Five albums to tell you folks about this week. None are debut projects (except for one by a new pairing, Blu with Union Analogtronics), but all are catalog builders for and from established artists like Common, La Coka Nostra, Sims, Czarface and the aforementioned Blu. Let’s see how they stack up to each other.
The dreamer and believer Common is in an auspicious place in mainstream hip-hop currently. Seated on the Def Jam roster with a co-endorsement from No ID’s ARTium Recordings, the Chicago emcee and Hollywood actor seems to be at ease with the commercial backing, and fortunately, his labels have given him considerable leeway in regards to what he’s been able to say on his eleventh studio album, Black America Again. Produced by Detroit jazz musician Karriem Riggins and aided by Common’s soulful, spiritual stirrings on love, music, the arts, personal growth and obviously the plight of Black Americans, BAA reminds us how fragile the spirit of the land is in these times. At select points, Common puts emphasis on cultural integrity, morals and understanding, and casts out extravagant wealth, vanity and hate with lines like “fuck big brother, god is watching you” (“Joy and Peace”), “let no one margin [the music] and make it all about paper and first week sales” (“Home”) and “you should rhyme wherever the spirit goes” (“Pyramid”). He does good in his title track and in “Letter to the Free” where he states the issues affecting African Americans like the militant prison/police state, but some can’t help but wish that he would remark on how the very economic design of the world needs changing, since it is that which requires an impoverished class in order to keep going. Overall though, Common offers love, kindness and a path toward healing in this cynical world of ours.
The La Coka Nostra crew, made up of House of Pain veterans DJ Lethal and Danny Boy with emcees Slaine of Boston, Ill Bill and formerly Everlast, arise with their third LP release and their first project in four years, To Thine Own Self Be True. Besides supplying the complex brutal raps from the underground, the fellas also appropriately touch on society, politics and the economy on a few tracks. They “Stay True” by remaining good in a world of bad, determine who the real criminals in the drug trade are in “Blind” and show great disappointment in the harsh realities of U.S. law enforcement in “America” (with a Noam Chomsky intro sound bite from his new documentary Requiem for the American Dream in that last track). Outside of its conscious records, To Thine Own Self Be True is pretty typical for the group and their rock-em-sock-em subgenre, but it’s quite solid nevertheless.
Minneapolis Doomtree founder Sims’ third LP, More Than Ever, comes five years after his last, Bad Time Zoo, and it’s a little surprising how different this one is from his first two album masterpieces. It has a more evident mainstream pop finish than its LP-antecedents, and Sims expresses himself in less specific means and terms with fewer anecdotes and more metaphorical (sometimes vague) subtleties and nuances. His renegade bite is noticeably looser this time around, which unfortunately makes for a tamer experience for fans of rebel rap, but there are enough treats in store. For all its bouncy poppy sensibilities, “One Hundred” has several conscious, anthemic earworm-lines as do “What They Don’t Know” (“don’t shoot, they cannot put their hands higher”) and “Badlands” (“no energy for enemies, that’s how I do it”). “Shaking In My Sheets” enters into a relationship, something a little under-traversed for Sims, and “Voltaire” seems to be a tribute to the victims of the November 2015 Paris attacks that left 137 dead and hundreds more injured. If you recall, the name of Sims’ debut album from 2005 is Lights Out Paris. Is there a connection? It’s very likely. Sims’ usual brand of counterculture mixed with enlightenment and edification is needed more than ever in this day and age, but in this album, it is at least a little watered down.
The trio of producer 7L and emcees Esoteric and Inspectah Deck release the third part of their Czarface collaboration-series with almost nothing new to offer fans old or new. Like the previous two installments (Czarface and Every Hero Needs A Villain), the new one, A Fistful of Peril, doesn’t bother with creating a story for its comic cover-art. Instead, it hustles more hard-boy backpack raps with no mission. Think bars of bronze instead of bars of gold. There is mention of police killing blacks in “Steranko,” but that’s as political as Peril gets. Psycho Les, Blacastan, Meyhem Lauren and Rast Rfc give decent turns, but they don’t and can’t save the project. It would have been very fun and skilled on the part of the makers to have a plot or purpose to these raps that are meant to shock but don’t. Fans will have to wait for this group or another group to actually develop characters for the Czarface universe and move them along, but of course even that may never happen. For their efforts and for what it is, A Fistful of Peril is ok, but it could have been much more.
This year has been a very busy one for LA rapper/producer Blu, who has already released a handful of collaboration projects prior to this new Cheetah in the City joint-album with Paris beat-duo Union Analogtronics (OJ & Gold). Crenshaw Jezebel, Open Your Optics To Optimism (his best of the year so far) and Titans in the Flesh all had their forms of substance in their own rights, but for Cheetah in the City, despite some interesting new avant garde electro-sounds, it’s very typical lyrically and in a street sense, as it follows old common rap stereotypes (rarely good now and mostly deleterious) never questioning or moving away from them. Blu raps on dough, hoes, how to bait the second using the first, and other gutter-oriented themes, and he is careful not to sound too obnoxious with it so he can get away with the tomfoolery, but smart ones will see through the blinds. The only worthwhile song is “Factory” because of its message that “we gotta get our minds on something ‘cause it ain’t all about stuntin’ and frontin’” but the rest is unfortunately just a wild beast animalistically doing a number on civilized society.
2 out of 5 stars
If your favorite artist of the week doesn’t appear in the rundown, think about checking out these popping acts, or if your fave didn’t score well on this list, maybe it’s time to shift focus. At any rate, there are still plenty of new releases to come before the year is up so check back soon.