Linkin Park – One More Light

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Anyone who was born when Hybrid Theory first came out is 17-years-old now. If they’re lucky, they have experienced heartbreak, romance, sex, drugs, fighting with parents, have a solid group of friends and are thinking of what to do with their lives. I say this so you’ll realized how long these guys exist. We still live in the fallout of their first two albums which captured the anxiety of youth so well. So now we’re listening to Mike’s half-apology to his kids and wonder what the hell happened.

It’s the same question a parent will ask themselves when they realize their baby is now as big as them and discovered sexuality. These guys are old. Moreover, they always hopped from genre to genre, each album a clear response to what was before. Minutes to Midnight was their attempt to break away from Nu Metal, experimenting with different kinds of structures and isolating the Hip-Hop elements so they’ll become their own. On A Thousand Suns they said goodbye to everything and to every audience, jumping headfirst to experimental electronica, themes of nuclear warfare, emphasizing their Hip-Hop elements and producing such a wide-eyed vision that nobody could keep up with them.

After that, things made a bit more sense – but only a little more. Just when you thought they went full artistic, they dropped Living Things, a simple punchy albums that combine all their previous elements. Yet that album wasn’t a regression, since it had “Victimized” and “Until It Breaks”, the band refusing to settle to a genre and to a single structue. After everyone got used to blippy electronics and with a new fanbase, The Hunting Party threw it all away for huge, angry Rock that still included their experimental elements – see “A Line in the Sand”.

So how is the direction they took on this album a surprise? This album is the complete opposite of The Hunting Party without going ambient, not just in sound but in vibe. Linkin Park have always been quite angry. One More Light isn’t just a move to a new sound – you heard some of these ideas back in “Breaking The Habit” but to a whole new emotional dimension. 3 years ago they were angry adults, now they’re content adults.

It’s amazing people still react to this band with the surprise. As an attempt to go commercial, this is the complete opposite of their essence. When it does sound like ‘what’s on the radio’, it’s a drastic improvement. For the first time Linkin Park are allowed to be happy. The main shock behind “Battle Symphony” was how joyous it was, how it was so full of hope it didn’t have to to be bombastic but ride a glitchy, funny riff. Chester sounds content, not stretching his vocals but keeping the fun, careless spirit. This, along with “Nobody Can Save Me” are songs for an easy summer and we all could use such a summer.

Even when the songs are more serious, there’s a grown-up attitude of contentment, of looking back at your past and coming to terms with it. So you get “Halfway Right”, where Chester pours out his troubled with past with the happiness that it’s all behind him. Or there’s “Sharp Edges”, a move to Country which would’ve been cliched – and is – but check the ending. It’s been so long since the “What doesn’t kill you…” line sounded good, but the song explodes with life-affirming energy.

There’s a problem in music where artists ‘grow up’ and lose vitality. Many artists don’t know how to grow up, and what passes for lack of restraint is actually losing the energy and desire to make music. Linkin Park doesn’t fall into that. They enjoy keeping the songs low-key. It’s the kind of happiness where you don’t have to prove anything, and that’s why the ending to “Sharp Edges” or the ‘na na na’ thing in “Halfway Right” works. The band isn’t a spent force and their adulthood didn’t drain them of energy. Instead, they found joy. Nothing in “Sharp Edges” is particularly new if you listened to Mumford & Sons, but with such a joyous ending there’s no need to get lost in the dictionary in search of profound words.

The most important tracks are the title-track and “Sorry For Now”. They’re so good that they deserve their own paragraphs. Why “Sorry For Now” wasn’t released as a lead single is mystifying. No song grabs the listener and is full of surprises like that one. First off, we hear Mike directly addressing his kids and nothing shows us how old these guys are like this. Then there’s the chorus, which is beautiful and odd in its dismissal of angry children – a ‘someday you’ll understand’ that’s almost flippant but not too much. Right before the final chorus Chester comes to sing-rap, and it makes a happy song already more happier. At this point, they believe they can do anything – so they combine personal lyrics, a bass drop, a happy melody along with switching roles. By far it’s one of the most joyous song I heard, a band sounding so happy where they are so they just go with whatever.

