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

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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

Coldplay – X&Y

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This must have been a disappointed to people to who loved Rush of Blood. They must be disappointed by a lot of records, because failures like Rush of Blood aren’t that common. If I first heard of Coldplay through that album, I’d be really surprised. They didn’t pull a Minutes to Midnight – that’s another predictable step. They just made an album that doesn’t hint how huge you are. I guess that explains why it took me a long time to understand why this little soft rock band sells out stadiums.

X&Y discards the previous album’s experimental approach. Instead, it tries to fix Coldplay’s biggest flaw – their weak songwriting. Even the decent Parachutes relied more on sound and atmosphere rather than melodies. This might make the album sound tame and ‘uninspired’, but it’s a wise decision by a band who’s awful at pushing limits. In fact, making a tame album is exactly what this Piano Rock genre thing is all about. Why would you want to hear these supposedly gentle songs over Def Leppard production values?

They didn’t completely get rid of this production style. This album is clearly made by a band with a huge audience and enough money to make a rap song about it. “Square One” and “A Message” got walls of guitar noise that Reznor loved using in The Fragile (Only not that aggressive). The difference is that this production is pushed to the back. The huge sounds in “A Message” are there to lift the melody a little, but Chris Martin and what he’s singing are always at the center.

Speaking of the devil, Martin’s approach also changed. Since melody is now what drives the song, he puts a lot of effort on not ruining the songs. He uses the falsetto a lot less often. His normal voice isn’t exceptional, but it suits the music much better. It’s slightly muscular, but not completely. It becomes a perfect fit for music which uses a lot of guitar noise but has no aggression.

Maybe “White Shadows” and “Talk” would have been better with the production of Parachutes. There’s an attempt here at making something intimate and warm. Martin sings calmly about trying to talk to someone. That wall of guitars in “Talk” is out of place, and removes some of the emotional punch the song could have had. Still, when the album’s at its best it offers some of Coldplay’s best hooks in “White Shadows”, “Swallowed in the Sea”, “A Message” and “Talk”. There’s nothing here that deserves to be a global hit – only “Talk” does, and I’m completley fine with borrowing the melody from Kraftwerk – but it’s all good enough.

It’s bad less often than their previous album, but when it’s bad it’s the worse. “What If?” can be tossed aside. It’s cliched, insincere and the falsetto is very unconvincing. It’s no match for “Fix You” though. At least “What If?” has some humility. “Fix You” is a terrible song that should appear in every discussion of bad music. Martin sings it all in falsetto, and what better way to convince us you really feel what you’re singing by showing off how much you practiced? The lyrics are nonsense. Somehow, ignition of the bones is supposed to be uplifting. Then it ends with another Reznor-esque wall of guitars fit for a stadium. It was supposed to be a ballad. This loss of control can only means it’s a B-Side from Rush of Blood.

X&Y is perhaps the best album Coldplay will ever make. They’re a big band, and every album they will make will be a grand statement. X&Y sees them just kicking good melodies and not more than that. Even at that they’re not great. Only “Talk” rises above, but if you need an hour of soft rock it’s a nice option. There must be better options. Keane had 3 brilliant singles in Under the Iron Sea, and all Coldplay could come up with is a great song with a melody they haven’t written.

post script: The sequel to this is pretty fantastic. It turned out they can make a huge album.

 

3 x’s out of 5 y’s

Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart

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Things Fall Apart is the most famous African novel. It’s easy to expect it to give an unfamiliar portrait of an African society. Hopefully, it will be one that hasn’t been ‘Westernized’, and will show us the unique aspects of that society. It should be in-depth, and perhaps by showing the richness of that culture it will tell us how awful racism is, and that ‘black people’ are also people.

Achebe did show us that ‘black people’ are also people, but his method wasn’t to turn Igbo society into a tourist attraction.

Achebe’s Igbo culture doesn’t come off as very alien and different. That’s because Achebe doesn’t see it that way. If you grew up in Africa, it wouldn’t seem so exotic and odd to you. It would be the norm. Raymond Carver doesn’t treat his middle-class people as an exotic culture, and instead opts to explore the people in it and how they function in it. Achebe does the same thing here. He cares less about showing an exotic society than telling a story about human beings.

