catacombs of the game. On the beats, the incredible music-production is an old style, sample-heavy set of new crate creations from masters Large Professor, Alchemist, Statik Selektah of course, Nottz, Black Milk, Buckwild, MoSS, Streetrunner and Apollo Brown among several other maestros. The Greatest X is real rap with right-on social/societal awareness.
If there is one thing that West Coast hip-hop is not short on, it’s groups. Since the golden era days, crews were springing up like mushrooms, especially in Cali where early groups like N.W.A, Compton’s Most Wanted, Cypress Hill and Digital Underground gave way to Hobo Junction, the Hieroglyphics and the Souls of Mischief who themselves were soon joined by peers from Freestyle Fellowship, Living Legends, Project Blowed, Abstract Tribe Unique, Strong Arm Steady and still other posses.
From the San Fernando Valley came another clan during the late 1990s. The four-member Styles of Beyond gathering, made up of emcees Ryu and Tak, DJ Cheapshot and producer Vin Skully, have released three LPs since 1998, the last of which, an excellent double disc offering entitled Reseda Beach, dropped in 2012 on Dirty Version Records. Now Ryu has decided to spread his wings and depart from the nest, as he takes flight in Tanks For The Memories, his new solo album out Friday, Sept 9, on Wildlife Records.
In “Radio Pollution,” we figure out that Ryu and his guests are strictly out to offer hardcore backpack rhymes with support from Gravity Christ and old school great Divine Styler (yes, Divine Styler) plus a mix of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” and Clyde Stubblefield’s “Funky Drummer,” in that song. If your thing is authentic bar-spitting, you’ll definitely like if not love this album.
With production from the Styler himself and others, fun samples (anyone up for the Charlie Brown “Christmas Time Is Here” theme in “I Did It To Myself”?) and recognizable hip-hop catchphrases and sayings scattered throughout, Tanks For The Memories is a respectful ode to the craft, just good stalwart rap. It talks straight from the gut like in “The Devil Got A Plan,” a commentary on misguided kids, deranged new artists and poor partner choices.
The remaining guests include Jams, Bishop Lamont, Rhyme Syndicate and House of Pain veteran Everlast, Tak and Celph Titled so you know it’s going to sound beastly. The rapping is so hearty that you can almost see the veins popping out of Ryu’s neck as he spits so there is no lack of substance in that department, but there is also a default for impressive verbal linguistics over controversy and risk-taking, which Tanks needs more of. It’s not gonna make many people feel uneasy or rethink their lives in other words. Its final grade therefore is a slightly above average one.
To this day, we still don’t know who killed the prolific visionary Tupac Amaru Shakur, but sleep soundly because revenge has already been had on the guilty party in the form of all the brilliant rappers and emcees that have come after him and will continue to do so. Hip-hop will live on and live on well. Although it is hard to say definitively that there was one greatest rapper of all time above all others, Tupac was the closest the game ever came to having a “chosen one.” Some will say that honor belongs to Biggie, Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem or someone else, but if you do your homework and look at the facts, it’s not hard to see that Pac had something special over all of them.
The story behind Tupac’s life is both magic and tragic. Born into very meager means but with a genius-artist’s undying ambition and spirit, he fascinated and inspired the world until he was viciously and brutally cut down in his prime at the age of twenty-five. Tupac was born in East Harlem, New York and was surrounded by Black Panther influences all his childhood, which helped to spur his lifelong fight for social rights. When he was fifteen, he and his mother moved to Baltimore, where Tupac enrolled at the Baltimore School For The Arts and manifested his theater-acting talents. All the while he remained a passionate lover of the culture and music of hip-hop.
As if the young man hadn’t been moved around enough, the family made another major relocation in 1988, this time to Marin City, California, a suburb of San Francisco. He attended classes at Tamalpais High School there, and after a chance concert that one of his teachers-slash-mentors helped to set up, Pac caught the eye of agent Atron Gregory, who had an in with group Digital Underground. Tupac soon after became a roadie and backup dancer for the crew, and after forging an unbreakable bond with the D.U. members and appearing on a number of their records, he was more than poised to go solo.
