This past weekend, I attended the Common Ground Music Festival in the heart of Lansing, Michigan. I have attended my fair share of music festivals, but never one within city limits—this definitely gives it a slightly different atmosphere. I entered the festival grounds with a typical half-assed search, walked across a bridge decked out in glow sticks and found myself in the middle of the madness. I had about an hour before BLAT! Pack performed so I decided to roam around.
I walked along the Grand River, past craft booths, food stands and a few little games for the kids—it sure did feel like a festival, though extremely small. I stretched out on the riverfront for a bit and soaked in those loving Sunday vibes. After thoroughly Zen, I made my way to the main stage to catch a little bit of Jon Connor, a Flint-based MC. I had never heard anything by him before, but I was pleasantly surprised; he had energy, presence, and great band backing him. He spoke of unity, the great state of Michigan, the healing powers of hip-hop and of course, peace and love. Near the end of the show, his sister joined him on stage, and it started to feel like one big happy festie family—everyone was laughing, dancing and putting their drinks in the air for what was bound to be a great night. Content with the performance, I headed back downriver to see BLAT! Pack.
I arrived with fifteen minutes to spare, laid out in the grass, and watched as people slowly started to gather in front of the stage—a few folks sported BLAT! Pack and James Gardin shirts. Before I knew it, people were flooding in from left and right eagerly awaiting the show. The atmosphere around was all love, hugs and a sense of anticipation, which unleashed as BLAT! Pack took the stage; and once they took the stage, they didn’t miss a single beat.
It was the first time they had ever performed as BLAT! Pack, and shit, they had better do it more often. It wasn’t just Jahshua Smith, it wasn’t just James Gardin, or Red Pill, or Yellowkake, it was the complete BLAT! Experience—the horns, the rhythm section, and every MC took this show beyond sun, moon and stars, hurling us audience members into the next dimension. It was a funky, fun-loving show that radiated with pure artistic bliss. I don’t know who had more fun, the audience or BLAT! Pack. As I was lost in that backbeat, the MC’s were running around on stage, laughing, goofing around—organically going from mock backup dancer to main performer. The music was clean, the vocals were crisp and you could feel the heart and soul radiating through sound waves.
Underneath the music, the love and laughter, was something that resonated with the human spirit: accepting change and revolution. Throughout the concert, brief words of wisdom were spit between songs: they talked about letting go of your past, your anger, your frustrations and just letting it float away in the wind; they stated our need for revolution, not only at a societal level, but a revolution within ourselves; Jahshua Smith mentioned Trayvon Martin, but instead of being on a soapbox, he let the verdict speak for itself, and told us all to raise our fists, together. And everyone in the audience, from different lifestyles and cultures, raised their fists into the sky; I turned around to face the whole crowd and noticed sunlight pouring into the pavilion, across all our faces, across all our fists. Then, the beat dropped, and hands went wild.
After the show I was elated, and laid back in the grass, soaking up the light of the people. Moments like these are what the world needs—bringing the festival vibes to a city, speakers blasting onto the streets. You know, you read the “news” and hear about all the horrible things in the world, about how our world is falling apart, but then you go out into the world, and are greeted with nothing but love. I find when I actually leave my computer screen, unplug and live my life, the world is more vast and beautiful than ever before. THIS IS THE REVOLUTION: get up, get out, and do something! I love that local groups such as BLAT! Pack exist to expand the consciousness of man from the bottom up; we need to support more grassroots movements and recreate local culture. I believe, if we focus in on here and now, we will uncover all our souls’ desires. We just got to get up, get out, and do something.
“WE WERE BORN TO DIE RUNNING,” rapper Tony the Scribe spit into the mic as the lights flew on and producer ICETEP dropped the beat. Throughout the past two years of collaboration, KILLSTREAK, a hip-hop duo from Minneapolis, Minnesota, has shown no signs of stopping. After announcing their debut album Janus on July 9th, KILLSTREAK headlined their album release show last Thursday night at First Avenue’s 7th Street Entry.
Openers Z x John Daniels, Rich Garvey x Psymun, Chantz Erolin of Audio Perm, and host Botzy hyped up a perfect amount of energy with the crowd throughout the evening leading up to KILLSTREAK’s performance. After these acts, the audience was in for a treat. Suddenly the lights went out and the sound of rain fell from the speakers as ICETEP spun the Intro to Janus, capturing everyone in attentive darkness.
KILLSTREAK’s setlist consisted of the album in its entirety. Though the duo is still playing around with their live performance, by the beginning of their second song, “Smoke,” they had the audience holding up their drinks and wiling out in all the right places. Tony the Scribe took the crowd through the duality of a college experience: the intelligence and the ignorance, the brains and the beer, growing through themes of morality, excess and being nineteen in today’s society. ICETEP’s beats consisted of ebb and flow with surgical precision, successfully blending hip-hop and electronic dance music, which gave their music a unique sound that few others in the scene today have.
KILLSTREAK is a story you want to experience. So, as Guante (a well respected Minneapolis artist featured on Janus’ second to last track, “Collateral Damage”) said during his performance with KILLSTREAK: “put your headphones in, close your eyes, and listen.”
You can stream the album for free or download it here.
We have now reached the halfway point of 2013, and like any other critic obsessed with rankings and arbitrary lists, I’ve decided to share some of my favorite hip-hop albums and mixtapes of the year (so far). Admittedly, I didn’t think 2013 would provide as well as it has, but with a plethora of diverse works and records already out and six more months of music to add, this is going to be a good year for hip-hop. It already has been.
So without further ado, here are my favorite hip-hop albums/mixtapes of 2013 so far.
DFD- Old Boy Jon
Let me just say that Duke Westlake nailed the production on this mixtape. To be completely honest, I’m not a big fan of glossy and clean-cut production like this, but Westlake completely works with Dumbfoundead’s style. Although DFD finds himself searching for content throughout this album, it’s his ability to turn this album into a visual party that makes this worth the listen.
Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge- Twelve Reasons to Die
I’ll say it right now: I think Ghostface Killah is the most consistent Wu-Tang member when it comes to solo work. With the exception of the mediocre Ghostdini, all of Ghost’s work profiles the best while bringing in something new and unique. I can gladly say that Twelve Reasons to Die follows suit. Here Adrian Younge takes control of the production and layer cakes this record with a cleverly crafted sandbox of haunting sound that gives the sword-wielding and fist bashing lyrics a deeper meaning. I would argue that this record would be better if it was cut shorter, but there’s no denying how sweet it is to listen to such chemistry.
