The Rewind – November 2019

by Rajin

The Rewind

I said in my last piece that I no longer want to write reviews, but I do still want to speak on some albums that came out in November 2019, a month I felt was fairly stacked. So instead, I wrote relatively quick recaps of them and stuffed everything together. No quantifying grades or ratings – just scattered thoughts with a varying amount of relevance to the project at hand.

MSM2highlyrecommended

Daniel Son & Futurewave – Moonshine Mix 2 [Brown Bag Money]

Moonshine Mix 2 is the second record that Daniel Son & Futurewave have dropped this year, coming after this summer’s Yenaldooshi. Yenaldooshi was a bit different from what you’d expect from these guys, though it was still another strong addition to an essentially flawless run of collaborative albums. It had eerier production and excessively aggressive vocals, even compared to Daniel’s already confrontational delivery. With that said, Moonshine Mix 2 sees Daniel Son & Futurewave going straight back to basics.

The first tape was produced by Crate Divizion’s Vic Grimes and Phyba Optikz, both of whom are vastly different from Futurewave stylistically. I wasn’t sure what his approach would be, but I was sure he’d deliver (spoiler alert: he did). To me, it sounds like he went for samples that were reminiscent of the original but flipped them in his own way to make them feel like beats you might hear on his previous albums with Daniel Son. It was a really clever way to find a middle ground between staying faithful to the first tape while also giving us trademark Futurewave.

I really don’t know what to say about Daniel Son that we haven’t said a thousand times before. There’s a reason why he’s one of our favorite rappers out right now. On most of this album he supplies us with more of what put him there for us. However, at some points, Daniel plays with his flow in really interesting ways that I don’t think I’ve heard him try before. On “Don’t Spill” he hits us with a double time flow out of nowhere, and on “It’s Facts” he kind of reminds me of Benny on “5 to 50”. Not only does it sound great, I appreciate hearing him take risks like this in an era where people find their comfort zones and bury their feet there.

Just like in 2018, Daniel Son & Futurewave gave us an album that sits far above most of the competition. These guys are on a hot streak that I honestly don’t see ending anytime soon.

oneofthebesthighlyrecommended

Gang Starr – One Of The Best Yet [Gang Starr Enterprises]

I don’t like posthumous music. More often than not, it comes off as a cash-grab by a label or affiliate rather than an attempt at paying tribute to a fallen artist. I can honestly count the number of tasteful posthumous albums that I’ve heard on one hand. Fortunately, this is one of them.

To be fair, this isn’t entirely posthumous. Half of the group is still here, which is directly the reason why it sounds so good. It’s easy to tell that Premier put everything he had into this album. It felt like his number one priority was creating something that Guru would approve of. You can feel the love and sorrow that Premo experienced while making this album just wash over you through the production. The sage burning rituals, keeping Guru’s ashes in the studio with him, putting Guru’s son on an interlude…it all comes through in the music to make for a very touching listening experience. Guru sounds so alive on these songs – it almost makes you forget that he’s no longer here.

I give Premo endless respect for the way he handled this album. He made it feel like Guru was genuinely right there with him. I don’t think I can give any higher praise than that when it comes to a posthumous release.

wwcd

highlyrecommended

Griselda – WWCD [Griselda Records/Shady Records/Interscope Records]

This was my most anticipated album for fourth quarter 2019. I’ll admit I’ve been nervous – I didn’t want to see these guys fumble this deal. A lot of things could have gone wrong.

Fortunately, they ended up giving me EXACTLY what I’ve wanted for the last two and a half years. More, even. WWCD gave me the feeling I had when I heard FLYGOD and Reject 2 for the first time, shortly after they signed to Shady. It was that same sense of mystique and excitement about something special hitting hip hop in the face. There’s no bells or whistles on this record – and that’s the beauty of it. It was signature GxFR grimey and spooky boom bap through and through. Setting aside the quality of the music, the fact that they managed to release an album with this sound, subject matter, and even artwork through a major label with NO concessions is historic.

Daringer’s production, which is what the GxFR sound has been built on from the beginning, is usually fairly simple and almost entirely loop-driven. That isn’t always great if the loop gets grating or monotonous, which is a problem I’ve had with his production on occasion. For that reason, bringing Beat Butcha on board was honestly the best thing they could have done. To my understanding, he supplied Daringer with music to loop, which meant they could be more precise with how the beats sounded while also avoiding sample clearance issues. The results were beautiful; this had some of the best beats I’ve ever heard on a Griselda Records release.

Benny and Conway are two of the best rappers alive today. Indisputably. So of course, the rapping was excellent throughout this album. I have never once heard Benny come with a verse anything short of great, and that doesn’t change here. Conway, on the other hand, releases mixtape after mixtape, all seemingly recorded over the span of a day or two. As a result, at times he can sound complacent to me. Mind you, a complacent Conway will still tear you to shreds on a track. It looks to me like dropping an official album through a major label woke him up though, because this is potentially the best I’ve personally ever heard him. Also, I really wasn’t expecting to hear Westside Gunn rap the way he did here. To me, he’s always been more style over skill – which isn’t a bad thing at all. He really showed out here, though. His flows were tight and he sounded more dialed in than I’m used to, and I loved it.

I have no hesitation in putting this up there as one of my absolute favorite Griselda Records AND Shady Records releases. It might look like I’m overselling it, but honestly, I don’t give a fuck. This was more than worth the wait and I’m still excited about it.

hwh

recommended

Westside Gunn – Hitler Wears Hermes VII [Griselda Records]

As is tradition, Westside Gunn released a new installment to his Hitler Wears Hermes mixtape series around Halloween. This is his second solo release of 2019, coming only a few months after FLYGOD Is An Awesome GOD. Even though this is a mixtape, it’s more developed than FIAAG, which felt like it was somewhere between an album and an EP.

Usually, the Hitler Wears Hermes tapes are Gunn’s grimiest and filthiest projects, but this tape went for a smoother, jazzier, more soulful sound. He sounds more at home on these beats than did through most of his last album, which went in a weirder and artsier direction. It seems like this mixtape was more about creating a vibe rather than hard-hitting standout tracks. Half of the songs play like interludes; they’re a minute and some change in length and are mainly driven by the instrumentals, a few repeated lines, and Gunn’s signature ad-libs. That’s not to say there aren’t a fair amount of more developed tracks here, but outside of just a handful, that’s mainly relegated to the tracks with features on them. With that in mind, what this tape has going for it is that the vibe created is really enjoyable to listen to. Hitler Wears Hermes is easily one of the better mixtape series of recent years, and this only works to strengthen that position.

ghettocowbyhighlyrecommended

Yelawolf – Ghetto Cowboy [Slumerican Records]

This record is Yelawolf’s first independent offering, coming less than a year after fulfilling his contract with Shady/Interscope. Apparently he had this album ready for a while, but he decided to instead give Shady an album similar to what got him signed. He re-worked his final major label release into the impressive Trunk Muzik 3 – a tasteful choice in my opinion.

Trunk Muzik 3 came off like a momentary artistic deviation for the sake of sentiment, but Ghetto Cowboy seems more like the logical next step after 2017’s Trial By Fire. This is both a progression from and improvement upon that sound. At times I’ve felt like Yela’s country rap stuff can lean a little too hard into the country side of things, but this album feels incredibly hip hop for how much country/folk influence it has. It’s mainly thanks to the production; while the instruments used sound like what you would hear in country-oriented music, the arrangement and drum patterns make it feel more hip hop than a lot of his other genre-bending work (which can feel more like someone rapping over a country music backing). The end result is a really interesting wild-west outlaw rap album. Ghetto Cowboy isn’t necessarily Yelawolf’s best record (I think Love Story holds that title, despite what I’ve said), but it’s easily his best attempt at blending genres to date.

That about wraps this up…Or it did, originally. Bonus round!

marcielagohighlyrecommended

Roc Marciano – Marcielago [Marci Enterprises]

Yeah, this came out at the top of December. Fuck it.

At this point in Roc Marciano’s career, he has every reason in the world to get complacent. Rather than coast on his legacy, though, he seems like he’s hungry to remind everybody who the mastermind is behind essentially the entire style that underground east coast hip hop artists have been running with for the last few years.

There are a few staples of a Roc Marci album that you’re gonna find here. Pimp talk? Minimalistic production? Slick, laid back delivery? All present. And that’s about all that’s familiar. It feels like Marci is taking elements of his established formula and applying them to sounds he hasn’t played with before. The production on this album is actually portrayed well by the cover art. It sounds like the backing to a crime drama: chaotic and violent at times, luxurious and indulgent at others. He’s always been a cinematic artist, but rather than his typical approach of soundtracking the biopic of a street legend, he took a turn in the “Miami Vice” direction. Granted, he experimented on RR2 and Behold A Dark Horse too. That said, it feels like with each passing album it’s gotten easier for him to broaden his horizons. I can’t say whether this one is better than BADH, my favorite Marci project from last year, just yet. It definitely sounds like he’s more comfortable experimenting than ever, though.

These days, I have a hard time describing Marci’s music because of where he’s been taking it. His primary focus isn’t really on the cold, unflinching soul sample-driven boom bap that he came into prominence with anymore…and I think that’s great. He’s proving that he’s not only talented and influential, but a once-in-a-lifetime hip hop artist. People are still imitating the style he popularized years ago, and less effectively at that. Meanwhile, he’s off finding ways to innovate even further. Roc Marciano is one of the greatest of all time.

Stop

I know I didn’t cover every release last month. Some didn’t move me to speak on them (which doesn’t necessarily mean I think they’re bad), and I haven’t listened to others yet. These just happened to inspire me to write, and I wanted to extend a bit of love towards them. I’m looking to do this semi-regularly, so I’ll try to be back with another one of these in a month or two.

