Thursday, December 14, 2017

Eminem - 'Revival' (Album Review)

If you were thinking you’d get anything different from Eminem in his ninth LP Revival, based off the pre-release singles, you better think again. Aside from the two useful political tunes, “Untouchable” and “Like Home,” the rest is an extended pummeling of hypocrisy in which Eminem attempts to make amends with loved ones he’s wronged but also spits, kicks and screams in vulgar, violent fashion as usual.  

“Chloraseptic” causes the first major symptom of Interscope-slash-Eminem-made toxicity by way of gratuitous, inappropriate sexuality and the next comes in the raunchiness of “Remind Me.” The macabre Eminem comes back full force in “Framed,” in the form of a guilty man making a weak plea of innocence on wax. The next three songs continue to unabatedly supply bitter spitting at misperceived enemies (“Nowhere Fast”), objectification of women (“Heat”) and then extreme misogyny (“Offended”). Right before he tries to explain himself in the last two tracks, Eminem admits in such a way that he is literally out of his mind via “In Your Head.” 

When all is said and done, all the big name singers, Eminem’s famous wordplay virtuosity and even Rick Rubin’s classic pop-rock resurrections (if you’re into his slightly cheesy style of it) together can’t make up for Eminem’s awful rap persona ruining the vast majority of the project. Once again, his sharp rhyme mechanics have been employed to twist and confuse the minds of listeners. If Eminem continues his relationship with Interscope Records (subsidiary of Universal Music Group, subsidiary of Vivendi SA) or another major label and especially if he continues to pump out filth, his credibility as an integral artist is hereby gone. (1 out of 5 stars) 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Futuristic - 'What More Could You Ask For?' (Album Review)

Emcee Futuristic, or Zach Beck, from Illinois and Arizona, couldn’t let the year slip by without a project so he’s released the What More Could You Ask For? EP. In safe independent fashion, Beck has added a few spiritual elements that go back to the essence of existence, particularly at the end, when he upholds life high above money and material gain in “Human Being.” Before that he shows love to those he’s been distanced from by work and success. Still he rejoices in making it, through struggle, to the celebration after reaching goals, and all the way to his appreciation for his fans. Beck does spend time strutting his stuff, and sections like “I Want It, I Get It” are simply fly jams just for fun, but little integrity is sacrificed in general. We might not be challenged to think outside the box or leave our comfort zones much, but again, Beck proves himself one of the best at making feel-good rap at this point in time. (3 out of 5 stars)   

Dizzy Wright - 'State of Mind 2' (Album Review)

Unlike his one time Funk Volume labelmate Hopsin, Las Vegas emcee Dizzy Wright is on the right track when it comes to giving fruit-bearing subject matter. Wright’s second album of the year, and the followup to The Golden Age 2, bursts forth with wisdom, ultra-positive as usual for the independent rhyme-artist. The album, State of Mind 2, the sequel to Wright’s 2014 EP, advocates for an alkaline diet, rediscovers the importance of black activism, exhorts us to consider others’ hardships and much more. Guests like Audio Push, Ill Camille and Jon Connor promise lectures for above-and-beyond thinkers, and producers Roc N Mayne, DJ Hoppa, FreezeOnTheBeat and others guarantee a mixture of traditional hard-hewn sounds and relaxing soul and jazz. It has the typical Dizzy Wright feel and format and not many new talking points (the newest of which are Wright’s abbreviated raps on healthy eating) but fans and newcomers will still appreciate his commitment to intelligence, philosophy and consciousness. (3 out of 5 stars)      

Stream here 

Official Dizzy Wright website

Hopsin - 'No Shame' (Album Review)

Let’s make one thing very clear before we delve into Undercover Prodigy Hopsin’s fifth LP, No Shame. It is his first on his second self-made label since the dissolution of Funk Volume in 2016 but more important to note, it is also released in association with 300 Entertainment, which hosts several mumble rappers and is the creation of former major label execs Lyor Cohen, Roger Gold, Kevin Liles and Todd Moscowitz, men whose mission has always been to turn out the most popular music, not the most publicly beneficial music. It comes as no surprise then that No Shame has plenty of demons. 

The new project features some new storylines, the accuracy of which is questionable, and a general change of course for Hopsin yet they’re highly problematic. The bulk of it revolves around the plot of Hopsin splitting with his cheating, stripping girlfriend who is also pregnant with his son, a perfect storm of relationship misery and misfortune. Poisoned by angry misogyny and bitterness, Hopsin slings dirt around and about, with a resentful fixation on his departing lady. It’s depicted that she is all bad and that he is pretty much fine.

