Kendrick Lamar: DAMN

Introduction

At this point in contemporary music culture, it’s no radical idea that Kendrick Lamar is considered by most to be the best rapper alive.  Numerous articles, video essays, and even prominent artists have revered the man in almost every way imaginable, almost to the point of cliché.

Regardless of whether or not Lamar has become a cliché, it is futile to try and discount his work for being anything less than outstanding.  His course from Section.80 all the way to To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) has been a rapid ascension of his talent and writing that every artist in the world should aspire to mimic in their rate of progression.

The problem with releasing such a monumental hip-hop album such as TPAB arises when you sit down and think about the sheer amount of effort it must take to best a work that already appears to be near perfect.  Obviously, an artist wants to say that a new record will be better than the last but anyone and everyone know that eventually, creativity begins to wane at some point or another.

In early hindsight, DAMN was an essential album to release at this point in Lamar’s career.  Going back to the claims made at the beginning of the article, Lamar had already established himself as the greatest rapper alive at the peak of his last record’s limelight.  That being said, his last album was also VERY narrative heavy and required a small amount of patience to get through the interlude and spoken word moments before one could enjoy the music.  To casual music listeners, this could be considered off-putting and provides unjust fruit for potential arguments such as, “Drake had a catchier hook” or “That BIG SEAN track went way harder than ‘How Much a Dollar Cost'”.

These are obviously outrageous hyperboles and comparisons but everyone knows ‘that guy’ who would fill this stereotype and the massive numbers of people out there that continue to follow this illogic.  DAMN is Lamar’s answer to the pop calling that the masses have been coaxing him towards.

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Review

Yes, DAMN is Lamar’s pop album without any doubt.  It’s been a strong thought in my mind ever since I heard ‘HUMBLE’ and the appeal that it had among hardcore and casual listeners of his music.  Unlike previous records, Lamar leans light on the inclusion of a narrative between songs and focuses more on blending a story into the music itself.

‘BLOOD’ starts the album with a Western-inspired instrumental, creating a sense of calm unruliness as Lamar narrates a seemingly nonchalant encounter with a disoriented woman.  As he helps the woman, he finds that this situation is actually a trap and he is immediately gunned down without warning.  Many speculate what exactly this woman represents but for the sake of the narrative, being gunned down is Kendrick’s alternate fate had he not have entered the rap game through his connection with Anthony ‘Top Dawg” Tiffith.  The track also poses the premise of the whole album through the single-word song titles that are either the spawn of wicked or weak nature.

This album design fits in with the nature of other conceptual ideas in Kendrick’s past but feels like the most fragmented address he has ever made.  On the surface, it’s intuitive that Lamar uses this method to add variety between his heavy; gritty deep cuts and some of his softer more melodic centered pieces but deep down, I feel like this could be an excuse to insert more pop elements throughout; some of which work flawlessly and some that stick out like a sore thumb.

‘LOYALTY’ and ‘LOVE’ are two culprits for this example.  Both songs include a highly interesting fusion of top 40s pop elements twisted with Lamar’s conscious lyrics for a medley that has not been seen on any of his solo releases yet.  These tracks add a great amount of reach potential for Lamar’s growing audience but fall flat compared to a majority of the better tracks featured here.  Rihanna’s feature track starts out with a neat mashup of Lamar’s niche ‘reverse’ effect but her singing portion doesn’t amount to anything remotely outside of her typical role on songs like this.  Zacari was a fantastic choice for the type of song ‘LOVE’ aspires to be.  My issue with this track lies primarily within the placement and substance of the song.  It feels forced when put between the two exceptional songs ‘LUST’ and ‘XXX’ and lyrically could be Lamar’s most surface level release to date.  I understand that the appeal here is to be a catchy pop tune but something feels very off about this song in retrospect to the rest of the album.

Ignoring the two or three outlying songs on this album, the rest of the release is nothing but pure goodness.  ‘PRIDE’ is a total dreampop/ hip-hop crossover that is full of lyrical gold, “I can’t fake humble just because you’re insecure” being only the tip of the iceberg.

