Felt 3: A Tribute To Rosie Perez
"The boys are back, the boys of summer, and this time Ace Rock is the drummer." Thus states Murs on the opening track to his and Slug's collaborative project Felt's third installment. As is customary, this record is too named after a B-List celebrity that happens to be taking their fancy at the moment and while Christina Ricci and Lisa Bonet were pretty damn solid releases Felt 3 has the added bonus of featuring the mighty Aesop Rock on production duties and the results are effortlessly special.
Murs and Slug boast two of indie raps smoothest flows and when put side by side the rhymes are liquid. It's good to see these MC's out from behind their day jobs and Aesop Rock certainly gives them a plentiful backdrop on which to perform. His beats are crunching and refreshingly unpredictable. Meticulously crafted they glisten with detail and boom with such depth. It would be impossible not to raise your game as an MC to assure that this backdrop doesn't make you look bad. And raise their game they do.
Individually Murs and Slug have rarely slipped up and together their powers are two-fold. Hip hop collaborations are not always a guaranteed success, with egos and flows often finding it hard to play nicely together but as Felt, Murs and Slug rhyme like one entity. The lyrics bounce in every way, between each beat and between each MC, as they alternate verses and slot in rhymes each song evolves into impressively complex constructions. Ace slices these rhymes up with expert precision on the beats, they're equally complex, they're very dense and and very Def Jux. It was a tough ask to contribute anything to a project that already had a flawless back catalogue but with the addition of Ace this collaboration has turned into a supergroup for sure.Read more 3.5 star reviews
It was a good year for Hip Hop with some real heavyweight contributions from the likes of Lil Wayne, The Roots and Kanye West. Q Tip came out of retirement with a great album and Atmosphere gave us the fantastic When Life Gives You Lemons Paint That Shit Gold. But ultimately these 5 rocked my world.
Why? - Alopecia
This record dropped pretty early this year but has remained a permanent fixture ever since. Building on the clever songcraft of Elephant Eyelash, Alopecia is almost too packed with ideas to fully comprehend.
Black Milk - Tronic
Just as the year draws to a close, Black Milk drops his best work yet: super tight production mixes with raw old school might to produce a hip hop classic.
The Roots - Rising Down
Thank God for George Bush or we may not have ever had a record as venomous and thoroughly pissed off as this. Leaning more on the classic hip hop than the live band, the Philly boys really delivered here although the guest MC's nearly stole the show.
The Cool Kids - The Bake Sale EP
From out of nowhere came this EP full of playful bravado and classic old school hooks. "The new black version of the Beastie Boys."
lil Wayne - Tha Carter III
The most anticipated hip hop record of the year actually made good on its promise.
The Roots - Rising Down (feat. Mos Def & Styles P)
Black Milk - Losing Out
Why? - By Torpedo Or Crohn's
Hercules & Love Affair - Blind
Lil Wayne - A Milli
The Mighty Underdogs
Sounded good on paper, especially with Def Jux behind them, but in reality was a pile of shit.
Subtle - Exiting Arm
It was their most commercial release and certainly promised great things. But somehow it lacked some of the quirky excitement of all of their previous work.
The X Factor
That duet between Beyonce and Alexandra...nuf said.
Sex And The City (Only because I went to the World Premiere and sat near SJP and Gary Lineker, it's the only way I see movies so was the only one I saw)
Droppin' Science Fiction
In the mid 90's and early 2000, whether going under the name Solesides or Quannum, this crew, consisting of members of Blackalicious, Latyrx and DJ Shadow, couldn't put a foot wrong and without resorting to mindless thug-rap they crafted their own brand of mindfull hip-hop that displayed an unrivaled lyrical dexterity and creativity. All their releases whether solo or collectively involved collaboration and together amassed to a group of artists forging their own way in this game and just getting stronger and stronger by the year. With the massive collaborative release Quannum Spectrum in 1999 and Blackalicious' NIA the following year they seemed to be reaching their creative peak and, in my opinion, have slowly shrunk from those heights ever since. Gift Of Gab's raps became far too conscious of their do-good nature, Lyrics Born's solo releases were almost too aesthetically pleasing and possessed little of the edge he previously exhibited and Lateef The Truth Speaker briefly shone in his Maroons project but then all but disappeared. DJ Shadow kept up his end for as long as he could but then even he had to fall and did so gloriously with The Outsider.
