Saturday, September 16, 2017

Open Mike Eagle – ‘Brick Body Kids Still Daydream’ (Album Review)

Unapologetic art rapper of dark comedy, the very open Michael Eagle II, can make any song or album extraordinary just with his lyrics, his complex socially meaningful lyrics that do get straight to the point but within layers of metaphor and deep poetics, never in basic formulaic flows that is. Simply put, Mike is for everyone, especially the highly intellectual heads. On his fifth non-collaborative LP of real stories and art-beats titled Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, he never skips a beat from his usual track. More heartfelt and personal than Mike’s been in a while, the intricate patchwork of the album (at least at the beginning) is woven with a soft fabric of tender words from the kindly rhyme-kicker. Family, perseverance through hardship and desire for relief from life pressures shape the best initial segments unless tough showing-off presents itself (“No Selling (Uncle Butch Pretends It Don’t Hurt)”) or until Mike’s staple sharp, tongue-in-cheek wit strikes through in “TLDR (Smithing).” Still, it’s all throughout the album that Mike’s rich, society-conscious observations and opinions pop up, especially in the superb ender, “My Auntie’s Building.” As a dedication and commentary on Chicago’s former Robert Taylor Homes and the situation surrounding its ilk, Brick Body Kids does a great service, for them, us and Mike himself. (4 out of 5 stars)

Prophets of Rage - 'Prophets of Rage' (Album Review)

The coming together of members from Public Enemy, Rage Against The Machine and (one from) Cypress Hill have made good on their collaboration as artists, dropping their eponymous debut LP, Prophets of Rage, to rap and metal fans alike. Head men Chuck D, Tom Morello and B-Real plus Tim Commerford, Brad Wilk and DJ Lord set off controlled musical explosions on their tracks to call attention to common people’s struggles. Together they raise their voices and instruments for the legalization of people (and weed implicitly), to question our so-called democracy, drones and surveillance and to cause collectivization in listeners and typical everyday folks. Prophets of Rage feels almost exclusively like an outlet to protest - aggressive, cynical and lacking in both positivity and musical variety outside of only hard rock - but it’s strong and relevant and really quite good at bringing to light the outrage of the many for the understanding and betterment of all. (3 out of 5 stars) 

The Cool Kids - 'Special Edition Grandmaster Deluxe' (Album Review)

It took six years, a breakup and a reunion for Midwestern bred duo The Cool Kids--Chuck Inglish and Sir Michael Rocks--to put out a sophomore LP (Special Edition Grandmaster Deluxe) but they’ve done it, and while it’s an indie release with a near roster of similarly indie guests, Special Edition Grandmaster Deluxe on the subjects-end commits the sin of repeating common low-grade tropes of a mainstream nature, despite its stylish rhyming over fresh beats courtesy of Chuck. Loose promiscuous sex, name brands and party-times typify this heavily titled project, and the few times we get nice respite from the themes occur in the comedic proportions of “20/20 Vision” and the monogamously oriented love and romance of “Symptoms of a Down” and “Gr8Full.” Okay but not fully grown up, Special Edition resembles ostensibly important releases from earlier in the year, particularly Big Boi’s Boomiverse, 2 Chainz’ Pretty Girls Like Trap Music and Tyler The Creator’s Flower Boy, projects that have something to offer from a technical rhyme and production standpoint but few messages and in fact harmful ones too. It also proves that The Cool Kids, despite what they’ve done and what they can do, are still in some ways, kids. (2 out of 5 stars) 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

¡MAYDAY! – ‘Search Party’ (Album Review)

The Mayday men of Strange Music can't celebrate the release of their sixth studio album Search Party in their native Miami, as scorned mother nature has dispatched Hurricane Irma to unleash fury upon the Caribbean and now Florida; however, no matter where they are for the initial reactions to the LP, they'll no doubt be close to fans, as supporters of the trio can now be found all over the country and around the world. In many ways, Search Party is standard product for Mayday, despite their having lost a few band members in the last few years (down to Wrekonize, Bernz and NonMS). It could also mean they’ve tried harder than usual, to get back that breadth of sound and style they had with more personnel. Basically, this particular search party has more or less found what they were looking for.

