Album review-Drive by Shane Reis & Clarkwork

Album review-Drive by Shane Reis & Clarkwork

by Dan-O

Every time I map a limitation onto Shane Reis he bursts through it. In Maine, the hip hop scene is full of people who are what they are and will be what they are, going forward. You can pick up their new album and if you liked what they did before you’ll recognize all the pieces still there. Shane is the one changing most rapidly. 2013 Shane (from my perspective) was a glue guy; the kind of player who comes off the bench with a ton of energy and grabs every rebound with his whole soul. That effort and energy brings out the best in everyone on the court and the game gets better. On the feature heavy Reis & Shine he approaches every beat with confidence and passion.  2015 Shane was starting to snarl and expand his perspective. He said “Don’t associate me with these schmoes they ain’t me(Here).” He meant it.  On the collaboration project with Essence (now under her name: Sarah Violette) they sought out Rhode Island producer Clark Work and sent a message. The beats everyone is handing around aren’t good enough.

The Clark Work/ Shane Reis 2017 collaboration Drive marks a huge step forward in the relationship between these two forces. Clarkwork drives me crazy. He really enjoys experimenting with sounds and at times in his beats everything drops out for a second, pausing your vicious head nod, and then it resumes full force. He creates a rhythm out of jerky stops and starts and never lets you just lull into a trance. Weird pays off because a lot of Maine hip hop production bends backwards to pay tribute to the foundational sounds: Jazzy like Premo or Pete Rock, reminiscent of Black Moon boom bap but Drive is happening now.

1000 MPH is perfect Clarkwork as central sounds twist jerk, stop, repeat and create a melody for themselves. Shane flexes his mission statement of bullish determination to succeed. The same work ethic that pushed him this far can see the growth and is now pushing that much harder. On HadAboutEnuff Reis tightens and loosens his flow with captivating dexterity over a lean simple nasty beat from Clarkwork.

The title track is absolute magic. Clarkwork starts it with weird background chanting and waits twenty eight seconds to drop the beat with Shane attaching the hook to its introduction. Shane is affiliated with everyone important in the local hip hop scene but loosely. His flow fits anywhere at this point and the weirder Clarkwork gets the more locked in Shane is. He demolishes every second he speaks on Drive.  His confidence and will power compliment the delicate lyrical balancing Sarah Violette does extraordinarily well on SMH and No More. On No More especially their voices join for a chorus that will stick directly in your head.

As undeniably dope as the title track is my favorite song is IDKWhatLoveIs. I’ve heard it a thousand times already and keep pressing play. I keep hearing sonic elements happening behind the piano, as if every Clarkwork beat is Narnia or Wonderland and you can just keep traveling into it and finding more madness. Shane is not a singer but somehow he makes the crooning work like he makes everything he does work. His written perspective on the song is a balance of confessional and appreciative. He readily serves up examples of not really being good at relationships, wondering if he is worth the trouble for his partner, at the same time being hopeful he can figure it out and thankful for the life he has.

Maine as musical scene is full of frustration and negative energy. Even the most successful entities wonder about the consistency of the audience, what they support and why….but Shane seems to turn all hostility into fuel. In rooms full of hopeless artists Shane can see the next steps and works tirelessly to achieve artistic goals in his music no one predicted but him. Drive isn’t a local album at all. It can sit next to any national release. Eight examples of the different directions these two are capable of together. How fitting that the last song is called NeverEndingGreenLight.

You can hear Drive on Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify or any other streaming service or you can buy it like I did.

#BandcampGold-All The Beauty in This Whole Life by Brother Ali

#BandcampGold-All The Beauty in This Whole Life by Brother Ali

by Dan-O

The first Brother Ali album in five years is a lot to digest. It is the reunion of one of hip hop’s greatest partnerships. The underground forced Ali to record with Jake One because Jake brought out a different Ali in collaborations. Fans wanted a change but I didn’t. I love Jake One but the bond that Rhymesayers producer Ant and Ali have goes so much deeper than on-paper skills. They lived near each other and Ali would walk to his house where they collaborated on projects that literally changed and formed post 2k underground hip hop. You could feel the friendship as an intangible in the music. That chemistry is something that needs to be celebrated.

