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Music Review

Drake Sets Masterfully Curated Ambience on 'More Life'

Music ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

Early talk of Drake’s More Life project offered the public no refuge from the nuisance of semantics, which confronts us daily with such annoyances as “alternative facts” where matters of legitimate constitutional and socio-economic interpretations didn’t already have us preoccupied. The predicament: if an artist assembles a compilation of new music, does it constitute an album? Drake disagrees, categorizing More Life as a “playlist” as opposed to a mixtape or LP. But More Life bears more of the eschewed categories’ qualities than Drake gives credit. Like an album, More Life consists completely of new material and establishes a tone and ambience in the ways of a mixtape (at least as those of the Reagan-era understood mixtapes). But granting Drake his agency to categorize his work, More Life still falls short of his grandiose promise to “provide a soundtrack to your life.” He provides us instead with a calculatedly mood-setting compilation bookended by shows of his mastery.

More Life suggests itself to be a platform for Drake to further exercise his fascination with dancehall and trap, as well as his longstanding love of Timbaland and Aaliyah. At its worst, it comes off as a collection of Views’ B-sides, but it succeeds in its moments of strong likeness to Drake’s OVO Sound Radio show (Apple Music). The collection is masterfully curated with consistent tone and easy transitions, while DJ monologues between various songs fortify the radio show aesthetic. As always, Drake’s rapping is tight and well-paced, but with such a lengthy release (clocking in at one hour and 22 minutes), he runs the risk of exhausting his limited but profitable subject matter.

On many songs on More Life, including “Get It Together,” “Madiba Riddim,” and “Blem,” Drake conveys his tried and true sentiment that love is hard without expanding upon that sentiment in new ways. The repurposed Stevie Wonder harmonica solo previously featured of “Doing It Wrong” (Take Care, 2011) deals a near fatal blow in regards to giving the album a recycled and unthoughtful feel. But More Life navigates past this with the single “Passionfruit,” a delicate dancehall-inspired R&B song built upon bouncy steel drums and synths. The sequence speaks to overall dynamic of More Life, passé at times but not for periods long enough to make us forget how Drake ascended into a position that would grant him the agency to release a “playlist.”

The most memorable moments of More Life are Drake’s skillful collaborative plays and his returns to his vintage introspection. Closing song “Do Not Disturb” evokes Drake’s mixtape heyday and his Thank Me Later/Take Care “tough-guy-feels-too” persona. The raps on the track are genuinely retrospective, lacing sentimentally provocative tales of fake Chanel gift-giving over a percussion-incessant R&B instrumental. Drake demonstrates a newly expanded music worldview with contributions from South African producer/DJ Black Coffee and British grime artist Giggs. He and Kanye’s interlocking verse on “Glow” yield hip-hop braggadocio gold and Young Thug delivers a flow-perfect verse on “Sacrifices” and radio-ready chorus and ad libs on “Ice Melts.”

Taken as a work intended for establishing ambience, both casual listeners and dedicated fans of Drake will find More Life as more than enough to sustain them until his next release. Though Drake’s classification of More Life as a playlist forces us to consider it separately from the studio albums comprising his catalog, it is hard to deny that Drake has logged another win for himself in releasing a compilation that meets his purpose of providing listeners an experience that pairs well with the many swings of life, from the mundane to the exceedingly hyped. 

Tame Impala's Cameron Avery Drops Psych Rock for Art Pop on 'Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

Remember how Andy Shauf kind of “came out of nowhere” with one of the best albums of 2016 (The Party)? It was beguiling, challenging, and met with rapturous acclaim. Everyone loves a dark horse (for the most part).

That being said, music most certainly is not a competition in which one artist challenges an incumbent band for some intangible trophy; It's been hammered home as being wholly subjective. Then again, it's hard to deny when there’s a debut that’s so moving, mighty, and majestic you can’t help but think it’s a cut above the rest.

Point and case – Cameron Avery and his debut solo LP, Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams.

The record is an absolute and unequivocal triumph (yes, I know – “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”), as Avery all but abandon’s the trappings of his more publicized musical associations.

For the uninitiated, a quick Wikipedia dive will inform you of Avery’s involvements with psych dynamos Tame Impala and POND, as well as some auxiliary work with The Last Shadow Puppets, and fronting his own band, The Growl. Let’s take a moment for the fan boys to settle themselves after writhing with elation at the sumptuous smorgasbord of indie music that is Avery’s resume-to-date. But that’s neither here nor there – we’re focusing on Avery’s newest (and arguably, his finest) project, Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams.

In a word, Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams is sublime. Avery’s departure from psych rock and subsequent re-orienting toward spaghetti-western-meets-cinematic-lounge-music is a thing of beauty; It's a near master class level of seamless transition.