Album Review: Daniel Son x Asun Eastwood x Futurewave – Physics of Filth

by Dustin

pof

9.25/10

The current East coast boom bap revival has certainly been interesting to say the least. It’s seemed like a rap fan’s dream, yet has seemingly flown under the radar beyond Roc Marciano’s smooth pimp rebirth of New York. That’s not to say it hasn’t been fun to witness that sound sinking its hooks into the ears of listeners, because it definitely has been, but it’s lacked the snarl 90s dope boy emcees tended to carry. Roc and his offshoots have all leaned heavily into a buttery smooth coolness, and — by no fault of his own whatsoever — it has gotten slightly monotonous at times. The climate has been perfect for a mould breaker to come along and present something with vigor and attitude. Shockingly, three such men have arisen out of the frozen North and banded together to create something monumental. Physics of Filth, a project consisting of the ever powerful Daniel Son and Futurewave combo, while throwing in the king of raw potential in Asun Eastwood for good measure. Basically all the ingredients for an unforgettable feast, the likes of which the Canadian hip-hop scene has never seen.

Oh yes, the audience ate well.

As a pair, Daniel Son and Asun Eastwood are incredible to a degree beyond comprehension. While both are fantastic emcees solo, they elevate each other to new heights on the same track. They balance one another out, with Asun’s calm coolness providing the exact foil Daniel Son’s hyper aggressive bite called for; however, there also seemed to be the perfect amount of competitiveness between the two to create a spark. The clear desire to not be outdone was evident, and it became exciting to try and predict who would push themselves the furthest on any given song. Topically the album was as the name and cover implied, immensely grimy drug dealer rap. Certainly a topic that has seen its fair share of play in hip-hop, but rarely is it done to the level of Physics of Filth. Asun and Daniel are quite talented writers when it comes to cheeky lines and unique phrasing. With that amount of flair, they were more than able to keep the content fresh and engaging. Coupled with a delivery match made in heaven, they were able to put on a near flawless performance on this release.

There was also the Futurewave factor to consider. Recently it has felt as if there is genuine reason to consider Futurewave as one of the best active producers alive, and Physics of Filth did nothing but bolster his impressive portfolio. He’s seemingly mastered the art of percussion, as the beats on this album hit hard enough to make the forefathers of boom-bap scrunch their faces. The sample selection spanned a wide variety of genres and were brought together seamlessly to create this intensely gritty atmosphere; moreover, his work found a way to boost the already undeniable chemistry of Daniel Son and Asun Eastwood. Even more impressively, he did so without repeating the sound established alongside the aforementioned Daniel Son on Pressure Cooker earlier the same year. It was similar in the sense that it was also a treasure trove of modernized 90s hardcore hip-hop, yet also clearly its own very unique thing. Frankly, Futurewave’s production performance made it impossible to simply shrug him off as a faceless man behind the boards because he was an integral part of the record’s DNA.

Physics of Filth was for all intents and purposes the total package. Enjoyable collaborative albums are not an easy feat to pull off naturally, yet when the stars align they can be something truly special. That’s what happened here. It would have been easy for Futurewave’s production acumen to serve as a crutch, propping up otherwise mediocre verses. Asun Eastwood and Daniel Son are not just any old rappers however, and their desire to live up to the standard each instrumental set was spectacular. Physics of Filth listened like the product of three budding elite talents holding a genuine excitement to be working together, and the interpersonal respect was audible. While the aforementioned chemistry was certainly important, this release would not have been what it was without the enthusiasm it carried. It could have simply been a solid side project, and that would have still been wonderful. Instead, it ended up being perhaps one of the best group releases in the better part of a decade, and one that would be a shame for any hip-hop junkie to not at least try once.


.Final edit: Emily – Preliminary edit: Rajin – Additional direction: Isaac

 

 

Album Review: Eminem – Kamikaze

by Dustin

kamikaze

8.25/10

Since his reemergence in hip-hop nine years ago, Eminem’s career arc has been rocky to say the least. Perhaps lost as an artist, he’s bounced between deliveries, subject matter, and producers while simultaneously finding very little to be a natural fit. His music during this period really struggled to discover its footing completely. Relapse was an interesting idea with smooth production, but faltered in its conceptual execution and consistency; Recovery was a matured and more cohesive effort hampered by a one dimensional sound; The Marshall Mathers LP 2 boasted unreal highs, but suffered as a full listen due to a few really poor artistic choices; and finally, Revival was a cumulative disaster of faults, mixed in with some of the worst studio technical work to appear on a mainstream album. His ability to write pure rap was still clearly alive, but whether or not he could assemble a solid full body of work became a massive question mark. With doubt swirling and the public eye shifting elsewhere, there was only one solution…

…drop a seethingly angry album out of nowhere. Kamikaze.

