Hip Hop

Blade Of The Ronin (CD)

Blade of the Ronin, the long-awaited follow-up to the Harlem duo's debut, The Cold Vein, solidifies the return of Cannibal Ox to the underground hip-hop scene. Having been nearly 15 years since a Can Ox release (barring a live record and 3 song sampler) rappers Vast Aire and Vordul Mega haven’t missed a beat. The duo approach the reunion of sorts with their trademark lyrical innovation and insight fully intact. In fact on paper the only missing part of the equation that made for their critically acclaimed debut would be the production of EL-P. But instead of lamenting that loss Blade of the Ronin moves forward in a similarly lush fashion without retracing steps. Largely produced by Bill Cosmiq the sound is fresh, futuristic, and hardcore. All elements that made the duo spark in the early 2000s. Cosmiq has accomplished no small feat creating the foundation for the duo's triumphant return. Featuring guest appearances from MF Doom, U-God, Artifacts and more, Blade of the Ronin is as exalted a return of the underground hip hop duo that one could ask for.

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Run The Jewels 2 (CD)

Run The Jewels, the super talented hip-hop power duo of El-P and Killer Mike, outdid themselves in 2014 with their anticipated follow up to last year's excellent self-titled debut on Fool's Gold. For the all killer no filler sequel, released via Nas' newly launched Mass Appeal Records and simply entitled RTJ2 or Run The Jewels 2, they turn up the sonic and lyrical assault with an in your face album that is as much rock as it is hip-hop and, while only eleven songs deep, it satisfies on every level, leaving listeners longing for more. If only for the pitch-perfect second single and best song on the album "Oh My Darling Don’t Cry," this album would be worth buying but everything on here kicks ass. As E-Lit at Amoeba Berkeley noted, Run The Jewels is better than anything either El-P or Killer Mike have done individually up to this point in their respective careers - and they've each done some amazing work! RTJ2's select featured guests include Zack de la Rocha, Travis Barker, Diane Coffee, and BOOTS.

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Yawn Zen (CD)

Luscious, mind-bending synth music comes to us from Mndsgn, the latest signee of the ubercool Stones Throw Records. Taking synth-funk jam “Message From the Stars” by The Rah Band and filtering it through a cavalcade of analog effects on “Txt,” Ringgo Ancheta creates a new cult classic of his own. Tracks like “Homewards” sprawl out on chilled out beats and landscapes that sound like they’ve had acid sprayed across them, gently disintegrating over you like melting ice cream. It’s not all dayglo synth jams though, as some of Yawn Zen’s dark corners are equally intriguing, like “Sheets,” with an introspective vocal that gets chopped up by a death-march lo-fi beat, and “Frugality’s” strange, spaced-out gurgling sounds. Trippy and odd yet lively and playful, Yawn Zen makes for a magical introduction to an intriguing new artist in the Stones Throw fold

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To Pimp A Butterfly (CD)

Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough second album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, left such an impression that hype for a follow-up has been through the roof. So forgive the Compton rapper if he kind of Beyonce’d To Pimp a Butterfly, teasing singles before announcing a release date and suddenly putting it out a week early. Pulling the rug out from hype and inevitable backlash, it gives us a change to all hear To Pimp a Butterfly at once, in all its glory. Butterfly doubles down on the idiosyncracies of good kid, eschewing club-friendly tracks in favor of those that cast a light on Lamar’s pure skills as a rapper and wordsmith—always celebrated, yet perhaps distracted by stellar production and good kid’s concept-album style—as well as his ability to put together a layered and compelling album. Tracks like the “For Free” interlude are showcases for Lamar’s dexterity, while “u’s” desperate, verge-on-tears delivery find him at his most vulnerable —Drake’s never done anything like this. The production across To Pimp a Butterfly, courtesy of such luminaries as Flying Lotus and Thundercat, like those artists’ work (and similarly to D’Angelo’s recently released Black Messiah), effortlessly melds hip-hop, R&B and jazz on excellent tracks like the off-kilter “Institutionalized” and gorgeous “These Walls” to exist in some mystery middle space, without drawing attention away from Lamar’s star power. While headier tracks dominate the album, Lamar unleashes a couple of huge singles at the album’s closing. At first, “i” could come off as Lamar’s “sell out” track, catchy enough to sit alongside Pharrell’s “Happy” as a crowd-friendly that sands off his rough edges, but it serves as a bit of a breather here, dressed up in The Isley Brothers’ unstoppable “Who’s That Lady,” though Lamar’s lyrics remain deeply dark, exposing his own depression, and a spoken word passage that delves into a discussion on racial slurs adds context. Following the reclaiming of racial stereotypes on the absolutely killer “The Blacker the Berry,” To Pimp a Butterfly ends ultimately feeling conflicted yet triumphant. It’s a deep, complicated work, yet not one that feels the slightest bit overstuffed or overwrought. Kendrick Lamar successfully defies all expectations yet again, on what’s sure to be one of the year’s best albums.

