L’Orange and Stik Figa – The City Under The City album review

For most, The City Under The City will be unfamiliar territory. L’Orange is making his Mello Music Group debut with his conceptual production for Stik Figa, a little-known rapper from Kansas. Think cynical, speakeasy lyricism and tortured, gin-soaked beats. The City Under The City plunges the listener into an underground world of harlequin-tinged abandon and disillusionment.

Every guest feature on this album is stunning and haunting. With 3 guest verses, “Decorated Silence,” is not your typical posse track. Cutting-edge MCs Open Mike Eagle, and the NC duo MindsOne make this one aching, reflective track. Other features include DJ Iron’s aggressive cuts on “We Were Heroes,” which will have people blowing up the turntablist’s inbox for scratches.

Amid inspired features, Stik and L’Orange end up looking wise beyond their combined experience with a polished album that plays well from start to finish. Thanks to Stik Figa’s astoundingly prolific pen, and L’Orange’s singular vision of the concept, The City Under The City is an unexpected and thoroughly original collaboration from two artists that seem primed for big things at Mello Music Group.

If suddenly, your surroundings seem unfamiliar as you listen to The City, then the creators of the album have done their jobs perfectly. At heart, this is art hip hop driven by a post-civilization narrative and boisterous, swinging beats in a minor key.

Earl Sweatshirt – Doris album review

Earl Sweatshirt, hip-hop’s newest prodigal son, returns to the public in a major way with this second studio album, Doris. He considered by many to be the best rhymer of the expansive team that is OFWGKTA and for good reason. Starting at the young age of 15, Earl made a name for himself personifying a crude and violent sociopath with a disturbing, distorted voice. Fast forwarding to the present, he lightens up from the rape talk but keeps his subject matter grimy. Some may call it growing up but it is clear to see Earl is firmly establishing himself as much more than a shock jock.

As expected, lyricism seen here is top notch. Earl keeps tone dark throughout the album with rhymes that are layered and complex. Every listen to a song reveals new significance or word play you missed the first time around keeping all of the tracks exciting. He forgoes useless hooks and flimsy gimmicks that plague mainstream rap songs in order to deliver creative bars at a non-stop pace. This is true hip-hop and true fans of the art will have nothing but love for the stylings of the young MC.

Even though Doris is very much Earl’s show, he brings on a well-assembled cast of features that assist beautifully but don’t take away from his shine. Some of the better songs come from his iconic team ups with Tyler, the Creator (see: ‘Whoa’ and ‘Satchquatch’). Vinny Staples is another notable artist who puts in solid work on ‘Centurion’.

Although they take a back seat to the rapping, the beats found on Doris are high quality. Earl pulls from a small variety of producers to assemble a psychedelic background that supports featured versus well. Contributors range from label mate Tyler to legends like the RZA. A personal favorite is the instrumental to ‘Hoarse’ composed by the band BadBadNotGood. It has a dark, western feel that lends well to theme of the album. ‘Centurion’, mentioned above, has the most twisted sound that will remind long time fans of Earl’s early work. There is a complete package of sound here that should impress even the harshest of critics.

Look, the bottom line is this: Earl Sweatshirt is a name everyone should know and Doris is an album that everyone should give a listen. The project is a mind-bending trip to the far side that you may not want to return from.

Earl Sweatshirt - Doris album review

ethemadassasin – Soul on Fire album review

Coming live from North Carolina is rapper ethemadassassin. Although he has been active since the ‘80s, E has spent a majority of the time in the underground circuit. He offers Soul on Fire as his 3rd solo album and as another step in his long career. His experience shows in his raps as he speaks on his rocky past and lessons learned from his successes and failures. He has been with music and the streets for a long time and his maturity comes across loud and clear.

Ethemadassassin is an artist with a mature voice and has plenty of tracks to look out for on this album. ‘What it’s Supposed to be’ is my favorite track on this album as it has some of the best lyrics of madassassin married with a great hook and even better beat from Japanese producer Kyo Itachi. It serves as the best example of the eye for grade A sound that E actively tries to put forth.

‘80s and 90s’ is creative as E runs down all of the popular styles and culture that he witnessed and grew up on. ‘Fight Music’ has an excellent beat built off an energetic guitar riff.  E uses this tune effectively to deliver an aggressive song about keeping it real in life. ‘Can’t Get Enough’ contains a wonderful and soulful instrumental that could stand alone without any vocals.

The biggest negative in my eyes is the length of the songs themselves. E clearly has plenty of bars to fire off and it would have been cool to hear more tracks that focused on rhymes uninterrupted by hooks. The choruses are not bad by any means but a rapper with skills like madassassin should allow his verses take center stage more often.

Soul on Fire is an exercise in skillful lyricism and top-notch delivery from someone who has valued experience with hip-hop. Ethemadassassin creates quality sound using the past of the genre and his own life for influence.  The album drops Sept 17th.

Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines album review

Robin Thicke is no longer just your mom’s favorite singer. Clearly tired of being pigeonholed into contemporary R&B limbo, he produces some A-list collaborations for his 6th studio album (with the likes of 2 Chainz, Pharrell and will.i.am), Blurred Lines, but his attempt to intellectualize the album’s concept of living between the lines of a world we only know to be black and white went right over our heads. Instead what we get are the lascivious thoughts of an oversexed (or too obviously the opposite) middle-aged man, who, instead of talking about the experiences that love has brought him, ditches the concept for something that, rather, teeters on the border of predatory. In fact, the only thing consistent about the album is the overtly sexual content. Blurred Lines surely finds Robin Thicke in a bit of a mid-life crisis.

Blurred Lines can be described as stylistically scattered, but the core of the album is the tracks that remain so strongly deep-rooted in R&B which promote an easier listen. Elements of disco, 70s dance, hip-hop, and even EDM all make an appearance, which create these said blurred lines that Thicke speaks of, but lyrically, nothing lays beneath the instrumentals but sex. And something tells us nobody else would be able to get away with saying half of this stuff in the real world.

The album opens up with the title track “Blurred Lines,” a super-hit that nobody saw coming, but it hardly set the precedent for the rest of the album that’s yet to come, and people who bought the album looking for more evening barbeque, barely legal, nude video inspired songs will likely be disappointed. But in a musical sense, this song is hardly the best the album has to offer with its lazy lyrics like, “I feel so lucky/You wanna hug me” and downright lewd content, especially coming from three family men like Robin Thicke, T.I, and Pharrell. The best work comes with the songs that follow.

“Ooo La La” is a good number with soft traces of disco and smooth guitar riffs, and the velvety inflections and effortless vibration of Thicke’s voice were never up for debate. “Ain’t No Hat 4 That” and “Get In My Way” sound a bit like Stevie Wonder: The Lost Tapes, if there ever was one, but it’s enough to please his long standing fans over 40.

“Give It 2 U” is an audacious EDM track that features Kendrick Lamar that sings “ Ooh what’s that girl/What’s that baby/I like that, girl/I like that, baby/On your back girl…/Yeah shake it like that girl” amongst other reprehensible things you probably can’t picture Robin Thicke saying. He tones down a bit by “Feel Good,” a track that sounds a bit naked and showcases his smoothly crackling vocals within a nice arrangement.

All in all, the album is a pretty easy listen with some cracks in the road, but it’s enough to get you down the street. Blurred Lines has the potential to be everyone’s favorite summertime album, the only problem is that it likely won’t stay around long.

Robin Thicke - Blurred Lines album review

Ghostface Killah & Apollo Brown – 12 Reasons to Die: The Brown Tape album review

12 Reasons to Die: The Brown Tape is advertised as an “alternate version” of the original album produced by Adrian Younge. At this point, Apollo Brown already deserves a ton of credit for even thinking of remixing 12 Reasons to Die, one of the most impressive underground releases in recent memory. It’s a daunting project if you think about it. First of all, the source material is a concept album, so any good remix will have to retain the story and tone. This is a dark one about an immortal crime boss by the name of Ghostface Killah.

