Vybz Kartel – Kingston Story album review

If Jamaican dancehall phenom Vybz Kartel’s new album Kingston Story is in fact a narrative on his lifestyle in Kingston, Jamaica, we all might be left feeling a bit anticlimactic about our own. Keeping true to form, Kartel and his partner — Brooklyn hip-hop producer Dre Skull – deliver sexuality, ignominy, and obscenity on Kingston Story, and Kartel doesn’t seem to have shed any of the qualities that earned him the title of the most controversial dancehall artist there is. The album makes numerous nods to lascivious acts; yet noticeably missing are lyrics based on guns and marijuana – historically two of Kartel’s favorite topics.

Still, even with those subjects conspicuously omitted, Kingston Story in no way shies away from the raw, dubious expression for which Kartel is known. The album is overwrought with sexual energy and exposition, perhaps because the exclusion of gats and ganja leaves little else on which for Kartel to opine. “Breathless” is a sultry, down-tempo track that features Kartel singing slowly over a plethora of otherworldly sounds and synths, and boasts lyrics like “give me your love in excess, girl you leave me breathless.” “Wine Pon Me” makes reference to a girl grinding up on Kartel on the dance floor, with Kartel declaring “me love it when you wine up your body there.” And then we have “Push It In,” which, of course, can go entirely without explanation.

Traditionally, both in music and personal life, Vybz Kartel has been no stranger to controversy. He has come under fire by the public for numerous issues, one being his use and sale of “cake soap” – a known skin whitener – and another being the homophobic lyrics found in his music. But last year, he promised to stop using homophobia to sell records. This event slashed yet another category of topics from Kartel’s repertoire.

With a chunk of Kartel’s favored subjects off the table, and keeping in mind his past work, Kingston Story comes off arbitrary and deficient. Dedicated Kartel fans are the ones who’ve latched onto him for his realness, or more precisely, his “I just don’t give a fuck” attitude. They’re going to be looking for the edge in the themes and lyrics on Kingston Story. Instead, what they’ll find is a record that attempts to satisfy the moral obligations the public has increasingly put on Kartel to tone it down. What we’re left with is an album that smacks of salacious discourse with little else to make it tangible to other demographics.

Though Kingston Story isn’t completely devoid of the occasional political assertion Kartel is also known for, like that found on “Ghetto Youth,” the record exhibits a near backward evolution on the part of Kartel’s musical style. He may succeed at keeping his message dirty, but what he lacks in thematic diversity he doesn’t compensate in erotic vulgarity.

Pete Rock & Smif-n-Wessun – Monumental album review

“Monumental” seems like a fitting title for an album by the likes of Pete Rock – a man who has oft been labeled one of the best hip-hop producers of all time. The legendary producer teams up with Brooklyn rap duo Smif-n-Wessun on Monumental to deliver a funky, beat-centric record that, with its boom bap quality and diversity in sound, hails back to the Golden Age of the hip-hop genre. Old-school die-hards like my 40-something friend who still devoutly bumps Public Enemy will no-doubt appreciate Monumental’s musical vibe.

Monumental sees Rock almost solely focus on production, with “Monumental” and “Night Time” being the only tracks on which we hear him rap. Able to let Smif-n-Wessun command the majority of the album’s lyricism, Rock lays down Monumental’s framework with a motley compilation of beats and styles. You’ll find bass-heavy, nod-your-head kinds of tracks, like “Roses,” which features Philadephia rapper Freeway; you’ll discover happier, self-celebrating joints like “Top of the World,” on which the boys are joined by Memphis Bleek; you’ll even hear a reggae beat on the song “This One,” which features Top Dog and Jahdan Blakkamoore.

Having trouble with all of those collaborations? This is where Monumental falters. It’s difficult to keep track of who’s who on the long cast of characters. The album in and of itself starts out as a collaboration, and seems to simply continue picking rappers up along the way without any real destination. In fact — in both sound and theory– “Feel Me” featuring Rock of Heltah Skeltah and Bun B and “Do It” featuring Hurricane G don’t even sound like they belong on the same record.

While Monumental doesn’t nullify any predisposed notions on Pete Rock’s musical genius, its intelligent production isn’t validated by an equally inventive or unique rapping style. Lacking in a cohesive theme, Monumental’s lyricism and verse spitting fall flat. Though Smif-n-Wessun have past proven they’re undoubtedly capable of rap awesomeness (see album: Dah Shinin’– 1995), their signature understated persona gets lost among Rock’s slick beats. And because Monumental hosts so many guests, the rest of the single-track players get buried under the confusion.

All that being said, Monumental is a record to listen to. It isn’t going to piss anyone off, it’s not trying to make history. And with Pete Rock behind the sound, its appeal unquestionably crosses genre boundaries. But if Monumental does indeed rise to become what its title insinuates, its success will speak volumes more to its production than to its lyricism and verse.

