Archive for the ‘Album Review’ Category


Ka “Our Father”

On “They Know It’s About,” the first track off the follow-up to last year’s seminal low-fi 100% DIY effort Grief Pedigree, Ka assaults listeners like Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Shadows in a dark cavern, or perhaps more accurately like a crew of starving hooded teenagers jumping a wayward stockbroker in a dark alley deep in Brownsville in 1993.  It’s a fitting re-introduction from a rapper who would prefer to pitch his new vinyl and CD in front of the ghost of Fat Beats to dropping a mixtape on datpiff or bandcamp.  As with his previous efforts, it’s clear that Ka poured many late nights with a pen, pad, turntable, and sampler into the creation of this release.  If Rakim, GZA, and early Nasty-era Nas are the gods of the rap game then Ka’s today’s most orthodox monk, crafting lines with a painstaking alignment of syllables, meaning, symbolism, and wit.  If his rhyme writing isn’t a devote enough process for classic rap heads, he approaches beat-making with equivalent asceticism and has drastically elevated his skills behind the boards over the course of his first three solo albums, to the point where it’s hard to image any producer capable of crafting a backdrop for Ka more fitting than the ones he develops himself.   Then there’s the videos, which he shoots himself, with his keen photographer’s eye and stars in.  There’s so much subtlety to absorb in his work, that any distraction can easily lead the listener to miss crucial metaphors, wordplay, and double entendres. In order to best appreciate his work on a single listen, it’s likely that his albums would need to be heard in a sensory deprivation chamber, where every kick, tick, sampled vinyl crackle, emphasizing overdub, word, syllable, and phoneme could completely sink into the listener’s psyche without distraction.

While in many ways the refinement in production Ka displays on The Night’s Gambit parallel’s the growth his frequent partner-in-rhyme and production symbiote Roc Marciano displayed on Reloaded – a few lusher backdrops, and when the loops are stripped down they’re more idiosyncratic than those on Grief Pedigree –  Ka’s vantage point does not see an overhaul similar to the gutter to parapet ascension that Roc showcased between his solo debut and sophomore release.  This isn’t surprising, as there is no doubt that Roc Marciano’s life, bank account, and ego had all undergone more significant changes since the release of Marcberg than Ka’s have since he dropped Grief Pedigree a little over a year ago.  Despite the critical acclaim surrounding his album last year and his two guest appearances on Reloaded, Ka remains largely an unknown figure to the rap world.  There’s no doubt that the occasional shows, and a few digital sales help the former Natural Elements member to support the costs associated with his music creation and maybe garner him a little extra pocket change, but they haven’t changed his perspective one bit.  He’s still the same “smart ass pawn” outlined by Bodie from The Wire sample utilized during the opening sequence on “Peace Akhi.”  He’s not quite sure how he’s managed to stay alive through the wars, hells, and purgatories that he’s narrated throughout each of his three full length projects, but he’s back once again to impart the wisdom he’s gained by enduring his struggle.

In terms of imagery, The Night’s Gambit is once again filled with Ka’s familiar varied religious iconography, ranging from parables and lines the Bible’s two testaments, to Islamic verbiage, 5%er math, and probably a few remnants of other less recognizable belief systems that have filtered from the diverse landscape of the five boroughs into the shadowy corners of Brownsville over the past few decades.  “Our Father,” “Jungle,” and “Barring The Likeness,” demonstrate Ka’s ability to complexly entwine systems of spirituality within a context of the images of war, gambling, the jungle, basketball, drug trade navigation, and the gutter that were prevalent throughout Ka’s first two releases.  Where card and dice games have been frequent motifs for Ka before as well, as the album’s title suggests, Ka also occasionally uses the game of chess here as an allegorical representation of his own story of long odds survival.  While there are not a preponderance of specific chess references throughout the album, the comparison between life and a chess match where the odds are stacked against the survival of any individual piece – especially when recognizing that Ka is not a king on the board, but a dispensable soldier (a pawn or at best a Knight) – is clearly something that Ka  has contemplated.  Ka also recognizes, as a survivor, that many of his peers had to sacrifice their lives in battle, while he somehow managed to make it through.  On a less personal note, chess’s evolution also mirrors Ka’s in another way.  The game itself, and it’s pieces, has changed often based upon the religious and societal values of the countries its been introduced to over the years – having Islamic origins and Christian representations – similarly to the way that Ka often picks and chooses from the variety of belief systems he’s been exposed to, in order to make his points, and convey his perspective on morality in his own complex social surroundings.

