Monday, October 31, 2016

Combo Review, Week Ending Oct. 28, 2016

We’re gonna try something a little different to critique this week’s new albums since there are so gosh darn many of them. We’re gonna lump them together. Below are the reviews for the best ones left after those already published here on SwurvRadio. Enjoy!…

Vinnie Paz, aka Vincent Pazienza, aka Pistol Pazzy, aka (insert all his other nicknames here), has released his third solo LP, The Cornerstone of the Corner Store (Enemy Soil), one month ahead of schedule for an end-of-October release instead of an end-of-November drop. Slinging his sharp, vicious rhymes in that good old East Coast style he’s famous for, Vin brings more flavors from the mean cold streets of the Philly region, and he’s even got some new slang and dialect in his vocab for us. A few songs to make particular note of include the politically aware “The Ghost I Used To Be,” the golden era throwback “Nineteen Ninety Three” and the final track “Writings on Disobedience and Democracy” about the post-WWII rise of neoconservatism. Although the brutal Jedi Mind Tricks member is in his typical, trusty suit of armor here with his harsh murder raps and all, he does take some new risks in those sociopolitical tracks and his guests (Ras Kass, Ghostface, Eamon, Agallah, OC, AG, etc.) are very exceptional too, making for another strong steely LP from the AOTP booster.
4 out of 5 stars
Journalist 103, Detroit emcee and member of The Mountain Climbaz and The Left, is not your average underground verse-flipper. He always incorporates critical social commentary and real reporting from the field into his works through cunning linguistics. Marking his second studio album release with underground-famed NYC label Babygrande Records, Battle for the Hearts and Minds is a very worthy followup to 2012’s Reporting Live as J-Clip warns of the greedy profit motive of America in “Felony,” shows loving concern for his family in “Future,” conveys the devastation felt from senseless police violence in “Good Die Young Part 2” and casts a disdainful gaze on fair-weather fem boy rappers in “Evil Eye” (not because they’re effeminate but because some of them are soiling the art). J has not rushed Battle and thus has constructed several strong statements of activist-rap here.
4 out of 5 stars
The Achievement: circa ’82 by Mickey Factz & Nottz
Achievement, Mickey Factz’ debut studio album (mixtapes were his mainstay before), not only brings the strident sample beats of Soul Counselor Nottz but also Mickey’s conscious, cool and crafty lyrics plus those of Blu, Phonte, Styles P, Curren$y, Smoke DZA and more. When he’s not having fun, Mickey wants world peace and universal, single-payer healthcare and education among other things, but he does have a few conflicts of interest. He wants these wonderful things but then he’ll slip on a mink and a diamond chain or desire for class and refinement in women but not state explicitly how men have to abide by the same rules. Highly recommendable tracks are “Wants” of course and the grand finale title track. Overall, there is definitely more substance than typicality in this great Achievement, making for a hearty success for Mickey, Nottz and their features for participating in this monumental moment in time.
4 out of 5 stars
Valley of the Kxngs EP by Kxng Crooked
Slaughter-houser from Long Beach Kxng Crooked has experienced a resurgence ever since linking with Royce, Joe and Joell to make their rhyme-killing foursome, and fueled by the steam, he is already in position to drop Good Vs Evil next month, but in the meantime, we have a sampler, Valley of the Kxngs EP, his second project of the year, following the big brusque yet beautiful Statik Kxng with S. Selektah. Valley may not surprise you, but Crooked I still has fire in his bars, spitting acrobatically on the dim fate of lacking rappers on “Next” and the good feeling of receiving a healthy income in “Scratch.” There’s even a fun freestyle at the end appropriately titled “Fun.” The cold mean line-wrangler is on top of his game here, and while the subject matter is typical, it’s a good anticipation-builder for his November third solo LP.
3 out of 5 stars
Sessions by D.I.T.C.
Earlier this year, the Diggin’ In The Crates crew of NYC came out of almost nowhere and dropped their excellent DITC Studios LP (4 out of 5 stars) of classic boom-bap bangers with conscious power. The end of this past week saw the respected collective reissue that album with four new songs, “Rock Shyt Too,” “A. Barnes,” “Granted” and “Every Time I Touch The Mic.” If you haven’t already and want to take an enlightening trip back in time, check out Studios from June before diving into Sessions; however, if that’s already checked off your list and you want to get in on the new goods plus relive some fond memories, find Sessions for sure and take a listen. “It’s Cold Outside” is an incredible song and it made the cut thank goodness. DITC have definitely put in some solid studio sessions this year and the year before.
3 out of 5 stars
Chicago rapper and friend-slash-associate of Chance the Rapper released his new album, Bucket List Project, at an opportune time for him and Go-City hip-hop. Chance is still eating off his Coloring Book mixtape from May and since Saba was a part of that gravy train, he too has some momentum from it. Saba’s interesting, occasionally slack-mouthed vocal style and delivery over hazy yet firm productions give Bucket List that new-age sound. It’s just that Saba keeps to the typical rap narrative of the general hood experience without sharing many of his own unique takes or risky thoughts and such. It’s a mostly clean, sanitary affair for the young man, as he’s summoned his inner Common, Crucial Conflict and Lupe Fiasco, who makes a special guest appearance toward the end in fact. Other features include Phoelix, Twista, Noname (check out her debut mixtape Telefone from July), Smino and Matthew Santos. Bucket List is good, but Saba has to slow down his delivery a little and be articulate more of the time on fresher subject matter next time around.
3 out of 5 stars
Boy was that exhausting, but we made it through. For the sake of concision and for good reason, the obvious propaganda pieces that came out have been left untouched as they should be. Those above ought to be focused on the most, for their intelligent character. The innutritious sugar-pop artists, self-aggrandizers and self-gravediggers can be ignored completely. What a great turnout though from the good guys and gals in the music!

