Archive for the ‘Best of 1st Q 2012’ Category

Sometimes when an artist does something dramatically original it polarizes the listening populace, some shy away from it, because it shocks their senses and their understanding of the confines of their genre, others flock to it merely because it is different without taking the time to investigate whether there is any depth behind the exploration.  When an artist’s originality is subtler – perhaps an unusual combination of existing and previous aesthetics – a lot of times people miss the boat entirely, writing it off as derivative, uninteresting, or uninspiring.  The reason for my delay in reviewing Sunday School is that I simply missed the boat the first few times I gave Tree a listen.  For those that follow the rap world closely, Tree’s buzz has been unavoidable this year.  Often falsely set up as an underground more artistic and cultured foil to Chief Keef and the explosion of the drill scene in Chicago this year, Tree is far from some hyper-conscious coffee shop friendly rap artist.  I came upon Sunday School back in March when I started this site up and began to look around for the best releases of the first quarter to begin putting together some reviews for the site.  Against the unusually stellar first quarter canvass of Ka’s devout lyrical calisthenics and complex patterns, ScHoolboy Q’s rubbery vocal inflected Oxycontin misadventures, Lil Ugly Mane’s otherworldly dedication to a dark Memphis revivalism, Blue Sky Black Death’s stylized soundscapes the psychedelic self-absorbed deity Nacho Picasso, or Big K.R.I.T.’s mainstream ready country rap gospel spitting stripper solicitations – Tree’s album somehow seemed less alluring and noteworthy to me.  Recently I heard The Lit EP and enjoyed it enough that it caught my attention again.  As time has gone on, the year has slowed down, and in the midst of a particularly slow third quarter I went back to give Sunday School another shot.  S/O to my man Alex over at for insisting to me that I was missing out on something special.  

Tree “All”

Although he’s been around for a minute on the Chicago scene, Tree has become known this year as the creator of soul trap music, a style he invented by slicing and chopping up samples – often, though not always, familiar soul and R&B samples from the 70’s – into the rhythms of trap beat patterns.  The production style he’s created is a welcome innovation given one the relative lack of sample based music in the trap beat dominated circles and the lack of quality drum work – not to mention soul samples – in the sample friendly cloud rap circles.  While longevity will undoubtedly prove to be an important factor it’s quite arguable that Tree may have fostered the most important movement in sample based production since Kanye and Just Blaze unleashed The Blueprint.  While the cloud/aquatic rap innovators may have their own case to make along those lines, there’s no doubt that nobody has brought new life to soul samples in the same way over the last decade.


In hip hop we generally think of rappers approaching their forties as being removed from the inner city youth that shaped their music, running out of subject matter and too distanced from their youth to connect to the things and subject matter that caught listeners attention the first time around.  Ka has the benefit of being able to look back over the course of nearly 4 decades living in the same borough of New York City.  From being the wild kid just doing what he needed to survive, no matter who was looking, to the grown man telling some teen to slow down because women or kids are around.  It’s a perspective not shared by most rappers in their late thirties, and it makes for a uniquely entertaining album that some are already dubbing a modern classic.  I had the opportunity to sit down with Ka and walk through the album track by track to discuss inspirations, beats, rhyme structures, and many other aspects of Grief Pedigree.

From the start The Making of Grief Pedigree does not work like a traditional “Making Of.”  There aren’t 10 different producers to interview, a couple DJs, maybe a weedcarrier, and a few guests and A&R’s.  Other than Roc Marciano’s verse on “Iron Age,” there were no other artists, label representatives, or producers involved in Grief Pedigree, so everything we can glean about the creation of the album, comes from Ka himself.

Despite his former history with Natural Elements and a lifetime of rapping, the DIY Iron Works was his solo debut in 2008.  It received some acclaim and some criticism, it seemed Ka put more energy into the album’s lyrics and rapping then he did into the production, or perhaps his production techniques just weren’t as developed at that point, but either way Ka decided to go “all-in” on the creation of Grief Pedigree.  He worked hours of overtime and extra night shifts to save up the funds to record Grief Pedigree in a professional studio setting.  Knowing that if he didn’t give 100% on the album that he’d always live with the regrets of not producing the album he knew he was capable of giving to the hip hop music he felt had given him so much over the years.


Starting the album with the shout-outs on the first track was intentional.  I put the shout-outs on the song where it’s upbeat enough where you probably won’t cut it off.  It’ll keep you up so you still listen all the way through to the end of the track.  I wanted to get that done up front so if they only listened to one song, they could hear their name.  And you feel good when you hear your name on a record, on the shout-outs.  I know I do.  So I wanted to give light to my people up front.

