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Jay-Z Reviews

Jay-Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail album review

There is hardly an artist active in the popular music industry that has a career that can match the fame and success of Jay-Z’s. Not to say that there aren’t more talented musicians or more successful business people but Jay’s rag to riches story is one of the most well known tales to date. Throughout his discography, Jay has made two things perfectly clear: he is always striving for the next level and that he is his own biggest fan. Keeping this in mind, the circumstances surrounding the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail should come as a surprise to no one. In what many are calling an unprecedented venture, this new album was given free to the first 1,000,000 owners of the Magna Carta app on the newest Samsung Galaxy phones. This landmark deal secured platinum status from the RIAA but also jeers from those who accuse Hova of becoming more and more of a sell-out.

Examining the music of the album aside from all of the business and politics reveals a project of good quality but not nearly an example of the best Jay Z has to offer. Magna Carta has a much darker and more serious tone than more recent releases. While Blueprint 3 and Watch the Throne were more of a celebration of success and wealth, this newest release is more focused on the cost of having such success and the insecurities that linger when responsibilities begin to mount.

In fact the best songs on the album feature deeper lyrics from Jay-Z that give insight into his mindset as his life moves along. ‘Jay-Z Blue’ is the clearest example of this as Jay raps about the fear he feels towards being a good father and husband. ‘Heaven’ is a gut honest song on Hov’s beliefs on spirituality and the place religion has in his life and society. ‘Oceans’  is by far my favorite song on the album for the deep hook sung by Frank Ocean, solid lines from Jay and amazing beat that is nothing short of epic.

On the topic of beats, be assured that there are many hands involved with the top-notch production of the album with all efforts spearheaded by Timbaland and J-Roc. Beats are built off samples from a number of sources ranging from music to movies. The instrumentals are varied, moving and do a great job of setting the mood for the songs they support.

While Magna Carta does have a lot to offer listeners, it will undoubtedly disappoint many who are long time fans of Jay. The key problem unfortunately lies with Jay-Z himself. This is Hov at his least lyrical with some songs coming off as lazily written with the worst being ‘FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt’, a totally pointless track with Rick Ross. It is a shame that this is the case considering the quality of features he has with him on songs such as Justin Timberlake, Frank Ocean and Beyonce.

Magna Carta…Holy Grail is a portrait of Jay-Z at new point in his life. As he states in his songs, he never lets the opinions of others affect his drive to make new music, new deals and new avenues for success. Whether you are impressed with the quality of the songs he offers is up to you but know that Jay has remained the same driven man behind the sound.

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Reviews

Wale – The Gifted album review

Somehow after the dismal release of Attention Deficit Wale found a way to become a legitimate name in hip-hop under the guidance of Maybach Music Group. He adopted ignorant rap into his repertoire after he realized fake deep and half-assed poetry was barely working, and with the release of his third LP The Gifted, he still tries to shake all the disappointment his debut caused and switches it up on us yet again with what he calls on the album’s first song, “The Curse of The Gifted,” ‘new black soul shit’—a more groovy take on what he tells us is a story about the price of fame.

Now cue The Gifted. Wale tries to take us on a journey of the woes of being rich through the album’s 16 tracks. He chronicles the girls, the shine, the haters, the grind, the haters, the cash, but most importantly, the haters. Tracks like “Heaven’s Afternoon” are laced with Wale’s desire to relieve the days where he started from the bottom, so much so that he may have created invisible haters to give the track its sting. Meek Mill effortlessly and accidentally outshines him on his own track and makes lyrics like “When I was dead broke I would still tell myself I’mma still be the shit/Told my P.O if she locked me up, I would do the time, come home, and still be this rich” make Wale’s words sound like unlived memories.

Not to say that Wale rapping about how the brokest guy in his crew is still a millionaire can’t be as powerful a narrative to demonstrate his trajectory in life. What sucks is his delivery, which makes his story fall short. How is this a curse of the gifted? In what ways, Wale, have you been gifted? He never tells.