First and foremost, the production value was an extreme step-up from from the absolute audio hell brought on by Rick Rubin during the past handful of years. Eminem’s performance was no longer burdened by disgustingly muddy mixing, and it saw a return to layered vocals to properly compensate for his relatively weak voice. Thanks to these small studio tweaks, he sounded clear and powerful behind the mic for the first time in ages. The beat choices also felt a lot more decisive and modern; moreover, even though the production credits (which included the likes of Mike Will Made It and Illadaproducer) may throw people off, the overall vibe felt more like an Eminem album than anything from the last ten years. The dark, simplistic, off-kilter nature of the instrumentation allowed for his rapping stay at the forefront of each song, which was refreshing. He’s an artist who has always gotten lost easily in oversaturated production, and clearly this was taken into consideration when structuring this album. The cohesion was also impressively tight, particularly given the awful whiplashing between incompatible styles on last year’s Revival. The only brief changeup was going into the mid-2000s Shady Records sounding throwback on “Stepping Stones;” however, this was purposeful and much less jarring than the hard right turns into Rick Rubin’s 80s rock “samples” that had become commonplace lately.

Eminem as an emcee was supremely engaging on Kamikaze, and it was a shocking treat. For the past half decade he had been in this weird place where he was writing really well, but the substance usually felt forced or non-existent. In addition to that, his delivery had become incredibly wonky, gutless, and rather hard to enjoy. With that in mind, it became obvious straight from the first few tracks that the flows, while still occasionally weird, had been dialed back to being more traditionally on beat. The gutlessness was also solved with the aforementioned return to vocal layering, which really helped his delivery to have some genuine impact. This really allowed for his penmanship to shine though, which was in tip-top condition for the vast majority of the album. His multisyllable rhyme patterns returned to feeling more conversational and less hamfisted, while his wordplay took on much more subtlety. For instance, there was one moment on “Fall” where he lead into a punchline about “Forever” (the posse cut alongside Drake, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne) by borrowing his own flow from 9 years ago. It rolled out so smoothly that it would have been easy to miss until the second or third listen. That sort of rewind factor was fantastic, and made it impossible to not desire subsequent listens. As far as subject matter goes, Kamikaze was significantly more vapid and self-indulgent than either The Marshall Mathers LP 2 or Revival, which was oddly a positive. It seems that in spite of the perception that songs like “Stan” have built about Eminem’s songwriting being grandiose, he’s actually most comfortable in the snide and angry mindset that he captured here. While it was initially a bit of a shock to hear him rapping about hating critics, hating other rappers, knocking people out, guns, and calling Trick Trick, it truly felt like he had allowed his real personality to come out again. Removing the rose-coloured glasses, the vast majority of his best work has always been self-obsessed fury and vitriol. Kamikaze really was no different than a record like the original Marshall Mathers LP in that regard, and it was a fun listen because of it.

The aforementioned “Stepping Stone,” however, was the one track on this album with a much more emotional foundation. Though they’ve not released a studio album since 2004, it marked the official end of D12. “Stepping Stone” went heavily into detail about how Proof’s untimely death tore the collective apart and rendered them dysfunctional even through multiple attempts to recapture the feeling and make a comeback. It was handled incredibly tastefully with Eminem shouldering a lot of the blame, but also being blunt about needing everyone to move past the group so that they can all remain friends. The production, as mentioned, was a throwback to the sound of the label during D12’s hayday. It was a nice touch, and a fittingly melancholy end to a group limping out of years of turmoil.

The features on this album definitely seemed to catch a lot of attention on drop day, and fortunately they did not disappoint. Joyner Lucas, Royce da 5’9”, and Jessie Reyez each brought a unique flavor to their tracks. Joyner’s opening verse to “Lucky You,” a bit of a before and after story about fame, matched Eminem’s level of energy perfectly and accomplished exactly what the song needed it to do. On the sillier end of the spectrum, Royce brought much appreciated comic relief to the opening of “Not Alike,” which of course came immediately after the emotional strain of “Stepping Stone.” Jessie Reyez appeared on both of the combination tracks “Nice Guy” and “Good Guy,” where she promptly asserted herself as one of the most fitting singers to perform alongside Eminem. Her humor matched his perfectly, and the chemistry was simply delightful. Overall, the features felt like genuine collaborations rather than random names making a cameo. It was a nice change of pace, and nobody came across as redundant.

There was an additional unlisted feature by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on “Fall.” It sounded nice, but there isn’t really much else to be said aside from the fact that he was angry it stayed on the album.

Kamikaze was unapologetically midwest, and for that reason it will likely always be a polarizing album. The speed rap, trap influence, shock value, and hyper-lyrical writing style are all staples of the region currently, and it’s not going to be every listener’s cup of tea. That being said, Eminem did these things extremely well. From start to finish, nothing felt out of place. Even the weaker tracks such as “Normal” were amusing and played a role in making the overall listen more complete. He overcame many of the musical issues he’s been grappling lately, and it reflected itself in a solid project. It wasn’t perfect, but he’s never been the perfect artist. What it was, though, was Eminem’s most natural sounding release in over 15 years after a litany of awkward and confusing detours. Fortunately he seemingly found his way back on track, as Kamikaze was an excellent listening experience.