So that said, the thought of Gift Of Gab teaming up with Lateef again for this Mighty Underdogs project more than moistened my palette for a return to form and seeing that is was all taking place on the ever-reliable Def Jux label was further proof of an imminent comeback. Sadly this isn't the case and it really pains me to say that. My criticism of the last two Blackalicious albums, that they are far too riddled with preaching lyrics about spirituality and love, are not my criticisms here and some may argue that I am beng slightly and unfairly hard on the boys. I have been wanting them to toughen up for ages, to spit out the odd swear word and show they are human, so when they finally do, on tracks like Gunfight and Aye I cringe like my dad's trying to be cool. I don't know why but it all sounds slightly forced and fake.
Everything's in place here for a great record. Lateef's flow is as tight as it always used to be and Gab's dexterity and speed with which he delivers his lines is top notch. While not quite matching up to Quannum Spectrum's use of guests, heavyweights like MF Doom and Casual make a richer tapestry - not to mention the DJ Shadow produced UFC Remix. But the inclusion of Chari 2na, Jurassic 5's self proclaimed 'Lyrical Herman Munster,' on War Walk only highlights how this genre has moved on, leaving behind these MC's - whereas an artist like Doom seems as fresh now as he did over a decade ago. So after much agonising deliberation I deduce that the key thing missing on this record is a sense of relevance. Time, and indeed Hip Hop has moved on since their heyday and though there may well never be a couple of MCs quite like Lateef and Gab it's what they rap about here that makes them seem irrelevant. As the album title suggests it's definitely fiction that is being dropped here and their tendency to use obvious narrative concepts as the basis for many of the songs is what makes the record so awkward. Gunfight sees Lateef assume the character of a heat-packin' wild west cowboy, Ill Vacation is a jaunty little holiday song while Science Fiction is, guess what, all set in outer-space and seems to run over what sounds like the Man With Two Brains soundtrack. One of the most puzzling and cringing of these concept tracks is Aye where all the protagonists are lusting after a certain female of rather sluttish tendencies. Not only is the concept of these righteous MC's sniffing round some ho quite curious but it also reminds me of the Latyrx classic Lady Don't Tek No and I am instantly made aware of the gulf that exists between the two songs.
Hands In The Air keeps things simple and for that reason works well, no over-ambitious concepts, just the solid rhymes over simple beats and Laughing At You is a triumph for the same reasons: it stays simple. Victorious is a great way to end the record and one that comes from a retrospective angle as both MCs reflect on a triumphant career. This record is by no means bad but it's impossible to form a critique without comparing it to these guys' previous work and it's at this point that the record falls very short of the mark. This crew and all their affiliates defined an era of hip hop for me and their continued commitment to a different moral path to many artists of the genre has always been inspirational, so it pains me all the more to see them left behind. I am sure they all have a lot more to contribute but they really need to reassess what they're about before the next release.Read more 2.5 star reviews
None Shall Pass
It's not often that I can start a review of a record by an underground hip hop artist and thank one of the biggest corporate giants of our time for providing us with the only taste of this guy since 2003 - but if it wasn't for Nike commissioning Aesop Rock for its inspired series of jogging tracks our hungry ears would have had very little to feast upon since the triumphant Bazooka Tooth. And Nike's interest is the result of a steady rise in the shares of this Long Island born MC/producer since his first album for Def Jux Labor Days, what some regard as his finest stroke. So None Shall Pass, his fifth proper full length has been long in the making and much anticipated by any hip hop head with a brain.
