El-P, Cancer 4 Cure

El-P-C4C

There are two paths to take when expressing of moods and emotions on an album: diversify or unify. Pop and hip-hop artists are often masters of emotional diversity – on the same album, Lil Wayne can threaten enemies (“You fuck with me wrong, I knock your head off your neck”) on “John,” then get all ooey-gooey with a special someone (See I just want you to know/That you deserve the best”) on “How To Love.” Love songs and I’m-so-sorry songs sound especially soft and romantic next to f*ck-you songs and revenge songs.

But albums with monolithic emotions are unique in their ability to nail one specific feeling, take it to new levels, redefine supposedly simple things like ‘happy’ and ‘sad.’ Fiona Apple’s “Tidal” is to quiet rage what Elliott Smith’s “XO” is to depression; Kanye West’s “Graduation” is to pride what Mumford & Son’s “Sigh No More” is to regret. Derek and the Dominos arguably wrote an entire album, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”, about jealousy, and there’s never been a better song about fear than “Gimme Shelter.” One of my college roommates had a cutesy poster on her wall illustrating the aphorism “Music is what feelings sound like.” I hated that poster, and its aphorism seems grammatically incorrect, but when music precisely registers and records an emotion, it deserves to exist.

El-P’s latest release, Cancer 4 Cure, is his fifth solo album, not to mention evidence of his complete mastery of anger. Each song is a study of rage: snare-propelled, occasionally militaristic, punctuated with bitter humor and ice-cold choruses. “To the mother of my enemy, I just killed your son,” El-P raps on “Tougher Colder Killer.” “He died with his face to the sky and it can not be undone.” The beat is relentless and the lyrics sound like a script from Criminal Minds.

The first time I listened to the album, an ad for Snow White and the Huntsman played between songs (thanks, Spotify) and I mistook it for the opening to El-P’s next track. It was Charlize Theron’s villainous voice: “You are the only one who could destroy me.” I thought it was a sample. The hiss fit right in to El-P’s sound.

Can anger be mastered? Isn’t anger, by nature, uncontrollable, best expressed by screams and roars or physical violence rather than measured barbs? Only a rapper like El-P, whose flow is impeccable, could voice his anger in perfectly timed bursts. He gets each individual syllable to seethe. All his insults are in 4/4 time. Sometimes he adds pessimism into the mix. “Shoot for the stars, hit the roof/Jump for the shark, get a tooth.” “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue/If I exist right now, I damn sure can’t provide you proof.”

Tracks on Cancer 4 Cure are put-downs, interrogations or invitations to get high and “detach from a white noise planet.” El-P’s anger is focused and persistent, generalized but made specific by language. At first, I mistook it for Bush-era anger, Dead Prez “Hell Yeah”-era anger. But I was wrong – El-P’s anger is the kind of anger you feel after you read the entire newspaper and not just your horoscope, the kind you feel after you watch talking heads interrupt each other on Fox News, hour after hour. El-P condenses that vague political rage into a single, blazing line on space-drone track “Stay Down”: “Telling you these fuckers are shameless/Obama to Reagan/Look at how they bent to their training.”

This is the best thing about Cancer 4 Cure: leaders and followers alike all get a turn in the cross-hairs. El-P would probably rather be a “bullseye for a blind archer” than leave his listeners feeling warm and fuzzy and complacent, and so we have this album to remind us that too much of one emotion is never enough, so long as that emotion has the power to break through and change something.

Miss Representation

miss_rep

Trailer Courtesy of Girls’ Club Entertainment.

“Like drawing back a curtain to let bright light stream in, MISS REPRESENTATION uncovers a glaring reality we live with every day but fail to see. Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the film explores how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in influential positions in America and challenges the media’s limiting and often disparaging portrayals of women, which make it difficult for the average girl to see herself as powerful.

In a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms, the collective message that our young women and men overwhelmingly receive is that a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality–and not in her capacity as a leader. While women have made strides in leadership over the past few decades, the United States still ranks 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, depression rates have doubled among teenage girls, and cosmetic surgery on minors has more than tripled in the last ten years.

Stories from teenage girls and provocative interviews with politicians, journalists, academics, and activists like Condoleeza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Margaret Cho, Rosario Dawson and Gloria Steinem build momentum as MISS REPRESENTATION accumulates startling facts and statistics that will leave the audience shaken and armed with a new perspective.”

If you get the opportunity, see this movie. It’s a must.

Good Mourning in America

Oscar Grant's Mother

Amadou Diallo Funeral Casket being Carried by the People.

The Supremes at MLK’s Homegoing Service

Coretta Scott and daughter, Bernice King.

