Archive for the ‘Full Reviews’ Category

Review: Guilty Simpson – “Ode to the Ghetto”

January 28, 2008


Guilty Simpson – “Ode to the Ghetto”
Stones Throw Records 2008

In a word: boring…

I’ve listened to the album about 10 times or so now, and I remain unconvinced that Guilty can hold down an album on his own–even one with an all-star production lineup like this. I won’t mince words because I like Stones Throw or Madlib or Dilla or Detroit: Guilty got exposed on Ode to the Ghetto.

I initially thought that this LP had the potential to bring us back to the golden era where an album featuring sub-par emcees could still be a banger because of a ridiculous production lineup. I was wrong. I don’t know if it was an attempt to match Guilty’s lazy delivery, but even some of the producers come weak on Ode.

First, the good part.

“American Dream” is indeed dope. Pete makes the proper reference to Madlib’s Beat Konducta in India project, and that Bollywood/Near Eastern influence he’s been getting out of his system. This beat is vivid, multi-layered, and it changes frequently–necessary busy-ness when Guilty Simpson is involved. Guilty’s deadpan, baritone delivery works well here, if only as an additional layer to an otherwise stellar Madlib beat (in other words, a rapper like Phonte or Blu might not sound as great on this beat). Then again, this is a familiar formula for many of my other favorable Guilty Simpson experiences. Though I’d ultimately be disappointed, this track got me excited for the rest of the album. It was well placed.

The title track “Ode to the Ghetto” also works well, with Madlib’s kid brother Oh No lacing an old-schoolish drum loop over some more Near Eastern vocal samples. There are also some significant changes here, and Guilty probably writes his best hook on the album. Again, the verdict is that Guilty Simpson is only tolerable on a well-crafted, complex sort of beat. Anything less exposes his weakness as an emcee, as I’ll get into below.

“Getting B*****” is one of the last highlights from this offering. I must admit that Denaun Porter has become one of my favorite producers in the last six months or so. His beats are so crisp and loud, yet manage retain the critical amount of grime that keeps them street-worthy. His works also possess a soulful quality that is hard to describe–though it is undoubtedly aided by Mr. Porter’s unique, falsetto singing voice that finds its way onto his tracks. Guilty is dope here. This beat provides the busy, noisy, and dirty playground that Guilty Simpson needs. All of the above might as well apply to “Pigs” as well.

But that’s the extent of it…

Guilty Simpson is too often reliant on his image as a product of the streets, and lacks the lyrical skills to repackage that image into something more novel. Like many commercial rappers, he is peddling swagger, and not much else. That swagger works here and there (see tracks listed above; also see entries in my music library from Yo Gotti, Lil’ Wayne, T.I. and others), but ulitmately, the popcicle-stick-and-bubble-gum foundation of pure swag is far too weak to sustain a full-length album worthy of any critcal praise. I could see some of these tracks turning into a solid 12″, and maybe an EP, but not much else.

“Kinda Live” is a track that I think Mr. Porter should have saved for a more versatile artist (it reminds one of Jay Electronica’s “Hard to Get”); Guilty just sounds uncomfortable switching up his flow for this unorthodox arrangement. I wanted to like this track, and I’ve probably listened to it more than any other on the album, but in the end I was left with the same feeling that one gets when watching George W. Bush squirm when he’s answering a question that his aides didn’t prepare him for. This is dope track but it was not cut out for Guilty. This is not to mention the subject matter, which, now that I have mentioned it, doesn’t work here either.

“Kill Em” and “Almighty Dreadnaughtz” are the two single worst beats I’ve heard from a Stones Throw offering in a while. This wouldn’t make some myspace artist’s mixtapes. That shit was just lazy. If Mark Jackson was writing this, I’m confident he would add a, “Come on, Peanut Butter Wolf, ya better than that!

