December 10th, 2014 1:14pm

I Don’t Wanna Wait Forever

J. Cole “Hello”

I didn’t expect much from J. Cole’s new album because his last one, Born Sinner, was so awkward – the music wasn’t bad, but his verses oozed a very off-putting level of insecurity and desperation while being mostly focused on him telling you how talented he is. The record was split between chasing radio hits, being a bit too open about his need for approval, and insisting that he’s the next Kanye. This new record, deliberately released with minimal promotion, is the first J. Cole record that sounds like the sort of thing he was talking about on the last one. It’s concise and focused, and seems like the work of an actual uncompromising hip-hop auteur. He’s still very reverent of hip-hop’s history, but this time around he doesn’t seem so self-conscious about it. He’s still boasting, but this time he’s following through. He’s being vulnerable, but not in some staged, phony way. He’s learned how to signal melancholy without it seeming saccharine, and he’s figured out how to slow things down without sounding like he’s trying too hard to be serious. He’s just got the balance right all the way through, and the result is a confident, emotionally powerful rap record that doesn’t just finally make good on his promise, but exceeds expectations at points. He’s gone in hard on a sorta Chance the Rapper-ish sing-rap style on some songs, and that suits him well, and draws out a soulfulness that wasn’t quite there on Born Killer. You hear him on “Hello,” and you don’t even need to pay attention to his words to pick up on that potent mix of regret and self-loathing in his voice. He’s just got it now.

Buy it from Amazon.

December 9th, 2014 1:14pm

The Sound Of One Clapped Hand

The Smashing Pumpkins “Tiberius”

When Billy Corgan announced that Monuments to an Elegy would be a nine-track album of ultra-epic guitar rock, I naturally assumed the songs would all be on the long side. You know, along the lines of stuff like “Soma,” “Hummer,” “Silverfuck,” “Porcelina,” “Thru the Eyes of Ruby,” etc. My hopes were up, for sure. The actual record is a very different thing – out of nowhere, Corgan drops the most concise album of his career. It’s over and out in just over 30 minutes, and the longest song is just a hair over 4 minutes. The songs do have an epic quality, but mostly in terms of bombast and implied scope. “Tiberius” packs a lot into 3 minutes, and it’s not hard to imagine a younger Corgan letting the song expand to at least 5 minutes. There’s a lot of discipline in this record, which is not exactly a form of artistic growth likely to get people excited, especially when you’re known for being the extremely prolific writer of over-the-top alt-rock. I like the super-saturated feeling of “Tiberius” and some of the other tracks on Monuments to an Elegy, but I find the songs sort of exhausting too – there’s an overload of treble that is taxing on the ears. I think Corgan’s voice and style generally does better when given a lot of space to breathe.

Buy it from Amazon.

December 8th, 2014 1:41pm

Keep Hitting That Spot

EXGF “Idle Hands”

This is a wonderfully bratty little song that’s basically like if the girls of Icona Pop shifted their attention towards berating the DJ at a club. It’s funny, there’s never been a shortage of pop songs that praise DJs, but it’s hard to come by a song like this, which is just totally antagonistic and belittling. Like, the gist of the lyrics is “hey asshole, why don’t you do this right for a change, just play what we want and don’t pay attention to us while we’re having a good time.” It’s unreasonable, but like, we’ve all been annoyed by shitty DJs, right? Super relatable.

Buy it from Amazon.

December 4th, 2014 1:38pm

Think Backwards

Wu-Tang Clan “A Better Tomorrow”

First, a note of clarification: This is the title track from the Wu-Tang Clan’s new album, A Better Tomorrow. It is not the Wu-Tang Clan song called “A Better Tomorrow” from their album Wu-Tang Forever. I don’t really understand why they thought it’d be a good idea to make two completely different songs with the same title, but the RZA works in mysterious ways.

I have been a Wu-Tang Clan for a very long time, and despite becoming somewhat unreliable over the years, they remain my favorite rap act of all time. If I had to make a list of my 10 favorite rappers, at least five of them would be on it. That kind of love can lead to high expectations for some, but I think I’m pretty reasonable about it: I just want to hear these guys rapping, preferably together. A Better Tomorrow is a flawed record and definitely not in the same league as Enter the Wu-Tang, Wu-Tang Forever or The W, but honestly, I’m content to just hear Method Man and Inspectah Deck doing their thing. I like hearing Masta Killa and U-God, because where the hell else are you gonna hear them? So, in the sense that I’m happy for them all to just show up, I’m cool with the record. I like a few of the songs a lot. There’s only one track that I find embarrassing. Not a bad average.

