Five Notable Releases of the Week (11/30)
It’s officially the last weekend of November, and then we’ve got just one more month of 2018 left. Year-end lists continue to roll in (including some lists by artists), but you might not wanna finalize your list just yet. It may be late in the year, but this week in particular has some very major albums.
Before I get to my picks, a few honorable mentions: Daughter singer Elena Tonra’s solo debut as Ex:Re, Jeff Tweedy, Andy Shauf’s band Foxwarren, Bryan Ferry, Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., Arctic Flowers, Lisa/Liza, Cuz Lightyear, Can’s Irmin Schmidt, Anguish (members of Dälek, Fire! Orchestra, and Faust), and the new Alchemist EP (which features a song with Earl Sweatshirt, whose new album you can read more about below).
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
P.S., while you’re getting in the holiday spirit, come join us at the BrooklynVegan Holiday Party at Brooklyn Brewery on 12/14 with sets by Gang Gang Dance and Ela Minus.
When Odd Future broke at the beginning of this decade, Tyler the Creator was the de-facto leader but Earl Sweatshirt quickly emerged as a fan favorite, though Earl wasn’t really there to experience it for himself. As the story goes, when Odd Future were putting on rowdy shows, reveling in controversy, and changing the face of rap as we now know it, Earl’s mother was keeping him at boarding school and away from his friends and fans. He finally got back as Odd Future started getting genuinely famous, and he put out his major label debut Doris in 2013, which only propelled him further into the spotlight. As it turned out, Earl didn’t seem to like fame very much, and he reacted with 2015’s brilliant I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. As its title and its bare, pitch-black album artwork suggested, it was a dark, introverted album that had more in common with lo-fi bedroom pop than with major label rap. Earl produced and rapped most of it by himself, only bringing in a few small guests from his inner circle (like fellow trailblazers and now-more-famous rappers Wiki and Vince Staples). Just shy of four years later, there’s still almost no other album like it. In all that time, there also still hasn’t been another Earl Sweatshirt album, and he spent the past few years being somewhat active but mostly staying quiet and getting more and more elusive. So it’s a real treat that Earl is finally back with another album, and like its predecessor, Some Rap Songs is another weird, eccentric album that pays virtually no attention to current trends in rap. Earl gave everyone almost four years to catch up with him, no one did it, and now he’s changed course once again.
This time around, there’s a real punk spirit to the album title, the artwork (which looks like a photo Earl took himself on a shitty camera), and the 15 tracks that clock in at under 25 minutes. Before you even click play, it sounds like the approach a young Ian MacKaye might have taken if he made rap albums. Once you do click play, you’ll find Earl rapping over a crackling collage of cut-up-and-restitched soul samples that sound like something you’d find buried deep in the Brainfeeder or Stones Throw catalogs. It sounds a little like Edan’s cult-classic Beauty and the Beat too. Once again, Earl produced and rapped most of the album himself, and the few guests are clearly picked for artistic reasons, not commercial ones. Among them are a few regulars in New York’s current hip hop/jazz underground: Standing on the Corner, Navy Blue, and Sixpress of sLUms. (Standing on the Corner appear on “Ontheway!” and group member Gio Escobar mixed and mastered the album with Earl and helped with the cover art.) Earl’s parents are on the album too. Earl may be a major label rapper from the West Coast, but this album would fit perfectly in the aforementioned New York underground, and it’s a pretty exciting thing that someone of Earl’s stature would care enough to make music like this. It might alienate or disappoint some listeners, but that’s probably part of the point. This is a short album, but it isn’t meant to be digested easily. The 15 tracks all blur into one song cycle that’s only fully effective when played start to finish. It’s called “some rap songs” but that’s not what it sounds like. You could pull some of these tracks out and listen to them as individual songs (recent single “The Mint” is pretty effective on its own), but this really isn’t an album that’s conducive to the playlistification of pop music. And it’s much, much better off that way.
