Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Common maintains lyrical mastery with Finding Forever

The name Common has become synonymous with lyrical, progressive hip-hop. Not many emcees have been able to stay relevant as long as the Chicago native, and his newest album proves why his music will not be soon forgotten. I got hooked on Common Sense with the far-out album, Electric Circus, promptly following up with the earlier work, Like Water for Chocolate. With this being his 7th album, Common again turns to super producer/rapper and long time collaborator Kanye West to provide a consistent sonic landscape.
The album opens with the mellow instrumental “intro“, complete with smooth keys and an angelic harp. Listeners are snapped out of this laid back vibe by Kanye exclaiming “Lets start the Show!” for the second cut appropriately named “The Show” The chorus on this track completely changes the vibe of the song, and not particularly for the better. Next up is the lead single, “The People”. Here, Kanye channels the late great producer J. Dilla, to construct his own rendition of the Dilla’s compositions. Sporting a sample that’s also used on Dilla’s Donuts album, Common spits ferocious lines about “beats and breaks” and “tryin to stay legal”, while soul man Dwele croons on the chorus, “The People” is a solid single laced with societal commentary. Although Kanye gets an E for effort, his need for epic production limits his ability to emulate Jay Dee’s rough and raw sound. Next is the upbeat almost dancehall "Drivin’ Me Wild“ featuring English songtress Lily Allen. Com. rhymes around the rudimentary snare drum of the track , speaking on what people do for love. Here, his lyrics paint portraits of a wannabe rapper and a fame-jockin female that, “Had a body that you can’t pay fo/Which means she had some D’s on her but they weren’t fake tho”. I personally love this line, the ability to take a played out pop rap hook and reinterpret it is the mark of a true MC.
We stroll into my fav thus far, the Will.I.Am produced “I Want You“. This smooth jam utilizes a simple drum loop and layered Wurlitzer keys that aid Common and Will tell a tale of love lost. Some people hate on Will.I.Am because of his ties with pop act Black Eyed Peas, but the fact is the guy is a musical mastermind, and this track adds to his already stout production resume. With so much Kanye, this track provides a change of pace, while perfectly fitting the mood of the album. Check out the breakdown and Dilla Donut at the end of this track…its just so chill!.
The second single, “Southside”features Kanye and Common trading battle rhymes every 8 bars. This is the rawest sounding track of the album, complete with a sampled electric guitar, rolling bass line, and Ye’s signature drums . This track has another ill breakdown despite some questionable singing by Mr. West. The b-boy beats continue with “The Game” featuring DJ Premier scratching like none other. Common provides a societal concept with the melancholy “U Black Maybe” which features the eccentric Bilal. With a Stevie Wonder sample and smooth trumpets, Common delves into a narrative about the obstacles a black man/woman can face from their own race.
Time for a Kanye break, as J Dilla and label mate Devo Springsteen step in for the next two tracks. This recycled Dilla track features the infamous D’angelo, who shows he can still lay down memorable hooks. Devo chops up Nina Simone for “Break my Heart“, in which Common lightheartedly raps about the dating game . Although both are decent, neither does much to add new dimension to the album. “Misunderstood” uses a blues vocal sample chopped to sound like an old Negro spiritual. Complete with gloomy piano chords and heavy boom bap, Common makes you feel the anguish of his hood stories. The album concludes with “Forever Begins” where Common provides inspired lyrics for the future. As the uplifting piano plays, Common “wonders when the role call for heaven will come.”, and reflects of the news of Dilla’s death. No Common is complete without a last word from Common’s father, as the song breaks down so "Pops" can speak about the idea of Finding Forever. This album is right on par with the Be album, not really gaining or losing any ground.

Lyrics: 4
As you can see I didn't mention the lyrics much because Com Sense never disappoints on the mic. One thing is certain, he is at his best as a storyteller, observing the world around him and the constructing conscious narratives.

With Kanye at the helm again, Common is able to maintain a similar sound throughout , even with a few guest producers.

Replay Value: 3
Like most Common albums, the superiority of his lyrics can go over some hip hop novices heads, making tons of spins hard to come by. Rainy days and late night smoking sessions will be the main arena for this melancholy album.

Overall: 3.5
I’ve really enjoyed Commons growth over the years. He’s been able to join with Kanye to stay newsworthy while not sacrificing his image. Always an emcee first, Common continues to remind the world what classic hip hop is.