Mourners Seated During Malcolm X Funeral

Hundreds Wait in Line outside to Pay Their Respects to Fred Hampton

George Jackson, Black Panther Party member, Funeral in 1971

Janet, La Toya, and MJ’s Kids Huddle Together at the King of Pop’s Funeral.

Hundreds of Mourners Outside of Sean Bell’s Funeral

In Remembrance of 22 Year Old Oscar Grant

“This is in the memory of Danroy Henry/ Too much enemy fire to catch a friendly…”~Jay-Z

Whitney Houston’s Funeral Procession through the Streets of Newark, NJ

A Grand Marshal Leads Mourners in a New Orleans Jazz Funeral in 1983.

~Adán Bean

Darryl Reeves, Mercury

Darryl-Reeves-Mecury-Cover-1

First Rock from the Sun
Mercury (4.5 Ws)

In the last half-century, several international space programs have allocated funding for exploratory missions to Mars. No men have gone, but there have been plenty of little machines hunting for traces of life, past or present. To many scientists’ pleasant surprise, there is life on Mars, or at least there was—evidence of a once lush planet, not unlike our own.

There are no missions, however, manned or otherwise, on their way to Mercury. The tiny planet is a dense metal ball, uninhabitable, untouchable, and the sun’s first course in its final, galaxy-swallowing feast.

We know these things about Mercury through highly intricate math, advanced machinery. But no one knows, or can know what Mercury is truly like: no one has been, and no one can, in our fragile human state.

That’s why, when an artist dedicates a project to the ultimate unknowable, our imaginations, not our telescopes, are the most important tools we’ve got.

Darryl Reeves is one such artist. His brand-new release is named for our galaxy’s hot little marble, which, through avid astrologers and those needing an explanation for their own bad luck, is a little galactic celebrity come Retrograde.

In fact, Reeves, an alto saxophonist, features a song entitled “Retrograde” on the album. Taking what you know from those addled by the phenomenon, you might be able to sense in the music what many claim they experience every time Mercury appears to reverse its course. But what’s interesting is that, though the song is called “Retrograde,” it’s not a track of “things going wrong,” i.e., starts and stops, tortured vocals, or harmonic dissonance—the latter of which might be the most obvious way one could express the concept of spiritual/cosmic dissonance.

This sense of subtlety, of suggestion over assumption, is what gives Reeves his power. There are plenty of keyboard and electronic sounds (provided by Kenny Banks), which are unmistakably “cosmic” in sound; but conceptually, Reeves and his band go much further than “space theme music.”

Such a stretch is necessary for Reeves, whose style is the sort many would automatically dub “fusion.” He is wittingly part of the long legacy of jazz musicians who incorporate elements of the electronic, soulful, and funky into their structurally complex improvised music—and who suffer endless criticism from so-called purists. The most obvious progenitor to Reeves’ style is Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew: that album was a turning point for Davis, and jazz’s sound as a whole; and, at first glance, you can’t help but notice the kinship between the two albums, at least in their devotion to musical alchemy (and their album covers, for that matter).

On a more recent scale, Reeves deserves comparison to the Atlanta-based jazz group Jaspects. Reeves himself is an Atlantan, and shares with the group an obvious love for hip-hop, as evidenced by Kenton Bostick’s style of drumming, and the inclusion of emcee D-Focis on the Donald Byrd tune “Think Twice.”

But Reeves’ cover of “Think Twice,” while an homage to hip-hop, is also an important homage to the legacy of Donald Byrd and his contemporaries. Reeves’ arrangement of the tune is not tremendously different from the original, which, in today’s jazz, is strange, since many artists seem to do just the opposite. But for Reeves to try to wildly reinvent a tune by an artist to whom he clearly owes so much of his style, would be foolish, arrogant—and he knows it. Thus, his changes are simple: he plays with the time, feel, and form of the song and, of course, adds a rap verse. But through this simplicity, he does the important work of honoring his musical ancestors. He combines what’s good and what works with what’s new, and yet to be universally accepted. He pushes the music where it needs to go—forward. Away from the static, out into eternal orbit.

~Kyla Marshell

Happy Birthday O’ Purple One!

prince - purple suit

Dearly beloved, We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life and pay homage to our favorite Paisley Park provocateur. This year, I decided to engross myself in the Purple One’s catalog like I’d never done before for a soon come long form essay on his musical evolution and vast cultural impact.

While scouring the net, I happened upon this documentary chronicling the “Glory Years” of Prince in the 80s.

Take a look:

If you had to pick one (and just one), then what’s your favorite Prince song?

