ethemadassasin – Soul on Fire album review

Coming live from North Carolina is rapper ethemadassassin. Although he has been active since the ‘80s, E has spent a majority of the time in the underground circuit. He offers Soul on Fire as his 3rd solo album and as another step in his long career. His experience shows in his raps as he speaks on his rocky past and lessons learned from his successes and failures. He has been with music and the streets for a long time and his maturity comes across loud and clear.

Ethemadassassin is an artist with a mature voice and has plenty of tracks to look out for on this album. ‘What it’s Supposed to be’ is my favorite track on this album as it has some of the best lyrics of madassassin married with a great hook and even better beat from Japanese producer Kyo Itachi. It serves as the best example of the eye for grade A sound that E actively tries to put forth.

‘80s and 90s’ is creative as E runs down all of the popular styles and culture that he witnessed and grew up on. ‘Fight Music’ has an excellent beat built off an energetic guitar riff.  E uses this tune effectively to deliver an aggressive song about keeping it real in life. ‘Can’t Get Enough’ contains a wonderful and soulful instrumental that could stand alone without any vocals.

The biggest negative in my eyes is the length of the songs themselves. E clearly has plenty of bars to fire off and it would have been cool to hear more tracks that focused on rhymes uninterrupted by hooks. The choruses are not bad by any means but a rapper with skills like madassassin should allow his verses take center stage more often.

Soul on Fire is an exercise in skillful lyricism and top-notch delivery from someone who has valued experience with hip-hop. Ethemadassassin creates quality sound using the past of the genre and his own life for influence.  The album drops Sept 17th.

Rich Gang – Rich Gang album review

If the hedonistic, hood-rich lifestyle needs a soundtrack, Rich Gang, both a compilation and showcase of the Young Money/Cash Money label’s talents, is that disc.

The recurring production motifs of whizzing synths, trap drums and thunderous bass provides the ideal backdrop for images of glistening jewels, designer duds, flashy rides that cost more than most American’s yearly salaries, pool parties with racially ambiguous hotties with video vixen curves and gold-plated grills. In other words, if all the clichés of the typical rap video were to become image-less, Rich Gang would be the remaining sound bed.

Spearheaded by Cash Money co-founder Bryan “Birdman” Thomas, Rich Gang, attempts to highlight the label’s current stable while celebrating its astonishing success—mostly built from the massive crossover success of stars like Lil’ Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj —and remembering its humble beginnings.

“Project life to the high life…pain came from this gang,” Birdman reminisces on the opening track, “R.G.” while slightly ominous keys flutter underneath.  Capped off by a characteristically frantic rap from the recently freed Mystikal (yes, the former No Limit soldier is now a Cash Money Millionaire), the number, along with the mellow and similarly reflective “Dreams Come True”—the album’s best track, it marks the brief glimmers of substance on an otherwise mindlessly flashy album.

Birdman’s intro gives a hint that though Rich Gang is being sold as a release by a collective of stars, it’s essentially a solo album by the label’s CEO. Birdman’s voice is the dominant one heard on the album. Minaj and Drake, two of the label’s marquee names, surprisingly appear only sparingly. The American Idol judge and recent Elle cover woman appears just once to harmonize about “her million dollar pussy” on the generic swag-sex radio number “Tapout”—which features, what else, but an auto tuned hook from Future—while October’s Very Own doesn’t show up at all. Lil’ Wayne, on the other hand, one of the label’s founding stars, appears far more; tossing out lackluster rhymes that sound more obligatory than inspired on the four tracks he appears on (six, on the deluxe edition).

Cash Money signees, either up-or-comers (Detail, Mack Maine, Cory Gunz, Gudda Gudda)  or former stars in search of a rejuvenation (Mystikal, Limp Bizikit, Jae Millz, Bow Wow) round out the rest of the collective while the biggest names in urban radio (Future, Rick Ross, R. Kelly, Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes, French Montana, Ace Hood, Flo-Rida, Meek Mill) come through to ensure the album’s place on the airwaves.

Yet, despite all of the undeniable star power, none of the guests truly deliver on Rich Gang. Kelly departs from the vintage kick he’s been on for the last few years to deliver some back-to-the-basics nasty verses on “We Been On” but it fails to register. “50 Plates”, featuring the Maybach don himself, is similarly anticlimactic despite its merger-of-two-titans promise.

Various attempts at pop-rap tropes, be it swag-and-riches celebrations (most of the album), crossover pop attempts (the hokey “Sunshine”) or  strip club anthems (“Panties to the Side”) all feel calculated and hollow despite being the label’s attempt to show off its diversity.

Whether it’s true aim was to be Birdman’s new solo album, a celebration of the label’s reign at the top after starting from the bottom or a merely display of the label’s talents and range, Rich Gang ultimately sounds like nothing else but a tax write-off.

Rich Gang - Rich Gang album review

Kelly Rowland – Talk A Good Game album review

Talk A Good Game is Kelly Rowland’s coming of age album. And this one is all about self-rule. This time around, she allows our minds to finally move past the undying elephant in the room: who is Kelly Rowland outside of the shadow of Destiny’s Child’s most successful member? She shows us with this new album as she unabashedly establishes her self-awareness, sexual identity, and individualism.

In a way that’s slightly odd, the verses on this album are very conversational. It’s as if the lyrics have been drawn from a lunch conversation with a girlfriend and are being recited in song rather than having been arranged as lyrics. Lack of organization is something that plagues most of the album’s 15 tracks, but this is likely a testament to Rowland’s attempt to stop at nothing to convey an open and honest project. The problem is that the lyrics remain stale; especially if this is the music she wants us to get to know her by.

