January 20, 2020

The Professionals - The Professionals Review

As far as collaborations go, it was only a matter of time before the world heard of The Professionals, the new duo formulated by prolific and eclectic hip-hop producer Madlib and his brother, producer/emcee Oh No.

Released on short notice, The Professionals is a funky and swaggering swerve through hip-hop, which is less aggressive and more chill than the Eminem album Music To Be Murdered By released the same day. Keeping Madlib in this project ensures that it will maintain a cult following. Brother Oh No, rather, has maintained a lower profile, working with The Alchemist in their collaborative duo, Gangrene, and releasing sparse instrumental and lyrical hip-hop albums when compared to his brother Madlib. As Oh No has achieved relative success with hip-hop label Stones Throw, Madlib has become a legend in his own right, collaborating with the likes of MF DOOM (forming Madvillain) on their classic comic-book inspired album Madvillainy, releasing his own cartoon-y hip-hop swine character, Quasimoto, for several albums, produced with late hip-hop producer legend J Dilla, and releasing albums as a producer and even DJ with many more other artists. This album is the latest from the family and it feels great to hear the two of them come together.

The first thing to note about The Professionals debut album is the inclusion of multiple vocal snippets and the wild and busy production work that is signature to Madlib's many styles and influences. In the intro track My House, for example, there is no actual songwriting; instead it is a reggae-styled horn section and a brief and vulgar monologue to get listeners into the world of black music. It gets loud and intense and morphs into the high-synth church-like opening The Pros. Oh No makes his entrance and sounds confident with his brother on the beat. By the second half toward the end, Madlib treats listeners to other sounds and producer table scraps that are always a treat to hear. His overwhelming output creates this finesse, with multiple sounds in just a single track. Payday has a fascinating drumbeat and a choir of voices as Oh No raps about the hustle. The funky and soulful stabs that come in and out are just an example of how much Madlib's own productions are their own character in any given album.

Give N Take is a super feel-good cut with beautiful keys and a female pop group that are sampled throughout. Oh No knows how to take care of business, as he raps in the chorus, "If you can take it, I'll give it as soon as I make it girl!" Superhumans features several other rappers as well (Elzhi and Chino XL) and it has wicked DJ scratches by Madlib. Buggin is a spaced-out cut, and CDP Smackdown and Timeless Treasure bring the intensity before it slows way down for I Jus Wanna, which works as a much-needed break from the busy production and loud rapping. It feels almost like a Flying Lotus vibe, as Oh No just goes through everything he wants to do to unwind from a crazy day. Away Too Long takes the soulful route and features a beat that was previously featured on Madlib's own Beat Konducta Vol. 5 & 6, which was an instrumental hip-hop album dedicated to J Dilla (James Yancey), who died in 2006 at the young age of 32 from a long and rare illness. This one feels nostalgic personally for me, as I felt brought back to my years of playing Beat Konducta's and J Dilla's Donuts album over and over again, and for that reason, it gets extra points for feeling so special. The final trio of tracks all feature the usual melodic, soulful, and jazz-fused production that Madlib is known for while Oh No does all the beats plenty of justice.

As a full experience, The Professionals is eponymously named for obvious reasons. Production-wise, it is stellar and exemplary and it shows Madlib is at the top of his game and probably still climbing, even if it might sound a little too busy at times. Oh No takes this collaboration opportunity with his brother to the next level, and it makes it exciting to see how much further they will go with everything they've accomplished here. Casual hip-hop heads might feel a little turned off, but for any Madlib or Oh No fan, it is a must-listen.

The Professionals - 7.75/10

Recommended Tracks: Payday, Give N Take, Buggin

January 18, 2020

Eminem - Music To Be Murdered By Review

Marshall Mathers is in the unique position of reaching legendary status at a young age over 20 years ago. Since then, he has faced a tougher uphill battle to stay relevant and top himself more than any other artist today, and subsequently, receives more criticism for any release that is anything less than brilliant or extraordinary. His anger hasn't changed, and his subject matter might feel stale, but his fire wit, lyrical spit, and storytelling remain as jaw-dropping, and arguably, sharper than ever before with his second surprise album in two years, Music To Be Murdered By.

