Lupe Fiasco: Tetsuo & Youth

Lupe Fiasco seems exhausted by his own career. “I think I had my peak and now I am coming down in relevancy,” he told Billboard recently. “It’s not a sad thing for me…I can’t compete with a Wiz Khalifa for the attention of a 12-year old.” This doesn’t make for inspiring promo copy, but there’s no arguing that his run has been a wearying one: From 2006’s Food & Liquor, which suffered from leaks and a Billboard mishap misreporting his first-week sales, to 2011’s reviled Lasers, which his fans had to storm Atlantic’s gates to get released, Lupe is forever swimming upstream, his hands tied behind his back. 

Of course, many of Lupe’s problems stem directly from Lupe—he was pointing out flaws in F&L even before it was released, and he’s perennially signing off Twitter, announcing his retirement, scheduling and canceling albums. And yet something feels different this time around: If Tetsuo & Youth is any indication, something has shaken loose in Lupe, because it’s the most focused, thoughtful, and satisfying project he’s offered since The Cool.

What’s shifted? Well, for one, the album serves as the end of his tortured contractual obligation to Atlantic. Even then, he wasn’t let off the hook without a fight: Depending on whom you believe, the world might owe Tetsuo‘s existence to the hacker group Anonymous, which publicly threatened Atlantic if the album was not given a release date. The label’s official announcement came swiftly afterwards, and Lupe tweeted a simple “V” as a wordless gesture of thanks.

Whatever set the stage for him, he dives back into rapping for its own sake like it’s a big dusty novel he’s been waiting to pick back up for years. He opens after an intro track with “Mural”, which lets him rap, endlessly, for nine minutes, with no hook. He remembers browsing his brother’s porn stash and contemplating the back pages, where you could find “ad space for rubber girls.” He poses enigmatic rhetorical questions like “Now what’s a coffin with a scratched ceiling?” The question has no specific meaning, but the image, and its ghoulish riddle formulation, makes you ponder a lurid scenario for a half-beat longer so that it sinks in.

Fiasco has talked about his love of painting (he painted the album’s cover), and his way with language has always felt painterly rather than writerly, more concerned with how one word shades the next than with literal coherence. The words sound and feel gorgeous, and Tetsuo & Youth bursts with ripe, beautiful lines, like “Sanskrit dance on the page of the dead book,” from “Body of Work”, or “High as the angel on Dikembe’s shoulder” from “They.Resurrect.Over.New”. Following his darting thoughts has always been a thrill, and Tetsuo is a gratifyingly clear transmission.

His longer, more ambitious gambits connect, too, mostly because they preach to no one. He has earned a reputation for sermonizing, but his best songs, like “Hip-Hop Saved My Life”, eschew sermons for empathy: Even the KKK member he namechecked on on F&L‘s “American Terrorist”, who “can’t burn his cross because he can’t afford the gasoline,” was worthy of pathos. On Tetsuo‘s “Prisoner 1 & 2”, Lupe examines the prison-industrial complex, wriggling his way into multiple characters’ heads, including the prison guard who has to work at the prison “or it’s no lights” and feels a pang of jealousy every time a prisoner walks out. On “Deliver”, a pizza delivery car serves as a metaphorical vehicle to explore neglected neighborhoods and the semi-mythical status of “the hood.” Neither song hits a single strident, or forced, note.  

Unfortunately, the same weakness that always hobbles Lupe albums—namely, the music—continues to dog him here. His in-house production team consistently surrounds him with a flavorless, vaguely rock-derived backing, while hook singers like “Australian Idol” winner Guy Sebastian and St. Paul singer/songwriter Nikki Jean croon the anonymous choruses. The placid, flat-footed rhythm is a poor match for Lupe’s lively, elastic flow. Ironically, one of his recent “label concession” singles, the spry Ty Dolla $ign-featuring “Next to It”, would have livened up the album’s sound considerably. It’s not on here, leaving Lupe in his own universe. It’s a pleasant place, but often a little flat.

Lupe has always been most exciting when he’s somewhere outside his comfort zone, engaging directly with the commercial-rap epicenter he criticizes so shrewdly. He has a naturally subversive mind, but a subversive working outside the mainstream has very little to examine or tweak, and he’s thrilling when he’s wriggling on the hook of a big, fat, contradiction—pushing against his audience’s idea of him with Bun B‘s “Swang on ‘Em”, for instance, or grappling with magnetism of rap cliches on “Daydreamin'”. “Chopper”, produced by DJ Dahi, pairs Lupe with Trae tha Truth, Billy Blue, Buk of Psychodrama, Trouble, Fam-Lay, and Glasses Malone, a never-to-be-repeated line-up and a ferocious standout.

