Kendrick Lamar // DAMN. (14 April, 2017)

“It’s levels to it, you and I know.” So says Kendrick Lamar; K-Dot, Kung-fu Kenny, crown prince of music (of all size and shape) in 2017. There’s Burroughs, there’s Basquiat, and there’s Kendrick. It’s nearly two months after the release of DAMN., and there’s more and more to peel back.

I place King Kendrick among the great expressionists in modern art. He is a man of singular talent, capable of infusing his narratives with so many layers it’s near impossible to see through the folds. A “unifying theme” is nonexistent. Kendrick Lamar is a holistic artist. Every listen is a demanding exercise. good kid, m.A.A.d city is a vivid, cinematic album, a writerly journey through the Compton streets of Kendrick’s youth. To Pimp a Butterfly, a 79-minute jazz-rap-fusion opus, ranks among the greatest socially conscious albums of all time (and its companion piece, untitled unmastered., is a universe unto itself). And so arrives DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s most daring balancing act to date.

DAMN. is a work of staggering abruptness and multi-dimensionality; it is an album full of combativeness. Kendrick v. Fox News. Kendrick v. Life. Kendrick v. Death. Kendrick v. Kendrick. That combativeness reaches further than Kendrick himself. Following my first listen, there was one word that stuck out to me, one word that described DAMN.‘s modus operandi: pivot. Songs seem to take on their own schizophrenic life, pivoting from one beat to another and back, itchy and uncomfortable sitting in one place for too long. “XXX.” is full of such moments, sprinting from its muted opening to the hollow rat-tat of Mike-Will-Made-It’s beat: “All right kids, we’re gonna talk about gun control” segues into “a sound of drum-and-bass,” Kendrick Lamar backed by U2. Kendrick Lamar backed by fucking Bono. It’s an unthinkable combination, completely surprising and, in that, ingenious: a supreme pivot.

Lead single “HUMBLE.,” accompanied by a striking music video, says all you need to know before you know it. It is impossible to escape Kendrick’s gaze. Save a few precious frames, Kendrick is staring dead center, unwavering and unquestionably speaking directly to you. He chooses what you hear and what you see. He pivots; with nothing more than a tap of his fingers, the video spirals and dizzily searches for a landing. DAMN., unlike the genius of it’s creator, has many launches and few landings.

For an album hyper-focused on freewheeling energy, DAMN.‘s subtext has music scholars salivating. Kendrick possesses such a perfect combination of mainstream appeal and intellect that every single one of the album’s 14 tracks has a Genius page packed, top to bottom, with intensely studied annotations—the line “This that Grey Poupon, that Evian, that TED talk” warrants a 211-word explanation. Kendrick Lamar carries with him a writerly pedigree. He is the Stanley Kubrick of albumcraft. Nothing is out of place; there are no mistakes, there are no accidents. He mentions a call from his cousin Carl in “YAH.” and we hear the voicemail nine tracks later on “FEAR.” On “ELEMENT.,” Kendrick says “Fake my death, go to Cuba, that’s the only option,” a reference to a theory that 2Pac—whom Kendrick “interviewed” in To Pimp a Butterfly closer “Mortal Man”—faked his death to escape the throes of fame. On the following song, “FEEL.,” Kendrick once again references the legend: “I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was / The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’.” In the music video for “DNA.,” behind Kendrick there appears a picture of Tupac and Snoop Dogg, both impeccably well-dressed, staring directly at the camera. It’s hard to dispute the similarities between Kendrick Lamar and Tupac Shakur, and I’m left thinking if maybe Kendrick feels like Tupac felt, that fame is so poisonous and suffocating it’s worth dying to escape.

But as with everything on DAMN., that feeling subsides. It’s levels to it, he says. “I just win again, then win again like Wimbledon, like serve,” he says on “DNA,” all posture and testosterone. He softens on “LOVE.,” a beautiful song featuring little-known collaborator Zacari, who sings in an even, heavenly falsetto. “Just love me,” Zacari sings, and there’s an ache in that voice that smothers denouncement. Kendrick is characteristically intimate, seemingly speaking to his high school sweetheart and now fiancee Whitney Alford. “If I minimized my net worth, would you still love me?” Kendrick sings, and I picture a sly grin on his face—he already knows the answer.

The Kendrick we meet on “FEAR.” is not shivering or paranoid. He sings backwards, to be sure, but he is barrel-chested and blunt. Kendrick imagines all the possible ways he could die, or rather could have died. It’s an amalgam of the Kendrick we first met in good kid, m.A.A.d city—but instead of revisiting that young man corrupted and governed by fear, Kendrick wields fear like a deadly weapon. “At 27-years old, my biggest fear was being judged,” he says—”fear that my humbleness is gone.” Through the track’s near eight-minute run, Kendrick challenges himself to believe in both his god and himself. Cousin Carl Duckworth preaches in the beginning of “FEAR.,” referencing Deuteronomy and the suffering therein. By the end, through all the trials and tribulations of Kendrick’s upbringing, Cousin Carl is still there. He believes. “I love you, son, and I pray for you. God bless you, shalom.”

On “GOD.,” my favorite track on DAMN.,  Kendrick pleads “Don’t judge me” over and over. Despite both his outer strength and enviable transparency, he is, by all measure, a Mortal Man. Kendrick can sing “This what God feel like,” and mean it. “GOD.” soars above DAMN., born from some spiritual trance, with Kendrick saying “Don’t judge me, my mama caught me with a strap / Don’t judge me, I was young, fuckin’ all the rats / Don’t judge me, aimin’ at your head for a stack.” It, as with all of Kendrick’s songs, has to do with where he came from and where he is now. His origin is his past, present, and future. He is not one to forget. Compton pumps in his veins—but more than that, faith and family prop up a brave, humble young man.

“DUCKWORTH.,” the culmination of an album rife with origin stories, is the origin story. It it an impossible coincidence. It is also entirely true. Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith robbed a KFC one night, where Kendrick’s father, Ducky, was working. Ducky offers Top Dawg “Free chicken any time Anthony posted in line / Two extra biscuits: Anthony liked him and then let him slide.” And as Kendrick says, “Pay attention, that one decision changed both of they lives.” The track reverses, and we’re back to the beginning, “BLOOD.” And Kendrick takes a walk.

DAMN. is not proof of the genius of Kendrick Lamar. It is not a victory lap. It is not an album of vicious rap songs. It is not rap. It is not hip-hop. As closely as I can compare it, it is The Godfather: Part II. We all come from somewhere—anywhere, really. And none of that, none of our story, our origin, who we are and where we’ve been, none of it means anything if we don’t make it mean something. Kendrick Lamar is the example. Here is a man who rose from impossible depths to look down from a throne of his own creation. This is not an accident. The man himself would likely be more humble in the face of such praise. But, as he says, it’s levels to it. As far as my voice matters, Kendrick sits at the highest.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “DNA.,” “YAH.,” “ELEMENT.,” “FEEL.,” LOYALTY.,” “LOVE.,” “XXX.,” “FEAR.,” “GOD.”

Mount Eerie // A Crow Looked at Me (24 March, 2017)

On July 9th, 2016, Phil Elverum’s wife, musician Geneviève Castrée Elverum, died of inoperable pancreatic cancer. She was 35-years old, leaving behind her parents, a husband, and a daughter not yet two-years-old. In Phil Elverum’s own words, “Words fail.” A Crow Looked at Me is not, in a sense, an album; rather it is a document of grief, a spare and sprawling prose-poem of a man’s thoughts and feelings on a love lost too early. Through much of the record, Elverum, in his eighth album under the name Mount Eerie, speaks directly to Geneviève. He does not mince words: “You have been dead eleven days,” he says, his mind and body a shell. Opener “Real Death” is a tone-setter; “Death is real. Someone’s there and then they’re not.” He has a journalistic, achingly personal way of talk-singing, conversing with empty air. A Crow Looked at Me is such an astounding record because it strips all notion of art from expiration; death as concept. It is the diary of a man in mourning, for both his dead wife and a child who will never know her mother. “It’s dumb, and I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.”

A Crow Looked at Me is understandably a hard listen, for numerous reasons. The songs were recorded with only a laptop and microphone. There is no complex instrumentation. Guitar and Elverum’s soft voice are the staples, occasionally buffed by piano keys and rough percussion and what sounds like a breathing machine. It can be an incredibly painful listen, but one I am unable to shake, unable to stop dissecting. The casual poetry of Elverum’s words, in talking to both himself and Geneviève, leave one breathless. In “Forest Fire,” Elverum deals with the passing of time without Geneviève, framed by a forest fire that has been burning since her passing. “The year moves on without you in it. Now it is fall without you.” A forest fire, a natural process of burning undergrowth and restoring nutrients to the soil—nature reclaiming her territory—is not an acceptable answer to a man in mourning. “I reject nature, I disagree.” This does not come easily. Mount Eerie has always been a passion project for Elverum, much of his music exploring his fascination with the natural world and its machination. But now, “The leaf on the ground pokes at my slumbering grief. Walking around, severed, lumbering.”

In “Swims,” Geneviève’s ashes are made to swim in the ocean. Of course, this box of ashes is not Geneviève. “I can’t get the image out of my head of when I held you right there and watched you die.” It is abundantly clear throughout A Crow Looked at Me that Geneviève’s passing is fresh, as though it were yesterday. She died in July, and not nine months later Elverum released this journal to the public. I can’t imagine that decision. It must have felt necessary, not art as therapy necessarily, but some way of honoring her. Both were musicians, both relatively reclusive. And now, one must eulogize the other. “Today our daughter asked me if Mama swims. I told her ‘Yes she does, and that’s probably all she does now.’ What was you is now borne across waves, evaporating.” Just before Geneviève swims, Elverum sings “We are all always so close to not existing at all,” no wry smile on his face, as though he has dropped profundity in the lap of the listener. No, not at all. “Death is real.”

On “My Chasm,” Phil grasps living a relatively public life without Geneviève. “Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?” Knowing the answer, he chooses to seclude himself in her room and make music. On “Emptiness pt. 2,” Elverum further rebukes the idea that there is any life lesson to be learned from his wife’s passing: “There is nothing to learn. Her absence is a scream.” On and on he provides these short blurbs of numb poetry, so personal you can’t help but be reminded that, at some point, all of us will either deal with or deal this pain to another. On “Toothbrush / Trash,” Elverum grapples with fading memories. The song’s first act, a meditation on “The quiet untreasured in between times,” is focused on small, even mundane recollections of Geneviève. Her singing on the staircase, the slight smell of pine thrush in her hair, the squeak of her chair when she shifts her weight. The second act is an honest admission that Geneviève is gone, and she’s not coming back. The wind blows a door closed, and for just a second, Elverum thinks it may be her, returning from wherever it is she’s been. But he turns and sees no one, feeling only the wind between his fingers.

“Soria Moria” is crushing, an album’s-worth of ideas and feelings. Named after a painting by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen, the mythical Soria Moria Castle is said to be a place of perfect happiness. The castle sits atop a large hill; a deep valley of fog blocks the direct path to the castle, forcing one to venture into the unknown and make their own way. “Slow pulsing red tower lights across a distance, refuge in the dust.” Phil’s idea of Soria Moria Castle is not clear. I’m hesitant to assign it a meaning; the castle, and the song itself, are a mystery. He is searching for that place, a refuge of light and happiness, but the road is murky and surrounded by clouds; he feels directionless, but he plods on. “I knew exactly where the road bent around, where the trees opened up and I could see. Way above the horizon, beyond innumerable islands.” Elverum’s poetics are incredible, this intent to give peace a physical body, a place one has to find independently. A castle and its many walls. And he is close. “I have not stopped looking across the water from the few difficult spots where you can see that the distance, from this haunted house where I lived to Soria Moria, is a real traversable space. I’m an arrow now, mid-air.”

“Are you dreaming about a crow?” On the album’s final song, “Crow,” Phil and his daughter are walking through the woods. They search for the forest fire zone where, in August, Mother Nature destroyed her flora and began to rebuild. As he hiked, daughter slung across his back, cradled and sleeping, a solitary crow followed along. “Sweet kid, we were watched and followed and I thought of Geneviève. Sweet kid, I heard you murmur in your sleep. ‘Crow,’ you said, ‘Crow’ And I asked, ‘Are you dreaming about a crow?’ And there she was.”

A Crow Looked at Me is not an album. Nor is it a work of art, truly. It is the most honest, unflinching, and heartbreaking thing I have ever come across. It is impossibly sad, wrought with death, grief, and loneliness. It is a wholly necessary album from a man trying something, anything to get by. He may never reach Soria Moria Castle, but that does not mean he won’t try. And through all my repeated listening, the hours and hours I’ve poured into this work, there is no profound sentiment to extract from this record; no punchline, no proper ending. I’m always brought back to the beginning, the entire album’s meaning found the last line of Crow‘s first song. “It’s dumb, and I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.”

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: the album, front to back.

Wilco // Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has always felt just out of reach. It’s easy, perhaps convenient, to forget the album was recorded prior to the September 11th attacks, as the two seem irrevocably intertwined; the suggestive cover art (Chicago’s twin Marina City towers overlooking the Chicago River); song titles like “War on War” and lyrics like “Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad sad songs”; an unofficial release on September 18th, 2001. Musically, it is incomparably and irresistibly strange, idiosyncratic to a fault. In Uncut‘s original 2001 review of the album, it was labeled, perhaps unfairly, as “Americana’s Kid A.” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became a monolith, a work of art so infinitely flexible and brilliant it had already been canonized as a true American masterpiece. And it was a hare’s breath away from being an epic disaster.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot lives and dies in the discordant piano clangs of album opener “I am trying to break your heart.” “Still I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy” says Jeff Tweedy, his slight smirk becoming more pronounced by the second. Tweedy is not the prototypical singer-songwriter. His voice doesn’t shine in the darkness; in fact, prior to YHF, Tweedy’s vocals were often downplayed in favor of more interesting guitar and percussion work. Likewise, his alt-country style of lyricism was dismissed by some critics as plain and overly sentimental. But something clicked with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and sixteen years later, it’s still difficult to tell exactly what went right. But above all else, the album revealed something that still holds true to this day: Jeff Tweedy is not afraid to make mistakes.

“There is something wrong with me,” he sings on “Radio cure,” giving no hint as to who he’s talking to. Later on, amidst a chorus of bright chimes, Tweedy crones “Distance has no way of making love understandable.” Both of those phrases—each one a mental double take seemingly soaked in metaphor—are very simple. There are dozens and dozens of moments in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in which a two-lane highway is found to contain sudden speed changes, winding curves, and innumerable exit ramps. Each song is an experiment of itself, comfortable enough to just exist but free enough to test its borders.

It therefore comes as no surprise that such a risky album spent a significant amount of time in limbo. Jeff Tweedy and guitarist Jay Bennett clashed constantly throughout the album-making process: Bennett was apt to focus on small musical minutiae in individual songs, such as the brief transition from “Ashes of American Flags” into “Heavy metal drummer,” an event seen in Sam Jones’ film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, which documented the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy was wholly unconcerned with the transition, more focused on the broader thematic questions of the album. Attempting to bridge the gap between their different points-of-view, Tweedy invited record producer and musician Jim O’Rourke to mix “I am trying to break your heart.” Tweedy liked the results, and O’Rourke subsequently mixed the album. When all was said and done, Tweedy removed guitarist Jay Bennett from the band.

At nearly the same time, Wilco’s label, Reprise Records, came under new management. David Kahne, the A&R representative for Reprise, was left with the decision of whether or not to release the album. Worried about being bogged-down by tedious back-and-forth arguing, Wilco negotiated a buyout from Reprise, securing the rights to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the process. Tweedy was hellbent on releasing the album as closely to its scheduled release date (September 11th, 2001) as possible. The following week, on September 18th, Wilco streamed the album in its entirety on their website. It was a surprising hit; traffic to the website increased tenfold, and the subsequent tour was a massive success. Tweedy noted that audiences sang along to tracks that had not yet been “officially” released. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s commercial release would not come until seven months later; Nonesuch Records dropped the physical album on April 23rd, 2002.

Once again, mistakenly, YHF seems a product of this tumult rather than an inanimate player. It is a work of art entangled in deep mythology. “Ashes of American Flags” paints an eerily prophetic picture of post-9/11 America. Tweedy half-sings “I wonder why we listen to poets when nobody gives a fuck,” uninterested in waxing poetic about the chaos of modern American life. Poetry abstracts reality, separating its many parts in an attempt to piece them back together in a way that makes complex thoughts, feelings, and experiences seem profoundly simple. That’s great and all, but Jeff Tweedy doesn’t really give a fuck—and for that matter, neither do we.

Chaos is forever chaotic; there is no way to rationalize hatred or violence or the collapsing twin towers of the World Trade Center. It’s all chaos; chaos and randomness. Tweedy brings the track to a sobering end, singing “I would like to salute the ashes of American flags / And all the dead leaves filling up shopping bags.” He seems to be making some off-color reference to reincarnation. Dead leaves can return to their tree, but the tree takes a different form; it is certainly not the same, but is it altogether that different? If the American flag is reduced to ashes, who’s to say we can’t pick up the smoldering pieces and build anew?

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, on the whole, is not a record of doom-and-gloom. “Heavy metal drummer” is a pure nostalgia trip: “I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands / I used to go see on the landing in the summer,” Tweedy sings, and one pictures an 18-year old Jeff Tweedy drunkenly headbanging to a Guns N’ Roses cover band. It’s bittersweet, in a sense, because there comes a point in everyone’s life where worry supersedes carelessness. It becomes harder and harder to let loose. The chorus, in contrast, is miles removed from the desolation described in “Ashes of American Flags”: “I miss the innocence I’ve known / Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.”

“Heavy metal drummer” is upbeat; the guitars smile and bounce among lively piano chords that puncture the end of every measure. For a man opposed to poetry, Tweedy has a curious tendency to make a quiet phrase snap. “Unlock my body and move myself to dance” he whistles, memories of carefree summer nights populating his mind. Each song on YHF works together in the oddest of ways. “Heavy metal drummer” is followed by “I’m the man who loves you.” The latter song begins with a wink to the prior—a smooth and smothered guitar riff, Wilco performing their sincerest heavy metal tribute.

Early-album track “War on war” is arguably YHF‘s best song. Deceptively straightforward, the song is constantly in motion. Rhythmic distortion melts into an infectious guitar strum, with Tweedy chiming, “It’s a war on war, it’s a war on war.” The chorus betrays the lightness of the music: “You’re gonna lose / You have to lose / You have to learn how to die / If you want to, want to be alive.” Once again, worldly context and pure happenstance dictate the song’s interpretation. It’s an ominous precursor to the reality of a very real war, and a quietly damning statement on the uselessness of violence begetting violence.

On “Pot kettle black,” there is a less imposing statement that echoes the chorus of “War on war”: “But I’m not gonna get caught calling a pot kettle black / Every song is a comeback / Every moment’s a little bit later.” This could be Tweedy’s roundabout way of saying it’s impossible to plan for the future; hardships exists around every corner, and it’s a fool’s errand to formulate an answer, any answer, that would satisfy the randomness of life.

Penultimate track “Poor places” is perfectly scored by a luscious fusion of guitar and piano. Tweedy sounds increasingly desperate as the song moves forward; he references his own problems with alcoholism (“There’s bourbon on the breath of the singer you love so much”) and loneliness (“My voice is climbing walls / Smoking, and I want love”). In the midst of the other existential themes of YHF, these lines are positively human. The album’s final offering, “Reservations,” is a song of uncertainty. “How can I convince you it’s me I don’t like?” Tweedy asks. The track is a necessary capstone to an album informed by personal experiences; it’s an unequivocal confession that Tweedy, even at his most creatively fearless, still has doubts. But there’s something that keeps the song grounded—or rather, someone. “Oh I’ve got reservations about so many things / But not about you / It’s not about you.”

The future significance of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is unknown. That being said, it’s been fifteen years, and the album feels as fresh and relevant as day one. It’s a purely American record, a holistic document of a pre- and post-war emotions. It comes off as authentic because it is just that—authentic; YHF is unafraid to pose the kind of questions that beg for an answer. Each track is furiously independent, but when wrapped together, the full picture emerges. I’m convinced that picture looks different to each individual.

There is an irony sewn into Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: outward certainty and internal doubt walk hand-in-hand. That toeing of the line is what makes it so special. Feelings are either taken at face value or left completely unsaid. It is an album replete with thousands of small, intense moments, each burning hotter and brighter than the next. As I said before, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot lives and dies in that first minute of “I am trying to break your heart.” The instruments can’t quite find harmony; they are unsure of themselves, not confident to settle in any one place. Finally, through the clamor, a lone guitar breathes a soft rhythm, and a song is born. Tweedy sings “What was I thinking when I let you back in?” That question, as with so many others, doesn’t need to be answered. It is best left alone; the answer exists, no doubt, but it is somehow just out of reach.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “I am trying to break your heart,” “Radio cure,” “War on war,” “Jesus, etc.,” “Ashes of American Flags,” “Heavy metal drummer,” “Pot kettle black, “Poor places”

 

 

Julie Byrne // Not Even Happiness (13 January, 2017)

However quiet and calm her voice, Julie Byrne is an incredibly self-assured artist. Her songwriting is immediate and elegant. She herself is a picture of so many folk artists that came before: restless, heartsick, fed up with the modern world and its boorishness. “To me this city’s hell, but I know you call it home / I was made for the green, made to be alone” she sings on album opener “Follow My Voice,” not at all timid. Not Even Happiness, Byrne’s second LP, is a rich work of beauty and—most importantly—clarity.

Byrne’s soft, velveteen voice and expertly plucked guitar are the foundation of Not Even Happiness‘ nine tracks. She is divinely confident, piercing small moments with incredibly observed lyrics (“Driving through southwestern towns that I had been in before / Sun split ember, and fields that span forever, forever”). On “Sleepwalker,” she sings “Before you, had I ever known love / Or had I only known misuse of the power another had over me?” at a careful, airy pace. Byrne is the archetype singer-songwriter, intent on solitude but somehow still longing for connection and companionship (“I grew so accustomed to that kind of solitude / But I long for you now, even when you just leave the room”). She is an artist of the old order and the new; picking at her guitar, daydreaming of a world with clear skies and green pastures. She has the power to reflect, relive, and heal.

“Melting Grid,” a magnificent piece of songwriting, finds Byrne (accompanied by flute) geographically tracing the places she’s been. Colorado, Wyoming, “Kansas, Arkansas, my fields they’re always rich and in fire.” Julie Byrne is an exceptional songwriter, one with the ability to tell a story while withholding intricate detail. Some of Not Even Happiness‘ most interesting stories are the ones she chooses to not expound upon. “And would you ask my permission the next time you absorb me?” she sings, her tone edgeless but resolute. There’s a sense that Byrne makes music as therapy, which allows her songs the rare opportunity to emanate purity. Not Even Happiness is a record without reservation, a small and quiet world where all things are of equal importance—in a sense, free. Her carefully scored “Interlude” is the perfect example, a simple harmony of strings and nearly inaudible piano atop the calming sound of ocean waves. It is silent, perfect, complete.

“Morning Dove,” Exhibit A for Julie Byrne the Guitarist, is a song from a woman who has spent much her life wanting and waiting. Both measured and urgent, Byrne’s lyrics are once again her greatest revelation; “All I bear, all I sieve, I thought of you so presently” she sings with her heart on both sleeves. She is not so much lovesick as she is a lonely soul, a woman convinced that no matter who or what comes into her life, there is a small piece of her that will always feel incomplete. But she is fighting the urge to isolate. “And life is short as a breath half-taken / I could not wait to tell you the truth.”

On “All the Land Glimmered,” Byrne’s guitar squeaks and clacks beneath her fingers, a necessary distress as she sings “Searching for an anchor, I’ve been seeking god within.” The track that follows, “Sea as It Glides,” is Julie Byrne’s “Hallelujah,” a tranquil walk through her happy place. Her guitar, as ever, is the propeller, and Byrne’s quiet, brilliant voice pays revery the word “You.” There is a sacred quality to the song, as though she has found the god she had been searching for within. Though many (if not all) of the tracks on Not Even Happiness play like love songs, Julie Byrne is not so quick to spill her heart on the page. Her heart is a roaming object, so often distant and closed-off that when she finally lets you into her world, it plays like a breath of fresh sea air.

In the spirit of many great folk records, Not Even Happiness is at once illuminating and aloof. It is the idea of art as therapy, as healing. It’s the work of a growing artist and an eager human being, one unafraid to admit “And yes, I’ve broke down asking for forgiveness / When I was not close to forgiving myself.” She desires clarity, a clear consciousness and an open heart. For Julie Byrne, happiness is simply not enough.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Follow My Voice,” “Sleepwalker,” “Melting Grid,” “Natural Blue,” “Morning Dove,” “Sea as It Glides,” “I Live Now as a Singer”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sampha // Process (3 February, 2017)

One trait of a true artist is the ability, or the desire (or the itchy, nagging urge), to turn the inside out—to stitch thoughts and feelings and experiences into something whole. Many musicians are constantly struggling for the right balance, a perfect symmetry of the personal and the artistic. South London-based producer/songwriter Sampha Sisay is a sucker for symmetry. It’s right there on the cover of his debut LP, Process, a meditative and magnificent record.

Sampha is an unassuming solo artist. He rose to notoriety with big-name collaborations, lending his skills as a pianist, producer, and vocalist to the likes of Solange (“Don’t Touch My Hair”), Drake (“Too Much”), and Kanye (“Saint Pablo”). While these efforts give us a glimpse of Sampha the musician, none of them provide any insight into Sampha the man. He’s a man in search of something, repeating phrases not for our clarity, but his own (“If ever you’re listening”). He suffers from severe social anxiety, something rarely touched on in the music industry (“I swear they smell the blood on me”). Process is an album that bleeds catharsis; certain songs are prone to intense rumination. And yet the record is, on average, remarkably spare. Harmony is the goal, not the method. The slight bump of bass on “Plastic 100°C” sharply contrasts a gently plucked harp. “It’s so hot I’ve been melting out here / I’m made out of plastic out here,” Sampha sings with the earnest emotion of a man familiar with fire.

Process is a swell of emotion. Sisay recorded the record during his mother’s battle with cancer, a fight she eventually lost in September of 2015. Her presence is felt throughout. “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” a beautiful tribute, is a simple and elegant song. Sampha moved back into his childhood home to care for his ailing mother, and the piano became his confidant, a place to vent when he needed it the most. He sings “You would show me I had something people call a soul,” a wrenching, revelatory discovery. Later on, Sampha admits “I kept the feelings close.”

“Blood on Me,” a sonically brilliant track, finds Sampha on the run. It’s an onslaught of paranoia, an extremely anxious man confronting his numerous demons all by himself (“I’m so alone now, swervin’ out of control now”). The song, rather than being a mere product of paranoia, succumbs to the panic. Sampha described the song as being a wholly cathartic experience. The pages are stained with expository nonsense (“Don’t throw the paint on me,” “In this forest runnin’ away”), subject to a dark spatter of Sampha’s in the background, slackjawed and droning as the piano clanks. On the following track, “Kora Sings,” Sampha loudly declares “You don’t know how strong you are,” well before ending the track with “It’s just me, myself, and my gun / Remembering the times.”

Grief is a process. It’s not a sketched-out 12-step program, no, but it’s a process nonetheless. There are ups and downs, victories and failures. There is no clear-cut path out of that maze. Maybe the only way to escape it is to feel it. Sampha feels those ups and downs, every victory and failure. He fleshes them out on these tracks as though he were jotting in his journal. Process, by its very nature, has no reservations. The romantic spontaneity of “Incomplete Kisses” is so down-tempo it could have been recorded by Michael Bolton. “Don’t let your heart hide your story / Don’t let your mind hide your story,” Sampha pleads. “Wait too long, you’ll miss it.” For a man who spent many years of his professional career hiding in the shadows, Sampha Sisay is finally ready to live in the moment.

A glassy-eyed Sampha ends his catharsis on “What Shouldn’t I Be?” It’s Sampha at his most meditative—he has arrived at the point of notoriety, but what exactly does that mean? “It’s not all about me,” he says, and means it. Process is a marvelous debut from a talented young man still trying to find his place. A young man who just lost a parent. A young man who finds himself at the crux of fame, and doesn’t know which road to take. “I wake up in my own skin again,” he sings, and I can almost see a picture of his mother on the wall behind him.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Plastic 100°C,” “Blood on Me,” “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” “Reverse Faults,” “Timmy’s Prayer,” “Incomplete Kisses”

 

 

 

Radiohead // Amnesiac (2001)

If you treat Radiohead’s discography like a family tree, Amnesiac is the direct descendant of Kid A. Some might consider it the bastard child. Comprised of songs recorded during the same studio sessions, Kid A and Amnesiac will forever be bound together. And unfortunately, Amnesiac is often unfairly compared to its predecessor. There’s no denying that Kid A is a revolutionary album, for more reasons than one. But where that album contracts and repels at every turn, the individual songs that inhabit Amnesiac are much more inviting, free to stand out in a crowd. And they are by no means kitchen scraps. In fact, the plan all along was to split the twenty-some tracks into two separate albums: no EPs, no b-sides, but two cohesive works. Amnesiac stands on its own, an intriguing and experimental album from the most innovative band in popular music.

Amnesiac notably differs from previous Radiohead albums in that the songs don’t flow perfectly, or even nicely for that matter. There’s little to no through line. In places the record seems unsettled and fussy; in others, downright messy. More importantly, it is undeniably engaging. There is tension in this music. The anthemic Radiohead of old now bashed heads with a new sound populated by synthesizers, drum machines, and increasingly complex string arrangements. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” is all clang and bang and synth, whizzing keyboards and wild percussion, Thom Yorke singing “Get off my case” with the careless conviction of a bored teenager. This is immediately followed by “Pyramid Song,” which feigns simplicity with simple elements (piano, Jonny Greenwood’s strings, Yorke’s high hums) that lumber along in an odd, slipshod timing. Two minutes in, Phil Selway’s drums punctuate the ballad, blending beautifully with Greenwood’s arching strings. These are the first two tracks on Amnesiac, and they couldn’t be more different.

The record is full of these moments, where convention strangely segues into experimentation and visa versa. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” sounds like someone making nonsense music with a synthesizer. The fuzzy burst of beat is occasionally broken up by new elements, but no thing agrees with any other thing. It almost seems necessary, Radiohead exercising their ears, picking apart sounds and piecing them together in the slightest of ways. “You And Whose Army?” follows and immediately reminds of Radiohead’s ever-present influence in indie music: the muffled guitar strum and Thom Yorke’s soft vocalizations sound eerily similar to Deerhunter’s “Sailing,” to the point Yorke and Bradford Cox’s voices are nearly interchangeable. The song has a bit of a political bend to it, as do some of the other tracks on Amnesiac, adding layers and layers to an album almost overstuffed with sound and circumstance.

