Tag Archives: Rap

Empathic Vibrations: How Music Allows Us to Understand One Another

This post is part of a series of daily blog posts written during the month of May as a form of artistic protest. This Blog March was organized by writer/musician Robin Renée. You can learn more about Robin and the Blog March by visiting her website.

A few years ago, I had a co-worker who was really into music. When he found out that I enjoyed many of the classic rock bands that he liked, he’d come by my desk to have long, meandering conversations about music. One day he and I were discussing Hendrix, and he said that he didn’t like Jimi Hendrix and thought he was overrated. I told him that I tended to agree, that the cult of personality surrounding Hendrix had gotten a bit out-of-hand. Then in another conversation, we were having about guitarists we thought were overlooked, I suggested Prince and his reaction was one of disgust. “Prince? Prince? Surely you are joking…” I thought that was an odd reaction for such a big music fan to have, but I didn’t think too much about it. Then there was the time the subject of blues music came up, and he emphatically told me that he couldn’t stand it and that it held little artistic merit (or some such thing). I thought that was a pretty odd perspective to have, especially considering his favorite band was The Rolling Stones. I called him out on this, and he shrugged me off.

Imagine my surprise, however, when his hero Keith Richards released an album of all blues covers. There was no way that this guy was going to like that, right? Wrong, he loved it. I called him out on his inconsistent stance on blues. Then I asked him if he listened to any music made by a black artist and he told me frankly: “I don’t listen to black music…it just doesn’t speak to me. I can’t relate to it at all.” I laughed, not because the statement was funny (though it was) but because I thought this guy was joking. He was not. It turned out this guy avoided “black music” and only listened to bands/singers who were white, like him. Now, whether or not this guy was racists is neither here nor there–the point is, I think it’s pretty common for people to enjoy music made by people who most resemble themselves. As I’ve said many times, I didn’t seriously listen to female bands/singers until I was in my early 20’s when radio host/E-Street Band member Little Steve told me that Tegan & Sara were “cool.”

Now, if you think about it, it doesn’t make sense for this guy to think he has more in common with Keith Richards than he does with someone like Robert Johnson. This guy was a teacher so economically, Johnson and his day-to-day life were much more “relatable” than Richards (who is a millionaire-vampire).

As I’ve matured and expanded my sphere of listening, I’ve come to realize how valuable it is to hear music created by people vastly different from myself. About a year or so ago, I was listening to a rap song, I wish I could remember what song or who the artist was (I think it was Run The Jewels), but I remember taking my headphones off and thinking: Oh, my God…”Black Lives Matter” means “All Lives Matter.” I had never taken issue with the sentiment of BLM, but like a lot of middle-class white people, I also thought it should be “All Lives Matter.” But through exploring both classic and modern rap/hip-hop, it became apparent to me that the way I experienced the world was fundamentally different than the way people of color experience it. Listening to rap provided a window of insight into how other people see and feel about things. I no longer have a problem with “Black Lives Matter,” because I can see now how they currently don’t matter (in this country and elsewhere in the world) and it was music that allowed me to begin the process of understanding. And right now what the world needs more than anything right now is more understanding.

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Run the Jewels.

100+ days ago, I would say this revelation would be pretty important, but now in May of 2017, I think it’s probably the most important thing music is. No matter who you are, take the time to explore the art of people who are different from you. Art is where we exalt our joy and preserve our pain. That old saying about not knowing someone until you walk a mile in their shoes? Well, one way you can do that is to experience their films, books, and music. I love Keith Richards to death, but it blows my mind that a person could enjoy his work and have zero interest in his mentor Chuck Berry. Don’t you dare be that narrowminded.

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The master and the apprentice.

Our Hater-In-Chief and those like him can only see divisions, but the truth is that our world is overflowing with art that can link us together. We’re all floating islands of isolation, but art tethers us not just to this world but to one another. Stop reading this post and listen to music made by someone who doesn’t look like you.

And if you want a suggestion:

 

Check out the next Blog March blog, by David Jamison here: https://davidjamison.wordpress.com/

 

 

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Denied by Kanye: Mr. West Uncharacteristically Spazzes out and Cancels Remaining LIFE OF PABLO Tour Dates

File this under Shitty News That Actually Doesn’t Surprise Me: Kanye West has canceled the remaining dates of his LIFE OF PABLO tour. This comes on the heels of Yeezus losing his mind over the weekend in California while “performing.” I put that in quotes because Mr. West, after making the crowd wait over an hour for the show to begin, only performed three songs before storming off stage. He apparently went on a long jag attacking Jay Z and Beyonce while at the same time praising president-elect Donald Trump. People were, understandably, confused and little pissed. For their part, Ticketmaster decided to do the right thing and refund people the money they spent on tickets to the concert.

