Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Record Binge, Favorites 2015

There's always been too much music. Just too goddamn much. That was true back when label big wigs had first and last say on what was bouncing off your eardrums. It's true now that any schmuck can lay down some fever dream in their bedroom and throw it up onto Soundcloud overnight (which, incidentally, applies to my second favorite joint from this calendar year). Twenty-fifteen was the year I finally caved and copped a Spotify account out of necessity after my iPod classic prematurely passed on to the afterlife. Even though I soon warmed the immediacy and immensity of the inventory, I'd be lying if I said I weren't conscious of the music's corresponding devaluation. Simple supply and demand, really. I feel the same way traversing the endless, expanding Spotify universe as I do when I drive an hour and fifteen to Amoeba Records and walk in without a list of shit to look for: at first wandering about lost in a daze, ultimately consuming more than I should have. I started taking down back catalogs like a locust swarm, flying from one to the next with near zero regard for taste or sustenance. I listened to new albums 60 seconds after they dropped only to remember nothing about them 60 minutes later. Just how it goes, I guess. Music as a commodity is probably a bygone concept, but really I'm just happy I'm not in high school today, passing my crushes links to the Spotify mixtapes I spend all night meticulously constructed for them like some lameass.

Lots of people like to mope about the greats we done lost, and while that ain't really my thing, I'd be remiss if I didn't give shouts to the broke rapper Sean Price, who passed long before his time. RIP // moment of silence for a real dude.

Thank you. Check it - as a function of this brave new world, I spent most of the year just listening to old shit. There were, however, a handful of new joints that I really got into, so here they are in a list (Note: D'Angelo ain't here because he was my favorite from last year. Beach House released two nice records this year, but fuck'em they still ain't make the cut.):


But You Caint Use My Phone // Erykah Badu

Highlights: "Cel U Lar Device", "Phone Down"
I'm sure I've listened to this thing an inordinate number of times given all the knowns. First off, it's a "mixtape" from the same artist that released Worldwide Underground and called it a proper album. It's effectively the distillate of a Drake cover that was purportedly thrown together and released in but a couple months' time. And I mean, its central theme is exploring telephonic communication at a time when telephones could more accurately be called computers. It probably shouldn't be very good. Yet, at this point I've lost track of how many times I've come back to queue up the first track.

Following the first two installments of her New Amerykah series and presumably preceding the last, But You Caint Use My Phone is spacier and more sparse than the warm, organic funk featured on the rest of her work during the Obama Age. The feel on this one is of an almost alien disconnect. It's cohesive throughout, though, and the almost throwaway quality of the production does have the effect of highlighting Badu's knack for developing hooks. To be sure, there are plenty of them on the tape, and its best are its simplest. In the relatively short amount of time since it dropped, I've had some combination of snippets from "Cel U Lar Device", "Mr. Telephone Man" and "Phone Down" wedged into my subconscious. Of those three standouts, the lattermost has to be my personal favorite if only because Badu's promise that she "can make you put ya phone down" sounds like an outright sexual boast in 2015 and is simultaneously the most clever insight regarding her telephone muse. Yet, as sublimly catchy as this record can be, Badu sounds pretty minimally invested the entire time, like she might have another 20 of these stored on her cloud service of choice. If so I'm trying to hear 'em, because truth be told "Dial'Afreaq" is about the only joint on this project I don't really vibe to. But I'm willing to give the piece a pass, because it's sandwiched between a couple quality features from a fake Drake and one from a real-life Andre 3K (the closer, "Hello") that is quite likely the mixtape's high water mark

The Epic / Kamasi Washington

Highlights: "Re Run", "Rhythm Changes"
I'm really not about to sit here and tell you I know a lot about jazz, because I do not. I don't even really know how to talk about it, or at least not to one-tenth the degree of your average helpful Amazon review. So my opinions are bullshit. Most of what follows is thus bullshit. On a personal level, my foray into jazz music is probably the single greatest musical significance of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. I think I owned one jazz record before this year, and I regularly listened to zero jazz records before this year. I'd tried failed at least a handful of times to get into the genre, but it just never clicked for me. It never really made sense. Could've been a lot of reasons for the shift, sure. Could be because I'm just sufficiently burned out on boilerplate indie rock and jazz is at least one world removed from it. Could be because Kendrick made it cool. Could just be one of those acquired adulthood tastes like coffee and cocaine. I don't know.

I can say for sure, though, that Kamasi Washington's very appropriately titled debut is responsible for taking what was at best a mild curiosity and turning it into a fascination. The Epic is a great entry way to jazz because jazz is but one of its many components. It's an at times impossibly maximalist record stuffed to the gills with jazz, funk, soul, R&B, a touch of blues and a steady eye toward hip-hop. It's three hours long. It's everything at once, all the time. The emotional peaks to this record are intense, almost exhausting. The many come-downs are cushioned by the underlying everpresence of a 20-person choir likely commissioned to keep the thing from crash landing from exasperating heights. If I were reviewing it on Amazon as anything other than a novice I'd say this record reminds me of the scene in Interstellar where the supposedly inhabitable planet with mountains and water turns out to be the very unsuitable planet with rolling mountains of water, and it would make sense because I know what I'm talking about. But I don't, so: Kamasi Washington is a John Coltrane acolyte (say most reviews of this record written by professionals), so that is the most likely place you'll turn next. Then you on your way with probably little reason to turn back.

