Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Smoke Signals: Introduction/Jaylib - Champion Sound

I have been gone for quite some time. There are a number of factors. Ummm depression. Pure laziness. Nothing really interesting to say. Sometimes not trusting my intuition. But lately a big thing that affected my absence. A fire which decimated a large percentage of my possessions. I had written drafts for this blog, but we'll see if they can be recovered. If they do, they appear with a special posting with some clever tag so they'll be distinguished.

But the fire has been a blessing in many ways strange as it is. It definitely has made me more spiritually minded. Its made me a lot more aware of myself, where I am, and where I want to be.

And on a lesser note, but really almost as important, it has helped me rediscover music. It all started the same week of the fire. Desperate for a diversion, I answered a call from a old family friend to sing with my home church's Men's Chorale. After having a date canceled to the ice storm, I was particularly excited for the chance to sing again. Man when those harmoies were hitting it was bliss. And weirdly, I saved so many CDs. I even have my old computer already backed up all over again. I've been listening to the music I still have. Devoid of my trusty playlists, I have been forced to play full albums. This has led to new discovery, rediscovery, and ultimately appreciation. Music has been an excellent help during this time and helped me remember why I used to love it so much.

So this little series will be about the albums I have had on repeat. They've all been particularly good for reason or another. Its nice to appreciate the album as a whole, even when spots get mediocre. You still get a full range of artist, or at least what they aspire to be and make their best attempts. Most often they hit the mark with varying intensities, and even if they fail you have to appreciate the try.

First up, Champion Sound by Jaylib

Two of the best underground hip-hop producers got together for a collaborative album that was monumental. Both J Dilla (aka Jay Dee nee James Yancey) and Madlib (Otis Jackson Jr.) were established producers in their own respective rights. But it just so happened that Madlib freaked some J Dilla instrumentals he found and it became a mixtape of sorts that made it back to Dilla. They then began to trade back and forth and Champion Sound is the result. Mostly Madlib (sometimes as his alter ego Quasimoto) raps over Dilla's tracks and J spits over Madlib's beats. Madlib chooses to make a sort of score with each of his beats. It sounds like each is the background music to an important scene of a movie, the type of music that is almost as important as any other aspect of the film. Dilla is his old reliable self riding driving bass rhythms for all they're worth. And neither's rhymes leave anything to be desired. But they know they're limitations and don't push too hard. The music speaks for itself. They're both so jazz influenced it sounds like an extended jam session.

There's not really much to say. The quality is what you'd expect. Neither really claims to be some superlative emcee and they never really try. Talib Kweli offers the most authenticity of skills on a driving Dilla beat on "Raw Sh*t"" but that's mostly it. The album is clever at just being something that can just be on. And periodically while hanging up that shirt or typing that Facebook note, you realize how hard your head is banging to it. I think this marks the beginning of a zenith in Madlib's career. On his songs, each of the soundscapes he creates almost sounds like he's scoring a movie. "McNasty Filth" sounds like a heist scene and the title track sounds like it could have been played in an activist movie about Africa. Dilla is his reliable self, testing out the experimentation with electtronic sounds that was more evident later in his career.

But it is a gem. Two of the best potentially blunted out of their minds just performing their craft. And it holds up more than 5 years after its release.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Live Notes: Heart of the City

Mary J. Blige & Jay-Z
TD Banknorth Garden
Boston, MA
Thursday, April 3, 2008

In light of the spike of commemorations surrounding the late Dr. King, the magnitude of this tour took on a greater scope. Not only are Mary & Jay two of the most bankable stars in hip-hop, but you can easily say all of entertainment. That hip-hop spawned them makes their adaptation of the American Dream even more compelling. I originally saw the dates scheduled and couldn't believe it. Easily these stars could have toured on their own with supporting acts and done just as well. Putting egos aside, they instantly created one of the biggest tours in hip-hop's history and helped further black music's reach with another hallmark achievement.

The diversity of the crowd was testament to the achievement. Honestly, the audience seemed perfectly American: half Caucasian, half not. Considering that we are in a recession, the fact that the place was filled to the rafters, whose seats cost $100 after the Ticketmaster charge was included, spoke to how celebrated these two artists have become. It was fitting that they started with "Can't Knock The Hustle", a hip-hop anthem that helped cement both of their reputations.

Mary has fully embraced her role as a diva and it suits her fine. For most of the evening her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, perfectly framed by her signature blond hair. Jay left Mary after "Hustle" and she quickly bounced through a medley of her old favorites. Since it was a hip-hop celebration she began with her part of "You're All I Need", her duet with Method Man. Jay popped up for a bit of "Real Love", but Mary seemed to get her fire towards the end of the medley, when she took her time with some of her slower romantic fare. When she did her mini Anita Baker lesson on "Love No Limit", you felt a change in her force.

