Thursday, April 16, 2015

In Revue- 'Cherry Bomb' (Tyler, the Creator)

What are we looking for from Tyler, the Creator circa 2015? We're five years removed from hearing "what the devil plays before he goes to sleep." Four from being introduced to the "f***ing walking paradox" who surrounds torch-bearing love tracks with stomach-churning rape jokes. All the protests and think-pieces have been dead for at least two years now. So now what? What then? With all of the artifice and hype swept away, what reason do we have to still pay attention to Tyler? Is he the kind of artist we don't want to grow up because his "immaturity" was what made him so fascinating to begin with? What the hell does artistic maturation mean for Tyler?

That central question is what makes listening to Tyler's fourth LP Cherry Bomb so frustrating; he doesn't have a meaningful answer. At times, flecks of musical evolution in Cherry Bomb are infinitesimal. "Pilot"'s got an incredible thrum to it, the kind you could fit on a percussive Dizzee Rascal track and then it’s swallowed by static before the chorus even starts. "Buffalo"'s lovely little chintz synths can't stand up to the unstable drum burbling, which makes you think the mic was inside the kit. There's a Clams Casino feel in the way Cherry Bomb is blown out, it sounds like it was mixed in a tin bucket of mop water then resuscitated with the exposed wires from a nearby light switch. You may need to consult Genius to find great lines like "Boy I got them epic shots like jaywalking in Missouri." The whole of closer "OKAGA, CA," with its cooing vocals and lithe strings, concerns escaping all of life's bullshit by flying to the moon with a loved one, but you'd never know that from the vocal effects applied to T.C.'s voice. I get the Yeezus aesthetic at work, but Yeezus was quotable from the words "Yeezus season approaching" in the opener "On Sight." Not so with Cherry Bomb; Tyler's trying to make a noise album while being lyrical, which isn't a workable dichotomy.

Not that everything Tyler says on Cherry Bomb is something people would want to hear. He still bounces the word "f****ot* around, which is far more frustrating now because he admits "I'm going harder than coming out the closet to conservative Christian fathers." That's a funny lyric undercut by his laziness to find a different word to finish verses. The more negative among us could take a line like "laying on my trampoline, gazing at the stars, "in the aforementioned "Okaga, CA," as the sort of inward-looking platitude appearing in a C-grade Kid Cudi effort. For people who eat maple syrup on a regular basis, hearing something so positive and sweet from Tyler is satisfying.

There are great moments on Cherry Bomb that don't need any caveats. If the instrumental from the title track didn't pop up in the 2015 horror insta-classic It Follows, then I must've been plugging my ears and closing my eyes. The opening notes sound like the devil waking up from a deep slumber. The dissonance works to Tyler's favor here because his rapping is so malevolent and fractured you'd believe he's trapped in this kind of hellscape. Elsewhere "The Brown Stains of Darkeese Latifah Part 6-12" (Remix) is flat-out marvelous and should be played to future generations of music lovers interested in 2010s music. It blends PC Music helium sighs; DJ Mustard plinks, clanging Pharrell percussion and an Arca-esque sense of build. I kept hitting repeat when I first listened to the album and logged 10 listens of the song on day 1 of the LP's surprise release. Tyler talking smack while nomming on Eggos is a detail that can't get old.  

And then there's "Smuckers," Cherry Bomb's unshakeable center of gravity that features both Kanye West and Lil Wayne. Compared to "The Brown Stains..." the "We Major" Jr. song is miles better. All three rappers are in near-peak form, so picking a winner is difficult but Kanye's "Richer than white people with black kids, scarier than black people with ideas," is too good to ignore. The track’s brilliance is clear long before the horns stop blurting and Tyler fires a final missive.

I wish could say that for all of Cherry Bomb because I do find Tyler compelling as a musician. He’s willing to entertain ideas most would run scared from. He’ll f*** around and put hokey skits where they shouldn’t be. He’ll have keyboards fight for Sunlight with dark synthesizer clouds.  The dude’s has enough respect and talent to bring Kanye and Wayne together and not be shown up. He believes in himself, but Cherry Bomb proves he still isn’t sure who he is as an artist.

