The Ultimate Question (N.E.R.D., No_One Ever Really Dies review)

I love it when music gets you questioning the core of things.

If an album can instantaneously shift my thoughts elsewhere, I know that it is moving, effective, and worth my attention. But yet, when it comes from a source that isn’t expected.



N.E.R.D. – No_One Ever Really Dies

released December 15, 2017
******** 8/10

Pharell Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shae Haley are lifelong friends and the members of the rock. funk and hip hop group N.E.R.D.. They formed back in 1999 as a side project for Williams and Hugo’s production team, The Neptunes; which had been producing songs for several artists throughout the late nineties and early 2000s, including another childhood friend, Timbaland. Their first album In Search Of… debuted at number 61 on the Billboard 200 in 2002, and sold 600K copies in the US, giving it gold status by the RIAA.

The second single, Rock Star, was what first drew my attention to the group.

Since that time N.E.R.D. have released four more studio albums with No_One Ever Really Dies showing up after a seven year absence from the public eye. Pharrell is probably the best known of the three members, having created two solo albums of his own (remember that single Happy that was part of the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack?), and also branching out into various media including film and clothing retail.

2017 will likely be remembered as the year of minority rights, especially as it relates to the first year of President Trump in the minds of American musicians. There were some great albums out there that reflected this from LCD Soundsystem, Sampha, Tyler, the Creator, Jay Z, Vince Staples, Common (technically over a year ago BUT STILL RELEVANT), and not surprisingly, Kendrick Lamar.

So why does this album work? Well believe it or not, conscious hip hop seems to be here to stay and N.E.R.D. were already diverse enough to take on the mantle without it hurting their street cred. Whereas someone like Eminem did make similar tone choices and even collaborated with similar artists on his own responsive album Revival, but his album just doesn’t stand up. And yea, Eminem was arguably the King of Hip Hop between 1995 and 2005, be he hasn’t really evolved in a constructive way in the past ten years, and the fact that he was a big deal with a distinct sound may be what hurt him this year.

I realize I’m almost four hundred words into this post and I still haven’t spoken about the songs on it. But the reason why I haven’t decided to focus on the songs themselves is because N.E.R.D. has always been a backburner to the genius of The Neptunes. All of their ideas and talent and creativity channelled into other artists, and the energy we got on In Search Of… and other albums was realistically a rougher and more exploratory sampling of what Williams and co. had left in their tanks at the end of a long journey. But that’s a good thing here.

It seems like no one really knows what to do about all of the problems going on in the world and America is so desperate to address all of it’s problems that music activism is in demand right now. N.E.R.D. have taken all of that energy and channeled it into a mix of feelings yet again. And that’s why this album is so appropriate for it’s time. We need rock, funk, R&B, soul, disco, pop, and hip hop all to work together for once, because if we don’t try to get along it’s only going to get worse out there.

Now is it innovative? No, because the musical themes are all ones that N.E.R.D. have been exploring for a decade, which is why it doesn’t get an A+. But improvement is still improvement folks.


Pros: Lemon and Don’t Don’t Do it are just amazing to listen to. Courtesy of Rihanna’s jaw-dropping rap and Kendrick Lamar’s choice verses, respectively. But the nervous energy and urgency of the whole record are cathartic to listen to, knowing that N.E.R.D. like to force weird shapes like prog-rock and soul together.

Cons: Some of these artist collaborations are a little too serious for the sweet mixture of silly and subversive that N.E.R.D. are tapping into. Ahem, Future.

Runtime: 51 minutes

Points of Interest: Don’t Don’t Do It!” features K. Dot and Frank Ocean, and is inspired by the police shooting death of North Carolina’s Keith Lamont Scott. Ed Sheeran features on the reggae closer Lifting You.

