Monthly Archives: March 2015

Sound ‘Round: Kendrick Lamar / Lupe Fiasco

Men of color in America

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Aftermath / Interscope)
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A ButterflyDense in production and rhyme, powerful in purpose and imagery, this album exacerbates my white guilt – as it damn well should. Conflicted by his new-found fame and enraged by Uncle Sam’s disdain for people of color, this good kid turned superstar turned activist wrestles with race, depression, identity and hood politics while Dre and Snoop are pushing headphones. Kendrick lashes out plenty, as Black America 2015 isn’t much different than Black America 1985. His bitterest barbs, however, are saved for himself when pondering how a platinum mogul can remain tethered to the streets in a post-Ferguson culture. Looking for answers, he concludes by “interviewing” 2Pac and quoting a poem which siphons decades of racial injustice into a two-bit Def Jam poetry skit heavy on stale metaphor. Such a contrived finale undercuts his potency but doesn’t entirely neutralize it. A more apt ending would have been the fiery tirade which concludes “i,” wherein he interrupts a house party to lecture on Black pride. “N-E-G-U-S / Description: black emperor, king, ruler, now let me finish / The history books overlooked the word and hide it / America tried to make it to a house divided.” GRADE: A
Key Tracks:i” / “Complexion” / “How Much a Dollar Coast”

Lupe Fiasco – Tetsou & Youth (Atlantic)
Lupe Fiasco - Tetsou & YouthHis most focused work since 2011’s unfairly maligned Lasers is the same brand of protest rap he’s fancied since shedding the label of “Kanye’s favorite protégé.” Slightly less upset at his label than he is America’s ever-present racism, this is hip-hop content with letting the music drive the rhymes. Though almost every track hovers near or exceeds the five-minute mark, he throws plenty of curve balls to keep you surprised – my favorite being the banjo-blues stomp which bookends “Dots & Lines,” a warning to bright-eyed emcees on the pitfalls of celebrity. Though Corporate USA is always worthy of parody, he aims for bigger game on the street-conscious numbers like “Deliver,” where the pizza man won’t visit his crime-ridden block. “The ghetto was a physical manifestation / Of hate in a place where ethnicity determines your placement / A place that defines your station / Remind you niggas your place is in the basement.” His sharpest imagery comes on “Madonna,” which parallels Black single motherhood to the Virgin Mary’s apprehension towards raising Jesus in society based on persecution. If it sounds farfetched, get on Lupe’s level. He’s smart enough to know Christ has more in common with Michael Brown than Ted Cruz. GRADE: A
Key Tracks: “Deliver” / “Madonna” / “Dots & Lines



Sound ‘Round: Fifth Harmony / Kate Pierson

Singing about the basics

Fifth Harmony – Reflection (Epic)
Fifth Harmony - ReflectionFlaunting their girl-power creed by comparing themselves to Maybachs and referencing Oprah’s bank account, this outfit’s debut is the latest in pop’s obsession with modern feminism. Formed on The X Factor, their story is wholly American: Five women of varying racial makeup with home bases as far-ranging as California to Cuba seek what Susan B. and Aretha did before them, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. On club jams sweaty enough to give Jason Derulo an erection, they pledge allegiance to independent women, mock icky boys who equate shit pickup lines to true romance and vow to never settle for Suga Mama status. Better than their declarations of autonomy are the jokes. The best punchline occurs on “Reflection,” where verses of adulation are recited to a mirror instead of a man. It’s the kind of self-empowerment anthem that should remain in radio rotation so long as scums like Chris Brown are welcomed at the Grammys. Their brand of femme-friendly pop is nothing new, but I bet this is the first time a Top 40 album has mentioned Michelle Obama as a role model, as she damn well should be. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:Bo$$” / “Reflection” / “Sledgehammer”

Kate Pierson – Guitars and Microphones (Kobalt / Lazy Meadow)
Kate Pierson - Guitars and MicrophonesHer stadium-ready voice works so well in The B-52’s because it adds muscle to the band’s cartoonish sound while simultaneously playing up their retro-futuristic pop shtick. On her first solo outing, however, she forsakes the theatrics of the group that defines her while maintaining her go-go girl aesthetic. The method is as simple as the album’s title: 10 songs heavy on hooks with subject matter as freewheeling as her hair extensions. She celebrates gender-bending on “Mister Sister” before flaunting her environmentalist beliefs on “Bring Your Arms,” wherein sea turtles rep for threatened species the world over. The ballads are equally tender in their sentiments and toast a decades-long love with her partner. She wears normalcy well, although the lack of surprises sags her aspirations for instant gratification. Mature, yes. Grown up? Shit, no. She manages to dip into the bratty snarl of yesteryear on the opening “Throw Down the Roses.” “I won’t take a hit in the mosh pit / I won’t ever sit front row for losers.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:Throw Down the Roses” / “Mister Sister” / “Bring Your Arms

Sound ‘Round: Bob Dylan / Johnny Cash

Grandpas singing their heartsongs 

Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night (Columbia)

Music Review Bob DylanIconoclastic Dylan covers iconic Sinatra. Go ahead, roll your eyes. I did. I even went as far as Pitchfork’s Stephen M. Deusner and pondered if these 10 songs are secretly a troll job. That was until I heard the conviction in his vocal delivery: easy without schmaltz, forthright without melancholy and (most important) absent the phlegmy growl of 2012’s so-so Tempest. A wiser choice than simply clearing his 73-year-old pipes, however, is the song selection. Though Blue Eyes lent his pristine timbre to each of these whispering ballads, his respective takes were recorded past his peak on albums seldom mentioned or remembered. Steering away from signature Sinatra, the obscurity of the material allows Dylan to bend the melodies to his liking. He’s no crooner, and the music softens his raspy romanticism. Case in point is “Why Try to Change me Now,” in which a gentle lap steel uplifts verses about love on the rocks. He hasn’t sounded this rejuvenated in years. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Why Try to Change Me Now” / “I’m a Fool to Want You” / “Some Enchanted Evening”

Johnny Cash – My Mother’s Hymn Book (American Recordings, 2004)

Johnny Cash - My Mother's Hymn BookRubin-era Cash is a mixed bag of genuine iconography and clever image rebranding. The production is sparse and the subject matter grim so as to create an aura of legendary grandstanding. Of the entire American series, only IV and VI resonate with any sense of warmth or tenderness. So imagine my surprise when I discovered this collection of psalms a few years back. The production is barren — austere guitar and arrangements as minimal as his depression-era home of Dyess, Arkansas. What makes these hymns sparkle is their simplicity and the jubilation in Cash’s shaky croak of a voice. Cash clung to his Baptist beliefs throughout his life, whether finding solace from his emotionally abusive father as a child, or using the Word as a guiding point through decades of drug abuse and extramarital affairs. Though he most assuredly sought redemption in his last days, a search which lasted his entire life, there’s something more elementary at work on these 15 hallelujahs. An unapologetic mama’s boy does right by the mother who doted on him, and whom he equally loved in return. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:I Shall Not Be Moved” / “Do Lord” / “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies