Thursday, June 4, 2015

In Revue- Surf (Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment)



















I owe my current music writing to Chance the Rapper. That sounds weird to say, but it's true. I was in a bad way before I heard his squawking juke cut "Good Ass Intro" from Acid Rap in May 2013. Depression was gripping me because I had real doubts about continuing to write. I was convinced that I had nothing creative left to say, the worst problem any writer could have. Of course that sort of fear only worsens depression because your future seems to fall apart. Chance's track pieced things back together. I won't soon forget mashing my laptop keyboard during a chemistry lecture, the words flowing as quickly as he does on the song. It wasn't a great review by any means, but dammit it got me to believe again.

I share that personal anecdote to show the inspirational effect a 22-year-old kid from Chicago's music has on people. I say "has," indicating the here and now, because Surf, his brilliant follow-up to the equally brilliant Acid Rap, will inspire people. It's too bright, warm, soulful and unapologetically upbeat not to motivate. You'll want to call and thank your grandma after hearing "Sunday Candy," the de jure closer which details Christmas dinners and rent payments made by an impossibly good-natured human. Hell it makes communion sound both lovely and sensual, which isn't easy considering it involves stale wafers (at least in my experience).

In the material world, KYLE's verse on the hybrid electro-jazz/stuttering barbershop quartet number "Wanna Be Cool" pushes me to go buyout a Payless. "Nobody f****ng cares, so why don't you just be the you that you know you are?" he asks us. Don't worry about the label, all that matters is if it's comfortable. Chance and his collaborators Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment hammer home the "be you" idea on follow-up "Windows," though it's in a minor key. "Don't you look up to me; don't trust a word I say," Chance warbles in his most sobering voice since he sang about Chicago murder rates on "Paranoia." Synthesizers gently fade up, horns shimmer, drums patter like morning rain, guitars are delicately plucked and organs pipe in from a desert island. Between the music and Chance's weary tone, you realize how important finding your own path is.

The music of Surf consistently inspires through its warmth. I don't know how much direct input Chance had in Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment's playing, but I feel like he at least said "I want to feel like I’m swaddled in wool blankets with the Sun beaming down on me." All of the album’s components fit into that aesthetic. The kitchen percussion of "Slip Slide." "Warm Enough"'s tweeting birds. Every palm-muted guitar chord in "Rememory." Migos member Quavo's pitch-shifting vocals on King Louie team-up "Familiar." They all tickle your innards enough to move you off the couch (Side note: Quavo needs to use more Autotune; he has a weird bluesman quality with it.)

Some listening to Surf will be tempted to say this album needs less guests and more Chance, but we get the Goldilocks amount of Mr. Bennett. Just when his voice might risk grating you, he disappears into brass ether. He’s perfectly comfortable with having entire tracks be instrumentals and he's doesn't seem to bat an eye when guest rappers go for his jugular. I echo Stereogum's resident music scholar Tom Breihan in saying I've never heard Big Sean or B.o.B spit the way they do on "Wanna Be Cool" and "Slip Slide." Big Sean cuts the s*** with his corny jokes long enough to illuminate the legal struggles of a younger brother, while B.o.B remembers when his roof used to leak. Had he been so candid on 2010’s The Adventures of Bobby Ray, I can imagine he would have a lot more critical cache. It's almost frightening the singular focuses he displays.

Without question that is Surf's greatest strength: Chance's ability to get others to see his vision. It's akin to what BeyoncĂ© did on her self-titled LP. His name doesn't appear anywhere in iTunes credits, but you know it's him. No one working in rap, not even King Kendrick, could create something so endearingly goofy and seriously reflective at the same time. Whatever is inspiring Chance is inspiring anyone who is listening. 






