Monday, March 30, 2009

Havoc - Hidden Files

Studio LP
Released February 24th, 2009

Someone should write a book for the gully emcees - How to Age Gracefully in the Rap Game. Hardcore rappers don’t have the model for how to go deep in the game, what your tone should be, what your lyrics should be about, how you should posture yourself when you are too old to sound hungry anymore. There are a few rappers still releasing albums in their middle age. Jay-Z came out under cats like Big L in the 90s, debuted with the hard-yet-slick Reasonable Doubt, and then sanded and polished his image until he became less and less of a rapper and more of an icon. Ghostface Killah became the hardcore equivalent of the older brother, using his veteran status to voice his opinion about how the younger generation should treat their brothers, their women, their art.

And somewhere in there would be a long list of those who fizzled out, retired, or bombed themselves into irrelevance.

Mobb Deep exploded into the hardcore scene with The Infamous in ‘95, the Queens duo following artist like Wu-Tang out of New York’s worst streets and onto wax. Almost fifteen years later, Havoc has not done much growing as an artist. His newest solo effort, with the exception of a handful of club tracks, obsesses over the idea that he still hustles. That’s fine, you don’t have to become the self-reflective, jaded hip-hop icon or the family man with a haunted past. But if you claim you’re still out there in the streets, make it sound like you’re hungry. That is where Havoc comes up short, in a huge way.

In terms of production, though he veers off into the territory of mainstream rap, Havoc handles the sonic aspects of the album competently, sounding like New York's version of Hi-Tek. He’s average, but solid, and the only complain a listener can really make is that the tracks' production suffers from incredibly generic drum beats. It’s frustrating that underneath all of the orchestrated piano and strings, Havoc sounds like he could not be bothered with the most basic element of hip-hop production and does not elevate the complexity of the drums much beyond BOOM...BAP..…..BOOM.BAP...BOOM...BAP…....BOOM.BAPBOOM.

Lyrically the album has a good start. The first track is “Can’t Get Touched,” where Hav spits: “It’s a very big difference between y’all and us/First of all we clean them guns, y’all be lettin' 'em rust/Let 'em sit around for years then expect them to bust.”

It’s an ironic line, ‘cause you use it or you lose it, and for the rest of the album, Havoc proves he’s overlooked spending any quality time perfecting his art. He visits all the cliches and on most of the tracks he spits as if his mind where somewhere else, the equivalent of trying to get your grandfather to answer your questions while he concentrates on parallel parking. From “Don’t Knock it Til’ You’ve Tried It” he rambles on without any quality material coming out.

“We gon’ have 'em jealous if it’s anything we ever do/Cause anything we ever do we do it like it’s never been/Done even better than, nothing could be better than/You got my adrenaline/Rushin’ when we touchin’...” Listeners who buy the album should feel cheated that any artist would include the verses Havoc does instead of leaving them for mixtapes and b-sides.
New York made itself huge in the hardcore rap genre because of the way the pioneers, including Mobb Deep, crafted gritty yet poetic narratives out of the troubled environments that surrounded them. Havoc doesn’t even come close this time around. At best, the writing on Hidden Files is lethargic, with no real storytelling to speak of and similes as unimaginative as “I grip my nine like an old man hold a cane.” It hurts to have to rip into a rap legend, but at age thirty-four, Havoc already sounds tired, over-the-hill, and no longer able to hold his own in the game.

Beats: 6.5 Lyrics: 5.5 Overall Listen: 6
Lesson learned: If you're still hard, spit hard, or you'll sound like you're faking.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Capone-N-Noreaga - Channel 10

Studio LP
Released March 17, 2009

Capone-N-Noreaga broke into the underground hip hop scene as two thick-skinned emcees with nothing to prove. They flowed over tracks, they fed off one another, and they reported the ups and downs of their Queensbridge projects รก la Nas’s Illmatic and Mobb Deep’s The Infamous.

Those were the days.

With the past in mind, CNN’s reunion on Channel 10 disappoints, the same way eating foie gras at a fancy restaurant disappoints when all you want is some pizza. There’s plenty of glitz and glam, but the substance of the tracks is flimsy, and at times completely absent. When you pay the bill, you’re left unfulfilled, and even a little angry.

