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Listmas 2014: The Top 50 Albums of the Year [#10-1]

This is it! The final post of 2014 also marks the conclusion of Listmas and specifically this Top 50 Albums of 2014 countdown. It’s been a long road with plenty of bumps and delays along the way, but we’ve finally reached the peak of this imaginary mountain. At this point I’d like to give a special thank you to everyone who read something, clicked on something or downloaded something here at Faronheit over 2014. All of the content that’s posted here is for you to discover and enjoy, and I’m grateful for anyone who visits with that intention. It hasn’t been the best year for the site content-wise, but the hope is to generate more and return to form in 2015. Typically I’d tease a bunch of new features and exciting things in development for next year, but honestly most of that stuff either gains no traction or simply falls off never to be heard from again, so let’s just stick to the mantra of more everything and go from there.

So what can I say about these Top 10 Albums of 2014? Well, like the other entries in this list, there’s plenty of variety in terms of genre and style. It goes from weird to fun to noisy to sexy to relaxing to adventurous and back again. If you’ve been following me on Instagram these last few weeks, you’ve been given access to an early preview of the eclectic Top 5, though I can assure you that #6-10 are as equally exciting and wonderful. And hey, while I wasn’t able to write a lot of album and show reviews this year, some of the ones I did write about make an appearance here. Also worth mentioning: a particular pair of artists who are members of my Class of 2014 had an exceptionally great year, helping to continue to support that program. So I’m not going to spend any extra time talking this up. Please join me past the jump for the big reveal of my absolute favorite albums of the year.

Previously: [#50-41] [#40-31] [#30-21] [#20-11]

Album Review: Kanye West – Yeezus [Def Jam]

“How much do I not give a fuck? / Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up.” These are the words Kanye West spits out in the bridge to the song “On Sight,” the opening track off his new record Yeezus. It’s likely he’s addressing the media when saying them, however it makes a grand statement about the album as a whole. After a few records of ever-evolving but always smartly constructed and commercially accessible hip hop, West has had enough. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a crowning achievement of the highest order, enough to be called one of (if not THE) greatest records of the century. Crafting a follow-up certainly wouldn’t be easy, but in many ways West makes it look like child’s play. Those looking for challenging and obtuse in their hip hop will find it on this new album in spades, and though he’s purposely tried to avoid releasing any singles, it’s going to happen anyways since “Black Skinhead” has caught on.

Unlike the boisterous arrangements and orchestral flourishes that populated his last record, Yeezus goes for the stripped down, attack dog approach. West is angry at the world it seems, and though he throws out a lot of hate, he rarely threatens actual violence, which has largely been the case since the beginning of his career and has helped to separate him from his peers. Still, women don’t fare well on this record, particularly on the extremely sexual “I’m In It,” which includes lines like, “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign,” and the cringe-worthy “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce.” The only real “redemption” (if you can call it that) for women comes on the final track “Bound 2,” which is rumored to be written about his relationship with Kim Kardashian. Elsewhere he chooses to go anti-corporate advertising with a track like “New Slaves,” slamming corporations and any famous people (especially other rappers) accepting goods in exchange for promotions and shout outs. Ironic then how closely his pal Jay-Z is working with Samsung for the release of his new album. Also unlike his last album, West keeps the guests to a minimum on Yeezus, and several tracks feature only his voice, though with a fair number of samples and “producers” working on them. Frank Ocean shows up for a few seconds on “New Slaves,” and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon gets a couple of dramatic vocal workouts on “I Am A God,” “Hold My Liquor” and “I’m In It.” Though Kid Cudi shows up for a verse on “Guilt Trip,” the only other guests are up-and-coming Chicago rappers Chief Keef and King Louie, on “Hold My Liquor” and “Send It Up,” respectively. Everybody’s great, but West truly shines when he’s flying solo.

The divorce drama of “Blood on the Leaves” is the absolute greatest and most powerful piece on the entire album, buttressed by a Nina Simone vocal sample and a piece of TNGHT’s “R U Ready” that provide a profound mixture of sadness and venom. The acid-house squelch sample from Phuture’s 1987 classic “Acid Tracks” cut, which inspired a generation of rock bands from that era (Nine Inch Nails included) helps drive “On Sight” to an intense degree, and brings a certain synth element to this record that West has never attempted before. That sort of sound works well on a number of album tracks, but perhaps “I Am A God”‘s Blade Runner-esque haze with a Daft Punk production assist matches up best overall, somehow able to handle both a goofy eye-rolling moment like the line, “Hurry up with my damn croissants,” and the terrified, breathless screams that show up at the end. The only track that really breaks from the unified bare-bones production on this record is “Bound 2,” which smashes together The Ponderosa Twins’ “Bound” with Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s” and Wee’s “Aeroplane (Reprise)” in a melody that sounds like t was ripped straight out of one of West’s first two albums.

