All posts in March 2015

Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (Extended Review)

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Don’t rock with reading? We get that. Here’s a video review of Earl’s I Don’t Like Shit.

Odd Future is the darling Rap group of the Internet age. Their growth was explosive and fairly unheard of for the genre, at least for the time they came up. One of the main emcees of the group while they were at their peak was Earl Sweatshirt, a loud-mouthed kid who could seriously rap his ass off. His career started with “Earl”, an off-the-wall ridiculous song made from bars that were both wordy and macabre all set to a music video which featured him and his friends throwing a load of elicit substances into a blender, making a concoction that morbidly kills everybody. It had that level of shock that young kids go for when they want both rebellion and attention, but it was provocative nonetheless. A few months after this music video went viral among the young and alternative, Earl dropped a self-titled mixtape which earned a huge amount of recognition for the then 16-year-old. It’s certainly not the honed or meticulously-created project, but that’s what people latched onto. There were also some really authentically homegrown joints that ended up sounding cool as hell. There was the aforementioned title track, as well as “Luper”, “epaR”, and “Pigions” (don’t be mistaken, that’s how it’s spelt in the tracklisting) among a few others. The young artist was then sent away for a while, which thusly spawned the “FREE EARL” campaign. This was one of OF’s first major victories in music; the phrase successfully stoked the hype fire for this new, edgy Earl Sweatshirt kid until he returned at the age of 18. When he came back he immediately entered the life of a international rap star, which I only mention because the effects of this dislodging process can still be seen on the album in question: I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.

Staying very in line with his contrarian personality, Earl seems to be rejecting the hype-dependence of his first project with I Don’t Like Shit. His debut album, Doris, which landed in 2013, was kind of in the middle between viral anticipation and attempting to release an album out of nowhere, but I’ll get into that project a bit more later. So, let’s talk about this album with its long ass title and why I think it’s pretty weak compared to Earl’s past work. Before I get too negative, though, Earl deserves some praise.

The rapper on I Don’t Like Shit is worlds past the rapper on Earl when it comes to his actual skill on the mic. Earl’s flow is sharp, his style is tried and true, and his lyricism is still solid — no one can ever take away Earl’s bars. He keeps progressing, which is great since I could have totally seen Earl turning into a one-trick pony who keeps releasing projects like Earl with better and better production. This is an apprehension that Earl has addressed very openly in the past. In a slightly painful interview with the Huffington Post, Earl said this about OF’s expedited rise to popularity: “we got famous off of our shit ideas … you’re first drafts ever, we got famous off of our’s. So people were judging us and basing us off of our fucking first shit ever.” The big names of Odd Future have proven themselves with impressive and multi-dimensional personal efforts since its start, with Tyler, the Creator’s Wolf and Earl’s Doris in 2013, as well as some earlier stuff, like Mellowhype’s YelloWhite and BlackenedWhite. Even after their respective realeases, each one of these rappers have been working against a very strong sigma that has been following them from since the beginning. So, maybe the distain of I Don’t Like Shit is understandable.

Earl’s progression has been taking him into darker and dingier corners of his mind and away from the oh-so provocative vulgarity. His first step away from this was his debut album, Doris, a solid project that had a fair share of stinkers that luckily didn’t ruin the project as a whole, at least for me. I’ll still go back and listen to the songs that stood out to me: “20 Wave Caps”, “Hive”, and “Centurion” to name a few. Two of those tracks featured verses by Vince Staples, an emcee who came up at the same time as Earl and has been featured on every one of his projects. Vince returns once again on I Don’t Like Shit, this time on the last track, “Wool”, delivering a strong, full-bodied verse.

I’m a huge Vince fan, but if you’ve been reading for a while (or follow me on Tumblr) you’ve probably gathered that. I’ve always associated him with something that Earl said in an “Inside the Beat” episode: “with Vince, if you don’t fucking really go in, like, you’re going to sound so stupid … I’ve seen it happen.” Earl doesn’t sound stupid on “Wool”, he shows up and drops a solid verse, but Vince shows him up antagonistically. And this is my main issue with the album, Earl is constantly being outshined. For features he chose rappers who either have very unique voices or flows that pack a lot of energy. Earl is so nonchalant and even-toned that his verses are generally falling by the wayside, or at least they aren’t the main attraction. I don’t think his casual flow is a fatal flaw by any means, he has made a lot of really great music in the past, but it certainly didn’t bode well for him here. The best Rap music is made by its hunger, emotion, and genuine drama. There are moments, just like on past projects, where he steps towards it. One of those moments is “Wool”, but I can’t help but think that Earl heard that verse and consciously stepped it up not to sound, as he said himself, stupid. “DNA” is another moment with a refreshing dose of sentiment that makes Earl’s rapping a lot more poignant sonically. That track has a feature, which, unlike “Wool”, complimented Earl’s flow and style well. So, maybe it wasn’t all bad, I just expected a bit more after Doris.