 

Album Review: Prof – Pookie Baby

by Dustin

pookiebaby

3.75/10

A few years ago, Rhymesayers associated themselves with an artist well outside of their usual dynamic. As an addition to their roster he stuck out like a sore thumb, yet his chaotic energy charmed the fanbase quickly. This artist was Prof. The other side of the coin to Rhymesayers Entertainment’s introspective conscious rap signature. He came in boasting an arrogantly brazen offering of hyperactive shenanigans within his music. He was a debauchery driven scumbag but possessed a degree of self-awareness that broke through on moments of emotional reflection. His label debut, Liability, came in 2015 and offered an excellent helping of his range. It was a mess, but so genuinely fun that it was impossible not to love. It felt like a jumping off point into something bigger for Prof. He took time away from the studio to tour but recently returned with his new album. Pookie Baby, the record which would push the sound and success of Liability forward and prove that Prof was a true powerhouse on the label.

Except, it didn’t happen that way. Not even close.

Pookie Baby missed the mark in most ways, but the biggest element of failure was Prof’s writing. His wild, party addict, white boy shtick, which normally seems natural, came across as eye-rollingly forced. The lyrics began to be more of a nuisance than a pleasure to sit through by the thirtieth time he reminded anyone listening of how often he has sex. It was funny at first, particularly on “Send Nudes,” but at a point, Prof started to sound like a meme of himself. A broken record with no range. It was hard to listen without feeling like he had phoned the writing portion for the vast majority of the release. The wit and tongue in cheek braggadocio of past releases were hard to see. Instead, there was an appeal to the lowest common denominator with empty, repetitive lyrics. It was a letdown. Prof is capable of a lot more than he showed on Pookie Baby, but the steps backwards were too blatant to be pushed aside. Given the length of time between Liability and now, it’s reasonable to say that more could have been expected.

There’s also the aspect of vocal delivery. Prof has never been a technically talented singer, but in small doses, his voice can be a lot of fun and add a unique flair of versatility that many lack. Small doses being the key. In the case of Pookie Baby, though, the singing was far too frequent and hit a point of being completely abrasive. One or two songs featuring his trademark warbling would have been welcomed with open arms; however, when it feels like half the album is an artist overusing an already spotty singing voice to avoid having to write lyrics with more depth, there is a problem. Pookie Baby had this problem. When he opted to rap, Prof’s delivery did compensate for some of the weaker writing to a degree. It still wasn’t his best work by any means, but it was passable enough for songs like “Time Bomb” and “Action” to sound genuinely engaging. Sadly, these moments were very much the minority. Prof misused his vocal tools to the point that it hurt the record severely. It’s a shame because there were a few glimpses of that bombastic skill on the album. He just decided, for whatever reason, to put a minuscule amount of it on display.

In addition to Prof delivering vocals well below his capabilities on Pookie Baby, he received little help from the instrumentals. It was more cohesive than Liability musically but lacked the eclectic charm and character of that album’s production. It felt like a binary. Either he was rapping on top of a bouncy, upbeat trap flavored beat, or he was crooning on top of something more wavy and slow. While none of the instrumentals were inherently bad, they were generic and grew dull quickly. Prof normally has enough energy to carry weaker beats, but his complacency on Pookie Baby enabled them to stand out as mediocre. Tracks were screaming for more intricacy to help carry his performance, and it just was not there. It was another unfortunate reflection of the regression Prof displayed as an artist. His production choices were that of an individual who misunderstood his strengths and appeal, resulting in a bitterly inferior product from top to bottom.

In spite of Pookie Baby’s quality issues, it doesn’t seem fair to count Prof out entirely. As much as this was a rather significant misstep, it wasn’t bad due to deteriorated ability. It felt more like he was lost musically, and leaned heavily on his crutches to be able to flesh out an album. This has happened to many an artist over the years, and a future return to form is more than possible. Regardless this is a review, and the reality is that Pookie Baby offered little of value or interest. A couple of songs were quite amusing and might be worth spinning again, but the overall product was underwhelming at best. It just didn’t click. He’s worth keeping an eye on going forward as there’s plenty of untapped potential, but this is a project better to be left forgotten.

Album Review: Black Milk – FEVER

by Dustin

FEVER

9/10

Detroit. One of the meccas of hip-hop. For years the city has churned out phenomenal talent like flowers growing through the cracks of the extremely rough social climate. Since the turn of the millennium, Black Milk has been honing himself as one of Motor City’s finest artists. Working with prominent local names such as Slum Village, Danny Brown, Guilty Simpson, and Royce da 5’9”, he became known as a production wizard before moving into solo rap releases in 2005. His career has been one marked by superhuman craftsmanship, particularly following the release of Tronic in 2008. Black Milk has been an artist to never settle, striving to push his style to new places with each new drop. Just shy of four years since his last rap release, Black Milk stepped out of the shadows with a new offering of tracks; one that may only have been his most bold step forward in the name of musical progression.