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 Examiner.com 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 Examiner.com on June 24, 2016.)
 

Blak Madeen push Westerners out of comfy insular confines in 'Supreme Aftermath'


Supreme Aftermath by Blak Madeen
Why doesn't the mainstream media introduce to the masses more politically charged hip-hop albums that are critical of the status quo inside and outside of the "free world" super nations of the world? Simply put, it is because they run counter to the thought-controlling agendas and programs that the establishment feeds to the public on an everyday basis. In response, let Blak Madeen's newest and third LP Supreme Aftermath level the playing field made uneven and distorted by the West's corporate elite.

This album, that was released in January by label Rhyme Dawah, was without surprise completely ignored by pop music culture and even left tragically undiscussed by many recognized hip-hop outlets for similar reasons. The Islamic Boston duo made up of Al-J and Yusuf Abdul-Mateen are known for their socially progressive ideas and their exposure of real world ills, many times initiated by the U.S. and its allied countries, so do these facts have anything to do with what seems like their commercial gloss-over? Yes indeed, and it's truly a shame because Supreme Aftermath is classic hip-hop fire.

To say that Al-J and Yusuf are backpack rappers would be just wrong. Blak Madeen have backpacks, belt bags, cargo pants and utility jackets with extra pockets packed with rhymes that would make Drake and J. Cole crap themselves. The two spit hardcore verses that are amazing and outstanding, easily said here but not easily made or put on wax the way these pros have done it. They are focused on building independent minds in themselves and in their fanbase, ones that cannot be swayed by the media and typically corrupt politicians. Not only that but it's extremely refreshing how they address foreign affairs, international conflict and religious disharmony, things so few emcees in the game rap about.

Al and Yusuf shine light on the hard harsh conditions of the oppressed classes around the world in "Long Way To Go" and the overbearing, outlandish actions done by the continental mega powers of this Earth to peoples in the Middle East in "Blood of Our Brothers." In "Words in Red," Shabazz The Disciple of Sunz of Man on the hook raps frankly and courageously on the hate and derision between the ill informed of various religions, and in "The Worst Part," the ultimate climax, they do what so many hip-hop heads wish they could hear more of and rap on a lot of interesting global phenomena: Sandy Hook, Hurricane Sandy, Obama's drone attacks, Israel fighting the Palestinians, the love for family and much more.

There are so many great lines here that quoting a few won't spoil the appetite of soon-to-listen readers. Just take a minute to think about the following ones: Coco Chanel won't deflect the flames in hell, mainstream media don't fight fair, I ain't watchin' CNN when I'm looking for the truth, the world don't move to the beat of one drum, murder and genocide in places you never heard, you can be my brother whether Jew or Christian. Do they hold any weight? It's impossible for them not to. Blak Madeen are shocking but compassionate also. They are dedicated to uncovering the truth as much as seizing upon the goodness there can be in life.