A clear standout, “I Might Be Wrong” makes ample use of more familiar instruments. The song is dominated by drum and guitar, unafraid to be itself in this collection of singular misfits. Yorke sounds annoyed, even angry as he sings “I used to think / There is no future left at all.”  There are certain moments where Amnesiac‘s ties to Kid A are unassailable. These tracks were born of the same process, a desire to strip away the old varnish staining Radiohead’s conscience.  Regardless, “I Might Be Wrong” is an individual, as is the next track, the decidedly less doleful “Knives Out.” Well, less doleful musically: the lyrics are a different story altogether. “If you’d been a dog / They would’ve drowned you at birth” Yorke sings, forceful and emotive. A lot can be extracted from those lyrics. Viewing it through a political lense, Yorke seems to be referencing a sort of social Darwinism, where the strong survive and the weak peter out. If you’d been a dog, you’d have been the runt of the litter. The fortunate prey on the less fortunate, “So knives out.”

“Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” which gets my vote for the strangest track on Amnesiac, alternates between harmonious chimes and haunting synth tones. It’s the original version of Kid A‘s “Morning Bell,” but where that song’s tempo was noticeably more metered and deliberate, “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” opts for a slower, lumbering tempo, and never really breaks from that formula. The most damning lyrics remain (“Cut the kids in half”), as does the ambiguity. Maybe it’s about divorce, maybe it’s a family tiff. With Thom Yorke, it’s often hard to tell.  “You can keep the furniture” he says, followed by “Release me,” a tired plea. “Dollars & Cents” reaffirms Radiohead’s fascination with live jazz music, specifically the works of genre legend Charles Mingus. More so than any song on the album, this is Radiohead working perfectly in tandem. Jonny’s distant strings and guitar play well with Colin’s slappy, menacing bassline and Selway’s delicate cymbal taps. Yorke’s lyrics (“There are weapons we can use / Be constructive with your blues”) ether earnestly speak to passive protest or mock your standard government response, a kind but stern suggestion to the people: quit fussing.

“Like Spinning Plates,” Amnesiac‘s penultimate song, is a moody and confusing exercise. Yorke’s lyrics are played in reverse, though they sound like actual words due to the fact that he sang them backwards. The crowning example of Amnesiac‘s dedication to experimentation over entertainment, “Like Spinning Plates” buries itself in synth, content to spend its short life lost at sea. Album closer “Life in a Glasshouse” is a sweet ode to jazz in all forms, at once lively and glum. It’s also a bit paranoid: “Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat / But someone’s listening in” the chorus rings, lead trumpets sounding off, one after the other. If there’s a single meaning to grab from these lyrics, it’s that the turn of the century really did a number on Thom Yorke’s psyche. This is not protest music, it’s music of derailed reality, a muddled dystopia where everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing at all times. The advent of the internet changed music forever. Amnesia set in, people jumping from band to band to album to song with little thought. People forgot where music had been, and had little mind to think where it might go in the future.

Amnesiac is a Radiohead classic, and rightfully so. It was the turning point for a band whose previous two albums transcended the genre trappings of rock or alternative. This new dedication to experimentation—to breaking down a song to its core elements and rearranging them in a particular and peculiar way—remains with Radiohead to this day. Without Amnesiac, would Radiohead have had the gall to record something like In Rainbows? I’d like to think not. It’s a record of twists and turns, starts and stops, the most popular band in the world playing not for fans or critics or album sales, but for the simple act of playing. Old met new, and Radiohead found it’s sound, an ever-warping piggy bank of instruments. Sometimes, we must forget where we’ve come from to get a clearer picture of where we might be going. Sometimes, it’s necessary to forget.

 

Chris

Favorite Tracks: “Packd Like Sardines in a Crsuhd Tin Box,” “Pyramid Song,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “Knives Out”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Radiohead // Kid A (2000)

Kid A is numb. It is an immensely paranoid record, the fractured ramblings of newly-crowned auteurs lost in a hellscape. It is scared. It is scary. It has no desire to crawl out of it’s own skin. It was a premonition: Kid A essentially predicted our future. It is one of, if not the, first album to be experienced primarily on the internet; its relentless weirdness and complicated circumstances accurately reflect the disconnect of modern life. The entire world is now at arm’s reach, and yet somehow we have never felt more alone.

Kid A is also a child of strain. On the heels of what critics were already calling the saving grace of alternative rock music, OK Computer, Radiohead was now one of the most famous rock bands in the world. The band suffered a crash and burn, unsure of what to do next, where to go and how to get there. Thom Yorke experienced a mental breakdown, plagued with intense writer’s block. He had no desire to be a famous musician. For him, music was an escape, a “way of moving on and dealing with things.” The critical and commercial success of OK Computer ripped away his anonymity. He became closed, isolated, the allure of rock music evaporating all around him. He was hostile and divisive, hellbent on changing. Stripping preconceived notions of what a “Radiohead album” should sound like, Yorke and fellow band mates Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, and Jonny and Colin Greenwood confronted very high expectations. They then kindly told those expectations to fuck off.

The first twenty seconds of Kid A are an ominous prelude. The warped vocal effects and dissonant harmony (a combination of synthesizer and drum machine) combine sparsely, and the song rarely settles on one chord. “Everything In It’s Right Place,” in addition to being the first track on Kid A, was also the first song Thom Yorke wrote for the album. Written using only a piano, Yorke’s lyrics are few and far between, and largely unilluminating. Kid A is not a revealing album. Yorke sings “Everything, everything, everything / In its right place,” as though he’s not really interested in singing at all. Thus begins the album’s numbing effect, the aggressive disconnect amidst a clamor of unnatural sound. “Everything In It’s Right Place” segues into the title track. The intro (a clash of light piano and warped, almost alien sounds) is a bait-and-switch of high measure. This is the title track of a Radiohead album, but not once is Yorke’s voice unmanipulated: in fact, the lyrics are often unintelligible. Yorke spends the song wrapped in sound, lazily humming lyrics I imagine he scribbled on eight or nine lines of notebook paper. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of “Kid A” is Yorke not wanting his voice or lyrics to rise above the noise. He seems resigned, content even, to lie back and let the synthesizer make all the moves for him. The track doesn’t necessarily stand out. It is not flashy or gutsy. It’s just there, present, existing. And that makes it essential.

To that point, like very few albums before or after, every single tick of Kid A‘s forty-nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds is essential. It is the definition of album. You cannot choose a single song that rises above its whole; there is no “Karma Police” or “Paranoid Android” to isolate and play on repeat. “The National Anthem” turns the traditional Radiohead partners of guitar and drum into drone. Phantom sounds occasionally break through, foreign and unhinged. Yorke poses the question “What’s going on?” with frightening deliberateness. It is an angry song, disaffected and disjointed, eventually devolving into a downright scary mess of broken jazz. “The National Anthem” is anxiety and paranoia becoming tangible. Nothing gets along. Nothing blends together. Each element is alone, distinct—a heavily crowded room full of introverts, the music reflective of their rapid, darting thoughts.

Kid A continually and obsessively buries itself within itself. The instrumental “Treefingers” doesn’t amount to much more than cautious harmonies, closed off and quiet. High pings resembling the song of windchimes lift it from its brooding sadness. There’s a feeling “Treefingers” captures that we’ve all felt. It’s not historical or contemplative, nor is it particularly nuanced or sophisticated. It is a song of utility: what it does is isolate. It makes you feel alone, and not even alone with your thoughts—aloneness, in the purest, truest sense. In life, there are moments of lightness and humor and joy. But in the interim, the long inhale between brief exhales of lightness or humor or joy, that is where most of life is lived.

“Idioteque” is the centerpiece of Kid A. Jonny Greenwood’s pointed electronic score is dominated by bassline and creaky, insect-like treble. The song is schizophrenic, a rambling prophecy of some impending apocalypse. The lyrics are a gut-punch, the closest Kid A comes to hitting home. “Who’s in bunker, who’s in bunker? / Women and children first.” “Ice age coming, ice age coming.” “We’re not scaremongering / This is really happening, happening.” “I’ll laugh until my head comes off.” True to the album’s bleakness, Yorke sounds more narrator than whistleblower. The song at turns propels and halts, Yorke singing with purpose, a singularity in this soundscape.

