Leftfield – Leftism

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The problem with approaching Electronic music is that it demands such a radically different style of listening. Everyone used to moan back in ’06 how uhn-tiss isn’t real music. It was stupid, but after checking Electronic music they had a point. How the music worked was so different in function and form that at first all you could think was ‘it’s just repetitive bullshit for mindless drones’.

There was rarely, if ever, a melodic hook or a catchy riff to hold on to. Nowadays we have the build-up-and-bass-drop structure, but all it does is borrow the verse-chorus-verse and remove the vocals. Tracks went on for 9 minutes, sounding both like they’re not changing and like they’re in a new place. Electronic music was confusing, and I wasn’t sure when I began my exploration what to look for. I knew there was an element of danceability to it, elements of progressive structure and elements of atmospherics. I just couldn’t make it gel together, couldn’t find the larger context to put it in.

Leftism is the go-to album for anyone who wants to get into actual Electronic music. Compared to other popular Electronic acts – whether it’s the Big Beat of Prodigy or the loud Brostep of Skrillex or the Pop style of Daft Punk – this is ‘real Electronica’. I don’t mean it in a snobbish way, since all the aforementioned artists are quite awesome. It’s that they won’t help you understand how Electronica works in general. They adapt other genres into Electronica so you can headbang to the Prodigy as if it were a Rock band with better drumbeats.

What Leftfield do here is combine a variety of genres into one cohesive whole without having a larger aim besides being danceable. Leftfield’s strength is that their music looks to the mainstream while not straying from how Electronica works. The problem with Orbital and Underworld is that they were too artistic, too weird for anyone who only listened to the Pop radio.

The most notable difference is that Leftfield’s drums hit harder. Underworld and Orbital never made something so dancefloor friendly like “Afro-Left” and “Release the Pressure”. These songs are more concerned with grooves, with how the drums feel to the ear. The layers upon layers of sound are there – what self-respecting Electronica act doesn’t have these? – but you’re not supposed to look for it.

Leftfield’s music is warmer and more inviting. The build-ups are ambient, but they’re easy ambient, a collection of happy, gentle sounds. “Release the Pressure” defines their modus operandi with the ambient intro and the hard drums that kick in. It shows their influence from other genres by adapting a quasi-Reggea bit and vocals. The usage of vocals in the ambient intro also helps to ease into the genre. By the time the drumless “Melt” appears, you’re used to it.

This warmth is the real key to Leftfield’s brilliance. It’s not music for raves where everyone is already on drugs or knows the music. The album wants everyone to join in. Many genres are here besides house – Downtempo on “Original”, Big Beat on “Inspection” and Drum’n’Bass on “Storm 3000” and the result is this kaleidoscope that fascinated by how beautiful music can be. There’s totality to this record. If someone told me this is their all-time favorite record, I wouldn’t be surprised.

There’s a song here called “Song of Life” and I couldn’t think of a better title for a Leftfield song with how everything here brims with life-affirming energy. People have this weird aversion to Dance music, as if only music that’s depressed is serious and has ‘content’. Yet this album leaves me with a sense of wonder that no extremely technical guitar solo can achieve. They put “Melt” in the same album as “Open Up”, because you can both chill and marvel at the stars before (or after) you start a moshpit – because why not? They pile layers of sound in “Afro-Left” and let it change as it goes on, because a song can be both progressive and a banger. Every song has clear hooks, whether it’s the drums or the bass or just sounds that stick out. Electronica doesn’t have to be difficult. A listener doesn’t have to play the song over and over until he finds all the layers but can already hop in.

The highlight is actually “Space Shanty”, which wasn’t released as a single. Every time I listen to it I’m surprised by how well constructed it is, yet how hard it bangs. It’s also the definitive House track, since the elements of repetition and progression are prominent in it, feeding off each other without negating each other.. All of the loops that drive the song change a little as it goes on. The BPM remains the same, but the climax sounds nothing like the intro. At the same time, there’s a separation between loops that create a groove and loops that provide atmosphere. No House track summed the genre as well as that one.

If you haven’t started exploring Electronic music, you should. This is where you should start your journey. Some tracks show you the more experimental and artistic side of things. Others just want to make you dance. There are a few that do both and there’s, of course, “Space Shanty”. Best of all, this album sounds like a monument. Nothing about it hints it was just a collection of singles and some new tracks. If music’s purpose is to connect people, to make us happy and love our life a little then no one has a reason to avoid this.

4 inspections out of 5

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Autechre – Anti

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It’s an interesting and important record, but that’s where the fun stuff ends. Autechre already got a massive discography, too. So if you’re just here exploring Electronic Music and What It Means, read about the Criminal Justice Bill and maybe listen to “Flutter”. The Prodigy and Orbital also addressed this topic, and the worst thing about it was that the Prodigy’s song somehow didn’t launch Pop Will Eat Itself to national recognition.

Then again, many people describe Autechre’s later works as inaccessible and their early work as sublime. To me, the less traditional Autechre are, the more interesting and listenable they are. Their music contains no recognizable human emotions. I remember “Clipper” working especially well because I was tired of feeling like a human. I wanted something that sounded born of machinery, but not the machinery representing human flaws, like Front Line Assembly does. Autechre’s music, at their best, paint a world of only abstract shapes and no humans.

Of course they have no business doing Dance music. I have no idea what people are talking about when they mention that the first two tracks are club-friendly. “Lost” has echoing drums that sound more full of distress than fun. Dance music can be aggressive or anxious or angry, but it’s about release and immediacy. Autechre never actually create a groove. Their music is too detached and scared of human emotions for this. “Lost” doesn’t actually sound like a club track to me, but like the repetitive thoughts of a wallflower with a bad case of social anxiety. It acknowledges people dance, but if it’ll try it will just kill the fun.

The other two are glorified demo tracks of Confield. It sounds lazy now, but this was released around the worst era of Autechre, before they got weird. These beats are more dynamic and right when you think repetitions sets in, it changes. It’s a clever trick that may be able to fool the cops, but what else is there? The sounds themselves – what Autechre does best – aren’t interesting. “Flutter”‘s beat is more skitterish and complex, but in IDM tracks need a wider difference than this. You got a gigantic sound palette and can do anything, especially when you eschew repetition. Instead, it sounds like one gigantic track that occasionally changes the rhythm.

As a political statement, perhaps it works. Perhaps a musicologist was present when “Flutter” played at a party when the cops came and explained everything. Although if anyone actually plays Autechre at a party, what you need to send is an anthropologist. He’d probably be bored though, since the music on Anti is stereotypical IDM. It’s not danceable, it has some kind of creepy, detached atmosphere and it goes on for way long because it has a lot of ‘tiny details’. Normally, I love this stuff but why would I choose any of these tracks over “Pen Expers”? That one both sounds weird, has no consistent rhythm and is actually quite a banger.

Maybe the whole Criminal Justice Bill protest thing was just an excuse to release a bunch of demos.

1.5 illegal raves out of 5

Underworld – Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future

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It’s amazing Underworld are still capable of making an album this good. Dance music has passed them by. They’re now remembered more by beard-stroking critics than dancers. “Pearl’s Girl” is a banger but it will just confuse the people over at Ibiza. They have existed for, what, 35 years? Just so you’ll have a clear picture, Hyde was born in 1975. He spent most of his life in Underworld

Dance music is now completely different. Underworld specialized in artistic and long-winded dance music. It’s not about bass drops or catchy hooks, but atmosphere and grooves that lock the listener. There’s a culture shock effect when you listen to their old material. In a way, nobody actually wanted this record. The same audience that danced their lives to “Cowgirl” are now too old for clubs and weirded out by Skrillex. Does anyone still hear “Cowgirl” at clubs?

Underworld should be tired by now after 35 years and losing relevancy. Listening to Barbara, and all of this vanishes. Yes, they sound out of touch. Yes, they sound old. They sound like this in the best way possible. There’s no drugged audience to cater to or fans who aren’t sure if they want a copy of their most recent hits. Dance music passed them by so they can do whatever the hell they want.

The album is a logical progression for Underworld. It feels like all this time they were meant to get here. Underworld’s vision of dance music has always been highly artistic. It was dancefloor friendly, but also disconnected from dancing. Weird ideas overpowered grooves. Songs go on for a while, slowly morph until you’re engulfed by them. Nothing has actually changed in this album.

The album sounds most like a re-visiting of Dubnobass from a grown perspective. Barbara has those same techniques, only this time it’s softer, calmer and more satisfied with itself. Underworld don’t sound like they’re pushing forward because they don’t need to. “Juanita” was a desperate attempt at proving everyone how Underworld was the best 90’s dance act. “I Exhale” opens with stomping drums that aren’t aggressive. Underworld are fine dancing on their own.

From there on the album grows more reflective. It gets better until it finishes with the godsmacking of “Nylon Strung”. It’s a house classic and easily one of the best songs of the year. At first, it’s just a blissful house track. Then halfway through it you realize it’s pure bliss. The best thing about it is how effortless it sounds. Underworld are now experts. They know the genre inside out and how to make it work.

The sequencing also raises the album quality. Albums like this make you realize how important sequencing is. Every track sounds better in context. “I Exhale” is the loud, long opener that needs to grab attention and set the stage. It’s also the most different track here, and it needs to be done away with first. “Low Burn” and “If Rah” are typical Underworld track – developing slowly, and having both a strong atmosphere and groove. The ambient middle sets the mood for the last two, which pull the whole ‘Blissful House’ thing. “Nylon Strung” can only be a closer – a song so happy that celebrates its own album.

A lot of bands lose relevancy as they age. It shouldn’t be this way. When you work, the harder and the more you practice the better you get. Yet in music artists often drop their classic in their first years and vanish. Something about art makes people run out of drive, or ideas, or passion. Old age in artists is generally a bad sign.

An album like Barbara is the ideal album by elder statesman of a genre. Underworld are going whereever they feel like it. They’re disconnected from modern Dance music, so they just explore their euphoric side with “Nylon Strung” and their Ambient Pop in “Motorhome”. Nowhere in the album do they sound tired (Okay, perhaps on “I Exhale” for a bit). They don’t have to push themselves and make a “Juanita” anymore. After establishing a unique personality, all you got to do is mine it.

The album title is appropriate. Underworld do sound like they face a shining future. This won’t gain any critical attention since, in the end, the music sounds too old for this. Albums that generate buzz are contemporary. That’s a shame, because it’s not an insiders-only album. You don’t need any experience with music to enjoy something as beautiful as “Nylon Strung”. Hopefully there’s more where that came from.

3.5 nylons out of 5

Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

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This album doesn’t make a lot of sense. The debut was explosive. Arctic Monkeys didn’t sound like they wanted to be the biggest band in the world, but they sounded like they were really into the Dance-Punk thing. The band sounded so energetic it’s like they couldn’t notice they forgot to write a song in “From the Ritz to the Rubble”.

Although the album opens with an explosive track that does sound stormy, the album doesn’t have the spark of the debut. Instead of honing their craft, they’re just going through the motions and kicking danceable Indie Rock. There’s talent and hooks, but the lack of spirit makes it hard to react to this strongly.

The main difference between this album and the debut is that this one has no concept. Whatever knew it was a Dance-Punk album and had lyrics that described that party environment with humor and wit. Favourite Worst Nightmare is a fun collection of songs that are great when they’re closer to their debut and weaker when they move further way. There’s also a fantastic ballad thrown in.

The band sounds lost on the more melodic/casual tracks like “If You Were There” or “Balaclava”. They were at their best when making sonic mayhem. On these tracks they’re turning it down but not replacing the noise with anything. There’s not much going in these tracks. On “Balaclava” Turner becomes annoying, speaking in a smug way rather than singing. Even “Flourscent Adolescent” doesn’t work. There is melodic beauty buried somewhere behind the vocals, but Turner refuses to commit to one style. He doesn’t decide whether to rap, sing or sing-rap like Astronautalis. The result is a Pop song without a melody.