The heavily rock-based production sounds are the perfect match for the album's power lyrics. Skin Ced serves as the main producer though Teddy Roxpin, Sicknature, The Arcitype, and golden era notable Divine Styler from Brooklyn provide variety with fast intriguing piano, hard jazz and other samples, styles and flavors. The guest list is a little longer. In order of appearance, Blacastan, Gift of Gab, Cyrus Deshield, Divine Styler again but in guest mode, Planet Asia, G. Dot & Born, Shabazz The Disciple, Red Baren and Krumb Snatcha go bar for bar with our two main heroes and match their vocal unbelievability line for line in their respective tracks. Galaxies away from being radical Jihadis or anything of the like, Al-J and Yusuf bring a fair and enlightened Muslim perspective to Supreme Aftermath that takes their subgenre to the next level, over philosophical planes established by Sunz of Man, Army of the Pharaohs, Jedi Mind Tricks and a few others, groups that are also persuaded towards theories of the Mid East and Near East regions. In Supreme Aftermath, Blak Madeen tell us what is really going on in the world exactly how they should tell it. 

5 out of 5 stars

(Review by Alex originally appeared on Examiner.com on March 7, 2016.)

Rittz really is a 'Top of the Line' emcee in his third LP


Top of the Line by Rittz
Great Strange Music ambassador and commanding, torrential rapper Rittz (Jonathan McCollum) took a year off from releasing anything last year, but it was definitely for a good reason. He needed the time to perfect his double-disc-sized third studio album, Top of the Line (May 6, Strange Music Inc). The Gwinnett County, Georgia native's last album, Next to Nothing, saw some repetition with his first, The Life and Times of Jonny Valiant, but this time he's trying a few new things and they're really working for him. Besides having a longer time-length, the emotionally streaked Top of the Line is adorned with real personal experiences from Rittz's own life, lessons in tow of course, plus fresh new rhymes in Rittz's staple rapid fire delivery. There are a few down moments between the most remarkable songs, i.e. more generic guest cuts or loose parts without majorly dedicated subject matter, but the album absolutely never skitters or drags, but rather rides smoothly along through the highs and lows of Rittz's memory.

At every stop along the way, Rittz is generous with his relentlessly incredible rap-lyricism as usual, but the way he works these vocal/poetic capabilities of his around situations, stories and topics is truly something to marvel at. He is dissatisfied with parts of the game in "Ghost Story," lends a hand of support to Black Lives Matter and the anti-bullying movement in "Until We Meet Again," fights to stay away from depression and drugs in the uplifting "My Window" and "Just Say No," and humbles up cocky outsiders by informing them of the pure misery of the ghetto with Cheeto Gambine in "Diamonds & Gold." Starting in on the theme of family connections and afflictions, "KISA" cherishes reciprocated love, "Back To Yesterday" drops off separation woes, and then we seem to almost experience with Rittz firsthand one of the most devastating losses he's ever had to endure in "Nostalgia," the official closer.

Rittz can't help but be stunning here with his flows. He's got skills good enough to run a million good mills, and they're all the more useful in tracks like "Day of the Dead" and "Is That That B*tch" where he's forced to keep outrageously hateful violators and trolls at bay, or better yet drowned beneath the waters of said bay. Authentic and real to be correct, Rittz is open, honest, forthcoming and intimate about his experiences and affairs, with the hope that we the listeners can take something valuable from them to help our own lots in life, and it's all a joy ride to take in. The music can come with some calm pulsing sounds and cool rhythmic soul or harder bumping, knocking beats of household hip-hop blends. In a like manner, the name brand value is given variety from the input of E-40, Mike Posner, Tech N9ne, Krizz Kaliko, Devin The Dude and MJG (of 8ball & MJG). Although Top of the Line has the same basic structure and arguably makeup (a little) as the first two Rittz albums (just lengthier obviously), it definitely feels closer to the man's heart, and it definitely shows growth in him. Top of the Line: an all around excellent project with different shades, dimensions and flavors from Rittz.

4 out of 5 stars

(Review by Alex originally appeared on Examiner.com on May 6, 2016.) 

O'hene Savant has not 'A Lack Of Convention' in the clear-minded album éclat


A Lack of Convention by O'hene Savánt
While the portrait of hip-hop's true nature gets obscured and falsified by media-created creatures like Drake, Young Thug, Future and still others, bands of noble artists keeping the music grand and pure are deliberately pushed out of view by the ruling commercial classes of America and the other first world states. Atlanta producer, rapper and multi-instrumentalist O'hene Savant (pronounced Oh-hen-knee Sah-vahnt) is one of those good true-schoolers in the game working to preserve hip-hop's greatness. His second album of 2016, A Lack of Convention (May 4), follows a number of other projects (including Os The Great And Powerful, Illuminated, I Am Ohene, etc.) and offers clarity on examining life so that it remains worth living and a deep, inquisitive look at how people conduct themselves and how they should, if they're not doing it the right way already. He spends the rest of his time spitting some boasts and hard remarks of I-told-you-so, not to mention bluesy notes on desertion without love, but his tremendous, indelible rap-flows of élan and his intimate productions reign very prominently. Come because of the hype but leave a real believer.

