reviews

Jay-Z's 4:44 Critical Acclaim, Explained

By now, unless you've been living under a rock, in a cave, on the moon, and your fingers in your ears, you've heard Jay-Z's latest album 4:44, or at least heard the reviews and commentary on it. Mainly, how much of a "grown" and "mature" album this release is. Over the course of the LP, Jay highlights the benefits of things like generational wealth, good credit, and investing in things like art and real estate. Concepts that are very foreign to a lot of young black men who listen primarily to rap. He also is very open and honest about personal shortcomings and his family dynamic. To put it bluntly, this was a very unconventional rap album and a very unconventional Jay Z as well. It was an creative left turn for him as an artist, and a thematic Russian roulette as far as rap albums go. Already, I'm hearing disc jockeys and critics placing 4:44 as one of Jay's top 3 albums, and some are even putting it at numero uno. That's saying a lot considering Jay Z is considered one of the best to ever touch the mic, and this is album #13 for him. After having a week to digest it properly, I can say I was pleasantly surprised by the album, but don't want to be a prisoner of the moment and put it on a pedestal prematurely, but I do think it falls on the more favorable side of Jay Z's discography.

But on to this business of how "grown" this album is. Let me first say that the definition of "grown" is extremely relative, especially within hip-hop. 4:44 has earned that label due to it's touting the aforementioned themes and avoiding hanging it's hat on what 99% of the rap world prides itself on: promiscuity, partying, pills, money, clubbing, violence, frivolous spending, and stunting. So kudos to Jay Z for that. But to perfectly honest, Jay Z isn't the first MC to record a "grown" album if you were to go by that definition. Granted, Jay Z is first rapper of his stature to do so, and maybe that's why he's being looked at like he's reinventing the wheel, but for years the Commons, Mos Defs, Talib Kweli's, and countless others have been putting out music that by any definition would be considered introspective and mature. But...we know how it goes. Because those artists and others like them haven't achieved the level of wealth Jay Z has, their opinion's and in turn, music, holds less weight. People of all races, but in particularly the black community, equate wealth with talent, business acumen, intelligence, professionalism, and credibility. These other "lower level" rappers also don't have the stature to partner with another major corporation to wholesale their album in advance sort to speak. So when Jay Z speaks, the world listens. And he chose to use his moment in the spotlight to impart some gems on the minds of listeners. This is something that is just not simply done (or is extremely rare) by rap acts who are on and popping right now. In fact, if Jay had released 4:44 as his second album, instead of his thirteenth, it might have been career suicide (especially considering there's no real radio single on here). Sure, back in late 80s and early to mid 90s golden era of hip-hop, who had numerous groups and artists who were instilled with a sense of black pride, spirituality, and knowledge of self, but hip hop has been going the way of the savages for a good 15+ years now. Some would argue longer. So when you hear people say "It's about time a rapper made a grown, mature rap album!" they're really talking about rappers among the current crop who are getting radio play and magazine covers, right now.

As for the rest of the rap world, hopefully they'll take notes. Maybe they'll put forth more of an effort to rap about adult things without fearing their sales going down the toilet. Maybe they'll experiment more and rap about family life as opposed to club culture. Maybe they'll encourage younger listeners to show more soundness of mind financially. Listeners will go on whatever journey you take them on as long as it sounds good.  Jay Z and many others who've come before him just proved that.

Best Hip Hop Albums Of The Year, So Far...

Here we are already at the halfway point of the year, and 2017 seems to be shaping up a lot like 2016: police are still killing unarmed people of color with no consequences, celebrities continue to bite the dust,  comic book heroes dominate the box office, politics continues to show us white skin and money take priority over everything... but fortunately the year has been shaping up to be a pretty decent year for hip-hop music as well.

Here are the 10 best hip-hop albums I've heard this year so far. By the end of the year, this list will likely change and I may have a whole different 10 albums, or maybe it might be the exact same albums, who knows?! But if you haven't checked out these releases yet to come out this year, I think you won't be disappointed if you did.

10. Insight & Damu The Fudgemunk- Ears Hear Spears: veteran Boston MC/producer Insight blesses fans of true school, boom bap hip hop with a no-frills, no-filler 10 track album featuring stellar production from D.C. producer Damu The Fudgemunk accompanying his effortless rhyme flows. This album sounds like it was frozen in time in 1996, and then was released today. A must listen for fans of boom bap!