What I find most interesting about this album is that the quality of the music has greatly improved over the span of five studio length records. And whether the woke tone of this music sits well with you or not, N.E.R.D. have managed a way to weave it all together and get you questioning whether they are serious about the subject matter or simply exploiting it to move us forward another decade ahead of schedule, as per usual.

theories Summarized

Optimism is important in this day and age. Should you buy this album. Yes, I think you should. And my theory is that it was designed to elevate your mood, but also get you thinking about the reality of these atrocities we are all witness to on a daily basis. It’s almost impossible to have a full understanding of every angle, but N.E.R.D. have managed once again to provide us with yet another perspective on police brutality, transgender issues, black and minority rights, and the harshness of anti-immigration without ham-fisting everything. It’s a theory I’ll happily pack into explosive force of love.


And He Kept On Preaching In The Synagogues (JAY-Z, 4:44 review)

If I owned a sports bar, clothing line, sports agency, and multi-millions in real estate and art investments, people would probably come running to hear me too.


JAY-Z – 4:44

released Jun 30, 2017
********** 10/10

Sean Corey Carter, bettter known by his stage name JAY-Z, which has also been written as Jay-Z, Jay Z, Jay:Z and Jaÿ-ZJay-Z, Jay Z, Jay:Z and Jaÿ-Z, is an American rapper and businessman. Or should I say, business, man? As it says directly on the album cover, this is his thirteenth studio album, and it’s probably one of this most mature efforts yet.

I mean yeah, Reasonable Doubt was groundbreaking, and The Blueprint a masterpiece, while The Black Album made us miss him, but 4:44 is his apologetic letter for being an asshole, and man does it sing with sincerity and truth. It’s personal, poetic, and poised to take the place of top hip hop record of the year, ironic given that his wife had a top charting album last year. JAY-Z is a legend, and 4:44 is his opportunity to put together an album for him. This is not a cool album, trying to keep up with current day hip hop, there are no singles here. If anything, it sounds like it was put together quickly and abruptly.

So yeah, this is and isn’t a response to Lemonade. It’s more about us getting to see JAY-Z as a fallible human. He raps about being black and racial inequalities, infidelity, his daughter, politics, his personal wealth, and a total dismissal of his ego. It’s fucking brilliant.

But it’s not for your average fan, it’s for those who appreciate his legacy and understand who he is and what he has done for the game.

Kill Jay-Z is a direct reference to the time that Solange Knowles attacked him in an elevator, and it brings up the degradation of his friendship with Kanye West. Also he apologizes for the first time officially to Beyonce, confirming that Lemonade is a true account. He later does that and more on title track 4:44, especially apologizing to all of the women in his life that he has played.

One of my favourites songs is The Stoy of O.J. and it features my favourite line of the album too. This comes when Hova raps “I’m not black, I’m OJ….OK” that sarcasm is a beautiful aftertaste to the cutting wine it was served with. But it’s not like Jay hasn’t rapped about his financial freedom before, nor the fact that black people won’t have security until they understand how Jewish people get rich off of credit. A bold statement within a real album.

Smile is another essential track about his mother Gloria Carter, who outs herself as a lesbian, but JAY-Z lovers her all the more, and encourages all of us to love who we love because life is ever-changing.

We get to see the classic dissing raps of older Jay on Caught Their Eyes and  Marcy Me, going after Prince’s Estate on the first of these two tracks, respectively. Or should I say disrespectively?

Of course the middle of the record also features Family Feud which is a gold mine of lyrics and beats from the heart. It addresses the old schools and new of hip hop, with Jay-Z proving that he has still got it, after all, on track closer, Legacy, he proves family extends to all black people. He wants to leave something meaningful behind in his business work.

Pros: Absolutely essential tracks to this record are The Story of O.J., Smile, and Family Feud. But every song has an element of sincerity to it, making this the most intimate JAY-Z album to-date.

Cons: It’s somewhat awkward to listen to Bam and Caught Their Eyes, they aren’t the most flow friendly tracks. Also that awkward hook on Moonlight about the La La Land fiasco. Seriously?

