Friday, December 27, 2013

Regional Hip Hop Is On Its Way Out

Rap reflected its location in the 90s and early 2000s. The sound of New York had a distinct style as did the South and the West Coast. New York had the boom bap beat and the grimy yet lyrical wordplay, where the South made trap and crunk music popular with the 808s and party content, and Cali flourished with Gangsta Rap and its laid back, melodic flow.  Even outside of the three major Mecca’s of hip hop, smaller locations sprouted such as Detroit and Houston representing a different but defined sound that was confined to the area. Hip hop was nowhere near predictable, but chances are you could identify a rapper’s origins by his flow, content and beat selection.

Nowadays, when emcees are just a soundcloud away and producers can tweet any artist their beat, the regional lines in hip hop are getting very blurry. A$AP Rocky was found at first innovative for his clearly Houston influenced sound and flow and then somewhat scrutinized for being a New York native and not representing any of the characteristics of NY hip hop. Big K.R.I.T. stands as one of the most lyrical rappers in the game and despite hailing from Mississippi, his music is deep and thoughtful, completely opposite from the typical crunk music that the south became famous for. Detroit, known for its aggressive and even filthy sound, G.O.O.D. Music’s Big Sean has been the front runner from the city for some time now while making music that is playful and catchy. And there's Freddie Gibbs, one of the most respected gangsta rappers out right now with roots in Gary, Indianna.

Although some artists are insistent on bringing back the sounds of the city, as A$AP Nast most recently showcased with his single “Trillmatic” featuring Method Man, the regional distinctions in hip hop are on their way out. There are no characteristics of New York sound right now and the same goes for the other regions as well. Producers are sending their beats all over the country and artists are having the freedom to not only be inspired by hip hop everywhere but it has expanded the rap genre immensely. More sub-genres are being created which is much more defined by lyrical content and flow than location. Some of the most popular turn up rappers (which is similar to crunk music) are from NY, real talk and the gangsta rap genres also include artists from all over and in 2013 there has been a huge rise in emcees crossing into other genres completely.

The boom bap style of production will always be iconic as will the rise of gansta rap and trap music, yet as hip hop is continuing to evolve, it’s exciting to see artists break out of the boxes that confined their sound to their location. I’m glad that artistry and inspiration is being prioritized. There has been a lot of backlash surrounding the New York hip hop scene this year and it’s important to welcome new styles and sounds as the music continues to grow. Although I love a good retro flow, allow artists to be who they are, which is not necessarily defined by where they come from.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Unreleased Material From Chance The Rapper

Chicago native, Chance The Rapper, has owned 2013 with his critically acclaimed mixtape Acid Rap, following with The Social Experiment Tour, which sold out in almost every city and then on to collaborate with pop sensation Justin Beiber on the hit record “Confident.” 10 Day, Chance’s first official mixtape, served as the introduction to this young emcee and Acid Rap solidified his place as an artist to be reckoned with.

On December 10, two unreleased mixtapes from Chance’s early music days surfaced via Facebook: Good Enough and Back To School Pack. The mixtapes were collaborations with his friend and music partner Justin (J-emcee) who formed the duo Instrumentality in high school. Although the original dates of these tapes are unknown, the material is somewhere between 3-5 years old as Datpiff first discovered.

It is absolutely remarkable listening to these two projects and hearing the already developed sound that we all thought was established with Acid Rap. The first track on Good Enough, which is also the title track, begins with the profound question: Who do you call when your dreams don’t call back? Chance then tells the story of his first interaction with the music industry and submitting music to Roc-A-Fella producer J Brown. Chance was told he wasn’t “good enough.” He then follows with the triumphant response, “we revolt against that thought, this is the product of a revolution.” The song picks up and becomes inspirational for everybody with a dream and who were ever told they weren’t good enough. Chance urges everybody that “you aren’t just good enough, you are simply amazing.”

The following track, Chance spits over the Coldplay “In My Place” sample and explains who he is as an artist: “I swear I’m Hercules, mixed with a little Freddie Mercury, mixed with Kanye and a little MJ.” He goes on to explain that he is exactly who he’s always been, which apparently was an incredibly talented musician who pushed boundaries in hip hop from the beginning.