The original is an absolute juggernaut sonically, and the instrumental version is a classic in its own right. Inspired by 70’s R&B and Italian soundtracks from the same era, 12 Reasons to Die was meticulously recorded in Younge’s all-analog, vintage studio. The entire production features live instmentation by Adrian Younge and his Venice Dawn band. The bar is very high here for Detroit Producer Apollo Brown, who was tapped to remix this behemoth. 12 Reasons to Die: The Brown Tape was packaged as an actual cassette tape to go with the initial release of 12 Reasons to Die on vinyl back in April. Copies of this tape were scarce, but Wu-Tang affiliated Soul Temple, the imprint that released 12 Reasons to Die, has given the Apollo Brown remix its own full release, complete with a set of instrumentals.

Apollo Brown has earned this opportunity recognition. He’s built a reputation as an exceptionally consistent producer, and an absolute beast on a remix. When Apollo Brown first signed with his label Mello Music Group, the first thing they did was give him the keys to their extensive library of rap acapellas. For his label debut, Apollo Brown dropped “The Reset,” a whole album of remixes that make you forget you ever heard the original.

On The Brown Tape, Apollo Brown’s alternate takes are brilliant, and completely depart from Adrian Younge’s vision. Check out how Apollo Brown swaps Younge’s spitfire organ for a brooding sample of hazy keyboards and guitar stabs on “Rise Of The Black Suits.” There’s a very different vibe that still works perfectly for the track. Apollo Brown channels a little Alchemist with a searing guitar sample on “Enemies All Around Me.” Go to track 6 right now. “Crying.” For you! Crying for you love this album. Apollo’s samples are melodic, sweet and forlorn; they plead where Adrian Younge is ethereal. Cut tape, and Apollo Brown has actually managed to add layers to the story. The comic-book vibe of 12 Reasons to Die is swapped out for a gutsy, but by no means lo-fi treatment by Apollo Brown, the newest producer to your radar. Check out 12 Reasons to Die: The Brown Tape.

Ghostface Killah & Apollo Brown - 12 Reasons to Die: The Brown Tape

Rich Gang – Rich Gang album review

If the hedonistic, hood-rich lifestyle needs a soundtrack, Rich Gang, both a compilation and showcase of the Young Money/Cash Money label’s talents, is that disc.

The recurring production motifs of whizzing synths, trap drums and thunderous bass provides the ideal backdrop for images of glistening jewels, designer duds, flashy rides that cost more than most American’s yearly salaries, pool parties with racially ambiguous hotties with video vixen curves and gold-plated grills. In other words, if all the clichés of the typical rap video were to become image-less, Rich Gang would be the remaining sound bed.

Spearheaded by Cash Money co-founder Bryan “Birdman” Thomas, Rich Gang, attempts to highlight the label’s current stable while celebrating its astonishing success—mostly built from the massive crossover success of stars like Lil’ Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj —and remembering its humble beginnings.

“Project life to the high life…pain came from this gang,” Birdman reminisces on the opening track, “R.G.” while slightly ominous keys flutter underneath.  Capped off by a characteristically frantic rap from the recently freed Mystikal (yes, the former No Limit soldier is now a Cash Money Millionaire), the number, along with the mellow and similarly reflective “Dreams Come True”—the album’s best track, it marks the brief glimmers of substance on an otherwise mindlessly flashy album.

Birdman’s intro gives a hint that though Rich Gang is being sold as a release by a collective of stars, it’s essentially a solo album by the label’s CEO. Birdman’s voice is the dominant one heard on the album. Minaj and Drake, two of the label’s marquee names, surprisingly appear only sparingly. The American Idol judge and recent Elle cover woman appears just once to harmonize about “her million dollar pussy” on the generic swag-sex radio number “Tapout”—which features, what else, but an auto tuned hook from Future—while October’s Very Own doesn’t show up at all. Lil’ Wayne, on the other hand, one of the label’s founding stars, appears far more; tossing out lackluster rhymes that sound more obligatory than inspired on the four tracks he appears on (six, on the deluxe edition).

