Thursday, September 25, 2014

"i"- Kendrick Lamar

T.I. had a 2006 album where he proclaimed himself King. In the same year Pusha T's regal status was signified by a cockeyed crown he wore on the cover of Hell Hath No Fury. Hip hop's seen "the best rapper alive," "superheroes," and a "rap god." But every last one of those artists feels distanced from their audience. In being royalty you naturally slip from the everyday tedium of normalcy. The longer you sit on the mountaintop, the less time you have to commune with the villagers down below. 

One glaring exception to the rule and perhaps the only legitimate claimant to the title of king is "King" Kendrick Lamar. Between good kid, m.A.A.d. city's runaway success in 2012, the Twitter-breaking "Control" in August 2013, a particularly firebreathing BET Cypher session last October and a continuous stream of breathless guest verses in 2014, Lamar's firmly established his kingship. But he's also retained his "humanity" in the process. He headlines festivals while still rocking those Nike Cortez shows and white tees. Lamar still lays his head in Los Angeles and shows up to local radio stations to let the hometown hear a new single first, a single where he cops to lacking confidence. 

That new single, "i," has already been discussed to death for being "too pop," "too breezy," a sure-fire bet to soundtrack a Disney movie in the next five years. With its shuffling guitar, clopping pots and pans percussion, communal clapping and message of having to love yourself before you can love anyone else, it is poppy and breezy. Those liquid solos you hear in the chorus, pulled from the Isley Brothers' "That Lady," are the sort of thing that would've played in any number of 70s cop flicks. But Kendrick Lamar raps his ass off on this one. With absolute ease he stacks up images of "A war outside and a bomb in the street, and a gun in the hood and a mob of police, And a rock on the corner and a line full of fiends." If that weren't enough to allay fears, his message of loving yourself first isn't new terrain. Since day one he's shown us how far someone can go if they believe in themselves; continually exhorting himself and his audience to go farther. And of course this is just the first taste of what's to come from the third LP. There's a strong chance this is the "radio friendly" track Lamar pushes to make label execs happy before dropping another classic of chaos and confusion in the 21st Century. Whatever the case may be, Lamar can rest easy. The crown's not going anywhere for now.

There's no set release date for Lamar's third LP, but you can watch him discuss the process of recording the new album on Power 106.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Blow that s*** away"- Future Islands Live at LouFest

"Sometimes you just gotta blow that s*** away man," Samuel T. Herring, Future Islands' powerhouse vocalist joked to a Sun soaked LouFest crowd Saturday afternoon. As the last notes of "Before the Bridge," a cut from the Baltimore synthpop group's last LP On the Water wafted into the sweat heavy summer air, Herring was blowing some invisible entity out of his hand. With the sheer force he put into puffing out his cheeks, then exhaling, you'd think he was an exorcist trying to cast out a demon.

But that's the intensity the group, particularly Herring approaches all of their material with. During indie song of the year contender "Seasons (Waiting On You)" William Cashion's thick running bass notes created a feeling of a dam bursting fourth; and Herring's "as it breaks" was the first gush of water through the concrete. The song's key line "I've grown tired trying to change for you," affects anyone who's ever lost too much of themselves in another person. And live the emotional relevancy Herring gave the confession was overwhelming.

The Singles lead track was one of several cuts from the 2014 record littering the group's 50 minute set. Gerrit Welmers' tidal synthesizer of "A Song for Our Grandfathers" found Herring looking up to a celestial plateau after each line about "grandfather watching over me." "This song's about burned out tobacco fields and those trying to be free and those that deserve to be," Herring informed the howling, clapping crowd. Whether freedom was ever attained, he never said.

"Light House" considerably picked up the synth pace and offered a shred of life saving hope once imparted on Herring. Though the words "this is not you," and "what you know is better, is brighter" were partially obscured by Herring's black metal shrieking, they still offered inspiration. Sometimes when you're trapped in the shadows all you need is assurance that light is out there somewhere.

Set closer "Spirit" continued the uplifting act. Herring giddily bounced up and down, while the rest of the group gelled into a robotic techno/funk groove. The song's all about finding that aforementioned light inside of yourself and near the end, I spotted a young red-headed child sitting on top of his father's shoulders beaming from ear-to-ear. So as "hokey" a challenge as "sharing" and "baring" the light sounds, when you see the joy of a small child, it's abundantly clear that radiant light exists.

As theatrical as all of the wailing, backwards dancing and pogoing that Herring did was, the most stirring moment came during Singles closer "A Dream of You and Me." Herring begged for peace, but was overcome with violence. He bizarrely contorted across the main stage and pulled at his face like he was trying to rip off a mask. When you're band that thrives on physicality, finding even a shard of peace isn't an easy task. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

"minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix]"- Aphex Twin

A major mistake I made when listening to "minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix]," British producer Richard D. James' first new work as Aphex Twin in 13 years, was assuming the stirring vocals that end the song were lifted from some "ancient" source. They're so frail and wobbly that I just imagined James clearing them off a hard-drive labelled "Samples" from the year 2000. 

It's the only thing though from "minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix] that feels "dated."  The layers of fluttering drum machines, watery synthesizers and stray noises are remarkably of the moment; recalling Aphex Twin disciples like shadowy post dubstep artist Burial and experimental hip hop producer Flying Lotus. James' aforementioned sighing at the song's end could be confused for a new Radiohead effort. Aphex Twin's been dormant since the maligned Drukqs in 2001, but James has clearly been paying attention to his imitators.