Still, the generally minimalist (down to the cover art) and rock n’ roll-like approach he takes on much of Yeezus is new territory for him to explore, and something that feels informed at least in part by some of the incredible, anti-commercial anger that has earned Death Grips the right kind of attention over the last couple years. Hip hop in general could use more of this type of boundary exploration. In this particular case the strategy is likely West’s attempt to feed his own ego; to prove that no matter what he does or how much he alienates his own fans, he will still be praised as the greatest thing to ever happen in music. The worst part about it is, to some degree he’s right. Very few, if any, rap artists can claim to have such an acclaimed and lucrative career over a 10-year period. The same can be said about almost every musician outside of that genre too. You hate to give such a self-aggrandizing figure even more ammunition, but full credit where credit is due, Yeezus is another near-masterpiece.

Kanye West – Hold My Liquor (ft. Chief Keef and Justin Vernon)

Buy Yeezus from Amazon

Album Review: Frank Ocean – Channel Orange [Def Jam]

Frank Ocean’s sexuality shouldn’t matter. Why his revelation that he’s bisexual has made so many waves (pun intended) is because people working in the hip hop and R&B genres are often considered intolerant of anyone who’s not 100% straight. There’s a fair amount of anti-gay rhetoric and hurtful slang used in tracks without even blinking an eye or somebody speaking out against it, and so for Ocean to come out in that sort of environment takes an incredible amount of courage. He’s weathered the storm quite well so far, though the realities of his situation might be a bit different than what we’re seeing through the eyes of the media. Now let’s just hope he doesn’t get stereotyped because of it, or made an unofficial spokesperson for all things bisexual or homosexual in the music community. The ultimate hope is that if you make great art that people will see past any labels and appreciate it solely for what it is. The great news for Ocean is that his newest album Channel Orange does exactly that, transcending topical, musical and many other boundaries to help make it one of the most fascinating and exciting full lengths of 2012 so far.

Whether you’ve been paying close attention to the R&B and urban styles of music the last few years or not, chances are you’ve become aware that the increased popularity of AutoTune has been both a help and a hindrance to music in general. At its best, AutoTune is another creative tool that can be used to take vocals or accent tracks in ways many never thought possible until now. At its worst, it’s an annoyance, detracts from the humanity in a song, and allows singers to cheat by taking their vocals to places they couldn’t otherwise go on their own. Ocean doesn’t use AutoTune on Channel Orange, nor is it apparent that he needs to. His vocals are smooth as silk, and his range is far more vast than you might expect. Listening to opening track “Thinkin Bout You,” Ocean holds a pretty even keel together until the chorus hits. Reacting to being wounded by a love interest, he flips into a soaring falsetto that makes for an impressive emotional outpouring of his pain. Sad though it may be, it’s also one of several very catchy songs on this record.

The lightly bouncing and effortless “Sweet Life” celebrates the excess associated with being rich, ultimately settling on the very addictive creed of, “Why see the world/when you’ve got the beach?” But that sort of reaction isn’t meant to be taken at face value, instead it’s more about the search for meaning beyond what money and the song’s title describe. Similarly, “Super Rich Kids” uses a plodding piano chord that sounds like it was ripped from Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” to both mock a life of massive weath and relate to the consistently greedy emptiness it causes. “A million one, a million two/a hundred more will never do,” he sings like a man trapped in a prison of money from which there is no escape. As a 24-year-old still in the earliest stages of his career, Ocean isn’t nearly at the point yet where he could be considered a financial heavyweight. These songs aren’t so much personal stories or feelings he’s describing, but rather character morality tales that are always human and surprisingly relatable. “Crack Rock” turns a drug addict into somebody we can sympathize with, while “Lost” is about the personal relationship between a drug dealer and a drug mule, how they may love each other but can’t stop using one another either. Love and religion intertwine on “Monks,” where the passion a crowd has for a musician parallels that of a deity, the Dalai Lama and Buddhism being the example used. Thematically similar but all the more devastating is “Bad Religion,” where he likens unrequited love to a cult because of its exclusivity, obsession and inability to give anything back to you. The line in the chorus, “I can never make him love me,” is thought by many to be related to the letter he wrote about his attraction to a man that didn’t feel the same way. Whether or not that’s actually the case, the frustration and sadness in his voice is very, very affecting.

Lyrical content and stories aside, Channel Orange also has plenty to offer in terms of composition. This is not your standard R&B slow jam style record. Ocean is offering up so much more than contemporary leaders of the genre like R. Kelly and Usher are trying these days. The risks he’s taking have more in common with Kanye West’s last album, the near perfect My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, than almost anything else around. If that record set a new bar for hip hop, Ocean’s seeks to set a new bar for R&B. He’s taking many of the greats such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Prince, and applying some of their best qualities in mind to tracks that are extremely modern in body. The organ and spoken word opening of “Bad Religion” is eerily reminiscent of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” but moves in a polar opposite direction with the entrance of mournful piano chords and dramatic orchestration. Southern style rhythm guitar and church organ blend quite effortlessly with drum machine beats on closing track “Forrest Gump,” and together they give the song a tenderness that betrays a line like, “I wanna see your pom-poms from the stands.” If you really want to understand what this record is all about and see how Ocean has turned R&B on its head, look no further than “Pyramids.” The sprawling, nearly 10 minute track moves from ambient electronica to dancefloor synth-pop to a soulful slow jam to a psychedelic guitar solo without ever sounding out of place or clumsy. Altogether it’s unlike anything else in music today, and it’s that much more brilliant because of it.

