U-God – The Keynote Speaker album review

So much of the beauty of the Wu Tang Clan is in the versatility of the unit. 9 members (and countless affiliates) offer 9 fresh perspectives at any given time, and the 36 chambers contain deep, labyrinthic sonic experiences. From GZA’s scientific lyrical forensics, to Raekwon’s vivid, sinister cocaina narratives to the flavorful lyricist lounge musings of Tical, there is something for everyone, and the most popular members all have a distinct role.

When it comes to U-God though, there’s never seemed to be the resonant energy or eager expectation to enter the world of Golden Arms. His classic, legacy setting verse on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin” gives off vibes near the GZA, Masta Killa, Killah Priest circle of the clan. His memorable verse on “Cherchez La Ghost” was perhaps the complete opposite. Is it to his credit that he’s able to morph from philosophical to rambunctious as the needs of his fellow clansmen arise, or is it the exact reason he wasn’t able to forge his own niche? Could it be both? Whatever the case, U-God’s “Keynote speaker” attempts to reverse the course of perhaps the most wayward catalog in the Wu canon.

From the outset, the most apparent observation can be made sonically. Wu solos tend to bear hallmarks of the classic group albums beatwise, but because U-God was attempting to stand on his own perhaps, the production here is lacking. If they had to compare, this would be an album full of cutting room floor Wu Tang Forever records. The bland samples, and poorly mixed, mechanical drums create an unappealing canvas that any artist would have to work hard to overcome. Does he?

U-God has always been a strong technical MC, but again, his trademark seems to be a lack of a trademark. He’s all over the place on this album.

In a time where Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest and Prodigy, among other 90s stalwarts are still thriving by updating their classic sound for new ears, U-God still hasn’t seemed to find his. Worse yet for him, it’s not until he raises the W that this album delivers. “Heads Up” with GZA and “Mt. Everest” with Inspectah Deck and (Elzhi) are two of the strongest tracks of the album, and the introspective chest thumping “Heavyweight” is powerful, where Golden Arms recalls his ascent “from the strip to a righteous dude”, which no doubt was a byproduct of the Wu’s heavy 5 percenter core.

Beyond those few and far between moments is a project characterized by outright bad hooks and technically precise yet dull lyricism with typical veteran posturing. When U-God says “picture me following them, I don’t follow a trend” on “Days of Glory”, the stubbornness apparent throughout is finally acknowledged. It’s all well and good when an artist doesn’t chase trends, they just have to realize what they offer should be able to stand on it’s own merits. This project can not. If he’s the Keynote speaker his speech left much to be desired.

U-God - The Keynote Speaker album review

DJ Tony Touch – The Piece Maker 3: Return of the 50 MCs album review

DJ Tony Touch’s legendary 50 MCs mixtape series has sparked and supported the careers of countless MCs throughout the years. Where other mixtape DJs may clamor for whoever the hot artists are no matter their sound or content Tony Toca has stayed tried and true to the boom bap blueprint.

With that allegiance to the true school in mind he crafted Return of the 50 Mcs, a sprawling project that aims and succeeds in putting the listener in a 90s state of mind.

With a who’s who of legends from Kool G Rap, to KRS One, and even an Eminem freestyle, his support of a wide range of artists have definitely been reciprocated on the project. Whereas Funkmaster Flex’s recent double CD full of tracks flex his knack for networking, with nearly every radio name accounted for, Touch’s project doesn’t stray from his stalwarts of the gritty, no nonsense sound that’s so lacking today. From the plethora of “where has he been” features to the production this is the antithesis of the DJ Khaled/Dj Drama type of compilation, for better or worse.

Those looking for their fix of 1990s inspired hip-hop will thoroughly enjoy this project, but anyone looking to see some kind of bridging of the gap sonically should look elsewhere. Save an odd Lex Lugeresque moment with Thirstin Howl III the Beatnuts-helmed soundscape stays beholden to hard snares, thumping kicks, and choppy samples. It works best on moments like the sinister guitar chops on “Hold That” (featuring Busta Rhymes and Roc Marciano notably) or the now underused one note loop on BARS featuring the Lox. There are tracks though like “Double A” that leave much to be desired.

Lyrically, any project with 50 different people will obviously have a myriad of quality, and this project is no different. The overall theme for this album though seems to be active artists’ thirst for. From still active vets like Busta Rhymes, Nore (who may have the best verse on the album on “Questions”) and Twista to new school lyricists Slaughterhouse (sans Joe Budden), Action Bronson and Papoose, most of the artists who are still laying it down today seemed invigorated with the chance to spit over beats that remind them of a classic era they were apart of or missed out on. A moment like Black Thought’s aptly named “Thought Process” belies how some of the lyrical passion seems to almost be campaigning for a reintroduction of the boombap and lyrical sparring as standard.

Some verses felt like phoned in favors, while other vets seem like they should have perhaps stayed wherever they were, but nothing on the album is overtly wack. Weaker verses are usually carried by strong showings on the same song. If you’re fiending for boombap, the 25 song long album is meaty and has misses, but is a solid nod to a classic era by a classic DJ.

IamSu – Kilt 2 album review

The Bay area is most known as domain for uncut gangsterism and the game spitting exploits of E40, Too Short, and Spice 1 among others. There was also the short-lived Hyphy movement of the 2000s, but since that sound went underground, the national image of the bay has received a complete revamp of late. From internet/world/universe sensation Lil B, to the unexplainably captivating cultural appropriation of Kreayshawn and V-Nasty, the bay seems to have moved on from being about the pimp game to pimping the game. None of these artists threaten to last past a passing memory of novelty, and all seem to be fine with those stakes in the midst of their ironic, completely nonthreatening (and sometimes catchy) brand of threatening music.

That’s an all well and good scenario until artists like Iamsu! pop up and ruin the party. He has an image beholden to the Gucci Mane aping, chopping and screwing, catchy adlibbing Oakland ethos, but one listen to his Kilt 2 project and the only way “image” would get him by is if he was a nudist Rihanna lookalike. This is a project that exceeds at nothing but formula, from the stagnant Drake influence, to the painfully there punchlines, to the generic female tracks, this is the blueprint for 20teens hip hop, just ratcheted down 10x as far as actual quality or replay value.

From the outset, the project outlines its deficiency. Album intro “Father God” has him attempting to set a tone and announce himself with variant money boasts and nods to his tough upbringing, but he fails due to the bars not matching up to the out of place and extremely pretentious “bow your head, now let us pray” hook. The problem with this project is the frequency of moments his bars don’t match up for the attempted premises.

He attempts to make nods towards the carefree hipster generation, for instance “Hipster girls”, but in in the midst tries to tell a mini narrative of deceit and groupie love, then goes back to praising them, which leaves the listener untrue of his overall intent. The songwriting is sorely lacking, from the unfocused nature, to the absence of any memorable phrasing (aside from a borderline self-satirizing hook on “Float”). The project follows a formula of self aggrandizing with random observations and a formulaic hooks that feel like they’re to aware that they’re the song’s title.

The production here is sleek and glossy, but doesn’t offer enough emotively to carry an MC drastically in need of it. The album feels he took 17 swings at a buzz single, so by the time Iamsu! plainly references wanting blog sites to mention him, the die is cast on this project. It attempts to be many things, but the songwriting is not strong enough to make it much past generic.

Prodigy & Alchemist – Albert Einstein album review

There’s a lot to be said for the producer-artist dynamic in Hip-Hop. Mind you this is the era where anyone can be a “producer” and anyone can be a “rapper”, and that inconvenient convenience saturates the game. The chemistry between an MC and Producer who know each others’ ins and outs is sorely lacking and should be appreciated in it’s few instances. Where “Rapper ____” and 8 different producers on one project fail, Prodigy and Alchemist have delivered together for years now.

Even though Prodigy may not be at his 1990s height lyrically, he’s managed to carve out a nice second (and third) act as an underground stalwart rhyming over the grimy soundscape of a producer seemingly molded in part by the original Mobb Deep catalog. Funny how that works. Between tracks on Prodigy’s classic HNIC, various other moments and 2006’s unheralded Return of the Mac, when the two get together it’s as close to the gritty glory of the 1990s as many artists old or young get.