Here, before you commit to the entire I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside album, listen to the project’s eighth track, “Inside”. If you find Earl’s plight compelling and his sound engaging, you’ll most likely enjoy this album. Earl is a good rapper, I just know he can do better. At any rate, here’s an iTunes link so you can decide your opinion for yourself.

Personal highpoints:

“DNA” / “Wool”

Personal lowpoints:

“Mantra” / “Grief”

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Charlie Johns

Death Grips – Jenny Death (Extended Review)

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Don’t like reading? We get that. Here’s a link to our video review for Jenny Death

To begin, Death Grips is perhaps the act in music I am most thankful for. I’ve been listening since The Money Store and it had been the best ride I’ve ever taken in my young music listening lifetime. They created a discography that is nothing short of essential to any critical music listener while creating a foundation for any band who strives to push the envelop of what’s accepted to the masses’ collective ear. Since this is supposedly their last album, and in lieu of being wholly objective and consequently boring as hell, let me tell you about my journey through the phenomenon that is Death Grips.

The trio of MC Ride, Flatlander, and Zach Hill formed a band whose mystique is so strong and engulfing that their music’s heft is multiplied by it. One of the big things that has built that aura of the unexpected was the manner in which Death Grips releases their music, that being out of god damn no where. I discovered Death Grips when I got put onto this crazy ass project called The Money Store by a good friend and became entranced by it. After getting connected on all social medias, I remember being between classes junior year of high school and checking my phone to discover No Love Deep Web by its tile floor and its erect dick and my brain melted. I had never seen anything like that so that so it was really so cool to me. Later on, I remember sitting in a psychology class when Government Plates dropped, again, out of no where. The first half of The Powers That B came unexpectedly the night before a long trip, so I was thankful to have the album to grip me during that. And then finally Jenny Death on the 19th while I was in a Geography exam. This whole out-of-the-blue thing gives me extreme anxiety as someone who tries to be timely with his reviews, but herein lines a key difference of Jenny Death. The anticipatory fervor of Jenny Death, with it being the second half of The Powers That B, a double album that is said to be the end of Death Grips discography being that the group broke up, has made it the most predictable release from the group yet. I preordered the vinyl, I had some notes ready for the review, and I was able to give myself a couple listen-throughs of their previous albums in preparation; the only thing that I wasn’t expecting was to be able to do those things. I’m not going to go around saying that it ruined it for me, I just think it’s important to note as something that was noticeably different with this album.

One of the main strengths of the Death Grips body of work is its unpredictability (yeah, again with the unpredictability). Each album, from Exmilitary (and their Death Grips EP, for that matter) to the second half of The Powers That B and each and every album in-between is quantifiably different than the last. With this, and it possibly being my last chance to do so, let me give one to two sentences that summarizes my feelings on each Death Grips release (I’ll also embed my favorite track if it’s available):

Death Grips: Man, this noisey ass psuedo-Hip hop group is super Punk and kind of wild beyond belief. Could you imagine if this grew into one of if not the most important experimental acts in music?

[Missing link to “Face Melter (How to do impossible things)”]

Exmilitary: Jarring sample-based bliss that is rough-around-the-edges in the name of aesthetic. Also, I’m super pissed I can’t get it on vinyl.

The Money Store: Front to back – “Get Got” to “Hacker” – The Money Store is absolutely essential. It’s surprisingly accessible, which is nice.

No Love Deep Web: As much as I love The Money Store, if we are speaking on the concept of Death Grips, No Love Deep Web is the trio’s peak.

Government Plates: Different from NLDW and that didn’t rub people very well. Though I think its new electronic sound was still very “Death Grips” while also giving the record a low barrier of entry to new listeners.

Niggas On The Moon: I’ll cheat and throw a link to my extended review here. In short, it’s not as bad as people originally thought.

Fashion Week: Someone could reasonably twerk to “Runway Y” and “Runway D” sounds like Death Grips was commissioned to make the intro song to a PBS special on the rain forest. That shit’s so bananas.

And finally… Jenny Death when? Right now, and what a day it is. Since this is long already I’m going to make this as to-the-point as it can be. Jenny Death, the second half of The Powers That B and the “final” Death Grips album is just as monumental as it should be. It may not be the most disturbing release we’ve heard the group, nor the most dynamic or unpredictable, but overall I’m not disappointed at all. And I say this like my opinion matters (it doesn’t), but on my list of favorite Death Grips albums, it tied at a solid third with Exmilitary behind the, if I’m going to be honest, untouchable Money Store and No Love Deep Web. That is a lot higher than I thought it would land on my retrospective favorites list. I say this because I wasn’t too genuinely impressed by “Inanimate Sensation” when we heard it in 2014, the wait was becoming drawn out and dangerously hyped, and, though great, I didn’t see “On GP” saving it from said hype.

