Apu Rambles: This Year, and the Future

by Apu

yearend

Well, it’s December 28th (well, probably not when this piece goes up). So I guess it’s the time of year to talk about shit I liked and shit I didn’t like, because I’m a person who sometimes writes for a music blog and that means everybody on earth is just dying for my input even though nobody asked.

There are a fair amount of albums this year that I liked. Tribe’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service is what I now consider the pinnacle of a group reuniting and going out. I obviously really liked the two albums I reviewed (Kuniva’s A History of Violence Vol. 2 and Fatt Father’s Veterans Day). I was impressed by Snoop’s Coolaid, and Aesop’s The Impossible Kid was a cool listen, as were Marv Won’s Soundtrack To Autumn, De La Soul’s …and the Anonymous Nobody, and Kendrick’s untitled umastered… I didn’t mind Royce’s Layers and T.I.’s Us Or Else: Letter To The System… And as I sit here that’s all I can think of at the moment of writing this, although I’m sure there’s great music I am either forgetting came out this year or I haven’t had the chance to listen to yet.

However, dope as those albums were, there were only two albums that came out this year that really blew my mind. Albums that I knew were something special from the first time I listened to them; where that feeling didn’t go away after two listens, or three, or ten…

Those albums were Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown, and Run The Jewels 3 by a duo whose name I’ve forgotten.

I think based off that little incomplete list of albums above, it’s clear that that my taste tends to be a little lot more rooted in traditional hip hop. However, it ended up being Atrocity Exhibition and RTJ3 that really stood out to me. Danny’s album in particular is so far from what I normally listen to that I was incredibly surprised at how much I liked it when I was hearing it for the first time, especially given how stubborn and set in my ways I am. It was (and I’m using someone else’s description for it, go ahead and sue me for plagiarism***) some weird industrial post-punk shit, way far away from the end of the musical spectrum that I generally find to be appealing.

Normally, I’m really, really not into industrial hip hop. It’s a little too abstract for my pea-brain to be able to comprehend. Most of the industrial hip hop that I’ve listened to contains weird sounds, and rapping that’s too… out there for me to like. It’s just my personal opinion, I don’t connect to it. So for a little bit, it sort of perplexed me as to why I loved Danny’s album so much. I mean, sure, the rapping was great, but I had never imagined that I would gravitate so much towards the production. However, I listened to it more and more, it started to click.

Danny Brown put his own spin on a typical Detroit sound. There are moments on this album that remind me very strongly of the Fat Killahz. “Dance In The Water” sounds similar to “The Fat Song.” The production on “Lost” sounds reminiscent of something you’d hear Fatt Father and/or Marv Won rap on. “Get Hi” screamed King Gordy. However, they weren’t exactly the same. The production on Atrocity Exhibition was warped beyond our dimension; it sounded like it was what Danny wanted us to think went on in his head when he was on drugs.

That didn’t matter though. It did what many other industrial rap acts that I’ve listened to don’t. It stayed hip hop. It’s a lot harder to blend two genres and stay hip hop while trying to go industrial than it is to just make the jump over into industrial. Atrocity Exhibition did its best to get as far away from typical hip hop production as it could, but it made sure to remain rooted in the genre in a way that was familiar. There are hipsters who aren’t versed at all in hip hop who may get mad and try to tell me I’m wrong and that Danny’s album was so good because he abandoned traditional hip hop, but I couldn’t disagree more. He didn’t abandon hip hop, he just blended genres together, seamlessly, without making it too on-the-nose or overt the way someone like Yelawolf does these days with his terrible outlaw country pop rap.

Danny blended genres and kept a hip hop attitude. In doing so, his album became the most creative, effectively experimental hip hop album I have ever heard and love to the degree that I do.

Then I got to thinking, and it began to make sense as to why I enjoyed Run The Jewels from the very first time I listened to them. El-P’s production generally consists of synthesized drums and distorted instruments, far from the heavy bass and knocking drums of what you’d think of when you think of New York. However, he keeps the gritty, Brooklyn vibe to it. The way the beats are done, it sounds like they’re looped in a way similar to the sampling done by a typical New York boom bap producer, even when nothing is being sampled. In fact, on some songs, particularly “Legend Has It,” “Down,” “Thieves!” and “Thursday In The Danger Room,” the production almost sounds like futuristic boom bap. It’s very unlike what I had originally expected industrial hip hop to sound like, before I started to listen to their music, because I had heard several songs that didn’t sound anything like good hip hop (or music [sorry, not sorry]) to me.