The biggest failure for Channel 10 comes from its production. The majority of the tracks sound overproduced and pop-infused, to the point where it’s hard to believe that you’re listening to a couple of raw thugs from Queensbridge. The first few songs off the album feature an abundance of heavy bass-drum thumps and electronic noise, complimented by electric guitar melodies and weird splashes of what might pass as an Indian rainstick. This flashy-but-empty production infests a good chunk of the album, most notably on the tracks “Beef,” “United We Stand,” and “Talk to Me Big Time.”

The mainstream club sound is best showcased in the album’s first single, “Rotate”—a Ron Browz-produced joint complete with a vocoder-enhanced hook that urges listeners to “find a girl to rotate, cause the super-thug is back.” Busta Rhymes makes a guest appearance on “Rotate,” embarrassing both Capone and Noreaga with his flow and salvaging a track that otherwise sounds forced and stale. In Busta’s words he is “from a different fabric” and his bars outshine 90% of the rapping on Channel 10.

In terms of the general emceeing, nothing too interesting is happening on Channel 10. It almost seems like CNN think they can skate by on reputation alone. The track “Stick Up” is an attempt at storytelling that comes off trite, while tracks like “United We Stand” offer up questionable ideas, like Capone’s “United we stand divided we ball, and let our nuts hang like plaques on the wall.”  In general, Noreaga’s flow is lethargic and uninspired, as if he took sleeping pills in the studio while recording. Capone flows well, but every verse deals with the same tired tough-guy posturing. There’s no wordplay, no true lyricism, and CNN just don’t kick enough knowledge for me to stay interested in their rhymes.

CNN gets another lyrical thumping from Clipse on “My Hood.” Clipse’s verses draw the listener in, proving to Capone and Noreaga that gangsters can still wow heads with rhyme skills alone:

I talk it cause I live it, I ain’t storytellin’/ Read between the lines, n***a, I ain’t good at spellin’/ Writing’s on the wall, got the whole city buying vowels/ Turn them O’s over for my fortune Vanna White style 

That’s the type of lyrical venom that I love—the stuff that strikes quick then hits you a second later. Stuff that you just don’t see Capone-N-Noreaga do on Channel 10.

A lot of tracks off Channel 10 suffer from shallow themes, which slap you in the face via the painfully obvious hooks like “talk to me big time!” and “My life, my life, not yours.” The rapping is almost unnecessary when you get all you need to hear just by looking at track titles.

CNN show that they still have potential to create some interesting and poignant hip-hop with “The Argument,” which is the album’s smartest track lyrically. The two emcees express their brotherhood in an interesting way, trading off lines to say the things they can’t stand about each other. Although it has no jaw-dropping lyrical displays, this track contains the type of originality and honesty that should be expected from artists, and it was a welcome deviation from the empty-headedness that characterized most of the rapping on Channel 10.   

Another ill track comes with “Wobble,” which features fellow Queensbridge staple Mobb Deep. The four rappers kick it together over a solid beat from Havoc, and the result is a hot track that doesn’t try too hard like a lot of the others.

The album’s standout track is probably “Grand Royal.” I had almost lost hope in the album after five tracks of, well, bullshit. I needed a savior. Enter DJ Premier. Primo’s beat on “Grand Royal” borders on devastating. The pulsating piano melody makes for a unique sound that puts your head in the dirtiest, darkest streets of New York. Not only is the sound dope, but Primo, as he is often capable of doing, forces the emcees to elevate themselves above the mediocre quality of the album’s other tracks. See Capone’s entrance:

“See, money is power/Power put the fear in a nigga heart/A high school dropout, but I’m mentally trigger-smart” 

Premier’s contribution is certainly one of the best on Channel 10, but it’s still not enough to save face for ‘Pone and N.O.R.E. My advice: stick with The War  Report and The Reunion. If you like those, there’s little for you to enjoy on Channel 10.  