His debut album, 2Pacalypse Now (1991/Interscope), was met with solid reviews and showcased Pac’s strong, unwavering flow over tone-setting production by members of Digital Underground and others. From tracks like “Trapped” and “Brenda’s Got A Baby” but really the entire disc overall, Pac’s portrayal of the reality and somber seriousness of life in the ghetto is as sobering and arresting as anything made by all the great conscious hip-hop acts that came before him. His messages were on par with and sometimes more impactful than those by The Furious Five, Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, N.W.A, Ice T, and the X Clan.
His second LP, Strictly 4 My Niggaz from 1993, was a bigger record no doubt, as Pac applied hard pressure on the anti-hip-hop mainstream and establishment that were openly trying to suppress it at the time. Impeccable guests, beats and rhyming once again made this effort a masterpiece, plus it scored the always important hit single “Keep Ya Head Up.” In 1995, Me Against The World, his greatest studio album yet, was also his most emotionally charged at that point. Songs like “So Many Tears” and “Young Niggaz” conveyed the sadness and crushing depression that come out of crime and poverty, and they pleaded with the youth to make a better way for themselves than that found in the streets. “Dear Mama,” “Old School” and “Death Around The Corner” are of course remembered for supporting resilient conflicted mothers, reminiscing on early hip-hop and Pac’s dark eerie prediction of his close-coming destiny.
All Eyez On Me, rap’s first double disc and Tupac’s Death Row opener, is famously remembered for being made in two short weeks following his release from prison in 1995. His best rated album of all, it is literally packed with large fashionable productions, high status guests and as everyone knows, a slew of Pac’s most recognized hits. It is a major crowning achievement because of its excellence, quality, confident showmanship and its unique sounds and memory-making ability. Even more impressive, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, completely made in just the first week of August 1996 amazingly enough, is easily Tupac’s most aggressive, anxious, angsty and angriest album ever, a major reason for why it’s so brilliant. Oozing with meaning and messages in this no holds barred opus, Pac gives the sledgehammer treatment to his foes, pays homage to Los Angeles, is completely to the point in “White Man’z World” and intriguingly metaphorical with “Me & My Girlfriend.”
A recipient of several music awards and an incomparable actor of stage and screen, Tupac Shakur led a life that was of course not without loads of turbulent overwhelming controversy, much of which seems incredibly overblown and exaggerated in retrospect. On multiple occasions, Pac was accused of excessive violence, sexual abusive and even rape (the last of which he served time for), and after getting shot outside a studio in New York City on a visit with friend at the time Biggie Smalls (Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G.) in 1994, Pac fomented a beef with the rapper, who he was convinced played a part in the crime. From that event and because of the press, the news-created East Coast/West Coast feud began, with some in the hip-hop community buying into it unfortunately. Sadly, what was just a dispute between two men escalated into a contentious, bicoastal rivalry between two regions of the country, all to satisfy the media’s craving for grand-scale tension and dramatic effect.
On September 7, 1996, a grievous day that will forever be known as one of the darkest days in the history of music, Tupac was shot four times by unidentified assailants while he and driver Suge Knight were stopped at an intersection in Las Vegas after leaving the Seldon/Tyson boxing match en route to Suge’s Club 662. He was admitted to the hospital but died six days later on September 13. Several theories have been advanced to explain who was behind the murder. Suge, Biggie, the police and FBI, Crip gang members and others have all been named as possible perpetrators who in one way or another had a role in the cowardly act.
Although he wasn’t perfect, Tupac Shakur was a powerful poet and creative artist who was spiritual and transcendent but not in an overly zealous religious sense. He struck chords with just about everyone who cared to listen with his eloquent words speaking on social ills and the hood experience, and the beauty and evocative charge of the music he rapped over made the attraction and convincing potential of his songs guaranteed, fool-proof also. As an emcee, he was technically neat and could ride any beat flawlessly and with provocative feelings, and even though his posthumous albums never trumped the works he directly oversaw while living, the fact remains he gave us five classic albums and cofounded credible groups Thug Life and the Outlawz.
