D’Angelo / The Vanguard: Black Messiah

With this week’s shock release of Black Messiah, soul singer and multi-instrumentalist D’Angelo, the man music critic Robert Christgau once earnestly dubbed “R&B Jesus,” returns with his first album of new material in 14 years. It was not, as many have suggested, 14 years of silence. The last D’Angelo album, 2000’s Voodoo, was a near perfect communion of buttery soul, Crisco-fried funk, and hip-hop thump, but the video for its calling card ,”Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”, a lingering, sensual glance over the singer’s face and chest, turned him into an unwitting sex symbol. Live shows soon descended into catcalling, and D, convinced his music had become an accessory to his looks, slipped slowly out of sight. Dispatches grew scarce and worrisome. There were arrests. There was a car accident. For a while, D’Angelo appeared to follow talented but troubled forbears Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone into the dark.

Even in darkness there was still music. D’Angelo guested on albums by J Dilla, Q-Tip, Snoop Dogg, and more. He taught himself to play guitar. There were perennial promises of a new album. D’Angelo returned to the stage in 2012 peppering sets of old favorites with carefully chosen covers and unreleased new material. Black Messiah isn’t a sneak attack; it’s a slow-simmering gumbo finally boiled over. We tasted its fearless ambivalence to genre boundaries in 2007 when Roots maestro Questlove snuck an early version of the stately Joe Pass homage of “Really Love” to Australia’s Triple J Radio, in 2010 when the punk-hop scorcher “1000 Deaths” briefly slipped onto YouTube and in 2012 when D’Angelo returned to television to unveil the big band funk smartbomb “Sugah Daddy” on the BET Awards. Still, it’s a wonder to hear his mutant groove unblemished by the passage of time and stretched around this gobstopping cosmic slop of country funk, psych and new wave.

Black Messiah is a study in controlled chaos. The nightmarish chorus of “1000 Deaths” arrives late and fierce, as though the band unfurled its crunchy, lumbering vamp just long enough to violently snatch it out from under us. “The Charade”‘s Minneapolis sound funk rock follows, every bit as bright as the previous track was menacing until you zero in on the threadbare heart-sickness of D and P-Funk affiliate Kendra Foster’s lyrics. Black Messiah pulls together disparate threads few predecessors have had the smarts or audacity to unite. One song might channel Funkadelic, another, the Revolution, but the shiftless mad doctor experimentation and the mannered messiness at the root of it all is unmistakably the Vanguard. Black Messiah is a dictionary of soul, but D’Angelo is the rare classicist able to filter the attributes of the greats in the canon into a sound distinctly his own. It’s at once familiar and oddly unprecedented, a peculiar trick to pull on an album recorded over the span of a decade.

The timeliness of Black Messiah’s message is doubly astounding. The album was pieced together over painstaking years and originally pegged for launch next year, but D, affected by national unrest around unprosecuted police officer involved shootings in Ferguson, MO and New York City, nudged the release date up to speak to the times. Black Messiah plays out most like Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On in its penetrating sense of disorder. Where Voodoo concerned itself chiefly with the ups and downs of cohabitation, the new music steps outside to see what’s going on, and it ain’t good news. “1000 Deaths” folds the old adage about cowards and soldiers into a word about guns, fear and desperation. “The Charade” calls bullshit on a knotty history of systemic racism. (“All we wanted was a chance to talk/ ‘Stead we’ve only got outlined in chalk.”) “Prayer” looks for strength from on high, opening on a choppy Lord’s Prayer whose signal keeps cutting out.

Alongside this wartime pith even the sunnier songs come across darkly. The bipartite nostalgia romp “Back to the Future” looks for solace in memories ostensibly because the present is discouraging. The love songs run a little morbid. The titular pledge of “Betray My Heart” doesn’t speak fealty so much as candor, and the album’s barn burner of a closer “Another Life” is a song of devotion in the vein of the Stylistics’ “You Are Everything”—except that the couple never really meets. Black Messiah is about finding something to hang onto in dire times, soldiering through the infuriating insanity of oppression with a support system in tow. “It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen,” D’Angelo writes in the liner notes. “Black Messiah is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.” He may have taken well over a decade to show face again, but it turns out D’Angelo is right on time.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1JdkQSY

D’Angelo / The Vanguard: Black Messiah

With this week’s shock release of Black Messiah, soul singer and multi-instrumentalist D’Angelo, the man music critic Robert Christgau once earnestly dubbed “R&B Jesus,” returns with his first album of new material in 14 years. It was not, as many have suggested, 14 years of silence. The last D’Angelo album, 2000’s Voodoo, was a near perfect communion of buttery soul, Crisco-fried funk, and hip-hop thump, but the video for its calling card ,”Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”, a lingering, sensual glance over the singer’s face and chest, turned him into an unwitting sex symbol. Live shows soon descended into catcalling, and D, convinced his music had become an accessory to his looks, slipped slowly out of sight. Dispatches grew scarce and worrisome. There were arrests. There was a car accident. For a while, D’Angelo appeared to follow talented but troubled forbears Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone into the dark.

Even in darkness there was still music. D’Angelo guested on albums by J Dilla, Q-Tip, Snoop Dogg, and more. He taught himself to play guitar. There were perennial promises of a new album. D’Angelo returned to the stage in 2012 peppering sets of old favorites with carefully chosen covers and unreleased new material. Black Messiah isn’t a sneak attack; it’s a slow-simmering gumbo finally boiled over. We tasted its fearless ambivalence to genre boundaries in 2007 when Roots maestro Questlove snuck an early version of the stately Joe Pass homage of “Really Love” to Australia’s Triple J Radio, in 2010 when the punk-hop scorcher “1000 Deaths” briefly slipped onto YouTube and in 2012 when D’Angelo returned to television to unveil the big band funk smartbomb “Sugah Daddy” on the BET Awards. Still, it’s a wonder to hear his mutant groove unblemished by the passage of time and stretched around this gobstopping cosmic slop of country funk, psych and new wave.