While a majority of the album is dark alley fair, and contemplation of war and survival, there are lighter moments as well, like the obligatory cameo from Metal Clergy partner Roc Marci on “Soap Box.” Like all of their other work together, “Soap Box,” is a solid collaboration, albeit perhaps the only track on the album where Ka’s lyrics seem entirely focused on wit, without the desire to wrap them within one or several larger symbolic contexts.  Similarly outside of the album’s general narrative structure, the album’s closer, “Off the Record,” is created in the same vein as GZA’s “Labels,” “Fame,” “Animal Planet,” “O% Finance,” and “Queen’s Gambit.”  Here Ka urges listeners to “dig through it,” and get familiar with a list of his favorite hip hop albums, while still maintaining coherent narration to the song.  While the concept may not be 100% original, the execution is nevertheless rap masterclass worthy.  On “Nothing Is,” Ka passionately discusses rap as his calling, narrating his growth in perspective over the years and his need to pass it on to others.

While the diversity in the content is appreciated – and helps break up the monotony of his funereal themes – Ka is still at his very best in his most austere work.  Fortunately, that work makes up the majority of the album, and is highlighted on songs like his cautionary tale on betrayers, “30 Pieces of Silver,” his macabre adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father,” and the pugilistic “You Know It’s About,” and “Peace Akhi.”  At just over 38 minutes The Night’s Gambit like Grief Pedigree mirrors the length of Illmatic giving the listener just enough great material to leave them itching to start the album over again after each listen.  In all actuality this probably has less to do with Ka’s desire to replicate Nasty’s formula, and much more to do with his desire to fit his albums on a single piece of vinyl.  Regardless of his motivation, with no filler, it’s the perfect length for an album.  Ka once said that he wanted to be a rapper that didn’t overcrowd the market, leaving his listeners to thirst for a new album between releases.  There is no doubt that the brilliance of this album will have fans fiending for the next time Ka chooses to give them a couple weeks notice that he’ll be showing up in front of the specter of Fat Beats with a new crate of vinyl and a bag of CDs.

Ka “Off The Record”

In 2012 Roc Marciano is the slickest motherfucker on the planet, but it wasn’t always that way. Despite over ten years perfecting his craft as a member of Flipmode Squad, The UN, (interesting situations that he thankfully never bats an eye at lyrically) and as a solo artist, when Roc dropped Marcberg in 2010, he was just getting around to telling his story to rap fans.  Marcberg was an unequivocably strong testament, proving that a New York rapper with ties to 90’s NYC rap could make a legitimate classic minimalistic boom-bap sample-based rap album over a decade removed from that era.  Many considered Marcberg a throwback masterpiece, and there were obvious elements of a hustler’s crack era nostalgia, but those who classified it as a successful 90’s themed boom-bap record did miss the point a bit.  There had been literally thousands of unsuccessful 90’s NYC throwback albums over from ’05 through ’10, but with Marcberg Roc somehow managed to create a distinct artistic statement.  Entirely produced and written by Roc – aside from one guest shot from Metal Clergy cohort Ka (a pattern Ka would mirror on his second album Grief Pedigree) – it was marked by a stark and dusty minimalism sonically and the words of a slick talking hustler with the unique ability to paint crystal clear imagery and illuminate his own set of Scarface dreams.  Roc wasn’t merely reminiscing about the 90’s nor was he trying to relive them in 2010, he was narrating his own blaxploitation flick set nebulously in the crack era.  The story line was one of criminality, street hustling, the pimp game, and turf wars.

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The art of creating a memorable EP is a difficult task, especially in an era where music is consumed and left by the wayside at such a breakneck pace.  For one, the brevity generally means that in order for it to be a truly successful product there can be absolutely no filler.  If an artist attempts to make the product too cohesive it can end up sounding like one long song, but if an artist tries to showcase his versatility it often ends up sounding like a mess.  Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire has dropped some high quality mixtapes over the last few years, which seemed to showcase an unprecedented potential to occupy a space somewhere between Kool Keith and Jay-Z, Gucci Mane, Ghostface, and El-P as eX has dropped allusions to Clockwork OrangeWeird Science, and Philip K. Dick novels right alongside references to Cari Zalloni frames and Maison Martin Margiela kicks over everything from pop/r&b instrumentals to spaced out Def Jux type beats and somehow manages to make his approach appealing to a fairly wide array of fans.

Coming into the game on the heels of the most substantial drought of talented New York rappers in rap history, there are many who have, or will place, high expectations on eXquire merely out of a desire to see NY return to a place of prominence in the music industry.  Be that as it may, there is an ease with which eXquire navigates the rap world that is definitely unusual.  Few artists can pull off collaborations with trap rappers and nerd rappers, and seem perfectly at home with both camps.