Album Gems: “Southside“ ,“I Want You”, “U Black Maybe”

Sa-Ra Freaks the Funk with The Hollywood Recordings

The Sa-Ra creative partners have been gaining momentum since 2000, when Om’ Mas Keith, Taz Arnold, and Shafiq Husayn decided to make their own movement in music. Sa-Ra’s first success came with the remix to Pharohe Monch’s Agent Orange, and served as a prelude to the innovative, far-out production still to come. After garnering praise from rap star Kanye West, and signing with Babygrande Records, we have The Hollywood Recordings. This album displays the wide spectrum of the groups’ work over the last few years. The three members of the band Sa-Ra were all experienced hip-hop artist/producers before creating the trio, giving them a live approach to this production collective. On top of that, they were able to recruit a myriad of like-minded and successful guest artists( Erykah Badu, Kurupt, CNN, Rozzi Daime and Monch). Taz is the groups most visible lead singer, whose high-pitched, vivid lyrics remind of James Brown, and early Prince.
The tranquil intro Seagulls gives a taste of the live and raw approach they have to making music. Rugged drum loops and well placed keyboard lines of the songs, And If, Do me Gurl and Hey Love remind of classic Slum Village, mixed with late 80‘s r and b.
Their range becomes apparent with the spooky dance single, “Feel the Bass“. After a bellowing vocal introduction to Sa-Ra, the track cuts in with raw drum programming, sliding synthesizers and some low moans worthy of a haunted house dance floor. The Song features a focused Talib Kweli who flows the beat “Makes a Midsummer’s Night Dream outta Nightmares”.

After the sex-drenched vice anthem “White! (On the Floor)”, its clear why Sa-Ra calls their music the Freak. “Sweet Sour You” features the eccentric Bilal, crooning to one of his best collaborations to date. A final up-beat collabo shines with Thrilla, featuring the late great producer/rapper J. Dilla. Dilla commands “Work it Out!” as Sa-Ra gives birth to an epic sounds cape similar to Michael’s original. Sa-Ra is a group that could easily self sustain with just the talented triumvirate, yet they are able to include an array of artists without losing their loose, sensual sound. .

Production: 3.5
The method to their production is evident through their live, raw sound; making Sa-Ra a unique producer band that can even perform live. That alone makes them worth a listen

Lyrics: 2.5
Sa-Ra mixes flows of big name Mcs and distinctive singers with their own creative cadences and spoken word lyrics along the way. These hit and miss at times.

Replay Value: 3
Although this group is on to something, their intergalactic freak music leaves no middle ground, which could lead to a love it or hate it relationship with fans.

Overall: 3
Sa-Ra is a gift and curse; some will fall in love with their boundless creativity, others won’t be willing to explore it, at least not right away

Album Gems: “Feel the Bass” “Sweet Sour You” “Thrilla!”

Air levitates between Heaven and Earth with Pocket Symphony.

Over the years, Air has composed some solid electronic music. From ambient soundtracks (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation), to five studio albums, the French duo knows how to relax the mind. The journey into tranquility continues with their March release "Pocket Symphony". I caught notice of Air's musical stylings in the flicks I mentioned earlier, and quickly found myself hunting down their previous works. Soon, Talkie Walkie became a mainstay on my late-night bedroom playlist.
Pocket Symphony keeps the same formula with a few twists, like collabs with Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon, and the incorporation of the Japanese instrument the Koto. The great thing about this group is their ability to blend electronic music with traditional instruments. Pocket Symphony begins with a percussive log drum and strummed acoustic guitar on "Space Maker", which sets the tone of the album. Reverberating piano is commonplace throughout, but is highlighted by the intoxicating etude that's the basis for the single, "Once upon a Time". The Koto makes its first appearance with the morning hangover inspired "One Hell of a Party". Air puts their trademark melancholy pathos to "Mayfair Song", "Left Bank", and "Lost Message".

There are a few upbeat grooves like the softer blues track, "Napalm Love" and "Mer Du Japon". The most complex parts of the album come from the sinister to sweet "Photograph" and a string arranged "Somewhere between Walking and Sleeping", which both play out like scores to a movie. "Redhead Girl" revisits the vocal effects from the Talkie Walkie album, before concluding with the ambient lullaby, "Night Sight".

