Music Roundup 12/4/17
It’s the last traditional music roundup of the year! Thanks for sticking with us this year and supporting this change of format; we think it’s been great!
Hopsin – NO SHAME
Genre: Trap Rap
Favorite Tracks: “Hotel in Sydney,” “I Wouldn’t Do That”
Endless comparisons between Hopsin and Eminem have already been made, and for good reason: both clearly possess loads of talent in terms of flow and storytelling ability, but neither has the taste to pick beats or choruses to complement them, and both often get crushed under their numerous lyrical contradictions. Eminem has a degree of self-awareness that allows him to slightly sidestep the latter, but even the implosion of his label hasn’t helped Hopsin mature at all. While he has kindly cut out the cringey, overly-didactic attempts at social commentary that Reddit would worship as the biggest truth bomb ever, there’s not much left to replace it. NO SHAME starts off with “Hotel in Sydney,” a dramatization of an altercation with his pregnant girlfriend that turned violent after he learns she’s cheating on him, and I hoped more light would be shed on the story. However, the song starts off with foul-mouthed, stereotypical Australian cops that throw off the tone, and his reaction to learning she is stripping is oddly disproportional to everything else and rather hypocritical in comparison to some of the ugly attitudes toward women he portrays on the rest of the album. The story is barely touched on throughout the 17-track, 73-minute album, as Hopsin spends a lot more time telling us he deserves the crown while never showing us why he should have it. His individuality gets lost in all the posturing; his flow turns downright amateurish and slurred on “Money on the Side,” “Tell’em Who You Got it From” is a blatant Drake impression, and “I Must Be on Something” features a standard East Coast boom-bap beat and flow that I’ve heard innumerable times before. Even “No Words 2,” a sequel to one of his most entertaining tracks, is a sad attempt to replicate past glory.
His production suffers from the same problems as a lot of Tech N9ne’s work. The attempts at horror and eeriness come across as cheap, with blaring, power-chord heavy guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place in a nu-metal song, and ominous piano, keyboards, and violins that only further add to the cheesiness. “I Wouldn’t Do That” is the only time where the cheesy horror aesthetic is enjoyable, between a burp in the middle of the song and timely POKEMON GO and ZOOLANDER references, and it’s also one of the few times where the abundant vocal effects that ruin every hook do anything other than grate. The same thing cannot be said for the astonishingly racist “Happy Ending,” where he uses a heavily distorted, stereotypically Asian voice as part of a story about how a trip to an Asian massage parlor turns into a handjob. Even without the voice, the depiction of Asian women as freaky sex robots is about as flattering as a World War II propaganda poster. It’s probably worse than Lil Dicky’s recent I’M BRAIN project in terms of tastelessness and offensiveness. Though this project would still be bad without it, the inclusion of “Happy Ending” alongside tracks like “Marcus’ Gospel,” which tries to get us to sympathize with Hopsin’s pain, makes the entire album unbearable. It’s the final showcase of his toxic mixing of edgy immaturity and emotional, tear-stained pleading for us to understand him that he can’t back up with interesting beats or choruses. Fuck NO SHAME and fuck Hopsin. [Blake Michelle]
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – SOUL OF A WOMAN
Genre: Soul, R&B
Favorite Tracks: “Matter of Time,” “Rumors,” “These Tears (No Longer For You)”
Unlike Mavis Staples, another soul-revivalist who released an album earlier in the month, Sharon Jones is less concerned with the big picture: she’s all about specificity. And whereas Staples delivered her macro-level sentiments with restrained, patient instrumentation, much of SOUL OF A WOMAN’S intimate storytelling is highlighted by grandiose arrangements thanks to the band backing their ever-glowing lead woman.
As the album title suggests, Jones seeks to examine the integrity of the female. On the Caribbean-soul fusion “Rumors,” the narrator vies for just proof, love, or disloyalty—it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s the truth: “Are you my one and only, can you show me? / You must tell me that you’re no good baby, I wanna know!” A vocal harmony reinforces the latter—there’s no bullshitting here. This appears again on the empowerment ballad, “These Tears (No Longer For You),” where Jones is headstrong in her heartache survival—“So long, I’m moving on, these tears are mine to keep!”—and the chorus reenters to soothe, “But don’t cry!” It’s a fiery reclamation of what’s rightfully yours.