Then this morning I awoke to find that many friends and family on social media were directing me to news articles stating that Kanye had canceled the rest of the tour. I checked my email but as of writing this post, I’ve received no correspondence from the ticket company who sold me my upcoming (next Monday!!!) concert ticket. For the briefest of moments, I thought that maybe this was a hoax or had been blown out of proportion. I went on Kanye’s website and everything seemed normal. However, when I clicked through to see if tickets could be purchased for upcoming concert dates I was greeted with this bit of cold reality:

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So that’s it then. What a whirlwind. You’ll recall that my journey to Yeezus-ticketdom has been fraught with much pain and sorrow. There was my failed attempt to raise money online in order to see Mr. West perform in Vegas. Then, just as my soul had accepted that I wouldn’t be seeing him perform, he surprisingly announced another leg of THE LIFE OF PABLO TOUR that would come to my town! I eagerly waited for tickets to go on sale and plunked down $69 (giggity) to see my idol (and the person who will probably feature at top of my Best Albums of 2016 list) perform live. I must say, it’s not easy being a Kanye West fan. The media circus the man cultivates detracts so much from his music that when I tell people I love his music they almost always look at me as though I’ve lost my mind. The disgust that they exhibit is no doubt for Kanye the Media Personality, who is both irritating and at this point controversial for the sake of being controversial.

At this point, I still love Kanye, but as he said on LIFE OF PABLO: “I miss the old Kanye.” If I could offer Mr. West some advice it would be this: give up the hype train and the constant need to be in the news. Downsize your life and follow the example of The Beatles–give up touring and appearing in public and retreat to the studio. Focus on making your complex, amazing music and stop messing around with politics, shoes, fashion shows, and the Kardashian soap opera. There is still time to salvage your career and your reputation as a serious artists, but only if you get back to doing what got you famous in the first place.

UPDATE: Just as I was about to post this I got an email about my refund:

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Countdown to YEEZUS: Ticket Secured, MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY Re-visited, and Thoughts on a Live Kanye Performace

As promised, I’m going to write a few posts about my impending Kanye West concert. When I last wrote about this concert, I explained that a Denver show had been announced and that I was dusting off my credit card  so I could attend. Luckily for me, I didn’t really need to use the Defending Axl Rose Master Card! I was able to get a pretty good seat for $69. Since that time, I’ve kept an eye on the tickets and for the most part, the prices have remained stable and as of this posting tickets are still available.

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As long as there’s Kanye, there is hope.

During the fantastic World Series, which I watch every year, I muted my TV and revisited MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY. Mr. West’s 2010 album has been severely underplayed in my household, which made me decide to revisit it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the album holds up 6 years later. The singles “Power” and “Runaway” remain solid classics, but I was really blown away by the John Legend track “Blame Game.” I’m not sure why this poignant song failed to connect with me in previous listening sessions, but man is this an almost perfect song (the closing outro with comedian Chris Rock is probably the most cringe-inducing K. West album skit). The star-studded “Monster” also still holds up really well, though I must say the star-making performance from Niki Minaj bums me out when I hear now. Who could have guessed that her fierce performance on “Monster” would be an almost one-off thing and she’d become one of the most disappointing new rap artists of the 2010’s?

Listening to “Monster” got me thinking about what a Kanye West concert would be like. Despite being well-known as an egomaniac, Kanye’s albums are so brilliant because he doesn’t hog the spotlight on his releases. In fact, Kanye the album maker is generous with the limelight and often appears as second banana on the best tracks. How do I know that Kanye isn’t his troubling, problematic public persona? I listen to his albums and hear him give the best moments away to other, usually up-and-coming artists. The first time I heard Chance the Rapper was this summer when he stole the show on the opening track of THE LIFE OF PABLO. With so many of his best songs featuring A-list and AAA-list artists, how does a live Kanye performance work? Obviously a track like “Monster” doesn’t work unless Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Niki Manaj, and Bon Iver are in attendance and thus doesn’t get performed. But because so many of Kanye’s songs feature really great artists that I’m not sure Kanye can avoid doing a solo-only concert. I’m guessing that the verses done by guest rappers are just omitted, but as someone that’s never been to a rap concert before, I’m interested to see how it’s handled.

 

Look for a few more Kanye-centric posts to appear before my November 28th concert. I’m still trying to decide the best way to document the concert itself, so if you have any thoughts on the best way to do that chime-in below in the comments section.