The next track, “Something Bout Us,” offers something totally different sonically as Chance raps about being intrigued by a woman despite poor timing. This track, easy to digest and bump, further proves how remarkably diverse Chance is musically. Other standouts of the tape are Chance’s rendition of “Hometown (Cali)” featuring the sample originally made popular by Adele on her debut album and “NvrSayNvr” which explains the darkness and depth of the project and provides some insight on his journey in finding himself as an innovative artist in the industry.

Back To School Pack is not as strong as Good Enough, but with only five songs, it’s still a great body of work and definitely worth listening to. Stepping away from the introverted music that appeared on Good Enough, Chance dives into progressive rap and provides an incredibly conscious track with “Dear Chicago Summer.” He spits, “maybe I need a geography class or something, but when did Chicago become a part of East Compton and when did the Windy City become we’ll blow you all away? And when did throwing hands become the hoish move to play?” Chance expresses his frustration with the growing violence in his hometown, but in a calm manner spitting facts that are daunting and provocative.

Both of these unreleased mixtapes are gems and offer a bit of history of who Chance The Rapper was prior to 10 Day and Acid Rap. At only twenty years old, Chance stands as one of the top emcees in the game and these tapes make it clear that he has been developing his artistry for years now. Incorporating melodic rhymes, singing choruses, and innovative sound, these elements that were made popular on Acid Rap were always part of his repertoire. We sometimes forget that musicians have a whole come up catalog that is often overlooked by the breakout mixtape or single that changed their status in the industry. I’m glad we were able to receive this old material and get a glimpse of early Chance days, which only makes me excited for what’s to come from this talented emcee. With Good Enough and Back To School Pack being basically forgotten and Acid Rap being the debut, I can’t even imagine what innovative and creative music Chance The Rapper has in store for 2014.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Who Are The Conscious Rappers of 2013?

I came across this fascinating video by Killer Mike, that eloquently described the concept of Reaganomics and the effect the era had on the black community. Using cartoon visuals and actual Reagan footage, it simplifies this piece of history in ways that I've never seen before. It's completely accessible and easy to grasp while being portrayed in an artistic and revolutionary way. I was exposed to this video last night and it got me thinking. Hip hop's pioneers and early emcees were certainly some of the most political artists to date, with groups like Public Enemy and Dead Prez bringing light to revolutionary concepts. And rappers like KRS-One, Mos Def and Talib Kweli all took stands in their music reacting to the systemic racism infused in every institution of this country.

There was a time when hip hop and politics went hand and hand. Rappers spoke knowledge and articulated problems in the streets giving plight to issues in black communities that the media either completely ignored or countered on a regular basis. Nowadays you've got to have a magnifying glass when examining the lyrics of emcees in hopes that a double entendre is slipped in that actually stands up for the people. So I got to thinking, who are the conscious rappers right now?

The first that comes to mind is the Peruvian born American rapper, Immortal Technique, who's lyrics never stray from controversial issues in global politics. His lyrics serve as his commentary on war, institutional racism, classism, poverty, government, sexism, and religion. Immortal Technique utilizes his music as a platform of social activism. Although he's clearly brilliant, his music is purely factual, leaving very little room for art and flow.

El-P, inspired by techniques Public Enemy coined, he also went on to collaborate with Killer Mike and provide conscious, profound hip hop that was aggressive and complicated.

Brother Ali is not new to the game, but recently he's become radical with his music. One of his most popular songs, "Uncle Sam Goddamn," introduces the track with powerful words "welcome to the United States, land of the thief, home of the slave, Grand Imperial guard where the dollar is sacred and proud."

Common is an interesting cat. When he's not in Gap commercials or corny movies, his music is political, most notably on his album Be with tracks like "Testify" and "Real People." He spits, "I wonder is the spirits of Bob Marley and Haile Selassie, Watch me as the cops be tryna and pop and lock me."

Nas has made provocative music since his debut and his most recent album, Life Is Good, includes his usual balance of lyrical superiority and political story-telling, particularly on "Accident Murders." Although with tracks in his discography like "N.Y. State of Mind," "If I Ruled The World," "I Can," "Black Republican" and "Revolutionary Warfare," Nas is without a doubt one of the leading and consistently conscious rappers in hip hop.