It turns out the delays just made me overly cynical. Forget “On GP”, the rest of the album has it covered. But, also, don’t forget about “On GP” because that song is one of the best on the album. Along with being that, “On GP” is integral to understanding Death Grips as humans who formed a band rather than immortal musical beings who were so benevolent to bless this world. This song, with the entire discography apparently behind us, and if not entire than certainly one of considerable size, is one of the darkest, most honest, and least sugarcoated single songs out of the bunch. And, also to their credit, it was a very smart lead-in single to the release of the album. At its core “On GP” is about suicide, which admittedly isn’t the most unheard of subject matter in their music, but there were always aggressive and deviant sexual acts and instances of getting heavily #noided surrounding mentions of suicide, so I, along with most Death Grips listeners, never really took it as reality. However, this song is distinctly personal and very clearly based on real events. The song first verse ends with “Last night, 3:30 in the morning, Death on my front porch, can feel him itching to take me with him, hail death, fuck you waiting for / Like a question no one mentioned, he turns around, hands me his weapon, he slurs, ‘use at your discretion, it’s been a pleasure, Stefan.’” The moment is only amplified by the full-stop of realizing that that was the only time their music has referenced MC Ride’s real name. This song doesn’t seem to have been written with the aforementioned “Death Grips” mysticism in mind, which made the song scarily real and made that line a kick to the fucking gut for someone who has learned from and enjoyed this man’s music so deeply for years now. But, as I said before, Jenny Death didn’t need to be saved by this song.

The two albums that make up The Powers That B, though contrasted by one another in other ways to an excellent effect, are exercises of the maximal. It’s done tastefully, but not necessarily even-handedly. There are moments when your enjoyment would depend on if you’re listening to Death Grips purely for its shock factor, unheard of, and avant garde nature of their music or to witness the feat of great music achieved in a way you hadn’t heard before. For example, the first half of The Powers That B was the most tangled we had heard Death Grips yet. I said this in my review of the album, but there were moments where I was broken from my listener’s trance and really took notice of this crazy spectacle. “Up My Sleeves”, the opening track of the LP, sounded like I was standing in the middle of a twister with MC Ride yelling at me while there was a broken record whipping around my head. This is praise, don’t be mistaken, but this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mentality in Death Grips’ production was a change that wasn’t the easiest to roll with as a listener. On Jenny Death, however, I feel this style was accomplished with a bit more finesse, which is quite the triumph being that they added guitar to the mix.

The music that is on Jenny Death is what I’d think people imagine when I tell them about Death Grips, that being the unorderly mingling of sinisterness and thrashiness. That’s what the music is like, though it may not be as unfurled as one could assume. Jenny Death isn’t completely free of moments of over doing it, with “Beyond Alive” feeling a bit like throwing every sound into it for effect. Though, I could very well hold that opinion because I didn’t like that song as much as the rest of the record. At any rate, it seems that their announced break up, whether it be real or not, allowed Death Grips to create their most undistilled product since Exmilitary. But it’s not only that, Jenny Death is also the amalgamation of every one of the respective traits that made each Death Grips project stand out from the rest. It’s got some of the stomach-churning lyricism of No Love Deep Web, the harsh electronic beats of Government Plates, the grit and unsanded feel of Exmilitary, and even the pseudo-mainstream accessibility of The Money Store.

If the break up is a reality, Jenny Death will serve as a great end to their discography, but it also could be used as a great starting point. If you haven’t listened to much Death Grips, 1.) good on you for getting this deep into the review, but more importantly 2.) use this album as your starting point. If you find yourself latching onto any of the points of interest that I listed above, give the corresponding album a listen. Each one of their albums have peaks that will stand this test of time both in the experimental music sphere as well as contemporary music as a whole. This message could be rendered premature if this break up doesn’t hold up (which would be so like Death Grips, wouldn’t it?), but thank you Death Grips. You touched music like no one else ever has. The music community could never thank you enough. So, with all the love and gratitude I can muster: Death Grips, please stay legend. We love you.

You can buy Jenny Death as the second half of The Powers That B here. Please do, if this indeed their last album, they should make enough money to buy a throne in which to get #noided on.

Personal highpoints:

“Pss Pss” / “The Powers That B” / “Centuries Of Damn” / “On GP”

Personal lowpoints:

“Inanimate Sensation” (It works for a lot of people, just not my cup of tea.)

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Charlie Johns

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Extended Review)

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Don’t like reading? We get that: here’s our video review for To Pimp a Butterfly.