I approached “Chamber” different from how I approached “D.N.A.” (from Grief Pedigree‘s predecessor Iron Works).  With “D.N.A.” I wanted to put something slow and tougher, because I wanted to weed out certain cats and only keep a certain type of listener who would really be into my shit.  With “Chamber,” I wanted to pull people in, so I picked one of the more upbeat joints on the album to catch people’s attention.  So, I got off my elitist shit from Iron Works and really wanted people to listen and get into it this time.


There will seemingly always be a market for legitimate Country Rap Tunes, but as that musical methodology has fallen further and further from vogue – as the rap production selected by southern artists has been influenced by the glossiness of the DJ Khaleds, Rick Rosses, and Young Jeezies of the world – soulful dirty south sample based beats have become harder and harder to find.  It hasn’t helped that court decisions and technology continue to eat away the profitability, and delay the timeliness with legal paperwork, of sample-heavy records.  That said, it’s important to acknowledge that the distance from the heyday of Organized Noize, Pimp C, DJ Paul & Juicy J, N.O. Joe, Mr. DJ, and Mike Dean leaves a gaping void in rap’s sonic landscape that’s craving to be filled.  Equally rare in today’s rap world are lyricists who are more concerned with honesty than image.  While the merits of honesty in art can be debated against the value of fiction, fantasy, exploration, innovation, and imagery, there is no doubt that it is refreshing to have at least a subsection of artists in any field who speak from their own authentic point of view.  Enter Big K.R.I.T., Mississippi producer and rapper, signed to Def Jam, and responsible for the critically acclaimed K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, R4: The Prequel, and Return of 4Eva along with several other mixtapes and a multitude of guest production and features.  Unlike some of the other artists highlighted in the Best of the 1st Quarter album review series, K.R.I.T. seemingly is on eve of doing very big things on a mainstream level with a deal from Def Jam, and the co-sign of XXL, but fortunately he hasn’t let go of his desire to keep giving the fans what they need, while we wait for his major label debut, Live From the Underground to hit shelves.

Big K.R.I.T.’s latest, 4Eva N a Day, is an album based on the simple concept of long day, twenty one waking hours to be exact, with songs based on the moods or themes of certain times of day and night throughout the album.  Certainly there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about the concept, but it’s solidly realized and for a free album, it’s hard to complain about the depth of an album’s conceptual framework, especially when the music is overwhelmingly solid throughout and the product is cohesively developed.


“Phantom of the Opera”

The production duo known as Blue Sky Black Death (BSBD) has been a mainstay on the independent hip hop scene for over half a decade now.   While they’ve certainly worked with some of the more underappreciated-yet-talented independent hip hop artists like Jus Allah, Holocaust, Hell Razah, and Jean Grae, they had not brought an emcee into the fold more permanently until recently to really develop as an in-house artist.  That seems to have changed recently as Seattle’s Nacho Picasso has now put together two albums with them in the span of six months.  While his style and voice are both unusual, most emcees who make something of themselves have distinctive voices and personas, and Nacho already has both, in spades.

Whereas Nacho Pichasso’s debut with BSBD, For the Glory, certainly had more variety in subject matter and hints of a personal touch from Picasso, covering topics like his comic book knowledge (“Marvel“), extensive personal tattooing (“Sweaters“), (lack of) influences (“Walkman”), and gangsta pedigree (“100 G’s”), Lord of the Fly is almost completely stripped of the shreds of humanity Nacho had previously expressed.  If Lord of the Fly provides any personal insight it is generally couched in either grandeur or outright absurdity.  When you combine this with BSBD’s glossiest and futuristic soundscape to date, the album plays like a dystopian cinematic work of speculative fiction marrying elements of Clockwork Orange, Bladerunner, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Alfie. If For the Glory painted the picture of an eccentric, if not a bit nerdy, self-interested thug Lothario, then Lord of the Fly deifies Nacho, crowning him king of a nihilistic society on a planet of Barbarellas.