That dynamic is intact on Albert Einstein, which may be their best collaboration yet. Riding the wave of Alchemist’s unprecedented run of collaboration projects, he helps Prodigy create a project with direct elements of New Yitty’s dark roots, that still manages to push the boundaries of that original format.

The album comes in at 16 tracks but manages to feel like even more with Alchemist’s deeply layered, shape shifting beats. It’s an album that manages to be tightly sinister and cloudy at varying moments and still sound cohesive. It can be boundlessly imaginative (the standout “Bible Paper”) and loop focused (“Give Em Hell”) and works together to sonically channel the dark New York streets.

Prodigy sounds re-invigorated after an HNIC project that was criticized for too many commercial excursions. It’s as if he’s resolved to ride the last chapters of his career like the first: brutishly callous and menacing as ever. While not as lyrically dexterous or energetic with his delivery as past projects, his knack for telling the QB narrative is still intact. He’s mastered living within his liquor soaked world of ghetto paranoia, challenging all comers on and delivering vivid lines like “throw him in the acid and get rid of the gooey mess.”

This is the perfect example of chemistry working to the fullest degree. Though Prodigy is no longer a lyrical wunderkind, he has the veteran’s sense of what he wants to do with a record and Alchemist’s otherwordly production picks up the slack in ways the average producer wouldn’t be able to. The features (from Raekwon to Action Bronson to Havoc) contribute seamlessly because of familiarity with Prodigy and/or Alchemist. Everyone involved is familiar with the soundscape they entered and collectively made a well put together album.

Mac Miller – Watching Movies With The Sound Off album review

There is a thin line between being versatile and inconsequentially imitative. It’s necessary for any talent MC who wants to call himself complete to be able to corral different styles in their arsenal, but the mediocre artist who tries this mostly sounds unsure of himself at best (say Tyga), or a ruthless biter at worst (Soulja Boy). Pittsburgh native Mac Miller frequently falls on one side of the aisle, and doesn’t appear to really have the chops to improve here.

Watching Movies With the Sound Off is a befuddling effort. Mac Miller is an artist who still hasn’t found his voice or thematic core, and because of that he tries to get by on personality and wordplay alone for much of the album. This would work if he was engaging, humorous, concisely thoughtful or anything under “unique” in a thesaurus, but he’s mostly just window dressing for the dissonant, borderline eerie soundscape. Instead of one liners that can endear or carry a song, the best he can do is lines about how his girl “takes off her trousers every time (he’s) around her”.

The 16 tracks scale the lot from laments on the past, to raw bar fests, to attempts at abstraction, but none of it is done particularly well. Only when focused does Mac deliver something that has replay value, unfortunately it’s mostly when other artists enter the picture.

He trades bars with Earl Sweatshirt on “I’m Not Real” and sounds motivated…”Matches” featuring Ab-Soul sees Miller building a thoughtful narrative on premature success. “Suplexes Inside of Complexes & Duplexes“ features a surprise verse by Jay Electronica who showed up for his yearly rap recording in grand fashion, but also brings out the inner philosopher in Miller, with ambitious lines like “if mars is the farthest that man has set his target, then I don’t even know why I even started.”

It’s those rare moments of emotional bareness where Miller can be a successful artist. He’s a technically adept lyricist, all he needs is focus and a reason to not feel like he’s trying to outsmart the listener into keeping his songs on. A track like “REMember”, where he speaks his piece on his childhood is the lane he needs to stay. A track like Youforia where he’s trying to be Drake, Kid Cudi and ASAP Rocky all at once is not.< A focused Mac Miller is a solid enough artist given his ear for beats, but the moments where he's left to drop mediocre bars then have the audacity to imply he wants to be an icon are just painfully trite. This has it's moments, but all in all you may want to just turn the TV back up until the next go around.