Clocking in at 36 minutes, urgency pervades several tracks as well, but without sacrificing any mellifluence. Opener “Matter of Time” hits the ground running with squealing trumpets and pepped-up drumming. As they race beside her, Sharon Jones keeps her epic (by the album’s standards) message concise and pointed, “ . . . talking about unity for all people . . . I can’t wait too much longer / my frustration’s near its end / I can’t hate cuz’ I’m stronger.” The breezy triumphance continues on “Sail On!,” where Jones struts along the instrumentation as if it were a beach boardwalk, palm trees and the blue sky hanging overhead. Her voice is always cool and composed, geared for any occasion, a sonic portrait of the unbreakable SOUL OF A WOMAN. [Nick Funess]
Talib Kweli – RADIO SILENCE
Genre: Conscious Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “Traveling Light”, “Knockturnal”, “The One I Love”
RADIO SILENCE tops off Brooklyn based hip hop artist Talib Kweli’s solo discography at 18, a testament to his voracious work ethic and overall talent as an MC. While Talib is undoubtedly playing to his strengths on RADIO SILENCE, which may leave listeners searching for a departure from his already established sound, the overall end product is solidly put together, making it a good addition to his already vast discography. Talib continues to deliver his trademarked, biting, socially conscious lyricism, which can be heard on the frontend of RADIO SILECE with the track, “Traveling Light,” featuring the marvelous Anderson .Paak, “My rhymes inspired by environments of the very violent / I’m the voice of a generation that’s very silent / I stick to my convictions like I’ve been indicated.” Throughout this track and many others, Talib does not shy away from showing the importance he places on social activism, and it’s refreshing to hear. The biting lyricism, solid flows, and classic New York-based, jazz-inspired beats give it a nostalgically driven feel. With the overabundance of SoundCloud rap exploding in popularity and over saturating the market, it’s a pleasure to listen to the lyrics presented on “Knockturnal”: “That kind of talk give them evil spirits life / She on the track like she waiting for her tears to dry / Listen real close you can hear the city cry.” It serves as a healthy reminder to the issues that still are ever-present within the states, in turn given even more precedence due to the increasingly soured political climate. All and all, the production is tightly tuned with a boom bap feel and culturally relevant lyricism that helps set RADIO SILENCE apart from the rest of the pack. [Will Turmon]
Miguel – WAR & LEISURE
Genre: Contemporary R&B, Alternative R&B
Favorite tracks: “Sky Walker,” “Wolf,” “Harem,” “City of Angels,” “Anointed”
Miguel has always been good at coming off comfortable with a vetted effortlessness across his entire catalog. This is no easy feat, however; there’s talent behind the lackadaisical panache. The title of his new album, WAR & LEISURE, likely stands as an accurate metaphor for the creative process, while also teasing the content itself: there’s a semblance of bubbly licentiousness, while underneath exists a struggle with the modern world, politics, and love.
Leave it to Miguel to sex-up images of wartime and impending nuclear doom with his sultry cadence on “Banana Clip,” (“M16 on my lap (on my lap) / Korean missiles in the sky,”) somehow making it all seem trivial. Then again, this war-ridden depiction is not without its maxim of protecting the ones you love: “It’s like I’m trigger happy (hahahaha) / Banana clip on my love for you . . . I put the “D” in defender / You know I never surrender.” Or, if you really wanted to get analytical, we could read the song as a satire of jingoism, where fending off foreign threats isn’t just a duty for the narrator, it’s a lark. Miguel guides us through these images of ongoing chaos from multiple point of views, sometimes right in the midst of it (“Banana Clip”) or sometimes on the fringe, where the threat is in the background, lurking closer and closer to the “ . . . Townhouse down in Venice Beach,” mentioned on album-peak “City of Angels.” It’s an understated gem, but perhaps the most devastating commentary yet on the consequences of ghosting, as it covers the inner-turmoil, longing, and rue in the aftermath of jilting your love when they needed you most, “Hoping to find you in the rubble / Hoping, that I could just hold you for a while.” And now, all you have left is their worthless immortalization via text message.