Black Messiah is a study in controlled chaos. The nightmarish chorus of “1000 Deaths” arrives late and fierce, as though the band unfurled its crunchy, lumbering vamp just long enough to violently snatch it out from under us. “The Charade”‘s Minneapolis sound funk rock follows, every bit as bright as the previous track was menacing until you zero in on the threadbare heart-sickness of D and P-Funk affiliate Kendra Foster’s lyrics. Black Messiah pulls together disparate threads few predecessors have had the smarts or audacity to unite. One song might channel Funkadelic, another, the Revolution, but the shiftless mad doctor experimentation and the mannered messiness at the root of it all is unmistakably the Vanguard. Black Messiah is a dictionary of soul, but D’Angelo is the rare classicist able to filter the attributes of the greats in the canon into a sound distinctly his own. It’s at once familiar and oddly unprecedented, a peculiar trick to pull on an album recorded over the span of a decade.

The timeliness of Black Messiah’s message is doubly astounding. The album was pieced together over painstaking years and originally pegged for launch next year, but D, affected by national unrest around unprosecuted police officer involved shootings in Ferguson, MO and New York City, nudged the release date up to speak to the times. Black Messiah plays out most like Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On in its penetrating sense of disorder. Where Voodoo concerned itself chiefly with the ups and downs of cohabitation, the new music steps outside to see what’s going on, and it ain’t good news. “1000 Deaths” folds the old adage about cowards and soldiers into a word about guns, fear and desperation. “The Charade” calls bullshit on a knotty history of systemic racism. (“All we wanted was a chance to talk/ ‘Stead we’ve only got outlined in chalk.”) “Prayer” looks for strength from on high, opening on a choppy Lord’s Prayer whose signal keeps cutting out.

Alongside this wartime pith even the sunnier songs come across darkly. The bipartite nostalgia romp “Back to the Future” looks for solace in memories ostensibly because the present is discouraging. The love songs run a little morbid. The titular pledge of “Betray My Heart” doesn’t speak fealty so much as candor, and the album’s barn burner of a closer “Another Life” is a song of devotion in the vein of the Stylistics’ “You Are Everything”—except that the couple never really meets. Black Messiah is about finding something to hang onto in dire times, soldiering through the infuriating insanity of oppression with a support system in tow. “It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen,” D’Angelo writes in the liner notes. “Black Messiah is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.” He may have taken well over a decade to show face again, but it turns out D’Angelo is right on time.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1JdkQSY

Nicki Minaj: The Pinkprint

Nicki Minaj is fed up. It’s 2010, six weeks before the release of her debut album, Pink Friday. She’s working on the album’s finishing touches, though it’s just gone up for presale on Amazon, and people are blowing up her phone, asking for favors. She’s pissed, but she composes herself for the camera crew—they’re in the studio shooting footage for a documentary MTV will premiere a few years later, called “My Time Now”—to explain. She’s wearing a goofy, cotton-candy beehive wig, but her tone is serious. “When you’re a girl, you have to be, like, everything. You have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet, and you have to be sexy, and you have to be this, and you have to be that, and you have to be nice—it’s like, I can’t be all those things at once!” She pauses for a single dramatic blink, and for a moment, she goes somewhere else: “I’m a human beiiiinnnnngggggg!” She draws the word out for three full seconds, the same way she would a year later in her song-stealing verse on Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)” (“In the islands of Waikikiiiiiiiiii…”). It’s sort of a joke—her inflection is completely alien, or like a robot malfunctioning—but nobody laughs, and she quickly apologizes for ranting and goes back to fixing her eyeliner.

Until this year, that side of Nicki didn’t get out much, at least on record. Over the course of three official mixtapes, two studio albums (plus one Re-Up), and countless features, we’ve been acquainted with Nicki Lewinsky, Roman Zolanski, the Female Weezy, the Harajuku Barbie, and most of all, with Nicki Minaj LLC (“I’m a brand, bitch! I’m a brand!”). But we know surprisingly little about Onika Maraj, the 11th-highest paid rapper in America according to this year’s Forbes list, whose first and second platinum-selling albums were critically panned for appealing more to teenage girls than middle-aged guardians of Hip-Hop Culture. Onstage at 2012’s Summer Jam, Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg openly trashed Minaj, the headlining act: “I know there’s some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later: I’m not talking to y’all right now, fuck that bullshit. I’m here to talk about real hip-hop shit.” Minaj dipped out; today, “Nicki Minaj controversy” is one of four sub-categories of the “Career” section of Rosenberg’s Wikipedia page.

Minaj entered 2014 with an agenda. She toned down the technicolor costumes and wigs, making headlines when she debuted her natural hair at the premiere for The Other Woman, her first film role. She spent the winter unleashing a string of remixes hard enough to re-invigorate the “Best Rapper Alive” claims sparked years ago by her “Monster” verse and subsequently abandoned by rap fans whose delicate sensibilities were no match for glossy RedOne beats and Bud Light plugs. She railed against “non-mogul ass niggas” on the snarling misandry anthem “Lookin Ass”, toting twin machine guns in the video; she recruited Lil Herb, Chicago drill’s rookie of the year, for gritty loosie “Chi-Raq”, where she promised to “smack bitches, no Smack Cam, closed fists, no backhands.” Longtime fans, and those freshly back on the bandwagon, postulated that third album The Pinkprint would be a return to “Mixtape Nicki,” the one from Southside Jamaica, Queens, who had more substantial concerns than pink wigs and global entrepreneurship.