Where the majority of Avery’s musical projects rest soundly within the realm of neo-psychedelia, Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams is about as nebulous in genre as one could hope for. Granted, there’s a distinctive (albeit indeterminate at times) emotion to each song that serves as the thru line to the album as a whole; well, that, and Avery’s dramatic baritone. Everything else on the record seems to take its own liberties of expression, in turn making for a magnificently mercurial sounding work of art.

Take the opening pair of tracks on Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams – “A Time and Place” and “Do You Know Me By Heart” – the former of the two has a romantic lullaby feel, with Avery crooning over a smile and display amongst loaded words and passing slurs. Meanwhile, “Do You Know Me By Heart” sounds like cross between '50s/'60s era pop, a la Nancy Sinatra meets modern day lounge pop of Michael Bublé (but a thousand times better).

After flexing his pop prowess muscles, Avery sends the record in a different direction on “Dance with Me,” the would-be Nick Cave-meets-Leonard Cohen spoken singing single that toes the line between sinister and endearing. Meandering baritone guitar and horn blasts ebb and flow with each bemused line of the track – “I’m just a call away / I’m just a plane by day / if you’ll just dance with me.”

Slowly but surely, Avery begins to identify his definitive sound, somewhere between cosmic pop and the aforementioned spaghetti western. “Wasted On Fidelity” touches on "shows to stop / and pills to pop," offering Avery’s most apparent confidence in his narrative, while “Big Town Girl” commences the cementing of Avery’s pop presence. It’s a romantic swerve of cynicism and solicitude that places Jane (aka “Big Town Girl”) at the forefront of Avery’s mind and tongue.

The motifs and themes of Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams are suggestive in a way, as the majority of songs center on placing unidentified lovers on somewhat beguiled, somewhat sordid pedestals of existence, which in a way create this gritty realism to the album’s overall narrative. In a way, the songs feel familiar and extraordinary all the same, similar to a Raymond Carver story.

That being said, the heavy baritone in Avery’s voice and his guitar do conjure up imagines of Cormac McCarthy minus the blood and guts. For instance, “Disposable” takes the concept of romantic shelf life and the reality of life’s inconceivable (and mostly inevitable) shortcomings influencing relationships.

So while Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams reaches it full form somewhere in the middle of its run, the album still challenges the listener to experience the record on Avery’s terms. “Watch Me Take it Away” is a musical despot’s dream, running from aggressive avant-gardism to 60s power pop to the slightest hint of Impala-esque psych rock, only to be undermined (and ultimately, superseded) by Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams’ sublime final third.

Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams ends on a run of cinema level of “long songs,” allowing Avery to express his fullest scope of feeling and imbue his ultimate musings in their most effective fashions. There’s “An Ever Jarring Moment,” which serves as just that, following “Watch Me Take it Away,” a near tonal opposite. Then, there’s “C’est Toi,” which out of all the songs on the record, seems to have the longest half-life. In terms of versatility, “C’est Toi” is the warmest of the bunch, all the while maintaining the cynical despondency of the album as a whole. Also, its just a damn good love song.

In maintaining the beautifully mercurial nature of Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams, the album ends on the hyperbolic yarn that is “Whoever Said Gambling’s For Suckers.” Its somewhat akin to a Bowie-meets-Cave satirical expansion on the song’s namesake take on the Motorhead lyric. There’s talk of Dale the Dog Trainer and splattering cerebellum on the back wall, a desperado’s tale of bounty hunting noir. Its something wholly unique to the album and Avery’s music itself.

All in all, Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams is an intrepid album to say the least. It runs the gamut of genre and challenges any and all conceptions of what an album’s structure should look like. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams was a total an unequivocal surprise in its sonic excellence – half because a psych rock album was expected, and secondly, the overall superiority of the record is astonishing. While we may only be a wee three months into 2017, don’t be surprised when you see Avery’s name cropping up here and there come year end list season; I know it will certainly have a place on mine.

Thundercat's 'Drunk' Stakes Early Claim to Best Weird Album of the Year

Music ReviewSean McHughComment
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While the discussion of musical merit with regard to Thundercat’s newest LP, Drunk, will almost certainly remain indeterminate (but skewing positive), one thing is certain – Drunk has the best artwork of 2017 by far and away. Totally devoid of context, Stephen Bruner’s head is visibly breaching or submerging with eyebrow cocked.

The cover’s uniform absurdity might confuse those unfamiliar with Thundercat’s oeuvre to date, but for those “in the know” when it comes to Stephen Bruner’s sensibilities, they’ll assure any doubters the cover encapsulates the entirety of Thundercat’s sensibilities masterfully. That being said, so does the music.

Being Flying Lotus, OFWGKTA (R.I.P), Kamasi Washington adjacent, Thundercat has been seemingly omnipresent amongst hip-hop’s best and brightest, all the while maintaining relative anonymity. Over the years, Thundercat forged creative partnerships with Kendrick Lamar and the aforementioned Washington, simultaneously expanding his solo repertoire to boot.

