Posted in Essential Albums, Hip Hop Reviews, Masterpiece, Music Reviews

Madvillian – Madvilliany – Review



Yup. Still don’t understand hip-hop.

Thankfully, I can at least have fun not understanding it, and Madvilliany is nothing if not several barges of fun. It’s got a bit of a sinister stigma, what with the title and the cover and the mystique that surrounds it (being the only collaboration between Madlib and DOOM), but the overall effect is so joyfully goofy and chaotic that it might fittingly be called the hip-hop version of Trout Mask Replica. That’s coming from someone who has no frame of reference in hip-hop, by the way, so you should probably take it with as many grains of salt as you can shake out of that horrible shaker with the sticky holes where you always have to yank it around for ten minutes to get any reasonable amount of seasoning and everyone in the entire restaurant knows about it but has never bothered to replace it even though you’re pretty sure they can spare the…sorry, what’s this blog about? Oh right, music.

Madvilliany is the most well-known example of abstract hip hop, which from what I can tell is da HOOD version of psychedelia. Basically everything about it is, if not original, at least unconventional. It features twenty-two songs, only a few of which exceed three minutes. These songs largely throw out the verse-hook-verse structure altogether, instead focusing on making one or two nonstop stream-of-consciousness flows. The writing is extremely effective, contrasting surreal nonsense with sharp observations and DOOM’s low, gravelly, threatening flow. He plays the part of the cartoony supervillain but with a dusting of dirty hip-hop stuff very well, and his central presence alone is enough to make the album an incredibly fun listen.

Let’s not forget about Madlib! His production is entertaining, disjointed, sporadic, and incredibly memorable in its deliberate chaos. Little touches like both sound channels being activated on the word “stereo” or the completely out of place intro to “Meat Grinder” add to the album’s insane, comical character. His high-pitched alter ego Quasimodo doesn’t deliver many verses, but they’re all highlights.

As for favorites, the highlight for me is “Shadows of Tomorrow”, one of those universal time deconstructions that it’s probably best not to think about too hard. The hypnotically jarring production makes for an almost out-of-body listening experience when combined with the vocals and lyrics. That’s the first song in an unstoppable trilogy near the end. “Operation Lifesaver aka Mint Test” is absolutely hilarious and “Figaro” features some of the most fun rhymes on the album.

Generally, every song is at least good. Sorry that this review is extremely short and light on details, but this ain’t an easy album to describe. It really is best summed up by “if you haven’t listened to this you should do that”, and that’s pretty much it.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Diversity: 4/5

Resonance: 4/5

Experience: Pretty much what would happen if a rapper happened to be a supervillain. Good thing he has a sense of humor, or else he’d actually be dangerous.

10/10. Best Song: Shadows of Tomorrow

Posted in Cosmic Masterpiece, Hip Hop Reviews, Music Reviews

Nas – Illmatic – Review



I always say I have a hard time getting into hip-hop because I don’t find its common strokes of gangsters, deep urban life, sex, drugs, and general grittiness to be that interesting. I was pleasantly surprised by the incredibly unique takes on the genre found on Enter The Wu Tang (36-Chambers) and The Low End Theory, but they didn’t blow my mind. So, what would be the hip-hop album that WOULD blow my mind? One about gangsters, deep urban life, sex, drugs, and general grittiness.

I really don’t understand hip-hop at all.

So yeah, Illmatic is pretty much amazing, for one major reason: I find it really satisfying emotionally. It’s not even because I can relate to it (I’m one of the whitest people I know and grew up in a very rual area), but because Nas is such an incredibly engaging storyteller. His voice and flow are reminiscent of someone casually chatting your ear off, spicing his rants with vivid imagery, a sharp vocabulary, and starkly human honesty. “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)” is so colorful that it sweeps me away every time I listen to it. “Life’s a B—-” features an amazing defeatist guest verse from AZ before Nas rounds it out with a hint of hope by maturing his life philosophy. “One Love” is a series of letters to friends in prison, balancing some genuinely good encouragement and advice with horrific details of prison life.

Wow, I just started listing off highlights without even talking about the beats. They’re excellent, featuring some of the most hard-hitting atmosphere I’ve ever heard come out of a studio. The samples, piano, occasional sound effects, and thick echoing envelop the listener in a brutal New York city where the only way to survive is to NOT behave like a stereotypical rapper.

The best part of the album is how tight it is. Clocking in at a little under forty minutes with only ten tracks (one of which is a short intro), the album never loses momentum. I limited myself when talking about highlights earlier, because every song is a highlight. I didn’t even touch some of the more immortal, famous classics like “N.Y. State of Mind” or “Represent”, but rest assured they’re powerful anthemic statements. Ahhh, dangit, every song is great! Why do most hip-hop albums have to pad their length with unnecessary guest verses, skits, or singles that feel more chorus than verse? GAAAH THIS ALBUM IS FANTASTIC.