Homeboy Sandman- Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent EP
Homeboy Sandman is an MC from New York City and is signed with Stones Throw Records, a West Coast production company. Not that this really matters or anything, but if you follow Stones Throw (think Madlib, Guilty Simpson, J Dilla), then you know their unique underground hip-hop sound. With Kool Herc, you’re basically getting another Stones Throw, Adult Swim-esque record, but it carries itself well without this label. “Dag, Philly Too” sounds like a smarter Das Racist cut, “Lonely People” mirrors Quasimoto and crafts its own shape, and “Men Are Mortal” rattles your head lyrically, but in a good way (“I been the infamous since drinking infant milk / Whomever want to cause an incident I be like “It’s a deal” / I’m not interested in spending an instant with the infidels / Can tell I used to read Fidel and rock Big L”).
Joey Bada$$- Summer Knights
I’ve always been impressed with Joey Bada$$ because of his seemingly effortless flow, his respect of 90s hip-hop and the mere fact that he’s only 18 years old. After his 1999 mixtape hit the interwebs last year, I knew we had something special. Now that his second solo mixtape, Summer Knights, is out, I now realize Joey Bada$$ may be the second-coming of something. See, I can’t quite equate him to someone comparable, but maybe that’s why he’s so appealing. He is quite literally a new-age rapper with a 90s Golden Age mind. With that being said, he’s so much more than that. His flow is confident and smart, and yet he still carries his youth with him—which is probably why fans of all eras of hip-hop find this kid mystifying. On Summer Knights, Bada weaves stories of youth (“Trap Door”) with lessons to live by (“Word Is Bond”) while flooding the speakers with crisp cadence and guest appearances by Alchemist, Smoke DZA, DJ Premier and more.
Kid Tsunami- The Chase
Australian producer Kid Tsunami is one for nostalgia on The Chase. His beats sway easily, leaving a lot to the MC on the track, but don’t confuse this with simplicity. On “What It Was”, the construction of the song consists of a tumbling bass and Gang Starr-like horns, and although guest J-Live is the center, it’s too hard for him to conceal the contents of Tsunami’s beat. Elsewhere, KRS-One runs on “These Are the Facts”, a swift track that could accompany a car chase scene, and “Ar Toxic” a lounge-like song with guitar twangs and Kool Keith’s recognizable bars.
Killer Mike & El-P- Run the Jewels
If R.A.P. Music hadn’t been released the same year as good kid, m.A.A.d city, it would have been “album of the year.” That’s because Killer Mike and El-P constructed a package so unique and revealing that it almost threw us all a curve. Their 2013 project is different stylistically, but just as rewarding. Run the Jewels is a harsh listen, and might even be a turnoff for those not familiar with El-P’s production (especially his work with Company Flow), however it’s harsh for all the right reasons. El-P mixes each song with choppy blips, buzzing, choppy guitars, cymbal smacking and dark and heavy synths that stab and smother. What’s most notable about Run the Jewels is that El-P retains his rapping skills and compliments Killer Mike in every way. Since R.A.P. Music didn’t grab “album of the year” in 2012, I have no problem with Run the Jewels capturing 2013.
Sadistik- Flowers For My Father
If you can get past the initial skepticism behind this project (the quirky flow at times, the album art), Flowers For My Father will truly move you. The title and subject matter of the record are telling, which, for the most part, covers the death of Sadistik’s father and the depression that ensued from the event. But sleeping beneath this cover is an MC with content that is as crippling on the ears as it is on the brain. This isn’t a bad thing either; this is an album chocked with emotion and sincerity. Flowers For My Father is built off of crumbling facades: the death of his father, holding onto hope, loss and the death of Minnesota legend Eyedea. On “Micheal”, Sadistik puts everything on the table: “With you Mike I wish that I could hug you again / It’s getting harder to pretend and I can’t undo what’s been / Thank for being someone I could come to, a friend / I hope I make you proud, I love you, the end.”
Statik Selektah- Extended Play
Not only does every track on Extended Play standout with Statik Selektah’s timeless East Coast boom-bap production, but every track also features emcees of all eras coming in and showing off. There are 38 guests in total ranging from Action Bronson and Black Thought to Prodigy and Smif-n-Wessun, and while at times this record has a mixtape-like feel with disheveled content and parity, there’s no denying Stat’s ability to construct a solid record from top to bottom. The variation within the album is there too. On “Game Break”, an airy track with skinny piano chords, backing synth coos and a SWV sample, Lecrae, Posdnuos and Termanology talk about the game making them better men (“Get something man, cultivate a creation / Don’t blame it on your lack of education”). Comparatively, “Pinky Ring” sees Prodigy spitting over a funk-driven track with eerie background squeaks and loose percussion swells. See, Extended Play might not be as cohesive as other albums, but it successfully melds different sounds and eras into one of the most listenable records of the year.
Styles P- Float
Styles P has always been one of the most respected MCs out of New York City because of his strict attention to detail and consistency. With Float, P continues to tread along this blueprint while at the same time throwing in some curveball experimental sound; “Hater Love” sounds like a thrashing epic from a mafia movie, “Red Eye” hops like a dark-disco beat that could fit in the Roll Bounce soundtrack and “Shoot You Down” plays like any other big city anthem with light horns, soaring vocal samples and sample interludes within the contents of the track. Lyrically, P is dominating in every aspect. On the eerie “Manson Murder,” he puts it all on the table: “Basically, hit you with the hard nigga recipe / Fuck you! If you ain’t with me, you’re next to me / I ain’t one for the small talk / Goes to get it in it like Nucky on Boardwalk.”
Ugly Heroes- Ugly Heroes
From an outsider’s standpoint, Ugly Heroes is a concept album that covers everything from class structure to human emotion, but once you delve into the record it becomes apparent that it’s an anthem for hip-hop as a whole. Though most of the record is negative and downtrodden in content, songs like “Just Relax” and “Push” gives Ugly Heroes a light of confidence that only strengthens it as a whole. Red Pill and Verbal Kent are sincere and bold throughout, and Apollo Brown’s lush sample-heavy production provides the two MCs a beat to march to. Even with all of the hype surrounding this project, Ugly Heroes exceeded expectations in almost every category.
