Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Batten Down the Motherfucking Hatches, It's the Worst Song Ever

Hip-hop is in danger. If you doubt me, just take a look:

Say it with me now: "Wha... tha... fa... did that motherfucker just say ''Unabomber punany'?"

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mr. Lif Opens His Own Bottle of Haterade: 'I Heard It Today' Review

"On the backs of the many... so the few can advance." - Mr. Lif

I've taken a passing interest in Mr. Lif from time to time. I don't own any of his albums, but I can appreciate his lyricism by way of the few guest verses and scattered tracks I've heard. And while he's always peppered his rhymes with politics, his single "Obama," released on inauguration day, was an interesting reminder of where the country's optimism was at after the initial joy:

"You seem like a good brother/But I gotta wonder/You're in D.C. with some of those that put us under/And I'm glad to have a man of your demeanor as a leader/But if the flick was Pulp Fic/I think he played the cleaner/Harvey Keitel played the character well/So the real criminals don't ever sit in a cell/Is that your position?"

"I'd like to be more optimistic but the world is twisted/A new America?/Oh shit/I think I missed it."

So if you can't tell by the bald-eagle skeleton clutching an oil well and a syringe on the cover of I Heard It Today, Lif's vision isn't any less bleak after the first 100 days, as he starts out the album murmuring, "Oh I see. So uhh, we all supposed to trust the government now that we got a friendly face to it now, huh? All them problems gonna be solved... everything all good, right?"

Production from J-Zone, Edan, Batsauce (wha...?) and others ranges from the low-key piano and bass of "Breathe" to the hollow-point drums of "Gun Fight" and the inside-out beat of "Hatred."

"Collapse the Walls" is a definite standout, a scratchy Motown beat punctuated by dubbed-out vocal effects and a chopped, distorted guitar hook that lifts you up and suddenly drops you back down into the next verse before launching into an echoey coda. 

And while, in the past, if you'd asked me about Mr. Lif, I'd have said, "Eh, he's an alright MC," he steps things up quite a bit here. I don't know if it's the potent subject matter, or the fact that Lif can actually rhyme about it without sounding overwrought or preachy, but the overall effect is pretty impressive. All of the beats have a low-key-but-polished sound, and the lyrics are nice.

From the opener, "Welcome to the World":
"We break into this place, end up in jail/
Incarceration's gonna make the wealthy wealthier still/
He peeped me through the blunt smoke without a complaint/
Out of respect for my knowledge yo he showed some restraint/
We're the earth inheritors, representin all areas/
You spend trillions to control what we think - you're scared of us/
Y'all unworthy to serve we the people/
You profit off of death and you manifest evil"
I Heard It Today is strong from front to back, the political hand grenade that Nas wishes he would have made with his untitled album.

Monday, April 27, 2009

128 Oz. of Haterade: 'Love the Future,' by Chester French which I pay for my past transgressions - and am rewarded - by not expecting a white version of Pharrell... whatever that might be...

So my first experience with Chester French was via their guest appearance on Common's Universal Mind Control. And in the same way that UMC made me fearful for what's left of Common's music career, their guest appearance likewise made me fearful that Chester French's debut would be horrifyingly trendy and bad.

I then went on to take a bit of a dump on their Clinton Sparks mixtape Jacques Jams, Vol. 1, which actually prompted a response from Chester French member D.A. Wallach... after which, I rightly felt like kind of an asshole. But I think they were really sort of straining for hip-hop credibility on that tape, whereas with Love the Future they are tossing aside any sort of desire to emulate hip-hop and do their own thing.

And once again, I'm downing a large bottle of my own humble-pie-flavored Haterade, because Love the Future has me drawing Beatles comparisons. For real.

Now I'm not saying that Love the Future is the next Sgt. Pepper, but I can't help thinking of the Fab Four sitting around brainstorming up ways to completely eschew what was going on in the current pop music scene and do their own thing when I listen to several of the album's songs.

D.A. Wallach and Max Drummey - the two New Englanders who comprise Chester French - combine the pop sense of the Neptunes with the cheekiness of piano-man Ben Folds and add occasional touches of, well, whatever the fuck they want.

"Fingers" transforms from orchestral chamber pop to a mutant country shuffle; "Time to Unwind" wouldn't sound out of place on a '50s jukebox... until the dubby, voxed-out coda at the end, and "Country Interlude" could be straight out of the White Album, a five-minute suite that goes from washing guitar distortion to xylophones and empty harmonies before giving way to a spacey, squirming ending.

Much of the album is devoted to infatuation, love and relationships, and the lyrics run the intellectual gamut from "The fingers of your mind have wrapped around my spine and made me feel so blind" to "Oh no I never been to LA/I never hung out with so many nuts/They said that they're the drunk and hot girls/But I'm not tryin' to mess with no sluts," but it's hard to hate on an album where a white guy is singing, "You're so fresh/You're fresh to death."

Wallach said in his comment that he hoped Love the Future would win me over. It did.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

128 Oz. of Haterade: Rick Ross's 'Deeper Than Rap'

Maybe it's the tie...? I don't know, but for some strange reason, I find myself NOT drinking such a large bottle of Haterade when it comes to Deeper Than Rap... maybe I'm ill...