Lupe Fiasco has been extremely vocal both in and outside of his music on his political philosophies. Perhaps it all began when he first remixed Kanye West's "Diamonds in Sierra Leone" into his track "Conflict Diamonds" which highlighted the atrocities of the diamond business.

When Kanye West first emerged as a solo artist, his debut album, The College Dropout, hosted the hip hop classic "All Falls Down," which discusses the materialism of the american culture and how the government uses that concept to control and continue to keep people of color down. Kanye has ventured into other topics throughout his career until recently. Yeezus restored some of his conscious ideals but he portrayed them in a much more radical way. "New Slaves" returns to the concept Ye explores in "All Falls Down" but in an angrier and evolved stance nine years later. In a few tracks later, Kanye samples Nina Simone's "Blood On The Leaves," which is the famous poem turned song, originally by Billie Holiday, revealing the truth about lynchings in the South. Throughout the album, he is constantly incorporating political lines, most brilliantly with his term "Chi-raq," which expresses the unbelievable mass murders plaguing the black community in Chicago, comparable to the genocide in Iraq.

When Freddie Gibbs first broke into the scene, he was reminiscent of 2Pac, born and raised in one of the toughest neighborhoods in America and utilizing his music to express his anger with the government and this country. Representing "the low class" as he articulates on "Serve or Get Served," Gibbs made revolutionary music and today, he continues to comment and take stands on issues of racism in this country.

J. Cole explores consciousness on the surface with tracks like "Truly Yours" and "Crooked Smile." But recently, he's taken more a of political stance with his music videos. The "Crooked Smile" video depicts the story of 7 year old Aiyanna Stanley-Jones who was killed back in 2010 during a police raid in her home.

Jay Z has dabbled into social commentary briefly in the past year, dealing with his own aggravation with the government during his trip to Cuba. "Open Letter" was his response record and later that year he dropped "Somewhere In America" on Magna Carta...Holy Grail and it offered a more revolutionary Hov than we've ever experienced.

Ab-Soul, one of the most prolific emcees of T.D.E., released Control System, and his sophomore album featured "Terrorist Threats" with the hook "Wish I could see out of Selassie' eye, maybe my sovereignty would still be mine, if all the gangs in the world unified, we'd stand a chance against the military tonight."

Dizzy Wright blazed the 2013 XXL's Freshmen Class due to the people's choice vote. Although he's still pretty underground, this 22 year old spits political truth. "That's why I'm in my Trayvon hoodie with a smile, And I'm here to let the world know...Ayo fuck the media they twisting turning the truth."

When reflecting on conscious rap, we most often allude to older emcees as hip hop decades ago was much more concentrated with political philosophies and provided the platform for artists to speak out against racism, poverty and other social issues that were plaguing the black communities in this country. As I examine more contemporary music, there are some artists who are releasing tracks that are inspired by their political beliefs, but it is nowhere comparable to the groups and emcees who prided their artistic identity on battling the racist institutions that were founded on and maintain in keeping black people down.

Have we really made that much progress? Or has hip hop become more of an every man for themselves complex due to the fact that monetary success is achievable? Despite the ideal that current white politicians like to assert, that we live in an era of "colorblindness," we all know that is utterly untrue. And we still need artists to use their voice for social change and to combat the media and government through art. Hip hop was founded as the voice of the people, expressing the daily struggles of African Americans and other minorities. As fans we need to welcome and celebrate the brave artists who put their mainstream careers on the line to express anger and political issues that wouldn't see public light otherwise. We salute you.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Robert Glasper Experiment Presents Black Radio 2

During a time when positive, soulful music was lacking, Robert Glasper released Black Radio 2, the second installment to the Black Radio series, which collaborated with an all-star cast of some of the greatest rappers and R&B singers to grace the mic. The follow up rounded up an equal amount of talent featuring Jill Scott, Common, Anthony Hamilton, Norah Jones, Bilal, Snoop Dogg, Faith Evans, Brandy, Lupe Fiasco and Macy Gray.

The album begins with perhaps the most beautiful mic check I’ve ever heard, similarly to the original Black Radio. Fusing “Baby Tonight” with introducing the beautiful vocals of the artists on the album, the first track is a prologue of what’s to come. 

Robert Glasper Experiment, as he calls the collaboration, brilliantly blends Jazz, Hip Hop, R&B, and soul genres into one innovative project including a wide range of content, most articulately on “I Stand Alone” with his take on the lack of originality in music right now:

The irresistible appeal of black individuality…. Where has all of that gone? The very people who blazed our path to self expression, and pioneered a resolutely distinct and individual voice, have too often succumb to mind numbing saneness and been seduced to simply repeating what we hear, what somebody else said or thought and not digging deep to learn what we think or what we feel or what we believe. Now it is true that the genius of African culture is surely its repetition. But the key to such repetition is that new elements were added each go round, every round goes higher and higher. Something fresh popped off the page or jumped from a rhythm that had been recycled through the imagination of a writer or musician. Each new installation bore the imprint of our unquenchable thirst to say something of our own, in our own way, in our voice as best we could. The trends of the times be damned. Thank God we’ve still got musicians and thinkers whose obsession with excellence and whose hunger for greatness remind us that we should all be unsatisfied with mimicking the popular rather than mining the fertile veins of creativity that God placed deep inside each of us.

Many of the artists who collaborated on the original Black Radio returned for part 2 and are clearly taking an active stance in producing music that is thoughtful and imaginative, filling the void that Glasper asserts is missing in the industry.  There is nothing mimicked on this album, each track is unique and tells a different story of love, God, and loneliness.

“Yet To Find” features the incredible vocals of Anthony Hamilton and explores a past relationship and the frustrations of having love inside of you but yet to find the right person to give it to. Norah Jones appears on “Let It Ride” and with a sultry sound, she expresses the risk of deep, consuming love. Malcolm Jamal Warner speaks to the youth in the uplifting “Jesus Children.” Luke James sings the chorus on “Persevere” while Snoop Dogg and Lupe Fiasco spit verses on the idea of determination and that despite the hardships of the world you’ve got to push through.

Black Radio 2 is the perfect follow up to complete an exceptional body of work. Jazz production, outstanding vocals, meaningful rap and relatable content set this project far apart from other albums and explore a blended genre that has the potential to speak to multiple generations and backgrounds. Jazz meets hip hop on Robert Glasper’s Experiment and its creation is music that fills the soul in every way.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Magna Carta World Tour

The Pepsi Center in Denver, CO hosted the Magna Carta World Tour Monday night and Jay Z brought out the most diverse audience I’ve ever seen. Families, couples, and groups of friends filled up 18,000 seats eager to witness a legend in what may be his last major world tour. Reasonable Doubt blasted prior to the start of the concert and even with the lights on people were energized with excitement.

9pm struck and the entire venue went black as Hov bursted out to “U Don’t Know” off his double platinum album The Blueprint. For about forty-five minutes, Jay went through hit after hit showcasing material throughout his entire career while also highlighting his new singles from Magna Carta…Holy Grail. Encouraging the audience to sing along to “Holy Grail,” “On To The Next One,” “Crown,” “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” “99 Problems” and his verse on “Pound Cake,” he killed each track and his energy was incredible.

There was a moment when the screens that had been projecting Hov went black and a spotlight dimly lit him as he shouted out his day one fans and said, “how many people in here got that Reasonable Doubt album? This one’s for you…” Jay then dove into “Dead Presidents II” and it was one of the greatest musical moments of my life. For those who have loved Jay Z, Reasonable Doubt is such an iconic body of work and I never imagined I would be able to experience that live. Not only was the performance of that song moving, but it solidified his greatness in 1996 and today, with the fact that the material is still relevant 17 years later.

Jay Z exited the stage leaving the legendary Timbaland a.k.a. Timbo The King to hype up the crowd with his most popular and hottest beats of his career. Paying homage to Aaliyah, Justin Timberlake, Missy Elliot and Drake, Timbaland also shared some of his new material from his upcoming album titled Textbook Timbo.

Hov emerged back on stage performing my favorite track from his new album “Somewhere in America.” His unbelievable discography of hits continued as he transitioned into “Big Pimpin’,” “Ni**as in Paris,” “Jigga Who Jigga What,” and his verse from “Clique.” During his performance of “Dirt Off My Shoulders,” Jay gave an inspirational and heartfelt speech urging us that we all are geniuses and we all can achieve success in whatever we dream of. His single with Rihanna “Run This Town” appeared to close the concert.