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ROCK N’ READ: The Rap Year Book

Earlier this summer I was in Barnes & Noble, haunting the Arts & Entertainment section. I was looking for a good book to read on the history of punk music, what I found instead was a really good primer for rap music. Shea Serrano, a former columnist on the now-defunct Grantland website, has crafted a nice introduction to the genre. Far from being definitive, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed provides a nice introduction to a rap novice (such as myself). Like the rather lengthy title suggests, the book is broken up into chapters by year starting in 1979 and ending in 2014, each chapter focuses on the most important song of said year. Serrano opens each chapter simply with a “What This Song Is About” and “Why It’s Important” section before proceeding to wax philosophically about the merits of that years song. This longer, essay portion of each chapter is followed up with a colorful infographic or illustration that ties somehow into the subject matter of the song featured. These are all really amusing, though I didn’t get to enjoy them as fully as I’d would have liked because I bought the Kindle version of the book and most of them didn’t display properly on my iPad.

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The Rap Year Book chronicles the maturation of the the genre and illustrates not only the massive creative talent behind the music, but also maps out the various genres and sub-genres that contributed to the birth of rap. Despite being a thoughtful, articulate explanation of why each song is most important song of a particular year, this book is divisive as hell. Anytime one tries to pick “the best of the year” in any subject, there’s going to be some hard choices made. Refreshingly, at the end of every chapter there is a “Rebuttal” section where another writer gives a brief explanation of why an entirely different song from that year is actually the best song. Some of these short mini-essays could have been fleshed out themselves into interesting chapters. I found this to be a ballsy move on Serrano’s part and helps to illustrate just how the author doesn’t 100% fully believe that his picks are the only correct picks for song of the year.

In case your’e wondering, here are Serrano’s picks/chapters of the book:

1979 “Rapper’s Delight” The Sugarhill Gang

1980 “The Breaks” Kurtis Blow

1981 “Jazzy Sensation” Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy Five

1982 “The Message” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

1983 “Sucker M.C.’s” Run-DMC

1984 “Friends” Whodini

1985 “La Di Da Di” Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick

1986 “6 in the Mornin’” Ice-T

1987 “Paid in Full” Eric B. and Rakim

1988 “Straight Outta Compton” N.W.A

1989 “Fight the Power” Public Enemy

1990 “Bonita Applebum” A Tribe Called Quest

1991 “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” Geto Boys

1992 “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” Dr. Dre, featuring Snoop Dogg

1993 “C.R.E.A.M.” Wu-Tang Clan

1994 “Juicy” The Notorious B.I.G.

1995 “Dear Mama” Tupac

1996 “California Love” Tupac, featuring Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman

1997 “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” Puff Daddy, featuring Mase

1998 “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” DMX

1999 “My Name Is” Eminem

2000 “Big Pimpin’” Jay Z, featuring UGK

2001 “Takeover” vs. “Ether” Jay Z vs. Nas

2002 “Grindin’” The Clipse

2003 “In Da Club” 50 Cent

2004 “Still Tippin’” Mike Jones, featuring Slim Thug and Paul Wall

2005 “Gold Digger” Kanye West, featuring Jamie Foxx

2006 “Hustlin’” Rick Ross

2007 “International Players Anthem” UGK, featuring Outkast

2008 “A Milli” Lil Wayne

2009 “Best I Ever Had” Drake

2010 “Monster” Kanye West, featuring Rick Ross, Jay Z, Bon Iver, and Nicki Minaj

2011 “Niggas in Paris” Jay Z and Kanye West

2012 “Same Love” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

2013 “Control” Big Sean, featuring Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica

2014 “Lifestyle” Rich Gang, featuring Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan

 Obviously the first chapter, 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, is an important chapter because it kicks off both the book and the genre itself. Other standout chapters (in my humble opinion) are 1989’s “Fight the Power,” 1990’s “Bonita Applebum” (cited here as the “first true rap love song”), and 2006’s “Hustlin.” I really enjoyed the chapter on Rick Ross’ “Hustlin” because I liked finding out what a complete and utter bullshit artist Ross is. The evolution of rap songwriting from brutally autobiographical to the fanciful bullshit stylings of Rick Ross is a fascinating transformation. I also really appreciate how well-represented Kanye West during the 00’s.