Friday, April 3, 2015

In Revue- 'Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress' (Godspeed You! Black Emperor)

You're face-to-face with gods within the first 20 seconds of Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, anarchistic post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor's fifth LP and their first collection of new material since their 2010 reformation. These are magisterial figures descending from a cloudy mountaintop to impart riff-heavy wisdom. Imagine Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda drowning in a tar pit or Egyptian serpent Apep constricting Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi and you're close to the divinely sludgy sound GY!BE lets loose for the first several minutes of opener "Peasantry or 'Light! Inside of Light!'" It isn't just the guitars; Aidan Girt's drums heavily stumble like Rick Ross off of 50 lagers. The bass rumbles could drown out the noise of a misfiring train engine. Few bands understand the grandeur of noise this well.

The way they dedicate a good deal of time to quietly trembling drones, instead of knee-shaking guitar solos, is arguably the most impressive (at times frustrating) thing about Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. It's still impressively orchestrated noise, but the kind that requires you to focus on nuanced ebbs and flows. "Peasantry…" hits you with two balled-up fists; fuzzy, scraping twins "Lambs Breath" and "Asunder Sweet" finger walk down the back of your neck. You can hear organs and keyboards coughing up blood because there isn't anything fighting for sonic space. There’s a particular pin-drop moment, near the coda of "Lambs Breath," when you witness post-Apocalyptic Earth once all of the detritus has been swept away. I was walking through a crowded university parking garage the first time I heard it, but I felt completely alone. The rows of cars represented those who didn't make it out. Even an eerie radiator hum is cause for celebration in this desolate world. Noise comes at premium.

Which can test your patience if you're expecting the skyward Godspeed You! Black Emperor of Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada. Nearly half of the album's 41 minute run time is given over to the aforementioned void of noise. There is the occasional Middle-Eastern violin in "Asunder, Sweet" and brain scrambling horn sound, but nothing seems to last for long. I anxiously tapped my right foot during the mid-section because it was so unsettling. We live in disconcerting times though and a "political" outfit like GY!BE understands that. Terrorist groups dominant international headlines. Co-pilots are crashing planes in the French Alps after endlessly researching suicide methods on the dank recesses of the Internet. The bad news can pile up so much that a Kenyan school massacre resulting in 147 dead is pushed aside. How the hell can you have hope when those are the headlines? If it's true that music is a reflection of that society that makes it, then we really are "trapped in the belly of this horrible machine" as “the machine is bleeding to death."

The funny thing about humanity though is that it is blessed/cursed with immutable hope. Godspeed You! Black Emperor isn’t any different. For all of the agony they and their audience endure on Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, GY!BE end with the defiant Sturm und Drang of "Piss Crowns Are Trebled." The closer lets the damns loose and hits some of the highest highs that I've ever heard from the collective. That initial earthquake of a riff comes back, but now it's empowering rather than fear mongering. Sophie Trudeau's violin here should score a person's entire life being rewound, it's that affirming. The drums stop stumbling and lock into focus. After 27 minutes of horror, we're given a reprieve. The kind that can lift you up out of the bowels of hell if you need it to. That will make the world seem brighter. Gods, saviors or superheroes don't come down from on-high when you want them to, they show up when you need them to.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

In Revue- 'To Pimp a Butterfly' (Kendrick Lamar)

I'm running out of ways to explain Kendrick Lamar's inexhaustible talents. Maybe the fallen MC Tupac Shakur really did come to him in a dream. Or Dr. Dre has vaults of unreleased 'Pac material that he hypnotized Lamar with, and Lamar goes into Decepticon mode whenever Dre says the trigger word. It's entirely possible Lamar is Dr. Evil in disguise and stole Kanye West's mojo during the Yeezus tour. What about this? Lamar had a Richard Pryor (or Peter Gibbons) like awakening after he traveled to South Africa and visited Robben Island. He may very well be the "King" from on-high he claims to be.

At this point, all of those quackish ideas make as much sense as any practical explanations. It could just be the amount of reps he's taken has brought him to this level of greatness. But if that's true, Lil B, who has about 1000 mixtapes and 1 million tracks, would be a bonafide star. Lamar is working with a mind-boggling menagerie of people from Boi-1da to Flying Lotus to Pharrell to Robert Glasper to Thundercat. But Freddie Gibbs has also had access to incredible talent and he is still relegated to indie rap darling status. Could Lamar just be making up beefs (a la Michael Jordan)? Dude would realize they're not real though right? That no one is trying to come at him. good kid, m.A.A.d. city essentially insulated him from any kind of criticism. 

