Vince Staples // Big Fish Theory (23 June, 2017)

The first song on Big Fish Theory, the second LP from Long Beach native Vince Staples, might make you forget he’s a hip-hop artist. Or, at least, that he’s supposed to be a hip-hop artist. “Crabs In A Bucket,” the opening track, appears as a phrase in Staples’ debut LP Summertime ’06. The song in which it’s uttered, “Señorita,” feels miles (and years) away. “We crabs in a bucket, he called me a crab / So I shot him in front of the Douglas,” he says, no lisp or lilt to him. “Crabs In A Bucket,” keeping cadence with Staples’ stream of increasingly experimental and boundless music, is not a braggadocio flex of power. It is not rap, exactly, nor is it hip-hop. Vince Staples’ music has, as of late, relied on electronics; he retains his schizoid, staccato delivery and bolsters it with a bevy of backing synth. All of his sonic ingenuity withholding, Vince Staples remains an enigma in rap music. “Nails in the black man’s hands and feet / Put him on a cross so we put him on chain” he deadpans on “Crabs In A Bucket,” the same Long Beach kid living in an increasingly racially-divided America.

Short as his career is so far, Staples is a self-referential artist. There are several throwbacks to his earlier work, overt winks dropped like breadcrumbs: the same Long Beach kid making different music. “Ramona, I was ’round that corner / Still down, I’m a Norf Norf soldier” he says on “Big Fish,” and I can hear the haunting, alien drone of Summertime ’06‘s “Norf Norf” in the back of my head. Likewise in his allusions to his own past works, he references other artists, both musically and nonmusically—old and new. Concerning the old, the cover art for Summertime ’06 is a clear derivative of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures; curiously, both records are careful and masterful exercises in minimalism. Big Fish Theory‘s ninth track is titled “SAMO,” an unquestionable chisel off Jean-Michel Basquiat’s block—a tongue-in-cheek reference to Basquiat’s graffiti pseudonym SAMO (“same old shit”). Concerning the new, there’s a timely shout to Kendrick Lamar (who features on “Yeah Right”) on BFT‘s fourth track “Love Can Be…”: “No shotgun seat, this dick ain’t free.”

The mark of a truly inimitable artist is a comprehensive, holistic understanding of their art form. This understanding comes not only in the form said art takes, but its basic function as well. Vince Staples has the chops to build a universe of sound and tear it to shreds with his delivery. For example, “745” claps a bass-heavy chorus trickled with celestial synth beats. These elements both clash and compliment Staples’ muted-tenor voice. “745” is a song of childhood dreams fully realized: “All my life man I want fast cars,” he says: “No green grass, no porch / I just want sea shores.” To Vince Staples, though, it’s clear that not all dreams come true. To Vince, love is an abstract concept. He feels its pull and yet it continues to elude him: “This thing called ‘love’ real hard for me / This thing called ‘love’ is a God to me,” Vince raps in his usual monotone, while his stone-faced refusal to linger on depression comes into focus. “Adam, Eve / Apple trees / Watch out for the snakes baby.”

On “Yeah Right,” producer Flume’s beat smacks and dazes. Vince Staples hates rap clichés. If his refusal to become one is not evidence enough, “Yeah Right” is fire to the kiln. The song title should be punctuated with a question mark: “Is your house big, is your car nice?” he starts, asking “How the thug life?” Kendrick Lamar is a fitting feature; he is another young black man raised in and around institutionalized poverty and violence—and yet another young black man who defied staggering odds and transformed his chaotic upbringing into uncompromising art. “K-Dot twilight the zeitgeist” Kendrick says, and we already know he’s right. Old rap clichés have had their day: money, cars, and women hold no weight. Realness reigns, like it or not. Vince Staples (and Kendrick Lamar) are nothing if not real. There’s not a cell in their bodies that reads “compromise.”

“These niggas won’t hold me back,” Vince raps on the chorus of “Homage,” and the man is practically sprinting. No one can hold him in check, not even himself. “Outrun my gun, I’m the bigshot now,” he says at breakneck speed. Vince curtails this boast with, yet again, a wink to the recent past: “Prima Donna had them like ‘wow!'” The following song is an entirely different story.

“SAMO” is stuck in sludge, a song that simultaneously bangs and halts. “It’s the same old thing / Watch me do the same old thing” he says, and it’s hard to shake the thought that Vince is taking shots at mainstream hip-hop’s principle fanbase. Once again, I come back to Jean-Michel Basquiat—I can’t count how many times his name has showed up on my blog. Basquiat’s influence in modern African-American art is so far-reaching as to be a blanket. Basquiat’s SAMO street art was obscure, oblique poetry; it was meant to confuse, confound, and ultimately start a discussion about the individual’s place in a capitalist society. Vince tips his hat to Basquiat, in his characteristic staccato: “We don’t do no bargain shoppin’, we don’t show no empathy / Empty out your pockets, $10,000 fee for that talkin’ / Eye contact is an extra five.”

Big Fish Theory‘s final two songs, “BagBak” and “Rain Come Down,” were released as separate singles prior to BTF‘s drop on June 23rd. In my understanding of Vince Staples, it makes sense; the two songs show Vince in two different lights. “BagBak,” a phonetic iteration of “back back” (as in “get the fuck back”), finds Vince relating back to the Christ-imagery in “Crabs In A Bucket.” Now, however, he is more lucid, more contemporary and vicious: “Our father art in heaven, as I pray for new McLarens / Pray the police don’t come blow me down ’cause of my complexion.” This theme goes all the way back to Vince’s 2013 EP, Hell Can Wait, a collection of raw and angry songs directly addressing police violence against black Americans. That was four years ago, and unfortunately (or rather disgustingly), not much has changed. Vince, ever the contrarian, holds trot with the mainstream media—his fear of an anonymous death at the hands of the police is thrown in at the end of the verse, almost as an afterthought. It plays second-heel to those new McLarens.

In contrast, “Rain Come Down” is a dark, almost gothic hip-hop song. Ty Dolla $ign’s infectious repetition of the chorus (“Rain come down”) rubs against Vince’s bleak lyrics: “I’m the blood on the leaves / I’m the nose on the Sphinx.” The former portion of the verse needs no explanation. The latter portion of the verse references a popular historical theory that Egypt’s Great Sphinx had its nose removed to hide its predominantly African features. The Sphinx and its broken, bastardized appearance is the essence of Vince Staples’ music. Civil disobedience means fuck-all if you don’t somehow connect it to our history.

Vince Staples, for better or for worse, is an artist with a steady, near-religious temperament. He is casual, matter-of-fact and, at times, positively stony. If he weren’t so goddamn unassuming, he may already be making his case to sit side-by-side with hip-hop’s greatest creators. Vince Staples is a rap dissenter, a man of clout and conviction unmatched in modern hip-hop music. Again, for better or worse, there’s no changing the man. As they say, “you can take the kid out of Long Beach….”

Vince Staples arrived some time ago. He’s here, at this very moment, bearing witness to yet another police shooting, yet another rapper falsely touting the gang lifestyle, yet another disparaged social class royally fucked by the system. Again, he’s here—he’s not leaving. In this blogger’s opinion, his place among contemporary hip-hop’s elite creators is cemented and dried. And as far as the Big Fish Theory goes—big fish prowl the water, gobbling up anything feeble or small enough to swallow. They are remorseless, savage; being cold-blooded is necessary to survival. In the history of hip-hop, in a sea of millions of MC’s and Soundcloud rappers and OG’s, Vince Staples cannot—and will not—be categorized. Vince Staples is a big fish, one we’ve yet to catch.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Crabs In A Bucket,” “Big Fish,” “Love Can Be…,” “745,” “Yeah Right,” “SAMO,” “BagBak,” “Rain Come Down”

 

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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.

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”

 

 

 

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”

Danny Brown // “When It Rain” (2016)

Never has Danny Brown’s frantic energy felt so cathartic. Old big goodbye to the old Danny Brown, whose best work was done when he was either sulking or violently high. The disjointed, unfocused “When It Rain” highlights the absolute best Brown has to offer, from the grimy electronica of the beat to lyrics that feel almost improvisational, off-the-cuff in the best way possible.

The song arrived coupled with one of the most hypnotic and crazy music videos in recent memory. The production is no less than incredible. Most obvious, I’m at a loss to find another rapper than can challenge Danny Brown’s lyrical flow. “When It Rain” capitalizes on even the most minute details, a revelation. It’s kind of crazy to behold.