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

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.

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.

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.

J. Cole – Born Sinner album review

For most rappers, it would be audacious to sample Biggie, compare themselves to Jay-Z, or to dedicate a track to Nas and yet on his sophomore album J. Cole does all three to great success. Born Sinner, out June 18th on Dreamville Records, is an opus filled completely with familiar J.Cole themes of inner conflict coupled with religious imagery and it is also head and shoulders above any hip hop release so far this year. Unlike his first album, Born Sinner carries a thematic darkness throughout and it results in some of the rapper’s best lines so far. On the opening track “Villuminati”, a hectic beat propelled by clattering drums, baleful strings and a Notorious B.I.G. sample, we hear Cole address homophobia, Trinidad James’ “All Gold Everything”, and even drop a “Boy Meets World” reference. In the first verse alone.

The whole album carries a darker tone than any of his previous releases from the cover art to the numerous gospel samples and church themed skits, going so far as to ask “Where’s Jermaine?”, a questioning skit about Cole’s alienation from his upbringing in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This is not to say that the album is inaccessible or anything short of an artistic triumph. Each song on the album would be a strong track on almost anyone else’s sophomore album so the stand outs on Born Sinner are especially potent with “Crooked Smile”, guest featuring TLC, being a pop ready hymn to imperfection and “Chaining Day” acting as an indictment of the materialism in the rap game today. Both of these however are secondary to what is indisputably the heaviest song on the album “Let Nas Down”. Biting the hook from Yeezy’s “Big Brother”, Cole vents about his freshman album and the experience of trying to make a radio friendly single. As he raps the intro, a play on “Nas Is Like” from Nas’ album “I Am…”, Cole lays out the story of his single “Work Out” and realizing after a phone call that he had let down one of his idols by selling out on his art just for a hit.

The only thing that remains to be seen is whether the album sees as much commercial success as it deserves. J. Cole has made one of the best hip hop albums in recent memories and despite guest appearances from names like TLC, James Fauntleroy and Kendrick Lamar, it is still very much a show about J. Cole. As much as he recalls his past in songs like “Land of the Snakes” or “Rich Niggaz”, it is clear that J. Cole has grown leaps and bounds as an artist since The Sideline Story. Be sure to cop Born Sinner; you won’t be disappointed.

The Caravan – The Caravan album review

“It is not the aim of this record to hypnotize you,” are the opening lines of The Caravan’s latest album. Yet the acoustic sounds of their self-titled track list pull you into Kyle McKenna’s world and show you artistry and political passion from his point of view.

This album explains how much the Caravan’s have a passion for artistry with a blend of pop and old school 90’s hip hop. The Caravan are riding music, made with intentions to provoke emotion and promote awareness to life in Canada. Songs like “The Groove” blend a smooth, old school vibe into a pop record that is nice to dance to. Other like “Flex the Flow” offer clever wordplay and smooth flows to show off the band’s lyrical skills.

In Their broad arrangement of songs lies many messages.

One, the Caravan are serious about music.“First Thing I Do Every Morning” talks about how dedicated McKeena is to rap and his skills. He explains that he wants to be a different type of rapper; defeating stereotypes, unleashing the truth and and making people really feel his music on a motivational level.

Two, The Caravan are serious about their political rights. “What up Steve?” is the most controversial songs on the album, picked up my Huffington Post Canada March 5. The song depicts sharp opinions about the Canadian prime minster, Stephen Harper. The lyrics lash out at Harper for alleged dishonesty, oppression, and the controversial Beyond the Boarder Pact. The song continues to attacks his country’s leaders for greed and power instead of for not thinking about it’s citizens.

Three, The Caravan use their music to uplift the people. In “Words That Makes You Feel Good,” the Caravan talks to their fans. Inspired by Blackalicious’s “Make You Feel That Way,” McKenna talks about how he writes for the heart for people to relate to and find comfort in. You can gauge the groups musical progression as they get more confident and secure in their sound and message every day. The verses explain how the group started rapping and grew to take it seriously. By the end of the song it becomes clear why their audience is growing.

Another song that is fan relatable is “Ghost in Your Heart.” The short one verse track depicts growing up under rough circumstances and struggling to find direction. The “ghost in your heart” seems to represent an inner pain or trouble that grow every day. The song advocates examining this ‘ghost’ and finding yourself in the process.

Rapper Kyle McKenna, guitar and keys player Mike Ritchie and drummer Mark Bachynski all have an exceptional career in front of them if they keep making music that passionately speaks out from the heart. This album is utterly amazing, invoking all kinds of emotions from me as I still revel over the clever way that it was done.

Find more information about the group, including tour dates and album details, on their website.

G&D – The Lighthouse album review

G&D are the husband and wife Duo of Georgia Anne Muldrow and Dudley Perkins (aka Declaime). Their new full-length The Lighthouse is a robust album blending funk, soul, and hip hop. Following up on their 2010 Mello Music Group release SomeOthaShip, Georgia and Dudley turned to their own imprint, SomeOthaShip Connect to put out The Lighthouse. The product is a much more personal effort, and the two decided to produce the entire album themselves, whereas SomeOthaShip featured a different hip hop producer for nearly every track. As a DIY effort, this album is even funkier and more message-forward than their first full length release. The album is sonically dense with a smoky haze backdrop, resinous bass and jittery, paranoid funk riffs. What really impressed me about the album is the wide variety of influences on display. There’s Parliament-esque “Power” and “Muthadear,” a heartfelt tribute to motherhood, with a melody so instinctive and sentimental, it reminds of classic Motown. Georgia and Dudley share the spotlight pretty equally, and Georgia stuns with the poise of her delivery in her only rapped verse on “Fam Bam.” Her singing voice is velvety smooth and low, and compliments Dudley’s declaratory rapping style.

The fusion of so many styles is held together with various musical interludes that thump the eardrums and bend the mind with brooding samples and top-notch DJ cuts. Even so, the album does collapse a little under the sheer weight of its own scope. Not so much unfocused as ambitious, its easy to get kind of bogged down by it. Listening to The Lighthouse can get kind of claustrophobic, like being crammed into a tiny, dark closet with Georgia and Dudley as they blow intoxicating hash smoke into your nostrils and school you solemnly on their musical taste and spiritual discoveries. Feel free to take a breather from this daunting album if things get too heavy for you.

All in all this is a highly intelligent album from two artists who are committed to a particular sound, despite the melting pot of influences that conspire to bring that sound to life. That sense of commitment, and of purpose has yielded a fully-rendered vision of spiritual funk and soul melding with hip hop. I will definitely look for G&D to continue to forge their very own path through music in future releases, but I’ll come prepared next time I get invited to hotbox with Georgia and Dudley, and make sure I’m ready for a lesson or two.

Reality – Life Music album review

Full disclosure: this is a review of a Christian Rap album. I’m not saying that because I’m discouraging anyone, believer or not, from listening to it. However, I think it’s important to bear in mind that blending an openly religious message with secular musical genres can often produce confusing results. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Reality’s Life Music, and maybe contemporary Christian music (CCM) in general. Christian rap artists have a lot more barriers to overcome than other contemporary Christian musicians. Finding a lyrical message that keeps it real and also keeps it righteous is rarely achieved, and probably why Christian rappers don’t enjoy a lot of mainstream success even by CCM standards. So, by peppering in religious overtones throughout an album comprised mostly of rhymes about a violent criminal lifestyle, Reality really isn’t striking much of a balance.

Reality relates to the listener a number of tales of a rough life in the streets and of his inner struggle. Unfortunately, none of his verses are very self-revealing. For the most part he just uses generalities to describe his struggle and paint in broad strokes a picture of hardship that he rose above through the power of Jesus. Even the title of the album promises a vital look into a life transformed by faith, but Reality doesn’t even make it clear how or when exactly he decided to devote himself to Christian faith. Combine that with weak storytelling, it becomes hard to truly grasp the transformation that Reality obviously wants to convey. Now, I’m not trying to discredit a man’s testimony, but when it’s hard to tell the difference between a rapper who’s lamenting a life of violence and a rapper who’s glorifying that life, I have to take issue with that. Often Reality’s message of positivity only appears on the latter verses of his songs, and by that time, I’m afraid that many listeners will have already written off the content as boilerplate gangsta rap. However, Reality does seem most genuine when he is focusing on his inner turmoil and his grappling with God, particularly on “To The Generation” which was easily my favorite song on the album.

