London’s underground music scene, its pirate radio, small clubs and bars have recently been witness to a bubbling undercurrent of exciting and experimental Jazz. This is driven in part by the duo Yussef Kamaal; who are themselves inspired by Miles Davis, Flying Lotus and his Brainfeeder crew alongside drum and bass, especially the jazzy variety played by the likes of 4Hero and Spring Heel Jack. There’s a vocal sample part way through closing track Joint 17 which sums this musically milieu up perfectly: “You create your own reference point and that’s what Jazz has always been about” and that is exactly what Yussef Kamaal are about here on Black Focus.
Whilst the album does contain a smattering of electronics the largest percentage of what is on offer here is live instrumentation by two exceptionally talented musicians. Part of what makes Black Focus so engaging and exciting is the very fact you are keenly aware that two guys are making this with a reduced level of computer reliance compared to others who make a similar sound. Their ability is outstanding. Nowhere on Black Focus is this clearer than in the album’s drum work, which is both subtle and yet front and centre. To listen to the drum work of Yussef Kamaal is to hear a thing of great beauty.
Black Focus feels and sounds like the product of all of its many influences especially on tracks like Strings of Light. However, when your influences are so diverse and critically acclaimed this is certainly no bad thing. It would be incredibly exciting if this album were to herald more experimental and jazz inflected values returning to UK Drum and Bass instead of the jump-up style, which has dominated for the last decade.
There are parts of Black Focus where the album takes a more chilled dub and jazz vibe, like in the opening to the track Remembrance. Upon hearing this anyone who remembers 90s genre Acid Jazz may be filled with terror. However, these and fears are misplaced as Yussef Kamaal are aware of musicians’ mistakes past and balance the album’s more chilled moments with snapshots of breakbeat drums and technical wizardry.
Black Focus is an experimental album which will appeal to both Jazz and Drum and Bass fans alike. Whilst also being the perfect album to play on a lazy Sunday morning after the Saturday night before. The talent that sits behind it, is a reminder of just how brilliant live instrumentation can be. Let’s hope Yussef Kamaal inspire a few young minds to pick up a drumstick or a trumpet rather than a Mac and a copy of Garageband.
You’re all prepared to recommend Lapsley’s new release for your blog then the night before release day one of, if not the, most important artist in the world at the moment drops a surprise release and your recommendation changes overnight. This highlights the importance of Kendrick Lamar in the current cultural and political climate. Last year’s album To Pimp A Butterfly is likely to be regarded by future generations and critics as highly as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On and based on the quality on this follow up such praise is fully deserved.
The title of Kendrick’s new release implies offcuts from last year’s album and that is what we get. However, offcuts from Kendrick Lamar are about 100 times better than most artists’ albums proper. The quality on show here is stunning.
Beats wise the vibe remains very similar to last year’s album with the off-kilter jazz beats inspired by the Brainfeeder crew littering the album. They are stunning and refreshing in the face of the often mundane trap heavy current US Hip Hop scene. And it is encouraging to see Kendrick sticking to a vibe which made To Pimp A Butterfly stand out from releases by his peers.
As a lyricist Untitled Unmastered serves to further highlight just how far Kendrick Lamar has grown and continues to develop there are focuses on Eastern Philosophy, meditations on hopelessness and political insight, it’s a long way from the subject matter of Instagram, dick pics and bling that many lesser rappers focus on at the moment.
Unititled Unmastered also sees Kendrick working with a strong ensemble cast of musicians including Thundercat, from the previously mentioned Brainfeeder crew, who features on almost every track, Adrain Younge who continues to go from strength to strength and DJ Khalil, all three make vital and exciting contributions to the album. However, there is one downside in that Kendrick choose to work with unrepentant pervert and offender Cee-Lo Green, however, such is the strength of the body of work this can be overlooked.
The two strongest tracks on show here untitled 05 and untitled 08 they are both staggering and worthy of Kendrick Lamar picking up further Grammy awards next year. The later track carries with it a similar vibe to King Kunta which is certainly no bad thing. The fact the track is 8 minutes long only adds to the build-up, joy and excitement and even at that length it seems too short.
And here in is the only disappointment Untitled Unmastered is such a joy and such a great body of work that, it is a shame that it is only just over 30 minutes and 8 tracks long. That said if all Kendrick’s releases are this strong it is a disappointment we can all cope with.