Saturday, January 07, 2017

I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside

So, it has been three months since I posted here. The main reason for the hiatus is boring and has to do with age - I've fucked up my arm and shoulder from being on the computer so much, and so I am trying to minimize how much time I spend on a computer when I am not at work.

Also, the last half of 2016 was so full of heavy shit that writing about music seemed like the least important thing I could be doing.

Maybe I'll keep this up, maybe not. I do want to write more in 2017, but I also want to spend more time with my daughter, exercise more, meditate more, and limit screen time so we'll see how that all pans out - many of those are mutually exclusive.

My final thought on 2016 and the year ahead is this: sometimes life kicks you in the fucking teeth. Everything is impermanent, change is the only constant, bad things happen, everything you love and hold dear to you will be taken away from you at some point, so enjoy the time you have with the people you love and when shit goes haywire, which it always will, try to be strong enough to get back up.

That's all.

Best Rap Albums of 2016

(originally posted at rapreviews)

2016 offered many reminders of how hard and unfair life can be, and how quickly things can fall apart. In a year when internet trolls took over national governments, overt racism and anti-semitism become politically acceptable, and civilians in Syria were publicly bombed to death while the rest of the world stood by, music helped me connect with the rest of the world in a powerful way. I’m disappointed and fearful of how the internet has divided and radicalized people instead of bringing them together, of how it has created echo-chambers that reflect back the reality we want to believe in rather than how things actually are. The one outlier in all this is music. Music has remained an honest voice in the wilderness, reflecting back people’s actual experiences rather than outrage porn, regurgitated talking points, and blatant misinformation. It is is especially true of hip-hop, which has long given voice to the disenfranchised and marginalized. Whether it was  the street poetry from a gifted craftsman like Ka, or YG trying to figure out how reconcile his gangsta persona with being a grown up, or Vic Mensa calling out police brutality, or Danny Brown wrestling with addiction and depression, 2016 offered many opportunities to listen to people who don’t normally get a voice in the world.

Here are ten albums I liked the best from this year, in order:

10. Kate Tempest, “Let Them Eat Chaos” An album about trying to connect in post-Brexit London and the things we do to distract ourselves.

9. Aesop Rock, “The Impossible Kid” Aesop’s most personal album yet, and one of his best.

8. ScHoolboy Q, “Blank Face” I can’t really defend this on an intellectual level, but this ish bangs.

7. Ka, “Honor Killed the Samurai” One of the most skilled and exacting MCs in the game makes another great album.

6. Danny Brown, “Atrocity Exhibition” A druggy party album about the downside of being a druggy party rapper.

5. Frank Ocean, “Blonde” “It’s hell on earth and the city’s on fire/In hell in hell there’s heaven.”

4. YG, “Still Brazy” An unapologetic gangsta rap album.

3. A Tribe Called Quest, “We got it from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service” I had no reason to hope that another Tribe album would be released, and even less hope that it would be this good. R.I.P. Phife Dawg.

2. Anderson.Paak, “Malibu” He’s a rapper! He’s a singer! He’s a drummer! He’s like a less annoying Bruno Mars!

1. Solange, “A Seat at the Table” This is a fierce, beautiful album, and the album I listened to the most this year.

Disappointments of the year:
De La Soul, “and the anonymous Nobody…” This isn’t a bad album, but as a lifelong De La Soul fan (and backer of their Kickstarter), it wasn’t the comeback album I wanted. I found it to be a little lifeless and I had a hard time with the casual misogyny. Why are a bunch of men in their 40s rapping about sexy bitches and trainwrecks?

Atmosphere, “Fishing Blues,” I love Atmosphere’s brand of confessional story rap, but they have become almost a self-parody at this point. Slug can still unleash when he wants to, but too much of “Fishing Blues” is territory that Atmosphere has tread to death.

Kanye West, “Life of Pablo” I sincerely hope Kanye gets the help he so clearly needs, and I do not want to pile on the circus that surrounds him, but I do not understand what people see in his work. At this point he could release an album of himself burping the alphabet and Pitchfork would give it a 9.4.

Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book.” I loved “Acid Rap,” but I couldn’t handle this album. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I lost my ability to put up with Chance mumbling in a baby voice. Maybe it’s because I live with a three-year-old.  