Aesop Rock is a rare commodity indeed these days, an artist who is truly pushing the envelope and who, if you're into him, has never put a foot wrong and is pretty much guaranteed not to. Some criticised the Nike piece, but for the purpose it was made to serve it did the job and though it was stripped of the free flowing lyrics I can imagine it would be good to jog to if I could ever get out of this chair. So with None Shall Pass we get our guy back where we want him and with production duties shared between Aesop himself, Blockhead and El-P the result is little short of dazzling.
Things have changed since his last record and though this is still unmistakably Def Jux much of the production has been simplified and the claustrophobic machine-beats are played down in favor of more linear, live sounding instrumentation. This leaves space for Aesop's fables, and though this has always been his strength they seem to rise to the top here and it's damn near impossible to keep up. There's no dick-swinging bravado with this guy, just complex stories bursting with mind boggling imagery and all told with lyrical dexterity that defies belief.
With the title track Aesop provides us with one of the easiest entry points to his sound in a long time (Nike discounted) It's built around a pretty straightforward beat and melodic loop and with Aesop's lyrics it rolls along relentlessly. As is often the case your ears try desperately to keep up with this lyrical pace as juicy nuggets of the English language are dropped teasingly close to our understanding but as soon as we've stopped to gather them up Aesop's way ahead. I mean when the opening lyric is "Flash that buttery gold, jittery zeitgeist wither by the watering hole, what a patrol, what are we to heart huckabee art fuckery suddenly?" How are we expected not to feast on this. Unlike militant label mates El-P or Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock often appears to take a different route but on closer inspection lyrics like "sign of the swine in the swarm when a king is a whore who comply and conform, miles outside of the eye of the storm" he shows a clear opinion of the current state of our world.
Bring Back Pluto encompasses this albums best assets. It has a plodding and delicate bongo beat that is still bass heavy enough to comfortably float the words to the surface. As does the awesome Fumes. The pace here is recreational compared to this guys previous work but as always vast swathes of texture are lurking in the background and at the half way point these textures cleverly manage to flip the beat around to a momentary quickening of speed without you even noticing.
But as much as I enjoy and appreciate this sunday stroll pace it sure is good to get moments like Citronella where the Jux machine starts grinding out stomping, gut-wrenching bass and wooly, static-frothed beats. This is brought to a climax on Gun For The Whole Family. Any album on this label wouldn't be complete without the whole Jux family getting involved and with previous songs featuring the familiar sounds of Cage and Mr. Lif it's here that label boss El-P weighs in and interestingly it's the erratic apocalyptic beat that suits El-P's frenzied style more than Aesop Rock's and it's really the bosses moment and not Aesop's.
The last track Coffee is a real departure for Aesop Rock. The beat is backed by distant vocal harmonies but then as if out of nowhere we get singing, yes, singing, and it's not just any singing, it's John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats. It would be hard to predict such a partnership but since moving to San Francisco these two artists have been collaborating and this is the first glimpse of the fruits - and it's fantastic. It also shows the kind of creative mind we are dealing with here. None Shall Pass is a hip hop record and never claims to be otherwise. It's full of deep beats, cuts and scratches and everything you'd want from a hip hop record but oh so much more. If you can decipher it you'll see a whole host of source points that go way beyond this genre. It's like reading a Kerouac novel at double speed, actually it's like reading a vast collection of short stories with no punctuation. It's a turbulent sea of words that stretches on for miles and you know that if you dive in you'll get embroiled in a whole torrent of forked-tongued, whiplash trouble but you do it all the same. After all these opportunities don't come around all that often so you'd be a fool not to.
Dingwalls, Camden, London
Camden's hive of scum and villainy were out in force last night and were foaming at the mouth for a piece of the Def Jux head honcho. Backed by a band dressed in combat gear and balaclavas El-P arrived on stage in Guantanamo Bay's Spring/Summer collection, a short sleeve orange boiler suit complete with head wounds and a bloody nose. This choice of attire together with El-P's admission "Sorry but we don't have any happy songs," set the tone early and I started to take one step back from my much coveted front and centre position.