In the beginning, the guys set themselves up like conscious distraught truthseekers, with thoughts on being lost and found, the problems we as people face, and how we’re separated and apart from the true nature and essence of life and thus alone. Starting around track five though, in the “Better Place” station where the crew start to find amusement for themselves, the tone changes to a fun one for a bit, if only for a couple songs. Tech N9ne shows up and we pretty much get a real party, just enough of a party and not a crazy wild one either. The rest of the revels on Search Party pop up sporadically, in throes of flirtation found in “Have Someone” and hangouts and after hours in “Do.”

The bulk of the album then is patented Mayday pensiveness and poignancy, several times concerning romantic relationships. In “Pretender,” a one night stand is (probably rightfully) seen as an intimate rendezvous that sticks in the mind and obscures the vision, sexual attraction and urges are seen as distractions and unwanted beckoning calls in “Tempted,” and “Extra” focuses on the overwhelming nature of a partner. Needless to say, the goings get stymied due to this negativity, but it does help that in their last relationship-related discussion, “Same Old Us,” Mayday say that while the connections they’re in are typical day in and day out, they are in fact reliable, unshakably trusty.

With all this mental malaise happening, it’s no wonder Mayday make time to purge (“System”), disconnect from the everyday routine (“Airplane Mode”) and go to their coping strategies (“Save Me From Myself”), and last song “One Way Trip” is a perfect description of what getting older is—not going back to where and what we were before, for the good mostly but also for the not so good as well. From top to bottom, Search Party takes the slightest of dips as far as offering intellectual subject matter goes and this is really just the usual based on the group’s reputation, but the cool expert production is chill and enjoyable, the emceeing is still quite solid and there is just enough variety of topics to keep us tuned in, if just for one listen. (3 out of 5 stars)

Monday, September 4, 2017

Mega Ran – ‘Extra Credit’ (Album Review)

Mega Ran, the emcee with a teaching and video game-loving background, formerly known simply as Random, has a discography that’s not only quite sizable by now but very substantial as well, offering concept records with a message, conscious bars and fun clean backpack jams for all. His new solo LP Extra Credit, the followup to RNDM (2015), finds Mega Ran getting a lot of heavy feelings off his chest but still he remembers to inspire perseverance and hope in us.
Gratitude for his fans and some motivational raps to gentle drum kit hits and spacious vibes via “Journey” open E.C. and open up later to life-updates from Ran (“Form School of Feng Shui”), seriousness and determination (“Airplane Mode”) and some introspection, i.e. review of personal shortcomings (“Old Enough” featuring Fake Four’s Ceschi and the grand-slamming Sammus). The electro-peppy make-up song “Pursuant Hearts (So So Sorry)” brightens up any preceding dimness and the synoptic “Mockingbird” book dedication adds character and of course a good story recommendation.
Before the next section of happy highlights comes more demon-facing but also impressive guests. Fellow emcee/teacher J-Live tag-teams with Ran to shoo away pests in “Eyes On Your Own Paper” and Queens natural Homeboy Sandman comes through in the hook of “Bliss of Solitude,” which admits to all of our lowest loneliest emotions over trudging heavy drums. Pop singer SisQó of all people joins-in for Ran’s brag fest and urban tale of come-up entitled “Church, Pt. 2.”
Fitting is how the close is one of Extra Credit’s more optimistic parts. Praiseworthy and appreciative gospel tune “Wouldn’t Miss It For The World” leads to excitable joints like the remixes of RNDM pieces “Your Favorite Song,” “Miss Communication” and “Rushmore.” Fine, fallen Phoenix rapper Thaahum (R.I.P.) provides an end-of-career verse in the super powers-packed posse cut “Defenders.”
Without needing to, meaning all his previous works are just brilliant, Mega Ran has crafted another masterpiece. Beats by DIBIA$E, Charlie Mumbles, K-Murdock and others combine that electronic game sound that Ran’s made a signature of with smoother music elements. Mega Ran will alternately put his foot down, let it all hang out or stir on all his troubles, but no matter what he’ll always go back to the bright side at some point and even if you don’t feel he’s blown your mind, he always glows with rhyme. Ran’s Extra Credit pushes his catalogue further into grade-A territory. (4 out of 5 stars)

Audio Push - 'Last Lights Left' (Album Review)

Yes Audio Push by now have a formula for making projects but the results are usually fun and informative. The duo of Price and Oktane from California’s Inland Empire have been on several paths since breaking onto the scene in 2009 with their hit “Teach Me How To Jerk.” Signings to Interscope and Hit Boy’s Hits Since ’87 and the formation of their personal label, Good Vibe Tribe, have boiled down to mostly focus and concentration on their own indie set and business endeavors, and their new album, Last Lights Left, reflects their now fully embraced freedoms in life, art and work. 