Even the harder tracks feel like something is missing. The instrumental storm of “Brianstorm” doesn’t sound like the beginning of a party. It’s more artistic, trying to capture the song’s title rather than to start a mosh pit. It’s still effective though. Other tracks have some explosive hooks – “D Is for Dangerous”, “This House is a Circus” and “The Bad Thing” are all rocking. Something in the production does feel flat, nothing in these tracks compares to the mayhem of “Fake Tales” or “I Bet You Look Good”.

I can’t tell whether it’s the production or the band itself. The melodies work in the same way. There’s no change in focus. It’s still sharp, aggressive melodies with noise behind them. “D is for Dangerous” is their most danceable song, actually. Perhaps it’s the production, which is cleaner, more pleasant. It works in some tracks, but it makes these ones sound less party-ready.

There are two odd successes here. “Only Ones Who Know” is a beautiful ballad. It’s different from “Riot Van”. That one still had the lyrics about wild life of the night. The musical backdrop was different but it stuck to the concept. “Only Ones Who Know” is truly tender, with Turner doesn’t even sound like he’s putting on an act. There are whole bands basing a career on making such songs. If only Adele or Coldplay knew that great ballads work because they don’t try to attract attention. That song never explodes and always remains quiet. If it did, it’d undo its beauty.

The ambitious “Do Me a Favour”. It’s the most ambitious track here, building towards a conclusion and letting every band member contribute. “505” also does the build-up thing, but it’s a familiar end-of-album ballad that’s too ordinary to get a reaction. “Do Me a Favour” sounds like a deliberate attempt to write a great break-up song and it’s a success. The drums create tension all the way it explodes with telling someone to fuck off.

At its heart, this is just an ordinary Indie Rock album. If it was released by any band it probably wouldn’t gain any hype. It’s pretty consistent, has some great songs for a playlist but that’s it. That said, it’s a terrible album to listen to for your first album by the band. Since all they do is just kick songs, it might leave you confused on what the big deal is. Actually, that’s all they ever did – just kick catchy Pop Rock with a charismatic singer. You don’t need more than that to become popular.

3 nightmares out of 5

Best Songs of 2015 – Part II

Here we go. This is why I’m excited to be alive for a new year. Who knew music can be so good?

14. Jason Derulo – Cheyenne

I couldn’t believe Jason was capable of such a song. He was a technically skilled singer who made boring ballads and silly sex songs. ‘Cheynne’ is a song that’s as catchy as it is powerful. Jason still sounds like a sex icon but a confused one. It’s a song about falling in love after getting used to getting girls easily and the shock of it all. Even if the title girl goes along with him (“You’re secure to make it”) he’s still overwhelmed by the fact that, for once, he ‘can’t stop’, he’s not in complete power. The musical backdrop suits it, too. A thumping dance track that also sounds a little menacing.

13. Hollywood Undead – Take Me Home

What genre is this, anyway? Hollywood Undead were a great, trashy band at first. This dirge-like song doesn’t sound like they imitate the Metalcore bands that influenced them. The song relies on a stomping drumbeat that makes it all sounds like a funeral march. The hedonistic nihilism now doesn’t sound so attractive. Also, although it has an anthemic side it never explodes into pure stadium-ness. It remains subdued, showing sadness that feels more genuine than any of their previous ballads.

12. Bring Me the Horizon – Happy Song

It’s scary how well it sums up the Nu Metal attitude. It’s emotional release through singing loud and cursing. The use of ‘fucking’ suits the song so well. Sykes sounds depressed, singing weakly throughout the verses and only bursting at the chorus. Sykes never sounds positive or like he’s out of his depression, but he sounds like he’s trying when the band slams and he shouts the album title. It’s one of the best songs about depression. It acknowledges the fact you might be able to solve it, but fuck it, let’s try anyway.

11. Hollywood Undead – War Child

The best example of Hollywood Undead’s attempts at blurring genres. It’s a confusing track which way you look at it. It has a bass drop, only a loud guitar dominates it. The verses are Hip-Hop and the chorus is Pop. All this genre-bending means there isn’t an audience for this. It’s too Rock/Dance/Rap depending on your audience, but it’s also proof you can make music that’s both creative and fit for parties.