Favorite non rap albums of 2016

Angel Olsen, My Woman  - A beautiful, haunting album.

Darkthrone, Arctic Thunder - Sometimes, you just need to rock. This is like Motorhead mixed with a little Maiden and Priest with a dash of crusty punk.

Lotus Thief, Gramarye - A beautiful, haunting album.

P.J. Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project

Vektor, Terminal Redux - Insanely fast and ambitious scifi thrash.

Mary Lattimore, At the Dam

Against Me! Shape Shift with Me. I’m pretty ignorant about trans issues, and a lot of what I know comes from Against Me!

Inquisition, Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith - Satanism is right up there with fundamentalist Christianity or conservative Islam in terms of religious ideologies that I have huge issues with. And yet I put up with Inquisition’s cosmic satanism because they are so interesting musically. The singer croaks like a robot frog about jibber-jabber while creating walls of noise on his guitar while the drummer bangs away like a madman. The cover art doesn’t do this music justice.

Hammers of Misfortune, Dead Revolution - proggy metal about San Francisco being decimated by wealth.

Subrose, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages - Heavy doom from Salt Lake City.

Inter Arma, Paradise Gallows

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Vic Mensa Review

Vic Mensa
There's A Lot Going On EP

Originally posted at RapReviews

There's a false binary in hip-hop where rappers are either supposed to be conscious or street, make protest rap or rap about women and money and liquor. Chicago rapper Vic Mensa shows just how false that binary is on his major label debut "There's Alot Going On." Over seven songs, he addresses serious issues like police brutality, mental illness, and the Flint, Michigan water crisis, as well as less serious issues like getting drunk in the club and chasing after pretty women. By doing so, he manages to make his own lane in hip-hop.

Mensa has been rapping since 2012, but he first came on the scene in 2013 mixtape "Innanetape," as well as performances with the Gorillaz, J. Cole, and Wale. He also contributed bars to Chance the Rapper's "Acid Rap," which is where I first heard of him. While Chance went in a more indie and gospel direction, first with his collaboration with Donnie Surf and the Social Experiment, and then with his latest album "Coloring Book," Mensa has stayed closer to mainstream hip-hop. Producer Papi Beatz keeps the snares snapping and hi-hats rolling throughout the album, and Mensa does his share of Auto-Tuned singing, which is a requirement for any rapper trying to break the Hot 100. What sets Mensa apart from his peers is that he hasn't diluted his message even as he's signed to Roc Nation.

There's a trend in hip-hop towards minimalist, almost gibberish rhymes, and Mensa completely ignores it. Instead, he crams as many syllables as possible into his bars, sometimes not even bothering to rhyme. He starts off with "Dynasty," giving some exposition-heavy bars to set the scene:
"The crazy man's keeping me up, I'm not sleeping
My fit too fresh to be doing the housekeeping
The maids cost too much, started cleaning my own closet
Living childhood fantasies, dealing with grown problems
Got a brand new bae, she keep me G.O.O.D like the music
If the Roc is here, throw up your diamonds and hood cubics
No I.D. said it's time to take these goofy ni***s out rap
Drop bombs over Baghdad on these SoundCloud outcasts
I stray away to say the way my days would be without rap
My mind drifts to back before the Chi was labelled Chiraq
Then Chief Keef dropped in 2012, now it's a drill
I was waiting in the wing like a bird on a windowsill
Now I'm the fresh prince, I think I know how my uncle feel"

Then he goes into "16 Shots," which addresses the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago Police officer. The song calls out the mayor and the police force for how they bungled the case and tried to cover it up, but it also promises retaliation, in no uncertain terms. "This ain't conscious rap, this shit's ignorant," he raps. "Ain't no fun when the rabbit got the gun/When I cock back, police better run." The song ends with the McDonald family's lawyer reading a description of how the 17-year-old died that October night. It's a harrowing description, and a harrowing song that is full of unrestrained anger

From there, Mensa goes in a more radio-friendly direction. "Danger" is a banger with an Auto-Tuned chorus of "You know me, I like the danger." "New Bae" is a melodic song about sex, followed by "Liquor Locker," a guitar-led R&B ballad. Lest you think Mensa is going soft or selling out, he drops some real truth on "Shades of Blue," rapping about the Flint Michigan water crisis:
"Now you've got toddlers drinking toxic waste
While the people responsible still ain't caught no case
I don't get it man, I just ain't wit it man
They got Damn Daniel distracting you on Instagram
Back again with the all-white media coverage
They do it over and over like remedial subjects
The people with the least always gotta pay the most
We the first to go when they deleting them budgets
Can a n***a get his basic human rights?
Is that too much to ask? Should I say it more polite?
And everybody broke so we in the same boat
But would they let that bitch sink if we was white?"

