Monday, May 27, 2013

The Too Late Union of Dr. OctoTron

Every once in while rap fans are treated to a collaboration between two established artists that draws attention to how insane it is that those two artists have never collaborated before. We just got that with the “Spaz”/”Good Stuff” 7” single by Dr. OctoTron, the sensibly named collaboration between Kool Keith (in his Dr. Octagon persona) and Del the Funky Homosapien (as Deltron 3030). Had this collaboration happened somewhere between 1997-2001, when both were at the peak of their sci-fi concept album phases, this would have been a landmark in the timeline of underground and experimental rap. Coming in 2013, however, it can’t help but feel late.

On both songs, Kool Keith sounds like Kool Keith in 2013, which isn’t exactly a good thing. The off-beat spoken rap thing that worked so well on his great string of nineties albums has devolved into just weak off-beat rapping, which is why none of Kool Keith’s recent albums have been all that worth listening to.[1] He gives the off-beat thing a rest and actually raps like he did in the Ultamagnetic MC’s days on “Good Stuff,” but he kind of sounds tired and uninvested in what he’s doing. Del sounds better, but he’s far from his peak from over a decade ago. A good barometer of how these two sound these days is that Motion Man probably has the best verse on “Good Stuff.” If Del and Keith were still at their peak, Motion Man wouldn’t stand a chance. Really though, neither rapper sounds bad, but when they have albums like Dr. Octagonecologyst and Deltron 3030 under their belts, nothing less than heady, weird greatness will be satisfying. At least Kutmasta Kurt’s beats are great, but considering that Dan the Automator held down the boards for both artists’ best albums, it’s a little disappointing that he isn’t involved in their collaboration. And while his beats hold up, Kurt mixed the vocals way too low on both of these songs (which actually kind of helps to obscure the rappers’ slightly lackluster performances).

Digable Planets Still Rocking the Blowout Combs

About six or seven years ago, I started getting seriously into jazz. The few Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock records I had on my shelf were no longer enough for me, and I felt compelled to dive deep into every facet of jazz I could find. I came out the other end of my journey a free jazz head, my mind forever expanded by the possibilities of one of America’s greatest art forms. This compulsion to explore the world of jazz is due almost entirely to one document of hip-hop—another of America’s greatest art forms—Digable Planets’ 1993 debut album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space).

Reachin’ is one of jazz rap’s defining albums,[1] setting a template that was followed by countless other likeminded acts. It was a commercial and critical success as well, going Gold and winning Grammys on the strength of hooky songs like “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” “Where I’m From,” “Nickel Bags,” and “It’s Good to Be Here.” The album pulls you in completely on the first listen, and it’s not surprising to me at all that it has also sent a lot of other listeners down the jazz rabbit hole in search of the album’s samples and beyond.[2]

Madlib the Rock Konducta - "The Mad March"

Way back at the start of 2011, Peanut Butter Wolf put out an edition of the Stones Throw podcast highlighting music that was due out on the label that year. After snippets of two great songs from the still-unreleased second Madvillain album (one of which turned out to be a Doomstarks track), we were treated to “Two from Rock Konducta.” No other information was provided, and two years later the Rock Konducta project was still nowhere to be found. It seemed destined to join the second Madvillain album, Supreme Team, a bunch of recorded but unreleased Yesterdays New Quintet records, and who knows how many other exciting projects in the overflowing boxes of never-to-be-released Madlib music. A shame, since the two Rock Konducta songs on the podcast were a promising move away from Otis’ normal rap/jazz comfort zones.

Even though Rock Konducta appeared to have been left unfinished, ‘Lib didn’t abandon rock altogether. The sixth volume in his Madlib Medicine Show series, Brain Wreck Show, was a mix exploring the farthest out rock records in his crates, including a ton of mind-destroying Brainticket tunes. Soon after MMS #6, Madlib went over to Europe for some (eventually cancelled) shows with the psychedelic voyagers in Embryo. It’s still unclear what those shows would’ve entailed, but based on the advance press it sounded like Madlib would have been onstage with a synth or some other instrument playing alongside the band. Like when he spent thousands of dollars on instruments because he up and decided he was going to make jazz music over a decade ago, it looked for a while like Madlib was going to go full steam into the world of rock. Unfortunately, right after these Embryo shows got cancelled, the Rock Konducta went back into hibernation, and there was little indication that that particular persona would be revived.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Chance the Rapper - "Good Ass Intro"