Lo and behold, Thundercat drops an album like Drunk, a 23-track powerhouse showcasing the furthest bounds of Stephen Bruner’s musical eccentricities. Running the gamut of music from yacht rock (Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins feature on “Friend Zone”) to the now two-year old Thundercat standard, “Them Changes,” Drunk solidifies Thundercat’s borderline satirist necessity in this new era of hip-hop.

If Kendrick is new-age hip-hop’s conscientious objector, Chance its purveyor of joy, Childish Gambino its Renaissance man, and Drake its stalwart of popcaan (that’s a joke), then Thundercat is the court jester. Point and case – the first full-length track on Drunk, “Captain Stupido.”

Yet another Thundercat/Flying Lotus collaboration, “Captain Stupido” is the perfect convergence of Flying Lotus’ brash g-funk production style and Thundercat’s… let’s just call it “inspired” lyrical proclivity. Opening with the line “I feel weird (comb your beard, brush your teeth) / Still feel weird (beat your meat, go to sleep),” the track dives right into the playful juxtaposition Bruner forces upon the tight production for a song about an ill-fated night at the club. It has the tenants of hip-hop, all the while laughing in the face of the conformity of such an “unabashed” genre.

Seeing as Drunk is in fact a 23-track voyage of space funk, trip-hop, g-funk, and every other brand new iteration of the new-age hip-hop family tree, it might serve us best to take some quick hits of standout moments on the record rather than building a blow-by-blow account (your attention span can thank me later, after your 10th h3h3 video).

“A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)” takes some of the smoothest break beats and sends them straight to the back of the mix, with the occasional snare hit creeping to the front at a particularly fat break. While the groove is working itself up, Bruner decides to present a hook worthy of a meme loving hip-hop head – “I want to be a cat” with faint “meow, meows” echoing in the middle of the mix. If anything, Thundercat is solidifying himself as a meme’s musician.

Realistically, Drunk is more of a hip-hop adjacent record that has every intention of masquerading as an R&B record, but lost in the midst of a mushroom-laden vision quest. Or, in layman’s terms, Drunk is whatever the hell Thundercat wants it to be. I mean, look at “Show You The Way,” one of the earliest singles for the album. As referenced earlier, it features two legends of yacht rock – Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins – alongside Thundercat and Flying Lotus. While the combination might seem like the “Danger Zone” of “collabos” in 2017, it’s a near lock for front-runner for best collaboration of the year (please let it be true; anyone would be better than another half-baked Chainsmokers song).

There are other memorable moments on Drunk – the anticipatory Kendrick feature, “Walk On By,” and iPhone alarm sampling “Friend Zone” – but one could (and should) argue that the best moment on Drunk comes in the one-two punch of “Blackkk” and “Japan.” The two tracks take some of Thundercat’s finest production and throws on a nice flair of freak-out funny lyricism. “Blackkk” sets the scene of a west coast lounge groove before entering the R&B night crawler that is “Japan.” One listen to “Japan” and you’ll hear lines like “gonna eat so much fish / I think I’m gonna get sick” and “gonna blow all my cash on anime.” If that doesn’t elicit a chuckle or two I don’t know what would.

So there you have it, Drunk is a lot of things, but it can be said with great confidence that they are a lot of good things. You’d be hard pressed to find a heavy moment, thematically speaking, but there’s plenty of content to dive into from a musicality standpoint. Then there’s the literally absurd lyricism – “look at this mess, who’s gonna clean it up?/Oh my god, where’s Captain Planet?” – Stephen Bruner has really set the bar high when it comes to making the tightest, casual R&B, hip-hop record of the year. For the time being, Thundercat holds the belt for 2017’s finest satirical absurdist album, that is until Father John Misty drops Pure Comedy.  

If "Good Songs Make Ya Rich" The Orwells Prosper on 'Terrible Human Beings'

Music ReviewVincent BlackshadowComment

Even though they’ve only been around for two and a half records, it’s hard to deny that The Orwells have already earned some polarity. They’re not as controversial or divisive as, say, Obamacare or Passion of the Christ— but considering the plague of apathy that has replaced most record collections, they’re not doing half bad. Or maybe they are doing exactly half bad: Some people love ‘em, and some people hate ‘em.

It makes perfect sense that their most recent and decent contribution is titled Terrible Human Beings.

I’m no statistician, but I’m learned enough to know that the rowdy Chicago— sorry, Elmhurst— two-car-garage rock quintet is not always viewed in a positive light by their hometown music enthusiasts. Many local patriots lament the band’s popularity, claiming that their Letterman-induced “like-spike” went straight to their heavy heads. Other natives pounce on the opportunity to share rumors and unflattering stories starring the band members.

One thing is for sure, though— there are some fucking good songs here.