The EP ends with the somewhat rambling title track, which is basically Mensa listing all the crazy ish he's been up to these past three years. It's interesting that a rapper who just spent several songs celebrating partying and living dangerously would close with a song that soberly lays out the trouble he's gotten in through partying and living dangerously. He gives it warts and all, with self-awareness. He even raps about assaulting a woman who attacked him when he was high. He not only admits that he was in the wrong, he also understands how the breakup of his group and his drug use played into it. It's a long way from Eazy-E or Biggie bragging about beating women up in their rhymes.

"She came out the room swinging, hit me in the jaw
I was really trying to fend her off
But I ended up in the closet with my hands around her neck
I was tripping, dawg
Too proud to apologize or empathize, I blamed it all on her
Saying that she hit me first, even though she was the one hurt
I was really just reflecting all the hurt that I was feeling from the band's rejection
When Kids These Days split, that shit felt like a c-section
And my infidelity and jealousy with Natalie on top of the amphetamines
And the ecstasy had me trying drown face down in the Chesapeake"

Mensa's honest lyrics and skills on the mic work well with his club-ready beats. He manages to represent the different facets of his life and his experience and makes it sounds convincing and not calculating. Just when you think he's being too ignorant or hedonistic, he'll drop some serious knowledge, and just when you think he's being too personal, he'll drop some bars about sex and drinking. None of us are just one thing, or an either/or proposition, and Mensa represents this complexity to the fullest. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, Vic Mensa is large and contains multitudes. He's also released one of this year's better EPs.

YG Review

I reviewed YG's Still Brazy this week at RapReviews. Here it is:

Rap music offers a depressing number of examples about recidivism and how difficult it is to escape cycles of trauma, violence, and poverty. Many rappers who grew up surrounded by crime and violence find that it follows them into adulthood and prosperity. How many hip-hop concerts, recording sessions, and video shoots have been disrupted by gunfire? How many rappers have suffered violent deaths? How many rappers are in prison for parole violations for doing things that middle class whites get away with every day? From T.I. to Jazy Z, from Biggie and 2Pac to Big L, from Lil Wayne to Lil Boosie, the impact of violence and the criminal justice system on African-Americans is clearly illustrated in hip-hop.

YG (Keenon Daequan Ray Jackson) is the latest rapper to go from hood to riches and find that the hood has a nasty habit of following you. YG went from breaking into houses to making hit singles, but his transition from criminal to rap star hasn't been smooth. He was shot at while filming a video in 2012, and was shot while recording in 2015. Much of "Still Brazy," his second album after 2014's breakthrough "My Krazy Life," deals with the aftermath of his success, and what it means to be a gangbanger who is now a famous rapper. To put it in Compton album terms, this is YG's "Chronic"; he has one foot in the life of celebrity, and one foot in his old life.

He starts off with warning people "Don't Come to L.A." "Y'all playing. "Y'all playing with the set [...] but I'm really from the set, so y'all don't come round here." "Who Shot Me" is YG contemplating who could have fired shots at him, and arriving at the same lesson Biggie did twenty years ago, that it's often those closest to you that betray you:

"Staring out the window
Smoking on this indo
'Cause I don't know who did it
But I know this
Bullets don't just go where the wind blows
So I'm looking under my nose
Hate always comes from up close
But they can't stand me though"

Even the certified party track is about gang life. "Twist My Fingaz" is a club song, but it's a club song about throwing gang signs when fake gangsters try to mess with him at the club. "I just do my dance/Cuff my pants/Twist my fingaz with my hands," he raps, over a slapping G-funk beat.
That beat marks a departure for YG. Where his previous work had been mostly produced by DJ Mustard, YG is working with other producers here. While P-Lo and DJ Swish's tracks all have a similar sound to Mustard's now ubiquitous chanting 808s, there's also a notable G funk influence. When I first heard "Twist My Fingaz" I thought it was an obscure 90s song, and several other tracks have a similar old school feel.

