Filed under: Album Reviews
What’s this?! Digital Existence has landed a forceful jab and hook to the otherwise relentless onslaught of Real Life? It’s the comeback of the century!
Well, maybe the week. But this new Mos Def album has got me all excited and I had to briefly give it due props in case you’ve ignored it due to the dubious charms (read: I didn’t like either of them) of The New Danger andTrue Magic. I’m loving The Ecstatic right now. Save for a few missteps the beats are good to great growers and Mos is blistering throughout. You can hear that DOOM obsession in full force here and it works wonders. The prophet has returned! Do. Not. Sleep.
Oh, back up a minute… a group of solicitors and a mortgage exchange seem to be hovering around the edge of the ring. Digital Existence’s brief flurry of activity looks set to take a trouncing: brace yourself buddy, this could get nasty.
Filed under: Album Reviews
…but didn’t. Internet time is a bitch: as soon as something’s dropped everyone’s had their say and I feel like too much of a lazy douche to even bother. Still, this is my soap box and I’ve been meaning to say something about the following four albums for a while, so here are my brief, rather belated thoughts on The Renaissance, Main Source, Remind Me In 3 Days and Stick 2 The Script. Deal with it.
Q-Tip – ‘Feva’
taken from The Renaissance (Universal/Motown, 2008)
The most highly written about album of this quartet is of course the long awaited Amplified follow-up and rightly so because in short, it’s brilliant. Tip sounds as lively as ever, the beats are all great (bar the Norah Jones collab) and it actually feels like a properly conceived album rather than a thrown together collection of random cuts. If for whatever reason you haven’t listened to or bought this yet then you’re doing yourself a horrible disservice and need to take a long hard look at yourself. That’s right, feel ashamed. Along with the P Brothers’ album this is my favourite hip hop release of the year and I can’t imagine much changing in the remaining weeks of 2008.
I’ve thrown up ‘Feva’ because it looks to be a bonus track left off the American release so I’m assuming some of you may not have it. To be honest, it’s not a great loss if you’re missing it, but if your completism tendencies run as deep as mine then it’s essential. Thank me later now.
Large Pro – ‘Rockin’ Hip Hop’
taken from Main Source (Gold Dust, 2008)
More boom bap legend comeback action? You betcha, and despite this seeming to have a relatively limited impact on the blog scene this is an enjoyable return to form that houses some undeniable bangers. Large Pro doesn’t sound any better or worse on the mic than at any other point in his career and since I always fell down on the ‘I actually kind of like his rapping’ side of the fence I’m fine with that. The production is on point too, your man Extra P effortlessly finding that fine balance between something new and heavily trodden ground that a project like this needs to succeed. Sure, there are a few missteps and it ain’t The Renaissance, but I’ve got a soft spot for this album and its unabashed ‘true’ hip hop aesthetic. If Main Source passed you by then give it a whirl: I suspect you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The Knux – ‘Fire (Put It In The Air)’
taken from Remind Me In 3 Days (Interscope, 2008)
A surprising deviance from my usual musical diet, but thanks to Jeff’s championing I’ve been really enjoying bits and pieces from this album. It’s a little goofy in places and some of it just isn’t to my taste, but at a base level this is a refreshing pop album that deserves much wider exposure and a significantly heftier push from Interscope who clearly don’t realise that Remind Me In 3 Days possesses serious mass appeal. I obviously lean towards the more straight up hip hop offerings like ‘Parking Lot’ and ‘Fire (Put It In The Air)’, but the vibe in general is honest, enjoyable and more than worthy of your time. As a bonus, your girlfriend will probably love it. Keep that lady in your life happy fellas…
Statik Selektah – ‘Talkin’ Bout You (Ladies)’ feat. Skyzoo, Joell Ortiz & Talib Kweli
taken from Stick 2 The Script (Showoff/Brick, 2008)
Before listening to this album I assumed that it would be a relatively well crafted producer compilation drop flooded with too many guest MC spots and production that was well-executed yet simultaneously dull. I was right. However, dip in and out of Stick 2 The Script and there’s some short-lived fun to be had here with tracks such as ‘Talkin’ Bout You (Ladies)’ and ‘So Good (Live From The Bar)’ having enough substance to get your nod on. This will inevitably end up gathering dust somewhere in my CD collection only to be broken out in a year or two for another brief spell in rotation but I figure it’s just about worth it. Just.
In an alternate and completely self-centred universe I’d have the man at the helm trim down the collaboration list and get a little less polished on the beat next time around, but since he’s unlikely to do so and said universe’s existence is solely in my head I won’t bore you any further. Dismissed.