Rapped by both Price and Oktane and mainly produced by Price, Last Lights Left, like their previous LP, 90951, has the group’s questioning, observatory messages plus style for miles guided by fresh mild productions and Cali-cool choruses. While AP showoff some typical braggadocio and boast of sexual exploits here and there, they’re quick to profess their love for positive peaceful living at other times. “Planet Earth is Live” pays homage to the late comedian and activist Dick Gregory, and the politically loaded “Soledad Story” drops thoughts on Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, police-presence resembling martial law, the early deaths of legendary artists and anti-racism. The track perhaps grabs attention most with the group’s consensus that says, “I don’t wanna rap about cars, we teleport on Mars, and even Nas told us here the world’s ours, but now everybody wanna be stars.”   

Cupid finds romance for the guys in “Stay” and some chilling and dealing with the everyday struggle commence before “Save the Sinners,” a proper ending, spreads care, consideration and compassion to our listening ears, and power to the people. Committed to being new age in some of the best ways possible although not very much so all of the time, Audio Push here are nevertheless solid paladins (when they decide to be) for liberty, equality and integrity. They’re loyal to the essentials and principles of hip-hop music, as this Triple L album is an indie release with crafty rapping on whatever the two want to discuss, including goodness and progression for them and us. (3 out of 5 stars) 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Vel The Wonder – ‘Joyride’ (Album Review)

It would be in their best interest if rappers placed more importance on wide-reaching social issues of the day over their own personality and brand, but the artist that can do both at the same time is truly gifted. The topics of discussion chosen by Los Angeleno Vel The Wonder, formerly Vel 9, for her sophomore studio album, Joyride, pertain almost exclusively to love, career success and feminism yet are issues that affect her directly. Full of energy and ready to show and prove plus represent for those similarly minded, Vel creates an ambitious, modern, womanly discourse that reveals an almost masculine nature in its toughness but with sharp wordplay and beats that are perfectly in sync with her frame of mind and mood, altogether making for several interesting pieces of hip-hop to observe.
After an intro of quiet lullaby-cries in which she yearns to be loved more in her relationship, partly accusatory of her partner and woe-is-me-sy for her, Vel in contrast goes on to make strong confident statements in between and around her biggest concept songs, which are essentially tracks three and six. A changing romantic connection is described with some elements of storytelling by Vel in “Mirrored,” revealing at the end the true face of her lover, and it’s not a person. How’s that for a metaphor? Firm to say the least, Vel’s coming-of-age, young-womanhood anthem “Woman in the Crowd” refuses to back down with harsh words for rape and higher education (community college specifically) plus sympathies for young girls today who are objectified sexually.
A bunch of decent to solid cuts down the ladder and we come to “Backseat” with its steely urban hard-talk and Kendrick Lamar recognition then “Premeditated”’s “You Don’t Own Me” sample and a violent threat to abort or erase a competitor’s unborn son. Obviously Vel doesn’t just posture throughout her album. In fact she’s no less than darkly intimidating at times, but she does have a kind, wise, caring side, imparting gems like lines saying “if this doesn’t kill me then it makes me grow” from “Passenger” and “the world’s a test so let the lessons make it easier than hard” from “Pursuit of…” and last but not least “it’s not encountering evil, it’s how you counter the evil” in “Woman in the Crowd.”
Vel The Wonder’s Joyride might not be very wonderful due to its dim slow production (that won’t be recalled or remembered as hit-making) and the absence of singers but mostly because of its narrowly picked social issues, which are not many and ones that cannot be related to easily by those outside of her own niche-y clique. Vel is a good emcee but she’s not always extremely careful to make every word memorable, sacred or effective, regularly tossing out backpack-type rhymes that are not crispy clear at first instance but pushed through nonetheless. Plus the album tends to get caught up in accepting and advancing the whole bulk of its counterculture ideology with little time left over for independent “cafeteria”-style belief-selection. Even with all that considered, Vel in her sport is a surefire emcee-killer, the good kind, for the most part, with love and loyalty for real hip-hop music and not for archaic regressive thoughts or practices that are likely to devalue her or hold her back. All such traits are exemplified to the fullest extent in Joyride. (3 out of 5 stars)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Hip Hop Album Reviews, Week Ending Aug. 18, 2017

New albums by Otis Reed, Declaime and Esh are as mind-expanding as anything we’ve seen so far this year. Otis Reed returns as a King and a G in his fourth LP, the decorated Declaime is still a young free spirit though many albums into his seasoned career, and relative newcomer Esh from the Northeast(ern Seaboard) is climbing the ranks at rapid pace.

Otis King: Return of the G by Otis Reed (Palmtree Entertainment)
With Otis King: Return of the G, Fresno’s Otis Reed follows his 2013 self-titled debut plus 2015 albums Otissy and The Mind Activation of Otis Reed AND 2016 mixtape Otis King with a career builder unlike any other. Reed may show a hood-unique sense of humor in “Woke AF” and “Taco Truck Pimpin’” and simply kick things off with coolness, in “Coolin’” and “Chill With You (Janet)” of course, but later in, the serious sage delves into racial disharmony and extremely urgent family problems that are tearing us apart and need attention. Before that, in “Why Would I” for example, we see through his stories the rough surroundings he’s risen from so we know he’s a legitimate, authentic messenger.
Reed’s discussion of sobering family issues that basically makes the album begins earlier but picks up the most speed in “Suffocating” and doesn’t decelerate until the end of track seventeen. Reed flips the light switch on how blacks are still stereotyped and uniformly profiled in negative ways, truly conveying how terribly frustrating the system is to its victims, subjects if that’s a more appropriate word. Afterward, Reed is critical of other crimes and foolishness he’s seen, especially the disintegration of the family unit in the hood.
Sadly but bravely, in “Lil Men,” Reed puts out in the open air that dynamics in the homes he’s witnessed are just dirt poor, sometimes nonexistent. He admits to a plummeting shortage of character, morals and values in his kin through “On The Low” stories, and the stone cold “Gramfather” sheds embarrassing light on fatherlessness and the ill placement of social media above both time with blood relatives and a real presence in the lives of those we’re supposed to be close to.
In a way, albeit subtly, Reed recognizes the higher societal pressures working on the poor because “Smile on Yo Face” acknowledges the difficulty folks have in holding their families together, without some of those major elements like guns and drugs involved. Inspiration and Reed’s further ability to relate to hard times germinate through “Head to the Sky” and “Growing Pains” which lead to “Black Washed (Jukebawks Remix),” a questioning song on racial prejudices and how some inflexibly box-in people of certain races and expect them to act and behave a certain way, placing labels and assumptions in the process.
Reed glues all of these loaded necessary topics together with fine exact wordplay, and the calm cruising beats made in Cali coast along as the man gets all his thoughts out in a composed relaxed manner. Reed is real, not fake. He can rhyme and flow with the best of them and he brings concerned powerful messages and love on a positive note, bringing us intimately close to his world. These are all marks of a true man and emcee, not a conjured contrived corporate rapper or anything close to it; therefore, in Return of the GReed puts the “G” in gentleman. Not gangster. (5 out of 5 stars)

