Brother Ali – All The Beauty in This Whole Life

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Some time ago, Brother Ali had vitality and passion. It was a time everyone hated Hip-Hop made for partying, so some did bland, unmusical Boom Bap and others decided Hip-Hop could be about things other than killing and fucking. Nowadays it’s not mind-blowing anymore and that’s okay, since that era gave us Atmosphere whose followers – like Grieves and Sadistik – are the future. Brother Ali had his sure of fantastic tracks.

When I say ‘vitality’, I don’t mean that Brother Ali gone soft or any of that crap. The best song here is “Out of Here”, and his best song overall is “Faheem”, a heartbreaking song for his son that’s arresting from the first note and the moment Ali opens his mouth. There is vulnerability in his voice, one of an everyman who struggles with everyman issues that despite being common they’re still so huge we need music to deal with them. For a long time, it was one of the first songs I offered any time someone went off on ‘Hip-Hop is not music’ rants.

This album continues with the more introspective, less political nature. Nothing here goes hard like “Whatcha Got”, and that’s okay. The problem is, Ali doesn’t sound like he’s really into making music. Many of these songs ramble and don’t go anywhere. When they do, these are messages we’re familiar with and their delivary isn’t interesting or adds something new.

I’m not even sure if Ali is capable anymore. Like any rapper in this style, he had a tendency to make songs that are too dense to be interesting, but “Out of Here” should’ve been more powerful, darker. It should’ve brought the same vulnerability that made “Faheem” so arresting, yet it just coasts along. If it never sends a comforting message like how life goes on, it also doesn’t provide much insight into the topic. Losing someone to suicide is confusing. It shifts paradigms. We don’t just realize someone is gone, but it was death by choice. Someone actively decided that this whole project called life isn’t worthwhile.

According to the story, Ali took a break from music and went on a trip around the world to learn a bit about the beauty and love and life. Just look at the title. This kind of optimism leads to two things. Either there is a madness, an untamed desire to live and experience and contain everything which often leads to gender-bending music or you get dull, non-confrontational Zen bullshit. As if being complacent, or passive or placid, or whatever bastardization of Buddhism we invent is somehow profound.

Ali’s new found optimism isn’t mad and engrossing. All it does is make him less confrontational, with less desire to jump fully into his ideas. “Before They Called You White” reeks of tokenism, not of anger or of intelligence. Ali wants to take on the invention of whiteness. That’s an interesting topic that people don’t say interesting thing about. I can’t even get angry at Ali missing the cases and histories of racism not done by whites. Nothing is more West-centric than pretending whiteness is the great evil, but at least the idiots who spew that are passionate about it. At his most passionate in his song Ali says ‘Post-Traumatic Slavemaster Syndrom”, which is kind of cool. As for the final hook, it’s ironic. If the eye can’t see itself and needs critique, can I do it to all cultures?

Don’t get the impression that this album provides insight into the racial struggles. Nothing here is like Macklemore’s “White Privilege”, an abomination that was at least interesting. The second time Ali talks about race with focus is on “Dear Black Son”, but since race is everywhere in contemporary discourse the song is not interesting. I don’t mind songs about the Black experience, but don’t expect a “The Blacker the Berry”, something that shows the pain of being marginalized, of being always afraid a random cop will shoot you or that everyone still gives you funny looks despite claiming constantly they’re not racist. There is genuine pain to explore here, but this song is nothing but ‘you’re beautiful and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise’. Considering Ali experienced losing someone to suicide, I think if anyone needs this message, they are people who don’t an identity to give their life meaning.

I digress. This review should talk about how dull Ali’s rapping is on this album. Whatever interesting thing he has to say on “Never Learn”, the best thing about is the bluesy beat. Mostly, it makes me wish I was listening to Grieves who is so talented even when the songs are about nothing he imbues them with emotion. “Never Learn” is just cookie cutter serious Hip-Hop, pleasant on the ear and nothing else. Most of the songs are like this. I don’t get it. Ali is a talented rapper and the first single, “Own Light”, has some life in it. In fact, it does hint that the album might be necessary, taking introspective Hip-Hop to a more optimistic direction and creating the antithesis of Sadistik.

Sadly, the end result is introspective Hip-Hop without much going for it, either in subject matter, atmosphere, tone, wit or anything. The impression is that Ali found peace, and now he doesn’t have much he needs to let out in music besides some joy in “Own Light” and sorrow in “Out of Here”. In the title-track which closes the song, he praises God and overall existence. Forget, for a moment, Ligotti’s pessimism and how existence is always bad. Is that how the passion and love for life should sound like? Isn’t happiness and love wild, untamed emotions which we just can’t contain? Aren’t the best smiles those we can’t control? I’m happy for Ali that he’s at peace, really, but if his heart isn’t in music then he doesn’t have to make music.

Anyone remember “Fresh Air”? Now that’s a song that could cure depression.

