Thursday, December 20, 2012

Best Albums of 2012: #10-6

#10: MeLo-X & Jesse Boykins III - Zulu Guru
 MeLo-X has thus far made his career on acclaimed but under-the-radar Bandcamp albums, while Jesse Boykins has released a couple of similarly acclaimed albums on assorted labels over the last few years, but their first collaborative album Zulu Guru on the legendary electronic label Ninja Tune is their most high profile and assured release yet.  Both artists have used their previous projects to hone their respective crafts, and this album of Afrocentric hip hop soul recalls the best of the Native Tongues and the Soulquarians.  MeLo-X is a great rapper (“Tribe of Stafa” is probably the best showcase for his rapping on the album), and like most great rapper/producers he sounds most at home on his own beats.  The ones on Zulu Guru are trademark MeLo-X with their soulful minimalism.  Boykins is a great singer, and his breathy style is a great fit for MeLo’s production.  Boykins contributes to the production as well, bringing a spacey neo-soul vibe to many of the songs.  Zulu Guru, along with being the title of the album, is the name of their collective, and all of the guests on the album hail from this group.  At the end of the final track “Schwaza,” there is a spoken word outro in which someone claims that “this is the type of collective, you gonna look back thirty years from now and be like ‘wow, all these people existed in one space… this is only chapter one, that’s what’s crazy.’”  The rest of Zulu Guru illustrates that this is not hubris.  If the members of the collective keep putting out albums this good, they’ll be remembered with the Native Tongues and the Soulquarians.  They’ve already shown that like those two collectives, they can tie their music to the vast history of Black music while simultaneously looking toward the future.
"Perfect Blues"
"Black Orpheus"

"Zulu Guru" (feat. Kesed) (This is the best of the interludes on the album, highlighting the spoken word skills of fellow Zulu Guru member Kesed)

#9: The Congos/Sun Araw/M. Geddes Gengras - Icon Give Thank
If you were to ask me to list my ten favorite reggae albums, probably seven of them would be dub records.  From the earliest experiments by King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry though their protégés and successors Prince Jammy, Scientist, and Mad Professor, and onto the electronic dub and dub/trip hop experiments of the nineties, dub reggae has been consistently forward thinking.  Icon Give Thank, the collaboration between legendary roots reggae vocal group The Congos and psychedelic explorers Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras, is the future of dub.  This is not the tinny digital dub of years past.  Araw and Gengras bring their ambient psychedelic rock and electronic experience and have created sound beds that are cavernous and filled with reverb.  The various sounds, including hand drums way low in the mix, electronic bleeps and bloops, guitars with lots of effects pedals, and rumbling omnipresent bass, are all heavily reverbed to the point where they sound like they’re echoing off of each other and turning back in on themselves.  Sonic elements drop in and out, making room for Rasta chants and ghostly falsetto harmonies before returning to crowd the vocals back out of the mix.  If dubstep is one direction of dub’s inevitable progression, then Icon Give Thank, which sounds like it was made by aliens with a lot of really high quality weed, will hopefully inspire a legion of likeminded artists who will forge an alternate path into dub’s future.  