Of course, sometimes when Lupe engages with the mainstream, you get strident messes like Lasers“Words I Never Said”. You just never know. He’s mercurial, as likely to strike gold on an obviously corporate-mandated single or an inward-burrowing indulgence. It’s tough to imagine his best-case scenario for creating: He always seems to be interrupting himself mid-sentence. In a recent New Yorker profile of Chris Rock, hip-hop critic and author Nelson George affectionately dubbed Rock the “Duke of Doubt,” pinpointing the skepticism that makes Chris Rock’s comedy hardy and evergreen. If Lupe has a similar wellspring, it is ambivalence. It’s a tricky muse, but every Lupe project has found a way to harness at least 15 or 20 minutes of his fluid, fleeting mind. Tetsuo & Youth is the most generous gulp he’s managed in years.

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Primordial: Where Greater Men Have Fallen

After two decades as a band, Primordial can be excused for taking their time to sprint. On each of their last two records, the Irish metal stalwarts lurched into motion, as though priming the engine of some great old machine. To the Nameless Dead, from 2007, reached its racing, blackened beat after a distended prelude of electric guitar haze. Four years later, Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand wove through militaristic field recordings, meandering acoustic guitar, and galloping war drums for two minutes before ripping into its melee.

The time for hesitation, however, has ostensibly passed. Where Greater Men Have Fallen, the band’s excellent eighth album, begins with a very big boom. The drums open with a heavy hit, followed by a jagged-edged riff and a countering lead that’s pulled as taut as a high wire. And when frontman Alan Averill, or A.A. Nemtheanga, screams “Go,” the beat only intensifies, with the guitars flexing extra muscle, too. In the time it’s recently taken Primordial to get into a song, Averill—one of the most captivating bandleaders in metal—is already screaming tales of pillaging armies, buried children, and massed graves. For a band that’s always paid so much attention to the end of empires and lives, the pressure of their own creeping morality seems to have induced added urgency.

Primordial have already flirted with their own demise: In 2010, after an onstage meltdown in Greece, Averill publicly apologized for the actions of drummer Simon O’Laoghaire and admitted that Primordial sought an immediate replacement. “Over the last 10 years, we have had many problems with Simon’s alcohol and substance problems,” he wrote. “We have tried many, many times to help him out, but on Saturday things reached a new low.” But the quintet persevered and summarily recorded the death-conquering record Redemption.

The survivor symptoms seem more prominent, however, on Where Greater Men Have Fallen, an eight-song set that finds Primordial more focused—but just as fierce—as ever. Primordial’s discography is a stylistic field trip. They have ventured between straight black metal homage and heavy metal heroics, but they have specialized in a mix of the two, laced with idyll accents, acoustic instruments, and the recognizable melodies of Celtic folk. There’s neither space nor time for that here. “The Seed of Tyrants” heads straight into a black metal ascent, the band easing the tension between the rhythm and riff only to pull it tight again. The song ends much where it starts, redirecting only for a brief mid-tempo midsection that serves to emphasize the ferric strength of its furious conclusion. “Babel’s Tower” locks quickly into a lumbering doom groove. Averill uses the pulpit to croon and cry his prophecy of the world’s end. At various points, the song jumps into double-time and half-time, but both instances swivel around the same languid riff-and-rhythm pair. Compared to Primordial’s past successes, the stripped-and-centered approach might seem simplistic, but the hour-long result is more immediate because of it. From beginning to end, Fallen feels like a compulsory listen.

Late-album highlight “Born to Night” does make time for a long and gentle introduction, but the magnetic tune that eventually emerges bears the theatrics of Iron Maiden and the twisting maneuvers of Confessor. What’s more, every turn of Averill’s voice here feels like a plea from some hardened soul singer, begging you to follow him into his battle. That’s an essential element of Fallen’s appeal; though Averill has been one of the most capable singers in metal for two decades, he has tapped into a new potency, delivering these tales of loss in search of redemption like Mahalia Jackson looking for her Lord. It’s surprising that, a quarter-century into Primordial, Averill is now perhaps better than ever. His performance during “Come the Flood”, for instance, is electrifying. He leaps between falsetto crests and bellowed lows during the first verse, broods and commands through the chorus, and vamps with gusto in the turnarounds like he’s the son of Robert Plant. On these eight tracks, Averill is in total control and absolutely thrilling for it. 