Recorded in a month at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio (good heavens, talk about divisive), Terrible Human Beings doesn’t exactly pick up where 2014’s summery Disgraceland left off. Gone are the Strokesy “Who Needs You”s and the bright, youthful drum production. This record is just sonically deeper, tighter, and darker. However, partiers need not worry— The Orwells have hardly stopped having fun, and the new record expands on some of the better ideas expressed on their earlier stuff.

Relax. The band is quite literally all growed up, that’s all. 

"They Put a Body in the Bayou” opens, in all of its mod-revival glory. Band spokesperson and guitarist Matt O’Keefe can’t quite remember where it came from, but it fluently establishes the album’s theme of slightly fucked-up pop songs.

“Alright, make it quick—good songs make ya rich...”

Another stark contrast between Terrible Human Beings and the earlier ‘Wells output is singer Mario Cuomo’s surge in lyrical maturity. I mean, it’s not that we weren’t satisfied with his “gimme a smile, then take off your pants” shtick, but he’s far more effective here, celebrating new topics such as insanity and vengeful decapitation in the same slacker drawl.

Cuomo notes that his younger bandmates are partially responsible for pushing him out of his lyrical (southern) comfort zone. From the political hints in “M.A.D.” and “Vacation,” to the romantic mutiny of “Ring Pop,” and a tribute to one of America’s most underrated songwriters in “Black Francis,” the gangly frontman’s snarly sentiments cleverly stumble on the line between stupid and smart.

Sampha Scores With Beautifully Textured 'Process'

Music ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

Prior to the release of Process, most understood Sampha’s voice to be more of a texture than as a vehicle for delivering provocations of thought. Breakthrough features on “Too Much” from Drake’s 2013 album Nothing Was the Same and more recent work on Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” (A Seat at the Table, 2016) showcase Sampha’s vocal rasp and urgency as emotionally captivating accents. But there are concerns that predispose those who take on the consideration of Sampha as a solo artist: Can his singularly textural voice stand as a centerpiece for original work? Or is he doomed to be the most desirable complimentary artist in alternative R&B?

Process seizes the essence of Sampha’s beautifully affective voice. The album weaves his soulful baritone into intricate layers of electronic blues and acoustic rhythms, embedding Sampha’s vocals into synthetically and naturally ambient sounds in an organic synthesis. The tone of the songs alternate seamlessly between lush and minimal as the album swells from bare and vulnerable songs like “Take Me Inside” to the thundering bass staccatos of “Under.” In whole, the palate of the album is impressionistic, dabbling in forceful whips of synthetic oscillations and the delicate strokes of sustained piano arpeggio.

The scope of the subject matter on Process is wide and highly emotive, ranging from stories of surrealist disillusions of violence to laments of forlorn love. “Blood on Me” tells of hooded figures in pursuit of a bloodied protagonist. Its instrumental is simultaneously threatening and empowering. Its vocal percussion and ominous piano arpeggio corners the listener, compelling him or her towards some sort of life-saving action with a sweat-inducing degree of invigoration. Changing pace nearly halfway through, the album frames its single “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” between sounds of thunderstorms and a tranquil rainforest. The song inspires sentimentality and nostalgia through lyrics that pay homage to childhood and a piano section so classical in its structure that it is reminiscent of a child’s recital.

Sampha’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery does not muffle the potency of his incisive songwriting. The precision and variety in his songs’ lyrical matter compare to the provocativeness of his earnest croons. His brand of experimental R&B qualifies him as a peer to James Blake, although Process’s melodic nature earns itself a catchiness that wins over fans in a way that the masses would never respond to Blake, especially with his recent work. This understanding of the formulaic, yet subtle and unique, nature of Sampha’s production ultimately leads us to consider the album’s title, which flaunts Sampha’s control over his art. He is an artist with an ear for what wins listeners and a direction that circumvents the monotony of R&B’s most vacuous motions.

In response to the question of whether or not he can stand out as a solo artist, Sampha has demonstrated that he does best not in fashioning himself as the centerpiece of experimental R&B music, but in elevating every element of his music to a full-bodied and alluring creative experience. Process gets contemporary R&B music right in a way that many of his competitors have not. In his first bloom, Sampha refines coarse notions of soulful experimentalism and tests the standard for modern black art. 

The xx Straddles Sounds and Styles on Third LP 'I See You'

Music ReviewAndy TabelingComment

 I See You finds London-based trio The xx at a crossroads. After two records of subtle, R&B influenced indie pop, the group’s third album embraces some sweeping changes, but not as wholeheartedly as you might have expected from our first taste of the new project.