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It is worth acknowledging that this is exactly the type of album on which rap writers love to cut their teeth, bring out their axes to grind, and throw all of their personal prejudices and hang-ups into the mix as well.  There will be those who praise this album as the greatest rap album of the last decade and those who decry it as a massive disappointment.  It’s the type of album where pay-per-click websites are dying for their staff to write about it, and it’s the type of album writers love to talk about in the most hyperbolic terms possible to attract as much attention as possible.  Critics have been spending the last week discussing why this album is doomed to fail: the excessive hype, the fact that Kendrick is being asked to deliver a classic major label debut despite the fact that he doesn’t have a track record that necessarily suggests that’s a probability, the fact that the things Kendrick does best don’t necessarily translate well with the popular radio rap aesthetic, the fact that very few rappers deliver their first classic album on their third full length album, and the likelihood that Aftermath/Interscope would force him to sacrifice too much of his creativity and individuality in favor of more commercially viable material.  It’s also worth noting that all of these seem like legitimate concerns.  Add to that the pressure on Kendrick to deliver an album that both returns the West Coast to the forefront of the industry and an album that shows that rappers who can rap their ass off are still allowed to do so in the world of mainstream rap.  It’s fair to say that expectations around this album seem nearly insurmountable.

good kid, m.A.A.d city starts with the sound of someone flicking on an old reel to reel era family video of two boys praying to Jesus to beg forgiveness and ask salvation and guidance. Eery keys begin to penetrate mid-prayer slowly developing into the backdrop of a story tale dedication to “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter.”  There’s a constant push and pull through good kid, m.A.A.d city, between a teenager who wants to do the right thing, wants salvation, but is constantly challenged by sin, desire, and the allure of women and the streets. It’s a push and pull felt by everyone one form or another, accentuated by the temptations of the city and the magnetism of the lifestyle presented by the rappers he and his friends idolize.

This has been a great year for albums that are musical cohesive, or stylistically cohesive, good kid, m.A.A.d City is not always either of those, but it maintains its cohesion through a much less frequently used methodology – and one that’s much more difficult to pull off on a rap album – thematic and narrative cohesion.  The story that Kendrick has to tell is a different narrative of authenticity in rap music.  good kid, m.A.A.d city is a narrative relevant to 2012 and a personal narrative from an artist who grew up in a society filled with drugs, crime, violence, and poverty, who tried to stay out of trouble, but couldn’t always avoid its enticement.  It’s a story that nearly anyone can relate to, but it’s also the real story of so many of today’s rappers.  What makes the story unique is that unlike most of his peers, Kendrick Lamar is comfortable telling it and owning it, and recognizes that the listener will connect to it despite his lack of posturing and the refusal to bow to the whims of the record industry’s misguided perception of who a rapper – particularly a rapper from Los Angeles or Compton – should be and how he should act on record.  The fact that this album was made at all is a minor miracle, and the fact that Kendrick pulled it off so well on a mainstream stage is nothing short of remarkable.

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The legitimate production crew or group, as opposed to the group of producers who work individually (eg DITC), is not an aberration in rap music – Organized Noize, Neptunes, Block Beataz, Earthtone III – but it’s not all that common either.  Even less common is getting to hear the group really let their hair down and make music for themselves without serious commercial aspirations getting in the way.  Earthtone III was mainly concerned with producing their own work and that of a few other Dungeon Fam rappers, N.E.R.D. made some great music, but the charts always seemed to be an aim in one form or another, Organized Noize’s closest attempt probably came with the historically snoozed upon Sleepy’s Theme album Vinyl Room.  In many ways Vinyl Room might be a reasonable sonic ancestor for iNDEEDFACE if Sleepy’s Theme had been into psychotropics and irreverence.


iNDEED “Black Tears”

When iNDEED dropped the iNDEED EP, earlier this year, I made the remark in my review ,of the also 5PMG produced Paraphernalia album from Burn One & SL Jones, that the EP begged consideration for album of the year despite it’s short length.  Although the EP was an excellent introduction to the members of Five Points Music Group as a standalone band, the “album of the year” contender comment was probably a bit hasty for a seven song EP.  What the seven song EP did display was the ability to make great individual songs, often in completely different styles, from the Neptunes-esque “More Than a Dance” to the pimp meets mosh-pit “Brass Knuckles,” to the RZA influenced “Black Tears” to the trademarked straight-up 5PMG sound on “The Pinkpather.”  What the EP didn’t quite make clear the direction or vision of the band: Would iNDEED have a frontman or just rotate singers and rappers in? Would they have a signature sound or be more like a stylized hip hop interpolation band?  What was clear was that they could make great music and that they had a lot of fun in the process. In typical tireless DJ Burn One fashion, iNDEED is now back just a few months later to bless us all with a full length project to show a more fully realized vision of precisely what it is that they have to offer the music world.

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When Mikkey Halsted dropped Castro this summer it was a sign of serious preparation for the next level.  Backed by a couple of the biggest names in rap production (No ID & Young Chop), and one of rap’s most influential mixtape DJ’s (Don Cannon), Mikkey dropped a mixtape that showed his potential for mainstream success beyond the kind of “greatest that never made it” barbershop and blog fame he’s held in Chicago for many years now.  Castro wasn’t Mikkey’s deepest effort, but it combined depth with mainstream palatablility through a difficult balancing act, dropping enough witty similes to please the backpack contingent, enough depth to please the coffee shop open mic crowd, enough street imagery to please the hardcore rap fan, and enough gloss to please the labels and the pop crowd.  Ultimately Castro was successful, because it was cohesive, extremely well produced, and well executed on the mic.  That said, it wasn’t exactly the type of Chicago rap that labels are currently chomping at the bit to hawk to the masses.  Despite Mikkey’s assertion that he is “the common denominator between Chief Keef and Common,” the album came off more tinted with the wit, imagery, politics, and soundscapes of the latter in his prime than the cold and gritty callousness of the former.

In my interview with Mikkey about a month and a half ago, he referred to MMM Season as merely “another side of the same coin.”  With a teaser of “Chopper Music,” his collaboration with drill scene representatives Lil’ Durk and King Louie, and songs like his shades of “You’re All I Need to Get By” collaboration with Tia London, “I Got It,” and an anthem for his new financial perspective on the game, “Money Makin’ Mikkey” it was a little tough to judge the validity of Mikkey’s assessment of the work.  MMM Season seemed like it might have the makings of a cash grab.  And who could blame Halsted for making an attempt to finally cash in on half a dozen missed opportunities at fame and fortune.  The crossover for the sake of it strategy would make more than a little sense given the stable of industry vets that Mikkey has behind him and the fact that MMM Season was to be produced entirely by Multi-platinum producer The Legendary Traxster.  The question was, how would this all play out?  Would Mikkey set up two personalities that would duel for the listeners attention?  Would he set up a drill friendly alter ego and then try to make a project where he balanced the Castro style with the MMM style? Would it be something like a Chi-town version of K.R.I.T. where a third of the album would be dedicated to the strip clubs, a third to the drill kids, and a third to the pew sitting parishioners?   The answer, thankfully is much more simple than that, Money Making Mikkey is thankfully, still the same Halsted.  There’s no doubt that he’s spreading his wings a bit, showing his marketability to different aesthetics, and doing so over fantastic production, but he does it all within the lane that he’s developed for himself over time and artistically he stays true to the principles that have defined his career.

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“Dreamin'” – Illogic & Blockhead

Preparing for Capture 2 begins with a sample from a scene in Poolhall Junkies in which Christopher Walken’s character lectures Mars Callahan’s about having a minor league syndrome – messing around with two-bit pool hustlers for so long that he’s begun to lose site of the true scope of his talents, lose site of the fact that he has the ability and talent for something much greater.  It’s an interesting and probably honest choice for Illogic, a rapper who’s skills and abilities as a writer have long suggested that he deserved a more prominent position in rap culture.  After all, at the age of nineteen, Illogic dropped an album in Unforeseen Shadows that many considered one of the best independent rap albums to come out around the turn of the millenium, and certainly one of the more lyrically astonishing debuts  – a masterwork of introspective bedroom rap – the hip hop world has ever seen.  Although he was early to embrace the notion of dropping multiple promotional side projects (the Write to Death series, the Got Lyrics? battle rhyme themed EP, his Off the Clock EP with DJ PRZM) it took him four more years to drop his dense and dark follow-up Celestial Clockwork – a further testament to his savant-like status with a pen when it comes to crafting stories, delivering tracks with strong a strong conceptual framework, and cold getting dumb with the rhymes.  Since the release of Celestial Clockwork, Illogic has certainly put out projects that have plenty of merit, but they’ve been on a smaller scale.  Only 2009’s Diabolical Fun was released on a real label – the same Columbus imprint, Weightless Recordings, that he built along with his longtime collaborator and friend Blueprint.  The Poolhall Junkies sample may also have some meaning to Blockhead who seems to be looking to kick it into gear – by working on producer and rapper collaborative albums – after taking a few years off from heavy producing of rap albums after long-time collaborator Aesop Rock moved out to the Bay Area several years ago.  As Illogic and Blockhead look for a home for Capture the Sun, which Illogic said those around him describe as “the antithesis of Celestial Clockwork” in our recent interview there’s no doubt that both artists have taken their task of collaboration outside of the lens of label oversight seriously, an opportunity for both of them to embrace using their art for more purposeful and personally satisfying ends.

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