There’s a Spotify playlist available that features the songs mentioned in the book and it’s just as essential. Overall, I think the careful thought and intelligent analysis of The Rap Year Book make this a must-read for anyone even remotely interested it the both rap music and modern black art. Even if you don’t agree with all of the choices for song of the year, there is so much good analysis of lyrics, artist backstory, historical context, and in-depth interpretation this is one year book you’ll actually want to revisit.

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Send Defending Axl Rose To See Kanye West

Hello. Well this is awkward. A few weeks ago I found out that Kanye West would be touring in support of his latest album/magnum opus THE LIFE OF PABLO. Normally, this would be great news except he wasn’t coming to the city I live in. I was pretty bummed out. Then, a few days after my birthday, my parents got to see Guns N’ Roses in Kansas City. While very happy for them, this also really bummed me out. I should have gone to that show, but unfortunately a new job and a new baby (plus lack of money) meant that I’d have to skip seeing GNR. I’m barely able to live with myself, people. I swore that the next time a “Holy Fuck!” artist went on tour I’d do everything in my power to go and see them.

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Which leads me to Kanye. I was once offered free tickets to see Kanye open for U2, but I had already made unbreakable plans was was forced to pass up the opportunity. My relationship with Kanye started in the fall of 2005. I was living in the dorms at the University of St.Louis-Missouri when hurricane Katrina hit. The kids studying in New Orleans were distributed to colleges all across the nation. I remember sitting on the front porch of my dorm building, smoking Camel cigarettes, when a van pulled up and deposited two such refugees. The school representative helped them with their luggage, gave them vouchers for food, and then basically said “good luck” and drove off. I could tell that these kids were shell-shocked and in need of help. I didn’t really know anyone in St. Louis at the time, having just moved there myself, so I sympathized with them. I took them out for lunch and we became friends. They introduced me to Budweiser (up until that point I did not know there was any variety other than Bud Light), Tyler Perry movies, and Kanye West. LATE REGISTRATION had just dropped and they insisted that I hear it. That was my gateway to rap music, a gift that continues to enrich my life over ten years later.

This year’s LIFE OF PABLO is my number one favorite album. It’s the album I listen to when I run and when I speed to fast on the highway. In short, I need to see this man, but I can’t afford a trip and concert without help. Please take a moment to consider donating to my Go Fund Me campaign.  It feels weird asking for this money, but at the same time you’ll be getting something out of this, too. For starters, I plan on writing extensively about both the lead-up to the concert, the concert, and my post-concert thoughts/feelings. Maybe some of you would pay to NOT get my thoughts on a Kanye West concert, to those people I say: “Why are you still reading this post?” I’m going to reward my top donors with a thank you package and wear the names of everyone who donated to the fund on a special t-shirt when (if?) I attend the show.

I promise not to be annoying about this and post about it ad nauseam. I also won’t make this a “thing” that I do for every concert I go to. I can afford a $35 ticket to see Weezer in the city where I live, I don’t expect people to pick up the tab on that sort of thing. I do feel like I’ve turned my readers onto good albums and songs over the years. And I know I’ve made you laugh (at least once) even it was at me and not necessarily with me…that has to be worth a buck or two, right?

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The Life of Pablo by Kanye West

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This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I love Kanye West. Both the music and the man. This is a rock blog but over the past 10 years or so I’ve warmed to hip-hop, thanks largely in part to the works of Mr. West. I totally get why most people don’t like the persona of Kanye West: he’s brash, arrogant, and sexist. Defending Axl Rose has never been about Axl Rose, but instead about the artists like Rose who operate on a completely different level than 99.999% of the rest of us. These exceptional artists have a vision and spend their lives struggling to bring that vision in its pure, uncompromised, form to the masses. They push boundaries in genre and offer us a window into both the artist and ourselves. Kanye West is a genius on the same level as Brian Wilson. Do I cringe when he belittles Taylor Swift or goes on Twitter and proclaims Bill Cosby “innocent”? Hell yes I do. But Kanye doesn’t really hurt anyone but himself so I forgive him. The music is so good I can overlook his faults.

THE LIFE OF PABLO has been on my must-listen list back when it was called SWISH and WAVES.  When it came out last month, on the Jay-Z backed music streaming service Tidal, I downloaded the Tidal app and contemplated canceling my beloved Spotify subscription just so I could hear the record. I waited, with bated-fanboy breath, for Yeezus to announce when the non-Tidal world would get an opportunity to hear his latest masterpiece. Then the confusion began: the album’s physical sale was delayed and then it was scrapped. West proclaimed his album would never be fore sale on Twitter, despite the fact that he’d already given it away sort of by issuing download codes to the people who attended his NYC fashion show where the album debuted. Now there’s word that Kanye is still editing/changing the album, thus making THE LIFE OF PABLO the Star Wars of rap albums (Kanye = George Lucas).