As is usually the case with albums I love, one lyric or musical element stands above the rest. I have a tendency to boil an album down to one point, one meaning, something solid I can pin down and decompound. For me, this point appears early in Kid A, on “How To Disappear Completely,” the album’s fourth track. Strings stir to life. In comes the soft strum of guitar as ambient noise breathes in the background. Thom Yorke gently sings: “That there, that’s not me.” No moment captures the emotional disconnect of Kid A quite like that sentence. There’s no air of pretension, no lofty metaphor to dissect and critically evaluate. It’s the idea that the you sitting behind the glow of your phone or computer or some other worldly distraction is not you. That is not the real you, the essence of you. You’re merely pretending that’s you. It’s easier that way, there’s less work to be done. You can plug in, shut off, and forget. We have been warned. In that way lies madness.

To be frank, most of what I’ve said may sound like total bullshit. And I get that, I really do. I may be running in circles, talking for sake of talking, finding meaning where it doesn’t necessarily belong. But Kid A is truly an album capable of leaving a lasting mark, and it’s surprising how rare that is today. Were the album released this year, I can guess many people would listen to it, cram “Idioteque” into a playlist and leave the rest as scraps. What’s so amazing is Kid A does not, and cannot, function without all of its parts working in tandem. Without “Treefingers,” “Optimistic” just wouldn’t make sense. It would ring hollow. That completeness makes Kid A special. This is an album capable of translating fear, paranoia, and impermanence into music. It predicted the future, one of ever-better technology and connectivity. It cautions that the steady incline of society, in its rapidity and repetition, can numb the senses. It fears the future, yes, but refuses to turn its back to the noise. Kid A is never, and will never be, more pertinent than in the very moment you’re listening.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: The album in its entirety, front to back. Close your eyes, tune out the world, and listen to it in one sitting: I promise, it’s worth your time.

Frank Ocean // Blonde (20 August, 2016)

I’m not a professional writer. This is just a hobby. And for a blog hobbyist, certain experiences are difficult to properly describe. I’ve been tossing and turning for more than a month, struggling to grasp the right words. This fact lead me to a realization: this is not the Frank Ocean I thought I knew. Ocean’s sophomore release, Blonde, plays much like a dream, a hazy memory of something that didn’t actually happen but, in the moment, was inescapably real.

I was surprised by Blonde in numerous ways. First, Frank scrapped his tentative title Boys Don’t Cry less than 24 hours before it’s release, opting for something infinitely more cryptic. Second, Frank follows in the vein of his visual album Endless, turning his focus further inward—only this time around, he’s all-in. Blonde is so restrained and idiosyncratic that upon one’s first listen, it can seem unapproachable, even off-putting. Frank takes his sweet, sweet time, as is his wont. The opening track, “Nikes,” is a perfect example. It takes three minutes for us to hear Frank’s unaltered voice, and just after he sings that first line (“We’ll let you guys prophesy”) there’s a six second pause, giving us due time to comfort in hearing his incredible, singular voice once again. There’s a lot going on in “Nikes.” Frank Ocean has always been revered as a vivid storyteller, but this tell-some songwriting is something else entirely. Frank both sets a scene and scrapes against the past. He ruminates on the deaths of A$AP Yams, Pimp-C, and Trayvon Martin. “RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me” has rung in my brain since I first heard it, a powerful exaltation. In the song’s video, Ocean holds up a framed picture of Trayvon, and they do look alike. But more importantly, Frank speaks to the track he was headed down following Channel ORANGE. He references Pimp-C, who passed away in 2007 to a reported overdose from codeine-based cough syrup. “Sippin’ pink-gold lemonades.” It’s a scary thing, confronting mortality. But to see it so abruptly displayed in the death of a 17-year old kid. President Obama said if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. I wonder if Frank feels the same.

Blonde is not interested in Channel ORANGE‘s California sunshine. These songs don’t even remotely ring as fictitious. Frank has some things to get off his chest. “I thought that I was dreamin’ when you said you loved me” he sings on “Ivy,” a song about making mistakes and learning, growing up slowly but surely. Frank is more candid than ever, confessing “I could hate you now, it’s all right to hate me now,” atop a guitar-heavy production courtesy of Jamie xx and former Vampire Weekend bandmate Rostam. “Pink + White” reinforces Blonde‘s commitment to guitar, drum, and piano. In one minute, the song is dreamy, lofting along deliberate and delicate piano keys and cymbal taps. As soon as it feels settled, “Ivy” introduces another element in the strum of an acoustic guitar. This bait-and-switch becomes a steady theme of the album. Nothing remains the same for too long. “Self Control” pairs Frank’s supple R&B vocals with an omnipresent guitar, providing the song’s bass, treble, and everything in-between. It’s a subtle gut-punch of a song, with Frank reflecting on the dissolution of a relationship. He sings “I came to visit, ’cause you see me like a UFO / That’s like never, ’cause I made you use your self control / And you made me lose my self control.” Frank racks his brain, nonchalantly brushing off this on-again, off-again love by saying “It’s nothing, it’s nothing.” The song drifts off into the distance. Then it changes. Frank can’t help but hold onto songs, and the same goes for people. Above a dreamscape of guitar and reverb, Frank proclaims “I, I, I / Know you gotta leave, leave, leave / Take down some summer time / Give up, just tonight, night, night.” Frank is hiding his true feelings, the hurt of still not being over unrequited love. You can almost hear Frank swallowing the frog in his throat, never more comfortable to hide amongst the noise.

The first ninety seconds of “Nights” is the closest Blonde gets to the beach. The beat clangs lazily, a head-bopping skip to it’s step. Frank raps “Can’t keep up a conversation / Can’t nobody reach you / Why your eyes well up? / Did you call me from a seance? / You are from my past life / Hope you’re doin’ well bruh.” Frank’s songwriting can sometimes reach Zodiac-like levels of cryptography. Someone is trying to reconnect with Frank after a long period of silence, but Frank has moved on; in fact, he’s so far removed from this relationship that he came to the realization he’s dead to this person. He must be reaching him via seance. In the song’s hook, Frank elaborates, singing “Know them boys wanna see me broke down and shit / Bummed out and shit, stressed out and shit / That’s every day shit / Shut the fuck up I don’t want your conversation / Rollin’ marijuana that’s a cheap vacation / My every day shit, every night shit, every day shit.” This could mean a lot of different things. Frank is no stranger to attack. He received countless homophobic messages following his life-changing tumblr post prior to the release of Channel ORANGE. More obviously, for four years he was harassed on the daily, unable to exist online without fans begging, pleading, screaming for more music. How can you not be bummed out? Stressed out? Some people relax by going to the spa. Some take a vacation, others spend time at home at let responsibility wash away. Some people smoke weed. It’s a cheaper vacation than most. But as Frank acknowledges, smoking weed becomes repetitive to the point of being a chore, as do most things in life. You can escape any number of things, but life is not one of them.

The last four tracks of the album are my favorite. There are so many small elements that ring with personality. The last minute-and-a-half of “White Ferrari” finds Frank’s voice drift off in the ether, softly overtaken by the soundtrack playing in the background, as though he were listening to another artist as he recorded. “Seigfried” is ambling and humble. The soft strings play nicely with Frank’s lyrics detailing a metaphysical breakup. The end of the song finds Frank’s  unique, sweet falsetto singing “I’d do anything for you.” “Godspeed” beckons back boyhood, a meditation on dreams Frank had in his youth coming to fruition. He’s famous. He’s made it. But don’t let him be mistaken, boys still cry. “Futura Free” is a free-form ramble on a broad range of topics; Frank talks on his own sexuality, fame, and religion, as well as reflecting on Jay-Z, Def Jam, and the deaths Tupac Shakur and Selena (of Selena y Los Dinos), both of whom met tragic ends at a young age. The song stops in cold silence, broken by a recording leaden with white noise. Frank is being interviewed by his younger brother Ryan. They’re both younger—much younger—and sound excited, carefree, a far cry from adult life. The recording ends with Ryan asking “How far is a light year?”