10. Everclear – You

Social justice is a big thing now and people now acknowledge males also get raped. This isn’t an MRA anthem about how male victims are proof we don’t need feminism. It’s a chilling song. There haven’t been a song like this since Korn’s “Daddy”. The contrast between the driving riffs and Art’s vulnerability gives us the mix of anger and sadness the situation creates. Everclear always great lyrics, but now they reach a new levels.

9. Grimes – Realiti

We have this perception that reality is harsh. ‘Welcome to reality’ is a phrase we tell people to let them know they need to acknowledge terrible things. This sounds so joyous, though. Reality can be beautiful with mountains to climb. Someone once said Grimes sings like an anime girl and there’s cuteness to her vocals that makes this song even more blissful.

8. Fall Out Boy – Immortals

It’s like “Centuries”, only more friendly. It doesn’t make it any less brilliant. The band’s new found aggression made for an album that’s mostly too loud for its own good but the cockiness here is great. You can imagine the band playing this at a festival, and every band that will play after them will be out of spirits. The vocal acrobatics Stump does destroys anything by Sia or Adele. Vocal acrobatics are a sign of strength, not sorrow.

7. Everclear – Complacent

You’d think Everclear would’ve ran out of ways to write about depression and failure. They had something that no one else had. Failure after failure makes you detached eventually. On “Complacent” they throw themselves headfirst into that idea of giving up. You can hear how Art desperately tries to convince himself that he’s ‘not angry anymore’, but when he sings about not wanting to be that guy he’s weak and faithless. He promises he will try, there’s no hope it will work. It’s not even the best song the band made this year.

6. Everclear – The Man Who Broke His Own Heart

They say that no one will love you until you love yourself. This is a heartbreak song from the point of view of a man who has nothing. He can barely lash out at his heartbreaker. He ruined it all by first hurting himself over and over. Bad lovers aren’t just assholes who use you only for sex. The guy who can’t stop hating himself is just as undesirable, even if it’s less politically correct to admit it. This both gives him a voice, but explains why it was reasonable to dump him. What a pessimistic song.

5. Melanie Martinez – Mrs. Potato Head

A lot of pop singers tell us we’re beautiful despite what people say. It’s easy to say it when you’re pretty. Melanie is the outcast, and on “Mrs. Potato Head” she finally tells society to fuck off. It’s been a while since someone made fun of our obsession with beauty. Someone needed to write the line “No one will love you if you’re unattractive”. The best thing is how serene Melanie sounds. She’s sneering at society throughout the song and doesn’t even view the Beautiful People as someone worth fighting. They’re just ‘mrs. potato heads’.

4. Celldweller – Heart On

It’s epic. Why Celldweller doesn’t score all sci-fi films? Maybe because they’re not worthy of his music. “Heart On” is a Progressive-Bass-Rock-House music whose every drop is different until it climax in an anthem that sounds pretty hopeless. Klayton sings about all the things he’ll do for the girls, isn’t needing to do all that means she doesn’t care much? The song moves from section to section, never losing its focus. A genius is someone who can connect unrelated things, and here Klayton finds a balance between Progressive, House, bass wobbles, rock and even a pseudo-rap verse.

3. Faith No More – Superhero

It’s worrying at first when Patton screams. We had enough of him doing silly things with his voice. When the chorus kicks in the song reveals itself to be something else. This is the good Faith No More who made angst rock, but weirder. What makes this song so good is how it moves from a simple Nu Metal song to a more progressive atmospheric one. The shift isn’t even sudden. The bridge between the two parts takes the anthemic chorus and the atmospherics of the later part and gives us a smooth transition. Patton also sounds very hateful.

2. Enter Shikari – Aneasthetist

A pattern appears, but then again it’s an ideal one. Songs that encompass multiple ideas and genres are often the best. “Aneasthetist” is barley three minutes long but it manages to do so much – Hip-Hop, Metalcore, Big Beat and sounds effects from a hospital. It’s just the variety. The breakdown is one of Shikari’s best, with hospital sounds making accompanying the saw-like riffs. There’s always fear Shikari will revert to making generic rock (Because this is ‘unoriginal’ because it doesn’t sound like Led Zeppelin) but so far, they’re only getting weirder.