When it comes to production Wale pulls out all the stops. Stokley Williams of Mint Condition fame brings the smooth and sultry element to songs like “LoveHate Thing” and Sam Dew makes it a great song and great radio cut. Just Blaze makes his mark and gives you something to feel on “88” as his signature high hats crash against the drum kicks and a piano solo resonates in the background.

The Gifted’s biggest hit lies at the bottom of the track listing. Listeners are most familiar with the album because of “Bad,” but you have to skip 15 songs to get to it. It’s petty of Wale to cheat himself because he couldn’t put the rumored beef between he and newcomer Tiara Thomas behind him—even if it was for the quality of the album, and he does himself and his listeners a disservice. His remix with Rihanna (which nonsensically comes 6 songs before the original) is a pitiful attempt at revenge, and even Rihanna tries to emulate Tiara Thomas’ crackling breathy vocals—an embarrassing attempt for an artist of her magnitude.

The cacophony of Wale’s deafening, brash, staccato flow coupled with smooth, soulful production deems The Gifted an uneasy listen. The songs are not bad ones. In fact, the problem isn’t that the songs don’t sound good enough, it’s that Wale’s voice and forgettable lyrics don’t sound good enough on top of them. And that’s what leaves The Gifted teetering on the border of mediocrity. But MMG has taught him a little bit. Wale has definitely picked up Ross’ talent for good beat picking, but apparently still needs coaching on how to spit lukewarm lyrics over tight beats and still make his audience believe that what they’re hearing is hot.

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Reviews

Freddie Gibbs – ESGN – Evil Seed Grow Naturally album review

In a modern day hip hop climate where a singing, former child star is one of the game’s premier pop stars, one of its enduring icons holds a higher priority to announcing his ties with corporate America than creating music and it’s most famous provocateur flaunts his permanent ties to a tabloid Hollywood family and European fashion houses,  hip hop’s grit has long been scrubbed into a shiny, platinum sheen.

So, since hip hop’s collective 9mm now officially goes “pop”, where does that leave someone who does that leave those who want their rap served with that gangsta touch?

Enter Freddie Gibbs.

A native of Gary, IN (a city famous for being both the home of Jackson family and one of the most deadly cities in the nation) with a rollicking, blunted rasp of a voice and often tongue-tied or sing-song-y flow and a remorseless nihilistic viewpoint, Gibbs—a major label refugee after brief stints on both Interscope and Young Jeezy’s Corporate Thugs Entertainment imprint—is an iconoclast in today’s rap game. He’s a grimy street traditionalist in an industry that currently rewards those who move as far away from the street aesthetic as far as they can.

The 75-minute ESGN, Gibbs’ fourteenth release but first officially retail long-player, provides a cohesive picture of Gibbs’ musical pallete.

The production—mostly handled by Gibbs’ group of in-house producers– on ESGN is fairly varied. Cold, synthetic trap beats and warm, soulful grooves both colors Gibbs’ gangsta tales. While the steely synths and skittering 808s that dominate the album’s first half make for a perfect match for the gray subject matter,  it’s trumped by the more melodic, smooth soul-orientated vibe that dominates its final third (executed best on “Dope in My Styrofoam”—with its lush sample of Tyrone Davis’ oft-sampled “In The Mood” and single-worthy “9mm”).

While Gibbs is unapologetically thuggish and headstrong in his mission to modernize the classic gangsta sound, he’s not exactly one-dimensional. The sense of reflection and near-regret displayed on the atmospheric “I Seen a Man Die” and devotion to carrying the torch for his troubled hometown provides a necessary balance to the defiantly nihilism that frames most of the album.

Although at 19 tracks and 75 minutes, it runs a tad longer than it has to, ESGN, to paraphrase George Clinton, is a gangsta ham hock in mainstream hip hop’s glittery (and increasingly) soggy corn flakes.

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Reviews

Slum Village – Evolution album review

What gives music its soul?