While most of the album is concerned with asserting that YG is still a G despite his fame, it closes with a trio of protest songs. First up is "FDT," about presidential hopeful Donald Trump. The LAPD shut down a video shoot for the song, and the Secret Service allegedly threatened YG's label over it. Maybe they didn't like the implied violence against Trump; YG implies at several points that if elected Trump is likely to have shots fired at him. It's ironic that the authorities caught feelings over YG's songs, and yet Trump made similar insinuations against his opponent and got a pass.:

"Look, Reagan sold coke, Obama sold hope
Donald Trump spent his trust fund money on the vote
I'm from a place where you probably can't go
Speaking for some people that you probably ain't know
It's pressure built up and it's probably going to blow
And if we say go then they're probably going to go
You vote Trump then you're probably on dope
And if you like me then you probably ain't know
And if you been to jail you can probably still vote
We let this nigga win, we going to probably feel broke
You built walls? We going to probably dig holes
And if your ass do win, you going to probably get smoked"

"FDT" lacks the elegance and poetry of Kendrick, Ice Cube, Chuck D, or other more notable protest rappers. However, what YG lacks in lyrical grace he more than makes up for in honesty. His song reflects the frustrations that a lot of black and Latino feel about the Trump campaign.
"Blacks and browns" compares the experiences of a black and Latino Angelenos. YG raps about the issues of black on black violence and calls for unity:

"We killing ourselves, they killing us too
They distract us with entertainment while they get they loot
They never gave us what they owed us, put liquor stores on every corner
Welcome to Lost Skanless, California"

Meanwhile, Sadboy raps about being a second-class citizen:

"They made the border for the browns cause we're not allowed
Gotta get the green card for me and my child
Those assholes payment under the table that don't last a while
Those jobs getting passed around, they dog our people
Why we gotta look for work at Home Depot?
It was us before the natives, why we ain't equal?"

Sad Boy offers the best features on an album loaded with features from everyone from Lil Wayne and Drake to Nipsey Hustle Slim 400.

The album ends with "Police Get Away Wit Murder," a song that address police violence. YG raps about the same overreach of powers and poor treatment that N.W.A. rapped about almost 30 years ago, with a chorus of "We don't give a f***/Police get away with murder!" "Still Brazy" may be unrepentant gangsta rap, but YG is well aware of the cost of the life he raps about, and the forces that drive people to it.

Monday, August 01, 2016

You’re Breaking My Heart: “Nate”

You’re Breaking My Heart highlights songs that make me want to cry.

My parents were alcoholics growing up. Every night, they’d polish off at least a six-pack of beer each, ending up somewhere between merely drunk and wasted. As far as parental issues to have, it isn’t even on the top 5 (sexually abusive, physically abusive, psychologically abusive, absent, drug addicted, homeless, dying being higher on the list, among others). Still it sucked. I spent a lot of my youth very aware that there was no one around to take care of me, and having to be the adult in the situation. Well, my older sister had to be the adult. I just kind of shut down/drowned my feelings out with loud music.

“As a kid all I wanted was to kill a man/Be like my daddy’s friends hopping out a minivan.”

That’s how Vince Staples starts off “Nate,” a song about his abusive, drug-addicted father. It’s a song about what happens when your father, your hero, is the villain in the story, and what that does to a kid. It’s about how the trauma kids are exposed to affects them. It’s about all the stuff that kids see that parents don’t realize they see.

Knew he was the villain never been a fan of Superman
Beaten on my momma in the kitchen screaming:
"Bitch you better listen when I speak my mind!"
Used to think he was unbreakable he did fed time
But made sure a nigga plate was full and I shined
Was walking in the first day of school new J's, and all of that
Football was cornerback, never made a game I played for Compton High
But my daddy was the man that would be suicide
Picked me up from visitation in the newest ride
Always told me that he loved me, fuck his foolish pride

There’s a sense of love and pride in Staples’ raps about his father. It’s not whining about what a terrible dad he was. At times he almost seems like he’s bragging about his father, but you get the underlying sense of sadness beneath it all.