If Channel Orange has one problem, it’s sticking with the time honored tradition of adding interludes between a few songs to expand its overall length and track listing. Some of them, like “Fertilizer” and “White,” serve more like brief sketches of songs and glimpses of potential wasted. The bookend tracks titled “Start” and “End” feel even more pointless, the former using the sound of a Playstation powering on while the latter has the sound of somebody getting out of their car and walking into their house. Only “Not Just Money,” featuring a woman talking about how there’s more to life than dollars and cents as she struggles to feed her family, actually feels appropriately used. It’s sandwiched in between “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids,” emphasizing the moral lessons they’re looking to teach. Outside of those shrug-worthy and mostly pointless moments, everything else about this album is ironclad and near perfect. While it lacks the same theatricality and reinvention, Channel Orange can be favorably compared to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust record. Following on the heels of his controversial 1972 interview in which he confessed to being gay (which later turned out to be…not so much), Bowie was on the verge of calling it quits. Coupled with the legendary Ziggy Stardust however, Bowie’s profile rose significantly and he became the powerful force in music that many look up to today. Ocean is only getting his career started, but with the revelations about his sexuality and the excellence of this new album, you can almost see the same sort of career trajectory emerging. Time will tell for sure if that holds true, but for the moment this looks like the true birth of the next music superstar.

Frank Ocean – Pyramids
Frank Ocean – Sweet Life

Buy Channel Orange from Amazon

Snapshot Review: Death Grips – The Money Store [Epic]

If you didn’t notice in the title of this post, Death Grips are signed to Epic Records. They’re officially labelmates with everyone from Drake to Incubus and Meat Loaf. What’s odd is how the group sounds like they should be signed to anything BUT a major label. That’s not to call their material bad, but it’s been a long time since such an odd, fringe-type act was signed to anything other than an indie label. If you want to go underground and weird, transitively sometimes brilliant, you sign to a company that seeks to take that sort of risk without meddling in your creative process. From the sound of their debut album The Money Store, Epic didn’t even try to send them notes. They were probably too scared to. The genre classifiers and wordsmiths have puzzlingly tried to describe Death Grips as being rap rock. Considering there may be one single guitar used on one single track (or not…these sounds could have come from anywhere), the “rock” tag need not apply to this group. No, what Death Grips are doing somewhat defies description. The project is made up of three people: Stefan Burnett aka MC Ride on vocals, Zach Hill on drums and production, and Andy Morin aka Flatlander on production. The goal of Hill and Flatlander as producers is to splice together these beats and electronica elements to compliment MC Ride’s words. But this is anything but traditional hip hop. MC Ride prefers a vocal style closer to that of a hardcore punk band than anything else. He seems to take cues more from Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains and Fugazi than Jay-Z, Kanye West or Snoop. Everything is shouted with such a spitfire rage that most of the time you can’t tell what Ride is saying. When you can make out his vocals, you learn they’re primarily nonsensical phrases strung together to complete rhymes. It need not be clever or inventive because the delivery takes care of that for you. Hill and Flatlander take a similar approach when providing the base and beats of each track. Virtually everything comes off like the soundtrack to a 1980’s Nintendo game that’s been chopped and sped up to about three times its normal rate. The record breezes by as a result, 13 tracks in 41 minutes with only the finale of “Hacker” sneaking past the four minute mark. There are so many ideas and experiments packed into that time, it can feel like the sonic equivalent of ADD. The good news though is that every track is a legitimate banger, perfect for the clubs and ripe for remixing. Singles like “I’ve Seen Footage” and “Blackjack” may stay with you for just a little longer thanks to the massive amount of repetition in their choruses, but stick with The Money Store long enough and the charms of each individual track will unveil themselves to you. Perhaps that’s what earned Death Grips the respect of L.A. Reid and Epic Records. This may be the most individualistic and unique act signed to a major label in quite some time, but if they’re successful the great news is they won’t be the last.

Death Grips – Get Got
Death Grips – The Fever (Aye Aye)
Death Grips – Lost Boys
Death Grips – Blackjack
Death Grips – I’ve Seen Footage

Buy The Money Store from Amazon

Click past the jump to stream the entire album!

Snapshot Review: Willis Earl Beal – Acousmatic Sorcery [XL/Hot Charity]

