Humanz – Gorillaz

Alternative Hip Hop/Electronica

Throughout music history we can identify artists that have emerged to pioneer, shape, and define their musical genres. Any one of us can name a handful of musicians who we feel have made a significant impact on their respective genres. We have the Led Zeppelins and The Rolling Stones of rock, the NWA and Eminems of rap, the Eric Claptons and B.B. Kings of blues and they have all been successful in molding their respective genres into what we know them as today.

Once in a great while a musical act emerges that pushes the boundaries of modern music and successfully melds components of different genres into something completely new and unique. Music that may be hard to fully appreciate at the time comes to fruition and, thanks to the hard work and creativity of a few talented individuals, shifts the musical landscape for good. This is Gorillaz. Who would have thought that after all these years, in the year 2017, they would continue to be pioneers in the musical scene just as they were after their first release back in the early 2000’s?

As many people may already know Gorillaz can be categorized as a “virtual band” given the animated virtual characters (crafted by the talented Jamie Hewlett) that represent the group in place of the actual musicians behind the scenes. This really adds a ton of character to the group and makes for some really fun music videos and live shows. What is even more impressive is Gorillaz historic ability to blend genres of rock, rap, r&b, soul, blues and more into music that sounds not only modern but unexampled. In addition we have seen Gorillaz change their approach to music with each and every album release. Some of this is undoubtedly influenced by the changes in the musical landscape that happen between album releases. In this case it has been a little over seven years since Gorillaz released Plastic Beach. (Edit. Gorillaz did also release The Fall in late 2010, a free album recorded by Albarn on an IPad during his US tour.)

Like Plastic Beach, Humanz, the latest record from Albarn and crew, fuses with the modern musical landscape while still maintaining what makes Gorillaz so unique. Also like Plastic Beach, Humanz is riddled with featured artists on nearly every track. Appearances include Pusha T, Vince Staples, De La Soul, Danny Brown, and Popcaan just to name a few. In many cases the featured artists are the dominant vocal forces on the tracks with Damon Albarn adding the signature Gorillaz vocals.

The music and production are as good as ever thanks to Albarn and crew. The album constantly shifts form with r&b and gospel harmonies giving way to powerful rap performances and electronic beats. Even if two songs on Humanz sound completely different from one another they are all united under Albarn’s powerful vision and message.

The concept for Humanz evolved from Albarn’s vision of the apocalyptic aftermath of a Donald Trump presidency. What is crazy here is that Albarn’s concept came about back in January 2016 when Donald Trump becoming president was still, in most people’s minds, a slim-to-none possibility. This was far before the flood of anti-Trump albums that we experienced at the end of 2016 into the beginning of 2017. What I respect about Albarn’s approach is that he is subtle in his delivery. This is in no way a preachy anti-Trump album but instead a stylized vision of the apocalypse, post-Trump victory. In fact, the album never names or even directly references Trump once. Albarn did this for a few very good reasons that I won’t get into here but you can read about in multiple interviews with him on the internet. In my opinion this approach is refreshing because Albarn’s dissatisfaction with Donald Trump in no way dominates the album but instead was the driving force behind its conception.

Some of my favorite tracks on the album include Saturnz Barz (featuring Popcaan), Ascension (featuring Vince Staples), Charger (featuring Grace Jones), and Let Me Out (featuring Mavis Staples and Pusha T). In addition I really love Danny Brown’s verse at the end of Submission. Is Humanz the best Gorillaz album ever? No, probably not. Is Humanz just as important and impactful as their past releases? Defiantly. What we have here is one of the most electrifying, dark and ominous pieces of work form Albarn and crew so far that still manages to maintain that fun party sound we have all come to expect. I really look forward to the next Gorillaz release. I just hope it does not take another seven years!

See you next week.

DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar

Rap

Damn… I could probably end my review right there. I actually thought about doing that. The fact is that this album is just too damn good to not write about. What we have here is one of the best rap albums of our time. It’s crazy that I can say that after a mere five days post-release. The question remains, can we really expect anything less from Kendrick Lamar nowadays?

Just like his past releases Kendrick conveys many powerful messages throughout this record. Through the 14 tracks on the album Kendrick touches on concepts including self-respect, love, bigotry, religion, faith, politics, power, evil, weakness and the list goes on. As per usual he does so in an incredibly impactful way. Many songs on this album are more profound than they appear on the surface.

There is also a ton of subtext here. Already the internet is crawling with people hypostasizing and theorizing over hidden meanings and messages. There was even a crazy popular theory involving Kendrick, Jesus, and the surprise release of a second album on Easter Sunday. Yea…

The production on this album is second to none. The beats are rich and original while still maintaining a raw and authentic sound. It’s impossible not to get hyped up when listing to the hard and aggressive (but yet so humbling!) track HUMBLE.; it’s hard to resist the laid-back and tranquil rhythm to YAH.; and if the euphoric beat for LOVE. doesn’t put you in a good place I don’t know what will. The quality of DAMN.’s production is a credit to its long list of talent on that end. The album boasts a robust production crew including Top Dawg, The Alchemist, 9th Wonder, Mike Will Made It, the mysterious Bēkon and many more. The album is absolutely littered with talent none more important than Kendrick himself.

The first track BLOOD. starts off with a skit featuring Kendrick narrating his own death at the hands of a blind women he is trying to assist. The skit is laced with a spaghetti western-esque melody and successfully sets the tone for the album while introducing some core themes. The track and its subsequent song DNA. both feature audio clips from Fox News anchors (including Geraldo Rivera) bluntly criticizing some of Kendrick Lamar’s past lyrics which targeted police brutality towards African Americans. The song DNA. is a strong rebuttal to these personal attacks. In it Kendrick reaffirms who he is, where he comes from, and scorns those who would criticize him, especially those from outside his community.

In ELEMENT. Kendrick highlights the core theme of the album: Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper in the game. It’s not as much a boastful song as it is an affirmation of his dedication to rap. Lyrics include “I’m willin’ to die for this shit, I done cried for this shit, might take a life for this shit, put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this shit.” This is one of my favorite songs on the album both lyrically and melodically and the chorus is absolutely amazing.

In PRIDE. Kendrick touches on his own imperfections and the relationship between his overwhelming success and his moral compass. “See, in a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches, I’ll choose work over bitches, I’ll make schools out of prison, I’ll take all the religions and put ’em all in one service, Just to tell ’em we ain’t shit, but he’s been perfect, world.”

HUMBLE. was everyone’s first glimpse of this album and a mighty one at that. Kendrick takes shots at some of his competition and further reaffirms his place at the table. Bitch sit down, be humble! LUST. is another one of my favorites here. In it Kendrick touches on the day to day life of a famous rapper. It’s filled with lustful desires, anxiety, and repetition. The song is deep, introspective, engaging and the melody is enticing.

In XXX. Kendrick struggles with his own integrity along with that of America’s. The song compares Kendrick’s own principles to America’s as a whole. The lyrics on this track are truly some of the best on the record. The song also features the rock group U2 to many peoples initial surprise but this makes a lot of sense given the politically charged nature of the song and U2’s history of highlighting social themes in their own music.

The last song I would like to discuss is the finale of the album DUCKWORTH. Man this song is crazy. This song tells the real life story of how Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith (the chief exec of TDE) almost killed Kendrick’s own father years before they would ever meet. The story highlights how one coincidental mistake almost changed history and would have prevented TDE from forming and Kendrick from ever rapping. I love how Kendrick wraps this album up through the telling of such an incredible story.

I could keep writing about this album if I wanted to. Seriously, I could write about every damn song. The only reason I won’t is because I have to go listen to the album again. Trust me when I say that if you are a fan of rap in any shape or form this album will blow you away. It’s really just the level of quality we have come to expect from Kendrick Lamar. I already can’t wait to see what comes next.

See you next week.

 

 

Pure Comedy – Father John Misty

Indie Folk

Last week Father John Misty released his newest LP entitled Pure Comedy. Father John Misty fans (including most of my friends and I) have been eagerly waiting for this release since 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear. It should be noted that while I am eager to write about this album this week I have only listened to it a few times at this point. While the album is still settling in for me I have to say that I really like it so far. FJM continues to produce great work.

My initial impression is that this album as a whole is very much a continuation of the style we saw in the song Bored in the USA (track 9 of I Love You, Honeybear) almost as if that song was a primer for this album. We see a continuation of the slower pace ballads accompanied by piano, guitar, Tillman’s outstanding vocals and cynical and satirical personality. It’s this persona that FJM fans have watched develop over the past years that sets his music apart. It may sound drab but honestly it’s entertaining as hell.

This is FJM’s biggest project yet racking in at 13 songs and 1hr and 14min. The pace of this album is quite a bit slower than his past releases and, as my cousin pointed out, some of the songs tend to blend together upon first listen. This being said, don’t leave with the impression that the songs are not varied or unique, it’s just that there is an overall tempo to this album that holds firm. The one exception to this would be the track Total Entertainment Forever which is more upbeat.

The album opens with the self-titled Pure Comedy and this song is a great intro to the album. The song exemplifies FJM’s persona perfectly by delivering a twisted view of humanity over piano and drums. Total Entertainment Forever is next and is the very song that was the subject of scrutiny after FJM’s appearance on SNL. The song opens with the controversial lyrics “bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift, after mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes” of course referring to having virtual sex with Taylor Swift using the virtual reality platform Oculus Rift. This song is upbeat, features great instrumentals including saxophone and is currently my favorite song off the album.

One song that I did not hear until release was A Bigger Paper Bag. This song has been growing on me and is creeping towards the top of the ranks for my favorite songs off the album. Ballad of a Dying Man is maybe the most interesting song here. This song tells the story of an old dying man that remains analytical and critical of people up until his very last breath. We also have Leaving LA which is a mammoth thirteen minute and twelve second song that critiques “LA hipsters and their bullshit bands” (lyrics changed from Pitchfork bands on the album release for some reason) among many other entertaining points.

I feel that this FJM album was worth the wait. Sure the album is a bit different than his prior releases (mainly in the consistent downtempo pace and critical tone) but I really feel that through his lyrics and music Tillman is giving us his most honest FJM yet. How do I think this album stacks up against his other releases? Ask me in a few months and I’ll tell you. Is this album worth your time? Yes it is.

See you next week.

Hot Thoughts – Spoon

Indie Rock

This week I would like to switch things up a little bit and focus on a new release. The week before last Spoon welcomed the newest addition to their catalog with the release of Hot Thoughts. At this point most spoon fans would not expect the band to deviate much from their well-established formula that has been so successful for them to date. Spoon is one of those bands that has their comfort zone and succeeds very well when staying close to it. This being said, Hot Thoughts deviates from the formula just enough to keep things interesting without risking turning off their longtime fans.

With Hot Thoughts Britt Daniel and the boys experiment a bit more with electronic elements and diverse instrumentals to keep things interesting while maintaining their signature sound. Don’t worry, this is not a deviation similar to The Black Keys with the release of Fever, it’s more proportionate. As a spoon fan I really dig what they did here.

Through most of the album you will hear Britt Daniel’s as-good-as-ever vocals over fun and interesting rhythms that sound both familiar and new. In between you will also find some breaks in the upbeat tempo with songs like Pink Up and the eerie finale Us.  Just when you think that you are in familiar territory the Austin outfit mixes things up with something original. You can hear this in songs like Can I Sit Next to You which starts out with a recognizable Spoon beat and transforms into an alluring Arabian melody. The song is funky, enticing, and just a lot of fun overall.

Other noteworthy songs on Hot Thoughts include the self-titled Hot Thoughts, I Ain’t the One, the danceable track First Caress, and one of my new favorite Spoon tracks Tear it Down. Again, like most albums you will see me post here, this is a great album to listen to from front to back. Do I have to talk you in to it?

See you next week.