Slum Village is a rap group that has featured an ever-changing lineup, drawing upon a collective of Detroit MCs and producers since the early 00’s when hip hop deity Jay Dee aka J Dilla withdrew his full-time guidance from the group. Since then, the group has experienced several renaissances, and each incarnation of the group has pushed the music of Slum Village in new directions while retaining the essence of generations past. For the group’s latest release, the aptly titled Evolution, T3 is the only living member left from the group’s legendary founding trio; Dilla and Baatin have both passed on. Reverently carrying on their legacy are Dilla-sciple producer/MC Young RJ and Jay Dee’s brother Illa J. Together with T3, they are Slum Village for a new generation, and with Evolution they are proving that music has a soul of its own that outlives the illuminated individuals who give it life.

While Evolution benefits from a polished, contemporary sound and fresh flows, it still pays tribute to Slum Village roots from the Fan-tas-tic era by sticking to a tried-and true formula for boom-bap group rap. Effervescent loops are matched up with crunchy vintage drum breaks to create an intuitive backdrop for no-frills raps. However, the tone here is a little more brooding than classic Slum Village, owing to darker, more ethereal samples taking the place of more straightforward jazz and R&B sounds. The verses are more aggressive, and feature faster, grimier flows in contrast to the poetic delivery of the Slum Village of yesteryear. Even with these updates, a raw passion that has always been central to the group’s consciousness comes across on every track. Consequently, Evolution’s high points soar, for instance “Let it Go” which induces chills thanks to spine-tingling piano riffs, spitfire rhymes and a verse from Blu, who delivers one of the most interesting guest appearances on the album. The first single, “Forever” is a laid-back rhythm machine that rivals the clean, even production values of a contemporary De La or Blackalicious. In its entirety, Evolution is an extremely taut album, which bristles with the passion and professionalism exhibited throughout. This is music for music’s sake, and even listeners unfamiliar with the history and influence of Slum Village will appreciate this well-crafted album.

On Evolution, Slum Village remains a rap group with a clear sense of purpose, begotten by a musical ethic born in a by-gone era of hip hop. To hear Evolution is to realize the continuity of the soul of music itself. In philosophy, the properties of continuity are demonstrated through the story of a sailing ship. Over time, parts of the ship are replaced one-by-one when the ship returns to port, until finally none of the original parts remain. Even though the parts are new, it’s hard to argue that you’re not still talking about the same ship. There must be something more than the sum of the parts that gives Slum Village its soul. Despite numerous lineup changes and the death of two founding members, the sound and feeling originally forged by J Dilla, T3 and Baatin is a living entity that survives in and of itself. Evolution is nothing less than a fresh and thoroughly triumphant testament to the eternal spirit of Slum Village, a landmark hip hop group in every way.

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Prodigy Reviews

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.

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Reviews

Maestro Fresh Wes – Orchestrated Noise album review

After a long 13 years hiatus, Maestro Fresh Wes has a lot to get off of his chest with a lengthy 18 track long album filled with each single thought that has run across his mind over the past literal decade. We don’t know what his obsession ever was with the idea of the symphonic orchestra, but Orchestrated Noise serves as a conceptual follow-up to 2000’s Symphony In Effect. Contrary to the album name, you won’t find any Rachmaninoff samples during the hour long run, but instead, with this album, he took on a no holds barred approach to a new, more modern, and even more commercial sound.

Maestro Fresh Wes lost the funky fresh feeling of his past work but didn’t cut corners when it came to featuring notable old school MCs like Chuck D. and Kool G. Rap. While these features are impressive, the lyrical exchange often seems muddled and the subtleties of the instrumental inflections are the highlights of the album. Even without all the features we’d still be here for the instrumentals and how each one is perfectly utilized.

Somehow each song remains so distinctly different from the next.  It must be said though, that at times, the production can seem a bit scattered. Perhaps this is due to the lack of a consistent theme. “Dearly Departed” featuring Kardinal Official displays brassy cymbals hidden behind fluttering flutes to yield one of the album’s most noted tracks. But this is almost immediately followed by “Desire,” a more electronic, Portishead-laden cut, which features Canadian electro-pop princess Lights and an occasional sharp snares and experimental screech. The off-kilter production never seems to bring the drama and climax of an orchestral movement like the album title promises, but somehow it showcases Maestro Fresh Wes as multi-faceted—he goes from the gritty (“The Conversation”) to the pretty (“See You On The Weekend”) and proves to be an artist that could so easily have been pigeonholed into the cool, but not so ubiquitous 90s rap realm of music, but instead decided to try for more relevance.

But it must be said that the distractingly obscure element of Orchestrated Noise is the concept. Is there one? Is there a deeper meaning we’re not catching on to? Regardless of the answer, it should not be this hard to capture. If you are looking for the Maestro Fresh Wes of the 90’s and early 00’s, you’re not gonna find it here. This album is a good way to explore what he has been up to, but as a disclaimer, it will not satisfy your craving for the artist you came for.

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Reviews

Statik Selektah – Extended Play album review

Although he has been on the music scene since the mid –nineties, Statik Selektah’s Extended Play is only his fifth official studio release. It comes at an interesting time in hop-hop where the music is divided fiercely between the radio hit makers and the underground kings gaining listeners by the day. No matter what side you personally support, these different worlds collide beautifully on an album. Here we see a fusion of old school greats, main stream stars and up and coming heroes. The result is a genuine sound from all MCs involved backed by such a skilled producer. The scratch work is solid, the samples are creatively employed and the drums used add a hard edge to most of the beats. It is truly refreshing to see a true DJ like Statik behind the beats of songs.

Any project backed by a man known for king quality like Statik Selektah is bound to have hits. ‘21 & over’ features the lyrical best from both Sean Price and Mac Millar. Funeral Season implements a grimy Jadakiss sample while Styles P, Bun B and Hit Boy rap about violence in the streets. ‘Bring Em Up Dead’ has Joell Ortiz does his usual work on the song supported by the powerful horns and driving drum kit of the instrumental. ‘Live from the Era’ has a beat that impresses more than rhymes thanks to help from the Alchemist. ‘Game Break’ involves excellent rhymes about being a better person through music from all rappers involved with a great vocal sample from Biggie. The album closes out strong with ‘Home’, a song with Talib Kweli expertly rhyming about the importance of family and a positive home setting.

There are a fair number of forgettable songs such as ‘East Coast’, ‘Make Believe’ and ‘Big City of Dreams’. On most other albums, songs like these would have been passable but being put up against the other stellar tracks of Extended Play renders them irrelevant. This is this biggest weakness of the album as it suffers from prioritizing quantity over quality. Cutting out the less memorable songs from the track list could have elevated Extended Play to a different level.

Statik Selektah’s Extended Play is not only a great DJ album but also a catalogue and survey of the face of hip hop today. Whether you like what you see depends on personal preference but the range of talent and instrumental gems Selektah has assembled for this project will fail to impress no one.

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Reviews

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.

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Birdman & Rick Ross – The ‘H,’ The Lost Album Vol. 1 mixtape review

The H Mixtape is the product of some some studio collaboration between Birdman and Rick Ross a couple years back.

The mixtape starts off with a string orchestratration intro, and Birdman giving a spoken preview to the music contained within, talking about the mentality of a couple of the flashiest excess-fueled rappers this side of Miami beach. H apparently stands for hustle, although it’s hard for me to envision either of these portly rappers breaking into anything faster than a brisk walk. The first rapped verse of the album goes to Rick Ross, and Birdman brings one of his signature hooks to “Flashy cars” amid the typical DJ intros and shout-outs.

“Betty Stout” touts a seventies-esque soul sample beat, shifted into a squeaky-high pitch. Ross starts things off again and lays down another bloated verse about excess and luxury, while Birdman raps another hook on the same tiresome topics. Next up, “Pop That Pussy” is a pretty standard club banger joint, with Birdman and Rozay tag teaming a couple of verses with an explicitly instructive hook that gives the track it’s ever-thoughtful title. Banking on the same formula that gave life to the “Betty Soul” beat, “Why” features both rappers on the topic of luxury, and flashy lifestyles.