“Several of the other Madlib and Dilla beats take on that wackier tone reminiscent of some of the Jaylib material, with a more stripped down construction, which has the effect of exposing Guilty for the sub-par emcee he really is. Simple “cat, bat, hat” rhymes proliferate, and with a subtle beat, you have no choice but to focus on the lyrics. Songs like “Robbery”, “Yikes”, and “I Must Love You” take special emcees to make them work. Frankly, sometimes I think these tracks might only work with Lord Quas on the track.

“My Moment” is an interesting, synthy direction for its producer, Black Milk; yet the result is the same, Guilty’s lyrics are in the forefront, and they just put you to sleep. He ain’t talking about anything, and this truth is painfully clear when you’re forced to listen, and not distracted by a loud, multi-layer Madlib or Oh No concoction.

“Footwork” and “My Moment” kinda knock, but they’re not really my style. I’ll give Guilty the benefit of the doubt on these, but I’m not sure that this is anywhere near enough to tilt the scales for the album as a hole. Oh No did lace “Footwork” on that long outro (but you’ll note that the best part of the track is the part where Guilty ain’t rapping).

Given the high regard that many of us hold for Guilty Simpson’s friend and mentor J Dilla, Dilla’s infamous blessing upon Guilty as his “favorite emcee” made all of us stop and take notice of this guy’s career. I’ve often wondered what it was that Dilla saw in Guilty, and I listened intently for it. I guess I’ll have to keep listening–it just won’t be Ode to the Ghetto.

RATING: 2 of 5 tapes.

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Review: Wu-Tang Clan – 8 Diagrams

November 28, 2007

I’ve been bumping Wu’s new LP, 8 Diagrams, since about Friday and after about 7 or 8 listens, I’m ready to share my thoughts.

This is an extremely promising piece of work. I’m impressed. Mind you, this is coming from someone who does not own their sophomore LP Wu-Tang Forever. I’m not sure what more I can do to prove my Wu-hating credentials. Other than Ghostface’s last two LPs, I haven’t enjoyed a Wu-Tang album or a solo project since that 1999 Inspectah Deck album.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know about this project until I heard about Raekwon’s beef with RZA over the beats on 8 Diagrams (he said they sound like some “hippie shit”). As I mentioned to Pete earlier today, something in me said, “If Rae hates the beats, they must be good, cause dude hasn’t picked a good beat in like 32 years.”

This new CD bangs–and it does it with style. The beats are crisp. There’s a tempo to the album–that snowballing, gangstyle-beatdown type of momentum that only a group with 8 solid emcees can bring to a track. All of the emcees come correct, and show no sign of age–from what I can tell. I’ve been shaking my head at Method Man’s career for years now, but it’s like the Right-Guard commercials never happened. He kills tracks on this album.

I know the joke in some circles is, “yo, the white kid, Wu-Tang stans are going to go nuts for that RZA hippie shit.” But I don’t care if Wu has lost its street cred, I’m not afraid to say that this is some dope isht.

The album starts out fierce with “Campfire.” The main melody for this brooding track is provided by what sounds like an old black spiritual. The drums are crisp. There some changes. Method Man and Ghost deliver the first verses in classic fashion. As the tracks fades you you are left with this overwhelming sense that hip-hop has returned to a state of equilibrium, and the Wu-Tang of old is back on scene.

You should also check for “Get Them Out Ya Way Pa.” It’s a relatively bare-bones track with what sounds like a live bass, and some funky drums. But that’s what makes it an excellent canvas to reintroduce you to the Wu-Tang emcees–even Masta Killa sounds smooth here.

“Windmill” is a definitely a high point for the album. Classic Raekwon verse here. Note that there’s really no hook, just a subdued and sped-up soul singer sample over what is probably the album’s most uptempo track. U-God brings that fire too, I should add. This could have been left off of Cuban Linx.