Right now, it seems like hip hop is in limbo, sonically, as far as what the next representative sound will be. I get the feeling we’re going to see the current phase of trap fall out of popular favor in the near future. There’s a lot of different sorts of experimental-sounding music coming out. I think Kendrick may have spearheaded it last year with To Pimp A Butterfly. Although the mumble/trap aspect of hip hop is sinking to new lows with irredeemable garbage being made by guys like Lil Yachty and Desiigner, there’s new climate, where it seems like people are starting to throw new ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks. I actually don’t think there’s been a time like this in hip hop since I’ve been a fan. There’s an air of artistic freedom that I think may be starting to arise with the prevalence of independent acts. Whatever it is, I think we’re going to be coming out of the mumble rap phase, at least in the next 2 or 3 years.

I want to see the next phase of hip hop be the style of industrial/alt-rap that I’ve been discussing. It seems to be catching on as time goes on and the general atmosphere of hip hop becomes more experimental. It doesn’t even need to be done to the degree that it’s done by Run The Jewels or Danny Brown on Atrocity Exhibition. Black Milk, for instance, has been becoming more and more experimental with his production with every release; the distorted keyboards, the bass, the drums, the vibe. It started on his Tronic album, and on his last album, If There’s A Hell Below, it seems like he’s heading in a very exciting direction, while still remaining firmly rooted in hip hop. I want to see more of it.

That’s not to say that I want to see artists from the 90s try to be experimental just because it’s what’s popular. I want to be clear and say that I want upcoming artists to participate in making this sort of sound. You know how it sounds sort of desperate (bordering on pathetic on occasion) when a rapper 20 years deep starts rapping on trap beats and using autotuned hooks? It’d sort of be the same kind of thing. There’s nothing wrong with staying in your lane and doing what you know, so long as your own artistry doesn’t regress or stagnate. Do things naturally. With rapper/producers it’s different, because producers have a different mindset, so guys like El-P and Black Milk who have been around for a while can get more experimental organically. But I want the industrial/experimental sound to be like how right now with trap, where it’s the sound that most new and upcoming rappers want to jump into and start their [non]careers with.

Busta Rhymes said in a Westwood interview this year something that I found really interesting. He spoke about the acts who seem to be succeeding in making quality music have something in common. They keep their feet planted in the essence of hip hop. They don’t necessarily make the hip hop of the past, but they keep the spirit and vibe of hip hop while venturing out to do their own styles of music. He says that the trap shit that even his own artists do is cool in the moment, but the really timeless, transcendent music being made by rappers is the music that remembers that it’s hip hop. I really like what he was saying, and for the most part, I agree with him wholeheartedly…but what I liked most about the interview is that Bus’ got Westwood to sit quietly without spouting some loud, unfunny nonsense for more than 3 minutes. But yeah, what he was talking about is exactly why albums like RTJ3 (and RTJ’s other two albums) and Atrocity Exhibition are so effective while being so experimental.

I tried to articulate all of this the best I can. I’m not very well-versed in industrial hip hop so I may sound like I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I hope I got my point across. In any case, I’m interested in what the future of hip hop will sound like. If it sounds anything at all like what I was describing then I’m on board.

***I’m sorry, I just wanted to look cool. Please don’t sue me.

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Album Review: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3

by Dustin

rtj3

9/10

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring… Aside from Killer Mike and El-P, who decided to surprise release Run the Jewels 3 as a Christmas present to their fans! For those unaware, Run the Jewels is the collaborative effort between Atlanta based emcee Killer Mike, and New York’s own producer-slash-alternative-rapper El-P. The duo worked together on Killer Mike’s 2012 solo album R.A.P. Music, before releasing the first Run the Jewels album in 2013. Run the Jewels 2 would come roughly a year later, and the jewel runners have been preoccupied selling out shows and touring the world ever since.

But after more than two years the third installment is finally here. The main question most will probably be asking is, “was this really worth the extended wait”? The answer is a simple and sweet “hell yes”.

The atmosphere on Run the Jewels 3 is truly terrifying. Mike and El take all the anger of the current social climate and twist them into songs that knock hard enough to give a listener whiplash. Though the album definitely has tongue-in-cheek moments, and hilarious one liners at times, the overlying tone is one of bottled rage being unleashed upon the world. Even the tracks that fall more in line with classic brag-rap have politically based lines tucked in ever so cleverly; moreover, none of the social commentary on Run the Jewels 3 seems forced. Killer Mike and El-P did an excellent job of making sure that lines actually fit where they’re placed, and don’t detract from the overall vibe of a song.

