Action Bronson – Mr. Wonderful
For a rapper from Queens, Action Bronson is an incredibly unique artist. His descriptive and wacky lyrics can often feature him doing gymnastics in and out of different vehicles or “getting topped off in the front row of the opera”. In a few short years he has made the transition from a chef to a world conquering rapper and all round character. On this album he verges on becoming comparable to Tenacious D in regards to hip hop. They may have primarily been a parody act but it is important to remember that they are also both great musicians and the same goes for Bronson. He may not be a parody act but that doesn’t stop him from injecting his own brand of humour throughout Mr. Wonderful also.
Some may argue that a Tenacious D comparison could be a step too far, but he does open Mr. Wonderful with his best Billy Joel rendition, “I got a brand new car, I got a jazz guitar”. He then proceeds to treat the listener to the playful wordplay that he admits himself can be over the top, “at the bar looking Swedish in a trench coat, stupid”. It is all very tongue in cheek and it’s what makes Bronson one of a kind. He has made quite a name for himself solely off his intriguingly bizarre raps and pure charisma. The latter of which translates perfectly to this album with each track providing a different look at his tastes and talents.
His production and sample choices are second to none, The Alchemist, Mark Ronson and Party Supplies to name just a few. Each beat is vastly different but that only allows Bronson to prove his versatility. He croons over Ronson’s ‘Baby Blue’ hook along with Chance the Rapper, on what is the most accessible track he’s released. Any chances he takes with either singing or venturing into other genres (‘City Boy Blues’) all feel apt to the world he has created on the album. Easy Rider closes the album in stereotypical Bronson fashion. A psychedelic guitar riff along with sensory, braggadocios raps and a revving motorcycle all culminate to finalise things with his best track yet.
It is a very cohesive project despite the several producing contributors. Many tracks begin at the end of the previous one, also aiding in creating a full and consistent sound throughout the album. The title Mr Wonderful may have to be taken with a pinch of salt, like much of his aesthetic. However, he has truly earned himself this self appointed title with this release. The future looks a lot brighter for him after such a versatile debut showing.
Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit. I Don’t Go Outside
Earl Sweatshirt has progressed into a different artist than what was heard on his debut album ‘Doris’. The monotonous delivery that we were reluctantly becoming accustomed to has been cast aside in favour of a more passionate and natural style of performing. Many praised his premature level of skill that he introduced us to on his initial mixtape. Now it seems like all this discussed potential has finally been realised and Earl has now progressed into the mature, intelligent artist we have been waiting to meet.
The production was handled almost entirely by Earl, aside from ‘Off Top’, which was handled by his fellow Odd Future member Left Brain. It is an altogether dark, gritty and fuzzy sound that takes over the whole album. Echoing drums are often accompanied eerie synths and low bass lines, all of which aid in creating an air of perfected melancholy throughout. The only downfalls come in the form of a few ill fitting features. Vince Staples may introduce Wool with vicious intent, but Wiki soils AM/Radio with his weak appearance.
Earl’s recently acquired higher level of self awareness, both musically and personally, has allowed him to become more comfortable and confident in the studio. You can hear it in his voice that he is less doubtful of himself. He is far from the fidgety, withdrawn young man that we saw in the first interviews concerning his return from Samoa. It’s clear that the culmination of all his experiences has led to this album, one that many have been waiting to hear from him for quite some time.
It is not just his sound that has matured but the lyrical content and themes also. He focuses on relationships with his friends, mother, family and record label. It is can be brutally honest at times. He goes into detail on very personal matters on tracks like Grief and Faucet, resulting in two of the most personal tracks we may have heard from him yet. On DNA he states he’s “ here, there, up and down, low and peaking”, admitting that the new found confidence may not be fully instilled in the doubtful young artist.