9. Substantial- The Past Is Always Present In The Future- Maryland lyricist and underground veteran Substantial comes out of nowhere with this moody, yet very mature sounding LP that will impress any head who needs to hear some real grown up rap. While this album is not as heavy on the comedic, battle ready punchlines of Substantial's earlier work, he switches gears a bit and is more introspective, spitting rhymes about his past, parenthood, and the trajectory of black peoples' progress in America. Definite sleeper.

8. Nick Grant- The Return of the Cool- South Carolina lyricist Nick Grant blesses fans with another consistent project that combines witty, razor sharp, punchline driven lyricism with radio friendly production that will keep heads nodding and hips shaking. As one of the most underrated and underappreciated MC's in the game, Nick Grants proves on song after song why everyone needs to be put on notice about this dude.

7. The Underachievers- Renaissance- Flatbush, Brooklyn duo Issa Gold & Ak The Savior embrace the melodic, dusty, boom bap production (which has been making a comeback these days) for their appropriately titled Renaissance album.  Rhyming about life lessons as well as smoking really strong weed, they are a group that you can chill out to but also know to take very seriously when the mood calls for it.

6. Talib Kweli & Styles P- The Seven- Never judge a book by its cover, because while the album cover for this looks like it was done by a 6 year old with only 3 crayons, what's contained on here musically is a true work of art. It's an EP, so while it's runtime is not as long as a full length LP, it's straight to the point with no frills and filled with clever, well thought out lyrics over hardcore, boom bap flavored beats. Talib delivers for the conscious rap fans and Styles delivers for the street rap fans, yet they compliment each other perfectly while speaking on the same topic on the same song, but through two different prisms. So there's something on here for everybody. Don't sleep!

5. Venomous2000 x Trilian- Sounds of the Great Ones- This album truly came out of nowhere for me; it popped up in my recommended album feed in my Bandcamp page and I really dug the album cover and decided to check it out. And boy, was I pleasantly surprised! Venomous2000 drops track after track of dope, battle ready lyrics over Trilian's aggressive, polished production. Fans of Dilated Peoples, Wu-Tang, Redman, Cannibal Ox, etc. will appreciate this brand of increasingly rare hip hop. Contributions from Inspectah Deck, C-Rayz Walz, The Artifacts, Reks, and Shabaam Sadeeq also give this album a punch as well.

4. Raekwon- The Wild- Wu-Tang wordsmith Raekwon comes back strong his seventh solo LP. On this release, he utilizes a variety of classic old school break beats as well as lush, soulful Motown era samples that give the album a definitive vintage feel. But there are moments in the album where Rae shows he can still hold his own amongst the current crop of spitters and dips his toe into the more contemporary sounds of the day and invites guests like Lil Wayne and G-Eazy. Not to mention, the autobiographical dedication to Marvin Gaye he does is worth the price of admission alone.

3. Murs- Captain California- Mid City, L.A. veteran Murs has been blessing the underground masses with dope underground music for 20 years now, and on his 15th LP, Captain California, he returns to his roots sort of speak with cleverly written songs about everything from hollering at females to gentrification to just having a bad day in the hood. Most of the songs on here are stories, so it makes for a very entertaining listen. The production has backbone but is still easy on ears enough that it doesn't take too much attention away from the one you should be listening to the most, the MC. Check out this album, but if you haven't already, google this man's discography and check it out. Because this album is merely a tip of the Murs iceberg.

2. Joey Badass- All Amerikkkan Badass- Joey is an MC that I have been rooting for since I heard Survival Tactics back when he was only 17 years old. From the jump he embraced the grimey, boom bap, laid back production that was the signature sound of 90s golden era hip hop to compliment his steady fire flows. But being so young at the time, you didn't know if he was going to be a one-trick pony and fizzle out or grow with his art. Fortunately Joey B eludes the sophomore slump with delivering a concise, consistent, and sonically diverse album that tackles race relations in America in a way that I have not seen done since the days of Mos Def and dead prez, and definitely don't see from many of his peers.

1. Kendrick Lamar- Damn. This should come as no surprise that this album made the top of the mid-year list. Ever since he entered the game, Kendrick has demonstrated a consistency that has not been seen in 10+ years from hip hop artists and shows no signs of slowing down or falling off. Damn. is an album that is deeply insightful, reflective, and socially aware but at the same time radio friendly and melodic enough to compete with all his rap contemporaries.