I also recommend “Wolves” and “Unpredictable.” I take back what I said before, “Unpredictable” is the definitive track from this album. Some guy named Dexter Wiggle provides eerie, distorted vocals on the hook, which adds to the Hitchcock-esque staccato strings that RZA has trademarked. This ain’t no Gravediggaz track–no offense to their work–it’s more subtle than that, and less cheesy as a result. The screaming guitar, the power bass, and the eery vocals just work so well over that trademarked RZA sound. I really can’t do this any justice in writing. You have hear to believe it (I know if I read “screaming guitars” I probably would not check for the track–so you gotta just trust me here).

The “hippie shit” really comes to the fore on “While My Heart Gently Weeps,” a collabo with Erykah Badu and others. As you might expect, it is a cover of the Beatles track “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It’s one of those “Can It Be All So Simple” themed songs, but it’s arranged in a way that keeps your attention. And Badu’s inclusion lends some legitimacy to what could otherwise be considered a stretch musically for the RZA. I probably won’t go back to specifically listen to this track. Not a good response to what I think is the first single, but not a bad song.

The lyrical high-point is “Stick Me For My Riches.” Check that, everything is well done here–even the sing-song hook (though it may turn off some, I suspect). It sounds authentic to me though, and doesn’t get in the way of the absolute fire that is spit on this particular track.

On “Sunlight” RZA takes over the studio and provides a theological sermon in that cryptic, stream-of-consciousness way that only he seems to understand. If you find the RZA’s idiosyncrasies as entertaining as I do, you’ll dig this one.

Track 4, “Rushing Elephants” is certainly a weak point. The generic symphonic sample sounds like that Pete Rock Soul Survivor track with Raekwon, and drowns out the otherwise quality lyrics. I’m also not crazy about Track 11, “Starter,” an ode to their respective “starter chicks.” Musically, there are some interesting things occurring on this track, but the theme, and primarily the hook, really kill this track for me. It’s somewhat cheesy.

The album ends on a fun note, with a track called “The 16th Chamber” that appears to be an unreleased track from way back in the day. You’ll hear elements of familiar verses from the various emcees. The track kind of brings the group full-circle, and for those of us who have been fans since 1993, it serves as a reminder of sorts as to why we liked these guys in the first place.

It may not make your top 10 list for 2007–like it will for me–but I think most hip-hop heads will have a hard time arguing that this is not a solid effort from a group who, save for Ghost, really needed it. Bravo.

NOTE: For further analysis, check out Ivan’s snazzy chart on his excellent blog Hip Hop Is Read. It breaks down which emcees have the most appearances on 8 Diagrams. Ghostface is quite low, and Cappadonna characteristically keeps his fans wanting more. Props to Ivan for keeping it original as always, and going Microsoft Office on that ass.

My Commencement Speech at Kanye’s Graduation

October 13, 2007

They’re ain’t nothing more bitter than the fire spit by a blogger chillin’ at home on a Friday night (by choice, but you probably don’t believe me), so I’ll try to tone this rant down.

I’ve finally had it with Kanye West. I know. It took me longer than most to come to the same inevitable conclusion that dude is just plain obnoxious–to the point where it can eventually inhibit your ability to mindlessly enjoy his music.

When he first presented himself to the masses on The College Dropout (I remember DJ Sam Figueroa playing “Through the Wire” on WRSU, or rather what he called “that new single from the guy that produced H-to-the-Izzo” and me asking “oh, he raps?”), Kanye stood before the various sects of the hip-hop community as an exceedingly compelling and dynamic personality. To the “conscious” crowd, he was… eh… self-conscious; on “All Falls Down”, he called out his own materialism, but at the same time the hip-hop culture we all love. He was human–he knew wrong from right, but admitted to not always great at acting upon that.

Kanye continued his self-loathing in “Diamonds…”, the “Diamonds…” Remix, and “Addiction” from his sophomore LP, Late Registration. Musically speaking, Kanye’s sound matured on this album, and despite his grating self-absorption, you kept listening.