Young Spirit by Declaime (eOne Music/SomeOthaShip Connect)
Venerable and venerated veteran Declaime, or Dudley Perkins, of Oxnard, California looks to be nowhere near hanging it up. After all these years, stays on multiple underground labels (including Stones Throw Records and Mello Music Group) and a grand sixteen albums, the comfortably conscious emcee continues to boldy go where not many rappers have gone before. Ever confident, Perkins these days opts to rep his own imprint, SomeOthaShip Connect, above all others, and though his latest LP endeavor, Young Spirit, came to fruition with the help of eOne Music, the reliable two-name rap artist has proven time and time again to be a very formidable independent artist.
Perkins lambastes and blasts criminals, criminality and the evil forces of the world as he’s done so often before but in fresh form once again, assisted by a new assortment of guests (Blu, Aloe Blacc, Saul Williams among them), an alternative score orchestrated by his partner Georgia Anne Muldrow, and of course—his conviction. He stands up tall for what’s good and right for the people and remains committed to doing right himself. Later on he goes in on his misled childhood of gang banging and seeing his supportive mom get sent away to jail and makes clear that he eventually saw the harm in his ways, or in other words the impetus that drove him onto a more pure spiritual path.
Though just one part of the song it’s in, a plug in favor of veganism and clean eating is inserted like a lifeline in “Pattie & Stokley,” and Perkins expresses a testament of love, dedication and loyalty to his life-mate in “Fantastic Fanatic,” further reinforcing his relationship commitments in “For A Lifetime.” After midpoint and past some great but lesser notable tracks comes the two part back-to-back combo of “Cop’s Ain’t Sh*t,” Perkins’ justified protest against murderous police officers that is riskily, perhaps haphazardly titled but necessary for extending a number of severe legitimate grievances.
With the best stuff Young Spirit has to offer, the end features the ingeniously conceived, perfectly executed triple play of “Misfit,” “Cake Boss” and “Check Yo Head.” The first relates the hopelessness and twisted turns of the ghetto with seemingly nowhere to go but down unless one refuses all the garbage around him or her, the second exhibits entertainers (rap acts in this case) who sell out for nasty gimmicks and stereotypes just to get rich and the third calls for us to adjust ourselves mentally and to recalibrate our cognition for proper health.
Dudley Perkins as Declaime is once more a freedom fighter in Young Spirit. In his low casual fluffy tone, he brings out in his speech all the strong progressive attitudes one must have to rise above the monotony, drudgery and wickedness in life and though his delivery is not akin to a Treach, Eminem or Tech N9ne type, his power of alternative advanced thought is liberating and something the former have not showcased to the extent that Perkins does in this album alone. For all these reasons, Young Spirit is freely and easily excellent. (4 out of 5 stars)

Darwin’s Frankenstein by Esh (AR Classic Records/Perfect Time Publishing)
Hip-hop still has its regions. For example it’s hard to replicate the sounds and accents of gritty East Coast rap all across the country but true consciousness in hip-hop knows no coast. One East Coast native, Esh (or Esh the Monolith), by way of Providence, RI to Boston, is no iron clad street hustler or bully but rather a cerebral metaphor-master who is naturally attracted to analyzing social phenomena through verse. He’s been an enthusiastic collaborator for a few albums already and with his non-joint project Darwin’s Frankenstein fresh out and continuing his smart musical trend, Esh is still proving he can entertain, educate and enlighten all at the same time.
A wise slam-jam called “Release The Hounds” handles a variety of social devastations and then self-centeredness and more specifically conceited unsubstantial rappers get their masks pulled off in “Important Boy” only to open for yet another quality gem, “Cavemen with Computers,” which is directed at beginning to dismantle our obsession with electronic devices. Esh alludes to the powerful and influential in “Believe You” and how they use force and deception to entrap the people. Along similar lines, “Earth Is Eden (To Men On Mars)” gives the speakerphone to demonstrator Esh as he warns of climate change and environmental degradation by man.
Reel feelings (pun intended) on sex and sexual anticipation are torrid and visual thanks to Esh’s lucid delivery in the sensual “Red Velvet”; the posse cut “Encyclopedia Britannica,” which features Mr. Lif and his tacit endorsement of Esh, sparkles as the guests shine like stars; and the conclusion love-song “I Got You” is the perfect close to end the album on a kind warm note. With brilliantly poetic flows and such big timeless subjects, Esh is, like his best peers, the embodiment of a true master of ceremonies, a witty wordy prophet and stylish vocal activist explaining like a pro a bunch if not all of the world’s ups and downs, in super clever fashion. (4 out of 5 stars)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Hip Hop Album Reviews, Week Ending Aug. 11, 2017

Is it a surprise to anyone that the two best albums of the week are completely independent, meaning not released by a label or outfit outside of the artist’s own camp, and also meaning these artists retain full control over the direction of their projects? It shouldn’t be, but maybe some folks subconsciously think those albums promoted most heavily by the mainstream are the best. In reality the opposite is usually always the truth. The best ones are most often found behind the scenes, away from big commercials and advertisements and such. Anyway, so as not to move too far off course, enjoy our briefings on the latest from Dizzy Wright, Wordsworth, John Robinson and the others, and then check out the music for yourself.