In case you didn’t notice, Kanye West dropped an album a few days ago. And if you managed not to notice, apparently terms like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead”–oh, and “new Kanye album”–are commonplace in your life and don’t arouse any emotions in you whatsoever. If that’s the case, get out of my country and/or off my planet. Hate him or love him, a new Kanye album is an event, something one even remotely interested in hip-hop should become well acclimated with. And let’s be real, if you failed to notice the arrival of Yeezus, you will probably be shocked to hear that Osama bin Laden’s dead, Saddam’s dead, Milli Vanilli was lip synching the whole time and John Bobbitt got his dick reattached and did porn for a turn way back when. You’re welcome.
At any rate, a quick glance over at metacritic.com, which combines the many ratings an album, movie, etc. will get upon release and combine them into one score, will show you that critics love Kanye’s newest effort, Yeezus. That said, on the date of release, a not so quick glance over at my Facebook page would reveal that Yeezus confused the ever-loving shit out of a lot of average people. I even saw one picture of Kanye’s face Photoshopped onto the 3rd grade school picture of Kim Kardashian, or something like that. Needless to say, I don’t think that individual had the greatest opinion of the new album.
I thought the best way to go about reviewing this album was the track-by-track approach, with a final conclusion on the project as a whole. Other than that, I write what I feel like writing, which is probably why there tends to be a lot of squiggly red lines by the time I’m through. The good news is that Yeezus has but ten songs, and I suspect that even Microsoft Word wanted to underline half of the album, so it’s really not my fault at any point.
And away we go!
1. “On Sight”
Daft Punk helped produce this track? “You don’t say! I would never have guessed,” the reviewer says with great facetiousness. Anyway, while I have a tendency to love crossover collaborations, especially those with previous successes like West’s “Stronger” off of Graduation, this beat is a little noisy and disjointed for my taste. It does improve to some degree when Kanye gets into the bridge for the first time; the electro-synth snare line around the 1:10 mark gives the listener a point of reference for head-bouncing purposes.
The opening track makes up for the somewhat awkward instrumental with its strong, brash and clever lyrical content. Some highlights:
“Real nigga back in the house again / Black Timbs all on your couch again / Black dick all in your spouse again / She got more niggas off then Cochran, huh?”
Yeesh. Mince words he does not. Also, see verse #2 in its entirety, because Kanye.
Overall, it’s a strong first song, if not a classic. Also, I can’t help but think that after challenging his audience with, “How much do I not give a fuck? / Let me show you right now before you give it up,” Kanye interrupts everything with what sounds like a children’s choir belting out, “Ohhhhhh, he’ll give us what we neeeeeeeeeeed / It may not be what we waaaaaaaant.”
This beat is on point! Stark, militant, thumping, and subtly complex. The harried rhythmic breathing gets my early vote for favorite thing on the album that you don’t notice you’ve noticed. Remember the offbeat high hats on “No Church in the Wild”? Same type of shit! So subtle, and yet inexplicably dope!
Unfortunately, verse one’s lyrics are forgettable, and the flow is fairly repetitive; it kinda kills the momentum the production set up so bad-assedly. Once again however, the second verse is fantastic:
“I’m aware I’m a wolf / Soon as the moon hit / I’m aware I’m a king / Back out the tomb bitch!”
Also, may we discuss for a moment how he spits, “You niggas ain’t breathing, you gasping,” right on top of the semi-panicked breathing I mentioned earlier? Do you think Kanye West does these things by accident? I credit—along with his ever-evolving creativity—his love and appreciation for musical and rhythmic nuances with catapulting Kanye to his current level of stardom. Lyrically speaking, he’s well above average, but not among the greatest ever to grab a mic. I think it’s his attention to detail, and the intimacy he grasps with every facet of an instrumental that gives West an added edge. The man interacts with the music better than arguably any other rapper out there, and it leads to people (or at least me) having this type of experience at least a couple times each album:
“Damn, this sounds amazing. Why does this sound so amazing?”
[6 months to a year pass]
“Ohhhhh. That’s why it sounds so amazing!”
And you only have to listen to these songs a dozen or fifty or one hundred times before you get there. That’s the depth that Kanye West can bring to a song.
3. “I Am a God”
This is far from my favorite track on Yeezus, but if Kanye gave it this title so that, at the very least, some nobody internet writer whom he’ll never hear of mentions it, his plan worked.
One thing I’d like to point out is that Kanye is not saying that he is God, just that he’s “a god.” “A,” as in one of multiple. Lower-cased “god.” A god of what? Hip hop? Anybody feel like denying that? Remembering his ability as a producer on other albums before he broke out with College Dropout, think about this man’s run from 2004 onward. Any chance he’s not on hip-hop’s Mount Olympus? Maybe he’s not holding Zeus’ lightning bolt, but you at least have to give him Dionysus. I mean, the man said the President of the United States doesn’t care about black people on national television and suffered less for it than Mike Myers did standing next to Kanye in the twenty seconds immediately after the fact.
Also, if this doesn’t make you smile I don’t know what to do with you:
“I just talked to Jesus / He said, ‘what up, Yeezus?’ / I said, ‘shit, I’m chilling’ / ‘Tryna stack these millions.'”
If Jesus asked me what I was doing, I would probably have to clear my history and burn my computer before responding. Apparently Kanye is a bit more confident than I. At any rate, throw in Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and some of Kanye’s quintessential, fantastic choir samples, and you have, at the very least, a song worth the listen as you run through the album.
4. “New Slaves”
This is a grim, determined look at what society expects of a black individual after he or she achieves great fame or recognition. It’s as if Kanye sees himself in a new realm, one that’s unfathomably high considering where he began in life, and sees “old money” looking at this nouveau riche black man and saying, “Kanye, you’re rich, you’re loved, you have all of the attention in the world—be happy! Don’t worry about all of the shit you and your ancestors have had to put up with. It’s fine now, because we’ve chosen to accept you.”