 

Friday, May 29, 2015

In Revue-At. Long. Last. A$AP (A$AP Rocky)

























Who the hell does A$AP Rocky think he is? That's the half-serious question I have when I finish At. Long. Last. A$AP, Rocky's clouded, wigged-out, overlong (by about 10 minutes) third album. Dude put an unknown British folk singer on nearly a third of his LP. He repurposes the schmaltzy Platters holiday tune "Please Come for Christmas" for aquatic stomper "Excuse Me." "Wavybone" has him resurrecting the dearly departed Pimp C to count pyramidal stacks of paper. M.I.A. comes through just to spitefully chant "tell your new b**** to suck a d***," on lean sipper "Fine Whine." And his organ-driven second single "Everyday" samples Rod Stewart. ROD STEWART. As in the dude behind "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Listening to At. Long. Last. A$AP. I'm reminded of H.G. Wells' when he lambasted James Joyce's ponderous book Finnegan's Work: "who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousands I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?"

The answer to my question is he's "A-f***king SAP." Lord Pretty Flacko's the most unflappably confident rapper since '06 T.I. At his most uncool, he's cool because he thinks he is. Kanye West, Schoolboy Q, Lil Wayne, Future and Mos Def all bring their A-game to At. Long. Last. A$AP and you walk away thinking Rocky won the bout. He has a way of phrasing that makes a possibly mundane brag seem amazing. Like on "Canal St." when he spits "your favorite rappers corpses couldn't measure my importance." How great is that? He could've said he's better than your favorite living rapper. Not enough. He's better than any rapper living or dead. And you believe him when he says so in his spacious cadence. 

It's nightmarish when he applies the style to the Danger Mouse produced "Pharsyde." The recollection: "Found his body parts in awkward places like apartments, basements, Garbage vacant, lots, garages, spaces, Harlem's far too spacious," is something no one should have to see, but it's more horrifying because of how Rocky steadily pinballs to the conclusion. Violent people aren't to blame for such carnage, the entire city's guilty. So too are crooked pastors and peddlers of religion, whom Rocky ferociously indicts on fervent opener "Holy Ghost." To hear him tell it, the ushers are skimming from collection baskets and "they tryna' dine us with some damn wine and crackers." If the line is autobiographical it's absolutely deflating.

The production of At. Long. Last. A$AP only reinforces Rocky's nightmarish/hellacious words. "Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2" stomps so heavily that bones in your feet get broken. When Rocky and ScHoolboy Q play their long-running game of one-upmanship on "Electric Body," you fear it's going to end in dual beheadings. The opening Friday the 13th woodblock clanging cultivates such an air of menace that it doesn't even matter the song is tailor-made for stripper clubs with its XXX hook "shake that ass girl, make that coochie wet." It's too terrifying to twerk to. Ditto for "M'$" which is undoubtedly bass heavy, but crams in enough screams, synth heaves and engine revs to make Death Grips envious. Lil Wayne, turning in his best performance in four years ("6 Foot 7 Foot"), sounds like Galactus coming to swallow Earth whole when he raps over the track. 

Even when the beats have room to breathe the rapping sounds authoritative. Take the golden soul of Kanye West produced "Jukebox Joints," the track never gets above an inside voice, but A$AP and 'Kanye manage some impressive s***-talking. The former brags about changing rap and the latter claims to be "a black man with confidence of a white male." I especially love the Kanye line because it's continuing the 2015 trend of him indulging in sly racial commentary. Meanwhile "Everyday" has none of "Juke Joints" import and might be the most compelling effort on At. Long. Last. A$AP. The track's warm organ is hypnotic piping out of a car window on a summer night and the aforementioned Stewart sample is oddly rousing, his raspy voice just works for a banger. When you're constructing beats that can bang and sample Rod Stewart, without seeming crammed, you're in rarefied air.

And A$AP Rocky unquestionably is in rarefied air. He's one of several hip hop artists: Drake, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross, capable of selling 100,000-plus copies of an album in the first week. Rappers don't do that anymore. Granted rappers don't sign deals worth $3 million anymore and A$AP did that too. He'll keep making that kind of money as long as he keeps putting out work as strong as At. Long. Last. A$AP







Tuesday, May 26, 2015

In Revue- 'In Colour' (Jamie xx)

























On paper, electronic/dance music shouldn't elicit any major emotional responses. They are styles intended to shut off synapses. You're supposed to "lose yourself to dance," as Pharrell commands. You get swept up in a tide of movement. Feet tap; heads nod, hips swing and thoughts disappear under the reflective, multi-colored lights of the dancefloor. Theoretically electronic/dance music focuses on the body and couldn’t give a damn about the brain.

