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.

Murs – Yumiko: Curse of the Merch Girl album review

I love concept albums. Concept albums, when properly executed are stand-alone works of art. Because their premise is self-contained, they aren’t bound by context the way other albums might be. With a strong central theme, concept albums tend to by tighter in focus, so pound for pound, they tend to pack a little more intellectual punch than traditional structures. And as far as hip hop concepts, comic book integration has provided some of the most fruitful source material, for example Ghostface Killah’s 12 Reasons to Die with producer Adrian Younge, which dropped earlier this year, and was packaged with a comic book.

Rapper Murs is taking that idea one step further with Yumiko: Curse of the Merch Girl.  The collaborative project began as the idea of rapper Murs and comic book writer Josh Blaylock. Murs, a lifelong fan of comic books, met Blaylock briefly (who happened to be a fan of Murs’ music) at several comic book conventions, and soon after began talking about working on something together. They came up to write a story that could be told through the pages of a graphic novel as well as a hip hop album. Because of the scope of the project, Murs and Blaylock couldn’t secure backing from a record label, so they turned to Kickstarter to let fans fund the production of a full-length album and full-color 100-page graphic novel. In response, over 30,000 dollars was raised to produce Yumiko: Curse of the Merch girl, and the finished product was released to supporters and fans July of 2012. Fast forward to 2013, and now the album has gotten a proper release through a distribution deal with Duck Down Music.

So now, a much larger audience will get to experience Yumiko, the tale of a girl who works the merchandise table on tour with her boyfriend’s band. Without giving too much away the story ends with a clash of the cosmic forces of good and evil. Each song in Murs’ album corresponds to a chapter in the graphic novel by Blaylock, and Murs’ lyrics appear throughout the book. With tight integration like this, the album can stand alone regardless if you read the graphic novel. Murs stays strictly on-topic with his rhymes, while still managing to draw some universal parallels between the characters and real life, touching on topics such as, loyalty, materialism, belief in a god or gods, and self-reliance, a theme which is particularly resounding given the highly DIY nature of the album. While fairly short at only 10 tracks, the album makes up for this in lyrical density and through determined musical progression. DJ Foundation creates an evocative yet unobtrusive backdrop for every chapter in story, and sets the tone throughout. The album starts out with mellow boom-bap and builds in intensity up to the finale, a sprawling, techno-infused epilogue, which lets you know the ride is over And Yumiko is a ride that’s every bit engaging as it is entertaining. So hope for more comic book hip hop like this, because the stories that make for enticing graphic novels translate well into satisfying albums in an age where a lot of music that costs a lot more than $30,000 to make so severely lacks meaning or inspiration.

Mayer Hawthorne – Where Does This Door Go album review

Where Does This Door Go is the album Mayer Hawthorne claims he always wanted to make—a complete testament to his new desire to free himself from his inhibitions and go for not giving a damn. Even if the album is a complete curveball. And if the music on this album is what he’s always had on his mind, it makes us wonder how he even came up with songs like “I Wish It Would Rain.” This album is a musical medley at it’s finest—one with hip-hop rhythms, subtle reggae basslines, and funk music’s groovy guitar riffs, but what are most impressive are the instrumental inflections of the folk music that plagued the 60s and 70s. It’s America meets Carole King who are then happy to introduce us to Average White Band and Kool and the Gang. And what awaits us is a lovely listen.

The density of the content on this album is about as shallow as a blow up kiddie pool, but that’s what makes it so approachable. Mayer Hawthorne isn’t crying for love this time, but takes on emotions’ inevitable simplicities. You don’t have to be heavily enamored to have legitimate thoughts, but one-night stands can make for good music too. And in the few second gaps that separate each new track you can’t help but feel the apprehension of uncertainty, but with each new track comes an easy listen.