Would I listen to this album if I even if I were a non-believer? Maybe. Reality’s strong voice and solid delivery are enough to keep listeners interested for at least a skim of a few tracks. However, I just don’t think that Reality’s message is going to hit home with Christians, because it just doesn’t deliver honest, impactful testimony. So, if this album is going to seem lukewarm to non-believers, and inauthentic to believers, then who is this album for? That question, in my opinion, sums up the awkwardness of contemporary Christian music, and in particular the confusing blend of ‘holy’ and ‘hip hop’ found in Life Music.

Rittz – The Life and Times of Jonny Valiant album review

After much ado, Georgia rapper Rittz announces himself with a highly foreshadowed debut album, The Life and Times of Jonny Valiant. Since aligning himself Yelawolf’s independent label Slumerica, Rittz has dropped several singles and a lengthy mixtape (White Jesus: Revival) as a run-up to up this debut release. Now, turning to Tech N9ne’s Strange Music imprint, Rittz’s brand of dirty south hip hop hits the big scene.

The debut effort from Rittz is unlikely to disappoint his fans, touting consistent production values and Rittz’s signature rapid-fire rhymes, but it might not so easily win over a casual listener. What limits this album’s appeal is a number of thematic contradictions. And although it’s an extremely polished product, the music just doesn’t make the right kind of impact for an MC’s debut.

As far as the overall sound experience of the album, it sounds really crisp. Rittz’s vocals always come through loud and clear, showcasing the rapper’s blazing fast choppity-chop rapping style. Rittz’s fast but not hurried delivery dices up an inky black backdrop of clean bass tones and tight synths. His rapping competes with the speed and precision of double-time kicks and tick-tick snares. I have to be honest though, I felt the slickness of the tracks losing luster pretty early in the album. Maybe it was the straight up sex jam “Sober,” but I couldn’t help but imagine some of these songs playing out in a beat up after-hours strip club.

Three quarters of the way through the hour-long album, Rittz’s machine gun flow started to wear me down as well. I found myself practically begging for featured artists to come in and break up some of the monotony. While I usually respect the sparing use of features on a solo album, especially a debut, I wish Rittz had given up the mic a little more often. The guest verses from MCs like Tech N9ne, Yelawolf and Big K.R.I.T., are a much-needed change of pace on Jonny Valiant.

His flow aside, Rittz is at his lyrical best when he keeps it strictly personal, like in the song “Interview.” Here he faces down skeptics, critics, and public interrogation in the form of rapped responses to a fictional interview. However Rittz stumbles when the focus becomes less individual and he resorts to glorifying excessive lifestyles filled with drugs, booze and sexual exploits (see: “Sober”). To further complicate things, Rittz seems very determined to remind the listener of his no-nonsense ethos with songs like “Fuck Swag,” and “For Real.”

Ultimately, I couldn’t fully get over these missteps. An MCs debut album is a rite of passage that should make an unmistakable statement representing the sum of everything in the artists life that went into the creation of the album. Not only is Rittz’s statement a little contradictory, the album fails to create a lasting impact musically. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an unbelievably consistent effort from an MC in a debut, and it could probably serve as a great soundtrack for your next drugged driving excursion. Unfortunately, the punch that The Life and Times of Jonny Valiant packs will wear off a lot quicker than the buzz you’re catching to it.

Day – Land of 1,000 Chances album review

Although his name might not ring a bell to many underground fans, Palm Springs-based artist Day (previously known as DJ Day) has 17 years in the music business under his belt lending his talents to the likes of Aloe Blacc, Clutchy Hopkins, and People Under the Stars, to name a few. Day released his first album, “The Day Before,” in 2007 exposing listeners to his deliciously chill sound. His sophomore release, “Land of 1,000 Chances,” continues Day’s legacy in his most ambitious project yet.

Laid back, heavy, and melancholic: Day accurately summarizes the emotions evoked from this album upon the first 20 seconds into the first track. VQ and Mama Shelter sets up the jazz-influenced foundation for the album. Qualudde, FML, and Hopefully are notable interludes that are easy on the ear and warm to the touch. The title track “Land of 1,000 Changes” served as the peak of the album, providing a beautiful reminder of the jazzy hip hop days. Green Fin and Boots in the Pool are a melodic reminder of those lazy days in the summer spent by the ocean or pool. W-E-L-O-V-E brings the jazz influence full circle ending the album on a good note (literally).

“Land of 1,000 Chances” is a gem that is sure to please those who seek a warm, melodic reminder of the summer with an infectious hip hop beat. The album is painful reminder for music fans alike that in order to seek innovative sound, you must dig deeper into the underground.