The back story of Willis Earl Beal is fascinating enough to make for a great film. A Chicago guy, he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico for a few years in 2007 simply because he heard it was a very desolate and beautiful environment in which a creative person could pursue art without distraction. Without much in the way of a job or friends, Beal created a flyer that contained a hand-drawn self-portrait, a little bit about his background and personality, and a phone number people could call. He hoped to make some friends this way, and even said he’d play a song for you if you called him. Such an odd flyer eventually caught the eye of a few like-minded creative people who were interested in helping Beal further his art. Found Magazine got wind of him and wrote a feature story on him. They also released a limited edition box set called The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection, complete with his poetry, illustrations and music. Things were looking up for Beal, yet he quickly left Albuquerque in 2010 and returned to Chicago with only the clothes on his back despite having live shows and recording studio time booked. He moved in with his grandmother and brother and once again without a job began distributing flyers with his story and his phone number on them. He wasn’t on the internet and things like email and social media were largely foreign to him. Yet he was still tracked down by the people at XL offshoot label Hot Sorcery, likely after doing well on the reality talent competition The X Factor. Their first release with Beal’s name on it is Acousmatic Sorcery, an 11-track collection of home recordings pieced together over the last few years. The quality is, understandably, nowhere near top notch. Most, if not all of these songs were originally recorded to cassette using a karaoke machine with a busted speaker and a Radio Shack microphone. It winds up sharing many of the same qualities as tUnE-yArDs’ laptop-recorded debut BiRd-BrAiNs, in that it’s messy but gets the point across. That point is Beal’s voice. “Take Me Away” is the official introduction to it on the record, and the song is an excellent showcase demonstrating the power and emotional intensity at which he operates. The track starts a capella before he’s joined by some homemade percussion that sounds like banging on the bottom of a plastic garbage can. Those are all the elements in the song, and essentially they’re all you need. Beal howls and hums with the intensity of a great blues singer, crossing somewhere between Tom Waits and Buddy Guy. By contrast, “Evening’s Kiss” sounds like a completely different artist, where Beal’s voice is so calm and precious it’s somehow less muscular than the sparsely plucked acoustic guitar accompanying it. That and “Sambo Joe From the Rainbow” are very traditional folk singer-songwriter style, also something Beal does quite well. Where he’s a little off though are on the more hip hop flavored tracks. “Ghost Robot” and “Swing on Low” are both based around beats and rhymes, though the former is quite a bit heavier on those elements. Both sound nothing like modern-day hip hop, and instead flounder closer to cheesy 80’s style rap but with more off-putting or weird time signatures. There are a few cringe-worthy lines in there (and other songs) as well, furthering the thought that while Beal is an exceptional singer, he’s not always the greatest songwriter. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a bunch of well-written material on this record, because there is. For every handful of inspired lines, there’s usually one that doesn’t quite match it. Nevertheless, Acousmatic Sorcery is very much a great introduction to the world that is Willis Earl Beal. It is very much the world of an outsider artist, one who lives in the shadows rather than the spotlight, and who in spite of his outgoing personality seems to have a lot of the same reclusive qualities as a Daniel Johnston or Wesley Willis or Jandek. On that same idea we’re left wondering exactly what Beal is going to do next and when he’s going to do it. With some touring under his belt and an actual recording studio to work in, it will most definitely be interesting to see if he can capitalize on the very promising start he’s shown here.

Willis Earl Beal – Evening’s Kiss

Buy Acousmatic Sorcery from Amazon

Album Review: Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne [Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation]

When talking about modern-day hip hop, you’d be hard pressed to argue there are two bigger names than Jay-Z and Kanye West. They are, to put it one way, at the very top of the talent pool, ruling over all others. Which one is the true #1 is plenty debatable, but according to them it really doesn’t matter. They hold a mutual respect and friendship towards one another, and hip hop is more of a collaborative art than it is a true solo pursuit. Look at almost any rap record and you’ll find a list of guests about a half mile long. Jay-Z and Kanye have each guested on one another’s records at different times in their careers. Kanye’s fingerprints were all over Jay-Z’s last album “The Blueprint 3”, while Jay-Z made appearances on Kanye’s first couple efforts. Those single song collaborations were often special unto themselves, but they never overshadowed the full vision of whichever artist’s name was on the cover. Speaking of visions, Kanye has just been having a banner year since the release of his last record “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, an album so highly praised that many are calling it a masterpiece. To put it another way, he doesn’t particularly need to be working on anything new right now, and even when he does you’d imagine expectations would be high. Yet when inspiration strikes and your buddy Jay-Z is ready and willing to work with you, it can be a tough calling to ignore. Hence “Watch the Throne”, a full length collaboration between the two current kings of hip hop. If it seems like an event record, that’s probably because it is. To treat it with the utmost of sincerity however, might be a mistake.

That’s not to say “Watch the Throne” is a joke record, because by all means it is not. Instead, try to view it as one of those moments where two extremely popular hip hop icons are getting together to just have a little fun. Since neither has to carry the burden of the entire album on their own, they’re able to relax a little bit and worry less about how the songs reflect on them as individuals. Besides that, Kanye West and Jay-Z approach hip hop in markedly different ways, with Kanye being very emotionally transparent in his words and experimental in his beats while Jay-Z is more straightforward and a storyteller. To put it in ruling terms, Kanye is like a crazy dictator, commanding his armies based largely on how he’s feeling emotionally that day. Jay-Z is more like a President in a democracy, in many ways isolating himself from any major decisions by having a hierarchy in place to blame mistakes on. He also adapts to the will of the people somewhat, or the will of his closest advisors, allowing their ideas and influence to be felt in his work as that simultaneously allows less of his own influence and personality to be exposed as a result. On “Watch the Throne” it results in an interesting dichotomy in which Kanye’s dominant personality continues to rule over all, both sonically and lyrically, while Jay-Z allows it to happen and has his arm twisted into trying that hat on himself. In other words, we get the same Kanye we’ve always gotten, but are exposed to a part of Jay-Z that has been rarely seen up until now. The entire record is not one long emotional confession from Jay-Z, but there are a few tracks where he certainly reveals more than he needs to – “Welcome to the Jungle” being the most obvious among them. The thing about such moments is that you can almost hear it in Jay-Z’s voice that he’s a little uncomfortable and it lessens the impact of a couple tracks as a result. A track like “New Day”, in which Kanye and Jay-Z play the “what if” card and dish out advice to their potential future sons is partly ruined because Jay sounds just a little unsure of himself. Funny that it comes up immediately after “Gotta Have It”, one of the record’s best moments, in which Kanye actually sounds more like Jay-Z rather than vice versa.

Topically speaking, a significant portion of “Watch the Throne” is devoted to the hip hop gold standard of bragging about excessive wealth. Given that Jay-Z and Kanye West are both rolling in money and their gold-plated album cover is opulent just to look at, these two have plenty of ideas about what it means to live the “good life”. Listen to or watch the video for first single “Otis”, and you’ll hear an array of high class brands mentioned, likely along with a few you’ve never heard of before because your bank account simply won’t allow you to even research them. That track in particular also misuses and abuses an Otis Redding sample, in that the music legend is nearly unrecognizable thanks to how brief and modulated his vocals are. It likely also cost a pretty penny to obtain all the samples used on this record, from James Brown to Nina Simone to Curtis Mayfield. That’s not even counting the guest vocalists ranging to Frank Ocean from Odd Future on a pair of songs through Jay-Z’s own wife and songstress Beyonce. And while such decadence both sample and lyric-wise can be a whole lot of fun, it’s good to know that these two guys can talk about more than just how big their bank accounts are. “That’s My Bitch” is about women, though not necessarily in the way you might imagine. Not only does Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon contribute some vocals to the track, but Jay-Z gets an remarkably solid verse as he pulls apart the exceptionally high beauty standards women are often submitted to these days. Kanye is the one that makes an ass of himself on the track, which then causes it to lose some of its power. The issue of “black on black violence” is addressed across a couple tracks, most notably “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Murder to Excellence”, which effectively function as two halves of a similar whole. Sandwiched in between them is “Who Gon’ Stop Me”, an ode to many of the famous leaders from our past that were killed for many different reasons – power being chief among them. Kanye spouting off a handful of lines in Pig Latin is nearly reason enough to make it an album highlight. Meanwhile “Made in America” creates a new royal family in its Frank Ocean-sung chorus, making mention of “sweet king Martin, sweet queen Loretta, sweet brother Malcolm” among others while Jay and (mostly) Kanye go on about their rise from the streets to being able to generate millions of blog hits. It’s one part poignant and another part braggadocio, which actually does a great job of again highlighting the differences between Jay and Kanye. Given their past histories, take one guess as to which one of them has a bigger ego.

Admirable though “Watch the Throne” might be, and as packed with talent as “Watch the Throne” might be, the sum of one part Jay-Z and one part Kanye West actually equals something lesser than the two when taken as individuals. When packaged in terms of single-song guest spots on one another’s records, the dichotomy tends to work out of sheer brevity and counterpoint – a momentary yielding of control. Because they’re ostensibly operating as equals here, there’s only so much room underneath the spotlight and gracious though they might be in sharing, you can tell that neither one of them is operating at full capacity. Given Kanye’s strength as a producer and Jay-Z’s strength as a lyricist, they’d have been better off playing to those big pluses rather than trying to evenly balance them. Kanye could easily have done a lot more in generating creative beats, as evidenced by “Why I Love You”, just as Jay-Z could have unleashed more controlled spitfire verses, as evidenced by “Lift Off”. While it’s always great to have an artist step outside of his or her comfort zone, it counts as a misfire if the results are ill-timed and awkward. Not only that, but the lack of a genuinely compelling and memorable single on this album makes it that much harder to fall in love with and generate repeat listens. For the strikes against this album, there are as many, if not more positive ways to view it. Foremost among them is the sheer talent that Jay-Z and Kanye have, to the point where even in a diminished capacity both still manage to shine when the time is right. If this was at all intended to be a battle for the proverbial “throne”, neither side officially wins but both make strong cases in one another’s favor. With the weightiest of expectations upon their shoulders, these two don’t quite meet the high watermark, but they come really damn close. “Watch the Throne” may not be the new gold standard of hip hop records, but do you think either one of these guys would be okay with accepting silver?

Click through to stream the song “Otis”

Buy “Watch the Throne” on iTunes

Album Review: Shabazz Palaces – Black Up [Sub Pop]

One close examination of the Sub Pop Records roster shows that they are by no means known for hip hop. Probably the closest they’ve ever come to hip hop are via a few songs from Flight of the Conchords. In case you’re not fully comprehending it, that last sentence was a joke. Kind of. It makes their signing of Shabazz Palaces just a little bit perplexing, like buying a canary when you’ve already got a house full of cats. But diversity, like an old wooden ship, is what any good record label aspires to. Shabazz Palaces might have been more at home on something like Anti, but Sub Pop’s stellar reputation seems to indicate that this particular project is something special. Their debut album “Black Up” definitely places them in unique company, a wholly uncommercial effort that plays minimal arrangements for all they’re worth. That they’re signed to an indie label makes sense too. Things appear to work out for all parties involved, because odd though it may be, this different approach to hip hop stands out and helps to give creedence to a type of music that has tended to border on stale in recent years.

