El-P, Cancer 4 Cure

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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.

Frank Ocean, Channel Orange

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Frank Ocean is bisexual. His public declaration a couple of weeks ago via his Tumblr page that at age 19, he had fallen in love with a guy, made immediate headlines. The blogosphere and national media outlets alike were reporting on Ocean’s admission, and for good reason: Although the singer had up until this point enjoyed only mild success, the revelation about his first love literally makes him the most–if not the first–recognizable mainstream hip hop/r&b artist to come out of the closet. Overnight, millions of people were talking, not about Frank Ocean’s artistry, but about his sexuality; touting him as a gay rights activist, and either applauding or denigrating his decision to share such intimate information with the world.

Every artist to some degree commits to creating a public persona; a larger than life character that is strong enough and interesting enough to both propel and sustain them on an international stage. Katy Perry’s flashy outfits, 50 Cents’ cash-driven thuggery, and Nicki Minaj’s exaggerated everything all speak to this phenomenon. The balance, then, becomes ensuring that while your image (and thereby your popularity) grows, your art doesn’t shrink in the process. And as society scrambles to label people, to place them into rigid boxes that dis-allow them to be 3 dimensional human beings, the music must somehow be protected.

So what about the album? Is there enough genius behind Channel Orange to stand up to the hype that the media machine is creating, and to overcome the labels that will inevitably be placed on Ocean at such a crucial time in his nascent career?

The answer is a resounding yes. Channel Orange is a record done on the artist’s own terms. Missing are the obvious celebrity guest features that one might expect for him to have in order to ensure radio play (you gotta go somewhere else for that 2 Chainz verse). He could have easily snagged the more sought-after collaborations as it was widely reported that Kanye West wanted to executive produce the album, an offer that Frank declined. Also absent is the r&b/techno hybrid sound that everyone seems to be making right now to, again, ensure spins. What is present is Frank Ocean, his haunting voice, beautifully complex beats comprised of stripped-down melodies, and potent lyrics. These elements blend to create a sonically rich work that touches other senses, as well; Channel Orange feels real.

The kid’s a wordsmith. At a time when up and coming artists spend their energy figuring out the millionth new way to sing a hook about a girl’s ass or their supposed sexual prowess, it takes a brave soul to create a project with actual subject matter that people can relate to while still being entertained. On “Bad Religion”, a melancholy organ plays as Ocean pines,

This unrequited love//
to me it’s nothing but a one-man cult//
and cyanide in my styrofoam cup//
I could never make him love me

and on “Thinking About You”, he beautifully sings that his

[Love] won’t ever get old//
not in my soul//
not in my spirit//
keep it alive.

Yes, men fall in love, too. And they feel pain when that love is unrealized, a tiny fact that the majority of singers looking to make it big on major labels believe that they need to keep buried beneath vapid, hyper-sexualized lyrics. Ironically, it took the lone singer in L.A. based hip hop crew Odd Future, coincidentally known for their often violent and homophobic lyrics, to remind us.

Once we’re reminded, however, Ocean expands the discussion on love, pain and growth to include universal questions from the human experience. He uses his falsetto to philosophize about life’s meaning, to discuss drug addiction and materialism, and of course, to reveal the many faces of unattained love: love for self, love for family and friends, love for life and for the universe. He never leaves the audience behind on this journey, taking us for a ride that allows us to explore the four corners of his mind while simultaneously revisiting our own loves and losses and pain. He goes a step further, pushing boundaries by ending songs abruptly, interspersing the record with jarring sounds of radio static, and pieces of broken conversation. The result is almost hypnotic; while the music is on, you curl up between the notes and let it carry you, but when the song ends you’re left with a barrage of questions:

“Did he really just call a pipe a “glass dick” in Crack Rock?”
“Did he really just hit that note in Pilot Jones?”
“What is he saying about the displaced power of Black femininity in Pyramids?”
“Wait, is he harmonizing on Pink Matter with one of the greatest lyricists of all time?”
“What is happening to me right now?”