Earl has stated that this is the first project he’s released that he can fully stand behind and it shows. The confidence in himself and his work, as well as the natural progression that comes with someone who started so young, was all he needed to finally justify all that hype and meet the expectations of those who have been waiting. While the album may only be 30 minutes long, there is enough buried content for an immediate second or third listen. The more you grasp, the more you want to listen again. It is an enthralling record from a rapper who is wise beyond his years. He should prove to be one of the best emcees of our time if this is the standard set for his future.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
There are a large variety of themes and issues addressed on Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp A Butterfly. Anger , depression, & race to name a few. Each one is explored in detail, always drawing back to his own life for comparison and relatability. Almost every track runs well over four minutes, resulting in a massive & heavily conceptual album that feels incredibly complex & oppressed but uplifting. This is exactly what many have been clamouring for from him, an album that is original, experimental and timeless, but most importantly one that is 100% Kendrick.
The main theme is one of a caterpillar and a butterfly. He explains the former is the boy in him from Compton, who he was before fame, a brash self aware child with a growing conscience. He created the butterfly persona in order to be ‘pimped’ out to record labels and sell his personality to his masses, something that he is not happy with. He uses different pitches for his voice throughout the album perhaps to discern between the two sides of his character. The high pitched voice features on ‘Hood Politics’ as he explains just that from a younger, more naive point of view. than that on ‘Mortal Man’ features no pitch change and a more educated look on life, with the amalgamations of both the caterpillar and butterfly’s separate perspectives.
Depression is another theme that is explored in detail throughout the album. During ‘u’, he goes on a self deprecating rant that deals with feelings of guilt and self loathing that have come with fame. However for every dark cloud on the album there’s a silver lining. ‘I’ offers a different perspective from the same suicidal state of mind, but is instead a much needed message of hope from an otherwise visceral look at his life.
The production is an eclectic mix of many sounds, all of which fit into Kendrick’s overall vision of what he wanted from this album. It sounds like a lot more live instruments were used and less heavy bass & electronic elements than on what we have previously heard from him. That’s not to say those elements are not present but are used more so with minimal perfection.
There is a heavy jazz influence from the get go on Wesley’s Theory’ which features Flying Lotus, Thundercat & George Clinton. The jazz under tones are not just heard in the production though, but also in Kendrick’s abnormal delivery. ‘For Free (Interlude)’ almost has the same tone as scat singing, but with him rapping about what “keeps him obnoxious”. There are also traces of funk that take over the infectious ‘King Kunta’, just one of the tracks that deal directly with race.
This is a very angry album, but not a violent one. It offers some solutions and a brighter side, while never downplaying the rightful resentment and anger that his race have towards their own justice system. That raw emotion is best captured on the brutally honest ‘The Blacker the Berry’. It is also a record that takes chances, through both thought provoking lyrics about the state of society and genre bending music. Kendrick could have taken a more commercial route that may have sold more but he is not one to stand idly by and collect cheques. He wants to spread the knowledge he has acquired through struggle, but most importantly the idea of respect for each other, and that in itself is quite admirable. All that and I didn’t even mention his conversation with Tupac at the end. Yes, Tupac. Hear it to believe it.
Joey Bada$$ – B4.DA.$$
Joey Bada$$ is one of the artists who has been at the forefront of a new wave of rappers influenced by the Golden Age of hip hop in the late 80s to mid-90s. Born in Brooklyn in 1995, he was immediately immersed into the culture through his parents who were both huge fans. It is no wonder that this album is a reflection of this era. However, his ear for good production and unique voice and flow allow him to maintain his own identity in a constantly moving and expanding genre.
While he may have only 2 mixtapes under his belt, B4.DA.$$ has set an incredibly high standard for the rest of Joey’s career. He showcases his talents not just as a rapper but as a vocalist and songwriter throughout. On ‘Hazeus View’ he gives his vocal chords a stretch and proves that insightful rhyming is not the only weapon he has in his arsenal. He knows how to write and deliver a captivating hook, without it feeling forced in for radio play. Even the most commercially accessible track, the Maverick Sabre-assisted ‘On & On’, does not question the authenticity of the hip hop on the album. It only adds to the large variety of sounds that are represented throughout, all under the Bada$$ banner.