Runtime: 36 minutes

Points of Interest: Featuring appearances from his daughter Blue Ivy, his mother Gloria Carter, Frank Ocean, The-Dream, and wife Beyonce, this stripped down album has a certain vulnerability to it which we’ve never seen before.

As I mentioned before, this is not your latest and greatest clubbing hip hop record. It is chock full of thoughtful and revealing songs, and deserves the attention of an alumni of JAY-Z’s work. To say that he is the greatest rapper of all time isn’t that big of a boast – the confessional nature of this record solidifies his reputation.

theories Summarized

If it hasn’t been made clear for you just yet, JAY-Z is a business, man. Him and Diddy are almost tied for the most financial successful rappers of all time . But that’s not what this album is about. It’s a testimonial to his screwups, him owning his coldness, and settling into middle age. Hova has worked with so many different arists over the years, but I find it fitting to mention his 2004 collaboration with Linkin Park before I close this post off. RIP Chester Bennington. Jazzy will hold it down for you from here on out.


Arm Chair Philosophy (Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory review)

Philosophy is a wonderful thing. Rich, compelling, and full of room to experiment, because there isn’t one world view per se.


Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

released Jun 23, 2017
******* 7/10

Vincent Jamal Staples, better known by his stage name, Vince Staples, is an American rapper and member of the hip hop group Cutthroat Boyz. He has also been associated with Odd Future and gained attention by making appearances on their albums as well from a mixtape he worked on with Mac Miller, Stolen Youth.

Staples debut album, Summertime ’06, was already released two years ago, which is why his sophomore effort, Big Fish Theory, has a lot to say for itself and about this new renaissance of hip hop, EDM and pop. Much like his contemporaries, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Childish Gambino (who is supposedly leaving music behind), Staples is perfectly comfortable with living in the weirdness of our generation. That means producing a record which could be ethereal and amelodic or one that combines sounds of the past to propel us into the future. Big Fish Theory is the later.

And I have to wonder if calling upon his previous skills as a documentarian, celebrating a self-proclaimed posthumous guardianship of Amy Winehouse, who features on Alyssa Interlude, and his hyperawareness of his own mortality/celebrity are the driving factors of Staples’ successes here or merely a perk when listening to the record.

The weirdness shows throughout the whole album, and might be best demonstrated in one of the later songs, Party People. Staples raps about how you can either move to the music if it hits you right OR you can sit there in your depression swimming with thoughts and a heavy heart, after all, the world is dark for some of us. This is not your baby sisters hip hop, nor is it aunties or grandpas. These beats are different then pretty much anything I’ve ever heard, and it works well, most of the time.

Not only that, but Vince Staples is happy to push his collaborators into the backdrop and have them as part of the song rather then front and centre, in fact he even pushes himself into a minor role on one of the songs. Kendrick Lamar fits nicely inside Yeah Right, an attack on the chest-puffing of most rap tracks. And there are definitely blink and you might miss it appearances from Juicy J, ASAP Rocky, Kilo Kish, Ray J, Ty Dolla Sign, and Damon Albarn.

The challenges with this album come in on the structure and organization of the songs, which can be heard best when you listen to tracks like Crabs In A Bucket, Love Can Be…, and Ramona Park Is Yankee Stadium. The questions I have immediately are around the experimentation. Exploration is awesome, but do these really compliment Staples cadence and content? It’s interesting for sure to have the bird calls, sirens, and whistling winds, but where is this going? Crabs In A Bucket sets the stage for a complex album, but it doesn’t feel like his strongest work, for sure.

That said, there are some really surprisingly fun tracks like 745 and Rain Come Down that intrigue despite shortcomings. Tonally these suit Staples well and the melodic choices sync up well with the speed at which he lays down his lyrics, but the best parts come from the verses and his rapping.

It is an experimentation of electronic music and hip hop, the kind of thing which metal-hip hop hybrid groups of the 1990s tried to accomplish but never really pulled off. And maybe that’s because those artists were metal first and hip hop second. Vince Staples confidence is so much more convincing.