‘LUST’ takes the cake for having one of the sickest beat drops on the album, as well as clever lyrics painting the metaphor for Lamar’s ‘thirst’ ex. “I need some water”.  The song also diverges into a Euro grime section once or twice, even furthering the genre range of this album.  It’s almost as if Lamar wrote each track on this piece to appeal to a variety of bodies, furthering the number of people that can possibly appreciate at least one or two songs provided here.

 

The production on DAMN is up to par with previous releases.  The sample dropping in ‘DNA’ on the second verse pairs nicely with the aggressive flow happening in the vocals, along with a dirty bassline that must be enjoyed on a quality home speaker system to understand its true glory.  One of my few complaints lies within the song ‘XXX’, the U2 featurette where Bono’s grunting vocals can be heard around two minutes into the track.  To me, this feels like one of those moments that was meant to sound really cool but truly comes off as corny and pseudo-edgy.  Having said that, this isn’t a terrible issue but only distracts from an otherwise decent song.

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Verdict

It would be an understatement to say that there is a lot happening on DAMN.  Kendrick takes the theme of weakness or wickedness down many different paths, each with their own ideological message that can be taken or left, but at least respected nonetheless.  He does all of this while creating some of the deepest accessible music that can be found on the top charts and does it all with the same grace his fans have come to know and love.  For me personally, I view this album as Lamar’s answer to stubborn listeners that weren’t sold on the lyricism and musicality behind TPAB or those that still think Drake is still the best rapper.  Lamar has offered a variety of different sounds for fans to pick and choose what they love or hate, which explains why everyone seems to have very differing opinions about which tracks are hot or not.  I believe DAMN is a good album and could arguably be Lamar’s most important album from a business viewpoint but it most certainly is not his best.  I can understand those that think this album is flawless but specific areas listed above keep me from being completely sold.  My honest opinion of this album is a 7.5/10.

 

 

Interview: clipping.

Ahead of their free festival performance at Metro Music Fest in Oklahoma City, clipping. sat down for an interview to talk about Daveed Diggs’ rap origin, the groups’ sonic progression through the years and the expansion of their audience post-Hamilton.

SW: Where are you guys performing tonight?

Jonathan: We’re in St. Petersberg, Florida tonight with the Flaming Lips.

SW: Will this be your first time coming through Oklahoma City this Saturday?

Jonathan: Yes, I’ve driven through it a few times but this will be our first show.

SW: How did you and the Lips start talking and what led you to go on tour together?  It’s quite an unlikely pairing yet seems like it would blend well in hindsight.

Jonathan: Our booking agent gives us lists of names that we could potentially do shows with and when we were suggested The Flaming Lips we thought they would be a good choice.  They’re a fun group and we love hanging out with them.

SW: Is there anyone in particular that you have to thank for your introduction into the rap game?

Daveed: I guess I would have to thank the director Jake Schreier, someone I actually went to high school with.  He is known for Robot & FrankPaper Towns and has worked on videos for Francis and the Lights.  I was around 14 or 15 when he asked me if I could rap for a beat that he was working on and that was the first time I had ever rapped on anything.

SW: How did you learn to rap so fast?

Daveed: Re-pe-tition?  We were just talking about this the other day. Back when I first started recording songs I was working with a guy named Romel Hopkins [aka] “Wild Man”.  Will was also on board with some of our projects and the fast verse style came from this beat that required a good amount of speed.  I remember the situation being almost “boot camp” style, with the two of them having me do 100 takes before they were satisfied with the sound.  It’s a combination of writing things with consonants that go well together and also just training your muscles for every specific song.

SW: Very neat to hear that is how the talent was honed.  I also asked because I know your presence in the Los Angeles area has given way to a performance or two with Busdriver.  Did he teach you any skills?

Daveed:  We grew up listening to Busdriver for sure.  I had actually only met him maybe a year or so before we toured with him.

