Gorillaz: Humanz (Deluxe)

Back after a lengthy delay, Gorillaz’ latest album has led to being one of the most anticipated records of the year but ultimately proves to be a somewhat hyped collection of songs that struggle to support one another both thematically and sonically.

In hindsight, I suppose my reservations about this album are not surprising to myself considering the thoughts I had about the early singles.  Specifically, the track “Hallelujah Money”, a song that still remains one of the most obtuse and directionless tracks from the group and the somewhat recent showcase of the song “Saturnz Barz”, an incredible VR music video but a track that (for me at least) began to dwindle in catchiness over time due to overly saturated autotune that lost any appeal after the fourth or fifth listen.

To clarify, this is not any sort of admittance that I wanted or specifically anticipated this album to be bad.  As a longtime Gorillaz fan, it pains me more than anything to say that I feel like this record is anything short of incredible.  Even Plastic Beach, an album with many critiques felt like a stronger effort than the entirety of this latest release.

The biggest flaw to be said of Humanz is within its overtly long tracklisting.  Sitting at a whopping 26 songs for the deluxe version, (which released alongside the standard 20 track edition) this record suffers from the notorious ‘more is better’ fallacy that so many comeback albums tend to practice to no avail.

Speaking generously, there are probably 5 songs provided here that I would not skip outside of a review setting.  The hardest part of reviewing this album was definitely within my ability to focus on the copious amounts of lackluster and overly expository tracks that could not lead to anything noteworthy.

Tracks such as “Momentz” attempt to bring a new direction to classic acts such as De La Soul by throwing in rare uses of vocal filtration (autotune) to the typical jazz rap trio.  This effect does not fair too well and creates an awkward sound that feels too left field as if the writing process this go-around was centered around being as random as humanly possible.

The lyrics on this song as also rubbish and downright confusing.  A sample being:

Got a girl who’s up for the matin’
I sense the need in her grammar
Her nose has never been skatin’ (Uh-huh)
But she’s sippin’ star constellation (Shit)
For real, her squirt game was so like 2Pac out of court run towards camera (Uh-huh)
Her response to that was just, “Check please”

In most cases, it would seem like the most ridiculous complaint in the world to claim that Gorillaz’ sound is too dynamic, a feature that is often niche to every piece that band has created.  Unfortunately, Damon Albarn’s efforts to continue his dynamic group begin to reveal a tired formula that is beginning to show signs of being milked too far.

Even the tracks that I somewhat enjoy on this album feel like they will only amount to short-term listens.  “Ascension” shows a fast paced introduction that roused my attention upon the first several listens but can feel slightly repetitive after hearing “drop that ass ‘fore it crash” after a number of times.  Even the Danny Brown song “Submission” starts off with an unfitting vocal lead that hardly prepares the audience for the rap verse during the latter half of the track.

“Andromeda” is another song that is enjoyable but feels like a silly excuse to tack on another extra ‘culturally relevant’ feature of D.R.A.M. that will slip past your ears if you are not focusing attention at the exact moment of his short chorus.

When looking at what went wrong with this album, the clearest reason is in the approach that was taken with each track.  It’s as if the writing followed the guidelines of ‘the song must either consist of a simple; repetitive chorus or a meandering series of verses with a passable chorus line’.  What happened to blissful hook buildup of “Empire Antz” or the introspective yet playful lyricism of “19-2000”?  Almost every track here feels like there is more to be said or a sound to expand upon.

I wish I could like this album a little bit more but my overall feelings post-listening leave me underwhelmed, confused and even more fearful of comeback records in general.  My honest opinion of this album is a 4/10.

Kamasi Washington: Truth EP

There is something to be said about a jazz tune that can effortlessly catch a room’s attention as if each measure was written to outperform the last, like a continuous spiral staircase that becomes more illustrious with each step.

Kamasi Washington’s latest EP does just that by taking a simple refrain and delivering it the same way each time but with a new element of soul and character to expands upon the previous repetition.

The first and only track opens with the accompaniment piano in full swing, causing an abrupt mood jolt from the silence or whatever previous music was happening before the listener presses play.  The cymbal-heavy percussion masks each blank space when the other instrumentation leaves gaps, making sure to cover every area with something interesting to focus on.

For the entirety of the song, one constant element is the climactic frequency that is always changing and never becomes predictable even though the melody remains the same throughout.  An example of this is the mid-track bridge that features the bulk of the moving saxophone moments that are paired with a gentle steel marimba for that extra ’60s samba flair.  Right before this moment, the song reaches a point of a perfectly acceptable climax but instead furthers the track by adding more moving parts to the equation.

This style more closely resembles Miles Davis’ modal tropes of that were also used in many of his pieces where a songs’ opening and closer are both similar and grandiose.

Instead of delivering more of the same for the final third portion of this work, Washington understands that the track needs an extra push to create a sound that has been worth repeating the refrain for around fourteen minutes.  A small symphony performs a striking accompaniment consisting of high strings that help the “voice” of the melody transform even further from its once solitary and mellow position.

Finally, an actual voice is added when every instrument is in full utilization.  A lyricless choir provides its own iteration of the refrain that lets the listener experience the majesty that the entire song had built up.  The ending is dramatic but not gaudy, making careful notice to not overstay its welcome or give way to any stale portions that feel overdone.

Overall, Truth finds its way over to being one of my favorite jazz pieces of the year.  While it could have been an extra off of Washington’s last record The Epic, it still feels like a solid effort to provide listeners with and expanded look at the sound that carried the notorious jazz wizard to his current status in the industry.

 

 

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.