Of course, then came “Pills N Potions”, a simpering Dr. Luke piano ballad, and “Anaconda”, by Minaj’s own admission a novelty song and perhaps her most explicitly girl-oriented single to date. There was that confusing anecdote tucked into her BET Awards acceptance speech that almost felt like a cry for help: “The other day, literally I didn’t tell anyone this, I really thought I was about to die. Like I was saying my prayers to die. And I didn’t even wanna call the ambulance because I thought, well if I call the ambulance, it’s gonna be on TMZ.” Months later, TMZ alleged that Minaj had smashed the windows of maybe-fiancé Safaree Samuels’ Benz; their exceedingly private 14-year relationship seemed to be over. Whether her jarring 2014 trajectory was an elaborate scheme to dangle a “real hip-hop” carrot in front of naysayers only to yank it away, or a plan gone awry as her personal life imploded, The Pinkprint defies expectations from both poles of her fanbase. It’s not a return to Mixtape Nicki, or a third round of Nicki The Brand’s world-conquering dance-pop. It’s an album by Onika Maraj. And it’s a serious album, in the sense that it asks to be taken seriously. If that seems audacious, consider that most rappers don’t have to ask.

If there’s anything The Pinkprint makes clear over its sprawling 22 tracks (six of which appear only on deluxe editions), it’s that Nicki Minaj is exhausted. On intro “All Things Go”, her delivery is pointedly plain as she reflects on her cousin Nicholas Telemaque’s 2011 murder, for which she blames herself, and references what may have been an abortion 16 years ago. “I Lied” grasps despondently at the loose ends of her unraveled relationship over Mike WiLL Made-It’s most haunting production of 2014. Later, Minaj convincingly paints her ex as an opportunistic scrub: “You can never make eye contact, everything you got was based off of my contact,” she snaps on “Bed of Lies”. The closest thing to the carefree rave of Roman Reloaded here is “The Night Is Still Young”, but even there she’s consumed with creeping nostalgia for a party that has yet to end. It’s impossible to ignore her frequent mentions of pill-popping. “I popped a perc and I said thonk youuuu!” she crows on “Want Some More”; it’s the most fucked up Minaj has sounded on wax, and she used to rap from the perspective of the lunatic child that lived in her brain.

As with Drake and masculinity, Minaj’s music has long centered around the performance of femininity. On her first two albums, that performance centered around femininity as a spectacle: the elaborate costumes, the affinity for lurid Barbie pink, the cartoonishly exaggerated “SIGH” on “Super Bass”. For an artist repeatedly defined by her gender in an art form historically biased against it, the preoccupation made sense. But on The Pinkprint, Minaj addresses a different performance: that of the “strong woman,” the self-sufficient bad bitch role model who works twice as hard as her male peers and looks good doing it (in other words, the performance of the “only rap bitch on the Forbes list”). This, Minaj declares, is what the weight of your expectations has wrought, as she emerges from underneath them for the first time, as a heartbroken 32-year old who has sacrificed having a family to become the best rapper alive.

Which raises the eternal question: is she, though? Minaj’s rapping on The Pinkprint is hardly a revival of her Smack DVD days, but the long-upheld fallacy of Mixtape Nicki as the gold standard against which her raps must be measured was due to be put to bed anyway. Under scrutiny, the habit of neatly dividing Minaj’s music into “rap” or “pop” doesn’t hold up. Few songs from her mixtape era can hold a torch to her bars on Re-Up bonus track “The Boys”, the verbal acrobatics on “Starships” B-side “Stupid Hoe”, or the upper-handed smirk of her “Boss Ass Bitch (Remix)”. Though they might be delivered over sparkly pop synths, her rap skills have only sharpened over the last five years, and on The Pinkprint, they change form constantly. You want punchline-oriented Mixtape Nicki? She’s right there on “The Crying Game”: “Blood dripping out your arm, on my Asian rugs/ We was just planning a wedding, Caucasian doves” cribs a flow straight from 2009. More impressive is “Feeling Myself”, a show-stopping Beyoncé duet that reads as a divine premonition of Bey’s eventual Gangsta Grillz installment. “Bitches ain’t got punchlines or flow; I have both, and an empire also,” Nicki repeats slowly and emphatically, as though she’s speaking to an idiot; they’re lines from Re-Up bonus track “Up In Flames”, but maybe you didn’t hear her the first time.

Then there’s “Four Door Aventador”, an uncanny Biggie impression slipped in between twisted Atlanta homage “Want Some More” and R&B floater “Favorite”, with what feels like a knowing wink towards Rosenberg’s legion of “serious hip-hop” proponents. Rosenberg atoned for his remarks on air when Minaj returned to Hot 97 last year, but his apology (the “sorry if you were offended” type, peppered with qualifiers like “underground” and “mainstream”) only amplified the source of the problem. Of course he only came at Minaj because, as a believer in her potential, he expected more from her. “I was a women’s studies minor in college,” he stressed. “I’m the antithesis of that dude!” His language will sound familiar to any woman who has been patronizingly told, “I’m not sure if you have the capacity to understand what you’re doing the same way I do” (presumably, then, to every woman on earth). On The Pinkprint, Minaj inches closes towards her goal of not just destroying the rap/pop binary, but smashing sexist challenges of her agency along with it, deading any lingering questions as to whether the most objectively successful female rapper of all time truly understands where her strengths lie. “THIS is The Pinkprint,” she declares on “All Things Go”, and it’s loaded beyond a simple introduction a la “This Is the Carter”. It’s an outright rejection of any authority besides her own: “No, THIS is what my music sounds like.”