The instrumentation and lyrics make it sexy. In an overcrowded Venice Beach party kind of way. We can thank Mayer Hawthorne’s decision to ditch the Motown thing and try for a West Coast vibe for this. Kendrick Lamar even makes an appearance on “Crime.” What’s different is that Hawthorne has freed himself of some responsibility and employs a plethora of producers (including heavy hitters like Pharrell) instead of doing everything himself, which gave him room to play around, and the carefree element bleeds through all the album’s cracks in the best way. He even abandons his soft, breathy, falsetto croon and takes on a heavier chest voice—and though this makes his vocals sound a bit indistinct, it demonstrates his newfound confidence as a vocalist, considering that only an album ago, he would have never dared come out of falsetto.

Where Does This Door Go is upbeat and inviting from the jump. “Back Seat Lover” is a song with passionate instrumentation but is likely about a messy friend with benefits situation. In the reggae laden “Allie Jones” Hawthorne sings about a chick (who likely wears oversized hoodies and cutoff denim shorts) who could’ve had everything but appreciates nothing. But perhaps most memorable is “Her Favorite Song” as through a heavy bass and muted chords, it exemplifies the devotedness anyone can have for their music.

The differences between Where Does This Door Go and Mayer Hawthorne’s past albums are like the difference between love and lust.  It’s nice to feel that he isn’t taking himself too seriously this time around, and it’s exciting letting his lighthearted thoughts lead you.

Ciara – Ciara album review

It’s been a long and winding road for Ciara Harris since her 2004 introduction via the sensuous, Lil Jon-produced thump that was “Goodies.”

Initially an artist that appeared to be an obvious one hit wonder, the ATL-ien flipped the script and churned out hit after hit for the next three years before the gravy train stopped.

Seven years after her last hit album–2006’s The Evolution–with two failed albums (and celebrity romances), several stalled first singles and a greatly diminished public profile, Ciara looked like she’d finally reached the “here today, gone tomorrow” wall that she seemed so destined to hit immediately after “Goodies”’ runaway success.

That was until “Body Party.”

The track’s sensual, almost narcotic haze—built upon a classic, memory triggering sample of fellow Atlanta natives (and actual one hit wonders) Ghost Town DJ’s “My Boo—isn’t just one of the best singles of the year, it’s also one of the best songs that Ciara’s ever done.

“Body Party’”s status—her first R&B top ten hit in three years and a certified summer smash—aims as being thr opening salvo in the singer’s commercial resurgence (since an artist like Ciara is rooted firmly in the charts).

So why is Ciara—her fifth release—so forgettable?

“Party” easily proves to be the brief, ten-track set’s lone high point. Producer Mike Will—the man behind “Party”’s slow-grind magic—proves that magic doesn’t always strike twice on “Where You Go”, a duet with Ciara’s current beau Future (who shares executive producer status on the disc with the singer and reunited mentor L.A. Reid). While Future’s auto-tuned “oohs” on “Party” further accentuate the song’s unhurried sensual crawl, his croon on “Go” clashes significantly with his duet partner’s featherweight falsetto.  Far blander than Future’s collaboration with Ciara’s rival and fellow vocally limited pop&B chanteuse Rihanna’s “Loveeeeee Song”, the pop-aiming ballad is an easy miss.

Ciara’s voice, a malleable, almost non-existent coo, is in the same vein as Janet Jackson and Aaliyah—the two starlets whose footsteps she clearly follows. Like Jackson and Aaliyah, her almost weightless vocal presence makes her a producer’s wet dream. Her voice is merely just another sound that smoothly blends into a track’s soundscape. Yet, while Jackson and Aaliyah both prospered musically, thanks to chemistry with one production unit—Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Timbaland, respectively–Ciara and Ciara—which nearly features a different producer on each track–has not.

