We all love a good come-up story. Like the one about P. Diddy’s rise to global fame from his humble beginnings in Harlem; or the one about Notorious B.I.G. selling drugs to get by and ending up one of the most respected rappers of our time. The most glorious come-ups though, in my humble opinion, happen when talented and influential rappers find validation within the rap community by saying what’s real without pandering to a mass, over-hyped audience and without selling out. That’s where Los Angeles rapper Jay Rock comes in.
Jay Rock’s first studio album Follow Me Home is a chronicle of struggle and adversity, a memoir of sorts, one that shows the rapper/producer hasn’t forgotten his roots. As of late Jay Rock has been making his way toward the top of the rap industry, having been a part of collaborations with Lil’ Wayne, Twista, and Tech N9ne, as well as having been featured in XXL. Follow Me Home is Jay Rock’s first major flirtation with the spotlight, and, fame in mind, it’s interesting to discover he takes us right back to where he began. Follow Me Home is almost Jay Rock’s way of assuring his listeners, “Yeah, this is where I am now, but come with me and I’ll show you exactly where I’ve been.” It’s as if we’re following him back to his neighborhood, back to the housing projects he grew up in, and he’s showing us he hasn’t forgotten about any of it.
Aptly titled, the track “No Joke” demonstrates Jay Rock’s knowledge of the inner workings of the streets. He grew up in Watts, California, a Southeast part of Los Angeles, and was a member of a gang called the Bounty Hunters. Rock is no stranger to guns, or drugs, for example, as he demonstrates with the line “Homie what you smokin’ on?/I can get it dirt cheap/I can get it for the low/Hard rock or pure blow/I can show you how to whip it .” Likewise, it’s still blaringly clear that Rock remembers the things he had to do to survive before hitting it semi big in the rap game. In the song “Just Like Me” Rock spits a tribute to his hustling days – “Serving them junkies just to get some quick cash/To give to your mama ‘cause she doing bad.”
If one thing is clear about Jay Rock, it’s that he consistently spits verses that are informed with life experience and backed by hard-earned street credentials. However that’s not the only admirable aspect of Follow Me Home – not only does Rock manage to tell his “hood tales” with depth, he also produces some sick beats that serve to only enhance the essence of those stories. “Say Wassup” begins with a fairytale-inspired melody and continues into a bass-heavy, rhythmically perfect track about getting out of the hood, going back, and still saying “what’s up” to old homies. It’s the perfect anthem to bump in a particularly nostalgic moment.
But even though Jay Rock may have found his ticket out of the hood with Follow Me Home, his music continues to stay about the struggle. Soon we may see him riding in Benz’s, but we’re forever going to hear him rapping about the streets.
2011 has already been a big year for Royce Da 5’9”. After releasing the Slaughterhouse EP with his group Slaughterhouse in February and Hell: the Sequel with Eminem in June, the Detroit rapper has emerged once again, this time bestowing upon us another solo project. Success is Certain is Royce’s fifth solo album, and after a solid period of collaborations, he has made sure his own voice will be heard. Success is Certain gives Royce another chance to shine on a record all his own, and to solidify himself within the hardcore rap community as a force to be reckoned with.
Success is Certain begins with the track “Legendary” which features Travis Barker of Blink-182 on the drums. It seems a fitting title for the first track, as it paves the way for the rest of the record whereby Royce generally claims superiority over the rap game. Everything about “Legendary” is in fact legendary; the beat and accompanying percussion are booming, the lyrics are triumphant and biting. In the first verse, Royce spits, “To say that I’ve evolved/There’s only one ‘I’ in defying odds”— it’s been a long and trying, yet critically acclaimed career for Royce, and he’s not shy about talking about it.