“Holy shit…’’ (goes back to Start)

There’s a lot of hype surrounding Frank Ocean right now, a lot of it for the wrong reasons. Is he a champion for admitting that he isn’t heterosexual? Arguably. Brave is an accurate depiction to bestow upon him, but when we call him that let’s do it for the right reason: he has put together a body of work that is courageous in lyrical content and composition. His music is creating a unique lane whereby his creativity can flourish in a space where vulnerability and strength, pain and pleasure, are not contradictory; they are two sides of a very human experience. If there was ever a time to ignore the headlines and to let the music speak for itself, it is now. Resist the urge to play into the nonsense. Don’t deify him or demonize him for loving another man. Just press play. Do it with an open mind, and allow yourself to enjoy every color that his voice paints. Trust me, you won’t want to change the channel.

And the Beat (Tape) Goes On: With Tutankhamen, 9th Wonder Drops an Instrumental Gem

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These days, not even Nancy Drew could find the line between producer and rapper.

It didn’t disappear over night. Even though most rappers considered the greatest of all time outsourced beat-making jobs, that line’s been vanishing slowly since the dawn of hip hop. And in the past decade, it’s been fading faster than ever. If you’re looking for somebody to blame, you can always blame Kanye West, the producer-rapper who bum-rushed the charts in 2004 and laid down tracks for young rappers to follow. Now you’ve got these dexterous, ambidextrous up-and-comers — J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Tyler, the Creator, Childish Gambino — all “getting high off [their] own supply,” as Yeezy would say.

You knew it would come to this. The way technology was moving, it was only a matter of time before the one-man-band approach that’s been critical in other genres crept into hip hop’s hallowed chambers. Especially now. In our hybrid generation of self-centered multitaskers. Not that that’s a bad thing. There’s power that comes from having total control of your artistic vision, the same kind that Quentin Tarantino employs when he writes and directs his own films. Given the fact that self-sufficiency plays such a major part in how we assess status, it was only natural that the producer-rapper would eventually emerge like a Minotaur to lead hip hop into its next incarnation.

But this isn’t a piece about life. This is a piece about the afterlife.

Because if this trend is true — and truth be told, it’s all speculation at this point — what becomes of the producer? What will happen to those unhyphenated beatsmiths who live to live behind the boards, but stay out of the booth? Will they be rendered obsolete and simply die out? Will they seek refuge underground as an endangered species? Will evolutionary pressure force them to rap to survive?

Not if 9th Wonder has a say in the matter. The veteran North Carolina producer has officially parted ways with Phonte and Big Pooh of Little Brother, but that doesn’t mean his time is up. Last month, 9th dropped a 40-track beat tape called Tutankhamen, an expansive instrumental exhibit that features of some of his best work and never-before-heard material from his latest crate-digging expeditions.

He’s a rare breed, 9th Wonder. Only a handful of producers have enough juice to put a price on a beat tape. And actually get something for it. The legacy of the beat tape goes back to the beginning with legends like Pete Rock and more recently with Madlib and the late J Dilla, whose psychedelic supersonic soul mosaic, Donuts, remains a gold standard of the magic that can happen after you take the rapper out of the hat. But on Tutankhamen, 9th isn’t trying any new tricks. He sticks instead to his strengths, playing Midas to random soul samples and melting the “oohs” and “aahs” into one cohesive set-it-and-forget-it collection of cruising music. So smooth you can almost feel the wind in your face.

But a beat tape is a tough sell. It exists in this obscure purgatory of genre, where it can easily move from the hip-hop shelf to soul to R&B like a game of musical chairs. Such eclecticism, at its best, helps push the boundaries of what hip hop can be, but from a marketing standpoint, the beat tape remains a mystery. How can there be a target demographic for an album that can appeal to both a young’n looking for beats to spit that hot fire on and a grandma who likes to listen to soul while getting her crochet on? Still, this points to why I believe producers are invaluable.

Hear me out: On your average rap tracks, we the audience play the passive role of a therapist listening to an artist vent or boast or talk shit or tell a story. The beat, in many ways, represents a shrink’s couch, custom-made for the emcee to stretch out and express his or herself. Now, if you take out the couch, all you’ve got is a rapper with nowhere to sit and suddenly bars become rambling psychotic rhymes without reason. (When’s the last time you copped a rap a cappella tape?)