2 out of 5 here

Fuck That Noise: Bruno Mars, The Weeknd and Ballads By Macho Men

Bruno Mars’ single, “24K Magic”, is badass. Mars doesn’t so much sing as he speaks throughout the song with every line meaning the same thing. He’s cool, he knows how to party and has women. The latter is especially important, because we live in a new feminist world where attractive guys are still allowed to flaunt their women like dollar bills. He’s so confident that, really, why attempt a chorus? The first spin of “24K Magic” makes it sound more like a spoken word track over a Synthfunk backing rather than an actual Pop song. It’s one of the year’s best songs.

It’s also a game-changer for Bruno Mars. From here on out, the only reaction to his ballads is ‘fuck that noise’.

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The Weeknd poses for his philosophy book

Music is acting. I don’t care who you are in real life. What’s important in music is that the character you play in your music is believable, and will somehow makes sense when we connect the songs. Eminem is unconvincing because he’s at one point mocking Pop music, whines about people not liking him and then makes a song with Sia. Ian Watkins is an all-around terrible person, but the sound of “Rooftops” didn’t change just because we discovered he’s a pedophile.

Balancing bragging tracks with ballads is tough. We all experienced the highs and lows of life, but you need to connect these two. If your character is sad, I need to believe this sadness is real and is relevant despite all the parties you had. It’s especially tough to come off as vulnerable or sensitive when a second ago you bragged how much sex you have and how all the women want you.

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I don’t think this is what you do with crosses

The Weeknd also released a song with a similar vibe, but “Starboy” is vastly different in demeanor and content. The Weekend also brags about having a lot of sex and a lot of money. He explicitly says he has a girlfriend and a mistress, both of which are out of your league. Along with bragging about cars, it’s obvious Weeknd’s life is overall quite kickin’.

What’s different is the context. Bruno Mars is carefree and happy in “24K Magic”, and only brags about how good his life is. You can understand nothing else about Mars, other than that he’s probably an inconsiderate asshole outside having fun. A line like “Bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends” promises great sex and treating you like dirt. Weeknd, however, is so dark that it’s obvious there’s something wrong with him despie how much he parties.

The Weeknd starts off his song with “I want to put you in the worst mood”. Already, this song is more than just bragging. He wants you to feel bad, he needs others’ jealousy so he could feel good about himself. Instead of the social butterfly who’s inconsiderate, Weeknd’s song is upfront about how pain exists in our world (and he wants to cause it). When he proceeeds in the verse to brag, it’s always about how his good things should make you feel bad. The line about using drugs to kill any pain makes it obvious that Weeknd does have a shitty day and needs to do things about him. The line “We don’t pray for love, we just pray for cars” is quite nihilistic, expressing a dark worldview of retreating to materialism.

Musically, “24K Magic” is a straight-up banger with funky backing, a great bassline and a synth that farts all the way. It only contains happiness. “Starboy”‘s drums are colder and jittery. It’s also more sparse, almost sounding like Joy Division tweeked for the dance floor. By the time drums kick in the chorus, they’re aggressive. You can party to it – it’s even recommended since it’s also brilliant – but it’s not happy-go-lucky and it’s more suitable to planning revenge than celebrating your anniversary with a significant other.

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Ain’t no fun if the guys don’t get naked too

These differences make me react so differently to the ballads. When Bruno Mars put out “Versace on the Floor”, I could think in terms of ‘fuck that noise’ and ‘are women still fooled by this?’. A little before, Mars was a social butterfly who didn’t care about anyone. He was the person you invited to the party, but once everyone had too much to drink and talk about life he gets kicked out. He’s the guy who never holds a conversation but only screams jokesĀ If Mars will be accused of raping a 16-year-old, I wouldn’t be surprised. Okay, I wouldn’t be surprised over any musician, but Mars is definitely in the top of musicians who have the highest chances of doing it.

I can’t connect the two. If “24K Magic” was less aggressive, more akin to Radical Something’s anthems of summer then it’d be different. Mars’ cocky aggression is integral to why his ballads doesn’t work. The line “Bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends” paint a picture of a guy women love so much he can afford to treat them bad without realizing it. Just ask Dessa. Neve in “24K Magic” do we hear a person who’s fun to be around, but a person who has a lot fun. It’s the type of person who fucks women instead of having sex.

When the Weeknd shows up his vulnerable side, it’s believable. He takes the dark side of “Starboy” and expands it, or takes the small cracks and zooms into them. “All I Know” is believable because it’s a direct contrast to “Starboy” instead of being unrelated. It was what he tried to hide so hard by bragging about praying for cars. “Secrets” is the flipside, with Weeknd being the man pining after the woman who has all the guys.

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About as romantic as quoting Gamergate supporters.

They also sing their ballads differently. “Versace on the Floor” is full of vocal acrobatics. Vocal acrobatics are impressive and a great way to terminate your acting abilities. Since they point out you’re actually a singer, you forget about the mood and the content. “Versace” is less about having time with a girl and more about seducing a girl using the promise of romance just to ditch her (Ed Sheeran’s character does it all the time). Shifting singing styles so radically only serves to show you were acting all along. Weeknd always sings as Starboy and never tries to show off. Imagine “Belong to the World” if Weeknd sang it like Mars. Actually, it would probably still be good because of the lyrics.