I’m sorry for the extremely short, scattershot review, but I’d really rather not write right now. I’d rather listen to Illmatic. In the bathtub or something. If you’ve had a wee bit prior experience with hip-hop and don’t mind vulgarity, I see no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy this.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Diversity: 5/5

Resonance: 5/5

Experience: Walking around New York with your chatty ex-con friend.

10+/10. Best Song: I have no idea.

Posted in Essential Albums, Hip Hop Reviews, Music Reviews

A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory – Review



Here’s a moderately abridged list of things I don’t understand:

  1. Jazz
  2. Hip Hop

Somewhere someone had the brilliant idea to combine them. Yay.

Actually, I take back that sarcasm. Jazz rap is a pretty brilliant idea. Jazz is known for being subdued, mellow, and classy. Hip-hop is known for being frantic, angry, and dirty. The most interesting subgenres are ones that seem self-defeating, because they force you to examine the core of each genre in order to make them cooperate.

Incidentally, is jazz metal a thing? That should be a thing. I would listen the crap out of that.

Anyway, The Low End Theory doesn’t capitalize on the potentially complex combination of jazz and rap, opting to simply have jazz-flavored beats. At first this disappointed me, but as I became familiar with this album and its philosophy, I think it actually works very well. The jazz elements and samples are used to give the album a cool, level-headed, laid-back tone. It sounds so fresh and unique among hip-hop that I would probably believe you if you told me it was recorded yesterday instead of 1991. The beats are memorable, hooky, and offer a good compromise between the silky flow of jazz and the throbbing rhythm of a hip-hop track. This is made even better by the introduction of influences and samples from similar genres like funk and soul, giving the mostly smooth pacing of the album a few nifty sonic grooves.

This is aided by the two MCs, Q Tip and Phife Dawg. I can understand not liking them, since their voices are not as rough or commanding as rappers’ voices tend to be, but that adds to the balance of gritty and silky at the heart of the album’s aesthetic. Q Tip is subdued, cunning, and a lot more arrogant then he wants to admit. One of the most tiresome motifs in hip-hop is the rapper who won’t shut up about how great he is, but Q Tip’s self-awareness gives him an interesting and entertaining presence.

As for Phife Dawg, he breaks down the arrogance of hip hop even better. A casual listen to the song “Butter”, for example, will probably leave you with the impression that it’s yet another “I’m such a player and have so much sex” ramble. Actually paying attention reveals that it IS about a player who has a lot of sex…and he gets his ego completely broken by a single rejection. Then he gets all whiny as he attempts to recompose himself. It’s much more interesting than your typical take on the subject. It was a good decision to give this to a goofy, non-serious ham like Phife.

The album has a number of reoccurring themes: how terrible the music industry is (expertly thrashed on “Rap Promoter”), and how overly negative hip hop music is. The overall message of uniting to overcome societal prejudices gives some of the verses a surprisingly inspiring feel. References to old music and other pop culture add another layer of positive humor. When it does get negative, it’s generally over social issues. The most famous example is “The Infamous Date Rape”, which basically tells the dominant-macho side of hip-hop to sit down and reconsider whether or not non-consensuality is a good thing. Yeah. This type of common sense is severally lacking in rap. The verses get a bit muddled (a common problem on this album, since the satire is sometimes hard to distinguish from the sincerity), but it’s a good song nonetheless, joining the for-some-reason-existent subgenre of anti-rape songs with confusing titles (we can thank Nirvana’s “Rape Me” for that one).

The highlight to end all highlights is, of course, the classic “Scenario”, a rousing finale for a very low-key album. Q Tip and Phife pull out album-best verses to compliment the infectious hook and energetic beat, but the best part is Butsa Rhyme’s endlessly fun guest bars. Other great tracks include the super-goofy “Buggin’ Out”, the lover letter to jazz in the aptly titled “Jazz (We’ve Got)”, and “What?”, which has possibly my favorite set of lyrics on the album, making the best possible use of a very simple concept.

Aside from a few unnecessary ambiguities that muddle the pool a bit, this is a fantastic effort of an album, elevated by two compelling MCs delivering quirky and enjoyable lyrics to incredible and unique beats. This album’s popularity transcends the hip-hop community, and it’s easy to see why.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 4/5

Lyricism: 4/5

Diversity: 4/5

Resonance: 4/5

Experience: Writing half-drunk poetry with Miles Davis on shuffle, snuggled up in a decidedly unthreatening blanket. It takes the mind places, man.

