Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Double review: "Yeezus" by Kanye West and "Magna Carta ... Holy Grail" by Jay-Z

Kanye West and Jay-z? Who are they? What are they? If you don’t know who either musician is y̶o̶u̶ ̶d̶e̶s̶e̶r̶v̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶b̶e̶ ̶e̶u̶t̶h̶a̶n̶i̶s̶e̶d̶ , don’t worry, because I’m about to kindly educate you on the matter!

Widely regarded as hip hop icons, Kanye West and Jay-Z are two American rappers who have both achieved mainstream popularity and critical acclaim, particularly within the last decade. Despite being very different people, the pair pretty much share identical lives and personalities. They’re both attention whores when it comes to the media and they both think they’re Mother Teresa when it comes to philanthropy. Both men are married to glamorous megababe superstars (Kim Kardashian and Beyonce) and both have baby daughters with stupid names (North West and Ivy Blue Carter).

Coincidentally, both artists released new albums this year within almost a week of one another. The two records have been out a good few months now and I’ve had a lot of time to listen closely to them both and formulate a solid opinion. My overall feelings towards each album are similar and so I thought it would be a cool, interesting idea to do a double album review, comparing and contrasting them both. Call it an essay if you will. An essay with lots of gratuitous pretty pictures.

First and foremost, I’d like to admit that I’ve never really been an avid fan of either Kanye or Jay-z in the past for reasons I’ll describe later. The only reason I gave these albums a gander was because I’m a sucker for hype.

Kanye only warned his fans that he was dropping his new album, Yeezus, a month before the release date, posting on twitter “June Eighteen”. The album leaked four days before its official release date causing an internet media frenzy. Critics were all giving it rave reviews. I felt compelled to listen to it.

 Jay-z meanwhile released a promotional trailer for his new album, Magna Carta… Holy Grail, which can be viewed below.

That Santa-Claus-looking dude is Rick Rubin, a record producer who had nothing to do with this album whatsoever as far as I’m aware. Why the hell is he in the trailer? And what’s all that Samsung endorsement crap? Whilst there are many things I detested about this trailer, I could not help but grow excited at the fresh sound of the beats. In fact, I was so excited I downloaded the album pretty much the hour it was released.

Optimism has its downfalls. I gave both these albums a try, despite previously never caring for either artist, and got myself all worked up like a kid at Christmas. I should have treated this album like the new Snoop Lion album, an inevitable disappointment. Instead, I dived into these records, expecting to find a pony at the bottom of my stocking, only to be greeted by a grubby lump of coal.

The problem with these albums has nothing to do with the beats. The beats are bloody PHENOMENAL! Some of the best producers in the biz were employed to work on these albums and it shows. Yeezus is impressively raw, composed of deliberately choppy sampling and thunderous bass that gets the bowels moving. It’s Death Grips’ experimental sound made slightly more accessible. Jay-z meanwhile uses an eclectic mix of instrumentals, incorporating influences of latin music, piano ballad and synths. Trap-heavy track, “Tom Ford”, has one of the greatest beats I’ve ever experienced. It makes me want to buy a Cadillac and ride through the suburbs with the windows down. It makes me want to grind the nearest object. It makes me want to twerk. It makes me want to do things white males should never do. Words cannot describe how great this beat is. Eughaeghgeahu98u8u9!!! Not even gobbledegook suffices.

Sadly, the problem lies beyond the beats. The problem with this album is the actual rapping itself. Kanye and Jay-z open their mouths and kill each track. I mean that in a bad way.

For me the major issue is to do with their inflection: the way they hit notes as they rap. There’s something that bugs me about both rapper's tones. When Kanye says “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” on the track “New Slaves” there’s something almost gratingly whiny about it - the way he holds the end of the word “swalloweeeeeeeer”.

Then there’s the lyrics. Let’s return to that little track, Tom Ford, by Jay-z. The perfect beat is shat upon with some of the most absurd lyrics ever devised in hip hop. The whole song is about a fashion designer, Tom Ford. He designs expensive suits. I don’t care if the subject matter is tongue-in-cheek, its stupid. “I don't pop Molly, I rock tom ford”. I don't take ecstasy, I wear expensive suits. Its utter nonsense.

Kanye is no better. In the track “I am a God” (I’ll discuss that title in a moment) he spits “In a French-ass restaurant/hurry up with my damn croissants”, a line that seems to pop out of nowhere, sharing no association with the rest of the track's subject matter.