For an artist repeatedly accused of pandering to the unrefined palates of teenyboppers, The Pinkprint’s production and feature roster is surprisingly sophisticated, if a bit scattershot. The crew of collaborators ranges from trap innovator Zaytoven to casual diva Jessie Ware to house producer Maya Jane Coles to someone credited simply as “The Mad Violinist.” Though she hasn’t always worn it on her sleeve, Minaj has always had an acute understanding of what’s “cool” in rap and beyond, and it’s finally started to click. She slips sly contemporary references into The Pinkprint as little gifts for those paying attention: a quick nod, on “Feeling Myself”, to O.T. Genasis’ viral hit “CoCo”, or the built-in inside joke of “Want Some More”, its title a riff on Metro Boomin’s producer tag.

Still, The Pinkprint’s singles underwhelm, even in proper context. “Pills N Potions” is cute but hollow, its sentimentality trumped by the album’s deeply personal opening triptych. “Anaconda” makes more sense recontextualized as post-breakup stress release, but that doesn’t make it much more listenable. “Only” remains vile, a jizz-fest masquerading as an unfunny in-joke over a photocopy of a photocopy of a trap beat.

But they’re redeemed by the bonus tracks—a thrilling, confounding six-song set that elevates The Pinkprint from an occasionally transcendent, if unbalanced, break-up album to something far more intriguing. On “Shanghai”, Minaj barks red-blooded bars, the kind “real heads” froth over, on a beat that could’ve been an outtake from Fatima Al Qadiri’s Asiatisch. Sequenced differently, “Win Again” may have been the album’s triumphant centerpiece, simultaneously a mission statement, victory lap, and warning shot (and there should be no confusion as to whom Minaj is inferring with “Don’t write they raps and plus they flow shitty”). Stream-of-consciousness Auto-Tune freak-out “Mona Lisa” might be Minaj’s most bizarre album cut to date, gurgling “I’ll fuck around and shoot youuuu” through a Detail-produced benzodiazepine haze. “Truffle Butter” with Drake and Lil Wayne is such a lay-up of a radio hit, instantly 100 times more likeable than “Only”, that it’s hard to understand its bonus track placement as anything other than mischievous trolling—Minaj giggling to herself as she tosses off precisely what her critics craved as little more than an afterthought. It’s the ultimate statement as to whether anyone but Minaj herself understands what’s best for her career. When many thought they’d had her pegged—as a New York battle-rapper, a predictable pop diva, a brand—The Pinkprint presents Minaj in her most unexpected role yet: a human being.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/130xy6C

Nicki Minaj: The Pinkprint

Nicki Minaj is fed up. It’s 2010, six weeks before the release of her debut album, Pink Friday. She’s working on the album’s finishing touches, though it’s just gone up for presale on Amazon, and people are blowing up her phone, asking for favors. She’s pissed, but she composes herself for the camera crew—they’re in the studio shooting footage for a documentary MTV will premiere a few years later, called “My Time Now”—to explain. She’s wearing a goofy, cotton-candy beehive wig, but her tone is serious. “When you’re a girl, you have to be, like, everything. You have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet, and you have to be sexy, and you have to be this, and you have to be that, and you have to be nice—it’s like, I can’t be all those things at once!” She pauses for a single dramatic blink, and for a moment, she goes somewhere else: “I’m a human beiiiinnnnngggggg!” She draws the word out for three full seconds, the same way she would a year later in her song-stealing verse on Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)” (“In the islands of Waikikiiiiiiiiii…”). It’s sort of a joke—her inflection is completely alien, or like a robot malfunctioning—but nobody laughs, and she quickly apologizes for ranting and goes back to fixing her eyeliner.

Until this year, that side of Nicki didn’t get out much, at least on record. Over the course of three official mixtapes, two studio albums (plus one Re-Up), and countless features, we’ve been acquainted with Nicki Lewinsky, Roman Zolanski, the Female Weezy, the Harajuku Barbie, and most of all, with Nicki Minaj LLC (“I’m a brand, bitch! I’m a brand!”). But we know surprisingly little about Onika Maraj, the 11th-highest paid rapper in America according to this year’s Forbes list, whose first and second platinum-selling albums were critically panned for appealing more to teenage girls than middle-aged guardians of Hip-Hop Culture. Onstage at 2012’s Summer Jam, Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg openly trashed Minaj, the headlining act: “I know there’s some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later: I’m not talking to y’all right now, fuck that bullshit. I’m here to talk about real hip-hop shit.” Minaj dipped out; today, “Nicki Minaj controversy” is one of four sub-categories of the “Career” section of Rosenberg’s Wikipedia page.

Minaj entered 2014 with an agenda. She toned down the technicolor costumes and wigs, making headlines when she debuted her natural hair at the premiere for The Other Woman, her first film role. She spent the winter unleashing a string of remixes hard enough to re-invigorate the “Best Rapper Alive” claims sparked years ago by her “Monster” verse and subsequently abandoned by rap fans whose delicate sensibilities were no match for glossy RedOne beats and Bud Light plugs. She railed against “non-mogul ass niggas” on the snarling misandry anthem “Lookin Ass”, toting twin machine guns in the video; she recruited Lil Herb, Chicago drill’s rookie of the year, for gritty loosie “Chi-Raq”, where she promised to “smack bitches, no Smack Cam, closed fists, no backhands.” Longtime fans, and those freshly back on the bandwagon, postulated that third album The Pinkprint would be a return to “Mixtape Nicki,” the one from Southside Jamaica, Queens, who had more substantial concerns than pink wigs and global entrepreneurship.