Amongst the angst though, Miguel makes sure to remind us of the greatest weapon of all: love—of its holy healing on “Anointed,” or the freedom it grants on “Harem.” The most fun to be had is on “Sky Walker” though; it slinks and slides, oozing with sex appeal, but also contains potent, easy-to-follow counseling: “Take a shot, make a friend, just enjoy the moment . . . Don’t sleep, you gotta stay up.” In other words: be nice, stay woke. They’re practically synonymous at this point. [Nick Funess]
PnB Rock – CATCH THESE VIBES
Genre: Trap Rap, Contemporary R&B
Favorite Tracks: “iRun,” “TTM”
CATCH THESE VIBES by PNB Rock is technically his debut album, despite having five previous “mixtape” releases chock-full of features. Upon going in, I sought to discover if there was a reason for PNB to forgo his aforementioned departure from his well-established success through mixtapes, but unfortunately, there is little in terms of originality when it comes to the concepts of CATCH THESE VIBES, concepts only worsened by the bloated, hour-long runtime and its lackluster diversity. PnB has fully adopted the oversaturated trap sound that seems impossible to escape from. The beats themselves, for a majority of the project, are derivative and uninspired. There is nothing particularly bad about their mastering or technical quality, but they come off as a paint-by-numbers for modern pop rap. They’re bland, inoffensive, and would not deter the majority of the mainstream radio crowd. Fortunately, there is a respite halfway through the album, beginning with airy track “iRun,” featuring Lil Yachty. One can only assume that Yachty’s feature is what caused the choice for a more adventurous production; it begins with a pretty heartwarming piano which plays throughout, giving it a reminiscent sound to c148’s laid back MINECRAFT soundtrack. The follow up song, “TTM,” is a groovy dance track, where PnB forgoes the overused trap production for a much more R&B0-tinged club vibe. Even though there really isn’t anything particularly revolutionary about “TTM,” it checks all the boxes for a true earworm of a club dance banger. Sadly, there isn’t much more in terms of entertainment come the second half of CATCH THESE VIBES, making it a disappointing “debut” for PNB. [Will Turmon]
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
ShaqIsDope – S/T
Genre: Trap Rap
Favorite Tracks: “Free P,” “The Things,” “Like A Drug”
Shaq is not dope. Actually, I didn’t think anything about ShaqIsDope’s self-titled EP was “dope.” The Toronto native has made a collection of seven songs comprised of all the mediocre aspects of rap from 2016-2017, almost like he summoned the collective unconscious of the genre but failed to take from it anything of value. It goes without saying he has the necessary lyric about people just “acting like (his) friends,” as well as rapping about someone “block(ing) (him) on the gram.” His flow is not unique, as it just ends up sounding like Diet Drake mixed with bootleg Meek Mill. So, if he’s lacking in the lyrical and flow departments, surely his beats must make up for this, right? No. Each beat is incredibly boring in its own way. Certain tracks just sound like they were exported out of whatever program was used to compile them without putting any sort of filters the on drums. They sound raw in the least artistic sense of the word and the keyboard ambience that accompanies them is nothing to be noted. That being said, the beat on “The Things” has an interesting, pulsating, dream-like, synth-heavy chord alternation throughout, which is greatly appreciated. Based on some of his lyrics, ShaqIsDope seems like a nice enough guy, so I do feel bad saying this EP is just not good, and that I hope his next release is the polar opposite of this. [Emmett Garvey]
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Jaden Smith – SYRE
Genre: Alternative R&B, Pop Rap
Favorite Tracks: “Falcon,” “Fallen,” “George Jeff”
Seven years ago we could see Jaden Smith rapping on Justin Bieber’s song “Never Say Never” as a promotional video for his 2010 remake of THE KARATE KID. Fast forward seven years, and we have a 19-year-old established artist putting out his first studio album, SYRE, garnering features from A$AP Rocky, Raury, Willow Smith, Pia Mia, and Kevin Abstract. Most notably, this album accomplishes what I see as Smith’s biggest challenge: separating himself from his father, Will Smith. Legacies in pop culture are incredibly common, but it seems Jaden wants to branch out from his family, as is noted in him asking for an emancipation ruling for his 15th birthday. Jaden addresses the controversy of him coming from a silver-spoon household on “Ninety,” saying, “I told ya I’m more than the kid with a chauffeur / Who don’t know the life of a soldier, I’m older now / The world’s a lot colder now.” Would Smith have the resources and ability to reach such a large audience had he not been the son of Will and Jada Pinkett? No, obviously. But, the fact of the matter is that is the case and it doesn’t have to take away from the quality of his music. Good music is good music, regardless of the source. SYRE, also one of Jaden’s middle names, is