As a kid all I wanted was a hundred grand
Uncle counting money while my daddy cut him grams
Made me promise that this shit would never touch my hands
And it never did said it'd make me be a better man
Smoking in the crib, hiding dip inside of soda cans
Black bandana on his arm, needle in his hand
Momma trying to wake him up, young so I ain't understand
Why she wouldn't let my daddy sleep, used to see him stand
Out in the alley through my window

This song, more than any other, highlights Staples’ genius as a writer. In just a few words he completes a full picture of exactly what he was seeing, little vignettes of the life of a hustler and addict.

Drinking Hen' with his homies blowing cig' smoke
Lights flashing now he running from the Winslows
Hear him screaming from my momma at the backdoor
Sometimes she wouldn't open it, sitting on the couch
Face emotionless, I don't think they ever noticed that I noticed it
As a kid all I wanted a hundred grand

“I don’t think they ever noticed that I noticed it.” I think about that sometimes as my wife and I are having a heated discussion and I can see our daughter playing nearby, acting absorbed in her Duplos or paints but clearly listening to us. I think about all the times I did the same thing while my parents were drunk or arguing or both. How I pretended not to notice, and how it still affected me.

One of the most powerful aspects of Black Lives Matter, for me, has the very vocal affirmation that these lives do matter. As a white person, I see how black murders get written off as “gang-related.” How black people killed by the police or by other black people are written off as thugs. It’s a way to dehumanize people, to say that they are not like us, do not feel pain like we do. “Nate” is a reminder of pain and sadness in communities afflicted with drugs and violence. It’s a reminder that the young thug may have seen more shit in his 17 years than you are likely to see in a lifetime. It’s a reminder that the guy you are locking up has children, had a father, has a past, has a history.

I cry pretty much every time I hear this song.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Rap music for people who don't listen to much rap music

After my grumpy post the other day, I thought I'd highlight some of the rap artists people who don't listen to rap music might like.

Do you like hip hop but are put off by the lyrics about partying and sex? Check out Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples, who are the pinnacle (to me, at least) of what hip-hop can be. But maybe that's not your thing because they use a lot of curse words and talk about killing police and Staples does a lot of rappity rapping with no hooks.

If you want rap music with more of a melody, there's Anderson Paak, who sings and raps and whose music has a very musical quality. (Musical being my way of describing rap music that isn't just beats and rapping.) Or Chance the Rapper.

Or you could try Open Mike Eagle, who also sings some, and raps about REAL ISSUES but also raps about mundane life in a low-key but skillful way. Swears, but sparingly.

Or Oddissee, who is similar to Open Mike Eagle in some ways (and also on the same label) but a little more old school, a little less indie rock.

You could also check out Blackalicious, who are musical and positive. In that vein you have Lyrics Born, who is also from the Bay Area.

Lizzo and Ivy Sole are two female rappers making excellent positive hip-hop. Azealia Banks is a little raunchier but also very talented.

If you like your music weird, Shabazz Palaces make a nice blend of hip-hop, EDM, and Martian.
And if you are an aging punk, POS, Death Grips, and Run the Jewels all add some punk aggression to their rhymes.

There you go. Have at it. And the only white guy in that mix is El-P.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The problem with hip-hop in '16

It was in reference to an article she had come across that was almost all white rappers. I posted a little rant in the comments, which I'm posting below. As you can see, I caught some feelings.
This is a sore subject to me, because I find rap music on the whole to be problematic, and acting like it is racist to think it is problematic is bullshit. Anyways, my rant is below:

I’m white and I listen to a lot of rap music. While rap music isn’t all about bitches and the grind, a lot of it is, and most mainstream rap is. Mainstream rap has become what hair metal was in the 80s-cookie-cutter songs about sex, drugs, and partying, a lifestyle that none of its listeners enjoy but all would like to have. Even if it isn’t about sex, money and drugs, it’s full of profanity in a way that no other music is. Every fourth word out of Kendrick’s mouth is either the N word or the B word, and he is one of the best rappers around today. I love vince staples, but I can’t listen to that around my wife or kid because it is all curse words.

