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.

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.

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.