1. Celldweller – Jericho

It’s not as progressive as anything else on the album, but it’s unique. Most songs about wishing for someone’s downfall are anthemic in a way that invites everyone to do vocal acrobatics. “Jericho” always remains subdued. There are no guitars but just a bassline and a stomping drumbeat. All this makes it sound more sinister. Klayton’s vocals doesn’t need to explode, he doesn’t need to convince himself. He sings like he knows that the subject’s person walls will fall, and there’s a cruel smile all over the song.

0. Periphery – 22 Faces

There isn’t anything profound in this song. It’s just perfect. Every part, every line contributes to the whole. The structure is verse-chorus-verse, only every verse and every chorus is different. It makes me wonder why bands who just want to rock out don’t make songs like this. On the final chorus the singer everything explodes, a ‘fuck me’ that sounds spontanous and the riffs hit even harder. There might not be anything emotionally deep here, but this is everything I want in Rock music.

Knife Party – Trigger Warning

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Famous artists disappear up their own ass, but Rob Swire’s disappearance is unique. When artists’ ambitions get to their heads, we get things that are plain weird. Maybe it’s the whole Advanced Genius Theory. Whatever they do, though, they never sound like they’re trying to avoid being something.

These are artists who were ‘underground’ not because they wanted to avoid the mainstream, but they don’t care about appealing to their core fanbase. That’s why Skrillex has no problem producing a song for Justin Bieber. He also a little later drops a loud, wobble-heavy banger with JAUZ. He cares for neither fan base.

If Skrillex always looked for new things and tried to make the best of them, Rob Swire is the opposite. He’s been moving away from the loud Bass Music for some time, but he used to have things to replace it with. It’s not the lack of wobbles or even heaviness that’s the problem. “Begin Again” was actually good. Their experiment with Disco was great. The problem is that they sound like they care more about sounding the opposite of their past, rather than making good music.

It wasn’t like this on their LP. It had the old heaviness with “404” and “Give It Up”. It found new way to sound like a siezure with “Micropenis” and that deep house track had a sick bassline. Knife Party were always derivative, but they knew how to take every style they jacked and make it work. This time, they’re not jumping into any particular. It’s your typical, faceless Electro House that has some Big Room and some Melbourne Bounce, but is generally afraid of being fun.

I know that most parties are filled with people who hate music. They came to hear the drums banging, take drugs and hopefully fuck someone. I don’t see how catering to these people leads to good music. I’m not even sure it’s a good startergy to get people to come in your shows. No one is going to spread these faceless tracks. Nothing here is as catchy as “Internet Friends” or sounds like the perfection of its style like “LRAD”.

For two tracks, Knife Party just give us the ordinary horn stabs for the drops. I’m serious. “PLUR Police” and “Kraken” have a very similar sound and don’t do anything with it. These horn stabs always sounded bad. They’re a less rhythmic version of the typical Big Room popcorn. They create a half-assed melody that can also pass for rhythm if you’re high on drugs at a rave.

There’s no rhythm to them, any inventiveness, anything catchy. Even when wobbles had no direction they at least constantly changed to catch your attention. It’s astounding that it took Knife Party around a year to produce these tracks. Get a random compilation from Spinnin’ Records, and you’ll fine at least 5 tracks that sound like “PLUR Police”.

It’s sad to see how far down they went. Inventive moments are still here. “Kraken” has some cool sounds that would’ve been easier to hear if Tom Staar didn’t shit on it. “PLUR Police” has good build-ups, both of them. As for the other track, it’s fantastic. “Parliament Funk” is everything you’d want in a Knife Party song. It has the same aggression, it’s focused more on aggression and the guitars in the build up give it some structure. For a change, it sounds like Knife Party borrowed ideas from all kinds of genres to create a catchy banger.

The JAUZ remix is fantastic. This guy has been making waves and hopefully he’ll re-ignite the scene. He doesn’t add anything but it’s been a while since I heard wobbles these powerful. The wobbles sound unhinged and organic. It’s like they happen on their own. Why is it here, though? I thought Knife Party weren’t into this style anymore. Maybe JAUZ will wake them up.