I have a friend who was trying to listen to more hip-hop, so she checked out kendrick’s good kid album. She said she wanted to like it, but it was like getting hit in the face over and over again with how much he said bitch. And she doesn’t want to hear racial slurs. She stopped trying after that.
I listen to the local hip-hop station, and every song is about sex, cars, and drugs. Every fucking one, only with the swears blocked out so that it is like watching a porn movie with a black bar over the genitals.

The alt-rappers everyone got excited about four years ago were odd future, who rapped about raping women and called everyone a faggot.

Even Anderson Paak, the fucking Bruno Mars of hip-hop, has lyrics full of bitches and n-bombs. I was rocking Malibu with my kid the other day and alla sudden some lady is saying she wants him to fuck the shit out of her. There’s another one off rotation.

I struggle to find rap albums I can listen to with my kid that are not rife with profanity or sexism. Even the Native Tongue’s stuff isn’t safe. I can get away with Blackalicious, early Tribe, early De La (but not “De La Orgy!), Digible Planets. That’s about it, I mean that I wanna listen to. I’ve been going with jazz or R&B. Yes, there are rappers who don’t swear, but there aren’t many rappers with more than 1,000 plays on Spotify who don’t swear.

Rap has chosen to embrace raw language as some sort of brand of realness. Twenty-five years ago it was shocking to hear the n-word in a rap song and you had to seek out those records. Nowadays they get played on mainstream radio, with the swears blurred out. If hammer was starting out today his song would be “Can’t Touch This, Bitch.”

I know I sound like a pearl clutching old white lady, but it’s something that bums me out. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

What I've Been Listening To

Half time

I really don't keep this up so good, do I?

So it's the half-year mark and time to reflect on what i've listened to so far this year.

This is going to be super incomplete, but here are some of the records I'm really excited about this year, in the order I remembered they existed.

1. Beyonce, Lemonade. I didn't listen to Beyonce at all prior to this. I mean, I liked her hits fine, but I don't fuck with pop music and she makes pop music. And then this comes. Granted, I don't love all of it, but "Hold Up," "Sorry," "Sandcastles," hell, even "All Night" are brilliant songs.

2. Jessy Lanza, Oh No. A pop album, but a pop album on Burial's label, so it maintains a nice edge.

3. Anderson Paak, Malibu. Soulful hip-hop that has kept me going this year.

4. Ivy Sole, Eden. A nice heartfelt rap album by a female MC.

5. J-Zone, Fish-N-Grits. Funky beats and funny rhymes calling out rap nostalgia.

6. Andy Stott, Too Many Voices.

7. Schoolboy Q, Blank Face

8. Mary Lattimore, After the Dam

9. Juliana Barwick, Will

10. Nothing, Tired of Tomorrow

11. Kvelertak, Nattesferd

12. PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project

Monday, June 27, 2016

Shabazz Palaces Review

Shabazz Palaces
Live At Third Man Records
Third Man Records, 2016
Originally Posted on

I’ve always found live hip-hop to be an iffy proposition. I’ve been to some amazing shows, but too often it is a guy shouting into a microphone over a backing track. There’s not much room for improvisation or spontaneity, which are two key components of a good live show. A recent Travis Scott performance on the Jimmy Kimmel show illustrates the worst-case scenario ( He is shouting along to a recording of the song, not even bothering to pretend he’s rapping. Maybe I need to see Shabazz Palaces live to change my mind. Their “Live At Third Man Records” is definitely a strong argument in favor of live hip-hop.

One thing that sets Shabazz off from many hip-hop acts (the Roots excluded) is that it isn’t just a rapper and a guy on his laptop. Tendai Maraire plays congos and drums and provides  backing vocal while Ishmael Butler raps between twiddling knobs and playing a drum pad. This allows them more room to improvise and go off script than a DJ only armed with the backing track. Also, their music isn’t built around samples or hooks, which means Butler isn’t having to rap along to a recording of someone else singing. It also doesn’t hurt that their music is nebulous, spacey, and more focused on sustaining a vibe than on pumping up a crowd or playing hits.