Of course, then came “Pills N Potions”, a simpering Dr. Luke piano ballad, and “Anaconda”, by Minaj’s own admission a novelty song and perhaps her most explicitly girl-oriented single to date. There was that confusing anecdote tucked into her BET Awards acceptance speech that almost felt like a cry for help: “The other day, literally I didn’t tell anyone this, I really thought I was about to die. Like I was saying my prayers to die. And I didn’t even wanna call the ambulance because I thought, well if I call the ambulance, it’s gonna be on TMZ.” Months later, TMZ alleged that Minaj had smashed the windows of maybe-fiancé Safaree Samuels’ Benz; their exceedingly private 14-year relationship seemed to be over. Whether her jarring 2014 trajectory was an elaborate scheme to dangle a “real hip-hop” carrot in front of naysayers only to yank it away, or a plan gone awry as her personal life imploded, The Pinkprint defies expectations from both poles of her fanbase. It’s not a return to Mixtape Nicki, or a third round of Nicki The Brand’s world-conquering dance-pop. It’s an album by Onika Maraj. And it’s a serious album, in the sense that it asks to be taken seriously. If that seems audacious, consider that most rappers don’t have to ask.

If there’s anything The Pinkprint makes clear over its sprawling 22 tracks (six of which appear only on deluxe editions), it’s that Nicki Minaj is exhausted. On intro “All Things Go”, her delivery is pointedly plain as she reflects on her cousin Nicholas Telemaque’s 2011 murder, for which she blames herself, and references what may have been an abortion 16 years ago. “I Lied” grasps despondently at the loose ends of her unraveled relationship over Mike WiLL Made-It’s most haunting production of 2014. Later, Minaj convincingly paints her ex as an opportunistic scrub: “You can never make eye contact, everything you got was based off of my contact,” she snaps on “Bed of Lies”. The closest thing to the carefree rave of Roman Reloaded here is “The Night Is Still Young”, but even there she’s consumed with creeping nostalgia for a party that has yet to end. It’s impossible to ignore her frequent mentions of pill-popping. “I popped a perc and I said thonk youuuu!” she crows on “Want Some More”; it’s the most fucked up Minaj has sounded on wax, and she used to rap from the perspective of the lunatic child that lived in her brain.

As with Drake and masculinity, Minaj’s music has long centered around the performance of femininity. On her first two albums, that performance centered around femininity as a spectacle: the elaborate costumes, the affinity for lurid Barbie pink, the cartoonishly exaggerated “SIGH” on “Super Bass”. For an artist repeatedly defined by her gender in an art form historically biased against it, the preoccupation made sense. But on The Pinkprint, Minaj addresses a different performance: that of the “strong woman,” the self-sufficient bad bitch role model who works twice as hard as her male peers and looks good doing it (in other words, the performance of the “only rap bitch on the Forbes list”). This, Minaj declares, is what the weight of your expectations has wrought, as she emerges from underneath them for the first time, as a heartbroken 32-year old who has sacrificed having a family to become the best rapper alive.

Which raises the eternal question: is she, though? Minaj’s rapping on The Pinkprint is hardly a revival of her Smack DVD days, but the long-upheld fallacy of Mixtape Nicki as the gold standard against which her raps must be measured was due to be put to bed anyway. Under scrutiny, the habit of neatly dividing Minaj’s music into “rap” or “pop” doesn’t hold up. Few songs from her mixtape era can hold a torch to her bars on Re-Up bonus track “The Boys”, the verbal acrobatics on “Starships” B-side “Stupid Hoe”, or the upper-handed smirk of her “Boss Ass Bitch (Remix)”. Though they might be delivered over sparkly pop synths, her rap skills have only sharpened over the last five years, and on The Pinkprint, they change form constantly. You want punchline-oriented Mixtape Nicki? She’s right there on “The Crying Game”: “Blood dripping out your arm, on my Asian rugs/ We was just planning a wedding, Caucasian doves” cribs a flow straight from 2009. More impressive is “Feeling Myself”, a show-stopping Beyoncé duet that reads as a divine premonition of Bey’s eventual Gangsta Grillz installment. “Bitches ain’t got punchlines or flow; I have both, and an empire also,” Nicki repeats slowly and emphatically, as though she’s speaking to an idiot; they’re lines from Re-Up bonus track “Up In Flames”, but maybe you didn’t hear her the first time.

Then there’s “Four Door Aventador”, an uncanny Biggie impression slipped in between twisted Atlanta homage “Want Some More” and R&B floater “Favorite”, with what feels like a knowing wink towards Rosenberg’s legion of “serious hip-hop” proponents. Rosenberg atoned for his remarks on air when Minaj returned to Hot 97 last year, but his apology (the “sorry if you were offended” type, peppered with qualifiers like “underground” and “mainstream”) only amplified the source of the problem. Of course he only came at Minaj because, as a believer in her potential, he expected more from her. “I was a women’s studies minor in college,” he stressed. “I’m the antithesis of that dude!” His language will sound familiar to any woman who has been patronizingly told, “I’m not sure if you have the capacity to understand what you’re doing the same way I do” (presumably, then, to every woman on earth). On The Pinkprint, Minaj inches closes towards her goal of not just destroying the rap/pop binary, but smashing sexist challenges of her agency along with it, deading any lingering questions as to whether the most objectively successful female rapper of all time truly understands where her strengths lie. “THIS is The Pinkprint,” she declares on “All Things Go”, and it’s loaded beyond a simple introduction a la “This Is the Carter”. It’s an outright rejection of any authority besides her own: “No, THIS is what my music sounds like.”