O'hene's awesome lyricism and twinkly beat in "Ntro 2 Aloc" deliver him out of his shell, and again his real awesome raps and rhymes help him to give others notice of his rising come-up and to leave behind folks that never helped him along the way and people riding on his coattails now. "Login Out" and "Silence in the Morning" are elected as the album's two love-blues songs, grieving and mourning dying love and the absence from an ex-lover's departure. They're blessed with E. Snipe, Sheda B and Joey Bean Little, who with O'hene are fully devoted and indescribably expressive poetically. In between them coincidentally, the funky "Femp," or the "female version of a pimp," cuts in to warn of these times' ultra-independent woman. After the hot, creatively narrated foreplay of "Misty Love" with razzBearry Vonté, the dreadfully important "Speak The Truth" describes how the financial elite directing quote unquote advanced society from up high are intentionally keeping the masses down (through entertainment among everything else) so they can continue to steal all the wealth and power of the world in dark secret, under concealment. The specific example of overseer control and domination from which O'hene derives his true conclusion has to do with music and the consumed arts being dumbed down to keep the people stupid so they won't get smart, wise up, rise up and lead lives counter to the wishes of demonic corporate forces.

"IDC" runs free into a fun wander through the realm of not giving an f over funkedified talk-boxing. It's the type of song that people in-the-know will understand in terms of what O'hene is thinking, but it would have helped if he made it a little clearer that it is the little harmful insignificant forms of hogwash in life that he is saying "I don't care" about there. In the satire of our society's focus on ego, selfishness and self-centeredness called "A Theory of Mine," O'hene leads us to conclude on our own (self-discovery) that the key mentality is for community, connection and common sustainable values. In "Pro-gress Music," he is fed up with the reoccurring stagnation in the black community, showing very tough love and sharing the fact that progress starts as a mindset, and in "Cesare Borgia," his super conscious flow dances on time with the rhythm of his trained piano fingers. A Lack of Convention is simply outstanding from top to bottom. The wisdom is striking with O'hene's perfect delivery and the music is hip and painstakingly made to mesmerize. It's bound to come out in the wash for 2016 as one of the best efforts of the year, as we'll soon enough see. O'hene Savant is a savant in a handful of technical art and music areas, but the idiot type he could never be.

5 out of 5 stars

(Review by Alex originally appeared on Examiner.com on May 10, 2016.)

Royce Da 5'9'' flips through more great 'Layers' of his character in sixth album


Layers by Royce Da 5'9''
In a smart move, Detroit super artist and exceptional rhyme professional Royce Da 5'9'' just today, Monday, April 11, posted the online stream for his upcoming sixth solo LP, Layers (Bad Half Entertainment), which will be widely released on Friday, April 15. With it this way, substantial buzz about the album will be generated for its end-of-the-week drop and total sales. Layers is a grown, lyrical extravaganza in which Royce not only shows off his chops but also handles consideration for our fellow man and woman, karma, spiritualism over both materialism and the love of money, cheating, and American culture's vices in regards to race and popular trends. It features some of his close friends in the music and marvelous production from the likes of Mr. Porter of D12, Jake One, Nottz and DJ Khalil.

The syllable butcher from Slaughterhouse and Bad Meets Evil returns with more technical language wizardry, talking and reminiscing about his past in "Tabernacle" and showing that from one bad thing can come a good thing, a positive can present itself after a negative. In "Pray," he doesn't just pray for himself but for everybody as well and raps about the pot of gold at his journey's end in "Hard." We are invited to hear Royce share personal stories from his childhood and about his past troubles: a collapsed lung as a baby, poverty and addiction in his family, and alcoholism in his own life. Layers is nicely mixed with some skits and interludes that add wisdom and humor and setup for song ideas that come afterward. In "Shine," Royce stresses that for everyone, the pursuit of a good work ethic must replace the obsession with making lots of money. He sometimes drifts into condescending braggadocio and great complex lyrics just for their own sake, but that's his cunning calling card and it doesn't sound dull anywhere at all.