In Colour / Jaime xx

Highlights: "Loud Places", "I Know There's Gonna Be"
This post says it was published on New Year's Eve but plot twist that's just internet magic. In real life it's New Year's Day and I'm finishing this mess up hungover six ways to Sunday. I'm listening to In Colour, same as I was last night as I was getting ready to go out and wage war on my alcohol metabolism. In the parlance of our times, this record is all the feels. Or at least it's all the feels I'm trying to feel.

I consider this record in many of the same ways I did Darkside's Psychic, which narrowly missed my 2013 faves but only because I spent so much damn time avoiding it. With two years' hindsight in my favor, I recognize Psychic as possessing near unlimited listenability. I can say the same for In Colour, an album the praise of which I considered with measurable skepticism and the experience of which I put off for much longer than was acceptable because of some preconceived belief of self that stipulates I do not (must not) listen to electronic music, man. (Whatever, I blame EDM). Closemindedness the way it is, for both cases I'd queue up the first track, kill it a couple minutes in and call it an honest listen. Then being all high-and-mighty-af, self-assured of my own prejudices, I'd go out into the world saying it sucked, unknowing of the fact that an extra 30 seconds or so into "Gosh" was all I'd have needed to be hooked. That's me. That's what I do. That's my shit.

I'm sure it's the experience of discovery and inexperience with the genre, but In Colour feels a lot to me like Psychic's other-half. While both are meticulous in their mammoth sonic ambition and exploration, the Darkside record feels like it's in deliberate pursuit of a destination. It's like the workweek to Jaime xx's three-day weekend. From "Sleep Sound" on, In Colour feels like it could soundtrack those slowed, drug-fueled montages in rom-com movies where the protagonist is chasing the object of his affection through a crowded club and you're effectively watching euphoria happen from a first-person point of view with the music kinda canned in the background. I don't watch a lot of movies. Those might actually just be scenes from my dreams. Like I said I'm hungover. Just know the emotional peak of "Loud Places" and "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" is gonna put you in a mood, whichever one you're looking for.

Multilove / Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Highlights: "Can't Keep Checking My Phone", "Multilove"
Unknown Mortal Orchestra is dope because they're one of the few acts in the indiesphere that legit don't really sound like anyone else. I mean, you can always triangulate, and if I were to do so I'd say they're kinda like if Hot Chip and Dirty Projectors went on a Tinder date that went the direction Tinder dates tend to go. Prone to unexpectedly able guitar theatrics and unique song structures but always kinda funky and danceable underneath, their self-titled debut was one of the freshest pieces of indie pop since the genre's inception. Their follow up, II, felt like a collection of all the B-sides from that record.

With Multilove, Unknown Mortal Orchestra sound genuinely inspired for perhaps the first time. And with good reason. The album details the dissolution of frontman Ruben Nielson's polyamorous relationship from previous year. While I ain't no expert on such arrangements, what I've seen on MTV's True Life leads me to believe they're pretty volatile and not for everyone. Take it from a dude that done been punched upside the domepiece when things been heated, I can't really imagine taking damage on multiple fronts. Neilson makes it sound about exactly how I'd imagined it would right from the jump, too. "Multilove checked into my heart and trashed it like a hotel room," dude croons over electric piano romp. Yeah, gonna take a hard pass on that. I fuck with the album, though. The band keeps it light and absolutely airtight on the very-singable/very-relatable "Can't Keep Checking My Phone". They bring it back down to more jazzy, subdued territory on "Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty" and "The World Is Crowded". (There's a pretty mean sax solo on the former that further reminds everyone the debt we owe to Dan Bejar for bringing it back.) It's a relatively short listen but only because any and all excess fat has been trimmed. I've listened to Multilove front-to-back more than any other record this year because of it. Recommended you do the same.

Summertime '06 / Vince Staples

Highlights: "Lift Me Up", "Norf Norf", "Summertime"
Lots of big brand rap projects were supposed to drop this year. That all changed in March. Kanye instead dropped a couple mediocre singles (including one catastrophe on New Year's Eve) and very likely went back to the drawing board. Drizzy Drake correctly presumed which way the wind was bout to blow and put out a preemptive mixtape (that you still had to buy tho??), before dropping a couple Meek Mill diss tracks and what was probably the biggest song of the year mid-summer. Vince Staples, though? Vince Staples went out there under the bright lights and put numbers on the board, simultaneously capitalizing on the hype from last year's superb Hell Can Wait EP and the fact that Summertime '06 is better than its predecessor and was basically alone in the second tier of rap records released this year.