On the flip side, if you take the rapper out the room and keep the couch, possibilities open up. No more playing sounding board. The couch is yours. Sit down, kick back and let the cushion conform to the contours of your thoughts. As a result, you’ll hear people describe the best beat tapes as “therapeutic” or, more specifically, according to Stylus Magazine’s review of Donuts, “a medicinal tonic cleansing your system of the toxic effects of 10+ years of boring, bloated rap full-lengths.”

This is proof that the role of producer extends well beyond doing audio set designs for rappers. They give us room to let our minds roam. They are hip hop’s historians/futurists who keep records of the past and keep their eyes on tomorrow. They are the curators who collect the samples to go in the tombs-turned-time capsules to be discovered by generations unborn.

And even if, in the worst-case scenario, lyrically challenged producers do start to go extinct, 9th Wonder has already begun a transition into his next life: academia. Right now, he’s teaching hip-hop history at Duke University and this fall, he’ll be joining Harvard’s Hip Hop Archive.

“Producers live longer than rappers, that’s for sure,” 9th Wonder told XXL, “but performing and this and that and the third has a timeline to it, and I just want to be able to extend the life expectancy of hip-hop past the stage and past records. I think the only way we’ll be able to extend the life expectancy of hip-hop is if we do it in the classroom—higher education is where we can solidify this thing and make it a part of history.”

Chocquibtown, Oro

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I’m obsessed with Chocquibtown.

I first caught wind of the Fugees-esque trio three years ago right as they were dropping their sophomore album Oro on Nacional Records to what would soon be massive critical acclaim. Hailing from Colombia’s Pacific Coast, Goyo, Tostao, & Slow were making major waves with their uniquely infectious blend of hip hop, funk, and alternative rock with the traditional salsa and marimba sounds of their homeland. Chocquibtown’s raw energy and honest lyrics were resonating with audiences of all types, both inside and outside of South America; suddenly, the group found themselves painting a different, more accurate, more African face of Colombia (recent estimates place the number of Afro-Colombians near 10.4 million, yet they are rarely represented on a national stage, including in both media and politics) and by 2010, they had won a Latin Grammy award in the “Best Alternative Song” category for De Donde Vengo Yo. Their win certainly propelled them onto an even larger stage, and audiences–from SXSW to Glastonbury–were treated to the talented group’s amazing live stage performances.

My obsession with Chocquibtown doesn’t start with their Latin Grammy, or the first time I heard Somos Pacificos, or even the first time that I saw the jaw-dropping video for De Donde Vengo Yo, filled with beautiful, energetic Afro-Colombians celebrating the history and geography that gave rise to them. Nah, for me the story begins a bit earlier.

It starts when I’m five years old, and my lil homies are demanding to know why my very dark-skinned mother has that “funny” accent and how in the world she is speaking Spanish.

Or perhaps a more accurate place to start is that time in seventh grade when my teacher had us work on a project that entailed researching our parents’ educational background. I can still remember how shocked I was at hearing my mother say, “I never went to high school; I went to sewing school. Where I’m from, people who look like me don’t get to go to school.”

It lies in every single time I would try and heed my father’s advice to have pride in my Central American roots but would simultaneously have to battle the racial slurs that many of the non-Black Latino kids at school would call me on a daily basis. Or always having to hear a variation of “Don’t worry, you’re not Black. You’re Panamanian,” when someone needed an excuse to kick it with me. And how I wanted to shout from the rooftops, “I’m BOTH! I’m BOTH!” but could never find the voice to do so.

And as a child, how I would constantly sit through my aunties’ and uncles’ stories about how great their country was; how where they were from, people weren’t so capitalistic and self-serving; how people there would share their last piece of bread with their neighbors if they were hungry. And me, wanting so badly to be there, to magically transport myself to the little casa in Rio Abajo, patacones frying on the stove, beads of sweat crowding along my brow, agua de pipa juice dripping down my chin and arm, crashing into a tiny stream around my toes; I wanted to be THERE. I wanted to discover the landscape that, by then, existed mainly in my people’s memories; the landscape that I felt I would never have access to.

It’s the story of identity and survival.

De donde vengo yo // La cosa no es fácil pero siempre igual sobrevivimos

Of attempting to cultivate pride when what seems like the entire world is telling you in not-so-subtle-ways that you should feel shame for what you look like, and how you move, and how you sound.

Con raros peinados o con extensión // Critíquenme a mí o lo critico yo

It’s the struggle to find the voice to sing, to boast to those around you that your heritage is, in fact, beautiful.

Y aquí se habla mal pero todo está mucho mejor

And it’s a story that took me a long time to realize is not only mine. The story is universal, one that I share with millions of dark-skinned Latinos in countries around the world, countries with governments that try desperately to ignore their existence.

Invisibilidad nacional e internacional // Auto-discriminación sin razón // Racismo inminente mucha corrupción

It’s the story of an almost super-human resilience of a people who, through it all, choose life over death, and joy over despair.

Tenemos problemas pero andamos happy

I’m obsessed with Chocquibtown.

Because not only do they represent so much of the struggle and triumphs of my people, but they’re also unbelievably fucking talented. They rhyme; Goyo (the girl) can sing her ass off; Slow takes the reigns on production, handling many of the group’s beats; and Tostao has a flow that few raperos today can contend with. The album runs the gamut–from the title track Oro that tells the familiar tale of a land being robbed of its riches and Pescao Envenenao, a metaphorical song about resisting institutionalized plans to both corrupt and destroy, to the record’s love song, Alguien Como Tu, and everything in between. The variety in their songs’ subject matter, coupled with the brave experimentation of genre mixing, creates a sound that feels progressive and complete.

It is so refreshing that Oro isn’t formulaic. It breathes easily from one track to the next: steady, eclectic beats, intelligent arrangement, brave composition. Nearly three years after the LP’s initial release date and the group’s subsequent studio album, Eso Es Lo Que Hay, Oro continues to stand head and shoulders above much of today’s urban music releases throughout the African Diaspora.

Darryl Reeves, Mercury

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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

Quantic and Los Miticos del Ritmo: Hip Hop en Cumbia, One Year Later

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To remix or not to remix?

That is (still) the question.

Most people on planet earth have, at one point or another, taken part in this seemingly never-ending debate. Whether it’s Hollywood’s plans to remake yet another classic film, or a contemporary singer who insists on putting his or her own spin on a song that is near and dear to us, we’ve all engaged in some type of heated argument with our neighbor/best friend/random guy at the Labor-Day-bbq as to whether or not classic material is fair game to rework. Whatever your take on this debate might be, the fact of the matter is that the remix has become a staple in both music and cinema, with artists often avoiding genuine thought altogether, opting instead to breathe feeble life into original pieces of work.

The biggest problem in this entire scenario is that existing art, more often than not, shits all over the newer version. And the better the song or movie, the greater the chance that the remake will be god-awful.

So when Quantic released his Hip Hop En Cumbia EP last year, more than a few eyebrows were raised. In this 7-song venture containing only one original tune, the artist also known as Will Holland takes well-known hip hop songs that we love and re-imagines them as cumbia tracks created on the shores of Colombia. Intended for audiences with a penchant for 90s hip hop and 1960s South American cumbia, Quantic and Los Miticos del Ritmo cover songs that have deep cultural significance and speak to generations of marginalized youth seeking empowerment: KRS’ Step Into A World; Dr. Dre’s Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thing (retitled Dre En Cumbia); Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.), to name a few. Considering the backlash that Lupe Fiasco is currently experiencing by legions of die-hard hip hop fans for sampling Pete Rock’s aforementioned classic, Quantic’s work is nothing short of impressive. The LP garnered praise from DJs and fans alike, proof that Hip Hop En Cumbia doesn’t suck.