Ali being one of the wisest scholars of hip hop knows the importance of destroying the first track. Pen To Paper is only two minutes and thirty eight seconds but he goes back to battle rap mode and erupts triumphant bars over Ant’s horn and bass backdrop. This album is not for bangers, however. One of the takeaways from All The Beauty in This Whole Life is that hip hop needs more (less insulting) subgenres. No one should listen to the tragic and intelligent dissection of racism and police violence perpetrated on the black community (Dear Black Son) and have to compare it to Bad and Boujee. Nothing against Migos, Culture is a monster album. These are just musicians accomplishing different things. Ali’s pen presses so deeply that a one listen cheat review isn’t going to be enough. We need to think of these different dimensions within the culture as different kinds of clothing. You don’t get dressed in the morning and say “Pants are way better than shirts!” You need it all and appreciate that you have it.

All The Beauty in This Whole Life isn’t built around the anthemic stuff Ali is known for. Around the 2009 album US it seemed like Ali would transition into the pop rap world. That transition never happened and in 2017 his release has a B-side attitude that doesn’t sacrifice any space from its creative vision. It is that mid-tempo cohesion that glues all the songs together, you can go from Special Effects to Can’t Take That Away without ever feeling overwhelmed by the intense lyricism at hand. The beats still bang and Ali has a dynamic flow/consistency in his lyrical design that makes the tougher moments easier to take. As an example, We Got This sounds triumphant with the upbeat piano but Ali is not mincing words “If she asks me about it I got to be honest. Either they forgot about us or they got a target on us. My niece is shooting amateur porno, police shoot my nephews in the street like its normal but they been doing that a century or like four though. It’s horrible. Still pains me to my core though.”

Brother Ali is one of the few rappers I don’t know that my family feels like we do know. He has verses so vividly rendered that they get stamped on you. You feel his triumphs and sorrow. This album focuses on that. I’ll never forget the frustration of Uncle Usi Taught Me and its masterful airport story ending. Out of Here is a song about suicide that explores all the emotional reactions to the event, a thoughtful meditation that will leave you needing to recuperate. Before They Called You White is a fiery and probably controversial take on racial history but unlike political songs he’s done in the past this one is considerate to all parties involved and benefits from a three dimensional heart. You can’t listen to it and think Brother Ali is mad at white people.

I met him a few times. He came to a local record store and I waited in line, I declined the autograph (not my thing) but asked him very specifically about a review in a major publication that completely misread a concept song he did and slammed it. I asked him how he dealt with that so continually. Most rappers would have blustered a “F_ them” response but Ali really paused. He said it’s the hardest part of the whole deal, that you spend so much time pouring your heart into a project and the people criticizing it give it a mere passing glance and disregard it. They twist what they hear into something it isn’t and apply their own bias. That conversation is one of the reasons I wanted this blog. I wanted to write about music in a way that wasn’t intended to humiliate anyone but to stand in awe of work well done. Listen to the title track of All The Beauty in This Whole Life and get seduced by the fabulous hook and sincerity of the message or listen to the first verse or Tremble where Ali starts “I’m a man not a brand. Heart nose no barcode that can be scanned. Revealing what can’t be held up in the hand; bearer of the standard that you cram to understand,” over rippling bass. Even if you don’t get the MC Lyte reference at the end you comprehend how deeply he drops himself into a project and he never holds it against other rappers who don’t. He’s made a choice to exist in a specific place and be heard in a certain way. As one of his fans I just hope he continues to be happy there.

Stream and BUY All The Beauty in This Whole Life below:

https://brotherali.bandcamp.com/

Song of The Year-Survivor by Mary J Blige

Song of The Year-Survivor by Mary J Blige

by Dan-O

Mary will always have a special place in my heart. When I was away from home for the first time (out of country) in the Army she had one of the three albums I needed in order to survive (D’Angelo-Voodoo, 2pac-Makaveli, Mary-My Life). That was back in 1999-2002 and in 2017 Mary J Blige has one of the best albums this year. Coming out of a bad relationship that left a lot of emotional scars she fully explores them on Strength of A Woman.

The two names that strengthen the project on the production end are DJ Camper and Brandon “B.A.M.” Hodge. Camper gives the thick, knocking, clean backdrop for the greatest Kanye West collaboration in years (his best verse in a long time) Love Yourself. He also orchestrates the lush piano sound behind her blisteringly confessional Set Me Free.  While Camper is credited with 5 of the 14 tracks B.A.M matches him (if you count co-credits).  B.A.M. maintains the almost Maybach Music level clean luxury sounds but really kicks up the bass to a satisfying level.

Mary’s songwriting is fearless. Several times you hear things that shock you but her voice keeps you on track. It is kind of amazing how good her voice is at this point in her career. Survivor is the best. On it she occupies this strange space of diva crafting an anthem and humble, grounded artist who feels like a member of your family. As glorious as the song sounds she still can’t take any of the credit and gives it all to God. I can’t tell you why listening to this song for the second time made me tear up. I certainly haven’t survived anything interesting. I would guess that just hearing her strength and knowing it was the same determination from Not Gon’ Cry and I’m Goin’ Down, that unchanged intensity and will to pick things up and move on was just too perfect for me.  I think we need to start talking about Mary like we do Jay and stop letting her doubt how important she’s been to all of us.

Album recommendation of the week-Lorraine Motel by Killa Kyleon

Album recommendation of the week-Lorraine Motel by Killa Kyleon

by Dan-O

Socially conscious rap music is filled with misinformation. First point-you don’t have to be a social scientist/genius to construct a meaningful album with a socially conscious message. Do not listen to anyone’s album for the answers on life; this is their art and perspective that is what is important. Second point-the songs don’t have to carry a single tone, they don’t have to be whispery emotional pleas over piano plinks or hard charging Public Enemy style anthems for resistance. This is an artist’s world and it can be constructed however they want it and if the rules they set up hold it works.

My favorite recent socially conscious album is Lorraine Motel by Killa Kyleon. The Lorraine Motel is where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated and he lined up the release to hit on the anniversary of that loss. He is a Houston rap warrior with songs in his discography featuring Bun B, Pimp C, and Lil Keke. Kyleon raps like an old traveling swordsman or gunfighter, the art of spitting is so easy at this point he is dead focused on his message. This time around he seems to have gotten much better with hooks that dig in while representing his point.  

The song titles feel like messages you’ve heard before(the last song Freedom Ain’t Free is Joey Bada$$ lead single off his new album All-American Bada$$) but they’re not.  Strong Black Woman isn’t a whispery cute song meant to get him in the good graces of female fans. It is filled with hard slapping lyrics about the determination of the women he is dedicating the song too. First words spoken are “One more semester left she ain’t gotta trip.” The problem with dedications to women in rap is that a lot of times men construct these to be so general it boils down to a pat on the back for being sexy. Killa gives the women in his verses the determination he has to win (his mother especially) “You knew not to question God so you forgot to ask him, for help through hard times and struggle cause you knew you passed it. That’s what ambition get ya.”  Anyone who gets mad about hip hop being pro street violence anti-police violence needs to hear Lorraine Motel. My Skin is My Sin is my favorite song; it boils and bubbles with frustration about police brutality, Colin Kaepernick, the positives and negatives of President Obama, and the depression street violence creates in the psyche.

The music is tonal and moody but still very much the Houston rap that Drake (among many) borrowed from, it rattles and bangs in chunky measures. I haven’t been able to find a good production listing but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was familiar names from his previous projects. Lorraine Motel rings with the pure white hot anger of really caring about the situation. On Change Gone Come the last verse gets so far into police brutality that it left me haunted by the line “Dead to the wrong, them crackers still right. They playin’ God the way they steal life.” The second half of Lorraine Motel is a flummoxing experience, eight songs that just make you sit with the problems we have as a nation and FEEL them deeply enough to hurt again. That is what a great socially conscious rap album does, it connects you to the problem so you care when it is so much easier nowadays not to care about anything.

You can find Lorraine Motel on Spotify, Amazon music, and all the other streaming services.

Kendrick to Ice Cube: Damn is the Death Certificate of his catalog

Kendrick to Ice Cube: Damn is the Death Certificate of his catalog

by Dan-O

It is very well established that To Pimp A Butterfly has a direct connection to Tupac’s Me Against The World.  If you don’t believe it go to https://freemusicempire.com/2016/06/09/nihilism-in-rap-music-2pac-shakur-me-against-the-world/ and do the full podcast run. I think Kendrick has a different base point this time that accomplishes a very different thing.

