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

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

Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

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Coldplay never sounded big. Every time they made something that sounded big and ambitious, it was a failure. When they stuck to simplicity, they were pretty good. They’re the biggest rock band currently, but they’re the antithesis of that. That difference is how “The Scientist” is brilliant and “Fix You” is atrocious, despite being both ballads.

What’s shocking about Viva La Vida is not that it’s experimental. There have been wilder mainstream albums. What’s shocking is how it works while being the opposite of what made Coldplay good. This isn’t a band that’s working on their strengths, but improving on their weaknesses.

You wouldn’t know it by the first title track. It’s awful. Using strings instead of guitars doesn’t hide an annoying melody. It feels like they couldn’t care less about whether the melody is nice to the ear. Everything about it tries to be big and friendly for sport stadiums. If it had guitars and drums it’d replace “We Are Champions”. A Cazy Frog remix is probably in the works.

This is why “Clocks” was awful, and any other big Coldplay song. They were only about size and never did anything else. Here, Coldplay are doing something other than sounding important. Even “42”, whose beginning is one of Coldplay’s worse moments (Trite lyrics and musical backing that sounds like a demo from X&Y), has a constantly-changing structure. The song is still a failure, but it’s an interesting one that adds more to the album than it takes from.

Other experiments are far more succesful. “Yes” is a sex song which further proves that Marin can be a great vocalist and when he puts the falsetto away. The falsetto was often what made the difference between good and bad Coldplay songs. Here, it’s thrown away most of the time.

Since there is a clearer emotional core to these songs, Martin chooses the correct singing more often than not. A sexually-charged, but still gloomy song about sex fits perfectly with the lower register. When Martin delivers pieces of wisdom we all know on “Lost!”, he remains calm. We all know that losing doesn’t mean you’re lost, and it’s good that Martin doesn’t pretend otherwise. The calm singing style gives an air of friendliness to the song. It makes it sound intimate like “Shiver” despite the the drums banging along.

The album’s apex is in the last three songs. They all justify Coldplay’s popularity. “Strawberry Swing”‘s flirting with psychedelia are forgettable compared to the pure bliss of it. The second title track is everything “Viva La Vida” wanted to be. It’s huge, hopeful but beautiful. It’s not just the progressive structure that helps, but that then knows how to handle every part. When the song goes loud Martin doesn’t sound like he’s singing in a huge stadium. He sounds like he’s re-discovering hope after the gloom of “Violet Hill”. As for that one, it’s Coldplay’s most aggressive song so far. Oddly, it works and it sounds heavy.

Some have pointed out how the album isn’t very experimental if you listen to something other than the Top 40 radio. It’s true. There are even mainstream artists who made weirder albums, like Linkin Park. Nothing here sounds like a new vision, nothing like “Sail” or “Radioactive”.

That’s okay, because the focus isn’t on pushing the sound further. Coldplay are dominated by their melodies. Everything they do exists to serve the melodies and drive them, never the opposite. The ideas here are only new for Coldplay, but they make better work of the melodies than if the band chose their ordinary set-up. The contrast between the soothing singing and drums of “Lost!” makes it work. The psychedelic vibe in “Strawberry Swing” are better to express its bliss rather than some pianos and guitars. This focus helps even the songs whose melodies are weak. “Lovers in Japan” would’ve been a B-Side if it wasn’t for its energetic instrumental.

It’s no wonder Coldplay took a more electronic route after this. It’s a great album, but the band sounds like they exhausted this style of Artsy Stadium Rock here. Then again, I thought the same when I listened to X&Y. Even if you don’t take into account that Coldplay never sounded capable of making this album, it’s still great. It’s full of great songs with great melodies and structures that go somewhere, rather than just repeat what came before. The skeptics have a few points, but here they’re wrong.

3.5 violet hills out of 5