Jagged Edge – The Remedy album review

Nothing can help an awkward girl through the roller coaster that is high school like a group of four boys sensually singing about love and heartbreak. Okay, maybe that’s too much personal experience talking there, but Jagged Edge’s comeback album The Remedy whisks me back to my sophomore year when I might be found spending a whole Friday night listening to r&b and dreaming about my crush. Ah, those were the days.

Admittedly, Jagged Edge’s music is probably a bit more adult than the schoolgirl daydreams I was having, but The Remedy proves that JE is still as relevant today as it was back then. At first glance, one can easily infer that on the whole, the album is dedicated to the art of, well, lovemaking. And one’s inference would be correct; with titles like “Lay You Down”, “When the Bed Shakes”, and “Let’s Make Love”, the writing’s pretty much on the wall.

Evident on The Remedy is a soul and an honesty that’s unique in an industry often known for shameless egoism and self-indulgence. Always candid, self-aware, and authentic, Jagged Edge’s lyrics cut right to the core of real human emotions. And they don’t have to be complicated or intricate in order to convey something with which we can all identify. We all fall in love and get burned, we all experience intense attraction and sexuality. But not every artist out there is willing to detail it like Jagged Edge does.

But Jagged Edge is so much more than four suave, oversexed guys. The Remedy features both the slow ballads we expect from the group as well as up-tempo dance tracks. “Lipstick” features Rick Ross and demonstrates Jagged Edge’s ability to incite people both to the bed and to the dance floor.

Though no-doubt a great sounding album, The Remedy isn’t the type of record to dissect and analyze. There’s nothing to interpret beneath Jagged Edge’s simple lyrics and fitting melodies. But therein lies the beauty of Jagged Edge; the music is accessible to just about anyone. So, my advice is this: if you’re in the mood to party, throw on “Lipstick.” Heartbreak troubles? You might find solace in “Mr. Wrong.” And if the mood’s just right– well, then you’ve got quite the pick.

Grieves – Together/Apart album review

If you’re struggling with life’s trials and tribulations, Seattle breakout rapper Grieves wants you to know you’re not alone. His debut album, Together/Apart chronicles the struggles of a regular old guy – one who stops at nothing to dramatically bring to life what those struggles are. Vivid imagery and clever metaphors dominate Together/Apart, which strays from the traditional rapper’s norm of slayin’ bitches and rollin’ on 22’s by simply coming out and saying that life – both in and out of the rap spotlight – just ain’t easy. Grieves’ first statement to the world with Together/Apart is one of humility and realness.

Teamed up with Brooklyn-based producer Budo, Grieves presents us with a record truly from the heart. Budo provides a diverse musical backdrop over which Grieves lays down raw, emotional verses. And he does not keep any secrets. Grieves takes us through a self-reflective narrative in the track “On the Rocks,” where he laments girls (or lack thereof), rent bills, and a drinking problem. It’s quite the departure from radio-rap’s propensity to smack incessantly of gold grills and a seemingly unlimited supply of women.

With Budo behind Together/Apart’s production and sound, each track’s bass and musical structure conveys a completely different emotion than the last. The album is layered with happiness and longing, satisfaction and depression — all at the same time.

Perhaps the most honest track on the album – and my favorite – “Against the Bottom” paints for us an especially candid picture of the inner struggles of a relationship that’s been peppered with trauma. “Against the Bottom” is the last song on the album – a seemingly purposeful move because in it we get to see a softer side of Grieves, we get to be a part of his heartbreak over a lost love. The music behind the song, however, isn’t melancholy. Its medium tempo and pleasant melody gives it a nostalgic vibe, almost to suggest Grieves has made peace with what has happened in the relationship. Yet the words are still as piercing as though he hasn’t.

The complexity of Together/Apart makes it hard to believe Grieves is simply a breakout rapper who just launched his debut album. And it’s hard to believe that a budding rapper these days might care more about relating to his constituency than simply hitting the big-time. But as he says in “Sunny Side of Hell,” “Grab hold yourself and face those days when you feel like it always rains…yeah, you are not alone.”

Action Bronson – Dr. Lecter album review

It’s not often that one uses the word “classy” or “refined” to describe a rap record. Now, I’m not saying that Action Bronson’s new album Dr. Lecter is defunct of profanity or the sporadic salacious reference; no, I promise you all of the obscenities and crude imagery anyone would hope for in any legitimate rap song. But Action Bronson does something inventive with his album in that he perfectly marries a rap mentality — complete with allusions to blunts and broads – with melodious, expressive, and widely diverse styles of music. There’s vitality and intellect in each song on Dr. Lecter, one that might not be expected coming from an album with such a name.