In other posts I have found fault with hip-hop that is flashy for no other reason than being flashy, or rap that is nothing more than an excessive exhibition of wealth. I’ve even been called a “rap purist” – which, albeit off the mark, I think implies that I’m pretentious with my choices of rap. I’ll admit that I expect a greater purpose from most everything I listen to. And I will also admit that I’ve criticized certain rappers’ arrogant swagger. But the difference between a rapper like, say, Kanye, and Royce da 5’9″ is Royce somehow masters the art of braggadocio without crossing a line into outright indulgence. Even though it’s laced with self-vanity, the line, “Somebody very dear to me just attempted to kill herself/And showed me we don’t fear death, we fear fear itself/Ever since 98 in hip hop my presence been felt/Couple dollars, couple models, couple of bitch niggas under my belt” from the track “I’ve Been Up, I’ve Been Down” feels markedly more poignant than arrogant.
The most impressive aspect of Success is Certain, though, is that Royce is joined by numerous guests on the album, yet he maintains a strong and masterful voice that weaves its way throughout. Even though Eminem (once Royce’s mentor) guest raps on the song “Writer’s Block,” Royce commands most of the verses – almost as if the master has finally stepped back to let his protégé triumph.
It’s clear that Royce has been instrumental in each and every track on Success is Certain, and in the process he’s put together a solid, coherent representation of his own skill. Which is certainly a success, if you ask me.
Православни икониIn a collaboration that almost seems mythical, two of rap’s biggest moguls –and personalities– have come together to create a grandiose album that is, for better or worse, turning a lot of heads. Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne dropped on August 8th, and, much like the current political climate of the time, it seems the American mainstream public couldn’t be more divided about its response. When two of rap’s most controversial idols join forces, bringing their egos along, it’s safe to say that the product will be either loved or hated with no in-between. Somehow I sensed it would be this way for Watch the Throne, and now that I’ve heard the album, analyzed it, I know where I stand.
I want to start by saying that I’ve loyally been with Jay-Z and Kanye from both of their beginnings. In middle school, I came of age listening to Jay-Z’s “Coming of Age” off Reasonable Doubt, and Kanye’s “Slow Jamz” and “Get ‘Em High” off The College Dropout were my high school and college anthems, respectively. I’ll always carry the bond I was first making with rap because of Jay-Z and Kanye’s footprints on the industry.
In some ways, Watch the Throne represents the best of Jay and Kanye. The beats are catchy and varietal, like the rumbling, glitchy one on “Gotta Have It,” or the piano-influenced melody on “Primetime.” Lyrics-wise, I’ll be the first one to concede the metaphor and analogy power on this album. Both Jay-Z and Kanye’s ability to spit witty verses with ease has kept them at the forefront of an industry that thrives on one-upping the competitor. Watch the Throne isn’t lacking in this area.
But underneath the glossy beats that were likely made with some of the most expensive recording hardware money can buy, behind the slick witticisms, is there something more? Something that provokes us to examine an issue more closely, or that helps us to see one more clearly?
There isn’t. Watch the Throne is theatrical narcissism and flamboyant vanity wrapped in pretty packaging. Grand advertisements of wealth and power flourish on the record, as in the song “That’s My Bitch,” where Kanye declares, “I paid for them titties, get your own, It ain’t safe in the city, watch the throne.” Or like in “Murder to Excellence,” which is seemingly supposed to be a tribute to Danroy Henry — a Pace University wide receiver who was shot and killed by police — but instead boasts lines like, “Black excellence, opulence, decadence, tuxes next to the president, I’m present, I dress in Dries and other boutique stores in Paris.” I wonder if it makes any difference to the Henry family that Jay-Z associates with the President or that he wears high fashion. I doubt it.
Perhaps the most egregious offense on the record presents itself on the track “Otis.” The song pays tribute to the late Otis Redding, or the man better known as the King of Soul. It begins with a sample of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” and then evolves into a rapid beat with Jay-Z rapping about popping bottles, supermodels, and his Rolexes. The video for “Otis” begins with a shot of a Maybach and continues with Jay and Kanye rapping in front of the American flag. How does any of this relate to Otis Redding? you ask. As far as I can see, it doesn’t. Aside from the stolen beat, “Otis” has nothing to do with Otis Redding. Otis Redding is merely the pawn in a track designed to sneakily capture a wider fan base. “Otis” couldn’t be less representative of the life or musical career of its namesake.
Over the years I’ve seen Jay-Z and Kanye rise up from humble beginnings to become the world’s most famous rappers. And in the process I’ve watched both artists buy into the glamour, glitz, and bawdiness that mainstream rap is today. I do realize I risk upsetting many by this honest account of Watch the Throne, but I can’t jump on the bandwagon. The album disappoints on so many levels. Watch the Throne is the direct antithesis of what rap was created for, what it originally grew out of. It’s a slap in the face to the progress that has been made in racial equality. And, most offensively, it’s a flagrant flaunting of wealth in the face people who don’t have it—many of whom ironically comprise a significant portion of Jay-Z and Kanye’s fan base.
If I had to pick one word to describe Watch the Throne, I’d choose irresponsible. It’s the perfect example of two otherwise talented artists who have let fame and power take over their music. It’s the result of two media moguls misusing their eminence and promoting dangerous ideas to society. What we’re left with is a record devoid of meaning, and one that, if not for the hype, would probably be soon forgotten.
I assume it doesn’t need to be said that Wu-Tang Clan isn’t the everyday conventional group of rappers. But for the purpose of this writing, I think it’s important to highlight just how unconventional they are, and why they don’t have any place on the radio. Wait, don’t panic, this is a good thing. Wu-Tang has always said what no one else wants to say and many don’t want to hear, and that’s what makes them one of the most influential rap groups in two decades. Wu-Tang Clan’s most recent album Legendary Weapons vividly echoes the group’s famous no holds barred attitude.
Wu-Tang Clan has come a long way since its start in New York in 1992—from solo albums to movie careers, it would seem RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, and U-God have been everywhere. Legendary Weapons, however, confirms that Wu-Tang Clan hasn’t forgotten where it comes from. It is loud, in your face, and raw, both musically and lyrically. “Start the Show” begins the album with a fierce criticism of the current political and social climates, making a forceful thesis for the rest of the record. Likewise, you’ll find Method Man rapping, “No justice in the system, look around, it’s just us, they tell me only God can judge us” in the track “Diesel Fluid.”
Legendary Weapons continues with a variety of tracks that differ in tone, speed, and melody. While “Never Feel This Pain” is a bluesy, syrupy track about getting out of the ghetto, the song “Legendary Weapons” carries a thumping beat and is layered with various sound bytes; it’s a throwback to their old, stripped down beats. But as diverse as the Legendary Weapons’ sound may be, two aspects remain true on the album: the group’s honesty and outspokenness. Nowhere on Legendary Weapons will you find a collaboration with a mainstream, pop rap artist. In fact, Wu-Tang even hates on a few of them on the album—but I’ll let you find those gems yourself.
Legendary Weapons is most definitely a legendary effort by a group of guys who continue to put out complex, thought-provoking, and political music. It’s everything you’d expect from historically one of the most controversial and outspoken rap groups out there. And somehow, the Wu-Tang boys have managed to have shaped what rap is today all while staying out of the mainstream spotlight. They’re too real for the radio. Which makes them pretty much awesome in my book.
If you’re going to call your album We the Best Forever, in my humble opinion the album should probably all but shit gold. Now, if we’re talking about record sales alone, then DJ Khaled’s We the Best Forever is probably going to do just that. That’s because Lil’ Wayne, Birdman, T-Pain, Chris Brown, Drake, Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, Twista, Ludacris, and Akon make up the elite circle of big boys that grace this album. Don’t get me wrong, each and every one of those guys has put out some praise-worthy material in his career. However if we’re talking about taking a stand, further enlightenment, current events, general relevance (you know, the reasons we have rap to begin with), We the Best Forever does not, in fact, shit gold.