Cash Money signees, either up-or-comers (Detail, Mack Maine, Cory Gunz, Gudda Gudda)  or former stars in search of a rejuvenation (Mystikal, Limp Bizikit, Jae Millz, Bow Wow) round out the rest of the collective while the biggest names in urban radio (Future, Rick Ross, R. Kelly, Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes, French Montana, Ace Hood, Flo-Rida, Meek Mill) come through to ensure the album’s place on the airwaves.

Yet, despite all of the undeniable star power, none of the guests truly deliver on Rich Gang. Kelly departs from the vintage kick he’s been on for the last few years to deliver some back-to-the-basics nasty verses on “We Been On” but it fails to register. “50 Plates”, featuring the Maybach don himself, is similarly anticlimactic despite its merger-of-two-titans promise.

Various attempts at pop-rap tropes, be it swag-and-riches celebrations (most of the album), crossover pop attempts (the hokey “Sunshine”) or  strip club anthems (“Panties to the Side”) all feel calculated and hollow despite being the label’s attempt to show off its diversity.

Whether it’s true aim was to be Birdman’s new solo album, a celebration of the label’s reign at the top after starting from the bottom or a merely display of the label’s talents and range, Rich Gang ultimately sounds like nothing else but a tax write-off.

Rich Gang - Rich Gang album review

Kelly Rowland – Talk A Good Game album review

Talk A Good Game is Kelly Rowland’s coming of age album. And this one is all about self-rule. This time around, she allows our minds to finally move past the undying elephant in the room: who is Kelly Rowland outside of the shadow of Destiny’s Child’s most successful member? She shows us with this new album as she unabashedly establishes her self-awareness, sexual identity, and individualism.

In a way that’s slightly odd, the verses on this album are very conversational. It’s as if the lyrics have been drawn from a lunch conversation with a girlfriend and are being recited in song rather than having been arranged as lyrics. Lack of organization is something that plagues most of the album’s 15 tracks, but this is likely a testament to Rowland’s attempt to stop at nothing to convey an open and honest project. The problem is that the lyrics remain stale; especially if this is the music she wants us to get to know her by.

Talk A Good Game opens up with “Freak,” an overtly sexual song that sings “Everybody’s somebody’s freak/The question is, who’s to you?” But still, the song remains less than enticing. “Dirty Laundry,” famously the album’s realest track, is a cheap attempt to shed light on the insecurities that plagued her during Destiny’s Child’s reign. We have to commend her for taking a stab at honesty, even if the song arrangement is lackluster, though somehow it remains a little catchy. And the washing machine related metaphors are clever.

“Red Wine” is a good cut. It’s smooth and silky, and perhaps one of the album’s best.

Although supersized synths occasionally make an appearance, we can’t help but fathom how Talk A Good Game isn’t completely reflective of the times. It sounds rather, like a female rendering of Chris Brown’s music pre-Rihanna. It’s jovial and even a little bubblegum with quintessential R&B instrumentation to mask the simply linear lyrics. It was cute in 2006, but a curious choice for a 30-something year-old woman with so many lived experiences by 2013.

The collaborations are cool. And it’s nice to not feel overwhelmed by an album full of features. It’s in this way that Kelly Rowland doesn’t cheat us out of listening to a Kelly Rowland album. Pusha T makes an appearance on “Street Life” and The Dream on “Sky Walker.” It’s nice to hear from them on their respective tracks, although neither of which are completely memorable. And all in all, Talk A Good Game could have been much better than it is. It’s okay. But not as hot as her album cover.

Kelly Rowland - Talk A Good Game album review

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

Kevin Gates – Stranger Than Fiction album review

Louisiana rapper Kevin Gates has always been about the mixtapes, releasing one almost every year since 2007. He’s changing the formula with his first studio album release, Stranger Than Fiction. The album is a fast listen despite most of the fourteen songs being around three minutes. The speed can be attributed Gates’ driving delivery of words and energetic beats of the music. The instrumentals are the best of trap and work well to compliment the gritty subjects and harsh delivery of Gates. This music built and branded to be blasted out the car while riding around to great success.