a story of “the boy who chases the sunset,” an alter-ego Smith assumes which also parallels his own life in different ways throughout the album. The LP features coming-of-age themes while simultaneously taking from a variety of musical styles. “George Jeff” and “Rapper” are hard hitting hip hop songs, while “Lost Boy” and “Fallen” take on a completely different, softer tone, especially “Lost Boy” which features Oasis-eque acoustic guitar. The diversity goes further than that with “Watch Me,” which takes on a hard rock approach samping from Kanye’s “Black Skinhead.” I do think a lot of people are going to condemn this album simply because it comes from Jaden Smith, but if I’m setting aside all bias, the album is great and exactly what Smith needed to establish himself as an individual. [Emmett Garvey]
Chris Stapleton – FROM A ROOM: VOLUME 2
Genre: Nashville Country
Favorite Tracks: “Scarecrow in the Garden,” “A Simple Song,” “Midnight Train to Memphis”
For those who don’t follow the comings and goings of Nashville or “mainstream” country music, Chris Stapleton is a rapidly ascendant star, admired by the masses and (perhaps even moreso) his peers in the industry. For some, he also might be a reason to start taking mainstream country seriously again. It’s truly hard to imagine why someone wouldn’t root for Stapleton to succeed, a former cog in Nashville’s massive songwriting machine (credits include writing for Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, and Darius Rucker, amongst several others) turned CMA-winning artist. Stapleton, who looks like a Kentucky-born Yeti, is almost singlehandedly changing the game in country, with a sound that feels both old and new, with prominent rock and soul influences, an emotional rawness that hasn’t existed in country for decades, and one hell of a singing voice. He sings and writes with his wife Morgane, an equally talented artist and writer, and their combination immediately sent team Stapleton to the top of the country music world, with 2015’s TRAVELLER and February’s FROM A ROOM VOL. 1 going two-for-two in the Best Album category at the CMAs.
FROM A ROOM: VOL. 2, Stapleton’s latest, is a short listen at 32 minutes, and is listenable on the merits of Stapleton’s vocal talents alone. VOL. 2 doesn’t quite match up to his previous records in terms of craftsmanship, but there are still some very strong pieces on here. Some of Stapleton’s songs are still more bland feeling than one would like, like album opener “Millionaire” or “Tryin’ to Untangle My Mind,” but he does an extraordinary job of selling them and making them work anyway. Stapleton is generally at his best when he’s able to emote the most with his voice, whether by affecting the somber, “Pancho and Lefty”-style delivery found on “Scarecrow in the Garden,” or the belting on “Drunkard’s Prayer.” Stapleton’s genre-blending sound is as good as any mainstream country artist has gotten at appealing to non-country fans, and VOL. 2 offers up a good mix of traditional country songs, folk balladeering, and southern rock-influenced tunes that sometimes make you forget exactly what you’re listening to. [Adam Cash]
Sufjan Stevens – THE GREATEST GIFT MIXTAPE
Genre: Indie Folk, Singer/Songwriter
Favorite Tracks: “Wallowa Lake Monster,” “Drawn to the Blood – Fingerpicking Remix,” “The Greatest Gift,” “Death With Dignity – Helado Negro Remix – Helado Negro”
There’s been a rush of artists this year releasing mixtape compilations, including Angel Olsen, Beach House, and Tame Impala, and now Sufjan Stevens has thrown himself into the mix, so to speak. On THE GREATEST GIFT MIXTAPE, Stevens gives us a grab bag of outtakes, iPhone demos, and remixes to rummage through. With these tweaks and additions to CARRIE & LOWELL, he manages to find fragile intimacy in cold washes of synths and the harrowing isolation in simple finger-plucking. The freedom of the mixtape format allows him to shift between genres with mercurial energy. It’s the perfect vehicle for songs such as “Wallowa Lake Monster” and “The Greatest Gift,” which are both delightful tracks in their own right but just simply wouldn’t marry with the rest of CARRIE & LOWELL. The former spills outside the 2015 album’s defined sonic sensibilities, while the latter’s lyrics are just a tad too concise to fit in with the C & L canon.
The rest of the mixtape features tracks from the aforementioned album that have either been dialed wayyy up or wayyy down. There’s the remixes, the highlight of which is “Death With Dignity – Helado Negro Remix,” since it does the best job of retaining the song’s original flavor. Maybe one day “Drawn to the Blood – Sufjan Stevens Remix” will be a club favorite, but that day is not today. The iPhone demos offer even further minimal versions of “John My Beloved” and “Carrie & Lowell,” which do not feel entirely essential, but round out the mixtape nonetheless. There’s nothing on THE GREATEST GIFT that Stevens hasn’t already proven himself capable of. It’s not gonna shock ya—if you’ve been on the Sufjan train for a while now, you’re gonna like this. You’re gonna love this. You’ve already pre-ordered this on vinyl. [Claire Epting]