As a title (borrowed directly from a previous 1958 album), Eminem does not leave anything free from double meanings, as this relentless diss record is a satisfying listen as it murders all the Nick Cannons of the world. Slim's traumas from his childhood (in Stepdad) come back to haunt him, and his current troubles are still on the surface as he testifies his rage for the critics who want to bring him down. According to Mathers, that struggle is real, and is documented in his opening track, Premonition, "They said I'm lyrically amazing but I have nothing to say, But then when I put out Revival and I had something to say, They said that they hated the awake me, I lose the rage, I'm too tame, I get it back, they say I'm too angry," as he pulls the curtains back on the critics who can't be pleased by his two preceding offerings, Revival and Kamikaze. As an artist, his latest output has been pretty incredible, releasing the former in 2017, and the latter as a direct response to Revival's criticism, as a surprise album only a year later. The hook in Premonition burns and the heavy and dark beat rides out, but it hardly is the hardest track of the album. Unaccommodating, featuring Young M.A., is the first track to hit home Em's unapologetic wordplay, and it is displayed at a hyper-speed that only rewards with multiple spins. You Gon' Learn, featuring Royce da 5'9" and White Gold, has a fazed-out R&B soaked hook, and its glitchy staccato production is standout here.

By the time we get to the first of only a couple of interludes, we are introduced to the overarching idea that ties this album together, in concept, title, and artwork, in Alfred (Interlude). Citing the 1958 album of the same name (Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Music To Be Murdered By), this direct successor comments on the violence that persists in our culture and our nation. Before we get to Darkness though, we have the party track Those Kinda Nights and the unrequited love song In Too Deep. Godzilla works as another speed-running lyrical feat; it feels like Shady has never sounded faster at the mic than in this one, even by Kamikaze standards. Darkness now, is the most thought-provoking work Eminem has released in a while. Still interweaving-in thoughts of violence and anger, this track wasn't meant to make you feel safe. Some might get shocked, some might get triggered, but no matter whether you fall on the left or the right or somewhere in between, everyone should agree that the persistence of mass shootings in our world must come to an end. Eminem does this track from inside the mind of the Las Vegas massacre shooter. While this effort essentially immortalizes the suspect, its case is one of the most disturbing, as a man with no prior convictions and no history of mental illness just didn't want to "feel alone in the darkness anymore,” which makes this crisis even more difficult to address. In a sense, this song is about reconnecting with loved ones, and the need to feel more together and connected, but it is executed in horrific fashion as one of the consequences of the crushing loneliness in this world. Ultimately, Eminem's conviction for these acts of violence to end is a standout moment and commendable if listeners can get past the shock value, something he has ingrained throughout his entire career.

Beyond this single there are a number of other sharp, brutal, and tongue-in-cheek songs that you would expect, such as Stepdad, about Marshall’s experience growing up with an abusive father figure, Marsh, an amusing moment of feeling not of this world, and Never Love Again, a double meaning of a past love and getting clean off of prescription pills. Little Engine brings in Mr. Hitchcock once again as he reminds us that we should enjoy the music while we’re being “done in” by Shady’s lyrical lacerations. It’s a spiffy, classical horror sounding track, and Shady shows off as a speed demon who refuses to slow down. Lock It Up, Farewell, No Regrets, and I Will construct the album’s coda, and it’s a give-or-take acceptable ending in an album full of great moments interspersed throughout familiar territory.

Music To Be Murdered By is full of double meanings, interesting wordplay, and familiar, but well-executed themes. Eminem, Shady, or Marshall, either alter ego or persona delivers, and this latest rendition should probably go down as the best of the trio of LPs that have been released thus far. Eminem is ultimately right, as he states in his opening track, "Instead of us being credited for longevity, And being able to keep it up for this long at this level, we, Get told we'll never be what we were, B*tch, if I was as half as good as I was, I'm still twice as good as you'll ever be." Whether Eminem decides to take up tougher subjects in this new decade remains to be seen, but until then, he’s released a worthy follow-up that should go down as a pin in the cultural zeitgeist of where we are today.

Music To Be Murdered By - 8.5/10

Recommended Tracks: You Gon' Learn, Darkness, Lock It Up

January 7, 2020

Cuban Pete - 5 Pointz EP Review

Cuban Pete, our resident U.K. emcee, is back with Wu affiliated producer, Falling Down, with the graffiti-themed 5 Pointz EP! 

As we've come to know Cuban Pete from our interview last year, his passions include graffiti art, since he is also a visual artist with his company C75 Live. It's no wonder that 5 Pointz (named after the now torn down New York mural space) would feature 5 specifically designed tracks tailored and named after 5 different legends in the world of graffiti art.

The street artist INSA, who specializes in trippy and almost optical pieces (can you say painted, animated street GIFs??) that could make any passersby's eyes pop out of their skull, takes the first track of the EP. Falling Down's
‘c’est la vie’
opening sample of a female vocalist singing "never, never die" works as a note on the legacy of artists, while INSA himself opens with a comment on how the big idea of street art is making it outside as opposed to making art on a computer, making its creation an entirely human (not digital) effort. His life is mostly private since he wants his art to speak for itself, and Cuban Pete pulls out the big guns with Falling Down to commemorate the work that this man has done thus far. Pete raps "blessing them with pieces created from my fingertips, I'm Hanz On like Method Man affiliates, perfectionism is a schism in my psyche, admirable at times, but can turn around and bite me, the latter most likely" and then "everything on hold until I throw it out my system, a gift and a curse, my work greatly received, but at times it suffocates, I'm barely able to breathe." The track is then processed with cuts and scratches by the talented DJ Erex, aimed to put more fuel in the tank, with such cuts like "never give up" and "perfecting the craft." In the second verse, Pete questions it all, his life's purpose, and what all this art is worth, but admits it's his relentless drive to take his craft ever higher.