We return from the depths of the badland,
With a gun and a knife in our waistband,
Went to war with the Devil and Shaytan,
He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.
(Killer Mike on Talk to Me)

Run the Jewels do show their emotional range at times too. For instance, the song “2100” delivered a beautifully sad-yet-uplifting anthem of solidarity for trying times. “Report to the Shareholders” and “Down” also take on a much more mellow sound, breaking up the waves of braggadocio and fury.

Features on this album are used relatively sparingly. For the most part, guest artists are limited to a hook or the odd short singing verse (mainly Tunde Adebimpe on “Thieves!”). Danny Brown provided an absolutely insane and hard hitting feature on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”, as one would expect. There’s also a special unlisted guest feature who absolutely shredded their verse (but we won’t spoil the surprise, so you’ll just have to listen and find out). Overall, all the features were wonderful and added positively to the songs on which they appeared.

Good day from the house of the haunted,
Get a job, get a house, get a coffin,
Don’t stray from the path, remain where you at,
That maximizes our profit,
Is that blunt?,
Oh well, hell, so’s this boot,
We live to hear you say “please don’t shoot”.
(El-P on Don’t Get Captured)

El-P’s production on Run the Jewels 3 is a treat to the ear. Everything felt much more true to the style he’s developed over the years, in comparison to the stripped down instrumentals on the first two group albums. Some of the beats on this record feel absolutely enormous, and dense to the point that one can pick up a new sound upon every subsequent listen. Fans of El-P’s solo discography will notice that some instrumentals almost feel like throwbacks to his previous works; however, everything has progressed into a heavy, angry, bass intensive style that fits perfectly under he and Mike’s vocals.

It needs more time to digest, but Run the Jewels 3 may have the most enjoyable production of the three records. Given how acclaimed the instrumentals from the first two are, that is saying a lot.

There’s really not much else to say to sum up Run the Jewels 3. It’s a face-melter album that may just make you want to punch a hole in a wall. Killer Mike and El-P closed the year by surprise dropping one of the best albums in 2016. They also released it for completely free, so really there’s no excuse: check this out as soon as you can. Even if you’ve never been a Run the Jewels fan before, do it. Do it right now.

Top 15 albums of 2016

by Dustin

2016albums

Ah, 2016 is nearing a close, which means we get to do some reflection. Like every other music blog on the internet, this means we’ve decided to put together a top albums list. It helps us ignore the fact that we’ve completely run out of article ideas for the time being, and hopefully helps distract you from the festering pile of manure that has been 2016. This list is also not limited to hip-hop, which I’m sure is confusing. Now, grab yourself a bowl of popcorn and dig into the list that’s almost certain to make you feel some degree of outrage.

Also, thank you to everyone who has supported us this year. As much as we tend to be a cynical bunch at times, it truly means a lot. You could even say that we love you… In the platonic sense, of course.

15. The Veils – Total Depravity
Total Depravity was a very interesting alternative rock release for many reasons, among those being the groups collaboration throughout with independent hip-hop mainstay El-P. At the very least this would have been an incredibly solid alt-rock album, but the odd touches of hip-hop and electronic influence made it something really unique. It feels a bit inconsistent at times, but Finn Andrews’ and company brought a performance more than worth the purchase.

14. Mr. Lif – Don’t Look Down
It’s always special to see one of the old Definitive Jux crew doing something great years after the label stopped operating; moreover, it was really awesome to see Mr. Lif return to the rap scene after nearly seven years to delivery an incredibly solid album. Don’t Look Down was thoughtful, well written, and felt like a modern update to the underground sound Definitive Jux spent so many years dominating.

13. DIIV – Is The Is Are
Is The Is Are proved to be quite the step up from the alternative rock group DIIV. Though it certainly has moments that felt like they fell a little short (mostly the singles), and perhaps could have used some trimming, Is The Is Are was a wonderful album. The dreamy, reverbed out, sound was equally addictive and catchy. Don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re melting while listening, because it sounds like melting. Does that make sense? No? Okay… Moving on.

12. BADBADNOTGOOD – IV
The fourth BADBADNOTGOOD release may be a little more commercial than their previous efforts, but it also has some of their most engaging and accessible material. It should be noted, however, that the group managed to stay grounded in their roots on IV. The sound evolution is notable, but they didn’t lose themselves. The features on the album all did a really wonderful job, as well, with artists such as Mick Jenkins and Sam Herring providing vocal relief from pure instrumentation.

11. Open Mike Eagle & Paul White – Hella Personal Film Festival
Admittedly, our review on this album didn’t paint it as brightly as it should have. Hella Personal Film Festival turned out to the the type of album that took some time to fully sink in. Perhaps it was Mike’s calmer demeanor, or maybe it was the slightly different production provided by Paul White. Either way, Hella Personal Film Festival was a stunningly relatable album. Mike Eagle resumed his role as rap’s most down-to-earth everyman while gliding with ease over the off-kilter production. Hella Personal Film Festival lacked some of the catchy standouts like some of Mike’s other material, but as a whole it may be his most solid release to date.