Because Summertime '06 kinda breezed its way to the role of Other Good Rap Record, there's a natural tendency to want to compare it to To Pimp A Butterfly. I really feel like Vince Staples' first full-length more than holds his own under that kind of scrutiny. In some respects he even prevails. Kendrick's magnum opus is an exercise in extremes - so many big, sweeping thoughts and so much damn music - whereas this record is decidedly not. It's rocking the same murky, mercurial beats that made "Blue Suede" and "Hands Up" so menacing. Because it's so absent anything extra, Staples often finds himself expressing in a couplet what Kendrick may expand on over a song or three. He's probably never been as sharp and concise as he is on effective opener "Lift Me Up" which is basically a collection of rare gems. "Fight between my conscience and the skin that's on my body. / I wanna fight the power but I need that new Ferrari." Yo that's like half that new Kendrick right there.

Elsewhere on the same track: "All these white folks chantin' when I ask them 'Where my niggas at?' ... Wonder if they know we know they won't go where we kick it at."

Elsewhere on the same track: "Uber driver in the cockpit look like Jeffrey Dahmer, but he lookin' at me crazy when we pull up to the projects."

Most of the references on Summertime '06 are hyper local and won't mean much to anyone that ain't from Long Beach (or, especially, the Norfside portion that Staples calls home). That's kind of the point. It's the story of a very specific time and place in Vince Staples' life (as evidenced by the title), and by namedropping localia sans footnotes, he's reminding you that you weren't there. Then he straight up tells you that you don't belong. Then when you think you've got a beat on the homie and start believing his flow gets a tad formulaic, he hits you with a no-bullshit ballad ("Summertime"). Don't underestimate the kid. He's just getting comfortable.

Griselda Ghost / Westside Gunn, Conway, Big Ghost

Highlights: "Reaganomiks", "Rahbannga"
Last year's infamous Control Verse didn't so much fuck up the rap game as reveal to everyone that it had been that way for awhile already. Like really, though. How could a West Coast Rapper just outright annex the hip-hop holy land like it was imminent domain? Worse, how could there be no legitimate rebuttal from anyone considered a voice of authority? Perhaps most disorienting, who on the Big Apple roster is even qualified, respected or accomplished enough to issue such a refutation?  As bemoaned many an internet blogger before me, celebrated as are its classics, the East Coast has failed to offer forth anyone that could be considered a Kendrick contemporary, to groom an heir to the likes of HOV and Nas.

You can't really consider this development outside the context of the broader New York City class war. Manhattan ain't been a place for the proletariat for some time. Brooklyn has been doomed for the same fate since the day white children of economic privilege felt safe enough to take the J across the Williamsburg Bridge. There's little reason to believe the same fate doesn't await Queens and the Bronx should DeBlasio maintain the status quo. Point is, you see the dudes humpin' it in the city's kitchens or whisking the mountains of trashbags from sidewalk to landfill-bound ferry.. those dudes don't live there. They commute in to toil and take care of the elites before slogging back home to some dump that devours more than half of their take-home (and likely feeds right back to their economic overlords). And if those dudes stake no claim to the city, neither do the real underlings. And y'all know rich fucks don't rap.

Griselda Ghost hearkens back to hip-hop's heyday in every best way. To the golden age when a 9.5-track album could rearrange the industry landscape the way a pre-prison Mike Tyson might rearrange your jawline. This shit the celebration of New York City as a warzone both literal and figurative. A callback to the days when America's largest metropolis was its murder capital, when the Donald Trumps and Michael Bloomburgs of the world used to share the same 11-mile island with grimy, vile, prolly violent cats like Conway and Westside Gunn. Back when you might go for a jog in Central Park and find yourself on the wrong side of a Law & Order cold open. Back before Guilliani used the cops and microeconomics to push the working and hustling classes to the outer outer boroughs and roll out the welcome mat for vanilla wafers like Taylor Swift and her glorification of all the worst aspects of NYC's homogenous hegemony.

Aesthetically speaking it's really hard to believe this project was born of this earth the year 2015. Like it'd been so long since I heard dudes tagteaming over the top of raw, uncut luxuriousness like this. I'd just thought the shit was illegal. This is a free Soundcloud release, so I dunno maybe it is. It's definitely NSFW (sample lyric: "Me and my brother brought the toughest to New York: Mason and Oakley / Snipe you through ya momma window, paint the upholstery" - damnnnnn). So much of this project is proudly immersed in that early-90s tough on crime kinda vibe and the environment that precipitated it. Big Ghost - who, I'll just say this right now, is by some unfathomable ability a better producer than he is a blogger - says it outright in the liner notes. Plus the artwork is a still from that time Reagan almost got murked, and the intro track is a drug war primer narrated by Freeway Rick Ross. It's for the young and the old alike.

Clocking in at a mere 20-minutes, this thing is at once an homage to the days when heatseekers like "Rahbannga" and "Brains on the Basquiat" were commonplace and a reminder that they still can and should be. Has anything actually gotten better since the days of Carhartts and Timberlands? Hip hop sure hasn't. A sea of fire emojis for this joint.

To Pimp A Butterfly / Kendrick Lamar

All this shit the highlight to your life
Did you put out a list? Did you read all the lists? Do you know your friends' favorite records from this year? Do you even know your friends???