My full review of The 1975’s third and best album is HERE. Read an excerpt:
It’s hard to say which of the two albums has better pop songs (there may still be nothing on Brief Inquiry as instant-classic as “The Sound”), but Brief Inquiry‘s more experimental side is definitely superior to that of its predecessor. Overstuffing your album with long ambient songs isn’t enough to make it smarter than your average pop album, but Brief Inquiry‘s successful genre-hopping is. Like on their last two albums, this one opens with their eponymous intro track “The 1975.” Same lyrics as the last two times, but this time it’s reworked to sound like a Bon Iver/Kanye West collaboration, and it perks you up in a way that their last two stabs at it never did. “How to Draw / Petrichor” is a glitch pop song that sounds like Jon Hopkins remixing Sigur Ros, and it’s more effective than The 1975’s past Sigur Ros impressions. The 1975 have always been a little emo, but they’ve never gone full Dashboard Confessional like they do on “Be My Mistake” and “Surrounded by Heads and Bodies,” and those songs sound destined for whatever the modern equivalent of away messages and mixtapes for your crush are.
You can read the rest HERE.
“Coming from where I come from, we had to beat the streets, beat the system, beat racism, beat poverty. And now we made it through all that, we at the championships,” Meek Mill says on the title track of his new album, explaining the origin of the album title. And it’s not hard to see why that would be the theme of this specific album, Meek’s first album since being released from prison. Meek’s situation has become a nationally recognized example of the flawed justice system, and Meek acknowledges that those with less privilege than him are often unable to fight for their freedom the way Meek did, and he’s since been using his platform to become a spokesperson for criminal justice reform. He raps about the unjust system and the effects of systemic racism all over this new album too. It’d be a whole lot better if the world was a fairer place and we didn’t even need songs like these, but that’s sadly not the case. Until there’s some real change, the resistance should and will continue and protest songs should and will keep coming, and Championships has some of the most powerful protest songs released this year.
There’s a lot to unpack on this album, and it’s not possible to do so quickly (this is a one-listen review), but it’s obvious that Meek sounds even more fired-up than he was on his last album. His raps are sharp and punchy and biting — he sounds like he ran to the studio, bursted through the door, hopped in the vocal booth, and nailed half these songs in one take. Whether he’s mourning the tragedies caused by the system or celebrating his freedom, reminiscing about his past or boasting about his present, Meek sounds lively and inspired. He also just sounds great and it’s a real thrill to listen to him, especially on the lyrically deep songs of which there are many. Like a lot of mainstream rap albums, this one’s long and it’s got some filler (if he’s gonna diss mumble rappers on the first song, it’s hard to figure out why he includes a few forgettable mumble-rap songs later on), but even if Championships could’ve used a slightly better editing job, there’s still a lot to like about it. It’s got some great guest verses too. Cardi B sounds fun as ever on “On Me,” and it’s nice to see Latin trap star Anuel AA continuing to cross over with English-speaking audiences by lending his talents to “Uptown Vibes.” And there are two guest appearances that are nearly as notable as this album as a whole: Jay Z and Drake.
Jay Z appears on “What’s Free,” alongside Meek’s Maybach Music label boss Rick Ross. Meek’s lines about what it means to be free already make the song a powerful one, and Ross sounds great too (even if he uses a poor choice of words when presumably dissing 6ix9ine), but then Jay comes in sounding like the wise elder-statesman of rap, here to speak cold, hard truths about blacks in America (“In the land of the free, where the blacks enslaved / Three fifths of a man, I believe’s the phrase,” he begins). Jay goes on to remind you of his rags to riches story, to condemn Kanye’s MAGA hat (update: or not exactly), and to dish out all kinds of clever lines about himself, America, and beyond. It’s an even better look for him than some of the “mature” stuff on 4:44 and Everything Is Love.
And then there’s Drake. As you probably know, Drake and Meek Mill feuded back in 2015 after Meek accused Drake of using ghostwriters, which most people didn’t see as an unforgivable (or surprising) offense in 2015, and then Drake fired back with two diss tracks that most people agreed were better than any of Meek’s. They publicly ended the feud this past September when Drake brought Meek Mill on stage in Boston, but this song sets their rekindled friendship in stone. There isn’t much talk about it on the song, besides Meek rapping “Me and Drizzy back to back, it’s getting scary.” Mostly, the two just sound happy to be collaborating again, and they both bring their A game.
On first listen, it’s easy to get caught up in the “newsworthy” parts of the album, but it also seems clear that Meek didn’t just do it all for the headlines. There’s stuff on this album that Meek knew he had to address, but there are also plenty of parts where he’s just having fun, making whatever kinds of songs he felt like making. It’s not entirely a concept album, and it can’t be pigeonholed as any one specific thing. As mentioned earlier, there’s a lot more to process than I’ve been able to process at this point, but it’s clear that there’s a lot of crucial music on this album, and that it’s worth more than just a first listen.