But none of this is to say that, just because Primordial omitted some acoustic accessories and upped the rock spectacles, they’ve turned away from their Irish pedigree, always such an essential part of the music they’ve made. Rather, the opening title track swivels around a chorus to which you might lift a pint in a pub, its sing-along swagger reinforced by shouted harmonies and guitars that aim upward. More important, though, is the way Averill questions his nationality, pride, and sense of belonging in these lyrics. There is an incensed resignation at work here, a feeling that Ireland is only another territory that forsook some of its own early virtues. “This dreadful history we have sired,” Averill offers, “is the black, bleached future that you have desired.” That suspicion exists outside of Ireland, of course, and resonates across the Atlantic right now in particularly shameful ways. It’s the right time for Primordial to push pause on their nationalist isolation—not only for their respective age, but also for our collective one.

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Mary J. Blige: The London Sessions

This past January, Mary J. Blige appeared on a remix of Disclosure’s “F For You”—an unexpected but instantly natural pairing that at the time seemed merely like a coronation of sorts for the legendary R&B singer. Instead it was a harbinger for both the individuals involved and the scenes they represent. As 2014 played out, the Lawrence brothers would see their breakthrough hit “Latch” become a surprise staple on rap and R&B radio stations, while Blige used her turn on “F For You” as the launching pad for a complete career digression—if not an overall reinvention.

Her new album The London Sessions features primary collaborations with Disclosure as well as fellow British pop superstars Sam Smith, Naughty Boy and “Latch” songwriter Jimmy Napes. That it stands as one of the final major releases of the calendar year is fitting as a summation of R&B in 2014. As the sound of pop mutated into dance music a few years back, R&B lost its footing in the American mainstream, leaving even its established superstars in the lurch. But R&B clawed back some of its relevance this year thanks to danceable, appealing songs that didn’t immolate the genre at the altar of pop radio. Chris Brown’s “Loyal”, for instance, was a massive hit, but more instructive in the context of Blige’s new album were Kid Ink’s “Show Me” and Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em”, two hugely popular DJ Mustard-produced songs that showed a younger generation how R&B could fuse with house beats in a way that feels completely natural.

All of this—from Mustard’s wizardry to R&B playlists finding room for “Latch” and Smith’s “Stay With Me”—has helped provide a soft landing spot for Blige, whose career has been floating aimlessly for a few years now. Blige is nothing less than a titan of R&B music, but she had fallen into a trap familiar to many popular musicians two decades into a career: by trying to cling to the zeitgeist she was making music that felt stale. Blige’s albums since 2007’s Growing Pains have been patchy, and she hasn’t had a true hit single since that album’s “Just Fine”.

No single from The London Sessions has yet changed that latter issue, but as an album it certainly doesn’t feel stale. Instead, it’s a seamless and occasionally thrilling listen that establishes a fact many could have predicted: Blige’s throaty vocals, as passionate and emotional as ever, are an ideal fit for house music. Nonetheless the album doesn’t exactly play out how you might expect.

For instance, it opens with a quartet of ballads, only one of which—a classic Blige self-help anthem called “Doubt”, co-written with Naughty Boy collaborator Sam Romans—rises to the level of the album’s better, later songs. Despite Blige stoking the album’s narrative with its name and by listing six songwriters on its cover, we are eased into the album slowly, as if we are wading into cold water. It’s like Blige couldn’t bear for her core fanbase to immediately hear a four-on-the-floor beat. The real meat of the album comes after these opening tracks—the album opens with a few wobbly steps, making the sequencing curious at best.

Then there is the matter of the big name collaborators. Disclosure and Sam Smith are the starry names here peeking out from behind the curtains, though they even get their moments in the spotlight in the form of spoken word interludes in which they gush openly about Blige. The thing is that, although these three might have been the inspiration for The London Sessions, their contributions don’t exactly stand out.

“Right Now”, a Disclosure production with a Smith co-writing credit that was the first song released off the album, is not only one of the album’s most forgettable tracks, but it’s also so bland that it seems like Disclosure and Smith (along with Napes) were almost afraid to disturb Blige. Their reverence is clear in the clipped interludes—”To me she was this untouchable goddess,” Smith says in one of them—but that too often translates to a sort of distance. “Follow”, the other Disclosure track (though this time without Smith), is better, but with its simple skipping garage drums and rubbery bassline it still feels like a Disclosure starter kit.

The Lawrence brothers are actually shown up by a few old heads. The album’s best track is “My Loving”, which was produced and co-written along with Blige and Romans by R&B god Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. The track is a pure ’90s house throwback, and it’s the first song on the album that really seems to electrify Blige. “I’m in heaven, every time you lay your body next to me,” she sings early in the track, letting her vocals run just slightly. Blige is channeling dozens of great, and often anonymous, house divas here, and naturally she fits in their lineage perfectly.