FEVER was a sonic departure for Black Milk, at least regarding his rap releases. While it moved away from the alternative street-hop sound, he had crafted on No Poison No Paradise, and If There’s a Hell Below, it built upon the distinctive flavor of the Nat Turner collaborative effort, The Rebellion Sessions. This will likely be a sticking point for some, and admittedly it did make for a confusing initial listen; however, once that shock wore off, the album felt incredibly well put together. It doesn’t take a hip-hop aficionado to recognize that Black Milk has been a production powerhouse for many years, but he still managed to find a point of ascension for FEVER. The instrumentals on this album were fantastic. Through the process of chopping tracks recorded by his actual band, Black Milk gave the beats a sense dynamic liveliness that would otherwise be difficult to accomplish using samples. It created an intimate environment, much like watching a jazz-rap show at a small venue. Additionally, he didn’t entirely abandon the classic boom-bap undertones that have become a signature of the Michigan region. The record maintained a needed sense of familiarity. There was a wonderful balance between genres that often gets lost on artists when they move into new territory. While the jazz and funk elements were certainly prominent, FEVER remained hip-hop at its core.

The production oddities didn’t end there, however, as the vocals on this release were handled uniquely. Black Milk felt to be a little further back in the mix, doing away with the stark contrast between emcee and instrumental. This had some interesting consequences. First and foremost, it gave the album a flawless aspect of cohesion. The way Black Milk allowed himself to be enveloped in the beat made it sound as if he was more at home than ever before. There were no moments that felt as if the beat selection was questionable, a true hat tip toward the attention to finer detail. Secondly, it created an environment in which it became possible to end up fully lost in a track as the listener. There was an ethereal beauty to each song, with the individual pieces joining forces to create a rich final sound. While this may have made it hard to firmly hang onto Black Milk’s lyrics at first, with subsequent listens it became a true marvel to appreciate.

Making it all the more worth taking time was the fact that Black Milk’s performance as an emcee remained solid as ever. There’s something to be said about knowing when to keep it simple, and he has proven time and time again to be a master of that art. While admittedly more ambitious on FEVER than some of his past work, Black Milk’s flows never attempt to overwhelm. They were tight and complementary to the chilled out production. At the lyrical level, he opted to focus on his strengths: observant bars and social storytelling. Verses were packed to the brim with quick poignancy, and tracks such as “Foe Friend” highlighted his ability to craft interesting stories out of the day-to-day. What FEVER lacked in bombastic vocals was made up for in spades with unmatched consistency. There isn’t much else that can be said. Black Milk was simply extremely sharp for the entire duration of the project, and that’s an underrated quality for an album to possess.

Unfortunately, FEVER was the sort of album that will evade a good handful of listeners. It felt distinctly removed from the path Black Milk was on, and if fans don’t approach it with an open mind, it likely won’t land with them as well as it could. This is “unfortunate” because beyond that surprise it was truly a pleasure to experience. Spinning it with expectations checked at the door made it evident that this is a special record. A potential candidate for album of the year, assembled by one of hip-hop’s most artistically attentive minds. Black Milk once again found a way to push the envelope, a remarkable feat for an individual with an already fantastic track record of releases. Bravo.

Album Review: Walter Gross – The Fra Mauro Highlands

by Dustin

FMH

8.5/10

On January 31st, 1971 NASA would launch the eighth manned mission to the moon, Apollo 14. The three person crew kicked off the 9 day mission from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39, before travelling to the Fra Mauro Highlands on the near side of the lunar surface. This would serve as the last of NASA’s simplistic (relatively speaking) H-Type missions to the moon, as they upgraded to the longer J-Type with Apollo 15. While this particular Apollo mission was relatively understated, its legacy lives on as a success during the booming age of space exploration. An era that had a particular vibe of wonder, and captured the imagination of individuals even outside the realm of science.

One may now be asking how this is relevant to music, and Walter Gross is the answer to that question. Though he may not have been an astronaut on the Apollo 14 mission (or even much of a space enthusiast, for that matter), his love of ambient concentrative music lead him to an interesting place of inspiration: the Voyager recordings. Finding himself endeared to the organic beauty of these pieces, he began work on his own out of this world experimentation. Quickly reaching full realization with a 23 minute (50 counting the Stray Signals Cassette Mix) long tape of atmospheric allure, The Fra Mauro Highlands. An album which would suitably see release on the 47th anniversary of Apollo 14.