Kendrick Lamar Duckworth is back to shake up the game once again, this time with his third studio album, the hotly anticipated To Pimp a Butterfly. This review requires a good amount of context to explain the weight of this album, so let me tell you a little bit about Kendrick’s previous release, the ever-important good kid m.A.A.d. city.

Much of GKMC‘s significance came from its popular reach. This album became monstrously prevalent because of its carefully crafted and expertly executed songwriting. Since his self-titled EP in 2009, Kendrick has been making records that appeal to all music listeners, casual and hardcore. So, with his last album, it was a combination of a lot of people buying the record because of tracks like “Poetic Justice” featuring Drake, “Swimming Pools”, “m.A.A.d. city”, and “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”, and pretty much every Hip hop head falling in love with Kendrick’s clever songwriting and minute attention to musicality. So, this is to say it fed both audiences simultaneously very well. The song that I mentioned before, “Swimming Pools”, was a big radio hit, and it’s a good example of K-Dot’s all-satisfying lyricism. The hook to that song is “I wave a few bottles then I watch em all flock, all the girls want to play Baywatch / I got a swimming pool full of liquor and they dive in it, pool full of liquor Imma dive in it.” It’s a bit deceiving, especially when you hear it in the context of a frat party or something. Yeah, I’d turn up to that song, and maybe some of you have, but if you break apart that chorus it’s not too difficult to sense Kendrick’s commentary on youth drinking culture and the scary amount of glamour surrounding it. Listening to music is the former mindset, that being the frat boy’s, is of course valid, it may not be getting the whole picture but it’s valid. And the dollar that Chad from Delta-whatever-the-hell spent on that single is just another penance that goes into Kendrick’s bank account to fund more music that can strike such a duality. And that isn’t the only joint like that, almost every song is incredibly entertaining and engaging music on the surface level, but it’s also very dense lyrically and thematically. Chad helped start a positive feedback loop that we all hope would bring more classics that continue to influence and shape Hip hop as good kid m.A.A.d. city did.

Between albums Kendrick kept busy by being very selective with the doling of his features. This attention in addition to his obvious skill and finesse on the mic made his contributions to other emcees’ tracks some of the best we saw in the two-year span. To name just a few: the excellent “Nosetalgia” on My Name Is My Name (embedded below), the “Really Be” joint off of YG’s My Krazy Life (which GKMC almost exclusively inspired), Q’s “Collard Greens” off of Oxymoron“Never Catch Me” (which was my favorite collaboration of 2014) on the last FlyLo album, and one of my personal favorite posse tracks from this generation of rappers, “1 Train” on A$AP Rocky’s Long.Live.A$AP.

It’s fair to say that this third studio album had some big shoes to fill. Kendrick Lamar crafted a modern day Hip hop masterpiece with his portrayal of the fish-out-of-water story and crafted a grand musical memoir that was heard and loved by a lot of people. So, even if March is crowded with other huge Hip hop releases, it’s time to see how K-Dot did with his latest project:

To Pimp a Butterfly uses the vehicle of a metaphorical caterpillar and butterfly to paint an important perspective of struggle and the gnawing want for change. Where does one start with topics that are this big? Self-reflection; and that’s what this album focuses around. That and an ongoing dialogue with our first and late King of Hip hop, Tupac Shakur, which accumulates at the end of the album on “Mortal Man”. There are certainly some parallels to be drawn, with 2Pac being seen as the West Coast rapper when Hip hop was rising to cultural prevalence and Kendrick also coming from the West Coast, more specifically Compton. To go along with that, both used the reach of their music to illuminate the real issues and struggles one faces in this “ghetto” that people are so quick to joke about. This conversation — which is a great bow on the album’s wrapping – is used as a spiritual passing of the torch. This conversation between them is highlighted by a poem that is pieced together through the album. This piece Kendrick is reciting to Pac is fittingly mirrored in To Pimp a Butterfly’s tracklist. For example: there’s a moment where Kendrick finds himself in a hotel room fighting off the urge to “self destruct”, which is told on “u”. There’s also “Hood Politics” where he returns to his home in Compton and has overwhelming survivor’s guilt. This is Kendrick’s storytelling really coming into play, as it often does with his music, to a great effect.

In the past, one of the things that helped put Kendrick’s thematic moments into boldface, or at least give them a lot more emotion, was his character playing. With just a small change of inflection Kendrick was telling the same story from a completely separate character with different motives, struggles, weaknesses, and, most importantly, perspective. This gave songs like “m.A.A.d. city” all of their weight and emotional heft. This is a technique that I was very happy to see Kendrick utilize to even more success of To Pimp a Butterfly. Like, holy shit, I could hardly get through the latter half of “u”. And to mention it while we’re here, that’s probably the realest, most telling track I’ve ever heard Kendrick on, and I don’t say that lightly.