I can't really explain it. Everything about Rick Ross makes me think that I should truly dislike Deeper Than Rap. Yet I find myself nodding my head at quite a regular pace. Do I care that he doesn't really have Manuel Noriega's number in his cell? Not particularly. Do I care that he has a song on this album called "Rich Off Cocaine," despite his negligible alleged previous career as a corrections officer? Eh, not that much.

What I do care about is that while it does have a couple of overly skittery trap-rap-by-numbers songs, much of Deeper Than Rap is actually aiming for the executive lounge: the type of glazed-but-natural samples that provided the backdrop for Jay-Z's Big Willie Movement back in the day, but with a heavier bounce perfect for riding around in the Carol City sun.

Not that I've ever been to Carol City.

Anyway, it's southern rap for the executive lounge or, as Ross refers to it several times, "Maybach music." And okay, that's a little galling during the deepest recession in recent memory, but who gives a fuck? One of rap's many purposes has always been to function as escapist fantasy... kind of like a former prison guard fronting as though he were Pablo Escobar.

Okay, that was a cheap shot. Besides, I'm jealous of Ross's tribal-Afghan-warlord-style beard... seriously.

Regardless, Deeper Than Rap is way better than I would have ever thought it could be, and definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Why You Should Read Roberto Saviano's 'Gomorrah' and See the Movie

They make a big deal about the kids in the underwear...

It wasn't long after I found out that my family was from the Avellino province of Italy that I also found out most of that part of southern Italy is the prime territory of the Camorra, the mob that runs Naples and the surrounding area. 

Really, you should read the book, but to make a long story short: 

There are more than 25 Camorra "clans" in southern Italy, and unlike the Cosa Nostra, what we think of as the traditional Sicilian/U.S. Mafia, they don't have a pyramid structure. It's more horizontal, which makes it harder to take down the whole mob. It also makes for a lot of violence between the clans themselves, which have apparently resulted in thousands of murders in a relatively short time period.

The Camorra infiltrate every level of society, right down to controlling who moves in and out of the Naples project highrises, "persuading" citizens to vote their candidates into town governments, controlling the milk and fish industries and earning Naples a spot as one of the drug capitals of the world. They shuttle whatever they want through and from the Port of Naples, one of the largest in the world, earning millions in high-quality designer-label bootleg clothing. They control and profit from nearly every step of the construction industry, from fixed bids to waste disposal, which is really the creepiest of it all. One of the ways that Camorra disposal companies get rid of toxic waste is to occasionally mix it in with concrete AND BUILD HOUSING FOR ITALIANS WITH IT. People are literally being poisoned by their homes.

To be clear, the movie is all fictional characters, but based on the book, which is fact. I think, though, that they could have done a better job fleshing out what's going on, which would be crystal-clear to Italians, but not really so much to an American viewer.

One of the five intersecting plot lines is a gang war with a group of "secessionists" splitting from their clan, which closely mirrors what the Italian media called the "Scampia wars" in, I believe the Di Lauro clan. The movie kicks off with the act that starts the war, but it's not really that clear until later on.

Don't get me wrong, the movie is excellent. Its stories hew pretty close to the book, and if they're to be believed, Naples is fuuuucked up. I used to really want to travel to Italy and see where my dad's side of the family came from, but I'm not so sure now. One thing it does very, very well is deromanticize the ideas that most of us have about the Italian mob (a.k.a. the Godfather mentality), because in Naples it just isn't like that. It's more like the streets of Baltimore on The Wire, only the gangs are much more organized and in control of the local economy. In fact, in the book, Saviano notes that Mario Puzo's original character for the Godfather books was most likely based on a Camorra boss, rather than a Cosa Nostra figure.

Gomorrah isn't out in the U.S. yet - I stupidly ordered a copy from Amazon's UK site without thinking that it would be a Region 2 DVD I can only watch on my computer - but once it is, I highly recommend it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

From Scarub & Very to Some Obscure Canadian Blues Session Man... It's the Rundown

What can I say? I have a wide variety of tastes when it comes to music...

A series of brief reviews of some shit I've been listening to lately, for better or ill (click on the artist's name for a full review; click on the title to hear samples or buy the album):

Scarub & Very, The Afro Classics EP - There's actually some debate as to whether the actual title for this is The Classic EP (on the cover) or The Afro Classics EP (on the album ON the cover). Regardless, they sample the drum break and bubbling sounds from Steve Miller Band's "Space Cowboy" on the first track, and that shit is HOT. Most of the rest of the EP is, too, save for a couple clunkers toward the end. Definitely worth checking out.

Flo Rida, R.O.O.T.S. - Despite "Right Round" being yet another shining example of why MCs should never, motherfucking EVER, rap over triplets, this is a pretty decent album. While there are a few ganstafied, trap-rap tracks, the glossy production is at its best when the tempo is up and Flo is singing. I would call it a Nelly impression, but it's probably better than most Nelly.

