Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: Action Bronson's Debut LP "Mr. Wonderful" is Pretty Disappointing

There are few rappers with more character than Action Bronson. The 300+ pound, chef-turned-rapper Flushing's native has been delivering eccentric bars about food, women, cars, and literally everything in between for years. He raps with the persona of a billionaire playboy drug kingpin. Bronson raps about nothing, and everything, with the most insane shout-outs and metaphors while still holding on to the classic East Coast hip-hop sound. On the surface, he may appear as a more refined Lonely Island, but with extremely clever bars, a host of great producers (Statik Selektah, Harry Fraud, the Alchemist) behind him, and a buttery flow, Action is a legitimate respectable rapper. So when he announced that he would be releasing his major label debut Mr. Wonderful I was beyond excited to hear what he had to offer. But I ended up being thoroughly disappointed. 

To promote the album, Bronson released four singles, "Easy Rider", "Actin Crazy", "Terry" and "Baby Blue" featuring Chance the Rapper. "Easy Rider" was one of my favorite songs of last year. "Actin Crazy" and "Terry" are two very smooth, yet very different tracks, with the former being produced by Noah "40", and the latter being produced by the Alchemist, but both tracks lets Bronson flow effortlessly all over the beat. "Baby Blue" is one of the few songs by Bronson that actually has a definite theme of reminiscing on and cursing an ex, but the track is pretty slow and the beat sounds like a pop song, rather than a hip-hop beat, probably since the cut was produced by Mark Ronson of all people. But with a pretty solid group of singles, I was assuming that  Mr. Wonderful  might be Bronson's best project to date.

But the rest of the album is pretty bad. The rest of the songs can either be divided into a weird blend of cheesy, 80's pop/rock production that would fit much better into a musical than a hip-hop album, or into blues/rock songs. I don't mind the blues aspect if it was done properly, but the execution is done horribly on the album. "City Boy Blue" is a dead-up blues song, but Bronson sings on the song instead of rapping, and he is terrible at singing. "A Light in the Addict" is one of my favorite songs on the album, but only Bronson is only on one minute of the song, and the whole song is six minutes long. One of my least favorite songs is "Only In America" featuring Party Supplies. Yet again, Bronson is absent for most of the song, and is replaced by horrific hooks by Party Supplies, that sounds like the already poor vocals are being sung underwater. And besides the odd and mostly poor production choices, the album has a ton of just filler. For being only 13 songs long, there are four songs that are less than three minutes long, another song is a live intro to "Easy Rider", which is almost entirely just guitars playing in the background, and a spoken/badly sung interlude. Bronson has done a lot of experimenting on his mixtapes, with odd flows and ridiculous beats, often with good results, and has proven time and time again that he can make great songs. But instead of focusing on making a cohesive, great album, which I know Bronson can do, he made a weird collection of mostly bad tracks.

Bronson's rapping style is basically the same as it's always been, with slick word-play, but with very little substance, which is perfectly fine. The features are alright, composed of Meyhem Lauren, Big Body Bes, Party Supplies, and Chance the Rapper. They don't really add much, but the don't detract too much either, besides from Party Supplies, who after this project I really think Bronson should divorce from them. Mr. Wonderful was one of my most anticipated albums of this year, but it certainly didn't follow through on the hype. Hopefully his next album will be more focused.  

Technical Skill- 4.5

Lyrical Skill- 2.5

Production- 2

Listenability- 2.5

Features- 3

Theme/Consistency- 1

Notable Tracks- "A Light In the Addict", "Easy Rider", "Terry"

Overall Rating- 2.5

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review: To Fully Appreciate 'To Pimp A Butterfly', Forget All Notions of Kendrick Lamar

Before you continue reading, or if you have yet to listen to Kendrick Lamar's newest album To Pimp A Butterfly, I want you to get rid of all your notions of Kendrick Lamar. I want you to forget about his astounding 2012 release good kid, m.A.A.d city. I want you to forget about his "Control" verse, and his "Nosetalgia" verse, and his "Never Catch Me" verse, or literally any bar you've ever heard him spit. I want you to forget every single thing you know about the best rapper alive. Done? Now we can move on. 

To Pimp A Butterfly is not what you would have expected. It's not what anyone expected. Even with the jazzy single "i" and his untitled Colbert Report performance, no one could have guessed what TPAB would sound like. It wasn't until a little less than two months ago when vague details began to emerge and the first official track "The Blacker the Berry" leaked that people were sure of what Lamar's new album would sound like. The aggressive single with a "I Used to Love H.E.R."-like twist followed by reports from TDE-producer Sounwave that Lamar was "mad" on the new album, and the cover art showing a mob of black men standing over a dead judge on the White House lawn, had everyone, myself included, believing that this new album would be full of aggression, and more of the dark, East Coast rap that Lamar was known for. Boy, was everyone wrong.

Lamar's newest album is as much a jazz, funk album as it is a rap album, and that's just barely scratching the surface. It's as experimental as it gets, with odd cadences, poetry woven throughout, spoken word segments, a faux live-performance track, and even an interview between Lamar and Tupac. "The Blacker the Berry" is not the mode track, it is an outlier. It's fantastic to see experimental hip-hop on such a grand scale, and yet again, Kendrick Lamar has pushed the envelope on hip-hop farther than anyone could have imagined.

The reason I ask for you to remove any notions you have of Kendrick Lamar is because you can't fully appreciate TPAB if you think of it as a rap album. It's not supposed to be one, and you'll be disappointed if that's what you think it is. It's closer to a rap/funk opera than anything else. This is not to say that it's not fantastic. The production is lusher than anything I've heard in a very long time, with complex, orchestral jazz and funk production that is as explosive as it is beautiful. But Kendrick Lamar is not strictly rapping on here. If you are looking for Lamar to make a conventional rap album where he spits vicious lines and paints masterpieces in bars, like he did with gkmc, you won't find it on TPAB. Lamar sacrifices convention and listenability to craft a masterful and new manner of story-telling. But there still are fantastic rap songs on here. "King Kunta", "The Blacker The Berry", "Alright", "Momma", and many more will satisfy your thirst for traditional rap while still pushing your horizons. 

Each song on TPAB tells an individual story, but the whole album has a full theme, juxtaposed by a poem that Lamar reads in pieces throughout the album and in full on the last song "Mortal Man". The first track "Wesley's Theory" opens up with Lamar as a material-obsessed new rapper, being tempted by record labels and the government. He continues this theme through the first half of the album, which is characterized by mostly upbeat funk production. But on the song "u", the album takes a sharp turn. Lamar is anguished by his unquenchable thirst for material wealth, and sees the consequences of his actions. While he was busy out in the world touring and rapping, his teenage sister gets pregnant and his good friend dies in Compton. He languishes in a hotel room contemplating suicide and proclaims himself a "f-cking failure". From them on, Lamar tries to put himself to good use and searches for how to help his community back home on the songs "Alright" through "Hood Politics". He then explains the vices that are holding back his community, such as money ("How Much A Dollar Cost"), race ("Complexion [A Zulu Love]") and violence ("The Blacker the Berry"). The final track "Mortal Man" finds Kendrick wrestling with if he can really be a leader, and ends with the full poem, an interview with Tupac, and an explanation of the album title. The overall theme is very similar to J. Cole's 2014 Forest Hills Drive , yet infinitely more in-depth and encompassing; and that was still a great album.

If gkmc was about Compton, then TPAB is about the entire nation. But at the same time, it's insanely personal. Beyond Lamar's unmatched lyrical skill, Kendrick also uses a variety of odd cadences in his voices to portray emotions and points of view. From screaming, to high-pitch raps, to laid-back bars, Lamar uses so many different flows and voices that it would sound like they are altered, but they are almost entirely all natural. For features, Lamar relies heavily on Anna Wise, James Fauntleroy, Bilal, and Thundercat for vocals. They don't stand out, but instead magnify Lamar's performance. As for rap features, Snoop Dogg has a minor part on the track "Institutionalized", but he doesn't exactly rap, and on "Complexion", Rapsody has a very insightful verse about race. This is being nit-picky, but it would be nice to have just one more rapper on Kendrick's own song.

Kendrick packs every single bar with a deeper meaning. This album will take weeks, months, maybe even years to fully digest. I've listen to this album everyday multiple times and there are still ideas that pop up that give me chills. There is no question this will be a classic. To Pimp A Butterfly is a must cop.

Lyrical Skill- 5

Technical Skill- 5

Production- 5


Features- 4

Themes/Consistency- 5

Notable Tracks- every single song on TPAB is a masterpiece

Overall Score- 5

Thursday, March 12, 2015

MusicBenLikes Picks for 2015 XXL Freshmen

Every year, hip-hop magazine XXL awards ten to twelve up-and-coming rappers, and last year singers, as XXL Freshmen. This is one of the biggest honors a new hip-hop artist can receive. Official voting for the 2015 Freshmen will begin on March 16, but before then I decided to create my own Freshman List

1. Mick Jenkins
If you haven't heard of Mick Jenkins yet, you will. The Chicago rapper is following the same path of last year's freshmen picks Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper, and is pushing past the drill sound of Chicago to the national spotlight. His latest project, The Water[s] is nothing short from fantastic, and I've been listening to it more than anything else from 2014. Jenkins spits every conscious verse with passion, has an array of original flows in his pocket, and a knack for lush and polished production. Don't sleep.

2. Vince Staples
I'm very surprised that Staples wasn't awarded last year. He's been steadily increasing his lyrical prowess, and is a force to be reckoned with. He's worked with everyone from Earl Sweatshirt to ScHoolboy Q to Common, and his West Coast sound deserves to be awarded

3. Raury
Raury only has one project under his belt, but that one project was great. He sounds like a more rock-oriented Andre 3000. XXL might not award him since his sound doesn't perfectly fit with hip-hop, but to me, that ability to push the boundaries of a genre is something fantastic.

4. GoldLink
Another musician with only one, unique project, GoldLink crafted a brand new sub-genre: future bounce. It's basically a mix of hip-hop, lounge music, and EDM. GoldLink doesn't have the greatest lyricism, but his flow and new sound are tremendous.

5. Young Thug
I mean, how can you not award Young Thug. The dude is everywhere. I don't need to explain who Young Thug is, you know who he is. The only way he would be awarded is if he's just too big.

6. Rome Fortune
Rome Fortune is another eccentric artist from ATL. But what makes Fortune stand out is that he can rap over basically any beat, and while some ATL rappers can just be too much, almost everything that Fortune drops sounds good. Just look at his Soundcloud, he releases a new project almost every month and each one is good.

7. OG Maco
OG Maco took probably the most basic production, and turned it into the monstrous banger that is "U Guessed It" (Rome Fortune is the guy with the blue beard in the video). But Maco has become more than just a one-hit-wonder. He's been steadily working and has, like Fortune, released many solid projects. One of the most notable is his "Breath EP", a small project about race and politics, that actually brings up a lot of very good points.

8. Fetty Wap
I'm gonna be honest, I have really listened to any song besides "Trap Queen", but oh my god that song is amazing. "Trap Queen" should win a damn Oscar.

9. Bas
Signed to J. Cole's Dreamville Records, Bas has one of the most mature sounds of everyone on this list. His most recent album Last Winter sounded extremely polished. I don't think Bas is the most original artist in the game, but he raps extremely confidently.

10. Bishop Nehru
Bishop Nehru is signed to Nas's label, and had a collaborative album with MF Doom last year. If these two greats support him, you should too. He's only 18, but Nehru raps well past his age.

11. SZA
The TDE songstress broke through last year with her amazing EP Z. She's perfected the neo-soul sound. Be on the lookout for her next project A, which will be dropping very soon.

12. BJ The Chicago Kid
You may not recognize his name, but you have definitely heard him. From Kendrick Lamar to Joey Bada$$ to Big K.R.I.T. to Chance the Rapper, BJ The Chicago has worked with everybody. He's an expert at the classic r&b sound, and is moving to a more pop sound. This up-and-comer definitely deserves more recognition.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Kendrick Lamar's Next Album Will Be Released on March 23 (Updated)

Last year, every single member of the TDE roster was supposed to drop a project. Undoubtedly, the most anticipated was Kendrick Lamar's. But unfortunately, we still haven't heard the album, or heard any real details about the album, until now. Just a few minutes ago, Kendrick Lamar tweeted an iTunes link. It was a pre-order link to his new album, which will be released on March 23, the same day as Action Bronson's Mr. Wonderful. There is very little information, with the current album title being Untitled, and black screen for the artwork, and no tracklist. But, there will be 17 songs, and the album will cost $14.99. I'll update on here if there is any more information released. Until then, enjoy the first two singles, "i" and "The Blacker the Berry" until the album drops on March 23.