But it’s now four years or so since “Through the Wire”, and in 2007 Kanye is still apologizing for his obnoxious, self-absorbed behavior on Graduation–yet he apparently hasn’t done anything to change. This is akin to the abusive husband that apologizes profusely for his conduct, goes to the meetings, buys his wife flowers, but then beats her all over again, one week later. If you actually listen to the lyrics on this new album, aside from being some of his weakest he’s ever dared to spit, it’s nothing but an exercise in navel-gazing, of the most petty variety.

I get it: you went from nothing to something. No one believed in you. You had to work in retail. Now you are rich and famous, with rich and famous people’s problems: buying too much jewelry, drunk and hot girls, paparazzi following you and your girl around, flashbulbs, and then to top it off, the disappointment of finding out that you didn’t get free tickets to a Jay-Z concert at MSG. And you wonder why heads at the barber shops talk shit about you?

If Kanye was my boy and we were bullshitting over a beer, I’d listen and pretend to care, then slap him and try to put things into perspective–“people right outside this bar can’t afford food, dunny. Food!” But Kanye ain’t my boy, and I don’t care to hear about his pathetic non-problems–not when he himself has the perception to note much larger problems in the world, like the fact that his very own Chi-City, and many others just like it, are falling apart from poverty, drugs and violence.

Part of me finds 50 Cent‘s aloof, anti-social outlook easier to tolerate. There’s an amoral humility to it. 50 never claimed to be very self-aware, so you can’t hold him to any standard. He’s just a product of the streets, he’ll tell you. It’s unfortunate, but for some reason it’s easier to ignore 50 as a “lost one” and just bang the beats and hyper-masculine posturing. It’s perhaps a metaphor for how our society is aloof to the extreme poverty and crime that occurs in our inner-cities: the cities are “lost” and thus we feel little moral responsibility for anything that goes on there.

Now that I got that out of my system, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed Kanye’s album before I started listening to the lyrics. “Good Morning” had me amped to start the show. “Champion” got me inspired in that “Touch the Sky” kinda way. “I Wonder” has some ridiculous drums, and “Everything I Am” sounds great. Oh, and Dwele’s presence is a great touch on “Flashing Lights” with those pulsating, Paul Oakenfold-esque keys. The passion in Kanye’s delivery is perhaps unmatched amongst emcees in the game today.

It’s just that just that his message is passionately petty, and I can’t get past it.

Review: ISWHAT?! “The Life We Chose”

March 19, 2007


ISWHAT?! – “The Life We Choose”
Hyena Records (2006)

They’re probably much better live.

ISWHAT?!‘s second LP, “The Life We Chose” provides ample evidence for this half-compliment. The album’s only two live tracks–“Kashmir” (yeah, that Kashmir) and “Pilgrimage”–really capture the energy and originality of their stage act. While I might ask for a better quality recording (it almost sounds like there was only one mic), these tracks really shine insofar they showcase emcee Napoleon Maddux’s jazz beatboxing skills and the avant garde jazz skills of saxophonist Jack Walker and bassist Matt Anderson.

But ISWHAT?! is also a hip-hop/jazz fusion act, so what of the other tracks? Well, for better and worse, they’re all over the place. Overall, emcee Napoleon spits the usual leftist, socially-conscious rapper screed: calling attention to the corporations and corrupt politicians conspiring to keep everyone poor, particularly minorities (the artists say that politics actually brought them together in the first place). But he also takes some time to call out hip-hop culture for its own foibles (discussed at length on this site all week). I’ve spent some time commending Napoleon for using this medium to talk about issues of consequence, so I do not pass judgment on these views. I’m just happy that he can offer a message of critical thought, political awareness, and social responsibility.

But let’s get into the music. After starting off with the Kashmir cover, the first studio track on the album is, “Casket”– a punchy, energetic song with Napoleon spitting what is mostly a braggadocio, uplifting, I’m-staying-positive-in-spite-of-the-hard-times kind of message. The keys and the sax make for a smooth melody, and the bass lines are aggressive (as they are consistently throughout the album). But ultimately “Casket” just sounds overproduced. To me, ISWHAT?! sounds best when they are stripped down to their core elements. Here however, you have some pretty generic scratches, the melodic but powdery keys, a moog-type rock organ that sounds like its from a Fatboy Slim track, and a repetitive beatboxing all crowding the song, trying to sound polished. Perhaps they thought this would be commercially viable, as I’ve suggested, but this is one of those places where you should just stick to what you do best.