That’s not to say “Black Up” is the be-all, end-all of modern day hip hop records. Kanye West can turn in a record judged by some to be absolutely perfect, even if it plays to common conventions while also pushing stadium-sized grandstanding. Shabazz Palaces don’t 100% knock it out of the park on their first try, but they’re trending in the right direction. It may or may not take some serious digging to find out that this project is the creation of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, former member of the equally inventive hip hop collective Digable Planets. He’s trying really hard to keep his identity a secret, with his name not mentioned in any promotional materials, along zero photos to go along with it. So how was the veil eventually lifted? A distinctive voice is a distinctive voice, and Butler has got one. His perspective, too, is all his own, naturally avoiding cliches such as women, money and guns. Even race primarily takes a back seat to topics like defining your own identity and then living it. Pure, unfiltered honesty combined with a sheer lack of pretension or attempts to shock (looking at you Tyler, the Creator). Piecing together exactly what the themes of the album or even certain songs are all about can be a challenge, and that’s because most everything requires close scrutiny along with some deeper philosophical thoughts to best understand. When he repeats the phrase “Who/do you think/you are?” towards the end of “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum”, it’s not done in a menacing fashion but rather a pondering one.

One of the more fascinating elements on “Black Up” is the pure beat construction on each individual track. It’s easy to throw rhymes over whatever is going on, but many of the melodies could very well work in other capacities with other musicians. A number of these tracks could register as part of the chillwave or glo-fi movement, and that’s just one aspect of many this music pulls from. Soul, R&B, jazz, electronica and even a little gospel are all represented in one form or another, and this blurring of genre tropes is a big part of what makes this record such a strong listen. You may not have much in the way of hooks to grab onto, but the direction each song goes in is never predictable or plain. Curveballs are thrown at multiple junctures, to the point where something like “Free Press and Curl” sounds completely different at the end compared to where it began. Sometimes you get a female voice courtesy of THEESatisfaction stepping in to soar just a bit in between the rhymes. A few tracks lack much in the way of rhyming anyways, because it’s all about creative wordplay and not writing something simply to fill an open-ended void. This is less hip hop and more a collection of tone poems with some well-placed beats. It is the work of a highly experienced, wise artist that has learned plenty about life, love and art, now looking to release something that’s “next level”. Butler tries to avoid being associated with Shabazz Palaces not because he’s ashamed of the project or likes the idea of turning this into a guessing game, but rather because he wants these tracks and this record to be the only focus. It needn’t matter who is behind it, so long as you absorb something from it. That’s not to say everything makes sense, or there are truly lessons to be learned. The meaning and purpose is not for you or me to decide. How “Black Up” functions in your life is almost entirely based upon your own individual experiences and preferences, and that’s what every great record has the ability to do. Your sole responsibility is to let it into your ears. It will do the rest.

Shabazz Palaces – An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum
Shabazz Palaces – Swerve…The Reeping of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)

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Album Review: Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two [Capitol]

Why have the Beastie Boys been so incredibly slow in releasing new material? The last 15 years or so they’ve been moving at a pace senior citizens would admire, and the trio aren’t nearly at that age. Perhaps it’s more the good fortune of having a strong legacy and enough money where you don’t exactly need to make another album ever again. Outside of their strong legacy and continued popularity in spite of their long breaks between records, one big indicator of how well they’re doing financially can be determined simply by examining what they’ve done as a group the last several years. Their last technical “album” was 2007’s “The Mix Up”, notable for being completely instrumental. Their last hip hop record was 2004’s “To the Five Boroughs”, a love letter to post-9/11 New York that saw a scaling back on both their compositional style as well as general silliness. Then there was the fate of “Hot Sauce Committee Part One”. Penciled in for a 2009 release, the Beastie Boys chose to first delay it indefinitely and then skip releasing it altogether once MCA came down with cancer. If you need cash or even just want more of it (especially if you have crazy expensive medical bills), you don’t put off releasing an already complete album like that. The point is, the Beastie Boys are pretty well off. They could quit the music business and live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Instead, they’re once again returning, this time with a re-worked version of what was supposed to be “Hot Sauce Committee Part One” and appropriately calling it “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two”.