Then there’s the title-track, which is harrowing. Linkin Park made few ballads, but this is the best of them. It’s not just about losing someone. The driving line – “Who cares if one more light goes out/in a sky of a million stars?” expresses how small we are in the face of death. It’s a song that should change the world. We hear about people dying everyday, and we can’t care about it all but goddamn it matters. It’s a hushed, warm ballad that, again, never explodes to vocal acrobatics. Brad’s guitar in the background is just as fragile as any of us. This is a song we all need to take in, to affirm our importance and our fragility at the same. No surprise they decided the song was so important they should title the album after it.

Releasing “Heavy” as the first single was such a stupid move. It remains the worst song here, although it’s only bad for the first minute where Chester sounds too whiny. As soon as Kiiara joins it becomes a decent ballad, updating the existential angst to adulthood. The album sounds nothing like that song. Actually, this album doesn’t sound like anything. Glitch is a big element, but just when you think you captured the sound of the album something slips. “Good Goodbye” is an aggressive Trap song. “Sorry For Now” is too big. The last two tracks drop the electronica for acoustic guitars. Comparisons to Twenty One Pilots are a good idea, but that’s because Twenty One Pilots are another band who refuses to stay in one place. So everyone calls them ‘unoriginal’.

Some have said this is a good Pop album but a bad Linkin Park album. Actually, when you look at it in the context of the band’s discography it becomes better. It’s another adventure, another evidence of how creative this band is. It’s not just the exploration of sound – there’s plenty of beautiful melodies and song progression. Add “Sorry For Now” and “One More Light” which are masterpieces, and this is another success. Of course, people who grew up on guitars will hate this. That’s less fun for you.

4 battle symphonies out of 5

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

The Crystal Method – Tweekend

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The Crystal Method has been written off as inferior carbon copies of Big Beat, and also that they did a ‘dumb, American version of it’. Snobbish people had to convince themselves that the Prodigy made profound music involving social commentary and existential questions when in reality they did nothing but really, really catchy noise. At first this label of the Crystal Method is a bit deserved. Their debut is a collection of cool Breaks with some funky Sci-Fi sounds. It had a cool sound, but few songs. Here, though, they truly come together and cement themselves as canonical in the electronic genre. Tweekend is one of the reasons why Big Beat remains EDM’s best genre.

Since by now every artist in the genre cemented their sound – Prodigy with their loud rocking, Fatboy Slim with his smoothness, Chemical Brothers with their genre-bending, Crystal Method had to find some kind of shtick that makes them unique. The whole ‘simple breaks and cool sounds’ was rendered irrelevant in ChemBros’ debut, where they converted it into some of music’s best 30 seconds. So they try to find a new, defining sound here – and they mostly succeed.

They still sound like newcomers, but not in the bad way. It’s obvious their sources of inspiration include the aforementioned artists, not just the genres influencing Big Beat. You get here a more clearer picture of what Big Beat is, and why every soda pop commercial wanted this kind of music. Whereas the Prodigy made Breakbeat fueled by guitar noise, Crystal Method seeked the specific kinetic energy that the genres happened to create. The originators were inspired by other genres. Here, Crystal Method are directly inspired by the originators.

That’s the main distinction between this album and their debut. Now they don’t just want to bang, but to make music that works like a martial arts scene or a car race. It’s music that was made for video games of that era, when violence was cartoonish, cars were fast (and possibly shot rockets) and everything was larger than life. It’s the end of the retro-future. Our image of the future and technological development wasn’t of peace but of combat and lasers, but boy do we like it. The album cover fits the atmosphere of it, watching a world becoming more technological and being okay with it.

At this point you can compare it to Electro-Industrial, and Big Beat always shared similar sounds and influence – and an ability to fit ideally most video games and movies. Oh, and yes, composers were stupid enough not to ask the dudes from Front Line Assembly to score The Matrix. Whereas the Industrial movement was scared of that future, this music jumps into it. It’s inevitable, so we might as well party.