DONDI, the second graffiti legend to grace the 5 Pointz EP, is also the first single of the EP.

Tellin About Anno Domini (trad.2) - 1986
His rise to prominence resulted in many of the graffiti styles we see today, and his techniques still inspire generations of younger artists. His signature style included readable lettering and even some more stylistic and abstract pieces, and he was known to hit up train cars, as featured in Pete's single artwork. Sadly, he passed away in 1998 from AIDS. The track opens with DONDI's own words as he comments on his search for a safe space to work without having his work erased and how he settled on the subway yard to paint his pieces. He states that his work naturally evolved from this need, and that he never had to compromise his artistic vision. Falling Down's triumphant beat kicks it into high gear as DONDI finishes his thought, and Pete gets it in with his perspective in life ("smile, you got it, flaunt it") and his observance of others who got it wrong ("too worried about their likes and their cash flow"). Cuban Pete's lyrical hammer comes down on social media fakes and phonies in this one.

Crazy Legs & Mr. Freeze at Common Ground, Manhattan
Henry Chalfont is the iconic photographer and videographer who rose to fame from his documentation of graffiti, breakdance, and hip-hop that took the world by storm. Starting out as a sculptor in the 1970s, Chalfont soon switched to the camera as a storytelling device and began his decades-long study of the hip-hop and graffiti culture. His track opens with his own learned wisdom of the movement, "it was only years later when I actually started to meet graffiti writers, and after I have taken a lot of pictures of it, did I understand from their point of view, that it was a voice, and more than just fun." The beat then steps into the fold, as a murderous track about the camera and surveillance system as it's being turned against us nowadays. Graveyard Shifter and Cuban Pete remind listeners that we are on the cusp of humanity's greatest fight, for our privacy and for our lives. Pete's chilling verse is all too real today as he raps "watch, people stop and stare, film the victim," and "Alexa the snitch can't save you, f*ck that b*tch!" Graveyard Shifter gets down and dirty with his verse as well, as he raps about end-times, war, secret bunkers, and what the elite have planned for the masses.

Futura, the fourth track on this record, got his start in the '70s tagging the New York City subways. Through the years, he has shown his work in galleries, and even collaborated painting live backdrops on stage for European punk-rock band The Clash, and even ventured into graphic design and album artwork. His signature graffiti style is abstract works, as can be seen here with him, and sometimes even futuristic looking art, which is fitting for his name. He states in his track his feeling of the world wide web and how after being well-received in Japan, the Internet made the world start to feel smaller and tighter knit with international communications. This track is the final Cuban Pete solo cut, and the beat is blessed yet again by Falling Down with an Eastern musical vibe baked into the synths. "Catch me mixing paintbrush with the pixels," Pete raps as he comments on his passions. "Me and the day job in showdown, guns drawn, never-ending battle, from dusk till dawn." Pete's resilience and perseverance shine brightest on Futura, and his end product is inspiring to say the least. DJ Erex takes Pete's vox and spins and scratches them to a satisfying conclusion.

The final song on 5 Pointz features the "Godfather of Graffiti", as SEEN is known. His fame is credited to his use of bright lettering, cartoon characters, and bringing the movement to the doors of commercial art galleries. He has since opened a wildly successful tattoo studio in New York, and still to this day creates brilliant mixed media (paintings, sculptures, etc.). He describes the adrenaline rush of painting and the therapeutic effect of creating art, something that we covered in our Essay #3 last week. We get a trio of hip-hop legends in this one: Karnage Ca$hman and B. Dvine join Cuban Pete in this final number, and they rap about what they've seen in their years in the hip-hop game. Pete reminds that there's No Wannabeez Allowed. DJ Erex makes some final scratches, "I seen the gimmicks, the wack lyrics." Karnage delivers a verse about the disgusting wack emcees who should quit before it's too late or else receive the 5 Pointz in the form of his fist. B. Dvine repeatedly hits hard with all the weak rappers and the life's struggles he's seen.

Cuban Pete's latest release works on multiple levels, and the sum of its parts takes it onto a higher plain than most hip-hop releases today. Together, with Falling Down, DJ Erex, and his guest emcees, Cuban Pete crafts the ultimate love letter to graffiti artists everywhere and successfully combines his two life's passions.

5 Pointz EP - 9/10

Recommended Tracks: Henry Chalfont, Futura, Seen