An Outsider’s Ode to Hip Hop – Part 1

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Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 masterpiece good kid, m.A,A.d city was, by any measure, one of the best albums to come out in years. Kendrick is one of the finest MCs to ever grace the mic, and he’s aided by production that complements his lyrical detailing stunningly well. It’s a supremely engaging work of music. But most importantly, it’s a meticulously told tale of Compton, California. It’s a lens into the life of a community and a people away from mainstream discourse, where the primary voices are those of the talents that emerge from within the community.

It seems that GKMC provided an image that most in the USA were themselves under-educated on. To a middle class high-schooler from India, then, it was a fascinating, complex, almost frighteningly voyeuristic insight into a life thousands of kilometers away from me.  But somehow, the music spoke to me. It intrigued me. It made me want to delve into the intricacies of the lives of the people – such as Kendrick – who lived these lives every day. It goaded me into educating myself on issues of race, class, crime and culture that have always been a source of keen interest for me. The album, to me, wasn’t just music. It was a focal point in understanding a culture to which I was an outsider. And that, has been a compelling reason why I’m drawn to hip-hop, and why it’s been so important to me.

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An Outsider’s Ode to Hip Hop – Part 1

Kesha Lets all her Colours Fly on ‘Rainbow’

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You really want to root for Kesha.

That’s not a sentence you might’ve commonly heard in 2010-2012, when the princess of party dance pop ruled the charts. With tracks like Tik Tok, Take it Off and Die Young, Kesha was the guilty pleasure many of us who were coming of musical age back then would indulge in.

Then just as suddenly as she burst onto the scene, she disappeared. You could be forgiven for not really noticing – pop stars tend to come and go. But when she did resurface, it was not in a way most would’ve expected.

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Kesha Lets all her Colours Fly on ‘Rainbow’

Goodbye, Chester Bennington

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Listening to Breaking the Habit for the first time as an 11-year old is one of my most vivid, and important musical memories. Playing through earphones I’d borrowed from my dad, off a cheap MP3 player, Chester Bennington’s impassioned voice stunned me. The raw emotion, sung with his melodic clarity, shattered every notion I’d had till then of what music could be.  I was still young, and couldn’t wholly grasp the power Chester’s words held. But something changed in me – with his soaring voice, he cracked the shell holding in amorphous emotions. What poured forth came to define me, and the music I came to invest in.

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Goodbye, Chester Bennington

4:44 by Jay-Z

The hyphen in Jay-Z’s name might be back, but 4:44 isn’t really Jay-Z. For possibly the first time in his career, it’s an album by Shawn Carter, the multimillionaire businessman, the African-American man, the family man. In shedding the larger-than-life image of the rapper in the very first track, aptly titled Kill Jay-Z, he owns up to his past failings and in a lyric unprecedented for a rapper of his mythology, implores himself to be emotionally vulnerable (“Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real/ But you can’t heal what you never reveal”).

Throughout the album, this sense of being brutally honest reveals a side of the man, the myth, the legend that few would expect the notoriously insular Hov to see, 13 albums into his epic career. On Smile, he acknowledges his mother’s homosexuality in a disarmingly sensitive moment – he doesn’t linger on it, simply expressing his support and admiration. Coming from a notoriously homophobic genre, it’s a powerful statement by one of the most influential voices in the community. On the title track, and the crux of the album, it’s clear that Shawn’s marriage with Beyoncé, his infidelity and his relationship with his children weigh heavily on his mind. He’s realized that his rap superstar lifestyle and image is untenable if it adversely affects his personal life.

The parallel track on 4:44 to Jay-Z’s maturing as an individual is his commitment to being rap’s elder statesman. Far more than on his last album, the frustratingly myopic Magna Carta Holy Grail, he confidently delivers sermons on his rags-to-riches story, wealth accumulation and distribution, and generational wealth in the context of being a Black man in America. Jay’s brags aren’t merely exhibitionist – they are repackaged as lessons to financial success, and rewards to be reaped. The Story of O.J. is a treatise on Black capitalism, delivered succinctly in a manner only Jay can (“I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99”). Family Feud and Legacy reiterate the need for uniting under the umbrella of Black excellence, and pushing the people forward on their own terms. Even as an outsider to the culture, it’s inspirational in its aim of inclusiveness and hardened determination.