As the bass-heavy intro to new album opener Tasmanian Pain Coaster started, the rabid dogs around me moved into position and Dingwalls erupted. It's a fantastic start to the album and it had equal impact here, with the chorus "This is the sound of what you don't want killing you," being spat back by the brawling pit as venomously as it was being dished out by what looked like the cast of Con Air. This was then followed by Fantastic Damage's Deep Space 9mm to the delight of the old school contingency. When El delivered the line "I signed to Rawkus" the crowd were only too happy to scream back the reply "I'd rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious," which was nice. And so it continued with much of the new album getting an airing. Heavy hitters like Flyentology, Drive and Smithereens kicked out furiously and it seems El's fans are receiving this new stuff as passionately as they did Fantastic Damage. And so they should as when put next to the older work these songs dispalyed a might all of their own.
An unexpected bonus was the addition of the mighty Mr. Dibbs on beat duty. His beats were as tight as always and he played them with an all-consuming passion and concentration that sometimes rivaled the big man for visual attention. During a short interval - while El-P went off to mop up the blood from his dripping ears - we were treated to the skills of Dibbs, an expert mash up of hip hop favorites - together with Radiohead's National Anthem more than kept the crowd occupied.
Despite the slightly cliched dress code (Sage Francis was rocking the orange boiler suit and bandages years ago) this was an awesome display of El-P's shock and awe brutality and was delivered with all the passion you'd expect from this man. Gripping the mic like he was throttling a chicken he screamed down its neck like a man possessed. His back-up MC shadowed him all the time and whipped the crowd into a violent, heaving frenzy that continued until the last giving the front man cause to show real appreciation at this reception and as we all limped home with real blood stains on our clothes we clung to our ringing ears like trophies of a job well done.
I'll Sleep When You're Dead
2007, and The El-P show is in town once again and as usual it's tooled up ready for an all out assault on just about anything. It's hard to believe that this is only the second full length from the Def Jux label boss as he has been widely regarded as the unofficial king of the underground for a decade now.
It's been almost 5 years since the awesome Fantastic Damage and all the events both artistic and political that have occurred for El-P during this time have left their mark on this record. He has crossed musical paths with a whole host of artists over the years and the result is an album packed full of guest contributions by the likes of Cat Power, Mars Volta and NIN's Trent Reznor. Refreshingly though, none of these are mentioned as 'featuring' on the track-list as explained eloquently here by the man himself. "It's the Southpark theory: When George Clooney appeared on Southpark, it was as a gay dog. That's the type of shit that makes my day." He also delivered 2004's Blue Series fringe jazz project High Water which just contributes to the ever widening artistic pallet of this man.
El-P's political leanings are slightly less tangable. He sure ain't no Republican, but his venomous world view is disguised so expertly in the abstract lyrics that the general feeling of rage and well placed, intelligent scorn is a whole lot more powerful than direct spitting. But where this record differs from it's predecessor is in scale. Politically the world is a very different place now compared to 2002 and though Fantastic Damage was a pretty angry record, this one seems to have a much larger agenda . If his debut was the venting of personal hatred the followup is global and from the outset it's awesomely clear that El Producto is definitely back up in this ma fucka.
Tasmanian Pain Coaster starts things off on a scale that is rarely matched on the rest of the record. It's big and it's scary. It's the sound of an army stamping its steel toe-capped boots to the beat, the looped piano is a call to arms. This opener is the unequivocal sound of a disaffected people marching to war and they march here in awesome numbers and with a power that is breathtaking. With Mars Volta and Matt Sweeney adding guitars to this melting pot of rage this is a force to be reckoned with. The unique thing about any record by El-P is it's ambiguity and irony. You never know when he's being serious or not. After this opener comes to an end and every hair on your body is tingling from a mixture of fear and excitement he starts the next song with the words "Bring me the dramatic intro machine," rendering this huge beginning mere irony and any power you drew from it now makes you feel a bit stupid and gullible. This is both annoying and impressive. It makes you wake up and realise that you're not listening to a normal hip hop record that can be allowed to wash over you with head nodding beats and empty lyrics. This is different and should be questioned at all times and it certainly isn't about to give up the booty this early on in the date.
So on we tread with our feet firmly on the ground. EMG uses a classic "Rock The Bells" beat and in it's Hip Hop hall of fame name-checking we see more of El-P's irony being exorcised on his very own genre. Drive sees El at his lyrical best. Using the car metaphor he gives a pretty bleak outlook on the world today. Starting with the lyric "C'mon Ma, can I borrow the keys, my generation's car-pooling with doom and disease," everything from "Jesus of Nascarith" to Falujah is put through this metaphor, and it's awesome. Flyentology creatively describes the new religion of doomed air travel, "faith v's physics," describing a plummeting plane as "the vessel of my awakening."
The album is put to bed with El-P's dystopian lullaby with Cat Power on backing vocals. Throughout this seven minute closer the beat oozes the boom of apocalyptic doom, the layered production and non-stop rhyming is very claustrophobic until everything is wiped away leaving a dirty looped beat to see us through to the end. The delicate keyboard that rides this beat seems to lull us to sleep, but I fear it's the sleep of the dead not the peaceful.
The Third Hand
This is the first album RJD2 has put out without the help of Def Jux Records and there's a good reason for that. His much hyped debut Dead Ringers followed on nicely from the work of DJ Shadow in the world of sampling and gave the aggressive yet progressive alt hip-hop label a new string to its bow. Then in 2004 came Since We Last Spoke. Obviously plagued by the constant comparisons to Shadow, this album signaled a shift in direction for RJD2. Still containing the sampled structure this album leaned more towards mellow vocal tracks than its predecessor taking much of its influence from 70's rock. Now in 2007 the transformation is complete. I hope the artist will forgive me for one last Shadow comparison but just as The Outsider was an album to silence all stereotypes and went to one extreme end of the musical spectrum and embraced hip hop in all its grime The Third Hand goes the other direction and almost rejects all things hip hop and embraces pop.
The fact that RJD2 has fled the Def Jux fold shows just how much he's changed direction. This album still has the impeccably produced beats but heavily relies on vocals. It's a pretty slick piece of work with some beautiful instrumental moments. Reality is one of the stand out points with a funky-ass guitar bass line sampled over a classic RJD2 break-beat that chops and changes repeatedly and weaves in and out of the singing while Get It revisits old ground as one of the few purely instrumental beat pieces. But I'm sure that I've picked out these two as highlights as they most resemble the earlier work and I'm not proud of that.
This album will not go down too well with true blue hip hop heads who followed him earlier on, and unfortunately I think I am one of those. I hate to say that - as I love artists who can break away from a successful sound and forge a new path, but this album sees a total shift in genre. This is not in any way to suggest that it's a bad album, far from it, as pop music goes this is better than most. The production is impeccable, the beats strong and the whole thing floats on a multi textured bed of strings, samples and synths.
I can really respect this shift in direction. The change we all saw in Shadow's The Outsider seemed to come from a bitter resentment that all and sundry were making careers off his sound and the piece of shit he gave us was supposed to give a two fingered salute. The Third Hand however seems to come from a more genuine, honest place and is just the sound of an artist wanting to move on from where he started no matter how good a place that was.
Following the demise of DJ Shadow, it sounds like the space might now be filled by RJD2. Moving away from the more electronic sounds of his previous albums, for this new one 'he plays all the instruments himself on an album that takes in blue-eyed soul, folk and pop'. He's also moved away from his previous label (Def Jux) and jumped ship to XL.
There's a new mp3 available on the Stereogum site, and you can hear more of the new stuff on his myspace.
Mr. Lif could rhyme over a pneumatic drill and you would have to sit up and listen and with fellow Def Juxter El P on production for 8 of these tracks a pneumatic drill isn't too far off the mark. This is Lifs follow up to 2002's I Phantom and it's as intense as ever.
