Gush Piece: “RTJ 3” — Run The Jewels

Run the Jewels (RTJ) dropped its third self-titled LP last Christmas Eve and it’s one of their most potent yet, delivering some bombastic beats alongside RTJ’s punchiest political commentary. The rap supergroup consisting of Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and alternative hip-hop producer El-P, have met critical acclaim for their non-conformist attitudes and conspiratorial political view, which comes to head in “RTJ 3.”

Many popular rap artists have released politically-charged content in light of recent events, but RTJ carves a spot amongst some great albums like Tribe’s new LP. RTJ is ascending confidently, bringing up relevant talking points in a tasteful way while simultaneously throwing low balls at the ruling class.

It doesn’t rely on common left-wing propaganda to make a point. Mike and El both bring up well thought out ideas. For example, on the track “Don’t Get Captured” Mike raps about a neglected epidemic within Chicago where teens have been left to their own devices, turning to a life of crime and becoming armed thanks to loose gun laws in the city.

He then draws back to his hometown of Atlanta and his own past experiences as a gangster there. He watched that same gentrification force low-income people into already failing infrastructures. In that same track, El raps from the perspective of a police officer saying whatever he writes in the report becomes truth and he can get away with murder.     

Overall, the record is the pandemonium many of us had hoped for from RTJ when they first announced the release in the beginning of 2016. El’s beats and production are ever-evolving and continue to surprise even the most hardcore of fans. This is the anarcho-rap album many of us needed heading into 2017.

Gush Piece: “Big Fish Theory” — Vince Staples

Innovative, vehement, and nihilistic; Vince Staples has become one of the biggest fish in the pond with this LP. Staples comments on the role of the rapper in society and the problematic tropes that have plagued the genre from the beginning over Detroit-house inspired Electronica.

It all culminates in a punchy and addictive record. The features on this LP are insane with a verse by Kendrick Lamar, electronic super-star Flume along with SOPHIE building the beats, and Kucka’s vocals all on a single track.

One of the few artists who can have these many features on a single track without risking being outshined, Staples manages it due to his flow and dominating presence on the mic, reminiscent of Kanye West or Childish Gambino. I’m skeptical of the claims that this sound is the future of rap music but I do believe it is an impressive reinvention for Staples and demonstrates the awards of risk-taking on style and beats in contemporary hip-hop.

The social and political turmoil of 2017 asked musicians many questions and I think it’s hard to point to any record that stood well above the rest because of that turmoil. The world is in a weird place now, but I believe the music industry has done an exceptional job to sort some of it out.

‘Flower Boy’ presents a new Tyler, the Creator

Tyler, the Creator’s fourth studio album, “Scum Fuck, Flower Boy,” magnifies his authenticity and angst-filled youthfulness while also demonstrating the weaknesses he still struggles to correct during the creative process.

Tyler has a long history of intentionally and unintentionally pissing people off. Some read into his “unprincipled” attitude as being an edgy gimmick just to garner attention. His infamous  view on what words are and are not homophobic or racist, not just in his music but in his everyday life and on social media, has pulled his artistic integrity into question before. However, the thing “Flower Boy” says more than anything else is that Tyler is more than just a cockroach-eating goblin. In fact, Tyler is actually an extremely pleasant human-being on this record, staying away from slander while giving us a glimpse into his internal conflict with coming-out.

The second track of the album, “Where This Flower Blooms,” illustrates Tyler’s feelings on his rag-to-riches story and really grounds him to earth. He reminisces about times when he had to sleep on the floor and repo-men would come knocking for furniture from rent-a-center. The juxtaposition of this is revealed when he is thinking about those kinds of things now, while he’s driving his expensive car in California. After a short transitional track, comes a beautiful love-song about Tyler’s yearning for this fictional boy he’s been infatuated with for so long. Kali Uchis’ vocals on the chorus captures Tyler’s impatience and frustration on his wait for the “one.”

These are shockingly mature and introspective themes for Tyler to be exploring; not to say Tyler hasn’t explored things like that before but for him to go in on these themes for entire tracks, and even the majority of the record, shows a dedication to something more than what is the equivalent of teenage, mall-hooliganism on the mic. It is an impressive growth for Tyler.

A lot of what drives this change-of-heart comes from the serious challenge coming-out to the world poses for Tyler. He’s now trying to understand himself and how the world will perceive him after he reveals this. The web he’s caught in directly stems from his prior comments on gay-slurs and racist remarks. The way he fights through it is by imagining being able to contact his dream-boy, hence all of the references to phone calls and voicemails littered throughout the album.

This is by far Tyler’s tightest record in both album length and thematic direction, with the only notable comparison being his masterpiece album, “Wolf.” Tyler has a history of meandering through his music, often times ranting on while over-blowing the track with digits of songs within songs. This same issue has clearly been recognized and worked through on this album only showing up occasionally with some annoying sound bites.

The track “I Ain’t Got Time” really throws off the album’s flow by becoming an explosive, braggadocious track in the middle of some of the most gentle records in the album. He’s obviously trying to force a juxtaposition between the prior track, “Boredom,” both in the somber-to-bombastic sound but in the lyrical ideas of time and his lack there of when he’s out bragging, but abundance of time when he’s alone with his thoughts. It’s a cute idea but it kills the gorgeous mood he dedicated the album to create.

The production on this record is not only trendy with the inclusion of cool-jazz elements but it pushes those trends while also maintaining his signature wobbly-beat. One of the biggest earaches Tyler has given me on previous records was his singing but he must have seen a vocal instructor or been practicing because he’s become much, much better. He knows it’s one of his weakness and uses it sparingly with his clearest cut being on the transitional track “Sometimes…”

The overall theme of his record, although interesting, is inherently simplistic in nature which makes me skeptical of how this album will be viewed 10 years later as something more than just a Tyler, the Creator album. He also over uses references to an effect that makes some of his lyricism seem lazy, often times referencing his own music as if it were an inside joke. Not to say his lyrics are bad, because they are far from it. In fact, the lyrics employ many poetic tricks.