For an artist repeatedly accused of pandering to the unrefined palates of teenyboppers, The Pinkprint’s production and feature roster is surprisingly sophisticated, if a bit scattershot. The crew of collaborators ranges from trap innovator Zaytoven to casual diva Jessie Ware to house producer Maya Jane Coles to someone credited simply as “The Mad Violinist.” Though she hasn’t always worn it on her sleeve, Minaj has always had an acute understanding of what’s “cool” in rap and beyond, and it’s finally started to click. She slips sly contemporary references into The Pinkprint as little gifts for those paying attention: a quick nod, on “Feeling Myself”, to O.T. Genasis’ viral hit “CoCo”, or the built-in inside joke of “Want Some More”, its title a riff on Metro Boomin’s producer tag.

Still, The Pinkprint’s singles underwhelm, even in proper context. “Pills N Potions” is cute but hollow, its sentimentality trumped by the album’s deeply personal opening triptych. “Anaconda” makes more sense recontextualized as post-breakup stress release, but that doesn’t make it much more listenable. “Only” remains vile, a jizz-fest masquerading as an unfunny in-joke over a photocopy of a photocopy of a trap beat.

But they’re redeemed by the bonus tracks—a thrilling, confounding six-song set that elevates The Pinkprint from an occasionally transcendent, if unbalanced, break-up album to something far more intriguing. On “Shanghai”, Minaj barks red-blooded bars, the kind “real heads” froth over, on a beat that could’ve been an outtake from Fatima Al Qadiri’s Asiatisch. Sequenced differently, “Win Again” may have been the album’s triumphant centerpiece, simultaneously a mission statement, victory lap, and warning shot (and there should be no confusion as to whom Minaj is inferring with “Don’t write they raps and plus they flow shitty”). Stream-of-consciousness Auto-Tune freak-out “Mona Lisa” might be Minaj’s most bizarre album cut to date, gurgling “I’ll fuck around and shoot youuuu” through a Detail-produced benzodiazepine haze. “Truffle Butter” with Drake and Lil Wayne is such a lay-up of a radio hit, instantly 100 times more likeable than “Only”, that it’s hard to understand its bonus track placement as anything other than mischievous trolling—Minaj giggling to herself as she tosses off precisely what her critics craved as little more than an afterthought. It’s the ultimate statement as to whether anyone but Minaj herself understands what’s best for her career. When many thought they’d had her pegged—as a New York battle-rapper, a predictable pop diva, a brand—The Pinkprint presents Minaj in her most unexpected role yet: a human being.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/130xy6C

Various Artists: The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume Two (1928-1932)

Money, you might have noticed, is on the mind of many musicians. As music consumption continues to shift toward digital methods of distribution, from illegal downloads that pay the artist nothing to authorized streams that pay very little, some makers are wondering just how they’ll continue to make. If the consumer isn’t willing to foot the bill with a sliver of their own income, how can the product exist?

Though the circumstances have changed in most every respect during the 80 years since the Paramount Records empire crumbled, this core question hasn’t: How do you keep putting music out when you’re no longer pulling money in? The success of Paramount Records, a loss-leader meant to move the music-playing furniture made by the Wisconsin Chair Company as World War I came to a close, was a surprise for the business’ leaders. The shoddily recorded and haphazardly manufactured shellac discs became a rather big boon as the ’20s roared. Hired in 1923, J. Mayo Williams, an ambitious talent scout who had headed north from Arkansas, led the pivotal Paramount charge. He assembled and managed a roster of uncontested originals, from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey to Blind Blake and Jelly Roll Morton. But in 1927, Williams left the label following a series of injuries and insults from the company’s white owners and officers. That’s where the first volume of The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records—a massive two-set collaboration between Jack White’s Third Man, John Fahey’s revived Revenant and a fleet of researchers, writers, graphic designers, fabricators, builders, archivists, printers and collectors—closes.

Williams’ departure, though, isn’t the end of Paramount’s rise, even if it might denote the start of the fall. The second volume of The Rise & Fall is instead a catalogue brimming with genius, no matter that the label’s scouts in fields and offices alike didn’t carry the same historical clout as Williams. Charley Patton and Son House, Lottie Kimbrough and Dock Boggs, Geeshie Wiley and Skip James, Thomas Dorsey and Emry Arthur: Those are only some of the names that arrive for this set, which stretches from 1928 until the label’s unceremonious end in the wake of the Great Depression in 1932. That’s when the money ran out for music.

The talent had not stopped shipping into Grafton’s record-pressing plant during that time of widespread financial woe. In fact, the 800 remastered tracks offered in Volume Two document the roots of gospel and swing and the intensification of blues and jazz through the efforts of some of American music’s formative musical minds. You can hear the earliest echoes of bluegrass, which would be born a dozen years after Paramount closed, and antediluvian traces of rock’n’roll, hot on its heels with added electricity.

The funds, however, just weren’t what they used to be. “Despite many of the great talents he helps bring to Grafton, you can’t sell the records if no one has money to buy them,” writes Scott Blackwood of the pale, bespectacled and pivotal Paramount recruiter Art Laibly. “Likely, out on the road or riding the rails across the South, Art Laibly’s anxieties about the future would sometimes get the best of him. The Crash. The poor getting poorer. A part of him knowing the days of the Race Records business were numbered.” At least they kept it going long enough to firm up the foundation for their rather young country’s recording pedigree.

You can examine that foundation for yourself on Volume Two. You can ponder the existential strangeness of Patton’s still-singular approach to the blues and his divisive belief in both religion and the bottle. (His “Prayer of Death” tunes as Elder J.J. Hadley are essential.) You can sway to the woozy, wobbly string-band fare of the Mississippi Sheiks. You can nod and shake to the delirious a cappella spirituals of the Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham, particularly the delirious and pulsing “Clanka-A-Lanka (Sleep on Mother)”. Skip James’ inescapable “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” is here, as are two versions of Dock Boggs’ “Will Sweethearts Know Each Other” and Geeshie Wiley’s continually magnetic and tragic “Last Kind Words Blues”. Had the unlikely and uncanny venture of Paramount never thrived, and had these songs never been captured, it’s easy to imagine the next several decades of music taking very different turns.