Lyrics: 6 Beats: 6 Overall Listen: 6

Lesson Learned: If you're gonna talk our ears off about being raw, at least have the beats to back it up.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Right quick...PackFM's "I Fucking Hate Rappers" video

I think they're a little harsh on dudes that are involved with the mixtape game, but everything else is on point. PackFM has one of the best points, responding to rappers like Asher Roth claiming they're not rappers, "You don't have enough respect for the drive and the culture to claim it? Then you need to put the mic down and make room for the people that do."

I fucking hate rappers cause they live in fantasy worlds. Every one of them has name-checked Tony Montana since the early 90s.

I fucking hate rappers cause no one is in the game for the long haul anymore. They just want to bleed it out for all its worth. They confuse making quick money for artistic achievement or the advancement of the culture of hip-hop.

I fucking hate rappers cause they'll use a dollar sign instead of an S. Every damn one of them.

-Pete JD

Monday, March 16, 2009

Braille & Symbolyc One - Cloud Nineteen

Studio LP
Released March 3, 2009

Sensing that this blog lacked a purpose, Bryan Winchester AKA Braille Brizzy AKA Braille got together with Symbolyc One on the boards, and put down Cloud Nineteen. Cloud Nineteen is a rejuvenating listen, simply because Braille embodies in an emcee the spirit that first attracted me to hip-hop. Unlike the other albums that have been reviewed on this blog so far, Braille's is the most genuine, the most passionate. He did it because he loves the music, not to fulfill fans' expectations (which he does and more), to show off his skills (check), or to make a paycheck (I hope he makes it big off this one though).

People have been talking about Braille defying expectations and stereotypes so that no longer needs mention. It's funny, but Braille's attitude reminds me a lot of UGK. Obviously, Braille doesn't slang drugs or live life in the streets, but he shares with the duo the ability to rap about his life and his struggles in a bold, unforgiving, unapologetic way. Braille doesn't want your admiration for what he has accomplished in his life and he doesn't victimize himself or demand pity from you for what has gone wrong. In fact, he's not gonna be a dick about it, but Braille really doesn't give a fuck what you think. He's going to rap about saving himself for marriage and about how much he misses his dad without resorting to whiny defensiveness.

Braille may not have the rags-to-riches story that everyone - including those in the underground - loves, but he brings back to hip-hop a passion that comes without bitter overtones. The most surprising moment of the album comes with the first track, a completely unironic skit in which Braille interviews a dude about to jump out of a plane and skydive. Braille is just simply excited about skydiving and in a strange way, the tone is set for the rest of the album. If you can find nothing else to like about this emcee, admit that he's genuine and that that is what the game's been looking for.

Braille has been emceeing and making tapes since he was 17 (Guy is just over thirty now) and his control of the mic is solid. His flow is hard and he switches it up enough not to get redundant. On "Found Her," he deftly mimics the twirling flow you would find on the Pharcyde's first album. The song, recounting how Bryan saved himself for marriage, is testament to the power of Braille's particular brand of swagger.

"I didn't wanna expose/I was a hopeless romantic with visions of marriage/I'd get nervous and panic/Have you ever met a dude who was known as a prude/Didn't wanna kiss her because I already knew/That if I crossed the line it's like the point of no return/And inside you burn and yearn feelin' concerned/So I turned the other way before it was too late."

Your pastor would make fun of how corny that is. But Braille spits it without apologizing, he acknowledges it sounds cornball, but he won't live it any other way. And this guy is getting write-ups in national magazines like The Source along with loads of respect from sites like Too genuine.

The shoddy production on "Fill it In" mars one of the better lyrical shows on the album.

"Do these kitty-cats really wanna battle a lion?/I didn't think so/Forgive them they know not/Reprogram their brains/Cause the future is robot/I flow hot, make the fans go (hey!)/While your wack flows make them cut off their ears like Van Gogh[...]Racism isn't the answer/Neither is war/We keep swinging and taking shots/But nobody's keepin' score/They slept on my style now I'm living the dream/The radio is a nightmare and I hear the victims scream."

Combine all those ingredients - Biblical quotes, Van Gogh reference, flipped rap cliches, Braille's insistence on love and peace - it makes a tasty lyrical stew. Too bad S1 fucked the beat up.