UPDATE: 3/11/15

The official title and album cover have been released. Kendrick Lamar's next album will be entitled To Pimp A Butterfly, and the album cover is below. There has been no official news about the music itself, but Lamar will be the cover story of Rolling Stone, and an excerpt from the interview revealed that "i" will be on the album, and will serve as a juxtaposition for a track entitled "u", which has the exact opposite theme of "i", as Kendrick will portray a self-loathing character. I'll continue to update here for more info when it comes out.

UPDATE: 3/12/15

The supposed tracklist for To Pimp A Butterfly has been leaked. DJ Booth apparently got the tracklist from Universal Music Group and shared it today. There appears to be no features, but that could just mean that this they haven't been released yet, or are just unaccredited, like what Kanye did on Yeezus. But take this with a grain of salt. While most major music publications such as Complex has shared the tracklist, nearly every anticipated album has leaked tracklists, and 95% of the time, they are fake. This seems real, as it has the tracks "i", "u", and "King Kunta" all on it, but the placement of some tracks seems odd to me. The biggest issue is that the song "i" is originally 3:52 minutes long. The iTunes tracklist, which doesn't have any titles, has the third track at 3:54 minutes long, which is extremely close. But the leaked tracklist says that "King Kunta" is the third track, and that "i" is the fifteenth track, and is 5:36 minutes long. This could mean that the album version of "i" is longer, or that the tracklist is just wrong. But peep the list below, and we shall see on March 23 if it is real or not.

1. Wesley's Theory
2. For Free? (Interlude)
3. King Kunta
4. Institutionalized 
5. These Walls
6. U
7. Alright
8. For Sale? (Interlude)
9. Momma
10. Hood Politics
11. How Much A Dollar Cost
12. Complexion
13. The Blacker The Berry
14.You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)
15. i
16. Mortal Man

Listen to a New Jay Electronica Song "Road to Perdition"

There is probably not a single more lyrically gifted rapper than Jay Electronica. But there is also probably not a single rapper who is more secretive than Jay Electronica. He grabbed everyone's attention in 2007 with his mixtape Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) where Jay Elect spit over the soundtrack of Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind without any drums, and with two amazing singles in 2009. Since then, Jay Elect has signed to Roc Nation... and that's about it. The man hasn't released any official projects since then, has lent a few features here and there, but remains extremely secretive. His style is unique, to say the least. He raps over spoken word and Willie Wonka samples, often uses beats with no drum loops, and rhymes about gods and pharaohs. His one-of-a-kind style and immense lyricism has made fans crave for his debut album. And it appears it may be on the way.

An hour ago, Jay Electronica released via his Twitter a new song entitled "Road to Perdition". It's a booming, confident, frankly amazing new song. Over children cheering, sharp drums, and a Jay-Z sample, Elect goes in. He then tweeted (and shortly after deleted) "Can you smell what #TheRoc is cooking?" This could mean that his debut album, which supposedly is titled Act II: The Patients of Nobility (The Turn), since "Road to Perdition" is on a supposed tracklist (below) which Jay Electronica tweeted out, and then deleted. Almost exactly one year ago, Jay Electronica released the gorgeous track "better in tune with the infinite" and the remix to "We Made It", one of the best songs of last year. So maybe March is just the month that Jay Elect decides to release songs, but hopefully we will get Act II this year.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Review: Big Sean is on Another Level With 'Dark Sky Paradise'

I've always felt like a closeted Big Sean fan. I love the vast majority of his features, which is difficult to say for most artists. But on his solo projects, I disliked them as a whole. He seemed to rely more on singles and featured artists, and the albums didn't feel like they could be listened to in any setting past a club. I always hoped that Sean would make a great album, so my faith would be more concrete. And with Dark Sky Paradise, Sean stepped his game up more than I ever thought.