Not everything here changed the world, of course, and some of Paramount’s hidden gems arrive through its most obscure oddities. Brother Fullbosom’s “A Sermon on a Silver Dollar” is a racially and religiously irreverent faux testimonial to the power of that most almighty ducat. “Wicked Treatin’ Blues”, a duet for despondent harmonica and vocals that seem delivered from a deathbed, hypnotizes with sadness. George Hamilton’s “Chimes Blues” offers a delightful piano jaunt. Ollie Hess’ parlor-ready “Mammy’s Lullaby” combines arching, urbane vocals and simply picked guitar—country, meet cosmopolitan. Two of the best and most truly haunting songs in the entire Paramount oeuvre belong to Rube Lacy, a little-known blues moaner who only recorded these two cuts as far as anyone can tell. In its waning days, without Williams in command, Paramount was grasping for anything to sell. Many of these didn’t do that, but thanks be to Paramount for thinking they might—they are wonderful, ponderous relics. The worst that can be said about any of these songs is that they’re simply curious; the best is that they’re landmarks.

The first volume of The Rise & Fall came housed in an impressive chestnut box, lined with green felt and accessorized with metallic emblems. Its six LPs lived in a wooden record book, and the marbled brown vinyl looked as though it had been cut from the cross-section of some grand old oak. An accompanying USB drive—a “Jobber-Luxe”, Third Man likes to call it—contained the central trove of songs and graphics in a tarnished brass device that seemed pulled from a steampunk’s wildest pipe dream. Both the design and the text were nominated for Grammys in early December, and deservedly so.

You can expect much the same for Volume Two, which steps into the machine age through an aluminum replication of RCA Victor’s beautiful Special Model K portable record player. When the outside latches are unlocked, sets of rivets on either half unscrew to reveal the contents—on one side, a packet of promotional Paramount reproductions and six alabaster white records that sparkle with holograms when lit; on the other, two dense books that detail what’s known about all the musicians involved on these tracks and Blackwood’s romantic history of the second Paramount era. A second USB drive sits lodged in this volume’s navy blue felt. It’s the Paramount eagle, wings up and cast in bright aluminum. The Streamline Moderne approach intends to pull the music from a past of rural antiquity and toward urban modernity. “The machine was the source of America’s might and standing in the world,” Blackwood told Wired in October, “our capacity as an industrial power that connected the vast plains of our country.”

Still, it’s hard to see these sets as more than museum pieces, or, at best, fetishist collector items that lock vital research, history, and context away in a private vault with actual latches. Taken together, volumes one and two of The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records are mighty resources for understanding how the near-century of music that has followed first moved. But it’s a shame that such indispensable history remains so relatively unobtainable. Issued in editions of 5,000, these bulky boxes cost $400 each; tellingly, the first volume is still available through Third Man, more than a year after its release.

The price, believe it or not, is worth it. Given the work that went into each package, it’s hard to imagine that White is building his own private railroad with the profits. The treasures in the sets are staggering and sprawling, capable of inducing laughter, heartache, belief, and disbelief. There is bedrock and bedlam alike. But as Blackwood himself writes of a different but not entirely separate era, “You can’t sell the records if no one has money to buy them.” It’s hard to believe that most people have an extra mortgage payment sitting around for this history lesson, however great it may be.

And that’s a shame, because this music still moves. Not only do many of these songs maintain a vibrancy and a spirit that function even now, but they’re part of a still-incomplete story. Paramount was infamously terrible at record-keeping and accounting, so researchers like archivist Alex van der Tuuk are still finding facts and chasing myths to build a more complete label history. “Sun to Sun”, a steady-swerving Blind Blake tune recorded in November 1931, hadn’t been heard by modern ears until a copy was found in a steamer trunk in Raleigh, North Carolina, by the collector Marshall Wyatt in 2007. And Willie Brown, who contributes some of the best blues guitar to either set, remains something of a ghost, despite his relationships with the more famous House and Patton. “No conclusive evidence has been found to prove that this is indeed the real Willie Brown,” van der Tuuk writes of Brown’s believed burial site.

Such mysteries sit close to the core of Pitchfork contributor Amanda Petrusich’s 2014 book, Do Not Sell at Any Price. “There is even a vague fear that rare-record collecting could one day become analogous to fine-art collecting,” Petrusich writes early in her book, “the obligation of wealthy aristocrats whose consumption of art is more a statement of status than a function of love or even understanding.” It’s unfortunate, then, that in an age of infinite digital replication, where media need not be scarce, these archival releases have intentionally realized those fears by turning this music into artifacts for only those who can afford it. The new Jobber-Luxe contains an application that plays all of these tracks in specific orders or at random. If these boxes ever sell out, let’s hope Third Man considers its money made and puts that player online, so that more listeners can know exactly where they came from.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1GugR0e

Canooooopy: Disconnected Words Connect the Worlds

Japanese producer Canooooopy draws from the more mundane moments of daily life. “The sound of an air conditioner, the rhythm of a pen falling down, a conversation from other people,” are just some of the ho-hum influences on his music that he mentions in an interview with Japanese music blog Hi-Hi-Whoopee, capping his answer off with “a monotonous life.” Canooooopy subscribes to a “100% sampling” ethos, and builds every track on his first CD release Disconnected Words Connect the Worlds from noises that seem innocuous enough in their original context—an automated telephone greeting, people chatting, children singing. Yet he’s able to warp them into disjointed little worlds, and Disconnected serves as a solid introduction to one of the wonkier beatmakers to pop up out of Japan over the last couple of years.