True, my view on today’s mainstream rap does bear a striking resemblance to my feelings on buzzing ear gnats; but, snobbery aside, I don’t think it’s too much to ask to expect a point, a motive if you will, from a given album. If someone were to tell me the general point behind We the Best Forever is to prove superiority of women, cars, and money, I would smite them right then and there. Those subjects are dangerous to society, they are the reasons my parents refuse to listen to any of my rap records, and they are simply horse feathers. Yeah, yeah, we know your Caddy sits on 22’s. Yeah, yeah, we know you’re fucking hoes, as Big Sean gloats on the track “Future.” These concepts are not themes; rather, they are fantastical mindsets of people who believe they can make and sell a record based on braggadocio and materialism. The sad thing is, they’re right.
In order to shed light on this important issue, let’s break the album down. First of all, DJ Khaled only did the production for a few of the songs on We the Best Forever, which left me feeling a bit confused and ambiguous about the whole thing. “Who am I supposed to blame for this particularly contrived and mind-numbing track?” I often found myself asking aloud. I know, that sounds harsh. But the lyrics “when I talk I be talking ’bout money, so please don’t talk to me if you ain’t talking ’bout money” off the song “Money” speak for themselves, do they not?
That same sentiment weaves its way through most of We the Best Forever, as we see with the song “It Ain’t Over ‘Till It’s Over” and “I’m Thuggin.’” However the album takes an unexpected turn with “A Million Lights,” which features DJ Khaled’s Young Money Cash Money label mates Tyga, Cory Gunz, Mack Maine, Jae Millz and Kevin Rudolf. While the rest of the album knocks the gangster beats for which DJ Khaled is known, this track’s beat smacks of pop all the way. It also shows a softer side to the album, with the rappers spitting verses about their versions of love. It’s just weird. In so many ways, “A Million Lights” doesn’t belong on the record.
I am trying to think of one good thing to say about this album and all I can come up with is that it is sure going to make lots of money.
Which, come to think of it, might be precisely the problem.
Last weekend’s Capitol Hill Block Party provided the setting for some 70 up-and-coming indie bands to showcase their offbeat repertoires and whimsical numbers. The 15th annual Block Party hosted bands from all over the country, but, as tradition dictates, focused specially on Northwest groups. The festival was held over a three-day period of sun and heat in Seattle’s trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood – one that’s famous for its gay-friendly scene and Bohemian vibe. A landscape of free spirits chugging down on PBR’s and Ranier’s set the scene for this year’s funky fest.
Friday afternoon began with rumbling sound checks coming from all four stages – Main Stage, Cha Cha, Vera, and Neumos – and the most dedicated had already started to gather around them, anxious and hungry for the weekend ahead. The ones I saw were likely waiting in anticipation for Grave Babies, one of the first acts of the festival to play on the Vera stage. With its dark, shoegaze-ish, lo-fi style and “fuck it, I don’t care if I piss people off” attitude, Grave Babies was a great way to start off the weekend.
But my mind was fixed with impatience on two other bands that have gained significant notoriety of late: The Head and the Heart and Ghostland Observatory. The kids from The Head and the Heart got their start in Seattle recording their own music and spreading it through word of mouth. They’ve risen to national fame with an indie-folky-bluegrassy sound that touches on the longing angst with which the modern 18-25 year-old identifies so well. The band performed both at Caffe Vita’s unofficial bean room stage and again on the main stage. Both acts were markedly different – catering to the die-hard bluesy folk fan at Caffe Vita and pleasing the pop-folk loving concertgoer at the main stage.
It’s not often you see a folk band share a stage with an experimental electronic group on the same night, but the Block Party simply isn’t a place for sticking to the rules. Just as the last of the setting sun helped lend nostalgia and emotion to the Head and the Heart’s set, the cool, dark evening set the mood for the ever-energetic Ghostland Observatory. Though Ghostland Observatory’s roots are in Texas, the funk-rock-electronic duo has garnered a solid following in the Northwest and has become a staple to Seattle’s electronic scene. Ghostland’s shows are legendary for their lights and lasers, so I was curious as to how it planned to top what it does indoors at a venue like the Block Party. Though closer to the stage it was next to impossible to move independently (at one point I found myself floating through a bouncing crowd, feet off the ground), the lighting effects did not disappoint. Ghostland’s laser show cut through the dark of the night and lit the streets around us with brilliant beams of red, green, and blue.
Also notable were the Spaceneedles, who rocked out at the Cha Cha stage and provided a dark and air-conditioned respite for those who wanted to move but not contract heat stroke doing it; Seattle’s own female hip-hop duo THEESatisfaction, who touted its recent signing to Sub Pop by rocking yellow sneakers imprinted with the label’s name; and last but not least, Seattle’s The Cave Singers, who played an intimate session at the Caffe Vita stage and later, another at the main stage. The ultra down-to-earth folk band’s lead singer Pete Quirk was nice enough to pose for a picture with me when I ran into him after the performance — even seemed a little surprised that I wanted one to begin with, thus solidifying his place in my heart.
If we’re going purely on music and talent, the Block Party gets a ten, for sure. The venue’s placement in the midst of a bustling city on narrow streets, however, made the music difficult to access and truly enjoy. One thing you can’t say about Seattleites is that they don’t pack an outdoor venue – whatever venue it may be – when it’s sunny outside. The Block Party brought back memories of that one taco truck “festival” at the Seattle Center whereby four taco trucks were parked in a circle and hundreds of people stood in endless, twisting, confusing lines for street tacos. Meanwhile the city is already chock-full of those things.
If it wasn’t clear already, there’s something about trying not to get trampled among an endless crowd of hipsters that’s corralled by chain link fences in a downtown metropolis that isn’t appealing. But, I must re-emphasize: the music was the shit.
MVRemix: How long have you actually been rapping? How did you get started?
Rockie Fresh: I’ve been rapping since I was in high school. I used to just kick freestyles for people and with friends, and it grew on me and eventually I decided to take it seriously and start recording.
MVRemix: In 2009, you dropped Rockie’s Modern Life. What do you think is different about you and your sound on The Otherside?
Rockie Fresh: I’d say the main difference is that The Otherside was a much more mature effort. With Rockie’s Modern Life, I went into the project wanting to give people something fun. But with The Otherside, my approach was a bit different. I’d say I grew tremendously from RML to The Otherside, and The Otherside is a bit more universal both conceptually and sound-wise.
MVRemix: You were just at SXSW in March. Was this your first big festival? Tell me about what that was like.
Rockie Fresh: SXSW is great. I actually was there the past two years, performing at different hip-hop blog and brand sponsored showcases. I’d say though that my first real big festival experience was at Bamboozle this year. That was what really made me believe that I could take everything to another level. When you perform in front of thousands of people that truly love your music, there’s nothing better.
MVRemix: What’s a consistent theme or message in your songs?
Rockie Fresh: I think the message is generally positive. I’m not going to say I don’t rap about weed, women, and other things like most rappers, but the way that I approach the issues is different than most. It’s more reflective. Every song though has a different message, and many are up for interpretation.
MVRemix: Describe your very first experience rapping in front of someone.
Rockie Fresh: I’d say my first performance was the most notable in terms of rapping in front of people. I had never taken to a stage before to perform, and it was definitely nerve-racking, however, when 500 people showed up to see it, my confidence level skyrocketed. I definitely would say I’ve grown a great deal as a performer since then.
MVRemix: You’ve said that you can be found listening to Paramore and Fall Out Boy. What kind of inspiration do you draw upon from alternative or rock groups? Do you think they influence your music?
Rockie Fresh: Everything from content matter to the sound of the songs. You’ll notice on “Otherside” that there is a lot of alternative rock influence, be it from the samples used or the instruments played on certain records. “The Worth” featuring Mike Golden definitely has that alternative vibe, as do a ton of other records. I actually just did a few new records with Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy and the Madden brothers from Good Charlotte, and this really let me take that alternative vibe to another level and was a dream come true.