She then transitioned into items from her newest offering "Growing Pains". You could tell she was proud of her efforts and she should be. It was evident that most of the crowd agreed with her. This is the point where the women forgot where they were and swayed and serenaded in the aisles as if they were in their showers. Mary barged through "Feels Like A Woman" which eventually lead to "Stay Down" and church was officially in session. After an extended interlude, Mary re-emerged and preached her sermon in the form of "No More Drama". She paced back and forth with the ferocity of a televangelist, and pretty much everyone was converted. One member of my party described it as "hypnotic". I couldn't disagree.

She continued through the ballads ("Not 'Gon Cry", "Your Child", and a group sing-along of "I'm Going Down") and used the momentum to finish with more of her upbeat tracks. After "Family Affair", the DJ put on "Flashing Lights" and Mary and her two dancers did the poses that got the crowd in a frenzy for "Work That". By "Be Without You", even the hard-nosed guys mostly there for Jay were standing in appreciation.

After a transition video where they both fawned over the other, it was Jay's turn. Just like Mary, he seems really proud of his latest work. He started his set with items from "American Gangster", his inspiration from the film. He then tumbled into his set, which was a madcap mash of his hits. There was a section when he seemed the most alive and it was also concurrent with when the live band was most on display. The gospel chop drummer breathed new life into "Show Me What You Got" and when the guitars hit on "99 Problems", it seemed as though they were highlighting them one by one. Predictably, Mary came out to assist on "Song Cry" and did well.

After that Jay went into an extended run of his 90s hits that mostly lacked pizazz. Yet as unenthused as he seemed at times, he still had amazing crowd connection. My crew looked like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the midst of the Garden, the sole objectors to raising our diamonds in the sky. But the night was still enjoyable.

And that was it. After "Encore", they finished with "Heart of the City" which included a reggae drop that let Mary prove she can still move with the best of them. And that was it. The lights came on and no one complained, but for some reason that was okay. The diva and the established hustler had done their deed and moved on to the next date. And it's cool that they owe us nothing more. Somehow for most of the crowd, this was the event to brag about for a while and its really cool that such a diverse crowd has such value of this type of event. I want Jay to do more inspired sets with the bands and I secretly hope that Mary goes to her jazz roots and tours smaller venues. But if they keep doing Heart of the City, I'll go with my kids one day when they are of age.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Plea Deal: Ryde Or Die Chick

The year 2000 was a year of jubilation for many, the Lox included. Initially conscripted to serve in Bad Boy's army by the lure of the Notorious, they surely felt played by Mr. Combs suspect tactics. The lead single off their lone Bad Boy offering was based on a Rod Stewart sample and featured more shiny suits in the accompanying video. The only time they seemed appealing was on the title track "Money, Power, Respect" featuring DMX, with whom they shared management.

That management also happened to be the Ruff Ryder team and they somehow freed them from Diddyland to get them onto their own label. The next offering had the Lox sounding more comfortable, but funny enough they didn't shed the slick production more often linked with Mr. Combs. "Ryde or Die Bitch" featured cute labelmate Eve and a poppy beat by Timbaland. Maybe they weren't in shiny suits but this was made for the radio.

Still the Lox show why for some reason they still manage to be appealing to this day. The Lox never come off as consistently grimy to me. If not ghetto, they seem more working class. They still present the rough edges, but there is a charm about them. They know better. But they wallow in the muck anyway. And with the slightly Latin breeze blowing through this beat, they are free to kick mud around after the rain shower.

Each member runs off a mixture of ideal scenarios and attributes of their dream lady, let's call her Ghetto Madonna. She definitely is resourceful ("Got the brand new spring Prada shit in the fall"), curvaceous ("Don't matter what size panties, fitting her small"), and pretty much a freak of the highest nature ("Gave me head cause the movie was wack (Yes the beat stops here for emphasis), word"). She also shows at least a working knowledge of violent measures necessary for the drug game, but that's neither here nor there.

Its all silly fun. Enjoy a throwback to when gas was still around $1.50 and all those cars in the video seemed okay to own.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Notes: Smirnoff Signature Mix Series

Every once in a while, I happen to pick up a Vibe or Black Enterprise and see some profile of some up and coming young entrepreneur. And quite often, they are the owners of a marketing or consulting firm that seems to dabble in some sort of brand name specialization. So then I think how many of these companies can prosper? At some point, won't Corporate America realize that one of the best ways to appeal to urban America is to make it seem that you had no intent for them to enjoy the product at all?

Still though, companies pay these individuals to come up with ideas to market to the community. The usual results are creative ways to merge the product with that particular person's taste or what they perceive to be popular. The Smirnoff Signature Mix Series is one of the latest incarnations. But luckily whoever the executive this time around probably got high in a Northeast college dorm room on at least one occasion. Maybe Mid-Atlantic.