Perhaps the biggest indicator that the Beastie Boys were back was the music video they released for the new single “Make Some Noise”, which was part of a larger 30 minute film called “Fight For Your Right Revisited”. For even the most casual Beastie Boys fan there was something worthwhile in the video. Not only did it have a lot in common visually with the group’s breakout hit “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)”, but the new single also boasted an immense list of guest stars such as Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Elijah Wood, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, Ted Danson, John C. Reilly, Rainn Wilson, Will Arnett, Susan Sarandon and Steve Buscemi. It may be the most celebrity-intense video of all time for a song that’s both remarkably badass and also very old school for them. Surprisingly, that’s how a lot of “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” comes across – as a relatively vintage Beastie Boys record. They’ve never been the sort of guys to try and outdo or strongly compete against their hip hop peers, but there’s also been very little reason for them to. The voices of Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA are unique to the point where they’re just about the only group of white rappers people can name. As it stands though, hip hop collectives are always less prominent than individuals, though back in the earliest days of the Beastie Boys there was Wu-Tang and NWA making waves. Even then, despite their frequent use of samples the Beasties still had little trouble picking up instruments on stage and playing them live as need be. It was their connection with rock music that actually earned them their original audience of alternative rockers. The loads of guitar riffs on tracks like “Sabotage” and “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” brought them an edge nobody else was doing (but that Cypress Hill, among others, would later pick up on), and those same concepts remain pretty much theirs and theirs alone today. With the more minimalistic “To the Five Boroughs” and the more sample-heavy “Hello Nasty”, the Beastie Boys moved away from some of the elements that held steadfast those first four records, either out of boredom or the general urge to play around with some new things. Where “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” shakes out in all this is as almost a mixture of the more classic and contemporary sides of the group. There are some live instruments, some sampling, and other bits from obscure old records and such. Nothing new per se, but if you’re already a fan then you should know better than to expect any real surprises.

Even the couple guest stars on the album aren’t necessarily surprising. “Too Many Rappers” features fellow Brooklynite Nas and was intended to be the first single from “Hot Sauce Committee Part One” back in 2009. The track was sent to radio in advance of that unreleased album, and as such a slightly tweaked “New Reactionaries Version” now appears on “Part Two” officially. Santigold plays the hip hop staple role of female singing the vocal hook in the chorus on “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”, and it’s refreshing for variety’s sake. Santi herself does a fine job, but it’s also somewhat of a thankless role, so the simple charm is just having her on there in the first place. The rest of the record just has the Beastie Boys doing what they do best, and approaching that style in a wide variety of ways to keep the listener engaged. “Lee Majors Come Again” is one of the more standout tracks on the record, most notable because of how it’s more rock and roll/guitar heavy than these guys have been in a long, long time. It’s also a whole lot of fun in that Beastie Boys sort of way. The music of their youth gets an entertaining throwback jam courtesy of “Nonstop Disco Powerpack”, and a more serious/slower moment shows up via “Long Burn the Fire”. So, like the mixture of old styles and new, “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” is a well-rounded and enjoyable affair, provided you already have a predisposed liking of the trio.

They haven’t mentioned it, nor have many suggested it, but “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” could very well be the final Beastie Boys record. MCA isn’t cancer-free yet, despite reports earlier this year that he was. If his medical problems persist indefinitely, that could be the group’s downfall. But even before the cancer, the glacial pace at which they’ve recorded their last couple albums, plus their collective ages (they’re all in their mid-to-late 40s) could mean they’re getting too old for this shit. The new record doesn’t show their age though, outside of making a lot of the same references in their rhymes as they were more than 10 years ago. They’re still as creatively strong and original as always, and the energy appears there too. It’s also more of a return to form after the relative disappointment that was “To the Five Boroughs”. It may be no “Hello Nasty”, nor does it quite have that “of the moment” gusto their earliest albums like “Paul’s Boutique” and “Ill Communication” had going for them, but it is a gentle reminder that the Beastie Boys have still got it and can flaunt it when they choose to. What’s old can never really be new again, but there’s still a large market for vintage. Some fashions never go out of style, and in that same regard nor do the Beastie Boys.

Click below the jump to stream the entire album!

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Album Review: Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella]

Nobody is denying that Kanye West is controversial. The guy steals headlines for doing shit like calling George W. Bush out, claiming he “doesn’t care about black people”. He throws temper tantrums at awards shows when he doesn’t win things he was nominated for, and on occasion when other people don’t win things he felt they should have. It was after that whole Taylor Swift incident and the subsequent backlash that West really began to realize the world doesn’t bend to his every whim and desire. Well, he probably knew that before, but refused to give the thought much creedence. He wrote missives on his website about it, essentially apologizing and confessing that he needs to take a hard look at himself and work on both controlling his anger and thinking before speaking. It was the start of a self-imposed hiatus of sorts, where he disappeared from the media, from having an online presence, from showing up at friends’ shows to make surprise cameos. He went to Hawaii, one of the most beautiful and relaxed places on Earth, and found some mental health. Playing out like your traditional movie plotline, Kanye reached the low point where all hope may have seemed lost. His storied quest to become the greatest artist that ever lived hit its biggest speedbump as suddenly he had turned from hero to villain. Given the outspoken and completely honest manner in which he’s conducted himself since the very beginning of his rise to fame though, West has probably been playing the villain for some people longer than others.