However, I think Craig Jenkins’ review of the album on Pitchfork is very accurate. RZA’s musical obsessions and personal growth as a producer are now out of sync with the rest of the Clan, and it’s resulted in a lot of performances that seem more perfunctory than inspired. I have empathy for both sides of that situation, but I mostly wish RZA had compromised a bit more. No, that’s the wrong word: Collaborated. Back in the glory days of the Wu, his greatest talent was always knowing the best way to frame the talents of his rappers. Now that he’s gone the other way, it might be time for him to listen to those guys because they might have good ideas about the best ways to frame his skills.

Buy it from Amazon.

December 3rd, 2014 1:44pm

Strings Of My Heart

Slim Twig “Heavy Splendour”

I have listened to this song several times by now and every time it sounds a little different. Some of this has to do with some ambient haze in the arrangement that serves as a sort of musical fog, but it’s mostly in the way the structure of the song keeps shifting and diverging while somehow seeming as though it’s stuck in one place. It’s basically a glam song presented as a strange audio illusion. Or maybe it’s just a glam song being played at the same time as the score of a spooky movie?

Buy it from Amazon.

December 2nd, 2014 1:48pm

Not A Card In The Mail

Ghostface Killah “Love Don’t Live Here No More”

Ghostface’s new record is a concept album in which he plays a guy who’s fresh out of a 9 year jail stint, and goes home to discover that the woman he loves has ended up with someone he hates. This song sets up the romantic plot, with Ghostface frustrated and distraught over this turn of events, and seemingly unable to process the notion that this girl would move on with her life instead of waiting around for him. It’s not a rational thought, but it’s not a rational song – this is all about heartbreak and crushing disappointment, and the stuttering beat and the cooing soul samples perfectly frame Ghost’s portrait of this guy’s wounded ego.

Buy it from Amazon.

December 1st, 2014 3:49am

I’m Not A Free Sample

Shamir “On the Regular”

I can’t help but feel like there’s something very radical and subversive in a young black man being so silly and bubblegum on their first major rap single. There’s a lot of bragging going on here, but it’s not aggressive or macho at all, and his voice is so androgynous that I honestly thought this was a female emcee the first couple times I heard it. There’s something really fresh about this – it’s not necessarily breaking ground and is in its own way very retro, but this is an extremely confident single and it sets him up as a very intriguing new star. It makes me think of the lyrics to Björk’s “Big Time Sensuality” – the song feels like something important about to happen, and the sound is very much a blend of “the hardcore and the gentle.”

Buy it from iTunes.

November 26th, 2014 1:36pm

The Sky Is Not The Only Thing That Changes Rapidly

Real Estate “Past Lives”

Over the course of this year, Real Estate is the band I listen to most often without necessarily identifying as a fan. The music is extremely listenable – the melodies and harmonies are always lovely, it stirs up a lot of bittersweet melancholy feelings, and works well as a nice, unobtrusive soundtrack to both work and idle time. But there’s something about the “background music” thing combined with the extremely low key and faceless quality of the band that makes it very hard to form any sort of fan connection. It’s not as though there is no character to this music – it has a very particular sense of aesthetics and thematic concerns – but this is a band that is almost entirely focused on craft and making music that’s easy to dismiss as wistful jangle rock for introverted indie dweebs. It’s not like it isn’t, or there’s something else going on here, but it comes down to the difference between being merely adequate in a genre, or being exceptional. No one is better at doing this particular thing than Real Estate.

Buy it from Amazon.

November 24th, 2014 12:55pm

Stealth Like Utopia

Young Fathers “Low”

One of the benefits of being an outsider in hip-hop is that you have license to completely avoid a lot of standard tropes because you have no hope of fitting in with the mainstream stuff. Young Fathers, a trio from Scotland, are so indifferent to the boundaries of standard hip-hop that they sometimes don’t even come across as a rap act – this track spends most of its time in a very late ‘90s alt-rap zone, but it’s pulling from so many genres at once that it just seems like a weird little mutant song. Still, it’s ridiculously catchy, so you can just as easily enjoy it without ever trying to classify it. Which is probably the point.

Buy it from Amazon.

November 20th, 2014 2:13pm

There Is A Softness To Your Touch

TV on the Radio “Careful You”

A good chunk of the TV on the Radio catalog is made up of songs by either Tunde Adebimpe or Kyp Malone that deal with a romantic conflict in which deep love and affection is at odds with behavior and feelings that are slowly poisoning their relationship. Both of these guys are obsessed with idealized romance being corrupted or destroyed by the humanity of the people involved, as though any passionate love affair is just like Icarus flying towards the sun. What really makes these songs work, and “Careful You” in particular, is the way they never lose sight of the kindness and soulful connection at the start of the relationship, and address their lovers with affection and respect no matter how toxic things have become. In this song, Tunde really makes you feel like it could work, even if he has no idea how it could be salvaged. There’s a lot of heart in this song, but it’s mostly broken.

Buy it from Amazon.

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