The tracks are mostly drawn from the Palaces’ two studio albums, especially 2014’s “Lese Majesty.”  The duo isn’t afraid to build out the intros of the songs, to change up the lyrics and to take song in new directions. At best, the songs here have a warmth and energy that isn’t always present on their studio albums. “Forerunner Foray,” for example, has a sense of urgency that I don’t get from the version on “Lese Majesty.”  Ditto the version of “Free Press and Curl” here. It abandons the intimacy and delicacy of the studio version, turning it into a party song.

There are also times when things get muddy and messy. Shabazz Palaces’ music is dense, and that denseness can come off as chaotic in the live setting. There are times where it feels like Butler is struggling to juggle rapping and programming. You can hear him lose his breath or lose his line as he fights with his laptop or drum machine. That is one downside to having a performer also doing programming - drum machines and laptops lack the elegance of a guitar or drum, and don’t work as well as live instruments.

As with all live albums, “Live At Third Man Records” loses something in its translation from live performance to digital document. It is still a worthy entry into the small collection of good live hip-hop albums. It may not be as great an experience as seeing Shabazz Palaces live, but it is a worthy substitute.

Detroit's Son Review

Guilty Simpson
Detroit's Son
Stones Throw, 2015
Originally Posted on

Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson is like the Arnold Schwarzenegger of rap. He is incredibly effective at being a badass, but not the most versatile or emotive of performers. He doesn’t sing and he doesn’t do features with R&B divas. That might sound limiting, but in the hands of the right producer, Simpson can drop fire. He’s responsible for at least two of my favorite rap songs of all time (“Coroner’s Music” and “Pigs.”) He’s found the right partner on “Detroit’s Son” in Aussie producer Katalyst, who is part of the Quakers crew. In fact, “Detroit’s Son” may well be his strongest release to date.

“Detroit’s Son” has a similar feel to Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s 2014 album “PiƱata.” It’s tough as nails rhymes over warped funk samples, with the rapper and the producer actually collaborating. Simpson spent time in Australia with Katalyst, and the face time they spent together pays off. They have the kind of chemistry that is hard to obtain if you are just Skyping and exchanging files in the cloud.

Much of “Detroit’s Son” is Simpson giving tough guy raps over menacing beats. He starts off on “R.I.P.,” rapping “The bigger the yap, the bigger the slap” while Katalyst lays down a beat that sounds like a race car warming up. Katalyst manages to make funk guitars sound threatening on “Blunts In the Air” one of several tracks dedicated to the sweet leaf. “The D” is as cold and unfriendly as the city it is about. 

“Rhyme 101” might be the best example of Guilty in grimey mode. The beat is funky but punishing, and Guilty spews venomous bars:

“Call this style pub crawl
Cuz you can get shot from bars
Hot shit pop from cars
Drive by
I’m an animal I I 
Swear to get my share I enjoy the air up here”

Guilty is so good at being a villain that it is easy to forget that from day one that has only been a part of his rap persona. One of his earlier tracks was the Dilla-produced “Man’s World” ( about the tortured relationship he had with his father. (“I’m sorry about the bruise on your face, you understand? I still love you, I’m still you’re old man.”) One of Guilty’s talents is the way he can rap about the harsh realities of life without it coming off as maudlin or pandering. “Ghetto” is a great example of this. It starts out your standard cautionary tale about life in the ghetto, but what Guilty is really rapping about is how our own behaviors and thinking can trap us.

“Fam had a gun and he died with it
Barrel still cold
Thirty years old with his brains shot over what he owed
Some say over what he told
Some say over what he sold
Still left the pros cold like the winter weather
Still shows in the hood we don’t stick together
Killers mask up like ‘we’ll stick whoever’
Wish I could say they do it to live better
But really
They rob you with the clippers
Then turn and give it to a stripper”

The title track, “Smoking,” and “Say What?” all offer more cheerful beats and rhymes, which adds variety and makes the harder songs hit that much harder. There are a couple moments on the album where Guilty’s blunt flow doesn’t totally connect, but those are few and far between. When I first heard Simpson ten years ago, he seemed like the antidote to mediocre backpack rappers. Nowadays, he sounds like a soldier doing his part to preserve a type of hip-hop that feels almost like an endangered species. “Detroit’s Son” is proof that Guilty Simpson is far from done, and that you don’t need to be able to sing hooks in order to be a compelling rapper.

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