Friday, December 3, 2010

Kanye West -- My Dark Twisted Fantasy

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Rating: 5/5 stars

Pros: Up there with "College Dropout" as the best album of Kanye's career.

Cons: Don't expect any apologies for his behavior and general lack of common sense.

Bottom Line: Assholes -- and douchebags -- finish first.

Recommended Tracks:

All of the Lights


My full review of the album is available at Suite 101.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Big Boi -- Sir Luscious Leftfoot: The Diary of Chico Dusty

Sir Lucious Left Foot... The Son of Chico Dusty

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Pros: Retains Outkast's brashly experimental style

Cons: Bloated guest-list can't replace star-power of Andre 3000

Bottom Line: Album shows Outkast isn't a one man-band but also why Andre has been the front-man all these years.

Recommended Tracks:

Shine Blockas

Be Still

Big Boi has been known as the other guy from Outkast for most of his career. Even a #1 single (“The Way You Move”) couldn’t get him out of Andre 3000’s considerable shadow, not with “Hey Ya” on the same double album. His new solo album “Sir Lucious Leftfoot: The Son of Chico Dusty” was stuck in label purgatory for four years, an ignominious fate for someone whose sold more than 25 million records worldwide.

But his relative anonymity has never been due to a lack of talent. His pinpoint breath control allows him to flow over almost any type of beat, something he takes full advantage of on “Sir Lucious Leftfoot.” He is as comfortable rapping over the laid-back soul sample of “Shine Blockas” (“the penmanship is so legit / I came equipped like an prophylactic”) as he is spewing syllables in rapid-fire fashion (“they got flour for tortillas and lettuce for enchiladas”) on club songs like “Shutterbug.”

There is an almost infinite variety of musical influences on the album, befitting the experimental style Outkast is known for. A top-notch production team, headlined by longtime collaborators Organized Noise, adds many musical touches, from electronic synthesizers to funk guitars, trumpets and orchestras, not often seen on a Southern rap album.

Like many rappers used to being in a group, Big Boi seems uncomfortable performing by himself. He recruited a bloated guest-list in place of Andre 3000, who was barred from appearing because of label politics. Of the album’s 15 songs, 12 have guest appearances.

The sheer number of guests and musical styles prevents Big Boi from putting his stamp on the album. On tracks like “Be Still,” a jazz-influenced ballad with Janelle Monae where he has only one verse, he feels like a guest on his own song. While Big Boi has the skills to be a star in his own right, “Sir Lucious Leftfoot” shows he might be more comfortable in the background.

Eminem -- Recovery


Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Pros: A sober Eminem takes an honest look at what drug abuse did to his career and his life.

Cons: After six albums, Eminem's mining of his personal demons feels repetitious.

Bottom Line: Eminem's skills are back, now he just needs to figure out something new to rap about.

Recommended Tracks:

Not Afraid

Love The Way You Lie

Almost as soon as MTV began playing "My Name Is", Eminem became a star. Fans and critics alike were fascinated by his contradictions -- the blue-eyed and blonde-haired white kid who look like a suburbanite yet rapped like an inner-city youth; the introspective word-smith who flew into rages of misogyny and homophobia. Everyone wanted to know more about him.

And over three wildly successful albums, het let us in. He painstakingly mined every aspect of his personal life for musical material. His life was an open book, his music a journal that all of America read. Audiences knew his wife, his mother and his daughter as well as they knew him.

But after the release of his semi-autobiographical movie “8 Mile”, Eminem faced a problem familiar to any memoir writer. He made his career by telling the story of his life, but now there was no longer any story left to tell.

So he turned to drugs for creative inspiration. The result, as he admits at the beginning of his latest album “Recovery”, was a disaster: “Hit my bottom so hard I bounced twice / Suffice this time around / The last two albums didn’t count / Encore I was on drugs / Relapse I was flushing ‘em out.”

What then would a sober Eminem rap about? “Recovery”, 17 self-loathing songs about the life of a depressed rap star, shows he still can’t look outside of himself. Fame and depression seem to have shrunk his world to the confines of his rap studio, and what at first sounds like self-reflection quickly becomes self-absorption.

The music matches the album’s dreary tone: dark beats with ominous instrumentation and far too many of his own attempts at singing. Not even a Lil’ Wayne assisted sample of Haddaway’s “What is Love” can bring much levity to the proceedings.

On “25 to Life”, he compares his relationship with rap to that of a battered spouse and fantasizes about leaving it behind: “Don’t think I’m loyal? / All I can do is rap / How can I moonlight on the side? / I have no life outside of that.” The irony is until he can find a life apart from rap, he will have distressingly little to actually rap about.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nas & Damian Marley -- Distant Relatives

Distant Relatives

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: Rapping about Africa and black unity? Right in Nas' wheelhouse.

Cons: Nothing you haven't heard before.

Bottom Line: Nas & Marley are a great musical tandem.

Recommended Tracks:

Strong Will Continue

In His Own Words

"Distant Relatives", Nas' recently released collaboration album with the reggae singer Damian Marley, sounds like the album he always wanted to make. Rather than drumming up controversy with an eye-catching title ("Hip Hop Is Dead" or "Untitled" -- originally a racial epithet), there's an outline of Africa on the cover and a nod to the shared roots of blacks worldwide. There is little effort to chase trends, with only one big-name guest (Lil' Wayne) and Marley handling the entirety of the production.

After first working together on 2005's "Road to Zion", the duo share an easy musical chemistry. Both emphasize socially conscious teams, and the slower pace of Marley's music blends well with Nas' lyrically intensive style.

On songs like "Strong Will Continue", with Nas and Marley going back and forth over slowly building drums and snares that merge into a reggae chorus, the blending of the two styles feels natural. Indeed Nas sounds more comfortable over Marley's reggae-tinged guitars than the club-influenced sound of modern rap.

He's content with who he is, someone who "survived spiritual wars, see my welts / walking through the valley of the shadow of death / New York to Cali for money, power and respect." On one level the album is a celebration of survival in the music industry without sacrificing artistic credibility, as Nas pats himself on the back for "having more value cuz I rapped about more than just a gun."

There's nothing too groundbreaking about what they are saying -- the economic injustice of modern society and the necessity of overcoming negative cultural messages. But as they outline on the gospel influenced "Count Your Blessings", both are happy to be be able to say it at all.

Friday, May 7, 2010

B.o.B -- The Adventures of Bobby Ray

B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray [Explicit]

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: Sounds like a mix of Andre 3000, Kid Cudi and T.I.

Cons: B.o.B is still figuring out what he wants to say.

Bottom Line: A promising debut album from a young rapper with unlimited potential.

Recommended Tracks:

Airplanes, Part II

The Kids

Most rappers' first albums revolve around their lives before music. They usually don't become disillusioned with the fame until albums two or three. The Adventures of Bobby Ray accelerates this process; it's the debut of a 21-year old rapper who somehow already sounds jaded and world-weary.

An Atlanta rapper named for the Outkast single "Bombs over Baghdad", he was signed to a record label soon after finishing high school at age 17. He made a name for himself on the mix-tape circuit and landed a cover of XXL, but remained in label purgatory for years. This despite frequent comparisons to Andre 3000, with whom he shares a similar eclectic musical taste and the ability to carry a tune.

But, as he laments, it takes more than talent to succeed: "Somebody take me back to the days / Back when I was rapping for the hell of it / Can I get a wish to end the politics / and get back to the music that started this." While the existential angst of stardom is hardly a new topic for musicians, it's rather rare for a musician not yet a star.

The Adventures of Bobby Ray, with the #1 single "Nothing on You", could change that. It's similar to Andre 3000's The Love Below, with B.o.B going back forth smoothly between singing and rapping over a diverse array of instruments, from guitars to pianos and synthesizers. He has both a natural ear for melodies and the ability to rap with big-name guests like Lupe Fiasco ("Past My Shades"), Eminem ("Airplanes, Part II") and label boss T.I. ("Bet I").

Throughout, he showcases a layer of introspection and self-doubt unusual for a rapper. He pleads on the intro "that what comes up must come down/ so don't let me fall." On "Airplanes", he compares airplanes to shooting stars and wishes upon them that "everyone know my name / and everywhere I go people want to hear me sing / And I just dropped my new album / on my first week did 500,000."

In this climate, no rapper is guaranteed even a second album anymore, not even someone as talented as B.o.B.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Usher -- Raymond v. Raymond

Raymond v. Raymond

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Pros: An interesting take on how celebrity affects relationships in the 21rst century.

Cons: Usher not exactly breaking any new ground musically.