That’s why Things Fall Apart‘s themes and tropes may seem familiar. Maybe it’s not because White People ruined African culture, because there wasn’t so much difference to begin with. That leaves Achebe exploring his characters, without caging them in their culture.

Until the last part, where the White People appear, there’s barely any mention that these characters have dark skin. Instead, Achebe tells their stories dealing with topics such as parenting, childbirth, climbing the social ladder and masculinity. The last one is a big deal. It may be a common theme in a lot of Western literature, but anywhere that there are humans, there will be men and women. It’s a universal theme.

Things Fall Apart is actually more of a critique of the concept of gender, rather than embracing masculinity. Okonkwo being a protagonist doesn’t automatically means he’s supposed to be flawless. He’s not Atticus Finch. He’s sexist, but plenty of time that sexism is being challenged. In Igbo society, men are valued much more than women. “Women” is an insult. That’s why Okonkwo can deal with a son that doesn’t fit the traditional male role. He just calls him a woman and that’s it. When Okonkwo has a daughter that is much better than all his sons though, Achebe starts to question the sexism in Igbo society.

There’s a whole arc devoted to one female character and her devotion to motherhood. It’s not motherhood that’s been forced about the character. Ekwefi’s love for daughter makes her go against a spiritual custom. This is motherhood by choice. If Ekwefi’s motherhood is just a sign of submission, she wouldn’t have rebelled and went against the gods. However, she made a choice, and put what she loves above what society expects from here.

It gets even better when the White Man appears. Achebe’s sympathies may be with the Africans, and there’s no reason to expect anything else. However, it’s not the narrative of noble savages being trampled by the evil conquerer. The White Man doesn’t appear until the last part. By that time, Achebe lets us get used to the African culture, stop seeing it as exotic and start examining where it falls and succeeds. By the time the White Man comes, Achebe already gets rid of that simple narrative.

The part about the invasion is also less about the collision of ‘black’ and ‘white’ cultures. It’s about what happens in general when cultures collide. Just as we tend to view all of Africa as one thing, so do the Igbo view them as just ‘the white man’, although he could have come from anywhere in Europe. When they come, Achebe keeps viewing his own culture with a critical eye.

One of the best parts is Nwoye, Okonkwo’s bad son’s arc. The Christians offer a place for the weak to belong to. Igbo culture doesn’t just have outcasts, but is very mean towards them. They flocked to Christianity not just because the White Man conquered by force, but because something was missing in Igbo culture.

At the same, Achebe also criticizes the White People for their brutal treatment of Africans. That part is less novel, but that’s just because it’s a well-known story. Achebe criticizes less White People for what they are, but the exact method. White People became a problem not when they built a church, but when they decided that their rules should apply to every single one. It’s the lack of dialogue between the two cultures, the decision to stick to absolute morals that caused the destruction. Once one side decided to use violence instead of dialogue – it’s the White Man in this case – everything spinned out of control. Violence, and being unafraid of it, by the way, is seen as a desirable and masculine trait.

Do not get the wrong message, by the way. Things Fall Apart doesn’t say that African culture is obsolete and that the White Man somehow saved them. Rather, Achebe applies the same critical thought that any good author applies to his culture.

Things Fall Apart deserves its fame. Maybe, after devling deeper into African literature I will not find this so great. For now, this is the type of novel that deserves to be representative of the continent, if a novel can represent a continent. It doesn’t celebrate its culture and it doesn’t view its history as just bad people doing things. It respects it by treating it with the same critical eye that every other culture deserves. There’s no greater service to a culture than giving it an honest examination, not flinching from its flaws and successes. Some will think the familiarity is because Achebe is also a victim of Westernization, but perhaps ‘black’ and ‘white’ people are more alike than we think. Maybe, the missionaries have thought like this, Things wouldn’t’ve Fallen Apart.

4 yams out of 5