Though it bares his name, The Fra Mauro Highlands was not the type of project one has come to expect from Walter Gross. It abandoned a lot of the crunchier, abrasive noise elements he’s become known for in the past, opting to try something a little more ambient instead. Once expectations were subverted however, this was a wonderful listening experience. It hit the flavor of desolate space music perfectly, and managed to feel cold while also inspiring a sense of adventure. There was a particular hint of retro-futurism to the tape, to the same vein as a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was due primarily to brilliant sound contrast constructed by Walter Gross. The entirety of The Fra Mauro Highlands had an underlying subtle ambiance of whooshing and swirling sounds that were distinctly galactic and harrowing. Atop of this there were moments of gorgeously vintage sounding synthetic instrumentation, used sparsely enough to maintain a sense of mechanical exploration through an all encompassing emptiness. It didn’t mess around with precisely divide tracks. Rather, this album was one continuous piece of music that built upon itself, evolving in a natural and off-the-cuff manner.

With all that in mind, there were aspects of The Fra Mauro Highlands carrying Walter’s signature touch. It was an immensely unsettling selection of work, with the emptiness and overall tone having created a strong sense of urgency and apprehensiveness of the unknown. With artistic anxiety being such a mainstay in his music, this familiarity was oddly comforting. It provided reassurance that this is exactly how the project was supposed to make one feel, and not an emotion to be avoided. The “Stray Signals Cassette Mix” which followed the conclusion of The Fra Mauro Highlands rewound things back a little further stylistically, while having maintained the same overall vibe. It wasn’t the star of the show by any means, but it was very good and really provided a feeling of returning home to the established fan of Walter Gross. A return after a fantastic journey.

Much like the Apollo 14 mission itself, The Fra Mauro Highlands will likely go down as one of Walter Gross’ most under-the-radar releases. While it was absolutely excellent, it appealed to a listener base even more niche than his signature barrage of noise. Which is unfortunate, because it was a stunningly beautiful, and somewhat anxious, ambient album. It wore its inspirations on its sleeve, and the ambition was undeniable. Do-it-Yourself music is about pushing limits, catching waves of inspiration, and trying things outside of the box just to see what will happen. Walter Gross did all of these things with The Fra Mauro Highlands. It embodied the spirit of the scene entirely, and should find itself respected as such.

Rajin Rambles: 2017 in Review, and Beyond

by Rajin

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Fortunately, we’ve somehow managed to reach the end of 2017. Unfortunately, this means that I’m once again taking it upon myself to do what I hate to see from other people, and give my unsolicited opinion about the rap music that has come out over the course of the past 12 months.

Overall I thought this year offered a great deal of good music. As expected, Redman and Ghostface Killah did not release their oft-delayed sequel albums that I have been looking forward to for the last 2 or 3 years (there’s always next year!). Some disappointing albums were released; Shabazz Palaces released two of the most tragically underwhelming albums this year, Eminem released a seriously flawed and scatterbrained effort made even more unfortunate because it had many of his best songs in a decade and a half, and the Wu-Tang Clan compilation was full of verses completely phoned in by everyone not named Method Man or Redman. However, there were at least 25-30 projects that I enjoyed. That is far more than what I can say about last year; when reflecting on 2016 about a year ago, I struggled to think of even 10 or 15 albums.

While I loved much of what came out this year, I do feel as though there were not as many that blew me away the way Run The Jewels 3, Atrocity Exhibition, or Honor Killed The Samurai did. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream might be the only one that did that for me, but again, there were a lot of great projects released.

Hip hop, to me, seems like it’s kind of in a state of limbo at the moment, and it’s sorting itself out a bit. It doesn’t seem like the genre really knows where it wants to go. Overall, the year felt a bit directionless, just kind of dragging its feet with a lot of the trends that have been present for the last few years. It feels like people are done with them and yet are also afraid to deviate from them as well. I can’t say I’m very thrilled about the whole Soundcloud rap thing – most of these kids sound to me like they’re really half-assing this cloudy trap vibe while glamorizing mental illness. It’s not a good look.

I’m really over the idea of trap-style drums being thrown into every other beat you hear these days. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy trap music. However, I’m not a fan of what’s been going on with it for a while now. Honestly, most of what is considered trap music really doesn’t seem like it should be considered trap music in the first place. Trap music has gone from actually detailing everyday life in the trap, to basically just rapping over cloudy, moody beats with fast hi-hats behind them. I feel like it’s lost its edge, and it’s becoming very safe and sanitary.

What’s going on with trap actually reminds me of what happened to New York hip hop in the late 90s. Back when Bad Boy and Ruff Ryders gained prominence, most of the grit, dust, and ultimate spirit of the music was lost, as keyboard producers came in with overly clean synths and snares that overtook sampling. Anything that resembled the sound of east coast hip hop before this transition ended up getting relegated to the underground, and it stopped being representative of the New York sound, until now where most people wouldn’t think New York even has a discernible sound at all. Like anything, as the trap sound and style got cleaner, it started losing most of what made it so alluring in the first place. For a long time it’s become progressively more and more watered down, and I feel like this year everything has just been a haze.