9/10. Best Song: Scenario

Posted in Essential Albums, Hip Hop Reviews, Music Reviews

Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Review



So I really don’t understand hip-hop at all.


Now that my credentials are out of the way, let’s talk about Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). My very scant knowledge of hip-hop history informs me that this album was part of an East Coast movement, particularly in New York, where the genre was reinventing itself as gritty and dangerous. Social commentary, graphic lyrics, aggressive flows, that kinda thing.

Now obviously I’m not one to be able to speak about the company that this album shares, but if it’s contemporaries are anything like I’ve heard/guessed at, this is actually a pretty poor representation of what this movement was going for. It seems to fit the bill at first glance, what with its in-your-face attitude, but what surprised me was how…well, cartoony the energy is. Everything is super over-the-top, from the flows to the lyrics to the beats, all to construct various chambers of rap battle combat. The nine MCs (NINE) in the group do all kinds of nifty lyrical acrobatics to the effect of swinging a rap-shaped sword around like a maniac. It’s basically Kill Bill: The Hip-Hop Musical.

Awesome! I hate it when hip-hop takes itself too seriously, whether failing to communicate a social message or trying to make me jealous of a position. 36 Chamber’s unique character, complete with dialogue and music sampled from old kung-fu movies, grabbed me instantly, even as a non-rap fan. The album is bursting with manic energy and some surprisingly effective grooves, making it nigh-impossible to stand still while listening to it.

Going back to character for a second here. I would be lying if I said all nine of the MCs struck me as vibrant forces of personality the way everyone says they are. But I’m also not used to analyising hip-hop, so you should probably take that with a grain of salt. That all being said, the variety of vocal styles is a lot of fun, and a couple of the members definitely stood out to me. Ghostface Killah, aside from his hilarious name, brings a lot of super-infectious cockiness and spontaneity that fits in with the battle aesthetic perfectly. Method Man, inversely, seems super cool and chill about the whole thing (at least compared to everyone else), which lends him a strong presence. ODB (whose name I can’t take beyond acronym because I like to keep this blog clean) is absolutely hilarious, not just in his overly immature lyrics but in his intentionally slurred, off-key flow. GZA is probably my favorite, simply because of how ninja-like he comes off. Whenever a piece of wordplay or insane insult stood out to me, it was usually by him. His alliteration is also extremely entertaining.

The beats are more or less in the same camp: expertly rhythmic, usually catchy, simple and vibrant.  The Asian flavor tossed around is especially nice and adds another layer to the bonkers mood. The one on “C.R.E.A.M.” goes so far as to be pretty, with a great piano sample upholding some intelligent lyrics.

This thing can even be affecting if it wants too! The embarrassingly titled “Tearz” opens goofily enough, with an over-the-top skit and intentionally out-of-place sample, but then turns to a pair of stories about losing close friends to muggers and AIDS.

Other highlights? My favorite is “Protect Ya Neck”, in which a rapidly rotating set of MCs viciously verbally eviscerate whatever group is ticking them off at the moment. Aside from the great delivery and intimidating beat, the string of Carlin-worthy rants are just incredibly entertaining. “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” is filled with fun insults as usual, but it’s all overshadowed by the first verse by U-God. I wasn’t surprised to learn this is one of the most famous verses in hip-hop. In a mere 8 bars, U-God squeezes in more complex rhyming, insane bragging, and cool wordplay then most hip-hop stations play in a week.

So generally this is a great album, maybe brought down a bit by some skits that go on for a little too long. But dangit, as much as I love the idea of Kill Bill: The Hip-Hop Musical, I just can’t get that excited about listening to this all at once. It’s hard to explain, but imagine watching a movie that consisted of nothing but action scenes. Wouldn’t that get your fist-pumping down a bit by the end? I think this is why I like “Tearz” so much, since it offers a refreshing break from all the arrogant verbal fencing. Otherwise, it’s just too much energy all at once for me, and it doesn’t help that it goes slightly over the typical 45-minute LP length. As such, I cannot give this album a perfect or transcendent score (10 and 10+, if you’re new to how we do stuff here).  Nevertheless, if you like hip-hop at all, I don’t see why you shouldn’t check this out. It’s certainly a boatload of fun while it lasts. Maybe even a chamberful.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 4/5 Not all of the lines land, but it’s very consistent throughout.

Diversity: 3/5

Resonance: 4/5 One point off for overstaying its welcome.

Experience: I think I already used the “movie with only action scenes” and “verbal fencing” lines. Uhh…what else is this album like? A presidential election?

9/10. Best Song: Protect Ya Neck