Talk A Good Game opens up with “Freak,” an overtly sexual song that sings “Everybody’s somebody’s freak/The question is, who’s to you?” But still, the song remains less than enticing. “Dirty Laundry,” famously the album’s realest track, is a cheap attempt to shed light on the insecurities that plagued her during Destiny’s Child’s reign. We have to commend her for taking a stab at honesty, even if the song arrangement is lackluster, though somehow it remains a little catchy. And the washing machine related metaphors are clever.

“Red Wine” is a good cut. It’s smooth and silky, and perhaps one of the album’s best.

Although supersized synths occasionally make an appearance, we can’t help but fathom how Talk A Good Game isn’t completely reflective of the times. It sounds rather, like a female rendering of Chris Brown’s music pre-Rihanna. It’s jovial and even a little bubblegum with quintessential R&B instrumentation to mask the simply linear lyrics. It was cute in 2006, but a curious choice for a 30-something year-old woman with so many lived experiences by 2013.

The collaborations are cool. And it’s nice to not feel overwhelmed by an album full of features. It’s in this way that Kelly Rowland doesn’t cheat us out of listening to a Kelly Rowland album. Pusha T makes an appearance on “Street Life” and The Dream on “Sky Walker.” It’s nice to hear from them on their respective tracks, although neither of which are completely memorable. And all in all, Talk A Good Game could have been much better than it is. It’s okay. But not as hot as her album cover.

Kelly Rowland - Talk A Good Game album review

U-God – The Keynote Speaker album review

So much of the beauty of the Wu Tang Clan is in the versatility of the unit. 9 members (and countless affiliates) offer 9 fresh perspectives at any given time, and the 36 chambers contain deep, labyrinthic sonic experiences. From GZA’s scientific lyrical forensics, to Raekwon’s vivid, sinister cocaina narratives to the flavorful lyricist lounge musings of Tical, there is something for everyone, and the most popular members all have a distinct role.

When it comes to U-God though, there’s never seemed to be the resonant energy or eager expectation to enter the world of Golden Arms. His classic, legacy setting verse on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin” gives off vibes near the GZA, Masta Killa, Killah Priest circle of the clan. His memorable verse on “Cherchez La Ghost” was perhaps the complete opposite. Is it to his credit that he’s able to morph from philosophical to rambunctious as the needs of his fellow clansmen arise, or is it the exact reason he wasn’t able to forge his own niche? Could it be both? Whatever the case, U-God’s “Keynote speaker” attempts to reverse the course of perhaps the most wayward catalog in the Wu canon.

From the outset, the most apparent observation can be made sonically. Wu solos tend to bear hallmarks of the classic group albums beatwise, but because U-God was attempting to stand on his own perhaps, the production here is lacking. If they had to compare, this would be an album full of cutting room floor Wu Tang Forever records. The bland samples, and poorly mixed, mechanical drums create an unappealing canvas that any artist would have to work hard to overcome. Does he?

U-God has always been a strong technical MC, but again, his trademark seems to be a lack of a trademark. He’s all over the place on this album.

In a time where Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest and Prodigy, among other 90s stalwarts are still thriving by updating their classic sound for new ears, U-God still hasn’t seemed to find his. Worse yet for him, it’s not until he raises the W that this album delivers. “Heads Up” with GZA and “Mt. Everest” with Inspectah Deck and (Elzhi) are two of the strongest tracks of the album, and the introspective chest thumping “Heavyweight” is powerful, where Golden Arms recalls his ascent “from the strip to a righteous dude”, which no doubt was a byproduct of the Wu’s heavy 5 percenter core.

Beyond those few and far between moments is a project characterized by outright bad hooks and technically precise yet dull lyricism with typical veteran posturing. When U-God says “picture me following them, I don’t follow a trend” on “Days of Glory”, the stubbornness apparent throughout is finally acknowledged. It’s all well and good when an artist doesn’t chase trends, they just have to realize what they offer should be able to stand on it’s own merits. This project can not. If he’s the Keynote speaker his speech left much to be desired.

U-God - The Keynote Speaker album review

Kevin Gates – Stranger Than Fiction album review

Louisiana rapper Kevin Gates has always been about the mixtapes, releasing one almost every year since 2007. He’s changing the formula with his first studio album release, Stranger Than Fiction. The album is a fast listen despite most of the fourteen songs being around three minutes. The speed can be attributed Gates’ driving delivery of words and energetic beats of the music. The instrumentals are the best of trap and work well to compliment the gritty subjects and harsh delivery of Gates. This music built and branded to be blasted out the car while riding around to great success.

Unlike most trap rappers, the hooks actually work with the rest of the track instead of serving as nothing more than time padders. They are catchy for the most part and maintain the flow set up by Gates in his verses. The one aspect of his music that doesn’t fit in my mind is all of the singing he does. Although it does help set the mood of the songs, it would be more effective to bring in another artist with better vocals. Gates already offers entertaining product and the extra help could push an album from good to great.

Another respectable feature of Stranger Than Fiction is the wide range of subject matters he is able to string together. ‘4:30 am’ is a real song about the late-night violence and betrayal that occurred in his life and on the streets in general. ‘MYB’ features KG rhyming with the raspiest voice heard on the mic since Ja Rule. ‘Die Bout It’ has a borderline hilarious monologue at the end of the song about being a true thug while ‘Careful’ features alter ego Red Neck Rick spiting laugh-out-loud lyrics. ‘Smiling Faces’ is all about the falseness and danger that can lie behind a fake smiling friend. The mix of tones from tragedy to comedy not only proves Gate’s creativity but also maturity. He knows how to strike a musical balance.

Kevin Gates is young but prolific and Stranger Than Fiction is not only more of what you expect but good step forward for his career. If you’re looking for hype music to bump this summer, then look no further than this album.

Kevin Gates - Stranger Than Fiction album review

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.