Everyone loves a tale of redemption though, and after a few months of down time and personal reflection, Kanye West began working on a proper follow-up to his last record, 2008’s “808s and Heartbreak”. There were rumblings of a record reportedly titled “Good Ass Job” that was tentatively scheduled for release in mid-2010, but that failed to happen. Instead, West officially re-emerged from exile by showing up at Facebook and Twitter headquarters to do some impromptu a capella performances of some new material. Videos began to pop up online, and that sparked some interest. Soon after began the G.O.O.D. Fridays, in which West would give away free mp3s of new music once a week, thereby earning him loads of good will and renewed respect. It would have been largely for naught had the tracks he was handing out sucked, but as Kanye himself would probably tell you, “sucking” isn’t really in his vocabulary. The big comeback tour also included a stop by the MTV Video Music Awards, where just a year earlier his on-stage interruption was what sparked his fall from grace. Performing new track “Runaway” completely solo, West spouted off lines like “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags/Let’s have a toast for the assholes/Let’s have a toast for the scumbags”. It was pretty self-deprecating with just a hint of remorse for being one of those douchebag asshole scumbag jerkoffs. And so, Kanye West is officially back, the spotlight firmly on him once again with the much-delayed but finally released fifth album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” officially landing last week. It’s almost as if he wanted to make sure it was out just in time for all those year-end “Best of” lists.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Kanye West over his last few years and albums, it’s that he doesn’t do small. Case in point, the music video for his 9-minute opus “Runaway” officially runs 35 minutes and features such spectacles as fireworks and a parade. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” runs in a similar fashion, taking a mere 13 tracks and extending out to a grand 70 minutes. Eight of the songs extend beyond the five minute mark, and a couple of the shorter ones are merely interludes attached to bigger main tracks. Take the track “All the Lights” as one of the sharpest examples of excess, with over 42 people getting credit as having contributed something to the final product. There’s a whole brass section, strings, some woodwinds and about a dozen guest vocalists, most of which are impossible to pick out individually. The track itself is deceptively simple on the surface, but a close and studied listen reveals layers that go far beyond what any reasonable person might expect. So it goes for much of the record, jumping through a multitude of stylistic hoops with a who’s-who of guests that include everyone from Jay-Z to Nicki Minaj to Rick Ross and the WTF-ness of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Thankfully most of the Auto-Tune madness that completely covered “808s and Heartbreak” has vanished, though in its place are plenty of other vocal manipulations. “Gorgeous” has West sounding like he’s gone all flat with his vocals hit with a pretty strong mono filter that makes you wonder what hip hop would have sounded like were there recordings of it in the 50s and 60s. There’s also the robotic vocal breakdown near the end of “Runaway” and just a slice of Auto-Tune on “Lost in the World” thanks more to the sampling of Bon Iver’s “Woods” than anything else. But “Blame Game” features the greatest vocal acrobatics, as West’s voice goes from slow to fast to just plain weird speeds all over an Aphex Twin piano sample. It’s also one of his bleakest tracks to date, taking the album’s title and rendering it completely true from a lyrical perspective.

Kanye West spends much of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” talking about some heavy-handed topics. While getting into superhero lore on “POWER”, West also gets into a commentary about his increased loss of innocence and childlike wonder. There was a certain playfulness that took over on his first couple records, but it’s not like thoroughly depressing (but confrontational and real) topics are new ground for him. Hell, “808s and Heartbreak” was a record born out of a tragic breakup and his mother’s death. It was not a fun experience in the least. The fun on this new record really comes in the form of pure indulgence. Whether that means drinking and partying as much as you want or sleeping with a LOT of women, these are topics motivated purely by the pleasure centers of our brain. They’re also the part of the same section that houses the angry and violent urges as well, which is why on “Blame Game” he tells a girl he misses both fucking her and choking her. One assumes the choking bit is a sexual thing, but he says it with such malicious intent that it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. Similarly, “All the Lights” comes across as a celebration of fame but also deals with the perils and pitfalls that go along with it. It’s less “I’m so famous, I’ve had to stop trying to grocery shop” and more “Restraining order/Can’t see my daughter”. This highlights the dichotomy that weighs on this record from start to finish. For every light there is a dark. For every good there is a bad. For every hero there is a villain. For every beautiful fantasy there is a dark and twisted reality. Kanye West is and is about all of these things, and the public perception of him is just as divided. We can see ourselves in it too, which is what makes West such a powerful force in music today. There’s always the intensely relatable moments, like somebody’s reading straight out of our diaries, but thanks to his unfiltered perspective, sometimes West also goes on about the things we WISH we could do or say but wouldn’t dare on account of social convention or what effect it’d have on the way others see us. West gets away with it because he’s one of the few people that simply doesn’t care…or at least not as much as we do.

For inquiring ears that simply have to know, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is a hip hop achievement of the highest order. Hell, it’s a musical achievement of the highest order. Kanye West once again proves he’s one of, if not the best and most talented artists in music today no matter if he’s got love from the general public or not. The whole Taylor Swift thing? You might as well wipe that from your memory because not only are both artists involved sick and tired of talking about it, but they both have extremely well-received new records that deserve your undivided attention. The one thing you can never accuse Kanye West of being is unambitious, and this new album weighs in as a highlight reel of great moments from his past, taking place in the present, with a sharp outlook towards the future. Of course where he’ll go next is anybody’s guess, but at the moment he’s taking a page straight out of his song “Stronger”. With his personal and professional life in complete shambles, West took a step back, assessed the situation, and has risen from the ashes better than ever before. Haters be damned, Kanye West is here to stay. Now if only somebody could get him to shut up about it.

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