Odd as it may sound, 2 Chainz is quite possibly the first rapper to release an album that felt like a proper trap album in years. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music wasn’t an album I was overly fond of, but the entire atmosphere and structure of it felt reminiscent to an early T.I. album. He experimented with the current sounds that rule trap music (and, well, hip hop and even pop as a whole) but actually performed on it in a way that stayed true to the subgenre. Aside from it having a couple of songs I did enjoy, I feel like I’ve got to respect it for that reason.

I hope that hip hop moves on from the current incarnation of trap soon. I spoke earlier this year about how hip hop is in a good place, but I think I need to rephrase. It is in a good place solely because it has proven time and time again that it is not a fad, and because experimentation has crept into it more than it has since the 80s when it first really exploded. However, as far as the prevailing trends go, I think they were necessary but the representative sound needs to move on to something else. Hip hop will lose steam quickly if the majority of what is being consumed continues to devolve. Or maybe the sound will deviate from its southern influence and something else will take its place, like with what happened to New York. All I know is that I’m really kind of tired of it. There’s only so much syrupy music you can hear before you start to feel sick.

Now with all this in mind, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I do think there’s a growing trend in underground east coast hip hop that I’m really excited about. It seems like this new chamber rap style has been really catching on, especially this year. This style is almost like a progression of the style that we saw with the first wave of the Wu-Tang Clan, where there was a lot of soulful and orchestral samples used in production as well as very descriptive, layered, and colorful lyrics. There are several rappers and producers who deserve credit for pushing the style further, but I think the first person who crafted music in this style that really made people take notice (and please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) was none other than Roc Marciano.

In 2010, Roc Marciano released his solo debut album Marcberg. On that album, Marci painted laid vividly detailed verses delivered with a quiet and subdued yet overtly arrogant slow flow over a very soulful, stripped down backdrop. It was a style that was unlike anything that was coming out at the time; it was luxurious yet dusty, innovative yet familiar. It was very minimal, with drums oftentimes playing a less prominent role in the production. Two years later, he would refine the style he used on this album and put out what is possibly the most important underground New York rap album of the decade thus far: Reloaded.

Reloaded is the album that has given chamber rap its foothold in the genre. Since the release of that album, you can see underground rappers begin to draw influence from what Marci was doing on that album and push it forward. Around this time, The Alchemist began working with Marci, and from there you can notice a change in his production style, evident on his beats on Sean Price’s Mic Tyson or the Albert Einstein album he did with Prodigy. He started making beats that were more minimal compared to what he was doing beforehand, almost like he was adapting what he did early in his career for Mobb Deep and stripped the style down further.

The music that has been coming out of the Griselda camp since around 2014, when Daringer came into the fold, has also followed a similar tone. Daringer is another producer who creates very minimal beats, oftentimes not adding any drums to the samples and just working with what is there already. Westside Gunn and Conway are some of the more notable rappers who have pushed this style forward, as well. While Roc Marciano innovated it, there weren’t very many rappers toying with it until Westside Gunn’s mixtapes started to drop. It appears to me that the recent explosion of this subgenre really started after Flygod came out.

Since then, in 2016 and especially 2017, there has been music, primarily out of the east coast, that perpetuates this style, aside from Roc Marciano and Griselda. Hus Kingpin, being from Hempstead, Long Island like Roc Marciano, released Cocaine Beach with Big Ghost this year that was essentially a sunny take on Marci’s very cold, wintry tone. Meyhem Lauren and DJ Muggs released Gems From The Equinox, which sounded almost like it bridged the gap between vintage Wu-Tang and the current chamber rap style. VDon and Willie the Kid released a pair of excellent chamber rap EPs this year, both of which offered the subgenre the most innovation on the production side of things that it’s seen since Daringer first molded the Griselda sound. These are all artists who are taking the luxurious vibe of mafiaso rap from the early-to-mid ‘90s, and finally spawning something bigger and worthy, as opposed to the watering down of the style that Bad Boy among others ended up being responsible for.

We also can’t forget Ka. I didn’t include him alongside the rest of these guys because while they all have more of a Raekwon vibe, Ka is more like GZA. He has very stripped back production as well, however, he kind of sounds like he developed his style in a way that is very compatible with Roc Marciano, but definitely separate from it at the same time.

At the end of the day, no matter what, there’s gonna be great music everywhere no matter what the scene looks like from the outside looking in. My sentiments from last year, about wanting a more industrial influenced sound to become the representative sound of hip hop, still apply because I still feel like it could pose as a sensible point to go from where we are now. I get the sense that there will be a fairly dry period in mainstream hip hop in the next few years before the genre is replaced with another genre as the most popular genre before a new fire is lit under it. Or not. I’m not exactly good at predicting anything. Regardless, I am really excited to see how chamber rap continues to grow, and there’s plenty that I’m looking forward to in the year to come.