Concept Albums Are A Dying Art, Here's A Few You Should Check Out

A concept album can be defined as an album with a unified theme. In other words, it could be an album where a story is told from the first song to the last, or contain a few songs connecting a particular theme or story. Or it could an album where the performing artist(s) delve into a whole different personality or persona and pretend to be such over the length of the album.

In today's day and age, with so much emphasis on hot singles, concept albums (especially hip-hop concept albums) are quickly becoming an endangered species. Albums as a whole have grown less important with the mixtape revolution that began to spawn circa 2002, allowing artists to stay connected with their fan base by dropping material as frequently as they wanted as opposed to having to wait for some record label A&R telling them when their album was finished and they could have it released. Most recently, we've seen the newer format of the "playlist" being released by artists which have been loosely defined as a "soundtrack to one's life"??!!? Whatever. Sounds like a cop out just in case the body of work is disappointing, it can struck from the official discography. Music consumers as a whole seem to have shorter attention spans and don't want to invest 60+ minutes hearing out an artist lay out a theme/story, unless that artist already has a lot of equity built up with that listener; and sometimes even then it works extremely well, and at other times it can fall flat (see: Kendrick Lamar & J.Cole). And to be honest, it is a lot easier creatively and artistically, for a performer to put out an easy-on-the-ears single accompanied by album filler, as opposed to a body of work of 10+ songs that's meant to be consumed as a whole. 

So here's part one of a list of hip-hop concept albums that are personal favorites of mine (in no particular order) that I feel any fan of hip-hop would enjoy and be thoroughly entertained by:  

1. Prince Paul- Prince Among Thieves (1999 Tommy Boy Records): Legendary hip-hop sampling pioneer Prince Paul employs the services of Breeze Brewin' of the Juggaknots and his buttery, smooth flow to tell the tale of an ambitious MC on the rise who gets caught up in the treacherous trap of the streets. Breeze effortlessly pushes the narrative over an array of dope, diverse beats and highly amusing skits. Other legends' contributions are sprinkled throughout the project such as De La Soul, Kool Kieth, Chubb Rock, Killa Sha, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Everlast, Sadat X, Xzibit, and others.

 2. Little Brother- The Minstrel Show (2005 ABB Records): For the sophomore LP from North Carolina trio of Big Pooh, Phonte, & 9th Wonder, they seemed to want to exorcise some demons and vent some frustration with their experience in the entertainment industry (Google "Little Brother BET controversy" or "Little Brother The Source album rating controversy"). What resulted was a masterfully crafted album that used satire to skewer the collective modern black entertainment industry Bamboozled-style. Various sub-genres of rap, "black" television channels, black shopping habits, even the format for the modern R&B single at that time found themselves in the group's cross-hairs with hilarious, but thought provoking results. If you haven't already, please check out the "greatest colored show on earth"!

3. Masta Ace- Disposable Arts (2001 JCOR Records): Juice Crew alum Masta Ace comes back from a seven year hiatus to bless us with this gem of a concept album and just a great hip-hop album, period. Using his simple, straight forward flow and signature vocal tone clarity, Ace lays out a detailed story of a young man released from prison who has to get acclimated again in the streets and neighborhood he left behind while he was in prison for some time. He engages with old, familiar faces who are pulling him in different directions and he ultimately decides to do something constructive with his life while the cast of characters around him eventually meet less than desirable outcomes.

4. The Streets- A Grand Don't Come For Free (2004 Locked On Records): British rappers have never been my cup of tea (no pun intended), but UK wordsmith The Streets lays out a musical page-turner of a plot involving a shady friend, a shady girlfriend, and a missing $1000. His suspicions and reactive nature take him down some twists and turns over the course of the album/story, but it all culminates into a feel good conclusion that doesn't seem too Hollywood nor too iconoclastic.

5. Mr. Lif- I Phantom (2002 Definitive Jux Records): Boston MC Mr. Lif went all out and deep on niggas with his full length debut LP I Phantom. Lif guides the listener into and through the world of a young man coming of age who falls victim to all the trappings of young adulthood before finally repressing his rebellious spirit to go to school, get a 9 to 5 job, and settle down with a wife. Little does he know, the straight and narrow, corporate life comes with its own variety of evils and pitfalls as well. On top of that, Lif also narrates mankind's descent into madness and self-destruction in the most literal way, aided by technology. This album is not for the casual hip-hop listener.

6. RZA- Bobby Digital In Stereo (1998 Gee Street Records): Wu Tang Clan producer and unofficial leader RZA came out the gate on the conceptual tip with his debut solo LP, fully immersing himself into his alter-ego of Bobby Digital. This character seems to be part superhero, part bionic man, part pimp, and part space age rapper. RZA lets his hair down with polished, keyboard and synth driven beats accompanying raps about weak MCs, getting drunk, and chasing women. I admit, that may not sound too left field for a rapper, but it's not what you do, it's how you do it. The flow of the album, guest appearances, and next level production all made for an entertaining trip into one of hip-hop's greatest minds.   

Part 2, coming soon...

Netflix's Dear White People Is A Totally Awesome Show I Think Everyone Should Watch

A few months ago, when a 30 second trailer dropped for the new Netflix series  Dear White People,  and stuck in the craw of so many alt-right trolls, my expectations for this show were immediately set pretty high. I was a fan of the 2014 film this show is based on, and while I enjoyed the movie, I felt it left a lot of meat on the bone as far as other topics and issues that were touched on and that effect black people, but weren't explored as deeply as they could've been. One can only delve so far into so many issues within the parameters of a 2 hour movie when you have to introduce characters, set up a conflict, and wrap that conflict up in a nice neat conclusion.  This show, however, addresses those issues and then some and make for some pretty interesting TV! Despite the title (which some out there would argue encourage white genocide), a lot of the show centers on the internal conflicts of the black community. It examines what it truly means to be "woke" in this day and age. Is it holding on to an ideology and methods that have proven to be somewhat outdated? Is it bringing about change from within the "system"? Is it wearing your hair a certain way? Do any of these things matter when you can't affect the kind of change you want to see? How woke can a black person be when they fight against and look down on fellow black people who happen to disagree with them?  The series also boldly confronts the issues of interracial dating, colorism, homosexuality, racial profiling of police, the hedonistic side of college life, white appropriation of black music, even how the media trains people to go after certain stories while avoiding others. All while sprinkling in scenes depicting a lot of the unfortunate happenings we see in the news everyday reminding us that we don't live in this paradise-like, post-racial, all accepting world that was birthed on Election Day, 2008.  The show balances poignant scenes with just the right amount of humor and characters that you feel you know or even see yourself in. Many characters are what-you-see-is-what-you-get throughout the series, but some characters go through some serious arcs as the episodes play on. And I like watching complex characters with many sides to them showing that they are neither all good, nor all bad. Or in these cases, all woke or all sellout.  My expectations for this show were high, and while it is not perfect, it does not disappoint either. I strongly recommend this show for anybody out there looking for a new series to binge on, no matter how old they are or what color they are.  Can't wait for season 2...

A few months ago, when a 30 second trailer dropped for the new Netflix series Dear White People, and stuck in the craw of so many alt-right trolls, my expectations for this show were immediately set pretty high. I was a fan of the 2014 film this show is based on, and while I enjoyed the movie, I felt it left a lot of meat on the bone as far as other topics and issues that were touched on and that effect black people, but weren't explored as deeply as they could've been. One can only delve so far into so many issues within the parameters of a 2 hour movie when you have to introduce characters, set up a conflict, and wrap that conflict up in a nice neat conclusion.

This show, however, addresses those issues and then some and make for some pretty interesting TV! Despite the title (which some out there would argue encourage white genocide), a lot of the show centers on the internal conflicts of the black community. It examines what it truly means to be "woke" in this day and age. Is it holding on to an ideology and methods that have proven to be somewhat outdated? Is it bringing about change from within the "system"? Is it wearing your hair a certain way? Do any of these things matter when you can't affect the kind of change you want to see? How woke can a black person be when they fight against and look down on fellow black people who happen to disagree with them?

The series also boldly confronts the issues of interracial dating, colorism, homosexuality, racial profiling of police, the hedonistic side of college life, white appropriation of black music, even how the media trains people to go after certain stories while avoiding others. All while sprinkling in scenes depicting a lot of the unfortunate happenings we see in the news everyday reminding us that we don't live in this paradise-like, post-racial, all accepting world that was birthed on Election Day, 2008.

The show balances poignant scenes with just the right amount of humor and characters that you feel you know or even see yourself in. Many characters are what-you-see-is-what-you-get throughout the series, but some characters go through some serious arcs as the episodes play on. And I like watching complex characters with many sides to them showing that they are neither all good, nor all bad. Or in these cases, all woke or all sellout.

My expectations for this show were high, and while it is not perfect, it does not disappoint either. I strongly recommend this show for anybody out there looking for a new series to binge on, no matter how old they are or what color they are.

Can't wait for season 2...