“Sun Come Up” is a pretty typical yacht-rock infused Miami rap track. The rappers and a pitch-corrected R&B singer remind listeners that they do their big money lifestyle not just Sunday, not just Monday, not just Tuesday, not just Wednesday, not just Thursday, not just Friday, but also Saturdaaayyy. That’s seven days! Out of seven!

Next came a song so glossy and lacking substance it didn’t even register in my mind as an actual track. And that’s about the time I fully checked out, without a single regret, because right on cue, the remaining songs offered little more than B-roll trap beats, inane lyrics and meaningless phoned-in features. In case you just have to know, those tracks are called “Addicted,” “Money to Make,” and “Justice”

This mixtape was recorded back in 2008, and apparently Birdman and Rick Ross felt so compelled to remind the world of their absurd lifestyles between albums, that they decided it was necessary to put out some stale material full of faux-swagger and braggadocio. Mercifully, it was a short mixtape, and if it weren’t a free download, there’s no way I could personally recommend this compilation. It’s not the worst mixtape I’ve ever heard, mainly because it’s all authorized material with a fairly slick production aesthetic. However, with no substance to speak of, the polished exterior doesn’t keep this luxe-rap compilation from tripping over its pendulous belly.

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Empire Of The Sun – Ice On The Dune album review

2008’s Walking On A Dream catapulted Australian duo Empire Of The Sun into international stardom and onto H&M playlists all over Middle America. For a new and foreign act, that’s saying a little something. Their 2009 feature on “What We Talkin’ Bout” requested by Jay-Z himself (but not without questionability) seemed most promising; a feat that could secure their spot on electro-pop dance charts putting them at the forefront of relevancy.

5 years should have been more than enough time for masterminds like Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore to come up with a flawless follow-up. Instead, their sophomore album Ice On The Dune doesn’t seem like a real upgrade since their debut and is nothing but lackluster in comparison, and in a subtle way, it may even be worse. Pre-2011 Empire Of The Sun spearheaded their genre as electron dons and one of the reasons people showed up to Coachella. But that was pre-2011 before artists like Disclosure and Daft Punk, who returned to snatch their spot. And with the new release of Ice On The Dune, it seems to be that they don’t want it back.

There’s something so much less catchy about the songs on Ice On The Dune—a very odd thing, knowing Empire Of The Sun are the masters of releasing impressionable songs you always seem to know even if you can never remember where you picked them up. But the songs on this album sound so distractingly similar to one another that they’re almost unidentifiable, which makes it nearly impossible for any single track to stand out. It’s evident that the duo attempted to create a thorough follow up under the pressures of their much better debut, but they still faltered.

The album opens up with “Lux” which showcases an entire orchestral movement. Empire Of The Sun could’ve muted the theatrics because this piece definitely does not set the precedent for what’s left to come. It seems each song just has a cool name with no content. “Alive” seems more than what it actually sounds like. Even chanting ‘alive’ a million times as in “Loving every minute cuz you make me feel so alive, alive, alive” doesn’t actually make you feel alive. But the staccato keys and radiant synths are just enough to get your feet moving, if even in the littlest bit. “Awakening” shows the slightest glimmer of a hidden gem with its Donna Summer type disco edge and steady beat. It’s just difficult to understand what said ‘awakening’ refers to. But what’s most unfortunate about the album is not the undelivered messages, but that the production of Empire Of The Sun’s second album completely mimics that of the first. It’s impossible to hear any growth, any fresh creativity, and any yearning.

There’s a reason that this type of music is constantly played in the mall—because it’s just enough to make people feel good, but not enough to grab their attention. With respect to their past work, Empire Of The Sun could have had more of a chance at stardom. But with this release, they risk their only listeners being the millennial shoppers in the local H&M.