Even after an hour and a half set, people refused to leave and began chanting “HOV!” in hopes of bringing Jay back out for one last song. After a solid ten minutes of waiting, he blazed the stage one more time with none other than “Encore.” Following with “Izzo” and “Hard Knock Life,” Jay then requested the lights be turned on as he acknowledged standouts from the audience. Showing love to fans who knew all the words, beautiful women, and the crafty audience member’s with signs, he also invited a boy with a Reasonable Doubt tee to come on stage and shake his hand. He shined the spotlight on a man who had hilarious dance moves and very sweetly brought all the attention to a woman who had Jay Z’s face tatted on her arm. She shed a tear as he thanked her for her dedication. It was such a humble moment as he stood in front of tens of thousands of people as one of the most successful rappers to date and genuinely thanked every member of the audience for their support and constant inspiration, which allows him to continue to create music and share his art with the world.

Jay Z ended with “Forever Young” and after almost three hours of performing, there was not a soul in the Pepsi Center who left feeling unsatisfied. Hov put on one hell of show and I am so honored to finally experience his brilliance live. As today is Dec. 4, I want to wish a huge birthday shoutout to this legend and his decades of commitment to hip hop.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Action Bronson Runs New York

New York has been the Mecca of hip hop since its foundation, producing some of the most iconic rappers to date. Kool G Rap, Run-D.M.C., The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Jay Z, Dipset, all New York natives and all held the crown at one point in time. Well, New York has a new king and his name is Action Bronson.

Making his debut in 2011 and dropping his widely acclaimed mixtape Blue Chips with Party Supplies’ in 2012, the underground hip hop scene embraced this Queens bred emcee with open arms. Despite the lack of features on Blue Chips, his cultured lyricism and incomparable flow earned him the respect from fellow rappers in the industry and Bronson went on to be featured on Chance the Rapper, A$AP Rocky’s, Mac Miller’s and Smoke DZA’s projects.

My first glimpse of Action Bronson was in 2012 when he shut down the Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg and I still remember him being larger than life, literally and figuratively, jumping into the audience, dapping up his fans, playing an entire bowling game while simultaneously never missing a rhyme. From the beginning, Bronson represented the people. I became addicted to his authenticity, and seeing him on two other tours, I began to fully realize his greatness. Rap started as the soundtrack of the streets and Action Bronson exudes that true essence of hip hop.

Atlantic Records and Vice Records snatched him up and although he has yet to release a studio album, he has released a major label EP with Harry Fraud called Saab Stories. November 1, Bronson dropped Blue Chips 2, the second installment to the Blue Chips series. Party Supplies’ humor is a perfect mix with Bronson’s already comical flow and the tape features the voice recording from Allen Iverson’s epic “Practice Rant,” as well as samples from “Tequila” by The Champs and Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me A Reason To Be here” solidifying its spot as one of the greatest projects of 2013. Straight spitting, lengthy verses and lot’s of solo tracks, Blue Chips 2 incorporates the perfect balance of old school technique with contemporary content and flow.

Aside from producing high quality material for two years now, he has pretty much been on tour non-stop. Accompanied by A$AP Ferg, Mayhem Lauren, Joey Bada$$, Big K.R.I.T., Trash Talk and Danny Brown, his live performances are outstanding. Action Bronson brings his undeniable New York flavor wherever he goes and shuts down each venue he steps foot in.

Recently, there has been much dismay over a supposed decline in New York hip hop. With rappers either being more influential in fashion or simply relying on dope producers to keep them relevant, the throne in NY has been wide open and Action Bronson swooped in for the crown. Demanding respect and standing as one of the most lyrical rappers in the game right now, Bronson is undoubtedly here to stay. Looking like the body guard, influenced in flow by Ghostface Killah, spitting content representing both his Queens roots, Albanian heritage and of course love for food, Bronson is killing every track he touches and holding New York hip hop on his shoulders. So next time someone says NY hip hop is dead, point them in the direction of Action Bronson, cuz he runs that shit.