Trevor Abes: Writer

Tag: rap

Big Boi’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors: A Review

Big Boi Vicious Lies and Dangerous RumoursA benefit of being an O.G. is that you can expand your musical horizons without fear of losing credibility. Fans are going to be willing to give your change in direction a chance and listen with an open mind, while artists in your preferred genre won’t be so quick to deride your non-traditional leap.

Antwan André Patton, A.K.A. Big Boi, A.K.A. Daddy Fat Sax, is not pained by the anxiety of influence. On his second solo album, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors  he enlists a pair of acts more used to weaving computerized dreamscapes than serving as the backdrop for someone’s rhymes.

The first, indie psych pop duo Phantogram, prevents “Objectum Sexuality” from devolving into a futile ladies’ jam by crafting a self-reflexive hook (It’s all you want these days cause you feel nothing inside / You know there’s nothing wrong, but you’ve been wondering why) that works in opposition to Patton’s explicit confessions. The duo also produced the track, opting for a multilayered, synthesized approach that stays as true to the funk of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik as it does to personalizing Southern Hip Hop, a subgenre known for its posing and the at times numbing similarity of its beats and lyrics.

Little-DragonThe second, Swedish electro quartet Little Dragon, feature on “Descending” and “Thom Pettie,” a dirty ditty produced by long-time Outkast collaborator and Grammy-winning producer Chris Carmouche (Album of the Year, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2004). Dragon vocalist Yukimi Nagano’s short and sweet contribution lends a gospel edge to this otherwise formulaic flossing platform.

Compared to “Pettie,” the regurgitated “In The A” feels conservative and out of place because Vicious isn’t about going hard (definition number 3), it’s about looking inward. Despite T.I. and Luda’s strong cameos, the track falls flat for not eschewing the braggadocio and bombastic production that is their comfort zone, even though Patton and his cohorts have earned the right to let their guards down whenever they please. Luckily, deviations from Vicious’ meditative, unrushed aesthetic (including “Mama Told Me”) are both minimal and forgettable; and forgivable as well, as we’ll see later on.

Phantogram“CPU,” featuring Phantogram, is a love song whose chimes and buzzy synths dial in on a vulnerable sense of longing born from always being on the road. It starts out like a hipster 80’s reimagining, one that’ll reach out and tap your feet til they learn what’s good for them; then, it morphs into an expression of weakness (against black stereotypes), the purest I’ve ever heard from Patton, whether alongside his virtual brother, André Benjamin, or not. A question “CPU” leaves us with is whether, after however long, we are able to differentiate between a loved one and his or her internet trail.

Phantogram equals Patton’s lyrical depth through straight hook mastery. On “Lines,” Sarah Barthel wails “I’ve wondered how / I’m happier when I lose what I’ve needed all my life,” successfully daring to make an important point about the value of indecision, of letting go of what was once thought as the nearest path to becoming somebody in hip-hop: It may seem like a small achievement, but Barthel is talking about losing interest in material things, and so is Patton. When the princess cut diamonds, fur coats and Escalades no longer matter, he says, one’s mind spends all its energy on identifying “the dangers in the circle of angels,” a circle the battle-worn rapper now frequents with caution, having once thought, like many newcomers to the game, that it contained friends loyal beyond questioning.

I’m not exactly displeased about the “contractual obligations” that prevented André Benjamin, A.K.A. André 3000, from appearing on this album. Let’s face it, if Benjamin is the strange half of Outkast that drops the commendable “Prototype” as a single, Patton is the time-honored half happy to excel within hip-hop’s established parameters: After Benjamin’s “Hey Ya!,” his “The Way You Move” was the second song to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in ‘04 (and both songs can take some credit for all the number one’s on that chart until the end of the year coming from African-American artists); its accessibility and elaborateness surpass your average spitta’s crossover club anthem, but it’s still a club anthem, doomed to not have survived in the public consciousness a mere eight years since dropping.

However, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors feels immune to such a fate. The principle that informs it, broader than genre or an experienced ear, is a willingness to collaborate with an indie music scene Outkast never really had to find a place in after signing with LaFace as teenagers in ’92. And such a collaboration required of Patton that he make room for sharing his personal imperfections, which only became more arresting themes once conveyed through uneven, remarkably concrete, form-mimics-content song structures: this is why any review that faults Vicious for lack of cohesion fails to understand that the album sounds like the cautious self-actualization that pervades it.

In a way, Big Boi is a new artist, risking emotional openness for the first time, hoping for a response that’ll have little to do with platinum certifications or his decorated professional past.

Listen to: “Descending,” “Tremendous Damage” and  “C.P.U.

Advertisements

Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE: A Review

Frank Ocean, r&b singer and member of Odd Future, released channel ORANGE, his debut album, on July 10, 2012.

The first single, “Thinkin’ Bout You,” tackles the inherent fickleness of relationships. It’s what Maxwell would sound like without his tacky approach to romanticism.

On “Super Rich Kids,” Ocean shows how deep his pop roots go by offering a track that develops a predetermined subject (same goes for “Forrest Gump”); this method of song-writing is akin to poetry, in that the artist limits his subjective scope like a ballad or Shakespearean sonnet form limits verse; he cannot fill up time by spitting loosely associated mental wanderings without veering off topic. It is by focusing on this class of kids, and the substantial repercussions their money brings to the table, that Ocean and a haunting Earl Sweatshirt force themselves to and succeed at tailoring their skills to an existing semantic mould to produce an example of Darwinian hip-hop adaptation.

Around the 3:50 mark on “Pyramids,” Ocean turns up the Scissor Sisters and lets it be known that he can get down too; his overreliance on repetition to sustain this nine-minutes-plus mammoth is quickly evident, and can be forgiven on nerd credentials, namely the use of Cleopatra/Ancient Egypt as an allegorical device that doubles as a framing device for the story of a lover turned prostitute. Brilliant.

The album is full of prospective moments of brilliance: “Fertilizer” could easily be extended into a full song riding on its unexpected blend of bawdy and Motown. The memorable “Bad Religion” seeps  tangentially into politics with the refrain, “If it brings me to my knees / It’s a bad religion,” and is backed up by Ocean’s agony-ridden high-register harmonies  His relaxed and sombre delivery on “Pilot Jones” matches emotion with context, aiding listeners in occupying the space of an addicted dope dealer, in feeling her isolation; this is the difference between Ocean and someone like Chris Brown or Ne-yo: Ocean’s minimalistic production values and narrative-driven lyrics are not aimed at tween masses but at everyone old enough to find joy through the expression of personal pain: in this way, channel ORANGE dishes out as much blues as old-school soul rhythm.

Miles Duke’s Zone Out (EP): A Review

There’s a new rapper on the scene, and he’s got an English degree.

On June 19, 2012, Miles Duke released Zone Out, his first EP, available for free download on Media Fire here . And ‘personal’ is the word from the first lyrics spat. From his eating habits, to his taste in women, to his sometimes manic delivery in search of a solid meaning for life itself, Duke’s heart beats out his chest in every song with freshness and vulnerability. Yet, what’s most personal about Zone Out is the raw clearness of Duke’s thought-process. Here’s an analogy: “Pop Champagne” provides virtually no insight into Jim Jones the person; the song wasn’t made to get to know him, but to feel a little hood while admiring how well he’s done for himself. Conversely, Duke’s approach to song-writing takes having nothing to prove as its starting point.

You’re not supposed to know that Ghostface Killah’s real name is Dennis Coles for a reason. It contrasts with Wu-Tang’s image. So, in the absence of an image, Duke takes to making his own one tune at a time.

His lyrics are surrealist, stream of consciousness poetry that reward in proportion to the attention you put in. It becomes clear after a few minutes that, as listeners, we are meant to follow Duke’s thought process much like we are the protagonists of David Foster Wallace stories: we are asked to be entertained by the act of communing. The opening track, “Inspiration,” begins with atmospheric synths with vocal harmonies on top; Duke promises a “positive space ” with “dollops of taste,” thus setting the album up as an aesthetic affair, a Nabokovian series of explorations of how rhythm and poetry can affect the senses.

“Now” is an energetic, head-banging piece that contains an important meta moment for the album as a whole: the line, “my cadence is far from basic,” coupled with Duke’s proclamation of his “mission with diction,” forms a mission statement that is for diction as well. Specifically, for a change in mainstream hip-hop’s underestimation of the power of words to affect people’s behavior. Zone Out is composed of fragmented, semantically saturated confessions that demand listener participation rather than passive consumption; it is largely brand-name-free.

If a sliver of meaning is unlocked, or if a petal of beauty successfully crosses Duke’s cerebral bone barrier into yours, his purpose of reaching you with his soul rather than with guns and girls is validated.

Beginning from the two-minute mark, the tittle track contains the most memorable bars of the album. As soon as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is name-dropped, the rapper is clearly sparked by it, unleashing deconstructed stanzas with complete confidence in himself (as well as the rare mid-bar pause). The absence of choruses, a hallmark of underground hip-hop, affords Duke this explosive freedom and, when coupled with the pop-crossover beats that take up most of the album, reveals his mainstream influences under the veil of a challenge: to determine whether there would ever be a context in which what we’re hearing is a hit song. If not, why?

Check out the Zone Out album cover.

%d bloggers like this: