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Artist: Gangrene (The Alchemist + Oh No)

Album: Vodka & Ayahuasca

Label: Decon

Date: 1/24/2012

Never in my entire career as a music reviewer have I come across an album title more intriguing and more esoteric than Vodka & Ayahuasca.  For those who have little to no clue what the hell ayahuasca is, no worries.  As far as the album is concern, all you need to know is that The Alchemist and Oh No mysteriously conjured up this ancient brew from South America, combined it into a powerful cocktail with vodka, and dumped it into your phonographs to create a psychedelic, spiritual journey for listening pleasure. Whether that makes sense to you or whether you’re convinced vodka and spirituality belongs in the same sentence, again, no worries.  All will be explained.

In comparison to their last album Gutter Water, the production is grittier, grimier, and trippier than ever.  Although the album begins with the very forgettable cut “Gladiator Music,” which sounds more like a throwaway G. Rap cut than a Gangrene jam, Alchemist and Oh No amplify the heat until thermostats melt with their next track, “Flame Thrower.”   The instrumental, ironically, is icier and groovier in its tone than the title suggests, but in culmination with Al’s and Oh No’s poignant, plasma radiant verses, the track is a certified banger.  An obvious album highlight is their lead single “Vodka and Ayahuasca.”  Rumbling bass lines, dizzying scratches, and undulating guitar strings make this cut a head knocking sensation.  When the lead guitar crescendos into psychotropic madness, so too, does Gangrene when hammering the nail on the head with their “acid trip” rap lyrics.  Other stand outs from the album include “Drink It Up” featuring Roc Marciano and “Dump Truck” featuring Prodigy.  The real standout on this album, however, is “The Groove,” and Gangrene couldn’t have picked a better name for the record. The production is thick with booming bass, cascading piano patterns, and hallucinogenic, chopped samples, and it is arguably the most leading instrumentation that Oh No produced for the album.  To no surprise, the rap duo lyrically ups the ante with perhaps some of the sharpest lyricism fans may have heard yet from either two. Oh No swan dives first into the maelstrom he created throwing a few darts at the critics with lyrics like “hypnotize, criticize, but we get paper, critics lie, no surprise, they get no favors, it’s no surprise, we can rise major majority rules in the game, they cannot fade us!”  Afterward, The Alchemist closes the track with lyrical jujitsu and folds his adversaries into “spar submission.”

Although minuscule, there are a few cuts that slow the pace of the album.  In “Livers for Sale,” for example, Alchemist flies solo but unfortunately his verse fails to soar. Fortunately for listeners the track is brief, and while Al isn’t spewing garbage, hearing him tackle an entire track sounds awkward. “Dark Shades” featuring Evidence also scores points in the uninspired category, and while many probably would have expected a riveting verse from Evidence, he fails to live up to the expectation. Probably the most disappointing track on the album, however, is “Top Instructors.”  In terms of production, it’s by far the most monotonous and most trite track on the entire album.  Even Gangrene’s live wire flow couldn’t jump this dronish and boring track back to life.

Despite these blunders, Vodka & Ayahuasca is still a solid project that’ll probably end up being championed by die hard fans.   After listening to the entire album, you’ll realize that the album couldn’t have been more appropriately titled considering the chemistry between Oh No and The Alchemist.   The combined forces of the deadly duo will definitely have you laying in fetal position next to your speakers, and if the vibrant rumblings start sounding like a mystical shaman humming, you’re headed in the right direction. For Gangrene die hards, this is definitely an album worth adding to the collection and it will probably end up being celebrated in a majority of underground circles. However, due to the lack of promotion (they only have one official music video) and their heavy footing in the indie circuit, Gangrene surely won’t be making a dent on mainstream audiences anytime soon, and they likely wouldn’t have it any other way. Needless to say, Vodka & Ayahuasca is a joy ride that continues to get better from start to finish, especially while under the influence.

 Purchase Vodka & Ayahuasca on iTunes

After the disappointment of Universal Mind Control, many assumed that Common’s long 18-year career was finally reaching its death kneel.  With Be serving as both a double edged sword and the pinnacle of his career (many newer fans still believe that’s his first album), Common had to prove once again to the ADHD crowd that he’s no typical emcee, despite what his moniker may suggest.  However, as hip-hop’s most familiar underdog, being slept-on after tracking into experimental territory isn’t anything new to Com or his fans.   Certainly The Dreamer, Believer  is no Be, but it’s definitely a strong follow-up after going through a musical dry spell.