That song kicks off a run of tracks that really stabilizes the album. “Long Hard Look”, which sounds like a take on Sampha’s broken keyboard confessionals, is the album’s best slow number. It’s followed up by “Whole Damn Year”, another vintage Blige ballad that features quietly arresting vocals: “It took a whole damn year to repair my body/ It’s been about five years.” Following that is the second instance in which the young kids get taught old tricks: “Nobody But You”, the album’s second-best uptempo track, allows Blige to really belt a devotional house chorus, and she delivers. It was produced by UK garage forefather MJ Cole, who shows Disclosure how to stay out of Blige’s way with some clicking drums and piano chords while still giving her a song she can really sink her teeth into.

The album ends with another ballad, one that suspends Blige’s voice over pounding, chunky piano chords and a blush of strings. It is a final reminder that even if the surroundings change, Blige can wring emotion out of her voice like very few people on Earth. That, 20-something years on, she found a new way of showcasing this is why she is who she is.

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SD: Truly Blessed

At the end of 2014, Chicago’s drill scene endures, but once again primarily as a regional phenomenon. The major labels who rushed in to scoop up its biggest names two years ago have all but moved on—Interscope severed its ties with Chief Keef in October, and rumors have surfaced that Def Jam has done the same with Lil Durk, although at this time he’s still listed on their roster of artists. Two years after its release, Keef’s lightning-in-a-bottle Finally Rich remains the only full-length drill project to have been officially released through a major.

Whether this is the fault of the labels or the artists themselves is beyond the point. But as is often the case, a lot of the most interesting work from a scene emerges once the spotlight has shifted elsewhere and its artists are free to pursue their own interests rather than having to bend to the will of their corporate benefactors. Case in point: SD (born Sadiki Thirston) opted for the independent route from the beginning, releasing three mixtapes over the last two years and establishing himself as a reliable if unsung practitioner of the sound, content to color within its lines instead of pushing them further outward. His debut album, Truly Blessed, doesn’t reinvent drill, but it manages to highlight that it’s always existed in close proximity to pop, even if it’s the kind that never misses an opportunity to elbow you in the gut.

There are zero guests on Truly Blessed, but SD doesn’t try very hard to hide the influences of his contemporaries that can be heard throughout the album. He doesn’t need to—his greatest strength lies in his gifts as a synthesist, studying the music of those around him and hand-picking only what he needs most. Opener “Confident” finds the 20-year-old sounding, especially with the lurching melody he rolls around during his verses, like a less marble-mouthed Chief Keef. In many ways, the album sounds like the kind of music that Keef might be making if he was interested in recording a proper follow-up to Finally Rich rather than burrowing deeper into his own insular world.

In other words: anthems abound here. Whether it’s the Zaytoven-esque funhouse mirror trap of “Styles”, on which SD stretches out vowels about as far as vowels can be stretched, or the gargantuan bruiser “Circles”, where his singsong melodies fold in on themselves, eating their own tails in a game of musical Ouroboros, SD knows how to key in on one particular element in a song and then spend four minutes exploring it from every possible angle. Take “Clockwork”, for instance, where he borrows inspiration from the tick-tock heave of Sonny Digital and B Wheezy’s production without running the track’s central conceit (“What time is it? Go get some money”) into the ground.

Even with his penchant for selecting tough-as-nails production, Truly Blessed is rarely a heavy affair. The narrative around drill often claims that those who make it are dead-eyed goons, nihilists who not only perpetuate the violence that plagues their city but actually glorify it. This conveniently avoids admitting that, while a lot of drill is unrelentingly bleak (see: most of Lil Durk’s oeuvre), there’s a lot of humor and outright joy to be found in it as well—SD isn’t the natural class clown that King Louie is, but he may be drill’s most natural lothario. The most infectious moments on Truly Blessed are its giddiest, and a few of them also happen to be honest-to-God—and really good—love songs.

“I want the best of you, don’t worry ’bout tonight” SD sing-raps on “Big Things”, which captures the dizzying swirl of being completely and entirely head-over-heels about someone. It’s also a shimmering swath of Lite-Brite synths that still possesses a lower-end that could knock pictures off of walls. “I Do” might be even better—SD sells the song by committing fully to its starry-eyed ecstasy, and it may very well contain the most sunlight a drill song has ever dared to let in. “This money saved me” claims SD at one point on Truly Blessed, but the 15 songs here make a compelling argument that changing “money” to “music” wouldn’t make his statement one iota less accurate.

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