Ugly Duckling – Journey to Anywhere

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In later records, Ugly Duckling would often admit to feeling insecure and being nobodies. The sequel to this album opens with “Opening Act”, where they constantly talk about how anonymous they are and they kind of hope but don’t expect to be big. It’s the opposite of the typical subject matter. Instead of boasting how big they are, they’re cowering and begging for a little affection.

The irony is, “Opening Act” is a milestone in Hip-Hop. So rare are songs like it. Every line hits hard. It’s easy to follow, and you don’t need complex rhymes when you have such powerful lines. For all the expressions of lacking confidence, it destroys most Rap music. Before they made that song, though, they made Journey to Anywhere. It’s not offensively bland like most of its ilk, but we already have enough bland records like this.

At their best, Ugly Duckling make fun, loose Hip-Hop. The genre desperately needs such records. Too many rappers take their bragging seriously no matter how many Jazz horns they stick in the back. Wu-Tang Clan often sounds desperate for your approval, for critics to agree with how cool and badass they are. When the Duckling use horns, they’re cartoonish. “Smack” is the ideal song to put in a Powerpuff Girls episode. On Journey to Anywhere, they’re just kicking rhymes.

Now, if that was their purpose then fine. Dilated Peoples made a lot of good records using their formula, but they were focused. Their beats had good drums, funky basslines and DJ scratching all over their place. They aimed for a little aggression, too. Duckling don’t sound like they have any aim, so they fall back on dropping random words over beats that are just as indecisive. Sure, they sound nice and pleasant but I can get a similar vibe by listening to anything by Dilated Peoples or Jurassic 5. Why should I listen to this?

Some songs do have some concept. That’s before they found their wit and “A Little Samba” is the only thing that can stand next to “Turn It Up” or “Smack”. The hook is the primary reason, too. Laughing at tough guy bragging is fun, but they band doesn’t sound like they have fun. In their best songs, they emphasize the right lines. Here, they rap more smoothly and more hushed. They seek to blend in with the beat rather jump off from it. If the production was good enough to carry it, then fine. All it does is create pleasant sound. Just like the rappers, it’s too afraid to capture the attention.

What’s the point of songs like “Rock on Top” or “I Did It Like This”? They’re about nothing. Maybe if you listen hard enough you can find a catchy line, but the hook for “Rock on Top” is so lazy and desperate. I know Hip-Hop critics have a weird obsession with smooth rapping over Jazz beats, but that sound’s tired. Unless you have a personality, it’s worth nothing.

As fodder for a Hip-Hop party, it’s good. No track is going to wake the party. No track is going to help people get into the vibe. It’ll just continue it. There are a few keepers – the title-track has a beautiful beat, “A Little Samba” is cute and so is “Pick Up Lines”. Mostly, it’s a record without spirit. Old artists should make tired records like this. It would make more sense for the Duckling to release this later in their career when they exhausted all of their ideas. Thankfully they moved on to the brilliant Taste the Secret.

2 little sambas out of 5

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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

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Both Social Justice Warriors and the people who hate them are panic-starters. Confirmation bias is their religion, and it’s hard to find the truth between all the bullshit. It’s hard to find where racism is truly a problem, and not just a normal case where a black person didn’t get what they want. It’s hard to tell the difference between the actual damage SJW’s do, or paranoia.

Macklemore’s second album makes it easy. SJW’s ruined this rapper. What used to be a confident, inventive and versatile rapper is now a doormat. “White Privilege II” is the centerpiece of the album. Way before you hear it, Macklemore’s crippling guilt over rapping while white cripples the album.

That song is easily one of the worst abominations commited to audio. You need to make songs about raping women and killing ‘damn niggers’ to make something worse. Actually, rappers have done songs about raping women and got acclaim for it.

Where to start with such a trainwreck? It ends with a woman singing about Hip-Hop like it’s some sort of ideal. Maybe she should look to Ice Cube or Eazy-E or Phife Dawg, highly acclaimed rappers who made sure to let us know how terrible women are. Women praising Hip-Hip is one of the most hilarious things ever. I can enjoy plenty of misogynistic music, but it doesn’t make it right.

In fact, “White Privilege II” proves something more terrible than white people rapping. Okay, so some dudes have a wacky entitlement complex and think their phenotypes mean they ‘own a culture’. Still, why are the only living artists Macklemore attacks are women? Why is Miley Cyrus twerking worse than those hundreds of videos and songs about ‘hoes’ and ‘gold diggers’, where women are just decorations in a video? Don’t criticize people for not wanting to listen to objecitifcation of women. It doesn’t matter how oppressed you are. Misogyny cannot be justified.

But Macklemore is concerned with not looking racist. Since we’re dealing with appearances, we can sacrifice other groups for our image. That’s why we bend over backwards to make sure people won’t criticize Islam. So Macklemore is angry over white people rapping and exploitating the precious culture that gave us songs like “A Bitch Iz a Bitch”. I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist, or shouldn’t be talked about. Just don’t be a total moron about it (It’s no “The Blacker the Berry”, a song that gives the oppressed a voice, makes us understand what it feels like). Delivering coherent ideas in music is hard, but when you’re that pretentious is impossible. Hip-Hop is not holy. No one is entitled to Hip-Hop. Don’t tell me how Hip-Hop was for the ‘oppressed’ when misogyny and homophobia are all over the place.

Oh, and Macklemore had fantastic black singers on “Can’t Hold Us” and “Thrift Shop”. So no, Macklemore, your white skin didn’t help you. These black singers did.

Enough about that song, though. For a while, the album hints it might be good. “Light Tunnels” is actually very good. Apologizing to Kendrick Lamar was retarded, but it’s an ambitious song that could only come out of a Kanye-esque narcisstic mind. Then again, whining about fame is narcissitic unless you got psychological insight. The song stretches for 6 minutes, changing the beat constantly but still keeping a hook. It’s an epic, attention-grabbing opener. Macklemore still sounds inconfident in it, but at least it sees him looking forward and trying ridiculous but interesting ideas.

“Downtown” may be an obvious sequel to “Thrift Shop” but it’s a fun one. The aggressive shout-rap is a nice throwback. In truth, the only way it’s a sequel to that song is in concept. It’s a silly rap song driven by a hook that still pushes the music forward. The duo aren’t without talent, they’re just crippled by white guilt and over-seriousness.

The album drops in quality more and more as it goes on. It never becomes offensive until “White Privilege II” and sometimes it rises. Mostly though, it’s so subdued. Nothing about is particularly different from The Heist in musical terms. The songs switch from serious to fun, to a mix of the two. The musical backdrop is experimental and accessible at the same time (“St. Ides” has a beautiful beat). Both hooks and lyrics are important, but this Macklemore always sounds self-aware this time around.

Even when Macklemore was serious and cheesy, he sounded honest. He might’ve sounded ignorant, but he sounded like he genuinaly cared. “Neon Cathedral” worked. “Growing Up” and “Kevin” don’t. It’s as if Macklemore knows this is what’s expected of him. The fun tracks are where this is most apparent. “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” and “Dance Off” lack any sense of joy, or any hook. Macklemore sounds particularly depressed on the former, referencing Deez Nuts (meme, not the band) in some silly effort to inject silliness. Now, if Macklemore deliberately wrote a song about trying to lift his depression in a party, it’d be brilliant. His voice is light-hearted and sounds odd in serious songs, so it’ll be ideal for a song like this one. Instead, Macklemore sounds like he doesn’t really want to make music.

The line “I don’t like who I am in this environment” in the opener is telling. Both parties rarely sound like they want to make this music. Ryan Lewis has cool ideas and a diverse palette, but the beats aren’t attention-grabbing like before. He never takes the ideas to their extreme conclusions. “Need to Know” barely has a beat, as if minimalism is a virtue in and of itself. “Dance Off” is utterly pathetic. It’s a banger with no drums and no basslines. You can only tell it’s a dance song because someone screams about getting down on the floor.

If Macklemore truly thinks white females are ruining Hip-Hop, then he’s a hypocrite. If he just thinks white people are exploiting the culture (No mention of Apathy or El-P or Eminem or Mike Shinoda though), then don’t rap. Don’t rap especially if you don’t feel like it. Even when you leave out the abomination that is “White Privilege II”, it’s a tired album by two people who just don’t want to make that music.

2 popped tags out of 5

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

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The album sounds exactly like the build-up, and that’s not an entirely good thing.

Starting off with a long digression about the days before the release is pointless. In the end, it’s boring and in a few years most of the listeners will have no idea what it was like. What you should know is that the album went through countless name changes and tracklistings. It was so extreme that even at the end, right after Kanye streamed the album in a party his mind kept changing.

At first, it’s an artist slowly discovering what their new album is and showing us every step of the way. When even on the day of release they keep changing it, dumping all the tracks and not releasing the album on time it’s clear something is wrong. Kanye is talked about like some mad genius, but these qualities are always struggling against each other.

The last two Kanye albums that got people so hyped were tightly focused. It’s bizarre to think the same Kanye on this album also made “Runaway” a few years back. That song goes for 9 minutes and doesn’t waste a single second. It’s the definition of ‘astonishing’. Here, Kanye West has no idea what to do in 2 minutes. “Father Stretch My Hands” is divided into two parts, both of which don’t make any sense. It’s weird melodic-Trap-Rap thing that’s cool on paper, but it goes nowhere.

Kanye is incapable of writing a Pop song here. He actually has a hook, but he never turns that song into an actual Pop song. He jumps from one section to the next. The music it has more in common with is that spastic Post-Hardcore thing Chiodos and Protest the Hero do.

What’s weirder is that this isn’t an artist just dumping ideas. Half of it makes sense as a whole album, and the other sounds like things Kanye just got out of his system. Tracks like “Waves”, “FML”, “Wolves” and even “Fade” point to a new direction for Kanye. They see him pushing further into the Alternative R&B movement, but still maintaining a lot of Hip-Hop influence and a free-from structure. They’re exciting in how weird and accessible they are at the same time. It’s what Pop musicians make when they feel brave enough.

Then there’s “Freestyle 4” and “Feedback”, where Kanye sounds like he’s spitting some verses that he had no idea where to put. “Highlights” is a great Auto-Tuned Pop song that gets lost. Why is “No More Parties in LA” here? It sounds like it belong in 2004. I’m sure many will be excited over it, but it sounds out of place and only reinforces the feeling Kanye had no idea what to do with this.

The structure of the album creates a weird effect. Almost every song sounds worst in it, yet the album works great as a whole. It’s easy to miss the beauty of “Waves” and “Wolves” when sit next to “30 Hours” and “Feedback”, but it’s fascinating to hear this from beginning to end. It’s not exactly a genre-bending album. Kanye’s too unfocused to this. The album is still varied and experimental, just because of Kanye’s nature. As scattered as it is, it shows that perhaps Kanye is incapable of making a bad album.

The result is a confusing album that challenges in a fun way. It’s hard to get a grip on what the album tries to be because there are literally two albums fighting for dominance. Listening to see it is seeing an artist who is now original by nature, who doesn’t have to try too hard to be weird. It lacks the focus of Yeezus, but it proves Kanye still has plenty to offer. He was just in a mental state that didn’t allow him to make a coherent album at the moment. Why didn’t he include “All Day” or “FourFiveSeconds” though?

There are also plenty of songs to take away from. In isolation, plenty of these songs work. They may less immediate, but “Ultralight Beam” and “Fade” are both new directions for Kanye West. The former is a weird Gospel number that doesn’t sound like anything. The latter jumps on the Deep House bandwagon, but destroys everything released today with how it progresses, until it reaches the brilliant lyrics (“I’ve been on my shit/Whole world on my dick”) and the breakdown. “30 Hours” is minimalistic and simple, but also beauitful in its serenity. Kanye even managed to produce the best skit of all time with “I Love Kanye”. It actually adds a lot, stuck in the middle of the album. If you need any further proof Kanye is off his mind in the best way, this is it. If the album wasn’t messy enough, Kanye pauses it to talk about himself.

The Life of Pablo is a big event, but the album is overall underwhelming. It’s scattershot and messy. It’s not just that Kanye can’t hold himself back, but that he doesn’t know what his album should be. He can’t even settle on the idea of ‘messy album with no direction’. Still, it’s fun to just hear him try to find sense, and it does have “Fade”.