MVRemix: I think every region has its different sound when it comes to rap—the Bay Area’s got hyphy music, New York’s rap is tough, political. You’re from Chicago, also home to big rap names Kanye and Twista. How would you characterize Chicago rap, or Midwest rap in general?
Rockie Fresh: Chicago rap has a lot of angst, and a lot of struggle. There may not be one particular sound, but I think we all share a similar perspective as Chicago artists . The people’s attitudes in our city definitely influence the music. It’s a mindset I’d say, being a Chicago rapper. I’d like to say I have some of those qualities, but am also enitrely my own person with my own style.
MVRemix: Which rapper or rappers do you think have influenced your rap message and your rapping style the most?
Rockie Fresh: I’d say Kanye has always been an inspiration, as has Jay-Z. These might be typical, but I’ve also been influenced by artists outside of rap like John Mayer as well.
MVRemix: Tell me about your verse writing process. Do you sit down to write, or write as you go along?
Rockie Fresh: I typically spend a lot of time with an instrumental, writing at random times when I get inspiration. I also often work with my producers to construct instrumentals from scratch for a specific song or concept that I have in mind.
MVRemix: Tell me about the name Rockie Fresh.
Rockie Fresh: Well, Rockie actually has a few different origins, and I’ll leave those up to people to figure out for themselves. If I had to explain it’s origin completely, I think it’d lose a bit of its charm. It just was a name more so given to me by the people around me, who started calling me that.
MVRemix: You’ve been compared to Drake, Wiz Khalifa. How do you plan to differentiate yourself on a competitive platform where mixtapes are a dime a dozen?
Rockie Fresh: I want to make it clear that although some inspirations come from certain artists, it doesn’t mean you are JUST like them. I plan on separating myself by taking a different approach and perspective. I don’t do this to intentionally be different than everyone else, I do it to make music that people will like. I think I am already my own artist, and will continue to grow as that.
MVRemix: You grew up in the 90s, presumably watching Nickelodeon if the title of your last mixtape is any indication. What’s the deeper inspiration behind the title “Rockie’s Modern Life”?
Rockie Fresh: It was really a play on words that stemmed from the cartoon show name, and became something else. As I made the project, I realized I was crafting my own modern version of what hip-hop meant to me growing up. It was like I was taking my life, and applying it to hip-hop.
MVRemix: Any embarrassing moments while performing?
Rockie Fresh: Definitely. Once I had a skipping DJ track, so the song was skipping behind my vocals and I had to keep up with it. It was not a good look, but I managed and just ended up cutting the track and rapping the rest acapella.
MVRemix: What’s up next for you?
Rockie Fresh: I’m headed out on the road this Fall, details coming soon, re-releasing “The Otherside” on July 27th with a bunch of new material and remixes, and recording a brand new project due out in October. Keep up to date at www.rockiefresh.com or twitter.com/rockiefresh
With their first full-length album, When Fish Ride Bicycles, The Cool Kids finally get to prove to the world they really are that cool. After a string of impressive mixtapes and a years-long period of record label uncertainty, the Midwestern duo, consisting of Mikey Rocks and Chuck Inglish, delivers a polished, cohesive, record that accurately represents just what those kids are – and have always been — all about.
Put simply, The Cool Kids are all about the beat. That’s not to say that they don’t also kill the mic lyrically, but there’s something about the pair that hails back to the Golden Age; that time when samples, sound-bytes, and boom-bap ruled the game. The Cool Kids seem only to have diversified their sound on When Fish Ride bicycles, creating a record that has a different feeling and texture song by song. The album begins with “Rush Hour Traffic.” A booming beat makes the track relevant and a snapping snare tweaks it to lend a hint of the old days.