Having spent so long with this album, I realize it’s not for everybody. Blonde is a vibrant, living culture, comfortable to live in it’s own skin. It’s own mythos, even. And to that point, I think Blonde says more about us as a culture than it does about Frank Ocean as an artist. We’re moving at breakneck speed, simultaneously consuming different forms of media by the second, our eyes and ears hungrier for more, more, more. Frank Ocean stepped away, as so many mythical black artists have done before (think D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Jean-Michel Basquiat), and left the world wondering what was to come next. He stayed grounded, realistic, steeped in his work. He vanished off the grid entirely. And then he came back. After four years of silence. He lost a lot in those four years; fans, friends, lovers—little pieces of marble a sculptor slowly chips away. Much will be lost as we grow older. But not once, not once, did Frank Ocean ever lose himself.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Nikes,” “Ivy,” “Pink + White,” “Solo,” “Self Control,” White Ferrari,” “Seigfried”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frank Ocean // Endless (19 August, 2016)

There are drawbacks to fame. This comes as no surprise to anyone, especially in our now ever-connected reality. Celebrities of all sort are under constant surveillance, often to the point of mundanity: Kanye rants on Twitter about debt he’s incurred and I read a full article about it in The Daily Mail. Musicians are especially susceptible to this sort of scrutiny, with fans reaching out left and right wanting more music, fresh singles, a new album, and What’s taking so long?! Frank Ocean is the poster boy for this brand of ridicule. Fans anxiously waited for his followup to Channel ORANGE, a modern classic that launched him from relative obscurity to near-immediate fame. And they waited. And waited. There were hints dropped along the way, tiny clues inspected over and over, all of which seemed to be dead-ends. Ocean’s junior album, tentatively titled Boys Don’t Cry, was teased so many times that fans were resigned to the idea that he may never release it at all.

The minute it seemed all hope was lost, new music arrived. And it wasn’t even the album we’d been waiting for. Endless is Frank’s debut visual album, a 45-minute exercise in patience. It comes coupled with a fairly tumultuous backstory. Following it’s release, it was announced the album “fulfills Frank’s obligation to Def Jam and Universal.” Frank and Def Jam haven’t always been peachy (to put it nicely) and Frank was supposedly looking for a way out. Mirroring that relationship, Endless seems both a product of hard labor and frustration. Some songs feel complete, others merely demos, raw and formless.

Visually, the album is black-and-white and straightforward as can be; Frank builds a spiral staircase to nowhere, climbs nearly to the top, and the video cuts to the beginning, an endless cycle. I could pour over whatever metaphor Frank is trying to send about the endless hype that surrounded his impending release in previous years, that it’s all a cycle that will inevitably repeat a year or two from now when, again, there’s a very vocal demand for more music. But visually, it’s boring. That’s as plain as I can put it. Not much happens. The visuals of Endless require a four-word explanation: “Frank builds a staircase.” Musically, however, the album shines on it’s own, seeing Frank depart from the sunshine-pop of Channel ORANGE and turn inward, crafting an unfocused, self-reflective soundtrack.

Endless begins with a voice not belonging to Frank Ocean, but rather Wolfgang Tillmans, a German art photographer and occasional electronic artist. “Device Control” is a humorously meta introduction to the album, the first words being “With this Apple appliance, you can capture live videos.” Then we hear Frank, sounding sweet as ever on “At Your Best (You Are Love),” a cover of both The Isley Brothers and—certainly more famously—Aaliyah. His ambient falsetto soars above delicate piano chords, Jonny Greenwood’s elegant strings softly playing underneath. “Comme Des Garçons” is another highlight, a minute-long track reminiscent Channel ORANGE‘s “Fertilizer,” a brief but unwasted interlude. Frank hurriedly sings the rapid-fire bridge, “Feelings come, feelings go/Feelings come, feelings go,” as quickly as feelings come and go. “Slide On Me,” arguably the album’s best track, rides a surprising and much-welcomed guitar line, as well as a perfectly simple beat from French DJ Sebastian. Frank’s lyrics grab one’s attention as he very carefully self-reflects, both on his trouble with Def Jam and the last four years in general: “I’m just all day runnin’ numbers/How the fuck you think I live?/Too many hands waitin’ for my downfall/They’re like ‘something’s gotta give.'”

On “Rushes”—an atmospheric ballad featuring the hazy strum of Alex G’s electric guitar and far-off backing vocals from Jazmine Sullivan—Frank navigates the ups-and-downs of romantic love. He sings “We’ve been here before/The first time is not the past time,” a thematic echo of Channel ORANGE‘s brighter, more accessible love songs. This is Frank Ocean as I’ve never heard him before. He sounds distant, almost detached from the song, and I mean this in the most literal sense. Alex G’s guitar is a slight, almost invisible attraction; Sullivan’s background vocals echo in and out of focus, powerful in one second and barely there the next. Frank himself seems to wander about the song, searching for something simple and direct to say, never quite managing to find it.

 Endless as a whole is a self-aware experiment, a visual mixtape not always yielding optimal results but often touching musical greatness in small, seemingly insignificant moments. What makes Frank Ocean not just an important musician but an important artist is his refusal to be forthcoming. He hides himself within his music, forcing the listener to make the first move. Endless feels in many ways like a trance, something that can play over and over and still retain it’s free, formless nature. Despite Endless not being the main attraction, there’s something Frank says on “Rushes” that has stuck with me since I first heard it last week: “I ain’t felt this way in years.”

Chris

Favorite tracks: “At Your Best (You Are Love),” “Comme Des Garçons,” “Slide On Me,” “Rushes,” “Rushes To,” “Higgs”

Kendrick Lamar // good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)

The heart and soul of good kid, m.A.A.d city is that of a film, so much so that Kendrick spells out this fact for us on the cover. It has an abundance of characters, both large and small, and moves in and out in waves of emotion, flashes of action and denouement, containing all the nuances of a well-imagined docudrama. Our protagonist, a young Kendrick Lamar, documents a day in his life in Compton, California. He and his friends spend their evenings driving around, smoking weed, drinking liquor, and gangbanging; they are no saints, but then again, they don’t pretend to be. Kendrick dramatizes this life in a way that neither condones nor condemns. What’s a poor 17-year old supposed to experience outside of his surroundings? What is the world outside of inner-city Compton? Kendrick asks us the question, but he never gives us the answer. After all, a film is not necessarily about the ending. It’s about the experience of watching it for the very first time.

good kid, m.A.A.d city begins with a prayer, a foreshadowing: “Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins.” This first line, heard from the distant, iffy audio of a tape recorder, introduces us to “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter.” Kendrick can’t help but share his excitement at the prospect of meeting Sherane,  saying as he drives “Seventeen, with nothing but pussy stuck on my mental/My motive was rather sinful/’What you trying to get into?'” His youthful energy segues into the reality of the situation, as the song suddenly halts and is interrupted by a voicemail from his parents. Kendrick took the minivan and said he’d be back in 15 minutes, but kids will be kids. This family thread becomes an important crux of the album, as Kendrick’s parents play supporting lead roles of sort (the voices of Kendrick’s parents are his actual parents, which adds a great deal of weight to everything they say). Already, in the album’s first three or so minutes, we’ve been introduced to four characters (Kendrick, Sherane, Mom, Dad) that will recur over the course of good kid, m.A.A.d city. At the end of “Sherane,” Kendrick’s father is pissed, telling his wife to “Cut my motherfuckin’ oldies back on, you killin’ my motherfuckin’ vibe,” which blasts us right into “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” a track whose intro resembles much of Kendrick’s sultry jazz stylings on Section.80, comfortable in it’s own skin. Kendrick sings softly, “I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin again/Lord forgive me, Lord forgive me, things I don’t understand/Sometimes I need to be alone.” It’s a matter-of-fact statement that is incredibly relatable. It’s a miracle how the album ties together as a whole, as though it were designed to satisfy both underground and mainstream rap fans equally. It’s a sought-after feat in the world of rap music, one nearly unattainable by even 2012’s standards. But Kendrick manages to tell his story and entertain you all in the same.