Filed under: Album Reviews
Illa J – ‘Sounds Like Love’ ft. Debi Nova & ‘Showtime’
taken from Yancey Boys (Delicious Vinyl, 2008)
During the outro section of ‘Sounds Like Love’, one of the tightest grooves on Illa J’s debut LP, he soothingly states that he’s, “sitting here, trying to think of what to say in space/It’s just the music, it speaks for itself.” Whether this is a canny acknowledgment of the fact that most people who choose to give Yancey Boys a whirl won’t be doing so in order to hear what he has to say anyway or simply some smoothed-out ish that just sounds kinda cool over a dusty groove remains to be seen, but you’ve gotta feel for the man’s position. Ultimately, whatever Illa’s got to say, the use of his older brother’s musical backdrops means that Yancey Boys is always going to be about the beats.
And for the most part it is, although writing off Illa’s style completely would be a little unfair because within the context of the music on offer here he feels comfortable and reasonably accomplished, neither taking away from nor particularly adding anything to any of the songs. He mostly writes about love, it’s tidily delivered, feels relatively soulful… it’s pleasant yet almost completely uninspiring. The sung content, which features quite regularly, will inevitably grate quite quickly and become a sticking point for a lot of listeners but I don’t mind it when dipping in and out of the few truly choice cuts that the album has to offer.
But seriously, who cares? What we have on our hands here is some early Dilla material that should be treasured by anyone who hasn’t simply jumped on the post-mortem bandwagon. However much I love the material that the mighty James put out over the course of his whole career, I’ll always have a serious soft spot for the work that he did on the Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia, Madd Skillz’s From Where??? and as a part of The Ummah and these are essentially off cuts of the era characterised by deft sample choices, subtly executed chops and big crunchy snares. Granted, in places they feel underdeveloped and lack the fierce, bouncy momentum that his top choice material delivers so devastatingly, but beggars can’t be choosers. The smokey brilliance of ‘Sounds Like Love’, simmering thump of ‘Showtime’ and smack you in the face snare hits of ‘Air Signs’ are worth the price of admission alone for this particular Dilla devotee.
Expect big things and you’ll be disappointed. Take this for what it is – a bunch of Dilla’s unused/rejected beats from the infancy of his career with uninspiring rhymes laid over the top – and you may find that Yancey Boys adds up to something that exceeds the sum of its parts. I can’t front: this has been in and out of rotation for me since it dropped. The music speaks for itself, don’t ya know.
P Brothers – ‘Outta Control’ ft. Roc Marciano & ‘In A Zone’ ft. Milano
taken from The Gas (Heavy Bronx, 2008)
(Excerpts at artist’s request)
Rap music in 2008 just ain’t grimy enough. Any long-winded criticism and discussion of the contemporary scene seems to conveniently pass over the fact that at a base level the aesthetics of the music have now, for the most part, become so polished and glossy that the very grittiness that defined the genre in the first place seems drowned by a swelling flood of auto-tune, pseudo-electronica and abstract post–lyrical rapping. Not that there’s anything wrong with that stuff: it has its place and it’s taking things in an interesting (if at times questionable) direction that is clearly pushing the boundaries in order to more firmly establish hip hop’s next creative phase. Thank you messieurs West and Wayne: I appreciate the service you’re doing us all. Kinda, sorta.
However, all this stuff seems to miss the point a little for me. I listen to rap music because I want it to transport me to heaving basements where condensation licks the inside of blacked-out windows. I want it to make me body slam a pensioner through a glass table and spit in their face for encouraging me to do so in the first place. I want to be moved into throwing Molotov cocktails into abandoned tenement buildings at midnight so I can stand back and watch them burn to the ground with bass and drums as my co-conspirators. Figuratively, that is. Nevertheless, I miss the unbridled aggression and ruggedness that was such an intrinsic part of the music in days gone by. The one crew that seems to understand this sentiment more than any other in 2008 is Nottingham’s very own DJs Ivory and Paul S, collectively known as the P Brothers. Who would have thought that Robin Hood’s stomping ground could produce something as sublimely raw as The Gas? Five boroughs pay attention: it’s the East Midlands who are stepping up to bring New York back.