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Hallways (CD)

Homeboy Sandman’s second LP for Stones Throw should hopefully take the Queens-born rapper’s detailed, honest accounts to an even wider audience. Tracks like “Problems” offer funny, poignant lyrics that touch on both everyday and serious concerns, from STDs to cigarette smoke hanging on a sweatshirt. “I’m surrounded by hipsters; what does that say about me?” he asks funnily while contemplating his relationship to independent film over music that sounds like glasses clanging against each other in a smokey jazz club. On “America, the Beautiful,” Sandman offers a heartfelt (but not heavy handed) pep talk for feeling nationalistic, describing the random, perhaps overlooked things that make our nation relatively safe and livable by international standards, from the post office to child labor laws, saying “the streets aren’t paved with gold, but at least they’re paved” and “we are the 99% locally, we are the 1% globally.” It speaks to Sandman’s ability to say what’s on his mind without succumbing to pressure to appear harder or angrier than he really is. Production-wise, Hallways is a smorgasbord of great underground producers and showcase for Stones Throw labelmates like Jonwayne, who produces standout “America, the Beautiful” and also creates a moving landscape for “Refugee,” while longtime collaborators 2 Hungry Bros go heavy on the bass for “Loads” (featuring Blu) and Oh No set out a great, trippy landscape on “Heaven Too.” Homeboy Sandman’s ability to be really real may not be for everyone as some tracks may feel frivolous, but it feels like a nice counterpoint to the more self-serious underground stuff. Those who appreciate honestly and true personality in hip-hop storytelling should flock to the engaging Hallways.

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Eat Pray Thug (CD)

Das Racist emerged as young successors to the Beastie Boys in the late ’00s, combining juvenile yet satirical wordplay with anything-goes production, of warped Nintendo synths and classic hip-hop samples, into a strangely effective new medium perfect for the YouTube generation. As the band flamed out, Das Racist member Teems (aka Himanshu Suri) has kept busy releasing mixtapes on his own label and traveling South Asia to connect with his roots. This background helps to inform Eat Pray Thug, which is much more serious than anything we’ve heard from Heems before without losing his adventurousness or sense of humor. “It’s the Hindu Spike Lee!” he declares on the entertaining “So NY,” claiming his own space within a classic hip-hop production (“I’m with the brown boys, we roll around so deep”). Race plays strongly throughout the album, but Heems has a way of working his commentary into nuanced raps that never come off as preachy, rapping “Had to leave Williamsburg and of all the white drama/had to leave my home, they callin’ me Osama” on “So NY” or, more seriously, “They wakin’ up my friend at night for no reason/they promised him freedom, now he guilty for treason” on the hard-hitting “Flag Shopping.” Heems knows the best way to get his point across is through empathy, rapping “I was there, I saw the towers and planes, and I’ll never be the same” over “Flag Shopping’s” post-9/11 pulse. However, Heems also doesn’t allow himself to be typecast as rapping only from and about his South Asian-American perspective, as Eat Pray Thug has its share of simpler songs, like the aptly titled “Pop Song (Games)” and lush R&B track “Home,” featuring Dev Hynes. Such tracks might be breadcrumbs leading to Eat Pray Thug’s headier material, but taken together, they add up to a mightily impressive studio debut from Heems.

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The Ecology (CD)

Despite having a reputation for not being the most desirable place in California to live in, Fresno has a history of bringing the world some great artists - with Fashawn being a prime example. Fashawn, an artist who transcends labels and seems to fit in with and be respected by all schools of current hip-hop/rap, has just unleashed his second official solo album, The Ecology, which is the long-awaited follow up to 2009's Boy Meets World. He has been far from idle in the meantime, working closely with other artists such as The Alchemist and Murs, with whom he recorded the collaborative albums The Antidote and FASHionably Late and This Generation on Duck Down respectively. LA super producer Exile, who produced Boy Meets World, returns behind the boards for most of the album with additional producers including Beewirks who produced the track "Guess Who's Back." The Ecology is released via Nas’ new label Mass Appeal Records and Nas is among the guests, with others including BJ The Chicago Kid, Dom Kennedy, and Aloe Blacc, who also appeared on the first Fashawn album.

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Mr. Wonderful (CD)

Mr. Wonderful is the first major label release from the Queens, NY based rapper Action Bronson. The former gourmet chef turned rapper has been developing his chops over the last eight or so years, consistently gaining significant critical acclaim in the underground rap scene. After spinning that acclaim into several knock out collaborations (notably Statik Selektah, Well-Done and The Alchemist, Rare Chandeliers) it was only a matter of time til’ the rest came calling for Bam Bam. Mr. Wonderful, featuring production credits from the likes of Mark Ronson and guest spots from Chance the Rapper (both featured on “Baby Blue”) is a self-proclaimed “Life’s Work.” Which means Bronsolini ain’t pulling any punches! Leading off with the Billy Joel sample on “Brand New Car,” Bronson's energy is witty and profound, and leaves you hungry. A big step for Action Bronson, Mr. Wonderful is only the beginning for this Zagat rated rap star.

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