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

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 by paying, 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 sermon on 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 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

A$AP Ferg: Ferg Forever

It was smart when RCA decided to release A$AP Ferg’s Trap Lord debut as a for-profit digital download, rather than the free mixtape it was originally conceived as. The album had the anthemic songs to justify being a formal debut, electric tracks like “Let It Go”, “Shabba”, “Work (Remix)” and the majesty “Hood Pope”. Though Ferg’s name probably wouldn’t pop up in the screenplay for Top Five, his energy and charm carried him through the material, blowing through wide-open running lanes thanks to a “HOOO!” or two. 

That Ferg Forever is a free mixtape, then, says it all; the quality is a mixed bag, and the sonic threads are far less uniform. Much like Trap Lord, Ferg relies on a stable of up-and-coming producers—two highlights in particular, “Fergsomnia” and “Dope Walk”, are respectively produced by VERYRVRE and Stelios Phili. He’s also collected tracks from known entities such as Big K.R.I.T., whose woozy direction on “Bonnaroo” feels out of place (not to mention that all Ferg does is list off ways he picked around at Bonnaroo) and Mike WiLL Made It, who teams up with Tinashe” on the flat “Thug Cry (Remix)”. There’s a dancehall song, “Jolly”, along with an odd to group anal sex (“Weaves”) which makes the “I FUCKED YOUR BITCH” refrain on Trap Lord lowlight “Dump Dump” feel downright classy. Clams Casino even shows up on “Talk It”, but his typically insistent energy is swapped for the effort of a goth teenager picking around in the “Mario Paint” song editor. Mixtapes are often dumping grounds for whatever comes to the artist’s mind, but here, it’s hard to argue for the form.

Still, the tape shines in the right places—the parts where it’s fun. Take “Fergsomnia”, whose stupendously goofy “FERGSOMNIA!” chant gives way to a characteristically knotty Twista verse. The reworked “Reloaded (Let It Go Pt. 2)” is a blast, full of “YAH!” ad-libs, a pair of blazing verses from Candy Caines and Ferg’s former tour partner, M.I.A., and a hilariously deployed sample from the slightly more famous “Let It Go”. It’s within these tracks that Ferg finds his voice, and while relationship songs like “Commitment Issues” have their heart in the right place, the undercooked, stream-of-consciousness recaps never tap into the glee of the highlights.

Even so: Ferg is a compelling young dude trying shit out, so it’s hard to fault the weaknesses of Ferg Forever too much. This wasn’t released as his sophomore album, after all, and in the meantime it’s interesting to watch Ferg style-sample, freewheel deliveries and rotate producers. Not everything floats, but if the shelf life of jams like “Shabba” are any indication, the handful of hits on Forever will hold Fergensteins over till Trap Lord‘s sequel is out in stores.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Azealia Banks: Broke With Expensive Taste

It’s been three years since Azealia Banks sprung up from the New York underground fully formed with “212”, her confrontationally profane lead single. “212” was the seed for all of the triumph and adversity that followed—the prodigious rap skills, the casual genre-bending, and the bratty disdain for authority. In its wake, Banks charted a career path typical of a budding rap talent. She dropped the promising, beat-jacking pre-album mixtape (2012’s unrelenting Fantasea) and the compact retail EP of brash originals (2012’s nostalgia tripping 1991). She navigated through mettle-testing beef with her peers. The tiffs were negligible as long as the music was nourishing, and for a while Azealia’s war on the rap establishment was excitingly disruptive. 

But as work on her Interscope Records debut commenced, Banks hit a tight spot. The deal soured as her new tracks were met with indifference from label liaisons. Her uncompromising social media demeanor landed her in quaffs both hysterical (See: her merciless ribbing of T.I. and Iggy Azalea) and injurious (that time she defended her right to call Perez Hilton a gay slur), but vocal criticism of Baauer, Pharrell, and Disclosure began to cost her profitable collaborators. Her early career goodwill nearly spent, Banks finally caught a break: Interscope let her out of her deal with the rights to all the songs she’d recorded during her tenure there. Broke With Expensive Taste arrived this month with very little fanfare, its release announced with a simple tweet. Its lengthy gestation is, of course, its chief foible. Older material accounts for roughly half the tracklist, and some of it doesn’t mesh well with the fresher, weirder stuff around it. It helps to see Broke With Expensive Taste, then, as an anthology, The Portable Azealia Banks.

Three songs in, it’s clear why Interscope didn’t know what to do with the thing. Opener “Idle Delilah” bursts in effortlessly crossing elements of house, dubstep, and Caribbean music. It’s followed by “Gimme a Chance”, a bass-heavy post-disco romp that takes a hairpin turn into smooth merengue halfway through, as Banks flits from rapping and singing in English to perfect unaffected Spanish. “Desperado” borrows a beat from early 2000s UK garage whiz MJ Cole’s “Bandelero Desperado” as Banks puts on a rap clinic, flaying adversaries in a flow so neat you might miss the fact that every piece of every line rhymes. Her voice is often the sole unifying force from track to track here, and it’s easy to see a label’s trepidation about pushing this thing on listeners who haven’t followed her every move. “Nude Beach a Go-Go”, for instance, a late album collaboration with Ariel Pink, is every bit the what-the-fuck moment it sounds like on paper. 

By the end of Broke With Expensive Taste you’ll come to see Azealia Banks as a dance pop classicist underneath the flailing. The capable but unfussy approach to melody on deep cut confections “Soda” and “Miss Camaradie” as well as Fantasea holdover “Luxury” and the massive “Chasing Time” showcase Azealia as a singer who’s studied her Robin S. and Technotronic. Coupled with her bullish rhyme skills, Azealia’s chops as a house vocalist make for a true rapper-singer double threat. (Credit is due to Drake and Nicki Minaj, but both sound like they picked up singing on the job.) She’s an angel on the choruses, but for the verses in between, she’s a formidable spitter whose flash and flow are unmistakably Harlem.

The party line among hip-hop aficionados is that New York rap currently lacks a distinctly New York identity. There’s some truth to it. The city’s biggest success stories of late involve locals breaking out by spicing Big Apple grit with outside flavors, from A$AP Mob’s Texas screw fixation to French Montana’s trap circuit traction to Nicki Minaj’s day-glo EDM daze. But the scene in 2014 can’t look like it did in 1994 or even 2004, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Statlers and Waldorfs pining for a new age of rappity boom bap wouldn’t notice a new New York if it came up and offered them molly in a Brooklyn bar bathroom.

Well, Azealia Banks is it, and Broke With Expensive Taste is a reminder that the corner of Harlem that she claims is walking distance from both Washington Heights and the Bronx, where you’re as likely to hear hip-hop booming out of apartments and passing cars as freestyle, reggaeton, house, or bachata. It’s a quick subway jaunt away from the landmark clubs where ball culture persists, as well as perennial dance parties at Webster Hall and the glut of eclectic Lower Manhattan concert venues. Broke With Expensive Taste glides through all of these, just like the faithful 1 train sampled on “Desperado”. Both album and the artist revel in the freedom of a New York City where divisions between these sounds and scenes have ever so slowly ceased to exist.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Jon Hopkins: Asleep Versions EP

There was plenty to love about the rhythms and melodies of Jon Hopkins’ Immunity, but its eight productions were especially captivating because of the depth and detail with which he constructed them. The Brian Eno protégé and collaborator allows no sample to go unaltered and no synth to go unprocessed; even the peripherals of Immunity are meticulous and substantial enough to reward closer listening. It’s fitting, then, that Hopkins revisits his material on the Asleep Versions EP, stripping it down and recontextualizing the subtleties in lush ambient compositions.

Starting with Immunity’s titular closer, Hopkins re-works four Immunity highlights in reverse order, taking care to dismantle the heavy crackle of beats which defined “Form by Firelight”, “Breathe This Air”, and “Open Eye Signal”. The space left over from his excavation remains unfilled, leaving simple piano chords, pattering percussion, field recordings, and vocal elements enough room to realize their full potential. You learn when listening to the new version of “Immunity” that maybe Scottish singer King Creosote‘s humbling vibrato should’ve always had a place at the forefront of Hopkins’ original mix.

Recorded in Mosfellsbær, Iceland (just outside of Reykjavik), Asleep Versions was conceived as a single piece of music, and it works best that way. Each section of the 25-minute recording flows seamlessly together, thanks largely to its shared wintry chill. Hopkins’ characteristic attention to detail feels further pronounced when he treats such subtle shifts in tone with austerity and drama. “Open Eye Signal (Asleep Version)” drifts on seven minutes of glacial pads and choral voices before a lone piano surfaces to give the EP its serene finale. All of which is preceded by the slow-coming flurry in “Breathe This Air (Asleep Version)”, sounding like a restrained Tim Hecker with its crystalline synth flicker, weighty bass drops, and smears of tonal texture. Maybe Icelandic winters just bring a certain kind of frozen majesty out of electronic producers.

Whether it’s the pap-pap-pap of a live xylophone or muffled thuds and brittle ticks hinting at a rhythmic structure, the record often feels haunted by Immunity‘s beats, like ghosts unreconciled with their forcible extraction. That quality does well to diversify what might’ve otherwise been a typical addition to the lineage of “ambient versions” in electronic music, and helps complement Hopkins’ brilliant second album by never trying to overshadow his original work.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

His Name Is Alive: Tecuciztecatl

Of all the bands to call British label 4AD home in the early ’90s, none are as inscrutable—or wholly unpredictable—as His Name Is Alive. While the band’s early peers (the Breeders, Red House Painters) spent the better part of that decade honing singular aesthetics, His Name Is Alive were intent on doing the opposite. Early albums like Livonia and Stars on E.S.P. flirted with everything from shoegazey ephemera to sun-bleached California dream pop, but never lighted long enough on any one style to truly embody it. Warren Defever—the Michigan-based musician, songwriter, and mercurial heart of the band—embraces a kind of gleeful wanderlust, a predisposition that only intensified after the band parted ways with 4AD in the early 2000s. In the years since, Defever’s output has become even more of a willfully mixed bag, encompassing everything from spooky R&B, blown-out psych rock, meandering instrumental compositions, and—on 2007’s Sweet Earth Flower—an album-length tribute to free jazz saxophonist Marion Brown. Some 20 years deep into their career the only single thread twisting through all of His Name Is Alive’s music has been Defever’s own peculiar force of vision, which makes exploring the band’s now expansive back catalog both a satisfying and weirdly schizophrenic experience.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Tecuciztecatl—the band’s 14th full-length—is a thing both wonderful and extraordinarily strange. A concept record that comes with the worrisome descriptor of “psychedelic rock opera,” Tecuciztecatl involves a proggy narrative about a young woman who discovers she is pregnant with twins—one good, one evil—and must seek the help of a demon-hunting librarian. Each of the album’s nine tracks is written from the perspective of a different character and the whole melodrama is set to play out like the soundtrack to a gothic psych-rock horror movie that never actually was. (Additionally, every edition of the record—be it on vinyl, CD, or digital download—is unique, each with different mixes and tracklists.) Most records would surely collapse under the weight of this kind of conceptual pretense—the struggle of good versus evil as played out from within the womb! —but Tecuciztecatl succeeds due to the strength of the songs, all of which still operate nicely outside the confines of the album’s bloody narrative.

The album opens with “The Examination”, a 13-minute opus comprised of simmering, Yes-era synthscapes, a chorus of flutes, and—most flamboyantly—an arsenal of fuzzy, overdriven guitar lines twisting around each other. As the song morphs from prog-rock anthem into something resembling a messy garage-funk jam, vocalist Andrea Morici’s plaintive vocals provide a calming counterpoint: “Look into my eyes/ Look into the light all around you/ Make yourself at home.” As opening salvos go, it’s a doozy…and something the rest of the album never quite lives up to. Still, tracks like “Reflect Yourself” and “See You In a Minute” play around with classic rock power riffing in ways that are both ridiculous and kind of perfect. Employing harmonious guitar solos that were apparently perfected by practicing along to an edit that Defever created of every Thin Lizzy guitar solo recorded between 1973 and 1983 (It’s a real thing. You can check it out on YouTube), much of Tecuciztecatl plays like a celebration of the kind of bombastic, gatefold double-album sonic excess that marked ’70s bands like King Crimson and Emerson Lake and Palmer.

It would be easy for these sorts of rock opera theatrics to come across as jokey or ironically reverential, but Defever’s earnest commitment never wavers. Psych-rock noodlings aside, it’s the more subdued tracks—the splish-splashy “African Violet Casts a Spell” and the pastoral vibes of album closer “The Cup”—that not only sound the most like classic His Name Is Alive, but also save the record from simply being a conceptual goof. Divorced from the album’s bizarro storyline, “I Believe Your Heart Is No Longer Inside This Room” would still rank as one of His Name Is Alive’s most inspired tracks—a song that manages to simultaneously address birth and death while also incorporating an orchestral snippet of “Joy to the World” in a way that somehow makes total sense. No small feat.

In the end Tecuciztecatl is an unusual treat because it manages to have it both ways. As an aspiring rock opera, the album is sufficiently bombastic, but it’s also surprisingly emotional. That the record can be both is a testament to Warren Defever’s kooky dexterity and his continued willingness to take big, weird conceptual risks—something that gets celebrated less and less within the increasingly homogenous landscape of what has come to be known as indie rock. Tecuciztecatl will certainly not be everybody’s cup of demon twin tea—and as albums go it is the very definition of a “grower”—but those willing to spend time with it will are to be rewarded with what is a sometimes challenging but ultimately strangely beautiful listen.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Wrekmeister Harmonies: Then It All Came Down

When the organ that begins Then It All Came Down first cuts through a stutter of static and becomes the kind of tone that will flood any space with luminous and stable sound, the music seems instantly embryonic. That’s not in the simple sense that this low, fluttering signal is the start of the second one-track album from the Chicago chamber doom-and-drone collective Wrekmeister Harmonies. And it’s not that this is the origin from which everything else unfolds. It’s that, almost immediately, you can sense where these 34 minutes might be headed before they’ve had the chance to grow beyond a single note. Recorded in a church and then re-recorded from playback in a lakeside lighthouse, the organ seems haunted, like a ghostlight fading in and out of the middle distance. It’s less outwardly threatening than eerie, a warning to proceed with caution. Turns out, that premonition is correct: The end of Then It All Came Down is a waking nightmare.

Then It All Came Down takes its title from a 1973 Truman Capote interview with Bobby Beausoleil, the budding entertainer-turned-murderer who the author called “the key to the mystery of the homicidal escapades of the so-called Manson family.” But J.R. Robinson, the mastermind of Wrekmeister Harmonies, didn’t only lift the name of the Capote essay. He lifted its spirit, or more exactly, the key question behind Beausoleil and the Helter Skelter mob at large: How did a bunch of drug-doing, orgy-inducing kids with visions of stardom and famous acquaintances turn so decidedly dark?

In an accompanying essay that traces the links from Aleister Crowley’s credos and teachings to hippies, Manson and the whole lot, Robinson grapples with that lingering concern and its spiritual underpinnings. “Rather than earning their spot in the sun by fighting their way through the darkness, [Manson and Beausoleil] reversed the sequence, starting with the positive and working towards the negative,” he writes. This piece, which moves in the time of one sitcom episode from that docile drone into a noise-flanked doom fisticuffs, is Robinson’s musical representation of such perversion. At the start, Then It All Came Down suggests a world of possibilities; by its end, the only available outcome seems to be some form of purgatory, a nihilistic vacuum of supposed free will.

The process, then, is obvious, even predictable: Then It All Came Down moves from rather gentle tones to complete miasmic atonality. But the path between those poles is surprising, stepwise and involved, the chief feat of Robinson as a bandleader and composer. To complete this piece, Robinson recruited 20 musicians and recorded them in sessions scattered across America and Canada. There’s the pick-up-and-check-out acoustic strummer Ryley Walker and the meticulous Codeine/Come guitarist Chris Brokaw. Infamous black metal madman Wrest contributes vocals, as do Lydia Lane Stout, Chanel Pease and Kate Spelling, an entrancing trio of sirens. There’s a string quartet and the riveting Chicago doom band Indian, assisted by collaborator and power electronics savage Mark Solotroff. Robinson folds them all into his inquires, actors and actresses yielding to the director’s vision.

However ominous it may seem, this music is, at first, august. Walker scatters florid, raga-like lines across an amoeboid dream of tinkling bells, drifting organ and harmonizing voices that softly sing “Beautiful sun,” the translation of Beausoleil’s French name. The action swells until it collapses into a din of windswept noise. Wrest growls nocturnal imprecations through the hiss. Strings and horns soon pull the action toward an existential crossroads: Which of those embryonic elements will prevail? The answer emerges through electric guitars, locked in feedback, and militant drums, locked into a lumber that shakes the frame. The finale is as punishing as the peaks of doom metal itself. The ensemble’s patience suggests the successes of the Ocean, and the vocal scowl of Indian’s Dylan O’Toole recalls Khanate’s ever-acerbic Alan Dubin. In the end, only this destruction was feasible.

To match the colossal approach of his releases, Robinson has taken care to ensure that the physical products for both of his albums mirrored the grandeur of the music. You could get lost, for instance, in the illustration of 2013’s You’ve Always Meant So Much to Me, where cliffs of ice sublimated into bulbous clouds. The same holds for Then It All Came Down, in which a split-panel piece by Simon Fowler links heaven and hell in refracted, infinite detail. You can imagine the art as the machinery for Beausoleil’s time-lapse depravity.