Rico Swain – Eye4AnI album review

When Jay-Z recently discussed “new rules” in a Samsung commercial, referring to the internet Hip Hop era as “the wild west”, he was absolutely right. In an era where artists can reach fans at the click of a button, the market has become woefully over-saturated. Some MCs choose to largely stick to one saloon (trap rappers, “swag” rappers, “backpackers”) to build a specific brand. Some others though seem so confused in the midst of the corral that they freeze and end up with no base, trying to appeal to too many people at once. Such appears to be the case with Rico Swain on his debut album “Eye4AnI”

Technically speaking, it’s not a bad album. Rico is a proficient lyricist, capable of ripping off rhyme schemes 8 bars at a time, but outside of the raw ability to put together words that rhyme Swaine is lacking in so many other facets here. This album suffers from all the flaws that befall so many new artists. He uses the same mechanical, somewhat angry delivery throughout the project, sometimes amateurishly tripping over himself for the sake of fitting words into a bar. The wordplay employed is shamefully out of date (a “stack chips like pringles” line can be heard), so much so that it’s capable of hindering the ear’s progression to the next bar.

More damaging than any lyrical/vocal flaw however is the issue that there is really no voice present. There are no grand proclamations, no sonic trademarks, nothing that differentiates this project from the lot of releases in the world. “Who Am I” attempts to lead off the album with an introduction into his character, but it mostly just comes off like another track full of gun threats with an unsteady double time flow. In that sense, perhaps it’s entirely fitting.

It appears Swain made an album full of attempts to get radio play. “Reign on ’em”, complete with a trite “make it rain” chorus is the worst offender, with a faux 808 production that is technically aware but more than anything else basic. “Hello Hey”, with a smooth hook by singer JC is Swaine’s best attempt at catching fire, with airy, radio ready synths, but Swaine ruins the track with an intense delivery that just may scare a female listener away. “I’m Reloaded” features a rough and rugged “no bubblegum ass rap, no dance tracks” warning which may have served purpose if it wasn’t on an album made multiple attempts to

This album just isn’t it. Swain possesses a lyrical ability more suited towards success in the grimey knuckled, underground realm (evidenced by the bluesy, introspective “Dreamin’”), but his attempts to futilely chase mainstream acceptance results with a lot of swings and misses. Hopefully his next project will be more focused as the dust clears and his game plan becomes more apparent.

Kid Ink – Almost Home EP review

At least LA Artist Kid Ink is straightforward about his blandness. In an era where image can be everything, he assumes a moniker that pretty much explains he’s firmly beholden to the ethos of the heavily tattooed, social media obsessed corner of Hip-Hop, where no one tattoo matters as much as the fact that you have some, and no one song matters as much as the fact that you’re a rapper.

There’s tremendous poetic justice in a person being named for imagery being so nondescript that he probably needs those tattoos for anyone to remember who he is.

From listening to his Almost Home EP, you could infer that Kid Ink is a poor man’s Tyga (who’s a poor man’s poor man’s Lil Wayne) who somehow doesn’t manage to have the majority of solo tracks on a 6 track EP. He apes the bouncy flow Meek Mill and Ace Hood have firmly laid claim to on the entire project and bounces around mindless word association (sampled: “I hope you know how to swim before I drown you in money”) with all the charisma of a janitor mopping a floor. He raps like it’s his job, and he doesn’t really want to do it, the irony being Hip-Hop is an entirely voluntary occupation.

From the outset Kid Ink falls back into the foggy, melodic backdrop and lets it carry him throughout the project. The beats are vibrant and complex throughout, with spinning hi-hats and stuttering snares machinating under the lush synths. It’s the exact type of teasing production that makes you think how much better it would be with actual lyricism on top of it. In the sonic aspect Kid Ink succeeds, yet lyrically he just doesn’t deliver anything unique or at least charismatic.

Even in the midst of having formulaic content one can still employ enough character to be a decent listen at times, many fan favorites have mastered that exact idea. “Bossin Up” for instance is almost saved by the energy (and not much else) of French Montana and ASAP Ferg. Ditto “Bad Ass” with Meek Mill and Wale. The four aforementioned artists succeed because while not always on their Ps and Qs lyrically, they know what they have and how to work it.