The Golden Age 2 by Dizzy Wright (self-released)
With each new album, invigorated hip-hop soul Dizzy Wright proves he is a man of integrity, something not common in showbiz rap and thus harder to find than your average celebrity-rapper. Still, it’s not difficult to tell him apart from the field, and his message is also not hard to relate to. In fact it’s quite easy to feel. In The Golden Age 2, the sequel to his 2013 mixtape and his third official LP, Wright emphasizes a long spread of honorable values and noble personality traits—generosity and a providing nature, peace and love, mental liberation, positive attitude, gratitude, maturity and the importance of family.
Additionally, he’s gravely troubled by the racial and economic problems in America, the culture of fakeness, and diminishing rapper qualifications in the industry. Later in he shows some city-love to his hometown Las Vegas and describes what life was like for him as a child. While T.G.A.2 is not perfect in that some arguably unnecessary skits get in the way of the album’s procession and though the general structure of the project is nothing new, Dizzy Wright makes it his first priority to send out words that are deeply motivational and deeply inspirational, to help him and us get our mentalities and lives on the right track. (4 out of 5 stars)

Our World Today by Wordsworth & Sam Brown (Wordsworth Production, LLC)
It’s come to mean something very special when Brooklyn representer and eMC artist Wordsworth puts out an album. Now on his fourth as the main solo emcee, Words shows no signs of changing course from conscious hip-hop. Our World Today, which enlists good traditionalist Sam Brown for the music (tasty boombap with cool sample incorporation), captivates but also humbles by educating, but not always on comfortable subject matter mind you.
Words’ curriculum includes the divisions, ill preoccupations and distractions in society and the devastating, sometimes horrifying happenings in the ghetto. A native of Brooklyn himself, Words knows a bit about what he dispenses though, to say the least. In the thick of it however, he recalls the small joys and little things that give him and his hope, encouraging goodness, embodying care and showing concern in the process. Our World Today may seldom leave the hood, or The States for that matter, but it’s essential for setting the example of turning an examining eye inward and not always outward. (4 out of 5 stars)

Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! by Milo (Ruby Yacht/The Order Label)
Milwaukee rapper and producer Milo draws comparisons to buddy emcees Open Mike Eagle and Busdriver, both of whom he’s collaborated with. Also known as Scallops Hotel, Milo, or Rory Ferreira, has established a reputation for quirky cavalier nerd-rap and dry wit in his music, which is also pensive, sarcastic, sardonic and poignant, all to beats that are more will-do than thrill-you in style. The allure is thus in Milo’s poetry and wordplay and not so much on the production end, as is the case in Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?!, Milo’s third LP after A Toothpaste Suburb (2014) and So The Flies Don’t Come (2015).
This round, Milo is slightly less flatly cheeky than in his previous two as he yet again gives his random uncut train of thought, scattered, somewhat unorganized, and seeming to be barely processed, barely reworded, so as to keep its original rhyme-impact and spontaneity, even if jumbled and attention deficit at times. Without making himself super clear or getting very specific, Who Told You To Think? can sound like much ado about not a ton, but when Milo really wants to get something across, he does talk to us straight, if only briefly. Remember this does feel a bit more serious than the last two Milo albums, and that might be Milo’s most profound effect on Who Told You To Think?—that he’s approached it a little differently than his other works. (3 out of 5 stars)

Penelope by John Robinson & AG (Red Apples 45)
Both veteran emcees from the East Coast, rhyme-spiritualist John Robinson (from Scienz of Life and solo fame) and line-slinger AG of Showbiz & AG release Penelope, their second joint project of the year, following They Watching from April. Off indie Red Apples 45, the love-themed Penelope creates an aphrodisiac-atmosphere that is something like twinkling candles, dimmed lights and of course, romantic background music complete with silky song choruses and JR and AG spilling the beans about their fine lady-loves.
Final songs “Neva Ends” and “We Been Here” freestyle a bit with the duo discussing some important black history figures and moments and more. With only a couple concepts, the EP is not very long or in-depth but Penelope sure is a cool companion to listen to anywhere and any time you need to relax. (3 out of 5 stars)

Manna by Fashawn (Mass Appeal Records)
There is perhaps a small feeling in the air, amongst hip-hop heads in the know at least, that Fresno emcee Fashawn’s Manna studio album (his third) is not as profound as his last, The Ecology (2015). For starters, it comes just two years after Ecology, it’s only a bit over EP-length, and it falls in line with the styles mandated by Mass Appeal Records. It is in fact a lot like its predecessor but Fashawn’s writing and reciting skills make it more or less a success.
As much as he devotes himself to being mic-stylish and braggadocious, and even if he drops an objectionable phrase here and there, he just as often or more finds his deep meaning signatures. Lamentations for the depression of lower class America, praise for black leaders of the past and advocation for friendship coupled with Fashawn’s fine flows over Fashawn-able beats truly make Manna the manna of this man’s life, and that of several hungry fans as well. (3 out of 5 stars)