The record, in fact, does the exact opposite. Quantic’s label, Tru Thoughts, released only 2000 analogue copies worldwide, with music lovers scrambling to find it either online or at their local music store. The hype around the album’s release, coupled with its scarcity, made those who got their hands on the actual vinyl feel like they found a golden ticket and were on their way to visit the chocolate factory (Gene Wilder’s version; not Johnny Depp’s). Dancefloors lucky enough to hear one of the elusive tracks went wild. Quantic succeeded where many others attempting to recreate a work have failed by adding something both unique and substantial to the music that he covered.

He took J Dilla’s Rico Suave Bossa Nova from Brazil to Barranquilla, bolstering the original samba and jazz flavors of the track with a distinct cumbia melody that showcased Quantic’s growing mastery of the genre’s most important instrument: the accordion. Likewise, Outkast’s Miss Jackson is re-molded into a 38 second interlude that, while simply focusing on the original track’s chorus, simultaneously heightens the regret and melancholy of Big Boi and Andre 3000’s well-known hit. And while Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On can not be characterized as classic material by any stretch of the imagination, it is still surprising that Quantic is so successful in remaking it, keeping the uptempo dance flavor of the tune while adding a little bit of humidity, a dash of pacific waters, and a sprinkle of tropical landscapes to create the album’s club favorite.

We’re a long way off from once and for all settling the dispute over whether old material should be recycled for modern audiences who may or may not have a connection to the social climate in which these works were originally born. Because really, that’s what classic stuff is made of: bits and pieces of social commentary that, when put together, serve as a reflection of our entire lives. In the 3 minutes and 22 seconds of a song, everything about ourselves is laid out before us in an audible masterpiece — our desires, our losses, our possibilities, our strengths. When remixes are created out of context, as they often are, the soul of the pieces goes missing and what is left are skeletal versions of once meaty songs that no longer belong to us. Music that at one point spoke to us and for us in ways that we ourselves were unable are bastardized into almost unrecognizable versions of themselves.

If the remix is here to stay, it must be done in the same vein as Quantic’s opus. The musician protects the essence of the recreated tunes, and for that reason, he is successful in covering six of hip hop’s most beloved tracks. Scratch that, five plus Missy’s (we really liked that song. Loved? Not so much). Quantic blends hip hop and cumbia in a way that makes the world a little bit smaller; the cultural significance that each single first possessed is kept intact, remade in such a way that a decade or so later, music lovers around the world can appreciate and understand both the music and each other.

It has been exactly one year since Hip Hop En Cumbia’s initial release and Quantic’s LP still doesn’t suck; dance floors fortunate enough to experience the genre-blended tracks are still going wild.

Lush Life, Plateau Vision

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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

Phonte, Charity Starts at Home

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The word “charity” and the word “whore” come from the same Indo-European root.

This might explain the origin of the age-old debate about whether true altruism exists. Or it might just be an interesting “the more you know” tidbit that has no real value. Either way, you don’t have to be a philosopher to know that there’s thin line between a treat and a trick.

By definition, charity means benevolence to the poor and helping those in need. But like God, real, enlightenment, love, democracy and classic, the word charity has been overexposed to the point of obscurity. It has, in many ways, become a diluted representation of the Ideal, to steal from Plato (who stole from Egypt). That’s unfortunate.

I believe that, as a whole, we’ve forgotten the words theologian John Wycliffe wrote in 1383: “Charity should begin at himself.” For background, Wycliffe was a forerunner of the Reformation, who translated the Bible and wanted to replace the existing hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church with poor priests. His quote has been remixed over the years by other famous writers like Sir Thomas Browne and Charles Dickens. But its latest iteration comes from Phonte, the North Carolina-bred rapper/singer of Little Brother and The Foreign Exchange fame.

His solo debut, Charity Starts At Home, is a working-class near classic with good-for-the-soul beats and rhymes that stick to your ribs. He’s spitting slick raps beside verbal acrobats like Elzhi and Pharoahe Monch one minute, then showcasing his vocals on songs about relationships the next. Granted, he was always the standout lyricist in his Little Brother days. On this album, he strays from the conceptual approach the trio was known for from The Listening (2003) and The Minstrel Show (2005). This time, he trades in the social satire for stark honesty about life as he knows it.