Yet at the same time, these people look down on him because he’s a rapper, not an oil tycoon or whatever rich white people do these days. He got famous and wealthy by excelling at a form of music foreign to them. He spends money in strange ways (or doesn’t buy expensive shit at a breakneck speed as expected). He’s outspoken. He’s got a thing or two to say about the White Man, the Establishment. Worst, he interrupted Taylor Swift that one time.
Their point: “You’re too much like us to raise a stink, Kanye, but you’re not one of us. You’re mainstream, but you’re still below us.”
“New Slaves” serves as a direct message to that class of people, alerting them that Kanye, umm, believes this is all utter bullshit, and that he is quite emphatic in this belief:
“They prolly all in the Hamptons / Bragging ’bout what they made / Fuck you and your Hampton house / I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse / Came on her Hampton blouse / And in her Hampton mouth / Y’all ’bout to turn shit up / I’m ’bout to tear shit down / I’m ’bout to air shit out / Now what the fuck they gon’ say now?”
Well, they probably won’t say much, but everybody in the Hamptons sure as shit just locked their doors.
5. “Hold My Liquor”
At the halfway mark of Yeezus, Kanye has made it fairly clear that he doesn’t really care if any of these songs make it onto the Billboard 100. He has largely shunned the structures of typical hip-hop songs, especially when it comes to hooks.
Q. What’s the chorus to “On Sight”?
A. “On sight! On sight!”
Q. What’s the chorus to “New Slaves”?
A. There… isn’t one. Not really, at least.
Yes, that’s only 2/5, but that’s definitely not normal as rap albums go. Oh, and “New Slaves” is one of his leading singles.
“Hold My Liquor” features a chorus handled by the walking, talking and allegedly human vegetable known as Chief Keef, so suffice it to say that I wish we could have gone back to the “New Slaves” approach to hooks. Still, I try not to judge a song by a less meaningful feature, so let Chief Keef have his moment, even if said moment would fall under the category of “Shit I Don’t Like.”
Aside from that, Justin Vernon reprises his “I Am A God” role in a beautiful intro. Through slurred words, the narrator seems to be a man who is in denial over his alcohol use. He states that he “can hold his liquor,” but “this man can’t handle me.” He hits the road, presumably drunk, headed south but with no stated end goal. Hauntingly beautiful, Vernon nails this cameo and sets the mood beautifully for Kanye’s verse.
That’s “verse” in its singular form, by the way. It’s a fairly long one, but it stands alone in between the aforementioned chorus and Vernon intros and outros, which almost makes it feel like a mid-album interlude of sorts. Think “Bring Me Down (ft. Brandy)” from Late Registration, but chilling, somber and dreamlike—though not in a Mary-Kate-and-Ashley-Olsen-are-trying-to-seduce-me-at-the-same-time kind of way.
I didn’t really appreciate this song until I got a grasp of the words amid the noise. Now that I’ve actually paid the proper amount of attention to it, it’s one of my favorites thus far. Definitely worth giving a few extra listens.
6. “I’m In It”
I dug this song within the first five seconds of the first time I heard it. A heavy synth bass put down the basis for a methodical, lean-the-driver’s-seat-back-grab-your-dick-and-roll-slow tempo, and the intermittent, rising “oooOOH!” and “aaaAAH!” let me know that I was in for some shit.
The first verse features normal Kanye layered with chopped ‘n screwed Kanye, the latter of which matches perfectly with the bass while the former keeps the sound away from James Earl Jones sippin’ hella sizzurp territory. The topic? Sex. Lusty, sweaty, interracial, middle of the day, name-a-part-of-the-body-and-it’s-mentioned sex.
The second verse features a Jamaican deejay who goes by the name of Assassin. Here’s the one thing you need to know about this guy: Assassin.Works. Fucking. Perfectly. On. This. Song.
I don’t know who he is, but that unique rasta flow and voice was made for this song, even if we Americans aren’t always sure of what they’re saying, just like in [name any ragga song ever created ever]. Assassin springs into his verse just as the beat picks up, the electro siren-like stuff going nuts in an upper octave, making you think that maybe there really is something to worry about here.
Kanye’s next verse doesn’t alleviate any concern, as he drops grimace-inducing bombs like: “Black girl sippin’ white wine / Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign / And grabbed it with a slight grind / And held it ‘til the right time / Then she came like AAAAAHHH!”
7. “Blood on the Leaves”
SONG OF THE ALBUM. I’m calling it right here. It starts off fittingly if we consider Kanye’s love for samples and Nina Simone, with Simone’s iconic voice-over simple piano chords:
“Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees / Blood on the leaves.”
Something about Simone’s voice makes me fall in love with the given song. Kanye has sampled Simone plenty of times. In this song it’s “Strange Fruit,” and others included are 808s & Heartbreak’s “Bad News” as well as Talib Kweli’s “Get By”; suffice it to say, West does it very, very well. I find it hard to believe that anybody could truly do bad with Nina Simone, but I wonder if Kanye can really be fucked with in the sampling game (good or bad, I don’t really care to argue the point here).
“Blood on the Leaves” is very reminiscent of 808’s at first, as West’s voice features the now overly familiar autotune sound we’ve all come to know/love/hate/despise/ignore while his lyrics detail a time of internal struggle, loss of love and an overall sense of discontent in his life.
“We could have been somebody / Thought you’d be different ‘bout it / Now I know you not it / So let’s get on it with it”
Those last lines of verse one bring us to the 1:06 mark. When 1:11 happens, shit is on and/or popping for good. How do I know?
Those are arch villain horns. Those are Tony Montana blasting from the top of his marble staircase. Those are Denzel Washington blowing up that one douche bag cop’s car in American Gangster. Those horns signify every available middle finger on the planet Earth, to borrow a term from Eminem: “stuck on fuck.”
It quiets down momentarily after that, but after those horns come in the first time, you know they’re coming back to wreck shit again, and they’re not going to be leaving again. And when they do come back right alongside a lyrical tribute to 90’s Snoop (“FUCK THEM OTHER NIGGAS CUZ I’M DOWN FOR MY NIGGAS”), I can’t help but stop analyzing and come to the understanding that Kanye has done it again and it doesn’t matter what he says to the POTUS or Taylor Swift or Jesus himself, because his music is the shit. He’s holding Zeus’ lightning bolt, galloping around with it between his legs like he’s got a massive cock of lightning. And you really can’t say much about it.