This review has two paragraphs defending the man and giving context to the release of the album because that’s the only way to interface with Kanye’s music. One can’t like or dislike these tracks without taking the performance art piece that is Kanye West in as a whole. He’s worked (famously) with Paul McCartney and no doubt sees himself as a modern-day John Lennon, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that Kanye West is really the modern-day Yoko Ono (Ono the artist not the Beatle girlfriend).

THE LIFE OF PABLO opens with gospel “Ultralight Beam.” An epic, beautiful track that begins with West’s 4 year old daughter praising Jesus and then builds to a rapturous choir. This song, about as unconventional as a pop song could be, works on a pure emotional level. I’m 100% agnostic but by the time Chance the Rapper comes in near the end I feel like a true Believer. The album descends from the opener’s lofty heights rollercoasting up and down a few times and bottoms out on “FML.” Here is what all the Kanye haters seem to miss about him: he’s not only his own worst enemy, he’s also his biggest critic. “FML” is about how he fucks up his own life. The song is about West’s troubles with infidelity, which is also touched on in “30 Hours” where West feels jealous because he finds himself on the wrong end of an open-relationship (one that he admits he insisted on having). “Real Friends” continues the tradition of “Runaway” and paints West as a workaholic loner who lives in a cold, friendless world. “Wolves” is another somber track where West gives insight into what it’s like to be a solitary figure against the whole of the world. You can’t help but feel sorry for they guy, even when later he compares himself and Kim to Mary and Joseph (yes, that Mary and Joseph).

Of course no review of THE LIFE OF PABLO would be complete without discussing “Famous,” the song where he throws gasoline on his feud with Taylor Swift. I don’t believe Kanye’s assertion that he “made that bitch famous,” but I do think that Swift has greatly benefited from her association with West. Just like Batman needs the Joker, Swift provides the perfect heroic foil to West’s exaggerated douchebag persona. That West has chosen to rag on America’s sweetheart and the music world’s biggest, most popular modern artist isn’t surprising. He’s jealous of her and like the third grade boy tugging his classmates ponytails; he’s picking on her because he likes her. It’s a shame West mars an otherwise perfect song with such a cringeworthy verse. Rihanna and the Sister Nancy sample are such a killer combo and balance West’s tough guy rapping.

My current favorite track, however, is probably the most-Kanye track of all-time. Title “I Love Kanye,” the song is a 43 second song that is just West with no musical accompaniment. The lyrics speak for themselves:

“I miss the old Kanye, straight from the ‘Go Kanye
Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye
I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye
The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye
I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye
I gotta to say at that time I’d like to meet Kanye
See I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes
And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes
I used to love Kanye, I used to love Kanye
I even had the pink polo, I thought I was Kanye
What if Kanye made a song about Kanye
Called “I Miss The Old Kanye,” man that would be so Kanye
That’s all it was Kanye, we still love Kanye
And I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.”

The track ends with West laughing, and it’s a pretty good punchline, but there’s a lot of naked, personal honesty in this song. I don’t see Kanye as the arrogant asshole he’d like us to believe he his. Nor do I view him as the villain his detractors make him out to be. For me, Kanye West is a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions. If he was an oblvious asshole even his biggest fans couldn’t forgive him (myself included). But Kanye is acutely aware of his failings and I think would genuinely like to be the good guy.

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There are no big radio-friendly tracks on THE LIFE OF PABLO. There is no “Gold Digger” or “Touch the Sky” on this record. Even if you hate Kanye and despise rap if you’re a music fan you have to respect that he’s one of the only (if not the only) mainstream artist who make albums. The album as a cohesive, artistic whole has been absent from the modern music scene for nearly 10 years (give or take). But the fact that Kanye agonizes over things like track sequences on his records makes this music fan happy. Don’t listen haphazardly to THE LIFE OF PABLO, instead take it track by track as God…I mean Kanye intended. Then when you’re done go online and seek out the endless stream of “I Love Kanye” remixes that have mushroomed all over the Internet.

I had to torrent this album, which is a real bummer. Hopefully something will change and THE LIFE OF PABLO will become commercially available in a wider-release. Though his mental state may be deteriorating, West’s ability to create intricate, interesting music is only getting stronger.

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Ring in the New Year with Snoop Dogg & Marty James

Well here we are, the end of another year.