Moving right along, "Hello" serves as the assist for "Misses" featuring K. Young, where Royce documents problems with side-chicks and the general tone relates that the drama and pain that come with cheating are not worth the initial lustful desires. Another setup and assist, "Dope!" revisits the dangerous, ubiquitous drug-dealing culture of the ghetto and leads the way into "America," where Royce deals with a number of America's sicknesses, like the vast lifestyle differences between the black and white races in The States and its peace-crushing decency-destroying commercial consumer culture. Pusha T, Rick Ross, Tiara and Mr. Porter are then given openings in cuts where the greatest contributions are mainly fine strong rap-lyrics. The grand finale of "Gottaknow" and "Off" dedicates and commits itself to instincts, intuition, more good wisdom, a persistent urge to go forward and survive, and commentary on gadget-fixation, over-consumption and other problems prevalent today.

Royce's Layers is serious and sincere with a great variety of topics and awesome lyrics everywhere. If you're at all concerned for example that "Hard"'s expressed joy for women, jewelry, cars and money conflicts with Royce's other non-physical, antiestablishment feelings, that would only make you a caring, cautious hip-hop listener. But knowing the type of person Royce is and his reputation for substance, artistry and meaning in the music suggest that these are just naturally some of the things he likes and that he quests for a secure financial safety-net and a comfortable life. Besides, that is just one song among many better ones. Some forgiveness is in order, and he probably doesn't overdo it materially in real life. Overall, he's a very respectable figure in all the layers of Layers. This is perhaps Royce's best album yet because he is remarkably more mature and conscious in it than at anytime in his past, the music is crisp and very enjoyable, and the guests are perfect all round. Royce said a little while back that he has another album, Book of Ryan, in the works for later this year, and if so, keep the music coming, Royce!

5 out of 5 stars 

(Review by Alex originally appeared on Examiner.com on April 11, 2016.)
   

'Lead Poison,' rapper Elzhi's first project in five years, is a five-star album


Lead Poison by Elzhi
Given the recent Flint, Michigan water crisis in which lead and other contaminants from the Flint River were poisoning public water works, it's either a big coincidence that Detroit emcee and former Slum Villager Elzhi also named his eight-years-in-the-making sophomore LP Lead Poison or he knew what he was doing. Granted, Flint and Detroit are a trek away from each other, but word travels fast these days and so will word of Lead Poison, a classic hip-hop album (released far ahead of schedule yesterday March 25 via Glow365). Elzhi released his debut album, Preface, eight years ago, and in 2011, he dropped what I'll call a remixtape, the kind dedication-album Elmatic, built with Nas's Illmatic as a major inspiration and guide for it.

In a work that is as much science as art, Elzhi has taken his time crafting this amazing masterwork. With absolutely no dull moments, it has the man unwinding fine creative rhymes with tons of meaning about down feelings, relationship negatives, ghetto poverty, loneliness, and the struggle to maintain and prosper. The expert, emotive music score comes from a pretty big handful of producers. Nick Speed, Bombay, 14KT, Quelle Chris of Mello Music Group, Karriem Riggins, Soledad Brother, Oh No of Gangrene, Joself and Agor are right there for Elzhi, with the appropriate samples and instrument supplements, whether his mood is sad, motivated, energetic or reflective.

The first four-song block in Lead Poison is quite depressive, but Elzhi uses his music and writing as therapy, not to mention his flawless delivery practices. He goes into the hard knock life in the formal intro, the correspondingly titled second track "Introverted." His great lyricism and wordplay are on display right away in the uninterrupted streams of smart philosophy of "Medicine Man" and continue without break thereafter. El's problems with pot and his sadness from longing and loss are very well showcased on "Weedipedia" and "February" made all the more affective with beautiful soul samples of horns, guitar and piano in at least two of these tracks.

In "Egocentric," El spits some ridiculously nice rhymes in crazy good rapping that would be insurmountable in battle. Tragedy hits home in "Two 16's" as El describes the despair and severe misfortune of two 16 year olds from the ghetto. "Hello!!!!!" celebrates communication, or more specifically the joy, magic and technique of reaching out using the device of hip-hop and song as tools, and "Friendzone" expresses righteous vitriol to girls that go for low quality dudes, chicks who choose terrible guys.

Over twinkling vibes, Elzhi raps wisdom in nimble and neat rhymes and speaks on avoiding trouble once again with more stories in "Cloud." The "Alienated" mega-piece is El's ode to not fitting in and closing oneself off from the world by force and/or by choice. It may not feel lonely, and in fact, there is something joyful in the split here, yet again, there is no escaping the overcast darkness looming over the loner Elzhi. What probably started as the depiction of a particularly sad abysmal time in El's life, this brilliantly affective song will be commonly felt by most if not all in years to come. This third block ends with "She Sucks" featuring Chris Dave, a conceptual/metaphorical story with links and relevance to one real-world phenomenon in particular.