#8: Killer Mike & El-P - R.A.P. Music
The comparisons between ATLien Killer Mike enlisting Brooklyn’s El-P to produce his newest album and Ice Cube reaching across the east coast/west coast divide to work with the Bomb Squad on his debut solo album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted have become cliché in the months since R.A.P. Music came out in May, but it is a particularly useful cliché.  The Bomb Squad has been an important influence of El-P’s ever since he began abandoning the minimalist style of the first Company Flow album.  Killer Mike is a social/political gangsta rapper in the mold of Ice Cube, and on R.A.P. Music, the best album of his career by a wide margin, he reaches his idol’s level.  Opener “Big Beast,” featuring standout verses from Southern rap titans Bun B and T.I., is the kind of chest thumping banger that Ice Cube seemed to make effortlessly from his days in N.W.A. through his third solo album.  “Untitled” is a less fiery affair, but he still gets out lines like “I don’t trust the church or the government/Democrat, Republican/Pope or a bishop or them other men/And I believe God has sustained me with rap/So I pick a burning bush, put it in a Swisher rap.”  He also compares himself to Slick Rick in that song and backs that comparison up with “JoJo’s Chillin” and “Don’t Die,” which is the best killing corrupt cops rap fantasy in twenty years.  “Reagan” is the album’s centerpiece and best song, and is one of the most thoughtful and insightful political hip hop songs since Mr. Lif’s “Brothaz.”  Despite making his debut on OutKast’s critical and commercial smash Stankonia in 2000 and being featured prominently on their huge hit “The Whole World” the next year, Killer Mike’s solo career never lived up to his promise, and he seemed destined for footnote status.  R.A.P. Music is the album that changes that, and it has turned him into one of the best rappers out today.
#7: Ab-Soul - Control System
Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q might get more attention, but Ab-Soul is my favorite member of the Black Hippy crew, and that’s almost entirely the result of this album (sorry Jay Rock, you completely overpower most other rappers with your guest verses, but you need to release an album on the level of what the other three Black Hippies did in 2012).  Ab-Soul has the most versatile subject matter out of the whole crew, rapping equally effectively about politics, depression, drugs, hoes, wack rappers, his third eye, and the death of his girlfriend and collaborator Alori Joh.  That subject matter is all over the place, and it would be easy for a rapper to lack a coherent identity by stretching himself that thin.  Not so for Ab-Soul, who aptly describes himself by imploring the listener to "Just imagine if Einstein got high and sipped juice/Broke rules, got pussy, beat up rookies on Pro Tools," on “Track Two.”  The album’s best song is “The Book of Soul,” the album’s penultimate track, which begins with the lines “Your momma told me read the Book of Job/They shoulda called it the Book of Soul,” and continues on for five heartbreaking minutes about contracting Stevens-Johnson Syndrome as a kid and about meeting and falling in love with Alori Joh and her eventual suicide in February of this year.  Near the end of the song, he says “Everything I love gets taken away from me, my momma and music is next/And if that happens before I turn 28/Then I’m going out with Kurt Cobain.”  Tellingly, he follows this up with “Black Lip Bastard (Remix)” featuring fiery verses from all four of the Black Hippies.  Ab-Soul’s verse is the second best of the bunch (Jay Rock has the longest verse and completely owns the song.  He really needs to hurry up and put out another album), calling out wack rappers who spend too much time eating yogurt in bed.  He'll be making music very successfully for a long time.  
"Terrorist Threats" (feat. Danny Brown & Jhene Aiko)

"The Book of Soul"

"Black Lip Bastard (Black Hippy Remix)"

#6: Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream
Major label R&B has been kind of a wasteland for a long time.  There have been bright spots (FutreSex/LoveSounds being one of the standouts from the last decade), but 2012 seems to have marked a sea change in the kind of freedoms major labels allow some of their artists.  Frank Ocean has been the most visible example of this trend, and he had to release his first record for free behind the back of his label, and foster acclaim and attention to get that leverage.  Miguel went a different route.  He made a decent album, All I Want is You, which Jive underpromoted after steering the direction of the album, but the second single “Sure Thing,” was successful enough that he was able to get a much greater degree of creative control for his follow-up Kaleidoscope Dream.  Try to imagine what “Sexual Healing”-era Marvin Gaye would have sounded like if he projected more insecurity in his lyrics and his music was more psychedelic and you won’t be far off from Kaleidoscope Dream.  There are no guest rappers and the album doesn’t have beats from any of the hot producers who are popular this week.  Instead, Miguel is able to air out his insecurities and project his being onto a gorgeous soundscape that is far from the pop R&B template of the day. 
"Don't Look Back"

"Kaleidoscope Dream"