After a long absence, I decided to start writing about music again here at Defending Axl Rose. I’d like to think this came about due to personal growth and/or gained musical insight…but the truth is I moved across the country and restarted my blog while I looked for a new job. And for the month I was unemployed Defending Axl Rose had near daily updates. Then I found work and the posts came less frequently. I wish I’d done more, but I suppose could have done much less, too.

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My New Year’s Resolution for 2015 is to write more, not just on Defending Axl Rose but in general. We’ll see. U2 once sang that nothing changes on New Year’s Day, and that’s true it doesn’t. The change happens at 11:59 the night before.

Hoist a glass and say goodbye to 2014 tonight, preferably with some killer tunes.


See you next year.

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Classic Albums Revisited: GORILLAZ

The brainchild of Brit-pop wunderkind Damon Albarn and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz appeared to be a side-project wrapped in a marketing gimmick.  A fake band of anime monkey-kids, are you joking? I distinctly remember thinking Gorillaz was all flash and no substance when the band’s music video for “Clint Eastwood” was all over MTV.  Eventually I sat down and listened to GORILLAZ and to my surprise, the music was stranger than I’d been lead to believe from that first single.  The songs skewed heavily towards electronica and hip-hop, two genres I wasn’t particularly fond of at the time.  I gave up on the album after only one listen and didn’t return to it again until after the band’s second album came out.  I think my biggest gripe with the record was a matter of expectation.  I’d been sold an album by the dude from Blur…but GORILLAZ turned out to be far removed from the classic Brit-pop mold.

Since that first listen I’ve decided that the album’s fusion of genres, the thing that initially turned me off, is ultimately what makes GORILLAZ such a monumental masterwork.  In addition, the first Gorillaz album was my gateway to hip-hop/rap: this album literally expanded my horizons.

Gorillaz Album Art

While the fake band aspect of Gorillaz might seem like just a ploy, I think it’s an integral part of how GORILLAZ  ended up being so special.   Free from the shackles of Blur, Albarn’s little side-project was a ticket to artistic freedom.  Surrounded by a small army of producers, musicians, and rappers, Albarn  felt more comfortable operating in a skin that wasn’t his own.  The goofy cartoon facade allowed him to let his freak flag fly.  It also expanded the very definition of who “the band” was, allowing for more people to participate in the recording of the album than a typical four piece band.  GORILLAZ opens with “Re-Hash,” a song that sends up the notion of pursuing fame and money.  I find it no coincidence that of all the songs on the album, “Re-Hash” is the one that sounds the most like Blur.    From the beginning of the album, Albarn is casting aside his former artistic identity.  After this opening the album descends into Trip-Hop, a fusion of hip-hop and electronica.

The mournful “Tomorrow Comes Today” reflects the loneliness and frustration of being constantly in the public eye, as well as dissatisfaction with the digital age.  Like “Re-Hash,” this song is seems to be a commentary on Albarn’s time in Blur.  Next, the solemn “New Genius (Brother)” fuses a mixture of soul and hip-hop with an ethereal production.  The mysteriously misanthropic lyrics add to the song’s creepy feeling.   Listening to “New Genius” is like taking a slow boat ride with a quiet, angry ghost.  This ghostly quality is carried over into the next song, the single “Clint Eastwood.”

“Clint Eastwood” works as a great single because the band was able to distill the band’s cross-cultural fusion into a tasty pop treat.  With Albarn’s indie-rock hook and Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s rapping how could the song not have been a massive hit? Add a visually striking music video and you have the makings of a monster.  When the video premiered I remember having great difficulty going more than a few hours without seeing it on TV.  And while not as daring or genre bending as some of GORILLAZ’s other tracks, “Clint Eastwood” gently lowers your defenses while at the same time serving as fair warning for what the rest of the album would contain.

“Man Research (Clapper)” comes next, and for me this is where the album truly starts to get interesting.   This droning dance track is lyrically very dark (“to kill the model from my front door”) but features an upbeat tempo and a screeching “yeah!” refrain that belies the song’s violent purpose.  The quick, but effective “Punk” follows, blasting the listener out of the techno trance of “Man Research (Clapper”)”.  A surprisingly straightforward punk song, “Punk” adds yet another genre to an already complex album.

Once again the album quickly changes gears:  “Sound Check (Gravity)” opens with Albarn softly lamenting gravity before descending into a cold, electronica groove of looping samples and record scratches.  The effect is disarming, especially when Albarn sings with himself near the end of song—his depressed lower register doing a duet with his falsetto.  The song ends and GORILLAZ offers up “Double Bass,” the album’s only instrumental.  Like the title suggests, the song is a spacey, bass heavy little ditty.  And while it’s the closest thing to filler on the album, this song is also one of my favorite tracks.  In fact, I wish that there were more short instrumental interludes like “Double Bass” on GORILLAZ.