A Kendrick album is always a treat, but I am digging how many questions can be raised after listening through To Pimp a Butterfly. The title is a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird; are there any thematic parallels? And let’s talk about this album cover… This is a few choppers away from being the most stereotypical trap mixtape cover ever. In fact, someone over at /r/hiphopheads threw that together. Could this be another stab at the “biggest hypocrite of 2015” line from “The Blacker the Berry”, with this album being so conscious while the Trap scene is so much the opposite? In addition to all of this, the whole album is obviously lyrical, so there is a lot of reading-into necessary (or at least Rap Genius searching) to realize the full breath of To Pimp a Butterfly. This could be my music critic brain showing itself, though, so let’s address maybe the most pressing question. It’s unavoidable; with To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick now has a pretty sizable body of work, so let’s discuss: what’s the best K-Dot project? Or, to put it more simply, good kid m.A.A.d city or To Pimp a Butterfly? Obviously a big question, but I can say this: these both tell very different stories of very different Kendricks. GKMC told the universally relatable story of growing to accept and embrace one’s roots, and, as dark and as bleak as it may have gotten at times, To Pimp a Butterfly got much more so. Again, just listen to “u”. They both have their draws. TPAB is a lot more of an intimate and honest look into Kendrick’s mind. But, on the flip side, I think GKMC’s storyline took us through a greater variety of sounds, which helped with my overall engagement as a listener. Give me month and maybe I’ll be able to pick my favorite, but for now I’m satisfied with holding them both very dearly.

My last argument for good kid m.A.A.d city was what held me back significantly from embracing To Pimp a Butterfly with the instant classic label that the masses so quickly slapped it with. After my first listen-through of this album, I missed all the variety that we heard on GKMC. Also, I tend to latch onto the raw explosive emotion of a track like “The Blacker the Berry”, and there are only a couple of these audibly passionate peaks. Another was “i”, which got even better since we heard it in 2014. However, as much as I would have personally liked to hear an album more in line with tracks like “m.A.A.d city”, “Collect Calls”, or “The Blacker the Berry”, To Pimp a Butterfly is excellent and its excellence is completely undeniable. It’s everything we could have possibly asked for in a follow up to an album that changed Hip hop as GKMC did. It’s deeply personal, introspective, and reflective as well as culturally sensitive and smart politically. But, more significantly, it does all of this while having an incredible narrative and musicality that is beyond question. Kendrick’s potential (if you could ever call it that at this point) is limitless. He will be the reigning King of Hip hop for a long, long time. To Pimp a Butterfly felt like Kendrick reaching to his furthest extends as a rapper, and the product is almost unbelievable. I guess we’ll see if he can push it even farther with his next release. He’s given us two albums that are nothing short of seminal, so he can certainly take his time.

If you’re not listening to this album already, stop wasting your time by reading my stuff and learn yourself something.

Personal Highpoints:

“Wesley’s Theory” / “u” / “Hood Politics” / “The Blacker the Berry” / “i”

Personal lowpoints:

“For Free?”

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Charlie Johns

IshDARR – Old Soul Young Spirit (Extended Review)

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I’ve got one word (among others): solid. Ishdarr is a Milwaukee rapper who has been reaping the benefits of finding his voice earlier than he ever could have hoped. He’s a great rapper, and I’m glad he realized that and started making music at just 17. His first project was The Better Life EP, and apart from his voice hinting at it, you wouldn’t have had any way of knowing that this kid was so young, and so new to making music. It wasn’t a lackluster flow that tipped you off, that’s for sure. Right out of the gates this dude was a more than respectable rapper. Looking back, what I loved about the project the most was its variety. “1996”, They Lost Me”, “NICE”, “MOMMA”, “SQUAD”, and “POPS” — quite literally every track on the EP had a crazy distinct identity. But, most importantly, this didn’t make The Better Life as a whole incohesive in any way, which is the big danger when playing around with different styles or genres within Hip hop. The thematic thread of “the better life” was just enough to give a clear through line in the EP. But, again, more than anything else I was impressed with this being Ish’s first stab at music. It was a great project, and, as I spoiled earlier, so is this record.

On Old Soul Young Spirit, Ish stays with his own theme of tinkering and experimenting with different sorts of sounds. From the dark and almost menacing beat on “Right Now”, to “Only You” and its smooth and sincere lyricism, to the airy, fun and radio-friendly track that is “Vibe”. And that’s just three tracks. This dodging between styles couldn’t be accomplished smoothly by someone who doesn’t come through and legitimately spit when he hits the studio. Ish deserves some praise; the confidence and hunger he has on the mic is something that adds so dynamically to Hip hop, and it’s what separates the boys from the men, so to speak. With these sharp tools he has in his skill set he makes a full-length debut that is a really nice listen. It flows very smoothly and is in and out before it overstays its welcome.

I’m going to put myself in the shoes of an average listener, perhaps the perspective of someone living in Milwaukee who was put onto Ish as the next big one. They are probably starting with “Too Bad”, which was the single that created the most hype leading into the release. Even if Ish really put his own heart and style into the track, it’s still a turn-up track, and people’s initial assumption may be that this dude is just a hype rapper — a good one, but just a hype rapper. I’d like to respectfully and preemptively disagree: he’s not afraid to dive into the less glamorous variety of subject matter. Consider “Still On It” or “Overdue Interlude”. Sure, he’s defaulting to the “rapping about rapping” style, but he’s doing it better — with more creativity, honesty, passion, authenticity — than a lot of rappers his age and in Milwaukee as a whole. That “Overdue Interlude” man, that is easily my favorite song I’ve ever heard Ish on. And it was really nice to hear the other rapper who gives Milwaukee’s Hip hop its spirit, Bliss & Alice, on the closing track “Still On It”.

After his debut dropped I was lucky enough to talk to Ishdarr and pick apart his brain as a rapper who had very real potential of blowing up. One of the things I asked him about the importance of showing for his city in his raps, since it takes some effort to find a track that doesn’t shout out the 414. He said he was doing everything to “give light to the city.” After that he explained his desired career trajectory by saying “I’m trying to be the Chance [the Rapper] of my city.” Now, a year ago this seemed like somewhat of a lofty proclamation, but, guys, he is coming remarkably close to achieving that. Old Soul Young Spirit is a project where Ish really stepped everything up a notch. The production, his flow, his lyricism, his song-to-song transitions, they’re all great progressions for the young cat. I’m leaving Old Soul Young Spirit with the same attitude I left The Better Life with: optimistically looking forward to Ish’s career and eager to hear what will come next.

I sincerely hope Milwaukee is tuning in: New York has Joey Bada$$, Detroit has Danny Brown, and now we have IshDARR. Get listening, folks.

Personal highpoints:

“Vibe” / “Overdue Interlude” / “Still On It”

Personal lowpoints:

“Twelve”

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Charlie Johns

Calvin Hansen: Buff Dude, Pos Vibes (Exclusive Interview)

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Calvin Hansen recently released a seven-track Danny Brown remix EP that made me so happy that I felt inclined to approach him with a few questions. Calvin has been releasing music since late 2010, starting under the banner of Starship Amazing, a Synth-Pop duo composed of himself and Derek Alexander. They put together, among others releases, two of my personal favorite pieces of music, Ya’ll Stop Bloggin’ and Ruby Dagger. As someone who advocates for music I love over the Internet, I often do the same in small groups of my friends. I mention this only because I’ve never had more positive reactions than when I play Ruby Dagger. From my small slice of perspective, I’ve found Starship Amazing’s music to be incredibly universal. The love, positivity, and enthusiasm that this music was made with is potent and I’ve never seen anyone reject that.

Calvin also begun a musical side project called Form & Shape, with which he creates, as described on his Tumblr, “ethereal feelings beat tapes.” Rarely can I condone appreciating music in this way, but Calvin creates some of the most gorgeous sonic wallpaper I have ever heard. The tunes found in My Conquest Is The Sea Of Stars, Are You Yet Holding On, and Keep Moving have been my go-to background music to quietly yet powerfully add to any given setting.

Alright, I’m through with my gushing, onto the interview:

Eargrub: People can’t get too much about someone’s immediate personality from fun elecro-jams, so tell the people a little about Calvin Hansen.

Calvin: I am a 27-year-old Leo, born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. I have a day job, because music doesn’t pay the bills yet. My favorite movie is probably They Live. I’ve been playing a lot of Puyo Puyo Tetris lately. I’d like to have a dog. I’d like to not live in Alaska anymore. 

Eargrub: Tell me about “so nice to meet you, i hope that you safe”.

Calvin: It’s basically a Danny Brown remix EP, using any vocal resources I could scrounge up. I was trying to take Danny’s style and voice and shift them into my own context, and seeing if it made something interesting. I think it worked pretty well.

Eargrub: Why Danny Brown (besides him being great) ?

Calvin: A big part of it is: he’s really an amazing artist. Danny Brown represents sort of the ideal of what I’m looking for in a rapper, in terms of personality, style, and technical ability. And even though he’s mostly known for big party tracks, he has a lot more depth than that, both as a musician and as a person.

Eargrub: With that, how did you tackle remixing a song wholly about fellatio?

Calvin: It’s interesting, I tried putting the vocal for that song on a couple different beats, and while they fit in terms of the tempo and the groove, the feel of the track didn’t work. But when I chopped up this psychedelic rock sample, with that huge beat on it, and I put the vocals from “I Will” over it, everything came together. It’s less about making something that sounds like a sex song and more about it “feeling” like a sex song.

