Saturday, July 1, 2017

Hip Hop Album Reviews, Week Ending June 30, 2017

Five-star album alert! And it’s not because of 4:44, the new album by you-know-who. The end-of-June/beginning-of-July weekend is blessed by Crooked, the new set by fresh LA emcee Propaganda, whose music is the opposite of propaganda as a matter of fact.

Crooked by Propaganda (Humble Beast Records)
Propaganda (Jason Petty) from Los Angeles has never been the type of Christian rapper to namedrop the “Lord” every two or three bars or rap a lot of vague statements of faith. Instead, he opts for profound reflection on the conflicting issues at the center of human existence in his music. In this day and age where emcees of God run the gamut from loosely religious (Kanye West) to joyfully ecclesiastic (Chance The Rapper) to zealously devout (Lecrae and most others) to clearheaded and truly concerned (O’hene Savant), Propaganda is another different breath of fresh air in the field, focusing on the types of core problems that Jesus himself would actually focus on if he were here today.
Prop’s new LP, Crooked, is a multifaceted examination of human troubles and another unique addition to his growing discography. And it’s comprehensive, going through a ton before it’s all over. Going along with the theme of the album title, “Crooked Ways” intros by testifying to incredibly terrible contradictions, tragedies and inconsistencies in society and basically how ridiculous things are currently. Propaganda raps like a highly skilled poet so it’s no wonder he’s excellent at spoken word. “It’s Complicated” does just that on the topics of self-betrayal and refusal to love who we are on the inside in exchange for ugly masks picked by you decide.
Riding along on super smooth production that’s hardly generic as a pleasant surprise, Prop continues rocking us, with thoughts on the West and the Ultra Right at odds with the rest of the world (“Cynical”), hip-hop music how it was and how it was easier to fall in love with in earlier times (“Slow Cook”), a native’s love for Southern California (“Do Know Wrong”), and the shaky reasons for and results of gentrification (“Gentrify,” feel the light salsa music tinge in the beat there). Next comes a big one, the interlude-like “I Hate Cats.” Propaganda shows how racism and bigotry are like how some people claim to hate cats and think dogs are better, in this outstanding analogy, which really proves how pathetic the phenomenon of hate actually is.
The content never steps down from being as loaded as Prop can make it. “Darkie” looks at the self-consciousness of “colored” people and how inferiority complexes are common in them if embroiled in a white skin preferring culture. The climax of Crooked in many rights, “It’s Not Working (The Truth)” is then a meditation on segregation, poverty and alienation of the powerless have-nots and it also seems to ask toward the end if we will feel better if things do change, a bit nihilistic to this end yes but deep, exploratory and inclusive of both sides of the issue indeed, plus Propaganda might be alluding to the imperfection of a perfect civilization – what would there be to fix, to motivate us to fight for better in life in that situation? The bottom line is there’s a lot of work to be done as things are right now.
Compared to typical mainstream matter, the wind-down of the album starting with “Andrew Mandela” feels like so much more than a wind-down, as its inspirations include civil rights and democracy in the face of injustice, hard motherhood and athlete drug abuse, a truly wonderful change on earth that is yet to come, and the fact that we can’t judge what we’re not or have never been – just some of Prop’s final thoughts in this section. Through CrookedPropaganda gives us the gift that keeps on giving – wisdom, and although he never gets too heavy, he no doubt provides plenty to think about across many a repeat spin. If you really want to know what it’s like to be conscious and caring and hopefully be inspired to become those things yourself, head straight to Crooked. Stay woke everyone. (5 out of 5 stars)

4:44 by Jay-Z (Roc Nation)
How does the average person feel about a classically fine hip-hop emcee who seems to become a bigger business mogul with each successive album? However the media tell them to. “Jigga” Jay-Z is not only that but he continues to make each of his new albums look larger than life via special promotion strategies and release methods. 4:44, Jay’s new album for 2017 and his thirteenth solo LP overall, is the Roc-A-Fella leader’s first to be dropped exclusively on his Tidal online music service since the streaming source opened in 2014, marking a milestone in his music career and a watershed moment in how the face and brand of Hov are shared with and viewed by the public.
Jay’s last album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, was not delivered on Tidal. In 2013, that one was given away as a digital download but only to Samsung customers, forcing folks without Samsung to pirate it in order to listen in before its wide release came some days later. Similarly, 4:44 is being offered only to Sprint customers and those Tidal subscribers who signed up for the service well before June 30. If you wanted to listen to the album on the 30th without having Sprint and without having signed up for Tidal in time, you had to tune in to iHeartRadio at certain time slots during the day and only on that day. Sound exclusive? Yes indeed. Too exclusive for what the album actually offers? Yes.
How and why can Jay-Z keep his art so private, and is it right? Is it appropriate? If it’s not easy to get, won’t few have it in their hands at the end of the day? Maybe but remember that Jay-Z has all the wealth-begotten pull and clout to get the mainstream marketing machine on his side to make anything he issues look like the best thing since sliced bread. He’s doing it now with Sprint to get more paid subscribers to Tidal plus that good Sprint money, just like in 2013, but for that good Samsung money back then. The journey to jump through some hoops to get the new music might have been worth it for Magna Carta Holy Grail but it’s not the case with 4:44. It’s an average album and one might as well wait for its wide release to peep it. At the moment, Jay-Z and his associates are basically just using the idea of a great album to collect more revenue from patrons of their stores, on the web or otherwise. Like it or not, it might be working because of the good to very good reviews it’s received so far, unless the consumer is properly informed that is…
Produced nicely and soulfully by artisan beat specialist No ID, 4:44 has its moments, as cliched as that sounds, however it’s an expectable product from Jay-Z. The forty-seven year old rhymer, businessman, husband and now father of three dangles in front of us a slim ten tracks of casual thoughts and more than some pop culture soap opera clocking in at a little over thirty minutes. Vocally, it never gets very comprehensive or deep philosophically, and Jay-Z, in some of his most laid-back spitting ever, is less spirited than his early-career self. He takes turns saying things appealing to all and other things appealing to only a select few, tapering off toward the end with filler instead of building where the album needs it.
Personal to an extent but politically lacking if not politically truant altogether, the thing has Jay getting tender at various points about his daughter(s), motherhood, memories and something akin to a society in society at the end, but he’s also cynical in rapping about unfaithful fans and traitorous friends in “Kill Jay-Z” and “Caught Their Eyes.” Likewise the rich man in the rap-capitalist cannot escape from his bars. In “The Story of OJ,” Jay raps at no little length about his real estate investments and property values over time, but who’s itching to hear about that besides the Trumps of the world? Shouldn’t Jay be discussing racism and upward mobility there more so than his own business endeavors? Isn’t that what the song title suggests? Also in “Family Feud” are some comments on excessive wealth that are intended to be light but are far from. Jay raps of “no such thing as an ugly billionaire, I’m cute” (wrong) and “what’s better than one billionaire? Two” (wrong again).
At one point, within the stuttering, slow quiet drill-frills and sampled soul vocals of “Smile,” Jay mentions that it’s just the way of the world that there are drug dealers and jewel dealers of blood diamonds and whatever else. He’s saying he’s okay with it, that he doesn’t care too much about it. Talk about laissez-faire. This impartiality to inequality and crime is a turnoff. What’s also a turnoff in an inexcusable way is the famous “4:44”/apology-to-Be-for-messing-around song. It’s all very well and good for what it can do but if Jay did in fact cheat on his wife (it could be a made-up tabloid story), apologizing doesn’t change the fact that it happened. Infidelity is not ok as long as you say sorry afterward.
In short, 4:44 doesn’t have the power, spark or duration that previous Jay-Z albums have, and of course, if Roc Nation is still in bed with Universal or one of the other majors, that goes a long way in explaining its adoration for rags-to-too-many-riches and the other indecencies that are flapped about on the project. Plus Jay-Z is getting quite a bit older, AND he has little kiddos now so he should be more socially responsible with his words than he is here, and if not for them then for the tens, hundreds of millions if not a billion or more he speaks to through the music. So much more good could have been done for humankind had this album contained better messages. (1 out of 5 stars)

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