Look, there is a movement afoot. A nefarious movement, one most likely involving copious amounts of psychedelics that allow one to transport their mind/body/soul to another segment of the multiverse where it may be acceptable to pronounce any record besides To Pimp A Butterfly as tops of twentyfifteen. That segment of the multiverse is not the one we presently occupy, however, and so you must know if any of you out there try to pump up some other jam to this esteemed position, I'm going to punch your mouthhole. I'm just going to do it. If Kendrick Lamar ain't your best of, you're an idiot. If he ain't your fave, your taste is butt. That's end of discussion.

Look, let's all just be grateful, feel me? Kendrick made it easy for us. This shit was a wrap the second this beautiful, painfully important record popped up on Spotify. Why are people going out of their way to pretend otherwise to gin up the clickcount or posture like you got some great insights worth having. You ain't shit. We have so many other, better things about which we can argue. I mean there's a damn election next year and Donald Trump is gonna be on the ballot, yo. Save your energy. At least until we collectively suffer through the hate crime that will be watching the Grammy go to Taylor Swift.

Til then, let's all grab some beers and catch up. I'll let you talk all day about Bernie Sanders and why Currents was so good or whatever.


"Them Changes" / Thundercat

Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) has been a hired gun on so many solid releases in the past decade, including several present or referenced on this list. His ambling, nimble bass playing has an immediately recognizable style and sound that is at the same time both highly technical and easily palatable. On this year's The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam EP Thundercat sheds a lot of the pop and gloss of his first two solo full-lengths and opts instead for the kind of knotty groove reminiscent of his work with Brainfeeder trust Flying Lotus. The result is easily one of the strongest EP releases of the year. Probably my personal favorite. The centerpiece is "Them Changes" which is pretty easily the most accessible cut on the album. It might be the most straightforward track Thundercat has ever been involved with, really. It does flip the script at least a little, though, featuring a mostly airless, wordless chorus and a couple sugary, hook-laden verses where the only thing more savory than Thundercat's buttery vocals are the avant bass theatrics beneath. Try not to bob ya head along to it. Just try. For the full effect of Bruner's multi-talent, watch him shred his way through the track on KCRW.

"Dream Lover" / Destroyer

I'd never have taken a shot on Destroyer were it not for a couple iTunes gift cards I received around Christmastime 2011. I bought Kaputt, which was a record everyone seemed to love the shit out of but one I could never get myself to buy with my own money. Then I gave it a spin and wondered aloud whether what I was listening to could rightly be categorized as yacht rock. Why was there all this trumpet and saxophone and... flute(?!), and why did I like it as much as I did? Today, after devouring all of Dan Bejar's back catalog many times over, I can say that while there are a lot of old, good Destroyer albums (Destroyer's Rubies may be his best), Kaputt is far and away my favorite. There really isn't a situation wherein I'm not willing to put that one on. Coffee-fueled mornings of Facebook terrorism? Mid-summer barbecue? TSR holiday/War on Christmas party? Check, check, check.

The lead single off Destroyers follow-up LP is the only song that rekindles what made Kaputt so indelible. It also takes that formula to its logical endpoint. "Dream Lover" shuns the subdued use horns, the palm-muted guitars filling pockets in disco grooves, and Bejar's witty asides strung together into larger narratives that were so abundant on Kaputt. Instead it's louder, more bombastic and more electric. It opens with a saxophone wail so gaudy you'll be checking the cover of Poison Season for the E Street Band credit. Bejar enters and he's actually singing instead of sing-speaking, a distinction that is a lot more jarring than I thought it could be. Then the trumpet comes blaring into the fore and gdamn it's the greatest thing. There's so much sharing the mix (while somehow maintaining clarity) that I never even caught the electric guitar until I saw his performance of the track at Pitchfork Paris. The song really is almost too much fun, something the notoriously crotchety Bejar seems to notice before repeating, "Oh, shit, here comes the sun!", seeming to signal the end of the party only to have the band devolve into full-throttle grandiosity. So damn good.

"Depreston" / Courtney Barnett

Everyone loves Courtney Barnett. Be it her music, her personality or some combination of the two (since they tend to be very noticeably intertwined), it's easy to gravitate toward fandom. The best kind of cool is an unassuming cool, and Courtney Barnett exudes it in spades. She's out there strummin' without a pick, wearing t-shirts advertising her favorite bands, offering the offhand witicisms that have critics climbing over one another to laud her with comparisons to luminaries no less revered than Pavement's Stephen Malkmus. And then she just stays in character and shrugs them off, too.

Personally, I felt Barnett's Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit was a bit overrated as a whole. At least with respect to its location on a lot of year-end lists. It's good, but so much of its value is bound to what the songstress has to say, and much of the time the stakes is low or nonexistent (something Barnett seems to know and half-jokingly rebut with the record's title). There of course is inherent value of her canny observations - as on "Dead Fox" when she refers to a piece of roadkill as a "possum Jackson Pollack" - but other than a semi-recurring soft-criticism of corporatism's effect on the environment, a lot of it kinda just feels like wit for wit's sake. That's still present on "Depreston", but it's filtered through the stress of a first-time home purchase and the depressing, forced onset of adulthood. Whether it be her immediate resignation to the suburbs, or her eventual debate relative value of garage space usage, her cleverness feels like it has some weight behind it. She's confronted with her own mortality in the possessions and retrofits of the property's elderly owners. She repeats the refrain that she could tear it down and build something else for a cool half-a-mil, and it's a joke, sure, but it's the kind you tell to deflect. While this isn't the only down-tempo song on Sometimes I Sit and Think..., it's the only one where Courtney Barnett sounds genuinely downtrodden. Real Life will do that to you no matter how hard you try to shrug it off.