The last section ends positively. Elzhi works hard and spreads thoughts of wanting to be self-made in "Cosign" featuring Skonie, and in "Misright," he is looking for a good "down" girl, fighting to stay afloat in a sea of constant discouragement in this matter. Thabisile Griffin has her wonderful way with words in "The Turing Point" interlude-slash-poem, and in the finale, Elzhi chucks some accurate agreeable braggadocio as well as some powerful last words of weight, meaning and lasting value, as he tapers off via a cappella recitation, "Keep Dreaming" y'all.

Elzhi has really delivered well with Lead Poison. We get to experience his prodigious pencil work of fury here ("lead"), and we're warned of some of the natural pitfalls of life too ("lead poison"). We also get just incredible hip-hop raps straight to the gut, no chaser, paired with music productions made in that old style of taking the old and making it new again, fresh. Instead of pimping, hoes, goods, gangsters, guns and green (well, except for maybe a little weed), Elzhi and his team of producers impressively convey real human emotions and feelings. They demonstrate how the ordinary can be made extraordinary with vast mic skills accompanied by equally vast music pieces, brought together in touching concoctions. May he be slept on no more. Elzhi is exquisite to the extreme in Lead Poison.

5 out of 5 stars

(Review by Alex originally appeared on Examiner.com on March 26, 2016.)

Friday, October 21, 2016

Zion I helps us navigate through 'The Labyrinth' of life in new album

The Labyrinth by Zion I
The now two decade long career of Oakland, CA’s Zion I (emcee Zumbi and formerly DJ/producer Amp Live) has surely been without commercial embarrassment but not without several great successful albums, though the journey certainly wasn’t a cakewalk. Label shifts and not enough recognition and acceptance from the mainstream for many of their LPs kept them motivated, on the move, and a mostly underground diamond in the rough. One thing is for sure however: they could always be counted on to make pure hip-hop music that is at the very least good but very much remarkable most of the time. Prior to today, their last studio LP, the winning Shadowboxing, dropped in 2012, and now, The Labyrinth LP (Oct 21, Mind Over Matter) fantastically follows suit for the now solo Zumbi, who has recruited a panel of producers including Ariano, Mikos, Teeko and Decap for the music beats.
The genre-bending and genre-blending musical style that has so magnificently marked Zion I’s run is again in fun unique and original form here, finished with well balanced sound-mixing and professional mastering and complimented with heart-to-heart rap verses. Each one teach one or when possible each one teach many is the philosophy in Labyrinth in order to escape the maze of modern day society. In representing the traditional Zion I stance of freedom, Zumbi cuts himself away from mainstream thought and harmful groupthink in “Wings,” and in “Let Me Be,” he is hip to the dirty ways of the industry, testifying that “it’s evident most rappers are rapping irrelevant, nonsense lyrical concepts are venomous, pedaling toxic ideology” and that those particular rappers do it strictly for the dough (not good). Later, in “Cold Game,” he tests the temptations and trappings of the showy glitzy status quo rapping about “lost ones caught up in fashion” and warns us saying, “caution, noose for a necktie but ‘everything is awesome,’ all about that money but that money never made a man.”
Zion I is one hundred and ten percent dedicated to spreading positive, warm loving vibes geared toward optimism, but he is also watchful of the existing demons that pounce so by no means is he off guard or too trusting. This tone can be found in the firm drum beats and Zumbi’s strong conscious vocals, as any fan can attest to. Other very noteworthy sections include the love sent to good fathers in “Not Ur Fault” and “Sauce” looking at the poor immigrant experience in America with advice to steer clear of the culture’s negative influences and “okey doke.” All play out to a cool backdrop of broad-ranging music, integrated tastefully into the tracks. The Labyrinth follows the general format, structure and outline of your typical hip-hop album with some bouncy rocking party-ready songs, but that’s fine because its nondenominational, nonreligious spirituality not to mention its vast knowledge and wisdom in super strong messages make the LP another fabulous endeavor for this true prophet from the West.
4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 15, 2016

L'Orange & Mr. Lif reach new heights in their forewarning rally-cry 'The Life & Death of Scenery'