Tyler clearly put a lot of thought into the making of this record and the dedication has paid in dividends. Although he still suffers in some areas he makes up for it with trend-setting production and witty, world-building. Although one of his best albums, “Flower Boy” finds itself in hard spot in the context of rap in this decade and in the decades to follow. His technical shortcomings and tendency to lose focus hurt the record. I rate “Flower Boy” as a 7.2/10.

Published in The Stallion on August 9, 2017.

What I’m looking for. Score (0-10) Examples of Scoring
Innovation 6 10- Creates entire genre.

8- Creates a new niche or sub-genre

6-pushes current genres limits

4- pushes their own limits

2-little change

Uniqueness (of either artist or album) 8 10-Never before seen (has influences still)

8-More than 3 unique qualities including sound, person, story, ect.

6- 2 unique qualities

4-1 unique qualities

2-Lowest possible score because everyone is unique :^)

Songwriting 7
Lyrics 8
Artist’s technical ability 6
Production 10 10- Perfect Balance

5- Over-produced more than not (or even under produced)

0- Sounds horrible

Theme 8 10-powerful theme throughout

5-theme but kinda sucks

0-no theme or organization

Length/Flow of Album 5 10-Songs reinforce each other, album isn’t hard to listen to, and the transitions are smooth/appropriate

5- 2 of those thing

0-none of these things

Longevity 6 How relevant will it be in 5, 10, 25 years.
Personal Enjoyment 8 10-peak enjoyment

5-indifferent

1-Couldn’t hate album more

 72 100 max

“DAMN.” analyzes Kendrick’s DNA

Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” barrages the listener with hard-hitting lyrics and no time spared. This is one of Lamar’s shortest albums, with each track centralized around the lyrics rather than the beat. This opposes the traditional view on Lamar as an artist who writes deep-thinking “bangerz” without stripping-back the beat, making the tracks enjoyable on a passing-listen and on in-depth analysis.

Although more commercial than its predecessor, “DAMN.” just creeps out of the speakers with a mid-tempo flow gumming up the majority of the album. He says what he needs to say, clearly and without distraction, so that he can move on to the next track.

This isn’t to say the album doesn’t have a few “bangerz.” The teaser track for the album, “HUMBLE,” singlehandedly made most everyone think the whole album was going to be just as crazy.

“DNA” also was an intense track, sampling a part of Fox’s analysis of Kendrick’s BET performance bridging into a bombastic second verse. The majority of the album was a daunting listen, however. Just about any lyric you pull out and examine has layers of meaning ascribed to it.

I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to digest the album and review it without being able to read the lyrics online. The tracks require a bit of study to really appreciate, especially “FEEL” and “PRIDE.”

“PRIDE” put a whole new spin on the following banger, “HUMBLE.” As a single, “HUMBLE” seemed as though it were an attack on someone else but within the context of the album it becomes clear that “HUMBLE” is an inward assault.

Pride is one of the seven deadly sins and Kendrick’s one of the best rappers alive, so recognizing his pride and addressing it is a challenge. Ironically, the track about pride is mellow and introspective, using vocal pitch variations to underline the contrast between his ideal of humility (high) and his action of pride(low).  This leads right into the concept theory that stuck with me. It begins with the first couple verses of the LP asking three simple questions; “Is it wickedness?” “Is it weakness?” and “Are you going to live or die?”

Do you choose wickedness (pride) or do you choose weakness (humility)? Also, notice how the order is wickedness and live or weakness and die.

Lamar describes the way he grew up with a character named Little Johnny. In Little Johnny’s world, all the successful people around him are rappers or gangsters who appropriate violence as the key to survival. Hence, wickedness is the only way to do away with weakness, to survive and succeed.

Lamar pulls this into his current rap career, addressing the juxtaposition of being a social justice rapper while also rapping about wicked things like murder and treating women like dirt. This helps to explain the musical direction he chose on “DAMN.”

He’s perhaps trying to lessen himself by retreating from success and revealing himself to the world through these internal struggles. Or perhaps he’s frustrated with the lack of reciprocity he has received for his social commentary, as he continually mentions throughout the album that “nobody is praying for me.”

“DAMN.” has taken flack for some of the experimental choruses and even some of the less experimental tracks like the radio-friendly “LOVE,” but I found each track enjoyable and pivotal in progressing the overall arch of the album. I rate “DAMN.” as an A- album.

 

Published in The Stallion on April 18, 2017.

What I’m looking for. Score (0-10) Examples of Scoring
Innovation 6 10- Creates entire genre.

8- Creates a new niche or sub-genre

6-pushes current genres limits

4- pushes their own limits

2-little change

Uniqueness (of either artist or album) 8 10-Never before seen (has influences still)

8-More than 3 unique qualities including sound, person, story, ect.

6- 2 unique qualities

4-1 unique qualities

2-Lowest possible score because everyone is unique :^)

Songwriting 8
Lyrics 9
Production 9 10- Perfect Balance

5- Over-produced more than not (or even under produced)

0- Sounds horrible

Theme 9 10-powerful theme throughout

5-theme but kinda sucks

0-no theme or organization

Length/Flow 8 10-Songs reinforce each other, album isn’t hard to listen to, and the transitions are smooth/appropriate

5- 2 of those thing

0-none of these things

Talent 10
Personal Enjoyment 7 10-peak enjoyment

5-indifferent

1-Couldn’t hate album more

82 90 max