I love this band and I don’t want to see them jump the shark this way. I didn’t mind the lack of Brostep in their LP because they had enough to make up for it. They could still experiment and they still knew how to distort every style to make it their own. Here, they jump on a tired bandwagon and don’t sound so ethusiastic themselves. If Rob Swire isn’t into EDM anymore it’s best to call it quits now. Let them be remembered for their classic EP’s. If only the Tom Morello collaboration was released here.

Also, I can’t believe these guys didn’t release Zoology. It’s their best track and one of Skrillex’s bests, too.

2.5 dubstep remixes out of 5

Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full

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For an album considered to be so influential – Rakim is often said to ‘revolutionize MC’ing’ – it’s amazing how little sounds like it. A lot borrowed Rakim’s ‘smooth’ flow, but that’s one thing. This album’s approach and the rest of his followers are completely different. To be great is to be misunderstood, indeed.

Paid in Full has little in common with the boom bap era that followed. Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Black Moon, early Roots cared little how the music sounded. Or, if they did, it was so minimalistic it lost any kind of artistic merit. These were artists who relied on lyrics dense and complex enough to keep you coming. They turned down the musical elements so the lyrics would remain in focus, in a move very reminiscent of Leonard Cohen.

Some of them were successful at that – “N.Y. State of Mind” first grabs you with the quick flow, and then you notice the amount of details and catchy lines that bring its story to life. Some were just okay. Wu-Tang Clan had a macho bullshit charm but a lack of drums. Some were awful, like how the tracks of Things Fall Apart blur together or how Liquid Swords barely has any drums. This approach failed mainly when rappers wanted to convince you how great you are. Despite the rapper telling you over and over that his rhymes are dope and that he’s badass, the music that accompanied him was subdued, smooth and nearly non-existant. The instrumentals of Things Fall Apart and Liquid Swords don’t sound tough or confident but scared to catch your attention.

In Paid in Full, the music echoes Rakim’s sentiment. He’s as good as you heard he is. He’s less dense than GZA, but he’s far more quotable. Density is often a barrier to hide behind, anyway. Rakim sometimes doesn’t need to rhyme. A line like ‘Remember me? The one you got your ideas from?” stings, especially when you realize you know plenty of these lines already. Rakim’s strength is that there is a clear rhythm to his words, a rhythm that invites you more to try to rap along than to marvel at how complex it is.

The music behind helps to make Rakim’s boasts believable. There’s a reason why there are 3 instrumentals here. The beats’ purpose is not to provide background music but to express the same thing Rakim does. The drums are in the front. In “I Ain’t No Joke”, they’re stomping. “Paid in Full” has such a beautiful bassline and break – if someone told me it’s the best Hip-Hop beat he ever heard, I would understand.

When the title-track rolled around, it was clear the true followers of this album weren’t Wu-Tang, Nas or even Chuck D. This where the Big Beat movement started. The danceable break that sounds like it could go on forever in the title-track is what inspired that Properllerheads track from the Matrix and Chemical Brothers’ brilliant debut. It’s no coincidence that Kool Keith sounded more convincing than any rapper when he rode a Prodigy tracK.

There is toughness and confidence expressed in such danceable music. Dancing, after all, requires a level of confidence. Moving catches people’s attention, and their attention could mean negative opinion that some people can’t handle. That’s why people tend to drink before they feel like they can dance. That’s where we get the ‘wallflower’ trope. The rappers that followed turned down this ‘banging beats’ approach, as if dancing was for silly and stupid people. That only made them more musically narrow and scared.

It may seem like a too big conclusion, but the Hip-Hop community’s focus on lyricism always ended up missing a lot of the details. Even music that is driven by lyrics still needs music. You cannot push back the music with hopes the lyrics will become the focus. The focus will only move to how lacking the musical aspects are. Most canonical rappers turn down the musical aspects and all we get are impressive, but boring flows. Paid in Full is great at both worlds, and that’s why it deserves the acclaim.

3.5 breaks out of 5