More wicked and toxic than ever, Hopsin has obviously been badly influenced by 300, alternately vulgar and sexually grotesque, self-absorbed, and sick and twisted in tracks “Money on the Side,” “Black Sheep” and “I Must Be on Somethin” respectively. When he aims to sound serious he’s instead a monotonous, emotionless talk-machine, and the ninth entry in his signature “Ill Mind of Hopsin” series is reserved for him to explain the break in the family to his new son, with blame that doesn’t go around but is rather plopped all on the woman. 

In an ironic, hypocritical twist, “No Words” vocal-drunkard Hash Brown (from Pound Syndrome) returns to be further ridiculed despite his voice actor being on a label that directly supports that same type of artist. But the problem is not alleviated by Hopsin rapping clearly and articulately. He must also rap in a socially responsible manner, which he does not do in No Shame. Hopsin has went the shady path here simple and plain. His talents have been wrenched into unnatural, uncomfortable configurations, all for shock value. Through this sordid engagement of dark tones and growth-stunted production, no one will see the light and few will make it out unharmed. (1 out of 5 stars)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Talib Kweli - 'Radio Silence' (Album Review)

Brooklyn Black Star and Reflection Eternal emcee Talib Kweli had been teasing his Radio Silence solo album since 2015 (at the most recent) so for it to come a full two years later is just enough time for fans to wait, even with the other projects Kweli's label Javotti Media made in the interim. Relax and exhale because the anticipated album, finally here, passes the hardest critical tests. With that cool, post-2010 Talib Kweli feel (in other words the first impression made after Javotti's inception), Radio Silence is an indie affair of flyness, anthems, calm vocal protest against violence in the streets, love, and guests from the under- and aboveground, all of them, even Waka Flocka and Rick Ross, pulling substance out for this particular artist and occasion. Despite all the wisdom and awareness in the author, the subject matter takes only some risks and not quite seismic, and the production, while prominent, won't have everyone coming back for seconds or thirds. It doesn't match the perfection or near-perfection of Talib Kweli's earliest work, but because it's nicely conscious, free of any major slip-ups and arriving at a time when mainstream rap is lowering its performance-related standards, Radio Silence really can catch on and silence the radio. (3 out of 5 stars)

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Mr. Lif & Brass Menažeri - 'Resilient' (Album Review)

The genre-fusing swing of Brass Menažeri is slightly new musical terrain for complex, conscious emcee Mr. Lif (not to mention more organic and acoustic than he's used to) but a compliment to his deep lyrics anyhow. In their collaborative project, Lif puts politics in play a few times though he also leans back to simply enjoy the ride, intermittently letting his band partners shine by themselves, like the sheen of their instruments. Resilient could use more rapping, and original rapping at that ("What About Us" is a remix of the 2009 Lif single), but for the most part, the album is a full-bodied treat for the refined palate. (3 out of 5 stars) 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Big K.R.I.T. - '4eva is a Mighty Long Time' (Album Review)

Off Def Jam and onto another major label, Mississippi-born emcee Big K.R.I.T. is still locked in by one of the big boys though perhaps not the most well known of them. His third album and a double LP at that, entitled 4eva is a Mighty Long Time, comes via Multi Alumni, but only after receiving the green light from BMG Rights Management, a subsidiary of multinational corporation Bertelsmann. Needless to say then, we get some superficial subject matter, and much of the first section is its home. Disrespect towards women, drug use plus money, spending and just propaganda for consumerism make praising this portion of the album extremely difficult. Before the more meaningful close, K.R.I.T. even acknowledges the duplicity in “Mixed Messages.” He tries to justify his conflicting themes and inconsistencies as all natural, fine and even cool, if you believe the tone of the song and fail to question the motives of the company with which he’s involved. The large amount of material helps a little bit and so does the fresh production that mainly works as verse accompaniment as opposed to anthem- and hit-making support, but it’s simply mired by hazy language and contradictory beliefs that can’t be taken as genuinely K.R.I.T.’s own. (2 out of 5 stars)    

Yelawolf - 'Trial by Fire' (Album Review)

Slumerican, Shady and Interscope country-slicker Yelawolf returns bearing his fourth LP Trial By Fire, after the typical 2.5 years since his last, the Love Story album of 2015. With more backwoods-active raps over folk rock guitars and an insidious alcohol-and-drinking trope, Yelawolf and his labels have assembled an album more similar to all of his previous projects combined than not, but not necessarily for the better. Yelawolf’s emcee skills are upright and he takes turns championing friendship, family and his musical influences but Trial By Fire is to a greater extent a series of melodramatic character studies, with stereotypes included. People getting their hands dirty to get by, dangerous city dwellers, a cheating male lover and a grief stricken father put on a showcase of human suffering in painfully expected, traditional roles. And as we’ve said, the drinking motif makes everything that much more slimy. Trial by Fire, which is no better than average, fails to exchange the image of Yelawolf as a wild, rural industry-rapper for that of an enlightening, evolving, multidimensional artist. (2 out of 5 stars) 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Sha Stimuli - 'Lazarus' (Album Review)