The record’s first single “On Hold” which dropped late last year appeared to announce some fairly pronounced changes over at xx HQ. Gone completely was Romy’s airy guitar work, replaced by thumping-bass and club beats, all over one of the most deliberate and pronounced samples of either the group, or producer Jamie xx, has ever worked with. The announcement appears a slight red-herring - while sample work finds its ways into a few of the tracks on I See You such “Lips” or “Say Something Loving," “On Hold” is by far the most dramatic example. While second single “Say Something Loving” begins with an Alessi Brothers sample, it occupies a small, tidy space at the beginning of the track. What follows on “Say Something Loving” is a more successful model of what I See You sounds like, which appears more an experimentation with minimalism and maximalism, and how they fit into the xx’s model of songcraft, rather than a pronounced sonic shift.

Perhaps I See You is better for it. Contrasting the danceable club beat of “Dangerous” (a track seemingly ready for alternative radio airplay and FIFA title screens) with the minimal, gorgeous “Performance” leads to the record feeling like a dynamic, fluid piece where the band both makes note of its stylistic roots while placing feelers out towards its future. By doing so, it avoids the most glaring of sins of their sophomore effort Coexist, which fell into the Room on Fire sphere of music criticism - like the Strokes record, Coexist didn’t necessarily fail on the part of its songwriting, but refused to make room for the more pronounced ideas that I See You embraces fully.

Along with the advances in sample-craft, thank in part to Jamie xx’s work on 2015’s dazzling In Colour, Romy also adds to the dynamism of I See You thanks to advances in her vocal work. No better is this present than in “Brave For You," a tender and slow ballad that demonstrates the best qualities of the record in full. Occupying the sole vocal part, Romy experiments with breathy, lonesome tone that adds perfectly to the song’s thematic content focused on familial loss. “Brave For You” stands as one of the most effective examples as well of The xx’s mastery of minimal lyricism. Romy and Ollie have never tried to overdue their words, and instead choose carefully worded, strong bits of humanity to make their love songs shine through. The simple association of courage and kinship feels relatable and tender in some of the most concrete terms the group has ever produced. “Brave for You” also demonstrates the album’s tension between minimalism and the maximalistic styles of In Colour. The track shifts between some of the most quiet and intimate moments, with huge crescendos in both instrumentation and volume that sound more like post-rock than indie R&B. This moment, all drums and reverb-soaked guitar, is one of the most exciting of I See You and should be a live highlight on the group’s upcoming touring cycles.

While Ollie has never been as diverse or interesting a vocalist as Romy, they still combine together for some interesting melodic moments, as often tracks on the record seem to hinge themselves on whether their melodies achieve the intimacy and dynamism that the more danceable tracks sometimes lack. While “Dangerous” possess a strong groove, the vocal melody’s relatively uninteresting journey leaves the listener feeling somewhat hollow, unready to embrace an xx that just wants to write indie club tracks. But on the sexy, intense “Lips," Romy sells the track so effectively through her doubled vocal-and-guitar work that the track would feel stale without them, like a Sade song without the Sade.

Where the record feels the weakest is where one of the extremes of style is embraced in totality. The record’s muted final third ends with “Test Me," easily the album’s weakest track, which is pallidly quiet and lacking tension that another quieter track like the noted “Brave for You” embraces in full. The ambient section feels far more suited for a brief outro than nearly half a track, and it feels an inappropriate ending for an album that represents the band’s growth in ability to negotiate between polar extremes of instrumentation, melody and energy. But when the band embraces these ideas most clearly, such as a track like “A Violent Noise," which bursts out of total silence with blast of synthesizers and guitar, the band feels so alive and ready to push themselves into previously unheard places. It remains to be seen until record four where the xx will move next, but this moment sees a relatively happy occupancy at the space in-between stylistic choices, happily dialoguing about where the band is, ready to experiment, try, and of course, love. 

RTJ Return with the Politically Antagonistic and Ominously Tense ‘Run the Jewels 3’

Music ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

At the culmination of one of the most culturally and politically confounding years in American history, one thing remains obvious – Run the Jewels’ feverish energy is capable of sustaining the duo as hip-hop’s foremost political tour de force. Their relentless energy aside, the past year has undoubtedly taken its toll on rapper/political activist Killer Mike and his cohort El-P. While the fervor and angst which marked the genius of their breakout album Run the Jewels 2 has maintained, this energy has taken new form. Whereas Run the Jewels 2 was the left-wing cynic’s cathartic explosion, Run the Jewels 3 is about the turbulence of tension swelling beneath the surface of a brooding and uncertain political moment.

The rap duo’s third eponymous installation is a thesis on their politics, brimming with the sarcasm and humor that colors their wit and socio-political consciousness. Lyrically, Killer Mike and El-P are pristine, emphatic, provocative and earnest. Replete with impressive internal rhymes, their verses alternate with the same chemistry they discovered in their sophomore release and they communicate their ideas with an urgency as volatile as the political change of guard. RTJ3 begins with “Down,” a lament of the impoverished conditions of their lives prior to RTJ’s success. The song’s woozy synth instrumental feels spatially distant and pairs well with the dreams of socio-economic ascension sung in the chorus: “But even birds with broken wings want to fly.”

The song precedes the album’s first-released single “Talk to Me,” which garnered wide-spread notice for its pointed insults: “Went to war with the Devil and Satan / He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.” The sequencing of these two songs is prudent and honest; the album begins at a point of vulnerability before reinvigorating and remobilizing the audience against political corruption. “Talk to Me” recapitulates the past year’s political context while outlining RTJ’s unapologetic brand of politics. “Born black / That’s dead on arrival,” Killer Mike raps, “My job is to fight for survival / In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk.”

The album’s lyrics speak generally on RTJ’s shared political outlook, but Killer Mike does not shy from the specific experiences he had while supporting Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. On “Hey Kids” Mike defends his support for Sander’s proposed tax increase on the wealthy, rapping “… got big ideas, got plans to rob / Any Rothschild living, Bill Gates, and the ghost of Jobs.” His verse on “A Report to the Shareholders" includes the lines “Choose the lesser of the evil people / And the devil still gon’ win” and “Ooh, Mike said ‘uterus' / They acting like Mike said ‘You a bitch.’” The latter refers to Killer Mike’s controversial reference to activist Jane Elliott, who said “A uterus doesn’t qualify you to be president of the United States.” Killer Mike stands firm behind the assertions he made as a Bernie Sanders surrogate and spares none from a well-crafted diss.

When Run the Jewels 3 isn’t a manifesto, it is humorous braggadocio laced into bass-heavy instrumentals that glimmer with disorienting synths. Its features are potent and carefully selected. Danny Brown begins the new year as successfully as he ended the last one with the critically acclaimed Atrocity Exhibition. Brown’s eccentricity and charisma render him a perfect RTJ  collaborator and his guest feature on “Hey Kids” supplements the album’s edge and personality. Rapper Trina provides the assertive hook on “Panther Like a Panther” – a welcomed return to the riot-inciting intensity of RTJ2. Elsewhere, Kamasi Washington provides a melacholic saxophone backing to the chorus on “Thursday in the Danger Room” and Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha anchors the album with the closing verse on “Kill Your Masters.”

Run the Jewels 3 is such an astute examination of recent politics that it becomes difficult to imagine Run the Jewels outside the context of an election year. Their confrontational and steadfast progressivism and their crude but clever comedic sensibility yield an album that perceptively chronicles a time of uncertainty, discontent, and divisiveness. They are rap’s best active duo and best political antagonists and yet, they remain focused on the collective welfare: “Not from the same part of town / But we both hear the same sound coming,” El-P raps on “A Report to the Shareholders,” “And it sounds like war / And it breaks our hearts.” With RTJ3, Run the Jewels have captured the zeitgeist of the past election year’s hysteria. It is a call to action, a political doomsayer’s passionate monologue to an uneasy crowd, and a fire that will burn in your belly.

'4 Your Eyez Only' Sustains J.Cole's Profitable Position in Hip-Hop

Music ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

“Double platinum, no features,” the adage goes. It is the latter’s absence of association, however, as opposed to the commercial success presented in the former, which has kept J. Cole from falling the way of his mixtape heyday peers Wale and Meek Mill.

As divided as most hip-hop fans are about J. Cole’s music, it is difficult not to wish him success. His humble and sincere persona, substantiated by chance encounters with him on local bus routes and his bike commute home, have rendered him the most “likable” person in hip-hop. With J. Cole we have a different hip-hop figure. Where an artist like Kendrick Lamar is likely to glean over the heads of a community which elevates the likes of Lil’ Yachty and Lil’ Uzi Vert into the upper tier, J. Cole is able to engage the masses in a discourse on politics, social issues, and virtue.

J. Cole’s prowess as a producer revealed itself well before he attained his double-platinum status. Hits like “Power Trip” and “No Role Modelz” demonstrated the work of a creative mind with an innate ability to contort the popular instrumental palate and appeal to bread-earning demands of airplay. In this sense, J. Cole has been something of an oxymoron – a hit-maker with a live performance interspersed with sermons speaking against materialism. As endearing as these qualities are in J. Cole, it is a wonder that his lyrical substance has failed to match the quality of his instrumental production or his maturely grounded worldview.

4 Your Eyez Only acknowledges the fact that J. Cole connects best with fans on a personal level. From the album’s beginning and onward, he sings with an earnestness which doesn’t indicate a strain to achieve scintillating R&B vocals, but establishes vulnerability. His raps refer onto his signature range of swaggering self-assurance and endearing portrayals of insecurity. As a whole, the album’s instrumentals are more consistent than 2014’s 2014 Forrest Hills Drive. J. Cole laces boom-bap percussions with glitch-synth accents and motifs to create a body of work that is approachable and easy. The album shows his aesthetic not as improved, but refined. Nowhere on it do we hear J. Cole relate the world to frigid temperatures with his overused trademark ad lib. Instead, we are given a more patient and well-portioned album which looks to sustain listeners from beginning to end.