 What's a "french-ass restaurant"? french-ass???

Croissants aren’t even something that get served in restaurants. They’re breakfast food - café fodder. You go to a French restaurant to eat boeuf bourguignon and steak tartare. Perhaps I’m getting a little over-analytical here.

For the most part, I find myself laughing at the lyrics and I’m not sure comedy was the intention.

On top of the pure nonsense is an unhealthy dose of braggadocio, rodomontade - whatever fancy word you want to label it with. I call it being a dick. Kanye West’s cockiness reaches an all-time high on the track “I am a God”. Here he pretends to pretend to be arrogant. Kanye is known for being way too big-headed, and making a song called “I am a God” doesn’t come across as an ironic gesture to me, but instead a confirmation that he really is a self-absorbed dick. Jay-z has clearly tried to tone things down but, at the end of the day, he's still rapping about how big his wallet is. On “Picasso Baby” he talks about how he collects famous artwork without truly having an appreciation for it. Am I supposed to feel sad about that? It just leaves me feeling somewhat angry.

Talking of artwork, I’d like to quickly note that the album artwork on both albums is atrocious. It looks like Kanye was trying to outdo the White album in terms of minimalism. The crossed out font on Magna Carta… Holy Grail is equally pretentious.

Anyway, I don’t wish any readers to slip into a coma, so I’ll wrap this review up, because its getting rather wordy. Overall, I think the beats rule. Sadly, everything else kind of sucks.

 I feel Kanye and Jay-z have both taken a different direction on these albums, and I respect them for trying. However, it will take a change in the rappers' styles and lyrical focus to truly convert me over. I can’t see Kanye or Jay-z ever changing their style just to fit my needs, especially when there are a sea of hova and yeezy fans who already adore the artists for who they are. 

Magna Carta ... Holy Grail


Friday, 20 September 2013

Review of "Run the Jewels" by Run the Jewels

Run the Jewels is a musical duo, consisting of two members as is the case with most duos.  Its two members are Michael Myers the killer and 70s prog rock band, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP). They play a brand of music called “hop hip”. It involves lots of “wrapping” and “beats” and I'm going to give this album zero stars…

JUST KIDDING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1!!!1111

Run the Jewels is a brand new hip hop duo consisting of Killer Mike and El-P, two rappers who each brought out fantastic albums last year. There's been some really interesting, experimental, forward-thinking hip hop coming out in the last year or two: acts like Kid Cudi, Death Grips, Chance the Rapper, Odd Future, Billy Woods and Kendrick Lamar. I could go on name-dropping but I won’t bore you with my vast musical knowledge. It would be arrogant of me and arrogance really isn't my thing (In fact, I'm so damn modest that I impress myself sometimes. GOD, WHY AM I SO MODEST???).

Anyhow, the point is that hip hop has definitely been receiving a boom in quality recently. Instrumentation seems to be getting more adventurous, lyrical content seems to be getting more varied and rappers seem to evolving their own styles as opposed to mimicking their idols. Personally, no hip hop album so far in the last two years has struck me as flawless. Until now.

Killer Mike and EL-P it seems have made a record that pushes my every button. The flows are tight as a drum. The lyrics are gritty but devoid of excessive shock value, witty but not too serious, occasionally deep but not preachy. The beats meanwhile take influence from trap music - the masterful work of EL-P: simplistic, hard-hitting, sample-free and perfectly polished.

 I cannot get enough of this album. Buy this record. DO IT NOW! 


Review of "Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action" by Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand was a famous Archduke of Austria-Hungary whose assassination on the 28th June 1914 prompted the beginning of the First World War.

Franz Ferdinand is also an indie rock band from Glasgow, which is the one we'll be focusing on in this review.

Right thoughts, Right words, Right action is a fun, bubbly, new-wave inspired album, similar, I feel, in many ways to the latest Strokes record, "Comedown Machine" (Link to review here). It’s got groove. It’s got energy. It makes me want to dance around the kitchen.

It’s everything I expected from Franz Ferdinand and in many ways that's this album's biggest flaw: It lacks the precious element of surprise. None of the tracks particularly jump out because there are no unexpected moments. What this album needs is a sudden tempo change, a cowbell solo, an ode to Blu Tac, a chorus sung backwards, a death metal breakdown, an audio sample of two turtles mating - anything to throw the listener off guard.