Look no further than the second track on Dr. Lecter, “Barry Horowitz” to find the soul of which I speak. At first glance one can obviously make the connection to the WWF wrestler from the 1980s. “Barry Horowitz” is a self-narrated rap song about Action Bronson’s talent and success — and an allusion to the wrestling star’s signature habit of patting himself on the back. But “Barry Horowitz” goes even deeper than that: it references Gil Scott Heron’s deeply political 1970 song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Often called the godfather of rap, Heron’s influence on “Barry Horowitz” shrewdly invokes both a classic Heron-style funk melody and effectively proves that Action Bronson truly knows his shit.

Dr. Lecter’s musical appeal, for me, perhaps reaches its height with the track “Jerk Chicken.” It features a straightforward reggae beat combined with expert vocals spat by Bronson and guest rapper from Brooklyn Maffew Ragazino. “Jerk Chicken” is nestled among tracks that are throwbacks to old soul, r&b, and funk, and it only enhances the diversity Bronson solicits on Dr. Lecter.

The many layers of the intricate Action Bronson continue to peel away as the album plays on. Bronson elaborately weaves narratives of honest representations of who he is as a rapper and a person — from a dedicated user of marijuana to a lover of eating and cooking fine cuisine — throughout 15 tracks of melodious beats and music. In fact Bronson’s passion for the culinary arts shines through most of the record, as he talks steak, bacon, and bleu cheese in “Brunch”; salad, steak, and chocolate in “Ronnie Coleman”; lamb, duck, goose, beef, and chicken in the super funky “Buddy Guy.”

Action Bronson stays true to himself on Dr. Lecter. It’s a pensive collection of candid thoughts that don’t pander to a mass audience and that are spit on top of velvety, sultry, real music– hardly a dedication to mass murderers and cannibalism as the title might suggest. Most importantly, Dr. Lecter doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not. Instead, it’s an understated album that’s oh-so-much more than it thinks it is.

Big Sean – Finally Famous album review

Detroit rapper Big Sean says he’s ‘finally famous,’ and if the VIP cast on his album of the same name is any indication, you should probably take him seriously. Finally Famous is the symbol of Big Sean’s glamorous come-up in the rap industry – and glamorous this album is. As his first studio album, it’s the culmination of his grandiose dreams of making it big, all the way from rapping for the first time for Kanye at a local Detroit radio station, to collaborating on Finally Famous with the likes of Lupe Fiasco, Rick Ross, and John Legend.

If Big Sean wanted to make an album that was going to achieve national radio play and catch the attention of the mass r&b/rap/hip hop circuit, he hit the mark right on target. Kanye West, The-Dream, Pharrell, and Chris Brown are just a few of the superstars that join the aforementioned names on Finally Famous. And there simply isn’t a contemporary pop/hip hop radio station in the country that hasn’t already suffocated its listeners’ eardrums with Sean’s and Chris Brown’s “My Last.” We can probably reasonably assume the same destiny for the stoner anthem, “High,” on which Big Sean collaborates with Wiz Khalifa and Chiddy Bang.

Though the album boasts a healthy dose of celebrity and glitz, it’s easy to drown in the stew of superstars that is Finally Famous. At some point I got so confused and disoriented that I thought I’d accidentally picked up “Now 80.” Finally Famous is simply a mash-up of collaborative tracks in which Big Sean spews mediocre rhymes and dull analogies (case in point: “Took longer than expected, Came back around like a necklace”) that are otherwise interspersed with vocals by folks who are, well, famous-er.

I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy Finally Famous. “So Much More” gets some major cool points for boasting a Motown-reminiscent melody with its piano and tambourine. And as flashy as “Celebrity” may be, whenever the song comes on, I’ve got to get up and dance. Yes, Finally Famous is an r&b-loaded album that’s got beat, it’s versatile, and with its celebrity players, is going to appeal to lots of different demographics. But therein also lies the problem: Big Sean simply gets lost in the big-shot pandemonium. It’s too hard to tell whether his skills would shine on another, more understated album with less collaborations. That’s not a good sign.

Sometimes an artist wants to be known for his appeal to a discerning audience. Sometimes it’s about being the best in his genre. And sometimes, it’s just about finally being famous.

Bad Meets Evil – Hell: The Sequel album review

I’m going to say this right off the bat: Bad Meets Evil’s album Hell: the Sequel is probably not going to sway you one way or another about Eminem. I was truly hoping for a mind-changer, as I call it – a song, an experience, a revelation that can completely transform your opinion of an artist – but alas, I was not rewarded.