To focus on the music, Symbolyc is at his best when he is riding in his comfort zone, playing to his strengths. To be sure, Symbolyc does not really have a regional flavor; if he does he doesn't show it on this album. He draws from the West and the South, and there's a little bit of the Dilla wobble on "Skepticold." Still, he takes (maybe more accurately, he steals) most of his cues from the New York scene. He lays slick piano licks and vocals over a boom-bap drum beat on "For Life," showing a great ear for choosing the soul samples that get woven into the tracks. On these more traditional-sounding tracks, for the most part he stays low key and lets both Braille and the supporting vocals take the spotlight. Sometimes he steps beyond the low-key, like tossing some bombastic horns and finger snaps into the mix on "That's My Word."

Symbolyc's problem is that he can't handle a track that gets too complicated. I mentioned "Fill it In" before. It has little clicks and beeps going nowhere, interjected gospel choirs, random screams, all sloshed on top of synth drums and keys. It's a bit reminiscent of the Cannibal Ox/Def Jux sound. But Symbolyc isn't El-P. The beat ends up sounding as if Symbolyc got so excited by all the sounds he learned he could make that he decided he could cram them into one song. Lyrically, it may be the hardest song on the album, but Braille's more traditional flow would have benefited from a more traditional beat.

Despite all the praise he gets, I wouldn't put hope in Braille saving hip-hop. I don't think his next album will be an underground classic . I don't think he does the right things in a radical way to be a huge progressive force for the genre. Still, Christians can be happy they finally have an competent emcee putting out positive music and heads can be happy 2009 finally saw a GOOD album getting exposure. Hipsters move along. This album is too genuine and too genuinely good.

Beats: 7.5 Lyrics: 8.5 Overall Listen: 8
Lesson learned: Be yourself

-Pete JD

Thursday, March 12, 2009

K'naan - Troubadour

Studio LP
Released February 24, 2009

K'naan comes to the game well-hyped. His label has positioned him as an anti-mainstream emcee, whose experience of growing up in the violent streets of Somalia pales the gangsta rap that America still obsesses over. While the fact that his face is plastered all over websites in iTunes ads makes it hard to buy into the fact that he is the answer to the mainstream, his lyricism should be enough to convince listeners that he is a talented, unique emcee. Still, though K'naan has creative control over what comes out of his mouth, listeners may feel a creeping suspicion that his label strong-armed him into using bland, radio-friendly beats.

People can come out and claim that K'naan's album is breaking ground insofar as bringing new sounds into the genre. The glaring problem is that the musical influences brought in on this album are already so tired. Did hip-hop really need Maroon 5's Adam Levine on the hook of "Bang Bang," which sounds more like a Robbie Williams track, or Kirk Hammet playing watery riffs ripped out of a radio-rock song from 2003? The story of K'naan is that he was rapping along to tapes of Rakim and Nas before he even knew how to speak English - it is hard to believe that, were K'naan to have creative control over his music, he would have taken the album in the direction that it went.

That is not to say that there are not highlights in terms of production. "America" brings to mind old-school dancehall beats and K'naan gets a little nostalgic before breaking into the Somali-sung hook. Reggae influences surface on other songs such as "Fire in Freetown." In fact, once you get past the hit-or-miss first half of the album, where it seems most of the more radio friendly songs are, the album's production settles down and stays very consistent in terms of quality.

Lyrically, K'naan holds his own. He is solid working with metaphors and spitting politically, but he sounds at his most comfortable when weaving a story. His history growing up in Somalia obviously provides a great deal of material to draw from. "Fatima" is about the object of affection of a young Somali who is taken away from him by a masked gunman. "Take a Minute" describes the emcee's personal development and hardships.

K'naan has absolutely improved since his debut. His presence on the mic, lyrically and stylistically, is bolder and sharper. He sometimes stumbles with lines that come off too cutesy, such as the hook on the closing track "People Like Me." In trying to steer himself away from the fakeness of gangsta posing, he ends up on the other end of the spectrum singing, "Heaven/Is there a chance that you could come down/And open doors to hurting/People like me." Despite this, it is important to realize that K'naan refuses pity from his listeners. His efforts boil down to the fact that he doesn't want to boast about his tought upbringing or complain about it, he merely wants to tell the stories he has to tell.