This is going to come off as contrarian, but I’m still not sold on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap mixtape and I actually think his debut 10Day is better. The problem for me is that I’m still struggling with both his beat selection, which often leaves me unimpressed, and his vocal delivery, in which he seems to be emphasizing the more grating aspects of his voice in a way that he never did before. Still, the hype surrounding Acid Rap has surpassed that of nearly every other rap record of the year,[1] so I’m still trying my best to get into it. I thought Chance would never resonate fully for me, but right now I’m on my fourteenth listen of “Good Ass Intro” in a row and it’s finally starting to come together. “Good Ass Intro” is a hubristic title in two respects: first, most songs don’t declare how good they are in the fucking title; and second, it’s a subtle[2] nod to fellow Chicagoan Kanye West’s intended title for his follow-up to Graduation, Good Ass Job, that was scrapped when some ex-girlfriend made him all weepy and he made 808s & Heartbreak instead. The cockiness it takes to compare himself to an artist of Kanye’s stature and embrace his own high self-image simultaneously should be infuriating, but the song is so incredible that concerns about cockiness are rendered invalid. This is the kind of song that makes careers. Call it his “Bonita Applebaum” or his “I Used to Love H.E.R.” or his “Universal Magnetic” or his “Fuck Your Ethnicity” (if you’re into the ‘Chance the Rapper is Chicago’s Kendrick’ argument), but regardless of what you call it, this is the sound of a potentially great artist arriving.

Acid Rap can only go downhill from here since “Good Ass Intro” is one of the best rap songs of the year so far. Not only is it amazing, but it has given me faith in Chance as an artist that has made me willing to overlook my reservations about him as a rapper and songwriter. He’s still only twenty years old, and he’s got a long way he can come to live into his hype, but I’m finally willing to admit I was wrong about him.

[1] I really hope I’m not the only one still listening to Indigoism, but damn if that hype didn't die down quickly. It sometimes feels like I'm the only one left.
[2] It’s subtle, but I doubt it’s unintentional since he repeatedly references getting a good ass job near the end of the song.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: Inspectah Deck and 7L & Esoteric - Czarface

Let me address this before I do anything else. Yes, this album is called Czarface, and yes, that is a terrible, awful name. I’m willing to bet that Deck, Eso, and 7L thought this name sounded cool and no one in their respective circles felt like chiming in to tell them how dumb Czarface actually sounds.[1] Get past the name, however, and there’s a lot about this project that’s worth getting excited about. In spite of the diminishing quality of his solo albums since 1999’s Uncontrolled Substance, Inspectah Deck never fell off as a rapper.[2] Instead, Deck’s weaknesses are in the beat selection and album crafting departments. Deck’s ear for beats is often terrible and his albums have accordingly come out disjointed, repetitive, and generic. When he has an executive producer or someone else guiding the project, as he did on Uncontrolled Substance, he ends up with a much better collection of beats and a more satisfying album than he does otherwise. So in spite of Esoteric’s deficiencies as a rapper—one can only have so much patience for interchangeable verses about how good he is at rapping—Deck choosing to link up with 7L and Esoteric for an album was a shrewd choice. 7L is a very good but occasionally generic producer, and Esoteric is much better at putting together listenable and satisfying albums than Deck is. Deck and 7L & Esoteric balance out each other’s worst qualities.

Black Flag's Dueling Reunions

So Black Flag is back. More accurately, there are two Black Flags running around right now. Unsurprisingly, they’re feuding already, and it’s difficult to decide which version of the group is more promising. Original Black Flag vocalist Keith Morris is heading up FLAG, which also features Bill Stevenson and Chuck Dukowski, both of whom played with Black Flag during the band’s original run. Descendants guitarist Stephen Egerton is filling in for Black Flag’s founding and only constant member Greg Ginn, and Black Flag guitarist/third vocalist Dez Cadena recently joined FLAG as well. Ginn, who owns the name Black Flag, announced the band’s reformation soon after FLAG booked their first shows, is working at a clear disadvantage. First off, Black Flag currently has fewer original members than FLAG, with only Ginn and the band’s second vocalist Ron Reyes returning for this endeavor. Still, Ginn has taken aim at FLAG for “currently covering the songs of Black Flag in an embarrassingly weak 'mailing it in' fashion”—a claim that can probably also be levied at the current incarnation of Black Flag since there is only one 7” EP worth of material with Reyes on vocals, so their shows are going to inevitably sound like the work of a cover band too. [1] There are a few more red flags with Ginn and Reyes’ group. First, nearly every musical project Ginn has done over the last twenty years has ranged in quality from pretty bad to terrible, and his long succession of vanity projects basically tanked SST Records. Second, Reyes was Black Flag’s third best vocalist. He was still good (as was Cadena, who comes in at number four out of four), but having Morris (the band’s second best singer)[2] on vocals clearly gives FLAG an edge. Also, having two of Black Flag’s four vocalists gives FLAG three EPs to draw non-cover material from (the incredible Nervous Breakdown, the very good Six Pack, and the excellent “Louie, Louie” single) to Ginn/Reyes’ one.