November 11th 2016- A Tribe Called Quest- We Got It From Here…Thank You

With impeccable timing given certain election results and tinged with sadness this week saw the release of the final album by A Tribe Called Quest. We Got It From Here…Thank You was confirmed for release as the final Tribe Called Quest album after the sad and untimely passing of Phife Dawg. Given the current political climate the tragedy of this loss is even greater, as we need groups like A Tribe Called Quest more now than ever.

On We Got It From Here…Thank You A Tribe Called Quest tackle some of the most difficult and yet tragically ever present subjects of current American and Global socio-political life: gun violence, police brutality, economic disparity, war, migration, the rise of the right wing political elite the list is almost endless. They show no fear in tackling these toughest of subjects with a wise new age sensibility for which they have become famed.

Closing track The Donald takes aim at well…you know who. Other tracks such as We The People reference the current crisis surrounding police brutality and the disproportionate treatment of the USA’s African-American populations.  We the People also takes on the subject of discrimination faced by Mexicans during the recent Trump election triumph. The Tribe often provide a simple answer to many of these issues, we all just need to be closer together on this one Earth, as we are all one and the same. It’s a mantra they have repeated throughout their career, though one which is as far away from being realised today as during the George Bush senior days of the group’s formation.

Whilst this may sound heavy going, the album is full of A Tribe Called Quests’ typical human touch and also a good dose of wit. Humour appears often in the use of samples, such as interludes from Willy Wonka. They may on their last album be tackling dark subject matter but they do this in a way, which only A Tribe Called Quest can.

The album is built around unsurprisingly brilliant golden-age era East Coast beats, which are sample heavy and often reference a period in hip hop’s history now sadly forgot. We Got It From Here…Thank You is also a guest heavy album featuring subtle appearances from Elton John and Jack White. Whilst more prominent appearances are made by Kendrick Lamar (perhaps the long term successor to the group’s crown) and long-time friends and collaborators Talib Kwali and Busta Rhymes. Busta has over the years grown into an almost some time member of A Tribe Called Quest and his appearances here on various tracks feels the most natural and fitting out of all guests.

Everything on We Got It From Here…Thank You is near-on perfect as a hip-hop album goes. The beats are exceptional (though at odds with the current scene), the subject matter poignant and the flow of each member is…well….why even bother you all know there’s few out there who can stand to toe to toe with the Tribe, when it comes to delivery.

Much has been made of both the gap between their last release and this and the fact that there will be no more new material from A Tribe Called Quest. However when it comes to We Got It From Here…Thank You, it is best not to call it a come-back, a send-off or a tribute, this is just A Tribe Called Quest doing what they do best.

Advertisements

February 4th- Kendrick Lamar-

 

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.

 

 

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.