"Dimed Out" / Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus is not the band that recorded The Most Lamentable Tragedy. It's hard for people to hear that. It's harder still for them to accept it. But it's true. +@ are in their heart of hearts the band that put out Local Business. After stumbling into and executing to perfection as ambitious a concept as could have ever come by the hands of some scumbags from Jersey (The Monitor) Patrick Stickles & Co. stared down a world's worth of subsequent expectation, recoiled sharply and released a punk record. Because they are a punk rock band. I don't know why people are obsessed with the idea of punk operas or punk concept records etcetc. I guess because it seems like the least likely mash of style and ethos, but also the only one with the potential to actually materialize. But then you actually get them and they're bloated and didactic as can be with songs in suites. It's just unnecessary, especially given that, with time, records like Titus Andronicus' debut The Airing of Grievances emerge as their best. Literally pick any song from that record and listen straight through from there without having to give a shit about characters and whatnot. It's just a record. Titus is just a band.

"Dimed Out" is just a song. A simple, fast, direct punk anthem that doesn't peddle an ounce of bullshit. It coins its own rallying cry for the dudes doing damage in the pit. It reaffirms the bands belief system, one that wages war on the working world while refusing to accept anything less than maximized self-satisfaction. Lots of Titus Andronicus asskickers propagate pessimistic takes on the modern man in his modern world, but "Dimed Out" is damn near uplifting. It's the kind of thing you should listen to right before you finally go through with that long gestating plan to walk into your morning meeting, stare all your coworkers in the eye and yell as Titus yelled way back on their introductory track: "FUCK! YOU!"

Keep your chalice full, feel invincible. Bonus points for a quality lyric video.

"Genocide" / Dr. Dre (ft. Kendrick Lamar)

Ain't nothing perfect in life. The good Doctor's first release in the "new" millennium is far from perfect. His voice is noticeably gruff with age (though that didn't bother me). Shit still only available on whack ass Apple Music (can this be a crime already fuck). Easily worst of all there's a really irredeemable domestic violence skit that's an absolute vibe killer at the exact moment you forgot about Dre beating the shit out of women back in the day. The dope thing about Classic Dre records is that you didn't even need Dre. His own ghostwritten raps, those of collaborators always showing out on their A game, those of his featured proteges.. fuck all that. Yo, you can bump the instrumentals and be set. Can't really say the same for Compton. It ain't the long-awaited Detox everyone wanted to will into existence with perennial TBA release dates. This record only exists because motherfuckers just wouldn't leave the dude alone until it did. Considering the fact that it was tied to the release of the NWA biopic, and especially accepting as truth that the sterile, skant material supposedly marked for Detox was really bad anyway, we should count our blessings that Compton ain't outright garbage.

"Genocide" got me 'bout to bite my tongue, though. My gawd. Like if Dre disappeared for a decade plus and returned with only this track - fuck it, if he returned with only this beat - I'd be like "nah, man I totally get it / all is forgiven". Because this monster is on a whole 'nother level. It's a couple seconds of hot rod burnout squelch, and then the thing just absolutely melts. I mean it's molten lava. I mean it sounds like if Dali had painted a strip mall landscape off Crenshaw. That's about the only way I can think to put it. Andre and Kendrick rap well enough over the top, but honestly they could have thrown my ass on the mic and it'd have made no difference. For serious, and I mean this, if all the rest of the tracks on Compton were just Dre smokin' herb and counting his billions of dollars one-by-one, I'd probably still call it a classic.

(All you get is the beat because Dre/Apple still about some hoe shit at the end of the day)

"Cel U Lar Device" / Erykah Badu

It may sound unbelievable, but I first heard "Hotline Bling" as "Cel U Lar Device". As inescapable as Drake's hit was - and especially as ubiquitous as it became once its video made it every meme (still my fave) - I somehow managed to avoid it until after I caught Erykah Badu's take. After that, yeah, I heard it fucking everywhere. It's good and as a h8r that takes a lot for me to say. It's good, but I still prefer Badu's version. I ain't gonna pretend there's a whole lot of difference between the two or that my opinion comes from anywhere but bias. Sure, it could be because Drake outcheya sounding like a crybaby and Erykah sounds like the kind of chick that would hit the scene with her girls and document the whole thing on IG just to make him cry. But at the end of the day it's probs just because I'm still a h8r ;).

"Alright" / Kendrick Lamar

See above or see below. There are probably at least five songs on To Pimp A Butterfly that could rightly be considered better than "Alright". None of that matters. Plenty has been written about that album and this track on this blog and many others. None of it matters. No argument for its position as song of the year matters more than the fact that "Alright" became the most important song on the most important album of 2015 because the people it was written for chose to make it so. A friend of mine that's much smarter than I am once rightly said in a cataclysmically drunken state that we are so fortunate to live in a time where we don't have to learn about the plight of black people from Mark Twain. Extrapolate that outward. Minorities in America know better than anyone the problems facing their communities, and they can write and speak for themselves. They can criticize for themselves.