8. “Guilt Trip”
“Guilt Trip” seems to serve as a coming down from “Blood on the Leaves,” and I think it’s a good move. Every album needs balance, and I enjoy how this track calms things down without coming off flat. The first verse starts off with classic Kanye thoughts, specifically: “She’s into Leos / And I was into trios / Plus all the trips to Rio.” Such rhymes bring me back to, once again, “Bring Me Down (ft. Brandy),” with observations along the lines of, “And get some leeway on the he-say, she say / Your girl don’t like me? How long as she been gay? / Spanish girls say, ‘no hable Ingles’ / And everybody want to run to me for their singl-ay.”
It’s a nice track, but it seems to me that it doesn’t move the album along much. Still, at the eighth track of ten, this is the first time I’m coming to the conclusion of “meh.” Not bad, even for Kanye.
9. “Send It Up”
The first verse is courtesy of an up-and-coming Chicago MC, King Louie. Apparently Kanye shouted him out on a song a year or so ago, which caught King L by complete surprise. That’s some endearing shit; rappers are hardly ever entirely honest and damn near never modest. Suddenly, King L finds himself with a verse on Kanye’s “Look at Me I’m a Fucking Messiah” album, which has to be a tremendous feeling. Thankfully, this relative unknown doesn’t disappoint in his brief stint (to date) in the spotlight:
“Last night my bitches came in twos / And they both suck like they came to lose.”
Not a terribly complex rhyme, and yet I’ve never heard that line before. Fuckin’ A. Get ‘em, Louie! Looking forward to hearing more from this guy.
Kanye chips in a swag-filled second verse, spouting off with “When I wake up, I like to go again / When I go to work, she gotta call it in / She can’t go to work, same clothes again.” If this album has a club song—and Kanye asserts that “Send It Up” is the best club since 50 Cent’s… well, predictably titled “In Da Club”—this is it. And let’s be real, we shouldn’t count any Kanye song out. I mean, “Good Life” was a smash hit, and I didn’t realize why until it was already happening. “Send It Up” is simple, direct, but also kind of a banger. I think both ‘Ye and King Louie are high though. I say both in the sense that both sound tremendously high in their raps and, well, I don’t imagine this bumping through the stereo system of Rick’s American Café on a Friday night (which, as far as a song/artist’s credibility goes, is probably a good thing).
10. “Bound 2”
This is a good joint. I need to preface with that, because I’m going to be a bit of a downer here.
Early in this song, Kanye rhymes “bad reputation” with “mad reputation” with “sad reputation” with “Brad reputation.” I’m sorry, I just… that’s just not good on any level. Later, he does the same with “prom shit,” “mom shit” and “lawn shit.” Maybe that’s clever, but even for a big Kanye fan it’s a bit of a stretch. Even for a Pand-ay ban it’s a bit of a wretch. Even for a Shantay clan it’s a bit of a catch. Okay, I realize that my example didn’t make much sense, but it’s not much worse, and I make $30,000/year without rapping.
I think my main issue with this song is that I always thought it was a bonus addition to the album, like I bought the deluxe version or something. Sadly, this is not the case. This is 10% of a forty minute album. I just don’t think it’s good enough to make that kind of cut, especially for the likes of Kanye! Put this on a mixtape, put it as the third extra song on a deluxe version, release it for free a few months before or after the main album, and I like it. And I do like it! But not a half hour prior to this, we were talking about new slaves. How did we get to Charlie Wilson features? Yeesh-us!
For once in my life, I have to side with the critics on this one. They don’t take kindly to movies in which Jason Biggs has sex with baked goods, a fact I still hold against them, but I think they’ve done Kanye West justice when it comes to Yeezus. Not that Kanye cares, of course.
1. “Blood on the Leaves”
2. “Black Skinhead”
3. “I’m In It.”
In comparison to his earlier albums, Yeezus doesn’t have too many tracks that stand alone as pure singles—which goes along with what Kanye’s been saying about not wanting to be played on the radio–but as a comprehensive album, this is a fine, fine effort. Time will only tell where it stand among his earlier work, but I think this newest album will only strengthen his claim as an all-time great when he drops the mic one final time.
I may never fully understand Kanye, but that might be a good thing. Perhaps one has to have a massive ego, endless funds and the desire to name children after, you know, directions and shit, to fully comprehend everything Mr. West does in the booth. That said, I am sure that he’s one of—if not the—most culturally significant rappers around these days. If you counter that statement with “Lil’ Wayne,” please comment so I can remember to slap the shit out of you the next time I see you.
 Along with every other massively popular artist who takes him or herself a bit too seriously. Whatever.
This past week I was fortunate enough to attend a show at Mac’s Bar in Lansing, Michigan with fellow Bonus Cut writer Justin Cook. The show featured Lansing area artists D Fraze, L Soul, and James Gardin (F.K.A. P.H.I.L.T.H.Y). The headliner was a duo from Indiana known as The Pro Letarians whose music features many different samples from famous artists such as James Brown and The Beatles. As we walked in, L Soul was killing it on the mic. He was very impressive and his rhymes were audible and cut through to the crowd. It will be exciting to see his abilities as an MC and on-stage persona improve.
Following L Soul was James Gardin, member of the Detroit/Lansing hip-hop collective known as BLAT! Pack. This was a big show for James as it was his last official show going by his MC name P.H.I.L.T.H.Y. I was struck by the significance of this as so much of an MC’s identity is wrapped up in his/her name. Throughout his set, I was impressed with James’ presence and message as an MC. Off the stage he is an approachable down to earth person, and while on stage, his easy going fun loving personality is even more apparent. Within the first five minutes of his performance, I was drawn in by the overall positivity embedded within his music.
Early on in the performance he asked the crowd if they had dreams and/or goals they were striving to achieve. From there he did his song “Wake Up Sleepyhead,” that urges people not to “sleep” on themselves and to be confident in their skills, passions and goals. This is such an important concept to rap about in the face of all the poverty, injustice and prejudice in the United States but also around the world. Later in the show he had the crowd reach as high as they could. Most of the crowd played along, raising their arms to the ceiling. As we put our arms down, he had us put our arms up a second time. We all reached substantially higher, really stretching out. James pointed out that nobody had actually reached as high as they could the first time. He related this scenario to our lives and proposed that we should always strive to push ourselves and be the best we can be.