Common begins the album strongly with “The Dreamer.”  Unfortunately, his intro is so powerful that you may want to press fast-forward through “Ghetto Dreams” “Blue Sky” and the controversial and subliminal  single “Sweet” just to press rewind.  “Gold,” however, picks up where “The Dreamer” left off.  As the name implies, “Gold” instrumentally, is like an Amazonian wonderland.  As the track begins strongly with rich and soulful instrumentations, Com asserts himself as a leader of the hip-hop generation with lyrics like, “I’m the voice of the meek and under privileged, the smell of success I want ya’ll to get a whiff of this.” He also drops a dose of clever free associative with lyrics like,  ”My dad said it rained on my arrival, now the storm of the brain make these guys drive slow…

Although he’s not “la la laaing” on any record, Com does touch on “soft” subject matters like being a one-woman man.  On “Cloth,” for example, Common bears his heart to his potential wifey-to-be with lyrics like, “anything we can bear, so lets have some cubs” and “hey lover, we can cover each other, through the coldest night, tight, never smothered, it’s two things that hold us together, God is our tailor, and forever.” “Windows” is arguably the most introspective song on the album. Here, Common tackles the reclusiveness women experience after being hurt by lustful men.  He goes further into their dilemma by starting at the root of their problem by reflecting through the eyes of his daughter with insightful lyrics like, “A lot of girls without, they become needy, come on dad, I’m too old for the backseat, can you come and get me, are you coming to my track meet, as she begins to the race of life and love I told her, I can’t run it for ya, God knows I’ma coach ya.”

In general, there aren’t any really weak cuts on the album. Whether he’s feeling cinematic in tracks such as “Lovin I Lost,” enjoying life on “Celebrate,” or pummeling sucka emcees on tracks like “Raw (How You Like It),” Common delivers.  However, if there’s one song on the album that feels misplaced on the album it would be “Sweet.”  Hearing Com transforming into a belligerent and overly aggressive emcee is borderline hilarious due to the fact it just doesn’t fit Com’s collective persona. Even his venomous diss track “The B*tch in Yoo,” doesn’t have a trace of this Dwayne Gittens persona that Com has now assumed.  Don’t get me wrong.  “Sweet” does make a good point of pointing out cotton candy rappers and it guaranteed a head nod, but it’s just doesn’t sound believable.

In addition to “Sweet,” the only thing keeping the album from being as great as Be are his other two singles “Ghetto Dreams” and “Blue Sky.”  They don’t damage the continuity of the album, but in comparison to the rest of the album, they just don’t hold up. Had Common added them as bonus tracks or reduced the album to ten tracks, The Dreamer may have been as great or greater than Be. However, with Universal Mind Control being Com’s strongest debacle to date, who’s complaining?  Besides, seeing Common and No I.D. reunite on an album after 14 years is marvelous, and together they master crafted one of the strongest albums to come out this year. So after listening to this album, will Com make you a believer?  Mos’ definitely.

Purchase The Dreamer, The Believer on iTunes

watch-the-throne-cover-fullArtists: Jay-Z and Kanye West

Album: Watch the Throne

Label: Roc Nation, Def Jam

Date: August 8, 2011

It’s almost unimaginable that two of rap’s biggest monarchs could sit down and agree on sharing the same throne. Well, not really. Kanye’s and Jay’s egos are broader than the wingspan of an eagle, and with their collaboration album aptly titled Watch the Throne, it’s pretty obvious where Jay and ‘Ye see their competition. For those still going H.A.M. (which luckily became a bonus track), rap kings Yeezy and Jay finally shared a piece of their paradise from the throne.Unfortunately for those with high expectations, this album might come off as a royal slap in the face.

The album begins with the philosophical cut “No Church in the Wild” in which Frank Ocean sings the agnostic question: “What’s a god to a non-believer, who doesn’t believe in anything?”  Ironically, there’s nothing unorthodoxly entertaining about this track unless you count Ye’s slightly edgier verse as he delivers religiously abrasive punchlines like “deception is the only felony, so never f*ck nobody wihout telling me.“Lift Off” follows in the same vein as neither Yeezy nor Hov deliver an aviator flow that’s worth the ascension. Making matters worse, Kanpayne makes an attempt at singing (without Autotune) which does little to improve the song despite Beyonce’s best effort to give a solid hook.

N*ggas in Paris” is as lyrically anemic as the aforementioned songs. However, this highly infectious (borderline pathogenic), sophisticatedly ignorant banger is too good to ignore.  And needless to say, the progenitors of the dubstep genre will have no complaints as ‘Ye and Hov will transform lethargic ears into obsessively compulsive listeners after hearing this international club banging sensation.  Next is “Otis” (which by the way doesn’t feature Otis Redding; he’s deceased) which has Hov and Yeezy making their first lyrical attempt to raise the ante. It would be unfair for me to pick who bodied the song to rigamortis so I’ll leave that to the fans, but in general it’s a solid cut from both.  Following “Otis” is “Gotta Have It” in which Hov planks on top of his millions while ‘Ye gets his YC (the racks on racks guy) on. Unfortunately, “Gotta Have It” won’t give you the planking on a million feeling that Jay boasts about.

“New Day” and “Watch the Jungle” are rare instances on the album in which you’ll hear vulnerability from the two titans.  In “New Day,” the two give hearty conversations to their unborn sons (in the most fictionalized sense), and explain to them the lifestyles they would provide for them if they were born. Those who hate Yeezy’s ostentatiously impulsive behavior will find his verse more than moving as he delivers an introspective and self-reflecting verse to his unborn son with lyrics like “I just want him to have an easy life/not like Yeezy life/ I just want him to be someone who people like/ don’t want him to be hated all the time.  Jay delivers with a somewhat irresponsible parenting approach (black bar mitzvahs and alcoholic drinks for his son at 13), but at least his heart’s in the right place as he vowels not to mistake the same mistake as his father. In comparison, “Watch the Jungle” is no “New Day” as Hov resorts to childhood pain to paint the canvas.  And as much as you’d love to feel empathetic (despite Hov being a multi-millionaire and all), Swizzy’s turret like adlibs and apathetically bouncy instrumental makes it hard for anyone to feel this supposedly “heartfelt” track.

Next up is “Who Gon’ Stop Me” which is an ode to their Mach 5 lifestyles. Other than a powerful and schizophrenic instrumental, there’s nothing particularly special about this track. “Murder to Excellence” follows suit, and I must say Kanye absolutely dominates this track. Jay starts with a forgettable and ominous verse, but Kanye is the one that drives it home. Although his Iraq to Chicago death toll ratio is nothing short of hyperbole (314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago), he at least gives listeners a chilling but memorable verse. On his re-entry for “Excellence” Jay gives another unflattering verse that reeks much like his affluent cologne. ‘Ye once again picks up the slack and dominates the remaining portion of the track until the beat fades out. “Made in America” is a familiar roads-to-riches to tale in which each share their “come up story.” Although neither includes details that we’re not already familiar with, it’s a decent track to say the least.  Kanye gives us a semi-bitter, half humbling tale of his road to stardom, and Jay tries to be re-inventive by giving a semi-cryptic American dream tale that is riddled with drug related metaphors and double entendres. WTT ends with the finale cut “Why I Love You” which is an ambiguous shot at those throwing molotovs at the throne. Lyrically there’s nothing exceptional about this track as both are drowned out by the powerful rock-centric instrumental, leaving only Mr. Hudson to ride the musical wave.

Overall, WTT sounds much better on paper than it does in reality which is in large part due to the duo’s lack of lyrical cohesion. The album may have sounded ambitious and exciting in theory, but it doesn’t set a collaborative album precedence or challenge the listener to find an album that surpasses it. Other than the fact that two larger than life icons were able to come together to make a collaborative album more highly anticipated than… Hmmm, does Best of Both Worlds count? Okay, never mind. All I’m saying is that WTT will not have you looking back several years from now exclaiming that this was the most monumental collaborative album of all time.  Nonetheless, it’s a fairly decent album and if you don’t respect that you’re whole perspective is wack–just kidding. All jokes aside, this album leaves no pigment of grey for you’ll either hate it or love it.

Let’s face it – judging an album on a scale of 1 to 5 mics just won’t cut it — that’s more of a magazine thing.  After constant office arguments regarding album ratings, we’ve decided to revise our album review process and fairly judge an artist’s work across multiple avenues.  At iHipHop.com, we believe every album deserves an impartial review, taking into account both music and cultural relevance.

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Purchase Watch The Throne On iTunes

section-80-album-cover2Artist: Kendrick Lamar

Album: Section 80

Label: Top Dawg Entertainment

Release Date: July 2, 2011

It was just last year when Compton emcee Kendrick Lamar rattled the industry with the much lauded mixtape Overly Dedicated.  Although Kendrick has recorded independently several years prior under the alias K. Dot,  it wasn’t until recently that he had broken into the industry on a broader scale due to the success of his aforementioned mixtape. Section 80 has already sold over 5,000 digital copies on iTunes in its first three days of sales with minimal mainstream media coverage which proves that he’s definitely an artist to look out for. However, as with any oft-anticipated debut, one question still looms in the air.  Does it live up to the hype?

In comparison to Overly DedicatedSection 80 is much darker in its tone.  With the laidback cut “Hol’ Up”  being  one of the few exceptions, listeners are often times forced to confront the harsh realities of Compton street dwellers. For a majority of the album, Kendrick raps as if he was perched on a palm tree perusing the Compton city streets with an eagle’s eye view. This is evident on tracks such as “No Make Up,” “Tammy’s Song,” and Keisha’s Song”  which all chronicle the bitter plight women go through in a male dominant society.  The most chilling out of all these, however, is “Keisha’s Song” which tells the tale of a young harlot struggling with her life as a prostitute.

Poe Man’s Blues,” “Kush and Corinthians,” and “Ronald Regan Era” address the problems young black males face in choosing between the street life and walking the straight and narrow path.  ”Poe Man’s Blue’s” is a standout cut that is by far the brightest gem on the album. Despite it’s name, Kendrick refuses to let this track become a story of a poor man lamenting over his menial lifestyle.  Although he addresses problems involving himself and his family, he still offers a slither of hope for those in much dire situations with lyrics like, “This for my n*****/ uncles/ 23 hours sending me pictures/ I want you/ to know that I’m so determined to blow that you hear the music I wrote/ hope it gets you off Death Row/ you came home to a pocket full of stones/ to match your PC phone/ then you went back in/ so when I touch the pen/ the pen is in my view/ I’ma get it right/ just so you…”  On “Kush and Corinthians,” Kendrick shows the straight and narrow path can be a tight rope for many. In addition, he criticizes his hypocritical critics for their self righteousness . Indeed, he raps bluntly, “I’m dying inside/ I wonder if Zion is inside the heavens/ a condom, rollie, chain, a fat blunt and a mac 11/ is all I see in my life/ and they tell me to make it right/ but I’m right on the edge of everest and I might jump tonight/have you ever had known a saint that was taking sinner’s advice/well it’s probably you am I right/ if I’m wrong/you’re a fuckin lie.”

Nonetheless, this album isn’t totally filled with viscous introspection, and for fans who want to voyage into an escapist’s haven, Kendrick gives them the opportunity on “A.D.H.D.”  Here, fans are transmitted into a rap Neverland as Kendrick lays down a Krayzie Bone-esque flow over Sounwave’s trunk knocking beat. Needless to say, this is definitely a song worth bumping while cruising down the freeway, and  if it wasn’t for two of the biggest speed bumps on the album,“The Spiteful Chant” and “Blow My High,”listeners still would be bobbing their head ceaselessly.   While both aren’t terrible, it’s safe to say that neither is great as they both would’ve been better if treated as bonus tracks. Although one possibly could make the same argument for “Rigarmortis,” one can’t deny that he absolutely killed it past post mortem which make such shortcomings forgivable. In addition, Ab-Soul’s awe-inspiring performance on “Ab-Souls Outro” along with the revolutionary single “HiiiPower,” make certain that the master of ceremony is  still in complete control.

Now, some may be wondering if Section 80 surpasses the critically acclaimed mixtape Overly Dedicated, and to be perfectly honest, it does. Production wise both are virtually flawless, but in terms of concepts, Section 80 is more multi-faceted and deeper than its predecessor.  In addition, it’s almost impossible to listen to this album and not be implored into an irresistible head nod. Indeed, what’s truly remarkable about this album is that he gives the listener an option of either being an escapist,as in “A.D.H.D.,” or realist, as in “HiiiPower.”  This is by far one of the greatest albums to come out this year, and despite the album title, Section 80 fits in neither the lower echelon of Hip Hop or in the middle of rap’s Hooverville.

Let’s face it – judging an album on a scale of 1 to 5 mics just won’t cut it — that’s more of a magazine thing.  After constant office arguments regarding album ratings, we’ve decided to revise our album review process and fairly judge an artist’s work across multiple avenues.  At iHipHop.com, we believe every album deserves an impartial review, taking into account both music and cultural relevance.

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Purchase Kendrick Lamar’s Section 80

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Artist: Shabazz Palaces

Album Title: Black Up

Label:Sub Pop

Release Date: June 28, 2011
With a name like Shabazz Palaces, your first thought might’ve been a bohemian, Afrocentric, 5 percent rap group that narrowly escaped the 90s.  If this was your first impression, at least you were on the right path. My first thought was, ‘who the f*** are these guys, where did they come from, and how did they garner such notoriety?’ As it turns out, Palaceer Lazaro, front man and only recognizable member of Shabazz Palaces, is none other than former Digable Planet emcee Ishmael “ButterflyButler. Although he and his enigmatic Seattle band have kept a noticeably low profile, abstaining from social network sites and literally doing a handful of interviews, Shabazz Palaces have developed somewhat of a strong following in the subterranean world due to their EPs and curiosity about the group. With the release of Black Up, an album title as inscrutable as the band name itself, Shabazz Palaces takes listeners on a mystifying musical odyssey.

As the album begins with “Free Press and Curl,” Shabazz Palaces makes one thing clear; they don’t give a flying 747 f*ck about conventional methods. They may not be as obscene or as blatant as Tyler, the Creator, but they don’t have to be.  Shabazz Palaces truly and literally let their music speak for themselves.  However, speaking for them is another thing, and quite honestly, it’s a difficult task.  With ten tracks, each spinning in retrograde fashion, the task of selecting a “stand out” track is even harder.  Listen to the album enough, however, and you’ll definitely gain an ear for the brightest, celestial track. Indeed, take “An Echo from the Host,” a darker, sinister sibling of “A Mili.” Although slower in comparison, the track still bangs in a Henry Evans kind of way. ”Youlogy” is practically a song within a song. Beginning as an organized confused sound of drums and kicks, the track transitions into a mellow but grungy, jazz groove. In addition, Lazaro cleverly plays off of the eulogy concept and addresses the suicide route mainstream artists take by chasing materialistic dreams. In ”Can You…Are You…Were You…,” Lazaro takes a more direct and blatant stab at the mainstream as he raps bluntly, “f*ck they rules, it’s a feeling.”

Even when it comes to topics such as love, Lazaro takes an unorthodox approach. Take for instance the ridiculously titled track “Treatease Dedicated to the Avian Airess from North East Nubis,” which in bohemian rap language probably translates to “girl, lets get to cuttin’.”  As comical as it sounds, the beat is far from romantic and the hook is a clear indicator of what he truly wants. If the lyrics “I want to be there/ I should be in there/ let me be in there/ I want to be there/ I wish I am there all the time,” aren’t a big enough sign that he wants to get his David Banner on, I’m not sure what is. Other stand out tracks include the soulful and jazzy tune “Endeavors for Never,” which features the soulful rap duo Theesatisfaction, and “Swerve… the Reeping of All That Is Worthwhile,” which might be the only single worthy cut on the entire album.

If any misstep should be mentioned on this album, it would be the arid production on “Recollections of the Wraith.” Limited to a primordial bass drum and kick, this is perhaps the most lackluster song on the entire album. If it wasn’t for the sultry female voice of Cat from Theesatisfation, this would definitely have many of you in REM before you could close your eyes. Nevertheless, this is a pretty solid album which proves Lazaro is one helluva of a song writer. Although, lyrically his bars and concepts don’t extend beyond their limits as much as the production does, he has an innate gift of timing and synchronizing his voice to the point where it feels as if it’s part of the song.

I must admit, I thought this was an overrated album given to an underrated artist. However, with each listen, I caught something that I haven’t heard before. With that said, there’s definitely an underlying tone to the album and it can’t be caught by merely skimming through or nodding your head. For those un-daring in their musical taste, this album may go no further than the shelf.  However, if you were a fan of Shabazz Palaces since day one (literally), you will definitely enjoy this album. Because Shabazz Palaces is more subterranean than most underground artists, it will no doubt be years before the rest of the world catches light of their glow. Nonetheless, I don’t believe Shabazz would have it anyway.

Let’s face it – judging an album on a scale of 1 to 5 mics just won’t cut it — that’s more of a magazine thing. After constant office arguments regarding album ratings, we’ve decided to revise our album review process and fairly judge an artist’s work across multiple avenues. At iHipHop.com, we believe every album deserves an impartial review, taking into account both music and cultural relevance.

blackup

Purchase Black Up on iTunes

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