10. Koi Child – Koi Child
This Australian hip-hop and jazz band brought one of the most engaging listens of the year with their self-titled debut. Recorded on a remote island, Koi Child’s use of live instrumentation and energetic vocals created an incredible atmosphere. Though the album may not be as socially rooted, it seemed to take a similar approach to music as a group like The Roots. Oh, and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker executive produced it, so there’s also that.

9. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
Aesop is notorious for hiding his true meaning deep within extended wordplay and a massive vocabulary, but The Impossible Kid saw him take a step back to allow us into the more personal aspects of his life. This album proved to be one of his most accessible, emotional, and at times humorous releases in his discography. It almost seemed to have given him new breath as an rapper. The production was also very good, particularly the rock inspired drum work.

8. Russian Circles – Guidance
Russian Circles have always suffered a bit from inconsistency with their albums, but Guidance felt like them at their very best. This album was ruthless, hard hitting, and incredibly dense. Any shortcomings from the band’s previous efforts seem to have been corrected, and what’s left is a beautiful post-metal album with ample replay value. Prepare to have your mind melted by something new every time you revisit Guidance.

7. clipping. – Splendor & Misery
Coming in at the sixth spot on this list is clipping. with their “space slave opera” album, Splendor & Misery. The experimental rap trio certainly put out their best and most consistent work with this effort. The story on the album was concise, and supplemented flawlessly with their harsh, noisy, and space inspired instrumentals.

6. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai
Ka is very much an underrated gem within hip-hop with his incredibly consistent discography. Honing his distinct chamber rap style, he pushed himself even further with this year’s Honor Killed the Samurai. This album was the dose of penmanship many have been craving, and the stripped back instrumentals allowed Ka’s vocal performance to be the star of the show.

5. FLANCH – FLANCH
FLANCH was one of those records that came out sounding like nothing before it. It’s a genre breaker in many ways, playing with hip-hop, indie, electronic, noise, and various other genres within its relatively humble running time. The religious and internet-era theme through the tape echoed painfully relatable. FLANCH was a haunting release, and one well worth of being in the top five of the year. For something so impossible to describe it is truly a beautiful work of art.

4. David Bowie – Blackstar
Given the context of this albums release, it seems reasonable to expect that it will be near the top of most album lists for 2016. Unfortunately, what many will fail to talk about is the fact that the music of Blackstar is absolutely gorgeous in its own right. David Bowie didn’t shy away from showing experimental-noise influences on this record, and it paid off wonderfully. Stripping away that context of his death this would still be one of the top albums of the year, and certainly one of Bowie’s best in years. On a blog with less hip-hop focus, this album would probably be closer to the one spot on a year end list. It was that good.

3. A Tribe Called Quest – Thank You for Your Service… We Got it From Here
This is another release where as much can be said about the context as there is about the music itself; however, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that A Tribe Called Quest managed to seamlessly update golden era style into a modern hip-hop classic. There’s not a track that felt out of place on Thank You for Your Service, and the music is paired with an equally impressive message at times. Given that Tribe hadn’t released an album in 18 years, it was absolutely incredible to see them smoothly slide back into hip-hop. Rest in Peace, Phife Dawg.

2. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
Fortunately due to absolute dumb luck (or possibly laziness), the surprise Christmas release of the much anticipated Run the Jewels 3 didn’t mess up this top albums list. Isn’t that fantastic? It sure is. Anyway, Killer Mike and El-P’s consistency was really given an opportunity to shine on Run the Jewels 3 and they did not disappoint. The third installment from the duo brought 50 minutes of punchy, in your face, bass-heavy, cheeky, and insightful hip-hop. The overall sound is much more similar to El-P’s solo work than the previous Run the Jewels’ albums, but it worked out excellently to craft an album which feels slightly different yet familiar.

1. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
Honestly, if anyone was going to put out a truly revolutionary sounding hip-hop album it was going to be Danny Brown, and he did. Atrocity Exhibition (borrowing its title from a Joy Division song) is absolutely phenomenal. This album was spacey, unique, and absolutely insane. Atrocity Exhibition felt like a bad drug trip in all the right ways. Once it ends, you feel as if you need to get some fresh air; however, don’t be surprised if you find yourself revisiting this album over and over. Atrocity Exhibition was incredibly disorienting, and catching everything at once felt near impossible. This is a hip-hop album that sounded like nothing else before it, and it truly earned the title of best album in 2016.