“Double Bass” makes a great transition into “Rock The House,”  the second rap-heavy track that features Del tha Funkee Homosapien.  The repeated horn loop, taken from a jazz song called “Modesty Blaise,” and the carefree lyrics make “Rock The House” the first truly fun song on the album.  This lightness remains for several more tracks, such as the dubbed out “19-2000″ and the Spanish(?) “Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo).”  The second single off the album, “19-2000” is notable for featuring Japanese singer/guitarist Miho Hatori.  Her presences adds yet another cultural touch to an already global album.

GORILLAZ then begins to descend back into darkness, first with the moody “Starshine” and then with the up-beat sounding but depressing “Slow Country.”  The album then goes full-on dark with the aggressive “M1 A1,” a punky companion to the earlier “Punk.”   It is here that album officially ends, however different regions got different bonus tracks tacked onto the end.  The U.S. version of the album continues with the reggae/ska-tinged “Dracula” which full of both funk and gloom.  The album then wraps up with the East-meets-West mash-up “Left Hand Suzuki Method.” The song’s title, a reference to a famous Japanese method of Violin instruction, echoes the philosophy of GORILLAZ: taking the usual manner of making music and doing it just a little different.  The album’s emotional shape, a parabola of dark to light and back again to dark, gives the album more concept than many so-called concept albums.

What could have been a goofy one-off ended up being the most artistic album of Albarn’s career.  Gorillaz liquid line-up allowed the band to grow and morph several times over on both the album and on subsequent records.  Always keen on staying one step ahead of mass-market appeal, Albarn’s first Gorillaz  record succeeded in being edgy, diverse, and fun.  The album is weird without being weird for the sake of being weird, something that future Gorillaz records would wind up becoming.  I think the level of innovation and artistic daring on display on the album is somewhat lost to history.  Compare GORILLAZ to the top two best selling albums of 2001, HYBRID THEORY by Linkin Park or HOT SHOT by Shaggy, and suddenly the fearless daring of Albarn’s album becomes apparent.

The legacy of GORILLAZ is a world in which genres such as rap, rock, and world music flourish and feed off each other’s creativity in the mainstream.  I’m not suggesting that GORILLAZ was the first time all of these styles commingled, but I do think it was the first successful commercial and artistic fusion of so many different styles and cultures.   And while the lines of genre weren’t forever torn asunder, they were moved to brilliant effect.

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FERAL II: WILDLIFE by New Fad Zoo

New, New Fad Zoo

Barbeques, pool parties, hot chicks, cool dudes and everything in between: welcome to the world of New Fad Zoo.  The Atlanta-based rap group’s second album, FERAL II: WILDLIFE, is another trip down the rabbit hole of expertly crafted music.  Just like on their 2011 debut record, New Fad Zoo blur the lines of genre.  The band expertly marries thoughtful, sometimes funny, lyrics with top-notch musicality.  These guys can do it all: write catchy hooks, pivot from jesting to serious philosophical musing, and create a musically diverse album. 

I was initially skeptical when I saw that band had chosen to name their second album FERAL II.  The idea of sequels, in any media, usually conjures thoughts of desperate cash-ins and creative bankruptcy. Fortunately, FERAL II: WILDLIFE takes the focus and energy of FERAL and expands upon what New Fad Zoo has already done.  Not only did the band avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, but they managed to surpass their first record in every respect.

The delightfully cheeky album opener “Party Animals” asserts dominance over the listener with its funky groove and big cat growl.  New Fad Zoo tosses this goodtime party song off effortlessly, as if writing a fun song were breathing.  The moody “Strobe Lights” explores the darker side of love and the desire for fame and has a hauntingly cold, electronic sound that recalls Kanye West’s 808s AND HEARTBREAKS. Meanwhile the album closer “You Are Loved” is a tender ballad that manages to combine late 1980’s Billy Joel and Outcast (and that’s a good thing).  Any band would be lucky to master one style, New Fad Zoo is adept at all three: modern party song, moody electronic rap, and classic R&B.