Returning J. Cole fans will find themselves satisfied with anthemic hits like “Immortal” and “Déjà Vu.” The latter’s production reveals the live performance sensibility that J. Cole has picked up in his past year on the music festival circuit. The song begins and ends with a call-and-response fanplay which has the makings for great performative moments, but does little to stimulate any provocative considerations. Superficialities aside, “Déjà Vu’s” trap percussion and Rich Boi-esque post-chorus make it a mainstay for the late night car ride or commute home.

An undeniable highlight, “Neighbors” contemplates racism through an anecdote inspired by true events. Its woozy, molasses-thick instrumental evokes early A$AP Rocky while raising interesting dilemmas of black success and stereotypes. The album’s intellectual high, “Neighbors” finds itself alone as a moment of progression for J. Cole. The rest of 4 Your Eyez Only fails to match, lyrically or instrumentally, the substance of J. Cole’s close reading of race relations on the song and can at best be considered superficial, tried, and tired.

Were J. Cole to give into the fixations of luxury and excess of his lesser popular peers, he may not be as prominent a figure within the genre as he currently is. His character yields no indication of him doing so, but the risk he currently runs with 4 Your Eyez Only is stagnation. 4 Your Eyez Only provides nothing more and nothing less than what fans have come to love about his music. It shows a successful J. Cole inhabiting the profitable and comfortable place in hip-hop he has carved out for himself and does little to reinforce that position to endure the long-term.

On First Solo Album, 'Use Your Delusion,' Man Man's Honus Honus Does Just That

Music ReviewWeston PaganoComment

Until Use Your Delusion, Man Man and Mister Heavenly maverick Honus Honus’ debut solo release, there had never before been a record you could fund in part with the purchase of a $666 denim vest and a disposable camera full of images of faked deaths. But, then again, there has never before been an artist with quite the same bizarro charm as Honus, either.

Despite flying solo, Honus (née Ryan Kattner) is backed by quite the supporting cast: Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse, The Shins, Cold War Kids, Mister Heavenly) pilots the percussion, King Cyrus King (Super Deluxe) contributes production and guitar, Dann Gallucci (Modest Mouse, The Murder City Devils, Cold War Kids) handles mixing, comedian Jon Daly is on sax, and even polymath Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Got a Girl, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 10 Cloverfield Lane) and Shannon Shaw (Shannon and the Clams) feature.

Still, it’s clear the self-released Use Your Delusion is a cathartic release of the chaotic menagerie stirring in its creator’s wildly whiskered head, loosened by the freedom of truly setting out on one’s own. It’s not easy to match the dynamic eclection of his Man Man discography, but Honus damn near tops it in half an hour. For example, the accessible pop of ”Heavy Jesus" leans more On Oni Pond, “Will You?”’s soothing piano is very Rabbit Habits, and the "sour milk and cocaine" death metal freak of ”Red Velvet" might feel most at home writhing on Six Demon Bag. But Honus explores brand new territory as well with the nearly David Gilmour-worthy guitar solo of “Santa Monica” and the surprise amusement of what can be likened to Eric Idle-esque pomp on album closer “Empty Bottle.”

Having moved his dystopian sound to the west coast, the “apocalyptic LA pop” vibe rings clearest through the surfy tones in the nimble guitar work most notably on single “Oh No!”. Set to lines like “Happiness is just an accident wearing different clothes,” it’s an artfully classic example of sad sentiments stuck in a sunny song. “Your heart is bubble-wrapped in permanent depression,” he coos too a deft touch of sax and an almost reggae pulse resulting in a deceptively delightful package. “Will You?” in turn matches its “Rabbit Habits” keys to the sunlit savagery of a suicide prolonged awaiting love with a paradoxical knowingness few could pull off with sincerity.

First single, “Heavy Jesus,” is similarly bouncy, but replaces the angst with heretic hilarity. They say God works in mysterious ways, but Jesus himself appearing to an unwilling heavy metal disciple via a late night quesadilla is certainly a new one. Use Your Delusion would lend itself well to a similar marketing campaign; It’s not hard to imagine midnight taco trucks blaring this album like an ice cream truck jingle gone rogue.

On “Midnight Caller” Honus claims, “I don’t see any point in honesty / ‘Cause honestly, it’s the worst / And honestly, honesty can take a long walk off a short pier,” with wordplay reminiscent of “Van Helsing Boombox.” Yet Use Your Delusion, nor any other song he’s ever sung, rings hollow or faked, even at his most maniacal. The word “carnivalesque” gets thrown around a lot when describing Honus’ repertoire, but endearingly that’s just what it often is. Honus howls, trapped in a house of mirrors that beautifully distorts the fits and visions of his genius. The alien bearded lady won’t stop screaming.