It's the job of white people to listen. So stfu and peep the best video of the year. And listen:

(This post brought to you by all the Hillary Clinton SuperPACs. Hillary 2016!!!)

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Shape Of Rap To Come*

I almost died when I saw Kendrick Lamar headline the final night of last year's Pitchfork Festival at Chicago's Union Park. I'm probably exaggerating, but if so not by much. For one and one-half hours, my body and backpack were compressed into the smallest volume my internal organs and skeletal structure would allow, and from the opening note of "Money Trees" thru the final measures of "A.D.H.D" I was less an autonomous human being than a cytoplasmic fraction of a pseudopod in the mob's amoeboid surge and withdrawal.

The whole spectacle was really more of an exercise in survival. My limbs would respond to King Kendrick's commands to raise up, but would quickly return to cage-in my chest when the vacated space was immediately filled with more bodies and body heat. I tried like hell to focus on K-dot's flow - especially when I could hear him dropping fresh bars over good kid, mA.A.d city's new classics - but that attention span was quickly reassigned to my primordial urge to remain afoot and uncrushed. When "mA.A.d city" kicked into the sweltering abyss with a booming "YAWK! YAWK! YAWK! YAWK!", the whole hundred-thousand plus went fuckin up. The involuntary pogoing that ensued barely veiled our collective physiological need to get up above each other, up to a portion of the troposphere where the oxygen concentration was still 20.9%, up to those finest droplets of water mercifully diffused by security guards before they evaporated into the thin, uncharacteristically dry night sky.

When the set had finished and attendees peeled off one another, dispersing from the othermost layers like dandelion seeds blown into the Second City streets, I stood delirious and awash in sweat of mixed origin. I had lost probably ten pounds in water weight and smelled horrendous. Couple Mac DeMarco records in my bag all bent to shit.. I'd change nothing about it, man. I thought for awhile that I'd never again experience anything that powerful, that big, that important. Even now, I'm at least grateful the set was good enough to make me forget for some time afterward the five hours that had preceded it.

Pitchfork Festival, like Coachella and FYF and, well, every fucking festival everywhere (and indie music on the whole), is really goddamn white. Scroll back through the videos of performances past. It's a stark reality that's difficult not to notice immediately, and it's present not just where you'd expect (ie. Real Estate's set). Four hours before Kendrick killt it, Schoolboy Q blessed the same stage. More alarming than the sheer monochromatic makeup of the crowd's demography, more alarming than the white broad in the penis hat, more alarming than hearing people complain about missing Death Grips was the willingness of all these white motherfuckers to drop the N-bomb recreationally without hesitation or consideration for their whereabouts. Shit, I was shocked enough to see them shouting it out in meter whilst in the throes of Black Hippie fanaticism.

As advertised. PC: Roger Mexico

However, it's also pretty damn disingenuous to feign shock at the arrival of this day when the hip-hop world has been hurdling toward it for a hot minute, perhaps since its origin. Like, you gotta know I'm mad hesitant to lay blame on rap music for any/all of our societal ills, especially those most frequently ridiculed by Fox News and the like (gang and gun violence, divorce, teenage drop out or pregnancy rates, etc). But as far as white millennials feeling it's acceptable - or at least acceptable enough for the white privilege shooter's bounce - to say and/or call each other or anyone else "nigga" (including the permutations, variations and shortenings of it) in public or private... for that the hip-hop community bears at least some of the blame for looking the other way and acquiescing the aggressions of perhaps the last demographic that can spend some of its parents' paper on CDs and shows and Spotify Premium accounts.

Seriously, though. Had the murders of Tupac and Biggie Smalls happened today, they may have been a catalyst for something more meaningful. Perhaps there would have been some kind of corresponding discussion about underlying forces political, social and economic that mire disadvantaged communities in cycles of destructive behavior. Maybe we'd have talked about why rap music is integral to our collective culture and why the quote-unquote "black issues" it highlights shouldn't only matter to black people. In '96-'97, though, it provided just the spark suits needed to start pushing party music instead of metropolitan street testimony. To water down rap music and make it palatable to moms in minivans. To make Will Smith's music career a thing. And with every Scott Storch stamped single of the aughts, hip-hop moved closer and closer toward displacing The Macarena as the soundtrack of choice for junior high school dances in the suburbs, refocused to the goal of getting pretty pale wallflowers out on the floor to bump and grind and do awkward movements with their arms. Nelly was there. Luda was there. Ya best fuckin believe 50 was there. If Eminem had been the Motor City Macklemore the labels had really hoped he'd be, that probably would have been the kill shot then and there.