Immediately following Casket is “Profiles”, a track that I love, and that I’ve discussed before. I’ll reiterate here that I believe that this where the ISWHAT?! experiment truly shines. It’s just drums, bass, sax, and some scratches accompanying Napoleon. It’s really stripped down, reminiscent of something from The Roots’ debut “Organix” and there definitely will be times when you do hear Black Thought in Napoleon’s delivery and flow. It’s additionally noteworthy that there’s no hook on this track–simply Jack Walker’s ode to Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Contrast this with the instances where ISWHAT?! tries to organize its song in a more traditional hip-hop formula, with a hook driven arrangement, and mostly lackluster results. (See: “K.N.O.C.K” and “Ill Biz”). The hooks are often just monotonous and not credible in a hip-hop sense.

When I say that the tracks are all over the place, it’s because of songs like “Front.” Here, Napoleon is rhyming over a polished trance beat that sounds like it could have came from Paul van Dyk. There is the occasional wawa-ed sax from Walker, but otherwise it just isn’t original sounding enough to persuade me to genre-hop so abruptly.

The title track “The Life We Chose” is well-done, and stands as an exception to the awful hooks found elsewhere on the album. The main melody is provided by another wawa-ed sax from Walker and it works really well, weaving in and out, from the background to the foreground (the same goes for a harmonized vocal element humming an eerie “oooooh, oooooooooh” kind of thing). The drums really knock too, and at times they sound like they are being punched in with a sampler. Overall, the entire beat is seemingly in a state of constant change, and it really keeps you interested.

The theme for “The Life We Chose” also interests me, because it seems to belie the politics discussed elsewhere on the album. This sort of message of self-responsibility–that we “choose” the path that our life ultimately takes–seems to suggest that life’s struggles are of our own creation. It seems to me the message is intended to promote empowerment (if we choose it, we can change it), but that may contradict the marxist-type arguments that appear elsewhere, suggesting that higher powers (corporations, government) are in control and responsible for our social ills. Perhaps he’s just talking about the hip-hop game. I’m confused, so take a look at the lyrics on the hook and decide for yourself:

so you a boxer with a broken nose
hands up, this is the life we chose
hot fashion model with the itchiest clothes
dress up, this is the life we chose
a farmer on the turf where the worst weeds grow
dig up, this is the life we chose
grab tissue, face issues and fight your foe
cause you know this is the life we chose

Other solid tracks to check for include “Mooch” (Pete discusses it here), “Pilgrimage” (I discuss it here), “The Voice Within”, and “Writer’s Block” (I discuss it here).

But what do all of these tracks have in common? Napoleon doesn’t rhyme on them. Ditto for “Kashmir” as was discussed above. And I don’t necessarily think he’s a poor emcee, it’s just that this album doesn’t showcase his rhyming talent well enough. I will say however, that sometimes he sounds like he’s going too fast and his delivery suffers (lines don’t get the proper emphasis, others sound rushed, that kind of thing). But dude can rhyme, and he has this super unique, half Dougie Fresh/half scat-singing beatbox style going for him. It’s just that I don’t come away from this album saying, damn get this guy a solo album.

Overall, I think “The Life We Chose” is a good effort, and an interesting composition, but it is ultimately a flawed album. The song styles can be all over the place and the attempts at traditional hip-hop sounding tracks are sub-par. The band shines on the stripped down tracks that either a) are live, or b) sound like they could have been live. That is to say, I think IsWhat?! has good thing going, but their attempt to put together a studio album falls short here.

I give the album 3.0 out of 5.0 Tapes.