Pros: Big Fish, the aforementioned Yeah Right and Party People are absolutely necessary on this album. An exploration of suicidal thoughts, the nature of hip hop, and what needs to happen next, Big Fish Theory is conscious hip hop, even if it isn’t labelled as such.

Cons: Rain Come Down is a little off in its warbling and takes the album into weird territory just as Big Fish Theory ends, much like how Crabs In A Bucket has a shaky start, it’s the middle of this record that does best.

Runtime: 36 minutes

Points of Interest: Influenced by house music and Detroit techno, Big Fish Theory calls up avant-garde electronica, funk, industrial music and a host of other sounds to afford Vince Staples with the creative expression he needs to transcend his environment. That Def Jam supports this sort of experimentation is fantastic, despite how discomfiting it is for most hip hop fans.

When music separates itself from it’s environment for even a second, acknowledges the world around it, and then zooms back in, it’s often a pleasing experience, and luckily for us world weary philosopher Vince Staples shared his Big Fish Theory with us.

theories Summarized

Keeping an open mind and heart is a wonderful philosophy and I hope Staples inspires other musicians to continue this trend. Yes, there will be blips in the road along the way, but how wonderful it is that we can have some good hip hop and EDM combined together for once, rather then remixes and overdubs. And that’s my personal big fish theory.


A State of Depression (Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!” review)

When you care, you can come off a little creepy. Especially when you put a little stank on it.

This is why it’s important to inject some passion and some perspective into your music, it gives the audience a point of leverage and an opportunity to empathize with you.

Take this week’s album review for instance…

Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
released December 2, 2016
******** 8/10


Donald Glover is an American actor, writer, comedian, and musician. When making music he either goes by the stage name Childish Gambino (performing) or mcDJ (disc jockey). As a recording artist, he usually performs under the stage name Childish Gambino, and as a disc jockey, he performs under the name mcDJ.

His breakout role was with the Derrick Comedy group, followed quickly by writing for 30 Rock and with support from Tina Fey. He later got a role as Troy on the NBC sitcom Community and now stars in the FX series Atlanta which he created. And if that’s not enough cool for school, Glover has voiced the Ultimate version of Spider-man on an animated series and will be portraying a young Lando Calrissian in the standalone Han Solo movie.

Glovers first album Camp came out in 2011, followed by Because the Internet in 2013 and most recently “Awaken, My Love!”, which is why we’re here after all.

It was odd to pick up this album last week, know that it was released in hushed whispers, be very aware that Childish Gambino had disengaged with his previous model of work AND still feel like this was coming out of absolutely no where. I really wanted to hear more nerd hip hop because I had had a taste for it twice already, but that is not what this album is. Childish warned us he was a quiting the hip hop game, and he did.

It’s a love letter to the 1970s, with equal measures of soul, funk, R&B and psychedelic rock dispersed throughout. You can tell that Childish did his research and made sure to reference many of the greats of the era, while infusing his own emotion and experience into it. It’s incredibly engaging and makes me feel the feelings. You’ll probably connect best with Me and Your Mama right out of the gate, but the themes in Boogieman and Zombies remind me of that younger/sillier Donald Glover and taste pretty sweet.

In the wake of a Donald Trump presidency, not unlike Common did recently with Black America Again, this feels like an emotional outcry against prejudice, fear, hate, and anxieties of all stripes. Have Some Love Riot and Terrified practically lay it out there for you to scoop up and eat.

I think Baby Boy is my favourite though now that I think about it through and through. It’s rather sentimental and sweet, full of harmonies and soft sounds, and likely inspired by the birth of his son.

Childish Gambino might not have enjoyed putting this album together, it was a complete left turn for him when you consider it, but it’s very apparent that he is tapping into something different, possibly inspired by his new show Atlanta. The nerd rap was an important part of his identity when he was working on the show Community, working to find a voice and separate from the pack, but tapping into funk while he helms the ship makes sense. There are a lot more emotions to navigate and way less certainty of the destination.