A lot of what makes Canooooopy interesting emerged via a recent collaborative project, wherein he teamed up with fellow Japanese trackmakers Lidly and Axion117 to form Ganghouse Fungi. That trio’s work often featured experimental dashes that hinted at what Canooooopy would do on Disconnected, but his partners hailed from a more traditional crate-digging beat scene, one influenced by the sound of American hip-hop and favoring jazz samples. Canooooopy, meanwhile, appears tied to nothing—he loads up on samples and field recordings and melds them together into forms few rappers could contend with, all in Garageband (an approach he shares with Grimes, who along with James Brooks of Default Genders have shared Canooooopy’s music online).

Despite the herky-jerky nature of his collage approach to music, Canooooopy shows an attention to detail on Disconnected that makes his best tracks click just right. “Viral Address Stalker” kicks off by nabbing the intro to Marnie Stern’s “Plato’s Fucked Up Cave” (“Get me out of this prison, man/ Let me run, run, run, run, run”) and looping her stuttered “run,” building a beat around it before playing with the vocal some more. “Songs About a Sunken Hope” bounces between various vocal samples of British-accented words and syllables, Canooooopy timing it just right so no voice rams into the other and everything syncs with the skittery beat. Even brief numbers such as “Kaleido World Mysty Sisters” and “Doppelinedancerstomps” treat every second and sound with care, not wasting anything during their 90-second runtimes.

Disconnected’s jagged construction also emphasizes an eerie atmosphere, the rush of voices often making for some uneasy moments. Sometimes it’s simply an unexpected sound—”Mono Montaged Oratorio” is packed with sampled dialogue, but none comes through headphones more clearly than a cutesy voice saying “baby” for a jarring second. Usually, though, Canooooopy lets the mishmash of sounds create an unnerving feel that lingers over the entire beat, such as on the bouncy “Too Long Way Home”, where voices mixed deep in the track constantly sneak into the main rhythm. The album suffers when Canooooopy strips the music down and tries to create something creepy with minimalism, as he’s at his best when sounds jumble together and unsettling moments emerge from the clamor.

Even though Canooooopy has an attentive eye when it comes to individual tracks, Disconnected doesn’t quite click together as an album, as certain stretches of it can get a little too cluttered. But then an individual track will burst through—such as the burbling “The Polygonic Spree” or clattering “The Phantom of the Gauss”—and remind how he’s able to turn a scattershot collection of samples into something otherworldly. It’s a great introduction to a producer able to alchemize the everyday into the surreal.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1usQjpz

Canooooopy: Disconnected Words Connect the Worlds

Japanese producer Canooooopy draws from the more mundane moments of daily life. “The sound of an air conditioner, the rhythm of a pen falling down, a conversation from other people,” are just some of the ho-hum influences on his music that he mentions in an interview with Japanese music blog Hi-Hi-Whoopee, capping his answer off with “a monotonous life.” Canooooopy subscribes to a “100% sampling” ethos, and builds every track on his first CD release Disconnected Words Connect the Worlds from noises that seem innocuous enough in their original context—an automated telephone greeting, people chatting, children singing. Yet he’s able to warp them into disjointed little worlds, and Disconnected serves as a solid introduction to one of the wonkier beatmakers to pop up out of Japan over the last couple of years.

A lot of what makes Canooooopy interesting emerged via a recent collaborative project, wherein he teamed up with fellow Japanese trackmakers Lidly and Axion117 to form Ganghouse Fungi. That trio’s work often featured experimental dashes that hinted at what Canooooopy would do on Disconnected, but his partners hailed from a more traditional crate-digging beat scene, one influenced by the sound of American hip-hop and favoring jazz samples. Canooooopy, meanwhile, appears tied to nothing—he loads up on samples and field recordings and melds them together into forms few rappers could contend with, all in Garageband (an approach he shares with Grimes, who along with James Brooks of Default Genders have shared Canooooopy’s music online).

Despite the herky-jerky nature of his collage approach to music, Canooooopy shows an attention to detail on Disconnected that makes his best tracks click just right. “Viral Address Stalker” kicks off by nabbing the intro to Marnie Stern’s “Plato’s Fucked Up Cave” (“Get me out of this prison, man/ Let me run, run, run, run, run”) and looping her stuttered “run,” building a beat around it before playing with the vocal some more. “Songs About a Sunken Hope” bounces between various vocal samples of British-accented words and syllables, Canooooopy timing it just right so no voice rams into the other and everything syncs with the skittery beat. Even brief numbers such as “Kaleido World Mysty Sisters” and “Doppelinedancerstomps” treat every second and sound with care, not wasting anything during their 90-second runtimes.

Disconnected’s jagged construction also emphasizes an eerie atmosphere, the rush of voices often making for some uneasy moments. Sometimes it’s simply an unexpected sound—”Mono Montaged Oratorio” is packed with sampled dialogue, but none comes through headphones more clearly than a cutesy voice saying “baby” for a jarring second. Usually, though, Canooooopy lets the mishmash of sounds create an unnerving feel that lingers over the entire beat, such as on the bouncy “Too Long Way Home”, where voices mixed deep in the track constantly sneak into the main rhythm. The album suffers when Canooooopy strips the music down and tries to create something creepy with minimalism, as he’s at his best when sounds jumble together and unsettling moments emerge from the clamor.

Even though Canooooopy has an attentive eye when it comes to individual tracks, Disconnected doesn’t quite click together as an album, as certain stretches of it can get a little too cluttered. But then an individual track will burst through—such as the burbling “The Polygonic Spree” or clattering “The Phantom of the Gauss”—and remind how he’s able to turn a scattershot collection of samples into something otherworldly. It’s a great introduction to a producer able to alchemize the everyday into the surreal.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1usQjpz