I mention gkmc so "early" in a review about Lamar's new record because it's necessary. There wasn't the same kind of pre-release hype surrounding that album that there was for To Pimp a Butterfly. Part of what made gkmc so amazing was that there was an element of surprise to it. We only really had Section.80 which showed raw talent, not full potential. Other than the "surprise release"/leak, To Pimp a Butterfly wasn't catching anyone off guard. It had been speculated about and fawned over for the better part of two years. It was going to be the record following a certifiable classic. 

The most laudable thing about To Pimp a Butterfly though isn't that it manages the LeBron James like trick of meeting then exceeding expectations. To Pimp a Butterfly is blowing people's hair back because it flatly rejects what Lamar's done in the past. Instead of using the album as a shit-talking victory lap, he disappears down a rabbit hole of heady Beat poetry, angular jazz, militant hip hop and infinitely grooving P-Funk. If you want to continue the LeBron analogy, picture James getting drafted first by the Cavs in the '03 NBA Draft then going to the NHL and having a hall-of-fame career as a winger for the Columbus Blue Jackets. This is John Lennon saying bon voyage to the Beatles and making the primal therapy session that is Plastic Ono Band. That's a logical touchstone because I can only think of Lennon wailing on "Mother" when I hear Lamar crying during "u", "You the reason why mom and them leavin', no you ain't shit, you say you love them you know you don't mean it." It only gets worse when Lamar asserts that he's a failure because he let a friend die.

Yes To Pimp a Butterfly is dark and personal, but it's also tellingly relatable. Right after Lamar walks through "The valley of the shadow of death" for the skronky, piano-vibes of "u" he hops into the soulful pocket of "Alright" to guarantee "We gon' be alright." That's not schizoid behavior limited to Lamar, a lot of us make similar promises when we're feeling lost. It's human nature to think that "it gets better." Imagine how much more harrowing the pummeling "The Blacker the Berry" would be if there wasn't a lingering promise of deliverance. If you only believed the future held more police shootings and institutionalized racism, why the hell would you continue to try? Someone coming up from Compton needs to honestly believe "black don't crack." 

And with the way Lamar raps on this thing, you get the sense that he's doing his damndest to spread that tortured, but hopeful message. With an nasally, adenoidal delivery he declares haters "boo boo" on "Hood Politics", which is both proudly West Coast with its Zapp & Roger electro moans and deeply weird thanks to a Sufjan Stevens sample. He's screaming in the aforementioned "The Blacker the Berry" and hoarsely wailing for "u". For the sliding James Brown tribute "King Kunta" his delivery becomes punctuated to fit in. And considering how great he sounds saying "I was going to kill a couple rappers, but they did it to themselves," I wish he did that kind of thing more often. 

Another wonderful element of "King Kunta" is the way it logically erupts into guitar-hero pyrotechnics after three minutes of strutting. Those little flourishes are a major part of what makes To Pimp a Butterfly so compelling. Finger snaps fade in and out as saxes exhale on "These Walls". Vinyl records keep crackling and stuttering. People repeatedly sob. Fender Rhodes keys lightly dust tracks like "Momma". Synths squirm around in the FlyLo produced opener "Wesley’s Theory" as Lamar flips through Black celebrities who have been destroyed by success. That one in particular features a standout performance from the album's low-key MVP Thundercat. His bass runs wild in the background and he's the one chanting "We should never gave, we should never gave n****s money go back home." With George Clinton joining in, the song sets the entire template for the record. There's going to be a lot of low-stakes, high-reward playing from Thundercat, heavily referential Black musicology and intense dissection of what it means to be African-American in 2015. 

Only at the album's end, 12 minute closer "Mortal Man", does Lamar seem to have a stronghold on everything he's wrestling with. "The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it, its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city," he tells "special interview guest" 2Pac. "The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar. But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits..." Everything's seemingly been pegged. There's a working hypothesis to why all of this oppression is cyclical. But 'Pac is silent on that matter and Kendrick can only cry out to him. 

What Lamar has done on To Pimp a Butterfly is turn inward. We're given an artist tortured by his inability to save anyone. He wants to be like Eric Garner and say "it ends today," but he knows full well how that ends. He wants 'Pac to know that he's holding hip hop down, but 'Pac is dead. He wants to love others, but struggles to love himself. He wants to do a lot of things on this album, but one thing he doesn't want to do is repeat himself. And that's what makes him great.