On this twentieth anniversary of his passing, as we reflect on all Tupac left us to ponder from his extraordinarily illustrious career, know that while the temptation is strong to deify him as a sort of messianic figure, we must remember that he was simply a man, a human being, though incredible he surely was. He isn’t a god, and we must be wary of those who might try to convince us that he was and is. What we don’t want is to idol-worship the man. No one is perfect and we must all be level-headed. Anyone with the adequate capabilities and privileges can have the same or close to the same positive impact on the world that this great soul had. Kanye West once asked, “is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion?” Let us hope not. Religions tend to exclude outside thought whereas hip-hop is about considering all types of thought. This is put forth not to devalue his achievements however. Pac was a bright star who stays shining to this day and a man of love and heart who had shortcomings but chose lasting influence with his wisdom and generous teachings. He was the first of his kind, he was the mold for so many artists, and very few if any will be able to surpass what he accomplished.
It was a long time coming for Port-au-Prince born, Montreal-raised producer, DJ and remixer Kaytranada, but he finally made it, thanks in great part to his XL Recordings-released debut LP 99.9% (May 6), a kaleidoscopic sample of where the rising talent has been, is and may be headed with his compositional arrangement skills. Louis Kevin Celestin by birth, Kaytranada has undergone a number of developments with his sound over the years, arriving on the scene now with matured artistic judgement as can be told from his inspired new style of low-key dance music in the album.
Light bass-laden vibes at the start clear up for more of the artist formerly known as Kaytradamus’ crafty electro-jams and IDM. Standard yet harmless topics await fans, but the plus is the diverse variety of features that are offered. A few rappers, including Vic Mensa, Phonte, and Goldlink fast rapping on the love-basted “Together,” experimental cutting edge bands BADBADNOTGOOD and Little Dragon, and singers from both distant and recent memory ensure that no two guests sound the same.
Kaytranada is versatile and never gets too comfortable in any one musical style, but he has no doubt carved out a spot for himself in the hearts of chill, groovy music-loving new-agers. You have to be a fan of purely instrumental tracks going in. Kaytranada is confident to the fullest in letting his creations shine all by themselves, though it also leaves a door open for hip-hop heads to be frustrated with the album’s shortage of sixteen-measure, spoken word, rhyme verses, yet on the other hand it’s also not engineered to be a rap album. Still, 99.9% is appropriately titled since it’s a cool relaxing ride designed by and for real people, not the richest one tenth of one percent.
3 out of 5 stars
Kaytranada will be performing at the Life Is Beautiful festival in Downtown Las Vegas, Sept 23-25. Get your tickets here and spread the word! #LifeIsBeautifulFest
Let’s revisit an album that came out last weekend that needs some more attention. The new RZA joint that is a collaboration with musician and singer from band Interpol, Paul Banks, titled Anything But Words (Aug 26, Warner Bros) is a very good combination of rap and rock that does not dilute its hip-hop content really at all. Banks and RZA’s relationship goes back to 2011 when they started recording together, and in fishing for new project-ideas later on, RZA could think of no one better to join forces with than Paul. The two, who draw their duo name from Paul Banks’ surname obviously with the last name of RZA’s Bobby Steels moniker, have gone all in here. As it is a mix of genres but easily considered either hip-hop or alternative rock, Anything But Words might recall memories from the flavor-experimenting days of Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit, but this is better, more mature music, less loud and less in-your-face with better emcee craft and messages on RZA’s part and strong enjoyable new-rock by Paul Banks, mastered and executive produced by both artists.
