Crack-Up – Fleet Foxes

Folk

It has been a long six years since Fleet Foxes released their last album Helplessness Blues. This was the last glance we had of Fleet Foxes before they decided to hang up their hats for more than half a decade. While many people initially questioned the future of Fleet Foxes, here we are in 2017 listening to a long-awaited follow-up to their beloved Helplessness Blues. For many it is a welcomed return of a band that occupies their own unique space in a crowded and convoluted era of music.

Six years is a long time. Think about your place in life six years ago; there’s a good chance that things were quite a bit different; I know they were for me. People change, lives change, people evolve and mature, and our external environment, the world in which we live in, changes to. Undoubtedly, the members of Fleet Foxes are no more immune to the effects of the passing of time then you or me. Evidence of this can be heard loud and clear on the latest Fleet Foxes effort Crack-Up.

On Crack-Up you will still hear much of what you love about the Fleet Foxes. The album is riddled with beautiful melodies and harmonies, complex instrumentals, and Pecknold’s vocal ability and range remain as good as ever. The folk-soul sound that Fleet Foxes fans have fallen in love with also remains stable. Long-time Fleet Foxes fans and newbies alike will find Crack-Up easily accessible thanks to the consistency of Pecknold and crew.

While Fleet Foxes manage to keep much of what people love about their original formula they not afraid to venture into new territory. In more than one aspect Crack-Up is a very different album then any of its predecessors. Crack-Up is much more of an emotional journey. Through its 55 minutes Crack-Up is tragic, enlightened, sad, beautiful, tranquil, expansive and so much more. This emotional progression reflects back upon the concept of the passing of time, a theme found often in folk music.

Crack-Up does some things very well. On Crack-Up Fleet Foxes master the concept of negative space. For each and every burst of music there exists a void. Much like Fleet Foxes own journey as a band. There are moments on Crack-Up that are tranquil, quiet, and serene and each one is filled with such beauty. This record is composed in such a way that makes it feel like one seamless piece of music rather than individual songs. Like a good painting, Crack-Up’s biggest accomplishment is in the way it forces you to interpret its various parts.

Crack-Up has its obvious stand-outs. The singles that were offered pre-release, Third of May/Odiagahara and Fool’s Errand, are good examples of this. These songs do well standing on their own two feet and are the closest thing to a White Winter Hymnal or Mykonos you will find on this album. They serve as pillars alongside the other songs that help bind the album together. –Naiads, Cassadies (one of my current favorites off this album) and Kept Woman do well to act as a harmonic bridge between the album’s opener and centerpiece. Crack-Up succeeds in making you feel that every song is in its right place. The album’s pace and flow are perfect. This is a credit to the album’s composition. It is constructed in a way that makes it feel whole.

So where do the Fleet Foxes go from here? Crack-Up feels very much like the beginning of a new chapter for Pecknold and crew and already Robin is talking about the future. It sounds like the band is going to be a lot more active in making music in the coming years. Fleet Foxes have shown through Crack-Up that they are not afraid of progression and we will undoubtedly continue to see this in their future efforts.

Robin Pecknold has been busy the past six years with his work at Columbia University, staying active on social media, and most certainly soul-searching. His spiritual progression can be heard on Crack-Up; his most intellectual album to date. What’s even more evident is that Robin and crew seem more comfortable than ever before. Fleet Foxes really feel at home on Crack-Up and I know that I can speak for many when I say that we are happy to have them back. In a sense, Crack-Up represents the passing of time better than any album I have heard in the past. It remains retrospective while ushering in a new era for Fleet Foxes and masterfully embraces the present. I don’t think this album would have the same effect if it was not for the six years of negative space.

See you next week.

Run the Jewels 3 – Run the Jewels

Rap

Many rappers in the modern rap scene have found success rapping over intricately produced beats. Many find their own style or flow and engineer their beats to complement their vocal delivery. With Run the Jewels the rapping, lyrics, and flow are the beat. They become part of the rhythm just as much as the beats themselves. Every single song on Run the Jewels 3 flows with such precision it’s hard to find an imperfection anywhere on the album. With their third release, Killer Mike and El-P further affirm the fact that RTJ was meant to be. These two complement each other perfectly and when it works (which is quite often) it works very well.

RTJ3 is reminiscent of a simpler time in rap. A time when rappers rapped and MC’s MC’d. No fluff, no fucking autotune, no mindless unexciting beats; just down-to-it rapping. Yet, RTJ still manage to deliver a modern sounding album that sets itself apart from the rest of the crowd. RTJ is truly a unique act.

The beats and the rapping on RTJ3 are ferocious and exciting. If you are looking for a great workout album or a Friday night before hitting the town album this is it. The tempo changes from song to song but the merciless tone never subsides. The lyrics are also very entertaining. There is an abundance of aggressive, funny, light-hearted, and culturally relevant moments on RTJ3. I have had plenty of moments where I thought what the hell did he just say? It’s fun; trust me.

There is some really cool collaboration on RTJ3 as well. Danny Brown, Joi, BOOTS, and more can all be found here. I was really hoping they would have Big Boi back for another appearance after his guest spot on RTJ1, but hey I can’t ask for too much can I? All of the collaborations work well on their respective tracks and never do they overshadow RTJ themselves.

RTJ3 is a nice sized album with 14 songs at 51 minutes. I think the album feels longer than it actually is given the constant excitement. You won’t be drifting off listening to this album. What is additionally exciting is that this album, along with their past two releases, should make for a good live performance. I really look forward to seeing RTJ live on stage.

RTJ3 is yet another acclaimed effort by the supergroup duo. At this point it is hard to imagine the pair releasing anything less. The album is ferocious, exciting, and respectful to rap’s roots while still pushing the envelope. It is hard to find a bad song on the album. I can’t find one I don’t like. I don’t think it’s a great album for every mood or situation but when you are in the mood to have a good time or get hyped up this album is perfect. Also, feel free to blast it in your car with the windows down like I do; It’s one of those records.

See you next week.

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.