(Mine changes daily, but right now it would have to be “Lady Cab Driver”)
Here’s one of the best covers I’ve ever seen of it courtesy of Meshell

Happy birthday Prince Rogers Nelson!

-Adán Bean

Lush Life, Plateau Vision

lush_life_plateau_vision_304x304-304x304

We should all live for that musical moment when the listener realizes the album they’re spinning is something special. It’s the ooh moment, the aah moment, the huh? moment, the no way moment, the is that what I think it is? moment. On Lushlife’s first full-length effort Plateau Vision, that moment occurs early on. Two minutes into the first track, the dreamy and harp-accented “Magnolia,” a peculiar and very familiar sound sneaks into the background of the mix. Are those…sleigh bells? Did rapper/producer Lushlife actually drop Santa’s signature sound effect into his opening track?

He sure did. Ooh. Aah. Huh? Lushlife (Rajesh Haldar) is a big fan of creating those unexpected sonic moments in his hip-hop arrangements, whether spoken snippets about shamans resurrected from the dead, financial newscasts delivered in French, or the legendary Kool Moe Dee preparing for a rap battle. Each track on Plateau Vision can stand on its own, but Lushlife prefers to connect: tracks blend into one another, complete sentences stretch over three or four verses at least (no hashtag rap here – too choppy), the hypnotic vocoder sample on “Still I Hear the Word Progress” reappears at the end of the album on “Progress” in a gesture of thematic unity.

In terms of production, Lushlife is a two-headed apprentice, a Cerberus of hip-hop scholarship. On one hand, he graduated from the University of J Dilla, and you can hear it in the vocal samples on “She’s a Buddhist, I’m a Cubist” not to mention in the way the snare drums interact with the lavish string samples on “Anthem.” Dilla was – and still is – the king of judicious sample use. He could mix a gospel chorus with a punk rock Beastie Boys backing track, add some A Tribe Called Quest drums, and it would sound natural and a little bit supernatural at the same time. Dilla’s influence pervades Plateau Vision in the best way possible.

In addition to Lushlife’s bachelor’s degree from the School of Jay Dee, he also appears to have taken a couple of correspondence courses at Kanye West College (the Auto-Tune on “Still I Hear the Word Progress” is pure 808s and Heartbreak), though no one could say Haldar is a sound thief. His best moments are the ones you can’t place. Foggy synths rise up through the bass beats on “Hale-Bopp Was the Bedouins,” in which Lushlife declares himself “half DeLorean, half rap historian” and guest rapper Heems talks about dropping acid, smoking Newports, and listening to the Dolly Parton song “Jolene.” “Big Sur” is an artful transition from cautious mandolin to brash guitars; Lushlife maintains his stoic, rapid-fire flow while the music gains unmistakable exuberance.

As a rapper, Lushlife is remarkably consistent, usually entertaining, and occasionally profound. He’s more interested in philosophical rambles than standard bravado or hard-knock-life narratives (“I don’t remember if I ever had a troubled youth” he opens on “Hale-Bopp”), and even his boasts are tempered with humility. As a producer, his tracks sound trippy without being “druggy,” psychedelic and meandering without ever losing focus. MCs who produce their own music are impressive for their double skill – it’s like Beethoven composing his Symphony No. 9 and then singing every vocal part of “Ode to Joy.” Lushlife’s MC skills more than complement his multifarious production; simply put, Lushlife knows what sounds good, and when applied correctly, that kind of knowledge is priceless.

-Molly O’Brien

The Great Gatsby (The 1% Gets a Makeover)

gatsby-poster-01

If you didn’t know, we love Jay Gatsby around these parts. However, I must admit that I have reservations after viewing this re-imagining of the timeless story. There’s something about the Wachowski brothers/Speed Racer-esque feel of the scenery (the director opted for the principle photography to be shot in Sydney Australia as opposed to NYC) that doesn’t play nicely with this uniquely American romantic drama.

With that said, I’m still very much intrigued with seeing the film. We are living in a time when societies are wrestling (and sometimes rioting) with notions of austerity measures, social equity and class warfare. Even the richest above us want to be among us. I can think of no time more appropo than the present to take a fresh look at the pursuit of the American dream. And the severity of the cost that is wrought from its pursuant.

“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.” -Nick Carraway

-Adán Bean

Writer’s Block

writers-block-600x320

I didn’t know what to blog about. So I blogged about not knowing what to blog about.

Just listen to Ali…

“I’m challenged and offended by sheets of blank paper. Who act like they are too good to carry my strange flavor.” ~Brother Ali, “Love on Display”

Immanuelabor,

AdánBean