DJ Tony Touch – The Piece Maker 3: Return of the 50 MCs album review

DJ Tony Touch’s legendary 50 MCs mixtape series has sparked and supported the careers of countless MCs throughout the years. Where other mixtape DJs may clamor for whoever the hot artists are no matter their sound or content Tony Toca has stayed tried and true to the boom bap blueprint.

With that allegiance to the true school in mind he crafted Return of the 50 Mcs, a sprawling project that aims and succeeds in putting the listener in a 90s state of mind.

With a who’s who of legends from Kool G Rap, to KRS One, and even an Eminem freestyle, his support of a wide range of artists have definitely been reciprocated on the project. Whereas Funkmaster Flex’s recent double CD full of tracks flex his knack for networking, with nearly every radio name accounted for, Touch’s project doesn’t stray from his stalwarts of the gritty, no nonsense sound that’s so lacking today. From the plethora of “where has he been” features to the production this is the antithesis of the DJ Khaled/Dj Drama type of compilation, for better or worse.

Those looking for their fix of 1990s inspired hip-hop will thoroughly enjoy this project, but anyone looking to see some kind of bridging of the gap sonically should look elsewhere. Save an odd Lex Lugeresque moment with Thirstin Howl III the Beatnuts-helmed soundscape stays beholden to hard snares, thumping kicks, and choppy samples. It works best on moments like the sinister guitar chops on “Hold That” (featuring Busta Rhymes and Roc Marciano notably) or the now underused one note loop on BARS featuring the Lox. There are tracks though like “Double A” that leave much to be desired.

Lyrically, any project with 50 different people will obviously have a myriad of quality, and this project is no different. The overall theme for this album though seems to be active artists’ thirst for. From still active vets like Busta Rhymes, Nore (who may have the best verse on the album on “Questions”) and Twista to new school lyricists Slaughterhouse (sans Joe Budden), Action Bronson and Papoose, most of the artists who are still laying it down today seemed invigorated with the chance to spit over beats that remind them of a classic era they were apart of or missed out on. A moment like Black Thought’s aptly named “Thought Process” belies how some of the lyrical passion seems to almost be campaigning for a reintroduction of the boombap and lyrical sparring as standard.

Some verses felt like phoned in favors, while other vets seem like they should have perhaps stayed wherever they were, but nothing on the album is overtly wack. Weaker verses are usually carried by strong showings on the same song. If you’re fiending for boombap, the 25 song long album is meaty and has misses, but is a solid nod to a classic era by a classic DJ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AraabMUZIK – The Remixes Vol. 1 album review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jon Kennedy – Corporeal album review

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

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

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

IamSu – Kilt 2 album review

The Bay area is most known as domain for uncut gangsterism and the game spitting exploits of E40, Too Short, and Spice 1 among others. There was also the short-lived Hyphy movement of the 2000s, but since that sound went underground, the national image of the bay has received a complete revamp of late. From internet/world/universe sensation Lil B, to the unexplainably captivating cultural appropriation of Kreayshawn and V-Nasty, the bay seems to have moved on from being about the pimp game to pimping the game. None of these artists threaten to last past a passing memory of novelty, and all seem to be fine with those stakes in the midst of their ironic, completely nonthreatening (and sometimes catchy) brand of threatening music.

That’s an all well and good scenario until artists like Iamsu! pop up and ruin the party. He has an image beholden to the Gucci Mane aping, chopping and screwing, catchy adlibbing Oakland ethos, but one listen to his Kilt 2 project and the only way “image” would get him by is if he was a nudist Rihanna lookalike. This is a project that exceeds at nothing but formula, from the stagnant Drake influence, to the painfully there punchlines, to the generic female tracks, this is the blueprint for 20teens hip hop, just ratcheted down 10x as far as actual quality or replay value.

From the outset, the project outlines its deficiency. Album intro “Father God” has him attempting to set a tone and announce himself with variant money boasts and nods to his tough upbringing, but he fails due to the bars not matching up to the out of place and extremely pretentious “bow your head, now let us pray” hook. The problem with this project is the frequency of moments his bars don’t match up for the attempted premises.

He attempts to make nods towards the carefree hipster generation, for instance “Hipster girls”, but in in the midst tries to tell a mini narrative of deceit and groupie love, then goes back to praising them, which leaves the listener untrue of his overall intent. The songwriting is sorely lacking, from the unfocused nature, to the absence of any memorable phrasing (aside from a borderline self-satirizing hook on “Float”). The project follows a formula of self aggrandizing with random observations and a formulaic hooks that feel like they’re to aware that they’re the song’s title.

The production here is sleek and glossy, but doesn’t offer enough emotively to carry an MC drastically in need of it. The album feels he took 17 swings at a buzz single, so by the time Iamsu! plainly references wanting blog sites to mention him, the die is cast on this project. It attempts to be many things, but the songwriting is not strong enough to make it much past generic.

Jay-Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail album review

There is hardly an artist active in the popular music industry that has a career that can match the fame and success of Jay-Z’s. Not to say that there aren’t more talented musicians or more successful business people but Jay’s rag to riches story is one of the most well known tales to date. Throughout his discography, Jay has made two things perfectly clear: he is always striving for the next level and that he is his own biggest fan. Keeping this in mind, the circumstances surrounding the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail should come as a surprise to no one. In what many are calling an unprecedented venture, this new album was given free to the first 1,000,000 owners of the Magna Carta app on the newest Samsung Galaxy phones. This landmark deal secured platinum status from the RIAA but also jeers from those who accuse Hova of becoming more and more of a sell-out.

Examining the music of the album aside from all of the business and politics reveals a project of good quality but not nearly an example of the best Jay Z has to offer. Magna Carta has a much darker and more serious tone than more recent releases. While Blueprint 3 and Watch the Throne were more of a celebration of success and wealth, this newest release is more focused on the cost of having such success and the insecurities that linger when responsibilities begin to mount.

In fact the best songs on the album feature deeper lyrics from Jay-Z that give insight into his mindset as his life moves along. ‘Jay-Z Blue’ is the clearest example of this as Jay raps about the fear he feels towards being a good father and husband. ‘Heaven’ is a gut honest song on Hov’s beliefs on spirituality and the place religion has in his life and society. ‘Oceans’  is by far my favorite song on the album for the deep hook sung by Frank Ocean, solid lines from Jay and amazing beat that is nothing short of epic.

On the topic of beats, be assured that there are many hands involved with the top-notch production of the album with all efforts spearheaded by Timbaland and J-Roc. Beats are built off samples from a number of sources ranging from music to movies. The instrumentals are varied, moving and do a great job of setting the mood for the songs they support.

While Magna Carta does have a lot to offer listeners, it will undoubtedly disappoint many who are long time fans of Jay. The key problem unfortunately lies with Jay-Z himself. This is Hov at his least lyrical with some songs coming off as lazily written with the worst being ‘FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt’, a totally pointless track with Rick Ross. It is a shame that this is the case considering the quality of features he has with him on songs such as Justin Timberlake, Frank Ocean and Beyonce.

Magna Carta…Holy Grail is a portrait of Jay-Z at new point in his life. As he states in his songs, he never lets the opinions of others affect his drive to make new music, new deals and new avenues for success. Whether you are impressed with the quality of the songs he offers is up to you but know that Jay has remained the same driven man behind the sound.

Wale – The Gifted album review

Somehow after the dismal release of Attention Deficit Wale found a way to become a legitimate name in hip-hop under the guidance of Maybach Music Group. He adopted ignorant rap into his repertoire after he realized fake deep and half-assed poetry was barely working, and with the release of his third LP The Gifted, he still tries to shake all the disappointment his debut caused and switches it up on us yet again with what he calls on the album’s first song, “The Curse of The Gifted,” ‘new black soul shit’—a more groovy take on what he tells us is a story about the price of fame.

Now cue The Gifted. Wale tries to take us on a journey of the woes of being rich through the album’s 16 tracks. He chronicles the girls, the shine, the haters, the grind, the haters, the cash, but most importantly, the haters. Tracks like “Heaven’s Afternoon” are laced with Wale’s desire to relieve the days where he started from the bottom, so much so that he may have created invisible haters to give the track its sting. Meek Mill effortlessly and accidentally outshines him on his own track and makes lyrics like “When I was dead broke I would still tell myself I’mma still be the shit/Told my P.O if she locked me up, I would do the time, come home, and still be this rich” make Wale’s words sound like unlived memories.

Not to say that Wale rapping about how the brokest guy in his crew is still a millionaire can’t be as powerful a narrative to demonstrate his trajectory in life. What sucks is his delivery, which makes his story fall short. How is this a curse of the gifted? In what ways, Wale, have you been gifted? He never tells.

When it comes to production Wale pulls out all the stops. Stokley Williams of Mint Condition fame brings the smooth and sultry element to songs like “LoveHate Thing” and Sam Dew makes it a great song and great radio cut. Just Blaze makes his mark and gives you something to feel on “88” as his signature high hats crash against the drum kicks and a piano solo resonates in the background.

The Gifted’s biggest hit lies at the bottom of the track listing. Listeners are most familiar with the album because of “Bad,” but you have to skip 15 songs to get to it. It’s petty of Wale to cheat himself because he couldn’t put the rumored beef between he and newcomer Tiara Thomas behind him—even if it was for the quality of the album, and he does himself and his listeners a disservice. His remix with Rihanna (which nonsensically comes 6 songs before the original) is a pitiful attempt at revenge, and even Rihanna tries to emulate Tiara Thomas’ crackling breathy vocals—an embarrassing attempt for an artist of her magnitude.

The cacophony of Wale’s deafening, brash, staccato flow coupled with smooth, soulful production deems The Gifted an uneasy listen. The songs are not bad ones. In fact, the problem isn’t that the songs don’t sound good enough, it’s that Wale’s voice and forgettable lyrics don’t sound good enough on top of them. And that’s what leaves The Gifted teetering on the border of mediocrity. But MMG has taught him a little bit. Wale has definitely picked up Ross’ talent for good beat picking, but apparently still needs coaching on how to spit lukewarm lyrics over tight beats and still make his audience believe that what they’re hearing is hot.

Freddie Gibbs – ESGN – Evil Seed Grow Naturally album review

In a modern day hip hop climate where a singing, former child star is one of the game’s premier pop stars, one of its enduring icons holds a higher priority to announcing his ties with corporate America than creating music and it’s most famous provocateur flaunts his permanent ties to a tabloid Hollywood family and European fashion houses,  hip hop’s grit has long been scrubbed into a shiny, platinum sheen.

So, since hip hop’s collective 9mm now officially goes “pop”, where does that leave someone who does that leave those who want their rap served with that gangsta touch?

Enter Freddie Gibbs.

A native of Gary, IN (a city famous for being both the home of Jackson family and one of the most deadly cities in the nation) with a rollicking, blunted rasp of a voice and often tongue-tied or sing-song-y flow and a remorseless nihilistic viewpoint, Gibbs—a major label refugee after brief stints on both Interscope and Young Jeezy’s Corporate Thugs Entertainment imprint—is an iconoclast in today’s rap game. He’s a grimy street traditionalist in an industry that currently rewards those who move as far away from the street aesthetic as far as they can.

The 75-minute ESGN, Gibbs’ fourteenth release but first officially retail long-player, provides a cohesive picture of Gibbs’ musical pallete.

The production—mostly handled by Gibbs’ group of in-house producers– on ESGN is fairly varied. Cold, synthetic trap beats and warm, soulful grooves both colors Gibbs’ gangsta tales. While the steely synths and skittering 808s that dominate the album’s first half make for a perfect match for the gray subject matter,  it’s trumped by the more melodic, smooth soul-orientated vibe that dominates its final third (executed best on “Dope in My Styrofoam”—with its lush sample of Tyrone Davis’ oft-sampled “In The Mood” and single-worthy “9mm”).

While Gibbs is unapologetically thuggish and headstrong in his mission to modernize the classic gangsta sound, he’s not exactly one-dimensional. The sense of reflection and near-regret displayed on the atmospheric “I Seen a Man Die” and devotion to carrying the torch for his troubled hometown provides a necessary balance to the defiantly nihilism that frames most of the album.

Although at 19 tracks and 75 minutes, it runs a tad longer than it has to, ESGN, to paraphrase George Clinton, is a gangsta ham hock in mainstream hip hop’s glittery (and increasingly) soggy corn flakes.

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.

Prodigy & Alchemist – Albert Einstein album review

There’s a lot to be said for the producer-artist dynamic in Hip-Hop. Mind you this is the era where anyone can be a “producer” and anyone can be a “rapper”, and that inconvenient convenience saturates the game. The chemistry between an MC and Producer who know each others’ ins and outs is sorely lacking and should be appreciated in it’s few instances. Where “Rapper ____” and 8 different producers on one project fail, Prodigy and Alchemist have delivered together for years now.

Even though Prodigy may not be at his 1990s height lyrically, he’s managed to carve out a nice second (and third) act as an underground stalwart rhyming over the grimy soundscape of a producer seemingly molded in part by the original Mobb Deep catalog. Funny how that works. Between tracks on Prodigy’s classic HNIC, various other moments and 2006’s unheralded Return of the Mac, when the two get together it’s as close to the gritty glory of the 1990s as many artists old or young get.

That dynamic is intact on Albert Einstein, which may be their best collaboration yet. Riding the wave of Alchemist’s unprecedented run of collaboration projects, he helps Prodigy create a project with direct elements of New Yitty’s dark roots, that still manages to push the boundaries of that original format.

The album comes in at 16 tracks but manages to feel like even more with Alchemist’s deeply layered, shape shifting beats. It’s an album that manages to be tightly sinister and cloudy at varying moments and still sound cohesive. It can be boundlessly imaginative (the standout “Bible Paper”) and loop focused (“Give Em Hell”) and works together to sonically channel the dark New York streets.

Prodigy sounds re-invigorated after an HNIC project that was criticized for too many commercial excursions. It’s as if he’s resolved to ride the last chapters of his career like the first: brutishly callous and menacing as ever. While not as lyrically dexterous or energetic with his delivery as past projects, his knack for telling the QB narrative is still intact. He’s mastered living within his liquor soaked world of ghetto paranoia, challenging all comers on and delivering vivid lines like “throw him in the acid and get rid of the gooey mess.”

This is the perfect example of chemistry working to the fullest degree. Though Prodigy is no longer a lyrical wunderkind, he has the veteran’s sense of what he wants to do with a record and Alchemist’s otherwordly production picks up the slack in ways the average producer wouldn’t be able to. The features (from Raekwon to Action Bronson to Havoc) contribute seamlessly because of familiarity with Prodigy and/or Alchemist. Everyone involved is familiar with the soundscape they entered and collectively made a well put together album.