The Life & Death of Scenery by L'Orange & Mr. Lif
Never doubt the wholesome influence and might of Mello Music Group in these days and times because though their record isn’t perfect, they keep coming back with awe-inspiring hip-hop gems that will last forever, as is the case with their latest release, The Life & Death of Scenery (Oct 14), a collaboration between the reputably great, twenty-some years strong-in-the-game emcee Mr. Lif and crate-honoring/sample-resurrecting producer L’Orange, featuring a midsize group of impeccable guests from their own picking. The album is a whole lot more than just a lyrically heavy conscious rap LP. It is an allegorical tale of an artless and heartless dystopian future, one where books, music and liberating opportunities are things of the past but from which the brilliant souls and minds of people rise up to flourish again and overthrow the totalitarian state bent on controlling them. It is equally social commentary and prophecy, driven by human strength, good intentions and a proper measure of humor. Mr. Lif and L’Orange are in top form delivering their best work yet in this lessons-packed hip-hop story.
To help narrate the storyline are four skits announced by the new radio channel created to keep the clones of the dark world in line and in order. In a quotidian segment coined “The Perfect World Radio Hour,” a faceless anchor disseminates drab news of the day with monotonous upcoming events. The first one we hear starts on day 279 (post-purge) and already the situation is very much bleak for its subjects. Mr. Lif, in “A World Without Music,” describes the effects of living under the crushing regime, where weakened thought and a deterioration of human nature and health plague all. With resilient Perceptionist emcee Akrobatik, “The Scribe” arrives with confidence to assist in deconstructing this brutal state (mind DJ Qbert’s professional handy work on L’Orange’s banging beat). Using weak rationale, our radio host tries hopelessly to deny the scribe’s greatness but he simply cannot. Lif with Chester Watson discuss the baits that lure the unknowing in “Antique Gold,” and all the way to “The Gentle End” they “keep[…] only beauty in […their] eyesight.”
The picture moves to Akrobatik again, Gonjasufi and Insight, who are there to help Lif make their fellow men and women aware of the “Strange Technology” and the “Five Lies about the World Outside” that have slyly become so ubiquitous in their lives and permeated into their existence so slickly that they’ve drawn next to no unwanted attention to them. On day 421 during the Radio Hour, the sounds of the revolt can’t help but be heard simmering and bubbling up in the background of Mr. Puppet-broadcaster, who is desperately trying to hold his program together. The voice of Mr. Lif, our hallowed truth-speaker, comes through replacing that of the now powerless “Perfect World” promoter to expose the king, sole controller of the globe, in “A Palace in the Sky” as his cold brick fortress disintegrates and vaporizes into the air leaving him “lost in the mirage of his reprieve.” End scene.
This is a happy ending. The ruthless ruler is dethroned, his institution disappears and the people no longer believe in the spiritless system force-fed to them since the banishment of quality entertainment. The Life & Death of Scenery is as much warning as it is guidance – where we might be headed (ignorant lifeless doom) and what it necessitates (unity and enlightenment). Such a loaded valuable account as this deserves more development and length as it is a bit loose and abbreviated, but it’s got progressive alternative boom-bap and picture-painting verses and it’s nevertheless a solid plot to teach that corrupt sources of power when exposed to the light (or when they become apparent to the people in the form of common knowledge) will inevitably dry up and decay.
4 out of 5 stars

Friday, October 14, 2016

The trailblazing Lady Paradox & beatsmith Gadget tell us how to manage 'Mood Swings'