Despite Robbie’s coverage of the crew over at Unkut, it seems valuable to briefly reflect on their output so far. Despite remembering Malcom McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Girls’ as “a big point early on” in this interview with ukhh.com from a couple of years ago, this is surprisingly the Brothers’ first full length album of their career. This isn’t to say that they haven’t been busy though, steadily dominating the well-established scene in Nottingham and pleasing more discerning UK heads with their Heavy Bronx Experience EPs and through regular collaborations with the Out Da Ville crew and protege Cappo, most notably on the overlooked 2003 release Spaz The World. They’ve dipped their toes into cross-Atlantic ventures as well, most recently working with Sadat X on Experience & Education on top of the string of 12″s that have preceded the release of this album with Boss Money, Milano, Smiley Da Ghetto Child and Ress Connected. Despite all of this you’d be forgiven for letting them slip under your radar, as it’s a position outside of the spotlight that feels entirely intentional. Showboating media-courters they ain’t and they’ve also managed to stay admirably clear of the tangible insecurities of the British scene that have been brought on by the towering shadow of its all-conquering older sibling. They just make great, universal hip hop music with no hidden agendas or chest-beating jingoism.
Onto the album. From start to finish (that’s right, the whole thing) The Gas represents a coherent cluster of cuts that are unabashedly hard and completely devoid of trend-pandering or gimmicks. ‘Cold World’ successfully sets the tone with a soulful vocal hook, melodic keys and crunchy drums that serve as the perfect platform for E.C. and Bago to get busy in style. From this point on there’s no letting up and although a discussion of every song on the album would be warranted, I’m going to stick to my personal highlights for the sake of your attention spans: ‘Outta Control’ puts forth the most mesmerising bassline I’ve heard since ‘It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop’; ‘Digital B-Boy’ marries together brutal drums and twisted digital noise in a veritable assault on your inner ear; ‘In A Zone’ is what Pete Rock should sound like in 2008 but doesn’t; ‘Don’t Question Me’ combines swirling guitar licks with downtempo drums so beautifully that I can’t even listen to it without closing my eyes. The guest MC spots are pleasingly restricted to a small handful of underground Bronxites giving the whole work a sense of continuity and in an age where most people don’t even care about albums anymore, The Gas literally demands a front to back listening experience to be fully appreciated. Ultimately, it feels like the whole package is bolstered by a sense of unwavering confidence: this is music made by aficionados, for aficionados. Don’t like it? Then screw you.
Except you will do. A lot. And it’ll be with good reason because this is hands down the most honest, genuinely slammin’ rap album I’ve heard all year. Granted it’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, but when it sounds this good who cares? The P Brothers certainly don’t, and that’s exactly why The Gas is a collection of some of the very best beats and rhymes you will hear all year.
It seems hard for me to believe that Damu’s last free EP dropped all the way back in January (the magnificentSpare Time), largely because it’s pretty much stayed in constant rotation ever since and endures as one of my most played releases of the year so far. It’s with excitement then that I present the second installment for the year from someone who I deem to be one of the dopest producers doing it in the contemporary game.
People familiar with Spare Time will recognise some of the material here as it features a number of alternate takes of tracks that appeared on the first free EP, but there’s new material to digest here as well as a couple of videos to check out. I’ve thrown a separate link up for ‘Now Generation’ to give you a taste of what’s on offer, a sharply executed number that features the piano twinkles from Young-Holt Unlimited’s ‘Red Sail’s In The Sunset’ and energetic, rolling percussion. I’m also particularly pleased to see a full length instrumental version of ‘Colorful Storms’ included in the EP as opposed to the shorter edit previously available on Spare Time, as it is a truly beautiful composition that deserves its shine without lyrics as it easily stands on its own two feet for the full duration of the cut.
The words free and bangin’ are rarely bedfellows, but what Damu and Redefinition Records are proving here is that getting on your internet grind needn’t mean that quality suffers. Download, enjoy and be sure to join the mailing list to receive some more goodies later in the month.
K-Def – ‘For Da Family’ & ‘Jam On It’
taken from Beats From The ’90s (Ghetto Man Beats, 2008)
Although I’ve been more than enthusiastic about the recent spate of releases from Jersey’s one and only K-Def, the thought of previously unheard material honed by the man himself during one of hip hop’s golden ages has had me understandably drooling at the mouth for the past couple of months. Sure enough, his latest releaseBeats From The ’90s delivers all that its title promises: for fans of that official boom bap, this is a release to cop with the swiftness.
When I spoke to K-Def back in April I was a little concerned that this particular drop would be little more than a collection of previously released instrumentals from back in the day, but in reality it offers a whole lot more. Apart from ‘Ain’t No Crime’ and ‘Gettin’ Hot’ this is all new material to me, and it further confirms why K-Def should be held in the very highest of regards when it comes to consideration of producers who have made substantial contributions to the genre. What I really like about this compilation of largely unreleased work is that you can detect K-Def’s developing production aesthetic throughout the era, so whereas the aforementioned ‘Ain’t No Crime’ reeks of the earlier stages of the decade, tracks such as ‘Dramaz’ and ‘Been There Part 2′ tie in more closely with the contemporary material found on Willie Boo Boo: The Fool and The Article. Bottom line? It’s all bangin’.
