The Vibranium Standard (Kendrick Lamar, Black Panther: The Album – Music from and Inspired By review)

 

Comic book movie soundtracks are supposed to remind you of the movie, and by and large, most of them do the trick, though my favourites have always been the original Spider-Man trilogy OSTs. And it’s tough to stand up to those Sam Raimi films when we’re talking about thematic music. Nobody does it better then Danny Elfman, except maybe, Kendrick Lamar.

 

Kendrick Lamar – Black Panther: The Album, Music from and Inspired By

released February 9, 2018
******** 8/10

Black Panther: The Album – Music from and Inspired By (also known as Black Panther: The Album) is a soundtrack album for Marvel Studios latest and greatest, Black Panther. In case that wasn’t obvious to you yet, this is a project with some weight behind it.

Now, to be perfectly honest, this isn’t a Kendrick Lamar album, but it must as well be his love letter to Blaxploitation music of the 1970s and 1990s gangsta rap, with a conscious hip hop flavour of the day.

He pretty much curated the whole thing, and shows up on at least 40% of it’s tracks. His record label, Top Dawg Entertainment, also takes a producers credit. Consequently, each of the featured artists work really well together, and each song adds to the theme of the movie, with Lamar typically sounding the weakest of any of the authors. But if Lamar is one of the worst parts, then why do I say that this is a Kendrick Lamar album? Mainly, because he is all over the record, providing direction to it’s theme, and even Kendrick Lamar at his worst is far more interesting then the majority of commercial artists out there today.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time going over each of the individual tracks, but you should know that the themes of blackness as identity, politics, royalty, spirituality, and vulnerability all work together to show off the strengths of the movie, without actually being included in the film score. That’s right, this is a soundtrack inspired by the film, but when you listen to it, there are obvious lyrics which connect us to both protagonist T’Challa, and villain Killmonger.

Pros: There is a lot of amazing cultural influence going on here, from The Weeknd, to Vince Staples. to Khalid, to Schoolboy Q, to Ab-Soul, to Jayrock. It’s A-list hip hop and R&B artists working in concert to send a message about responsiblity.

Cons: If you are hoping for a follow-up to Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 studio album, Damn., then you are going to be disappointed. And as much as this is a Kendrick Lamar influenced soundtrack album, it would have benefited from being a true Kendrick Lamar album with artist features where necessary.

Runtime: 49 minutes

Points of Interest: In it’s first two weeks out, Black Panther: The Album has remained No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. There are a handful of direct references to the movie in certain tracks, rapped by Kendrick Lamar himself.

Getting the support of artists like 2 Chainz and Future is important to a whos-who of contemporary hip hop, but what is even more significant is the message contained therein and the status of the film as it reinforces the voices it needs to be heard. I haven’t seen the movie myself yet, but listening to the soundtrack on repeat of this week is making me even more impatient to check it out.

theories Summarized

It’s not a perfect album, but it is an essential soundtrack collection, and the best representation of a current hip hop to a commercial audience. I’m impressed by the album overall, and while Lamar is a bit subdued in the presentation, his voice continues to stand head and shoulders above the crowd.

And speaking of Kendrick Lamar, my official video review of David Bowie’s Blackstar is now up. In this video Brendon and I tackle the final work of Ziggy Stardust with humour, inspiration, and an extra-special dose of smooth jazz. And if you want to figure out the Lamar/Bowie connection, you’ll just have to watch the video.

Thanks for taking the time to read the review, watch the video review and hopefully you’ve left a comment or two. If you liked what you saw, click on the like button, and even better, subscribe to the channel! Come back tomorrow for a film review about The Florida Project. There’ll be more theories!

Tim!

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.

Tim!

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.

Tim!

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

starboy

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.

Tim!

 

I Have Been Over The Rainbow (The Avalanches, Wildflower review)

We’ve witnessed lots of absenteeism in music over the years, but my all-time favourite probably came from Guns ‘n Roses and their lack of interest in seeing Chinese Democracy arrive in a timely manner, at all.

So I skipped out on it, I mean fuck’em right? Well not so, well, not entirely. Chinese Democracy didn’t have the hitmaking power of Appetite for Destruction, nor the sweeping epic of Use Your Illusion I & Use Your Illision II, but it’s a pretty solid album on it’s own. Just thirteen years later.

Well today, we look at an album sixteen years in the making.

 

 

 

The Avalanches – Wildflower
released July 8, 2016
******** 8/10

avalanches-wildflower

The Avalanches are an Australian group that started spinning records back when I was still in junior high school. Or to put it another way, way, way back in 1997. They were making plunderphonics back before I even knew that that was a cool way to make music.

I don’t want to dwell too much on what plunderphonics is, but if you are familiar with pretty much any other existing audio recording ever, than you’ll understand that combining existing samples and/or altering them allows for a track to enter into the mix. Pun intended.

The Avalanches current lineup consists of Robbi Chater, Tony Di Blasi, and James Dela Cruz, but they’ve gone through a huge rotation with five other band members coming and going. Incidentally this has something to do with the fact that the group released their debut album Since I Left You in 2000, but haven’t put any studio albums out since that first one.

The reason for this is because of many personal issues the band faced, between Chater being ill for three years, and issues of too many songs to choose from, the band was faced with the problem of genius and perfectionism. And so here we are sixteen years later. But you know what, Wildflower is still a delight to listen to. It reminds me of The Go! Team, Beastie Boys, Gorillaz, Jackson 5, and Canadian favourite Caribou all mashed together into one giant happy, fuzzy, sleepover with rainbow pillows and unicorn blankets.

Remember when I mentioned a while back that jazz music has been making a resurgence via successful acts like Leon Bridges and Kendrick Lamar? Well, The Avalanches are hopping on this bandwagon of rather raw music and the results are coming up nicely. It never feels like a strong narrative, but it doesn’t produce nostalgia.

For instance, those tweeting birds on Zap! takes me right back to the soundtrack of that Sleeping Beauty movie from the 1950s.

I would be remiss to break down this review into particular tracks and emotions, because I think that you’ll get more out of it just diving right in and considering the source material. Seriously.

Now it is a little sad that founding member Darren Seltmann opted out before the album finished, but it is comforting to know that co-founders Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi are still there for us. And for such a nostalgia trips, this feels very present in our time space. It is both jazz and pop infused, and good music fans know that those genres are very “lit” right now.

 

 

 

I would argue that The Avalanches have produced a much cooler vehicle than Guns ‘n Roses, but it does help that they sampled the Mega Man 2 death sounds and featured cereal eating alongside their hip hop.

It’s not a perfect record, but it is very accessible if you are a fan of generation sweeping music. I hope you listen and I bet you’ll find some great samples that make your own heart all weepy.

See ya tomorrow with another nostalgia trip, this time a movie about the 1980s.

Tim!