Mood Swings by Lady Paradox & Gadget
Here to give us sugar and spice and everything nice, emcee Lady Paradox from Leicester, England and recording studio master Gadget have finally gotten together to make a collaborative album, coming eight years after the two crossed paths and hit it off in 2008. Eight years in the imagining and more like one or two in the making, Mood Swings (Sept 9, Millennium Jazz/Vinyl Digital) is Lady Paradox’s third album, her first two (Kind of Peace and Soulscapes & Jazz Breaks) being collaborations as well but with the very jazzy Pat D instead of Gadget. Gadget himself can claim The Dirty Thumbs Project compilation from 2011 as one of his own, and while his style of jazz may not be the same as Pat’s, the genre is definitely felt with a causal swing if you will in Mood Swings. Easygoing and rich with deep understanding of the human mind, psyche and condition, it is sure to leave you in a state of both tranquility and enlightenment.
Not your typical rap individual, Lady Paradox is still a fine emcee suspended in a peaceful meditation of good vibes and healthy thought patterns flowing side by side with her music partner. With help from the very soulful Anna Stott on “Modern Reflective,” she displays breathtaking wisdom as she unplugs from the predominant framework of society with its misleading mendacious media, going over some of the common lies and indoctrinated stereotypes that the orchestrators of society have drilled into people since the beginning of time. In exceptional rap form, she begins with a little mimicry, repeating the rhetoric of the powerful, then she moves on to describe the general feeling of citizens in the industrial world when she states, “the problem is youth, the laws they dismantle / not those in suits who are forming a scandal / I feel hopeless like morning is cancelled” … “the system enclosed us, caught on our ankles / holding us down, all of us scramble / ask questions, you’re more than a handful.”
She reminds us to make the best of life in the cool relaxing “Memory Package,” and on “Trust,” she breaks away from conformity, in a spell of beautiful poetry of course. In seeking out what it means to trust, have faith in each other and even if they still exist, she shares where we as a people are going wrong and how we should go forward: “have you ever had that feeling, alone and detached? / surrounded by people but hopeless and trapped / now that you’re grown up her moments have passed” and “fame can arouse us, celebrity status / or hide behind makeup, neglecting my neighbors / ‘people are dangerous’ is pressed in the papers / we pass the blame but society shapes us.” The second verse offers one remedy: “turn off television, choose not to listen and silence the sound, create our own drama with nights on the town.” Her mind is completely purified, going along with her skits forwarding the message that thought dictates mood which dictates one’s general emotional state and disposition. Out with the bad, in with the good.
Speaking of “in with the good,” Lady Paradox does just that with her “Favorite Things.” Emcee Efeks of Prose helps. The little things you can’t put a price on like “the smell of cut grass [and] going dizzy from getting up fast” fuel her in addition to some you wouldn’t immediately expect to please anyone – she says, “I love a bath and the way you say ‘bawth,’ people who place all their faith in the stars, people who want to be famous but aren’t, people who say they’re not racist but are.” “Where The Wild Things Are” could be its sequel because along those same lines of innocent wide-eyed learning and discovery, “Wild Things” revisits childhood, and “One of Those Days” does slow, lazy, do little off-days, those times when we just let our business and normal routines go by the wayside and wait a while. It may or may not help that Lady Paradox and Gadget express guilt from it. We all know these two will get back on their feet: “I must take distractions away, step out the mundane routines, this lack of motivation is a must change.” -Gadget
In the end and to get guidance due to her curious exploratory nature, Lady Paradox sends a “Dear Future Self” to the person she’ll soon become, asking questions about what type of woman she’s going to be, if she’s changed and most importantly how the world will turn out. She can’t tell her younger self what is to happen but leaves her with the grounded advice to “appreciate and just live your days.” To no surprise since Gadget is a fine music maker and Lady Paradox is such a different incredibly heartfelt rapper, Mood Swings is absolutely sensational, featuring the fine touch and the voice of reason of a smart young woman over sweet equalizing beats of a kicked back variety. It’s like a warm home cooked meal after a hard day’s work on a bitter cold winter’s night. It makes you feel good all over and restores you to normal. It must be because very popular hip-hop in general has too much propaganda that Mood Swings eliminates it entirely from the agenda, and to highly desirable results too. The album doesn’t suffers from the emotional fluctuations of its name simply because it knows how to work around them.
5 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 10, 2016

Swet Shop Boys cross boundaries in debut album 'Cashmere'

Cashmere by Swet Shop Boys
No f’s-giving trio Das Racist dissolved and then Queens, NY-made Punjabi emcee Heems released his solo debut Eat Pray Thug, but recently he’s been linking up with two other guys that are not Kool AD or Dapwell. The Swet Shop Boys are made up of Heems of course but also Pakistani-English rapper Riz MC and London producer Redinho. Their debut LP, Cashmere (Oct 14, Customs), is just as diverse as the backgrounds of its members. As fun and tongue-in-cheek as it seems to always lean back on from time to time, it’s also sociopolitically observant and outspoken, though it never gets extremely controversial despite some nice spots of tempered protest.
Redinho has fused together some choice South Asian and Middle Eastern instruments with strong drums and Western electro-music favorites for a very unique hip-hop production sound. In tandem, Heems and Riz cover some playful topics relieved by status quo busters that are critical of police violence (“Shottin”), media censorship (“Half Moghul Half Mowgli”), government surveillance (“Phone Tap”) and racism (several parts). As often as our vocalists here are system-shakers and establishment-quakers though, they are also fly hip talks of the town and lives of the party just as often if not more of the time.
Tailored for English language familiar rap-audiences as much as for folks from Riz and Heems’ own neck of the world-woods ethnically-speaking, Cashmere has adequate eclecticism to draw a diverse variety of listeners. Their attitude and regional tongues, dialects and slang plus their light, not-too-serious nature keep it pretty well rounded. The rhyme-lyricism and wordplay both get involved most of the time, though not incessantly, and Redinho’s experimental house-type beats make for many nice backdrop musics of a type rarely heard before. Only time will tell if this solid, substantial threesome will be able to maintain their group dynamic and cohesion over the long run.
3 out of 5 stars