Another audio recording acts as the outro to “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” Kendrick’s friend saying “I got a pack of blacks and a beats CD, get yo freestyles ready.” Cut to “Backseat Freestyle,” a romping track with an insane frontside bass and off-kilter clang. It’s pure fun, a young kid called K-Dot trying on his rapper hat, testing his limits and pushing past them, in turn rapping double-time and grovelling his voice uncomfortably low. “The Art of Peer Pressure” follows, Kendrick finally arriving at his narrative, carefully dictating he and his homies activities, setting the scene. The homies are out tonight to “complete the mission,” the mission being a robbery on a house they’ve “been camping out for like two months.” Kendrick was pressured to believe that these missions were a necessary part of growing up in Compton. “Money Trees,” one of the most straightforward rap songs on the album, features an excellent Jay Rock feature and a telling chorus: “It go Halle Berry or halleujah/Pick your poison tell me what you doin’/Everybody gon’ respect the shooter/But the one in front of the gun lives forever.” The song leads into another appearance from Mom and Dad, Mom again calling about the minivan which is yet to be returned. Kendrick’s dad, drunk, is having the time of his life, telling Mom “Girl I want your body, I want your body ’cause of that big ol’ fat ass,” which rockets straight into “Poetic Justice,” a slow, romantic track. So romantic, in fact, it features a famous Janet Jackson sample (“In the thunderin’ rain”) and Drake, whose presence doesn’t feel the slightest bit out of place in Kendrick’s universe. The song is not without weight, with Kendrick asking us directly, “If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?” It’s a question asked in earnest. I’m not sure he knows the answer himself.

If you split good kid, m.A.A.d city into two acts, “Poetic Justice” is the end of act one. The audio recording outro of “Poetic Justice” introduces us to a scarier side of Compton; Kendrick is jumped by two guys in hoodies, previously mentioned all the way back in the opener, “Sherane.” There’s a threatening lilt in a hooded man’s voice as he asks Kendrick where he’s from. This propels the album into “good kid,” Kendrick welcoming “mass hallucination, baby,” that being the cult of assimilation surrounding his gangbanging lifestyle. Kendrick steels himself, pledging to get the fuck out of there as soon as possible, by any means necessary. Easier said than done. “m.A.A.d city” hits you in the face from it’s opening seconds, blasting and booming a rousing hood beat, a nervous Kendrick detailing all of the horrors he’s witnessed in Compton. Narratively, it’s both fascinating and deeply skillful storytelling, with the track following the trauma of being jumped in “good kid,” and immediately segueing to a state of PTSD. About halfway through, the track flips, Compton legend MC Eiht telling Kendrick to “wake yo punk ass up.” Kendrick’s hesitant delivery is fitting. What he describes is his terrifying reality of life in inner-city Compton. His dad told him to get a job, but he got fired when his friends convinced him to stage a robbery. He doesn’t smoke weed anymore; the first blunt he ever smoked was laced with cocaine and had him “foaming at the mouth.” Kendrick’s final verse begs a question: “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me?” Kendrick uses this last verse to speak to all inner-city children, pleading that there is something beyond this, that there is indeed hope if you can grab onto it. His last words ring clearly: “I live inside the bell of the rough/Compton, U.S.A. made me an angel on angel dust.” Made Me an Angel on Angel Dust.

The outro of “m.A.A.d city” finds Kendrick once again with his homies. They tell him to just lay back, relax, and drink a little. This brings us to “Swimming Pools (Drank),” a reluctant and hazy party anthem. Kendrick begins by trying to rationalize exactly why people drink; relax, kill your sorrows, fit in. What on the surface appears to be a club anthem is actually an introspective study of alcoholism and it’s connection to peer pressure. Kendrick has said he purposefully contrasted that mainstream sound with this subject matter, and it’s extremely effective, especially considering the audio recording it ends with. Tough talk, gunshots, and death.

Kendrick’s story has finally come to a head, and the towering, mournful “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is good kid, m.A.A.d city‘s opus. In it’s first movement, “Sing About Me,” Kendrick assumes the perspective of two different people. The first is positive, maintaining optimism; it’s the tragic and true story of Kendrick cradling the brother of a friend who had been shot, told from his friend’s perspective. He tells Kendrick, “I’m fortunate you believe in a dream/This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine,” leading to “I know exactly what happened/You ran outside when you heard my brother cry for help/Held him like a newborn baby and made him feel/Like everything was alright and a fight he tried to put up/But the type of bullet that stuck had went against his will.” His friend isn’t really sure where to go, he seems lost but hopeful. He says it’s sort of silly, gangbanging, how we “trip of off colors” and kill our own brothers and sisters for some small claim to fame or recognition.  It’s also all he knows. It’s “been with me forever.” But he’s grateful, truly, that Kendrick could be so kind and unerstanding: “And I love you cause you love my brother like you did/Just promise me you’ll tell this story when you make it big/And if I die before your album drop, I hope—.” Gunshots cut him off. The soft strum of the beat never falters. The second story is told from the perspective of Keisha’s sister; “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” vividly detailed the true story of a prostitute on Lamar’s Section.80. This introduces all of us to the idea that Kendrick being a realist is not always a positive. Keisha’s sister is also a prostitute, and explains that she doesn’t want his goddamn attention, she gets enough of that on her own. She’s hurt, and more obviously, angry that Kendrick would flesh out these truths of her very real sister for all the world to hear. She painfully spouts “And matter fact, did I mention that I physically feel great?/A doctor’s approval is a waste of time, I know I’m straight/I’ll probably live longer than you and never fade away/I’ll never fade away, I’ll never fade away, I know my fate.” Keisha’s sister proceeds to fade into silence, Kendrick wondering exactly what his purpose is as an artist. Is he meant to be a realist or a soothsayer? When does exposition become intrusion? Is the truth really worth all this? He has problems looking in the mirror. His stomach is so overwhelmed by the flap of butterfly wings he feels sick. “And I’m not sure why I’m infatuated with death.” Who among us could blame him? Growing up on the streets of Compton, California leaves it’s fair share of scars. Kendrick keeps battling inward, asking “Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?” And then the hook, “Promise that you will sing about me.”

The second part, “I’m Dying of Thirst,” finds Kendrick at the crucial crosswords the album has been building to. “Tired of running, tired of hunting/My own kind, but retiring nothing” he desperately sings. Kendrick is finished taking his life for granted. He seeks repentance, to be washed in the blood of Jesus, for his thirst to finally be quenched. He wants to learn what it means to be whole: “What are we doing? Who are we fooling?/Hell is hot, fire is proven/To burn for eternity, return of the student/That never learned how to live righteous but how to shoot it.” A woman notices Kendrick and his homies, who are losing it after one of their own was gunned down only moments earlier. She approaches, and tells the young men that they’re indeed dying of thirst, and only one thing can quench their thirst: water. Holy water. We are transported to the beginning of good kid, m.A.A.d city. They pray: “”Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins…”

This is truly the spirit of good kid, m.A.A.d city, the search for repentance, reconciliation, and peace. “Real” finds Kendrick at peace with his place as an artist, one who refuses to embellish, one who sees truth not as a formality but as a responsibility. Mom and Dad come back at the end, in the album’s most touching moments. They take turns on Kendrick’s voicemail:

Dad: “Sorry to hear what happen to your homeboy, but don’t learn the hard way like I did homie. Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga. Realness is responsibility, realness is taking care of your motherfucking family, realness is God. Alright that’s all I wanted to tell you, just make sure you call us back when you get this message. Here go your mom.”

Mom: “… I hope you come back, and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back, with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back. To your city… And I love you, Kendrick.”

good kid, m.A.A.d city holds a very special place in my heart. It’s a beautiful, honest, painful, cinematic, and graceful work of art. Like the best films, it finds a way to touch and entertain. Wounds are healed, bridges built, people reborn. It’s the idea that you can reinvent. You too can rise from the ashes of your past self and come out on the other side new, whole, peaceful. Flowers can bloom, even in dark rooms.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Backseat Freestyle,” “Poetic Justice,” “good kid,” “m.A.A.d city,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” “Real”