It isn’t often that Dr. Dre handpicks an artist to mentor, coach, and mold into his next superstar. After NWA, he did it with Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Nate Dogg; then Eminem and 50 Cent. The format seems to be that when he finds his new generation of talent, he releases a solo album with the help of those artists and then supports them as they build their own discography. When Dr. Dre put out Compton three years ago and Anderson .Paak was the most featured artist on it, a lot of people took note. We sure did. .Paak’s next album Malibu was the first project we reviewed on The What and we’ve kept a close eye on him ever since.
August Greene is a supergroup worth getting excited about. On the marquee is the veteran rapper-songwriter Common, Jazz/Hip-Hop crossover pianist Robert Glasper, and longtime Common and J-Dilla collaborator, drummer Karriem Riggins. There are far too few groups like this in Hip Hop and seeing seasoned artists create something a new one is very encouraging as the genre ages and finds its footing as an established part of American culture.
Although this group is new, the frontmen have worked together in several combinations in the past, most recently on Common’s last album Black America Again, where Riggins took the reins as the primary producer, with some of Glasper’s touches sprinkled throughout. While that project was distinctly Hip-Hop, August Greene situates itself in the ethereal world where Hip-Hop, Jazz and R&B meet. Where the edges are a little softer and the the musicians occupy the spotlight as much as than the emcee, making the production layered, lively and engaging.
Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper, the architects of the album’s music, do a good job of keeping things from becoming monotonous. There is a flow from “Meditation” to the callback to its lyrics on “Piano Interlude” with the tempo and energy changing from track to track inbetween and throughout. Some songs are driven by the lyrics and performance of Common and the featured singers, while others have extended instrumental sections where the musicians can shine. It is easy for supergroups to try to fit in too much on each track, but this project shows the discipline of Riggings and Glasper to know when to add and when to take away.
Equally important as the musicianship are the messages of empowerment, positivity, and unity that add weight to an album with an already commanding presence. The ideals that the album celebrates are met with a realism, encouraging self reflection when battling personal imperfections and urging the listener to have the faith and optimism that with practice, they can experience growth within themselves and their communities.
That message is most potent on the song “Optimistic”, which is a cover of a song released in 1991 by the gospel group Sounds of Blackness. The original version used a looped breakbeat as the backbone of the track, where this new version features rich keys and fluid drumming and a feature performance from Brandy that blows me away. The sequencing of this song followed by the closing musical odyssey “Swisha Suite” (best song title of 2018) shows that this supergroup really knows how to end an album and leave a lasting impression.
Unfortunately, there is one thing this about this album that keeps most of it out of rotation for me. I cannot stand the contributions made by Samora Pinderhughes, who ends up singing the majority of the hooks with a vocal tone and delivery style that sounds more like a demo take or a half-hearted amateur appearance than the commanding and catchy element that this album needs from him. Surrounded by masters of their craft, Pinderhughes just sounds out of his league. When everything else is done right on this album, I cannot understand why his takes made the final cut when the quality control everywhere else is so consistent. Granted, I do like what he brings to the table on “Fly Away”, where his layered harmonies add an interesting texture to the song, but when his singing is exposed and unaccompanied it just feels thin and underdeveloped.
This album is so close to being an album of the year contender and the changes that could be made seems so obvious. If you watch the groups’ NPR Tiny Desk performance, they enhance their performance by foregrounding women, building each song around a feature performance from female singers and rappers. It’s a shame that they didn’t do the same on the album. I can only imagine how incredible this project could have been with a few more songs at the same caliber as “Optimistic” and fewer lackluster hooks.
When thinking about trilogies of music released in under a year’s time, I’m fondly reminded of the months I spent listening to The Weeknd in 2010, or Young Thug in 2015. That Abel played up his mystery by secreting out of Youtube’s ether and withholding a face for the drug-addled lothario until releasing his trilogy entire bolstered the listener’s excitement that they were truly discovering something new. The mythic aspect of Young Thug’s Slime Season mixtapes did much the same: recording hundreds of songs in a matter of weeks in some deluge of inspiration which were then doled out over a more human timescale of months. Thug seemed surprised to discover that artists needed more than a few minutes to record a song; true, we only need that many to listen, a few more to digest. The Weeknd created a mood and a spectre; Thug seems reliably bent on reinvention album to album. Both have gone on to great fame, arguably thanks to their ambition and staying in the listener’s ear for most of a calendar year.
TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2017
You don’t take acid. You run into your friends smoking in the little fence area outside the Roseland and one of them offers you some, but then it turns out your other friend ate it all. That’s probably for the best. You’re flying across the country on the red eye right after the show to spend Thanksgiving with your family. Somebody on the street walks by smoking a joint and the guy working the door starts shouting at all the cigarette smokers to “put it out!” so you all put your hands up and head inside. There are boxes of 3D glasses stacked by the guy taking tickets by the stairs, and he’s handing a pair to everybody who goes up.
There’s a lot of weight behind Jay-Z’s name, to the point that it requires more explanation to leave him out of your top five emcees of all time list than to put him in. Both his body of work and his ability to remain relevant make Hov arguably the most influential rapper of all time. It’s been over twenty years since Reasonable Doubt, his classic debut album, was released, and nearly thirty since his first appearance on wax. Not everything he’s put out has been great (or even good) but if you stack all his hit records they outweigh just about anyone’s. If you ask me, the last great Jay-Z album came out in 2003 and each release since then has continued to get worse. I’m happy to say that with 4:44, that streak has ended.
Read more The Breakdown, 4:44, by Jay-Z
Watch: Bach Trio Sonata No. 6 in G Major, BWV 530: I. Vivace
I’ve been paying attention to a small group of musicians that are doing something that I haven’t heard anywhere else. They’re taking the virtuosity of classical music, mixing it with the fervor of bluegrass and humbling it with the rustic charm of folk music to create an incredible fusion that I just can’t get enough of. While the group changes slightly with each iteration, the group swirls around the center that is the lyrical bassist, Edgar Meyer.
Micah: It’s been two years since To Pimp a Butterfly dropped and expectations couldn’t be higher for Kendrick Lamar. In the six years he’s been releasing albums, he’s vaulted himself into the highest echelons of the rap game, and has made a strong case for the title of greatest rapper ever. He says it himself: “I feel like debating on who the greatest can stop it / I am legend”. While it felt premature to make such claims with the last album, if Damn. stands the test of time in the same way that Section.80, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and TPAB have, I’m confident he’ll make his way into my personal all-time top five. With more great albums under his belt than The Notorious B.I.G. and a more consistent opening run of albums than Nas, Jay-Z or Kanye West, you have to at the very least put him in the conversation.
Read more The Breakdown, Damn. by Kendrick Lamar
Joey Bada$$ has emerged as one of the the strongest voices in the current generation of hip hop. His seminal 1999 mixtape is a throwback to the golden-era of New York boom bap, channeled by the promising young rapper and his tight-knit Pro Era crew. While the other members showed some promise, after the death of Capital Steez it was clear that Joey would emerge as the most influential and successful out of the Pro Era camp.
His commercial debut, B4.DA.$$ capitalized on his hype and departed from his gritty throwback aesthetic, adopting elements of modern trap to create a new New York sound that hit just as hard as his early material while incorporating elements of southern rhythms and west coast production gloss. Joey’s flow and vocal performance also matured as he starting singing more and rapping more aggressively. It was proof that he is determined to create his own sound and not to drown in his influences. With this next album, I was curious to see if he would continue to carve out the lane he created for himself or to continue to mature and grow by developing new styles and approaches to his music.
Read more The Breakdown, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ by Joey Bada$$
Micah: There is a Jazz/R&B renaissance happening on the West Coast and much of it is centered around Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder record label. Founded almost a decade ago, Brainfeeder has a lot of similarities to Peanut Butter Wolf’s legendary label, Stones Throw. They’re both independent and determined to push boundaries, taking chances on strange and experimental music that usually wouldn’t get backed. This approach has been incredibly fruitful for Brainfeeder. With a little help from his friends, including Thundercat, bandleader and saxophonist Kamasi Washington put out one of the best albums of 2015, and releases from other Brainfeeder signees The Gaslamp Killer, Jon Hopkins, Daedelus, and Lapalux have gotten a lot of attention.
Drunk is the latest album from Brainfeeder and it might be the best in Thundercat’s discography. Flying Lotus, who has played a huge part not only in putting Thundercat on, also has his hands in the creation of almost all of his music, shows up all over this new record. Whether he’s acting as an engineer, producer or mixer, the kinds of rhythms and changes found on Lotus’ You’re Dead have seeped into this album, and paired with Thundercat’s improved songwriting, singing, and one-of-a-kind basslines, making for a strange blend of heady and soulful.
Read more The Breakdown, Drunk by Thundercat