Unlike most trap rappers, the hooks actually work with the rest of the track instead of serving as nothing more than time padders. They are catchy for the most part and maintain the flow set up by Gates in his verses. The one aspect of his music that doesn’t fit in my mind is all of the singing he does. Although it does help set the mood of the songs, it would be more effective to bring in another artist with better vocals. Gates already offers entertaining product and the extra help could push an album from good to great.

Another respectable feature of Stranger Than Fiction is the wide range of subject matters he is able to string together. ‘4:30 am’ is a real song about the late-night violence and betrayal that occurred in his life and on the streets in general. ‘MYB’ features KG rhyming with the raspiest voice heard on the mic since Ja Rule. ‘Die Bout It’ has a borderline hilarious monologue at the end of the song about being a true thug while ‘Careful’ features alter ego Red Neck Rick spiting laugh-out-loud lyrics. ‘Smiling Faces’ is all about the falseness and danger that can lie behind a fake smiling friend. The mix of tones from tragedy to comedy not only proves Gate’s creativity but also maturity. He knows how to strike a musical balance.

Kevin Gates is young but prolific and Stranger Than Fiction is not only more of what you expect but good step forward for his career. If you’re looking for hype music to bump this summer, then look no further than this album.

Kevin Gates - Stranger Than Fiction album review

Ace Hood – Trials and Tribulations album review

“Bugatti,” the smash first single from Ace Hood’s Cash Money debut and fourth studio set Trials and Tribulations is the epitome of swaggering hip-hop materialism.

Producer Mike Will’s wheezing synths and skittering trap drums blare underneath guest Future’s mindless auto-tuned boast of a hook, “I woke up in a new Bugatti”. Rhymes that gleefully celebrate “chains spent with [your] salary spent”, “fuckin’ bitches of different races”, “fresh gear” and “money, paper, moola” further boost the song’s hood-rich decadence.

Thus, it comes as a surprise that the glistening and now-commonplace consumerism of “Bugatti” isn’t quite characteristic of the majority of Trials and Tribulations.

In fact, despite his pursuit of financial riches, Ace Hood—born Antoine McColister—on the 17-track set, actually reveals himself to be an everyman. Call him the Leopold Bloom of the modern trap-happy Southern hip hop mainstream.

Determination and persistence not only colors Ace’s strident Florida’s twang, it also colors the theme of most of the tracks throughout, making the album’s title quite fitting.

The title track speaks candidly of “all the pain he been through …and “tears that he cried”—even after his late 2000s ascendance under the wing of DJ Khaled—in a manner that elicits both empathy and a sense of relation in the listener.  It’s a far cry from the 1 percenter glorification of “Bugatti”.

Ace’s worry of becoming “Another Statistic”—in a state (and nation) that was home to Trayvon Martin and thousands-if not millions-of underemployed and undereducated black males—on the track of the same name is similarly compelling.

Heartfelt real-life concerns and musings about the women in his life who molded and supported him throughout (his companion and child to his mother on the plush and possible future single “Rider” and “Mama”, respectively), the ups and mostly downs of fame (“Before the Rollie” and “The Come Up”, featuring the cornbread, fish and collard greens-soaked vocals of Anthony Hamilton), faith (the thunderous “My Bible”) and of course, “Hope” provide for an appealingly well-rounded listen, thematically.

Musically, it’s a different story. The same trap sound—all thumping bass, slowly skipping 808s and synthetic horns—that dominate urban radio at the moment provide the backdrops.  While it’s obvious that the sound is clearly Ace’s bread and butter, it becomes redundant throughout Trials’ hour-long duration. So much so that the thunderous drums, maniacal piano loop and sampled female church wails of the aforementioned “My Bible” come as a relief, of sorts.

Like most other major label hip hop releases, Trails is overstuffed with strategic big-name camoes—including the now-predictable roll call of new label honcos Birdman and  Lil Wayne; Meek Mill, Rick Ross, Future, Chris Brown, Wiz Khalifa, 2 Chainz—distract from Ace’s hard-won storytelling.

Despite the now-commonplace elements—same-y radio-friendly production and a surplus of guest celebrity voices—Trials and Tribulations turns out to be a step in the right direction for a still-young buck who is not quite a rookie anymore.