“Fuck Sleep” is a fairly generic”grind” anthem where Ink states money over everything “cause I got a lot of bills and nobody gonna pay them but me”. That doesn’t sound like anything resembling am athemic hook, it sounds like someone interviewing at burger king. Any semblance of an “-Ism” or redeeming quality would have made this worthy of a second listen. The bar isn’t raised that high for the Hip-Hop twittersphere, but Kid Ink still didn’t manage to meet it.

Guvna B – Odd 1 Out album review

Artists like Tupac, DMX and Scarface are revered for their content that ponders spiritual purity and enrichment on this cold rock. Though most of these artists are unabashed and open about their spiritual beliefs, it’s always presented in the midst of duality: “Yeah, there is a god and I try to follow his path, but it’s too hard to tame myself 24/7….so this isn’t Christian Rap“

God only knows why the hangup exists (pun intended), but irregardless it’s hamstrung the potential of many an artist. The term “Christian” Rap seems to automatically marginalize the visibility of an artist, no matter how preachy it doesn’t sound.

Lately though, artists like LeCrae and London’s Guvna B have created music firmly entrenched in Christianity that doesn’t manage to remind the listener of awkward conversations with older family members or Ned Flanders. Guvna B’s sound is universal, and his latest release Odd One Out exemplifies this. It falls in line with the standard sonics of the day, from the intro track “Big Boy Riddim’s” Dub-Step inspired whirling, to the airy Europop synths on “Free”.

This album doesn’t have to be pigeonholed or categorized as anything, yet Guvna willingly decides to.

“I’m a christian, standing, yeah man I said it”, he proclaims on “Do It Like You”. After that make-no-mistake moment, it’s rarely obvious, which leaves the listener to take the music in on it’s own merit.

Guvna doesn’t exactly revolutionize sonically though. This project relies on an up-tempo pace full of huge snares and synth melodies to lull the listener, and Guvna shows up with an energetic flow that rarely astounds lyrically. He doesn’t immerse himself in internal struggle ala DMX or analyze hypocrisy within the church ala LeCrae, Guvna just feeds an upbeat atmosphere with uplifting lyrics. A track like Say Cheese for example sounds like fodder for an early set of the club yet Guvna’s upbeat “I aint perfect but Im gonna try” refrain gets his point across just fine.

The album actually falters when Guvna tries to expand lyrically and get too serious. The track “Way Out”, utilizes the tired “3 verses, 3 different stories of pain”concept and an amateur hook by Mark Asari doesn’t help. “His Love” finds Guvna explaining his relationship over a relatively sparse beat and he just isn’t lyrically adept enough to create a lasting impression.

This album succeeds in irony, much like a decent portion of Hip-Hop in 2013. The idea that Guvna presents a Christian Rap album that could potentially get the glory of god into a party is impressive. It’s fairly obvious that as a writer he wouldn’t have been as successful with a straightforward approach, so he tries the reel-in route with commendable results.

Mykki Blanco – Betty Rubble: The Initiation EP review

It’s said we shouldn’t don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but in the world of Hip-Hop, a short bio tends to explain the story before the artist gets to tell it. A 26 year old former crack dealer from Queens who was shot nine times? You could probably expect the content 50 Cent delivered on Get Rich or Die Tryin’.

What kind of content can one expect though from a 24 year old who was raised in San Mateo, California and Raleigh, North Carolina as a male, before fleeing to New York at 16 and finding a new identity as a female? That myriad of life experience isn’t spoken for in the lyrical content of Mykki Blanco’s Betty Rubble: The Initiation EP, but it has to be implied by virtue of the genre bending ride it takes.

A self-defined Acid-Punk Rapper, Blanco takes cues from different subgenres of electronic and hip-hop music to provide what can truly be considered a one of a kind listen…whether it’s the good or bad kind remains to be seen.

