February 12th- Kanye West- The Life of Pablo

To say Kanye West is a divisive figure is an understatement, he is a man who brings forth equal measures of both passion and hatred amongst millions. But also one who sells millions of records and has created some of the most unique and incredible hip hop records of the past 15 years. In my view Kanye West is a man who has knowingly turned his life into art, created a character and to some extent become that character. His life is a vortex of meta-narrative swirling ever faster and tighter with the distinctions between reality and story line growing ever more lost like Dorothy being whisked from Kansas to Oz.

As far as album launches go Kanye certainly played the showman: a fashion show, an album launch, twitter melt-downs, two days of delays and eventual exclusive release on Tidal. Mr West has been the ultimate hype man, but beneath and away from this how does the record hold up.

The Life of Pablo starts off slow and dark and introspective, words you often associate with Kanye West and not an unexpected start to a Yeezy album. Ultra Light Beam is the stand out of the first three tracks with soulful vocals, stretched bassy sythns and the repeated refrain of: “This is a God Dream” Chance the Rapper also contributes a stand out verse. It’s a great start and not that uncoventional, which given Kanye’s last two albums is a surprise. However, from here things get very weird.

Famous starts off as a traditional hip-pop song with Rihanna vocals and heavy bass kicking-in around the two min mark this is coupled with a Kanye rap .As soon Kanye has shouted his bars, the track breaks down with a sample of Bam Bam by Nina Simone taking up the remainder of the track in a thrilling way as grime style shout outs pop over the top.

Feedback starts unexpectedly with feedback before experimental beats kick in, the beats are some of the strongest on the album and feature a Sandy Rivera sample. This sample isn’t the first or last from a house legend on the album and it is very clear that Kanye has been taking in the history of Detroit and Chicago’s electronic music scenes prior to the release of the Life of Pablo. The track ends with West making his political statement on recent police shootings in the USA through a chant of: “The Police taught us hands up” which is repeated till close.

Lowlights and Highlights oddly feel incomplete both feature soulful samples but as soon as things get started on each track they are quickly closed out. Here in lies one of the downsides of the album, there are some great ideas on show but Kanye doesn’t allow all of them to fully develop. Much of this you feel is intentional to create an aggressive, jarring and confrontational experience for the listener, this is achieved much to the annoyance of some critics.

Freestyle 4 features dark strings, experimental beats and some of Kanye’s best rapping in a long time. Waves follows and is one of the tracks that has courted most controversy on the album seeing Kanye and Wiz Khalifa publicly fall out, this distraction is a shame because it is a strong track with brilliant production from Hudson Mohawke.

FML and Real Friends see a return to dark introspection with Yeezy looking into his own failings and also to those who have hurt him in the past. As tracks they provide insights into the character of Kanye although how much of that you can believe and distinguish as the truth is now almost impossible to know.

Wolves is one of the few tracks here to have already been released although the Life of Pablo version differs from that of the single and features and a guest spot from the increasingly illusive Frank Ocean it’s great stuff and Frank’s voice is as alluring as ever.

30 hours and No More Parties in L.A have  been up on Kanye’s soundcloud for awhile now as part of his Good Friday music project. The latter is the stronger and features some great verses from Kendrick Lamar who puts in perhaps the strongest rap performance on the record.

Facts again has previosuly appeared with its bizzare Bill Crosby reference, however look beyond this and the beats are stellar, head nodding and built to be blasted at full volume. There is real anger locked in Kanye’s flow as well and it is one of the most aggressive tracks on the album.

The clsoing track Fade however for me is the real stand out with brilliant house samples from Robert Owens and Louis Vega much of the feel of the track echoes the warehouse rave scenes of the 80s and 90s including samples, basslines and vocals, all of this produces a strong close to the album.

The Life of Pablo is a fractured sounding album which intentionally sets out to challenge and confront the listener. However, you are rewarded with repeated listening as samples, broken beats and vocal snaps become clearer. The list of samples, producers and guest vocalists is endless and one suspects will be a list that attracts much analysis over the next few months. Suffice to say on the producer front Hudson Mohawke, Cashmere Cat and DJ Dodger Stadium put in strong turns though you get the feeling that despite all the features and samples it is Kanye’s hand that guides and directs everything. This leves the impression that The Life of Pablo like the Life of Kanye is really his own personal art project. However with such strong and intriguing material this is no bad thing.

 

 

 

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February 7th- MssingNO- Fones EP

Electronic music is filled with men of mystery from Zomby to Burial and like his XL Label mate Jai Paul, MssingNO fits nicely into this category having released a highly acclaimed EP on Goon Allstars the producer then disappeared, to do what? Travel the world? Work a 9 to 5? Observe the gritty world around him? Who knows, but whatever MssingNO got up to whilst missing in action it sure as hell lit a fire up under his arse. Because Fones is exceptional.

As an EP Fones fits into the ever so popular and growing grime 2.0 genre with icicle beats enveloping street level aggression. Layered on top of each track are sped up female vocals which could have come straight from the PC music back catalogue.