Mista Thug Isolation’s first track begins with the white noise and ringing of a bad bout of tenitus, and quickly developes into extraterrestrial feedback behind a ghoulish piano loop – something like an alien abduction inside a haunted mansion.  There’s no denying the overt homage paid to mid and early nineties Three 6 Mafia and Hypnotized Minds affiliates here, and given that Lil’ Ugly Mane is not the long-lost cousin of DJ Paul, fresh off a 17 year bid, it’s reasonable to qualify Mista Thug Isolation as “nostalgia rap.”  While most of the members of today’s southern rap scene can trace their ancestry to artists like Three 6, Eightball & MJG, and UGK, very few make music that is as sonically reminiscent of the many underground tapes from ’91-’97 Memphis (with hints of Texas not to be ignored).  There are important factors to consider before outright dismissing Mista Thug Isolation as an unintriguingly derivative niche throwback album.  The most important factors being is the fidelity to the technique and the originality of the artist’s craft, as well as the overall quality of the music itself.  While Lil’ Ugly Mane sounds like he could’ve fit in with the Hypnotized Minds posse, his delivery is not consistent with anyone in that camp, and he maintains diversity in his vocal techniques while exhibiting his own perverse sense of humor.  As a producer Lil Ugly Mane also known as Shawn Kemp – his beat making alter ego – cooks up cuts that could’ve starred on records for likes of Hypnotized Minds affiliates or even UGK or Ball & G, but the subtleties and juxtapositions across this lo-fi opus generally belie direct comparison.

“Radiation (Lung Pollution)” is perhaps the most eclectic track on the album, with a beat that moves seamlessly from a smooth and jazzy trunk rattler to pure chopped and screwed devilishness as Lil’ Ugly Mane and Supa Sortahuman exchange braggadocio and marijuana honorariums.  On “Slick Rick,” Shawn Kemp brings a combination of definitively 80’s soundscapes with a few classic 90’s southern hints, as Lil’ Ugly Mane displays his reverence for the forefather of hip hop misogyny with details of a couple of humorously self-indulgent sexual encounters.  Perhaps the album’s defining cut, “B*tch, I’m Lugubrious,” mixes a few chopped up somber keys, flutes, and some trunk rattling bass as Lil’ Ugly Mane weaves his morose sense of humor into a double-time flow with lines like “uzi aimin’ low, shoot a playa in the prostrate.”


If Kendrick Lamar is the natural evolution of Ras Kass, then Schoolboy Q is somewhere between Kurupt, WC, and Crooked I on one end of the spectrum, and Micah 9 and Pharoahe Monch on the other, with the perversion of Akinyele thrown in for good measure.  On his new album Habits & Contradictions it’s often difficult to determine where Schoolboy sees himself on this continuum, and that may be a question for years to come.

Q made a splash last year with the release of his debut album Setbacks, which quickly endeared him to thousands of digital fans of both LA gangsta rap and innovative bohemian rap alike.  While it is always inspiring to hear a West coast artist continue to evolve the constraints of the defined notions of acceptable Gangsta rap, Q’s vocal stylings frequently outclass his lyrical machinations on Habits & Contradictions.  For what it is – sexually depraved, misogyny laced, violent, drug influenced, gang culture inspired storytelling – the level of vocal artistry may be unparalleled.  Over the course of 367 days, Schoolboy Q has twice managed to release the album hip hop heads dreamed Crooked I would release for ten years (and never did).  Of his two albums, Setbacks is the more accessible to the uninitiated and Habits & Contradictions is more likely to send someone into convulsions and fits of gangbang slang Tourette’s.


“Cold loaded, waiting for a reason/praise me when I’m dead, make bread while I’m breathin’/Can’t take it when I’m leaving/Judge me too quick, mistake me as a heathen/cause I had tools moved weight it was thievin’/when I was broke out the gate, I was grievin’/had a cold heart cause my apartment was freezin'”

– Ka, “Cold Facts”

It seems like every few years you come across a New York rap album that avoids the impulse to sound remotely modern, and yet somehow manages to navigate the pitfalls of the misguided intentionality of “nostalgia rap” (see Termanology, Celph Titled, and numerous releases after about ’03 or ’04 from washed up NYC golden age rappers).  In 11 brief tracks, Grief Pedigree manages to cement itself into an elite group of 4 or 5 rap albums from the last half a decade that manage to remove modernity from the auditory equation, without sacrificing the authenticity of the listening experience.  It’s a very rare group of records indeed that can make you feel like you’ve stepped into 1995 musically, without asking you to reminisce or revisit – they just take you there.

It would be a total anomaly for an emcee with Ka’s aptitude for DIY artistry and 92-98 grimy New York authenticity to appear out of nowhere and Ka is not unlike NYOIL (UMC’s), MF DOOM (KMD), and Roc Marciano (Flipmode and The UN), hailing himself from the 90’s group Natural Elements.  Like the other emcees on shortlist, Ka has a unique skill set on the microphone and shows a dedication to his craft both on the mic and on the boards that is seldom exhibited in the quality of the artistic output among modern rappers.  For example, the rhyme schemes and vocal cadences are so thoroughly structured that at times the committment to the practice feels equal parts eccentric and devout.  Religious and spiritually inspired imagery and advice litters the album without coming across as overbearing or preachy, much in the way that 5%er linguistics and lessons were woven through the fabric of Wu-Tang albums for years.