When Honus first spoke about the then-unannounced LP in an interview we did last year, he told us much of Use Your Delusion would be increasingly gentle on the vocal cords for a couple of reasons; One, Honus was shredding his pipes singing his older material and needed to tone it down in the interest of sustainability, and two, he sang more quietly in his LA practice space out of discomfort with an FKA Twigs knockoff and Bruce Springsteen cover band flanking him through either wall. I like to imagine somewhere they’re giving interviews about the shock of hearing “Red Velvet” from the other room.

Read our full in-depth interview with Honus Honus about Use Your Delusion, Man Man, Mister Heavenly and more, here. Buy Use Your Delusion here.

Phantogram Amps up in Search of New Highs on 'Three'

Music ReviewWeston PaganoComment

Following their genre-bending collaboration with Big Boi last year, Phantogram’s next direction was always going to be an expansive and confident one. With Sarah Barthel’s dynamic, sultry vocals now commanding more widespread attention and Josh Carter’s glitchy backdrops earning larger stages, the dream pop trip hop duo found themselves on a deserved platform for growth. In enlisting mainstreamers from Ricky Reed’s (Jason Derulo, Meghan Trainor) glossy production to Semisonic’s Dan Wilson (Adele, Taylor Swift) co-writing credit, Phantogram’s transition from Barsuk indies to Republic pride became increasingly clear. 

On their aptly-named third record, Three, tracks like opener “Funeral Pyre” and plaintive lines including, “I keep on having this dream / Where I'm stuck in a hole and I can't get out / There's always something that's pulling me down, down, down,” carry extra weight in the context of the abrupt passing of Barthel’s sister, who was also a close friend of Carter, during the album’s creation. Through this lens Phantogram touches truly sobering depths, wondering, "Walk with me to the end / Stare with me into the abyss / Do you feel like letting go? / I wonder how far down it is."

But “Same Old Blues” quickly shows for all the morbidity they mustn’t succumb to moroseness in sound, peaking in a powerful gospel-turned-electronica punch with blistering guitar. Flagship single "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" next has Barthel's breathless vocals dancing over Carter's massive, fuzzed-out bass synth bombs at a frenetic pace. “Used to take one / Now it takes four / You don’t get me high anymore,” she cries, and indeed the track is a bold embodiment of the band’s restless climb. Maturing from a humble indie outfit from upstate New York into big league #FestivalKillers rubbing shoulders with Miley Cyrus and rap legends, the duo continues to push themselves to the brink as a louder, flashier, and more sexualized act at every turn.

Featuring a drum machine sonic collage reminiscent of "Don't Move," the sharp standout “Cruel World” seems primed for car commercial levels of ubiquity, but, complete with the nice, subtle touch of the warm fuzz of a vinyl spin we first heard on "When I'm Small," it’s one we wouldn't mind hearing around for some time. With its scattered string samples and equally scattered ramblings, “Barking Dog” is a welcome return to the oft overshadowed strengths of Carter’s increasingly rare lead tracks, but doesn’t quite cut to the same emotional depth as, say, “I Don’t Blame You.”

Urban influences showing through, “You’re Mine”’s electrifying rhythm isn’t unlike - dare I say it - Future’s “Jumpman,” and would feel right at home with Big Boi spitting a verse or two. “Run Run Blood” then features the brass creep of horns contributed by The Antlers’ Darby Cicci, the surprising highlight of a mix that has Phantogram at their most brooding in years. “Destroyer,” in turn, is a vessel for showcasing Barthel’s skyrocketing vocal range.

Hitting the notes required for both dancefloor movability and indie playlist inclusion, Three’s wild sonic and emotional swings can seem jarring. You’d be forgiven for wondering how you got from the initial feelings of loss to the sensual slink of carefree sex anthem “Calling All” in only half an hour, though that transition was long in motion since Big Grams was born. It’s in these ways Phantogram’s third installment sometimes reads less like an album and more like a collection of singles looking to package the eclectic angles of their human condition into different shots at exuberant accessibility, yet each shift arguably feels as natural as the last. Indulging in the instant gratification of radio-ready drops over the more stable, steady charm of classics like “Mouthful of Diamonds,” Three is at times moody and unhinged, but undeniably succeeds at what the duo seems to have set out to do.

Three reveals a Phantogram veering ever closer to the sun in terms of stadium-filling riffs and diamond-polished edges - Carter’s beard and black-rimmed glasses are long gone in favor of basketball jerseys and gold chains, while Barthel has evolved into a full-blown blonde bombshell - but strip it all alway and there’s still enough of their unique charm amidst the beats and bravado for now. What next emerges from the pyre of Three, though, is anyone’s guess.