Hip Hop

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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Dark Sky Paradise (CD)

It seems that Big Sean has finally arrived in a big way. The Detroit rapper's third and latest album, Dark Sky Paradise, went straight to the number one slot on the Billboard 200 chart following its release. That chart coup, for which he said he felt "blessed," was most deserved since Dark Sky is a much stronger release than its predecessor (2013's comparatively lackluster and poorly received Hall Of Fame) and is more in line with his 2011 hit-driven debut, Finally Famous, and the mixtapes for which he became famous. In fact Dark Sky Paradiseeven surpasses Finally Famous since the rapper, born Sean Michael Leonard Anderson, displays obvious growth, both as a person and an artist. This he ably achieves while delivering his beloved bad boy trademark rap style, and being joined by a star-studded guest list who, for the most part, perfectly compliment Big Sean's rap persona. Dark Sky Paradise's impressive studio collaborators includes none other than John Legend fresh off his Selma GRAMMY win, mentor Kanye West who has believed in the artist since 2007 when he signed him to his G.O.O.D. Music, plus Lil Wayne, Drake, Ariana Grande, Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign, Jhené Aiko, and the Bay Area's legendary longtime slanguage spitting rap star, E-40. 

 

Recorded mostly in Big Sean's new home studio, Dark Sky Paradise was executive produced by Kanye West and features the production assistance of such studio manipulators as DJ Mustard, Travi$ Scott, Key Wane, Boi-1da, and Mike WiLL Made-It. Described by the rapper as a "time capsule of my whole life in the last year," Dark Sky Paradise is the artist lyrically sharing with the world the trials and tribulations of his life, including loss of love as evident in the songs "Win Some, Lose Some" and "IDFWU" (aka "I Don't F**k With You" or "I Don't Mess With You") which was inspired by his last (pre Ariana Grande) relationship (Naya Rivera) that ended in a well-publicized broken engagement. "IDFWU" was pre-released five months ahead of the album as part of the four-song Untitled EP. Other highlights from Dark Sky Paradise's 12 tracks (15 tracks on the deluxe version) include the opening track, "Dark Sky (Skyscrapers)," the hit "Blessings," "One Man Can Change the World" which addresses the death of his grandmother, and the excellent Kanye West collaboration "All Your Fault." Dark Star Paradise is Big Sean's best album and biggest hit to date but it is not his greatest, yet. That will come, assuming the 27-year old rapper continues his growth as an artist tapping into his real life feelings and emotions as witnessed on this album's standout tracks.

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Future Brown (CD)

The electronic all-star team of Fatima Al Qadiri, Jamie Imanian-Friedman, and Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda of Nguzunguzu, release their eponymous debut album Future Brown. As the title would suggest the album is hard to define, if not impossible. Having bonded over New York’s music, art and fashion scene this crew expertly blends all of the genres and styles one would expect to come from that pedigree. Future Brown’s music blends dancehall beats with a mid-Eastern flare. It forces Miami bass and dance cuts to commit to the structure of a hardcore grime track. All while maintaining the depth and the intricacies you would expect from world class electronic producers. But while the music does stand on its own, the crop of outstanding rappers and featured vocalists this team has put together is downright savage. Timberlee on “No Apology,” Shawnna on “Talkin Bandz” or Riko Dan on “Speng” are some shining highlights. Get this release and look forward to what this new team might put together in the future. It is stunning.

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