Perhaps it has something to do with me being a guy, but then again I consider Lostprophets’ “Rooftops” to be a highlight in music history. That song was made by your worst nightmare, a guy so sexy he could do anything he want and have women supporting him. Watkins never did Mars’ vocal acrobatics there. When it explodes, he screams more than sings and that’s crucial. Of course, good actors are also the best at sexual abuse, so maybe Mars isn’t that in person after all. I don’t know. All I know is that, as an actor, he’s horrible. Give me songs like “24k Magic” any day, because, from him, songs like “Just the Way You Are” makes me worry what happens backstage. I shouldn’t, since there’s always a good reason to worry about things happening backstage.

If that’s not enough, listen to “Versace” while watching the video for “24K Magic”. Tell me how different he is from how Nice Guys(tm) describe your boyfriend.

Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid

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Are Hip-Hop fans just failed literary critics?

I know I make fun of them a lot in my reviews, but the mind truly boggles. We’re talking about music. Music is an auditory experience. You can talk about the words all you want, but the question is whether it translates into good music. I can read the whole of American Tragedy over a dull Drone beat. The content would remain brilliant, but the outcome would be a dull and pointless experience.

Aesop Rock doesn’t do this completely, but he veers so close it’s frustrating. He’s clearly capable of being coherent, of providing lyrics that can be followed to a conclusion. “Lotta Years” is amazing. Aesop drops all pretensions, and tells in a straight forward fashion about feeling old and seeing how different the youth is. The imagery is both clear and poetic: “The future is amazing, I feel so fucking cold/I bet you clone your pets and ride a hoverboard to work”. It’s obvious and isn’t difficult to understand, but since when difficulty makes a piece of art impressive? What’s beautiful about poetry is how it sums up experiences and ideas in lines.

Not every song has to be this straight-forward. “Dorks” and “Rings” are less clear, but have lines that leap at you. “I think we’re all a pile of imperfections and flaws” is beautiful wherever it is, and it makes you want to explore what’s surrounding it. Even if it’s all gibberish, it’s gibberish that sounds cool.

You can only rap gibberish for so long before it becomes boring. Aesop’s lyrics are mostly gibberish. Analysis in Genius are interesting, but they’re analysis of lyrics, not music. None of these songs make me wonder what he’s talking about, make me want to dig in. I’ll gladly listen to an analysis of the lyrics, but at this point I’m not listening to Aesop’s lyrics but what people find in his lyrics.

For all his verbal and musical creativity, the mood remains the same. Aesop always sounds like he’s informing you how cool he is. That’s way “Molecules” is the second best track here, because for once it seems (It always seems, you can never be sure) that Aesop raps about how much of a badass he is. “Mystery Fish” does something similar. If Aesop goes about how out the box he is in the chorus, I don’t mind the nonsense in the verses. Every other song, soundwise, sounds like variations on these two. “Kirby” is supposed to be about his cat, but tonally it’s just softer than the other songs. “Blood Sandwich” – a song which is otherwise excellent – doesn’t feel like it’s about nostalgic stories about brothers.

It’s not a matter of mood. Sadistik mostly sticks to depressive and moody raps, but he can vary it. He goes from introspective to aggressive, self-loathing to contemplative. Aesop doesn’t have these tonal changes. The only difference is that some songs are less aggressive than others.

More frustration come from how Aesop hints at musical creativity but never pursues it. He can make a catchy song – “Rings” has a fantastic song that even if the lyrics were utter nonsense, the song would still be good. “Get Out of the Car” and “Blood Sandwich” remove all drums, and that helps take a more prominent role. There is also beauty in those ethereal beats. Other tracks are straight-up bangers – “Dorks”, “Mystery Fish” and “Molecules” are songs to blast in full volume.

Why then, doesn’t he take more advantage of it? Why make “Rabies” and “Kirby”, whose beats might as well not exist? If every track here had a hook as good as “Rings”, the album would’ve been pretty great. Aesop is charismatic enough to make the songs pleasant, but he refuses to take advantage of the auditory medium. He doesn’t realize the potential he has in mere vocals, instead he prefers to just rely his lyrics. Why not write a book, instead? I’m sure it’ll be interesting to read his lyrics on paper in my own pace. Listening to him isn’t fun. The ear is not interested.

Someday, maybe, Aesop will put out a great album where he cares less for conventions of Hip-Hop. He will realize he’s a talented producer, that hooks are great and that your lyrics are more interesting when the listener can breathe them in. It’s another self-indulgent effort, a glimpse into a great mind that doesn’t know how to communicate his ideas. I hope someday he’ll realize his potential, because I don’t need every song to be as good as “Lotta Years”. Just make them interesting as “Blood Sandwich” and you got a dedicated listener.

2.5 get out of the 5 cars