If you haven’t already been convinced to pickup this incredibly soulful effort by Childish Gambino, I don’t know what you’ve been doing for the last 598 words, but this is it folks, this is creative experimentation that works and while it isn’t perfect, it’s far more ambitious than some of the other musicians I’ve reviewed this past year. For real. Could just be a theory though.


Sweet Stardust of a Thriller, Boy (The Weeknd, Starboy review)

The synthesizer seems to be back in full force ladies and gentlemen. That desire for quality samples, lossless file compression and physical models seems to be something that most if not all top shelf pop music trend setters are using right now.

But for why?

The Weeknd – Starboy
released November 25, 2016
******* 7/10


Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, known professionally as The Weeknd, is a Canadian singer, songwriter, and record producer. The Weeknd got his start by anonymously uploading several songs to YouTube under the pseudonym “The Weeknd,” of all things. At that time he had released three nine-track mixtapes throughout 2011: House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. Which surprisingly enough to many critics at the time, were received quite well. In 2012 he decided to release a compilation album known as Trilogy, effectively the remastered mixtapes he had released before but with three additional tracks and totally thirty songs alotogether. It was released under Republic Records and his own label XO.

In 2013 he released his first studio-length album Kiss Land, which featured the singles Kiss Land and Live For. But it was his second album, Beauty Behind the Madness that really charted his success. This is where Earned It, The Hills, and Can’t Feel My Face factor in. Fun fact, these songs made him the first artist to simultaneously hold the top three spots of the Billboard Hot R&B Songs chart. The Weeknd has also won two Grammy’s and been nominated for an Academy Award.

Oh, and did I mention that he’s Canadian? Yeah Canadian content!

But what about Starboy? Well, look what you’ve done… I’m a motherfuckin’ starboy.

This record starts off quite strong, Starboy, Party Monster, and False Alarm in particular hold your attention with their commitment to the beats The Weeknd and his team of production engineers are famous for. After all, we know he isn’t doing this all on his lonesome. Which reminds me, I think that Stargirl might be the most fascinating interlude/intermission I’ve heard in years. Lana Del Rey is excellent as the female foil to The Weeknd, and she manages enough tension to keep the pace of the record, at least for a little while.

Now let’s consider the album as a whole for a moment. I have this rather wild theory that The Weeknd might not have had as much time with this project as he would have liked. He’s known for his ability to construct strong narrative levelled projects, I’m looking at you Trilogy.

And while Starboy (the album, not the song) is mostly about The Weeknd’s relationship with a woman, that message doesn’t easily come through. The collaboration with Kendrick Lamar on Sidewalks for instance, is kinda cool, but feels out of place, if I’m being really honest. Also am I crazy for hearing Michael Jackson AND David Bowie when I listen to his voice long enough?

Probably not, because The Weeknd is more than capable of floating between pop, rap, R&B, disco and electronica. Hell, he can even do 1980s pop justice. Maybe that’s where the deceased pop stars come in…

And while The Weeknd has en endearingly dark and uniquely hedonistic voice in the realm of music, it can be a bit much to stomach his lyrics against those typical pop structures. That, and as I mentioned already, the narrative doesn’t feel as tight on this album. Abel Makkonen Tesfaye is more than capable of being a motherfuckin’ starboy and he knows it, but this album isn’t him at his best.




I have this theory that analog synthesizers went out and digital synthesizers came in because they were cheaper, but nowadays that isn’t really a motivating factor for musicians.

However, the variety of sounds that digital synth offers feels unrivalled in many cases. And when an artist is capable of spreading their music talent across several genres, employing synthesizers to craft that sounds seems like a natural fit. The Weeknd gets this, and when he spends his time on both production and telling a strong story, it makes all the difference. Starboy might not be the greatest, but The Weeknd sure is a star boy.