Over this 8 track EP, the MC uses a spastic, elastic delivery to scrawl the immaculate soundscape with musings on “Instagram Bitches”, shunning male attention to chill in the cut with her girls, and a lowkey sexual relationship that both may be better off without (on “Ace Bougie Chick”). It sounds like the typical life and times of an egotistical female rapper, until you realize they’re delivered from the comparatively deep voice of a male born Michael Quattlebaum Jr.

Most tracks here do evoke flourishes of Nicki Minaj and even recent Lil Wayne, with Blanco experimenting with zany flows around twitter convenient evocations such as on “Angggry Birds’”. The production is decidedly anchored by blippy synths and slithery 808 programming that takes new shape at every corner, making Blanco battle the compositions for the listeners attention.

Ultimately, she does work in tandem with the production to provide a world all her own, with non-sequiturs abound and bizarre tracks like “The Initiation”, where she chants latin (for an entire song) over a depraved backdrop, or “Vienna”, where she crosses the last frontier for hip-hop homophobes and chronicles a sexual encounter with a man…no one who wants to copy anybody would record songs so brave. This is not a lyrically impressive or dense album by any stretch, but the gravitas of Blanco’s character carries her through. She could use more refinement of her delivery, with certain words being amateurishly muddled, but that should come with time.

Overall, this is the best example of a car crash experience, with some of the vocals probably veering too far off, some of the mantras probably too nonsensical, but the sheer charisma of Blanco’s gruff, defensive flow over A1 beats keeps the listener interested. A longer project might not have been sustainable, for this Blanco deserves credit. This is a project made for the gallant night walkers of New York City who live life and hashtag the proceedings, take it or leave it. Perhaps if Nicki Minaj had a penis she wouldn’t piss on anyone, she’d just make a project this immersive.

Slaine – The Boston Project album review

“When (Edo G) put me on like that that was dope, and I always look at Edo’s example as how I wanted to be, giving back to my city…”
-Slaine

And with that, Boston’s underground mainstay Slaine offers The Boston Project, an LP that’s primarily a vehicle for promoting up and coming artists in Beantown. After experiencing disenchantment with the music industry and contemplating retirement in recent times, Slaine has seemingly turned an eye to the future, leaving an imprint by offering an opportunity for young spitters in this unheralded city a chance.

It’s a noble idea, but the fact of the matter is this might not go as planned. Slaine can put people on, but they have to keep themselves “on”, and the majority of upstarts on here do little to differentiate themselves.

The project has elements of a compilation, but Slaine’s presence on each track is the bond that, makes it a somewhat cohesive work, and honestly saves it. If it wasn’t for Slaine this would be a hard album to listen to . The Boston Project is mostly a lyricist’s lounge effort, where MCs pass the mic and attempt to one-up the last wordsmith, but the few tracks that have substance are anchored by his presence.

He anchors a couple tracks, he sets the tone, and his voice, an odd amalgamation of Jadakiss’ rasp and Eminem’s nasally is the only one that lasts

As far as production the project is solid if not a little monotonous, but given the nature of the project that can be forgiven. The canvas is notably low on samples. Darker, resonant synths and deliberate (if redundant) drums are the trademark here. Highlights include the whirling keys on “Rats Maze” and the headnod inducing wails on “Cocaine and Whiskey”.

The sinister track “Bloodthirsty” is indicative of the overall sonic elements as well as the lack of balance that weighs this project down. Slaine opens on the track, earnestly mentioning the time when he “was drug addicted, I was stuck up in the bench with kids, I just went around the whole earth spitting sentences”. Boston upstart Phinelia and 357 take the reins next and flutter with hollow braggadocios lines and ruin a golden moment.

It’s not only that the features on this album stray from any type of focus with their writing, it’s the way they do it. Slaine is apparently trying to showcase who Boston is, but these artists all sound like they’re doing a mid 90s new york impression. No one steps up and steals the spotlight or makes themselves seem worthy of a second listen.

With painfully worn out wordplay and mindless multi’s rife through the 17 tracks, the 20 odd guests in here might want to kiss the ground Slaine walks on, because this could be the closest they ever get to another retail album.