With everything that’s going on in 4:44, it could’ve easily been a rather boring, draggy album. But it seems being Shawn Carter has broken the rapper’s chains (shit, the wordplay’s rubbing off). Jay weaves vivid tales with storytelling ability we haven’t heard since American Gangster using some of his best flows – the kind that gave him his legendary status – over painstakingly tailored production, all of which comes courtesy of No I.D. Clearly, Jay has been incredibly invested in this project, explicitly picking out and building songs around specific samples he grew up with. Jay’s brevity is well-documented, but applying it to such personal stories ensures we’re hooked on every word, and they hit with their full weight. When he turns up the aggression, like on Bam and Marcy Me, it’s with the cool head of a man who knows his power, and his confidence is evident in the many instantly-quotable one-liners he drops (“Before we had A&R’s, we had AR’s too”), his pop culture references on point (“Put that drum in your ear, don’t get Srem’d/I’ll Bobby Shmurda anybody you heard of”).

4:44 is the 13th studio album of a rapper with nothing left to prove – so he proves himself as a musician/businessman, a successful Black man with a complicated personal life. He sounds rejuvenated both as Jay – Z and Shawn Carter, and hence delivers one of the finest albums of his career. It’s an impeccably crafted, lucid elegy that will go down as proof a 47-year old rapper doesn’t need to rely on his stereotypical image to make waves in the culture.

4:44 by Jay-Z

Quick Thoughts – Imagine Dragons, Calvin Harris and Young Thug

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#1. Evolve by Imagine Dragons

 

 

 

Imagine Dragons are at the forefront of the wave of pop/electronic rock bands that can make some great anthems and fill up concerts with their sing-alongs, but cannot for the life of them, put together a great album. Every track on the mercifully short Evolve is driven by stadium-sized drums and vocals, and poppy synths that are earworms at best, and ear-gratingly bad at worst.

Dan Reynolds is a talented vocalist, and puts up an earnest performance throughout. He can lift songs to incredibly satisfying highs when done right, such as on the epic Believer, Whatever it Takes, (where Dan employs a hip-hop cadence on the verses) and Rise Up. Whether these songs are good is debatable, but they accomplish what they set out to do – fill your headphones with an overwhelming passion, that stirs something in you, like it or not.

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Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes

Describing music with shimmering instrumentation and rich vocals as ‘beautiful’ is easy. But rare is music that sounds beautiful, as much as it feels beautiful – music that captures the many intricacies of our world and emotions in its own flourishes. This music is not superficially pleasant – often, it might deal with powerful themes that ordinary men and women are left to grapple with. But the result is immensely evocative, vivid in its detailing.

Musicians that can create truly beautiful music, then, are to be treasured; Fleet Foxes is among them, and Crack-Up is a stunning work of music, and art.

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Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes

Pretty Girls Like Trap Music by 2 Chainz

Atlanta has been hugely responsible in influencing the sound of hip hop for decades; from the funky, rich bassline-driven smooth raps of OutKast, to the gritty, straight-talking trap of T.I. and Jeezy, to the mood- driven sing-rapping of Future and Young Thug, the city has kept evolving its sound, and consequentially, that of the genre.

2 Chainz, having blown up somewhere between the aggressiveness of trap and the melodies of ‘mumble rap,’ has had an unsteady career path from dropping the (unfortunate) Tity Boi moniker to the present day. With Pretty Girls Like Trap Music (PGLTM), however, 2 Chainz seems to have hit upon a winning formula – his trademark punchlines are intact and often strikingly clever, and so is the sneer from his trap origins, but it’s complemented by great, memorable harmonies in the production and vocals that clear some of the grit. The result is the best album of Tauheed Epps’ career, and possibly one of the best of the year.

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Pretty Girls Like Trap Music by 2 Chainz