Ultimately, Beats From The ’90s feels good because it unashamedly presents the sort of delicately executed yet sophisticated production nuances that define an age that endures as one of the most creatively productive and ingenious in the genre’s history. Forget about the next big thing: for pure, unadulterated listening pleasure this latest installment from the Ghetto Man Beats camp easily ranks as one of the best things that 2008 has had to offer for serious fans of that ol’ boom bap. Cop it now and rub your hands at the thought of 24th June: disappointment is out of the question.
Although in internet terms I’m kinda late on this one, the bottom line is that this wouldn’t be FDB if I didn’t throw in my two cents concerning the latest Pete Rock full length NY’s Finest. You’re unlikely to find any particularly original thinking here, as a few blogosphere notables have already said their piece (and said it very well), and for the most part you can probably second guess what my reactions to the record are going to be. Still, for what it’s worth, here is how I’m left feeling after a week or so of getting familiar with the Chocolate Boy Wonder’s latest outing, which easily stands as my most eagerly anticipated release of 2008.
Let’s start with the good. Unsurprisingly, the elements to savour in the record are almost exclusively rooted in the album’s production, which on the whole is beautifully executed. The groundwork laid by Soul Survivor II and his numerous credits on major releases over the last four years or so is clearly built upon here, with Rock having gradually fine tuned his cleaner, more overtly modern aesthetic to the point of near perfection. Tracks such as ‘We Roll’, ‘Best Believe’, ‘Bring Ya’ll Back’ and ‘Comprehend’ are unmistakably Soul Brother penned whilst managing to sound current and involving, and that’s no mean feat for an artist who is rapidly approaching his third decade in the game. Studio engineer Young Guru also deserves a mention, aiding the Chocolate Boy Wonder in achieving a level of clarity with the sound that is for the vast majority of the LP masterfully realised. Although fans with their heads still firmly rooted in the sands of the golden era may take issue with these developments, for me there’s no faulting the beats on offer here (for the most part…), and I’m left with a feeling of warm satisfaction that NY’s Finest still ultimately feels like a Pete Rock record.
Unfortunately, things ain’t all rosy, and even my glaringly biased perspective can’t ignore numerous shortcomings that tarnish the release. Already heavily documented, the guest vocal appearances range from the good to the undeniably wack, with only ‘The PJ’s’ featuring verses that actually match the quality of the musical backdrop care of Rae and Masta Killa. In this context, Rock’s unusually high frequency of vocal contributions is actually a blessing, but there’s little doubt that in terms of both delivery and content his style of rhyme isn’t really up to extended periods of such prominence, and his somewhat clumsy flow begins to feel tired relatively quickly when exposed to such substantial opportunities for dissection. Despite this, I’d still rather listen to Pete Rock rhyme than the majority of the other guests on the album, and when it comes down to it, this is a sad indication of the lack of lyrical finesse on offer.
The other key issue with NY’s Finest for me is that it seems to attempt to do too much at the same time, and this results in a lack of overall cohesion. I don’t actually dislike ‘Ready Fe War’ as much as other respected bloggers seem to, but there’s no denying that it is completely out of place and only serves to disrupt the flow of the album when listened to from front to back. Elsewhere, the more heavily R & B tinged numbers ‘That’s What I’m Talking About’ and ‘Made Man’ are surprisingly weak, particularly given that Rock usually has a knack for incorporating these elements into his grittier aesthetic with a sense of enduring quality (see ‘Take Your Time’ from the first installment of the Soul Survivor series). I’m also not completely sold on the radio friendly ”Til I Retire’, which for me deviates too far away from the traditional Pete Rock sound and again feels a little at odds with the content that can be found elsewhere on the LP.
Having thoroughly enjoyed the initial 12” release featuring ‘914′ and ‘The PJ’s’, there’s no getting away from the fact that NY’s Finest ultimately leaves this particular Pete Rock sycophant a little underwhelmed. As much as I want to think that various cuts on offer here will grow on me with time, the combination of essentially dull vocal performances and an uneven level of quality leaves me feeling otherwise. It goes without saying that NY’s Finest still goes down as a must have in my book, but if this is an indication of things to come from Pete Rock, the sad likelihood is that I’ll be relying on his back catalogue with increasing vigour whenever I feel the need for a little Soul Brother fix. The Main Ingredient for lunch tomorrow? Aw, go on then…