Of course none of those theories are true. Since the earliest days of popular dance music, people like Donna Summer have confronted unwieldy emotions in their songs. Despite being robots, electronic pioneers Kraftwerk had to reckon with lust and disaffection. Just this past year Caribou mastermind Dan Snaith issued Our Love, one of the most heartfelt records of the decade. "You’re the only thing I think about," he sang on "Can't Do Without You." That's the sort of admission you'd expect in an emo-leaning acoustic track, not a clapping psych-groove.

I mention Our Love because it's perhaps the best musical analogy to what Jamie xx aims for on his impeccably beautiful, undeniably emotional debut In Colour. The cover is a subtle nod to his singles from the past few years, but it also signals the kaleidoscopic range of feelings that will hit you once you press play. In the span of a minute it's possible to sob to the shadowy bleeping of "Stranger in a Room" and then shudder in fear at "Hold Tight"'s industrial wasteland synths. Hearing them on a night-drive down abandoned metropolitan avenues is the type of thing that will haunt your dreams. 

The musical versatility of In Colour is magnificent. I've glided across a wet kitchen floor at 1am on a rainy Sunday morning to the giddy dancehall of "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)." The finger snaps are so on point, the calypso flavored drums so bright sounding and Young Thug's squealing so goofy that it is impossible not to rock to the infectious track. The hollered hook of "I know there’s gonna be good times," has the insistency of Daft Punk’s "One More Time."  From the muted side, the timid vocal stutters and harp plucks of "Sleep Sound" are perfect for soundtracking a slow trek through a Sun-covered forest. Romy Madley Croft collabo "Seesaw," one of three In Colour songs to feature Jamie xx's xx bandmates, will gently waft out of plenty of couples’ bedrooms before summer ends. Madley Croft's whispers over the song’s scattered programming make hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Her echoing voice is that tantalizing. 

This is someone who got started with the xx though, so those high cresting waves of emotion have to crash at some point. And they do during centerpiece "Loud Places," which also pairs xx with Madley Croft. She sings "you're in ecstasy without me, when you come down I won't be around," after an army of voices singing "I feel music in your eyes, I have never reached such heights," disappears. The song’s central conceit of finding a person in a loud place to share quietude with is something Madley Croft commits to. So you hear the desperation in her voice when she realizes that’s not what a former love wants anymore. They want to go to new places with someone new. Without being hyperbolic, the way Jamie xx contrasts this is genius. Her exhalations come over brittle ringing piano keys while her former flame’s new-found club hopping is secured by stinging guitar lines and colossal drum machine strikes. Each one is a more stunning blow to the heart than the last. Even when she gets off that aforementioned missive you sense it's from a place of profound defeat.  

"Loud Places" is worth dedicating an entire paragraph to, but the same could be said for any of In Colour's 11 tracks because there isn't a lackluster effort among the bunch. "Gosh"'s mangled "oh my gosh" vocals and 2-step garage work are just what you want out of an opener: insistent, palpitating and scene-setting, the type of song to kickstart festival sets with. "Hold Tight," perhaps the "slightest" of the songs, is an ideal buffer between the emotional onslaughts of "Stranger in a Room" and "Loud Places." The piano droplets of penultimate number "The Rest is Noise" are reflective without overthinking things. Chain rattling closer "Girl" has such an immediate cut-off that you’re forced into hitting repeat just to confirm your file isn’t corrupted. I imagine Jamie xx filled up several wastebaskets with rejected track lists before settling on this inscrutable sequencing. There isn’t a single hair out of place.


Which is a marvel when you consider how messy the ideas are that Jamie xx is dealing with. Love, loss, longing, ecstasy, joy, happiness, regret, fear and betrayal aren't easy to convey, especially when you're mostly limited to instrumentals. Jamie xx manages the feat though. He’s 26 but the near-perfect In Colour belies his age. This is the kind of album that could only be made by someone with eons of experience. An individual who has been through ringer. A person who is well aware that no form of music is better for such wide-ranging expressionism.