Lif's delivery is cold and relentless but its in the subject matter where you really find the heart and soul of this album. The general concept on Mo Mega is how the increasingly modern world is slowly consuming the lower, poorer classes and with his unique monotone, nasal drawl he lambasts everyone from the President to the FBI to fast food chains. Lif never messes about and with El P behind him chucking out dirty beats to make your eyes water the flavor is as hard hitting and uncompromising as the political onslaught of early Public Enemy.
The early stand out is Lif's relentless attack on McDonalds with The Fries. Here we get his conspiracy theory of how the government is using fast food to cripple the poor and its told with dazzling vocal skill. Do excuse the hefty quote coming up but it's pure genius. "A new disease that you caught at Mcydee's, in your quarter pounder with cheese, order with ease, super size please. People won't even survive through the drive thru. kids blacked out in the back with a happy meal, what a crappy deal, but it was only four ninety nine so there's more people in line, yea the plan's running fine, the parking lot is now a burial plot where you can park and rot if you can find a spot."
The best thing about most Def Jux releases is that they often feature other label artists which is always a real treat. Here we see the intensity peak with Take Hold, Fire! featuring the mighty Aesop Rock and El P. These guest vocals come as a welcome break from the relentless tone of Lif and it makes for a classic Def Jux lyrical master-class. This signals a general easing off on the political accelerator and the comic frivolity of Murs Iz My Manager comes as a breath of fresh air. Here the two rappers argue about why Murs should manage Lif to make him more commercial. Lif is having none of it and at one point Murs asks how he is supposed to get Lif the Herbal Essence sponsorship if he never washes his hair.
From here on the beats are lighter and more 'hip hop' I guess. The vocals ease up as a result and once you get to the end you just want another go. Rappers like Mr. Lif and his Def Jux buddies are really stretching this genre and it's thrilling to behold. If I was a Head Of State I would look on this group with some worry. They have such a ferocious style that you get the impression that if their music doesn't change things they are perfectly prepared to walk into the Oval Office and start breaking some heads.
Food & Liquor
If Jay-Z was about 10 years younger and hadn't been paid so much or jaded by police harrasment he would probably sound a bit like this. "Food & Liquor" is Chicago based rapper Lupe Fiasco's long awaited debut album. Long awaited due to it's hefty list of collaborators and a troubled record deal that pushed back its release until now. Lupe is only 25 and through most of this album that's hard to believe. Intricate and profound lyrics are woven together so tightly and are complimented by intelligent beats. My enjoyment of Food & Liquor is similar to that of Murs and his 2003 debut for Def Jux, "The End Of The Beginning". Both rappers are young enough to give us a new insight into hip hop but intelligent enough to make it interesting. The times when Lupe's age does show are to his credit. We get so much thug rap these days and whether it's real or not it gets so boring after a while so its very refreshing to hear a rap about skateboarding as on "Kick, Push" and then carried on to the fantastic "Kick, Push II" towards the end of the album. "I Gotcha" is a jazzy little number with a heavy piano based beat while on "The Instrumental" and "He Say She Say" he proves he can deal with more serious issues.
But It's not all skateboarding and fatherless childhoods though, the Jill Scott collaboration "Daydreamin'" has a reassuring amount of references to jacuzzis full of big tittied women but that's not surprising seeing as production duties on much of this album are shared but the likes of The Neptunes and Kanye West to name but a few. Much of the production sounds like a hip hop album from the early nineties with lots of synths and piano but it comes across as intentional and really works. The guest list is impressive yet not allowed to outshine the main star and for a 25 year old and a debut album he certainly has a lot of people to thank judging by "Outro", the 12 minute long 'peace out' dedication song often found closing a hip hop album.
"Food & Liquor" isn't smashing any boundaries or redefining the genre but it's quality from start to finish and due to the recent DJ Shadow memo that he's taking a break from good hip hop Lupe Fiasco is a pleasure to behold. He seems to have come to hip hop from a slightly different angle and provides us with a freshness and honesty that is so welcome after The Outsider's cop out cliches.