Vocals: 3
Although the lyrics aren't bad, the golden moments happen between the words.

Production: 4.5
Simple structure and deliberate chord changes bolstered by excellent sequencing and effects leaves you with music that is minimal AND epic at the same time.

Replay Value: 4
Ever need something soothing to chill out to? this is it every time.

Overall: 4

Air is a truly innovative group that I would suggest to anybody. Even though Pocket Symphony is similar to previous albums, their music is always an experience.

Album Gems: "Once upon a Time" "Mer du Japon" "One Hell of a Party"

Timbaland recreates himself....again, for Shock Value

Its been a while since Ginuwine’s Pony rode to the top of the charts in 1993, but since, Timbaland has become one of the most consistent, and creative producers in music…. period. His production credits read like a hip hop and R&B walk of fame, producing for almost every big name in the industry; all while molding the careers of Aaliyah, Missy, and his group Timbaland and Magoo. This is his first solo release since 1998’s Tim Bio, but his growth is obvious. Timbaland has always been a leader, blending his infectious beats and obscure sound effects with big name artists to make single after single. The same rang true for him in 2006, probably his most successful year ever, producing hits and entire albums for Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado. These two albums started a frenzy, making Tim the most sought after producer of the year. This success was a direct reflection of Timbaland’s reputation, and the emergence of production apprentice “DanjaHandz”. Timbo is definitely the pied-piper of production, and with the help of Danja, now he has his own smash album with “Shock Value”
The album begins with a familiar piano sample (via Kanye & Kweli’s Get By) before dropping in with his signature kick drums and firing hi-hat of “Oh Timbaland” . Tim raps, “This aint tha Timbaland that youre used to/ now I’m in a whole ‘nother zone”, as a strummed acoustic and solo electric guitar intertwine. Tim is definitely in the Zone as next up is the mega smash “Give it to Me” featuring his 06 thoroughbreds Furtado and Timberlake. The vocal intro comes to an abrupt end followed by loose “promiscuous” drums and a five note melody. Even with over-exposure and the Scott Storch“beef, “Give it to Me” still stands as the most complete song on Shock Value. Timbaland revisits the formula of 06 success with “Release” and “The Way I Are”, as Danja’s simplistic synth lines and four to the floor drums bring back that late 80’s sound. Tim follows up with the menacing “Bounce”, a blend of low end frequencies, classic Timbo beat box, and a hyper hiccup sample. Its hard not to be blinded by the stars on this track, as Tim, Dr. Dre, Timberlake, and Missy all trade verses on this one. Although its great to hear Dre spit some pre-Detox rhymes, Missy steals the show. Tim keeps the big names coming with 50 cent and Tony Yayo on the early G-unit sounding , “Come and Get Me”. Its obvious Tim is still the king of beats, creating an album that’s commercially viable and experimental at the same time. The Shock stumbles with tracks like “Kill Yourself” and “Board meeting”, which lyrically only have a good hook between the two. Timbaland might have found that special lady, as songs like “Fantasy” and the Summer Love inspired ”Miscommunication” show the producers’ sensual side.
The standout love song is the guitar laced “Scream”, which feels like a horseback ride across the beach with a long breakdown. The album concludes with an array of far-fetched collaborations, including songs with Fall out Boy, The Hives, and One Republic to name a few. The hidden gem among these is “Time” featuring the band She Wants Revenge. As the echoing lead and rhythm guitars ride the minimal drum pattern, Timbo gives his best vocal performance of the album, blending somber raps with a melodic delivery. The album concludes with the Elton John collaboration, “2 man Show” that feels more like a one-take outro than a song. At album’s end, its easy to understand why Timbaland is one of the most innovative producers to date. There’s something on this album from everyone, from early Timbo heads like myself, to fans of his pop hits in 06. That being said, the drive from versatility leaves some songs with no personality, but those are definitely in the minority here.

Overall: 4

Production Value: 4.5
Timbo still presents a palette of sounds and grooves with Shock Value, despite the absence of his long-time engineer, Jimmy D.

Lyrics: 3
Impeccable raps were never Timbaland’s forte, but improvement is evident. The long list of guest appearances pick up the lyrical slack.

Replay Value: 4
With songs like “Give it to Me”, “Bounce”, and “Scream”, this album takes you from the pre-party, to the club, and eventually the bedroom.

Album Gems: "Time", "Scream", "Give it tome me"