William: Daveed and I saw him in either ’99 or ’00, right when he was out of high school.  I remember he was wearing a safari helmet and opened for Lab Tech 1, an underground rapper from Baltimore.

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SW: Being known for your harsh noise during earlier sets in your career, when did your sound shift to blend both areas of hook hip-hop with the same experimental vibe that you’ve carried for so long?

William: I think it’s more that we’ve transitioned the sound to be slightly calmer.

Jonathan: With our last record, we were trying to make everything feel very practical and within a specific world that lead us to different choices than we would have made if any sound was free-game.

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SW:  How has your time in Hamilton impacted your fanbase for clipping.?

Daveed: We get a lot more dads bringing their kids to our shows now.

William: We really love it though.  The way I explain it, Hamilton really exposed us to a bigger group that otherwise wouldn’t have discovered us.

Daveed: Because of that, a certain percentage of the audience at our shows possibly don’t know anything about the community of artists we come from.  When we book shows with other great lesser-known bands it gives us an opportunity to introduce new music to an audience that may have never known about it and the crowd always seems to enjoy the variety.

SW: Are there any nods or references in your lyrics that people interpret the wrong way?

Jonathan: I was just thinking, it’s not a sample but there’s a line in the song “Summertime” that no one has ever talked about that says “they pitchin’ that Helen Mirren” which is a reference to U.S.D.A.’s “White Girl”, whereas the cocaine representing white girl in our case,  is Helen.  We thought it was really funny but no one has ever asked or heard about the line.  That’s the meaning though.

SW: With your extensive knowledge of noise and ambient works, I’d like to know how you define what a good ambient track sounds like.

William: Woah.  There is a lot that goes into the criteria but to start, I like a track that doesn’t feel aimless.  I mean that in the sense that the artist isn’t making aimless efforts, there’s a difference between a stylistic technique and someone that may just be lacking creative direction.  There’s also a lot to be said about the pacing of a track and making sure everything kind of amounts to something.  I like these sort of clear; timbrel concepts I guess.

SW: Where do you see your sound heading next?

William: As much as we would love to say something concrete there are just some things that we would like to hold back on until the time is right.  I will say that we are very interested in continuing to do albums as a cohesive experience rather than adding each track as self-contained edits.

SW: What legacy do you want clipping. to leave?  

William: Oh man, being the first rap group to win a Nobel Prize for sure.

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If you find yourself in the Oklahoma City area for ACM@UCO’s Metro Music Fest, definitely stop by The Criterion, 500 E Sheridan Ave, Oklahoma City, OK 73104 at 9:30 for a free and incredible show from these talented men.

Real Estate: In Mind

Real Estate return for another dreamy, soft-surf rock record that continues to reinforce their ever-present stereotype for being everyone’s favorite background music band.

Nothing that the group showcases on this record is inherently bad by any means.  The mundane nature only appears in the context of the previous albums, in which little creative evolution seems to have occurred from the first release to this point.  Needless to say, I would not recommend this record to any first time listeners of the band.

In Mind feels like the weakest addition to the band’s existing collection.  It is as if every track on this album is borrowing techniques from some of their catchier tunes but in a way that feels almost too complacent; like the band understands their place as coffee shop ambiance aficionados.

Real Estate’s lyrics haven’t improved either and in some ways, are beginning to develop a level of corniness that is difficult to sit through when focusing too hard on what is being said.  Still, this record is not completely barren of quality

Naming off the good characteristics of this collection, there are a few tracks that stand out amidst of the plagued list of rehash.  “Darling” harkens back to the peppiness of the late track “Talking Backwards”, featured on the 2014 record Atlas.  The washy tone of the guitars in the bridge section has a mildly soothing effect that can be enjoyed without a doubt.  “Serve the Song” is another decent track and features a duet between the vocals and guitar that builds into a sort-of-awesome solo towards the end of the song.

“Two Arrows” is an example of a song that could have been so much more.  With its trotting pace and entrancing vocal harmonies, the song builds to a solid wall of disappointment once the hook begins its repeating riff that amounts to a distortion climax that feels about as forced as the abrupt cut that ends the track.

