Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Nobody Speak - DJ Shadow ft. Run the Jewels

"Nobody Speak", the recent single from DJ Shadow featuring Run the Jewels, is the perfect pairing of producer and MCs. As DJ Shadow said himself, "Occasionally, I make a beat that demands a specific vocal treatment and attitude. In the case of 'Nobody Speak,' I wasn't going to settle for anyone other than Run The Jewels; in my mind, it was them or no one."

DJ Shadow's beat manages to be hard and a bit silly at the same time. The brass and saxophone heighten the mood while also bordering on cartoonishness. The descending guitar and bass lines also add to the tension, and the synthesizer interlude after the second verse is completely bonkers and delightful.

And then there's Run the Jewels. Their characteristically over-the-type rhymes and ridiculous boasts are the perfect complement to DJ Shadow's bombastic beat. Killer Mike's first verse is particularly vicious, and hilarious:
I am crack
I ain't lying; kick a lion in his crack
I'm the shit, I will fall off in your crib, take a shit
Pinch your momma on the booty, kick your dog, fuck your bitch
Fat boy dressed up like he's Santa and took pictures with your kids
The word play at the beginning is ingenious, but the hypotheticals that follow are completely off the hook. Take a crap at your house? Take Santa pictures with your kids? Kick your dog, for heaven's sake? The swagger is so ridiculous and creative that it is actually quite endearing - a curious paradox that Run the Jewels frequently achieves.

RTJ have been making this type of in your face, take no prisoners music since 2013, serving as a mainline injection of adrenaline-fueled badassery into the heart of hip hop. And judging by their fantastic performance of "Nobody Speak" on Fallon earlier this month, they're showing no signs of slowing down.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Lupe Fiasco's "Kick, Push"

Hip hop does boisterous, bombastic, and braggadocious extremely well. What is also does well, though with much less recognition, is reminiscence. Nowhere do we do we hear this more beautifully than on Lupe Fiasco's "Kick, Push", off his classic freshman album, Food & Liquor.

First, the beat. The longing, melancholic horns crescendo to an extended chord. The mysterious guitar and strings are lush, deepening the mood. The drums are simple, without ostentations.

And then there's Lupe. Rather than celebrating his status as a rapidly rising rapper, he focuses on the opposite - his experiences growing up as a misfit. The simple chorus of the song - "kick, push, kick, push, coast" - emphasizes Lupe's outsider status; he literally sings about getting away from others. Lupe vividly comes back to this theme throughout the song:
Branded, since the first kickflip he landed
Labeled a misfit, a bandit
Ka-kunk ka-kunk ka-kunk, his neighbors couldn't stand it
So he was banished to the park
Started in the morning, wouldn't stop 'til after dark
Yeah, when they said "It's getting late in here
So I'm sorry young man, there's no skatin' here"
Branded, banished, misfit, bandit - this is how Lupe truly sees himself, and this sincerity shines throughout "Kick, Push" as well as the rest of Food & Liquor. This feeling of being an outsider, and his honesty about it, is a big part of what made Lupe such a tantalizing rapper early in his career. In some ways, perhaps Lupe's self-perception explains the wandering, at times tumultuous arc of his career. After Food & Liquor, Lupe was undoubtedly a star. But when you think of yourself as a loner, that can be a hard thing to accept.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

FX's Atlanta - Trailer Review

I'm not sure what it is about this trailer for FX's upcoming series, Atlanta, but I can't stop watching it. Maybe it's the entrancing jerkiness of the protagonists movements, apparently reverse footage of the three of them walking... backwards. Maybe it's the incredibly funky beat (courtesy of Tame Impala's 2015 banger New Person, Same Old Mistakes). Maybe it's the way to letters ATLANTA seem to melt onto the screen at the end of the clip. Maybe it's the graffiti riddled, wide open city streets our heroes find themselves in, and the inevitable questions all of this inspires: What is happening here? Where are these guys going? Why are they going in a different direction from everyone else? Whatever the answers, I can't wait to find out.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Kanye West's "Celebration"

Celebration from Late Registration represents Kanye West at his absolute best.

The beat opens with squeaky synthesizers over a sturdy drum beat. Soon, a luscious string section comes in, followed by a boisterous low synth. When Kanye comes in with the brilliantly simple chorus, his voice is sheer joy: "Yea, you know what this is... It's a celebration bitches!"

As the song proceeds, Kanye introduces a sped-up background chorus as well as a trombone countermelody, and continues to take advantage of the beautiful string section at his disposal. He sings, he raps, he whoops, he laughs - all of it with a sense of wonder, excitement, and effervescence. At one point he hypothetically tells his future child about the origins of his conception - it's pretty messed up, to be honest - but does it a flippancy and casualness that are utterly disarming.

Celebration represents Kanye at a more innocent moment in his career. Before fame, before family, before everything that now falls into the meta-being that is "Kanye", there were songs like this - living, breathing embodiments of Kanye's joy in making music.

Monday, March 21, 2016

What is an album?

What is an album?

It used to be something you bought in a store as an encoded plastic disc. Then it became a sequence of 1s and 0s you downloaded to your local hard drive. Now, it is increasingly something you stream from the cloud. And with the latest evolution, the very idea of an album as a finished, permanent collection of songs is being undermined before our eyes.

Since the release of Kanye West's "The Life of Pablo" on February 14th on the music streaming service Tidal, Kanye has reportedly updated the album multiple times. There was no way for listeners to know that this had happened, other than to discover the changes organically, and earlier versions of the album are no longer available. There is no indication of when the modifications will stop, if ever; in theory the album could keep changing forever, one song after another, until the latest product bares no resemblance to the original one. One continuously evolving entity. If it's the journey that matters and not the destination, Kanye has invited his audience to continuously observe his journey, with no promise of a destination.

What could a truly "evergreen" album look like? Or a book, or a painting? It could start as sketches, outlines, basic beats, and then over time take on more structure and polish. It could switch directions suddenly, losing huge pieces and gaining new ones overnight. It could disappear completely. It could be different to every person who listened to it. As Kanye tweeted, it could be a "living breathing changing creative expression."

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Kanye - Real Friends

Absolutely divine moment when the beat drops in Kanye's new single Real Friends. The contrast between the ghostly keyboard and the hard hitting drums... a much needed reminder of what makes Kanye Kanye.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Drake Rapping to... Clipse?

A fantastic Drake nugget I found in an ancient article on the "beef" between Clipse and Lil Wayne:
Drake also revealed that Pharrell and the Startrak movement inspired him to get into music. He even went so far as to pay $200 on eBay for a plastic microphone that was allegedly signed by Pusha T of Startrak’s rap group Clipse. He used the plastic microphone to act out imaginary red carpet interviews and perform Clipse songs in his room.
The article is a great read in its entirety, but this anecdote about a young Drake ad libbing Clipse songs is particularly delicious. Drake and Pusha T often stand at opposite ends of the hip hop spectrum today - Pusha T with his hard-nosed street raps, and Drake with his introspective melodies. And yet despite these stylist differences, here we see another delightful example of game recognizing game.