The Pro Letarians
In the United States there is news of hardship and struggle everyday. There are a great number of people in this country that legitimately struggle to make ends meet and must fight for every penny to keep their families fed. In schools, students are continually pushed into what education experts call the “Achievement Gap” as the structure of school resembles that of a factory. In the past year alone there have been multiple shootings, sexual assaults, suicides, house foreclosures, hate crimes and even a bombing. Beyond this, the machine that is popular culture presents an image of progress that is tremendously status quo. It gets to a point where it can feel that there is nothing good happening. This is where I believe hip-hop becomes so important. MCs are able to point out the inconsistencies within our society in such a poetic and creative way that it becomes impossible not to listen and ultimately become conscious. With James’ set, it was impossible not to feel motivated and happy to be alive. To have an MC telling me from the stage to believe in myself and follow my dreams was refreshing and as resistant to the system as it gets. With that in mind, this is so important for students to hear as there is so much agency embedded within this message.
I went to Mac’s Bar to see a hip-hop show, unsure of what to expect. I left the show feeling extremely motivated and ready to pursue my passions. This was in large part due to James Gardin’s set as he was able to communicate positivity, hope and love all the while demonstrating his natural abilities as an MC. As a resident of the Lansing area, it was exciting to see quality hip-hop happening in Lansing. If you aren’t up on James Gardin and the BLAT! Pack you really should be.
Last week, Gus Navarro and I attended a show at Mac’s Bar. He gave me the scoop a few nights before, and I was excited to see some MCs from the great state of Michigan. The concert highlighted local talent, featuring artists D Fraze, L Soul and James Gardin (P.H.I.L.T.H.Y), with a headliner hailing from Indiana, The Pro Letarians.
We arrived a little late, but were able to catch the tail end of L Soul rocking the mic in white threads; the man literally appeared to glow. His flow was crisp, clear and lethal. Not only was his stage presence other-worldly, the beats were mesmerizing. Instantly, I fell into the groove—body overtaken by the music. He was backed by a group of hype-men, adding a lighthearted feel to the whole performance. All in all, it was great way to begin the night.
Next, James Gardin, member of the Detroit/Lansing hip-hop collective known as BLAT! Pack, was scheduled to perform. During his introduction, it was stated that “P.H.I.L.T.H.Y” (James’ stage name) would be put to death. And what a beautiful death it was: James Gardin took the stage and set the mood just right. Most of the crowd stood still, scattered throughout the venue, but James drew us in and got our feet moving. He radiated love and positivity, yet remained calm and cool. A few songs in, he decided to change up his set list and perform some unexpected tunes. He called three of his friends on stage, who backed him with some soulful harmonies. This was one of my favorite moments of the show. Everyone on stage was smiling, laughing and just loving every moment of the performance—that’s what live hip-hop is all about.
The carefree attitude continued throughout James’ show. At one point, he needed two audience members for some help. It just so happened that two people had birthdays that day, so James gave them both a b-day freestyle. He started pretty strong, but soon, his verses off the dome became a silly element added to the night—James was being goofy and the crowd loved it, being goofy in return. After, I had the pleasure to talk with James, and a few other members of BLAT! Pack. They were all calm and collected beings. We spoke about hip-hop, community, life and future events. The BLAT! Pack will be part of a rap festival this weekend in Lansing (The Lansing Hip-Hop Festival), and will also perform before Ludacris at the Common Ground Music Festival, July 14.
I really enjoyed my time that night, but one thing did bother me: the lack of people. Amazing hip-hop is happening in my city, and most people do not even realize it. Local art movements are essential in reforming local culture, and we must all do our job to support them. What James Gardin and BLAT! Pack represent is a movement from within, something we all must internalize. We must bring our creativity and talents together, support one another and change the way we live every step of the way. With art and imagination, we can rebuild cities like Lansing and Detroit—we just need to help by supporting local talent.
I wish more people could have seen the death of “P.H.I.L.T.H.Y” and feel the resurrection of James Gardin. It was some real shit; and just the symbolism of shedding a persona, an extension of the ego, sends chills through my veins. Why would we want to be anyone but who we are? Why does society make us ashamed and guilty for who we were born to be? We really got to start believing, dreaming, putting faith in ourselves and the world around. Because if we can’t, what will we have left? Everyday it seems like politicians are getting crazier and crueler. When will it stop? I believe, it’s when we let go, drop our “P.H.I.L.T.H.Y.”, and be who we are. This is when we are ready to embrace life and take back the power, from bottom up. We have to come together, support local arts and re-imagine our world with love.
“Balancing on sporadicity and fucking pure joy. Nightly searches for a bed and I just came off tour with Troy. But I can’t complain I got some motherfucking business. How many lab partners have I fucked since I got suspended?” -Chance the Rapper, “Good Ass Intro”
Coming off of his 10 Day mixtape, which was inspired by a high-school suspension for weed related activities, much was expected of Chance the Rapper for his recently released mixtape, Acid Rap. Judging from his unorthodox delivery, outrageous ad libs and funky instrumentals that are tethered down by hard-hitting percussion, it’s clear that Chance has graduated to harder drugs for his newest work of art. The listener benefits from this, as it allows Chance to delve deeper into his mind as he explores many different topics, from crime in Chicago to watching orange Nickelodeon VHS tapes as a child. Chance takes us through a trip, poetically painting vivid pictures of life as a burgeoning rapper from Chicago.
Chance’s unique style was introduced to us on 10 Day but he has refined it for Acid Rap, in which his recipe for success calls for many different genres and inspirations. Here he blends aspects of acid jazz with samples of Kanye West and Tupac; moreover, he throws in clever word play, a little bit of Spanglish and even a Russian accent. Cue in his Lil Wayne-esque raspy, flawless off-key singing, and sprinkle his trademark “igh” ad libs on top and the final product is a quirky and delicious meal for listeners’ ears to feast upon.
It’s clear that Chance is proud of where he comes from, as he name-drops just about every significant rapper, landmark or business in Chicago. He doesn’t forget to bring his Save Money crew along for the ride, and features fellow Chicago artists Vic Mensa, BJ the Chicago Kid, Noname Gypsy, Lilli K and Twista. As a man of his city, this builds up his credibility as a Chicago native as well as a reliable voice for what is happening in the Windy City.
When hearing a story, the listener must never forget where the tale is coming from. Fellow Chicago rappers, such as Chief Keef, glorify the violence that plagues the streets of Chicago, which is commonly referred to as Chiraq due to the amount of homicides that has now exceeded American troop casualties in Afghanistan since 2012. Chance the Rapper, who dropped out of college to pursue a rap career after his good friend was killed in a stabbing in 2011, provides a different viewpoint. Throughout Acid Rap, Chance tells the story of Chicago through the eyes of a humble, down-to-Earth 20-year-old who lives in a city that’s in way over its head. Never is this more prominent than in “Pusha Man,” which starts out with Chance as a local drug dealer boastfully rapping about threesomes and drugs. The song then slows down, presenting us with the red pill that is the harsh reality of living in the streets of Chicago: “I’ll take you to land, where the lake made of sand, and the milk don’t pour and the honey don’t dance, and the money ain’t yours.” Even though he wishes he could be “Captain save the hood,” he admits he roams around the city with a gun on his hips, not to contribute to the violence, but to protect himself. Later on “Acid Rain,” Chance admits that he “trips to make the fall shorter.” It is this brutal honesty about himself as well as his surroundings that makes Chance such a lovable character.
Acid Rap also provides Chance with a stream-of-consciousness diary to explore his thoughts and reflect on his life, seemingly discovering himself bar by bar throughout the mixtape. His vibrant images and deft wordplay allow him to convey complex thoughts and feelings with ease. On the ultra-relatable “Cocoa Butter Kisses” Chance reminisces on his childhood when he watched Nickelodeon,and can’t help but hate the monster he has become, “wiling off peyote like Wiley the Coyote… Put visine inside my eyes so my grandma would fuckin’ hug me.” Throughout Acid Rap Chance takes listeners along for the rollercoaster ride as he grows up as a rapper and human being.
Although the topics that Chance takes on are very intense, he never fails to keep it light and fun, providing the listener with an odd sense of optimism that’s infectious upon listening to his charismatic flow. On the interlude, he relishes the smaller things in life that we take for granted. On the outro, he channels his inner Kendrick Lamar and uses a recording of a phone conversation with his father to show his love for his family. At times like these, Chance reminds us that he is still a kid, naively optimistic in a city under a dark shadow of doubt.
Of course, Chance takes some time to pat himself on the back for all of his achievements. On the playful “Favorite Song” he teams up with superfriend Childish Gambino and provides the listener with some witty, English-bending bars. He half-heartedly compares himself to the Miami Heat, metaphorically compares LSD to Lake Shore Drive and says fuck you to his high school faculty. All is good in the world of Chance the Rapper, who has transformed from a suspended high school student to the feature of magazines and blogs in less than a year.
After listening to Acid Rap, it’s hard not to agree with Lilli K on the introduction when she sings, “Even better than I was the last time, baby.” Chance the Rapper has improved as a rapper over the past year, and provides us with a vivid trip through his thoughts and feelings. Luckily for us, on “Chain Smoker” he lets us know that this isn’t his last work of art: “I ain’t tryna go out at all, got a lot of ideas still to throw out the door.”
“Cocoa Butter Kisses (feat. Vic Mensa and Twista)”
Within the first five minutes of Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap, the 2012 film by Ice-T, the importance of hip-hop is unmistakable. As Ice-T explains, “I really felt that I had to do this movie because rap music saved my life.” Ice-T, the MC, actor and personality from New Jersey and L.A. doesn’t try to hide anything about his film. Here, Ice-T focuses on what being an MC is all about: it is about the craft of writing verses and the skill it takes to deliver them in the studio and in front of a crowd. What emerges is the artistry contained within the music, the power of writing and an important history lesson about the origins of hip-hop and how it has evolved over time. Ice-T puts this into words, “This movie isn’t about the money, the cars, the jewelry, the girls; this film is about the craft.” In order to educate people on the craft, Ice-T sits down and talks with legends of hip-hop.
Mixed with artistic overhead shots of New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, this film contains interviews from the various legends that transformed rap music. Ice-T sits down with MCs and producers such as Grandmaster Caz, Afrika Bambaata, Rakim, Nas, DJ Premier, Chuck D, Ice Cube, KRS-One, Dr. Dre, Royce da 5’9”, Eminem, Immortal Technique, Yasiin Bey, Big Daddy Kane, Raekwon and Melle Mel, and talks to them about their favorite artists and verses of all time, their writing process and what hip-hop means to them. With this movie you get the feeling that Ice-T decided to be generous and allow you to sit in and get a glimpse at the lives of rap royalty. It’s amazing to hear Rakim talk about growing up, inspired by listening to the jazz his mother would play. With The Art Of Rap, Ice-T makes it possible to know more about the MCs behind the verses we know and love. Not only that, we also get the privilege of seeing almost every MC in the movie do an a cappella verse where they showcase their talent with words. It is a sight to behold as Nas, Immortal Technique, Yasiin Bey and Eminem drop rhyme after rhyme straight from the dome. The best part of this film is learning about the writing process of each MC.
For example, Dana Dane, the MC from New York, talks about how he writes verses:
“The way I write rhymes is kind of crazy too, because I write the story first. Not even as a rhyme, I just write the story-I guess it’s from school-and I write the introduction, I write the body, and the conclusion. I always write the conclusion first, I always know where my story is going to end before I even start writing it.”
Dana Dane is engaged in the practice of literacy and makes it possible to get a glimpse into the amount of work it takes to write a truly masterful verse. Grandmaster Caz, an extremely influential MC, is shown working on a verse multiple times. Between hits from a blunt, he is seen writing on a notepad, whispering the words to himself. It may seem that MCs always have the words–in some cases they do–but it also takes a lot of effort to write high-quality rhymes. In the film, every MC has a different writing process and a different opinion on hip-hop. However, what surfaces across the board is the social context from which hip-hop originated.