Before Death Certificate Ice Cube was definitely respected, his first solo album Amerikkka’s Most Wanted is one of the best rap albums ever released with wonderful production from the bomb squad but his follow up is more in every way. In 1991 we didn’t have a real understanding of the concept album in hip hop. Death Certificate gives a template that you can still follow.

First step: Start with scorched earth

Both Damn and Death Certificate start with a brief intro into a scorched earth don’t F_ with me song.  The scorched earth first song gives the emcee absolute command and leaves the audience wide eyed and patiently awaiting more. Some of the old classical composers used to write massive swells into their symphony’s to wake up anyone in the audience sleeping. This method is very similar. Cube starts by yelling “GOD DAMN! It’s a brand new payback!” He shouts half of the first verse to make sure you are dialed in.

Mike Will Made It laces a world rattling bassline and Kendrick is off to the races daring us to catch up. With a minute and seven seconds left in DNA we hear Geraldo spewing his evil nonsense and then Kendrick is back spitting in response while the sample scratches. This switch is to let you know that while Kendrick lives in a very confusing world where he is used as a political football, etc he will never be drowned out by it. Same reason Ice Cube called his first song The Wrong Nigga to Fuck Wit.

Ice Cube-Wrong Nigga To Fuck Wit

Kendrick Lamar-DNA

Second Step: Takedown

Ice Cube tried to be nice on Amerikkka’s Most Wanted.  He didn’t spend a second on N.W.A.  After Niggaz4Life (where N.W.A. feverishly threw shots left, right and center) Cube had no choice and took command of the music industry for the next five years with the most unforgiving diss premise of all time. On No Vaseline he is saying you are being raped without lubricant and I am not.

If Kendrick had a No Vaseline moment it was probably that Control verse. He did bring that back in the lead up to this album, The Heart Part 4 with the second verse “My fans can’t wait for me to son ya punk ass and crush ya whole lil shit. I’ll Big Pun ya punk-ass, you scared lil’ bitch. Tiptoein’ around my name, nigga, you lame and when I get at you, homie. Don’t you just tell me you was just playin'” Kendrick doesn’t think of the rap world as full of people individually important enough to diss. He has his reasons.

Ice Cube-No Vaseline

Kendrick Lamar-The Heart Part 4

Kendrick Lamar-Control

Third Step: Vision

Ice Cube was consumed with correcting the perception of blackness. His second verse on True To The Game is absolutely the father of a lot of discussion on DAMN.

“When you first start rhyming It started off slow and then you start climbing But it wasn’t fast enough I guess So you gave your other style a test You was hardcore hip-hop Now look at yourself, boy you done flip-flopped Giving our music away to the mainstream Don’t you know they ain’t down with the team They just sent they boss over Put a bug in your ear and now you crossed over On MTV but they don’t care They’ll have a new nigga next year You out in the cold No more white fans and no more soul And you might have a heart attack When you find out the black folks don’t want you back And you know what’s worse? You was just like the nigga in the first verse Stop selling out your race And wipe that stupid-ass smile off your face Niggas always gotta show they teeth Now I’m a be brief Be true to the game”

1991 Ice Cube wanted to be in control of every aspect of his presentation and was very frustrated by people who just didn’t have the determination to shoulder that responsibility. Kendrick talks about this on verse 2 of Feel “I feel like debating on who the greatest can stop it. I am legend, I feel like all of y’all is peasants. I feel like all of y’all is desperate.” The lesson to learn from DAMN is the one rap learned from Cube in 1991. The best rapper is not that because of pure mic skill. The best rapper in the world has command and vision. The best rapper gives you vulnerable personal experiences like Cube on Doing Dumb Shit and Kendrick on Duckworth.  Political messages might be overt or laced inside the songs but the total concept and vision will be challenging even if it offends you sometimes. The best rapper brings his own sound to the table (Sir Jinx for Cube, Sounwave for Kendrick).