An enjoyable album, I feel, but a predictable one. 


Review of "Trap Lord" by A$AP Ferg

If you're a coke-dealing New York gangster, this is the album for you.

 Trap Lord, as the name suggests, takes a lot of influence from 'Trap music', a relatively new genre that has seen a boom in popularity in the last year, instrumentally characterised by heavy bass drums beats and fast twiddly hi-hats, a famous example being Baauer’s 'Harlem Shake' (love it or hate it).

The lyrics on this album meanwhile take a lot of influence from trap culture, a trap being a term for a ghetto ruled by drug lords. A$AP Ferg - rapper and member of the hip hop collective, A$AP Mob – plays the character of a drug-dealing kingpin. Subject matter consists mainly of how much money and bitches he has, the length of his gold chain and the length of his dick.

Personally, I have the same problem with this album I had with Jay-z's “Magna Carta … Holy Grail” and Kanye West's “Yeezus”. I dig the beats, but I can’t stand the rapping itself – and no, I'm not some old man who think all rap is crap with a silent c. This just isn't my lyrical cup of tea. I thought hip hop was past the braggadocio and genitalia-size boasting. I understand that Ferg may have been aiming for a tongue-in-cheek image but I feel he could have dealt with it in a more lyrically diverse way with more varied imagery than just dicks, chains and hoes..


Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Review of "The Electric Lady" by Janelle Monae

It’s impossible to classify this album under a neat, little genre. The majority of the songs borrow from some form of r&b whether it be 60s baroque pop, 70s Stevie-Wonder style motown or 80s funk. However, interwoven in between are orchestral suites, rapped verses and epic guitar solos. In fact, it’s difficult to think of a genre that doesn’t feature somewhere on this record.

On her second album, underground female singer, Janelle Monae plays the character of a futuristic android trying to free the universe from close-mindedness. Apparently, the album has a plot but I didn’t really follow it to be quite honest. I don’t think Janelle takes herself at all seriously as demonstrated by the comical robot radio station skits peppered throughout the album. However, several of her verses can carry a poignant social message. The fun, light-hearted tone stops them from coming across as too preachy.

The most impressive thing about this album is Janelle’s vocal diversity. She seems to be able to mimic multiple artists from little MJ’s vocal tone as he sounded in the Jackson 5 to the classy, smooth cadence of Dusty Springfield. The sheer amount of talent this girl has leads me to believe that the robot persona isn’t actually an act. No human being should be able to deliver such a vocal range.

Having never heard material by Janelle Monae before and having expected a rather plain pop album, I was blown away by this release. There’s very little I can criticise on this LP other than the confusing storyline. It’s fast-paced, creative and very fun. I suppose it could be argued that there’s too much retro on this album to keep it current. Then again, I’d argue the old r&b is far superior to the new. Besides, retro seems to be in fashion in these days. You only have to look at Daft Punk’s disco vibe, Robin Thicke’s neo-funk and Disclosure's old-skool house style to realise that. 


Sunday, 1 September 2013

Review of "Walk Through Exits Only" by Phil Anselmo & the Illegals

Phil Anselmo undoubtedly has the perfect heavy metal voice. Its mercilessly aggressive – the sound of flowing testosterone and swirling red mist.

This new project of Phil's sees him really showing off his range, alternating between high screams, low growls and hardcore shouting. Since his departure from the mighty Pantera, Phil has pretty much done whatever he feels like, working on a variety of side projects and bands. This new creation of his is a concoction of various heavy metal genres – the aim of the game to be as extreme as possible.

Now, I'm no wimp when it comes to metal, but sadly this album was beyond my threshold. It's not a question of being too heavy or too brutal. Take the album Abandon All Life by Nails as a point of comparison.

This album, Abandon All life, is about as hard-hitting as an atom bomb. The difference between this album and Walk Through Exits Only however comes down to length and groove. Whilst Abandon All Life is only 17 minutes in length, Walk Through Exits Only pummels the listener for over 40 minutes and yet feels longer. Whilst Abandon All Life offers satisfying moments of headbangability, Walk Through Exits Only is a mass of dissonant riffs and odd time signatures that barely seem to connect. There is little or no room on the album to simply rock out.

All in all, it's just a bit too dissonant for me. I adore Phil's voice and the murky production over the top is fantastic. Although I can see myself returning to individual songs from the album (the song featured below is one of my favourites), the entire record is too much for me to handle in one listen.