29 February 2016

REVIEW: Kanye West - The Life of Pablo

There comes a time in every great artist's career when they hit a crossroads.  After about ten years, an artist either finds a way to successfully coast amidst the wave of new talent, or they implode under the pressure of their own stardom.  With The Life of Pablo, Kanye West is in somewhat of a gray area.  The album has gone through several name changes, even in the weeks (and days) leading up to its release.  This made fans wary of what to expect from the finished product.  Kanye, being the marketing genius that he is, managed to use his indecisiveness (as well as a scathing Twitter rant) as a massive tool for promotion which ultimately worked in his favor.  Alas, the album itself suffers from the same identity crises that have been plaguing 'Ye as an artist for some years now; TLoP has no idea what it wants to be.

We were treated to a lightweight edition of the "Good Friday" series where Kanye dropped a few tracks here and there to give fans a taste of what to expect.  The problem is that the songs he chose just so happened to be the best songs on the album. "Real Friends," "No More Parties in LA," and "30 Hours" all sound like vintage 'Ye, and would have fit perfectly on something like Late Registration.  By having these songs lead the way, it gave longtime fans hope that the rest of the album would be more of the same.

The Life of Pablo starts off with a church anthem in "Ultralight Beam," its most focused and complete track, which features a decent assist from fellow Chicago native Chance the Rapper. It's actually a strong intro, but the rest of the tracks on the album aren't nearly as fleshed-out, nor do they adhere to any sort of theme or concept.  From there, Pablo starts flying in several different directions in a half-assed attempt to appeal to the diverse fanbase Kanye has amassed over the years, while still striving to preserve his own established sound.  As a result, the project never gels the way that it should, especially considering the time Kanye poured into it.

The first half of the album is a series of skits shoved in between about six songs that range from 2-3 minutes each, and completely shatter any cohesiveness that 'Ye may have been looking for. Tracks like "Low Lights," "Freestyle 4," "Silver Surfer Intermission," and "I Love Kanye" all serve no purpose other than to help pad out an album that feels like it's about 10 tracks long.  "Highlights" could have easily been one of Pablo's strongest singles, but you're left feeling short-changed.  For a song that's only 3 minutes, it leaves you craving for at least one more verse from Kanye as it hits its stride.  Such is the case for "Father Stretch My Hands," "Pt. 2," and "Feedback," which are all around 2 minutes each.  What's even worse is that Kanye's ideas jump around within some of the shorter tracks.  It's like the man is channel surfing within his own music because he can't make up his mind on what to focus on.

It seems as if Kanye has forgotten how to put an album together, which may have been a reason for all of the name changes and alterations to the track listing days before TLoP's release.  It all amounts to a convoluted mess with a few bangers like "Famous" peppered across its 18 tracks.  Even though The Life of Pablo has some decent songs, the overall structure of the project makes it difficult to enjoy the sum of its parts.  There are a ton of ideas on Pablo that could have been really good, but simply aren't fleshed out enough to even quantify them.  Couple that with the overall lack of cohesion and this album feels more like The Life of a Gemini, which would have been a far more appropriate title being that TLoP exemplifies Kanye's zodiac sign far more than it does Pablo Picasso or Escobar.
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23 February 2016

REVIEW: Statik Selektah & KXNG Crooked - Statik KXNG

About a year ago hip hop heads rejoiced when producer Statik Selektah and emcee KXNG Crooked (formerly Crooked I) announced their upcoming joint album Statik KXNG. Since the late oughts, Statik's stock has risen as a beat maker. His mixtape catalog is full of excellent emcee collaborations, with the creation of 1982 (the emcee/producer duo comprised of himself and Termanology) being the pinnacle of his duets. KXNG Crooked has been in the rap hustle since the 90s, but he has gained notable publicity since signing with Eminem's Shady Records label and joining the super group Slaughterhouse. The Long Beach emcee achieved longevity by setting his rap foundation on strong lyrics and a versatile flow. So how did the Massachusetts/California collab work out? Lets get into it and see what it is.

The intro I Hear Voices sets the tone for the rest of the 10 track album. Statik hits us with a soulful instrumental that starts off with his signature smooth R&B vocals. Statik also flexes his rap muscles a bit by providing the hook: Like we always do it this time/ I came to shine/ I came for mine/ This is Slaughterhouse showing off in its prime. The last bar gives an inception style shout out to Crooked's Slaughterhouse family. The first part is a literal enough, Slaughterhouse is the name of his group. But "showing off in its prime" could highlight a deeper connection. If we read "prime" as "PRhyme", we are now talking about another emcee/producer duo. PRhyme is a group formed by producer DJ Premier and emcee Royce da 5'9". Royce is also another member of Slaughterhouse. So Crooked could be giving a shout out his group as a whole, and to a single member as well. Crooked jumps into the track with lyrical precision and a clear theme. The track dissects the duality of having so many people love you, while so many others hate you. He paints contrasting images of his pre rap life and his current situation. Crooked is able to hit that perfect mixture of emotional lyrics and lyrical wordplay. While the rest of album showcases a good range of varied rap styles and beats, I think is was a good choice to kick off the album with a track that felt like a classic Statik/Crooked track.