So much so that it sounds like he's read ahead of the class. As much as "minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix] is of 2014, it’s simultaneously out of time. Individual ripples of synth keys are soundtracking a sci-fi flick that won't be made for another 10 years. The robotic heaves throughout the track are alien to my ears. There's no Rosetta Stone to decode the language of James' vocal manipulations. Aphex Twin is unquestionably back and already out in front of the field.

Aphex Twin's new album Syro is out Sept. 23 through Warp Records. You can find James' mangled bio accompanying the new release here and view the tracklist below.

1. "minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix]"
2. "XMAS_EveT10 (thanaton3 mix)"
3. "produk 29"
4. "4 bit 9d api+e+6"
5. "180db_"
6. "CIRCLONT6A (syrobonkus mix)"
7. "fz pseudotimestrech+e+3"
8. "CIRCLONT14 (shrymoming mix)"
9. "syro u473t8+e (piezoluminescence mix)"
10. "PAPAT4 (pineal mix)"
11. "s950tx16wasr10 (earth portal mix)"
12. "aisatsana"

Friday, August 22, 2014

"From the Kettle Onto the Coil"- Deafheaven

Sunbather, post-black metal group Deafheaven's 2013 release, is a record I still don't understand. I'm familiar with all of the basic elements; convulsive blast beats, throat shredding wails, ascendant post-rock guitars, wide-eyed dream pop interludes, and a populist folk obsession with the wealthy. But just typing that sentence, with all its inherent contradictions, is mind-numbing. How can such beauty and brutality coexist in the same line, let alone the same song? What are you to do with calming silence erupting into cacophonous noise? Is there anything you can do?

Like Sunbather, upcoming Adult Swim single "From the Kettle Onto the Coil" doesn't have answers to those questions. The guttural moans and glass shattering screams from leader George Clarke signify he's in pain, but they're so animalistic and obtuse that interpreting them is impossible. Though it's an unquestionable extreme, he's the friend who says "everything's fine" while dealing with a decaying home life and suicidal thoughts. All you need is to consider the harsh environment created by Daniel Tracy's frenzied drumming and Kerry McCoy's lacerating chords and know everything is not alright.

But of course a big reason for Deafheaven's enormous good will in 2013 came from their ability to make it all seem alright, if only for a moment. On "From the Kettle Onto the Coil" they ease into a passage of exploratory shoegaze after minutes of pummeling metal. When the sheets of noise are peeled back to reveal lush reverb, tranquility is achieved. All the screaming and thumping drums disappear. Peace is rarely permanent though, it's often just a buffer between stretches of violence. So when the brutality returns, it shouldn't come as a shock. Upheaval is a part of life and Deafheaven understand that better than most bands out there right now.

"From the Kettle Onto the Coil" is out Monday on the Adult Swim site.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Blockbuster Night Part 1"- Run the Jewels

In my original review of El-P and Killer Mike's Run the Jewels collaboration I wrote that the rap bffs succeeded in "recasting rap threats as an art-form." While that was an accurate description of their brilliant, mechanical, stream-of-consciousness onslaught, I wish I hadn't used the phrase. Now I have nothing to say about "Blockbuster Night Part 1," the first sampling of RTJ2. What the hell looms above an "art-form?" How can you get larger than life with your chest-puffing?

If you're Killer Mike, you get there by bidding listeners "top of the morning, my fist to your face is f***ing Folgers," as sirens wail like a child who has had their favorite toy taken away. People tend to sit up like a board when you suggest that "the fellows at the top are likely rapists," as El-P does. Especially when that kind of hierarchical takedown is coupled with arrhythmic drums and broken police scanner static. This isn't some political crackpot convention though, it's a thoroughly reworked routine where RTJ "disappear in the smoke like we're f***ing magicians." "Blockbuster Night Part 1 is an orchestrated "macabre massacre." It's bold enough to tell Satan "be patient," but relaxed enough to burn through a pound of weed. As Killer Mike puts it, "it's murder, mayhem, melodic music."

Like the original Run the Jewels, RTJ2 will be available for free download and physical copies will be out October 28 through Mass Appeal. RTJ also has an Adult Swim single dropping on September 15. It's going to be a brutal couple of months.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"Holy Ghost"- Jeezy

It's easy for Atlanta rapper Jeezy to sound serious. If he told you through his permanently strained voice that he'd bust your head or saw someone die, you'd believe him. But the downside of that rasp is that it doesn't allow for much introspection. It's tough to sympathize with Jeezy because he sounds impervious to pain.

And while "Holy Ghost," the fourth song released from Jeezy's upcoming Seen It All, seems equally impenetrable; it isn't. Hiding behind Jeezy's chants of "we lust for alcohol and we love women" and the detached alien synthesizer is a glint of emotion. When he asks "where'd it all go wrong?" he's confused and borderline scared. From an outsider's perspective his rise from time in a "boot camp" for narcotics possession to Grammy-nominated artist is improbable. And Jeezy's clearly still grappling with the improbability. He's more concerned about the time someone stole a friend's brick than he is about the current Billboard charts. So when he raps about reclining in his Rolls-Royce Ghost it's not brazen consumption. It's an attempt to sleep comfortably, to find one dream from the past among so many nightmares.

(You can listen to "Holy Ghost" here. Seen It All drops September 2 on Def Jam.)