Category Archives: Album of the Week

Album of the Week: “THE PUZZLE episode one THE BIG GAME” by Lewis Parker

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Lewis Parker
THE PUZZLE episode one THE BIG GAME
The Word Of Dusty Vinyl, 2009

Gus’ Thought

Talking specifically about hip-hop culture, the United States is a special place because it originated here. As we know, hip-hop spread all over the country, each region incorporating its own particular flavor and style to the mix. At this point hip-hop is a phenomenon that has taken the world by storm. Being in the United States, we get to enjoy all the artists (good and bad) that come from the birthplace of the culture. This means it can be difficult to branch out and hear sounds that come from different places. If you are in search of some hip-hop from outside the United States, check out British producer/MC Lewis Parker.

From 2011, Parker’s The Puzzle (Episode One): The Big Game is brimming with British bravado. From a production standpoint, Parker’s work here feels complete. Nothing was left out and it captures his style, just how he intended. From song to song, the music swells with horns blowing full out, guitars strumming on the low end, energetic drum loops and woodwinds that are perfectly layered on top. Tracks such as “Man Up,” “Dirty Money” and “The Big Gamble” all incorporate these elements, giving the album a feeling of retro, cinematic grittiness that would be in line with your favorite 007 film starring Sean Connery. This secret agent aura is only reinforced with the lyricism of each track. As Parker spits on “Say It’s Just A Game,” “Ain’t nothin’ changin’ with that/ Countin’ the cash stack, having a flashback/ Thinkin,’ ‘Damn, wish she had my back’/ Up in the club/ Cool cat, tilted hat.”

In the end, Parker’s smooth sound permeates throughout the entire record. It’s sleek, sophisticated and most importantly; suave. However, the thing I love about The Puzzle (Episode One): The Big Game is that it sounds different than most of what you’ll hear coming across the hip-hop airwaves in the United States. It’s always good to try new things and in this case, the music of Lewis Parker is a very good thing indeed.

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Album of the Week: “Thirty Eight” by Apollo Brown

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Apollo Brown
Thirty Eight
Mello Music Group, 2014

Daniel’s Thought

Apollo Brown is one of the most cinematic producers of our generation. Painting pictures on MPC murals, the way he can fluctuate his sound to varying projects while retaining his patented style is one of the greatest accomplishments very few producers achieve these days. From the blue-collar sound and feel of Ugly Heroes, to the gritty slam of Dice Game, to his re-working of Adrian Younge’s Twelve Reasons to Die, every project Apollo embarks on is an individual branch on his overall tree of sound. Like any branch from a tree, there are characteristics that are shared among many of the other branches, but also characteristics unlike any other branch hanging on the tree.

Thirty Eight is his newest project, and as it crackles and spits, clear-cut imagery and cinematic sounds burst from the record’s framework. “All You Know” rattles with Apollo’s coveted hard-hitting boom-bap and intense sound cuts (this time a quick synth one-hitter), but it also twinkles and rattles as if it’s playing along to a Great Gatsby-like car chase. On “Dirt on the Ground,” the production is layered into typical Apollo Brown fashion, with repetitive samples ooh’ing and ahh’ing throughout the track, but there’s also an added background buzzing that makes the song accompany the visuals to something like Road to Perdition. The album’s big surprise, “Felonious,” glides smoothly under a rush of synth pads and a cool and collected guitar melody that shows us what tricks Apollo Brown has hiding for us at every turn.

So yes, with Thirty Eight you’ll hear the quirks and familiarities Apollo Brown is known for. But you’ll also hear new and intriguing sounds that he is unleashing for the first time as an overall ode to 70s Blaxploitation soundtracks. Much like any tree and its branches, Apollo’s discography has all the features you expect to hear and new ones sprouting with each branch.