Paul provides most of the chorus vocals and main music production, but of course RZA probably helped enormously with the mixing and overall direction since he’s such a talented established beatmaker himself. Through the lyrics and instrumental compositions, the two express their inner concerns, get out their worries and vent their grievances, as the guitars and drums screech out their battle cries and RZA vomits (in well made, well delivered rhyme lines) colorful streams of real world testaments and other testy talk. Bobby discusses growing up and deciding to become a better man in “Wild Season,” serves up one of his specialties, relationship struggles, in “Love And War” and gifts us with several inspirational moments and lines sprinkled elsewhere. Despite the fact that Anything But Words comes off the table of the major Warner Music Group, RZA has surprisingly been allowed to make more than a few statements that challenge the current establishment. These allowances he has fought for in the truth-spitting department are a bit astonishing but chalk it up to the RZArector’s clout, experience and bargaining power when it comes to him getting his freedom of speech on these records.
The rock music is powerful and explosive and so is the rapping and singing. RZA is striking and Paul Banks is inspired and heartfelt. This pure product is a real powerhouse built by two impenetrable strongholds in the industry, two camps that can withstand any attack on them. For a more or less mainstream project of this nature, it is refreshing that Bobby Digital imparts all the knowledge and wisdom he does. The guy cannot make a poor project. He’s proven again that he is a true emcee and producer who has come such a very long way since his basic, early 1990s Prince Rakeem days. In proper form, it’s got Wu-Tang backing too, featuring Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Masta Killa as guests, the two other features being singer/songwriter Florence Welch and the highly credentialed Kool Keith. Big big props too go to Paul Banks, who has opened himself up to working outside of his usual mold and for sharing his skills and sounds with the hip-hop universe. Anything But Words: just a dope album by masters of their styles. Thank you guys.
TDE artist Isaiah Rashad (Isaiah Rashad McClain) from Chattanooga, Tenn kept his anxious fans waiting for his official debut LP for over two and a half years, but in truth the time gap was reasonable and just about adequate, to get the job done that is. Some take much longer to drop while others, especially those fresh off a hit, are quicker off the pedal, yet that didn’t stop Rashad from poking fun at himself in the opening skit of The Sun’s Tirade, in which a friend complains to him about the delay over a recorded phone convo. The Sun’s Tirade (Sept 2, Top Dawg Entertainment) acts as Isaiah’s first studio album, but by this time, it well nigh feels like Cilvia Demo, his January 2014 “EP” played that part or should be considered to have, since that one is actually quite good and of long play length. This album, while full in duration, is very laid-back with some dull spitting admittedly, and it feels much more like a fusion project rather than a wholly dedicated, strictly constructed, grassroots hip-hop one.
The space-staring Isaiah Rashad expresses all too familiar sentiments and gives random short-lasting thoughts in singsong delivery, and for the most part, the vibes within are slow, laggard and intoxicated, fitting in well with the up-in-the-air zeitgeist of modern day cloud rap; however, when the messages don’t offer much that is extremely new, there’s a bit of a problem. Some of Isaiah’s vocals of short hazy explanations sound like halfway tipsy slurs, not articulated bars. He should have been more upright, direct and forward with his words instead of fuzzing them in vague muddy cyphers and underprepared comments and phrases. For a TDE release, it’s got the standard type of guests, featuring Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, SZA and Odd Future affiliate Syd from The Internet but also smaller yet similar-sounding players Deacon Blues, Hugh Augustine and others.
Although it takes from new methods of acid hip-hop and experimental rap-crooning, this typical rap narrative-following Sun’s Tirade doesn’t strike hard in really any way so to speak. It does good work as an easy bluesy jazz and walking soul album on simmer, but as a boiling rap album, it just might call in sick any day now (more like any song now actually). And while fans were perhaps expecting a delicious stew or bisque with a bunch of fresh ingredients, we instead have a relatively new spin on consommé for this album, prepared correctly but with not much more unfortunately. Burbling along with his head or whole being in the skies, Rashad often has his feet entirely off the ground here. Next time he should think about coming down. Of Top Dawg’s entire rundown of anticipated 2016 releases, The Sun’s Tirade might be the weakest link unfortunately. For the record, Isaiah Rashad as a rapper is more substantial than jokers and devices like Young Thug and Future (just two examples) who are trying to infiltrate, dirty and set the game back, but there is much more he could have said here to set himself apart in a revolutionary way.