Alice Peacock, Love Remains - It's hard to hate a country album that kicks of with "I'd like to get stoned/Never come home/I'd like to be free/Not do what I should/Do what feels good/With whomever I please." For someone like me, who really can't get into any kind of country from about 1980 on, it's a testament to Peacock that I actually kind of enjoyed this album. It's country without being too modern, plus there's a song about a schizophrenic homeless woman! And it's good!

Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics, Inspiration Information - The Heliocentrics' disgustingly awesome debut, Out There, is one of my favorite jazz-based hip-hop records. Malcolm Catto's neck-snapping drumwork and the future-analog sound of the nine-piece band churned together dark, funky jazz grooves track after track. So I'm definitely digging their collab with African jazz musician Mulatu Astatke. There's plenty to hold your attention: "Blue Nile" is a slow burner, as waves of distorted guitar and droning horns wash back and forth, "Chik Chikka" is a paranoid rhumba, and "Addis Black Widow" is what jungle-techno music might sound like if it was played with all analog instruments. The closer, "Anglo Ethio Suite," is a perfect example of what Inspiration Information is all about: a heady mixture of African scales, hip-hop breakbeat aesthetic and American jazz.

Neil Young, Fork in the Road - Neil Young is the Great Ragged Guitar Player. At first, his riffs sound like some kid practicing in the garage, until you listen a little closer, and you realize that they're always moving forward, and really, when you put 'em together with his yowling, wheeling tenor wail, they sound damn good. So while the only thing about Fork in the Road that's groundbreaking is its subject matter - it's basically about the '59 Lincoln Continental that Young has been converting into a green hybrid, and why we should all be driving these things already - it's still really good. Young is the master of taking a chord progression you've heard a bazillion times before in rock music and putting a rough-edged, fresh-sounding spin on it.

Rocky Marsiano, Outside the Pyramid - The name Rocky Marciano probably only strikes a chord with old-school boxing historians, but there's a much younger Rocky on the block. He spells the surname differently ("Marsiano"), he's from Europe, and using '40s-'50s orchestra and jazz instrumentation as a jumping-off point, he builds an impressive album of quirky, slightly-dark instrumentals that could serve as the backing for any number of rappers.

Kankick, Beautiful: Opus of Love Deeper Than Flesh - I love me some Kankick. He's like Madlib's laid-back cousin, crafting the perfect beats for blacking out on the couch or rolling around at 2 a.m. Beautiful is no different. Piano figures heavy, and some of Kankick's best work throughout the disc's 58 minutes is anchored on lilting, mid-range keywork ("NightTime Beauty," "Serenade the Outdoor Visitors," and what kind of sounds like an electric piano played in reverse on "OX Coming at Ya").

Colin Linden, From the Water - This dude kind of reminds me of Gordon Lightfoot, if he loved the blues instead of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It's not surprising that Linden was involved with the mini-folk revival pioneered by the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack sessions; From the Water actually sounds a little like O Brother with a modern update on the lyrics. There are some neat moves: a little rockabilly echo on Linden's voice gives it an eerie similarity to the title character of "John Lennon in New Orleans," the title track is a upbeat shuffle with some red-hot slidework, and the classic blues porch-stomp of "Devilment" could be Sonny Boy Williamson's little brother.

Chester French & Clinton Sparks' 'Jacques Jams,' a.k.a. What Would Happen If Pharrell and the 'Grosse Pointe Blank' Soundtrack Had a Kid?

Not so much... well, sort of... not really, though.

What would happen if N.E.R.D. was a little dorkier and a lot whiter? Well, then it would probably be Chester French, two cornball-ass New Englanders who are signed to Pharrell's Star Trak label. Jacque Jams Vol. 1: Endurance is their formal introduction, and uhhhhhh....

As producers, they craft some interesting tracks, definitely off the beaten path in terms of hip-hop: the syncopated cowbells and percussion in "No Parents Allowed" is perfect for Kardinal Offishall and N.O.R.E. to flow over, the crunchy synths of "I'm So Tall" provide a slightly-menacing backdrop for Bun B, Talib Kweli and Mickey Factz, and Wale continues to impress me with his verse on the uptempo "I'm Sorry."

But their original songs just kind of sound like Pharrell's pop-heavier beats, with absolutely no kind of street edge to them.

Even the hip-hop beats hew a to pretty simple template: angular synth riffs, a little guitar work and uptempo drums, along with the duo's mid-range tenor voices. It appears as though Chester French can't decide if they want to be Beck or  The Neptunes, and end up creating an ugly little mutant baby that sounds like both, but not in a very good or interesting way.

[Note: after receiving a posted comment by one of the members of Chester French (to be frank, I'm pretty surprised that ANYONE reads this blog, let alone one of the artists I've mentioned), I kind of feel like a judgmental asshole now... particularly since, as D.A. Wallach mentioned, I am a musician (not professionally, but...) and I know the feeling of having someone listen to your work and go "Ehhhh." In my zeal to create a funny blog posting, I was probably a little more harsh than I should have been. I suppose perhaps I was expecting something different, especially when I looked at the guest MC list on Jacques Jams. So anyway, my apologies to Chester French, and please, feel free to savagely rip the beats that I've put together]