Best Albums of 2012: #15-11

#15: Homeboy Sandman - Subject: Matter EP/Chimera EP

When it was announced late last year that Homeboy Sandman had signed to Stones Throw, it seemed like a great move for all involved.  Homeboy Sandman would be able to get the greater exposure that his talent deserves and Stones Throw would be able to add another great artist to their roster and deflect complaints from people who think they don’t put out enough hip hop records anymore.  First of a Living Breed, his debut album for the label, mostly fulfilled his promise, but the duds were so weak that they pulled the album out of consideration for this list (“Sputnik,” “What You Want From Me,” and other songs on the album are among the best material he’s ever done, but I never need to hear the beyond-corny “For the Kids” ever again).  The two EPs that preceded it, Subject: Matter and Chimera, have the consistency that First of a Living Breed lacks, and when taken together distill everything that makes Homeboy Sandman one of the best rappers today.  When making Subject: Matter, Sandman set out to cover topics that had never been covered in hip hop, an impossibly lofty goal that nonetheless spawned an excellent and tremendously varied record.  “The Miracle” is an in-depth look into his writing process, “Mine All Mine” raps about his modest possessions and small apartment with the same gravitas that other artists ascribe to their imaginary Benzes and mansions, and “Soap” is about soap cleaning the earth (or something like that).  The beats are incredibly varied in sound and style, and each of them fits impeccably with the subject matter of the songs.  By contrast, Chimera is a much more muted, dreamy affair, and all six songs have loose, stripped down beats.  Also, unlike the previous EP which has several songs where Sandman cuts loose and shows off his dexterous flow, he doesn’t raise his voice at all and he favors slower and simpler flows on Chimera.  This relaxed rapping makes the last verse on “Hold Your Head,” possibly the most impressive verse of his entire career, hit like a smack to the head.  Sandman has a classic Stones Throw album in him, but for now these two EPs make up the closest thing to a classic that he has yet released.
"Mine All Mine" (from Subject: Matter)
"Hold Your Head" (from Chimera)

#14: Gangrene - Vodka & Ayahuasca
 First things first: Oh No and the Alchemist, the two rapper/producers that make up Gangrene, are not great rappers.  Both got their start as producers, and it is unlikely that they will ever be higher regarded as rappers than as beatmakers.  This is not a good kid, m.A.A.d. city type album where you can pore over the lyrics endlessly.  This is a beat-driven record, and in that sense, it’s an unqualified success.  Oh No and the Alchemist both have very distinct styles, but when they come together to make a Gangrene album, they make Gangrene beats as opposed to Oh No or Alchemist beats, to the point that it is often difficult to discern who produced which song.  The beats on Vodka & Ayahuasca are deeply rooted in psychedelic rock, and they have put together an album that fits in with the all-too-small lineage of psychedelic gutter rap albums dating back to Redman’s Dare iz a Darkside from 1994.  The primary focus of this album, as evidenced by the titled, is drug use, and they string the songs together with audio clips of people discussing their use of the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca.  Since this isn’t an instrumental project, the rapping has to be a factor in the album’s quality, and thankfully both members have been steadily improving, and have enlisted more talented guests, including Kool G Rap, Prodigy, Evidence, and Roc Marciano, to anchor some of the songs.   
They also made one of my favorite music videos of the year for the album’s title track.  I actually like the song better with all of the extra sounds from the video, and after absorbing the song through this video for a few weeks before the album came out I had a difficult time adjusting to the album version.

 "Vodka & Ayahuasca"

"Dump Truck"

 #13: Flying Lotus - Until the Quiet Comes
 Listening to Flying Lotus’ incredible 2010 album Cosmogramma made you feel as though you were experiencing something much greater than yourself.  It’s a sprawling, cosmic affair that takes you through environments that few records really connect with, although many try: the most beautiful and frightening corners of the universe and through time to the start of things (creation or what have you).  By contrast, FlyLo’s follow-up Until the Quiet Comes is a much smaller, more personal record.  The songs on UTQC are mostly muted and dreamy, and Lotus leaves much more room in the mix than he has on previous records.  He hasn’t lost his ability to tap into the abstract, and much of this album feels like a representation of lucid dreaming (rather than the cosmos of Cosmogramma).  The short film that accompanied the album’s release furthers this theme.  It’s an impressionistic set of visuals, with little discernible story and the arguable main character first appearing as a corpse before getting up and dancing away.  It looks like we’re looking in on one of someone else’s dreams.  It’s interesting that such an internal, personal record is also FlyLo’s most collaborative to date.  These collaborations with live musicians give the record a much warmer sound, and many of the guests from Cosmogramma have made return appearances, with Thom Yorke, Niki Randa, and Laura Darlington contributing vocals, while Dorian Concept and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson making impressive contributions and bassist Thundercat lending his nimble, casually virtuosic playing to half of the albums songs.  These returners are joined by Jonny Greenwood, Erykah Badu, and the late Austin Peralta, among others.  Flying Lotus is the most consistently impressive member of the L.A. beat scene, and even though Until the Quiet Comes isn’t as good as his last two albums, it’s still the best instrumental project in a year full of great beat records.  
"Until the Quiet Comes" (Short Film)

#12: Roc Marciano - Reloaded
 Sometimes a crime movie with generic plotting or characters can get by on a combination of mood, style, and attention to detail.  Roc Marciano pulls this off perfectly on his sophomore album Reloaded.  On the first listen, it’s just another gangsta rap record, with lots of talk about guns, cocaine, and women with loose morals.  Honestly, I thought it was boring the first time around.  I thought the same thing about his first record too.  The beats are so understated that they don’t make much of an impression initially, and the rapping so calm that it’s easy to miss how incredibly gifted Roc is.  He throws in details about everything from the weather on the day that Marvin Gaye died to his lawyer’s choice of suitcase (“My lawyer pop the alligator suitcase/you can’t dispute taste/all the loot is safe in the fire proof safe” on “Peru”).  The record in many ways feels like the opposite of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’s cinematic crime saga.  Unlike Raekwon and Ghostface, Roc Marciano doesn’t need to raise his voice to sound threatening.  Reloaded is all cool menace.  Like his debut album Marcberg, legendary ex-pimp/author Iceberg Slim remains Roc’s primary lyrical inspiration, and the resulting album sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a Blaxploitation film adaptation of Pimp: The Story of My Life.  


#11: The Alchemist - Russian Roulette
The Madlib Medicine Show, stretching over thirteen volumes in 2010-2011, had a simple format: odd-numbered volumes would be original music, and even-numbered volumes would be DJ mixes.  The results were uneven (how many people are still playing Before the Verdict?) but frequently brilliant, especially on the mix side of things, but taken as a whole the project set forth a blueprint for a new form of sample-based music somewhere between sampled-and-chopped up hip hop beats and outright mixtapes. The Alchemist, emboldened by his time collaborating with Madlib’s younger brother Oh No, has made career highlight Russian Roulette, an album that fully embodies the promise of the Medicine Show.  Built entirely on samples from Russian and Balkan music (Alan the Chemist in the Former Soviet Union, if you will), Russian Roulette slips seamlessly from beats to long unlooped samples with all sorts of weird spoken clips from interviews, language learning tapes, and who knows where else.  Hooks are basically nonexistent, and none of the guests appear for more than one verse, which pass quickly and melt right back into the overall Soviet soundscape.  It’s basically a mixtape with rapping on it that somehow sounds like the most coherent album of Alchemist’s career.  The list of guest rappers reads like a who’s-who of the most exciting underground rappers out today: Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Danny Brown, Schoolboy Q, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, and on and on.  With thirty tracks in total, the album culminates in the eight-part “The Kosmos,” essentially one long song that ends with eXquire being abducted by beetle-like aliens who want him to help save their world.  I really hope that an Alchemist sci-fi record is in the future.  
"Flight Confirmation" (feat. Danny Brown & Schoolboy Q)

"Don Seymour's Theme" (feat. MidaZ the Beast)