Eargrub: So you handled the beats of SSA, how was it transitioning into Form & Shape where you’re making music solo?

Calvin: Something really important that Derek brought to Starship Amazing was his ability to really focus in on what we were working with, to look through the mess of demos and half-baked ideas, and find a direction that becomes a song. I figured out quick that without him, it’s really easy for me to just keep churning out small bits of music, the beginnings of songs, and then never fully seeing those ideas through. It’s something I’m still slowly figuring out how to deal with, but I’ll get there.

Eargrub: Do you think we’ll hear anything more from Starship Amazing?

Calvin: I think so, and I really hope so. It’s such a unique experience collaborating with Derek, and it’s one I can’t get anywhere else. We have a lot of fun with it, and I would really feel like I was missing out on something special if we didn’t get to do it again. But I think it’ll happen.

Eargrub: How did you get into making music?

Calvin: I started out playing guitar, mostly a lot of classic rock stuff, Metallica, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, that kind of thing. Another teenage dad rocker. I started recording my own terrible rock songs in GarageBand, and in high school I got my first MIDI controller to supplement that stuff. While I was in college, Derek and I became friends and we started working on electronic music, mostly as a joke. Everything else kind of came from there.

Eargrub: Okay, just because I’ve always wanted to ask you this, what’s your process behind song naming? You’re songs take the cake for best titles, hands down no contest.

Calvin: Thank you! It really depends, and can vary pretty wildly. Sometimes it’s a word or phrase connected to some part of the song, and sometimes it’s just something I like the sound or the feel of.

Eargrub: Who/what inspires you?

Calvin: Tujiko Noriko is one of my absolute favorite artists. Her songwriting, her voice, and her instrumentation are all amazing. But more than that, the tone and space that her songs inhabit are vast and immersive. Something you can get lost in. Knxwledge is another huge inspiration for me. He carved out his own style in the crowded beat scene, making genius-level stuff that continue to astound with each release. In addition, he’s extremely prolific, sometimes releasing an EP each month.

Besides other musicians, I pull inspiration from a lot of different sources. Movies, video games, anime, manga, wrestlers, stories, or memories. The only thing they have in common is that they hold some meaning for me.

Eargrub: Overall opinions on the Chiptunes genre?

Calvin: I don’t really care about the nostalgia aspect of it. But in terms of seeing what kind of sounds and complexity people can get out of limited hardware, I find that part really interesting. In the end, good music is good music, and that matters more than anything.

Eargrub: Is there a story/meaning behind the name Form & Shape?

Calvin: Not much meaning, unfortunately. The name is just made up of terms I learned in a 2D design class I took back in college.

Eargrub: What are some words you’d describe your music with?

Calvin: Soft, empathetic, warm, chill, spacious.

Eargrub: From what I understand, Form & Shape is more of a side project, but what is the next step you hope to take with it?

Calvin: I’m pushing for it to become a much bigger project. I feel like right now there’s a divide between the chiller electronic stuff I’ve made in the past, and the broken beat stuff I’ve made for my last two releases. I want to try and bring those styles together, and see what comes out. Overall, I want Form & Shape to get weirder and more experimental.

I’m also super happy to have recently joined Gravity Swim Team, a collective / net label made up of a bunch of good friends and talented artists, and I’m really excited about what we’re going to come up with together.

Eargrub: Who are some artists who we are probably sleeping on?

Calvin: Off the top of my head, in no particular order: Everyone on Galaxy Swim Team, everyone on Petal Port, everyone on Maltine, Aeon Fux, Kikuo, Ghoulish, YYU, Arca, .nebula, Woods of Desolation, yotsuba lifestyle, Holly Herndon, Nohtenkigengo, and Fumitake Tamura (Bun).

This interview is quite timely, unfortunately, but hopefully it can help make some sort of difference, no matter how big or small. Calvin was recently diagnosed with sleep apnea, which is an extraordinarily damning sleep disorder. He explained the situation in full with this Tumblr post, but what you really need to know is that it’s very easy to help. Please do consider purchasing some of the beautiful tunes Calvin has created. He’s always been generous with his music, most of the time asking for only however much you can/want to pay. He makes music that I deeply love and I know many people feel the same way. So, again, please do explore his music and consider helping him out by purchasing a release or two.

I’d like to extend an immense thank you to Calvin Hansen for answering my questions. It was an honor to talk to the person who helped make some of the most important music I had growing up. Thank you so much for all that you do.

Form & Shape: Facebook  Tumblr  Soundcloud  Bandcamp

Starship Amazing: Facebook  Tumblr  Soundcloud  Bandcamp

Charlie Johns

 

Cannibal Ox – Blade of the Ronin (Extended Review)

CannibalOxBladeOfTheRonin

On March 3rd, the Harlem duo Vast Aire and Vordul Mega (collectively Cannibal Ox) returned from near complete silence since 2001 with a new album, Blade Of The Ronin. Okay, so some backstory: Cannibal Ox is a real Hip Hop Head type group – fairly underground, but nonetheless novel and well-worth listening to. They begun their career together back in 2001 with their classic album, The Cold Vein. Having a sound held over from 90’s era New York Hip hop, The Cold Vein is a hallmark of underground music. It is the amalgamation of so many of the traits and tropes that made that time in Hip hop so special, with it being slick with personality and having production that wasn’t willing to sound like anything else. Also, there was a lot of that old mean-mugging New York Rap attitude, which is always good to revisit time to time. The Cold Vein is what I’d constitute as a Rap purist’s album. It came at a very different time in Hip hop where things were less trendy and more raw. This isn’t to say it’s a completely off the wall sort of noise, their influence from acts like Wu-Tang and rappers like MF DOOM are clear, but honest. All in all, The Cold Vein is solid ass album, and it may not have aged gracefully, but it’s one of those cult classics of Hip hop and is well deserving of such.

Here enters the group’s sophomore album, Blade of the Ronin. Vast Aire and Vordul Mega are finally here to bring the heads, young and old, a little something new. I only dichotomize because I don’t think core audiences of your Lil Durks or Rae Sremmurds will have heard a record like their premier effort. So, with good intentions of catching the attention of heads of all different ages and backgrounds, we have another wonderfully colorful, well-constructed, and well-orchestrated Rap album. Blade Of The Ronin pays homage to the Hip hop of yesterday and accomplishes the same thing that The Cold Vein did for its time, that being a sound that reeks of creativity and originality. Much like my last review for Sour Soul, this project stands on its own. Just from my first couple listens I gathered that these are some rock-solid records. This is impressive, given that it’s coming from a group that we’ve only gotten a live album from in the last 14 years. These two seemingly haven’t skipped a beat.

Before the praise kicks up too much, I’d like to point out my one major gripe. It’s tough to describe, let alone fault the album on, but its timing may hold it back somewhat. I say this album is crazy original, but even with some circles today being oversaturated with the same sorts of sounds and practices, today we’ve got more and more original and innovative music seeing the light of day thanks to Rap being more of a household thing. The era that The Cold Vein was released in was one where Rap wasn’t that big. Again, it was a genre that wasn’t as recognized and widely beloved as it is now. It’s a fear of mine that this album, being that it’s getting its release in 2015, will slide under people’s radars. I don’t think it deserves this sort of fate, but that’s the sort of time we live in. We praise shit that’s different, not stuff that’s solely great.

Okay, away with that apprehension, I’ve got an album to advocate for! Blade of The Ronin kicks off with “Opposite of Desolate”, a bar-after-bar treat. Like, I get that the name suggests it, but yeah, these two haven’t lost it. It was a smart track to start off with, too. It serves as a transition, I think, being that it has been 14 years. That’s an amount of time that held several distinct eras of Hip hop, so a bit of an ease in was in order. It was a nice touch to have those DJ scratches in the song’s opening — it’s them acknowledging where they’ve come from and that it has been a full colloquial minute. But, it doesn’t dwell on this nostalgia and moves right along into a full, strong beat to house their rhymes that prove, once again, that ain’t nothing changed except the calendar.

To work in chucks, the production is handled very well. The beats are handled mostly by Bill Cosmic, and even if their skeletons are pretty textbook, there’s a nice amount sampling. These carefully implemented soulful vocals give the backgrounds some face. This accents tracks like “The Power Cosmiq” fantastically. Yeah, vocals over a hook isn’t breaking new ground, but I wouldn’t ever turn it down. The album’s sound feels like the old school style meeting the new. And to continue to the rapping, I’m glad to hear these guys still fitting. You know I keep it one hunnid with y’all, I wasn’t really expecting a voice like Vast Aire’s to make an impact on my ears in a time of Danny Brown, Meechy Darko, and Chance the Rapper. However, whether it be through combined efforts with the beats or otherwise, it works. If the core of their artistry didn’t transition with their production, the project would have fallen apart like wet toilet paper. But, it turns out that, for me at least, Vast and Vordul are still standing out well more than a decade removed from releasing work together. Ain’t it nice to hear from them again? It’s like walking through your old neighborhood. You get to relive the old sights and sounds and see how things have changed. It may not be The Cold Vein repeat we had our fingers crossed for, but it’s pretty good in its own right.

Personal Highpoints:

“Psalm 82″ / “Blade: The Art Of Ox” / “Water”

Personal Lowpoints:

“Harlem Knights” / “Gotham (Ox City)”

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Charlie Johns