Longtime Brooklyn emcee Sha Stimuli (Sherod Khaalis) took a four year hiatus from the music in the years of 2013 through the greater part of 2016. In September and December of 2016, the conscious rhyme-gymnast at last dropped two singles, “Sticks And Stones” and “New Jordans/A Poem For Mike.” Lazarus, Khaalis’s comeback LP and a September 2017 release (with 10 Minutes Late Records) can already easily be called one of the supreme rap highlights of the year. In it, the straight-up lyricist and role model sounds not a day removed from his craft. Listeners are in for real honest stories, wholesome lessons and a clinic in the fine points of rapping all in one.    

Since Khaalis has been away so long and also because he’s not caught in the mainstream spotlight, his background needs some revisiting. This artist’s journey began during the golden era. As the younger brother of Masta Ace Incorporated producer Lord Digga, Khaalis would learn from and contribute to his elder sibling’s work. In addition to befriending Masta Ace, he also met the other Juice Crew artists being in such close proximity to him. Khaalis’s own debut LP, My Soul To Keep, arrived in 2009, but he is perhaps most well known for his extensive mixtape discography. In 2008 alone, he released twelve of them, one in each month of the year.  

In Lazarus, Khaalis of course stands out for his outstanding wordplay and messages but so does the rock and gospel-tinged production with samples of “Frere Jacques,” Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want To Wait” and more. Plus velvety song-vocals by guests like the reappearing Jennifer Myles provide nice counterbalance to Khaalis’s intense lyricism. More than mere supplements, this music and the feature artists are part and parcel of the project alongside the main attraction—Khaalis’s priceless verses. 

With his complex yet conversational flow, he raps on the tragic, violent hood-environment and how his life as a child revolved around basketball, rap and the streets in “The Wake, Pt. 2.” Another opus and an industry study in fact is rolled out (or enrolled you could say) in “Jail University,” where Khaalis examines how the separate paths of prison and college affect a career in rap, differently and sometimes with little to no difference. 

We really start to see how healthy his mentality is in “So Grateful” and then immediately afterward in “The Edge, Pt. 1 & Pt. 2.” As you may have guessed but are yet to truly experience the glory of, the first describes how blessed our author is just to be alive. In the second, he says ‘bring it on’ to any and all tests of strength that could possibly come his way, with a ‘give-me-all-you’ve-got’ attitude, and by summoning his inner Melle Mel stating, “please push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge […] ‘cause I, I wanna know if I can fly.”     

Your heart and soul will no doubt be soothed and warmed by the end but also, your mind will happily carry the weight of Khaalis’s load-bearing speeches. He discusses the struggle for positive racial identity in the hood and the deterioration of the health of black culture in America due to commercialism for one, how media and program directors for example have played a ravaging part in drawing a distorted picture and painting the color lines with unsuitable hues. But still, Khaalis doesn’t shy away from placing some responsibility on the shoulders of the very people who are having the hardest time. Because some of their problems are self-wrought.

Khaalis remembers to say something severely critical about absentee fathers in “Remember Me,” following it up with a tragically ending cheating-slash-domestic-violence story across songs “Bad Day” and “Escape The Lies.” Fortunately and as a result of great song placement, penultimate track “Impatience” comes through to encourage us to seize the day, reach our fullest potential, and recognize and appreciate the greatness of simply having life. Using his positive knowledge and wisdom, his sincerity and of course his high caliber flow, Khaalis enriches the spirit, whether he’s inspiring us to fight on with force behind his firm words or by connecting with us through his clarity and sprawling relatability. (5 out of 5 stars)    

(Sha Stimuli's Lazarus can be purchased at all major retail sites and can be streamed on YouTube and streamed and purchased on Bandcamp.)

"Jail University" music video here

"Together" music video here 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Spose - 'Humans' (Album Review)

Maine-bred emcee Spose (Ryan Peters) claims to have made Humans, his third album of 2017, in twenty-four hours but the planning behind it probably took much longer. An exhibition that (on the surface at least) proves the P. Dank crew masters at project execution, Humans is another example of the fine offerings typical of hip-hop’s artistic underground, which is outside the jurisdiction of major labels. Spose’s established style recreation, standard loyalty to the music rules and too few wow-moments pull Humans back from perfection, but melodic hooks, musical beats, good guests and solid concepts place it above the average. Intro track “Humans” is a must listen but the entire ten track set is surely no waste of time either. (3 out of 5 stars)