Imperius Rex by Sean Price (Ruck Down Records/Duck Down Music Inc.)
With heavy hearts, fans will listen to Boot Camp Clik and Heltah Skeltah emcee Sean Price’s second posthumous album and fourth LP proper with content nostalgia but also wonderment at what new levels the Brooklyn lyricist might have taken his craft to had he not passed away unexpectedly in 2015. With eager, sometimes enthusiastic participation from many of Price’s rap-friends, and the full support of labels Duck Down and Ruck Down hoisting the new project – Imperius Rex, Sean Price has kept all his past credibility in the rap game but perhaps not as much integrity, when one looks at what he’s rapping about.
Imperius Rex brings rough, semi-intricate bars and some sincere new surprises like the two guest-spots from the widow Bernadette Price, but the subject matter never veers from meat-headed quibbles and brash talk on violence, vulgar gratuitous sex, drug-dealing and the like, the status quo for Price’s brand and niche, if not for Price himself, the worse part being that he is not here to clear the project himself. Possibly the album’s most perplexing line comes in “Rap Professor” when Price states, “this ain’t the same Sean from the last album,” which is halfway true but unfortunately for the not so good.
The focus here is more on antics and buffoonery than on sharp new wordplay and far less on messages, and when one puts it side by side next to the most positive, illuminating conscious-rap out there, it’s merely hardcore spewings and dribble. Even when we do get the same basic Sean Price as before, it is only in the area of muscled insensitive backpack-ery, which is not fun anymore. So at this point, with a host of greater, fresh-faced emcees coming out of the woodwork, Imperius Rex can’t help but be dwarfed by some of its more underground competition and their much healthier rap music options. It pains anyone to face it but this set is best fit for Sean P fanatics only. (2 out of 5 stars)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

SkyBlew & SublimeCloud – Destined: The [R]Evolution (Album Review)

The life and times of SkyBlew have never been easy. As a child, the illustrative emcee born Mario Farrow was shuffled to and fro from family and friends to foster and adoption homes, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse, but Farrow made it through to healthy young adulthood. To this day, though he enjoys awards and recognition for being Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s preeminent hip-hop artist, the conscious positive SkyBlew, who is also independent, works tremendously hard to reach the audiences that mainstream acts are given access to so easily. In short, he earns all of his accolades. Practiced at releasing multiple quality albums per year, SkyBlew has reached the feat again this year, with the followup to February’s Dreams, Toonami and Jazzier Days, entitled Destined: The [R]Evolution, a June 2017 issue from the visionary rhymer.

The sequel to Sky’s Destined: The Rebirth EP from last year, [R]Evolution is produced by beat prodigy SublimeCloud (Christian Whitson), who also served on the boards for Rebirth. This time we get a full LP with [R]Evolution and song after song of hearty wholesome rap that paints pictures – but keep in mind Sky’s staple saying: he doesn’t rap, he paints the sky, blew! Opening to memory-forming jazz, a “Tin Man” sample from ’70s band America, and of course Sky’s signature positivity, [R]Evolution can do nothing but hook us in atop before it gets even weightier in “Autumn, Lovely Convo!” with wisdom on everything coming at a price, notes on ambition, ATCQ-love and more classic rock sample-strength.

Sky succinctly summarizes the pleasure-from-pain principle in “HM04!” rapping, “I suffered, it made me tougher, through the hate became a lover,” referring to his own growth experience. He shakes his head at a rap game of greatly expanding head counts yet with little compelling material throughout the vast field. Still he stays himself, an aficionado of animation and worldly awareness. Listeners will find at least one loaded line to love per song. The classic metaphor of words as food is reimagined perfectly in “Chill, We Coolin’ Off!” where Sky says:

[I] cook food for thought so, here goes my recipe, psych! You ain’t gettin’ it, I’m thick and they have to but the flow is too much to process like fast foods.

Around claps, light piano and sax, Sky brims with dreams, aspirations and true knowledge but admits “there’s just gotta be more to living than labor and woe, we offer hope to the globe then after, we go.”