5 dollar gas, and poverty rates/ are rising much higher than your hourly rates/ So if you thinkin ’bout quittin you should probably wait/ Cuz everybody gotta do a fuckin job that they hate/ “Go and live out your dreams” that’s what they tellin/ Fam in my ear all day and they yellin/ “Keep it real Te”, and don’t ever sellout/ But how the fuck you sell out when ain’t nobody sellin?

- The Good Fight

He’s not the guy tricking out Maybachs. He’s trying to make ends meet. In this post-Watch the Throne era, this recession rap makes his quotables more relatable, which ironically undermines his earning potential. But that’s how the rap game’s always been. Like Linus and the Great Pumpkin, these masses keep their idols on a pedestal of myth. They like their heroes in costumes, impervious to the trials of everyday life. They’re addicted to the sugar rush of candy-coated bling-a-long fantasies. True stories about a grown man’s struggle with monogamy and mortgage payments hit too close to home. But you can tell by his track record and the album title alone that Phonte doesn’t care to sit at the popular table.

In hip hop, the very idea of charity runs counter to the genre’s pervading “get mines” posture. Not to say that rappers don’t give back. Some have started their own foundations. Some use their status to promote good causes and what-have-you. Recently, 50 Cent launched a Facebook campaign in honor of World Hunger Day, pledging to feed a million hungry children if the page receives a million ‘likes’ in a week. Some might celebrate this as a selfless act of goodwill. Others might say he’s a shrewd businessman, pimping the system. Either way, the line is thin. But with Phontigallo, you never have to guess. On Charity, you know good and well where his heart is.

Wale, Ambition

wale-ambition

“…the biggest misconception about success is that we do it solely on our smarts, ambition, hustle and hard work.”

– Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

If you want to know anything about a rap album, you’d be smart to start with the title. That’s where rappers usually hide their intentions in plain sight.

For instance, you don’t need a decoder ring to know that Finally Famous, the debut from Big Sean, is a confetti parade about making it. With Cole World: The Sideline Story, it ain’t hard to tell that J. Cole wanted to make a lyrical underdog memoir.

For his first up at bat in the majors, Wale called his shot. He named his debut Attention Deficit because he felt like it was “lyrically all over the place.” But, in the end, the title became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody (read: only 28,000 people the first week) paid attention.

But that was two years ago, an eternity in hip hop. Wale took some time to regroup. For his second album, he decided to call it Ambition. Just one word. It’s that simple. Or is it?

Let’s step back for a minute. So there’s this rapper from D.C. who goes by the name Wale. With Interscope, he had this wild idea that could he squeeze social commentary between go-go tracks. For what it’s worth, I thought he did a decent job. On Attention Deficit, he bounced from club records to compelling tracks about complexion complexes and self-esteem issues. Not quite the deep-sea rhymer that Lupe Fiasco was, but his nimble flow and think-about-it wordplay was bright enough to make a bleep on the radar screen of Rick Ross. He joined Rozay’s Maybach Music Group, positioning himself as the “poetic genius” of the clique.

Now, I know what you’re wondering: Did dude sell out? Is this a classic case of dumbing down for his audience to double his dollars? I’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about the music, which as you might expect from out of Rozay’s camp, shines with sonic extravagance: Crashing cymbals, triumphant horns, vicious drums, etc. You can’t help but get hooked in the first three tracks, even if the lyrics — at least, on the first listen — all but disappear behind the jazzy instrumentation.

But it’s track four, “Legendary,” that rises above the rest. The haunting beat walks with a limp, giving Wale plenty of time to spit rounds about his hunger for greatness. This theme continues on later tracks like “Ambition” featuring The Bawse himself and MMG-upstart Meek Mill on “No Days Off.” It’s no accident that these tracks all tie back to the album title, which I’m about to explain in a minute.

For the rest of the album, Wale assembled a who’s who of young R&B singers from Ne-Yo to Jeremih to Miguel to make upbeat songs for the ladies. The only one that’s not forgettable is the smooth cruise-control joint “Sabotage” featuring Lloyd, where Wale raps hoarse because he supposedly just had a fight with his girl before hopping in the booth. It shouldn’t work, but whatever reason, it does.