Other lackluster moments exist in “Time”, a completely directionless slurred islander tune that includes another set of mundane lyrics that can’t even pass as filler.  I would probably like this track a little bit more if it were only an instrumental.

Digressing, In Mind feels like a stalling point in Real Estate’s career, for now.  If you have loved everything the group has put out thus far and are content with hearing more of the same then this album might be for you.  For me, my honest opinion of this album is a 5.8/10.

 

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard: Flying Microtonal Banana

King Gizzard have released many outstanding records in their relatively short time together but nothing has been as ambitious as their work in 2017, in which they plan to release four more albums ahead of Flying Microtonal Banana.

Future projects aside, Flying Microtonal Banana is a truly innovative record in a sea of contemporary psych-rock.  The amount of effort and creative thought that was given to this project is ever present, with the use of custom-made guitars that offer the microtonal/ Eastern flair throughout each track, the lyricism that envisions a dark and leering future for the environment and a double drumkit that keeps the album rolling from track to track.

The album kicks off with “Rattlesnake”, a fast and hard driving jam that presents a pre-chorus that is almost as fulfilling as the infectious chants of “rattlesnake” in between verses.  This track utilizes musical incline to the fullest, creating a suspenseful feeling as vocalist Stu Mackenzie accelerates the tempo and goes higher into his register.  In hindsight, the placement of this song in the tracklisting could not have been any better.

Other memorable tracks include “Melting”, “Open Water” and “Nuclear Fusion” just to name a few.  “Melting” wins the prize for having the best percussion section of this album due to its beautiful; fast-jazz rhythm married with the synthetic organ to form the ominous feelings mentioned earlier.  Splitting the world “melting” into pseudo syllables as “meh-el-lit-ting” is another amazing feat that actually works and shows one example of the inventive songwriting on this record.  “Open Water” stands out as the most progressive track on this record, with its multiple repeat verses and choruses that continuously throw in contrasting instrumentation with each repeat.

(As a sidenote, the “flying banana” guitar has an insane solo on this track that led me to dig deeper into the production of this album.  Here’s a video from the band that cleared a lot of the questions I had.)

With “Nuclear Fusion”, the track opens and closes with a warped and pitched down variation of the melody that is played throughout the song, providing the track with a visible sense of direction and does a fantastic job at telling the listener what the main focal point should be.

Other smaller tidbits that are worth mentioning include the mixing on this album.  Every song flows together seamlessly, like an endless ride.  There are many records that attempt this effect, but very few pull it off to a standard that stands out in the crowd.  This is achieved in multiple different styles but my favorite transition has to be between the wispy air sounds between “Rattlesnake” and “Melting”.  This record also has a tangible theme extending across the first and last track both lyrically and musically.  The message appears to be all about pollution and I appreciate the subtleties and metaphors used to mask this theme in a perfect harmony that does not sound preachy but simply informative.  The audible theme comes from the zurna, a central Eurasian wind instrument that creates the snake charmer sound that weaves back and forth between the tracklist.  This helps to create familiarity with the listener and really grounds the album into its own niche.  All of that said, it can be slightly annoying after many listen and especially to new listeners that are not familiar with the album yet.

In conclusion, King Gizzard have come through again with a record that could arguably be considered their best.  With four more albums coming this year, I look forward to seeing what could possibly top this release.  My honest opinion of this album is an 8.5/10.

Interview: Helen Kelter Skelter

Helen Kelter Skelter is one of Norman’s faster-growing bands, being regular performers at Opolis and having a steady attendance at Norman Music Festival each year.  The group stands out with their niche blues vocals paired with an ounce of psych-rock but flourished in a way that creates their own unique sound.  Tim Gregory, one of the five members of the band sat down for an interview about the current news of HKS and their Opolis show this Saturday.

SW: Can you tell me your contribution in the band?

Tim: I’m kind of the “band dad” so to speak.  I still play guitar in the band but I also take care of most of the management for us.