Anyway, three legendary MCs get paired with three legendary producers to rework previous classics to have an '08 feel. On paper it is one of those dreamy situations that could be nightmarish. But luckily we got one of those really smart executives who pairs the MCs and producers quite well. Of course the drinks that they are paired with are questionable

First up is KRS-ONE and DJ Premier whose offering is simply "Criminal Minded '08". This is the easiest one to predict. These two have worked together for years. But as usual, Premier works more magic somehow staying fresh while revisiting something grounded in the past. But isn't that what he always does. KRS continues to sound rejuvenated, just like he did on the "Classic" track that was the product of another marketing experiment (Nike Air Force One 25th Anniversary - but that's an obvious hip-hop link). Maybe his next album should just be sponsored by the next company. KRS-ONE - Save The Rhinos presented by Ecko.

Next up is a more unconventional pairing as Common and Just Blaze find each other to update "The Light". While they haven't worked together, this makes sense. Just Blaze is a child of early 90s hip-hop. He sampled a piece of A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario (Remix)" to make the "Pump It Up" beat for Joe Budden, and seminally ripped by everybody else on mixtapes. And Just produces one of his more musically expansive tracks assisted with Marsha Ambrosius of Floetry on the hook. When he has artists he respects and has time to create, Just Blaze has time to create these aural soundscapes that are truly captivating. They might not be amazing works of new genius, but they are usually exceptionally good and always interesting to listen to. This is Common's signature song, yet he manages to draw elements from the original but not upstage it. Its a very good homage song. And Common kind of mails in his lyrics but he's still introspective and looking for something new, which is appreciated.

The last coupling, perhaps the most intriguing, is Q-Tip & Cool and Dre who update "Midnight" off of Midnight Marauders. The match is already interesting just because of the people involved. Cool and Dre are not commonly thought of in the KRS-ONE, Common, Q-Tip universe. Plus the track they revisit wasn't even released as a single. This one is the track that is the most inspired choice cause they had to dig to figure out the best one to match the styles. But honestly its the one I enjoy the most. It might be the fact that for long stretches Q-Tip just recites lines from the original and the nostalgic element pulls me back. But really Cool and Dre do something with their beat. Its still their style. If I close my eyes hard enough, I can hear Fat Joe or Rick Ross on the track. But for some reason it parallels the original Tribe song. The spirit of the tale of a frantic night out is evident in this edition as well, complete with the Hype Williams disciple directed video.

So thank you Smirnoff (or should I say Diageo and Cornerstone) for the tracks. They were decent diversions.
As for the drinks, they might want to rethink those. The Cypha is raspberry vodka and pineapple juice. How is that criminally minded? The Southside is green apple vodka and cranberry juice. Yeah that screams Cabrini Green. And finally The Blueberry Abstract is blueberry vodka and lemonade. Isn't that something loads of college girls are getting wasted on right now on Gulf of Mexico beaches?
Now playing: Musiq - Womanopoly

Friday, February 22, 2008

Pantheon: A Tribe Called Quest

On the brink of puberty, I also had the fortune to skip a grade in my close knit parochial school. Nerds are never highly regarded. Amongst my older peers, it seemed as though intelligence was a disorder, some peculiarity that made me abnormal. They never pummeled me physically. It was a small school and there was some aura about me that I was untouchable. But the mental jabs were consistent. I was a fragile young pup. I wasn't battle tested.

So as I continued to raise my hand and follow the rules, the acrimony grew. But at home I found solace in the cable we had just put in, especially MTV, BET, and The BOX. This is where I probably developed my appreciation for really good R & B and the diversity of hip-hop. The early 90s were gold mines for both. I watched so much that I memorized the labels of the artists.

But it was one of those videos that eased my transition during that fateful year in the sixth grade. On a line to go to recess, someone started to repeat a rhyme and I quietly followed in kind. Well at least I thought it was quiet. But one of my more thuggish peers turned around and said "Yo, Carnegie knows the song". In that instant, I had some modicum of credibility. I was still clumsy and uncoordinated, but I wasn't as uncool at that point. Thank you A Tribe Called Quest for "Check The Rhime" and the lyrics you scrolled in the video. You made my life tolerable. That Christmas, I received a yellow sports Walkman and the odyssey began.

Five years later, I found myself in a music store and they had a CD which was #1. I picked it up using the logic that if it was #1 it had to be good. And the name was familiar. By the end of that trip, my copy of "Beats, Rhymes & Life" had some significant scratches. I quickly did my research and slowly got each of their earlier albums. By the time I went away to school two years later, each of those CDs had been replaced at least once.

And what was it about Quest? The music is probably the biggest draw. Extensively combing the crates of their parents, they created a sound based largely on jazz as opposed to the James brown and funk samples that populated much of hip-hop at the time. They even brought in bassist Ron Carter on one of their records. Their lyrics also spoke of a conscientiousness that was more prevalent at the time. Along with Public Enemy and their counterparts in the Native Tongues collective, they advanced a discourse about social issues that weren't exactly embedded in poverty and violence solely.

