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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

Jarren Benton – My Grandma’s Basement album review

These days it’s hard to be provocative. Look at Kanye West, he’s out there calling himself God, and trying to hit the reset button on race politics, and somehow it’s not enough bite for some critics out there. Jarren Benton either doesn’t care or doesn’t know how desensitized rap listeners have become. While Kanye’s overfed ego makes people question whether Yeezus is truly caustic or winking, Benton demonstrates no such self-awareness on My Grandma’s Basement. Going for broad shock value on nearly every track, he makes you very aware that he wants you to think he’s just bat shit crazy. Real crazy is tormented, relentlessly introspective, and hard to look at, while Benton’s version is just misguided and adolescent. It’s as if the Atlanta rapper is ignorant of the post-Eminem rap landscape, where there is no shock, just embarrassment in hearing a graphic verse about “killin’ a bitch.” Jerron doesn’t seem like the cold-blooded killer he wants everyone to see him as. Instead, My Grandma’s Basement gives way to images of Jarren marauding around in a rented jester’s costume, begging for attention from anyone who’ll give it.

Tongue twisting references to meth, razorblades and cum rags are punctuated by tributes to Adidas shell-toes, PBR, and weed. So, if there’s any real shock value in this album, it gets a severe blunting due to the wildly inconsistent tone throughout. Mercifully, there are a few bangers that are actually worth a listen, and while generic trap beats fill out the majority of Basement, some of the songs are distinct enough to stand out. The album starts off very strong with the paranoid funk of “Razor Blades and Steak Knives, and frankly, sets a bar that the rest of the album never rises to, although “Heart Attack,” which features the aforementioned murder verse, touts a dope beat and some mildly clever lyricism.

Jerron Benton is an inexplicably boisterous kind of rapper, given his real lack of substance, credibility, or self-awareness. He’s just dying for you to admire his crazed antics, and blush from his gross-out references. Likely, My Grandma’s Basement will probably just elicit a few cringes, and is unlikely to truly provoke rap audiences who are by now numb to overblown shock value and gross-out tactics. This is the kind of album that’s so out of touch, that it squelches out most of the legitimate music that actually manages to float to the top of the album.

Mo Thugs Presents The Game: Last of a Compton Breed album review

On June 11, a mixtape of The Game tracks quietly hit digital outlets like Rdio and Spotify to no fanfare whatsoever. Judging from the album art which smacks of bootleggdness, there’s probably more than a good chance that the release isn’t one that’s fully authorized by The Game, if the Rapper’s even aware of it at all. Search results show that the tracks went on sale on iTunes, but are no longer available, at least in the US. Some rinky-dink label has put out the 15 track compilation, entitled “The Game: Last of a Compton Breed.” However the label got their hands on these Game tracks, its pretty clear that this is a straight-up money grab aimed at cashing in on a big-name rapper’s celebrity.

Aside from the legitimacy of this mixtape, which is beyond questionable, the book matches is cover in this case, with a thrown-together feel and sound. With a couple of weak freestyle tracks, recycled material from Black Wall Street mixtape sessions, and a number of uncredited guest rappers, there’s really no rhyme or reason to this release. Couple that with the fact that it all sounds like it was put together on a laptop, without mixing or mastering, and you’ve got a really sloppy mixtape. Fans of The Game should be strongly cautioned against purchasing or supporting this release due to the lack of credibility associated with its release. For die-hards, who are chomping at the bit to get their hands on any new Game material, here’s a rundown of a few tracks that do bring a little bit of heat:

Midnight Rider – This one’s a game track through and through, with one of those sped-up soul singer samples, gun cocking to the mid-tempo West Coast beat, and The Game laying down a menacing hook in between verses breaking down the hustle of a true Cali G.

Streets – Game’s flow is at its finest, and probably fastest here on this track. Only problem is, there’s only one verse, and the rest of the song is a couple of hooks that are smooth but kind of generic.

Murder – This slower joint is some pure west coast funk. Game brings a couple of verses about the state South Central gang life, filled with references to neighborhoods, locales, and affiliations.

And that’s about it. Check out the rest of the tracks only if you’ve got the biggest of jones for some new Game material, but be warned there’s not much Game to these tracks, with many featuring only 1 verse spit by The Game. In fact, there is at least one song that doesn’t have the Game on it at all, which is kind of inexplicable on a mixtape that’s at least trying to pass of its material as relevant. Sorry to fans of The Game, Mo Thugs hasn’t done the rapper any justice with “Last of a Compton Breed.”

Aceyalone – Leanin’ On Slick album review

I want to make the case that an album full of good songs isn’t necessarily a good album. The argument seems to defy a very basic principle of logic as it stands to reason that if an album is made up of 13 songs, and all 13 are good songs, then that should be a good album. However, albums aren’t judged as merely the sum of their songs, are they? So while each of the 13 tracks on Aceyalone’s Leanin’ On Slick sounds great on their own, the baker’s dozen together does not a great album make. While Slick offers plenty of feel-good funk and fun-loving rhymes, it’s repetitive to the point of boredom, and offers little substance for the choosy music fan.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of good times to be had listening to Leanin’ On Slick. This is Aceyalone’s third record produced entirely by Bionik. Each time the Freestyle Fellowship alum has worked with Bionik, the collaboration has yielded a hip hop album influenced by a specific musical genre. Previously sampling dancehall and doo-wop, Leanin’ on Slick is an exploration of the sounds of classic funk. From the James Brown-borrowing title track to the horn-heavy New Orleans style groove on “What You Gone Do With That?” each track is a polished-up vehicle for Aceyalone’s ride-along flow. Lyrically, Aceyalone is upbeat, near the brink of squeaky-clean, and it took about 4 tracks for me to realize that the rapper had no intentions of digging into heavy themes on this album, opting instead for playful syllabics and slightly banal wordplay.

Perhaps this was also the point where boredom started creeping in. Aceyalone and Bionik were starting to recycle their formula for slippery hip hop as a mid-album yawn started to come over me. Changes in tone or sonic texture are nowhere to be found in Slick except maybe the boisterous “Workin’ Man’s Blues,” which is actually a recycled track itself, lifted from Aceyalone’s last album and adding Cee Lo to the hook this time around.

But for one reason or another, I couldn’t fully dismiss this album, despite my overall lack of enthusiasm for it. I thoroughly enjoyed each of the songs a second time around, once I was able to shuffle them into a couple playlists. As it turns out, evaluating each track on an individual basis did away with the problem of repetitiveness and alleviated my irritation with the triteness of the lyrics; I was too busy grooving to the beat to care much lyrical depth.

The same album that bored me also got me dancing, and an album I wouldn’t easily recommend is also a collection of 13 songs I might suggest for a summer playlist. Enjoying Leanin’ On Slick is not simply a matter of taste, but also occasion. So by all means, put Aceyalone’s glossy, funkified hip hop into the soundtrack to your next barbecue, just be sure to hit that shuffle button.