After 25 years of releasing albums as the frontman of one of the busiest and most forever-relevant rap groups, The Roots, Black Thought put out his first solo release this year, the five-song Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 EP, which was entirely produced by 9th Wonder. This week he returned with a sequel, Streams of Thought, Vol. 2: Traxploitation, which was entirely produced by Salaam Remi, and it might be even better. This one’s also considered an EP, though it’s nine songs that clock in at about 23 minutes, so it’s longer than, say, the new Pusha T album. And that’s not the only comparison to be made between Streams of Thought, Vol. 2 and DAYTONA. As DAYTONA did for Push, Streams of Thought, Vol 2 pairs Black Thought with a veteran producer, a very small amount of guests, and no filler or interludes or any wasted time at all. And as Push did with Kanye’s beats on DAYTONA, Black Thought finds all the nooks and crannies in Salaam Remi’s production and fits slick punchlines into all of them. Black Thought is as sharp as ever on Vol. 2. He’s basically doing the same thing he’s always done, but he’s doing it so well, and there are so many rhymes on this album that will have you rolling back the time marker to hear them again. Here’s one: “You watchin’ this? He took a shot in the esophagus / He’s in the zone and stoned like a sarcophagus / Try stoppin’ this, I’m on top of the metropolis / It’s narcissist over Narcotics Anonymous.” Here’s another: “I got more than a reason to revel like Desus and Mero / Lyrical religious hero on Jesus’s level / The reason none of these heathens is even as thorough / We bare arms like Idris or Venus de Milo.” Here’s another: “I never take a day off work, it never pay off / I wish for peace on this earth and never chaos / As long as classrooms gettin’ sprayed with the ARs.” Here’s one more: “The credit fell, what the hell, too much béchamel / Well FML, they desecrated the decibel / Go check the mail then let me know if it’s heads or tails / My ears burn like desert trails and Jezebels.” There are many, many more where those came from, and they sound even better rolling off Black Thought’s tongue than they do on paper. Sometimes he takes shots at the new school of rap (“Your rhymes E-M-O, mines is non-G-M-O”), but unlike, say, Eminem’s new anti-mumble-rap album, Black Thought doesn’t sound like a cranky old man. He sounds like a lifer who absolutely loves the thrill of rapping the way it was done two decades ago. Each individual syllable sounds like it was carefully chosen and obsessed over until Black Thought had a flawless rhyme. As you listen to the album, you can hear him geeking out over how good some of these words just sound — why else would he have put “béchamel” in a rap song? Like with Pusha T, people may have taken Black Thought’s talent for granted and not expected him to make such a fired-up album in 2018. Like with Pusha T, those people would be wrong.
When Atlanta rapper JID made his debut on J Cole’s Dreamville Records with last year’s The Never Story, he quickly emerged as one of Cole’s most promising protégés, and he wasted no time releasing a followup album, this week’s DiCaprio 2, which might be even better than his debut. At times, JID can sound like Anderson .Paak or Lil Wayne and especially Kendrick Lamar, but no matter who you think he sounds like, one thing is immediately clear when you listen to DiCaprio 2: JID can really rap. His words twist and turn, he handles double and triple time rhymes with precision, and he changes his flow and his timbre at the drop of a hat. He’s the kind of rapper who’s fixated on showing off how technically skilled he is at rapping, the same way Eddie Van Halen is a guitarist who’s fixated on showing off how technically skilled he is at guitar playing. It makes sense why J Cole likes him. But further listens to DiCaprio 2 show that JID is armed with more than just the ability to rap fast. He packs a serious amount of hooks into this album, and it doesn’t take long for them to get stuck in your head. Like Kendrick, his ability to dish out dizzying bars is matched by his knack for a good melody. He benefits from well-chosen guest verses too. While his fast-paced rhymes are often exhilarating, memorable verses from J Cole, A$AP Ferg, Method Man, and Joey Bada$$ make for welcome relief from JID’s ferocity. DiCaprio 2 is more of a collection of great ideas than a great album — listening to it feels like sneaking a peek at JID’s notepad. But if he continues to toy with those ideas and shape them into something bigger, he may end up coming out with something truly brilliant. He certainly seems prepared for it.