FERAL II presents the listener with the complicated worldview of talented young men.  The band’s attitude towards drugs, alcohol, and women schizophrenically seesaws over the course of the album.  Like all good heroes, the boys of New Fad Zoo are complicated–sometimes falling into the trap of objectifying women yet also acknowledging on the track “Triangle” that: “if I had a daughter, I’d surely be pissed if a nigga dared harmed her, but that’s the world we be living in.” The song interestingly asserts that there are three groups in the battle of the sexes: Men, Women, and Bitches.  The song’s hook is sung by the angelic Melanie Annabelle who proclaims, “Women hate bitches, bitches hate men, men want the bitches, and women want men.” New Fad Zoo don’t pass judgment other than to point out that “it’s a fucked up world.” Indeed.

Will Rap 4 Food

New Fad Zoo’s first album had what I proclaimed to be a billion dollar single with “Love Is Wild.”  That song sadly failed to get snatched up by Madison Avenue ad executives or the numbskulls at Clear Channel.  I foolishly didn’t think they boys had it in them to craft another perfect single, but once again they surprised me and minted another $1B song: “Luv Is.”   The hauntingly beautiful hook, provided by Melanie Annabelle, and the awesome Beatles shout-out sold me on the song.  After listening to “Luv Is” a dozen times I’m confident in saying that this is the best song not on the radio today.

It’s easy to gush about FERAL II: WILDLIFE because like its predecessor, the album is the clear result of what happens when talent people pour their hearts out into their work.  There isn’t a single track that feels dashed off or undercooked.  New Fad Zoo clearly loves crafting, not just making, music and it shows.  No track sums this up like “Want It So Bad.” Part inspirational anthem, part pep-talk to themselves, “Want It So Bad” is the answer to the question of whether or not there will be a third New Fad Zoo album–and I can’t wait.

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FERAL by New Fad Zoo

When it comes to finding new, awesome music, I try to be as proactive as possible.  I’ve checked out bands/albums because of reviews I’ve read in magazines (both positive and negative), TV appearances, ads online, and even patches on jackets I see at concerts.  One thing that I am notoriously bad about, however, is taking personal recommendations.

I’m a notorious reader and my office is filled with books that people have given me that I simply “must read.”  I try to get around to them eventually, but I’m fickle when it comes to doing things I “have” or “must” do.  It goes the same way with music.  Since starting DAR, I’ve had more than a few people I both know and don’t know try to give me music I “must” hear.  There’s only a handful of people who can tell me to listen to something that’ll actually convince me drop what I’m doing and put headphones on: one is an Uncle in Tennessee.

Anyway, I was on Facebook and a friend of a friend that I’m somehow friends with (ah, the digital age) posted a link to a Kickstarter fundraiser for his brother’s band. They wanted to go on tour and were trying to raise funds.  I like the idea of Kickstarter, even though I’ve only contributed to one (now two) so I checked out the link.  And thus, I was indoctrinated into the world of New Fad Zoo.

new fad zoo

“I’m what happens when shooting stars and Mars meet, with the Big-Bang theory heartbeat, in High School I hung out with bullies and smart geeks, stoners and jocks, slut goths and car freaks, I ain’t fitting in I’m an artist.”

People are always surprised when they find out I listen to rap (or country for that matter) but the truth is there isn’t a genre of music I don’t like or listen to.  I will say that I’m not as much an authority on rap as I am on rock, pop, and blues.  But I do like rap, in fact, many current readers might be surprised to know that the very first album review posted on this blog was a review of The Beastie Boys HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO.

But I digress.  New Fad Zoo are a quartet of dudes living in Atlanta whose first album, FERAL is the real deal.   What sets New Fad Zoo apart from the mob of pretenders is a knack for strong hooks and a razor sharp wit.  I was  blown away by how musically diverse/textured FERAL is.   Now, I realize that today’s generation of rappers are just as likely to know music and/or play an instrument, but I still feel like many (especially in the underground) still don’t place enough emphasis on music.  A beat is important, but if you can create a musical hook equal or greater to a lyrical hook—then you have a million dollar song.

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New Fad Zoo doesn’t just have a few million dollar songs—they have a couple of billion dollar ones, too.  The heart-felt “Smile 4 Me,” the club-thumping “Ima Needa,” and “Love is Wild.”  I would like to go on record and say that “Love is Wild” is a number 1 record.   Period.  The record industry is all screwed up today, so it might not happen, but some savvy film producer or commercial director place that song in their film/ad it would sell 5 million units on iTunes.  “No Such Utopia” and “Me Against The World” take a break from the fun and are poignant, painfully honest songs about grief, fear, and anger.  In the context of the album, these harder-edged, serious songs provide much needed balance that many artists fail to achieve.

This balance only further underscores the fact that New Fad Zoo are a serious music force.  One that not only gets your head bobbing, but is able to get their songs implanted deep into your brain.

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