Look out because next, SkyBlew will melt your heart, in “Sailor Moon & Stars!” and soul-weaver Donovan and his soft song vocals add an irreplaceable suppleness over this pretty love-piece’s happy piano lines and joyful admissions. Naturally the heat goes up again afterwards. Sky drops some of his heaviest thoughts in “Speak That Breeze!”, this time regarding the terrible effects of negativity but with hope at the end:

Most cast away their dreams ‘cause they fear rejection and failure. Look at the election. That’s proof anything is possible in this nation of idiots, humanity becoming insidious. My city ain’t the prettiest but I still rep to the death. Just give us your all until there’s none left.

Of course SkyBlew knows there are many fabulous people out there but it’s also true that there are enough of the other kind to make a nation as he says, if only a small one at most.

The elegant SublimeCloud and the eloquent SkyBlew make the album’s step down to the close smooth yet impactful still. Hip guitar flicks and drum snaps in “Pen Tama!” move to more committed resolved wisdom from our generous wiz (never dumb) in “Movement of the Destined!” and “Parallel Echoes!” provides the calm cap-off of Sky stating where he’s from, what he’s about, where he’s going and how he’s gonna get there. Sky the “Colorful Dreamer” hasn’t an equal ratio of hard to soft obviously, seeing as how he’s mostly warm and bright, but he makes it work because one – it’s what the game’s been sorely missing – and two – his background and personality have given him allowance to be as such. SkyBlew with incredible help from the gifted talented SublimeCloud firmly takes his place next to the most progressive optimistic emcees of all time thanks to Destined: The [R]Evolution and the rest of his catalog. (4 out of 5 stars)

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Mr. Lif & Akrobatik – “Resolution” (Album Review)

The second collaborative LP by Perceptionist emcees Mr. Lif and Akrobatik comes at a darker or as dark a time as their first (Black Dialogue) did back in 2005, when fresh wounds from 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were still bleeding heavily with just about no signs of abating. Along with DJ Fakts One and El-P playing major producer roles on their Definitive Jux debut, Lif and Ak delivered a fine combination of conscious cool hip-hop to enlighten and refresh the people. Twelve years later, Mr. Lif and Akrobatik return together again to release their sophomore in a like ravaged era of war, confusion and economic malaise, this time without Fakts One or Def Jux but with a new assortment of beat makers for the one and only Mello Music Group. It’s safe to say that what they’ve turned out, the Resolution LP, is a clear confident statement set to thoroughly enjoyable music.
Our heroes of rhyme pull the pants down on the one percent, corporations, the government in collusion with both and just the greedy, brutal and violent, problematic police included, in ghetto settings especially, where they seem to do most of their dirt. Lif and Akrobatik have energy and conviction, with many relatable messages one after the other, meaning they know what they’re saying to be true. In “Lemme Find Out,” the two raise suspicions of technology and the huge part it plays in everyone’s life, and “When Push Comes To Shove” makes time for the necessary elements of romance.
With no truly dull moments, Resolution does reveal spots not as attention-grabbing as others. The proceeding trio of tracks, “Let’s Battle,” “Free At Last” and “Dirty Drumz,” while good for advancing the spirit of competition, self-determination and real hip-hop, feels more like a connector of the beginning and end than a bridge or bond with material equally awesome as what sandwiches it. The dynamic duo nevertheless manage to make their finale as splendid as anything preceding it. Lif and Ak rap on something everybody’s been guilty of at one time or another – control obsession – in “Grab Hold” sharing that there’s no end or win when you’re trying to grab hold of what you can’t control.
Supported by a calming backdrop of smooth jazz and soul, the last two songs, “A Different Light” and “Resolution,” are beautiful commitments of the mind about surviving hard times in the first and pure thoughts on everything from optimism, wisdom and positivity to compassion, perseverance and care in the second. Instead of junk food rap, try Resolution, which offers healthy artistic beat-creations from the likes of Willie Evans Jr., Synesthetic Nation and Paten Locke and which doesn’t stoop to name-calling, foul play or debauchery thanks to Mr. Lif and Akrobatik’s dedication to spreading the good word and nothing but. The New Year’s celebrations of 2017 are long past but it’s never too late to make a resolution, or a revolution for that matter. (4 out of 5 stars)