While at the same time staying true to their roots and inspirations, The Cool Kids take on a whole new sound by layering old noises with new techniques. When Fish Ride Bicycles is a symbol of how far The Cool Kids have come since their days of MySpace beats and mixtapes, and it’s got the chops to prove it. Hip-hop legends like Pharell, Bun B, Ghostface Killah, and Travis Barker of Blink-182 guest star on the album, each adding his own flare to the feel of the track. It’s no trouble to find which tracks Pharrell’s gotten his hands on—both “Get Right” and “Summer Jam” smack of the funkiness for which Pharrell is famous. Likewise, the Ghostface collabo “Penny Hardaway” bumps just like a classic Wu-Tang joint.
When Fish Ride Bicycles also features collaborations with lesser-known artists like Asher Roth (think “I Love College”), Mayer Hawthorne, Chip tha Ripper, and Boldy James, along with budding female vocalists Maxine Ashley and Tennille. With a packed cast like this one, one might make the assumption that When Fish Ride Bicycles is a clusterfuck of aimless blather, as albums with multiple collaborations so often can be these days. But The Cool Kids own this first record, as well they should. The Kids’ endearing signature hipster style weaves its way through each track and is discernable even through the big-name beats, making When Fish Ride Bicycles just all-around cool.
It’s a sticky Seattle Saturday night, and outside downtown’s illustrious Paramount theater congregate swaths of young’uns and elderly alike, all there for the collective cause of getting down to some fresh beats. I scan the crowd surrounding the Paramount’s entrance, noticing everyone from candy ravers to…hey…aren’t they that one old couple I saw getting jiggy and making out at that last rave? I digress; the point is, the mystical combination of Oakland’s Beats Antique and England’s psychedelic project Shpongle has brought out Seattle’s most eclectic of folk, and each and every one of them owns it masterfully.
If Jamaican dancehall phenom Vybz Kartel’s new album Kingston Story is in fact a narrative on his lifestyle in Kingston, Jamaica, we all might be left feeling a bit anticlimactic about our own. Keeping true to form, Kartel and his partner — Brooklyn hip-hop producer Dre Skull – deliver sexuality, ignominy, and obscenity on Kingston Story, and Kartel doesn’t seem to have shed any of the qualities that earned him the title of the most controversial dancehall artist there is. The album makes numerous nods to lascivious acts; yet noticeably missing are lyrics based on guns and marijuana – historically two of Kartel’s favorite topics.
Still, even with those subjects conspicuously omitted, Kingston Story in no way shies away from the raw, dubious expression for which Kartel is known. The album is overwrought with sexual energy and exposition, perhaps because the exclusion of gats and ganja leaves little else on which for Kartel to opine. “Breathless” is a sultry, down-tempo track that features Kartel singing slowly over a plethora of otherworldly sounds and synths, and boasts lyrics like “give me your love in excess, girl you leave me breathless.” “Wine Pon Me” makes reference to a girl grinding up on Kartel on the dance floor, with Kartel declaring “me love it when you wine up your body there.” And then we have “Push It In,” which, of course, can go entirely without explanation.
Traditionally, both in music and personal life, Vybz Kartel has been no stranger to controversy. He has come under fire by the public for numerous issues, one being his use and sale of “cake soap” – a known skin whitener – and another being the homophobic lyrics found in his music. But last year, he promised to stop using homophobia to sell records. This event slashed yet another category of topics from Kartel’s repertoire.
With a chunk of Kartel’s favored subjects off the table, and keeping in mind his past work, Kingston Story comes off arbitrary and deficient. Dedicated Kartel fans are the ones who’ve latched onto him for his realness, or more precisely, his “I just don’t give a fuck” attitude. They’re going to be looking for the edge in the themes and lyrics on Kingston Story. Instead, what they’ll find is a record that attempts to satisfy the moral obligations the public has increasingly put on Kartel to tone it down. What we’re left with is an album that smacks of salacious discourse with little else to make it tangible to other demographics.
Though Kingston Story isn’t completely devoid of the occasional political assertion Kartel is also known for, like that found on “Ghetto Youth,” the record exhibits a near backward evolution on the part of Kartel’s musical style. He may succeed at keeping his message dirty, but what he lacks in thematic diversity he doesn’t compensate in erotic vulgarity.