I slept on J. Cole for a long time. I wasn’t bumping 2014 Forest Hills Drive when it came out and it took about six months of critical acclaim for me to realize that his music was undeniable. He’s not a complicated rapper, but his writing style is a demonstration of the value of being clear and direct. You know exactly what Cole is talking about when he raps. You don’t have to print out the lyrics and bust out a red sharpie, a dictionary and an encyclopedia (or more realistically, just check Rap Genius) to figure out what he’s trying to tell you. Cole makes it easy for his audience to understand his flaws and insecurities in the stories he tells.
I’ve been following Donald Glover’s career since 2006 when he was a part of Derrick Comedy, making Youtube shorts. I remember showing all my high school friends videos like Bro Rape, Hip Hop, and Jerry Poops His Pants. It certainly isn’t high brow, but they were doing something unique on a brand new platform before it became ubiquitous. After they stopped making videos, Donald fell off my radar until he began writing on 30 Rock and appearing on Community. His music started to peak my interest when I heard Because the Internet, STN MTN/Kauai and his feature on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap. It was clear that his delivery had progressed past the nasal quality of his early work and he was proving himself to be a charismatic and engaging performer. Since then he’s amassed a huge following and had a breakout year with his TV show Atlanta. When I heard he was making a funk record, my hopes for new music from Gambino skyrocketed.
Micah: From the jump this album lets you know it will be politically charged, calling for solidarity among those wanting to see the country “go left and not right”. The message is underscored by the fact that Tribe has been unable to make music together for nearly twenty years due to creative and personal differences, making this album both a reunion and a farewell. There is something poignant about the group coming together one more time to make music that calls for the kind of peace, love, and unity that they’ve always stood for as members of the Zulu Nation.
Henry: .Paak and Knxwledge. are back, stylin’ as always, singing praise on high. Anderson .Paaks’ signature exaltation becomes the title of their second collaboration, which builds on choice cuts from their debut EP, filling the project out into a 19-track ride that’s about as smooth as smooth gets. Though the scope is perhaps less ambitious than .Paak’s January LP Malibu, Yes Lawd is more musically cohesive, an argument for the one-producer-per-album rule which modern artists often ignore.
Danny Brown is going further and further out. Or maybe it’s more down and inward. Since 2008’s Hot Soup, he’s been getting more atmospheric, more stylistically diverse, and more singularly identifiable. His latest release, Atrocity Exhibition, is his most abstract yet, and the most reliant on Danny’s unmistakable voice as the central instrument. Everything else is faded, distorted, bare, pulled back or pushed up and out of the way to make room for the man himself, the main attraction, Danny Brown in the depths of his depravity. The question is, will we follow him down?
White Bear Polar Tundra is, I guess, alternative rock. They didn’t invent the term, but they’ve embraced it. I’ve always been a little confused by it, myself. Alternative to what, exactly? Alternative to pop rock? Classic rock? Hard rock? Glam Rock? Punk Rock? Alternative to choral music or rap music or jazz? Of course it’s an alternative to all of these things–everything is an alternative to everything. I try not to get too caught up in sub-genre micro-distinctions, but this one kinda bugs me, because it seems to set up an opposition that doesn’t really have to exist.
There is no chance in hell you can ever expect an unbiased Frank Ocean review from me. I got hooked on his music almost exactly five years ago, but it wasn’t infatuation on first listen. I stumbled upon nostalgiaULTRA when I was heavy into Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, The Creator’s early work, but it didn’t click for me until I heard Frank described as the neo-soul James Taylor. In a way, the two are uncannily similar. Their musical styles feel homegrown, each with their own kind of longing Americana, each completely different from everything you’ve ever heard, yet incredibly familiar and comforting. Once that connection registered with me, I began to obsess over cuts like ‘Strawberry Swing’ and ‘We All Try.’ Since Channel Orange came out a year later, I haven’t looked back.
Everybody starts somewhere different. This is the point of the game. I happened to materialize amongst crimson flowers, on a small plateau overlooking a canyon filled with fat green trees whose leaves glowed neon in the light of a distant sun. The clouds overhead were greenish yellow, the sky a greenish blue. Squidly-looking alien creatures floated lazily by. My ship sat smoking next to me, presumably having been damaged in whatever crash had stranded me here.
Henry: Hold the phone. Noname is on the line. This year has seen a host of releases from Chicago artists, and I get the feeling that all of them have been trying less successfully to make an album like this. Call it jazz, call it hip-hop, call it neo-soul, Telefone drips and bounces to its own organic rhythm, and the vocal performances are across the board some of the strongest of the year. The tight 10-track list feels complete, but leaves you wanting more, waiting to be called back, staring at the telephone.
Micah: I was so excited for the release of this album. It’s been a long time since Noname (previously Noname Gypsy) showed up on one of the most tender cuts off Chance the Rapper’s seminal mixtape, Acid Rap. Since then through countless features and loose tracks she’s proven herself to be one of the most promising upcoming rappers. After three years of national exposure without a complete project under her belt, the wait is finally over, and it was worth it. Noname has the ability to grab your attention without demanding it, instead her smooth precise flows draw you into her world of swirling wordplay and refrains of ‘Everything is everything.’ I’m so excited to finally have this album to delve into, so without further ado, let’s dig in.
Henry: Blank Face is hard to read. Schoolboy Q’s latest release has me staring, trying to read its expression. The problem with being on TDE is that the Kendrick comparisons are inevitable, and although he still isn’t winning those, Q has clearly been in the classroom, honing his craft alongside some of the best rappers in the game right now. His vocal delivery here is solid, varied, laid back yet energetic, and complimented by a host of producers who maintain a steady energy throughout. What the album lacks is a clear statement. The series of videos released for Blank Face tell a story of Q getting caught up in a robbery with his homies, but the songs only loosely correspond to the narrative in the visuals. Given just the music, it’s hard to discern any particular focus. Maybe this unreadability is the meaning of the title, an inscrutable facade, empty as a blank page. Then again, maybe I’m reading too far into it…