Gus’ Thought 

There is no question that over the years, Apollo Brown has established himself as one of the most consistently bangin’ producers in hip-hop. Whether he is making beats for a group (The Left and Ugly Heroes), an individual MC (Boog Brown, Hassaan Mackey, Guilty Simpson and OC) or an instrumental album, there is a cleanliness to his music that allows him to work in many different situations. While Apollo Brown beats have come to be associated with heavy sampling and hefty drums, he has still been able to create different sounding beats and adapt to the various projects he’s been a part of. There is certainly a formula to the way he does things and its a damn good one. His most recent instrumental project, Thirty Eight, showcases this. The predominant musical characteristics are recognizably Apollo Brown. However, he brings a completely new thematic element to this album that is much scratchier and rough around the edges.

Released in April 2014, Thirty Eight is more soundtrack-like than anything else, the music painting vivid scenes when bumped at the appropriate levels. The description of the record via the Bandcamp Page reads:

These are suites sounding from long barrels held by lone men lurking in grimy project hallways. Tinged with revenge and regret, shrouded in thick tendrils of hollow-point smoke, the songs have all the makings of an epic gangster tragedy. They’re also great when paired with anything Raymond Chandler.”

With its lack of lyricism, the brilliance of a well-made instrumental album is that it allows the listener to imagine. Brown’s Thirty Eight does this extremely well, creating a vast expanse of musical landscapes and potential stories. With blaring horns and a slow tempo, “The Warning” sounds like the build up to a drive-by shooting in 1940’s Los Angeles. “Lonely and Cold” could accompany a scene in a 1970’s Blaxploitation film set within a murky shipyard stacked with smuggled goods. The twangs of “The Laughter Faded” creates a terribly hollow feeling of despair and the loss of prosperity and good times as the title suggests.

With Thirty Eight, Apollo Brown has created an album that should be a welcome addition to the rotation to those that already support Apollo’s work as well as for those that aren’t as familiar. Using certain elements of his tried and true method of sampling while adding new textures and styles to his sound, Thirty Eight comes across as a much needed soundtrack to the Noir/ Mafioso/ Blaxploitation genres that are colorful and full of drama. The beauty of this record is that it allows the listener to create their own ideas and stories without abandoning Brown’s overall vision of the project. Additionally, Apollo Brown continues to demonstrate why he is one of the most dependable and skilled producers around.

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Album of the Week: “Parts of Speech” and “Parts of Speech, Re-Edited” by Dessa

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Dessa
Parts of Speech 
Doomtree, 2013

Gus’ Thought (Parts of Speech)

After having listened to Parts of Speech multiple times by Dessa, Minneapolis’ darling and Doomtree executive, it’s clear that she hasn’t followed the same formula as her first effort, A Badly Broken Code. More singing, slower tempos and an increase in live instrumentation lead to an album that is packed with emotion and musicality. I can’t say that self-proclaimed “hip-hop heads” or “purists” may find her second full-length album difficult to digest. Her style is far different than what some may or may not associate with rap music. However, if you can get past a traditionalist mindset, there is no doubt that Parts of Speech should be in your rotation. This is because what Dessa brings to the table is unique and different in the most refreshing kind of way.

A lot of this has to do with the way she uses her lyrics and singing skills to create vivid images and feelings that are relatable to multiple audiences. At the same time, Dessa is still able to make these stories seem specific to her experiences. There is the first track, “The Man I Knew,” that is about how relationships can completely change over time, even after ten years of loving someone with all your heart. As she sings in the chorus, “The Man I knew/ I don’t think that he can hear me now/ So dizzy with the altitude/ It’s just too far/ Who am I to tell you to come down?” Later, “I’m Going Down” continues the discussion of change within relationships. This time, it’s unclear as to why things are different but Dessa again has a way of telling the story so that it feels that you are the one going through it all. Primarily accompanied by guitar and upright bass, Dessa calmy throws out, “Pull you close but when we kiss/ When we kiss I can feel the doubt/ I remember back when we started/ My kisses used to turn you inside out.” With every track, Dessa continually brings her lyrical intelligence and emotional depth that has made her a mainstay in Minneapolis and around the world. This can be heard throughout the album and on the more up-tempo  “Skeleton Key” and “Fighting Fish.”

Dessa’s Parts of Speech is an album that will take you on a journey that is grounded in the theme of change. Grounded in spoken word, Dessa takes the art form to new levels. The lyrics soar with depth that is reinforced with production by Paper Tiger, Lazerbeak and live instrumentation. This is not a hip-hop album in the traditional sense. Dessa isn’t even a “traditional” hip-hop artist, whatever that even means. But I have to ask, in a pop culture hip-hop world that is saturated with commercialism and swag, why should we hold onto tradition? Why not seek out artists that take the art form and create something new that’s actually worth listening to? Parts of Speech by Dessa is one of these types of albums.

Daniel’s Thought (Re-Edited)

It’s now been one year since the release of Parts of Speech, the critically acclaimed record from Doomtree’s Dessa. After a year, Parts of Speech still stands gracefully, with its multi-mood, multi-genre approach. This is Dessa’s second full-length studio record–I’m not counting her remix album Castor, the Twin–and like her previous material, this album continues to transverse the genre/sound sphere. For Dessa Darling fans, this isn’t new: her albums usually avoid simplistic categorization with many layers and a diverse range in overall sound, and by taking broad-ranging themes and whittling them into little concrete statements, Dessa’s albums require attention to detail; these records are hard to grasp, even after multiple listens. More important however is the growth Parts of Speech showcases: Dessa continues to broaden her style with more singing, more intricate poetry over multiple mediums and a production background that steps up from the beginning stages of her discography.

In all, Parts of Speech deserves the recognition it still sees these days, and to celebrate the one-year anniversary, Dessa has released a remix EP of the record called Parts of Speech, Re-Edited.

Re-Edited doesn’t cover all 12 original tracks–in fact, “Fighting Fish,” “Warsaw” and “It’s Only Me” are remixed twice–but it does provide a good platform with eight tracks that justly represent an expansive remix record.

Opening is the lead-single, “Fighting Fish (The Hood Internet Remix),” a slower, more tethered version than the original. The Hood Internet carry their own though, with low reverberating lyrics and music that features strong electro waves and droning with sincere tones. It’s a great pick for a remix album opener, with enough to distinguish itself from the original while at the same time reiterating its main constructs. “It’s a shadow in the dark,” The Hood Internet say under blocks of electric guitar chords near the end of the track, and as a remix album it may just be a shadow compared to the original, but it possesses enough “darkness,” variation and change to express itself freely as its own.

Other tracks on the record are just as unique and experimental as the opener. On the Lazerbeak & Ryan Olson (their duo name is COMMITTEE) remix of “Call Off Your Ghost,” the two take Dessa’s vocals and stretch them across a clinky electronic shell. With a sound that slightly mirrors something off of Passion Pit’s Chunk Of Change,–although, nowhere near the chinsy-ness of Passion Pit as a whole–the two make this remix a different kind of sad–the original is sad in its own right, but this one puts it into a whole new category.

On “It’s Only Me (Grant Cutler Remix),” Cutler trades soothing string melodies for synth pads and a drum machine, which takes the song’s tone and makes it livelier. The setting and content behind the lyrics is still all Dessa, but Cutler switches up the music to make his remix more fitting for a bar or club than a symphony hall.

The “Skeleton Key” remix on the other hand, which is the album’s closer, absolutely shines with added instrumentation, as the Youngblood Brass Band provide a very formidable backdrop. Using their patented New Orleans fusion sound, along with their experience working with other hip-hop artists, the Youngblood Brass Band does what they do best as they explode all over the speakers with strong horns, raging saxophone bombardment, a frenzy of percussion and a fitting stage presence.

With other guests remixing Dessa’s songs such as The Year of the Horse, Dustin Kiel, Budo and Cecil Otter, Re-Edited is a worthy remix album. Celebrating the one-year anniversary of Parts of Speech makes this little project special, but without that certification, the music and artists would make this record stand anyway on their merits alone. Listen to the original Parts of Speech and then crank Re-Edited; celebrate Dessa’s music for all to hear!

Parts of Speech

Re-Edited

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Album of the Week: “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (Parts One and Two)” by Raekwon

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Raekwon
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… / Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II
RCA, 1995 / EMI, 2009

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