What’s more, the compact disc version backs Robinson’s new work with last year’s debut, previously available only on vinyl. The combined set makes for a long listen but a telling one, too: As he harnesses new tools to power these documents of personal or public descent, Robinson’s audacity and imagination are expanding. Then It All Came Down is shorter than You’ve Always Meant So Much to Me, but it feels bigger, bolder and more nuanced, so unified as to appear oblivious to the experimental/metal divide that this project’s previous work so carefully traced. It’s as though Robinson has just now begun to touch on the real possibilities of the principles at play within Wrekmeister Harmonies.

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Black Milk: If There’s a Hell Below

Black Milk is a paradoxical artist, one defined by both wild reinvention and stasis. To this point, every other Black Milk album is a corrective, somehow a refutation of the album that came before it. He keeps pressing reset and then playing the game the same: Tronic was his vaunted abandonment of vinyl fetishism for synthesizers; Album of the Year his embrace of live-band instrumentation; No Poison, No Paradise his nightmare-filled stab at creating a ’70s soul epic. But put them on shuffle and the delineations disappear—they all sound like Black Milk tracks. On If There’s a Hell Below, for the first time, he consciously takes a sonic mulligan, trading in the same murky Castlevania synth-lines, wrecking-ball drums and dark-night-of-the-soul wails as its predecessor. 

So, why does it sound better than that album? Because it’s a new Black Milk record, which always sound incrementally closer to some Ideal Black Milk Album that may or may not ever exist. This makes him a difficult artist to love, but an easy one to like. He’s constantly halving the distance to his target, getting closer but not quite getting there. But those infinitesimal improvements on Hell Below—indeed, the very places where it remains static—show, in some ways, what that Ideal Album might look like.

Most importantly, he’s acknowledging where his talents lie. The old line on him is: great producer, shitty rapper. If the dude could quit spitting double-time platitudes about getting faded backstage, the thinking goes, he’d release a great record. On No Poison, No Paradise, though, he dialed back his eagerness on the mic and let the beats breathe. This trend continues on Hell Below, particularly on “Story and Her”, a sprightly, smooth-jazz Tribe throwback that evokes Q-Tip more than Dilla. Over soft vibes, Black Milk drops sing-song come-ons that tumble organically into a low-key verse. The lyrics are as trite and sanctimonious as can be (think Dizzee Rascal’s “Jezebel”), but as the beat morphs, halfway in, to a keening, insistent guitar lick, Milk follows suit, with a wide-open flow painted in blank space. The crooning intro melts into an almost spoken-word outro, with a rhyme scheme that snaps into place as if only to tug the verse onward.

He sounds, in other words, good on the track—a first for the emcee. He repeats the feat on the nearly 3-minute conclusion “Up & Out”, which is just a drum loop, some scratches, and a delirious, stuttering mic performance. In both instances, he raps in reverence of the beat, letting his glorious drums hit without shouting punchlines over them. Elsewhere, he resolutely does not screw up highlights like the proggy “All Mighty”, the dense, clattering “Quarter Water”, or “What It’s Worth”, which recalls early Kendrick Lamar, of all people, in its tuneful sense of melancholy. He’s always seemed to want to be Black Thought, but he comes across more like T.I. on the best parts of Hell Below, saying very little but saying it well. 

The focus, then, stays on the production, which is, as usual, an absolute feast. He’s grown fond of the mid-track left-field switch-up, sometimes just for a bar or two (“Hell Below”, “Scum”), and of the short, dusty outro loop (pretty much every track). While this might sound scattered, in practice it’s just the opposite: He’s settled down a bit, flicking between beats with Madlib’s ease. A lot of his earlier stylistic about-faces were because of an anxiety, a tension between analog and digital production methods, which a recent LP and EP (tellingly called Synth or Soul and Glitches in the Break) seem to have eased. He found the ghost in the machine, and so he’s agitating less over realness—over fidelity to the “old school”. The music on Hell Below is one big wistful wash of sound, unified, but full of idiosyncrasies. (Bun B, for example, raps atop a bed of trilling flutes.)

We often talk about listening to Black Milk rap as the cost of entry for listening to Black Milk produce. That’s cold, but valid: his relatively flat collaborative work suggests that he saves his best beats for himself. But perhaps it’s also a mis-framing of the argument, in light of Hell Below’s success. In an interview with Complex last year, he referred to an incongruous blast of free jazz on No Poison, No Paradise as “a Spike Lee movie … written via a rap song.” A more skillful emcee would recreate Lee’s sense of place and character with words, but Black Milk needs the music to do the talking. On If There’s a Hell Below, he lets it.

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