Ice Cube-True To The Game

Kendrick Lamar-Feel

Song Review-Marksmen by Roc Marciano featuring Ka produced by Arch Druids

Song Review-Marksmen by Roc Marciano featuring Ka produced by Arch Druids

by Dan-O

I don’t think any song on the new Joey Bada$$ album (All-Amerikkkan Bada$$) is as important as him going to Hot 97 and telling them NY radio hasn’t grown. He was correct but I would have changed the ageism laced in his argument. The problem is not that Funkmaster Flex is old it’s that his ear is old. Roc Marciano is only ten years younger than the 48 year old Flex and Ka is only four years younger but they are both a vital part of the character of NY hip hop rebuilding itself in 2017.

Roc Marciano’s album Rosebudd’s Revenge is bigger denser and more fun(as well as experimental) than any project he’s released before. He collaborates with Ka on Marksmen which is a cannon ball sailing at rappers doing throw away music. The interview sample at the beginning about getting better and better is more than a guiding principal it could be a commandment. In this song Roc Marci says “you hit the notes flat, my whistle blow and make the crystal crack” and Ka starts off the song with “To our production, much destruction for our appetite. With steel fist if meal missed wasn’t for lack of might.” Is anyone as careful with each word as these two? Every song they step on together is two artists of a like mind discovering a higher level.

Younger important NY hip hop artists like Your Old Droog and Westside Gunn are ten or fifteen years younger than Ka & Marciano but are painting with the same colors. Age isn’t the problem it is art. Ka and Marciano are artists who create pieces not hustlers making lifestyle music (no shots, I love fun ad-libs). It feels like NY radio (and the magazines) were so wrapped up in the pettiness loop that they forgot about the artistic standard the music is held to. They were calling somebodies flow trash or fire without looking at the song like you look at a completed painting or poem. Their context is trash. Each song these two make hangs in the gallery of their discography and should be reviewed that way. It’s not a movie, it’s a landscape you have to keep looking at to find all the detail in the background that indicates the skill involved, the patience, and the vision.

#ThrowbackThursday-Love In, Love Out by Cormega

ThrowbackThursday-Love In, Love Out by Cormega

by Dan-O

For a while whenever someone was at my house and said they wanted to hear Nas, I would put on Cormega. This wasn’t a slight at Nasty Nas at all, in Maine Nas was known and quite respected but the depth and importance of the surrounding dudes was not. Not enough hip hop kids knew who AZ or Mega were (although in NY things were different I’m sure). Fifteen years ago Cormega put out The True Meaning and I absolutely blasted it. An independent album with production credits from Buckwild, Alchemist, Large Professor, & Hi-Tek it is clear that the industry always understood the skill level of Cormega.

If you know Cormega now you might have heard more recent albums like 2014’s Mega Philosophy or 2009’s Born and Raised which are grown man intelligent in a way that literally made Chuck D proud. The difference in 2002 Cormega is Love In, Love Out.  Maybe five rappers in the history of the genre are as good at writing betrayal as Cormega. He wrote about going from loving shout out on One Love to left out of The Firm so much that he was able to mature into his understanding of the situation. While 2001’s The Realness was full of blistering accusations and gloriously well executed line crossing by The True Meaning Cormega was master of all three dimensions of his situation. In a disciplined thoughtful tone he says “I was never jealous of you, in fact I was proud of you. I smiled when I heard you on Live at The BBQ. I respect you as an artist though I’m no longer fond of you.”  But the emotion is bubbling underneath. When he immediately follows  “I gave you love from the heart unlike the people surrounding you.” That statement is knowingly loaded.

Love In, Love Out is bravely a showcase of real situations pulled through a composers mind and sharp tongue. When The True Meaning came out I played Verbal Graffiti over and over again for the absolute forest fire flow, he crackled and snarled as he opened “I’m like a panther in the dark silent when I strike the paper, like a dagger in your heart when I write I leave a mark.” It went along with the stories people told me about him in the military. I would talk Mega and someone would say “I saw him on the subway with two crackheads! One was beautiful but the other one…” his street credibility was mythical for those of us outside of New York.

Love In, Love Out represents the parts of Cormega’s legacy to rap I feel most rewarded by. The introspective person bound by his ethics, wounded by betrayal and brave enough to elaborate on all conditions of it; not just his hurt and being wronged but the respect he will always have for what the person was.  The ethical man using all his strength to hold back the panther part of him that wants vengeance, at this point in listening that feels like The True Meaning.