Outside of the hip hop community, KXNG Crooked might be the Slaughterhouse member with the least amount of mainstream visibility. That being said, hip hop heads know that Crooked's career did not start in 2011 with his signing to Eminem's label. Crooked is a respected West Coast lyricist that has taken the long road. From Virgin Records to Death Row Records (didn't know that huh? and if you did..hit me..let's talk hip hop) to starting his own record label (Dynasty Entertainment), Crooked has put in his dues and then some. This road less traveled (especially in this YouTube/World Star/social media celebrity era) forges an emcee that is built for the long haul. As referenced in the intro I Hear Voices, PRhyme is another example of a solid emcee and producer duo. Both Crooked and Royce came up on albums that featured one emcee and one producer. From Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff, to Eric B and Rakim, to Gang Starr, the 80s and 90s were stocked with great duet albums. Just as many others things come full circle, I hope that the emcee/producer albums find their way back into the forefront of the hip hop landscape. Both PRhyme and Statik KXNG set the bar for what we expect from a single emcee and producer duo album. 

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17 February 2016

REVIEW: Anderson.Paak - Malibu

Aftermath's newest signee, Anderson.Paak, set off 2016 with a bang last month when he released his sophomore album Malibu.  The artist formerly known as Breezy Lovejoy has been making waves and paying serious dues since 2010, but it wasn't until last year when the Oxnard, California native began to inch his way into the forefront with a gang of soulful features spread across two classic west coast projects in Compton, and The Documentary 2.  Allying himself with Dre and Game no doubt gave his brand a much-needed boost, but fans were still left wondering just who this kid with the raspy voice was on their songs.  Malibu puts Anderson.Paak's artistry on full display, and arrived at a time when his contributions to other projects were still fresh in our minds.

"Couldn't fake it if I wanted to.  I had to wake up just to make it through.  I got my patience and I'm making due.  I learn my lessons from the ancient roots.  I choose to follow what the greatest do."  These lines that coat the soul-cleansing intro "The Bird" do an adequate job showing where Paak gets his inspiration, but it's clear that Anderson is cut from very rare cloth even without dissecting his lyrics.  The intro is followed up by "Heart Don't Stand A Chance," which shows Paak further solidifying his identity rooted in music from legends of the past.  He doesn't hesitate to bear his soul on introspective tracks like "The Season | Carry Me," but also knows how to rock a grown and sexy banger on songs such as "Am I Wrong," with ScHoolboy Q.  Speaking of which, Malibu is a star studded affair from front to back.  In addition to Q, Paak is blessed with assists from Jamla's first lady Rapsody, The Game, BJ the Chicago Kid, and Talib Kweli.  Behind the scenes we have Madlib, 9th Wonder, Hi-Tek, and even Paak himself contributing to the stellar production that help flesh out the album.

One thing I've mentioned in several of my recent reviews is the concept of listenability.  An artist can have a voice blessed by god, and may also be lucky enough to have access to the best beats money can buy, but how does that contribute to the overall cohesion of a project?  The answer to this question is where the true genius of an artist shines.  Malibu is an absolutely amazing album, one where Anderson.Paak shows that he has a clear vision for the direction of the project.  The rasp in his tone is reminiscent of the best of Bilal and Lyfe Jennings.  Couple that with relatable stories of struggle and come-up, all presented in a way that is so avant-garde that comparisons to other artists are quickly thrown out the window after only diving a few tracks in.  It was just months ago when he was crushing it on Andre Young's magnum opus, and even more recent with his features spread across Jayceon Taylor's masterful double album.  So it's great to see Anderson.Paak wasting no time using his moment to introduce newcomers to who he really is.  Even though Malibu is technically his second album, his platform now is much more prominent.  This means that it's sink or swim for the thirty year-old, but judging from the countless cosigns this man has received, it's a pretty safe bet that he will be giving us great music for the foreseeable future.
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09 February 2016

VIDEO: Your Old Droog - 42 (Forty Deuce)

NY emcee Your Old Droog began his career with a lot of publicity. His first EP dropped in 2014, but most hip hop heads thought it was an incognito Nas album. Since Droog's cadence is eerily similar to that of the QB veteran, people thought the album was a clever deception. They thought Your Old Droog was a character created by Nas to bring back the golden era sound of hip hop. But Droog has proven that while the comparisons to the hip hip legend are welcome, he is his own emcee and his lyrics are strong enough to stand alone. But this scenario isn't unique to Droog. Most recently I recall that Action Bronson dealt with comparisons to Ghostface Killah when he entered the game. And even though Action and Droog definitely benefited from the extra attention, I actually feel the spotlight creates a more difficult route for the emcee. Trying to escape the large shadow of a hip hop legend is a herculean task. But it also weeds out the weak. If Action Bronson and Your Old Droog were just one-dimensional rappers, they would not last in the game.

Since Droog channels that 90s flow into his style, it is no surprise that I was a fan from the jump. The single 42 (Forty Deuce) is a Marco Polo produced track that samples the 1986 Nu Shooz track I Can't Wait. Forty Deuce is what NY natives commonly refer to as Time Square. Droog takes us on a trip through his old stomping grounds and the visual adds to the immersive feel of the track. From disc mans, to the Hard Rock Cafe, to Elmo, Droog captures the sights of Time Square of the 90s.

So peep video below and support Your Old Droog. I'm also posting the sampled track I Can't Wait to go down even deeper the nostalgia rabbit hole.

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