Let me backtrack a bit by saying that, lyrically, there’s nothing wrong with Eminem or Royce Da 5’9”, Eminem’s other half in Bad Meets Evil. Hell: The Sequel is a compilation of supremely timed verse-spitting, with Eminem and Royce trading bars with effortless ease and throwing down fiery lyrics that are so well enunciated they could act as the beat itself (see: “Fast Lane”). In fact, sometimes I wish they did.

Which brings me to my next point. I’ve never been a huge fan of the melodic part of Eminem’s songs. When I think of Eminem, my mind is whisked back to eighth grade; I’m just coming into my rap maturity and the pubescent boys in my class are torturing me at recess, backing themselves up toward me and boorishly repeating, “my bum is on your lips, my bum is on your lips.” Shudder. Ok, so I have deep-seeded personal issues with this particular song, but the annoyance factor found on the track “The Real Slim Shady” off the album The Marshall Mathers LP – both lyrically and musically – continues throughout Eminem’s career. And it doesn’t stop with Hell: The Sequel.

While Hell: The Sequel stands out on a few levels –lines upon lines of piercing lyricism, well-timed verses – the rest of it falls flat. In general, Hell: The Sequel doesn’t stray too far from what Eminem’s done in the past. He’s still spouting homophobic slurs, he’s still claiming he’ll stomp on lesser rap fools, and he’s still the good old playboy we all know, as evidenced by the lyric “if you ain’t suckin’ a dick, why you sittin’ there?” in the track “A Kiss.” Sound familiar?

The real turning point for me, though, happened when I heard the track “Lighters”. This song can only be characterized one way: disaster. Maybe I’m unfairly biased against Bruno Mars, and I’m probably in the minority; that’s fine, I can live with that. But this track proves to me what I just didn’t want to be true — Hell: The Sequel was made for radio play, plain and simple. “Lighters’” sweet-sounding melody combined with Mars’s sensual boy band-reminiscent voice will no doubt incite gaggles of 14-year-old girls to exclaim praise on their Facebooks. It’s a con, it’s dirty, and it has nothing to do with the rest of the album. Hell: The Sequel is simply not for 14-year-old girls.

Lesser-known but no less talented Royce Da 5’9” (or Nickel Nine as he’s also known) is a formidable force on Hell: The Sequel as he proves he can throw down intoxicating wordplay right on par with Eminem. While, yes, he’s one half of Bad Meets Evil, I still can’t blame him for the lackluster beats because, in my mind, that’s Eminem’s domain. That’s how he’s been doing it since the album “Infinite” in 1996, and that’s how he does it now. Royce’s album “Street Hop” (2009) can prove my point that what’s lacking on Hell: The Sequel is simply not his fault.

Listen to Hell: The Sequel. I promise mind-blowing rhyming skills. I promise laugh-out-loud entertainment. I don’t promise something you’ve never heard before.

Tech N9ne – All 6’s and 7’s album review

With his thirteenth studio album, All 6’s and 7’s, Tech N9ne truly spits pure, raw, dripping art. Disclaimer: if you can’t stomach gangster rap in its truest form, in all of the veins in which it exists, this album is not for you. But I will say this: what is at times harsh, obscene, almost cringe-worthy…is the same stuff that makes All 6’s and 7’s hit its intended notes directly on the head. It’s what keeps me coming back to Tech N9ne time and time again.

Tech has said his name refers to his true technical rapping abilities. After a hiatus from the rap scene, All 6’s and 7’s is his chance to once again prove those skills to a discerning indie rap audience who’s hungry for bullshit-free music you’d never find on mainstream radio waves. Keeping true to form, Tech’s incredible rhyming speed is one of the first standout characteristics of the album. It’s a skill that places him in the elite rap circle that contains the likes of Busta Rhymes and Twista.

As a matter of fact, you can find Busta and Twista on the track “Worldwide Choppers,” spitting mystifyingly fast verses that boast their skills as rappers through clever analogy and superior rhyme. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album, and, just as it implies, is the most diverse, featuring Yelawolf from Alabama, Ceza from Turkey, JL and D. Loc from Kansas City, Uso from Denmark, and Twisted Insane from California. To top off this already-phenomenal song and its talented cast, it’s got the kind of beat that could get me kicked out of my apartment building.

One thing I like about Tech is that even though he’s got the chops to rap incomprehensible on every single track, he doesn’t. His quest isn’t solely for impressing the masses with his extraordinary talent- it’s for conveying the raw feelings he’s got about growing up the child of a teenage mother, being misunderstood within the rap game, and how music saved his life. He slows things down a bit in the track “Strangeland”— an honest diary entry-like account of his come-up in the rap industry, from the crazy fans to the women to making millions.

The idiom “at 6’s and 7’s” refers to a state of frenzy and confusion — but with its all-star cast of collaborators and the remarkable skill demonstrated on each and every track, this album is anything but.