Each track is incredibly textured with perhaps Scope standing out as the strongest track. Annie Mac has been dropping Scope regularly on her week night show giving it as much acclaim as I am here. Sparkly synths kickoff the track before they give way to a vocal which stands somewhere between J-Pop and UK Garage, after which the bass kicks in with a vibe that could be best described as influenced by two-step but is in fact from a world of its own.

The track Inta was released last year on XL Recordings fantastic Chapter VI album, a mission statement to the future of dance music from the UK’s best and most important indie label. A similar statement of intent is also laid down by MssingNo on Fones, as the producer uses the release to provide an insight into what grime and the future of UK bass music should, if sense allows, sound like.

Certainly this release won’t be for every grime and UK basshead out there. But those who are more adventurous will only gain from getting hold of a copy of Fones. If this is, as MssingNO envisions, the future of grime and bass music then that future is shaping up to be an experimental and exciting adventure.

Tunes of the Month January 2016

Each month i’m going to post a selection of tracks, singles and downloads, not on the albums I’ve reviewed that I have been listening. Here’s January:

 

  1. Radiohead- Spectre, given away as a free download and supposedly Radiohead’s submission for the most recent Bond movie, sounds like the band turning back the clocks and creating something rather beautiful, grab yourself a copy here:

 

2.  Porter Robinson- Flicker (Mat Zo remix)- I normally loathe the EDM sound but Mat Zo has done something a bit different with this remix from the end of 2014 using jungle style drums beneath EDM synths to give this track a unique vibe.

 

3.  Babyfather- Meditation- Babyfather are Dean Blunt and Arca and this track was released on Hyperdub if you need more hipster hype than that I don’t think you’ll find it. Has a bit of a trip hop vibe to it with lazy weed induced vocals from Dean Blunt.

 

4. Drake-  Summer Sixteen- A surprise release from Drake who seems to have new material out each month, probably easy to do when you don’t write all of it yourself, but debates and disses aboout ghostwriters aside, this is Drake releasing a strong diss track aimed at those detractors. Beats wise it’s more of the same (a little more lively perhaps) though with Drake that’s no bad thing. Sadly no link on this as all material is exclusive to Apple Music but hey you’ve got Itunes right?

5. Partisan-  Coming straight out of Reading and making what could best be described as heavy grime instrumentals Partisan has gained a lot of attention on the underground electronic scene with various online zines giving him huge props, with tracks like this it’s not hard to see why, again a free download:

 

Enjoy!

January 29th- Rihanna- Anti

 

Anti, it’s a brave statement of intent to set ones’ self-up as Anti for if you don’t immediately seem anti enough or your sense of anti is unclear you come in for immediate criticism. Rihanna on her latest release has aimed for the Anti pop record and perhaps taken a sly dig at the lack of artist freedom in the record industry. But one of the strongest criticisms of this new release is actually all of this Anti statement is rather bogged down behind the patchy music. Somewhat this is true.

Anti, starts well enough and the opening tracks especially Consideration and latest single Work provide a more experimental edge to Rihanna’s pop cannon. This experimental edge can be seen in part to be inspired by Beyonce’s latest self-titled release. One of the producers of that album NoID pops up with brilliance all over some of the tracks here. The sound of the album is influenced in part by NoID, Arca and the slew of hip hop and RnB albums which have incorporated their sound. However, the strong opening to the album is spoiled by the track James Joint which feels like music for an elevator, there is sadly an idea there but the production and development is stunted and the track is left bogged down.

The track that has attracted all the attention for this release is Same Ol Mistake, which is a cover for a very recent Tame Impala track. Much of the attention has been driven towards the merit of covering such a recently released track. However, this focus is misplaced as the cover is actually a rather lovely one which like many tracks towards the end of Anti aims to allow Rihanna’s voice to come to the forefront.

The juxtaposed nature of the start and end of this album highlight its curiosity. The starts feels like a producers’ experimental playground whereas the latter half of the album comes over as a vocal workout for the artist. The lack of balance between the two is perhaps one of the elements missing on this album and one which leads to the jarring feel of Anti.

Despite the criticism this release has come in for it is an endearing album of an artist trying something different. Ideas may not be fully formed and some concepts seem misplaced but repeated listening turns out to be rewarding as little elements of each track bubble to the surface. There is a sense that perhaps the album would have been improved with the inclusion of Bitch Better Have…and this rings true especially towards the end of the album, the track would’ve broken things up and provided some more grit.

Rihanna is to be praised for this release, especially so considering gone are many of the collaborations and featured artists that have previously adorned her albums. All but two tracks are solely Rihanna. That said Anti’s real featured artists are the producers behind the record and of those there are almost too many to name.

Until Kanye West releases Waves later in the month Anti and the debates surrounding it will be the pop presses main focus of attention, such is the mark of Rihanna and her global reach these days. And despite all of this focus Anti will sell bucket loads, over 1 million copies in its first week in the USA, however the way to really appreciate this record and get under it and Rihanna’s skin is through repeated and rewarded listening.

Not quite Anti but certainly a departure.

(Rihanna’s exclusive deal with Tidal unfortunately means no track link this week)