Wu-Tang - 'The Saga Continues' (Album Review)

With all the internal disputes going on with the Wu-Tang Clan recently, anything put out by the group or some of them will not easily match their usual excellence. It’s no wonder then that their new studio album The Saga Continues, which features most of the collective (sans U-God and most disappointingly GZA), is listed on some platforms as a Wu-Tang release, minus the “Clan” end-tag. Is it one of their official LPs then? Short answer—yeah, but unfortunately it’s their worst to date. The Entertainment One album (which by the way could have used a better title) has some decent standalone moments via Raekwon’s nice storytelling skills in “Fast and Furious,” a moment for love in “My Only One” and RZA’s politics-kicking (a series of laments really) in “Why Why Why” and “Saga,” but the majority is typical gangsterdom over basic production from DJ Mathematics. Besides the two close-to-conscious sections by RZA, the Wu crew have completely missed the D.I.Y.-target of actually using their raps for the all important goal of communicating something purposeful. Instead, the task of wisdom-giving is left to two anonymous speakers in their respective skits, defeating the point of the rap-verse as a tool to share good ideas or healthy messages. Once again, this is an eOne Music product and little more than that, a step back from A Better Tomorrow and not good enough to make us forget about Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. (2 out of 5 stars) 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Cunninlynguists - 'Rose Azura Njano' (Album Review)

If rappers are critiqued mostly for what they say on a record as opposed to what they don’t, then conscious Southern trio Cunninlynguists (Kno, Deacon The Villain and Natti) are still making great product. Yet despite all the soulful poetic wisdom in their layered bars, there is still plenty in the world the men don’t talk about, but we’ll focus on what actually makes it into their lyrics. The group’s sixth studio LP, Rose Azura Njano (APOS Music/RBC Records), is a success to cut to the chase though perhaps not a lot more than that. Like always, the Cunninlynguists’ concentration primarily on smoothness and technique with their broad truisms begs the question - shouldn’t the fellas rap more pointedly on new specific subject matter, in other words get to the nitty gritty quicker without dancing (let alone beating) around the bush with style? Most with a clear honest mind would answer yes. With some variation, Rose Azura Njano is basically the same type of music the brand started with, but it’s a fine type still. The Cunninlynguists might not sound straight-to-the-point enough for some, but their continued attention to politics, the poor, minorities, and social injustice generally speaking is still very admirable. (3 out of 5 stars)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Hoodie Allen - 'The Hype' (Album Review)

Long Island rapper Hoodie Allen is gonna need that hoodie more so than ever before because he’s just been exposed and he’s getting colder. His new album, The Hype, recalls the same topics and some of the same feelings he sprinkled on tracks from projects previous to the very good Happy Camper album of 2016. Now, Allen interchangeably goes with and against love (like he won’t make up his mind and wants to satisfy both sides of the fight) but mostly goes with the grain of mainstream hip-hop. A Wale feature, soft warm singing, more or less basic rhyme schemes, gleeful preschool-ready chords and teen-geared drum loops, plenty of following along with the trends and nothing that would gather controversy make the project if not break it. The Hype is simply that, hype, for the sometimes promising young man, but Hoodie Allen is going to need something deeper, more multidimensional and more original than this if he wants to start his thirties with great growth in the music. (2 out of 5 stars) 

Rittz - 'Last Call' (Album Review)

Now that speedy spitter Rittz has proven he’s no fading presence or disappearing act in rap (as far as technical skills are concerned), it’s time to focus most of all on what he has to say, basically his character. The relentless rhyme-killer from Strange Music Inc. releases his fourth studio LP on full steam thanks to his “top of the line,” momentum-making work of 2016. Aided by satisfactory production directed by Seven, Rittz does what he's best at in Last Call, sharing sad but valuable stories that scarred him, changed him or taught him priceless lessons. Rittz makes this blues-rap motivational in fact, inspiring us to beat the odds and prove the naysayers wrong. In his own case, Rittz will boost and boast of his own set when no one else will and even go in on the competition. The only problem is that he can come off a little too mean at parts, hurling one too many insults at the haters. In just one example, it’s unclear which artist or artists Rittz is alluding to in “Dork Rap” when he impersonates a hipsterish new-age rapper, but his subject of ridicule actually brings up some good stuff, like tofu and vegan friends. Likewise, to eliminate the disease in “F*ck Cancer,” Rittz mentions a few measures to take except for one of the most effective if not the most effective—a whole food, plant based diet that minimizes or better yet excludes animal-derived products. For the most part though and when one takes into account all of the project including the bonus tracks, Last Call is another impressive, even compassionate Rittz set but next time he might want to try the opposite of hard, rough and charging. 

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)

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 thinking 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. (5 out of 5 stars)