Dark Sky is Sean's first Number 1 album, with first week sales of 167,000. He had a lot in his personal life to build up this album. His last album, Hall of Fame was met with lackluster support, he called off his marriage with Naya Riveria, and his grandmother passed away. Sean uses this as fuel for his album. The first track, "Dark Sky (Skyscrapers)" serves as a basic intro to the album, but isn't extremely memorable. The next three tracks are some of the best. "Blessings" is a dark single with Drake, that sounds radio-friendly yet not poppy. The next song "All Your Fault", featuring Kanye West is just a fun bouncy song with great verses from both artists. And the fourth track is the now infamous "I Don't F*ck With You", the best break-up anthem of all time. The middle of the album is more sparse with the features, and showcases Sean getting more in touch with his past, especially with relationships. Two standout tracks are "Paradise" and "I Know". The former is one of the best songs on the whole album, with Sean just going in over a beat by Mike WiLL Made-It. The latter has Sean and Jhene Aiko speaking about a failing relationship, with production from DJ Mustard, that is mostly just sparse, deep bass. The ending tracks feature a touching ode to his passed grandma with aide from Kanye West and John Legend on the chorus entitled "One Man Can Change The World", and the "Outro" has probably the best production on the album, courtesy of DJ Dahi.

The list of features on Dark Sky is A+. Kanye West, E-40, Drake, John Legend, Ariana Grande, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Chris Brown, Jhene Aiko, and Ty Dolla $ign all lend vocals. And while this list is large, no song seems cluttered, and Big Sean holds his own, and usually shines above the other artists. The only artist on here that Sean can't match bar-for-bar is probably Kanye. Production isn't extremely diverse or fantastic on this LP. But the darker sounds serve more of a platform for Sean, and instead of being ear-catching, the production focuses on Sean's vocals. What Sean is rapping about isn't Earth-shattering, but they are more mature. Sean's raps are more personal, and sound more like an open diary then Sean rapping for his audience, which I think is a plus. But what really shines through is his technical skill. On each song, Sean uses about three to four flows, and each one sound great. Some of his past flows have sounded like he's gasping for air, but on Dark Sky, Sean is way more confident and refined. I would say this is a must-cop.

Lyrical Skill- 3

Technical Skill- 4.5

Production- 3

Listenability- 4

Features- 5

Consistency/Themes- 3.5

Notable Songs- "All Your Fault", "Blessings", "Paradise", "I Know", "Deserve It"

Overall Rating- 4

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Load of New Songs Were Released This Week

Remember that little performance in Britain? The official version was released today, and dear lord it's amazing. After revealing that his next LP is entitled So Help Me God, Kanye officially dropped his newest banger "All Day". It's just as epic and bombastic as the Brit performance. There's an extended ending with guitar provided by Paul McCartney and vocals by Theophilius London. My only complaint is that Allan Kingdom's hook somewhat sounds a bit like a dying animal. That's a bit too harsh but it does sound somewhat weird. But nonetheless, "All Day" is a song I've already been blasting all day long.

Later this month, the world will finally be blessed with Action Bronson's first commercial album. And today he released a new single, entitled "Baby Blue". The track is produced by Mark Ronson oddly enough, and features an ending from Chance the Rapper. The song is hilarious and filled with great quotables, and looks like Mr. Wonderful will definitely be a great album.

Last Saturday, Ab-Soul completed forty-seven stops on his These Days tour. In honor of it, he tweeted a link to a short new song entitled "47 Bars". Soul effortlessly flows over an Alchemist-produced beat. He tweeted the song and said "I might get dropped from the label for this one", which may be showing that there's some trouble brewing at Top Dawg, but you can enjoy the song anyways.

Fresh off the success of his first major label LP, Logic surprised his fans with a new, Big K.R.I.T-assisted song "Top Ten". Produced by in-house producer 6ix, the track is smooth, and reaffirms that both MC's are at the top of their game. Catch K.R.I.T. at Forecastle this summer, which I will be documenting, and catch Logic's sophomore album which should come out this year, or early next.

Chicago's hip-hop scene is popping, with artists like Mick Jenkins, BJ the Chicago Kid, Vic Mensa, and Chance the Rapper. But there are many smaller artists who have been steadily rising up, one of which is Towkio. Part of Mensa's SAVEMONEY crew, Towkio is working on a new project. The newest cut, "Free Your Mind" shows that this project will be great. With production from the Social Experiment, and with trumpets from Donnie Trumpet, the song is an upbeat, dance-able song that mixes jazz with EDM. The track is a great teaser for Towkio's next project.