Beats: 6.5 Lyrics: 7.5 Overall Listen: 7
Lesson Learned: Mainstream pop is not the best place to mine inspiration from when you're trying to innovate.

Video with Sadat X of Brand Nubians

True Hip-Hop Stories: Sadat X of Brand Nubian from D-Nice on Vimeo.

Great interview done with Sadat X. If you do not know Sadat X, that means you:

A) Have none of his Brand Nubians or solo stuff.
B) Do not have the insanely great underground album Soundbombing 2 from Rawkus.
C) Have Soundbombing and not listened to it.
D) Have Soundbombing and not really listened to it.

Watch the interview, cop Soundbombing, cop the Brand Nubians debut album. I for one realized how much more I gotta get up on their shit.

-Pete JD

Sunday, March 8, 2009

B-Real - Smoke 'N Mirrors

Studio LP
Released February 24, 2009

As a kid born in 1987 and growing up in suburbia, I grew up in a place where the lunch room arguments revolved around who was better, Limp Bizkit or Rage Against the Machine. Nu-metal and rap-rock bands were at their peak. And Cypress Hill put out a disc called Skull & Bones. It was among the first CDs I ever bought as a kid, but after the first few listens, even back then, I wrote it off as being just part of the background noise created by the other groups at the time. It was not until I started getting deep into hip-hop a couple years ago that I began looking harder at Cypress's earlier albums and appreciating the contribution they made, sonically by Muggs, who still continues to put out formidable work (Muggs vs GZA is an essential album for heads) and on the mic by B-Real.

It might be that high expectations then that affected the listening to this disc. First of all, Muggs does not produce a single cut on the album. It's disappointing, it's like a member of the Clan putting out an album without a beat or two from the RZA. It might have been an effort to make his solo work drastically stand out from that of the group, which according to XXL is dropping a new album later this year. It's good to want to push yourself in a different direction musically, but too often on this album, the emcee merely pulls away from Cypress Hill's sound to drift into the uninspired world of commercial rap, with a couple standout exceptions.

The first song on the album is the title track, a solid joint produced by Scoop Deville, beginning with a sped-up vocal from the Stylistics playing over smokey organ chords and strings before hitting you with the bass and the hand-claps. Not like it should surprise anyone, B-Real's flow on this album is as solid as his work with Cypress.

"What's good in the hood/Can you tell me?[...]
The streets are ugly and the world is going through changes/
We fighting at home and out here at unknown places/
We never know what peace is/
We all about war for the money and the violence increases/
I never thought about it when I was younger/
I never thought about we all just numbers/
I only thought about the food on the table/
I was taught to make moves when you're ready and able."

The song sums up B-Real's backstory. A gangbanger and dealer that used to have to hustle to feed his family gets into hip-hop to leave it behind. He's older and he looks back on it, disgusted by the way the world is but unapologetic because he did what he had to. It's a pretty common story, but it's told in a reflective way, and his personal spin on the theme produces a worthwhile listen.

Unfortunately, B-Real visits other rap cliches without spinning them in a meaningful way. Three throwaway tracks come one after the other, including one with the sixteen bars' waste that is Snoop Dogg. Okay, so I guess once you "Get that Dough" you gotta be "Stackn Paper." A hustler would be nothing if he weren't organized. The ideas are tired, and the production, with its try-hard ominous beats and hooks, of some of these songs are something you would expect from a G-Unit offering.

Some of the standouts on the album come about in unexpected ways. "1 Life" brings Sen Dog into the fold. The Cypress emcees switch between Spanish and English over classical guitar, with a hook that translates as 'This is the life I chose, am I the foresaken or the chosen?' "Fire" is, well, it's just about real good weed, but the beat and the hook are catchy as hell. Another track steals the synth and melody of Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" for the chorus. It is up to the listener to decide for themself whether or not that approach works.

If it's not one thing, it's another, and there always seems to be something missing in this album. B-Real is still sharp lyrically and his flow's still solid, although he doesn't switch it up enough for some tracks, but the album might have been great if he could have gotten more than a handful of competent producers and guest spots.

Beats: 6.5 Lyrics: 8 Overall Listen: 7
Lesson Learned: You put Snoop Dogg on your album, you'll just sink to his level.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

N.A.S.A. - The Spirit of the Apollo

Studio LP

I admit, it may not be the best approach to begin a hip-hop blog with a review on this disc. The music that Squeak E. Clean and DJ Zegon put into the mix with this album does its best to defy any critical analysis of its value. And that is not to say that it is genre-bending or ground-breaking. It is simply that this album amounts to about as much as a party mix.

That being said, it would make a damn great party mix.

The album's roster is probably its biggest talking point. Squeak E. Clean got about half the Wu-Tang stable on board, featured Jurassic 5's Chali 2na on a couple tracks, and wrangled hip-hop vets Chuck D and KRS-One, among others. Add in a large handful of artists from outside the States, such as Seu Jorge, as well as lesser-known-to-Americans artists. And also there's Tom Waits.

The overall mood is the easy-going, fun-loving spirit of a block party, so naturally the emcee that seems most at home over the bouncy beats is Chali 2na. I am not saying that they phone it in, but the more serious emcees tone it down on this album. Put Chuck D on a track called Money and you would likely expect something furious, but the most biting line you could find in his verse is:

"Who'd go from rags to riches, and spend their riches on rags?/Similar bags with designer name tags"

The contribution is a decent effort from Public Enemy's frontman, but its tameness highlights the fact that to enjoy this album, you have to recognize it is only entertainment. Maybe it is the fact that the album allows listeners not to take it so seriously that I find it easier to enjoy Kanye's collaboration with Santogold and Swedish pop singer Lykke Li.

"Matter of fact I'm on this very second/I'm in first and y'all in second/And this verse only add to the freshness/Call up the club and add to the guest-list/Whachu think? Way more bitches/I could never be too big for my britches/Y'all muthafuckas know who this is/I'm gifted. Merry Christmas."

Nope. I could dance the shit outta that track, but despite the lowered expectations on this album for Kanye, he still spits obnoxious garbage. But that beef is for another section.

As far as the choice of combinations of artists, some people will probably have a problem with the pairing of Kool Keith and Tom Waits, Waits contributing a gravely chorus and sung verse bookended by Keith on Spacious Thoughts. Still, it is difficult to pick this song apart. In a strangely entertaining way, it doesn't not work.

The album, as critic after critic has pointed out, was such a massive undertaking that it resulted in somewhat of a mess. Artists like Seu Jorge and the RZA get pushed out of the way at times. It is not an album you should put on the headphones for repeated listenings, but definitely a good fit for a basement party.

Beats: 7.5 Lyrics: 6 Overall Listen: 7

Hope Springs Eternal

On one of the sunniest days I decided to sit down and start a project (okay a blog).

Everyone should know by now, the underground is floundering. It has not really been too impressive all decade, at the most amounting to emcees rhyming over uninspired beats about how the mainstream rhymes about money and hoes (no kidding?). I've got my scapegoats, like Sweatshop Union. Cats like these seem to want to offer themselves up as martyrs for the underground. But now is not the time to look backwards. Hip-hop is offering up a lot of tasty promises for the coming year. Raekwon's new disc is supposed to drop this month. Mos Def has a new album ready to go sometime later this year, supposedly with a couple of tracks produced by my favorite post-Dilla beatmaker Madlib. New Big Boi, new Andre3K. Possibly new MF Doom, Wale, Trife da God, among others. Ghostface working on a new album? Wouldn't be surprised...

So after, in many ways, a largely disappointing 2008, I guess this blog should be considered an experiment about whether or not hip-hop can pull itself out of its slump, in the face of mainstream rap's efforts to kill its spirit and the majority of the underground's desire to run it into the ground. Will my hope be rewarded or will it just end up crushed by the likes of Asher Roth? We'll see if the underground, and hip-hop as a whole, can get it together.

To come:

B-Real - Smoke n Mirrors
K'naan - Troubadour
and a project entitled N.A.S.A. which produced the disc The Spirit of Apollo