Overall, Ambition lies in the intersection of a Finally Famous/Cole World Venn diagram. But it’s more Sean than Cole here. You can tell — at least, after a few spins — that Wale still wants to use mainstream sensibilities to sneak positivity across the border into the rap world. But complex messages may get lost in the shipment under all the jewelry and scribbled pick-up lines, and only a few can pull off that sort of tightrope walk. This time around, more often than not, Wale seems to lose his balance.

So with that, we return to the title: Ambition. He may have predicted his own brick on his first album. This time, he seems to be predicting the criticism. He wants to steer people away from thinking he just hitched a ride on The Bawse’s back. He wants to convince his listeners that he’s still the same hardworking wordsmith from D.C. He wants you to respect his hustle. And apparently, with 164,000 sold the first week, more of you do. It’s just too bad that now, with more attention, he doesn’t have something more to say.

Poliça, Give You The Ghost

In the end, the live drums do it.

Poliça’s Give You The Ghost is not a perfect album. The songs tend to meander, with semblances of verses and choruses blending into extended fugues, and their musical punctuation is all ellipses and commas, not a period or exclamation point in sight.  The synths are sexy, but they lack warmth.  It’s a chilly 45 minutes of almost-hip-hop, semi-pop, rock-ish, pseudo R&B tracks.  The average listener could easily remove their headphones and relegate Poliça’s debut album to the subbasement of their iTunes.

But the drums!  The drums, and Channy Leaneagh’s hypnotizing voice.  They make this album.  Listen to the polyrhythmic groove that opens “I See My Mother” – it’s a little bit Pharrell and a little bit Sheila E., accompanying the minimal synth line with perfect restraint before breaking out into a snare-and-cymbal composite that induces the most fervent of head bobbing.  Listen to the subdued “Happy Be Fine”; the drums on that track are the definition of being “in the pocket.”  Listen to “Dark Star,” both its decidedly non-cheesy saxophone accompaniment and Leaneagh’s killer chorus, delivered like Cat Power fronting a ‘60s R&B group.  “Ain’t a man in this world who could pull me down from my dark star,” she sings.  “I will remain there/it’s done me good so far.”

“Dark Star” is just one twinkling part of Give You The Ghost’s crepuscular constellation.  Leaneagh’s cool vocal delivery and the dreamy arrangements of bandmate Ryan Olson (whose last project was the über-‘80s Gayngs) go heavy on atmospherics in a way that makes this album perfect for nocturnal listening.  Call it the unbearable lightness of darkness: Leaneagh’s angelic voice and Olson’s airy synths add something sort of gossamer and unearthly to the percussion, which is heavy as lead but not leaden, and powerful enough to drill straight into the ground.  When the drums take a break, the vocals, heavily Auto-Tuned and always prominent in the mix, start to get cloying, especially after multiple listens.  “The Maker,” for example, begins with a set of circular, repetitive vocals whose remedy only arrives with the onset of those incredible assault rifle drums.

The drums!  It is impossible to get enough of them.  Poliça has two drummers.  Excessive?  Not when it sounds the way it does on “Lay Your Cards Out,” a track featuring Mike Noyce.  Leaneagh drops icy, digitized verses – her earworm “I am waiting” refrain can only be described as bewitching– and the drums start as a simple hip-hop beat before the cymbals start twitching and the snares start behaving like a natural disaster, rolling and crashing and whirlpooling and hurricaning.

The live drums – oh, if only all drums could be live.  There will always be a place for the brittle and artificial and attractively plastic in music.  There will always be room for beats whose precision derives from a Roland TR-808 instead of a human drummer’s skill.  This is not a rejection of computerized percussion, rather a celebration of live drums at their best.  This love, the love of the perfect beat from a big shiny Pearl drum kit – two drum kits, in Poliça’s case – is almost Biblical in its fervor.  To paraphrase 1 John 4:8, he that loveth not knoweth not live drums; for live drums are love.  Such a statement is over-the-top but obvious, especially in the context of Poliça’s best song, “Wandering Star.”  Just watch their live version on YouTube – four humans end up sounding like computers, and it is nothing less than spellbinding.