What was ultimately most detrimental, though, wasn't the tectonic shift in the rap landscape so much as the fissure left in its wake, a certain chasm of "realness" (ugh) all but begging to be filled by a tsunami of young white cats waiting patiently offshore for their chance to rush inland and rhapsodize about "authentic" (UGH) hip-hop and lecture at-length about The Great Injustices of Immortal Technique. Turn your back and they're adopting the style and dress, too. Blink twice and they're slinging you their mixtape rife with beleaguered trials of fully-middle-class struggle. Contemporary rap music became a mechanism by which a lot of white peoples I know attempted to legitimize their claim to cool. Obviously, this has been a decades-long battle, but waybackwhen fuckboys of the early 90's rocking Malcolm X Wear had to exist with a straight face alongside The Chronic and AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. Tyga ain't dropping bodies off Greenleaf Blvd, and Kanye West - who, while arguably the greatest artist of our generation, is still the son of a college professor - ain't never gonna be as cutting and poignant as he was in the pre-Kardashian era.

It's this environment that lets a guy like me karaoke "Nuthin' But A 'G' Thang" to an entirely white audience at the Wrightwood Inn and claim cultural superiority. It's this environment that allows a 65-year-old St. Nick wannabe to immediately erase that memory with flawless, N-bomb laden takes on "Forgot About Dre" and "California Love". (Son was showered with bro-hugs after, too.) That Kendrick Lamar's major-label debut was the first album in what felt like forever to be substantive from start to finish didn't necessarily change much in that respect.

Y'all know me. I've been out here for a stretch calling gkmc a classic. I don't equivocate when I put it in Illmatic territory. Up there with Reasonable Doubt and Ready to Die and shit. The measured, insightful narrative of a youth growing up amid Compton street gang violence, it's the hip-hop reciprocal to John Singleton's Boyz N The Hood twenty years later, rapped from Cuba's perspective with Lawrence's wisdom (and plenty of allusions throughout to make the connection explicit). That being said, it is by all means an inclusive album. There's this moral, intellectual undercurrent running the length of its 68 minutes that allows for the dissociation from the events of the narrative and permits people whose only connections to Compton are KCAL 9 News and Dr. Dre records (myself included) to find commonality. It's easy to pull from the Spark Notes the easily-relatable concept of an upbringing spent overcoming obstacles. When I look back on it, there's also plenty of superficial shit for middle class white folk to latch on to for semi-ironic consumption. Bitch don't kill my vibe? Dreams of getting shaded under money trees? Eiffel Tower-sized, world-fucking dicks? Shit, we'll rep all that. Sign us up. I mean, c'mon, Halle Berry or hallelujah? You already know. All those refrains are uncomfortable enough to be hip or edgy but nowhere near enough so to prevent their hashtagged appropriation on a teenage Twitter timeline or to keep them from being bumped hard af at any southland street corner from my Certified Pre-owned Toyota Prius, feel me?

When viewed within the prism of Kendrick's latest, however, all that feels more inappropriate than it always was. It was hard to know what to expect from 2014's most notably absent album. There was an almost overbearing need for it to say something, be it commentary on fame & fortune or politics or any of a host of inner-city issues, whatever. To be a purely commercial affair in the wake of such an ambitious debut would have felt hollow (though at the same time entirely appropriate given the many, many competing interests).

To my relief, at least, To Pimp A Butterfly is above all else a very black experience. And that means in 2015 that it is a very uncomfortable one, as well. This is by design and true on down to every first and last detail. The title is an obvious play on the one classic novel about racial inequality everyone has read. The cover art - o, gawd, that cover art - is so impossibly inflammatory, ripped right from Sean Hannity's most guarded nightmares. All this said, nothing about the album's packaging or rollout holds a candle to the content contained within. Especially the music, itself. For a man that had first dibs on untold numbers of premier beats that'd have kept him in club rotation for forever, Lamar opted to do almost all the production in-house with Top Dawg luminaries like Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat (plus many more). The end result was a knotty amalgamation of free jazz and blown out funk that is anything but readily accessible for general audiences (I mean, it's jazz).

It's an act of decided defiance, really. In all the superficial ways good kid. mAAd city could be passively cherry-picked from the surface (DRANK) and milked for maximum profit while leaving message and meaning behind, To Pimp A Butterfly responds by requiring its listeners get down on hands and knees and pull its treasures up by the roots. It demands they have dirt under their nails when they're done. The record doesn't beg understanding so much as mandate it. It doesn't promise enjoyment or satisfaction so much as coax you its way with the allure of that possibility. It's never deceptive regarding its contents, but it's also never forthright about exactly how much is contained beneath the surface. This is why the sunniest moment of the whole record is the twenty-second sample of Boris Gardiner's "Every Nigger Is A Star" that leads it off. It's why the only two tracks that could be considered outright bangers - "King Kunta" and "The Blacker The Berry" - are its most provocative and definitely the two one's white ass ain't trying to get caught singing aloud come the hook. TPAB is not built for or meant to be appreciated through recreational listening. Experiencing this record requires you to be immersed by it, to think about it and set time aside and experience it all in context: the pointed and artful guest spots, the album-length spoken word poem unveiled piecemeal, the ten-minute Tupac "interview" at the end. All this is to say that To Pimp A Butterfly will allow you to like it (because it's really fucking good!), but it's not going to make it easy and it's not going to meet you anywhere close to halfway. To enjoy Kendrick's magnum opus, to rep it in front of your friends and colleagues, you're going to have to learn something about being (young,) black (and successful) in America.

((As an aside: Allowing the Patron Saint of White America to co-opt a couple throwaway verses and tweet out some bromantic bromides is more or less an extension of this method. How many pop tarts were exposed to genuine, uncompromising art solely because Kdot blessed the "Bad Blood" remix? Hard not to see that as a net positive even if all those flirtations were undoubtedly brief. I mean despite her enthusiasm when it dropped, how far are we to assume T. Swift made it into this record, herself? Judging by the absurd racial overtones of her music vids, I'd guess it couldn't have been too far past the George Clinton feature.))

To Pimp A Butterfly is about the State of Blackness in America, so it must be about manifestations of violence. Same as always. The violence that is white corporatists visiting upon the rare emancipated negro all the devices and instruments necessary to return to them what's rightfully their$ ("Wesley's Theory"). The violence that is the socially ingrained, consumptive mindset of groupies ("For Free?"), dickriders and old homies ("Institutionalized") that fuel new black wealth's return to lower entropy lining white pockets. The violence that is skin tone derived self-worth underlying and exacerbating said mindsets ("Complexion"). Lamar spends a lot of the album dealing with the implications of money and wealth and the fame that brought it to him, especially the for-profit food chain in which business interests capitalize on Kendrick Lamar who has himself capitalized on Compton. This battle is certainly not new territory in rap music, but rarely is it so thoroughly and insightfully explored [see: "u", "Momma", "For sale?", and "How Much A Dollar Cost" (Obama say what it do??)]. Temptation and vice vs. the sense of personal responsibility - that's the battle he seems most concerned with fighting and winning (at least in terms of lyrical proportionality).

There is also, obviously, the more literal form of state- and street-sanctioned violence driven largely by the economics of the New Jim Crow. This is the reality that certainly feels more pervasive in the year of our lawd 2015. However, within the context of the record, that verse on "The Blacker The Berry" is about as explicitly indicting as it gets. For the most part these realities are mentioned sporadically and offhand like the accepted, inconvenient truths they are in many communities of color. Whether it be the malicious influx of guns and drugs in the neighborhood on "Hood Politics" or the resultant brown bodies dead in the street on "Alright", its spoken like conventional wisdom, like facts that just are. And yet there's no real battle waged, no multi-song suite exploring motivations or paths of remedy.

The most you get toward that end is on the record's only honest-to-gawd bait-and-switch, the Isley Brother-approved "i", where Kendrick joyously transforms a line from the chorus on the single version (released last year to the "different-but-bad" soft derision and worries that Lamar might follow Brother Nasir's less hallowed footsteps) into one evoking the fantasy of retaliatory cop murder. Outside of that it's just "Alright", Butterfly's emotional center and the adopted rallying cry of several of this year's police reform movements. It's the song he closed with during his Kunta's Groove Sessions tour, and when I caught him at the Wiltern in November it's the one I honestly thought was going to bring the building down or cave in the floor or both. It's an anthem because it's power is matched only by its simplicity, and yet even the success of that song cannot overshadow the fact that it's not about triumph or victory in the traditional sense. It's the celebration of perseverance in the face of all this bullshit. Four centuries of it. And it's the promise of another four, if need be.

Ultimately, though, To Pimp A Butterfly is about reclamation. It's about returning Kendrick Lamar to the emotional and moral mooring of his hometown and its people. It's about returning black matters and black sound to hip-hop and intertwining them in a way that prevents their separation by assimilative forces of the market. In the aforementioned "i" it's about reclaiming the N-word not just from the mouths of whites but from the context constructed by their ancestors, entirely, and returning it to a position of power, respect and authority. The album may not be as flawless a masterstroke as its predecessor. However, its missteps are mostly in its eagerness to overstate its point and force the myriad dots to connect themselves before the Genius nerds had a chance to flex (see: the pedantic reveal of the caterpillar metaphor that grew on me over repeated listens, the explicit unveiling of the homeless vagrant as God Hisself on "How Much A Dollar Cost" that did not). Small yams given its size, scope and importance.

In 2015, Kendrick Lamar still King.


In 2015, Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive.

*Probably not, but fuck it PIMPS ONLY

Monday, May 18, 2015

Elegy To The Eastside

Thanks for the burritos
The consumption of which 
Was likely the closest I've ever felt to 
Being truly loved.
May God(?) shine his light
On you. Your children. Your wild packs of skittish, gimpy Chihuahuas.
May you awake every Tuesday proud,
Of the motherfucking Street Sweeper
Move your goddamn car!!
Even addresses only, though,
that's the confusing part.
To one less white cat killing your vibe!
No one (really) gets out alive.
¡Adiós! dearest Eastside

Pardon the absence. Ya boy up & moved on out the old spot. Another millennial asshole with a mortgage, on my Yung Republican grind and whatnot. Never fear tho I'm still R'side 'til I die, laid up pretty posh-like in Mag Center where gats get gripped. Never catch me out in Corona wearing a tucked-in polo walking a golden retreiver or some shit. Never that. 

On the real tho let me give a BIG TIME shout out to ALL the homies that helped me get where I got. I ain't worthy.

Let's get back to that semi-regularly scheduled programming.