That’s why it manages to have a fairly aggressive, macho sound without copying the Prodigy’s rebel punk antics. A funky bounce is underneath most of the songs, even the noise blast that is “Name of the Game”. There they let Ryu rap about how awesome he is over Morello’s riffing. Aside from being a fantastic idea for a song, the bass is deep and womping underneath all that noise. On some tracks the funk is more prominent – if you can sit still to “Roll It Up”, you may want to check things with your doctor.

It’s funny that they were branded as a dumber American dumbing down, since they actually play more with atmosphere than most Big Beat artists. In fact, they lead back to Progressive House than any other in the genre. “Roll It Up” and “Blowout” have a continous structure and a looping beat that threatens to last forver. There are few actual riffs here, sometimes appearing on songs like “Murder” and “PHD” but serving the beat rather than taking the center stage. Many of the sounds here surrounded and engulf the listener rather than pound into it.

What was seen as ‘dumb American’ is just the band getting the essence of Big Beat, if not exactly making the best album in the genre. Then again their competition includes ChemBros, so it’s by nature difficult. This album distills Big Beat from the outside influence, keeping what’s important – Hip-Hop breaks, a Funk bounce, Techno structures and the aggression of Rock. That still gives them a lot of room to move even if they never threaten to break away, but what great songs – “PHD” with its slower funk, “Roll It Up” in how spacey it sounds, “Murder” gives a badass melodic hook and “Over the Line” shows they can also be beautiful and more introspective. Being raised on albums like these made me wonder why EDM isn’t supposed to be an ‘album genre’. Even the weakest tracks like “The Winner” still bang. Perhaps you can cut a minute here and a minute there, but this is one of those “If you don’t like it, you’re no fun” albums.

3.5 murders out of 5

Slipknot – All Hope is Gone

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Normalization is the worst thing that could happen to a Nu Metal band. Back in the 00’s everyone whined about bands ‘selling out’, but they were concerned with the band’s image rather than quality. If a band decided to sing more and perhaps tone down the noise, it was wrong because it was accessible. Whether it lead to good music or not didn’t matter. So all the critics going hammer missed out about bands dropping elements, turning their vision more and more narrow.

The 00’s were surreal times, and pretty awesome. You could listen to Lostprophets without feeling guilt and overly serious EDM didn’t dominate the airwaves. A wave of loud rock bands rose, deciding that genres are silly. You can have funky rhythms, rapping, Dream Pop atmospherics and coherent screaming – sometimes all in the same songs. They weren’t afraid of being danceable or loud or poppy. “Eyeless”, a full-on rant with Jungle elements was considered unoriginal. It was unoriginal compared to, what, exactly? Long guitar solos and lyrics against Jesus Christ?

When Disturbed and Papa Roach dropped their quirks, it was a bummer but not too much. They weren’t too good at working with them anyway. Slipknot, however, are the band that suffered the most from the normalization. They didn’t distill their quircks into an accessible sound that still had shades of a unique personality. Korn still sounded out-of-place when they made “Make Me Bad”. Slipknot obviously read all the reviews that whined about how Machine Head does something other than an overly serious Pantera and decided, ‘hey, we’ll do it too!’

Why would anyone want to listen to “Gemataria” over “Eyeless”? What is it about the former that makes it more fun, more aggressive, catchier, more creative, more anything positive? Slipknot was so bizarre in their noisy rants that were somehow friendly to Rock radio. You would expect that the music would still have a shed of personality. If Slipknot makes ordinary music, it should at least sound like they’re playing the genre on their own terms.

Instead, it sounds like a creative band trying desperately not to come off weird, like a dude trying to hide his Slipknot shirt underneath a suit & tie. “All Hope is Gone”‘s chorus breaks into a Hip-Hop beat, and the chorus can be adapted into a Hip-Hop song. Since Corey displayed good rapping skills, nothing prevents him from breaking into a full Rap verse. It would be bolder to end the album with pure Breaks and rapping. The groove that drives it comes less from Pantera, and sounds more like the Funk-influenced ending of Prong’s “Cut-Rate”.

Elsewhere, “This Cold Black” and “Wherein Lies Continue” are more embarrassing examples of how hard Slipknot are trying to fit in. The latter has a slow groove that’s not danceable. It’s only ‘heavy’ in the sense that it’s not pleasant to the ear if your musical vocabulary consists of Backstreet Boys and the one Michael Jackson everyone knows. Imagine a Groove Metal track you’re supposed to brood too, rather than dance to. If you can imagine that, you need not ever listen to the song – or the whole album, actually. You’ll also desperately need something to make you forget this image. The former of these two track is the banding slamming their instruments seriously. There are no fun, catchy lyrics like ‘fuck you all, fuck this world’.

Really, people, why must anger be serious and dramatic? Vulgarity is informal. It mixed so well with Nu Metal because it gave it a lightness, a bouncy fun aspect to the music. Vulgarity makes the anger less serious, and the tracks more akin to venting than making grand philosophical statements involving fear and trembling. “Gematria” is limp and anemic, the band slams but can’t come up with anything truly hard-hitting. Spitting poetry about America being a killing name is so hilarious over these theatrical, brooding metal riffs. “We’ll burn your cities down” is the one highlight of the track, because Slipknot used to sound like they want to burn cities down for the fuck of it. Corey sounds more serious than angry, and you’re only allowed to be serious with Nu Metal if you’re weird enough.

Slipknot could’ve have justified their new, ‘no fun allowed’ approach since they were one of the few Nu Metal bands with an artistic bent. Vol. 3 didn’t suffer from it. In fact, it justified it by having fragile atmospheric ballads like “Danger – Keep Away” and weird noises during party tracks like “Pulse of the Maggots”. Nothing here is as brave and progressive like “Three Nil”, a track that was as angry as it was experimental as in was contemplative. It sees Slipknot utterly unrestrained by either Pop or Metal structures. Corey never once touches the conversational tone of that song, and no song has its unique, ever-changing structure except “Gehenna”. It’s an interesting song, at least, which counts for something in an album so lacking in spark or imagination.

The highlights are only “Psychosocial”, “Vendetta” and “Butcher’s Hook”. They don’t reach the heights of Slipknot’s older material except for “Psychosocial” – a fist-pumping stomper that tries to put a serious face, but still cares more about the party than grand statements. The other songs see Slipknot letting loose for a while. “Vendetta” may seem normal, but not because Slipknot are trying to be normal, but because they felt like kicking a straight-forward rocker. “Butcher’s Hook” sounds more like something out of Vol. 3 and has some fantastic atmospherics. DJ Starscream has always an important rib of Slipknot. His odd sounds made them sound more dangerous than any metal riff can, and the intro to the song is more intense than any Thrash Metal record.

Slipknot deserve so much more. While at first they seemed like they were Nu Metal’s most brutal band, they were also one of its weirdest. Even at their worst they sounded off-kilter and actually dangerous, like a band who can’t contain themselves. On this album Slipknot restrain themselves, and if this doesn’t sound awful to you consider this. “Danger – Keep Away” is an extremely soft ballad where the band jumps into its idea with full conviction. It has no build-up, just pure ambiance and creepy lyrics. Slipknot are unrestrained even in their soft songs. Nothing here sounds as dangerous or intense or authentic as that one. Here, they try to please those morons who whine about Machine Head being unoriginal since they expanded their sound. Such people you don’t want at your party, and you don’t want this album either (except “Psychosocial”, that’s Prong-level of party starting).

2 butchers out of 5

Ed Sheeran – Divide

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Reviewing an Ed Sheeran album only takes two sentences. Any song where isn’t trying to lure a girl to sex disguised as a romance is excellent. Any song where he pretends to feel deep, serious emotions is obviously bad. Of course, two sentences isn’t a review and there’s more going on here. Ed Sheeran is a star and his love songs are especially popular, so we need to figure out how exactly this crap works and why cheesyy love songs are still pumping out when he should be putting a backwards baseball cap and collaborate with Eminem.

I said this a thousand times before and it dawned me. It’s hypocritical to claim Ed Sheeran comes off like an asshole, even a dangerous one when Lostprophets is one of my favorite. These guys are a classic case of music as acting, when the front is completely different than the real person. Solution to this conflict is easy. Fist off, acting is all that’s important when judging music. Ed Sheeran can be a fantastic person for all I know, but I review his character here. Second, Watkins never broke character. Sheeran does.

“Shape of You” is the most interesting song here since it merges Sheeran’s two sides, and reveals all I said about him. He courts a lady with soft, sensual singing and sounds romantic. Yet listen to the chorus. It’s all about the girl’s body. Imagine if the song was sung by a heroin junkie homeless in the street or an overly obese dude with glasses and anime dakimakuras. The song is quite creepy in how it goes on and on about how Sheeran desires a body and not the person.

There have been countless songs about sex, but the key is that they sound authentic. When 50 Cent made “Candy Shop”, it was all about having fun sex. He never tried to sound romantic – only more into sex as having fun instead of status symbol. “Shape of You” has a fantastic melody, but it’s equivalent of a hot guy going on a date with a girl and only telling her how beautiful she is. Something about its bluntness and how Sheeran still sings romantically makes him sound like a person trying to lure girls desperate for romance to easy sex.

Everything else here is easy to digest. There are the ballads, and they’re all quite bad. Sheeran can’t seemt to find a bit of vulnerability in him. Every ballad is sung with confidence. A slightly low voice doesn’t equal vulnerability, especially when “Dive” and “Perfect” explodes into choruses. The latter actually has a decent melody that would be good in the hands of a different singer. He can’t even fake sincerity like Coldplay.

It’s too clean. When he sings that hearts don’t break around here, it’s more believable – only it must be Sheeran’s heart since women come back to him anyway (See “New Man”). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is it about him that makes his ballads sucks so much. Wisely, he doesn’t do any vocal acrobatics like Adele and his voice is quite beautiful. In style, he’s closer to the Weeknd, who is the model when you want to be both a sex icon and a mess. I guess it’s because Weeknd always lets darkness in, even when he brags. “Perfect” never touches on the possibility of heartbreak. It’s music for the end credits of a bad romantic comedy, as if once a romance starts it never ends and the story’s over.

Previously, he could sound more sincere (if unimaginative) when talking about things other than love and how awesome he is. “Happier” should be his moment to show heartbreak. The guitar strums in a defeated way, not trying to produce a melody and it aims for the warmth of an early Dashboard Confessional. Everything is hushed, the singing is lower and the piano is pushed back. Yet it doesn’t work. You can still see the stage behind him. Where is the bitterness of heartbreak he is so good at showing at “New Man”? The falsetto at the end is a joke, a gorilla beating on its chest, sounding more macho and confident than a Groove Metal band who are hell-bent on beating Pantera.

Then again, even with better acting these songs will most likely suck. They don’t contain a melody, but all lead to an explosion, like Coldplay that’s more readily available to stadiums. It’s not the source of the bad acting since it was present in his earlier songs. When he gets personal, the only reaction to it is ‘why the fuck should I care?’. Many artists wrote songs like “Eraser” (quite good) and “Castle on the Hill” (awful), but none of them sounded so self-centered as he is. Why should anyone of us care about Sheeran’s life, considering he made so much money singing pretty ballads?

‘Privilege’ is a word I didn’t want to use. After all, a lot of my favorite rappers are white dudes whose albums are psychotherapies with the listener. Grieves and Atmosphere come off as humble, sharing their stories with the listener with hopes of relating. “Eraser” has a toughness in it, Sheeran trying to convince us he’s tough because he survives the pain of being famous. Considering on later songs he brags about fucking – and sounds happy about it – I’d say it’s another attempt to impress us. The song is good, though. As for “Castle on the Hill”, it has the same idea as Adema’s “All These Years” without the darkness. Nostalgia is a painful thing. I know that since I spent 3 years in a military home and seeing a distance growing between me and my old self, me and my friends and all I’ve known is quite hard. “Castle on the Hill” paints it like it’s all happy and nice, taking a trip down memory lane. Don’t say ‘privilege’, don’t say ‘privilege’.

So it’s all crap so long as Ed serious. Smack in the middle of the album you get “New Man” and “Galway Girl”, two brilliant songs that will easily rank as among the best of the year. Switching up his demeanor, now he’s a playboy who fucks women and women call him up – despite having boyfriends – to fuck. It’s believable for once, actually has spirits and Sheeran is into it. The latter is about picking up a girl at the club but there’s none of the creepiness of the lead single. Instead, it’s just about how she fell in love and they had sex. The former is a bitter break-up song about how the ex-lover’s new man isn’t that good. The confidence, the venom in that song is fantastic. It’s not a rant or a plea for the lover to return. Condescension is the dominant emotion, with Sheeran sneering all the way to next  one night stand. It’s not a song to sing to convince yourself you’re over the break up, but to celebrate how you moved on. No coincidence that both of these are Hip-Hop driven.

Nothing here is too different than previous albums by him. His sound is expanding a bit and there is more than acoustic balladry now, but overall the man remains the same. He cannot break free of being a performer, he cannot get into the act. The difference between him and the horrible Watkins is that Watkins remained in character. Having “New Man” and “Happier” in the same album is jarring, since they’re opposites but there’s nothing to connect them. Eventually, one side takes over and the most convincing one is the braggadio and macho bullshit. It’s funny how that song take shots an ultramacho new boyfriend, because that’s exactly how Sheeran sounds like. I have no problem with that, since “New Man” is actually brillaint. I only wish he would let go already. “Galway Girl” has more spirit than any song here.

2 new men out of 5

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

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

Big L – Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous

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The appeal of Boom Bap still mystifies me. I’m sure it gives the people who listen to it a comfortable feeling. They feel tough in how their beats are hard, but not too hard. The lyrics are about being a tough guy, but it’s never too vulgar. Boom Bap also makes you smart. It’s the Hip-Hop equivalent of boring Post-Punk. The main appeal of it is that it’s not accessible.

I know, I know. Talking about the fanbase takes us nowhere. Diving through the ‘wordplay’ and ‘metaphores’ of GZA or Ghostface never appealed to me because they never gave me a hook to latch on to. In fact, nearly every rapper that tries to sound hard over those type of beats comes off as pathetic. Smooth flows and jazz horns don’t sound tough, just restrained.

I was ready to dislike Big L. A Boom Bap album full of punchlines has nothing to offer me. Then I hear Big L talking about how if he has AIDS, then every other girl has it. The same songs include various threats of rape and murder and about how your family will be dressed in all black.

This is everything I wanted in street rap that’s about being tough. All those rap songs tell you how rough it is in the streets, yet they sound calm. Big L is angry. The punchlines aren’t just good on paper. I don’t want to hear anyone else say them but Big L. His performance is so energetic. It’s impossible to imagine him not rapping any clever lines. ‘Sounding hungry’ is dropped often in rap reviews, but there’s no better way to describe Big L. He’s immersed in the battle rap bullshit, sounding like he genuinely believes everything he says. Check his verse on “Da Graveyard” and how he loses rhythm because of how literally hungry he sounds. You can imagine him biting the microphone. Everyone else sounds utterly pathetic after him.

I always found ‘complex’ flows to be overrated. A lot of multi-syllabic and interior rhymes aren’t helpful if it’s just a string of rhythmless words. Expression is far more important. No one in Wu-Tang Clan can muster the same anger Big L does when he says he can’t afford the “O-R” in ‘poor’. Big L emphasizes catchy lines that stick in your head. His flow is clear and his to follow, rather than pile rhyme upon rhyme upon rhyme. After all, what’s the point of dissing sucka MC’s if the line doesn’t make sense?

Surprisingly, the beats keep up with Big L. It’s hard to imagine a Boom Bap beat fitting him (“Flamboyant” sounds better with Popeska’s bass growls) but they do. Although they never become true bangers, they at least don’t do the boring smooth crap. They’re skeletal, driven only by drums and basslines. There’s a roughness, often exeggerated to them. I can’t imagine Wu-Tang rapping over “Da Graveyard”. The drums are too loud. Even at their more atmospheric moments, they beat RZA at his own game.