But the intangible that made them special was the chemistry. Starting with their debut album, they exuded playfulness while being students of their craft. With tracks like "Bonita Applebum" & "Can I Kick It?", they displayed something markedly different than anything that was around. And with later songs like "The Infamous Date Rape" and "Sucka Nigga", they showed that they could take on controversial topics with maturity yet in a conversational tone. Though their last two albums are good, that playfulness started to disappear and so they pulled the plug in 1998 after "The Love Movement."

The legacy they leave though is pretty impressive. For one, it opened an avenue for socially minded hip hop to have a consistent voice. The music they produced is just as important. They made it okay to look towards unconventional sources for samples, and also reawakened the long dormant element of live instrumentation. Tribe, though, embodied a vibe that is consistent with the best who ever did it, a sense of ease amidst intense dedication.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Notes: T.I. - T.I. vs. T.I.P.

Maybe it made sense that my cultural rut would keep me from listening to this album for so long. Mr. Harris might be headed for the land of "Premature Ejaculation." Just as an eagerly anticipated movie in which he participated is about to be released, he gets arrested buying machine guns and silencers. After a year that included Grammy wins, hit collaborations, and his second consecutive #1 album, he ends it with this dumb move. What would push a man from Chevrolet commercials to the depths of stupidity?

This album might have been foreshadowing. He split himself into his dueling personas. T.i. represents the streetsmart businessman. T.I.P. is his more grizzled street persona, the trap loyalist he could not let go. The fact that he made a concept album where songs were done embodied in those personas was indicative of the thoughts of a troubled man.

Broken down in acts, T.I.P gets first crack. When I listened, I wondered why people thought this album wasn't that good. He dives into the lead single "Big Sh*t Poppin'" and the energy never lets up. Even on the repetitive "Dopeman", he still manages to engage. Jay-Z offers a rhyme and Busta Rhymes continues his streak of excellent guest appearances on two separate tracks that continue the fury T.I.P. offers as an argument.

But when T.I. gets his turn, he mainly fizzles. It starts off well enough with a Hammond touched beat by Just Blaze. Even here, he doesn't sound all that compelling. The rest really isn't much better. Wyclef labors over a track and Nelly (where has he been exactly?) offers explicit uninteresting tripe on another. The savior (as usual) is an appearance from Eminem on "Touchdown." He manages some sort of energy before the final act, which is the confrontation between the two.

T.I.P.'s reappearance is welcome, but it's not enough. By this time, it's all just a bit too tiring and not worth the effort. But still, in light of his recent actions, it makes sense that his T.I.P. leanings were the more inspired offerings. The intro track leads off with a string of soundbites about his life over the past year. The accolades are mentioned but quickly turn into a string of his misfortunes including his partner's miscarriage and his close friend's murder. At the end, we hear T.I. that he doesn't care about the business side any more. It all sounds like a silly tirade that even includes the names of label executives. But maybe it was all a bit too honest.

Too bad it might be a while till we hear the answer.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Sliver: Joe - All The Things

There are some things that are not as good as they used to be. One of those is the well done syrupy R & B ballad, the ones that populate late night television commercials (and maybe the Soul Food reruns). The best embodied a couple of common threads. For one, there was a seductive voice that led you through the proceedings, which had to include loads of melismas. The music then had to have a soulful feel, even if it was electronic. It just needed to have some real earth to it. Finally, it had to have a certain lyrical element, one that vibed with even the lowest common denominator, but was still charmingly cheesy. Promises are made literally and figuratively, sometimes lewd, sometimes insane. But when all the gears are clicking, there is nothing more seductive. During this type of song, any lovemaking would be accentuated.

Joe plays the role of Lothario on this track, a classic from the 1990's that has all the parts. As he steers his tenor from quiet passion to smoldering rage, Joe hits all the points necessary. He derides the partner of the serenaded all while promising to "light up all the candles all around." He then proceeds to ask directions to Pleasure Town: "show me to the subway, I'll go down". Did I mention that he "heard he's got you on lockdown, but I got the master key"? And though I might not have included the cheesiest part, Joe sells it all. It may be his pure conviction. Maybe the bed of steady bass with occasional splatterings of acoustic guitar hypnotize into just wanting to be immersed in sexual satisfaction. Whatever. The appeal lies in the fact that sex is as basic as you can get. It might be complicated leading up to it, but the actual act is quite plain and straightforward. This song is stripped down to its basics.

Nowadays, the songs are either to explicit or they feel cold and soulless. Often they are both. But sometimes they succeed just because they speak the common vernacular. The classics were a bit more playful. I might miss the romanticism of those mainstays.

The song is good. You should take a listen.