Along with the generally tossed-off nature of most of the songs, Ciara’s main flaw is its lack of direction. It’s obvious that both Ciara and her handlers are throwing many potential stabs at the charts and seeing what sticks. While that’s not a bad aim from a business standpoint, it doesn’t do much for believability. Whether she’s the “too fly for this” ex (on “I’m Out”, one of two duets with Nicki Minaj), the too-hot-to-resist vixen that’s playing hard to get (“Keep on Lookin’”), or sexually assertive cunnilingus advocate (“Read My Lips”, which sounds eerily similar to Taylor Swift’s “You Belong To Me”), she sounds like she’s singing from a teleprompter. This lack of identity becomes even more evident when she tries to convey aggression (see “Super Turnt Up”, which features a rather unconvincing rap from the lady herself).  The album’s attempts at catering to Top 40 trends—most evident during the disc’s second half, most explicitly on the Euro pop bounce closer “Overdose”-seemed similarly forced.

Caught between the pursuit of commercial resurgence and the expression of her own burgeoning womanhood, Ciara’s goal of achieving both ultimately seems perilous at best.

Prop Dylan & Logophobia – The Morning After EP review

Hailing from Sweden, rapper Prop Dylan and producer Logophobia link up once more to offer the world The Morning After EP.  Clocking in less than thirty minutes with only seven full songs (when excluding the intro), this project is a short but sweet listen. Those familiar with the work of Prop Dylan know to expect rapid rhymes about the very real ups and downs on life. On this EP, he comes with aggressive delivery and a flow that rides the timing and energy of instrumentals in use. Logophobia, the second half of the partnership, backs up the emcee with solid, soulful beat work. Samples are used well to create rich instrumentation for all songs featured. It would be fair to consider Logophobia Sweden’s version of 9th wonder.

Projects that have such a limited number of songs run the risk of failure if every track is not on point.  Fortunately, The Morning After has plenty of quality material to pick from. ‘Murphy’s Law’ is a fun song about the terrible day where everything goes wrong at once. ‘Find out’ about looking for truth in all aspects of life from religion to politics. ‘Book of Rhymes’ is a heartfelt remembering of Dylan’s inspiration and love of hip hop backed by powerful sampled horns.

One odd factor of this EP is the fact that all of the features are crammed onto one song in the middle of EP. The imbalanced set up of ‘Bring You Down’ would be forgivable if the talent showcased wasn’t so unimpressive. The truth is that there is no real need for any of the other artists on the song considering the rapping talents of Prop Dylan alone. In my opinion, this is a blemish on an otherwise outstanding project.

Foreign artists usually don’t get much spotlight in the America rap game but Prop Dylan is for sure someone to pay attention to. As shown by The Morning After, he has a mind for quality over quantity and works to bring truth to every song he’s on. Supported by a producer with skill and vision like Logophobia, this is an EP that everyone should lend an ear to.

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.

Run The Jewels (El-P and Killer Mike) – Run The Jewels album review

Everybody be cool this is a robbery! This has been a friendly reminder from EL-P and Killer Mike aka the hip hop duo Run The Jewels, and don’t forget the name.

In many ways, the collaboration between these two rappers was something of an inevitability. Both are painstakingly devoted to releasing consistently hard-hitting material while maintaining an intentional and cultivated outsider ethos. Both artists are still riding the momentum of acclaimed albums in 2012, wherein El-P handled production for Killer Mike’s effort R.AP. Music, and Killer Mike contributed the standout feature for El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure. El-P and Killer mike are also both known for delivering aggressive lyrics dense with unexpected meaning and humor. It’s safe to say these guys have a pretty similar mindset, and the fusion of their voices into one album has unleashed a menace, laying claim to everything it touches.

Setting the stage for this heist is El-P’s unique production style, laden with heavy, gritty bass-synth, searing guitars, heavy drum breaks and trap style 808’s. The beats on this album hit you in the gut without becoming overly maximal in the pursuit of a full-spectrum sound. El-P show a little more restraint than usual in his production here, leaving plenty of room for himself and formidable associate Killer Mike to wreak havoc on the tracks.

The duo tag teams many of their verses, throwing it back to a golden era of hip hop in which MCs show a tangible rapport with each other, one pushing the other to new heights. Lyrically El-P and Killer Mike sling acid, or maybe shrooms; both reference the influence of psilocybin. However, this is not enlightened flower-power rap, and Run The Jewels positions itself totally opposed to such from the very beginning. On the first verse of the album, El-P spits “Oh dear what the fuck have we here?/These motherfuckers all thorn no rose.”

Killer Mike and El-P pull no punches in putting rap on notice of their scheme to co-opt the game, yet they both appear impossibly relaxed and in their element on Run The Jewels. The effect is pure badassery with a vengeance. Killer Mike warns “Yes I bag the clams/Anyone object to the styles, get a smile and a backwards hand.” The way El-P and Killer Mike assert themselves has always been in your face without going over the top. Run Jewels doesn’t wear a chip on its shoulder, just your chain around its neck.

Chrisette Michele – Better album review

We were left wondering why Chrisette Michele had disappeared after she lent her flawless vocals to the too cool “Aston Martin Music” in 2010. She comes back strong on her third album and introduces us to a new vibe with Better, and with a subtle stylistic change to a refreshing and modern feel, she still manages to maintain that balance between the old and the new without sacrificing her signature vocals, and even reminds us of the street credibility she’s garnered with collaborations with Wale and 2 Chainz, showing us once more why she’s beloved by so many different audiences.

Chrisette Michele must have gotten her heart broken pretty badly during her hiatus because this album serves as her diary entry that tells us she’s ready to try again. The 20-track album may seem a little overwhelming, but that’s just because, like most chicks, Chrisette Michele has quite the emotional range, and she’s honest enough to know how to explain. The album opens up with “Be In Love” a testament to her willingness to put her heart on a platter regardless of whoever’s ready to stab at it. And the album just picks up from there. “A Couple of Forevers” is the album’s real showstopper and it’s only the second track. It offers a lot more than a quintessential O’Jays sample—in it we find airiness, a great melody, and cutesy lyrics that aren’t too flowery. The violins dance to the opening and her voice whispers some kind of feeling to us as she sings, “…And I’m not asking for much, just a couple of forever’s/I’m the only one, you’re the only one/Together ‘til never…” It’s breathtaking, and everyone’s future wedding song.

We’re so glad Chrisette Michele took the time out to address the irony of the rich hipster in the aptly named “Rich Hipster,” not only because we’re so tired of the fake poor Williamsburg veganista, but because she made room for a light song on an emotionally dense album—something that mocks popular culture was just enough to tell us she didn’t completely fall off the face of the planet.

You’ll find most of the great songs on the first half of the album. Songs like “Love Won’t Leave Me Out” and “Snow” have a great instrumental and the sudden chord changes make it beautiful. Her staccato vocal drops from note to note and she’s begging us to realize that she’s still got it. As her voice skips on the title track “Better,” she sings,  “Cupid help me please, cause mister wrong keeps meeting me/And I got a funny feeling love’s around the corner…/Love’s gotta make me feel better, better, better.” On this album, she touches on the ups and downs of love, but really looks forward to more ups; a rare feat for someone who we can only assume has been stung by it so badly. We wish she had made more noise about it this album. It’s definitely worth paying attention to.

AraabMUZIK – The Remixes Vol. 1 album review

The Remixes, Vol. 1 reveals that Araabmuzik is on a mission.

The 24-year-old wants to bridge the gap between the trap and the stadium.

The Providence, RI-bred producer best known for his trademark MPC techniques—which include producing rapid rhythms, electronic sounds and well-crafted melodies all at once–and production the Dipset crew (as well as 50 Cent, Fabolous and Busta Rhymes) diversifies his palate on The Remixes by trying his hand at recreating many EDM anthems.

Dub step bass drops and synth squiggles of get reframed from an electronic jog into a slowed-down recline on the opening remix of Mt. Eden & Freshlyground’s “Sierra Leone.”  The revision of Brass Knuckles’ “Bad Habits” similarly pitches down the original’s dubstep bounce into a slow-burning gangsta rollick. The original’s poppy female vocals are removed for the exception of a looped “you….”’s, “Sometimes it’s good to be”’s and “I do it all for you.” ‘s. The changes displayed on these opening tracks completely change the energy of both tracks without completely dismantling their original intent.

The rest of The Remixes, Vol. 1 follows in the vein of the aforementioned opening tracks with Araab adding brooding and cinematically tense atmosphere, hip hop drums and impressive MPC twiddling to an array of EDM head bangers—most impressively on the remixes of Benny Benassi & Gary Go’s “Cinema” and The Bloody Beetroots’ “Chronicles of a Fallen Love” (where a nice melodic edge is added to the original’s almost monotonic electronic grind). A nice and surprising deviation from the set’s focus on EDM reimagining is Aaarb’s rework of Taana Gardner’s oft-sampled club classic “Heartbeat”. The 1981 original’s slow-disco funk is remixed into an almost narcotic groove with Gardner’s now-famous vocals intact.

While The Remixes Vol. 1 probably won’t hold much appeal outside of a club or festival setting or a beat head’s Beats by Dre’s, it does its job with fusing a hard street stare with EDM fist pumping.

Jon Kennedy – Corporeal album review

Trip hop is dead. Okay, not dead but maybe doomed. It’s not that there aren’t great offerings by artists working within the idiom, it’s just that there’s a hard cap that’s already been hit. Trip hop was probably ill fated at birth, because the seminal works of artists like DJ Shadow and Portishead caused a rapid peak for the fledgling genre, sending successors tumbling into an accelerated life-cycle from peak to saturation to obscurity. Works like DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing” and Portishead’s “Dummy” added new dimensions of performance, creativity, and finesse to instinctive hip hop grooves, and created the foundation for trip hop. But in the time since these influential albums were released in the mid-nineties, trip hop has been reluctant to yield new colors for its producer’s palette. Attempting to fuse novel and diverse styles into the beat-laden compositions is the name of the game, rather than the icing on the cake. It follows that the standard for good trip hop is pretty remote.

“Corporeal,” Jon Kennedy’s entry into the trip hop archives suffers a little from these limitations, even as it attempts to fuse so many different genres. Kennedy, the UK Drummer, DJ and producer, has in fact incorporated instrumentation with samples and synth, an approach that actually distinguishes “Corporeal” slightly from it’s predecessors. The opening track “Boom Clack,” collages gritty synth and wobbly dubstep bass and looped boom-bap drumming. There’s definitely an element of performance on display in this album. However, as the album progresses, and jazzy keyboard vibes or country-western guitar riffs or other extranea are forcibly injected into the vacuum-sealed soundscape of “Corporeal,” the inconsistency of tone becomes all too apparent. And while Kennedy’s grooves are often transfixing, they’re almost so perfect in their intuitiveness that the tracks feel sanitized rather than human. Smooth Jazz comes to mind a little too often. Factor in some painfully banal lyrics, and lack of transition work, and “Corporeal” seems downright mundane. That’s not the kind of description that bodes well for an album that conceits in its very title to take the listener on a journey of the senses. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few arresting moments in this album. The deep, soulful atmosphere of “Bossa No Var” is delectably concise.

Unfortunately, the occasional high points feel totally disjointed from the rest of the sprawling, meandering album. So while Jon Kennedy has succeeded in making an interesting collection of songs, the album as a whole feels very dated. It’s old hat. The trick with trip hop is that experimentation within the style just doesn’t yield stunning innovation. The albums that do rise to the top of trip hop are forged out of rare elements like pure virtuosity, exemplified by DJ Shadow, and visionary inspiration as in Portishead’s haunting masterpiece “Dummy.” Neither of these essential characteristics can be expounded upon much. You either have ‘it’ or you don’t, because the form of trip hop really takes care of itself. So while Jon Kennedy has found a technically interesting sound in “Corporeal,” the album just doesn’t have the soul (or body for that matter) to set it apart from the crowd. Few music styles are as formally narrow as trip hop, which also makes it an extremely top-heavy genre. The question is, can trip hop survive or will it ultimately collapse under the weight of its early influencers?