The first interviewee is Lord Jamar from Brand Nubian. In this interview he describes where hip-hop came from:
“We created something from nothing with hip-hop. With the whole spirit of what hip-hop is. It was at a time when they were taking instruments and shit out of the schools and all of that type of shit. See, black people used to be pretty musical back in the day. It wasn’t unusual for a motherfucker to know how to play the piano or guitar or some sort of horn or some shit like that. At some point, all of that shit was removed from us. Through economics, cutting things outta schools and all that. So they try to take the music from us when we had created an original American music, which was jazz. So what did we do? We had no fucking instruments, no horns, no drums, we’re living in the fucking city and all this, we ain’t got room for that shit anywhere up in the projects or wherever the fuck you’re huddled in at. So what did we do? We took the fucking record player, the only thing that’s playing music in our fucking crib and turned it into an instrument.”
Hip-hop happened because it had to, because it was a way to resist the continued racial oppression that people of color faced following the Civil Rights Era. Similar to today, the funds for the fine arts are being removed from places that need it most. Hip-hop won’t die because it is an art form of resistance. As long as oppression and injustice remain, hip-hop will as well. Hip-hop is a means of agency and self-determination and Ice-T’s film embodies this spirit.
If you are looking to learn more about hip-hop culture and its impact on society, Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap is worth watching. Containing countless interviews with renowned artists, Ice-T’s film highlights the skill needed to be an MC, the history of hip-hop and how it is a form of resistance. Ice Cube refers to his style of hip-hop as “Street Knowledge.” Street knowledge is about, “Letting the streets know what the politicians is trying to do to them. And then, letting the politicians know what the streets think of them, if they listening.” This is an essential point to make in that it grounds hip-hop within the political, social and economic contexts of our communities. This takes hip-hop to another place in that it is directly influenced by the living conditions of the artists and their communities. Ultimately, Ice-T’s film is about the craft of rapping, for which he makes this very clear. However, it is also a testament to the worldview that is hip-hop.
Check out the trailer for Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap below!
Once again we’re back in the mind of Tyler, The Creator and he is taking us on a journey through his schizoid-reality. We’re at Camp Flog Gnaw and we are introduced to Samuel, a troubled and defiant adolescent teen who is dating a girl named Salem. Wolf is new to camp and is instantly exiled from Samuel’s friend circle. As the album progresses Wolf develops a crush on Salem and they begin to spend time together, hence making Samuel jealous and becoming Wolf’s arch-rival.
Tyler channels himself through both of the alter-egos, so depending on the song you could be hearing from, Wolf or Samuel and Tyler sometimes manages to leak out. But the vocal interludes sprinkled throughout the album kind of help you pinpoint who’s who.
Tyler provides some interesting flow on this album and isn’t afraid to try different things when mixing up his production formula. Now and in the past, his lyrics have always seemed to be self-therapeutic–kind of like a diary or a journal and for some reason he’s choosing to expose himself to us—-the listener. So, you hear a lot about his excursions in Europe, his struggle with fame and that darn roach that launched him to the top—-a place he’s not sure he wants to be. But at the same time he can’t stop what he’s doing because now he’s the breadwinner for his family and friends and has a role to fill; the role of supporter. Ironically, over two years ago he was the dependent one. He also mentions the dichotomy of being damn-near straight edge and being surrounded by his friends who are anything but that. But that’s where his best pal, Slater comes in and they are granted with some bonding time.
Oh, but a Tyler, The Creator project can’t be complete without some references to his favorite things. He has to rep his set, GOLF WANG, Loiter Squad and of course, the box logo Supreme.
Other lyrical content is subject matter that dates all the way back to his first album, BASTARD. The song “ANSWER” deals with Tyler’s lack of a father and it’s filled with sincere angst but at the same time it’s a feeling of him still longing for his dad to be there.
Overall, the album is a wrapped up in warm colors and summer vibes. The production follows a general theme of graceful and elegant chord progressions but with a blend of blissful off minor sounds that are somehow aesthetically pleasing. With the help of people like Frank Ocean, Erykah Badu, Syd tha Kyd and others, there happens to be this ‘90s thread of R&B and neo-soul that is woven in and out of the album.
Tyler always managed to double up on the 10th track of all of his past projects but this time (with it being his third solo project) he decided to throw a third song on the end. The mellow production and the simple reverbed lyrics on, “PARTY ISN’T OVER” is easily infectious and it makes one want to ride tandem bicycles on the boardwalk at night with a breezy dame. “CAMPFIRE” has a similar vibe leaving you with the warm feeling only a log fire could bring and the craving of s’mores and a beautifully lit night sky. “BIMMER” could easily serve as the morning after when you and your main broad get into some beach shenanigans.
“IFHY” follows track 10 and is the heart of the record and really represents the sound of the album.
“I fucking hate you, but I love you.”
The instrumentation is haunting but gorgeous and represents the love that he feels. The lyrics are the epitome of genuine jealousy and hatred and are expressed through Tyler’s raspy, baritone voice. And just when the influence of this song starts to make sense, Pharrell appears and makes the song complete.
This song is the turning point of the album and you can say that it’s Samuel’s turn to shine. The production gets a little grittier and eerier. With the help of Domo Genesis and Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler delivers a verse referencing everything you would want him to draw attention to on a track called, “RUSTY.”
The album also wouldn’t be complete without a fun-hype track starring all of his non-rap friends. It was Tyler’s attempt at trap and you can just imagine them all hanging out at a skate park and rapping their verses for fun. Suddenly, WOLF transitions from reckless chaos to the calm and soothing jazz inspired track that is, “TREEHOME95.”
After a rambunctious, sporadic song called, “TAMALE,” Tyler decides to come to a conclusion with his final track, “Lone.”
The dreamy, elevator music that one would hear in a ‘70s Blaxploitation film really hits home when Tyler lets down all barriers and explains his current life in a reminiscent way. In the last verse he talks about his sick grandmother and delivers an enticing narrative.
After freshly listening to the album, the feeling you get when leaving a movie theater might come to mind. You have highlights that kind of blur together but overall you just have a weird feeling and you know you just experienced something but you can’t seem to put your finger on it. It’s like a rollercoaster ride, but of brain stimulation and emotion. Like a rollercoaster, you’ll want to experience this album over and over during the summer.
One last thing.
There is an interesting fact about the naming of the intro and outro tracks. Every intro track is named after the album and the last track on, “BASTARD” was titled, “INGLORIOUS.” So, if Tyler sees himself as an inglorious bastard, ultimately he must also see himself as a Lone Wolf…