Recommended Tracks:

I'm Guilty (ft. T.I.)

Making Love

Just as Usher is releasing his sixth album, America has become fascinated with the train-wreck quality of celebrity divorces. It’s fortuitous timing, because there may be no one more qualified to comment on the marital woes of Tiger Woods and Sandra Bullock than the R&B lothario slowly creeping into his 30’s.

The success of his biggest album (2004’s “Confessions”) in part stemmed from the pulled-from-the-headlines quality of some of his biggest songs, which revolved around him cheating on TLC singer Chili. In the years since, Usher has begun to see the downside of giving the world a bird’s eye view to his personal life.

As in “Confessions”, most of “Raymond v. Raymond” revolves around a failed relationship, this time a short-lived marriage with his hair-dresser. Once again, he has a confessional song over dark pianos about his infidelity (“Foolin Around”). And while he still acknowledges his culpability (“I guess it’s just the man in me / blame it on the celebrity / But it’s really just my fears / And it don’t try your tears”), he is far less self-critical than he was six years ago.

Instead he resigns himself to the inevitability of his actions, throwing his hands up at the very idea of fidelity: “I guess I’m guilty for wanting to be in the club / I guess I’m guilty because girls always want to show me love / I guess I’m guilty for living and having a little fun.”

And maybe in the world before TMZ, the look-the-other-way model of marital relations Usher proposes was feasible. Or as T.I. put it more bluntly on “I’m Guilty”, he has an “alibi” for cheating on his girl: the nice things he buys her. But the celebrity-obsessed tabloid environment makes it nearly impossible for Usher’s new bride to ignore his actions.

The combination of a singer single-mindedly focused on sex (the main thrust of every song and seemingly the only thing he looks for in women), the numbers of readily available women “who like [messing around] with a star” and marital commitment looks doomed to fail. So why, as an ESPN reporter asked Tiger Woods, get married in the first place? It’s a question that Usher, singing about being “ready to sign them [divorce] papers”, can’t answer.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Ludacris -- Battle of the Sexes

Battle Of The Sexes

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: "Battle of the Sexes" is a return to Ludacris' strengths as a party and club rapper.

Cons: Nothing he hasn't done before.

Bottom Line: Ludacris makes an album sure to get heavy spins in the club.

Recommended Tracks:

Everybody Drunk

I Know You Got A Man

Ludacris' new album Battle of the Sexes was supposed to be a duet album between him and Shawnna, a female rapper signed to his DTP label. So when Shawnna left the label last year in a contract dispute, Ludacris expanded the idea to collaborating with female rappers in general, with the idea to showcase a feminine perspective severely lacking in modern rap.

But while collaborations like "Hey Ho" talk about sexual double standards and "BOTS Radio" give relationship advice, the vast majority of this supposedly forward-thinking concept album is actually a return to Ludacris' roots. Hip-hop's premier jester tried to inject gravitas into his last few albums, dabbling in social consciousness and self-consciously trying to thrust himself into the conversation of 'great' rappers. He was Jim Carrey in "Truman Show" and "The Majestic".

Battle of the Sexes makes no such pretenses of artistic depth. It's an album revolving around partying, clubbing and sex. Over screwed and chopped samples and pulsing beats, Ludacris sweet-talks women ("I Know You Got A Man"), parties all night ("Party No Mo'", "I Do It All Night") and brings them back to his room ("Sex Room"). His tongue is planted firmly in cheek throughout: "Get your money right ladies, write your own checks / But don't call me after midnight unless we're having sex."

Free from trying to impress anybody or being something he is not, Ludacris is having the most fun he's had in a long time. His hit single "How Low" is designed for booty-shaking contests at a night-club. On "Sexting", he busts out a Tiger Woods impression and raps in text message abbreviations: "haha, omg, lol / kit, smiley faces, x and o's / l-m-f-a-o." And because Ludacris' style often works better over one verse than a whole song anyway, "Battle of the Sexes" still gives a good platform for female rappers both old (Lil' Kim, Eve) and young (Nikki Minaj, Diamond from Crime Mobb).

Returning to the same role he had played before on "Yes Man" didn't give Jim Carrey an Oscar, but the movie was one of the biggest hits of 2008. Similarly, an album like Battle of the Sexes won't win a Grammy, but judging from the popularity of its singles, especially in comparison to those of Theatre of the Mind, it is what the people want from Ludacris.