Fans of his well-crafted wordplay need not to worry also. Each track makes a case for Joey being one of the best lyricists of our generation. His ability to switch up his flow line to line is second to none and is never more evident than on the DJ Premier-produced ‘Paper Trails’. He proves that he is wise beyond his years on the album’s highlight ‘Christ Conscious’ and explores his Jamaican roots on ‘Belly of the Beast’, with help from Chronixx.
Everything about B4.DA.$$ feels carefully thought out, from the skits, to the production to the track order. It is refreshing to see a new artist take details like this into consideration. It results in a project that is more whole and consistent than that of many of his peers. Featured artists are scarce, only highlighting his rightfully placed confidence in his work.
The truth is that this does not sound like a debut album at any point. It is a young MC, who sounds like a seasoned rap veteran, showing us exactly what he is capable of. While expectations were high, they have been massively exceeded. It is not just an introduction to Joey through masterfully crafted hip hop songs, it feels like the start of something that will only continue to get bigger and badder as the years go on.
High Elders – Forest of Pencils
High Elders are an experimental hip hop duo comprised of Gentle Jones, an underground emcee from Delaware USA, and Auxiliary Phoenix, a producer from Carlow, Ireland. Living on opposite sides of the world has clearly not hindered their ability to create a musical rapport. Both of their individual styles combine to create an interesting and unique sound that is also capable of being quite accessible at times.
Gentle Jones sounds like a cross between Aesop Rock and Primus frontman Les Claypool, with his cryptic, intelligent rhyming and zany voice. His alternative flow is a near perfect match for the intriguingly bizarre production, which draws influences from many different genres. The varied sound is still firmly rooted in hip hop, with masterful cuts and scratching throughout, most notably on ‘Top Cat’ & ‘Rappers Are Jerks’.
There are a few stages when the album can verge on mediocre (‘Mean World’, ‘Dreams with Mephistopheles’). However, it still remains unpredictable as the vocal delivery and beats are vastly different track to track. The low points on the album are overshadowed by the likes of the brilliantly chaotic ‘City vs. the Soil’ and the glitchy and haunting ‘Ethernet’. Each song only testifies to both artists’ flexibility and natural ability to craft a unique project.
Stream & download the album here: littlelrecords.bandcamp.com/album/forest-of-pencils
MuRli – Surface Tension EP
MuRli is an African/Irish emcee, often associated with God Knows & MynameisjOhn, a Limerick based act whose excellent album Rusangano/Family resulted in a lot of exposure for the group and support slots for Run the Jewels, Snoop Dogg and others. MuRli’s latest seven track EP, Surface Tension, allows the spotlight to shine on him and gives him the chance to showcase hid vivid storytelling, unique wordplay and a flow that can be incredibly varied at times. He has all the elements essential to being a true emcee and potential by the bucket load.
Opening track, ‘Both Sides’ sets the tone for the EP with bass-heavy and stomping production from MynameisjOhn. He is responsible for half of the beats on the project, the other half coming from Naive Ted. Both producers do a perfect job in encapsulating the many different sound and influences of MuRli, while still maintaining the same tone throughout every track. ‘Champagne and Chinchillas’ particularly manages to portray the positive message of MuRli through the floating, smile-inducing production by Naive Ted.
What sets MuRli apart from many other emcees is his wealth of experience that he has to draw inspiration from when writing verses. It results in a more interesting listen than your average rap album. His overall attitude and positive outlook on life is admirable. He does not just tell us of the world’s problems, but offers solutions when doing so also. Surface Tension presents the listener with a refreshing take on hip hop that is near impossible to fault at times. Along with God Knows & MynameisjOhn, he can count himself as one of the few artists who is trying something new and succeeding in the process. The fact that they are Irish is just the icing on the cake.
Wu Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow
For such a notorious and legendary group, the Wu Tang Clan has been lacking consistency on their most recent releases. It is important to realise that many of these albums were mainly criticised for not having been a replication of their debut 36 Chambers, which is unfair, but it was also hard to deny that they had somewhat lost the magic they once had in 1993. However, artists grow and evolve. They may not be delivering the same message of chopping heads and protecting necks, but what they are preaching in 2014 is far more important and relevant. A Better Tomorrow carries the message that we should all be working towards what the title suggests. With constant protests in America and bubbling turmoil between the police and the public, this is the album that the world needs right now from the group, one that carries a message of not just peace, but hope also.
There may have been plenty of in group aggravation during the lead up to its release, but you would never guess it when listening, aside from RZA telling Raekwon “all those bad times is behind us” on opener Ruckus in B Minor. It is a much more united and positive project than what we are used to from the Wu. ‘40th Street Black/We Will Fight’ perhaps encapsulates this unity best with its chanting hook and each emcee delivering some of the best work on the record over the funky, stomping brass beat.
Each member of the group is present at some stage throughout the 15 tracks, even the late Ol Dirty Bastard pops up a couple times. The best verses come from GZA’s insightful bars, Method Man’s hoarse and bouncy flow and Inspectah Deck, who remains as under rated as ever. Even the incredibly ill fitting harmonies on ‘Miracle’ can’t overshadow Ghostface Killah’s raw emotion and that closes out the song.
The production is some of the best we’ve heard from RZA in a while. The gritty, sampled loops that fans had grown accustomed to have been replaced with more instruments, to create bigger and more slick sound than we have heard before. You are given more of an insight into the musician side of RZA, one that scored Kill Bill for Quentin Tarantino, and it allows for a consistently interesting and evolving sound throughout. However, he has not abandoned his original creation and often samples kung fu movies and older Wu tracks to bring it full circle.
After spending over $500,000 just to get everyone together to record the album, it is clear that RZA had a lot more riding on it than many of the other members. However, he has done a lot more than just create an authentic Wu album. He has managed to adapt the message and sound of a group who have been around for over 20 years, while of course keeping it “rough, rugged, real and raw”. This very well may be the last time we hear them record together so going out on a positively high note was perhaps the best exit route for the group.
Ez Craven – Class A Narcotics
On Class A Narcotics, Ez Craven shows us that where you are from and what label you are signed to doesn’t affect your ability to write a captivating hip hop record. Instead of venturing down the E.P or mixtape route for what is his debut solo project, Ez provides the listener with a 17 track long consistent album, proving that he has rhymes and punch lines for days despite being relatively unknown. It has an overall serious, dark tone in terms of lyrical content and production that is only sometimes lightened by his humour and wit.
When he’s not showcasing his ability to paint gritty and dark images (Cut a Line, Ignorance), Ez offers an insightful look at the world and what makes it go around, “money makes the world go around, that’s funny cause you can’t go around this world without money”. Burn Up D’ Urbz takes a reggae inspired turn for what is the most accessible track on the album, that will please the more faint hearted listeners.
Lead single, Disgusting & Despicable, has the most infectious beat found on the album as Ez’s brother and producer Paulie PunchEz scratches an Onyx sample over the eerie, haunting production. The beats stay versatile and varied throughout, with each track having its own unique qualities while still fitting in with the record as a whole. Several tracks offer many pop culture references and samples such as Drug Addicts. It is clear that Paulie was as an important factor in this album’s creation as Ez. Even though it is technically a solo effort, there is clearly no separating the Brotherz Grimm.
Albums such as this raise the questions as to why this is labelled underground hip hop when it is more original and interesting than much of rap music that is storming the charts at the moment. It may be slightly too dark and twisted to be accepted by the masses but it should be at least on the radar of any hip hop fan, Irish or not.
Class A Narcotics is available to stream and free download here: http://brotherzgrimm.bandcamp.com/album/class-a-narcotics
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
After releasing their self titled debut last year that sent shockwaves through the hip hop community, Killer Mike and El-P are at it again. Not to take anything away from their previous offering, but this sequel doesn’t just equal its predecessor, but exceeds it by miles. This album makes a loud statement that Run the Jewels are a force to be reckoned with. They may be an unlikely pairing but they deserve every bit of recognition thrown their way due to their consistency in the studio.
The chemistry between the two is unparalleled. Their stark contrasts make for an interesting combination, Mike’s Southern drawl compliments El-P’s rugged rhyming and production perfectly. Both hold their own in terms of writing and delivery, as they both constantly try to match each other’s verses and raise the bar higher each time. The competitive undertones are never more present than on the Travis Barker-assisted ‘All Due Respect’, in which both emcees evoke awe in their ability to rattle off verses like no other.
The lyrics deal with several subjects including politics, women, and music, among others. Perhaps the most topical is the revolutionary ‘Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck’, which proves that even though it has been a while since Rage Against The Machine’s height of fame, Zack De La Rocha is still able to hold his own with two of the best lyricists around. Their ability to inject some tongue in cheek humour serves in creating several memorable one liners that will put a smile on the face of most listeners, something that has been missing in rap music for quite a while.
El-P shows the world on RTJ2 that he is in a league of his own in terms of production. He utilises the same sound that many hip hop producers try to emulate while remaining unique enough to give each track its own individual identity. ‘Blockbuster Night Pt 1’ & ‘Love Again’ emit such a massive sound that sure to be shaking speakers all over Europe on their upcoming tour.
Several times throughout, both artists express their distaste with feeling underappreciated. With RTJ2, they have created the most compelling rap album of the year so far, that is sure to propel them to their desired and well deserved heights of fame. Their claim that they are the “top tag team for two summers” couldn’t be more accurate. It looks like Kanye and Jay Z are going to have to work pretty damn hard to reclaim that throne of theirs. Now about those cat sounds…
Run The Jewels play Opium Rooms, Dublin on December 21st. Support comes from God Knows & Mynameisjohn, tickets €18.
Bishop Nehru & MF DOOM – Nehruvian DOOM
There were particularly high expectations on Bishop Nehru when writing and recording for this album. Not only is it his first official release, he also had to keep the MF DOOM super fans, of which he is one, happy in the process. This is not an easy task for a 17 year old with just two mixtapes under his belt. After attracting praise from Nas and Kendrick Lamar, his profile only continued to grow and the pressure was piled on. Clearly not fazed by expectations, on NehruvianDOOM he proves to everyone that being labelled a prodigy and the next big thing only motivated him to progress as an artist.
Working with one of his biggest inspirations must have been daunting, but it has resulted in a more mature and wise Nehru. He showcases his newly refined skills with most conviction on ‘Om’ and ‘Caskets’. DOOM never runs the risk of overshadowing his younger counterpart, only featuring on tracks where needed and handling the production on all tracks. Some of the most interesting points on the album come in the form of his signature, sample filled interludes. These are clearly used to mimic the advice that he is trying to impart to Nehru. Most importantly deciding that “you don’t care what others think of you”.
Although the two artists achieve greatness together with ease, the album still feels lacking in certain departments. A recurring problem is the hooks. ‘Great Things’ and ‘Darkness’ are excellent tracks in terms of lyrics and production, that are let down by ill-fitting and badly delivered hooks. Some DOOM fans may also be irked by the reuse of certain beats from his ‘Special Herbs & Spices’ collection. However, it will go unnoticed by the less hardcore fans due to his production never sounds dated.
It was an interesting choice for Bishop to choose a collaborative format for the release of his first album. NehruvianDOOM was perhaps the best outlet for him to acquire wisdom and knowledge from one of his favourite artists, but it still feels like it only serves as a precursor to his next project. We can be sure that even though this album may not be the instant classic that a lot of people were looking for, but it has permanently changed how Nehru will approach writing and producing in the future, most definitely for the better.