SW: How many Opolis performances have you chalked up over the years as of now?

Tim: It’s been so many at this point, I’d have to say more than 30 times!

SW: Tell me how you nailed the main stage spot for NMF this year.

Tim: We just applied for it and because we’ve been hitting it pretty hard for the last few years at other smaller stages, I guess they thought it was time for us to be one of the big leagues.  It should be a lot of fun, though.  Playing on a larger speaker system will also do us a favor because we have such a heavy sound to work with.  I think the coolest part is that our music will be heard all across the festival which is something we haven’t quite experience before.

SW: Are you excited to play alongside greats such as Thee Oh Sees, Israel Nash and Oddisee?

Tim: Totally!  Also White Reaper and The Daddyo’s.  We’ve known those guys for a few years and we’re excited to play in the same festival together.

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SW: Your last record came out two years ago, I’d be willing to guess you’ve been working on some new stuff since then.  How has your sound changed in the past two years?

Tim: We have the next one done but we’re kind of sitting on it for a second until we have all of our promotional stuff ready.  We’re kind of looking for a new; clean slate, you know?

SW: Do you have any music videos in the works?  Do you think you need music videos to be a successful band in the digital age?

Tim: For sure!  Nothing recorded yet, but we definitely have some ideas rolling.  Having a video helps you stand out quite a bit, especially if it is a quality video.  More than anything, we want any video of ours to reflect the music that it’s paired with.  Something to add, rather than detract from the work.

SW: Is the Tame Impala/ [insert current contemporary psych-rock band] an annoying comparison for you, or do you like being grouped into that category?

Tim: We kind of get pushed into the psych-rock category a lot which is fine.  I’ll always be flattered to be compared to Kevin Parker!  With our first album, we just through a bunch of songs together that we had written because we thought they sounded good.  That sort of manifested into our own unique sound that we’ve continued into our 2015 record.  When our next album releases, there will definitely be a small difference to notice.  We’ve included more synths into our songs that I think a lot of people are going to like.

SW: How does Norman’s current music scene compare to when you all were first starting out?  Do you see an increasing growth in the talent that comes out of this city?

Tim: You can definitely see a growth happening right now.  I would like to see more out of town bands coming more often and I think that our music scene could be a lot better but it’s by no means awful.

SW: Have you ever thought of touring with groups such as King Gizzard or Twin Peaks?  I feel like your sounds would really merge for joint concerts.  What does your tour schedule look like this year?

Tim: That would be awesome!  King Gizzard is one of my favorite bands currently and they just dropped that Flying Microtonal Banana album which I’ve been loving.  We’re touring in over 25 places this year.  We’ll be going to Texas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas, New Mexico.  It’s our biggest stretch we’ve done so we’re hoping to gather some more fans along the way.

SW: Hype us up for your show this weekend!

Tim: We’ll be playing along with Mother Tongues and LCG & The X.  They’re both fantastic bands and we think that their sound is a great mix with ours so we’ll be making sure everyone is having a good time.  Come out and say hi!

Helen Kelter Skelter is performing Saturday, March 4 at 8 p.m. at Opolis in Norman.  Tickets are available at the door or online here.

Animal Collective: The Painters EP

Animal Collective (AnCo) have continued to showcase a steady stream of activity since the release of Painting With in early 2016, with continuous touring and even a short selection of singles that followed the last album. Those tracks, unfortunately, fell flat due to being overly obnoxious and even borderline childish, as if they were written specifically for a children’s television program.

Even so, Painting With was not exactly a killer record either and suffered from many redundant techniques and an overall lack of direction on the entire project with tracks such as “Spilling Guts” and “Recycling”, just to name the obviously bad ones.  With the announcement of this EP, I was left intrigued but also wary that the group would release another piece that would not even top their last record.

After several run-throughs of this four track EP, I am happy to say that there is more here than my prior expectations.  Starting with “Kinda Bonkers”, the first impression is that AnCo are back to a more acoustic or organic sound, at least compared to their two previous records that were highly synthetic.  That being said, the music is still coupled with a heavy amount of electronic instrumentation.  The entire track features a very Eastern style that fits the mystic theme that the Earth is rather “bonkers” and frankly, the song is quite catchy and does not overstay its welcome.

The middle tracks have their pros and cons, starting with the second song “Peacemaker” which provides an incredibly moody vibe that has been missing in AnCo’s music for so long.  In addition, this track also utilizes the “echo duet” vocal technique that was run into the ground on Painting With.  Funny enough, this style actually works very well for this piece and offers a sort of hypnotic effect that adds further contrast from the other tracks.  Following this song, “Goalkeeper” serves as the “runt of the litter” so to speak, due to its directionless verses and premature climax in the first three seconds that leaves no space for the song to grow.  The chorus is actually semi-pleasant but falls short due to the faults listed above.  If anything, these tracks might have been better if they were conjoined into one two-part song like something off of Fall Be Kind.

This EP concludes with “Jimmy Mack” a cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ late ’60s soul/ swing tune.  Seeing a song of this nature covered by AnCo is entertaining and admittedly catchy.  The digital flutes and “swing” factor show a side of the band that feels fresh and the energy is comparable to classic tracks like “Brothersport”.  Where it lacks, the song does begin to grow tired after the first or second chorus.  Nothing new is provided in the latter portion of the song and therefore becomes predictable and stale by the end.

The Painters EP showcases that Animal Collective still have a few creative tricks up their sleeves, but just barely rise above the quality of their other lackluster works within the last year.  This short list of songs is worth at least one or two listens, but do not expect any monumental return to form on this release.  My honest opinion of this EP is a 6/10.

Interview: A Giant Dog

Going on nine years strong, the eclectic punk-rock band from Austin, TX A Giant Dog are on their way back for a second performance within six months at the notorious music outlet Opolis on Main and Crawford and are riding this tour off of their early 2016 album “Pile”.

The band’s lead vocalist, Sabrina Ellis, speaks about the challenges that she and the members have faced leading to their eventual success on records such as “Fight” and “Bone”, which released in the years prior to their 2016 album.

“We’ve had people tell us that we aren’t punk-rock, which can be slightly discouraging to hear when that is the sound that you’re going for, but over time as we have become more accepted and developed our fanbase, I think it’s safe to say that the critics can’t necessarily succeed at defining what is and isn’t punk.”  Currently, “Pile” holds an 8.2/10 Pitchfork review and earned a solid B rating from Consequence of Sound.

In addition to overcoming critic reception, she details the years where anxiety began to take hold of her performance mindset.  “I never thought it would happen to somebody like me, but one day I just started to have panic attacks that I couldn’t explain and it really took a toll on my desire and thrill of performing.”  Overcoming this condition was no easy task, but by a self-described life changing experience that occurred from a near-death auto accident, Sabrina was able to learn to control her attacks and claims to be doing much better since this event.

Sabrina also discusses her primary influences behind the sound of the band, also noting her aversion of influential comparisons.  She says, “The question about influences is always a tricky one because every year or so it always shifts to a different answer than before.  Also, our most consistent role models tend to feel like a cliché that exists within most bands.”  She offers her most honest answer by listing off the likes of Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Pixies, Queen, and The Velvet Underground.

Delving into the creation of their latest record, Sabrina reveals A Giant Dog’s collaborations with SPOON producer Mike McCarthy, who helped with the mixing on “Pile”.  “Back in 2014, we had a good portion of songs written that are currently featured on ‘Pile’, but being without a label kept us from being able to release them.” She continues, “Through touring with Spoon, we were able to get noticed by Merge Records, our current label, and worked with Mike and his amazing vintage gear that really harnessed our sound and made sure that we didn’t clean up too much.”

Closing the interview, she teases that a new record is on the way for 2017 and that August appears to be the month of arrival.  “Toy” is the current title in place for this album.

A Giant Dog performs this Thursday at Opolis and tickets are on sale now at their website.