Beats like “All Black” sounds detached from musical conventions. It’s deliberate. Like Big L’s demeanor and lines, it’s an expression of the personality. Besides punchlines, Big L has the street nihilist personality to give his raps context. Beats like “All Black” sounds like the producers couldn’t care about whether the beat is appealing or not. They lack the pretentiousness of RZA’s beats since they never try to be artistic using conventions. There are no sounds posturing as ‘weird’. The producers sound like they simply don’t give a fuck just like Big L.

The album as apparently ignored until Big L’s death. That’s weird, since the album doesn’t need a death connected to it. Sure, you can connect L’s nihilistic attitude but he doesn’t explore it like Biggie does. He simply does the Boom Bap thing much better than others. He has more passion, funnier and catchier lines, better beats and doesn’t obscure the songs behind ‘complexity’. It’s everything you wanted in a battle rap album. 36 Chambers is slightly better than this, but Big L almost tops it and he’s just one person. He’s that good.

3.5 families dressed in all black out of 5

Massive Attack – Blue Lines

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Blue Lines is unlucky. It couldn’t rely on the huge influence it had for lasting critical acclaim. Everyone talks about how outdated this is and they’re right. Pretty much any work of Trip-Hop that came after this pushes the genre way more forward. You don’t have to look too far. Just listen to some Tricky, Portishead and UNKLE and you’ll find artists with a wider vision, a more diverse palette of influence and more conceptual depth. Their concepts are also so different that they hold Blue Lines back from being outdated.

Trip-Hop has a lot in common with other 90’s genres such as Gangsta Rap, Nu-Metal and Industrial Rock. It’s full of darkness, sexuality and general pessimism. The approach may be more artistic, but the negative moods remain the same. Blue Lines is the opposite. Instead of drawing abandoned and heartless landscapes, it’s enjoying life.

In truth, you shouldn’t compare it to other works in the genre. Even the influence have different filters. Massive draw from the smoother side of Hip-Hop and from the pleasant, easy side of Soul. ‘Easy Listening’ describes best the album. The breaks are slow, but funky and still hard. The rapping is so laid-back there are no rhymes to follow. Barring the oddly aggressive “Safe From Harm”, the singers sing about the virtues of love and being thankful.

Many artists have tried to make an album like Blue Lines. A lot of rappers made this type of ‘smooth rap’, but no one does it like Massive Attack. Unlike rappers who focus primarily on impressing you with rhymes (that are boring anyway), Massive Attack put more emphasis on mood. “Blue Lines” is better than anything by A Tribe Called Quest because of how precise it is in getting the atmosphere right. The break is rolling with a perfect balance between banging and not being too loud. The hushed rapping fits with the vibes. They’re not out to impress you. They’re chilling with you to the beat.

Maybe what people mean when they say the album is ‘outdated’ is because of how unambitious it is. The unassuming title-track makes it obvious. Unlike later producers who made huge statements with their albums, Massive Attack are trying to create good vibes here. Nothing here sounds revolutionary, like a new sound that inspired a lot of people. “One Love” is just a reggea song with more a Hip-Hop beat. “Unfinished Sympathy” is what happens when a Soul singer meets some Hip-Hop producer.

Yet this unassuming, unambitious nature doesn’t ruin the album’s quality. It’s only unambitious because its aim is to create nothing good vibes. The album is perfect when you hang out with a few friends not doing anything big, or when the party is at its end and most people have gone home. The atmosphere is still social and danceable, but slower and content rather than happy. It’s shocking to think this was released so early. This album was available for everyone, and smooth rappers couldn’t imitate it?

Blue Lines is an oddity in the Trip-Hop genre. It’s out of place in the canon because of how different then approach is. It may not be as deep as Mezzanine or far-reaching as Psyence Fiction, but there are few albums like it. Sure, there’s a lot of smooth Jazz and smooth Soul and smooth Rap. Massive Attack combines all these for an album that perfects the calm and social atmosphere. Forget about genres. It’s such a pleasant album that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to like here.

3.5 blue lines out of 5

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